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what happened to “Goal 2010”?

Eight years ago, the Football Association of Singapore claimed that Singapore would qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and subsequently created a project “Goal 2010”, which they embarrassingly retracted after a couple of years, when they realised its near-impossibility.

It’s halfway through the FIFA World Cup and while the Final 16 have been determined, my interest for this competition has hit an all time low. People have been asking me which team I am rooting for and I replied them all the same – “Singapore”. I find it strange (and quite ridiculously, to be honest) to cheer for another country’s colours; I struggle to find the passion to follow any team’s progress and I’m surprised at how apathetic I have been toward this entire competition.

I remember submitting an article on Goal 2010 during my second year in polytechnic for a module called “News Writing”. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing then-Tanjong Pagar United coach, Tohari Paijan. He was such a nice bloke and was extremely hospitable to an 18-year-old kid on an academic assignment. There was nothing in it for him yet he brought me along on one of the away matches – against Woodlands Wellington. I met him at Queenstown Stadium in the late afternoon and witnessed the final preparations before I hitched a ride in his car to Woodlands, went into the locker room to meet and greet the players (then Under-23 vice-captain Ratna Suffian and current national team player Daniel Bennett) and even sat on the team bench during the evening match! It was a fantastic and memorable experience, I must say.

So if you don’t mind, I thought it’d be pretty interesting to revive something that I penned two World Cups ago. I ascertained then that we were not going to make it to the World Cup in 2010 and my prophetic writing came true – I was right on the money (just like majority of Singaporeans who also found Goal 2010 an unachievable target).

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GOAL 20??
2nd April 2002 | by Joey Asher Tan

The current crop of young players, whose attitudes come under serious scrutiny, jeopardise the chances of GOAL 2010. As these are the players who will eventually take over the mantle of the national team, the fear of insufficient quality in the squad may seem much more real than it really is.

The FAS (Football Association of Singapore) has placed a somewhat unrealistic target to reach the World Cup by year 2010. The Southeast Asian lynchpin, Thailand, which consistently defeats Singapore, is lying at the bottom of their World Cup qualifying campaign, and still without a win. The struggle of Thailand only serves to mirror how long the distance Singapore must journey before qualifying for the World Cup finals.

Recently, Bora Mulitinovic claimed that he would reject the opportunity to coach Singapore. “Think about Argentina. Monday – football, Tuesday – football. In South America, they eat, sleep and drink football. It is their life,” he explains, “Then look at Singapore. It is clean and pleasant, a nice place to live in. But when you find a small patch of grass to play football on, there is a sign saying it is prohibited. That is why I wouldn’t coach Singapore. The philosophy and priorities are different”.

Indeed, his outspoken standpoint epitomises the gloomy mentality of Singaporeans – how many would actually consider a professional football career?

Tohari Paijan, coach of Tanjong Pagar United, states, “Majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, yet the S-League is dominated by Malays. We must convince the Chinese community to consider a career in football”. He believes Singapore can reach the World Cup, but not in year 2010. “The youth are not convincing enough; all they want is fame. Singapore’s young players have no aim and no ambition; they must ask themselves what they want in life. There are simply too many distractions for them”, declares Paijan.

R Suriamurthi, coach of the Under-16 squad, shares similar views with Paijan, “Times have changed. Back in my time, we eat, sleep, and breathe football, and even train up to five hours a day, sometimes training even three times a day. We just want to play football”. He compares this with the youth of today’s football, “Now training is just one and a half hours, that’s all the football they do. After that, we have no control over them – their diet, their sleep – we have absolutely no chance to monitor them at all. The youths think they have everything. It’s not like Alice in Wonderland; you don’t attain skills overnight”.

There are many things beyond a coach’s control. They have no say over policies and procedures. “The education system in Singapore is great, but this system is not suitable for footballers”, Suriamurthi explains, “There’s simply not enough time for training. My players also have to worry about homework and exams. It’s very stressful for them. Some of them also have girlfriends, handphones – and all these are distractions”.

Paijan states again, “Singapore lacks the proper infrastructure. Look at the condition of the pitch. Where is the groundwork?” He also questions the mindset of those players who don the national jersey, “Players must be willing to die for the team. They must put their heart and soul into the team. But where is their sense of belonging?”

Visions, goals, and targets – all these are values that must remain constant. “Jan Poulsen’s contract expires in two years. If a new coach comes in, he will want to run everything in his own different ways”, Paijan elaborates, “If we get a Brazilian coach, will we play samba soccer? If we get an Argentine coach, does that mean we will play tango football?” He frustrates, “Everyone has solutions, but the problem remains unsolved. Singapore is not willing to sacrifice her resources”.

Furthermore, Singaporeans must stop comparing the S-League to the English Premier League. This is simply because we do not have world-class players and excellent infrastructure. In Paijan’s words, “There’s no fight; the English Premier League is light years ahead of the S-League”.

Money will not buy a championship. Two world record transfer fees were splashed out for Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, but Real Madrid is now languishing in 14th position in the Spanish Primera Liga. That is precisely why Paijan places his faith in the youth policy. Tanjong Pagar United have since nurtured highly-rated young players in the mould of Ratna Suffian and Daniel Bennett.

On top of talent and technical ability, Tohari Paijan and R Suriamurthi also stress the magnitude of attitude. Tohari’s players echo his opinions; Ratna Suffian, vice-captain of the Under-23 squad, asserts, “There is a lot of talent out there, but attitude is much more important than talent. Discipline is also crucial for a player’s development”.

Daniel Bennett, who shone in the recent exhibition matches against Liverpool and Manchester United, also reinforces Ratna’s views, “Without attitude, talent is nothing”. Bennett, who qualifies to play for the Singapore team, is an exceptional talent. It is imperative that Singapore does her best to hang on to this colossal asset. A true-blue homegrown player, he steadily rose through the ranks of Tanjong Pagar United’s youth academy. “Robert Lim discovered me in the Milo Cup, and he brought me to Tanjong Pagar”, Bennett recalls.

All we need is a just one good young player to rise up each season. If the S-League can unearth a Ratna Suffian or a Daniel Bennett every season, then there will be light at the end of the tunnel. The Singapore team needs match winners; one Indra Sahdan Daud is simply not enough.

Get the infrastructure right, keep Jan Poulsen in Singapore for a long time, invest heavily in the football academies and centres of excellence, look out for promising talent in the S-League, and most importantly, correct the players’ ailing attitudes, and only then, Singapore’s dream of the World Cup finals will be realised much sooner than later.

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how should you apply and appreciate talent?

As I lounged into my seat to observe AS’s piano recital at the Yong Siew Toh Music Conservatory yesterday, I realised that I grew frustrated at my inability to fully appreciate the beauty of the Chopin pieces that she was apparently playing so brilliantly. It was an accomplished performance, no doubt; her fingers moved so much faster than I could move my lips, musically it sounded like a formidably difficult piece to pull off with so many off-beats, odd synchronisations, and flats and sharps that seem to fit in perfectly when they normally would sound out of place. It was only the second time I saw Singapore’s child (now teenage) prodigy in action but there I was, reclined in my comfortably red seat, wishing that my musical knowledge was more inclined so that I could appreciate her performance at the level that it was meant to be appreciated at.

How do you enjoy a performance you can’t appreciate? I’m inclined to believe that talent is best appreciated by the talented, for our enjoyment is vastly limited and restrained to our personal capacities and standards – I could never fully comprehend the difficulty of AS’s piano pieces and the level of her accomplished techniques; my enjoyment was sadly limited to a mere sensory admiration, instead of a technical, emotional and intellectual appreciation. Football, music and even preaching are all art in various forms but our appreciation of even its respective equipment knowledge or showmanship styles has been greatly marginalised due to our ignorance of these art forms. We won’t even be able to comprehend the painstaking efforts and countless hours invested to perfect the art.

I found myself asking two questions:

  1. How should you apply the talent at your disposal?
  2. How should you appreciate the talent on display?

So as I fidgeted in my seat, I naturally recalled the parable of the talents, where it’s not about how much talent you have, but about what you do with it. Each of us would have our assigned lots in life. The whole idea is to utilise the lot in the best way you know how to; for the more you use it, the better you get at it and may possibly even acquire new skills along the way. I think this is applicable to any art form. Think about it – if I decide to practise scales in a bid to up my guitar playing ability, and I get good at it, I will open up the door to new genres of music for me to learn and appreciate. In football, if I put myself through dribbling drills, I will eventually get stronger on my weaker leg, and I will open up the option of eventually shooting or crossing with my weaker foot. Before I could polish my abilities as a lead singer, I had to ensure that my basic singing abilities were above average. Practice doesn’t just make perfect – it paves the path for new skills.

I remember a quote by John Keating from one of my all-time favourite movie, Dead Poets Society:

“… And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love…

These are what we stay alive for.”

I think that beauty is multi layered – where one standard of excellence is carefully smuggled beneath another. I juxtapose the foundations of three art forms – the left and right hand of a pianist, the skill and the fitness of a footballer, and the preparation and oration of a preacher. The pursuit of excellence and the discovery of new art forms will exponentially enhance and elevate our appreciation of life.

the therapy of shouting.

First and foremost, I must say that VY and I had a pretty bromantic evening watching Man Utd beat Spurs and return to the top of the summit where they rightfully belong. I’ve always enjoyed his fellowship, not just because he’s frank and spontaneous, but also because I enjoy pondering over his radical perspectives on certain issues. We are both dreamers and visionaries – I think that’s where we click. Above and beyond the VictorY we enjoyed (pun unintended), it was the brotherhood and conversation that I will remember more.

We shouted many times during this match and we screamed three times over two converted penalties and a delightful little lob – it was a natural expression of a dichotomy of emotions experienced throughout the course of a 90-minute match. This got me thinking about how football is synonymous with yelling – it has to come together. Perhaps that’s why the mid-week middle-of-the-night matches are a little more excruciating to watch because we don’t want to wake the other people who are already sleeping soundly in the house; the best we could do is to shout into a cushion, muffle our voices or simply shout without opening our mouths. If I had to watch a game of football in absolute silence, I’d rather not watch it.

Men turn into part-time football talk show hosts at every live soccer game. We discuss tactics and question managers’ intelligence, reminisce history (and when and how we started supporting our teams), speculate the final score and scorers, laugh at players, joke about Liverpool (sorry, couldn’t resist), applaud great moves, raise our hands and shout “Mine!” at every throw-in or bury our faces in our hands and let out a string of substitute expletives at the miss of an open goal. We do all that because it enhances the experience of watching football with someone; and yes, it’s always better to watch a live game with a buddy.

Aren’t these the reasons why we even watch football? Why do we sit behind a TV screen cheering for teams and players that have absolutely no effect on our quality of life? Why we would spend prime time on a weekend evening just to watch the Premier League or risk coming to work groggy and being screamed at by intolerant bosses on a Wednesday or Thursday morning just to watch the Champions League? For crying out loud, most of us aren’t even able to execute 10 percent of the moves that we see on the screen yet we criticise the players as if we were the ones who trained them. I think it’s because we love the game – the game is lovely; we need to express ourselves and we do it best when we shout. For men, it’s almost primal and barbaric, but hugely gratifying.

That’s precisely why I’ve decided to install MioTV in my room, instead of in the living room. Next season, I want my buddies and I to scream without reservations or fear of disturbing my family members. I want to shout with freedom and I want to express myself; I want to be therapeutised. There you go, I’ve justified the transfer.

So gentlemen, go ahead – scream at the top of your lungs, give (manly) high-fives, exchange (manly) hugs and get decked in your favourite colours. Do whatever it takes to bring yourself a little nearer to the football in England, even though you have absolutely no bearing on the eventual result. Do it – you’ve had a hard week and you owe it to yourself. Keep watching, keep shouting. For one day they may just be able to hear you. Really.

the best four-letter word in Korea.

He never stops running, ever – After a good night’s sleep dreaming about running, Park runs out of bed and runs around the kitchen making breakfast like Morecambe and Wise on crack. He then runs himself a bath, runs laps at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground, runs back home in the evening and then runs to the shop because he’s run out of milk.” (Source: Sport.co.uk)

What a candid and fitting description of possibly the most famous Asian footballer of all time!

The majority of us are convinced that Park Ji-Sung was purchased to sell shirts. Regardless of his stellar performances, the everyday skeptics would never recognise Park’s contribution to Man Utd’s tactical extension. While being with a successful team has enabled him to become the first Asian to ever feature and the only Korean to ever win the Champions League final (against Barcelona and Chelsea respectively), we should also remember that he’s the captain and highest scorer of an undefeated national team in the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign and the only Asian team that has reached the World Cup semi-finals. Park is also the first Asian to ever captain Man Utd (even for just a few minutes) and to win the FIFA Club World Championship.

When I lived in Shanghai, I used to play football every Sunday morning with a team of Singaporeans and I squirmed when they called me Park; I don’t know if it was because of resemblance or because of my constant running (no, really), but I’d like to think it’s the latter because a few of them keep telling me to stop running!

I became a fan of Park Ji-Sung when I visited South Korea last July – it was there that I realised how massive Park was, and how, when I use his name (in vain), it gets me places. I thought, “Hmm, I should just introduce myself as Park since I’m already used to it”. And so I did. With all the broken Korean an-nyong-ha-se-yo that I could speak, I introduced myself as Park whenever I met a South Korean, be it the innkeeper or the owner of the amusement park. “My name, Park.” Without fail, they break out into a hearty chortle every single time.

It sets them at ease immediately and builds up a sense of familiarity between two strangers. With that audacity to shamelessly pretend to be the national hero, I received massive discounts, unexpected favours, patient answers to annoying tourist questions, and most precious of all, I experienced the South Korean hospitality and smile in the warmest way possible. And being shrewd, you can imagine how I continued with that introduction for the rest of the trip. I have so much to thank you for, Ji-Sung. And I didn’t even need to run!

The more I watch Park play, the more I enjoy his honest, hardworking and tenacious contribution to Man Utd. He has consistently proven his credentials and deserves all the accolades after scoring in big matches and against big teams like AC Milan, Arsenal and Liverpool. He willingly covers every blade of grass for his teammates and has rightfully earned the nickname,  “Three-lung Park”. He’s not quite at legendary status, I think he has confirmed his status as a United great and will surely enjoy a “cult hero” treatment in the stands and in our living rooms for the rest of his career.

“I didn’t think that (Park was bought just to sell shirts)… …When I went to see him play in those Champions League semi-finals for PSV Eindhoven in 2005, I thought this is a player who understands football. He is intelligent and disciplined and he can play different positions.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

“When Ji first arrived in Manchester he never talked and people didn’t know much about him. But when we arrived in Seoul you can see he is the King of Korea! They shake, they cry, they scream when they see him. It’s amazing. He’s like the David Beckham of Korea. I’m very happy for him because he’s a really good friend and on the pitch he always gives 100 per cent for the team. That’s why people love him.” – Patrice Evra

“I know that some of the Korean players are doing very well in England… …And Park has started very well. I think he has made his name at Eindhoven first and in the Champions League has convinced. When you play against him, he’s a very hardworking player who sacrifices for the team but as well has good skill and scores important goals, unfortunately, against us. I’m convinced by his quality. He has a top level attitude.” – Arsene Wenger

“When we were scouting Park at PSV, I went to see him at the quarter-finals against Lyon. What we identified was a player with a great understanding of space. When his team had the ball, his movement was clever. We saw a player who could penetrate in the last third of the field and that is why we bought him. Since then he has developed his tactical and technical ability and he has become a very important player for us. He has had a fantastic career with us. When a local lad like Ji-Sung has left his country to play for Manchester United and excel at the highest level then it is obvious he will receive adulation at home. He has been the star of the national team for a while too. This is a football nation and when they see Park doing well and then when he comes back, the reaction is understandable.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

We used to dread Park’s inclusion on the team sheet but now we feel more confidence with him in the starting 11; he has indeed proven to worldwide audiences that hard work pays off after all. He is an inspiration for all Asians – if he could do it for Man Utd, surely one of the billion others could.

I’ve spent a fair amount of money on Man Utd and this was the first time I received financial dividends. If you ever happen to be in Suwon (Park’s hometown), look out for Park Ji-Sung Road – this unprecedented road-naming for a living person honours Park’s sizable contributions to South Korea through football. Remember also, to use the most powerful four-letter word – P-A-R-K.

Keep watching, keep believing and keep working hard. For one day, worldwide success (and local discounts for your fans) will surely knock on your door.

football creates memories and conversations.

As most of you would know, this blog would naturally be about topics close to my heart. Amongst these things is football, of course.

This love affair started in 1994, when Man Utd whipped the living daylights out of Chelsea in an emphatic 4-0 victory at the FA Cup Final. It was the first time I watched football on TV, the first time I watched United, and the first time I saw in action L’Enfant Terrible, Le King, Eric Cantona. Proud as a peacock, he scored two penalties to secure the win and there was no denying an instant admiration for the puffed-up chest, erect collar, nose-in-sky arrogant swagger; he is the sole reason why I’m a Man Utd supporter, why I like #7 and why my preferred position has always been as a support striker.

Well, I was hoping to write this article at the back of an away United victory at the Allianz Arena, but alas, that utopia could not materialise. Instead, very ironically, Munich exacted its revenge on United in the same manner almost 11 years ago and scored the winner late in injury time. That moment in time, my friends, has to go down as one of the highlights of my life (although it had absolutely nothing to do with me).

There’s something special about football that allows guys to channel that barbaric, unbridled energy into something decibel-defying and of course in time to come, conversation-starting. It’s just like how Singaporean boys would congregate and chatter non-stop about their NS days even though majority of them slam it. Girls would probably never comprehend this love-hate sentiment boys have for NS; in the same way, most of them still do not understand offside, in spite of umpteen patient explanations. They just don’t get it, do they?

Back to football, it was on 26 May 1999 that my most distinct football memory was constructed. I watched it together with CC at his house and it looked like United was set to collect the runners-up medal. United conceded a goal in the 6th minute and Munich played a tremendous game to protect that precarious lead. In the 91st minute, Sheringham scored the equaliser from a Beckham corner. To put it very mildly, we went berserk – a barbaric celebration of screaming, shouting, hugging, hollering, decibel-defying madness. Just as we were about to settle down, Beckham stepped up again to take another corner in the 93rd minute and Solskjaer put the ball at the back of the Germans’ net from close-range to send 300 million fans into raptures. To put it very mildly again, we went ballistic – an even more barbaric celebration of screaming, shouting, hugging, hollering, decibel-deafening insanity. We weren’t the only ones replacing the rooster’s early morning crow – the whole neighbourhood was either with us, or woken up by us.

CC watched this morning’s loss with me at my place. We reminisced about the buzzing feeling that we had when we trotted off to school a couple of hours later. We were riding on the cloud nine of 1999. It was like we needed to tell everyone about the adrenaline-filled, lung-busting once-in-lifetime adventure we had just moments ago. Ask any twenty-something year old United fan about that night and I promise you an instant, enthusiastic conversation to follow. Observe the sparkle in his eye as he revives the memory that’s still fresh in his mind.

Now that’s the power of football – to create memories and conversations. Keep watching, keep screaming.

no, they really can’t hear you.

I can’t quite put a finger to it, but there’s just something that I don’t quite enjoy about American sports; I could never identify with the supposed excitement of baseball, basketball, ice-hockey or American Football. (Okay, maybe American Football’s an exception because I’ve really enjoyed The Blind Side or Remember The Titans.) In a nutshell, I cannot and do not appreciate these sports. On the other hand, I find football, and to a lesser extent, rugby, immensely more absorbing. I’ll classify these as European sports.

I’m inclined to think that American sports mimic fantasy while European sports mimic reality. Allow me to elucidate.

In a world of fantasy, there’s always something happening at every minute – be it a high and constantly scoring game like basketball, the player-bashing and violence of ice-hockey, the hope of catching a baseball that’s hit out of the playing arena, or the pre-game, half-time and post-game entertainment elements of the Super Bowl.

Whereas in the reality of European sports, spectators patiently (and optimistically) watch and wait for long periods of time in the game without any action. Then in a moment of sheer brilliance, our breaths are stolen by a mesmerising dribble, a defence-splitting pass, a thunderbolt shot, a trajectory-impossible free kick, a audaciously converted penalty or an incredible gravity-defying save. Our lives in the real world are not dissimilar – long periods of mundane monotony interrupted by a few spectacular and memorable events.

European sports contain the kind of moments that commentators often describe as “edge of your seat”. However, in American sports, there are so many edge-of-your-seat moments that you watch the entire game melted your couch, and head for a water and toilet break without hesitation, because you know that there’s gonna be another specular moment later. When everything is exciting, nothing is anymore.

The funny thing is, regardless of fantasy or reality, we all tune in to our favourite game of basketball or football on TV to be plugged into a world of fantasy (or should I say, non-reality), where deadlines and expectations disappear for that couple of hours.

Perhaps that’s the reason why football-junkies become addicted to Football Manager or Winning Eleven annually (when new versions are released), nullifying the trophy-less frustrations and building that dream team that real-life supported football clubs cannot seem to deliver.  And perhaps that’s why we enjoy planning a well-deserved holiday for ourselves – to get away from all the real-life predicaments we face in the office and at home.

Well, we can’t escape reality and go on a holiday all the time, but we certainly can enter into our worlds of fantasy with our weekly dosages of watching our favourite teams play on our larger-than-life LCD TVs. Maybe that’s why we experience euphoria each time our team scores. Keep watching, keep screaming, keep thinking that they can actually hear you.

if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

In football (or any sport), there is would be nothing more humbling and sobering than to have a 18-year-old take the place of a 28-year-old in the first 11. And it is because of this youth threat that teams like Manchester United, Barcelona and Arsenal would always be ahead of the pack in the longer run. Both teams do it differently – United and Barcelona are not afraid to blood their own youngsters by replacing senior players in the big games while Arsenal is simply a youth team with a couple of senior players.

That has to be the greatest vote of confidence that Sir Alex Ferguson, Josep Guardiola or Arsene Wenger could give to the younger ones. This “I believe in you” that the vastly experienced managers tell the vastly inexperienced kids give them the drive to succeed and the belief that they are actually good enough. This realisation probably sounds like this, “Wow, this world-class manager actually believes that I can go on and help team win. I cannot disappoint him!” And the introduction of youth forces the senior and more established players to sit up, roll up their socks, get their act together and start to pull their weight and measure their contribution to the team like multimillion-dollar paid players.

The introduction of youth brings a certain amount of vigour and reinvigoration to a team. I’m sure the older and slightly more jaded players get refreshed by the sheer enthusiasm and energy that these youths have for football. That is the reason why we enjoy watching the three teams that I’ve mentioned and we tend to switch off when we watch a team like Chelsea, which Sir Alex has famously said before, “A team over 30 doesn’t improve a lot”. AC Milan is the odd exception though, being a retiree’s home; while the departure of Kaka has made them a less attractive football spectacle, they still play some decent football; putting Ronaldinho, Beckham, Pato and Pirlo together still produces a fair amount of flair and good football.

When I examine Chelsea – a team with everyone on the wrong side of 30, I see a 32-year-old Frank Lampard backed up by a 34-year-old Michael Ballack and a 28-year-old Petr Cech backed up by a 35-year-old Henrique Hilario. They do not produce their own youngsters (buying doesn’t count!) and they currently do not have any outstanding youngsters that look like they could successfully replace someone in the first team. In short, I think that there is no future in the team. They are all hanging on to current and former glories and can only hope to sustain its success by preserving its existing team. If you want to determine the long term regenerative success of a club, you simply need to scrutinise the set-up of its youth academy. Just look at teams like Olympique Lyon and Ajax Amsterdam as good examples.

It’s commonly said that “Form is temporary and class is permanent”. May I add on my five cents worth and say that while that is true, it is the average age of the team that determines its long-term reality; if you have no youth, you have no future. Many times we hear the statement, “The youths are the leaders of tomorrow”. I think that that is euphemised rubbish from cowardly leaders who do not put their money where their mouth is – it’s like saying, “Yes, yes, you do have potential, but you don’t have ability yet, so I can’t give you the platform to perform. I, on the other hand, believe that the youths are the leaders of today. It applies to football and it applies to any organisation. In the words of the legendary Sir Matt Busby, If they are good enough, they are old enough”. I rest my case. May the youths of today pave the way for the youths of tomorrow.

But I digress. Now back to football, it’s three youthful and resounding cheers to the United, Barcelona and Arsenal philosophy of playing their football. Keep watching, keep believing in youths.

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