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Poignant FA Cup final reflects current mood in UK

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LONDON — Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the 2016-17 FA Cup on Saturday at Wembley Stadium, but this was about much more than a game of soccer.

“They just keep coming, no matter what, don’t they?” said a fellow journalist I bumped into surveying the scene outside Wembley before kick off as a wave of red and blue supporters inched towards the home of soccer while under armed police guard.

They certainly did.

The FA Cup final on Saturday, a 90,000 sellout, provided most of the UK with a slight distraction from a nightmare week where the worst terrorist attack since the 7/7 bombings in 2005 dominated the hearts and minds of a nation.

After watching on in horror as 22 people were killed and 116 injured by a suicide bomber outside Manchester Arena late Monday, the attention of everyone in the UK has been focused on the atrocity in Manchester.

That horrendous attack led to the UK being placed into the highest terror threat level of “critical” for just the third time since it was introduced in 2006 and things like soccer games, rivalries and trophies seemed somewhat meaningless as the threat of an “imminent attack” dominated the news.

It didn’t matter that this was a final being played between two Premier League teams from London. Everyone had Manchester on their minds.

A few hours before the game British Prime Minister Theresa May downgraded the terror threat level to “severe” rather than critical, but that didn’t stop armed policeman in abundance at Wembley as armored police cars replaced some of the burger vans which usually littered the roads near Wembley Way.

Arsenal fan Andy Calcutt stood on an elevated walkway outside Wembley having a cigarette as he pushed his sunglasses further up his nose.

The skyline of London was visible in the distance on a glorious early summer day and the message was clear: terrorists will never win.

“It is the British spirit to soldier on and go through it. It is fantastic today,” Calcutt said. “Nobody that I know has any issues about turning up to a big event. There is obviously more of a security presence, which gives you a bit of reassurance, but it’s not an issue for anyone here. We keep on going through our day to day. That’s how we get on.”

As the glorious sunshine beat down on Wembley two hours before kick off, there was a lingering sense of remembrance but celebration was in the air too.

On Friday the most senior counter-terrorism officer in the UK, Mark Rowley, urged citizens to “go out as you planned and enjoy yourselves” around the bank holiday weekend.

After the week the UK has had, it is easy to understand why that was the message following security measures being reviewed for over 1,300 events as the Aviva Premiership rugby final took place at Twickenham, the Manchester Great Run was scheduled and there were many huge events up and down the nation.

The FA Cup final was by far the biggest as the eyes of the world fixed itself on Wembley.

Chelsea fan Marcus Mays stood with his partner looking out on Wembley Way as the fans flooded in before the cup final.

“I was born in Manchester and I have a lot of friends from up that way and I think everyone was behind Manchester United for their Europa League win in midweek. It was lovely to see,” Mays said. “We have got to get on with our lives and I think everyone appreciates that. I can’t imagine anybody swerving a cup final because of the terrorist attack. Everyone has to crack on with their lives.”

That sentiment was echoed time and time again by everyone in and around Wembley. There was plenty more waiting in lines before you got into the stadium but nobody complained, nobody moaned. They queued and got on with it with a smile on their face.

As I walked out of Wembley Park underground station before the game, a guy in an Arsenal shirt went up to a policeman and shook his hand and thanked him, then walked off.

It has been that kind of week, to appreciate those around you and what you have.

At times like these you call your family and friends more often, you kiss your wife, husband or kids more. You reach out to strangers and offer a smile while sat on the subway train, or a polite nod, when previously the stresses of the modern world appeared to be too much to offer such niceties.

Even in a major cup final between bitter rivals there was respect.

Sure, there was chanting back and forth between Chelsea and Arsenal fans beforehand, laughter and jokes as groups of friends met up in among policeman armed with semi-automatic rifles, but just before kick off it became apparent how reflective the mood was.

There was an immaculately observed minute’s silence to remember the victims as both teams stood united around the center-circle, linked to their teammates. 90,000 fans stood in silence as some began to chant “Manchester!” but quickly stopped.

Fans held up signs reading “I love MCR!” and on the large TV screens at either end of Wembley messages simply read “We Stand Together” as the vast three-tier venue stood perfectly still.

Following a week like this it easy to brush off the insignificance of sport. So often fans, and even players and managers, watch or get involved in the action to try and forget everything else in life for a few hours a week.

Speaking after the game, Antonio Conte reinforced that message, one he had shared before the game.

“It was an important game but don’t forget the tragedy in Manchester,” Conte said in the aftermath of defeat.

He was right. This was no place to forget.

Chelsea and Arsenal’s fans held banners up saluting Manchester and the victims of the attacks and before the game both clubs canceled plans for a trophy parade in London on Sunday, out of respect for Manchester and also to not put a further burden on the already-stretched police force as they continue their huge investigations.

Everyone in the stadium and everyone at home hoped they’d never have to live through seeing scenes like this again. Children and their families killed as they left a music concert.

At times like these sport can provide a distraction and helps some to heal, but there’s so many more important things going on in the UK, and across the globe, right now.

The overall message portrayed at Wembley on Saturday was a poignant one: this was no time to hide.

Now, even in one of the darkest moments for the UK in recent history, was the time to face the world and stand tall.

“It’s just another day. You can’t live in fear, can you?” Arsenal fan Ryan Kilburn said. “There’s no point in hiding.”

Daniel Levy calls for all players, clubs to cut wages

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Tottenham chairman has called for Premier League players and staff to take wage cuts to help clubs cope with the suspension during the coronavirus pandemic.

Levy revealed 550 off-pitch staff at Tottenham have taken pay cuts as he pointed to the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich as their players and officials had taken wage cuts in order to make sure every individual at the club was paid and costs did not spiral out of control during the suspension of leagues.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Levy confirmed that the “club’s operations have effectively ceased” and “has an annual cost base running into hundreds of millions of pounds” before adding that clubs and players should do their part as clubs, leagues and players’ unions meet on Wednesday in England to work out a way forward.

“We hope the current discussions between the Premier League, PFA and LMA will result in players and coaches doing their bit for the football eco system,” Levy said.

Tottenham’s chairman also explained exactly what Spurs are doing to help them deal with the new financial reality all soccer clubs are facing, as the UK government is paying 80 percent of wages of staff who have been furloughed (basically told they still have a job but aren’t needed right now) by their employers.

“We have seen some of the biggest clubs in the world such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus take steps to reduce their costs. Yesterday, having already taken steps to reduce costs, we ourselves made the difficult decision – in order to protect jobs – to reduce the remuneration of all 550 non-playing directors and employees for April and May by 20 per cent utilising, where appropriate, the Government’s furlough scheme. We shall continue to review this position,” Levy added.

Soccer will of course have to adjust to its new reality and the longer the suspension goes on, tougher decisions will have to be made about players and staff taking significant pay cuts to help keep costs down with no matchday revenue coming in. Tottenham’s stadium is being used to help prepare food for vulnerable people in the local and it has been offered to the NHS to be used any way it can help.

Plenty of clubs across the Premier League have vowed to pay temporary staff used on matchdays but many are making use of government help with wages and many are doing plenty for their local communities too. These are unprecedented times and players and clubs are stepping up to make sure the most vulnerable are looked after.

Benzema: ‘I’m F1’ quality compared to ‘go-kart’ Giroud

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It would appear that Karim Benzema lives for exactly two things in life: scoring goals and creating/participating in very public drama.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Benzema, who hasn’t feature for France’s national team since he was allegedly involved in a scandal to blackmail teammate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape in 2015, slammed compatriot forward Olivier Giroud as the “go-karting” alternative to his own “F1” quality.

His main gripe with Giroud doesn’t appear to actually be with the player himself, but the fact the two get compared to one another so frequently. In Benzema’s absence from Les Bleus, Giroud has been the main beneficiary, leading many to wonder if the team could have reached greater heights with Benzmea in the team instead — quotes from Sky Sports:

“You shouldn’t confuse F1 and go karting and that’s me being kind. On to the next topic. I’m not talking about him [Giroud] anymore. I just know that I’m F1.

“He has his career, he does what he wants and scores the goals that he wants to score. He’s in his corner and I’m in mine, I’m not thinking about him. If we’re talking about playing style, his suits France well.

“It’s good because there are fast players like (Kylian) Mbappe and (Antoine) Griezmann who play out wide or feed off the centre-forward. When Giroud is up front, he’s a handful for defenses, which gives the other two plenty of space to show what they can do.

“He occupies defenders and it works. It might not be brilliant to watch and you won’t say, ‘Wow, that was incredible.’ Does everyone like that style of play? I don’t know, but it suits France well.”

Giroud: 39 goals (third-highest) in 97 appearances for France. Benzema: 27 goals in 81 appearances.

Guardiola: ‘We will come back stronger, kinder … and a bit fatter’

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Through all of the innumerable challenges and tragedies the world is currently facing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is doing his best to not only help the fight back in his native Spain, but also give everyone a chance to smile and laugh at their own expense.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Guardiola, who last week donated $1.1 million to fight the virus in Catalonia, released a video message of encouragement and hope on Monday — encouraging everyone to stay inside, and hopeful of returning to a sense of normalcy in short order:

“We miss football. We miss the life that we had a few days ago but now is the time to listen, to follow our scientists, doctors and nurses.

“You are my football family and we are going to do everything possible to make you feel better. We’ll come back from this stronger, better, kinder … and a little bit fatter. Stay inside, stay safe.”

Germany’s UCL clubs pledge support for cash-strapped clubs

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DUSSELDORF, Germany — Four German soccer clubs have pledged a combined $21.9 million to support other teams struggling to stay afloat after games in the country were suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen will forgo $13.7 million in as-yet undistributed TV money and add another $8.2 million from their own funds. All four clubs played in the Champions League this season, giving them extra income.

The German Football League, which oversees the top two divisions, will decide how the money is distributed. The league has previously said it fears many clubs could face financial collapse if games can’t resume.

“In these difficult times, it’s important that the stronger shoulders support the weaker shoulders,” Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said on Thursday.

It’s the latest in a string of gestures to help those in need in German soccer. Players at clubs including Bayern, Borussia Monchengladbach and second-tier Karlsruhe have agreed to voluntary pay cuts to help other staff.

[ MORE: Tottenham offer stadium to help with coronavirus effort ]

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said clubs had a responsibility to keep other teams running in what could be a long period without income from ticket sales and sponsors.

“We have always said that we would show solidarity if clubs, through no fault of their own, should run into difficulties that they can no longer overcome themselves,” Watzke said in a statement.

“BVB is currently having a major impact on society through a wide range of initiatives. And naturally we are prepared to help out other professional football clubs if it is ultimately a matter of cushioning the financial effects of the pandemic.”