Is cosying up to FIFA a price worth paying to host the World Cup?

Jack Warner, left, and Sepp Blatter: the key members in FIFA's boys' club
The big guns are out in Zurich. The Prime Minister, the future king of England and the country's most recognisable footballer are all heading to FIFA's headquarters to persuade 23 committee members from all over the world to vote for England in the World Cup 2018 bidding war. 12 is the magic number of votes needed to host the tournament, and England's bid team are pulling out all the stops. Junji Ogura, the head of Asian football, is being pursued by Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for sport and a fluent Japanese speaker, and is flying out to Kuala Lumpur today to attend the 2010 Asian football awards. Jack Warner, head of CONCACAF (football in the Caribbean, North and Central America) and FIFA vice-president was asked to lunch at Downing Street last month, and will be dining again with David Cameron tomorrow. And Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, will hold a personal meeting with both Mr Cameron and prince William tomorrow ahead of Thursday's vote.

But, after last night's Panorama investigation into corruption within FIFA, the question is: is all this lavish brown-nosing really in the country's best interests?

The timing of the documentary certainly upset some in the England bid team, calling it "unpatriotic" and "an embarrassment to the BBC". But what the programme did do was highlight the awful corruption that goes on within football's governing body, and single out members, many of whom are integral to England's chances of winning the right to stage the World Cup. Jack Warner, who as mentioned above, was asked to dine at Downing Street last month, was exposed as having brought World Cup tickets back in 2006, and selling them on to Black-market traders for a profit of $1 million. A trick he again tried during this summer's tournament, but subsequently failed to do so. He has also, in the past, asked England to play a friendly in Trinidad and Tobago ( his home country) in exchange for his World Cup vote, something which England actually did back in 2008. And has been seen excepting 'gifts' from David Dein, the England bid liaison officer. Finally, it has also emerged this week that Mr Warner, who also acts as a 'special adviser' to the Trinidad and Tobago FA, failed to pay the  Tobagan players any bonuses for reaching the 2006 World Cup, and back-pocketed all the playing staffs sponsorship deals, said to be worth up up £6million. And yet, after all this, he is still courted by our own Prime Minister and considered key to our bid.

Issa Hayatou, one of the three men accused by Panorama last night of excepting bribes from ISL (International Sports and Leisure), is also seen as key to England's bid. As head of  Fecafoot, the Cameroonian Football Association, and president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) he controls a serious amount of votes which England have been key to get; paying him personal visits to Cameroon in the process. He is accused of being paid 100,000 French francs by ISL - the Swiss company to which FIFA awarded marketing rights to successive World Cups - and if found guilty will be banished from both FIFA and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) of which he is a member.

This, unfortunately, is what happens when an administrative body mutates into a rampantly commercial animal. No longer mere custodians of the game, they have become deal-makers inflating the price of television contracts and fostering a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture. Countries hoping to earn the ultimate honour of staging sport's biggest event after the Olympics are encouraged to engage in a beauty contest which is so constructed to allow favours to be swapped, inducements to be laid out and, if the Sunday Times is correct (they have accused two FIFA committee members - Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii of agreeing to sell their World Cup vote) individual executive committee members to profit at the ballot box.

Of course, hosting a World Cup would give a huge boost to our ailing economy- it is estimated that a World Cup could produce £5billion - it would create thousands of temporary jobs, and would bring an enormous sense of national pride not seen on these shores since Euro 96. But to account for all these things, new stadiums would have to be built in host cities such as Plymouth and Bristol, rail networks would need re-development, thousands of hotels would need to be built to accommodate the 3 million international tourists expected. All things, I would expect, paid for by the taxpayer.

As well as the cost of hosting a World Cup, other implications also need to be considered. Every bidding nation that enters the race to host the tournament has to sign up to FIFA's strict code of 'agreements'. The 8-point plan is FIFA's way of insuring that they make the most amount of money possible out of the tournament. The agreement states that "visa and entry procedures are loosened for the duration of the tournament", "workers' rights are duly abolished", "new laws need to be created to protect sponsors", and most startlingly of all " a full exempt on tax is needed for official FIFA delegates and sponsors" - essentially creating their very own four-week tax haven. This agreement is something which many people in Holland (a rival bidding nation) have been duly wary about, and have thus predicted that actually, hosting a World Cup would result in a net loss of 150million euros.

So, with Thursday's vote looming, and the true price of hosting a World Cup more evident than ever: have Panorama actually done England a huge favour?


More than a club: FC Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid

'More than a club'

On the same night the British media made its final attempt to derail England’s 2018 World Cup bid, the world of football showed its full wonder away from the BBC.  Football and politics do not mix well, and although the revelations in the Panorama Special clearly have a place in the debate of the 2018 World Cup’s destination and Fifa in general, football rose above all that last night.
Forgetting the politics, business and greed in hand on the BBC, rather ironically Sky Sports (all of the three aforementioned descriptives) played host to something more than all this, the philosophical football of Barcelona.
It seems no institution left in football is left untouched by the three devils mentioned, even Barcelona, a club viewed around the world as almost perfect on and off the pitch, find themselves in massive debts (much larger than many fans would ever have imagined), but last night, for 90 minutes they were an example to the whole of football.

Not only an example in as much as the result, nor the fact that for a period 9 of their 11 players had been brought through their own academy system, but most important was the performance. A style of football that can only be described as profound: a style which starts with Johann Cryuff, the epitome of Dutch Total-Football.  The constant positional interchanging that Total-Football (always capitalised) requires, was forgotten in his plan for Barcelona, but the spirit and philosophy remained the same.
“Tiqui-taca” as it is now known focuses on the quick and precise movement of the football and is without doubt the most pure concept in modern football, not least the most beautiful. It truly is the most joyous thing the game has to offer.  It’s the style of football which makes a team say we are "Més que un club".  And it is this, along with the longevity of relationships between players at Barce’ which is why Barcelona and indeed the Spanish national team are so good. And why they did to Real Madrid what they did last night.
Prior to the game, “CR9” as his Mum calls him said “Let’s see if they can put 8 past us” in reference to the Catalonian giants 8-0 win over Almeria in recent weeks. Perhaps, just perhaps it’s this attitude which sets clubs like Real Madrid and players like Cristiano Ronaldo apart, thinking they’re the best. Can you imagine Messi saying such a thing? He has no need, he is Barce’. He is as Cryuff was the summary of an era’s footballing output to history. He has no need to say he or Barce’ are the best, he knows it. But more than this, much more than this, is the impression that all those involved with Barce’, the players, staff and fans, feel this. They breathe it and they are all, at once, part of it.

It is ironic then that the most philosophic of football clubs, would impose such a heavy defeat on the most philosophical of managers, one of their former sons. With his talks of Waitrose’s eggs and Harry Potter, Jose Mourinho will no doubt be hurting more than ever following this defeat. He’s never lost by a 4 goal margin before, let alone 5.  But he’ll never have lost to a better side.



FIFA's absurd World XI shortlist shows footballers are no judges of talent

What with most of our sporting gazes transfixed firmly on the Ashes, you may have failed to notice that FIFPro (the global footballers' union) and FIFA yesterday announced the 55 players shortlisted for the 2010 World XI: the ultimate team of the past calendar year. From this list a final line-up will be announced at the Ballon d'Or shindig early next year.

Some 50,000 unionised players "in every continent: from Australia to South Africa, from Finland to Costa Rica, and from Russia to Argentina" pick their team of the year in a 4-3-3 formation, and those with the most votes are duly shortlisted. And it seems that rather than pick the best 55 players over the past year on form however, FIFPro and the FIFA committee members have picked the most famous players, the ones with the most marketing clout and the ones who play for the biggest clubs. 17 of the 55 ply their trade in the Premier League, just shy of the 18 who represent La Liga. 15 of the names on the list are employed in Serie A, which is gargantuan compared to a lowly four from the Bundesliga and just one single player from Ligue 1. So, according to Fifa, Premier League clubs may as well call off those international scouts right now: because not one player based outside Europe is actually any good at all.

The 55 players broken down by position:

Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Petr Cech (Chelsea), Julio Cesar (Inter), Edwin van der Sar (Manchester United)

Defenders: Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Gareth Bale (Tottenham), Michel Bastos (Olympique Lyonnais), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich), Lucio (Inter), Maicon (Inter), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Alessandro Nesta (AC Milan), Pepe (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Carles Puyol (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Walter Samuel (Inter), John Terry (Chelsea), Thiago Silva (AC Milan), Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United), Javier Zanetti (Inter)

Midfielders: Esteban Cambiasso (Inter), Michael Essien (Chelsea), Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Kaka (Real Madrid), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Mesut Ozil (Real Madrid), Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Wesley Sneijder (Inter), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Xavi (Barcelona)

Forwards: Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Samuel Eto’o (Inter), Diego Forlán (Atletico Madrid), Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AC Milan), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Diego Milito (Inter), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), Ronaldinho (AC Milan), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Fernando Torres (Liverpool), David Villa (Barcelona)

As you can see, it's essentially a list of the 55 most famous player on the planet, many of whom have had a poor 2010. Dimitar Berbatov, listed among the forwards for the first time in his career, has scored a meagre 13 goals in 37 games over the past calendar year, and, was named on the shortlist the day after Sir Alex Ferguson shouldered the blame for the striker's poor form.

Talking of bad form, Bayern Munich - currently 8th in the Bundesliga, 14 points off the leaders, and with "too many players performing below their level" according to captain Philipp Lahm, provide all four German-based nominees, including Lahm himself.

Another mystery worth noting is the inclusion of Real Madrid's Pepe. Admittedly a very solid central defender, but a player who, up until mid-September had yet to play a competitive game for Madrid in 2010. He picked up an injury last December, made two appearances for Portugal at this summer's World Cup (where he was replaced both times) and has only played any significant football over the past two months.

Looking at the list I'm surprised David Beckham, Diego Maradona and Pele weren't included as well.

Based on form, here's my own World XI:

Iker Casillas - Lifted the World Cup for Spain. One of the best 'keepers of all time.

Maicon - Ripped a new one by Gareth Bale this season, but prior to that, absolutely pivotal to Inter's treble-winning season.

Lucio - See Maicon, above.

Carles Puyol - The Captain of the best club side of all time. 'Nuff said.

Ashley Cole - Imperious last season. The only England player to come out of the World Cup with any credit.

Xavi - Godlike Genius.

Wesley Sneijder - The best player in Europe's best team.

Mesut Ozil - Helped Bremen to 3rd place last season. The best young player at the World Cup. Settled in nicely amongst Madrid's Galacticos.

Lionel Messi - 53 games, 47 goals.

Diego Forlan - Second in last year's La Liga goal-scoring chart. Two Europa league final goals. World Cup Golden Ball winner.

Diego Milito - Top-scorer in Serie A last year. Also scored the winner in the Coppa Italia final, and both in the Champions League final. Criminally under-looked in the World Cup by Maradona.



Movember Special: The Best Moustaches In Football, Ever

Seeing as my moustache-growing ability amounts to little more than pre-pubescent bum fluff, I have decided to make my mark on this Movember by counting down the 10 best top-lip-ticklers in football history.

10) George Best

He didn't have it for long, but like everything Best did, he did it very, very well.

9) Charlie Paynter

Charlie Paynter was manager of West Ham from 1932-1950. And is a glorious purveyor of the over-groomed moustache.

8) Ronald Spelbos

Total Football. Total Moustache.

7) Sam Allardyce

A weirdly attractive Sam Allardyce. Who'd of thought it?

6) Tony Daley

In truth, an uninspiring 'tash. But any excuse to show off that wonderful barnet.

5) Frank Worthington

Ladies, fancy a ride in my Ford Capri?

4) Alan Sunderland

Words cannot do justice to how magnificent an Afro-tash combo this is.

3) Graeme Souness

Liverpool could have had a whole list to themselves, but the man who started, what is still considered fashionable on Merseyside, is the man for me.

2) Rudi Voller and Frank Rijkaard

A two-for-one. And I don't need any invitation to put this picture up.

1) Warren Gass

Like leftover beef sandwiches on Boxing Day. Or England failing miserably at a World Cup: Warren Gass and a moustache just seems right.



England vs France Preview: A Happy Reunion for Laurent Blanc's France

As England play their completely unnecessary friendly against France this evening, two players from the French colonial out-post of the Reunion Islands are making a claim to be the next Hot Young Things of European football.

Ever since the Senegalese born Raoul Diagne pulled on the famous Blue shirt in 1920, France has welcomed their colonial brothers into the national team with open arms. The Golden Generation of 1998-2000 were known as the Black, Blanc, Beur squad (black, white, Arab), including the likes of Zinedine Zidane (Algerian), Marcel Desailly (Ghanaian) and Patrick Vieira (Senegalese). However, it is currently the tiny island of Reunion that is flourishing as the feeder colony to Les Bleus.

Lying 900km east of Madagascar, this tropical Indian Ocean island boasts a diminutive population of 800,000. Were it not for a record-breaking daily rainfall in 1952 (73.62 inches, if you must know), and a recent outbreak of the Chikungunya disease, which has populated almost a third of the island, Reunion could claim to be the land that time forgot. And in footballing terms, other than the fact that former Newcastle hell-raiser Laurent Robert was born there, it probably is.

Until now.

Challenging the idea of sugar as the island's main export is Reunion's new Ligue 1 sensations/ answer to the French national team's current dilemma.

The names of target-man Guillerme Hoarau and mercurial winger Dimitri Payet may only be vaguely familiar to the most ardent of English transfer gossip column readers, but in France they are quickly becoming Ligue 1's most exciting young prospects. Both Hoarau and Payet began their careers at JS Saint-Pierrose, Reunion's biggest club, before moving to France to ignite their professional careers.

Guillerme Hoarau: 'The French Emile Heskey'

However, neither set France alight immediately. Indeed, Hourau only scored 5 goals in 28 matches in his first season at Le Harve, before getting a modest 8 in 21 once on loan to FC Gueugnon, both at Ligue 2 level. It was the next season, where Hoarau notched up 28 goals in 38 games and the player of the year award, that people began to stand up and take notice. The name given to him by the French media – ‘the Karim Benzema of Ligue 2′ – may not seem so impressive now, but back when the Madrid bench warmer was banging them in for Lyon, it was quite the accolade. A 500,000Euros move to PSG was pushed through, described by former PSG president Alain Cayzac as the ‘signing of the century’. Hoarau’s first season in Ligue 1 gave backing to Cayzac’s bold statement, as the striker registered 20 goals, helping PSG to second place in the table, to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, and becoming number one of several top European managers’ Christmas wish-lists

Dimitri Payet: France's new Hot Young Thing

Diminutive winger Dimitri Payet found the jump from Reunion to France equally as hard, perhaps due to the fact that his first attempt was during his childhood, aged just 12. Spending some time as a junior at Le Havre, Payet decided to move back to Reunion, before signing his first professional contract with Ligue 1′s FC Nantes. He made his debut for the club aged 18 and after a season of assured first team football, Payet moved to St. Etienne, where he has since earned rave reviews. A hat-trick this August against Lens has helped propel him to third in Ligue 1′s scoring charts, where he has got 8 in 12 games. Not bad for a winger.

Indeed, the current good form of both Hoarau and Payet could not have come at a better time for Les Bleus. The national team are currently going through a massive identity crisis after the much-publisised French Revolution at this summer's World Cup. 

After the sacking of Raymond Domenech, newly appointed manager Laurent Blanc decided not to select any of the players from the World Cup squad for his fiirst game in charge, a friendly away to Norway. And a 2-1 loss in that game had the media proclaiming that a French national team without its' famed Clairefontaine graduates lacked both the style and the substance of the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000 winners. 

The only way is up for Les Bleus

That said, after Blanc had calmed down, his subsequent squads, with a mixture of the not-so-old Karim Benzema and Yohann Gourcuff, and the brand-spanking-new Hoarau and Payet, amongst others, seems to be doing the job. Apart from an embarrassing 1-0 home defeat to Belarus, three unspectacular, yet successive 2-0 wins over Bosnia, Romania and Luxembourg have left France top of their Euro 2012 qualifying group. 

And Hoarau and Payet have played a vital role in France's current resurgence. Hoarau has started in all three of France's successive 2-0 wins, and although he hasn't repaid Blanc's faith with a goal, his inclusion in the team is seen as a platform for the likes of Benzema, Gourcuff and Nasri to work off. Almost like a French Emile Heskey. Payet, on the other hand, made his debut in the 2-0 win over Romania, coming on as a substitute and setting up both goals in the process. A feat he then repeated in the next game against Luxembourg. It is already abundantly clear that the young winger, with his lightning pace and direct running, can not only repeat his club form on the international stage, but also cement a starting place in the French XI. 

It seems then, that the long tradition of French footballing imports is set to continue with the boys from the tropical isle. 



Big Kev's Big Shame & another 'B' for the FA.

The only footballer ever to be sent
 off for a rugby tackle, Julian Alsop.
Having spent much of my youth watching a man called Julian Alsop playing football, I never thought I’d be outraged by a player of the same ilk being dropped from the England squad. But to say the least, Kevin Davies has been the second best striker in the Premier League this season. That’s not something I necessarily enjoy saying, but such is life and such is football.

Crying shame for Big Kev.
Signore Capello was in attendance for Davies’ best display of the season so far last weekend, a 4-2 demolition of Spurs, before which he’d already received his first England call up a few weeks earlier. So having only improved since his international debut, surely there must be even better going in ahead of him?

Step up Jay Bothroyd. I have no gripe with the Championship or “the most competitive league in Europe”, but someone must be spiking Capello’s spaghetti.  Bothroyd is having a great season, every Cardiff game I’ve managed to stay awake for on The Football League Show, he seems to have scored in, but there is a reason he’s playing there. At neither Blackburn Rovers or Charlton Athletic did he manage to make an impact in the Premier League, or with Coventry City, Wolverhampton Wanderers or Stoke City do enough to cement a place in teams heading for the top flight. Maybe Capello spotted him during his brief period in Italy with Perugia? 6 goals in 36 games over 2 seasons, again not setting top flight football on fire. All point in the same direction; but somehow Capello has told him it’s Wembley.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, a man who allegedly impregnated three women in one week, has also been called up over Davies, father of four. But following this weekend’s football action, worse news was to come for Big Kev.  Gabby’s done his hammy, and Capello has decided that as well as kicking Davies in the proverbial by dropping him, he’s going in for a second dig while he’s on the deck, calling up Carlton Cole as replacement. 1 goal in 12 league appearances this season makes my point.
Andy Caroll, has undoubtedly earned his call up to the squad, unfortunately falling at the last hurdle like Agbonlahor by picking up a knock in Newcastle’s 0-0 draw with Fulham on Saturday. Though both players could remain in the squad, should they recover in time. Meanwhile, Davies will be sat in Bolton twiddling his thumbs.
His briefs are better than his
latest squad selection policy.
Just as astounding is Capello’s continued rejection of Scott Parker, another of the Premier League’s top performers this season, allbeit in an otherwise abysmal West Ham side. Parker only just missed out on last summer’s World Cup at the final cut, with Tom Huddlestone picked ahead of him. This time round, the call up of Jordan Henderson seems to have been his undoing. And while I don’t disagree with exposing good young English players at international level earlier on, such as the Germans and Spanish have done, I don’t agree with it when better players are rejected as a result.
David James, the South West’s answer to Aristotle, raised a good point in his Observer Column earlier this month (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/nov/07/england-under-21s-senior-team); the gap between the English U21’s and the full squad is too great, Kevin Davies for example waited 10 years following his last U21 cap and his first senior cap. Where are the opportunities for English players over the age of 21 to show they are capable of playing international football?
Having attended an England ‘B’ international four years ago, the experience was great for the fans with cut-price tickets and a great atmosphere in a smaller stadium (although no doubt the FA would scrap this and have it played at a half full Wembley stadium in an attempt to claw back more of the over-expenditure the national stadium has afforded them), and for the players given the opportunity to fight for a place in the full squad. Every professional outfit in top flight domestic football has a reserve squad, where players fight for a place in the first team. So, why not at international level?
A regularly used England ‘B’ team would also benefit those players who find themselves in the full England Squad, but rarely given the opportunity to get on the pitch, Stephen Warnock went to the World Cup having only played less than ten minutes in an England shirt, but having been selected for several squads. Two streams of talent, i.e. the U21’s and a regularly used ‘B’ team would surely do as much to benefit the national game, as it would players like Davies, Cahill and Warnock? It would also give a preliminary opportunity to players like Bothroyd, who rather than coming out of the blue, would be coming out of the ‘B’.

Buckett’s England ‘B’ XI:
GK: Foster (Birmingham)
DEF: Warnock (Aston Villa), Cahill (Bolton), Johnson (Birmingham), Shawcross (Stoke)
MID: Johnson (Man City), Parker (West Ham), Huddlestone (Tottenham),Young (Aston Villa)

STR: Bothroyd (Cardiff), Davies (Bolton)



Five things we learned from the Premier league this weekend.

1) Gareth Bale has been found out

It's been a common theme over the past few weeks to see Tottenham's new star-turn Gareth Bale pull out great performances in the Champions League, only to be left floundering domestically the following weekend. And that pattern continued on Saturday, as Bale was dutifully out-marked and out-maneuvered by Bolton's Gretar Steinsson. It's become a worrying trend for the young Welshman, and one that has to stop if he is to become the 'third best player in the world' as Patrick Barclay so eloquently put it in last Wednesday's Times.

Firstly, a sub-standard performance against Everton at White Hart Lane in which Phil Neville used all his formative years to make sure Bale saw little, if any, of the ball throughout the entire game. Secondly, an absolute lesson in positioning and general wing-back brilliantness from Rafael da Silva against Man United. And lastly, this Saturday, where Owen Coyle, cleverly, doubled-up everytime Bale got the ball, with Chung-Yong Lee and Steinsson hassling the mercurial Welshman at every possible turn.

There's no doubting Bale's talents, his demolition of Maicon proves that, I just get the impression that Premier League defenders may have worked out how to nullify his electrifying pace and lung-busting runs, and that the praise lavished towards him over the past few weeks may have been too much too soon.

2) Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan deserve England call-ups later on this month

One looks like Hitler's slightly more sinister younger brother, the other, an Eddie Stobart driver. But together, along with Chiek Tiote, Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan have been, without doubt, the best midfielder three in the Premier League this season. ( I may have got carried away there.) And it would be a real shame if neither of them were picked in Fabio Capello's England squad for the upcoming friendly against France later on this month.

Joey Barton has been at the heart of everything Newcastle have done well this season. He was the backbone to their 6-0 thrashing of Aston Villa in August, getting on the score-sheet in the process. The cornerstone to their 2-1 win over West Ham, which may well prove to be a pivotal moment in their season. And was absolutely exceptional in Sunday's 1-0 win over Arsenal. It also seems as if Barton has turned a corner off-the-field, passing the tag of 'hellraiser' on to team-mate Andy Carroll.

A couple of years ago, whilst he was still at Bolton, Kevin Nolan was given a column on the BBC Sport website, where, once a week, he could comment of the past week's football, and talk, albeit simplistically, on the state of the English game. That was the idea anyway. After a promising start, it soon turned into absolute farce, as every week Nolan would use this outlet to beg to Sven-Goran Eriksson, the then current England manager, for a national team call-up. Needless to say, it never came. Well, nearly 8 years later, and with a Championship winners' medal under his belt, Kevin Nolan is finally turning into the player he always thought he was. As joint top-scorer in the Premier league, he is, at last, being recognised as a true talent, and one that deserve a call-up from Fabio Capello.

3) Torres may get all the headlines, but Lucas was Liverpool's best player against Chelsea

Yes, Torres was magnificent. Yes, he looked like a player reborn. Yes, his second goal was very good. But the best player on the pitch at Anfield on Sunday was Lucas Leiva.

Over the past 12 months Lucas has become the sort of player that many people, myself included, never could have imagined when he first arrived back in 2007. He was, by all accounts, a complete joke. Disregarded  as one of the many flops that Rafael Benitez had brought to the club. His early performances for Liverpool were, in truth, comical. But the departures of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano have seen the young Brazilian take a whole lot more responsibility in the side, and his performances, as a result, have blossomed.

This season he has become a fulcrum for the side, and the player who gives Gerrard the freedom to go forward. Yesterday against Chelsea he was magnificent. Going 4-4-2 against Chelsea's three central-midfielders looked, initially, like suicide, but Lucas completely bossed the centre of the park; excellent in the tackle and more adventurous with his passing, he looked like a young Xabi Alonso. High praise indeed.

4) Balotelli carries on in England as he left off in Italy.

Petulant, aggressive, stroppy, yet absolutely brilliant. That sums up not only Balotelli's performance against West Brom on Sunday, but his entire career to date.

He is a truly wonderful talent. Still only 20, he has time on his side. A great athlete, who wouldn't look out of place at the starting blocks for an Olympic 100m final. Mario Barwuah Balotelli has everything it takes to become the world's best footballer. And yet, everyone already knew that. So why did Jose Mourinho let him leave Inter in the Summer? Because, like the Special One says: '"He needs to show that he has understood how to play football and that he should leave the pitch dead. Of course he's not going home dead because he didn't run much." This was said after Inter fans had booed Balotelli for not even breaking a sweat in their game against Chievo last year.

So he doesn't really try, and he wonders around the pitch looking for a scrap. But Balotelli needs to stop fighting it: the Premier League could be his natural home. Like Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona before him, Balotelli has come to these shores at a fairly young age, with the sense of an enigma wrapped around him. He may, like the previous two, find our open, physical, attack-minded league is just the platform he needs to express his considerable talents. Now all he has to do his calm down and let it happen.

5) Rio Ferdinand no longer deserves a starting place at Man United

I fully understand that Rio is coming back from injury, but if Saturday's performance is anything to go by, Man United would be better suited to giving Chris Smalling his chance to play.

I think it's a sad indictment on the mess that is Man United at the moment, that a man who is clearly unfit, has lost his ability to pass to a team-mate, and is at 32 only a few short years away from retirement, is seen as the heart of the team's defence. On Saturday against Wolves, both Kevin Doyle and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake gave Ferdinand the run-around, with Ebanks-Blake in particular making the England captain look like a man past his best. Surely Man United would be better served to give Chris Smalling his chance to prove his £10 million price-tag, and help the club build for a future without Ferdinand before they get merkked?



The Next Best Player Ever.

One lost his virginity to a man and the other couldn’t kick with his right foot. At least that's how they describe one another. Like two little birdies sharing a perch, Pele and Maradona often spit feathers over the matter, but at large, they are considered the two best players ever to grace the beautiful game.

Arguments surface every now and then to suggest that neither deserve their shared title. One side say Pele never did anything outside of Brazil. Fair cop, aside from a highly lucrative cameo in the newly formed MLS with the New York Cosmos, Pele spent the whole of his career playing for Santos.  Nonetheless, this didn’t seem to hinder his ability to score against defences from all over the planet on the international stage did it? The other side argue that while Maradona’s magic was undeniable, for how much of that time was he not high? After all, the player himself admits to being a recreational and performance enhancing drugs cheat at different stages in his career, most prominently while at Napoli, while he was also telling the manager who to sign, not training and making illegitimate babies. Again, fair cop (not least to the man himself), but was George Best not drunk for the majority of his career? And not half as good.
The Two Best, so far.
Many other players/little birdies had the potential to join the pair at the top. A few think there are some up there with them, Cruyff for example. Not Jordi.  Some players were simply too early, Di Stefano and Puskas both played in an era of pre-globalised war-stricken football. And allegedly, even the most graceful of defenders; Franz Beckebauer, will never make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with a block tackle, like a creative midfielder or goal scorer would. Not something I necessarily agree with.  
About time for someone new. The debate over today’s current crop won’t be had for another few years yet. However, I’m not sure anyone can argue with the inevitability of Senor Messi’s rise to the very top. All he needs is a World Cup.  But the next best player ever, has hung up his boots by now; having played in the space of time left by Mr. Dona and picked up by Lionel and co, he now sits, relaxes, and waits.
The modern footballer could never rise to the ranks of the “best player ever” argument purely on the basis of international competition as Pele did. Such is the contemporary game. International football is simply not the glamorous affair it once was. Although Spain are doing everything they can to change that.
Q. So who in the time period mentioned has done enough on both the domestic and international stage to potentially swoop on to that metaphorically tenuous branch? A. Two players.
Both arguably played their best football in the same team.  But one of whom simply appeared to have magic in his boots, the ability to do the unthinkable, and to create the unimaginable. If God had been a footballer he would have been Zinedine Zidane. Perhaps he is.

"That's a bloke Ronny, run!"

Ronaldo, or fat Ronaldo as he’s now known, hasn’t even retired yet. He’s still scoring goals in Brazil, 12 in 20 for Corinthians last season. His career was everything that Pele’s could have been, at least at club level. Not only the best Brazilian centre forward since his idol, but the best centre forward in the world since him. 34 in 37 for Barce, 49 in 68 for Inter, 83 in 127 for Real and 8 in 20 for AC. That’s a combined total of a goal every 1.4 games while playing at four of the greatest club teams in the world. Raise that by .1 for his 97 international appearances, and you begin to comprehend the ability of the tranny-chasing striker to find the net on any occasion. Not least the 2002 World Cup final.

Enough on him. A goal is a goal. And one hundred goals are one hundred goals. But some players have something beyond goals, something almost undescribable. Luke Skywalker had it in ‘Return of the Jedi’, but Zizu had it every time he crossed the white line; the ability to change the course of history. See his goal in the 01/02 European Cup final. With his weaker foot.

The Third Way.

Born to Algerian parents in Marseille, Zidane played in France as a young man for both Cannes and Bordeaux. But it was at Juventus , the then European Champions that he rose to prominence, five years later in 2001 moving to Real Madrid for a world-record fee. By this point Zidane had already won a World Cup and European Championship with France and two Scudettos with Juve.

But it was with Real and the Galacticos that Zidane won most of his plaudits as a player, if not trophies. One European Cup and one League Title are not nearly enough to describe the influence of the man on the club. Not only did the team revolve around him, but so did the club, the fans, and at time, the whole of football.
Quality is a word often over used in football, but never enough where Zidane is concerned. A pass played by Kaka for Hernan Crespo’s second goal in the 2005 European Cup Final is the closest thing in recent years to the level of vision and execution displayed throughout Zidane’s career. But type in “Zidane great pass” on Youtube, and you’ll see hundreds just as good, if not better.

Amazing what advertising money can do.

Until the very final moments of Zidane’s career there were no slights, nothing to be held against him and nothing to retract from his ability. This particular moment of madness will always be remembered, but shall never over shadow.

If I haven’t done enough to permanently place him alongside the two best in the eyes of world football, I’m positive time will. The two little birdies in my tree have got a giant French Cock to join them. I’m sure Maradona will have something to say about that.