We came for Ronaldinho, but found Tijuana

By Maxi Rodriguez and Zack Goldman

There’s a first time for everything, and this weekend, the AFR team took hopefully the first of many trips South of the Border.

With intentions to track Ronaldinho as he suited up for Querétaro against Tijuana’s Xolos, it was a pilgrimage of sorts; an opportunity to see a legend in the flesh before he hangs up his boots.

But while Ronaldinho was the original focus of our journey, the city of Tijuana and its football club were its biggest stars.

Ask most people north of the border what they think of Tijuana, and you’ll be overwhelmed with less-than-informed talk of Mexico’s socio-political landscape, second-hand stories of the city’s dark underbelly, and warnings over the range of narco-inspired violence just miles from the U.S.

While these topics are worthy of a responsibly contextualized conversation, it goes without saying that the first thing any visitor to Tijuana learns is that Tijuana is, in many ways, much like any other city across the world. Sure, it shares many of Mexico’s present-day challenges, but it just as strongly speaks to its promising future — progress that can be seen in the city center and at the stadium.

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Thanks for everything, Landon

Today, we say goodbye to the most significant and beloved player in the history of American soccer.

For nearly a decade and a half, Landon Donovan has been the pulse of the game stateside — and while he holds the goals and assists records for the U.S. Men’s National Team, his impact extends far beyond what any scoresheet could possibly hint.

From his earliest days as a teenager going up against legends twice his age, to his iconic goal against Algeria, to his unprecedented sabbatical at the peak of his career, Landon inspired millions with his actions between the lines and outside them.

It is a rare thing to see a player at once so confident yet humble, so talented yet grateful, and so selfless yet introspective.

Landon was all of those things, in addition to a damn good soccer player — and we wish him nothing but the best, today and beyond.

#ThanksLD

[Posted by Zack and Maxi]

Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping giant?

By Greg Lea

An initial glance at the latest FIFA World Rankings yields few surprises: world champions Germany sit top while Argentina, the runners-up in Brazil, are second. However, as you scroll further down the list, one name sticks out above all others. Way down in 158th place, below Puerto Rico, Curacao and Kyrgyzstan, are India.

In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that population, football experience and per capita income are the best indicators of the strength of a national side. With 1.2 billion people and the world’s tenth largest economy, India – all set for the launch of the Indian Super League on Sunday – are undoubtedly the planet’s biggest underachievers.

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Uncovering the Game in Madrid
Just a couple hundred meters from the Santiago Bernabéu, there are a hundred little Madrileños playing on a rooftop. A bell rings every 20 minutes. Each time, the pitch empties for a moment, only to be filled by another hundred students-turned-footballers who dream of playing on a patch of grass that’s only five minutes away. They may stand in the shadows of giants and galacticos, but they’re also the ones who play with the passion that makes Spanish football what it is.
Over the next few days, we’re collaborating with the Spanish Tourism Board to explore Madrid’s football culture and its endless stories. But here’s the thing: We can (and will) see Atletico and Cristiano and even Rayo Vallecano. But, really, anyone can do that. And, indeed, we’re sure many you have. So we want to hear from you about the unexpected, unforgettable experiences: the hidden pitches, the graffiti, and definitely that one place with an incredible bocadillo named after Diego Simeone that made your trip to the Calderón 100 times better.
Our eyes and ears are wide open.
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We just landed yesterday, and we’ll be documenting everything here, as well as on Instagram and on Twitter. You can even find some shots of Madrid that go beyond the pitch on my personal Instagram. Everything will be tracked with the #whereisfootball & #mustseemadrid hashtags. Let’s uncover some hidden gems in a city that lives and breathes the game! Words and photo taken by Eric, writing while thoroughly jetlagged and only moments away from a siesta.

Uncovering the Game in Madrid

Just a couple hundred meters from the Santiago Bernabéu, there are a hundred little Madrileños playing on a rooftop. A bell rings every 20 minutes. Each time, the pitch empties for a moment, only to be filled by another hundred students-turned-footballers who dream of playing on a patch of grass that’s only five minutes away. They may stand in the shadows of giants and galacticos, but they’re also the ones who play with the passion that makes Spanish football what it is.

Over the next few days, we’re collaborating with the Spanish Tourism Board to explore Madrid’s football culture and its endless stories. But here’s the thing: We can (and will) see Atletico and Cristiano and even Rayo Vallecano. But, really, anyone can do that. And, indeed, we’re sure many you have. So we want to hear from you about the unexpected, unforgettable experiences: the hidden pitches, the graffiti, and definitely that one place with an incredible bocadillo named after Diego Simeone that made your trip to the Calderón 100 times better.

Our eyes and ears are wide open.

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The Return of Nilmar

By Gordon Fleetwood

“Don’t they have anyone better than those two?”

This question and its variants were prevalent during the World Cup as bewildered fans gazed upon host nation Brazil’s less than glamorous forward line. Given a response of a binary nature, “no” would be the closest answer to the truth.

Outside of the mostly ignored Diego Costa (until he decided to play for Spain that is) there were few names with the shine capable of obscuring Fred and Jô in Luis Felipe Scolari’s vision. The presence of Diego Tardelli as the foremost replacement in Dunga’s new-look Brazil only underlines the current lack of quality in the position. Those capable of ably carrying the burden of Brazil’s number nine shirt in this era faded away long before the World Cup.

Now, months after Brazil’s ignominious exit from the competition, one of these dimmed lights has returned to the country from a luxurious, self-imposed exile. After five years on the road, Nilmar is home, not just in the land of his birth, but at Internacional, the club where he is an idol.

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Where Unrest Fights Regret: A Reflection on Maradona

By Kizito Madu

The folly of youth is thinking itself invincible; so the adage of not declaring a man as having lived a happy life until he is on his deathbed still holds true mainly because of youth’s naïveté. Diego Maradona isn’t dead –in fact he’s full of life; recently recorded participating in a street fight after a night out—but he is an old man, and from his own words, he’s much older than his age suggests. In a recent interview with TyC Sports, Diego lamented that if he had not taken drugs, he would be a phenomenal player, adding “However, my daughters know that their old man - even though I am 53 years old - in reality it is as if I am 78 because my life has not been normal. It’s as if I had lived 80 years.”

There are two tragedies in this story: One of lost time and talent in the sense that the best player to ever bully and prance through a football pitch could have somehow been better, and the more funereal allegory of an ancient tragedy; the same characteristics that makes a hero endearing and admirable, become the cause of his downfall. Achilles with pride, Diego and grit. 

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The Unseen Tournament: AFR Captures the Copa Centroamericana

It can be tempting to write off any football tournament not named the World Cup, Copa America or European Championship as something of an excess. Without the most prominent international sides taking part, it can seem to the casual observer that tournaments outside of the most prominent few lack major stakes, with a trophy given out for the sake of giving out a trophy.

That perspective, while easy to slip into, is entirely misguided. No matter the venue, no matter the teams, no matter the players, international matches are perpetually imbued with history, culture, and aspiration, with fans always ready at a moment’s notice to display their national pride.

This past weekend, we took in the final round of the Copa Centroamericana, a tournament that serves as the Central American regional championship, with berths for the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and 2016 Copa América — the 100th anniversary of the famed tournament — up for grabs.

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The Oldest Footballer in England

Meet Dickie Borthwick. He’s approaching 79, and still plays football.

Beyond the immediate desire to want to kick around with him, this short film by Alex Knowles & James Callum focuses on a man who has been fortunate enough to share his whole life with the game. They made the film with the intent to dispel the myth that ‘old people are past it’ and instead introduce us to inspirational people with invaluable insight, exceptional passion, a never-ending supply of wonderful stories and a thirst for life that refuses to fade.

Mr. Borthwick notes that "football brings a lot of friends into your life… I’m there with young people all the time, playing football! At my age! What more can I ask for?" Cheers, Dickie, for reminding us to appreciate what we all have at our feet.

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SV Robinhood – From Suriname’s best to worst

By Nathan Carr

Success can be fickle. From perennial champions to relegation for the first time in their history, SV Robinhood’s plight is a reminder of how success is not always sustainable. Here is their story…
Based in Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo, the birthplace of some of the world’s most revered footballers such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Robinhood is a club steeped in history. Indeed, their trophy cabinet is packed with silverware: five Surinamese bekers, five Super Cups and an astounding 23 Hoofdklasse titles. But in recent times their dominance has waned, and now, after finishing bottom of the 2013/14 standings, they will play the new season in the second division, the Eerste Klasse. Something they have never done before.
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Founded in 1945, the primary reason for the club’s formation was to create community cohesion by offering Paramaribo’s poorest men the opportunity to play football. In an area where money and basic facilities were in short supply, Robinhood began in a barefoot league called the Tweede Klasse. Impressing in the lower levels, their route to the next stage in the pyramid was blocked purely because of a requirement to wear boots; an issue when Robinhood couldn’t afford to buy them. Eventually, two years after the club’s inception, they were presented with a dozen pairs of boots and promotion to the Eerste Klasse. At this time, Robinhood was a team comprised of naturally gifted players with raw abilities, and the people of Paramaribo were captivated, as Robinhood gained the nickname Geen Strijd, Geen Kroon (No Fight, No Glory). 
The team’s rise to the top was inexorable and in 1949, a mere four years following their creation, Robinhood found themselves in the Hoofdklasse, where all the best sides wanted to be. After finding their feet for the first couple of years, adjusting to the league’s differences, Robinhood were crowned top-flight champions in 1953 in style, sweeping aside well-known competitors Transvaal 5-0. This marked the beginning of a very special period. 
Jule Gersie was the man who engineered such a triumph, as he was able to mould together a great team which went on to win the title a further three times during his tenure. The legendary figures of Humphrey Mijnals, who, in 1999, was selected Surinamese footballer of the century, and Charly Marbach, represented the timeless quality of Robinhood’s squad at the time. 
But it was in the 1970s and 1980s when Robinhood really started to gain a stranglehold on the Hoofdklasse, in a golden era which was overseen by Ronald Kolf, perceived as one of the best coaches in the history of the Surinamese game. Otherwise known as “Ro”, he was formerly on the books of Robinhood as a youth team player before leaving for pastures new, but was brought back after scout Andre de Vries recommended signing him. The outspoken Kolf’s time with the club only lasted three years because, according to reports, he “had problems with the technical leadership.” He soon left to join Robinhood’s rivals, Transvaal, but that didn’t last long either, and Kolf then decided to begin training as a coach. Given his first job as boss of Transvaal’s juniors, his side went unbeaten and won the championship. Sure enough, he was entrusted with the role of managing the seniors and that was no issue as Kolf guided them to titles in 1967 and 1968. His impressive work gained the attention of Robinhood, who signed Kolf on the very first day of 1969, and the rest was history.
In this glorious era of success, Robinhood ruled Surinamese football with only occasional bouts of interference from Transvaal. From 1971 to 1989, Geen Strijd, Geen Kroon picked up a total of 13 Hoofdklasse trophies. Kolf’s men were fighting on all fronts, finishing runners-up in the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup (now the CONCACAF Champions League) in the 1976 and 1977 campaigns. In the 1980s, the club kept up their pursuit of winning a piece of silverware on the continental stage, but could only manage runners-up again, losing out in the 1982 and 1983 finals.
The club enjoyed two decades of glory and waved goodbye to the 80’s by playing Ajax, one of the most well-known clubs on the planet, in a double-header where they won one and lost one. Not only that, but Robinhood also set up its own youth development centre as a symbol of their progression. This proved to be very useful in the 1990s, as the nucleus of the team was taken apart – the inevitable result of success - and key players left for the Netherlands and other places. Robinhood did manage to win another two Hoofdklasse’s in 1993/94 and 1994/95, but sustained success certainly became less assured. At this stage, the academy had been running for around 10 years and had produced some talented players such as Marcel Reidewald, Johan Vorstwijk and Ricardo Anches, but the squad was nowhere near the standard of previous eras.
It is important to point out that Suriname football is not-professional, but rather, functions in an amateur way: players receive small amounts of compensation from their clubs on a semi-professional basis. Because of this, the majority of players tend to leave after one year as clubs cannot tie them down for a prolonged period of time. This results in a situation where it is extremely difficult to build a familiar, consistent team. The death of former Surinamese Minister of Sport, Caribbean Football Union President and FIFA Vice President, Andre Kamperveen, also had a significant effect on the exportation of the country’s top players and Robinhood’s downward spiral. Under Kamperveen’s supervision of football in Suriname, many players fled to the Netherlands and the quality of the Hoofdklasse decreased, leaving teams feeling rather empty-handed.
The current chairman, Ludwig Van Dijk, has been in his position for over a decade. From 2000 to 2014, Robinhood has won the title just twice (2004/5, 2011/12). Other teams have come to the fore during this time like reigning champions Inter Moengotapoe – who are harboring hopes of becoming the first Surinamese club to turn professional – and Walking Bout Company. As a consequence of key players and the great Kolf (who ended his long spell as coach in 2003, replaced by Ricardo Winter) leaving, Robinhood have suffered. Their title triumph three years ago was a blip as last season they fared terribly, failing to win a single game in 18 attempts. They conceded 53 goals, the most in the league, and finished 12 points adrift of Boskamp in ninth. The Eerste Klasse is unknown territory for Robinhood and they’ll be expected to go straight back up, back to where their supporters no doubt feel they ‘belong’. 
Those golden years seem an awful long time ago now. 
This piece was written by Nathan Carr, who also runs The Home of Caribbean Football. Comments below please.

SV Robinhood – From Suriname’s best to worst

By Nathan Carr

Success can be fickle. From perennial champions to relegation for the first time in their history, SV Robinhood’s plight is a reminder of how success is not always sustainable. Here is their story…

Based in Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo, the birthplace of some of the world’s most revered footballers such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Robinhood is a club steeped in history. Indeed, their trophy cabinet is packed with silverware: five Surinamese bekers, five Super Cups and an astounding 23 Hoofdklasse titles. But in recent times their dominance has waned, and now, after finishing bottom of the 2013/14 standings, they will play the new season in the second division, the Eerste Klasse. Something they have never done before.

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