Onwards and Upwards…?

The Brendan Rodgers era is finally over.

Those who have chatted football with me or have kept in touch on or off over the past year or so will know that this is something that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. And it’s true – I was never completely convinced by his appointment, and even the thrilling 13/14 season never fully swayed me.

But though I welcome his departure and am wholly relieved that we can finally look forward with excitement instead of apprehension – this is still a sad day for Liverpool Football Club.

Not because we have lost a manager who has preached on about character, loyalty and humility despite not embodying any of those values – his public calling out of young players whenever faced with extreme pressure, his undermining of players he didn’t want and owners he couldn’t satisfy in the press, his mess of a life off the pitch – they showed as much.

Not because we have lost a manager who would be much better as a politician or a used car salesman – his public smear campaigns of players he wanted out despite public praise upon their arrivals, his extreme bias towards his own favorites while always reverting to transfer committee acquisitions when push comes to shove, his continual proclamations of philosophy and vision without having any such execution – they all showed as much.

And not because we have a lost a manager who has put himself and his ego over the good for club – starting a reserve team without our club captain and talisman against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, trying to be the pupil who beat his master in a potentially title-clinching game when a draw would’ve done, calling out Tottenham for spending £100 million and not challenging despite delivering much less for much more – they all showed just as much.

This is a sad day because what we wanted in the aftermath of Hodgson/Dalglish mess was someone to steady the ship and get us back to greatness. Luis Suarez provided a wonderful respite and an exciting illusion. But alas, the Brendan Rodgers era proved not just to be a failed experiment, but far more disastrous than the Roy Hodgson era. And the final nail in the coffin was his claim that we were facing another rebuilding job. Our fourth in four years.

it’s not just whether a Liverpool manager delivers results befitting a club of our stature; it’s how he does it and how he carries himself. If you talk a good game, you’re expected to deliver – or at least not make a fool of yourself and your club. Unfortunately, the shine and sheen ultimately gave way to expose an underbelly of frivolity, pettiness and fluff.

I look forward to an appointment that will rouse and unite the fanbase once again, and allow us to get excited about Liverpool again. I want to relish every match and block off my weekly calendar to sit down and cheer for my team again. I still think that’s really not too much ask – after all, isn’t that ultimately the point of being a football fan?

5 Keys to Success for Liverpool in 2014/15

The hard-fought nature of Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Southampton last Sunday—with Simon Mignolet featuring prominently again—recalled memories of last season’s opening-day victory over Stoke City, which set the foundation for a scintillating Premier League campaign.

This time around, though, the pressure on the Reds is just slightly stronger, the expectations just slightly higher. Manager Brendan Rodgers will be looking to kick his side into gear and rediscover the momentum, form and confidence that saw them win so many plaudits last season.

News that Mario Balotelli may be on his way to Anfield from AC Milan, according to Ben Smith of BBC Sport, would be the icing on the cake for Reds fans, who have seen their team break the £100 million spending mark on eight players this summer transfer window.

If they are to take that next step and win silverware this season, here are five keys to success that Liverpool should keep in mind throughout the campaign.

 

Daniel Sturridge’s Fitness

Daniel Sturridge's Fitness

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There’s no doubt that any move for a striker to strengthen Rodgers’ squad in the closing days of the summer window—whether it is Balotelli or not—would alleviate the massive burden Luis Suarez’s exit placed on Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Sturridge will remain pivotal to Liverpool’s fortunes this season, and his fitness is key to him enjoying a successful season.

Sturridge has had his fair share of injury troubles—his early exit from Liverpool’s preseason tour of the United States may well have prompted the Reds hierarchy to look for another first-team striker—and having two top-quality forwards would be a massive boon to the Reds’ fortunes.

One of the Premier League’s best goal scorers when available, Sturridge’s style of play is a perfect fit in Liverpool’s attack, and even as Rodgers looks to make full use of a much larger squad this season, the fitness of his leading man up front may well dictate how their season turns out.

 

A Consistent Back Five

A Consistent Back Five

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For the time being, it seems as though Rodgers has settled on a central defensive duo of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren; however, the as-yet untried prospect of Lovren on the right and Mamadou Sakho on the left is tantalizing, if it works as it promises to on paper.

With the signings of Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno, Rodgers will likely start with them as his first-team full-backs, but now he has a variety of backup options on the flanks as well who will look to compete for a place in the starting XI.

After a season that saw them concede 50 goals—in the end, a defining blemish on an otherwise outstanding campaign—it should be Rodgers’ priority to sort out a leaky defence if they are to sustain their performances from last season, particularly as their rivals have strengthened considerably as well.

That Liverpool have upgraded their defence is unquestionable; the key now is to ensure that there is a consistency in starting places across the back to ensure that they can form a tight, cohesive unit through playing together week in, week out.

 

Making Full Use of Substitutes

Making Full Use of Substitutes

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What’s a bigger squad good for if not for the manager to fully utilize it? Last year’s limited available options had Rodgers often starting with the same XI every week and left him with a dearth of genuine alternatives on the bench when he needed a spark or a game-changer late during a match.

This year, it’s totally different: Every position has competition, and good players will miss out on the 18-man match-day squad entirely from time to time, leaving first-team players with much more motivation to sustain their level of performance.

No longer will Rodgers need to throw debutants into the deep end, like he did with Brad Smith at Stamford Bridge in December, because of a shortage of squad options. He will now be able to call on good impact players from the bench when he needs to.

The Premier League allows each team to make three substitutions each match. For arguably the first time during his tenure at Anfield, Rodgers finally has the tools to take full advantage of this quota.

 

Managing Squad Rotation

Managing Squad Rotation

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Beyond making the right in-game substitutions, Rodgers will need to do something with his squad this season that he hasn’t had to do too much in his previous seasons at Liverpool: choose different starters depending on opposition.

Now blessed with a myriad of options to choose from, he will need to manage his squad rotation policy right so it doesn’t hurt the momentum of players in form, but he can still use them to their full potential and ability when the fixtures start coming thick and fast.

Then there’s the crop of players whose place in the team may be severely threatened by new arrivals: Rodgers will need to be on top of his man-management game to keep the likes of Daniel Agger and Lucas Leiva happy over the course of a hectic season.

Managing squad rotation is something every top-level manager in every top-level team has to get right. This season is a good opportunity to show whether Rodgers is up to that task to bring success to Anfield.

 

Stick to a Set Vision

Stick to a Set Vision

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When it comes to a vision and a blueprint for the game, it’s safe to say that Liverpool fans and players alike can rely on Brendan Rodgers to have an underlying approach to the game that he insists on instilling into his charges.

Still arguably a side in transition and maturation, Liverpool showed signs of pure aesthetic perfection at times last season, yet there were also occasions when their tactical naivety let them down, as they struggled to find a few results when it mattered.

With another year gone by, however, Liverpool should be far more equipped when it comes to adopting and implementing Rodgers’ vision and approach—and it will help that he now has more tactically mature players at his disposal to do just that.

To align themselves with Rodgers’ ideologies, the Liverpool players must stick to the vision that got them to this position in the first place and not abandon it at will when time and results are at stake.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Assessing the Battle for the Full-Back Slots at Liverpool

With the signing of Javier Manquillo and the impending arrival of Alberto Moreno, per The Guardian‘s Andy Hunter, suddenly Liverpool look quite a bit more stacked in the full-back department than they did just a couple of weeks ago.

Manquillo and Moreno’s additions to Brendan Rodgers’ squad have been offset by the departure of Andre Wisdom on a season-long loan to West Bromwich Albion earlier this summer, as well as the likely exit of Martin Kelly on a permanent transfer to Crystal Palace, according to Garry Doolan of the Daily Mail.

But with some much-needed strength and depth added to the full-back positions this summer, Rodgers finally has genuine options to choose this season for different contexts, systems and formations.

Let’s assess the battle for the full-back slots at Anfield ahead of the new campaign.

 

David Ramos/Getty Images

 

 

Manquillo and Moreno, Regular Starters

With Manquillo going straight into Rodgers’ starting lineup for Liverpool’s final preseason friendly against Borussia Dortmund, and Moreno apparently a big-money first-choice target for the left-back position, they will likely begin the season as starters at full-back.

While a single game for Liverpool—and just six for Atletico Madrid, his parent club, at the senior level—may not be conclusive of Manquillo‘s true ability and potential, what he did show against Dortmund reflected the qualities that he will bring to the Reds’ first team in the short to medium term.

He might not have Moreno’s searing speed and renowned attacking ability, but Manquillo‘s defensive solidity, as well as a good sense of timing when it comes to venturing forward, makes him a complete full-back capable of putting a shift in at both ends of the field.

Moreno’s attacking nous brings him further forward, promising to be a key part of the Reds attack, while his quickness and positional intelligence will allow him to make up for any ground lost while bombing up and down the flank.

As such, both Manquillo and Moreno offer much more than Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson, who looked set to start the campaign in the first team before the arrivals of the Spanish full-backs.

 

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

 

 

Other Options and Formations

Flanagan’s limited technical ability unfortunately hampers his overall appeal—his maturing tactical understanding is offset by a lack of finesse on the ball—while Johnson’s erratic positioning and questionable work rate belies an evident technical accomplishment on the ball.

Behind both Flanagan and Johnson in the pecking order is Jose Enrique, who boasts an impressive physique and is more than a match for pacy forwards with his physicality, but he needs constant guidance on the pitch when it comes to positioning and the timing of his runs.

Together, they offer decent backup to Manquillo and Moreno, as well as tactical flexibility: With fewer defensive duties as a wing-back, Johnson would be an ideal option in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 variant, which would free him from a more rigid defensive position and let him attack down the flanks at will.

Flanagan, meanwhile, would be a very good option to come off the bench when in need of some backs-to-the-wall defending or to play alongside a more adventurous central defender on either flank—his versatility, along with Johnson’s, will prove useful over the course of the season.

Moreno’s attacking ability, meanwhile, is an ideal candidate for a left wing-back position, which means that in any such formation that requires two wing-backs to take on Liverpool’s attacking responsibilities down the flanks, Rodgers could turn to him and Johnson as his starters.

 

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

 

 

Time for the Backups to Prove Their Worth

What this offers is much healthier competition across the squad for the first-team places at Anfield and many more alternatives for Rodgers to choose from. With the Reds looking to challenge on all four fronts this season, having both strength and depth in the full-back department will be valuable and much welcomed.

Yet as Manquillo and Moreno look to establish their places in the first team alongside new signing Dejan Lovren in a new-look and overhauled defence, there is still plenty for Rodgers and his coaching staff to do if they are to get a leaky defence fixed and build a solid platform to support their midfield and attack at the back.

As Rodgers tries out his different options and combinations across the back four, while Manquillo and Moreno will likely feature as the regular first-team starters, the sheer number of games Liverpool will be playing this season allows Flanagan, Johnson and Enrique to show their manager what they’re capable of.

Flanagan’s remarkable resurgence may have been hampered by more esteemed and technically accomplished signings, while Johnson will need a season reminding all around Liverpool what he’s capable of at his peak. Enrique, as well, will need to prove that he’s much more than just brawn on the field.

This has been the hallmark of Liverpool’s summer-acquisition strategy so far: increase the strength and depth across the squad, while providing players ample opportunity to seize a chance to outshine their colleagues for a place in the team.

Rodgers may start the campaign with a few ideas in mind, but the message has been clear already throughout preseason: There are places up for grabs in this Liverpool team.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Daniel Sturridge Will Continue to Flourish at Liverpool Without Luis Suarez

Since the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona was confirmed 10 days ago, the question on the lips of Liverpool fans has been: How can we cope without Suarez’s goals this season?

Which, in reality, translates to: Will Daniel Sturridge be enough to shoulder our goalscoring burdens this season?

With Brendan Rodgers active in the transfer market and securing a number of signings already at Anfield, the obvious lack of a proven goalscorer at the highest level is glaring and often prompts worried discussions.

Yet amid all the nerves and apprehension with which Liverpool fans consider that Suarez is one of the very best players in the world and replacing him is a tall order, there is one thing that they have overlooked.

The current squad-trumps-all setup at Liverpool provides the answer to their most burning question: Yes, Daniel Sturridge will continue to flourish at Liverpool without Luis Suarez.

 

 

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

 

Pace Coursing Through Anfield

A quick glance at Liverpool’s highlights and attacking play from last season shows the stunning number of goals they scored because of the pace coursing through their side.

And while Suarez was an excellent player on the break due to his pace, first touch, close control, creativity and one-on-one ability, not to mention his much-improved finishing under Brendan Rodgers, his departure will not affect the dynamic and quick nature of this Reds side.

Because his departure, in terms of pace, has already been offset (and arguably eclipsed) by the signing of Lazar Markovic from Benfica and the likely arrival of Loic Remy from Queens Park Rangers, as reported by BBC Sport. Both players showed their acceleration—and most of all, their attacking output at pace—with their respective clubs last season (Remy, of course, having spent the campaign on loan at Newcastle United).

Add these two speedsters to the already lightning-quick Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe, and this is a side with pace written all over it. Sterling will be looking to further stamp his authority on the Liverpool first team after a stellar first full season, and Ibe will have ample opportunity to make the step up to senior football over preseason.

It’s this speed and acceleration with which the Reds can play that makes Daniel Sturridge so dangerous: Whether he’s supporting a main striker (for the time being, Rickie Lambert) or leading a three-pronged attack himself, his ability to play off the shoulder of the last defender makes him a tough prospect for opponents.

Suarez’s departure has deprived Sturridge of a partner who can reliably and consistently deliver the unpredictable and whose individual talent will occupy more than one defender at a time, but across the forward positions Sturridge has already gained much more he can be working with.

 

 

Scott Heppell/Associated Press

 

All-Rounded Midfielders in Support

Behind Sturridge and his forwards and wingers, the Liverpool midfield has already featured some significant upgrades this offseason, with further additions likely to arrive at Anfield before the transfer window slams shut.

Already Rodgers has added the silky skills of Adam Lallana and the versatility and all-rounded skill set of Emre Can, both of whom will be adding vision, passing and pressing in equal measure to a tactically and positionally intelligent midfield contingent of Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard.

The maturation of Coutinho from a stereotypical Brazilian No. 10 into a dominant No. 8 capable of bossing the midfield, with a newfound pressing mentality and his trademark flair and passing skills, has been nothing short of impressive. And there has already been enough made of Henderson and Allen’s contributions from both a central and a more advanced position in the midfield.

The potential of Can to become Liverpool’s very own resident box-to-box dynamo is surely mouthwatering to both his colleagues on the pitch and the fans in the stands, as will the prospect of even more seamless transitioning from defence into attack.

All of which will contribute to an overall attacking approach that will be designed to unleash the collective and electric talents of Liverpool’s forwards, and Sturridge is a key part of this exciting system designed to create as many goalscoring chances as possible.

Add the considerable all-round technical ability of Rickie Lambert, whose playmaking skills from centre-forward can be as productive and devastating as his midfield colleagues’, and Sturridge surely stands to benefit even further.

 

 

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Collective Intelligence and Brilliance

Throughout his reign at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers has constantly and consistently championed the importance of the team over any individual, and that message was reinforced loudly and clearly when Liverpool confirmed Suarez’s departure in July.

But those who paid attention to Rodgers’ preparations last season will know that this wasn’t just a statement to appease Reds fans in the wake of a star’s departure; he has constantly set up his team to make the most out of their collective intelligence and brilliance.

Given Suarez’s goals and scintillating match-winning performances last season, this may appear to be a statement in vain, but a clear example of the varied attacking approach that Liverpool have adopted and introduced came last season in the form of set pieces, where they were arguably the most dangerous team across the Premier League.

The team’s movement and awareness is a product of their two years drilled in Rodgers’ system, and their fearlessness and dynamism were on show during their exciting 11-game winning streak from February to April last season, all of which will surely last the distance regardless of Suarez staying or leaving.

What Liverpool have lost is a genius and a maverick capable of breaking scoring records, but what they have potentially gained in return is a hard-to-beat mentality honed by a title challenge last season—with more quality still to be added. Only this time, it’s Daniel Sturridge who stands to benefit at the tip of everything attacking coming out of Liverpool’s half.

If it’s a team working for one another and who knows each other’s moves and contributions inside out that is capable of going places, then as much as Liverpool fans may miss the individual brilliance week in, week out—they will look forward even more to the success that the Suarez-less Reds are capable of.

Germany didn’t seem to mind earlier this summer.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Liverpool Can Get New Signing Rickie Lambert to 20 Goals This Season

With Luis Suarez’s departure for Barcelona and Iago Aspas’ likely exit from Anfield, per James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo, as it stands Liverpool’s senior forward options to start the new season are Daniel Sturridge, Fabio Borini and new signing Rickie Lambert.

On paper, a far cry from Suarez and Sturridge’s 52-goal partnership last season, which did more than just prove prolific: Their pace, movement and dynamic creativity struck fear into the hearts of opponents up and down the country.

With Alexis Sanchez, originally a target to be included in Suarez’s deal with Barcelona, having joined Arsenal, Liverpool have missed out on arguably one of their most attainable forward options in the summer transfer window.

Yet as Brendan Rodgers continues his scour for striking talent across the world, all is not lost: In Rickie Lambert, he has a talented, all-round striker who will be giving his all upon a dream return to his boyhood club.

And as the Reds fight on four fronts this season, whether they sign a new first-choice partner for Sturridge or not, Lambert might well have it in him to chip in with 20 goals in all competitions.

Here’s how.

 

Jon Super/Associated Press

 

 

The New SAS

Out goes one half of the famed SAS partnership; in comes another to replace him. Life goes on.

Suarez may be a once-in-a-generation kind of talent, and his performances last season certainly elevated him into the echelon of the greatest players ever to have played for Liverpool, but there was another “S” that blossomed last season, also with Rodgers’ coaching.

That player, of course, is Raheem Sterling, who, having spent almost a full season in the Liverpool first team and forcing himself into thePFA Young Player of the Year candidate pool, will be looking to take off and reach his full potential.

From being whispered in conjunction with a loan outside of Anfield to starting for England in the World Cup within just a few months, Sterling showed rapid enough progression last season to potentially win over even the toughest critics. He showed a turn of pace and the dribbling technique to rival Sturridge‘s, and his vision, work rate and interpretation of space perhaps even exceeded the No. 15’s.

With Rickie Lambert in the side, Sturridge and Sterling will be flanking him as the focal point of the Reds attack. Lambert’s first touch, close control, passing, positioning and chance creation will no doubt play a pivotal role in setting the platform for the new SAS to thrive.

In return for the space that he helps put them into, their pace and off-the-shoulder runs will occupy the attention of enough defenders to create enough space for Lambert himself to get into. And Lambert is as cool, calm and collected in front of goal as anyone in the Premier League.

 

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Movement, Movement, Movement

For all of the assists that Suarez laid on for his team-mates last season, he was the undisputed individual star of the team, who frequently passed to him and relied on him to bail them out of trouble or get through a sticky patch.

That is no criticism. Far from it; it is merely an acknowledgement of the individual brilliance that he brought to Liverpool, who will undoubtedly be worse off from a magical game-changer point of view.

Yet as hard as Suarez might’ve been to mark, potentially still harder is Liverpool’s collective movement that will be on display this season. Three years into Rodgers’ reign, his team finally look confident and comfortable enough to carry out his tactical and positional plans, and it’s no surprise he has signed players this summer that will help his team achieve that as a collective.

Adam Lallana, Lambert’s captain at Southampton, may always be considered overpriced at a reported £25 million, per Andy Hunter ofThe Guardian, but he dovetailed with Lambert to great effect at the Saints and will offer plenty of movement between the lines in Rodgers’ system.

So too the effervescent Jordan Henderson and the underrated Joe Allen, as well as the electric new signing Lazar Markovic.

If there is a style of play that Lambert thrives in, it is one that is based on sound movement and intrinsic understanding of each other’s positioning. And not only will Lambert be a creator of goals just like his team-mates; he will also score them.

 

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Set Pieces

There is also the small matter of set pieces, and Liverpool, with pace and technique coursing through their side, are one of the most prolific set-piece winners in the Premier League.

Not to mention one of the league’s best at scoring from them. And adding Lambert into the equation will only help things.

First, for all the talk about Lambert’s technical ability, passing and close control, he remains a fine option in the air. He might not be quite as aerially dominant as Anfield flop Andy Carroll, but his positional intelligence and timing more than makes up for it. Getting Lambert on the end of a Steven Gerrard corner or free-kick would be a quite sumptuous prospect for Reds fans.

Then there are direct free-kicks, another area of expertise for Lambert, who has scored a few screamers for Southampton in his two-year Premier League journey with the Saints, including one against Crystal Palace last September. Suarez’s exit has deprived Liverpool of a strong alternative to Gerrard on free- kicks, but Lambert may prove just as prolific from range.

Finally, Rodgers’ squad will be strengthened by the addition of another composed mind from the spot. With 48 penalties scored from 49 attempts over the course of his career, Lambert is arguably one of the finest penalty-takers in the Premier League; his record eclipses even that of regular specialist Gerrard. Could he even usurp his new captain on penalty duty?

Regardless, Lambert’s versatility and well-roundedness offers his boyhood club a valuable option up front, both off the bench and from the start. In a team that creates chances in abundance and almost oozed goals last season, even without Suarez, Lambert stands to thrive.

An improvement on his total goal tally of 17 across all competitions last season might not be too far-fetched.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Javi Martinez Is the Transfer Signing Liverpool Need to Win a Title

Now that Luis Suarez’s transfer to Barcelona has been confirmed (via BBC Sport), Liverpool fans, players and management alike are eager to secure a big-name signing to keep spirits up at Anfield ahead of the 2014/15 Premier League season.

With Alexis Sanchez moving to Arsenal instead of Liverpool as part of a deal for Suarez, perhaps one of the more attainable potential world-class targets has escaped from Brendan Rodgers’ clutch, leaving the Reds manager to set his sights elsewhere on a replacement for the Uruguayan striker.

Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony (per the Mirror) and Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez (per the Daily Mail) have recently surfaced as potential reinforcements up front. But instead of trying to replace the 30-plus goals that Suarez invariably brings a season, Liverpool should be looking to strengthen their defence.

To be sure, Rodgers has already been linked with moves for Southampton’s Dejan Lovren (per the Standard) and Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno (per the Daily Star), but there is another name out there that has been floated as a possible Liverpool target, and would instantly improve their defensive setup.

Step up Javi Martinez.

The Bayern Munich man has already been linked to the Reds in the off-season by the Mirror, and while any pursuit for Martinez would be difficult and likely expensive to bear fruit, he might just prove to be the transfer signing Liverpool need to win a Premier League title.

 

 

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

 

Javi Martinez: The Complete Midfielder

Let’s start off with considering Javi Martinez as a defensive midfielder, the position he started his senior career in with Athletic Bilbao.

At 6’3”, Martinez represents a fearsome physical package at the base of the midfield, but also an accomplished passer of the ball and tactically and positionally excellent, with accurate and timely tackles a hallmark of his game.

His excellent defensive skills have propelled him to become one of the premier midfielders in Europe, while his complete technical base also allows him to switch from a specialist defensive midfielder into a dominant box-to-box player when needed.

Indeed, Pep Guardiola deployed him as a box-to-box attacker on occasion for Bayern last season, which offers much more of a tactical option to any team.

ESPN’s Graham Hunter once wrote, when Martinez was still at Bilbao, that his abilities “put him in the same class as [Patrick] Vieira as well as Roy Keane, Fernando Redondo, Edgar Davids and the much-underestimated Rino Gattuso (Daniele De Rossi, too).”

Both on paper and on the pitch, then, Martinez would be the ideal world-class option to anchor the Liverpool midfield.

 

 

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

 

Potential First-Choice Central Defender?

As if a versatile midfield option in the mould of the imperious YayaToure weren’t enough, Javi Martinez also boasts the awareness and positional sense to allow him to excel as a center-back.

Guardiola has proved as much already, having played Martinez in that position to great effect at club level. And per Bundesliga.com, Paco Garcia-Caridad, the head of sports station Radio Marca, called for Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque to field Martinez as a central defender in place of the hapless Gerard Pique as recently as in the aftermath of Spain’s disastrous 1-5 defeat to the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup.

Another Bundesliga.com editorial even claimed that Martinez is leading a football revolution with his reinvention of the much-vaunted libero role in Guardiola’s team, recalling the masterful Lothar Matthaus and the legendary Franz Beckenbauer.

While Martinez, at 25 years of age, is evidently yet to match the levels and legacy of the two German greats, his understanding of the game and defensive intelligence allow him to excel all throughout the central core of the defence and midfield.

Considering Brendan Rodgers’ penchant for tactical innovations, he may well experiment with alternate formations outside of his favored 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, and a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2—which Rodgers has used prominently—would see a libero/sweeper role become one of the team’s most important positions.

Martinez might even usurp the likes of Martin Skrtel into become Rodgers’ first-choice center-back and marshall a three-man defence featuring the precocious Mamadou Sakho.

 

 

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

 

A Statement of Intent

Lastly, away from what Martinez would bring to Anfield on a football level—which is a whole lot, and most importantly a unique package that Liverpool currently don’t have—he also brings the weight and stature in the game that would instantly reflect the Reds’ ambitions.

And in the aftermath of Suarez’s departure, the club may feel that they are in need of a big-name signing to both placate unsettled fans and show their intent on competing on all fronts to prospective player signings.

With Bayer Leverkusen’s Emre Can already secured as a potential long-term replacement for club captain Steven Gerrard this summer, Martinez would be a signing who would be able to hit the ground running and establish himself at Anfield.

And who knows—Javi Martinez may well be the ideal heir to Gerrard’s legendary No. 8 shirt. After all, he’s already wearing it for Bayern Munich.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Strengthening Defence More Important for Liverpool Than Replacing Luis Suarez

So after a good few weeks of speculation, it’s finally official: Luis Suarez has left Liverpool to sign for Barcelona, as confirmed by BBC Sport, for a fee of about £75 million.

As Liverpool fans across the world start to come to terms with the news that one of their greatest-ever players has left after leading the Reds to within a whisker of the Premier League title last season, they might be feeling just a little apprehensive about the coming 2014/15 campaign.

And who could blame them? After all, it’s not just any ordinary forward who has left Anfield: Suarez left at the peak of his powers, having matured from a profligate finisher to a world-class forward, setting scoring records in the Premier League last season despite missing his first five league games of the season.

Yet—unbelievable as it may be—it’s not all doom and gloom for the Reds. Sure, it will be a tough ask replacing the 30-plus goals Suarez now guarantees a season, but there should be other priorities in Brendan Rodgers’ mind even now.

He must focus on strengthening his defence.

 

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

 

 

Defence a Red Achilles’ Heel

By the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season, when Manchester City had finally usurped Liverpool as champions-elect, it was too little, too late to realize where Liverpool had lost the title.

Perhaps Steven Gerrard will forever shoulder much of the blame for his fatal slip against Chelsea, when he mistakenly put Demba Ba through on goal. And perhaps it was the throwing away of a three-goal lead at Selhurst Park that confirmed their fate.

But throughout the whole campaign, it was Liverpool’s defence that let them down. A total of 50 goals conceded—the second highest among the top eight, just a solitary goal behind sixth-placed Tottenham Hotspur—said it all about a shaky defensive unit that frequently had to rely on an admittedly all-star attack to bail them out.

Suarez’s departure will add more pressure to his ex-strike partners to come close to the astonishing 101-goal haul last season, but it will also place the spotlight on a leaky defence that has to get better.

There are always two sides to the same coin and two contrasting ways to look at a trend: Namely, that Liverpool showed both strength in character and mentality to secure comebacks and outscore their opponents by one goal to get the three points—but equally, Rodgers’ back four weren’t exactly a reassuring presence when they needed to be.

Of course, it didn’t help that due to injury, Rodgers was deprived of his first-choice back four for most of the season—though that was the opportunity that Jon Flanagan took with both hands to resurrect his career at Anfield—but the time has come now to address these problems.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Upgrades Are Needed

It seems strange to see Liverpool building bright young midfield and forward lines, especially with the signing of Emre Can and the blossoming of Raheem Sterling, on a foundation provided by an increasingly erratic Glen Johnson, an inconsistent Martin Skrtel, a hesitant Daniel Agger and a perpetually injured Jose Enrique.

Though Johnson seemed to have rediscovered his form at times toward the end of the season, it is telling that he has yet to sign a contract extension. As things stand, he will be a free agent next summer.

As prolific as Skrtel was last season, scoring seven league goals in 36 games, he was also responsible for four own goals, and his concentration and leadership have yet to truly convince.

Vice-captain Agger is a curious case. As one of the Reds’ most loyal servants in the group, he seems to have lost the faith of Rodgers, with Mamadou Sakho often preferred as the starting left-sided center back, and he is even linked with a summer exit from Liverpool, according to Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo (h/t Vaishali Bhardwaj of Metro).

Finally, Enrique’s brand of physical and brazen football doesn’t fit in well with Rodgers’ preference for intelligent tactical play; even Flanagan’s displays seemed to have worked better in his system.

Given the high-profile links with Southampton’s Dejan Lovren, per Gary Jones of the Daily Star, it seems evident that Liverpool have identified center back as a priority position, but the reality is that upgrades are needed all across the back four.

And we haven’t yet touched on the hotly debated position that is goalkeeper.

 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

 

An Unlikely Smokescreen Would Be Nice

Yet for all of the strengthening that Liverpool’s defence need, the rumor market is still in a frenzy linking the Reds with a forward to replace the goals of Suarez.

Now that Alexis Sanchez, previously a candidate either to play with Suarez at Anfield or to replace him as part of the deal taking the Uruguayan to Camp Nou, has joined Arsenal, the seemingly most adequate successor has slipped out of Rodgers’ grasp.

Cue the rumors linking the Reds with a move for Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, via Sam Cunningham of the Daily Mail, and the apparently imminent double deal for Divock Origi and Lazar Markovic, via BBC Sport‘s Ben Smith.

All well and good, except they seem to hint that the club are preoccupied with filling the Suarez-shaped void up front and neglecting the obvious issues at the back.

Besides Lovren, Liverpool have not been seriously linked with any central defender, while an on-again, off-again approach for Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno seems to be their only lead in the full-back areas.

Which leaves arguably more than half of all the defensive positions in need of upgrading, if we include Simon Mignolet’s position between the Anfield posts.

Shave away Suarez’s 31 league goals from Liverpool’s total tally, and they would have scored just one fewer than Chelsea. Contrast Liverpool’s 50 goals conceded with Manchester City’s 37 and Chelsea’s 27—even Arsenal’s 41—and we arrive at the root of the Reds’ failure to win the league.

There are big issues to address at the back for Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool fans should be hoping that the incessant and never-ending striker rumors are but a smokescreen for the real revolution that needs to take place in defence.

Otherwise—Suarez’s goals or not—they’ll be in for a rough ride.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

10 Defining Moments from the 2014 World Cup Round of 16

After eight exciting games in the round of 16 that featured two penalty shootouts and three extra-time contests, we are now officially into the quarterfinal stage of the 2014 World Cup.

Over Friday and Saturday, we have plenty of mouthwatering action to look forward to. Hosts Brazil welcome impressive dark horses Colombia and France take on Germany in two continental clashes on July 4. July 5 sees the Netherlands come up against surprise package Costa Rica, while Argentina play Belgium.

As we look forward to the next round in one of the most scintillating and unpredictable World Cups in recent memory, let’s look back in chronological order at 10 key moments from the round of 16 that defined how the ties were settled.

 

Mauricio Pinilla Hits the Bar

Mauricio Pinilla Hits the Bar

Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has since attributed his team’s struggles in the World Cup to pressure, but we didn’t need his confirmation to know just how hesitant they have appeared this summer.

Their performance against Chile at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte on June 28, when Jorge Sampaoli’s men looked the home side with their dominance of possession, showed just how big of a challenge winning a sixth World Cup on home soil would be.

They would ultimately prevail in the penalty shootout, thanks to Neymar’s coolness under unimaginable pressure and Gonzalo Jara’s miss, but they only escaped the jaws of defeat in the final minute of extra time, when Chile’s Mauricio Pinilla hit the crossbar with Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar already beaten.

Pinilla has since gotten a tattoo of the miss on his back, according to Charlie Scott of the Daily Mail, with the inscription, “One centimeter from glory.” A cruel but defining end to an impressive tournament for Chile.

 

James Rodriguez Scores a Screamer

James Rodriguez Scores a Screamer

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Luis Suarez’s biting incident with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in their final group-stage match and the former’s subsequent ban threatened to overshadow the entire buildup to the round-of-16 clash between Colombia and Uruguay on June 28.

Suarez’s replacement in attack, Diego Forlan, showed just how much Oscar Tabarez’s side would miss the Liverpool striker, but perhaps not even Suarez would have been able to save them against an irrepressible Colombia side in top form.

James Rodriguez had stepped up to become his country’s talisman in the absence of star striker Radamel Falcao by scoring in every group-stage game, and he didn’t disappoint in the round of 16.

A scintillating moment of magic on 28 minutes saw him unleash an exquisite left-footed volley that cannoned off the crossbar and into the back of the net to send Colombia into a lead they never looked like conceding. He followed up with another goal 22 minutes later.

 

Arjen Robben Hits the Deck

Arjen Robben Hits the Deck

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Perennial underachievers in the World Cup, the Netherlands stormed into the round of 16 with a series of excellent performances in the group stage. Then they met Mexico in Fortaleza, where they were given a tough challenge in a game that had all the drama associated with the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Mexico even looked on course to knock out the Oranje, as Giovani dos Santos’ volley on 48 minutes gave them a one-goal lead for 40 minutes before Wesley Sneijder managed to equalize for Louis van Gaal’s side.

And right at the death, Arjen Robben, who has been a revelation in Brazil this summer, attracted controversy by going to ground following a Rafael Marquez challenge, winning an injury-time penalty.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar showed composure in reserve to score the winning goal, but Robben, who has since admitted he dived in the first half, stole all the headlines with his theatrics.

 

Keylor Navas Saves Costa Rica

Keylor Navas Saves Costa Rica

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The Arena Pernambuco in Recife probably didn’t expect to play host to Costa Rica and Greece when the group-stage fixtures were announced, but on June 29 the crowd witnessed a historic moment as Costa Rica reached the last eight for the first time ever.

They had Navas to thank, as his stellar saves from shots by Kostas Mitroglou, Theofanis Gekas, Kostas Katsouranis and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos kept the Central Americans in the tie after extra time. By the end of a heroic 120 minutes, Navas had saved seven of the eight shots he faced in the game.

And he wasn’t done yet: After his normal- and extra-time heroics, Navas stepped up to the plate and faced off the Greeks in what surely had to be one of the most accurate penalty shootouts in recent World Cup history.

Costa Rica scored from their first four attempts, which meant that a Gekas miss on Greece’s fourth penalty would take the shootout to match point. Navas pulled off the defining save before Michael Umana notched past Orestis Karnezis to send his side into rapture.

 

Emmanuel Emenike Is Offside

Emmanuel Emenike Is Offside

Ian Walton/Getty Images

In the end, France’s win seemed to be routine, as Nigeria finally relented to Paul Pogba’s header and Joseph Yobo’s own goal to let France through to the quarterfinals.

But the June 30 tie in Brasilia wasn’t without controversy: On 20 minutes, Nigeria’s Emmanuel Emenike latched onto Ahmed Musa’s cross and poked past Hugo Lloris to hand the Africans a shock lead.

Or so they thought.

A raised flag from the linesman cut short the Super Eagles’ celebrations. It was a tight but seemingly correct decision in hindsight, one that might have greatly affected the outcome.

 

Andre Schurrle Conjures Backheel Magic

Andre Schurrle Conjures Backheel Magic

Sergei Grits/Associated Press

It’s been a difficult World Cup campaign for Andre Schurrle—so impressive and reliable as a goalscorer at club level for Chelsea but overshadowed by the supreme Thomas Mueller and evergreen Miroslav Klose in Brazil, despite wearing No. 9 for Germany.

So he was due a moment to breathe life back into his personal tournament and did just that after coming on as a half-time substitute for Mario Gotze against Algeria on June 30.

With two attackers spearheading the German offense in Mueller and Schurrle, Joachim Low’s side finally broke the deadlock, and it was Schurrle who delivered with an outrageous backheeled goal in the second minute of extra time past Algeria keeper Rais M’Bolhi.

It proved to be the decisive moment in Porto Alegre. It took the Germans another 18 minutes to score through Mesut Ozil, which rendered Abdelmoumene Djabou’s goal in injury time mere consolation.

 

Angel Di Maria Finally Produces

Angel Di Maria Finally Produces

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

On July 1, Angel Di Maria spent 118 minutes twisting and turning, running and dribbling, shooting and missing, threatening but failing.

Some argued that his performance was worthy of a Man of the Match award due to his constant threat to Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland, while some insisted he was the most wasteful player in Sao Paulo that afternoon.

No matter: At 118 minutes, Di Maria finally produced the goods.

To be sure, it was Lionel Messi who capitalized on a mistake to run at the Swiss defence and lay off the ball to his El Clasico rival. But the Real Madrid man still needed composure in abundance to finish past the impressive Diego Benaglio, and Di Maria answered Argentina’s call when his country most needed him.

 

Blerim Dzemaili Misses Two Sitters

Blerim Dzemaili Misses Two Sitters

Sergei Grits/Associated Press

It could’ve been so different, though: Switzerland were literally inches away from taking the tie to a penalty shootout.

But instead of scoring an equalizer in injury time, Blerim Dzemaili managed to hit the post from a few yards and then prod the rebound wide, turning Switzerland’s golden chance into a “coulda-woulda-shoulda” moment to rival Pinilla’s for Chile.

Dzemaili’s miss wasn’t quite as picturesque as Pinilla’s to merit a commemorative tattoo, but it almost provided the cherry on the top of what was an intense final few minutes of extra time on the back of 110 minutes of testy football.

Argentina survived to fight another day.

 

Chris Wondolowski Misses from a Few Yards

Chris Wondolowski Misses from a Few Yards

Michael Steele/Getty Images

The United States’ Chris Wondolowski rounds off our pick of close shaves in the round of 16 and joins Pinilla and Dzemaili as those who will regret their crucial misses for some time to come.

Wondolowski’s chance came against the run of play against a technically superior Belgium side, but it was a simple piece of Route 1 football that almost undid the Belgians in injury time, as he was sent clear after Jermaine Jones headed on a Geoff Cameron long ball.

With the goal—and Thibaut Courtois—at his mercy, Wondolowski contrived to blaze over the bar, letting the game stand at 0-0 and taking it into extra time.

The Americans may offer the defence that the assistant referee had put up his flag to indicate offside, which would’ve ruled the goal out anyway, but we’ll never truly know what could’ve happened if Wondolowski had completed his task first.

 

Romelu Lukaku Comes off the Bench

Romelu Lukaku Comes off the Bench

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Funny how some things work out.

For Belgium’s three group-stage games, Romelu Lukaku failed provided the thrust and attacking threat he was asked to and instead was outshone by teenage striker Divock Origi, who took Lukaku’s place in Marc Wilmot’s starting XI on July 1 against the United States.

So who better to turn the game in Belgium’s favor than Lukaku himself? The Chelsea striker came off the bench to replace Origi for the extra-time period and finally announced his arrival in Brazil with a barnstorming performance that led to Kevin De Bruyne’s opening goal.

Lukaku scored Belgium’s second goal to render Julian Green’s 107th-minute effort futile, as he provided exactly the presence that Jurgen Klinsmann lacked after Jozy Altidore’s injury.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

World Cup: Confident USA Will Prove Tough Opponents for Stuttering Belgium

Stand-in captain Jan Vertonghen scored a 77th-minute winner as Belgium secured top spot in Group H with a 1-0 win over South Korea on Thursday, who crashed out of the 2014 World Cup with just a single point.

It was a poacher’s finish from Tottenham Hotspur defender Vertonghen, who got himself into the box after a Belgium attack to finish past South Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, after DivockOrigi, again impressing as a substitute, drew an unconvincing parry from his shot.

Midfielder Steven Defour had been sent off just before half-time after a nasty challenge, leaving Marc Wilmots’ side with 10 men for the entirety of the second half, but Hung Myung-bo’s men will have been disappointed with yet another uninspiring showing.

The Belgians completed their group-stage campaign with three wins out of three and will take on the United States in the round of 16, after their 0-1 loss to Germany on the same day saw them finish second in Group G.

But Wilmots will know that his side still needs to improve on a surprising general lack of fluidity given the midfield and attacking talent across his star-studded squad, especially against a USA side high in confidence after qualifying from the tournament’s “Group of Death.”

 

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Belgium Taking Time to Gel and Impress

For all the pre-tournament talk about Belgium being dark horses and having a young and talented squad, despite winning Group H with a 100 per cent record, they have yet to really impose themselves on the World Cup.

Against a relatively easy group—especially compared to the USA’s—with Algeria, South Korea and Russia, it’s been a surprise to see Belgium winning all three games by just a single-goal margin: They ended the group with nine points and a goal difference of just three.

Perhaps a misfiring Romelu Lukaku (more on him later) has been the main reason, and that a fit Christian Benteke would’ve given them the attacking impetus and thrust that they needed. But it’s not just been Lukaku that has failed to impress: Even the likes of Eden Hazard and Nacer Chadli have disappointed, the latter losing his place to Dries Mertens after an unconvincing first game against Algeria.

A strong midfield provides an excellent base for the Belgian attack, but the fact that Wilmots’ first-choice defence doesn’t feature a single out-and-out full-back may be a factor in their disjointed performances, despite Vertonghen scoring his winner on Thursday.

Curiously, Vertonghen became Belgium’s first starting player to score a goal in the World Cup since Wilmots himself in 2002. Ultimately, it may not be a problem in Wilmots’ selections, but there are no two ways about it: Belgium should be doing much better than they are.

 

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

 

 

A Change in Approach for Wilmots?

Such is the depth and strength of the Belgian World Cup squad, thatWilmots could afford to make some changes to his starting XI on Thursday and still emerge from the tunnel with a team oozing excitement and class.

But while it could’ve been purely a plan to give some of his bench players a good run-out against a South Korea squad weak on paper, Wilmots’ decision to drop misfiring Lukaku, who has disappointed with a couple of pedestrian displays this summer, for a more dynamic and interchanging forward line of Kevin Mirallas, DriesMertens and Adnan Januzaj was a bold choice.

They didn’t get on the scoresheet, but Mertens’ direct style continued to shine, while Mirallas mirrored his contributions up front andJanuzaj offered creativity and a close control that is arguably unique in a midfield more known for its power and physicality.

Could this be how Wilmots approaches his round of 16 tie with the USA next Tuesday? Even taking into consideration Hazard’s likely return to the starting lineup, this style, without a recognizable and traditional center forward, could be the key to unlocking a more coherent attacking performance from the Belgians.

With Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel in top form so far this tournament—Defour’s suspension wasn’t going to impact proceedings on Tuesday anyway, since Belgium’s starting midfield picks itself—and Kevin de Bruyne motoring down the middle of the park, this is a plan that, on paper, could finally unleash the multitude of goals that Belgium promised before the World Cup started.

 

 

Michael Steele/Getty Images

 

USA Enter the Round of 16 on a High

In a round of 16 featuring runners-up participants like Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and Switzerland, Belgium may feel that it has enjoyed better luck, pairing with the United States. Yet judging from the Americans’ performances over the course of three games in Group G, they will provide a stern threat on Tuesday.

With a thrilling win over Ghana and only the last minute of stoppage time preventing a remarkable comeback against Portugal, the USA will be riding high in confidence after securing qualification from the group stages, where they have gained many a neutral supporter with their energetic and passionate performances.

And while Jozy Altidore may still not be fit for the Belgium tie, JurgenKlinsmann has conversely strengthened his midfield by playing captain and all-rounder Clint Dempsey up front, packing in pace and power behind him to allow his full-backs to support the American attack.

This allows for an intriguing battle in the middle of park at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador on Tuesday, with the impressive Kyle Beckerman and the powerful Jermaine Jones taking on the physical Fellaini-Witsel Belgian midfield axis.

Plus, Belgium aren’t exactly the most convincing team out of all group winners taking part in the round of 16: Only Costa Rica are the true surprise package—all others have been hugely impressive, unlike Wilmots’ side. The USA’s team ethic and spirit will ask huge questions of Belgium.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The Business of World Cup Branding and Sponsorship

After the 32 participating nations announced their World Cup squads and most domestic football leagues around the world wrapped up their seasons, the attention has turned firmly to the action that has now begun in stadia across Brazil this summer.

Cue the spectacular advertising campaigns put on by brands and companies the world over, in a bid to cash in on the World Cup. Traditional sportswear powerhouses like Nike and Adidas have gone head to head in the production of high-budget commercials and promotional projects featuring footballing superstars, while companies that by nature don’t have anything to do with football—take Pepsi and Samsung, for example—have built a roster of star players to feature in their campaigns.

From official “FIFA Partners” to “National Supporters,” from “FIFA World Cup Sponsors” to unrelated companies targeting the football-fan demographic, the World Cup this summer features a multitude of brands competing for their ideal target market—FIFA has even designed and implemented a three-tier sponsorship structure to amplify and increase the profitability of the marketing frenzy in their flagship tournament.

Even the footballing action is and will be dominated by sponsors: the flashing billboards adorning each stadium, the official live broadcast coverage partners, the athletic gear worn by the players—given the frenetic advertising environment, perhaps international football should receive some credit for not yet caving into the lucrative practice of featuring official sponsors of national team kits.

The nature of the World Cup, and the reverence with which its fans and participants treat its ultimate prize, mean that football will be the main star in Brazil this summer. But that hasn’t stopped—and won’t stop—the considerable momentum that the branding and sponsorship activities have built over the years in their evolution into a prominent sideshow to the tournament.

How It All Began

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the World Cup—even professional football altogether—was just about the sport. But the phenomenon of television changed things forever.

The impact of television on the World Cup’s worldwide commercial boom cannot be understated: According to TIME, the number of TV sets worldwide “increased more than twentyfold” from 1954 to 1986, “from a little more than 30 million to more than 650 million,” laying the foundations for a truly groundbreaking moment in football history.

While the first live World Cup games, broadcast in Europe for the 1954 tournament held in Switzerland, reached only a handful of audiences due to the low number of matches shown, the potential of television and TV advertising was already apparent. In 1974, new FIFA president Joao Havelange turned his organization into a modern international NGO upon taking office, as he put in place the infrastructure, people and income-drive of a corporation to conquer the world of football and reap the ensuing economic benefits.

After the rapid expansion of the World Cup tournaments under Havelange’s watch—he added eight participant slots to the tournament, while also introducing other versions of the World Cup, including the U-17 and U-20 iterations, as well as the Confederations Cup—came the idea of corporate sponsorship to help bear the costs of hosting a global tournament in one country.

Thus came money-spinning deals with Adidas and other big-name corporations like Coca-Cola to finance the tournament, while television advertising, which had grown to become a huge cash cow with the boom of TV, led to increased premiums for marketers to get their spots and campaigns onto World Cup TV screens.

The Golden Era of World Cup Sponsorship

The sponsorship boom that began under Havelange has been taken to unprecedented new levels during the tenure of current FIFA president Sepp Blatter. According to a UPenn study, the stellar lineup of corporate FIFA sponsors (otherwise known as their “partners”) for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa included Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates Airlines, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Sony and Visa—who were “guaranteed exposure in the tournament stadium” and would receive “direct advertising and promotional opportunities and preferential access to TV advertising.”

The cost involved in partner-level sponsorship of the 2010 tournament was a commitment of a minimum of between 100 and 200 million euros through 2014, while “FIFA World Cup Sponsors” would collectively invest around 50 million euros through 2014.

As a result, FIFA’s revenues from the South Africa tournament reached a staggering $1.022 billion, and FIFA was to provide $420 million to all participating national teams and the football league teams providing players to those national teams. $30 million would go to the World Cup-winning team (Spain), while first-round teams automatically qualified for $8 million each. $1 million in preparation costs were provided to each participating football association.

So, yes, it’s a sporting achievement and an indication of a country’s footballing proficiency to qualify for a World Cup—but it’s also a great way for national football associations to make money. Football—and the World Cup—can no longer be considered as its own entity, separate from the clutches of money. After a period of explosive growth and the influence of a few key players, the World Cup and money have become intimately intertwined.

FIFA has ridden on this wave to further corporatise and globalise itself. Since introducing the World Cup in the United States in 1994, a move that proved to be a stunning success (USA 1994 still holds the total attendance record and average all-time attendance record), the World Cup has since traveled to Asia (2002), Africa (2010), and will go to Russia in 2018 and the Middle East in 2022. According to the Telegraph, Blatter has even entertained the idea of hosting the 2022 tournament across several countries in the Gulf region, which would multiply the brand and advertising exposure for FIFA’s partners across geographies.

To Sponsor or Not to Sponsor?

It’s not only the football that wins, however—after all, there has to be an inherent attraction to becoming a World Cup sponsor in the first place. Otherwise, brands wouldn’t be tripping over themselves to secure eye-watering contracts with national teams, players and the tournament itself.

So grand is the World Cup stage, that even smaller brands and smaller teams involve big sums of sponsorship money. Spain’s Joma sponsored Honduras in 2010 for $2 million a year, while China’s Hongxing Erke Group paid $7 million a year for the North Korean team.

But the battle is always at its most intense at the top of the footballing hierarchy, simply because a brand’s association with a team’s success will do wonders for its own brand performance, not least in terms of direct revenues. The UPenn study cites forecasts that the Adidas’ sales in the domestic Spanish market would grow by 8% if Spain won the World Cup in 2010 (they did), which would mean an overall 50% increase in Adidas’ sales from previous forecasts for 2010.

A continued association with success is also the driving force behind Nike’s contract with high-profile teams like Brazil, Portgual and the Netherlands, which guarantees a high level of visibility for the million-strong World Cup audiences around the globe. As the apparel hits stores worldwide ahead of, during and after the tournament, money will flow into the coffers of these high-profile brands, and even more so if their sponsored national teams perform well.

This explains the recent trend of new national team kit designs almost once a year: Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France are all examples of world-famous teams who have launched high-profile events and flashy marketing campaigns in conjunction with big-name sportswear companies and top international stars. And there are still those companies outside the sports arena that have allocated major funds and expensive campaigns to up their branding and advertising ante with the World Cup on the horizon.

Without doubt, the growth in sponsorship opportunities have provided many an ambitious brand to take advantage of World Cup to reach out to bigger audiences and rake in the ensuing benefits. But this path must be treaded properly.

The danger is that new kit launch events and over-the-top advertising campaigns have become hype machines that serve no purpose, and the risk is that the ever-expensive replica kits—one of the many inevitable products of the evolution of branding and sponsorship into World Cup sideshows—have become out of reach financially for that most important demographic when it comes to the most famous football tournament on earth.

For what is the World Cup without the common football fan?

 

This article first appeared on Outlook India, as “The Branding Business: How branding and sponsorship have evolved into a prominent sideshow to the World Cup.”

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