Monthly Archives: February 2014

Welsh Exodus

(Another oldie)
I was born in Sweden but have now lived in Wales for around 7 years. Football was the sport with which I grew up and that which I played for many a year. However, moving to South Wales, I couldn’t avoid Rugby Union, it was everywhere.I started off by watching Wales and was soon interested in regional rugby. The Ospreys are now my team and I get as much pleasure going to watch them at the Liberty Stadium as I did watching my local ice hockey or football team back home in younger days. I love match days at the Liberty and Millennium Stadiums, the expectations before a game, as well as the atmosphere around and in the stadium. I came late to rugby and still have much to learn, so love every minute of it. When it comes to rugby I am Welsh – if Wales played Sweden in rugby (highly unlikely!), I would support Wales.Over recent years, we have all heard the rumours about players being offered highly lucrative contracts to ply their trade in France. Last year saw James Hook, Lee Byrne and Gavin Henson sign contracts with French teams (though Henson returned). Regan King is another player who left Wales after 6 years for what I would assume to be a more financially rewarding contract than that on offer from Scarlets? This year we know that Luke Charteris is on his way. Aled Brew is also on the rumour list as well as a few others. Adam Jones has gone against the grain and decided to stay with the Ospreys.Do I mind? No, not really. I can understand that from the player’s personal point of view that it makes sense. I would even go as far as saying that it could be beneficial for the national team of Wales, at least in the short-term. My views on this issue are based on experiences in Sweden, a relatively small country with 9 million inhabitants. This makes it bigger than Wales with its 3 million inhabitants, but still not large by any standards.
Swedish football clubs could never compete with the big European clubs for the best Swedish football players. They leave to further themselves both professionally and financially. This has long been the case. It started in the 1950′s with the well know trio of Gre-No -Li (Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm) all of whom went to ACMilan.

Other well known players have left Sweden with prominent names including Glenn Strömberg, Glenn Hysen, Tomas Brolin, Fredrik Ljungberg, Henrik Larsson, Patrik Andersson, Olof Mellberg and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sometimes when the Swedish national team plays, there are no players on the pitch who currently play in Sweden. Still, in 1994 Sweden came third in the World Cup, so success can come even in these circumstances.The fact that the best Swedish players leave is something we accept and live with. In many ways it probably improves the quality of Swedish football as many of these players return to Sweden either to end their playing careers or as managers, bringing with them experience and new ideas. This is why I say that Welsh rugby can benefit from players leaving for foreign climes and bringing new ideas and concepts to Wales.However, there is a major difference that must be accounted for. In Sweden, football has a sustainable base of players, in that there are around in total 200,000 registered players. There is no risk of shortage in the player pool. In Wales, however, there is a total of 50,557 registered rugby players, compared with England’s 2,549,196 or New Zealand’s 137,835, this despite being a country with a mere 4 million inhabitants.
Wales do not have a huge base of players with which to work, so the local clubs require all the help available to get young kids into the game and retained. This is why I say that the player exodus is good only in the short run. I have been to a presentation night with my little boy and seen what the presence of ‘big’ names can do for the younger players.I saw the happiness in my little boy’s eyes when he came to me shouting “Tommy Bowe is here!!” When prizes were handed out, there was a clear order in terms of whom the boys wanted to accept their prize from. Tommy Bowe first, Dan Biggar second and finally the local boy, Ben Lewis. Lewis, as a local youngster, has made it into the Ospreys squad, but in the eyes of the kids, that will never be the same as having played for Ireland, the Lions or Wales.I do think the Welsh Rugby Union need to think about their aspirations in the long run. Today, ‘Gatland’s law’, summarised by the quotes of the Welsh coach:-“The location of a player outside Wales will be a significant factor in determining whether he is selected for the national team.”“This is a common sense reminder to Welsh players that the ideal will be to play for a Welsh region.”“Playing for a region will allow them to be available for all Wales training and playing requirements and will safeguard their development and care.”“Given that we do not have the pool of players that other countries have, it is questionable whether we can say every player who plays outside Wales cannot play for Wales.”

In other words, it doesn’t stop the ‘big’ names from leaving Wales, they will be picked anyway. However it probably stops the rest if they want to play for Wales. As shown at the presentation night at my local rugby club it is the ‘big’ names that attract interest. Without players like James Hook and Lee Byrne playing in Wales where the younger generation has the chance to watch them on TV or live, I fear the absence of ‘heroes’ will make the situation for the local clubs much harder in terms of attracting new players.

In the long run I think it will be harder for Welsh rugby to keep a sustainable player base if the good players are free to leave without any repercussions, with others certain in the knowledge that a move will mean their no longer playing for Wales. I think that the WRU need to think long and hard about this. There are many other implications around this issue that impact the regions, not least the stance of Warren Gatland, but that’s for another day. This year has also seen an added condition with a salary cap put in place for the Welsh regions. The repercussions from this are yet to be seen.


Football, rugby and referees

(Wrote this a few years ago but now organising stuff so I have it in one place)

When I was a little girl and started to go and watch football with my dad there was one thing he taught me from the very beginning. The referee is always right! My dad was a very good football player in his day. I never saw him play at his best but have been told that had the game been professional in Sweden at the time he would have been playing proffesionally. He had played games at all levels from local village games up to playing for North Sweden v North Norway and North Finland. For him it was a matter of course to respect the referee and as part of the game itself adher to the fact that the referee is always right. When I started playing myself this was deeply ingrained into me. I was captain of my team for most of 15 years and throughout my playing days the referee was always right. I didn’t necessarily agree with him/her all the time but I kept that to myself.

Therefore, I find it very hard to accept the way football is now treating their referees. I am saying football because even though it is the players that mainly hands out the abuse there are few laws that the referee can use to help him and in the end that is down to FIFA. The lack of respect from managers and players for the referees has led to football supporters behaving even worse at times. Anders Frisk a former Swedish referee felt that enough was enough after he and his young family received death threats from Chelsea fans after a Champions League match( ). We have seen Alex Ferguson recieve a 5 match ban for his behaviour. For me it’s clear that bad behaviour on the pitch or by the managers gives a clear signal to the fans that that type of behaviour is accepted and even asked for.

What’s worse, football doesn’t seem to do much about it. We seldom see any repercussions after atrocious behaviour on and off the pitch. What makes it even harder is that a sport that pretty much grew up next door has working laws in place but football has so far refused to even contemplate changes in that direction. I am of course talking about rugby union. I watch a lot of rugby and appreciate that the referee is so much better respected by the players and coaches. When I watch football it quite often makes me sad and disillusioned because of the way the players behave and their lack of respect for the referee. Especially as this is something that spreads and we now have a huge problem with abusive parents and young children behaving badly in youth football. One weekend there were three fights between parents, one fight between the children playing in my local area and that’s only the ones I know of.

There are some rugby laws that can be brought in directly to football and would increase respect for match officials and make football more enjoyable. There are three laws I would bring in to football to directly help the standing of the referee when on the pitch which are easy to implement. They are tools for the referee to control the behaviour of the players and have a direct impact on the player and the team.

•Penalty can be moved 10 metres forward (in football it would be the freekick)
•Sin bin
•Reversed penalties/freekicks
The first law would enable the referee to move a freekick forward as a direct consequence of
players questioning his decision or swearing at him for the decision made. The referee just says 10 metres and that’s it. The player has been given a clear warning that he is out of line and if he continues more severe sanctions will be implemented.

I think the yellow cards in today’s football are pretty useless. For example, van der Sar was given a yellow card against Liverpool at Anfield and what implications did it have, none! There was no incitament for him not to shout at the referee as he knew that a yellow card would be the only consequence. If he knew that he could be sent off for 10 minutes, would he have done the same? The introduction of a sin bin would increase the referee’s possibilities to directly deal with any dissent or foul play by the players, being a more severe outcome for the player and his team. In rugby, if you committ a yellow card offense you are sent off for 10 minutes. It is a direct punishment and has an impact there and then on the player and the game. The accumulation of cards in tournaments would become a non issue as the disciplinary action has already been meted.

Reversed penalties/freekicks is another but slightly different tool for the match officials. This law makes it possible to reverse an already given penalty/freekick and give it to the opposition. This option is mainly used if a player retaliates. The scenario could be that one player is brought down and is given a free kick. If he or any of his team mates then goes up to the offending player and pushes them, kicks them etc the referee can choose to reverse the penalty. I saw a very clear incident in a recent Magners League game. One player committed a yellow card offence and both penalty and a yellow card were given. However, the victim of the offence lost his temper and
threw the ball in the head/back of the offender. The reslut was that the yellow card stood and that player was sent off but the penalty was reversed. This law can also be used for dissent to match officials and if the assistant referee has seen something the referee didn’t pick up.

The main point of these three changes is that they stand for a direct punishment of unacceptable behaviour on the pitch, whether it is a bad tackle or disrespect against the referee.

In order to improve the game from a more general perspective I want to bring in citing. In rugby, if the match officials miss an incident and it is caught on camera the player can be banned after the game. I think that this something that should be used in football as well. The main use I see for it is blatant diving in the penalty box and when players pretend injuries (some exapmles at the start ), that is; unsportsmanlike behaviour. The main point being that it doesn’t matter if the referee saw the incident during the game, you can still be caught and punished for it.

Furthermore, I want to allow physios/doctors in on the pitch if someone is injured while play
continues. In football, we see players taking a dive, rolling around, pretending the injury is bad, ballthen being kicked out etc. Suddenly the player makes a miraculous recovery and seems to be fine.
In rugby, play continues while treatment is done on the pitch (there are a few exceptions like serious neck and head injuries). This means that the players don’t gain anything from pretending that an injury is worse than it was, in fact the team lose out as they have to play with one man less while treatment takes place. This would discourage football players to pretend that their injuries are worse than they are and the match would not be brought to stand still.

The last thing I would like to mention is goal line technology. Yes I want it! In rugby we are used to the TMO sign. We wait until the TMO has checked if a try was scored or not. This happens nearly every game, sometimes many times in one game. Not a big issue. To be fair in rugby it is usually a bit trickier to actually see whether a try has been scored compared to football where the ball some 99% of the time is either in the net or not. However, the main reason I want it for goals, unfortunately has to do with the referee. It hasn’t got anything to do with the flow of the game, being equal wherever or on whatever level you play football, or any of the other reason that FIFA seem to conjure. As mentioned above, there are referees that receive death threats for doing something that is vital for a football match to be played. We can play a game with less than 22 players on the pitch but not without a referee but who wants to be a referee now-a-days?. For the safety of the referees I want goal line technology. The use of technology works in many sports eg rugby, tennis, cricket, American football so I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work in football.

As a youth coach I am worried about the behaviour on the sidelines and by some players and I therefore think it is of utmost importance to deal with these issues. I think that the changes I have proposed are all easy to implement and stands for a direct consequence for any type of foul play. They would all help the referees and improve the game of football. It is my belief that a better environment on the pitch with respect for match officials will in the long run have an impact on the people watching the game. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to have empty sections when football is played to separate home and away fans.

Yes I know the offside rule

Do you know the offside rule? I have actually been asked the question a number of times even after having told the person (often a man) I am talking with that I have played football competetively for some 15 years. Sometimes I have probably even mentioned that I used to play in central defence and was the person in charge of said defence. I guess that the fact that they even ask me the question says more about them than about me.

I grew up watching football and in the dressing rooms of the team my father at that time coached, there were the U16 boys, the first division ladies team and the 3rd division men’s team. So, by the time I started playing football myself I already had a good grasp of the laws of football. The fact that many women know the laws of the game and even the tactics of football seem to threaten some men. We recently had a highly public situation when the assistant referee Sian Massey’s knowledge of the offside rule was questioned by two Sky Sports commentators (Richard Keys and Andy Gray) .

What happened to Sian Massey and discussions I, over the years and especailly more recently, have had with men about football made me think about how and why men respond the way they do when I talk football with them. (I also get it to a smaller extent with rugby).

I get the ones who ”give up” early and admit that even though they go to the Pub to watch football every week they don’t actually know football, it’s just an excuse to drink beer, which is fair enough. They express amazement that I am genuinely interested in the game and tend to be impressed by the fact that I have played football.

However I also meet the Mr Keys and Mr Grays. These are the men who for some reason seem to believe that not knowing as much about football as a woman will somehow make them less of a man. At least is that the impression I get. Recently I started to talk football with an acquaintance. I later remember that earlier I had made a mental note to avoid talking football and rugby with this man. It usually starts off fine, but as soon as I start to get more technical, talk tactics and more knowledgeable than he, the jokes/slights meant to put me down starts. Things like ”you should join the FA and sit on a committee and sort these things out”, when discussing referees. (If you have read my previous article in Swinging Balls you know that I have strong feelings regarding the way players treat match officials.) All said with a smile but the undertone is always there. Should I be offended, I don’t know? Similar things happen often, is it worth the effort. Also as I said earlier, it probably says more about them than about me. This might sound a bit arrogant, but I am confident in my knowledge of football and don’t have a need to prove myself to anyone.

Something which is quite interesting is that the offside rule often comes up in discussions with men . When I then start to mention that I played with a slightly different interpretation of the law and how it has changed etc, it becomes obvious that I know much more than some of them about the offside rule and once again the jokes start. The start of the jokes has become my cue to understand which category a particular man belongs to when it comes to talking football. I do want to ensure you that many of these men are perfectly normal and nice people when not talking football with me:-). What I can’t understand is why the offside rule has become some sort of watershed, if you know it you know football. I would say that we all disagree much more about when it is a freekick or a penalty, when a yellow card should be given etc.

I also meet men whose common nominator is that they love football just as much as I do and they don’t think they become less of man if a woman knows more about football than they do. There are also lots of men who know more than me especially since I have had around 10 years with small children and at that time football has been on the backburner.

A couple of years ago I started to talk football at a party with two brothers. One of them knew me from before and had never started with the jokes when we talked football even though he’s a Manchester United supporter and I am a Liverpool supporter. The three of us started talking football with all of us supporting different Premier League teams and ended up talking about World Cup football from the 90s. The discussion was interesting and lively. At the end, the brother I hadn’t met before expressed how impressive he was with my knowledge, maybe to some extent because I was a woman but also in general terms. Another recent incident comes from my son’s football training.

As you do when watching the little ones train, we talked football. This time we started on Spanish football as it was just after Barcelona had won against Arsenal. We then ended up talking about Italian football. People who know me will now that I love Italian football as I find their defensive play fascinating and Franco Baresi is my all time favourite footballer. Everyone knows what Italy will do if they score a goal but there are not many teams that can do anything about it. When I started to talk about the defensive tactics of Italian teams he gave me a strange look held his hands up and admitted that he loves football, to play and watch but tactics is not his forte.

I meet many people who know more about football than me which is great as it helps me to learn more. Being ”new” to rugby one of the ways to learn more for me is to discuss rugby with others who are interested. I stay away from the discussions that go over my head and try to learn by reading/listening. However there are quite a few Mr Keys and Mr Grays out there. The big question then being ; why are there so many men who feel threatened by women who are knowledgeable and love sport?

Regional Rugby – Thoughts

It has long astounded me that people see promotion and relagation as something that equates competitivness. I say to people, look at the USA/Canada and NBA and NHL (and NFL). They are all considered to be the best leagues in their sport. Ice hockey players, basketball players all over the world see it as the best that can happen to them is to play ”over there”. Some are drafted but many are not and go over to North America a few years later in their career when they have developed and become better players. Can anyone say that these leagues are not competitive?? They do not have any relegation or promotion. The franchise can shift and the teams can suddenly move location but results in the league are not what matters.

What is it that matters then? It is the individual quality of the players. If a player is not good enough he, not the team, is demoted to the farm team in a minor league and will play there. The players move up and down on a daily basis at times depending on injuries etc. For the induvidual player the challange is to become good enough to play in the top league.

In my home town we have an ice hockey team which the last years have been among the top teams in the league SHL. We do have relegation but my team have not been relegated since they were promoted in 1984. This is a team with it’s base in a small town, around 70 000 inhabitants, and even fewer people living in nearby areas. Pretty good yes? How? Because without any papers signed they run it as a regional team. The local clubs, and I am talking an area bigger than Wales but with only around 200 00 people living there, all work under the assumption that their best players will move on either to the team in my home town (common) or to another team in the top tier (less common). They do not seriously attempt to gain promotion to the top tier as they realise that it is not an option for a small town/village for many reasons (cost being the main one). However, they have a team in the top tier which they co-operate with, regarding players, junior league set up, secondary school and sport and so on. Some players move ”down” if in need of playing time, some move ”up” as they have improved or as injury cover. All this means that it’s the local clubs’ team in the top tier. Most people in the area support the team in my home town as their team in the top tier, at the same time they still support their local team. A regional team is like a national team just for a smaller area.

The youth game is organised in a similar way but on a more local level. There are a few different leagues in place in the towns/areas. The better players in the local area end up playing for the main club in that area as they reach a certain age. If they don’t want to they don’t have to obviuosly and can then stay in their local club. Playing for the main club usually means more trainings and more of a committment.

I am not saying that there are no problems with competitiveness in the Pro12 but for me they do not stem from the fact that there is no relegation/promotion. The quality of the league on the whole can be a problem, too easy to win? But is it? The reward for winning not big enough? The complaint that the Irish rest their players doesn’t cut it with me, what do the French teams do when they play away? However their replacements are often another international player…but again that is a different issue than relagation and promotion.

However, regional rugby should be about the clubs seeing their regional team as their ”national team”. If you are a good enough player you are picked to play for your region, if not, you play for your club. The regions should be involved in developing players from the grassroots as they are the ones that will reap the rewards if more good players come through the system. If that means direct involvement, that is running their own teams in local leagues or just setting the framework is not important really. The main thing is to create an understanding that we are all in this together.