Saturday, 26 April 2014
Tuesday, 25 March 2014
The debate about the greatest goal ever is one that sparks passions in every football loving country in the world. Each nation has a favorite that historically means the most to them but the majority cannot justify the title as the greatest ever. After fervent patriotic bias has subsided to reasonable thinking, the usual final choice is between these two:
Marco van Basten’s volley from a ridiculous angle in the final of the 1988 European Championship.
Diego Maradona’s dribble from the halfway line against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal.
They are good choices as they are both great goals, but not the greatest ever. They are, instead, two of the world’s most famous great goals - a different thing altogether. The worldwide audience, the magnitude of the occasion and the fame of the scorers are all factors that contribute to this skewed thinking.
The greatest goal ever, is, in fact, one that you have never seen. It was scored by a small man, running backwards, flinging himself in the air, and striking the ball with his left foot into the top corner of the goal.
The scorer of the goal is one Roger Boli. The occasion was when he was playing for Walsall against Southend United in England’s Division Two on August 30th 1997. The fact that the game was largely insignificant even to the 3,304 fans that watched it that day explains why you have never seen this goal.
I was there that day, stood on the Gilbert Alsop terrace as a Walsall fan at the opposite end from where the goal was scored. When I saw Boli connect with the ball and then caught sight of it in the back of the net I presumed I hadn’t seen it correctly so checked again. The ball was still there. My spine went cold as I celebrated with my friend, together in an embrace of bewildered happiness. “We just don’t score goals like that,” I thought to myself, and so did all the Walsall fans present that day.
You may well think that makes me biased - one of those typical hardnosed supporters who can only see beauty when it comes from their own team. Well, you may be right, but you’ll have to trust me on this one. I can remain objective and explain to you why it is the greatest goal ever, without resorting to favoritism.
Firstly, in complete contrast to the goals scored by van Basten and Maradona, it is the ordinariness of the occasion that means the greatness of Boli’s goal can shine on its own - allowing us to judge the goal purely on technical merit. There is no ornate frame around this picture.
At a game of this level goals of such exquisite technique are never seen. Sure, there are great goals scored in the lower leagues but these are 30-yard screamers that can be scored by any fluky fullback willing to take a punt. Boli’s goal is so theoretically difficult to pull off that it can never ever be considered lucky.
Whether you call it an overhead kick, a bicycle kick or a scissor kick is entirely your choice. What is certain is that when you do see one of these scored you never see it scored by a player running backwards. And never as far as Boli ran.
Even the great Pele agrees that a goal of such mechanical magnificence is rare, as he told The Guardian: “The bicycle kick is not easy to do […] I scored 1,283 goals and only two or three were bicycle kicks." I’ll bet he never scored one whilst running backwards either. And definitely not one against Southend United.
But Boli’s goal also goes way beyond technical brilliance. What Roger Boli did that day was reward the hope of any fan of the local team. The man who goes every week and travels up and down the country knowing that he will be watching sub standard football. It is the passion for his team that keeps him going and not the expectation that a thing of such beauty as Boli’s goal will mean his efforts go rewarded.
But why has such an orgasmic goal still remained under the radar of so many football fans? In this age of easy access to video recordings from all over the world you would expect the YouTube clip to have a lot more hits than it currently has – almost 70,000. Not a small amount, but insignificant compared to the millions who have viewed Maradona’s and van Basten’s great goals.
Perhaps the answer lies in the relative lack of praise the goal got at the time, as its greatness was still open to debate. Club captain, Adrian Viveash, in his weekly column in the local Sports Argus, wrote: “People have been saying all week that Roger’s first was the best goal ever seen at Bescot. Well, having seen Kyle Lightbourne [an ex-Walsall striker] hit some beauties over the past two years, I will reserve judgement.”
Even the YouTube video description doesn’t over extol its virtues as it can only manage to state that it is “one of the greatest goals ever seen at Bescot Stadium”.
Recently though the goal has started to gain more acclaim. In September 2010, an article on the website of the English national newspaper The Guardian described it as one of the six best overhead and scissor kicks of all time. And as part of the football club’s recent 125th anniversary, Boli’s goal was rightly awarded the title of ‘Walsall’s greatest goal ever’.
So, when you are next debating the greatest goal ever, earn some kudos by pretending you have a knowledge of lower league football and argue for Boli’s gorgeous goal to be included - because Boli’s goal is now, unquestionably, no longer the greatest goal you’ve never seen.
Sunday, 9 March 2014
The recent transfer of ex-England international Jay Bothroyd caused a minor ripple of shock in the football world. The surprise didn’t come from Jay finding another club – it his now his tenth in total – but that his new club is in Thailand.
What added to the shock is that Bothroyd’s new club, Muangthong United, are willing to pay him an extraordinary £5million (tax free!) over the course of his two-year contract.
The attractive financial package surely answers the question as to why Bothroyd made the move to a considerably lower standard of football. But apart from an enormous wage every week what does he expect from his time in Thailand?
In Bothroyd's departing interview with the Daily Mirror he claimed the following:
"Muangthong United is the biggest club in Thailand and has the potential to be one of the most successful in Asia […] Thailand is a beautiful country and football is the national sport here."
It is doubtful that even if Muangthong United were the smallest team in Thailand that this would stop Bothroyd making the move for that salary. But for the record, Jay’s statement is incorrect. It is Buriram United who are the biggest club in the Land of Smiles.
Last season, Buriram had an average crowd of 18,941 compared to Muangthong’s 10,888 – the third highest in Thai football. Buriram also won the domestic treble and reached the quarterfinal of the AFC Champions League. Muangthong finished 7 points behind Buriram in second place.
Bothroyd is also wrong about football being the national sport in Thailand. Muay Thai boxing (kickboxing) is, badminton a close second. Watching Premier League football is a very popular pastime though and most Thai’s support a team from England. There are enormous adverts for Premier League teams all over Bangkok - even for Watford on the side of some buses – and the bigger English clubs ensure they always include Thailand in their preseason tour.
Thai domestic football doesn’t have the same popularity, as many Thai’s don’t even support a domestic team. Outside of the top three supported teams in Thailand, the average attendances of just a few thousand, are what you would expect of League One clubs in England - with many clubs having the embarrassment of playing in enormous, mostly empty stadiums.
In the recent curtain raiser to the Thai domestic season, the Kor Royal Cup (Thailand’s equivalent of the Charity Shield), Bothroyd was not the only Englishman playing, nor was he the only Jay. Jay Simpson, the ex- Arsenal and Hull City striker had signed for Buriram United a few months before Bothroyd for another staggering wage of £40k a week.
It was Simpson who won the battle of the Jays as Buriram won the game 1-0 and Simpson scored the winner despite appearing as a substitute in the 65th minute. The game itself was a microcosm of Thai football and shows exactly what the two Jays can expect from their time in Thailand.
The standard of refereeing in Thailand is at best average at worst abysmal. Mostly it is just confusing. The Kor Royal Cup was no exception. Buriram had four goals disallowed, two incorrectly for offside. One goal was also disallowed because rather than waving ‘play on’ when there was a great chance to score, the referee blew for a penalty just a second before the ball went into the net.
The resulting penalty summed up the talent on show in Thailand. It was taken by Suchao Nuchnum a regular Thai international. He scuffed his shot and made it look like a back-pass to the goalkeeper. This isn’t surprising as the Thai national team are very poor and currently enduring one of the worst spells in their history. They are bottom of their qualifying group for the Asian Cup and have no chance of qualifying for the finals.
There are a number of good players in Thailand though, but they are all foreigners. The pick of the bunch is Carmelo Gonzalez, an ex Spain under-21 international who played most of his career in the Spanish top flight. Carmelo, who plays for Buriram United, was both the best player in Thailand and also the top scorer last season. Sadly, there was nobody else who was remotely his equal.
It was typical Thai football that was on show in the Kor Royal Cup. End to end action, not a hint of a slow build up, a mixture of short passing and long balls. Not unlike a Premier League game but without the quality. Although the play is fast, injuries do regularly break it up. Or supposed injuries. It is probably the excessive heat that causes many of the players to stay down for a long time, rather than any serious injury. What is unusual is that whenever a foul is committed the aggressor shakes hands with the ‘injured’ – can you imagine this in England?
What was strange to see at a game in Thailand was a banner from the Muangthong fans that read ‘Welcome to Hell’. This could only have been an ironic message as Thai football fans are very respectful to the opposition. You won’t normally hear any insulting songs, and at the end of the game both sets of fans applaud each other and the players. Although attendances are small the crowd do their best to make an atmosphere as they have many banners, songs and even flares distracting you from the empty seats.
Bothroyd, wearing the number 9 shirt and with ‘Jay Bo’ written on his back, had plenty of time to view the crowd on his debut as he was mostly a peripheral figure. He lined up in a 4-3-2-1 formation with him being one of the two playing behind the main striker. He was hardly in the game though apart from a decent penalty shout after a good run in the second half.
Simpson’s performance was in complete contrast to Bothroyd’s. He came on in the 65th minute and looked sharp straight away, easily outmuscling and outpacing his marker several times. He scored ten minutes later only for it to be harshly disallowed for offside but then legitimately scored a minute after with a composed curling effort after harrying the last defender. Despite his brief appearance he was definitely man of the match.
Jay Simpson’s immediate impact helps to justify his enormous wage and the decision of Thai clubs to spend so heavily on overseas players. And with more money coming into Thai football than ever before, they surely won’t be the last English players to make the move over there. Perhaps there will also be more than two Jays in the Land of Smiles next season – has Jay Jay Okacha still got his boots?
Saturday, 22 February 2014
Friday, 3 January 2014
A high-pitched squeal stabs at my eardrum, followed by the sound of urgent footsteps pacing down the stairs. I look up and see my girlfriend’s mother standing over me with my girlfriend joining her, out of breath, by her side.
"Put it down," my girlfriend shouts. I step back and comply. The look on both her and her mother’s face means they don’t want to be messed with.
I stutter an apology and move out of the room. The women stand together, arms folded. "Never come in here again" is the message.
All I had in my hand was a laundry basket. I only wanted to wash my own clothes. But this is Thailand, and they do things differently here.
I met my Thai girlfriend two years ago in London, when she was studying for a master’s degree at one of our universities. After a year of dating we moved in together. Towards the end of the validity of her visa we discussed moving to Bangkok.
"You can stay with my family," suggested my girlfriend. "You will have your own bedroom and I will sleep with my mom."
That’s a little strange, I thought, but as Thailand is a conservative nation it wasn’t unexpected. So, I quit my job, said goodbye to my friends and family and in October I packed my bags and came with her.
What did I have to lose?
Nothing much. Apart from a dwindling sense of independence.
My girlfriend’s mother, like so many Thais, cannot do enough to help. Not only can I not wash my own clothes - I cannot make my own food. I cannot do any cleaning. I cannot do much at all. I try my best, I really do want to help, but all I have managed to do is occasionally take my dishes to the sink. Even this involves incredible use of stealth, as I have to do it when she has her back turned. I can’t do anything else, or my girlfriend and her mother would wrestle me to the ground.
It is even difficult to get my own breakfast, as every day I am offered moo ping (grilled pork kebabs) and sticky rice, which every day I smile and refuse stating that I am happy with cereal and coffee. This ritual, just like brushing my teeth, has become ingrained in my morning routine.
In the living room there is a plush leather chair and three rock-hard mattresses where the rest of the family sleep. When I walk in, my girlfriend’s mother gets up out of the good chair and offers it to me. This woman is in her early sixties, I am 36. I refuse the offer. A stand-off persist, both of us smiling, nodding and pointing to the seat. Both of us not fully understanding what the other means. It is like a drawn-out game of musical chairs. Eventually my girlfriend intervenes and mother gets her way. I am told to sit down on the leather chair.
When I sit in the living room on my own reading quietly, it seldom stays that way. In comes my girlfriend’s mother, on goes the TV and the volume up so high that I cannot only watch Top Gear – a programme that I hate but she seems to think I like – I can listen to it from within a mile radius of the house.
Other than this strange living situation, there are a few other things that I have found bizarre.
An early trip to the cinema was a taste of things to come. In the car, on the way to see a romantic movie with my girlfriend, I waved goodbye to her mother and she waved back. Seconds later I had a shock to see her open the back door and join us in the car – directing operations from the back seat. When we got to the cinema, out she came to join us for the movie – an unlikely triple date.
One night, I spent a couple of hours with my girlfriend sorting the details of a scenic train trip from Bangkok that takes you through different neighbourhoods. Just before I went to bed I got told that her mother was coming too. I wasn’t surprised, but as it didn’t affect matters I didn’t really care. The next day, however, I was told we were going by car because my girlfriend’s mother thought it would save time reaching our destination. My protests that this would defeat the purpose of the trip went unheard.
On Chulalongkorn Day, one of the 16 public holidays that Thailand has, we joined several thousand Thais in visiting the Royal Palace to show our respects to the current King’s grandfather. The enormous crowd caused our taxi to be stuck in traffic for over an hour, moving less than 100 metres.
"Can we get out and walk?" I asked. "No. My mom says its too far," my girlfriend replied. Yet 15 minutes later, having gone no further, we were outside the taxi, walking. Five minutes after that we were at the Palace. I couldn’t see the logic of waiting so long, but there is one: Thai people, particularly my girlfriend’s mom, don’t like walking.
Despite the constant mollycoddling and strange incidents, I have grown very fond of my girlfriend’s mother and decided that the old maxim "if you can’t beat them, join them" is worth adopting. I am now in the process of teaching her the fine art of making a cup of tea while I am watching the football – some pandering I am happy to put up with.