The day the South Wales derby arrived in the Premier League

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On Sunday November 3, a monumental moment arrived in the Barclays Premier League… the first-ever South Wales derby was here.

After spending the earlier part of last week in Wales to find out what all the fuss was about, I returned for the main event at the weekend. I wasn’t disappointed.

Here’s my tale of Steel vs. Cooper, Capital vs. Second City… Cardiff City vs. Swansea City.

STARTING EARLY, THE BUBBLE ARRIVES

As I stepped off the train and breathed in the fresh air of Wales, fans with blue shirts swarmed Cardiff Central station in every direction I looked. “Hang on a minute, it’s only noon,” I thought to myself, but several of the locals were already ‘well lubricated’ shall we say. That said, there was not a sniff of violence. That’s all to do with the revolutionary police tactic of the ‘Bubble’ which has made policing South Wales derby much easier since it was introduced in ’97. Before that a ban was put on away fans traveling to the opponents ground, as the ferocity and venom hurled in both directions is extreme.

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I managed to get in behind the police lines and mix it up with Swansea’s fans in and around the metal fences.

So while Swansea’s fans spent all morning on a crowded bus in a slow police-escorted journey along a road that would usually take them 40 minutes to drive, Cardiff’s fans were sinking the lagers, having a sing-song and catching up with their pals. One set of fans were already in a better mood.

(MORE: Cardiff City vs. Swansea City – Rivalry and passion define soccer’s heyday in South Wales)

The police presence in the capital city was massive, as officers traveled round in twos to survey the many local pubs who had opened up early for the game. But, apart from groups of lads pouring out into the street in full song as the bars became crowded, there wasn’t much going on.

To the ground!

As I got to the Cardiff City Stadium about a 10 minute drive from town, I sat up shop in the press box, said my hello’s to my press brethren and was interviewed by BBC Radio Wales about what fans in the USA thought of the South Wales derby. Then, I took my life into my own hands as I could hear Swansea’s fans finally arriving at the stadium… nearly two hours before kick off.

I managed to negotiate my way through a massive metal fence and chat with the police officers who let me through to get amongst the Swansea fans. And here they came, one after the other, buses pulled in with military precision. Fans got off, were searched and had 30 or so police officers watching their every move in a penned in area as a green wire fence surrounded them. There was no way Cardiff fans could get to them in here. I wouldn’t say I felt safe, but not bad.

Fans began to filter in from both teams.

GAME-TIME, LET THE HATRED BEGIN

The announcers before the game at the Cardiff City Stadium had this to welcome Swansea’s fans…. “Welcome to the capital of Wales, Cardiff.” Which sent ironic cheers and jeers from the home fans and boo from the away section neatly tucked away on the left.  When Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927, Swansea’s fans cheered and were happy for the Bluebirds… nothing like that anymore.

Just pure hatred.

Chants of “We are all going on a European tour!” emanate from the Swansea section as they taunted the home fans about their recent success gallivanting around Europe in the Europa League and they also had a pop about Cardiff’s controversial kit change from blue to tread to appease their Malaysian owner. Chanting about their famous black and white kit. “We’re Swansea City, we will always be White!” and “you used to be blue but now your red.”

(MORE: Setting the scene at the South Wales derby)

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The hatred and animosity spreads across generations in South Wales, just look at the young kid being told off by a police officer…

As a crescendo of noise built up, literally four to five feet away two Cardiff fans were almost fighting before the kick off. One bald guy was hitting the press box table and threatening to smash the computers unless we wrote positive things about the Bluebirds…

And there were still 45 minutes left until the game started! Our friend on the right was to be a constant nuisance throughout the game, the old guys from BBC Cymru (Welsh language radio station) sat to my right were horrified as this particular Cardiff fan preferred to bellow out obscenities throughout most of their live broadcast.

Anyway, finally, the teams arrived onto the pitch as famous Welsh hymns such as “Men or Harlech” were belted out and the old mining song “I’ll be there.” The noise was deafening as the two sides got into the pre-match huddle.

During the game the banter kept coming, and as Swansea had possession for most of the first half, Cardiff struggled to get anything going and lumped the ball forward whenever they could. Shouts of ‘Boring, boring” Cardiff rang out. When Swansea had the ball for large swathes, the same chant rang out from the home fans.

It wasn’t riveting stuff in the first interval, I have to be honest. But as often the case with these games, there’s so much local pride and pressure on the game, players feel restrained. It certainly seemed like both teams were scared of committing men forward or making a mistake.

Then in the 19th minute came a moment that livened up the home crowd as central defender Ben Turner put in a crunching tackle on Jonjo Shelvey as he surged forward. An almost tribal roar reverberated around the stadium to signify Cardiff’s physical presence unnerving the Swans.

(MORE: The South Wales derby; a tale of two cities – Part II)

For the rest of the first half not so friendly banter rang out between the two sets of fans, as Swansea pushed for the opener and Cardiff soaked up the pressure expertly. A few brief forays forward excited the home crowd, but Swansea were the better side as it was 0-0 at the break.

Remember the lively and slightly confrontational fan to my right? Yeah, he was at it again. Screaming obscenities at the top his voice while the radio guys who sat next to me looked on in horror. They put their fingers to their lips to try and silence him… the angry man’s wife then got involved and started hurling abuse in our direction. I’m staying out of this one.

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Following Steven Caulker’s header, Cardiff’s fans went absolutely berserk as they began to sense a famous win was in sight.

“What don’t you try turning up more often before you tell me to be quiet?” He replied. Or something to that affect.

After the interval Cardiff started brightly, as both Jordon Mutch and Peter Odemwingie got a sniff at goal and that seemed to crank up the decibel levels quite a few notches.

Midway through the second half a late challenge on Angel Rangel from local boy and Welsh legend Craig Bellamy, signified what type of game this was. “Bellamy, Bellamy **** him up,” came the chant from the home fans as Rangel protested on the floor. Personal duels all over the pitch were breaking out, Gary Medel vs. Shelvey, Michu vs. Steven Caulker, Bellamy vs. Rangel, and now you could sense Cardiff were starting to turn the screw.

Meanwhile at that point Swansea’s star man Michu was hobbling around and needed lengthy treatment on the sidelines, he was replaced. Our ‘friend’ to the right then hurled abuse at Swansea’s pony-tailed Spanish defender Chico Flores who threw himself to the floor theatrically after a meaty Cardiff challenge.

“Get your hair cut, you Spanish wanker!” That was the edited version.

As the second half wore on the decibel level continued to rise as Cardiff striker Peter Odemwingie urged the crowd to raise the noise as he thrust his arms into the air repeatedly to gee the home fans going.

Minutes later the home side went ahead as captain Caulker (a former Swansea player no less) rose highest to head home  Bellamy’s corner… cue utter pandemonium insides the Cardiff City Stadium.

In the video I captured above, you can see whole groups of grown men hugging each other, some fans just stood with their arms aloft towards the devastated section of Swansea fans and many… well, they just simply lost the plot.

As the noise levels dropped a little following the excitement of the goal, the home fans rejoiced in their dominance and stuck the knife in and let out a few reminders about their economical and cultural importance.

“1-0 to the Capital” rung out from the home fans.

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A Cardiff fans throws some ‘banter’ towards the Swansea section across the police barricade… I hope he used deodorant.

As the rain teemed down in South Wales, Cardiff went for the kill as they poured forward. But so did Swansea, now we have a game. There were a few hairy moments for the home side, but the incredible display of Medel pulled the home side through it as the ‘Chilean Pitbull’ scrapped for his life in the engine-room to keep the Swans at bay. In the end he went off injured with three minutes to play, after committing one lunging tackle too many. A standing ovation proved how pleased his fans were with the all-action display.

Grit, passion, determination and guile, Medel summed up this game. He was superb and I’d say the difference between the two teams. His tackling and clever possession stop Swansea creating anything in the middle.

As stoppage time approached all hell broke loose as the nightmare afternoon for Swansea’s fans continued.

Substitute Frazier Campbell raced cleared as a long ball bounced on the edge of the box, Swansea ‘keeper Michel Vorm came racing out of his goal and took out Campbell with a flying karate kick.

Cue a red card for Swansea’s goalkeeper and after they’d already made all three subs, right back Rangel had to go in goal… much to the delight of the home fans.

The final whistle blew, the songs rang out and Cardiff’s fans jigged their way out of the stadium and into the night sky of South Wales. They were celebrating a famous 1-0 victory in the first-ever South Wales derby, which had got better as it went on. Me? I didn’t want it to end.

CARDIFF CELEBRATES

Following the game I walked out of the stadium with a massive smile on my face, a newspaper over my head that really didn’t shelter the driving rain and a heavy heart that this match wouldn’t be returning to the PL until next February.

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An incredible setting for such a massive game, as the 106th South Wales derby surpassed my expectations.

Before I caught my train back to England, myself and another journalist sauntered into a local pub before we sped away from South Wales. The establishment we stumbled into was the Prince of Wales pub, and it was chock-a-block with Cardiff fans. To start with it was quite cordial, but then when the replay of Caulker’s game-winner was shown in the news bulletin on the big screens across this massive pub, Cardiff’s supporters celebrated like they were in the stadium all over again.

They were in dreamland, Sunday night was an evening they wanted to savor. Their victory and recent dominance over the “Jacks” of Swansea gives them much joy, as Cardiff have won three of the last four games against there fierce rivals.

And now they’re in the PL for the first-time in their history, Cardiff fans want more. They want to overtake their rivals Swansea and become the best Welsh team in one of the world’s best leagues.

The drunken band of fans were now jigging and singing their hearts out in the Prince of Wales pub, they had a warning for their heady neighbors down the coast.

“You Jack bastard’s, we’re coming for you!”

So long South Wales, see you in February. I can’t wait. But between now and then, bragging rights had swung Cardiff’s way. And boy, are they going to enjoy that.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.