Arsenal 1-2 Östersunds FK: My first pilgrimage to The Emirates

Full-time whistle. The boos rang around the Emirates. Arsenal had just gone through to the next round of the Europa League but slumped to an anti-climatic defeat on the night. Normally I would have stopped streaming by now, but here I was seated in Club Level clapping the players off the pitch. The special circumstances that led me to my spiritual home were life lessons to take note of.

Taxes

Sunday 18 February. I wasn’t looking forward to filing my U.S taxes, it was my first time and I’m not particularly good with numbers. In reality, the process was pretty straightforward thanks to TurboTax, a site that my brother suggested. It got even better as I found out that I would be getting reimbursed. Whoopee!

Shortly after I got a message from my cousin Freddy who wanted to know if I would join him on a midweek trip to London on Tuesday. At first I said no because of the financial load (London is expensive!) and potentially missing valuable experience at my ‘internship’. But a little voice told me to take the opportunity.

A break from Paris is always a good thing plus my newly accrued wealth from filing would help me survive the three nights in the English capital.

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Freddy: Anglophile and free spirit

FlixBus

Tuesday 20 February ” The toilet is only for wee wee.” I snickered in my seat. To be fair, a lot of French people speak broken English and at least our bus drivers’ level was serviceable. It was a welcome distraction in a tedious bus journey with FlixBus, that took over seven hours to reach London Victoria station. A particular highlight for me was the trip on the Eurotunnel from Calais to Folkestone, I’d always wondered how vehicles cross the Channel.

The bus entered the train along with smaller passenger vehicles into what looked like a quarantine area. During the 35 minute long journey I got out of the bus to stretch, There wasn’t much to see bar the round lady wearing black tights with a huge hole on her backside. I thought better of alerting her, reasoning that her journey would be a bit less comfortable.

While eating some sushi at London Victoria I noticed a huge billboard advertising the Arsenal stadium tours, something I really wanted to do before my short stay ended.

Scarf

Wednesday 21 February. The one thing I love about England is how passionate people are about football. Wearing my Arsenal scarf in public made me a walking lightning rod for people’s emotions: “You guys are so funny, I love watching ArsenalFan TV” said a Chelsea fan on the tube.

“Take off your scarf mate.” A suited man told me as he rushed out of a bar. “That’s a proper team that,” remarked a salesman at a market.

“Fuck Arsenal” said a youngster who waited while I passed by to express himself. When I found out that he was a Manutd supporter I told him that “They were going to win nothing this season” to which his friends oooooooooooh’d. “Come talk to me when you’ve won Champions League.” Which was my signal to depart as I realized I was dealing with a windup merchant.

There were more pleasant exchanges with Östersunds fans in the Oxford Circus area as we each branded our scarfs in a mock show of bravado. The Swedes were enjoying their time out in London before tomorrow’s match. Even though we were leading 3-0 from the first leg, you can never take anything for granted. How I wished to attend the match …

Ticket

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Golden Ticket

Thursday 22 February. Today was the day I was going to visit the Emirates Stadium with Freddy and my brother’s friend Stephen Forbes. We had been put in touch before my arrival. Coincidentally he lived just a stone throw from where we were staying in Norbury.

We met early morning at the station so that we could see as much of the stadium as possible since most areas were on “lock-down” for the match. As we were on the train Stephen gets a call from his girlfriend. He looks at me grinning, “You’re going to love me! I just managed to get two tickets for you and Freddy to watch the game tonight!

“They’re season tickets so you’ll have to give them back when you’re done.”

I was speechless. My pilgrimage to the Emirates would include participation in the evening service. If you told me a 5’7″ Manchester United fan would be the one to give me an opportunity to watch Arsenal live, I’d have told you to jump of a cliff. It was just too good to be true.

Highbury

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Beloved Highbury

Thierry Henry’s former hunting ground had now been transformed into an apartment complex known as Highbury Square. I felt kinda bad taking photos of a residential building, but hey, when you live in a famous stadium, it comes with the territory.

The pubs and bars of Islington also evoked the great history of Arsenal. Filled with pictures of legendary players and key moments. I particularly enjoyed The Gunners pub which had a lot of relics of Henry, THE major saint in the Arsenal religion. There were also portraits commemorating  the feats of “The Invincibles” and 89 team.

We killed some time in a smaller bar whose bouncer told me he was attacked by Tottenham fans two weeks ago. “You’re lucky you didn’t get shanked,” I said, knowing to well the frequency of stabbings in London. “Yeah the police came quick ain’t it”, he sighed.

“This bar is only for Arsenal. If you’re an away fan, you can’t come in here, it don’t matter if we don’t have history with you.”

When the clock struck 19:00 we started making our way to the Emirates. The moment I saw those beautiful arcs on the roof, I was in a state of subdued ecstasy. We had reached the south bank where the Östersunds fans were going through their repertoire of songs before being allowed entry. While filming the scene I had to mind horse droppings as there was a police officer on her mount close by.

Before entering “heaven”. I had to take a picture next to Henry’s statue. The legend’s likeness was captured in his 2003 knee slide celebration in front of the Spurs fans.(Tottenham) The fact that he has Guadeloupean roots just like me and Freddy, made the photo extra special.

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St Thierry Henry

Club Level

Free programmes, beer, coffee and seats behind the goalmouth, are just some of the perks of sitting in Club Level. I immediately recognized all the players warming up. I was disappointed that we were wearing our away kit instead of our trademark red and white, but read beforehand that both clubs had agreed on the change to avoid clashing.

With one of the highest season ticket prices in the land. The fans in Club Level are well-off. I had my reservations about how enthusiastically they would support the team. The Emirates is notorious for a ‘library’ atmosphere, especially on days like this: -1˚C, modest opposition and a 3-0 lead from the first leg.

A video showcasing iconic moments accompanied by a light show heralded the imminent arrival of the starting lineups. I was on my feet, clapping and cheering each players name. I didn’t want to sit down but knew I would be rebuked for blocking someone’s view.

1-2

The pace of the match was pretty slow, especially from the hosts who looked like they would rather be anywhere else but there. Östersunds were organized and ready to take the game to Arsenal. Their Iranian striker Samman Ghoddos, who caught my eye from the first match was proving particularly difficult to track. “We need to wake up, we haven’t gotten into the game,” I told Freddy.

Then they scored. Hosam Aiesh was played into space behind Sead Kolasinac, advanced into the box and slotted the ball past David Ospina. We had it coming and I wasn’t surprised. Amazingly they scored straight after. The powerful winger Ken Sema found himself one on one with Calum Chambers in the box, out-muscled the defender and fired in from the angle.

The howls of dissatisfaction were deafening. I tried composing myself after Freddy had playfully shoved me off my seat. My first match and this is what they serve up! The only chance we had of note was when Jack Wilshere blasted his volley wide in the Swedes penalty area. Boos greeted the halftime whistle, we quickly went inside the 49ers suite for a snack.

As mentioned earlier, beers and coffee were on the house, I sipped on the latter as I observed my fellow Gooners. You had people in suits who had come here straight after work, wealthy pensioners and “hip” youngsters. Club Level was not necessarily for the general admission types who would support the team in difficult moments. This lot have been season ticket holders for years. They expect be entertained.

Then you have the rest of us who borrowed tickets and are just happy to be here.

While I was in the bathroom, I heard the stadium announcer through the mic “Reintroducing The Arsenal!” I started to speed up, then I heard him again, “Halftime substition, 30 Ainsley Maitland-Niles is being replaced by 29 Granit Xhaka.” A tall kid next to me wasn’t impressed: “Oh that’s fantastic.”

Had I lingered any longer I would have missed our goal. Hector Bellerin crossed from the right finding Kolasinac who fired home with his weaker right foot. I jumped of my seat fists pumping, I had just witnessed my first Arsenal goal!

We then fashioned ourselves decent opportunities but took none. Danny Welbeck tried to chip Östersunds keeper Aly Keita, who parried away Mohamed Elneny’s  pile-driver a few moments later, collected Welbeck’s tame header and in stoppage time used his legs to save from … you guessed it Danny Welbeck. A striker low on confidence.

What I did not like was some of the abuse players like Alex Iwobi were getting. Yes, he is out of form and can be quite frustrating but some of the insults were just mean: “You’re terrible! Don’t ever play football again!” was one of the more “polite” unpleasantries.

More boos greeted the fulltime whistle, I got up and started clapping the players off. The boys hadn’t played well but saw the match out to go through. Two players: Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin stayed behind to applaud the fans, with the former giving a young fan his shirt. As Bellerin looked in my direction I gave him the thumbs up.

We asked Pascal, a stadium usher, how to get back to the tube station. He had a smart suit on and was very professional and polite. In fact all the staff we interacted with were very helpful and hospitable. Now I know why Arsenal are always referred to as a “classy club.”

I took one last look at the stadium before joining the sea of bodies en-route to the tube station. We didn’t win and the atmosphere was toxic, but I got a chance to see my team live at home, something a lot of people could only dream about.

At London Victoria on my way back to Paris, I noticed that the bag tag that I’d forgot to take off  from the stadium security check had my lucky number: 25. I left it on as a reminder: This life is difficult but it can also answer your dreams if you dare to take opportunities.

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Tagged for life

Photos and videos taken with my old iPhone 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Aces Youth Soccer Acadamy: Tiki-taka, Nick Faldo and Elneny

“Elneny how did you miss that!?” one of my teammates asked. To be fair I had no clue. I was played through on goal and with no keeper in nets I missed the target completely. But overall, my first training session with Aces Youth Soccer Academy was a positive experience.

“Stop the car here,” I told my mother. “There is a police blockade, I’ll walk it from here.” The morning session was just about to start and I didn’t want to run the risk of being delayed. I had been in contact with the people of AYSA for a few months and had visited their clubhouse, but today was going to be interactive: I was going to participate in the morning session. It was an opportunity to experience first hand, the education stars like Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona benefited from.

The police gave me a “we know you told her to turn around” look, I shrugged and crossed Harare Drive, entering the Standard Charted Bank Sports Club. Immediately I recognized the administrator Bernard Kirimi who welcomed me with a big smile. The next step was to join one of the teams, technical manager Backlyfield Chivenga had no issue accommodating me with the under-21s. “No problem! If it gets too hot you can take a break.”

I’m naturally a trier but the fact that I had been sidelined with an inflamed heel for 10 months, meant that I had to tread lightly. The first drill had us stand face to face passing to each other through and along cones, alternating feet. “This isn’t too bad,” I thought to myself.

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One of the boys

 

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Control & pass … wash, rinse, repeat

It got more sophisticated. One drill had a player standing in a little square with four players on each side about 10 meters away. The player in the middle had to receive a pass and return it back before the ball entered the square, repeating the sequence in every direction.

Marc Duvillard the co-founder of AYSA was observing this training sequence and was particularly interested when it was my turn in the square. “Well done. No not there, the other way! Yes keep going!” were a selection of things he told me in French. “It’s not easy for you!” he chuckled. “Yes but I always try to attempt and finish,” I replied.

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Training under Swiss scrutiny

It was around 10 a.m. and the sun was hitting us hard, so the water breaks were very welcome. I also started feeling a throbbing pain in my left metatarsal, something that I had picked up three weeks ago. Ignoring the discomfort I soldiered on to the next sequence. Chivenga wanted us to juggle the ball and alternate between our feet and thighs. I had never practiced with the latter and was all over the place.

“Don’t try too much,” said trainee coach Francis Jeyman “Start with two and then try three.” The former Black Aces player was an observant and calming presence around the training ground, his friendly approach reinforced my concentration when I lapsed.
My teammates on the day were always having a laugh with me and at my expense. They nicknamed themselves after famous players and decided quickly on a name for me: Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian’s locks were probably the reason. I also had a comical exchange with one of them who had dyed his hair brown: “Hey where are you from?” he asked. Your Shona accent is shit!” “I’m from here and I can hear your accent when you speak English, it is also shit!” I retorted. Banter.

The goalkeepers had been training separately from us but would join us later in the 11v11s we were about to play. “We are going to start with two touch and no keepers,” said Chivenga. “You can only score at the goalmouth, no Nick Faldo shots. We are not playing golf here.”

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Solo keepers

“Elneny you play gun.” My teammates told me. As a natural defender it was always going to be tough playing as the striker but I accepted. Then THAT MISS happened. In my defense, there was someone closing me down but it was still poor. The next shot I took hit the post: Remember, there were no keepers and it was two touch.

We moved on to one touch and then multiple touch with keepers. It was at this moment that the training load got to me: My pressing was less enthusiastic, heavy touches and a metatarsal ready to explode. The other lads were all good. Still running, passing, shooting and dribbling at 100% energy levels.

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THAT MISS
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Prowling the goalmouth
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Knackered

As we were warming down bootless, it felt like the high intensity stuff was over but Chivenga had a nasty surprise in store for us. It didn’t really shock me, he likes to keep his players on their toes and will randomly say things like “everyone chase me,” the poor souls who finish last would have to dance a jig in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But his latest trick came with a twist.

“Get up this is the shoe race!” he barked. I bolted up and quickly picked up my boots. “Stop! Those with their own pair move there, someone else’s pair move here and with nothing stay right here.”

He came to our group: “So you are the honest guys? In football it doesn’t always pay to be honest.” Our mouths dropped open. “ Do you score in your own goal or someone else’s? Go join the guys with nothing.”

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Honest punishment

We were put through push-ups, sit-ups and burpees. the number of sets depended on the amount of shoes the “dishonest” guys had collected. I can still see the smirks on their faces. After our punishment the training session was over and I headed straight for the water bottles, chugging down one and then another.

With a refreshed perspective I interrogated Chivenga on the ‘madness’ he had put us through. Boasting a coaching career spanning 17 years in basketball, karate and now football, AYSA’s technical manager loves to incorporate ideas from other sports to stimulate his players.

“I use a lot of passing drills from basketball, especially anything concerning delivery from the wings,” he says. “The idea in both sports is the same. The only difference is that you’re using your hands in one and feet in the other. My experience in karate also helps with fitness exercises I put the boys through.”

Chivenga likes to come up with his own ideas “but do you have a role model when it comes to coaching?” I asked. He doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Pep. I really liked his work with the Barcelona academy. He never blames his players for losing games, he prefers to take the criticism. But expects his players to correct themselves.

“A manager who shouts at his players during the match, shows that the work hasn’t been done properly in training. I don’t speak much during games, if my players see that their pressing is not working, after the second attempt they will sit back. Individually and collectively they know what they need to do to correct errors.”

Our conversation shifted to the gap between grassroots and professional football in the country and a few interesting points came out: “The clubs in the Premier League don’t share the same philosophies as their academies. It’s only about winning. One of our little wingers would struggle in this system as they would just launch the ball to the striker. For someone accustomed to playing on the ground it’s a struggle.”

While the kick and run style might not suit them it doesn’t mean that the AYSA players can’t compete physically with the professionals. “ We sent our players for speed tests, one of our boys clocked 15.6 seconds while the best time from a Premier League player was 21.6.” A result of the academies great work.

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Technical manager Backlyfield Chivenga setting a new record

Chivenga then ushered me to the lunch table where Danai Kirimi the matron at the clubhouse was handing out plates. “She takes care of the boys,” he said. “And you!” she laughed. The food was rice, chicken and cut up veggies a decent meal after a tough session.

I was very happy with my experience at AYSA. An honorable mention to head coach Ekkie who took the pictures you see. One article does not do justice to the work the folks of AYSA are contributing to Zimbabwean football. Please look out for more articles on this top academy.

 

Thomas Lemar: Baie-Mahault’s crevette

Crevettes are pretty popular in Guadeloupe. Whether served in a stew or with dumplings, these little critters really hit the spot. In 2008, when a Caen youth coach visited the island, it wasn’t to sample crevettes but an exciting talent who was just as small but stood out from the crowd: Thomas Lemar.

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Crevettes in a coconut milk stew served with dumplings (Photo credit: UnePlumedanslaCuisine.com)

Baie-Mahault is the collision point where two islands meet to form Guadeloupe. An area with rich soil and bays right out of a postcard, this is where the young Lemar was born. Enrolled by his father into local club Solidarité Scolaire at 7, it didn’t take long for the introverted and diminutive tyro to attract attention.

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Sky view of Baie-Mahault

A whirlwind of guile and ball-sticking technique fast tracked Lemar into older age groups. Frank Louis the regional technical advisor of football, would use the Baie-Mahault native as a “guinea-pig” to prove to youth coaches in training, that ball control could be mastered at a young age.

It’s easy for a talent and his entourage to get carried away, fast-tracking a career before it even starts could prove fatal. Luckily the Lemars had Louis who became a close friend. His experience with the French Football Federation taught him that prospects need time to develop before making the professional leap.

The setup at Solidarité Scolaire also grounded Lemar. Founded in 1917 by a group of teachers, the club expects all of its players to excel in the classroom first then the pitch. If you don’t graft you don’t play.

French clubs were starting to circle, Normandy club Caen were the first to make their move in the form of youth coach Philipe Tranchant who had made the 7000km journey just to see Lemar. Impressed with how the 13-year-old maneuvered opponents and the irregular Guadeloupean pitches, the left-footer was put on Tranchant’s wish list.

It didn’t help that Louis told Tranchant that Lemar “Is the best player Guadeloupe has ever had,” in all their categories. A lofty thing to say, considering that France’s most capped player Lilian Thuram and Marius Trésor all hailed from the island. Having seen and heard enough, Tranchant took the then 15-year-old to Normandy.

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Lemar & N’Golo Kanté were teammates in Normandy (Photo credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

The first steps in the hexagon weren’t easy for the Guadeloupean, winter, home sickness and headaches would have been an easy excuse to down tools, but the love for the game took him from the reserves to the first team. Soon French crowds got to see the islanders cultured left foot in action.

Lemar was never really a starter at Caen, instead a move to As Monaco would prove to be his real breakthrough. Deployed behind the striker in his formative years, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim uses him on the left-wing of a young vibrant squad. His 14 goals and 17 assists contributed to their title triumph last season.

Now a French international, it seems the best of Lemar is yet to come. It remains to be seen if Louis’ claim of Guadeloupe’s greatest will hold in the future, suffice to say, Baie-Mahault’s crevette is in a rich stew that will delight many mouths.

The Per-fect appointment

A young prospect is signing on as a scholar at Arsenal. Pen in hand and grinning. Next to him, the 6’6” academy manager is also grinning, pleased with the first signing of his career. That man is Per Mertesacker and this scene will happen later in 2018.

#Repost @p_mertesacker ・・・ Dear fans and friends, clear decisions were always very important to me. I felt like that after World Cup 2014 and I take such a decision now again. From autumn 2018 onwards I will be heading up the Arsenal Academy as the “Head of Academy”. Which means at the same time that the upcoming season will be my last one as a player. I am delighted about this future challenge and job at the club who means so much to me. Pattensen, Hannover, Bremen, Arsenal London – these places and clubs formed me and made me the player and person I am today. It is important to me to pass on these experiences and values to young players in the future. But for the next months my clear focus is to give everything as a player for the club. I am looking forward to the things lying ahead of us, short- mid- and longterm. #COYG Yours Per /// Liebe Fans und Freunde,  klare Entscheidungen waren mir immer sehr wichtig. Das war 2014 nach dem WM Titel der Fall, so ist es auch jetzt. Ab Herbst 2018 werde ich die Leitung der Nachwuchsabteilung bei Arsenal als "Head of Academy“ übernehmen. Dies beinhaltet auch, dass ich jetzt in meine letzte Saison als Spieler gehe. Ich freue mich enorm über die neue Aufgabe bei dem Verein, dem ich viel zu verdanken habe und der mir sehr an’s Herz gewachsen ist. Pattensen, Hannover, Bremen, London – diese Stationen haben mich geprägt. Mir ist es ein großes Anliegen, diese Erfahrungen zu teilen. Für die kommenden Monate liegt mein Fokus aber ganz klar auf meiner Aufgabe als Spieler. Ich werde alles für den Verein auf dem Platz einbringen. Ich spüre große Vorfreude auf alles, was kurz- und mittelfristig auf mich wartet. #COYG Euer Per

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The announcement came two days after the high profile signing of Alexandre Lacazette and was met with as much enthusiasm by fans. It may seem odd to appoint someone who has yet to finish a distinguished playing career with zero knowledge of running an academy, however, looking back at the BFG’s (Big Friendly/F***ing German) passage in North London, the case in favor of the titanesque defender is strengthened.

Signed during the infamous trolley dash of summer 2011, Mertesacker was brought in to stabilize a team that had sold influential components in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Donning the formers number 4 shirt, the BFG made his debut in a home game against Swansea.

Arsenal hadn’t started the season well, a single point from three games which included an 8-2 deflowering at Old Trafford formed the backdrop of a nervous afternoon at the Emirates. The sight of Mertesacker getting out jumped by Danny Graham didn’t auger well for proceedings. Like the team, he wasn’t convincing but squeaked out a 1-0 win. People were right to identify the German’s head as his strong point, but it was the interior not the exterior.

 

A meticulous reader of the game, Mertesacker combines excellent positioning and interceptions to outsmart his opponent. His economic use of the ball sees him average above 90% pass completion rates, making him the modern defender’s primer. A nasty ankle twist at Sunderland ended his first season three months early, but it did not stop him from having a solid second season.

They say opposites attract, in the case of Laurent Koscielny and Mertesacker this rings true. The Frenchman is a high risk proactive marker of the ball. The Germans measured approach serves as his colleagues safety net thus allowing him to be even rasher! Not only did he establish himself in central defense, he also captained the side in a FA Cup tie at Brighton and headed in his first goal against Tottenham Hotspur, a sure way to endear yourself to the red half of North London.

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Ying and Yang (Photo credit: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

It also became apparent that the BFG (Not the explicit version!) was just that, always putting himself at the service of others on and off the pitch, such is his standing in the dressing room, he is charged with collecting fines. The thought of Alexis Sanchez storming out of training and the BFG shouting “That’ll be 1000 pounds mate!” is a hilarious possibility!

 

Mertesacker can also be tough when the situation requires it, the sight of him giving Mesut Ozil a verbal dressing down for not acknowledging the traveling fans after a loss at Manchester City, made him the exception to the popular idea that: modern footballers just care about the money.

Perhaps it was all of this that was going through Arsene Wenger’s mind when he appointed the World Cup winner as club captain in 2016. Sadly he missed most of the season with a knee injury and due to competition for places he only made two appearances: In the last league match against Everton and the FA Cup final.

Suffice to say his contribution was more than what the majority had delivered in a lackluster season for the club. A fifth placed finish was a new low for a club equipped to win the league, but held back by a questionable mentality and complacent board. The cup final with Chelsea was a chance to salvage some pride, a 2-1 win did just that.

Everyone was in agreement that Mertesacker was superb with some calling his performance one of the greatest in the competitions history. His in match mentoring of young partner Rob Holding and their good cop/bad cop routine on Diego Costa will live long in the memory.

In a years time, after his training kit has been swapped for a tracksuit with “PM” emblazoned on the chest, the task awaiting the German is huge: Poor results, questionable recruitment and defensive ineptitude blight most youth teams especially the under-23s. But just like Mertesacker the player you expect Mertesacker the manager to make sensible decisions with a high success rate.

 

 

Comfy Sofa: Simba Mafundikwa

Welcome to the second ever Comfy Sofa! The best interview spot in the world of football. It is with great pride that I introduce our guest: Senior at SUNY Delhi majoring in Architecture and my little brother, Simba Mafundikwa:

I would like to talk to you about your experience playing collegiate football/soccer at SUNY Delhi. You started as a staff member correct?

Yes that is correct. My first year at SUNY Delhi I was on the swimming team, but always knew I wanted to join the soccer team. I used to go watch their games every weekend and I had a few friends that were already on the team. I used to play with them for fun.

At the end of their season in freshman year which was 2013, the coach organizes practice games in winter, that’s where he asked me to join his team. Unfortunately I did my high school in Zimbabwe and wasn’t allowed to play because SUNY Delhi was still a two year college in sports.

So my coach allowed me to join the coaching team instead, which was good because I was still able to train, in the hope that, the next two years of my college career I would be able to play.

So how did you become eligible to play?

Delhi became a four year college after switching divisions from the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) to the USCAA (United States Collegiate Athletic Association). So we were facing other four year colleges, while also competing in the nationals tournament that was held in my junior year in North Carolina and my senior year this past semester in Virginia Beach.

Do you remember your first training session?

It was a big difference because this time I spent the summer before my junior year, getting in shape for the season. Knowing this would be my first season actually playing. I had already been to a lot of the games and knew the guys on the team very well.

So the first day I arrived before training which is a week before school starts in August, I received a warm welcome which made me very happy. I was very comfortable from the beginning and the coach put me in the left-back position. I have very fond memories of my first training session.

Was it a major difference practicing as a player instead of a staff member?

The big difference being that I was training for a purpose with playing games in mind. As opposed to training to just stay fit and impress.

The first game. How did that go?

Right before school started we played a preseason game against SUNY Polytechnic in a scrimmage (exhibition game) as they call it in America and I came on at halftime. Looking back, I was plagued with inexperience and youthfulness if you may.

But my first official game was against Penn State Hazleton. I started that game and we eventually won 7-1. Unfortunately I picked up a minor injury in the second-half which didn’t allow me to finish that game. But I was very happy to play in front of my home fans and friends.

Yes the transition from playing socially in Zimbabwe to collegiate level must have been hard. What type of things did you have to overcome?

I have to say that playing socially in Zimbabwe actually prepared me in many ways. But something that I had to overcome was practice sessions everyday. In college you’re in school, your main focus is school. But you still have to practice everyday and you have matches every other day.

So that means you’re going to miss a lot of time that you could’ve been doing work. Also, the style in America is different to Zimbabwe, but Zimbabwe is a lot more physical which gave me an advantage. I already knew how to use my body to gain an advantage, since my position is defense. That is a vital skill to have.

Also the traveling. We had to stay in hotels and different states. Wake up early and play games. That was also an adjustment in America.

There was also a time the coach wouldn’t put you on. What was the reason?

To this day I still don’t know the exact reason. I suspect it was the small injury I acquired during my first game, which meant that I wasn’t able to play the next few games. The coach put somebody else in the left-back position and they did well, so it was much harder for me to get back into contention.

But you did and stayed in the starting eleven till the end of your playing days.

Yes. Towards the end of my junior year season I was back in the starting lineup. The majority of my senior year, I was in the starting eleven except for about two games due to injury.

Let’s talk about your teammates. How was the camaraderie in the dressing room? Did you make new friends?

The majority of my teammates are from upstate New York, with a few of us being from other countries like: Ecuador, Portugal and Equatorial-Guinea. We’re very close, we spend a lot of time together. In team situations there are always going to be cliques between older and younger players, but in my team there were very little. Everyone helped each other for the common goal of achieving success.

Our dressing room was very relaxed with a few team clowns, that would always joke around or play music to psyche us up or calm the nerves. There was always laughter in my team. This came down from the coach. He has a big sense of humor, always joking around. But when it’s time to get serious he gets very serious. It was a good balance between having a good time and knowing when to get to work.

On the field of play, how good was your team? Did you win trophies?

My team was one of the more successful teams in my division, making it to the national championships two years in a row for the first time ever in our history. We definitely played to our potential in a lot of games. In terms of winning trophies, we didn’t win any during my time at Delhi.

Yes it’s a shame when you cant translate good form into trophies. But individually you were a winner: experiencing college football, playing loads of games and being appointed vice-captain.

Yes individually I do feel like a winner. I would definitely say my best experience was being named one of the captains. I will never forget my first game as captain in senior year. Before every game we sing the national anthem and the captains lead the teams out. It was a very emotional situation, but it also made me play differently and with more assertiveness. It made me take care of my teammates especially the younger and newer ones.

Indeed. With your experiences playing, do you have more of an appreciation towards top level footballers, like the ones at your favorite club Manchester United?

Definitely, I appreciate the time that they take to practice, that’s their life to practice everyday, they sacrifice a lot. Also the dedication to improve, get better, be a good communicator. Another thing that I found tough is the traveling, cause you have to travel long distances, be away from home, family, so I definitely appreciate what professional footballers go through. It made me realize what it would take, if I were to go down that route one day.

To wrap up, I want to ask you some quickfire questions. Best performance.

My final game at the national tournament at Virginia Beach against Albany Pharmacy.

Worst performance.

It was against a school called St. Joseph’s. I don’t know if I was low on confidence but nothing was really going my way and I was substituted early.

Best goal.*

I didn’t score any goals in my college career, though I did have some very close chances. Barely skimming the bar with a long range shot and having a half volley blocked on the line.

Best assist.

It came in one of our final games in Boston. I received the ball from Joffre, the play-maker of the team, in the top tier of the opposition half. I passed the ball to one of my defensive midfielders, he ran through on goal and scored. We won that game 1-0. Very vital goal and assist.

Favorite away ground.

Albany Pharmacy. I say that because, I have good memories from the last game we played there last season where we won 4-0. That was our first time winning in Albany as SUNY Delhi and they have great facilities over there, good support, so that’s my favorite away ground.

Away ground you hated visiting.

I don’t recall the name of the school but it was up in the Adirondack area. Honestly, it felt like we were playing a team of brute men, like lumberjacks and that’s exactly the way they played. The pitch was very small and the fans were right up next to the pitch, very hostile.

Thank you for giving us an insight into your football experience. All the best with your graduation in May!

Thank you for having me on your Comfy Sofa! I enjoyed sharing my experience of playing football/soccer in America.

 

*Tongue in cheek 🙂

 

 

Kylian Mbappé: The world is yours

The away section at the Etihad erupted into cheers. The individual responsible for their joy had latched onto a long ball and slammed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. His first goal in the Champions League. At 18 years and two months, he became the second youngest French goalscorer behind Karim Benzema in the competition. Take a bow Kylian Mbappé.

On his first start in the Champions League, the young dynamo dovetailed brilliantly with strike partner Radamel Falcao and tormented the Manchester City defense with a combination of pace and fearless dribbling. It was a remarkable performance considering his tender age and has effectively put him on the world stage. The fact that Monaco lost the game 5-3 mattered not, the top goalscorers in Europe had offered their interpretation of attacking football: progressive, incisive passes and clinical finishing.

The English press were full of praise for the Ligue 1 side and most of it was aimed at Mbappé. However, those across the English channel and followers of Ligue 1 have had the player in their consciousness for a while.

Kylian Mbappé Lottin grew up in Bondy, part of the northeastern suburbs of Paris. Mbappé’s education started at AS Bondy where his father Wilfried  coached. He impressed enough to earn a place at the prestigious football academy Clairefontaine, an institution where William Gallas, Louis Saha, Blaise Matuidi, Thierry Henry etc all cut their teeth.

During his apprenticeship, the Bondy native had most of the French clubs on his case. Finally it was AS Monaco who won the race for his signature. The principality club are shrewd operators in youth football. Locally they never had a huge talent pool to pick from, instead they scout the six corners of the hexagon and recruit players from the age of 14 who have already received the fundamental education.

The fact that Monaco gives these youth a chance to challenge for a first team place is also a strong selling point. The likes of Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry and Anthony Martial have all benefited from this approach.

Mbappé debuted for the seniors against Caen on 2 December, 1998. At 16 years and 347 days he broke Thierry Henry’s record (17 and 14 days) as the youngest “monégasque” to feature in the league. Two months later the record of youngest goalscorer was also taken from Henry (17 years and eight months) by the same culprit ( 17 years two months) against Troyes.

The sale of Anthony Martial to Manchester United had opened a door for Mbappé which he has gone through running, especially this season. 12 goals in all competitions so far is a decent return, but it’s  the options that he offers to his coach Leonardo Jardim. He can play on the wings, centrally or partner with another striker. His versatility and style has earned him the tag of “new Thierry Henry” though that may be premature considering his predecessors illustrious career.

The young man needs to develop further before talks of going abroad to play at a Real Madrid are evoked. He hasn’t really experienced a major setback in his career yet e.g dip in form, long-term injury or abrupt change of coach and tactics. These are all issues Thierry Henry has encountered and surpassed. Then there is the small matter of Henry playing for the national team and winning the World Cup and Euros.

Though, selection for the senior national team feels like a when rather than an if, looking at the starring role he played at last years U19 Euro triumph with five goals. His father Wilfried who also works as his agent has proven that he can also make sensible decisions for his son by choosing Monaco instead of Real Madrid, even though the Spanish giants and in particular, club ambassador at the time Zinedine Zidane, pulled all the tricks to recruit him.

Whatever direction the Mbappé story takes, like Tony Montana, he is at a point where the world is his, even Nike have endorsed him. It’s now up to the lad to keep that success permanent.

Sutton United 0-2 Arsenal: Pie-eating goalkeeper resigns over betting scandal

The weird, wacky and surreal were all present in a fairly comfortable victory for Arsenal. Never mind that Theo Walcott grabbed his 100th goal for the club or that Lucas Perez made it seven goals in nine starts, Wayne Shaw, Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper, is under investigation from the Football Association and Gambling Commission after Sun Bets offered odds of 8-1 against him eating a pie during the match. Shaw has since resigned.

Tipping the scales at 115kg, the 46- year -old “Roly Poly Goalie” had already been in the spotlight before the game, but his stunt which he called “a bit of fun” has backfired spectacularly and cost him his job.

Shaw who was also on the coaching staff, ravenously devoured a meat and potato pie in full view of the cameras, after his team had made all their subs.

The FA states that “A participant shall not bet, either directly or indirectly, or instruct, permit, cause or enable any person to bet on (i) the result, progress, conduct or any other aspect of, or occurrence in, a football match or competition.”

The Gambling Commission will also be looking at any irregularities in the market to determine if Sun Bet has met its license requirements as an operator. What works against Shaw is that he knew about the bet before kickoff and authorities have to decide whether his actions breached any rules.

The fiasco takes away from a landmark achievement from Sutton who are 105 places below Arsenal in the National League. The band of semipros are toiling in 17th place out of 24 teams, but were flying high in the FA Cup having upset Leeds United to reach the fifth round.

While Sutton will enjoy a £50,000 donation from their opponents and the exposure from the journey, Shaw has to live with one of the most infamous publicity stunts in football history.