Manchester Tragedy Fuels Friendship & Triumph

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published May 29, 2017

Ariana Grande
© Getty Images

A week ago, 23-year-old American pop singer and actress, Ariana Grande had just ended her concert performance in the packed out Manchester Arena in England. The patrons, many of them children, were heading for the exits, still in costume, with bunny ears attached to their heads. Several of their parents were outside awaiting them to bring them home. High school boyfriends and girlfriends held hands as they headed to the doors. Friends, filled with excitement – chuckled and laughed – still amazed that they had witnessed their idol in concert. Numerous parents, who had accompanied their kids to the concert, held their children’s hands – in a protective fashion – as they guided them through the crowded maze, thinking only of getting home and getting home quickly.

In one quick expansive bang, the left side of the Arena erupted in chaos, as Salman Abedi, a Libyan expat, had detonated an improvised explosive device, more commonly known as an IED. The explosion killed 22 individuals, several of them children and parents who attended the concert. Also killed in the blast were parents who came to pick up their kids to take them safely home. Ironically, Abedi, the alleged bomber, was only 22 years old.

“Skin, blood and faeces were everywhere”

Kiera Dawber told CNN, “There were just bodies scattered about everywhere … it was just chaos.”

A man being helped from the concert hall
(Photo credit: Unknown)

Abby Mullen, who attended the concert, wrote on her Facebook profile, “As we were leaving a bomb or explosion went off metres in front of me. People’s skin, blood and faeces were everywhere including in my hair”

Two nights later, Manchester United Football Club was due to tackle Ajax in the Europa League finals at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. Manchester United and Manchester City football clubs are bitter rivals and are both coached by two coaches, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, who have had many battles over the years coaching other clubs, including Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. For the most part, they are the antithesis of each other in football philosophy and approach and like oil and water, they are often immiscible. Mourinho, the frequently pragmatic coach, builds his teams on strong defence while Pep, the idealistic coach, builds his team on great offence, thinking the best defence is a strong offence.

Jose Mourinho (r) and Pep Guardiola have been rival coaches in the Champions League, Spanish La Liga and now city-rivals in the English Premier League.
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

However, despite the adversarial relationship between the fans and the polarising philosophy of the coaches, last Wednesday, several Manchester City fans were supporting and cheering on their arch-rival Manchester United against Ajax in the Europa final.  In the depths of tragedy, sworn enemies can emerge as friends.

During the match, one Manchester United fan raised a poster over his head which read, “Come on United, do it for Manchester.” The Manchester the fan was referring to was not Manchester United the club. The objective of the night was not winning another cup or title, adding to their prestigious lot, in order to indulge in bragging rights against their city rivals. No! The Manchester the fan was referring to was the city of Manchester, which was broken and desperately in need of a triumph and a ray of happiness, to bring them together after a Monday of mourning.

A Manchester United fan beckons his team to win the final for the citizens of Manchester
(Photo: Rex Features)

Manchester City and Manchester United have donated a combined £1 million to a ‘We Love Manchester Emergency Fund’, set up for the victims of the Manchester bomb attack.

According to ESPNFC, City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said: “We have all been humbled by the strength and solidarity shown by the people of Manchester in the days since the attack.

“The hope of both our clubs is that our donation will go some small way to alleviate the daunting challenges faced by those directly affected and that our acting together will serve as a symbol to the world of the unbreakable strength of the spirit of Manchester.”

Since the retirement of long-time coach Alex Ferguson in 2013, Manchester United have not tasted League or European success. In four years since, they are on their third manager, having disposed of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal in short order. This was United’s first opportunity to taste European success, albeit in the less-favoured Europa League, and end a practically lost season in the Premier League, which saw them finish sixth and out of a top-4 Champions League spot. United’s only hope of Champions League qualification lied in them beating Ajax in this final. Nevertheless, the hearts and minds of the United players and coach were on the people of their fellow city, Manchester.

Before the match commenced, Manchester United players were all donned in black armbands and the moment of silence at the beginning of the match, in memory of those killed or injured in the catastrophic attack on Monday, eventually became a moment of applause and was indicative of resulting triumph.

Manchester United (pictured) and Ajax linked arms before the game as a minute’s silence swiftly turned into a rousing applause.
(Photo credit: Michael Sohn/AP/Press Association Images)

Manchester United beat Ajax in the final 2-0 on the back of goals from last summer’s signings, Paul Pogba, the most expensive footballer in the world, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, another luxurious signing.

With the people of Manchester in mind, Mourinho declared after the match, “If we could, we would obviously change the people’s lives for this cup, immediately. We wouldn’t think twice. Does this cup make the city of Manchester a little bit happier? Maybe. But we just came to do our job.

Jose Mourinho celebrates Europa League success.
(Photo: REUTERS)

“We came without happiness we should bring with us because when you come for these big matches you come happy, you come proud(ly). And we didn’t. We just came to do our job.”

Pogba was on the pitch two years ago in a match against Germany when Paris suffered one of Europe’s deadliest terrorist attacks, which resulted in 130 persons being killed. After the Europa League final and in reference to terrorist bombings, Pogba remarked to BT Sport, “These things are terrible all over the world, in London and in Paris. We went out focused [on winning] and we won for Manchester and the country”. He added, “We played for the people who died [in Manchester].”

“We played for the people who died.” – Paul Pogba

In moments of unspeakable tragedy, persons often divided by race; gender; religion; philosophy; political views; and even football clubs, can find commonality, can cheer for each other’s success and can share each other’s pain. These moments when what separates us are minuscule to those things than bind us, marks the hallmark of the human spirit. A spirit, always triumphant.

#ACityUnited

Until next time…

© Zaheer Clarke

Zaheer E. Clarke is an award-winning opinion journalist, blogger and author of the award-winning blog, Zaheer’s Facts, Lies and Statistics.

He can be reached at zaheer.clarke@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook at Zaheer Facts, Lies & Statistics, or on Twitter at @zaheerclarke.

This blog article was republished in the Western Mirror on May 29, 2017.

China, a viable option for Brazilian footballers

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published March 27, 2017

With the generous salaries and financial rewards on offer in the Chinese Super League, a host of Brazilian footballers sees the CSL as a viable option compared to the European leagues.

Brazil’s defender Marquinhos (L) vies for the ball with Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier football match at the Centenario stadium in Montevideo, on March 23, 2017.
(Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images / DANTE FERNANDEZ)

Last week Thursday, Brazil and Uruguay battled one more time, this time in a 2018 World Qualifying football match. Brazil-Uruguay encounters have always resulted in a climax, with the zenith being the 1950 World Cup final, which saw Uruguay hoist their second World Cup title. That 1950 victory in the stadium of football, the Maracanã stadium, Brazil’s home turf, before the loyal Brazil fans, was against the odds and a significant blow to Brazil’s hope of World Cup glory. Thankfully – eight years later – that blow was quickly forgotten, after Brazil snatched the first of their five World Cup titles.

Last Thursday, at the Estadio Centenario, home of Uruguay’s first World Cup glory in 1930 and a venue which has been a nightmare location for Brazil, Brazil thumped a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay 4-1 to all but secure their spot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The hero of the night for Brazil was not the usual suspect, Neymar, its captain, but Paulinho, once a forgotten man, who scored a superlative hat-trick.

Paulinho scored a hat-trick for Brazil in their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Uruguay on March 23, 2017.
(Photo credit: AP)

Friday morning after the match, I read with peaked interest – article after article – to see how Paulinho would be described and if reference would be made to the club or league where he now plies his trade. As expected, the English media focused on Paulinho being an ex-Tottenham player while British fans bemoaned why Paulinho never displayed this lethality for them in the English Premier League (EPL). No mention – or hardly any – of China, the Chinese Super League (CSL) or Guangzhou Evergrande, Paulinho’s current club, which is managed by Brazilian Luis Felipe Scolari. Why would they? The CSL has proven to be a direct threat to the EPL and all the major leagues in Europe, as they lure footballers from European leagues with ginormous salaries.

In a column titled “Look out! The Chinese are coming”, exactly four weeks ago, I spoke of CSL’s almost successful attempt at snatching Manchester United’s and England’s captain, Wayne Rooney. Interestingly, at the time, Sky Sports football pundit and columnist Paul Merson declared that he thinks that currently, Rooney is too good for China and the CSL. I warned Merson and others that in the coming years, they might be surprised that China and the Super League is too good for a player with declining abilities like Rooney. With Paulinho’s clinical display last Thursday for Brazil, it seems my warnings should have been “in the coming days”, not years.

Brazilians Hulk (L), Paulinho and Oscar (R) have all moved to the Chinese Super League . Will Neymar join them next?
(Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images South America)

China is poised to emerge as a force in world football at both the national team level and at the league level. And the Brazilians are their biggest helpers. Currently, over 24 Brazilians are signed to teams in the Super League including Paulinho, Oscar, Hulk and Ramires, who all played for Brazil – at home – in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

In the recent past, several pundits and fans believed that players who moved to the CSL from major teams in Europe were signalling the death to their international careers. However, not so for Brazil’s current national coach Tite. Players like Willian of Chelsea and Alisson of Roma often spend more time on the substitute’s bench than on the pitch showcasing their skills. However, Brazilians who venture to China start automatically and remain match fit and ready for a call-up by their national coach. When you looked at the Brazil side that beat Uruguay last Thursday, 11 of the 14 players used (starting 11 plus the three substitutes) ply their trade in Europe for teams such as Liverpool, Roma, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona, and others. Nevertheless, the stars of the encounter for coach Tite and Brazil in central midfield were Paulinho and Renato Augusto, two Chinese-based Brazilian players in the lineup,  who both dominated the Uruguayans.

Brazil’s midfielder Paulinho (2nd-L) shoots his first goal during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier football match against Uruguay at the Centenario stadium in Montevideo, on March 23, 2017.
(Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images / PABLO PORCIUNCULA)

Various individuals will believe that the display by Brazil, and Paulinho especially, is a resurgence of the Samba style and Paulinho’s form of 2013. Quickly forgotten are the lacklustre performances by Dunga-coached Brazil and Paulinho’s exile. Several had forgotten Paulinho’s masterful display in the 2013 Confederations Cup which saw Brazil hoist the trophy just before the 2014 World Cup. After all, the 7-1 mauling of Brazil by the Germans in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup, a match which saw Paulinho affixed to the bench, highlighted his forgotten status and with all likelihood, his drop in form.

His move away from Tottenham to China 21 months ago, for many, was the death knell to his once promising career. However, it appears, China is the land of the renaissance for Paulinho and hopefully in the future for other Brazilians and international stars. In the past four years, Chinese clubs have won the AFC Champions League twice, in 2013 and 2015, and have represented Asia in the FIFA Club World Cup. Despite South American and European teams winning the 13 editions of the FIFA Club World Cup, don’t be surprised if in the near futurity, due to the influx of talent to China, a Chinese Club like Paulinho’s Guangzhou Evergrande wins the FIFA Club World Cup. Talented footballers are there and/or constantly coming to China, and the Chinese youngsters are being groomed for the future simultaneously. Guangzhou Evergrande, for example, Paulinho’s team, was one step away from the finals in the 2013 and 2015 FIFA Club World Cup editions. Unfortunately for them, they suffered defeat in the semifinals to the eventual champions on both occasions, Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively.

Paulinho (L) of China’s Guangzhou Evergrande celebrates with teammate Zou Zheng after scoring against Mexico’s Club America during their Club World Cup quarter-final soccer match in Osaka, western Japan, December 13, 2015. Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande scored twice in the last 10 minutes, including a stoppage time winner from midfielder Paulinho, in a stunning 2-1 win over America in the Club World Cup on Sunday.
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Paulinho’s story, along with Oscar’s, Hulk’s, Augusto’s and Ramires’ indicate that CSL is an emerging and a viable option for elite Brazilian footballers who still want to play on the international stage. Undoubtedly, in this one match alone, he has repaid the faith shown by Tite in him and others like Renato Augusto. The Paulinho story is showing international coaches and managers that players who spurn Europe for China are not club castoffs but players still possibly at the top of their international career. The CSL is not a pre-retirement home or burial ground where you get rich, as once joked. However, it is a place where young talent can still be nurtured with ample playing time away from time-strapped European setups.

Look out my friends! Increasingly, in the future, more Brazilians will be coming to a World Cup near you by plying their trade in China and not necessarily in South America or Europe. You cannot say I never told you so.

Until next time…

© Zaheer Clarke

Zaheer E. Clarke is a multi-award-winning freelance sportswriter. He believes Argentinean Alfredo Di Stéfano, and not Pele, is the most complete footballer to ever grace a football pitch. After such pronouncements, his friends have often recommended him for admission to the asylum. He still remains at large. 

He can be reached at zaheer.clarke@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook at Zaheer Facts, Lies & Statistics, or on Twitter at @zaheerclarke.

This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on March 27, 2017.

The lengthy Blatter-FIFA divorce is finally complete

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published December 12, 2016 in the Western Mirror

With the 41-year Sepp Blatter-FIFA marriage over and the divorce finally complete, will FIFA’s operations improve under new president Gianni Infantino. Or, will it be more of the riddled, Mafia-esque and Byzantine same?

football-sepp-blatter-fifa_3311045

Sepp Blatter
Source: Sky Sports

In any love affair gone wrong, there comes a time when both parties must accept the end of their relationship or marriage. Oftentimes, it is best to end things as smoothly as possible, even if the love has been long lost for some time. The longer it takes for the end, the higher the cost and damage to each other’s dignity and self-esteem, with ofttimes grave and disastrous consequences to each other’s emotional, mental and, in some instances,  physical well-being.

Last week, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, once the most powerful man in sports and the former president of FIFA, saw his reduced six-year ban and eventual divorce from the sport of football upheld by the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS). Continue reading

Jamaica’s football requires an overhaul

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published September 26, 2016

Jamaica’s football is in desperate need of redevelopment in philosophy, infrastructure, and technical skills (goalscoring).

Jamaica Football Federation

All over this beautiful island, enthusiasm and hearts sunk, lofty hopes and promises got debunked, and Jamaicans everywhere were seen staggering like blind drunks, as another campaign – on the road to wherever – figuratively and almost literally stunk (Enough with the rhymes).

This ill-conceived rhyming description above encapsulates Jamaica’s latest travail as it attempted to birth a place amongst the world’s elite teams at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The pundits and analysts have all delivered their seething hindsight and 20/20 analysis, so why should I be any different? Continue reading

Jamaica could learn lessons from Iceland’s success

By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published July 4, 2016

The blueprint to reverse the misfortunes of Jamaican football may lie within Iceland’s recent path to success in European and world football.

LeBron James hoists the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy after the Cleveland Cavaliers come from 3-1 down in the series to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. (Photo credit: Ezra Shaw)

LeBron James hoists the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy after the Cleveland Cavaliers come from 3-1 down in the series to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.
(Photo credit: Ezra Shaw)

The year 2016 seems to be the year of fairy tales in sports. From Leicester’s improbable run to win the English Premier League (EPL), to Cleveland’s comeback from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals against the greatest regular season team in history, and now Iceland’s destined run in the European Championships, of a certainty, anything is possible against all odds.

At the beginning of the 2015-16 EPL season, Leicester started out as 500-1 underdogs to win the EPL title. Eight games before the end of the previous season, 2014-15, they were relegation bound and at the bottom of the table. However, the team, centred in belief, made the great escape and not only escaped, they trounced the preponderant teams of English football, a little over a year later. From April 4, 2015, Leicester’s last day at the bottom of the table, to the end of the 2016 season, Leicester have been better than the luxuriant Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea by 16, 17, 20, 26, 32 and 33 points respectively. Nothing is impossible if you only believe. Continue reading