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Saying Goodbye

February 23, 2013

Ending a long relationship is always an emotional process. The initial realisation that a gut wrenching decision needs to be made. The stress of summoning up the courage to finally sever the bond. The anger directed at third parties that influence or cause the relationship to strain. The painful emptiness of knowing the separation is final. The constant reminders at every turn that trigger the agony. The bitterness felt when other people, perfectly happy in their relationships, unsympathetically flaunt their untainted love, with no consideration for your grief. Can’t they see that they’re living a lie? Setting themselves up for pain and heartache when it inevitably turns sour. Then comes the reluctant acceptance, the philosophical reasoning. You’re better off out of it. More time and money for yourself. The optimism of new beginnings free from the complications that relationships bring. It’s for the best. Time to move on.

Dealing with this process is made easier by listening to people who are experiencing the same thing. It helps understanding that you’re not alone. It gives you comfort, strength and confidence. It also helps to share your own thoughts. Your own feelings. So here I am.

Sometimes relationships naturally run their course. Fizzle out. Sometimes they are abruptly, unceremoniously ended, and sometimes people just change. They start to dress differently, maybe change the colour of their hair. They don’t only change superficially, but deeper than that. It’s as if they have become a different person entirely, unrecognisable from the one you fell in love with.  No longer the down to earth person next door that makes you feel appreciated and valued. The type where you can feel comfortable being yourself, you just *get* each other. They start to take you for granted, your loyalty, your trust. They might try to buy it back with cynical, empty gestures. But this just makes it worse. They think you’re some kind of mug that will accept material gifts and just pretend that everything is fine. Their attitude has changed so much. No longer the grounded soul, full of character and personality. Their new friends that you warned them about have corrupted them. Once so close, almost inseparable , now detached and distant. As if their priorities lay in a far off land. Gone is the warmth, to be replaced by a cold, lifeless feel. A bit. Plastic.

Everyone has their tipping point though. The straw that eventually breaks the camel’s back. The realisation that self respect and dignity are more important than maintaining an illusion. Principles must prevail over pretence. You try to make it work, you really do. But deep down you know it’s a lost cause. You can only fake it for so long. The magic has gone. You are left clinging to the hope that, in time, they come to realise that their new friends don’t have their best interests at heart. That they’re only being used for egotistical gain. You might try to tell them this, but you’re accused of being jealous, and bitter. They tell you, you need to accept it, get over it. This is the way things are now, why can’t you just be happy for them?

Maybe they’re right. It’s time to get used to the idea of living without that special person that was such a big part of your life. Get used to hearing about them from other people, seeing updates of their new life online. Reluctantly wishing them well whilst longing for the way things were at the dizzy heights of your union. But secretly willing their new relationship to fail. It’ll serve them right for the way they treated you. How dare they go on to bigger better things without you. But thinking like this is not good for the soul. It breeds resentment. Which is not healthy if there is any hope of reconciliation in the future. All that’s left to do is act with maturity and dignity, and get on with the rest of your life. And if. If, they see the error of their ways, come to their senses and rediscover the person they used to be, resist the temptation to say I told you so.

So that’s me saying goodbye.

Poppycock

November 10, 2011

Well, well, well. Such a big fuss over a little flower. A reaction so depressingly predictable. For the record, I honestly don’t care whether the England or any other football team displays the Remembrance Poppy or not. My personal choice is not to wear one. But I have given my daughter money to purchase one in school, and my wife may also buy one. Both of my grandfathers fought the Nazis in WWII, and I remember holding a dagger my dad’s dad had ‘acquired’ from an enemy soldier in complete awe, imagining the heroism and horror it had been witness to. So I’m aware of the sacrifices made and the symbolism of the poppy. In the First World War 22,477,500 allied troops were killed, wounded or went missing in action. The Second World War saw 61,000,000 allied troops perish. Only the coldest hearted individual would see the veterans huddled together on Armistice Day remembering their friends and not feel at least some emotion for them. We should always remember these men and women, what they did, and those that died doing it. It’s part of our national and cultural heritage, and when the last veteran leaves this Earth, they deserve to be immortalised for future generations. If this was where the symbolism of the poppy ended I would happily sport one with pride every year. But it has become much more than a symbol that commemorates brave freedom fighters.

As a supporter of the anti-war movement, whilst I feel for the bereaved, dead and wounded, I refuse to validate how our governments have employed our troops since 1945. Also, I reject the red poppy on the grounds that it does not represent the victims of our wars. Of which there are many, men, women and children. As well as this, the remembrance poppy has been adopted as a political tool by right wing nationalists. It is no longer a symbol simply worn to honour noble soldiers who defeated German imperialism or the evils of Nazism, but as a display of a brand of patriotism that celebrates aggressive military conquests without remorse for innocent victims. An unquestioning loyalty to the British military complex without regard for the morality, ethics or motives of our government for sending them to war. Much the same as the Union flag, the poppy has come to represent an unhealthy nostalgia for colonialism and romanticism for an Empire that’s viewed through Western tinted lenses.

This hijacking of the red poppy coupled with urban mythology and tabloid misinformation with regards to political correctness has created a culture of poppy fascism. Anyone choosing not to wear the red poppy, or who shy away from overt displays of patriotism are accused of disrespecting the dead or of being traitorous. It’s therefore no surprise that the FIFA ruling that prohibits religious or political symbolism on football kits, has been criticised as a decision made so as not to offend ‘zee Germans’. It’s only a matter of time before one of the usual suspects blames it all on those pesky Muslims.

For once though, I think FIFA have this right, as long as it’s applied evenly. The fact that there is a perception of anti-FA or anti-Premier League bias at FIFA, coupled with the factors outlined above has created a siege mentality among a large percentage of the population. But I think they’re overreacting. We need to put things into perspective and be a bit more objective about this. The remembrance poppy is largely a British phenomenon, despite it originating in the US and having support in other Commonwealth states, and as I’ve stated it was intended to commemorate only Allied Forces. I think, in an age when the modern day ‘allies’ are involved in official and unofficial wars in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, an emblem that venerates our troops at the expense of other victims of war would isolate us from the wider international community. I don’t think people truly appreciate, some probably don’t really care, the extent of the ill-feeling that our persistent military interventions create. We are kept blissfully unaware of most of what happens during our invasions, and what we leave behind when our troops withdraw. I won’t go into it at length here but I’ve written about it in detail previously here.

In my opinion we need to keep the red poppy out of international sport. I’m not totally against political statements in sport, as I believe a global game like football has the power and influence to bring people together in solidarity, highlight injustices & inequality and raise awareness of just causes. But football also has the ability to divide and polarise almost as much as religion and politics, so all three combined is a potentially explosive cocktail. If causes involving wars are to be commemorated, it should be in the guise of a united remembrance of ALL victims, and a call for an END to wars. Such a gesture would go much further in the battle for hearts and minds than the occupation and decimation of foreign populations in illegal, misguided and unwinnable wars.

But apparently, this way of thinking is unpatriotic and disrespectful to our fallen heroes. Don’t I support our troops? I’d like to pose a couple of questions to the people who claim this. Who is paying most respect to our troops? Me, for wanting them withdrawn from the firing line so no more of our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters or friends are killed fighting battles that our government deem just. Or you, who are content for them to continue dying for a lost, and probably non-existent, cause? Who is the traitor? Me, for not being able to bring myself to wear the red poppy, but will bow my head in contemplation, hope for an end to the killing and respectfully observe the silence? Or the politicians, who will wear the poppy, stand stony faced and contemplative on our TV screens, only to consider sending our troops to Iran for yet another suspect invasion with selfish and dishonest motives, on flimsy evidence?

It transpires that England (as well as the other Home Nations, which has barely been mentioned in the national media) will be allowed to wear the poppy on an arm band, instead of on the actual shirt. I have absolutely no idea why this is deemed an acceptable compromise by FIFA, as surely it’s the displaying of the poppy which is the issue, not that it is printed on the garment. But this is FIFA we’re talking about. If FIFA’s capitulation to pressure from David Cameron, Prince William (not forgetting the considerable efforts of attention seeking racists Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll of the EDL), sets a precedence, can we expect other teams to test the resolve of FIFA in the future? Does this also signal the willingness of the British public to allow other wars or political causes to be commemorated that we may find distasteful? I doubt this very much. We seem to possess an arrogance and sense of superiority that convinces us that the rest of the world should be falling over each other to be thankful for our warmongering  liberating endeavours. That our cause is the most righteous. A pomposity that shows such a lack of self awareness and humility, desperately clinging to memories of our imperial past.

To summarise, my feeling is that wearing a poppy should be entirely personal, as should how one interprets its meaning. But for me, there are too many connotations that make me uncomfortable. I would be compromising everything I stand for and validating all that shames me about our foreign policy and our colonial history. You may choose to wear a poppy, yet still share my feelings on our recent and current military activities. That’s your choice. But allow me mine. The same soldiers who fought for our freedom against the Nazis, fought for my right to choose not to wear a poppy.

No Team GB

November 4, 2011

Recent publicity shots of Wales internationals Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey modelling limited edition Team GB Olympic shirts caused anger among Wales fans opposed to the combined team. I was one of them. As I tweeted this week, this wasn’t and isn’t an issue of anti-English or anti-British sentiment or Celtic chippiness. It’s a genuine and sincere concern that a combined British team could spell the end of international football as 60 million Britons recognise it. Not just us Celts, but the English too. This isn’t fearmongering. For a comprehensive read on the No Team GB movement visit their official website – No Team GB.

To illustrate why fans are so worried about the threat, here’s an excerpt from the Q & A page:

There is a real and present threat to the very existence of our international teams if a Team GB competes at the London Olympics. This would set a dangerous precedent of competing as Team GB which may endanger our special status within FIFA.

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are members of FIFA due to special statutes endorsed in 1947 as a direct result of saving FIFA from bankruptcy after the war. The Home nations hold 4 of the 8 votes on the International Committee (the guardians of the rules of football) as well as automatic Vice-Presidency of FIFA.

This power within FIFA is looked on with envious eyes and our special status has been called into question several times over the last 30 years. All it would take is a 2/3rds majority vote at any FIFA General meeting for our international teams to disappear forever.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently gave assurances that the Home Nations would not be forced to merge even if they established a Team GB and allowed it to compete in the 2012 London Olympics – is he not to be trusted?

Neither Sepp Blatter nor Jerome Valcke are in any position to give any such assurances. FIFA operates as a democracy, and it would be 2/3rds of the FIFA members that would decide on the future of the home nations teams, not any one individual. Absolutely no official (from FIFA or otherwise) is in any position to make any guarantees as to how any of the member states may vote in the future.

Sepp Blatter actually released a completely contradictory statement in March 2008 when he said:
“If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team.
If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency?

This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.”
This warning, from the most powerful man in football, should leave every football fan in no doubt as to what is at stake here, the very existence of our International Football Teams.

I’m not interested in engaging in personal attacks on Bale, Ramsey, Joe Allen of Swansea or Craig Bellamy who have expressed support for the concept. I’m not going to make knee-jerk statements endorsing the banning of said players from the National team. I don’t want to speculate on whether they have been badly advised, exploited by agents and sponsors, or intentionally undermined the FAW in their actions. I want to explore the implications of the worst case scenario for not just supporters but also the players, in a way that the average fan can relate to.

What would a Team GB mean for Wales and the other nations involved? To cut a long story short, they could all, including England, see their individual status revoked by FIFA. In the simplest of terms, it would mean that English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish football supporters would be without a representative team on the international stage. There would obviously be a Great British team to support, and I’m sure some fans would be comfortable with this, but the opportunity to express one’s self as unique and separate sets of supporters would be taken from us. At least in FIFA sanctioned events. If, for instance, Wales wanted to continue playing in an unofficial capacity, we would be relegated to playing other ‘unrecognised’ national teams such as Kosovo, Catalonia, Greenland, Tibet, and Gibraltar etc.

I’m not sure the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Darren Fletcher, Charlie Adam, and Jonny Evans would be motivated by away trips to Iraqi Kurdistan or Southern Sudan, let alone be allowed to travel by their clubs. As I’ve stated, this wouldn’t be restricted to the Celtic nations. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere and Adam Johnson might have secure futures as fixtures in a combined British team, but would players on the fringes, who earn vast amounts of money and are vital to the future of Premier League teams want, or be allowed to play against Guernsey, Isle of Man or the Falkland Islands? I’m thinking of players like Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling or Daniel Sturridge who play for the most successful, highest paying clubs in England, are genuine contenders for an Olympic berth as Under 23’s but far from guaranteed an international future. They could hypothetically be ending their international ambition by making themselves available for selection.

By choosing to play for a Team GB, the players are effectively leaving their, and every other aspiring footballers international future in the hands of FIFA. Without detailing an exhaustive list of the allegations and proven instances of corruption, bribery and elitism involving FIFA officials, suffice to say I would not entrust them with deciding my future career options with integrity and compassion.

It would also be naive not to consider the influence of sponsorship from the leading kit manufacturers, who would profit from a successful Olympic tournament from the cream of British youngsters, but would also not want their clients devaluing their talent by lowering themselves to representing non-FIFA nations, in far-flung corners of the globe. The time spent travelling, the time away from their clubs, the risk of injury and fatigue would be highly undesirable for sponsors and clubs alike. So away from the 30 or so players representing Team GB in meaningful competition, there would be a whole generation, or generations, of players in international limbo, an involuntary exile.

Another factor that players and fans should be aware of is that of who would manage a GB team. Would they have club or national allegiances that may influence squad selection? This has been an issue with the British & Irish Lions in rugby union. Accusations of bias towards English players under Clive Woodward’s charge were well founded. He chose to select his ageing World Cup winners in a year when Wales had won the Grand Slam playing scintillating rugby. That among many other factors contributed to a disastrous tour on many fronts. Aside from that particular instance there have always been charges of pro-England bias when selecting Lions squads due to the influence of the RFU, as well as accusations of an over-representation of Irish and Welsh players on the last tour in 2009 from various quarters.

In this hypothetical scenario, with no England team, it wouldn’t be paranoid or conspiratorial to assume that the Team GB manager would be whoever is in line to be the next England manager. It stands to reason that the traditional powerhouse, with all its influence and the overwhelming number of supporters would supply the inaugural coach, despite the fact that Scottish managers have enjoyed far more success at club level. The popular choice for the England manager’s role is Harry Redknapp. What would his selection look like? I have no doubt that as his club manager, Gareth Bale would be ensured a starting place. But what about Aaron Ramsey? The most talented Welsh player of his generation, and captain of an emerging Welsh team. If Harry decides that he would prefer a midfield of Scott Parker, Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard, with Frank Lampard in reserve, and that James Milner, Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher are more experienced options, Ramsey has effectively consigned himself to the international wilderness by playing for the Olympic team.

As well as this there has been a widely acknowledged, if not official policy, of Lions selectors making political selections from weaker nations to ensure representation from all four countries, whether warranted or not. How would the likes of Craig Bellamy, Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines or Darren Bent feel if their opportunity of a major tournament was denied by the selection of, with no disrespect to more than decent players, Chris Brunt, Phil Bardsley, Darcy Blake or Craig Mackail-Smith? We can debate whether the former players are even worthy of selection, but as players who have consistently performed at Premier League level for many years, they would be ahead of the latter players in the pecking order.

If Redknapp was bypassed in favour of a ‘politically’ motivated contender to appease the Celtic nations, such as Martin O’Neill, Paul Lambert or Brendan Rogers (other non-English candidates could include David Moyes, Owen Coyle, Tony Pulis, Alex McLeish, Alex Ferguson or Kenny Dalglish) would they be more inclined to display bias towards their particular club or national allegiances? This may only be a minor quibble for professional footballers who deal with selections issues on a weekly basis. But from a fan’s perspective this would cause friction and discord. Even within our individual countries there are issues arising from club rivalries, on the pitch and unfortunately off it. Expanding this to national rivalries would only exacerbate matters.

Whether such rivalries are immature or not, and whether we should rise above them is irrelevant in my view. It’s a vital element of football, and part of what makes it so exciting. The debates, the chants and songs, the passion, the tension, the bragging & bravado on derby days, the eating humble pie and heartbreak when you lose. As long as it doesn’t descend into jingoism, distasteful songs (eg Munich, Istanbul, Harold Shipman, Yorkshire Ripper, Aberfan) or even violence, let it be.

A Team GB may well be popular enough to fill Wembley, the Millennium Stadium or Hampden Park, but they won’t be the fans that travel to Baku, Podgorica, Vilnius, Minsk or Tirana to watch Championship players play out 0-0 draws. I can assure you that no Welsh fan who turns up to watch his team play Luxembourg or Armenia in a half empty Liberty Stadium or Parc Y Scarlets will pay to see a GB team just because Gareth Bale is playing. I would bet a large sum of money that 99% of the Tartan Army would feel extremely uncomfortable sitting among fans waving the Union Flag. By the same token, how would the more extreme element of the English support react to groups or individuals dressed as William Wallace? It’s sad to have to admit it, but it’s inevitable that friction would also arise along the sectarian divide between certain sections of the Scottish and Northern Irish fans. The depressing reality of the kind of people that attach themselves to football clubs means that there is a real risk that Team GB matches could be the perfect excuse for pre-arranged battles. There is also the possibility that ‘banter’ could turn nasty given how so many people react when alcohol and football are combined. I’m not using these factors as a reason why a Team GB shouldn’t exist, as that would be admitting defeat to those who damage the good name of the game and its fans. I’m merely laying bare the issues that would create division and disillusionment in my worst case scenario.

In reality, I predict that in the most part the ‘genuine’ diehard fans of the national teams would either reject the concept from the outset, or drift away gradually when the reality hits home. I feel that initially, English fans would be the most likely to embrace the combined team. Firstly, because they would provide the lion’s share of the players, but secondly as, in my experience, for them, being English and British are pretty much the same. When many English people speak of England they actually mean Britain and vice versa. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. So backing a Team GB wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to begin with, but I’m convinced that the novelty would soon wear off, and once any of the hypothetical scenarios I’ve highlighted manifest themselves, they would lose interest entirely. My prediction is that as a result, Team GB would only be followed by nouveau, Sky era, armchair, glory seeking, plastic, prawn sandwich eating, supporters. International football would be a sanitised, watered down, husk of its former self, devoid of soul and passion.

What would become of the supporters betrayed by out of touch players and self serving politicians? Would the divide between players and fans broaden beyond repair due to the resentment? Would clubs suffer as a result? Would we end up supporting ‘rebel’ unofficial national teams made up of semi-pro, non-league players? Would we see boycotts and revolts, marches & protests? What would the repercussions be for the FAW, SFA & IFA? Would they lose out on vital revenue from international matches & sponsorship, crucial for developing grassroots, domestic football?

A Team GB at London 2012 appears to be a certainty, so the answer to these questions look set to be answered in the coming years. Many Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English supporters are a lot angrier about the prospect of a Team GB and it’s consequences than I am, so my speculations and predictions may be played out sooner rather than later. Just say no.  No Team GB.

Kinshasa, Colchester And The Great Leopard Migration

March 29, 2011

As I have mentioned previously, and other posts may suggest, I have a certain fascination with how immigration, multiculturalism and social integration are changing the face of international football. Countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and Germany are seeing an increased prominence and influence of a generation of foreign born citizens and their children in their national football teams. It was well documented, in typically xenophobic tabloid terms, that the German squad at the 2010 World Cup consisted of several players who were not 100% indigenous.

The brilliant young squad was made up of players of Tunisian, Turkish, Nigerian, Spanish and Ghanaian stock, three Polish born men, a Bosnian and a naturalised Brazilian. The multinational collection of players played some of the most exciting football seen in the tournament, with a blend of power, pace, creativity, intuition, discipline and team spirit. This made a statement from German chancellor Angela Merkel shortly after the tournament both baffling and ill-timed to anyone that had witnessed the Nationalmannschaft earn a 3rd place finish in South Africa.

In an address to the Christian Democratic Union, she claimed the idea of people from different cultural backgrounds living happily “side by side” did not work, and that the multicultural approach had “utterly failed”. This followed one of her coalition members, Horst Seehofer, calling for a stop to Turkish and Arabic immigration. A policy that would have robbed the German team of Sami Khedira and Mezut Ozil, and any hope of a successful tournament.

Apart from the odd naturalised player appearing for their adopted countries, the first truly multicultural national side was the French vintage of 1998 – 2000. Including the likes of Zidane (Algeria), Desailly (Ghana), Thuram (Guadeloupe), Angloma (Guadeloupe), Karembeu (New Caledonia), Djorkaeff (Poland/Armenia), Wiltord (Guadeloupe), Vieira (Senegal), Henry (Guadeloupe), and Anelka (Martinique), a large portion of the players that won the World Cup and European Championships were immigrants, or sons of immigrants. Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French National Front called the 1998 team “artificial”, for containing too many non-whites. He echoed these sentiments in 2007 when 16 of a 23 man squad were non-white, and said France “cannot recognise itself in the national side” and that “maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of colour and should have been a bit more careful”.

Looking at the current Belgian national team, some of their age group players and likewise with France, it seems that the Democratic Republic of Congo in particular, is the latest production line of raw talent that could be destined to lose its best players to their European hosts. Naturally this got me thinking. Why DR Congo? Why now? And what if? What if the DR Congo was able to pick an XI from all qualified players? Mouthwatering I think you’ll agree.

A brief look at the history of the country will give us the answers to the first questions. The country formerly known as Zaire was also formerly known as Belgian Congo from 1908 – 1960 due to it being a Belgian colony. The official language of DR Congo is French. The Second Congo War that began in 1998 was the catalyst for the migration of between 3 – 6 million people. The majority of those that chose Europe naturally headed for Belgium, their former colonial masters, or France due to the absence of a language barrier. With DR Congo being the 12th largest and 18th most populous country in the world (71 million), the chances are it will produce its fair share of athletes. With the mass exodus beginning around 13 years ago, we are now starting to see the former child refugees emerge as professional footballers.

Let’s look at Belgium first. Here is a rundown of Congolese qualified players to have represented Belgium at senior level.

Belgium

Emile Mpenza 32, Neftchi Baku, ex-Liege, Schalke, Hamburg & Man City. Born: Brussels 57 caps 19 goals Belgium

Mbo Mpenza 34, retired, ex-Liege, Sporting Lisbon, Galatasaray & Anderlecht. Born: Kinchasa, 56 caps 3 goals Belgium

Anthony Vanden Borre 23, Genk, ex-Fiorentina, Genoa & Portsmouth. Born: Likasi, 22 caps Belgium

Vincent Kompany 24, Man City. Born: Uccle, Belgium, 32 caps Belgium

Romelu Lukaku 17, Anderlecht. Born: Antwerp, 9 caps 2 goals Belgium

Dedryck Boyata 20, Man City. Born: Brussels, 1 cap Belgium

Christian Benteke 20, Standard Liege/Mechelen. Born: Kinshasa, 2 caps Belgium

Gaby Mudingayi 29, Bologna, ex-Lazio. Born: Kinshasa, 17 caps Belgium

Geoffrey Mujangi Bia 21, Wolves/Charleroi. Born: Kinshasa, 2 caps Belgium

The following list is of Congolese qualified players not yet capped by Belgium.

Olivier Mukendi 19, Anderlecht. Born: Kinshasa, Belgium U-18

Nill De Pauw 21, Lokeren. Born: Kinshasa, Belgium U19 & 21.

Joachim Mununga 22, Genclerbirligi. Born: Ottignies, Belgium U21

Landry Mulemo 24, Bucaspor. Born: Liege, Belgium U21 & 23.

Benjamin Mokulu 21, Lokeren. Born: Brussels, Belgium U17 & 21.

Jordan Lukaku 16, Anderlecht. Born: Antwerp, Belgium U16

Next is a list of Congolese qualified players to win senior French caps.

France

Claude Makelele 38, PSG, ex-Chelsea & Real Madrid. Born: Kinshasa, 71 caps France

Steve Mandanda 25, Marseille. Born: Kinshasa, 13 caps France

Charles N’Zogbia 24, Wigan, ex-Newcastle. Born: Harfleur, 1 cap France

Peguy Luyindula 31, PSG. Born: Kinshasa, 6 caps France

Rio Mavuba 27, Lille, ex-Villarreal. Born: At Sea, 6 caps France

Now, Congolese qualified players not yet capped by France.

Gaël Kakuta 19, Chelsea/Fulham. Born: Lille, France U16-20.

Eliaquim Mangala 20, Standard Liege. Born: Colombes, France U21

Chris Mavinga 19, Liverpool/Genk. Born: Meaux France U18-20

Neeskens Kebano 19 PSG. Born: Montereau, France U17-19

Steven N’Zonzi 22, Blackburn. Born: Colombes, France U21

Darnel Situ 18, Lens. Born: Rouen, France U16-19 Captain

Granddi Ngoyi 22, PSG/Brest. Born: Melun, France U19 & 21

Terrence Makengo 18, Monaco, ex-Clairefontaine. Born: Boulogne, France U17

Cedric Bakambu 19, Sochaux. Born: Vitry-Sur-Seine, France U18-20

Arnold Mvuemba 26, Lorient, ex-Portsmouth. Born: Alencon, France U21

Lynel Kitambala 22, Lorient. Born: Creil, France U21

Tripy Makonda 21, PSG. Born: France U19-21

Obviously, migration wasn’t restricted to these two countries. A number of Congolese qualified players are pursuing their careers in the UK. None have gone on to win senior caps for any of the home nations yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Leroy Lita has represented England at U-21 level, as has Fabrice Muamba of Bolton. Arsenal teenager Benik Afobe is highly rated and has played for England from U-16 to U-19 level. Aristote Nsiala of Everton and Vinny Mukendi of Macclesfield are both 18 years old and have trained with the Wales U-19 squad, but are eligible for England, Scotland and DR Congo.

UK

Fabrice Muamba 22, Bolton, ex-Arsenal. Born: Kinshasa, England U16-21

Leroy Lita 26, Middlesborough, ex-Chelsea, Bristol City, Reading. Born: Kinshasa, U21 England

Vinny Mukendi 18, Macclesfield Town. Born: Sheffield

Aristote Nsiala 18, Everton/Macclesfield Town. Born: Kinshasa

Kasenga LuaLua 20, Newcastle/Brighton. Born: Kinshasa

Bondz N’Gala 21, Plymouth Argyle, ex-West Ham. Born: Forest Gate

Benik Afobe 18, Arsenal/Huddersfield. Born: Leyton, England U16 – 19

Here are a few more notable players to have slipped through the net over the years.

Switzerland

Blaise Nkufo 35, Seattle Sounders, ex-FC Twente. Born: Kinshasa, 34 caps Switzerland

Portugal

Jose Bosingwa 28, Chelsea. Born: Mbandaka, 24 Caps Portugal

Ariza Makukula 30, Manisaspor, ex-Sevilla, Benfica & Bolton. Born: Kinshasa, 4 caps Portugal

Holland

Kiki Musampa 33, free agent, ex-Ajax, Athletico Madrid, & Man City. Born: Kinshasa, Holland U21.

Germany

Richard Sukuta-Pasu 20, Leverkusen/St. Pauli. Born: Wuppertal, Germany U17-21

Reinhold Yabo 19, Koln. Born: Aldenhoven, Germany U15-18 Captain U-17 Euro Win

USA

Danny Mwanga 19 Philadelphia Union. Born: Kinshasa

Even with Congolese emigrants worldwide producing international standard footballers, it’s still disappointing that a country of 71 million people isn’t able to make the breakthrough at international level. Facilities and funding are no doubt a huge factor, but club side TP Mazembe have recently reached the final of the World Club Cup, beating Brazilian champions Internacional in the process, won the last two CAF Champions League competitions, and CAF Super Cups. On an international level they have won only two African Cup of Nations, the most recent being 1974. It was 1974 that also saw their only appearance at the World Cup finals as Zaire. Unfortunately they will always be remembered for a comedy moment rather than their footballing prowess.

Nevertheless, all is not lost. They do have a handful of experienced players plying their trade at the highest level. Still pulling on the shirt for The Leopards are former Roma striker Shabani Nonda, Lomana LuaLua, Herita Ilunga of West Ham and Dieumerci Mbokani of Wolfsburg. The star man for DR Congo however is Tresor Mputu who still plays domestically for Mazembe. Described by Claude Le Roy as the next Eto’o and courted by the likes of Spurs, Arsenal, Anderlecht and Al Ahly of Egypt, he was nominated on the 2009 shortlist for African Player of the Year alongside Eto’o, Yaya Toure, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba. He’s currently serving a 12 month ban for aggressive behaviour towards a referee. Still only 25, he has enough time to be an integral part of a developing team. It may be slightly premature to hail a new generation, but it does appear that the tide could be turning with regards to losing players to other countries. There are a growing number of young players pledging their future to their homeland.

Youssouf Mulumbu of WBA has won caps at U-21 level for France, but now plays for the African side. Distel Zola of Monaco has appeared for France at U-16 to U-19 level, but has switched to DR Congo. Toko Nzuzi (Grasshoppers Zurich) & Eric Bokanga (Standard Liege) are two youngsters playing top flight European football committed to their country of birth. Possibly the most noteworthy players to turn their backs on European ambition are Cedric Mongongu of Monaco and Cedric Mabwati of Athletico Madrid. The former is a £6m rated centre back, and the latter is a goalscoring winger on loan at Numancia. Players of this calibre are required to compete with the traditional superpowers of African football.

Tresor Mputu 25, TP Mazembe. Born: Kinshasa, 22 caps DR Congo

Shabani Nonda 34, Galatasaray, ex-Roma, Monaco & Blackburn. Born: Burundi, 49 caps 32 goals Congo DR

Lomana Tresor LuaLua 30, Omonia Nicosia, ex-Colchester, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Olympiacos. Born: Kinshasa 27 caps 6 goals DR Congo.

Herita Ilunga 29, West Ham. Born: Kinshasa, 19 caps Congo DR

Dieumerci Mbokani 25, Wolfsburg/Monaco, ex-Mazembe. Born: Kinshasa, 14 caps 8 goals DR Congo

Steve Zakuani 23, Seattle Sounders, ex-Arsenal. Born: Kinshasa, 1 cap Congo DR

Gabriel Zakuani 24, Peterborough Utd, ex-Arsenal & Fulham. Born: Kinshasa, 1 cap Congo DR

Youssouf Mulumbu 24, WBA, ex-PSG. Born: Kinshasa, 8 caps DR Congo, France U-21.

Distel Zola 22, Monaco/Laval. Born: Paris, 2 caps DR Congo, France U16 – 19

Toko Nzuzi 20, Grasshopper Zurich. Born: Kinshasa, 2 caps Congo DR

Eric Bokanga 21, Standard Liege. Born: Kinshasa, 3 caps Congo DR

Jacques Maghoma, 23, Burton, ex-Spurs. Born: Lubumbashi, 3 caps 4 goals Congo DR

Cédric Mongongu 21, Monaco. Born: Kinshasa, 6 caps Congo DR

Cedric 19, Athletico Madrid/Numancia. Born: Kinshasa, 1 cap DR Congo

With the current FIFA rules stating that a player must decide on his nationality before the age of 21, if he is eligible for more than one country, it’s not entirely clear whether the likes of Gael Kakuta, Benik Afobe, Reinhold Yabo or Jordan Lukaku would be able to play for DR Congo in the future (should they remain uncapped at senior level). Eventhough the rule is clear, legal challenges are still possible.

They may not have the superstar names of the Ivory Coast, Ghana or Cameroon, but a steady improvement and consistency in the national team coupled with increased competition for caps in Europe should see more and more Congolese footballers choosing to play for the Republic. Whether the next Bosingwa, Makelele, Lukaku or Mandanda is kicking a ball around in Kinshasa, Antwerp, Paris or Colchester it may be that they’ll be more inclined to hear the call of Africa from within them.

Here it is then. The DR Congo fantasy XI. Two current Leopards make the team, and only 4 players born in Europe. I have also put together a strong second team to show that there would be a pretty decent depth to the hypothetical squad. They may be missing a Drogba, Yaya, an Eto’o or an Essien. But Lukaku, Kompany, Bosingwa and Makelele would grace any team on the international stage.

1. Mandanda (Marseille/France) Kinshasa

2. Bosingwa (Chelsea/Portugal) Mbandka

3. Vanden Borre (Genk/Belgium) Likasi

4. Kompany (Man City/Belgium) Uccle, Belgium

5. Mongongou (Monaco/DR Congo) Kinshasa

6. Makelele (PSG/France) Kinshasa

7. Kakuta (Chelsea/France) Lille, France

8. N’Zogbia (Wigan/France) Harfleur, France

9. Lukaku (Anderlecht/Belgium) Antwerp, Belgium

10. Mputu (TP Mazembe/DR Congo) Kinshasa

11. Mavuba (Lille/France) At Sea

2nd XI: 1. Makaba-Makalamby (Swansea/DR Congo) Brussels, 2. Illunga (West Ham/DR Congo) Kinshasa, 3. Mulemo (Bucaspor/DR Congo) Liege, 4. Boyata (Man City/Belgium) Brussels, 5. Mavinga (Liverpool/France) Meaux, 6. Muamba (Bolton/England) Kinshasa, 7. N’Zonzi (Blackburn/France) Colombes, 8. Luyindula (PSG/France) Kinshasa, 9. Cedric (A. Madrid/DR Congo) Kinshasa, 10. Mbokani (Wolfsburg/DR Congo) Kinshasa, 11. Benteke (S. Liege/Belgium) Kinshasa.

Dream State

March 23, 2011

If you’re anything like me you’ll spend hours of the working day daydreaming, and sleepless nights pondering fantasy scenarios. If you’re unfortunate enough to be very like me, these thoughts revolve around an unhealthy obsession with obscure football related hypotheses.

Ever wonder what the Kosovar national team would look like? I do. I mean, they do have one, but it’s not currently recognised by FIFA. Until it is, they’re unable to play any part in competitive and meaningful football. This doesn’t stop me though. Despite declaring independence from Serbia in 2008 and receiving instant recognition from a number of member states, FIFA have declined their application, and Kosovo have only played one game, against Swiss club Neuchatel Xamax. Even before independence, they made fleeting appearances on the unofficial international scene, playing the likes of Northern Cyprus, Sapmi, Monaco, the Albanian and Turkish B teams, and Saudi Arabia.

Their unrecognised status means that any Kosovar footballers of international quality generally tend to represent Albania, with 92% of Kosovans being ethnic Albanians. The Kosovo War in 1998-99 also saw up to 1 million people leaving the region and seeking refuge across Europe. Those that didn’t settle in neighbouring Albania, Macedonia and other former Yugoslav states sought asylum in countries with liberal immigration policies. The largest populations of Kosovar/Albanian diaspora could be found in Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. To get a flavour of what the Kosovar National football team would potentially resemble, these are the countries that need to be investigated. In fact many of the more prominent and promising players for these teams were born in Kosovo or to Kosovan parents.

What I’ve compiled below is a list of players qualified to represent Kosovo in the event that they should be granted FIFA approved status. They have been listed by the nationality they have chosen to represent for their football career. Many will have been residents in their adopted country since infancy, and with identity being such an individual thing, it’s impossible to know how strongly they would feel the pull of their homeland. Former West Ham man Valon Behrami has expressed a desire to play for Kosovo should the opportunity arise, and as far as I know, in the event of Kosovo being given the green light by FIFA & UEFA, players already capped by other countries would be able to switch allegiance.

Albania

  • Lorik Cana: Age 27 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Midfield / Club: Galatasaray (Turkey) / Caps: 46
  • Armend Dallku: Age 27 / Born: Vushtrri / Position: Centre / Back Club: Vorskla Poltava (Ukraine) / Caps: 45
  • Debatik Curri: Age 27 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Centre /Left Back / Club: Gencerbirigli Ankara (Turkey) / Caps: 32
  • Ahmed Januzi: Age 22 / Born: Vushtrri / Position: Centre Forward / Club: Vorskla Poltava (Ukraine) / Caps: 1
  • Bezart Berisha: Age 25 / Born: Prishtina /Position: Centre Forward / Club: Arminia Bielefeld (Germany) / Caps: 14

Sweden

  • Emir Bajrami: Age 23 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Left Wing / Club: Twente Enschede (Holland) / Caps: 7
  • Agon Mehmeti: Age 21 / Born: Podujeva / Position: Striker / Club: Malmo (Sweden) / Caps: 8 U-21
  • Astrit Ajdarevic: Age 20 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Midfield / Club: IFK Norrkoping (Sweden) / Caps: 13 U-19, 15 U-17
  • Dardan Rexhepi: Age 19 / Born: Lund (Sweden) / Position: Striker / Club: Malmo (Sweden) / Caps: 2 U-19

Finland

  • Perparim Hetemaj: Age  24 / Born: Skenderaj / Position: Left Midfield / Club: Brescia (Italy) /Caps: 2
  • Mehmet Hetemaj: Age 23  /Born: Skenderaj / Position: Midfield / Club: AlninoLeffe (Italy) / Caps: 2
  • Denis Abdulahi: Age 20 /Born: Mitrovica / Position: Defensive Midfield / Club: Orebro (Sweden) / Caps: 1
  • Shefki Kuqi: Age 34 / Born: Vushtrri / Position: Striker / Club: Newcastle (England) / Caps: 62

Switzerland

  • Valon Behrami: Age 25 / Born: Mitrovica / Position: Right Wing / Club: Fiorentina (Italy) / Caps: 28
  • Xherdan Shaqiri: Age 19 / Born: Gjilan / Position: Wing / Club: Basel (Switzerland) / Caps: 10
  • Albert Bunjaku: Age 27 / Born: Gjilan / Position: Striker / Club: Nuremberg (Germany) / Caps: 6
  • Granit Xhaka: Age 18 / Born: Gjilan / Position: Midfield / Club: Basel (Switzerland) / Caps: 1 U-21
  • Taulant Xhaka: Age 19 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Left Back / Club: Basel (Switzerland) / Caps: 4 U-20
  • Shkëlzen Gashi: Age 22 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Midfielder / Club: Neuchatel Xamax (Switzerland) / Caps: 9 U-21
  • Beg Ferati: Age 24 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Centre Back / Club: Freiburg (Germany) / Caps: 12 U-21
  • Florian Berisha: Age 21 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Midfielder / Club: FC Sion (Switzerland) /Caps: 3 U-20
  • Endogan Adili: Age 16 / Born: Brugg (Switzerland) / Position: Striker / Club: Grasshopper (Switzerland) / Caps: 3 U-17
  • Amir Abrashi: Age 20 / Born: Bischoffszell (Switzerland) / Position: Midfield / Club: Grasshopper (Switzerland) / Caps: 6 U-21

Norway

  • Albert Berbatovci: Age 22 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Midfield / Club: Ranheim (Norway) / Caps: 2 U-19
  • Adrian Gashi: Age 29 / Born: Gjakova / Position: Midfield / Club: Helsingborg (Sweden) / Caps: 7
  • Mergim Hereqi: Age 18 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Striker / Club: Lillestrom (Norway) / Caps: 5 U-17

Germany

  • Faton Toski: Age 24 / Born: Gjilan / Position: Left Wing / Club: Bochum (Germany) / Caps: 5 U-19

Australia

  • Labinot Haliti: Age 25 / Born: Prishtina / Position: Midfield / Club: Newcastle Jets (Australia) / Caps: 6 U-23

Holland

  • Shkodran Metaj: Age 23 / Born: Pec / Position: Left Wing / Club: Groningen (Holland) / Caps: U-21

Kosovo

  • Besnik Salihi: Age 19 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Defensive Allrounder / Club: Young Boys Berne (Switzerland)
  • Etrit Berisha: Age 22 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Goalkeeper / Club: Kalmar (Sweden)
  • Avni Pepa: Age 22 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Centre Back / Club: IK Start (Sweden)
  • Anel Raskaj: Age 21 / Born: Pizren / Position: Midfield / Club: Halmstads (Sweden) / Caps 2
  • Kujtim Balaj: Age 20 / Born: Sweden / Position: Striker / Club: Halmstads (Sweden)
  • Scipon Bektasi: Age 20 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Striker / Club: Freiburg (Germany) / Caps 1
  • Valdet Rama: Age 23 / Born: Mitrovica / Position: Full-back / Club: Orebro (Sweden)
  • Rexhe Bytyci: Age 23 / Born: Istok / Position: Striker / Club: SV Horn (Austria)
  • Ajet Shehu: Age 20 / Born: Kosovo / Position: Centre Back / Club: Tottenham (England) / Caps 1
  • Kristian Nushi: Age 29 / Born: Klina / Position: Full-back / Club: St. Gallen (Switzerland) / Caps: 2 Albania, 5 Kosovo
  • Samir Ujkani: Age 22 / Born: Vushtrri / Position: Goalkeeper / Club: Novara/Palermo (Italy) / Caps : 4 Albania, 2 Kosovo

Not a bad pool of players to select from for a country with a population of under 2 million. They might not have the required star quality of a Jovetic or Vucinic of Montenegro or Hamsik of Slovakia, that might catapult a minnow into a major tournament, but in the likes of Behrami, Cana and Bajrami they have experience at the top level, and in Shaqiri one of the most exciting teenagers in Europe. There is a young batch of Kosovans coming through the Swiss age groups, and in Scandinavia that could well form the basis of a potential national team. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, whatever the outcome, it won’t stop me doing pointless things like this.

Russia Update

March 13, 2011

Further to my blog post on the Caucasian clubs and the first weekend of the Russian Premier League, it was an unspectacular start for the two clubs. Ruud Gullit’s first taste of Chechen football ended in defeat with the score Terek Grozny 0-1 Zenit St. Petersburg. Over in Dagestan it was 0-0 between Anzhi Makhachkala and FK Krasnodar, brief highlights below. My predicted soap opera unfolding could have taken an interesting twist already. In a series of tweets from Belgian football insider John Chapman it appears that Mbark Boussafa’s move to Terek has fallen through due to what were deemed to be unreasonable demands. His actual destination now looks like being Anzhi instead. See below.

Chechen Revolution

March 10, 2011

Normally this would be a title more suited to my other blog, but a footballing insurgency is being plotted in the Caucasus. If you’re around my age, the word Chechen was normally followed by the suffixes ‘Warlord’ or ‘Rebel’, and the name Grozny conjured images similar to those seen in Sarajevo, Beirut or Gaza.

Here comes the history lesson. The region recognised as Chechnya is located on the north side of the Caucasus Mountains and is bordered by Russian Federal territory in all directions (Ossetia, Ingushetia, Stavropol Krai, Dagestan) apart from its southern border with Georgia. Its geographic location on the crossroads of the Middle East and Russia has resulted in it being the subject of invasions and expansionism from all directions for most of its history. During the 15th & 16th centuries the Ottoman and Safavid Empires fought for influence over the region. In an attempt to avoid Russian invasion the people of Chechnya converted to Sunni Islam to curry favour with the Turkic Ottomans in return for protection. Despite numerous rebellions, Chechnya was eventually seized by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and by the 1930’s were an autonomous republic of the Soviet Union. During the Second World War the Chechens saw the opportunity to rebel against Stalin’s expansion to the south. As a result, the Georgian despot deported the entire population of Chechnya to what is now Kazakhstan. During this process between a 3rd and a half of the entire Chechen population was killed. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Chechens were allowed to return home.

Stay with me.

1991 saw the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Chechnya was not granted official independence, which caused ethnic tensions between Chechens and the Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians who had settled in the region during their enforced exile. 1994 saw the beginning of the First Chechen War as Russian troops besieged Grozny. By the time a peace treaty was signed in 1997 up to 14,000 Chechen soldiers had been killed and a reported 100,000 Russians, which included 35,000 Russian civilians killed by Russian troops in Grozny. The persecution of a largely Muslim population was seized upon by Islamic extremists as a cause to take up arms against the West.

Bare with me now.

Saudi born Ibn al-Khattab, commander of the Mujahedeen, relocated to Chechnya to wage a violent jihad. In 1999, the al-Khattab lead militia invaded neighbouring Dagestan. The assault only lasted a month or two but claimed over 1,000 casualties. This period also saw numerous kidnappings, executions and bombings in the Chechen cause. The Russian retaliation was brutal. The Council of Europe, Amnesty International and human rights organisations have accused both sides of war crimes and the Holocaust Memorial Museum has placed Chechnya on its Genocide Watch List. A unilateral ceasefire was declared in 2005 when Chechen officials estimated that military casualties numbered 5,732 Russians and 17,391 Chechens, and civilian deaths stood at 100,000 ethnic Russians and 40,000 Chechens for both wars.

Nearly there.

Despite the ceasefire, up to 5 terrorist attacks have been attributed to Islamic extremists connected to Chechnya since 2008 claiming up to 150 lives. The latest being the Domodedov Airport Bombing in 2010 which killed 37 people. In 2003 the UN declared Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.

I think that has set the scene graphically enough, now for the football. The Chechen capital, Grozny is the home of Terek Grozny, a modest club with a modest history. Amid growing political instability in the early 90’s Terek were relegated to the 3rd tier of Russian football due to a reorganisation of the zonal league structure which saw 36 teams demoted. The following season Terek were expelled from the league due to the outbreak of the first Chechen war forcing them to disband until 2001. On their re-introduction to the league they were required to play home games in neighbouring Stavropol until 2007. They were promoted to the 2nd Division in their first season back, and finished a respectable 4th the following season. In 2004 they were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history scoring a record 100 points and also won the Russian Cup. 2005 would see Terek play their first games in European competition beating Lech Poznan in the 2nd qualifying round, but losing to Basel in the 1st round proper. The year would end on a sour note with relegation and a 6 point deduction for non-payment of a transfer fee. The 2007 season was celebrated with promotion back to the Premier League with a 2nd place finish. Their return to the top flight was also rewarded with a return to Grozny. The following 3 seasons have seen them consolidate in mid-table with finishes of 10th, 12th and 12th.

Now that we’re up to date, what’s the fuss? In January of this year, a certain Ruud Gullit was appointed as the new manager of little Terek, and charged with steering them to a top 8 finish. On a list of places you’d imagine Gullit turning up as a manager, Chechnya would be pretty close to the bottom. Sexy football and hideous war crimes are not natural bed fellows. When I first heard the news, my initial thought was ‘There must me money in them there Caucasus’ swiftly followed by ‘I’m giving it 6 months’. On investigating whether there was an oil rich oligarch involved or a gas company a la Zenit, it appears that the clubs owner is none other than Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya as appointed by Vladimir Putin. Putin also awarded Kadyrov the Hero of Russia medal, the highest honorary title of Russia, for his role in the Chechen Wars.

During the first war he led a unit of separatist fighters against the Russian troops, but his family defected to Moscow as the second war started. Ramzan headed up a militia with support from the FSB as they struggled for military and political authority. Despite being credited with an improvement in law and order, regenerating Grozny and a more productive economy, his past is proving hard to leave behind. He has survived an assassination attempt, a sex scandal, been personally implicated in several tortures and murders, his militias have been accused of countless human rights abuses and war crimes, and he’s publically stated his approval of honour killings. As far as club owners go he makes Sam Hammam look like the offspring of Mother Theresa and Gandhi.

On the plus side he’s given the green light for a new 30,000 capacity stadium to be built for Terek. Swings and roundabouts. Upon checking my Twitter feed this morning I discover that Gullit has made his first ‘marquee’ signing. The capture of Mbark Boussoufa for a fee in the region of £10m is a huge coup for Terek. The name might not get the pulses of the average football fan racing, but he’s a very good player with a top class pedigree. Born in Amsterdam, he is a product of the famed Ajax academy. He was spotted and bought by Chelsea at the age of 17 and placed in their youth set-up. Not quite reaching the standard required he was released to KAA Gent in Belgium at 19, and proceeded to score 13 goals and notch up 21 assists in 50 games from midfield. In two seasons he won the Belgian Golden Shoe, Belgian Footballer of the Year, Belgian Young Footballer of the Year and Belgian Ebony Shoe. Anderlecht were suitably impressed, and signed the 21-year-old for £3m in 2006. In 193 games for Anderlecht he scored 53 goals and 80 assists, 2 league titles, 3 cup winner’s medals, and ended last season with a clean sweep of personal awards, including the Player of the Year ahead of Belgian wunderkind Romelu Lukaku. Despite being born in Holland, he chose to play for Morocco and has scored 3 goals in 19 games.

It was also rumoured this morning that Terek were ready to offer Diego Forlan a £7m contract to be their next signing. This hasn’t been confirmed, but stranger things have happened in football. Like what? I imagine you’re asking. Well, just up the road to Grozny, over the border in Dagestan, Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos has rolled up at the mighty Anzhi Makhachkala. Who they be? After being formed in 1991 Anzhi were promoted to the 2nd Division where they stayed until being promoted as champions in 1999. In their debut season in the Russian top flight they finished in fourth and qualified for the UEFA Cup, and were also Cup runners-up losing on penalties to Lokomotiv Moscow. Anzhi drew Rangers in the UEFA Cup the following season and lost narrowly 1-0, playing in Poland due to the ongoing situation in Chechnya. Unfortunately they were also relegated and remained in the 2nd Division until 2009. They finished last season one place ahead of Grozny in 11th. At the beginning of this year Makhachkala were purchased by Suleyman Kerimov, a Dagestan born businessman worth a reported $5.5b. In stark contrast to his Chechen counterpart, Kerimov is something of a philanthropist and has donated more than $60m to charity through his Foundation, primarily for community and youth projects.

As well as newly appointed captain Roberto Carlos, Anzhi have further proved their ambition by picking up highly rated Corinthians midfielder Jucilei for around £8m, former Betis, PSV and Brazil striker Diego Tardelli for £4m, Brazilian centre back Joao Carlos from Genk for £3m, and local boy and former Terek striker Shamil Lakhiyalov for £4m.

The Russian Premier League kicks off this weekend with Grozny at home to Zenit, followed by Rubin Kazan the following weekend. Anzhi begin on Saturday with a home game against FK Krasnodar, and take on Zenit a week later. With the backdrop of war crimes, sex scandals, and Gullit’s ego in one camp, a billionaire with a conscience and Brazilian superstars in the other, with both republics linked by Islamic extremists led by an Arab warlord and accusations of false flag operations, conspiracy theories, the FSB, Alexander Litvinenko and exiled oil tycoons, what could possibly go wrong?

The situation at Grozny looks like an accident waiting to happen. Gullit is a big name, but his management career hasn’t been a great success to date, and his last job at LA Galaxy ended amid reports of clashes of personality. Ramzan Kadyrov is not a man to get on the wrong side of, I can’t imagine diplomacy is one of his strong points. If Gullit manages to keep his job for the entire season, I sincerely hope Terek finish in the top 8, for his sake.

On the other hand Anzhi looks a far more stable working environment. In Gadzhi Gadzhiev they have a Dagestani man in charge with a wealth of experience, one of Brazil’s best young players and best old players, and the 136th richest man in the world splashing the cash. With the current trend for cash rich clubs in the former Soviet Union such as Zenit and Rubin Kazan in Russia and Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine to blend local talent with more exotic names from South America, Africa and Asia, there’s a successful blueprint for Anzhi to follow. This could be an intriguing season in Russia and well worth keeping an eye on.