Bigger than the Intertoto Cup


Being a Lewes and a West Ham fan doesn’t really give me many opportunities to watch my team play overseas.  Going continental means crossing the respective bridges for our league games in Canvey Island and Swansea City.  One of the great things about the “bigger teams” not taking the domestic cups seriously has been the opportunities presented to sides who may not have had a look in a a decade ago.  Hull City, Swansea City, Wigan Athletic – heck, even Arsenal, have benefited in the past few years, qualifying for Europe thanks to their cup exploits.  Am I jealous?  Absolutely.  Who doesn’t want to go on a European tour watching their team?

The last “proper” trip for West Ham fans was a short-lived UEFA Cup run back in 2006.  And when I say “run” I actually mean was a two-legged game against USC Palermo which will be remembered more for events off the field than anything that took place across the three hours of football.  Like many others, I paid £400 for a day trip to Sicily through West Ham’s official channels in order to get an official away ticket to watch a limp Pardew-inspired performance whilst the main talking point was the huge fight in the city centre the previous evening between locals and some of the more “old school” West Ham fans who had come out of retirement for the trip.

14629783778_99168a9a66_zChanges in the way that pre-season preparation are run has meant that English clubs tend to disappear to all four corners of the world in mid-July, returning just before the start of the season to play one “prestigous” friendly.  This used to be a slot reserved for a testimonial, but few players in the top leagues last five years at a club these days, let alone ten. In fact, the last West Ham player honoured in such a way was Steve Potts back in 1997.  Current first team squad player, Dan Potts, son of Steve was one of the mascots that day, aged three years old.  That is how rare these games are.

This year West Ham took in Australia, New Zealand, Stevenage and Germany for their warm up games before returning to play in the inaugural Marathon Bet Cup Final (formerly known as the Display Systems Trophy, the Bobby Moore Invitation and the “if you have the cash then you can sponsor it” Shield) against Sampdoria.  Germany though, eh.  A four team tournament hosted by Schalke 04 at their impressive Veltins Arena. Far too tempting to miss that one.

So that is why I was sitting in a Wetherspoon’s pub at London Stansted at 8am along with ten other football fans.  I blame my brother 100% for this.  Sitting alongside Stag Do’s, Hen Do’s, Grannies on a “sex tour of Shagaluf” (their words, not mine) and other football fans including Chelsea fans heading for Bremen and Newcastle fans also heading to Gelsenkirchen gives you an interesting slice of life.  My brother recently took redundancy from a job he had done for twenty five years.  His reward, a life of leisure hoping around the world, finding the most bizarre things to do, and arranging trips like this.

14626287460_c523315fbd_zIt didn’t take him long asking around his local pub to find seven other West Ham fans, plus Malcolm the Newcastle fan.  It took even longer to convince one of them, Nick, to splash out on a box for the day in the Veltins Arena.  All the beer and bratwurst we could consume, hence why we were taking it easy so early in the morning by only drinking Carling.  One short fifty five minute flight later and we were disembarking into the sunshine of Dortmund (officially hotter than Greece at that moment), ready for the day, and night ahead.

Schalke 0 West Ham United 0 – Saturday 2nd August 2014 – The Veltins Arena
You can dress up the fact that West Ham won this game on penalties all you like but in truth it was a terrible exhibition of football.  You would have hoped that with a bit of silverware on offer, West Ham would have at least tried to get the ball out of their half.  Having seen a picture of the Veltins Cup, it would have at least been more impressive to have in the trophy cabinet than the thumbnail-sized Intertoto Cup that we won back in 1999. It was a good job that penalties were used to decide after ninety minutes rather than extra time, to stop the majority of fans falling asleep.  Yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, but surely this should be the time when the manager is being brave, trying out things that could work.  So far this season we have seen very little of that in the draws against Stevenage and Ipswich Town and the defeats against Sydney FC and Wellington in New Zealand.  With just two weeks ago before the Premier League starts, the club are still desperately trying to bring in some more firepower.

14626366469_6123008bbc_zWe arrived at the stadium just in time to see Newcastle fall behind to Malaga in the first game.  I’d been to the Veltins Arena a few times before – yet never seen the home side play.  Tickets are incredibly difficult to come by so I had been forced to experience one of the best new build stadiums in Europe during the Champions League Final in 2004 and then in the 2006 World Cup Finals.  However, it seems that the locals weren’t particularly interested in the Veltins Cup either.  A handful of Malaga fans, a smattering of Schalke fans on the huge terrace and in the far upper corner, around 500 Newcastle fans who were already realising in the same way the West Ham fans had, that this Premier League season may be “problematic”.

After the third Malaga goal went in just before half-time (The Daily Mail summed it up by saying that “even” ex-Man Utd flop Obertan got on the score sheet) a few of us headed out of the stadium to where a few hundred West Ham fans were drinking.  Few seemed particularly interested in the game, here for a weekend away and experiencing a more “grown up” footballing experience (terracing, beer, sausages and no heavy-handed policing or stewards).

14629751869_7ab7ceb2d5_zWest Ham lined up with three up front, although you can hardly ever call Stewart Downing, with four goals to his name in the last four seasons.  Carlton Cole, maligned by many outside of the club (and some inside it), was also in the starting XI.  You know where you stand with Carlton and if we had players with the same work ethic we would have a lot less to worry about.  But it mattered very little.  The game was tame, with Schalke coming the closest to breaking the deadlock when they hit the post twice.  The five hundred or so West Ham fans spread out across SudTribune tried to rally the Hammers but it seemed penalties were inevitable.

Fortunately, 39 year old Jaaskerlainen was still awake and made two excellent saves in the shoot-out, the final one from Borgmann in sudden death to win the game for West Ham, meaning the game 24 hours later against Malaga would determine the first ever winners of the Veltins Cups.

The night was young for us.  We were one of the last groups to leave the stadium, getting our full money’s worth of Veltins beer before heading to the bright lights of Dortmund.  It was only a pre-season friendly, but it did give us a taste of how the other half, well top seven Premier League clubs, live.  It’s only August.  Who knows, this year could be our year….please?

The Golden Generation of German football


There has been millions of words written about the most remarkable game in the history of the World Cup Finals.  The six or so first half minutes when Germany scored four goals in Belo Horizonte stunned 60,000 fans in the Estadio Mineirao, the 200 million Brazilians watching on TV and hundreds of millions more around the world.  The Germans showed little mercy for some appalling defensive play, yet they came into the tournament not even favourites to win Group G, let alone progress to the latter stages.  Their opening game thrashing of Portugal made people sit up but nobody expected the utter domination of the Brazilians.  Irrespective of if they go on and beat Argentina today in the World Cup Final, that one game has re-defined the notion of Brazil as one of the best teams in the world.

The records came tumbling down in just an hour and a half of football.  Brazil’s first competitive defeat at home for 39 years, their biggest ever defeat, the biggest margin of victory in a World Cup Semi-Final, Germany’s biggest away win outside Europe and so on.  Is our shock at the result due to the strength and ruthlessness of the German side or the lack-lustre performance of the Brazilians?  A bit of both I’d say, although the home nations weak performance in the 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands four days later would suggest that they were rabbits caught in the headlights of 200 million fans.  The Brazilian media have naturally focused on the weaknesses of their squad and team management rather than the German performance.  Is thatSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA fair?  Perhaps not.

Ten years ago the English media waxed lyrically about our “Golden Generation”, the core of players who would go on to dominate world football.  Beckham, Ferdinand, Lampard, Owen and Rooney. We went into the 2004 European Championships in Portugal full of hope that this time we would get it right, finally delivering some glory after nearly forty years of wasted effort.  Unfortunately injuries once again were our undoing (as well as penalties) as we crashed out in the Quarter-Finals to the host nation on penalties after Rooney, the 19 year old talisman of the England team, was injured early in the game.  Two years later in Germany it was déjà vu as Rooney was sent off in the repeat performance against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen and England crashed out on penalties once again.  The Golden generation slowly faded as age caught up with them and off the field issues became distractions.

So who would replace these potential world class stars?  In theory they should have been already moving up through the ranks, gaining experience in the England Under 18’s, 20’s and finally Under 21’s.  Stuart Pearce was working very closely with Fabio Capello in nurturing the young talent.  In June 2009 Pearce took his young squad to Sweden for the UEFA European Championships, full of confidence that they would come home with the title.

Two wins and a draw from the group stages took England into the Semi-Finals where they raced into a 3-0 first-half lead against the host nation.  The English media in the stadium couldn’t dream up enough superlatives for the team, already pencilling a number in for Capello’s World Cup squad the following year in South Africa.  In an all too familiar story, England then conceded three second half goals and had to rely on penalties, winning for once, to progress to the final where Germany would be waiting.  The only black mark was that keeper Joe Hart would miss the final having picked up a second tournament booking needlessly in the penalty shoot-out.

Hart’s absence would be crucial.  On the 29th June in the impressive Swedbank Arena in Malmö, nearly 19,000 fans saw the unfancied Germans destroy England.  The final score was 4-0 but it could have easily been double that, mustering 17 shots to England’s 6.  The star of the game was a small midfielder of Turkish descent, Mezut Özil.

Fast forward five years and six of the starting line-up from that game in Malmötook the field in Belo Horizonte.  A seventh, Thomas Müller, scorer of four World Cup goals already in Brazil wasn’t deemed good enough to make the squad back in 2009.  From that same Swedish night, only James Milner had made the squad for England’s squad in Brazil.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWhilst the likes of Martin Cranie, Nedum Onuoha, Mark Noble and Michael Mancienne have failed to progress further than the Under 21’s, the Germans have continued to produce young talent, constantly pushing them into the national team if they are deemed good enough.  In the squad that got on the plane for Brazil, nine were aged 24 or less.  Some players, such as the Bayern Munich trio of Müller, Kroos and Götze with an average age of 22 have over 30 caps.

So why have the Germans got it so right?  The whole issue of the number of coaches has been discussed before, with Germany having over 30,000 qualified coaches to England’s less than 5,000.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  We have some decent young players in England.  The issue is that they simply do not get enough game time to progress and develop.

Many Premier League teams have simply abandoned the principals and process of bringing young players through their Academies.  The chances of ever seeing anything like the Class of ’92 at Old Trafford is about as likely as Arjen Robben staying on his feet for more than five minutes.  Today, Premier League clubs seem more likely to invest in overseas players rather than investing in the development of their home-grown youth players.  Consequently promising youngsters often ending up with a career moving from club to club on loan.  Look at the example of Michael Mancienne, still a Chelsea player when he took the field as a second half substitute in the Under 21’s final back in 2009.  He went on to play just four times for the Blues, including two cup games where they fielded weakened teams.  He was forced to go on loan into the Championship to get game time, finally leaving Chelsea in the summer of 2011 for a fee of £1.7 million to Hamburg.  Since then he has played 40 times in the Bundesliga, but is nowhere near an England call up.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACompare that to the likes of Kroos and midfield anchor man Bastian Schweinsteiger.  They have Bundesliga and Champions League medals to their names despite their relatively young age.  The German model of building their teams around young home developed talent is now reaping rewards for the national side.  Seven of the squad have been regulars for champions Bayern Munich over the past two seasons, with an eight, Marcus Reus only denied a place through injury.  Just over a year ago Germany’s two biggest clubs faced each other at Wembley in the Champions League Final.  Seven of the German squad played in that game.

The introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is supposed to ensure that the best young players have access to the best facilities, although many see it another way for the big clubs to simply hoover up the best young talent at an early age, stockpiling them to stop anyone else getting them.

We have a number of promising youngsters playing at the top level, with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxley-Chamberlain playing regularly at the highest level of the Premier League.  If English clubs can realise the error of their ways then there is hope for us yet.  Could the next “Golden Generation” be waiting in the Premier League wings already?

Five things from….England 1 Uruguay 2


“Give me joy in my heart….” Knobhead was on the table already.  It was midnight, two hours before kick off and it appears that some people have already had enough.  The issue with the game kicking off so early/late is that some people had been drinking from 6pm, although Melbourne isn’t the cheapest city in the world to enjoy a beer in.  With Spain, Australia and Cameroon now out of the competition, the main worry was that England could well be joining them if they lost this one.  It was no surprise that the majority of the pub were supporting the South Americans – in fact the number of Ashes comments as I waited at the bar suggested that the locals would be happy to see us fail (again).

But England are made of stronger stuff.  Who can forget that epic win over Egypt in Italia 90 when our backs were against the wall?  Or Lineker’s hatrick to get us out of the mire four years earlier in Mexico.  Limping through the groups in major tournaments is quintessentially English, and we are proud of it.

photo (2)1. Sleeves – Look closely at Joe Hart’s shirt and you will see he wears a green undershirt and appears to have taken a pair of scissors to his keepers shirt and cut off the cuffs…I’m sure Nike will be pleased with that.

2. What is the point of Glenn Johnson? – As a defender he was time and time again caught out of position and the Uruguayans soon realised this and started to exploit the gap when he pushed up too far to try and make a tackle (and often missed), leaving a whole behind. OK….he did set up Rooney’s goal with a great run, although I’d still question what he was doing there in the first place.

3. Camera speed – Earlier in the tournament I noted the continuing use of super sloooooooooow motion camera work for important things like players spitting or fans in the crowd picking their nose.  What struck me tonight was the lack of Benny Hill-esque fast camera work – perhaps showing us run rings around ourselves in midfield.

4. Face painting – Why?  And why have a half/half look.  These are the people who buy half and half scarves, constantly start Mexican waves and leave with 15 minutes to go to “avoid the crush”….Who are they supporting?  Of course, it is more than possible they have been planted there by FIFA to show the happy, smiley face of the World Cup.  Like coloured boots, musical instruments and Mexican Waves, they will be immediately banned when I run world football.

5. Offside or not offside? – Suarez certainly appeared to be a yard or so off when the ball was played from certain angles, although played on by a Gerard header on others, but even so how was he given too much space?  It’s not as if the two centre-backs were playing against someone who they have never faced or heard of, yet they let him wander in between them.

So we are almost certainly heading home in five days time.  Defensive discipline has been our downfall – no clear leadership at the back has been the question mark over three of the four goals we have conceded so far.  Whilst we never expected to pull up trees, the lack of real threats on goal shows that we are simply a “functional” team rather than world beaters.  Oh how we crave a Michael Owen, a Gary Lineker and I hate to say this, but even a John Terry.

The Beer World Cup
Whitewash for England as we stuck to “home” brews  such as London Pride, Courage and Australia’s Coopers Ale, which also surely counts as English?

England 7 Uruguay 0

Five things from….England 1 Italy 2


photo (2)It was all going so well. The ridiculous FA rule changes mean that this is the last major football tournament I can place bets on. Because of my role at Lewes, I am deemed by our governing body that I will have inside knowledge on games like this and so could put undue influence on the players. Absolute laughable. Anyway, the main event and thankfully we can turn over to BBC and have to try and understand what on earth the pundits were saying. Poyet and Fabio were fine – it’s the other two buffoons I can’t understand. Fortunately, there was no shortage of English or Italian beer in the fridge so this one would be a close call.

1. Socks – an early win for Italy on this one with a stylish blue and white number. Nike have really let the side down with their offerings this year and deserve nil points for imagination or effort for the tournament. As adidas say, #allinornothing.

2. Band – Shhhh…do you hear that? Exactly. No “official” England band…thank goodness. Having had to sit/stand next to their out of tune songs on a number of overseas away trips I can feel the relief from thousands of miles away. They’ve been following England for well over a decade, funded by sponsorship yet their repertoire of songs only got as far as “Come on England”, the theme to the Great Escape and of course their Italian favourite, The Self Preservation Society.

photo (1)3. Oops – Sterling shoots, the ball hits the stanchion holding the net back, the crowd on one side of the stadium cheers….we all laugh as we can see it didn’t go in. But someone in BBC towers didn’t and changes the score in the top left hand corner to ENG 1 ITA 0….we all saw it so no denying it.

4. Phil Neville – it’s 11pm…people have been drinking for a few hours and they need something to keep them awake. Surely the BBC Sport producers must have done an audition with Neville? What he says is all true and knowledgeable but there is absolutely no passion in his voice. Even the shipping forecast is more exciting than his co-commentary, although not quite in the Townsend league. Surely at half- time Gary would have rung him and told him in a brotherly way to add some “oooooooohs”. The nation is slipping into a deep sleep. I’ve not seen so much criticism for a presenter since Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood presented the Brits Live.

5. Gary Lewin – not the first time I’ve seen a physio injured – our Lewes physio Nathalie fainted on the pitch last season – but a bizarre injury for him to suffer. I worked under Gary’s tutelage a decade ago for six months and he is a top chap who has worked under Hoddle, Eriksson, Capello and now Hodgson in five World Cups. A sad end to his tournament.  Perhaps the Chelsea physio is conveniently holidaying in Rio?

Beer World Cup result

A close call but ultimately England’s win was down to three different Fuller’s beers (Pride, Honey Dew and ESB) against just the one Italian brand, Moretti.

England 3 Italy 1

Just the (fake) ticket


2014 promises to be another great year of global sport.  This summer we have the FIFA World Cup in Brazil to look forward to as well as the Commonwealth Games which is being hosted by Glasgow.  The feel-good factor generated by the 2012 Olympic Games has already been felt in Scotland with over 90% of the tickets for the 11 days of action already sold, and expectations of a complete sell out of the games is on the cards.

Technology is a wonderful thing and has made ticketing for major events so much easier.  Barcodes and Q-Codes allow immediate security and verification of the authenticity of a ticket and the identification of the holder.  Print at home technology means that tickets bought a few seconds ago on the other side of the world can be in your hand within seconds, meaning significant reductions in the handling and administration costs of ticketing events, as well as issues that arise when tickets go astray.

But unfortunately, technology has also driven up the number of criminals who see big events as big opportunities to make big bucks.  Major events, concerts and shows a decade ago were blighted by the spectre of ticket touts, who would acquire tickets at knock-down prices from Corporate Sponsors who had little interest in attending events, and sell them at inflated prices outside the venues.  Many of us have stories of picking up bargains in this way, only to see the name of a Multinational company on the ticket.  During the 2006 World Cup there were stories of football fans buying tickets outside one stadium in Germany that saw them sitting in the highly-secure area reserved for the VIPs and visiting foreign dignitaries.

For the really big events such as the FIFA World Cup, rogue ticketing companies launch websites on a weekly basis, listing events where demand far outstripped supply and simply take people’s money and never deliver any goods.  They have a window of opportunity thanks to the delays in dispatching the official tickets to make their cash.  For most events, tickets are not printed and dispatched until around 60 days prior to an event, by which time the criminals will have packed up shop and more than likely have moved onto the next big event.

In a recent report issued by the City of London Police, they estimate that the UK is home to over 1,000 ticket touts who are responsible for contributing over £40 million to organised criminal networks per annum.  Unfortunately, the recovery of that cash is virtually impossible. One in seven of us have been unwitting victims of bogus ticketing websites, according to their report.

Organisations such as FIFA, The International Olympic Committee and the Lawn Tennis Association spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in trying to prevent both genuine tickets falling into criminal hands or simply criminals setting up businesses to commit fraud.  In the run up to the London Olympics in 2012, a specialist police unit, known as Operation Podium was set up to great effect.  In the 18 months prior to the start of the games the team shut down a number of high profile sites that had been offering fake tickets and criminal charges were imposed on the men behind the scams.  Despite there being only one authorised ticket seller in the UK, the Operation Podium team identified over 200 unauthorised websites and eight that were set up specifically for fraudulent purposes.  Unfortunately, with tickets for events being so scarce, buyers were forced onto the secondary market which created favourable conditions for fraudsters, especially with websites that were well designed, ranked high on search engines and mimicked the official website. One high profile case involved the website http://2012-londonsummergames.com which was reported to have defrauded over 400 people for a total of over €500,000 in just five weeks. The owner of the site was sentenced to four years imprisonment in 2011.

In addition, the ticketing team behind the London Olympics, headed by Paul Williamson took the unusual step of reaching out to the more commonly known Ticket Touts.  They made it clear in no uncertain terms that their presence would be very unwelcome at any Olympic events and the full force of the law and tax authorities would be used should anyone be found plying their trade during the games.  In total 220 arrests were made during the Olympic and Paralympic games in London with an almost zero tolerance approach taken that certainly detracted many from chancing their arm.

The Operation Podium team conducted 19 separate operations designed to identify and shut down fraudulent websites selling tickets for a variety of events in the UK.  Whilst there is legislation in place to prevent reselling of many different types of sporting tickets (such as the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006), other events are not so lucky.  Two years ago Take That announced a series of concerts to mark their reunion.  The police knew of a small number of unlicensed websites that were planning on offering tickets, but within hours of the tickets being made available they were tracking hundreds of new websites, all offering tickets.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of these were fake and only shut down after damage had been done in terms of stealing fans money and damaging the reputation of the band through association.  The authorities are already predicting that the current craze around One Direction will see hundreds more websites pop up as their sell-out world stadium tour kicks off in a few months.

Come June time the eyes of the world will be firmly on Brazil who will be hosting the 20th FIFA World Cup.  So far over 1.1 million tickets have been sold through official channels, with a number of further phases to come.  Come tournament time and the greatest show on earth is bound to be played out in front of capacity stadiums.  Once again, huge demand coupled with scarce supply means football fans who are heading to Brazil will take a risk on trying to find alternative methods to get their match tickets.  A simple search for the term “Brazil World Cup Tickets” on Google throws up over 38 million results, with some organisations who have no official link to FIFA or the organising committee stating that they can “provide authentic tickets for all games” or “guarantee best tickets”.

The danger here is that tickets will not be produced until close to the start of the tournament meaning that fake ticketing websites will have already collected hard-earned cash from unsuspecting football fans and disappeared into the virtual wilderness before buyers realise that they have been duped.

In previous tournaments there was a way to acquire tickets through a travel package.  Many organisations hedged their bets that they would receive tickets closer to the tournament and sold expensive travel packages to desperate fans.  In many instances the flights and hotel bookings were real, but the tickets never materialised.  Some travel companies were victims just as much as the individuals were, never receiving the tickets that had paid for.  However, many simply used the cover of adding the extra value of travel to line their pockets even more.  For the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this year there are no official travel package partnership and thus no organisation is allowed to offer a package of travel and tickets.

Despite promises to crack down on the practice, there hasn’t been a major tournament in recent memory where you couldn’t pick up Sponsors tickets in the run up to the kick off outside the stadium.  In Portugal’s 2004 European Championship I collected almost the full set of “official” sponsors names on tickets I bought outside stadiums, right under the noses of the police.  The memorable TV adverts prior to France ’98 and Belgium/Holland 2000 of the lone England fan being turned away at the gate because his name didn’t match what was on the ticket was a romantic notion.  In reality, the queues and chaos getting into the grounds meant no security checks could take place.  In Germany 2006 I was actually asked for ID after turning up late for a game and the stewards had nothing better to do, but on the other hand when I asked about spare tickets at another venue during the same tournament at the official ticket booth I was pointed in the direction of the Corporate entrance and told to ask people outside there.

Prior to the last World Cup in South Africa in 2010, one of the most respected names on the Internet, Symantec published a report that highlighted the problems major sporting events bring. They saw a massive increase in cybercrime, especially from traditional 419 Scams relating to fake competition winners in the run up to the competition as people desperate to watch the games were willing to explore any avenue to get their hands on tickets. The number of spam-related or phishing emails increased to over 25% of the global spam emails.

“Right now, spammers are reliant on the massive wave of excitement and expectation that typically surrounds an event like the FIFA World Cup,” said MessageLabs Intelligence Senior Analyst, Paul Wood at the time. “Riding this wave, spammers get the attention of their victims by offering products for sale or enticing them to click on a link. It is not uncommon for the event to appear in the subject line of an email but for the body of the same email to be completely unrelated.”

Symantec have already highlighted a number of websites that have been designed to look like official FIFA World Cup Sponsor websites in order to trick users into handing over personal details in return for the promise of big prizes, the biggest one leveraging the name of Brazilian payment card operator CIELO which has been used for a phishing scam.  In addition, one particular company who have been featured on BBC’s Rip Off Britain in the past are selling tickets for many World Cup games including the highly anticipated Germany versus Portugal game starting from €599 per ticket.  Ticketing expert Reg Walker, interviewed in the national media in January felt that World Cup fraud may be as high as £15 million.

Show your true colours


In May 2013, the Football Association unveiled a new five year kit deal for the England national team with US sports giant Nike. As part of the announcement they launched two new kits, much to the annoyance of England fans, who had only replaced their shirts less than eighteen months before. The cost and frequency of change of football shirts are a huge bone of contention with consumer groups, supporters and parents alike, with questions being asked as high as in the Palace of Westminster.

shirtEngland’s latest kit deal, worth approximately £25million per annum, is the second most valuable ever signed behind the current Nike deal with the French Football Association. This may surprise many people, especially as Nike have been the official partner of the Brazilian Football Association for nearly twenty years. The Brazilian shirt is currently Nike’s biggest selling International football shirt, with over 5 million unit sales expected in 2014. Whilst there is almost an expectation that every nation that qualifies for a major tournament will bring out a new shirt, it has been the announcement of the cost that has caused a major public outcry in England.

With unit sales in excess of 1 million in regular years, rising to 3 million prior to a major tournament, the temptation to bring out a new kit for the FIFA World Cup starting in Brazil in two months was too much for the FA and Nike to resist.
However, few people expected that the latest kit when announced in March 2014 would cost up to £90, a huge increase in the price tag from previous kits. Unsurprisingly, the cost was criticised from every angle, with Radio and TV chat shows dedicated to this one subject. The Shadow Sports Minister Clive Efford commented shortly after the announcement of the new kit, “The game of football seems to be increasingly about profit and commercialism rather than the community and the fans, who have sustained football for many generations.”

The Football Association immediately responded, absolving themselves of any blame, by saying that “The FA’s policy is to avoid any involvement with how its partners/licensees set their prices, so as to avoid any risk of or implications of price fixing”
Whilst it is only the “deluxe” version of the shirt that will sell at the high level, the standard shirt’s recommended retail price is still 20% higher than we have seen before at £60. Still a bitter pill for most fans to swallow. Sports shirts manufacturers have invested heavily in recent years to incorporate the most modern design features and materials into their products, as well as explicitly targeting shirt counterfeiters who have become smarter and more determined. What many so-called experts failed to reference was the fact that the England Rugby Union shirt had been priced at a similar level for a number of years without any outcry. Perhaps that is because the rugby union is perceived to be more of a middle to upper class sport where disposable incomes are higher? Or even that as a more successful side, with two World Cup Final appearances in the past eleven years, they can command a higher price tag.

Unfortunately, it took just a few hours after the public unveiling of the new Nike shirt before counterfeit items started appearing on online marketplace sites, selling for just a fraction of the excessive £90 official price tag. These marketplace sellers offer quantities in excess of 100 units at a time, spreading the counterfeit items quickly across the world. With price tags of less than £10 for the “Player version” it is not hard to spot the fakes from the real ones.  These websites also offer versions without the manufacturers logo at an even lower price – essentially creating a tiered structure of counterfeits. Anyone who has been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the Night Market in Marrakesh or even Las Ramblas in Barcelona cannot have failed to have seen the thousands of football shirts on sale, some looking as authentic as the real thing complete with genuine manufacturer tags and security measures. They even offer a sliding scale of fakes at different price points.

What many of the manufacturers of replica football shirts fail to realise is that they are dealing with irrational buyers. Football shirts are not like Gucci handbags or Hermes scarves. They are not luxury items. They are lifestyle items. If someone buys a fake football shirt they are still pledging their allegiance to a brand, or in this case country or football club. They know that none of the revenue from the sale will go to the club or the manufacturer but that doesn’t stop their enjoyment of the product in any way at all. Other fans will not look down their nose at them for sporting a fake shirt – in fact the high quality of some of these fakes makes it very difficult to recognise it is so without close inspection. A football fan with £20 to spend on a shirt will spend £20 on a shirt whether it is a fake or not in most cases.

One in six products sold today is counterfeit. In the UK alone it is an industry worth over $40billion. This number continues to rise every year despite attempts by companies such as NetNames to scour the Internet, find the infringing items and removing the offending websites or online sellers from the web. However, with money still tight in many households, high-ticket desirable items such as the England football shirt fuel the growth in counterfeiting.

Manufacturers state that the prices are being driven up by counterfeiters, not realising that by increasing their prices they make the issue worse. They claim that the effect of buying fake ‘knock off’ goods has a ‘knock on’ effect on the price of legitimate products. Every pound, euro or dollar spent on counterfeits is a pound, euro or dollar not spent with the brand owner, reducing the savings from economies of scale that can be passed on to the consumer. Production costs, support costs, marketing costs and legal costs are all higher, which the brand owner must pass on to the consumer – a double whammy. However, in the football shirt world it seems that the price tag is high because they know irrespective of the purchase price, the demand for the product is already there. An England football fan is hardly likely to decide to support France and buy a French football top simply because of a price tag. They will simply seek a cheaper “fix”.

Only time will tell if Nike’s pricing strategy of introducing a premium item at a premium price will work. In my experience of both consumer behaviour and being a fan I would say that football at its most basic level of wanting to show support for a team or country is as binary as it could be – I am no less of a fan if I buy the premium priced shirt or a normal priced one.

The final word on this comes from Football author Mark Perryman:-

“Commercially, if you go back through history, the most successful England shirts in terms of sales have been the ones from periods when England are doing well.

“To that end, I think Nike have got a bum deal because expectations ahead of the World Cup are at an all-time low. People are just not that excited about the England team.

“Who in their right mind thinks we are going to do well in Brazil?”

“Who in their right mind thinks we are going to do well in Brazil?”

I hope you are wrong Mark, but I think you may just be right once again.

Just a mild mannered janitor – Football Hong Kong Style


This week’s tour of duty took me further east than I have ever been before.  Hong Kong is a small place in terms of geography, but a massive one in terms of people and buildings.  It doesn’t seem humanly possible to squeeze anymore buildings on such a small space on Hong Kong Island (30 square miles) but that is exactly what developers are trying to do.  I was here on business for a few days but when has that ever stopped me enjoying my leisure time watching 22 men kick a bit of plastic/leather around a pitch?  Unlike many a previous trip, the work agenda dictated my time, but as luck (yeah yeah yeah) would have it, the tip also coincided with the last weekend of the Hong Kong Football League season. With the title already decided, there was to be no Premier League-style simultaneous kick offs which meant not one but two games for me.  Cheap local transport, people who spoke English, the 11th smallest country in the world in terms of land mass – what could possibly go wrong.

My flight took me from a chilly evening at Heathrow airport to the desert-furnace of Doha in Qatar for a brief (20 minutes to be precise due to delays in London) lay-over before I was up in the clouds heading over India.  We had been told the approach into Hong Kong would be “bumpy” as there was a yellow storm warning.  Good job we weren’t landing at the old Kai Tak airport where planes had to bank over the rooftops and break hard to avoid ending up in Kowloon Bay.

14143991736_0ca1daf66e_bSure enough as we descended below the clouds the rain started, then the thunder and lightning.  We were lucky, so we later understood, as colleagues were diverted to some remote city in China, put up in a hostel overnight and then subjected to interrogation the following day as to why they didn’t have a Chinese visa.  For the next five days the trip would be dominated by the weather – Hong Kong doesn’t do “drizzle”.

My work plan involved attending a conference with over 8,500 IP attorneys from around the world, five days of meetings, formal functions and some pretty decent evening events at some of the Island’s best venues.  Champagne and spring rolls all round.  But that’s not the real me.  So whilst others I was travelling with were pressing their dinner jackets ready for a gala dinner, I would be diving down onto the MTR, the highly efficient and cheap underground system and heading across to Kowloon to find the Hong Kong Football League champions, Kitchee FC.

Due to the size of the territory, there aren’t many stadiums, with many teams sharing.  The national stadium, a fatter version of the John Smith Stadium in Huddersfield or a slimmed-down Estadio do Dragao, holds 40,000 which with an average attendance in the HKFL of 931 meaning there a quite a few spare seats on any given game each weekend.  A couple of other stadiums are used in the league, mainly athletics stadium – such as the Sham Shui Po Sports Ground – where I was heading for my first taste of football, Hong Kong style.

14147621432_44d776894e_bKitchee had walked to the championship this season, winning the league over six weeks ago and with one game to go, stood on the brink of going throughout the whole season unbeaten.  The glory days were coming back to Mong Kok following up on their domestic treble in 2012 with the FA Cup last season.  Ten years ago the club took on, and beat, both AC Milan and Juventus in pre-season friendlies.  In the last couple of seasons Arsenal and Manchester United have visited, the former entering into a formal agreement to help the Kitchee Academy.

As I left the safe haven of the air conditioned MTR the humidity hit me once again.  Rain streamed down, almost evaporating due to the heat before it hit the ground.  The ground wasn’t hard to find, located in the only area of greenery in the mostly residential Cheung Sha Wan. Fans weren’t exactly flocking to the ground – perhaps it was the weather, or the fact that football isn’t actually a big draw at all out here.

Watching football in Hong Kong falls into the “really!!” bucket in terms of cost, along with taxi fares, train tickets and fried chicken intestines.  The admission for this game, and all others in the HKFL, was HK$60 – approximately £4.50 or slightly cheaper than a bottle of mineral water in my hotel (sitting in the “really??” bucket).

Kitchee 4 Yokohama Hong Kong 1 – Sham Sui Po Sports Ground – Saturday 10th May 2014
The league champions gave a display of clinical finishing which underlined their success.  Despite having the lions share of possession, Kitchee only mustered five shots in the whole game, scoring all four on-target opportunities.  The crowd was very family orientated with a small band of away fans who had mustered a flag, a drum and a few willing volunteers to wave scarves around. With the ground surrounded by huge high-rise apartment blocks, offering thousands of residents a perfect view of the pitch it was hardly surprising the attendance was just over 600. I mean who wouldn’t want to spend their Saturday afternoon’s watching a game from a 50th floor balcony?

13963835058_6dbafab428_bKitchee’s dominance was clear from the first kick although it took them 25 minutes to open the scoring when the Spaniard Diego Cascon was brought down in the area, dusted himself down and slotted home the penalty.  Despite the visitors equalising on the stroke of half-time, the result was never in doubt and further goals from Annan and the brilliantly named Ka Hai Leung Robson Augusto (That’ll be £23 for your name printing please sir) sealed the victory.

The game, atmosphere and attendance had met my pre-conceived expectations.  Passive would be one word I’d use to describe events.  I’d heard good things about the atmosphere at South China’s games and it was there I would be heading next in less than 24 hours.

South China are Hong Kong’s biggest and most successful football club.  Forty one league titles, the patronage and sponsorship of some of the world’s biggest brands and once the club of Nicky Butt.  The club also have a “partnership” with Spurs, although it is unclear what that actually involves.  Unsurprisingly for a club with such noble traditions, they play at the 40,000 capacity Hong Kong Stadium.

Ah yes, the stadium.  Just a twenty minute walk from my hotel according to Google.  Hong Kong Island itself is just 30 square miles yet somehow today I managed to lose the 40,000 capacity stadium.  I say “lose” but technically  it was “not found”.  I followed my walking instructions to the Happy Valley racetrack.  But with data costing just the £6 per MB I soon ran out.  My paper map only went as far as the race track.  I remember seeing pictures with it being set on a hillside, so I headed north, trekking up hill.  At some point, around the next corner perhaps, it would appear.  I said that to myself for over 30 minutes by which time I seemed to be following a road that went back down the hillside towards Kowloon Bay.  Eventually, pride got the better of me and I asked some directions.

“Go down hill to racetrack.  Take first right, it is on that road in 5 minutes”.

So I had taken a nearly forty-five minute, five kilometer, oxygen-starved detour around the peaks of Hong Kong.  My determination saw me through.  Yes, I had missed thirty minutes of the game, but I was the real winner by beating the odds, the mobile phone company and DK fold-out maps.  Take that modernisation.

South China 3 Citizen AA 2 – The Hong Kong Stadium – Sunday 11th May 2014
14178394593_73c9a290d4_bWhen I finally took one of the spare 39,000 seats I was relieved to see it was goal-less.  On either side of the stadium small pockets of fans banged drums and chanted “let’s go xxx, let’s go” (obviously inserting South China or Citizens for the xxx).

The long walk had made be peckish and I was tempted by the fact they had a KFC in the concourse.  However, when I asked for a chicken burger I was told “no chicken”…but was then offered another deep-fried product, coated in the Colonel’s special blend of herbs.  Having seen the street food market offerings earlier in the day I passed, opting for a deep-fried pork bun instead (because you can be really sure of what’s in that one!).

Two goals in no more than 45 seconds on half time for the home side gave the scoreline a flattering look at the break. In fact when the half-time stat sheets were issued, it appeared South China had scored the two goals without registering a shot on goal.  The Portuguese player Joao Emir was their star player and he made the game safe on the hour mark with a third goal for South China, after Citizen had pulled one back.  Despite a second from the away team it was a comfortable win to end the season for South China, although that final goal from Citizen meant Sun Pegasus finished the season above them in 2nd place on goal difference. Both of them will now contest a play off for the AFC champions league spot along with Kitchee.

As a postscript, this was the last game to finish in the last ever Hong Kong Football League.  Times are changing here and as of October, the league will become a Premier League.  The difference?  Well, a new sponsor and no relegation for a couple of seasons.  Now there’s an idea.

14147057216_2141a21bc1_bTime to bid a fold farewell to Asia for a few weeks at least.  Certainly a stunning place in terms of the wealth on offer, yet still retaining that gritty Eastern outlook.  Perhaps it had been the most passionate of footballing welcomes but it was cheap, enjoyable and offered a welcome distraction to the heat, humidity and the workload. Zia Kan Hong Kong.