Inside Access: My Day with the Brazilian National Team

“Excuse me can I have a fag at this station?” cackles a woman on the bench opposite, as I ponder my day ahead of me on the platform of High Wycombe station. “Erm not sure” I respond, having never set foot here before. “Well I’ll blame it on you if I get fined” came the reply. Charming. A typically British start to my day, but one that was to get a lot more cosmopolitan as I meander from station to station; Wembley Stadium my destination.

My phone pings in my pocket. It’s Brazilian national team journalist Rupert Fryer who I’m set to meet, for I am joining him on his typical day following some of the world’s most famous footballers around the globe.

“I’m running 30 minutes late”

“When you get to Wembley I need you to take some cool photos of the stadium. I want to set the scene.”

“I’m on it”, I reply. My first task for the day. I’m travelling to Wembley the day before England welcome Brazil to the national stadium, and it’s the visitor’s training session which I am reporting on.

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I alight at Wembley Stadium station and begin my way to the ground, the historic arch a prominent beacon guiding me on my way. No need for Google Maps today. The bitterly cold winds fail to deter the travelling Brazil fans; every now and again flickers of yellow and green shirts and scarves catch the setting sun, contrasting with the monochrome London skyline that swallows Wembley Way. These are mostly punters hoping to get a glimpse of the team bus arriving and seeing their heroes in the flesh.

I too, am hopelessly scurrying around trying to find out where the coach arrives. After asking an assortment of black-tie FA representatives who shrug their shoulders before sending me on my way, I hazard a guess and pick my place by the South entrance. No luck. I gaze up to Bobby Moore’s proud figure standing tall above Wembley Way; a centrepiece on football’s most emblematic table. I imagine he is probably laughing at me in spirit, having looped around his figure a dozen times in my haste.

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I soon see Rupert and we exchange pleasantries before heading into the concourse to avoid the cold. As I walk through the media entrance, the dynamics completely change. The composition of journalists is almost entirely Portuguese speaking, all surprisingly upbeat despite the jet-lagged, sleep-deprived demeanour, having spent last week in France.

“The last ten days I have worked 20-hour shifts” admits Rupert. “We started off in Paris, before moving onto Lille. After the match against Japan we travelled to London to train at Craven Cottage and now we’re here. I’ve not slept for five days!” he says with a wry smile before confessing, in his fatigued state, he also – accidentally – ‘did a runner’ from a small French café without paying the bill.

We are escorted pitch-side and met by the glorious Wembley floodlights illuminating the immaculate surface. There is a different vibe when the stadium is empty, an eerie silence seemingly in anticipation for the spectacles it holds. Brazilian legend of commentary Osires Nadal, who is treated like folklore amongst the journalists, takes his place pitchside. For someone who has cultivated a career at the Maracanã with the Seleção, I even catch him gazing ponderously and philosophically at the national stadium, which manager Tite later described as a ‘heritage site for world football.’

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Training soon commences with some light work. The players bask under the floodlights, enjoying a game of ‘El Rondo’, a quick passing drill. Willian is the first to fall victim with a skewed pass, and the players surround the Chelsea forward, each flicking his ear in punishment, to their own enjoyment.

Neymar pleases the gathering by getting revenge on Gabriel Jesus – The Manchester City forward went viral for nutmegging the Paris Saint Germain star two days prior, but this time it was Neymar out for vengeance. One member of the Brazil media team, armed with a Go Pro, catches the moment on our camera in glorious slow motion as ‘Ney’ pokes the ball through Jesus’ legs before reeling away in celebration, howling in laughter.

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Meanwhile, self-acclaimed ‘Brasilophile’, and reporter Jack Lang, marvels at Firmino’s use of ‘professor’ to describe boss Tite. It’s common terminology in Brazilian footballing dialect, and much like their style of play, is far more elegant than the contemporary English ‘gaffer’.

We are taken to the press room to warm up and to muse about who will be captain for tomorrow’s game. Tite has a unique philosophy of rotating the captaincy from game to game, which comes after friction was caused by stripping Thiago Silva of the captaincy during Dunga’s tenure. Dani Alves is the man to wear the armband, and he speaks to the media which now comprises of a mixture of English and Brazilian journalists. He brands Jesus as ‘the new Ronaldo’ (Brazilian) before being ushered back down the tunnel.

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The cohort of journalists remaining carry on working tirelessly, each writing up transcripts like myself, or broadcasting live on radio and television across the world. There is a notable buzz about the place as people race to reach deadlines for their respective companies. Soon enough people begin filtering out as their work for the day is done. Now on the itinerary is food, sleep, then back to work tomorrow.

I walk outside and look back towards the stadium now fully illuminated in the night sky. Tonight, Wembley sleeps, but tomorrow 90,000 people will descend on London to watch some of the finest footballing talent on show.

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Xemi Fernandez – From Barcelona to Oxford amidst Catalan Chaos

 “Even though it wasn’t an agreed referendum, it was an opportunity to express ourselves.

900 people reported injured. Police force used to attempt to stop the referendum; a referendum that arguably wasn’t legally agreed.

Some may forgive Oxford United midfielder Josep Fernandez Codina for concentrating on his new life in the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’, but nothing could stand in the way of the Spaniard from voting in the Catalan referendum.

When the Spanish midfielder, who goes by the name of ‘Xemi’, joined Oxford United from Barcelona B in the summer, he certainly didn’t plan on returning to his birth city so soon after moving into his new home in England. The Catalan parliament enacted its own law to approve an independence referendum on the 1st October.

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Xemi is very intelligent, not just as a player, but as a person. An unused substitute in the U’s 4-1 away victory at Peterborough, just 24 hours later, the former Barcelona hopeful was at the polling station amidst chaos.

“Personally, it was really important for me because I don’t think we have had the opportunity to express ourselves for about ten years on this” he said.  “Even though it wasn’t an agreed referendum, it was an opportunity to express ourselves.”

He speaks nonchalantly about the importance of the vote but his burning desire to wish a better life for his family back home is evident. At just 22-years old he shows a maturity towards the situation way beyond his years.

“Even if it is a yes or a no, it was no problem, but we had to show that we wanted to express ourselves about that. That’s why I voted and why I thought it was so important. I think from now, it has to change, and they have to allow an agreed referendum to let the citizens speak.”

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Such was the importance of the referendum to Catalan residents, Xemi had to vote in another town due to the length of the queues, in order to return back to Oxford the same day to make training the following morning.

“It was massive. My parents voted where they had to vote, and it took them maybe four hours. Everyone let the old people vote first so the younger people had to vote later because they didn’t want them to wait so many hours standing. So, I had to vote in another village.”

The Oxford United prospect avoided the conflict, and returned safely to his new life in England, setting his sights on regular football. Amongst this, Xemi is focusing his spare time into something extremely demanding and beneficial; a degree in medicine.

“It is something that I really like. It doesn’t bother me studying because I really enjoy it!” he says with burning enthusiasm. “Of course, one of the other good points is that I have all my friends back in Barcelona who are all at University which makes it even more attractive. I’m definite to complete the studies and I really like it.”

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Balancing football whilst studying for a degree may seem a tall order, but preparation for life outside of the game is paramount for any professional, no matter what stage in their career they may be. Xemi has taken this transition in his stride.

“Normally we have plenty of time in the afternoon, so I usually train in the morning, come back home, have some lunch and then usually study two or three hours most days. I don’t do it every day but normally I do it. I keep going day by day and at the end I can take exams and I can keep working at that.”

“It’s my first time living away from home, so it has been, I wouldn’t say tough, but there has been a lot of things to do. In the last two or three months I have been doing a lot of things, but I think now I am starting to have everything set and everything is okay. It has been two long months doing stuff and settling in as fast as possible.

“I’m finding Oxford really fantastic; it’s really nice and has many things to do. I am really happy with my apartment as it is close to the city centre and it is really nice for me. I am so happy.”

Despite the stark contrast between the U’s and his former club, the midfielder admitted the two sides surprisingly have a lot of things in common.

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“I would say both of them, even though you might think the opposite, have similarities. Barcelona is obviously a very familiar club and I think with Oxford it happened the same – when I first signed for Barcelona I thought no-one would know me, but everyone did and was so nice with me. It happened the same with Oxford.

“Training with some of the best players in the world, you know, that’s fantastic. You soon realise their level is really high. It’s of course a pleasure to be there and to train with them. You have to learn as much as possible when you are there.”

The Bite Fight – 20 Years On

“I have something he probably wants,” MGM Grand employee Mitchell Libonati proclaimed to a security guard. Resting in his gloved hand was a half-inch long piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, plucked from the canvas after the bout against Mike Tyson.

It was June 28th, 1997. Tyson had returned to boxing following a prison sentence and met Holyfield in the pairs second career bout. The first fight between them concluded in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, with Holyfield, ‘The Real Deal’ bullying the WBA and WBC heavyweight champion into a dramatic 11th round win. Tyson, humiliated, and with his personal life in turmoil, was fired up.

Promoted “The Sound and the Fury”, this second episode remains today in the top grossing boxing matches in history, making over $100 million. But it would never be remembered for the boxing.

The first two rounds passed with little incident, but what ensued in the third round has been remembered as one of the most shocking events to ever happen in the history of, not just boxing, but sport as a whole.

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Having been headbutted – ruled unintentional, in the eyes of referee Mills Lane – Tyson retaliated by sinking his teeth into Holyfield’s right ear, spitting the human flesh to ground. Tyson wasn’t initially disqualified for this, instead being docked two points by Lane. Granted a second opportunity, Tyson elected for the same barbaric, vile and illegal tactic in a bid to restore parity to the fight, this time biting Holyfield’s left ear. Holyfield screamed and jumped back in agony as he watched his opponent spit his own flesh onto the floor. Tyson was incensed. Possessed.

“He butted me in the second round, and he looked at me and butted me again. No one deducted points. This is my career. What am I supposed to do? I’ve got children to raise. He kept butting me,” Tyson alleged after the fight.

“Bullshit,” replied Lane. “The butt was an accidental butt. How many times do you want him to get butt? There’s a goddamn limit to everything, including bites. One bite is bad enough, two bites is dessert.”

It’s hard to distinguish precisely the motives behind the bite, with Tyson offering various vague half-apologies throughout the years. Ironically, just 24 hours before the fight, he described himself as “a professional who doesn’t get emotionally involved in anything” before later offering an insincere act of contrition, pleading for forgiveness as his career derailed before his eyes.

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More astonishing perhaps are the confessions of Tyson’s former trainer Teddy Atlas. He predicted to reporters on the evening of June 27th, that if he failed to secure an early knockout, the former heavyweight champion would “try to disqualify himself either by elbowing, throwing a low blow, butting or biting.” Shockingly, not only was it a sheer lack of human decency, it was most likely pre-meditated and part of his game plan.

Holyfield was rushed to hospital. The chunk of flesh plucked from the ring by Libonati was lost in transit to A&E and would never be seen again – at least until Tyson returned the piece of ear in a satirical advert by FootLocker – but nevertheless, the plastic surgeons did a stellar job at repairing the injury.

When faced with the question ‘Why did you bite Evander’s ear, Mike?’, sympathy and remorse has eluded Tyson since. “I just wanted to beat him up.” “I just wanted to kill him.” “I was enraged.” These are just a selection of the various faux excuses the former world champion has used to defend – or avoid condemning – his own actions.

It wasn’t until he was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s show, alongside Holyfield, where he mustered the first real show of repentance. Looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable, speaking nearly at a whisper, it was almost as if twelve years of conflict would finally come to an end. He said on the Oprah Winfrey Show “This is a beautiful guy,” gesturing towards Holyfield who was sat beside him. “Me and this guy basically both come from the sewerage, and we watched each other grow and become established and esteemed fighters. And I just want you to know that it’s been a pleasure passing through life and being acquainted to you,” he said extending his hand towards his former opponent. Holyfield accepted the hand, smiled and simply said “okay.”

Tyson and Holyfield eventually put the past behind them and could move on. Now, they seem to be in a good place with each other, appearing on Fox Sports poking fun at what happened in the ring two decades ago.

But would the pair ever face each other on the canvas again? Holyfield’s trainer Don Turner’s words remain true:

“Only if Tyson has his teeth removed. Only then.”

Steve Bruce: Neil Taylor’s Red Card to be Appealed

“In my opinion it is not a red because he has not shown his studs, he’s tried to kick the ball after watching it so in that respect the referee has got it wrong.”

Aston Villa took the plaudits at Villa Park this afternoon, after seeing off struggling opposition Bolton Wanderers 1-0.

The result means the visitors are without a win in their last eight games as Phil Parkinson’s side prop up the rear of the Championship table.

Despite this, Steve Bruce admitted it was a tricky game for his side.

“Look, it was a difficult afternoon. I always knew it was going to be. What you think of Bolton is that they’ve got good experience. Yes, they’ve had an awful start but they’re still fighting for their lives.

“I thought that the boy Henry in the middle of the park and Pratley were diligent. He sat in front of the back two and tried to stop the supply and made it what it was in the end, which was ugly. It needs a bit of quality and thankfully we’ve had enough to win the game.”

 

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The Aston Villa manager praised his side’s defensive effort, as the hosts managed to stay resolute despite late pressure from Bolton.

“Who knows, without the heroics at the finish in the last minute. I can’t remember them being in our half really other than they could have come away with a point, but I think that would have been undeserved.

“In my experience in the Championship, there’s going to be lots of occasions like that where, especially people coming to Villa Park. They look around the stadium and think ‘Wow, what a place to come and enjoy themselves’.

“It’s never going to be easy, and like I said they used every trick in the book – the goalkeeper got it and he took a minute to take a goal kick – and they did it very well.”

 

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A major talking point came in the last minutes of the game. Neil Taylor’s red card put a dampener on the host’s dominant display but Bruce admitted that he will appeal referee Jeremy Simpson’s decision.

“I’ve just looked at it again and there’s been lots of similar challenges to that if I’m being honest. The game was littered with fouls. It was a foul but probably a yellow card.

“In my opinion it is not a red because he has not shown his studs, he’s tried to kick the ball after watching it so in that respect the referee has got it wrong.

“In a different afternoon for him, there was so many challenges which went array so for me I hope he looks and thinks that’s a bit harsh really and let’s rescind it.

“After what I’ve just seen, yes [Bruce will appeal the red card]. I just hope the referee looks at it and is honest with it.

 

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“Look, it was a difficult afternoon on a really quick pitch and as I said some of the physical challenges, for example the two centre-halves have kicked [Jonathan] Kodjia and Kienan [Davis] into bits all afternoon. But that’s what the Championship is.

“After an awful start it has given us the platform of where we want to be. We are in better shape so I hope they come back now from the international duty and we look forward to October.

“It will set us up for the winter. There are still tons of games to go but we are in a much better position than where we were.”

Jack in the Box: Payne on Gillingham Victory

Having opened the scoring in today’s fixture against Gillingham, the pint-sized Jack Payne was buoyant after the convincing victory.

“Yeah, it was a really good afternoon for myself. Obviously, it’s really good to win, but to win in that manner, playing good football with a few good goals. I enjoyed that one a lot. The goal was nice, it’s something I look to do, getting on the scoresheet, and obviously in front of the fans who have been great so far, it was a really nice moment for me.”

When asked if Robbie Hall’s shot was already heading in, there was only one answer the diminutive midfielder would give.

“No, it definitely wasn’t going in.” he says with a grin. “It’s come at me quite quickly so I think that was the only thing I could have done with it so I was just pleased to see it go in really.

“First half we played well, obviously we didn’t get the goal but I think it was good that we stayed patient because we always felt it was coming. It was a relief when the first one went in and the rest followed pretty sharpish.”

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A summer signing from Huddersfield Town, the loanee has hit the ground running immediately, and already has an impressive eight assists and two goals to his name.

“It’s nice to hear that but you can’t get assists without a player scoring so it’s been a good team performance all round so far. Hopefully I can keep helping the team out.

“I don’t think they rely on me, I think we’ve got loads of good players, especially from an attacking point of view. We have goals coming from all areas, assists coming from all areas. But I think, in terms of the games, it’s always going to be different. The way the game is, is how I’ve got to react to it but I’m enjoying my football so it’s so far so good.”

Since his summer switch, the number 10 has fitted into Pep Clotet’s side seamlessly. And the 22-year old is loving life under the Spaniard.

“Especially with the type of player I am, you always want to play good football which is lively. Like you say we’ve got loads of good players so it’s really enjoyable to play in at the moment.

“We do have good players and as you’ve seen over the last few weeks, the more we’re playing together the better we’re getting. We practice movement a lot in training and it’s coming through onto the pitch which is great. When you train during the week, we work on as many scenarios as possible which are going to relate to matchdays. You can’t always recreate matchday scenarios but good players perform on the day.

“We’ve got loads of pace on the pitch, and even the players coming on, so it’s hard for the other teams and it creates space for players like myself and other attacking players. The more they stretch the game, the more space we get in the middle so it’s working really well.”

The lack of a cutting edge in the first half was the only downside to a performance in which the U’s dominated. But Jack admitted keeping a cool head was the key to a successful afternoon at Grenoble Road.

“For me personally, I wasn’t frustrated because I knew how well we had the ball and they were only going to get more tired as the game went on. The more we created, for a clinical team in my opinion, the goals were going to come. It seemed like the fans were very patient as well which was also helpful because if they get frustrated then sometimes it gets relayed on the pitch. The fans were really good. They were patient and so were we.

 

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With the deadline day signing of Alex Mowatt, who most believe his best position is in the role currently occupied by Payne, the midfielder took a positive stance to the added competition.

“For me it’s all about my own performance. If I keep playing well, then I shouldn’t have anything to worry about. I know he [Mowatt] can play out wide and he used to play centre-mid so I am looking forward to playing with him. He’s not necessarily competition in my position, but playing together is something I’m looking forward to.

“I think the longer we play together the better we’re going to get as a side. We work hard in training and if something goes wrong we look to correct it. I think the future is definitely bright this season. We have great players and the manager works hard so yeah, it’s exciting.

Oxford United 3-0 Gillingham – Match Report and Pep Clotet Reaction

Oxford United 3-0 Gillingham (Jack Payne 48′, Joe Rothwell 54′, Robbie Hall 55′)

Oxford United ran rampant this afternoon at the Kassam Stadium, with three goals from Jack Payne, Joe Rothwell and Robbie Hall in quick succession at the start of the second half, which saw off visitors Gillingham. The result means Gillingham are still without a win all season, and still without a single goal to their name on their travels.

A late change for the U’s before kick-off saw the young Canice Carrol come into the side to replace Christian Ribeiro, who hobbled off down the tunnel early in the warm up.

The opening exchanges were cagey to say the least, and as the storms rolled in across Oxfordshire, The Gills nearly took the lead. A delightful cross from Connor Ogilvie split the defence, but the imposing Conor Wilkinson headed wide from six yards unmarked.

Forming a debut partnership, deadline day John Mousinho and U’s captain Curtis Nelson looked unconvincing in the air in the early stages, with another Wilkinson header being wasted from a corner.

But the U’s found their rhythm, and after some words from Pep Clotet at half time, they put the visitors to the sword in the second half.

The U’s capitalised on the static Gills defence, and Huddersfield Town loanee Jack Payne opened the scoring on 48 minutes. Robbie Hall’s initial effort was saved, only to be picked up by Jon Obika. After a quick drop of the shoulder, he found Hall once more who steered an effort goalward. Payne was on the line to make sure the goalward effort was turned in with a neat flick.

 

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Joe Rothwell then got in on the action. A quite brilliant through ball from Payne – who now has eight assists and two goals to his name already this campaign – saw the midfielder bear down on goal uncontested, and the former Manchester United man made no mistake with a clinical finish from 8 yards.

And before Gillingham had even had time to draw breath, Oxford made it 3-0 through Hall just a minute later. Obika was sent scampering after a long ball, and a clever backheel found the lively forward. The in-form winger, who has four goals in his last three games, finished low at the near post to secure the three points for United.

Speaking to Pep Clotet after the game, he agreed that the second half was the perfect response, after struggling to find a way through the Gills defence in the first half.

“The only thing we discussed at half time with the players – and what we all agreed upon – was to have more space up front for our forwards, we need to build our football a lot quicker. We were too slow in the first half. We did keep the ball and we did dominate the game, but if we don’t play quick enough in our own half then it’s very difficult for us to have space in the front of the pitch.”

 

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Another positive in the game was the nature of the goal scorers. Three separate midfield players combined and scored, which the U’s manager believes will bode well for the season.

“Yes absolutely, I always think in the game that everyone attacks and everyone defends. When everyone attacks it means everyone gets to positions and they have to have the resources to unlock defences, and today the team showed that and I am very happy with that.

“[Home form] is massive for us because we always play in a way that if we win, then at least away we can get the draw and get the point. When we can do this in front of our home fans, they respect the fact that you need to be patient during the game to wear them out. When they are waiting for goals to come and you get a result like that it turns into strong form at home, and it is very satisfying. But at the same time, we know there are going to be difficult games in the league, and now Bradford at home is going to test again our strength and test our steel here again.”

Phil Edwards: A Missed Opportunity for Oxford United?

This morning, news emerged that defender Phil Edwards has signed for Bury FC following the termination of his contract.

Burton Albion released the 31-year old, who had been on loan at the U’s for the 2016/17 season and has subsequently been snapped up by Lee Clarke’s side.

Edwards soon became a popular figure amongst the Oxford United fans, establishing himself as a first-choice right-back ahead of youngsters Sam Long and Canice Carrol. His no-nonsense approach was a hit, and although being labelled a bit of a liability by some fans, the former Brewer’s habit of scoring in big games soon turned the critics.

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His stint in the yellow shirt was nothing short of successful, so has this been a missed opportunity to acquire some much-needed experience on a permanent deal? Contrary to opinion, I think not.

Although Phil plays with a stability, I do not believe he fits the style of play that Appleton implements, and in this instance, is looking for. Typically, we have seen the likes of George Baldock who plays direct and defends very high, looking to get the ball into attack as soon as possible. This is something we have significantly lacked this season, and I believe our side would thrive with another attacking wing-back. Our chance creation is already high, one of the highest in the league in fact, but I believe with an extra man in the box, which we wouldn’t perhaps get with Edwards, would see the U’s conversion rate increase.

Phil Edwards was undoubtedly a key figure in our successes this season, and will be remembered fondly, but I’m not too disappointed because, simply, our recruitment is good enough to find a better, and probably younger, replacement. Have faith.