Monday, December 20, 2010

Underachievement Films of the Year

It wasn't the greatest of years for cinema, to be honest, and it's hard to figure why, unless the planets pulled sufficiently at once to put filmmakers from Buenos Aires to Tokyo to Rome sufficiently off their game. There were certainly no more bad films than usual out there this year (though certainly more than usual involving George Clooney) but few stood out. There were plenty of competent modest works made by up-and-coming directors and more established ones (even Woody Allen weighed in with a surprisingly decent film). But the films that will last can probably be counted on one hand. That said, all the films in the top ten here are worth a look and more than a few from the list of the rest at the bottom of the page. As ever in this end-of-year list my criterion for inclusion is a French release this year, hence the omission of certain films, such as Mike Leigh's Another Year (not yet released here) and Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman (here last year), that might otherwise have made it. There are also films missing that I missed - Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth is one I would love to have seen but it just didn't happen for one reason or another. There are films that aren't there because I thought they were awful cack (yes, I'm thinking of you, Inception) and finally, there are films that may not have been released elsewhere this year, putting me either ahead or behind the time on that count.

Enjoy reading and watching and feel free to argue strongly about anything that you think should or shouldn't be there.

1. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu - Romania)

Corneliu Porumboiu surfed the wave of the New Romanian cinema in 2006, when he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for his first film 12:08 East of Bucharest. Based on his own experiences working as a cameraman in local TV, the film was a witty political comedy, which queried, in mock-heroic fashion, whether there actually was a revolutionary movement in a small Romanian town before Ceausescu abdicated at 12:08 on the 21st of December 1989. It played with themes of bravado and bragaddoccio familiar to every liberation movement, and its good-natured puncturing of faux-heroism was best exemplified by the film taking place during the none-too-momentous 16th anniversary of the revolution.

Porumboiu returned to Cannes last year with his second film Police, Adjective, a similarly astute examination of the legacy of the Securitate police state in contemporary Romania. Dragos Bucur plays Cristi, a young conscientious small-town cop, who is entrusted with tailing a trio of schoolkids who smoke hash during their lunchbreak. His boss and the public prosecutor both want a bust and the kids sent down but Cristi is reluctant to wilfully destroy the lives of the youngsters with a certain prison sentence when he is naively convinced that the drug laws will soon be overhauled. Cristi also suspects the older brother of one of the kids of trafficking, thereby giving him an extra incentive to bide his time.

It all sounds like a low-rent version of The Wire, and there are superficial similarities with the HBO show (it is not too surprising either that HBO’s Romanian arm was involved in financing this film). But the scale is much smaller, with the focus firmly on Cristi, a droopy but sympathetic figure, a Bartleby-in-the-making, who questions everything – the law, his superiors, the grammatical exigencies of the Romanian Academy that his schoolteacher wife tells him about. It would be a stretch to say Cristi is idealistic but he is responding naturally to what he perceives to be the absurdity and the injustice of the system he is forced to work in.

Cristi’s boss, police chief Anghelache is a formidable, malevolent figure played with great brio by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. He is the ultimate arbiter, who holds the fate of all, his terrified employees and the townspeople alike, in his grasp. The showdown scene between him and Cristi is a masterpiece of dark sardonic comedy. Police, Adjective is an improbably gripping drama, filmed at a languid pace and with a lightness of touch that has been compared to Jim Jarmusch. But unlike the watery brew of Jarmusch’s work, in Porumboiu’s films, the characters have no refuge from contemporary society, nor from history itself.

2. Des hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois – France)

Beauvois, the great autodidact of French cinema, turns his focus once again to an enclosed group of men, following his engaging police drama from 2006 Le petit lieutenant. This time, the subject matter is the sombre tale of the Tibherine monks, a community of French Trappist brethren based in a village in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria, who were massacred, allegedly by Islamists, in 1996, at the height of the Algerian Civil War. Beauvois, a decidedly non-spiritual filmmaker, is at ease documenting the artisanal day-to-day life of the monastery, with many sequences recalling Philip Gröning’s masterly documentary Into Great Silence, about the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse.

The monks enjoy a good relationship with the Muslim villagers, not least because of the free medical clinic they run, but they are threatened by the advent of Islamic fundamentalism. A pair of Croatian contractors get their throats cut at a nearby building site and then an armed group of FIS jihadists turns up at the monastery on Christmas Eve, demanding medicine for one of their wounded. They go away empty-handed but the monks are left with a quandary, whether they should leave for their own safety, abandoning the villagers or to stand their ground, putting themselves at risk and also inviting accusations of colonial arrogance. The latter is the view of the local police chief, who wants them gone. He sees them as a legacy of French imperialism and he also would have them out of the way for him to prosecute his intended dirty war against the FIS. The villagers, however, saddled with unbearable poverty and terrified at the onslaught of radicalism, want them to stay.

Given the fate of the monks is well known to the viewer – or certainly in France, at least – the film plays out as a sombre foretelling of their doom to come. The monks vote to stay, though there are some who clearly do not want to. The cast does a superb job laying bare the terrified vulnerability of unremarkable men, and one has to hand it to Beauvois for having the nous to choose one of the frothiest of French actors, Lambert Wilson, to play the abbot Christian. Christian is a frail, bookish presence, but a man who shows stirring fortitude when forced to take a stand against the menace he and his community faces. The film builds to its inevitable climax with an intensely moving last-supper scene set to the strains of Swan Lake, before the monks who fail to escape are taken away as hostages by the Islamists. Controversy still hangs over the death of the monks, whose heads were discovered at an FIS encampment several months after their kidnapping. In recent years, fresh allegations claim the Algerian security forces accidentally killed them in a botched raid and then dressed the killings up to make them look like they were executions. The order has since decamped across the border to Morocco. Des hommes et des dieux is a simple, beautifully-mounted film about one of the countless tragic episodes of Algeria’s bloody civil war.

3. Ajami (Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani – Israel)

The fact that the Oscar-nominated Ajami was co-directed by the Palestino-Israeli Copti and the Jewish Shani might give the impression that the film is one of those humanistic reconciliatory dramas so beloved of fok who prefer to see the Palestine-Israel situation as an unfortunate falling-out between neighbours who really should know better. Ajami is however made of darker matter and does not easily bend to ‘why-can’t-we-all-get-along’ flummery. The film is set in the eponymous impoverished neighbourhood in Jaffa, home largely to Palestino-Israelis, and beset by both organised and petty crime. The film follows a number of interconnecting stories, a local family that is the target of extortionists; a teenager from the West Bank, who has entered Israel illegally in an attempt to earn money to pay for his mother’s operation; an Israeli cop whose brother has gone missing and a small-time drug dealer whose Jewish girlfriend doesn’t go down well in the neighbourhood.

Ajami is a straightforward enough crime film, filmed with all the energy and streetwise verve of a young Scorsese. It also casts a light on a community that is largely ignored by even the more liberal wing of Israeli filmmaking, and also on that community’s own ambivalent relationship with its brethren from the occupied territorities. The film is neither a plea for tolerance nor a polemical insistence that inter-communal relations are beyond repair. It is, rather, a hard-nosed portrayal of a marginalised community, a film that is not afraid to show the Israeli police humiliated by the Arab locals, something that hardly went down well with some members of the current Israeli government. In a further twist, a recent attempt by Jewish residents of Jaffa to restrict muezzin’s calls in Ajami because of noise complaints is strangely reminiscent of one episode in the film.

4. The Robber (Benjamin Heisenberg – Austria)

Based on the true story of Johann Rettenberger, a marathon runner who moonlighted as a bankrobber, Heisenberg’s second film is a fascinating unflinching portrayal of a man tracked. Rettenberger leaves prison at the start of the film, having gained the approval of the authorities with his assiduous training and endurance running. He continues this upon his release and becomes a minor star, coming from nowhere to win the Vienna marathon. Neither, however, does he give up robbing banks. We are never told why, but back-story doesn’t really matter. What does is Rettenberger’s relentless resistence to captivity. His desire for freedom is instinctive, animalistic and, at times frightening. There is more than a touch of Peter Handke's The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, about The Robber, and the shadow of Jean-Pierre Melville also looms over proceedings. It’s a stark, pessimistic, but deeply admirable film by a young director who looks to have a great future ahead of him.

5. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán – Chile)

The Atacama Desert was the centre of world attention for a few days in October as thirty-three miners were lifted to safety after more than two months underground. Chilean president Sebastian Piñera and his government wasted no opportunity to turn the rescue into a grand media event. It was a canny piece of stage management that ensured a better public image for Chile’s right-wing leader than the last one of a similar political hue, Augusto Pinochet.

Patricio Guzmán was a victim of Pinochet’s regime, being forced to flee Chile after the 1973 coup d’état that toppled the government of his friend Salvador Allende. Since his return to his native land, he has chronicled the dark days of Chilean democracy’s demise in documentaries such as The Battle of Chile and Salvador Allende. In his latest film he heads to the Atacama, indulging the passion for astronomy he has held since he was a child, and filming and interviewing scientists at the world-famous La Silla and Paranal observatories. But the Atacama Desert is also where a number of Pinochet’s victims were unceremoniously buried. Guzmán meets some of their relatives, including an oprhaned daughter who now works at the observatory as an astronomer and who reminds us that the living and the disappeared are all essentially stardust.

One thing that strikes you about the relatives (something I’ve also noticed with the relatives of the Disappeared in Argentina) is their dignity. They are holders of a righteous anger but you never get the sense they are consumed by bitterness or a thirst for revenge. Though they have never attained anything like the justice they deserve, they have always comported themselves infinitely better than those who aligned themselves with Pinochet’s regime. The latter are people such as President Piñera’s brother José, the General’s labour minister, whose website continues to use a 1973 editorial by the Economist as a threadbare rationale for the defence of fascism and state-sanctioned murder in Chile. Nostalgia for the Light is a gentle but angry work, a vital corrective to a media mogul’s government that would try to use the rescue of the workers it has always held in contempt to absolve itself of its historical sins against the people of Chile.

6.A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA)

Bar a few nods here and there, the Coens have rarely touched on Judaism in their films. They seem archetypal examples of what Greil Marcus once diagnosed in Bob Dylan – the Jewish American desperate at all costs to integrate himself into the goy mainstream. This is what makes A Serious Man such an exotic, and pleasant surprise. From its non-sequitur opening scene in the Polish-Ukrainian shtetl to a suburban setting in the late 60s that is so square it might as well be the 50s, it feels like nothing the Coens, or anyone else, have done. You imagine they had this in mind when choosing their cast entirely from unknowns or seasoned character actors. That said, there are familiar Coen themes and tropes in there, not least the title character, Larry Gopnik, played with magnanimous angst by Michael Stuhlbarg, who battles against forces trying to deprive him of tenure at his university, WASP neighbours that might just be vicious anti-semites and his wife, who, well, just takes him for a ride. A wonderfully entertaining, occasionally disturbing film that even has the outlandish audacity to suggest that a Korean student could possibly have flunked a maths exam. Yeah, pull the other one…

7. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa – Russia)

Celebrated documentary filmmaker Loznitsa moves into fiction for the first time, for an enigmatic yet entrancing film about a trucker’s violent progress across Russia to deliver a shipment of flour. If it were cheerier you might call it picaresque. Georgy’s adventures are interlarded with episodes from the Soviet era, which may or may not have a bearing on goings-on in the current day, and Loznitsa mercilessly uproots the orientation of his narrative on more than one occasion. Closer to the brooding existential cinema of Andrei Zvyagintsev or Pavel Lungin than Alexander Sokurov’s spiritual interrogations, My Joy can be hard to watch for those of frail disposition. Loznitsa has however managed to fashion something of wonder out of bleak material.

8. Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio – Mexico)

A five-year-old Italian boy travels to Mexico to visit his father, whom he has never met before. The father, Jorge, subsists happily with his own father, on the Banco Chinchorro, the world’s second-largest coral reef. Jorge shows young Natan how to fish and cook and introduces him to the manifold wildlife of the Mexican coast. The sequences are all filmed with a natural matter-of-factness and the film given a documentary verisimilitude by the knowledge that Jorge and Natan are father and son in real life too. It’s no surprise that González-Rubio comes from a documentary background and the scenes he depicts with such a benevolent languour provide a thrilling frisson of discovery for even the most seasoned of parents, fishermen or naturalists. A film to watch with your kids, who would be sure to love it too.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher – USA)

This was the biggest surprise of the year for me. I have never been a fan of the slick vacuity of Fincher’s films (though I admit Fight Club and Zodiac had their moments) and Aaron Sorkin’s peddling of wet dreams for well-meaning beltway liberals had, for me, all the urgency of an Internet Explorer upgrade. And then it was about Facebook, the biggest pricks in the room at this point; you figure that Google chose their motto to be ‘don’t be evil’ because they saw Zuckerberg and Co. coming sharp around that bend. So I wasn’t completely sure how this could turn out to be a good thing at all.

But The Social Network works, strangely, as a piece of historical film (and we all know how quickly things begin to look old in the world of technology and the internet). Fincher’s restrains his crasser instincts and even his inability to resist filtering his images to a Rembrandt dunnish tone that seems designed to mask the dirt in the corner of the frame. Sorkin’s dialogue zings – a little too much, but it does the job – and Jessie Eisenberg is a better example of the Mark Zuckerberg we all know than Mark Zuckerberg probably is. Eisenberg’s avatar is a nerd from hell, supercilious, socially retarded, desperate to be loved by all those he despises, but brilliant and as ruthless in his excision of troublesome relationships as he is cavalier in his attitude towards anything beyond the limited purview of the matter in hand.

It certainly helps the Zucker-Eisen-berg case that almost everyone else is either 1.0-dim, 1.0-out of touch or even more of a dislikeable 2.0-muppet than he is. The only truly admirable characters in the film are female – and there aren’t many females in The Social Network that one can plausibly call ‘characters’. The film may also rely a bit too heavily on the jilted Eduardo Saverin’s side of the story and Lawrence Lessig has detected Hollywood vindictiveness in the negative portrayal of the ebulliently enterprising Sean Parker. But The Social Network is a decent, instructive film, a reminder that dim elites are always bound to be usurped by smarter elites and that nice guys don’t even get the honour of finishing last.

10. Tehran (Nader T. Homayoun – Iran)

Iranian cinema, the star of the 90s, has retreated from the international spotlight in the Ahmadinejad years as its luminaries have either faced exile (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) or taken refuge in increasingly tiresome formal obsession (Abbas Kiarostami). Only Jafar Panahi and Bahman Ghobadi have kept the flame alive internationally for Iran with their socially engaged cinema. But now Panahi has been locked up by the Islamic regime and banned from making films for twenty years, while Ghobadi was forced into exile after his fiancée Roxana Siberi was expelled after being imprisoned on charges of spying. On his way out Ghobadi cemented his fall from favour with Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, a drama about clandestine rock bands in Iran. It was a pleasing if uneven film, as might be expected from one that had to be shot in secret and on the hoof to circumvent the ban on rock music in the Islamic Republic. But it also signalled the end of a golden era of Iranian cinema, a cinema that appears to be no longer capable of flourishing under the stifling conservatism of the diminutive Twelver Ahmadinejad’s government.

Thus it was a relief to discover Homayoun’s Tehran, which had all the spark of the films that first came to international prominence in the early 90s, and which also explored new territory that had previously been intimated by the likes of Panahi and Abelfozl Jalili. It tells the tale of Ibrahim, a migrant from the provinces who rents a new-born baby from a people-trafficker to give him an edge begging in the streets of the capital. Things take a turn for the worse and it inevitably becomes complicated for Ibrahim. For those that know Iranian cinema and its codes and conventions designed to skirt government restrictions, Tehran is a startlingly candid piece of realism. It delves into the grim, murky underworld of migrant workers, who live three or four to a room, and who survive by recourse to practices that are not only forbidden but their existence denied by the Iranian authorities. It remains a mystery how Homayoun got the film made but as it is we should be thankful for one of the few fictional documents of a crucial period of Iranian history to have made it all the way to the West.

And others that weren’t too bad at all:

La terre de la folie (Luc Mollet – France)

Shirin/Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami – Iran/France/Italy)

Disgrace (Steve Jacobs – Australia/South Africa)

Mother (Bong Joon-ho – South Korea)

Nobody Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi – Iran)

Precious (Lee Daniels – USA)

Weaving Girl (Wang Quanan – China)

Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans (Werner Herzog – USA/Germany)

Ander (Roberto Castón – Euskadi/Spain)

The Ghost (Roman Polanski – USA/France)

Optical Illusions (Cristián Jiménez – Chile)

White Material (Claire Denis – France)

Después de la revolución (Vincent Dieutre – France)

Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie – USA)

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz – USA)

Film : Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard – France)

Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo – South Korea)

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass – USA)

Dirty Diaries (Various – Sweden)

Tales from the Golden Age Parts 1 & 2 (Various – Romania)

L’illusioniste (Sylvain Chomet – France/UK)

The Mouth of the Wolf (Pietro Marcello – Italy)

Benda Bilili! (Renaud Barret, Florent de la Tullaye – France)

Vénus Noire (Abdelketif Kechiche – France)

The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo – South Korea)

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux – France)

The Other Guys (Adam McKay – USA)

To Die Like a Man (João Pedro Rodrigues – Portugal)

Fair Game (Doug Liman - USA)

Fix ME (Rael Andoni - Palestine)

Draquila – L’Italia che trema (Sabina Guzzanti – Italy)

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz – Portugal)

Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Remember His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Thailand)

Submarino (Thomas Vinterberg – Denmark)

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong – South Korea)

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (Woody Allen – USA/UK)

Kaboom (Greg Araki – USA)

Homme au bain (Christophe Honoré – France)

Honey (Semih Kaplanoğlu – Turkey)

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich – USA)

Four Lions (Chris Morris – UK)

The City Below (Christoph Hochhäusler – Germany)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Was It Any Good Then?

Spain carry off the World Cup, deservedly so, and even if they did not manage to impose their dominance on the tournament as firmly as they and many neutrals would have liked, they were certainly the best team in South Africa. There has been a lot said about the standard of the World Cup just passed, with many being rather hasty to dismiss it in comparison to past tournaments. A lot of the dissenters are drawing ill-thought-out conclusions, generated in part by short memories. Even though diving and play-acting are a scourge on the sport, they are nothing new either and were already a feature of professional football in the 1980s, and some would say, before that. There were some appalling refereeing errors - which, to be fair to the officials, might have been avoided if FIFA's obscurantism on employing technological evidence at the highest level of football were dispensed with. But major refereeing errors have always been with us, and are the stuff of World Cup legend, you could say, from Clive Thomas' blowing for full-time just before Zico scored against Sweden in 1978 to the leniency shown Harald Schumacher's vicious assault on Patrick Battiston in Seville in 1982, not to mention the Hand of God itself.

South Africa 2010 was a decent enough tournament that managed to maintain a good level of quality football and excitement after a sluggish first week. Of course there were downsides. The tournament lacked a truly fantastic stand-out side. Spain, Brazil and Germany all showed glimmers of sustained brilliance but they were in turn compromised by obligations of difficult opponents. Spain tailored their patient possession football to defence-minded adversaries such as Portugal, Paraguay and the Netherlands. It was frustrating that they were unable to score more (with eight goals they are the lowest-scoring champions in history) but you also got the impression they weren't too worried by that either. They knew the breakthrough would come and their composure throughout was testimony to their status as a great side.

Brazil played some great football in the first half against the Netherlands before imploding inexplicably in the second period. Their overly-physical approach also possibly backfired, with the Dutch being far less intimidated than most teams would have been. That match was also symptomatic of many in the tournament, tactically astute sides cancelling one another out. There was a broad homogeneity to the tournament tactically, with 4-2-3-1 prevailing and making it very difficult for full-backs to attack. Which is not to say that this defensive-tinged football was necessary bad - there is nothing wrong, after all, with good defending - but many games looked similar to one another. And there were also long periods in games where teams surrendered dominance. That may be attributed to fatigue, altitude or poor organisation. But it's telling that there were only a handful of teams that were immune to this trend.

Germany, churlish as it might seem to say, were a bit overrated. There were certainly one of the more exciting teams in the tournament on the counter-attack but there was a lingering sense that they were not going to be so formidable when the avenues through the centre of the field they enjoyed against Australia, England and Argentina would be cut off by cannier opponents. Serbia and Ghana had already made the Mannschaft look ordinary enough and it was no surprise that Spain overran them in the semi-final. This German team has a great future ahead of it, especially with young talent as irresistible as Meslut Özil, Thomas Müller and Samir Khedira available to them. I still believe they are ultimately as one-dimensional as Jürgen Klinsmann's side of four years ago, for all the counter-attacking pyrotechnics, but with greater tactical application they could become a more complete team.

The final was pretty much in the image of the tournament itself. It wasn't as dreadful a match as people are saying - though the first half was dire. The Dutch's spoiling tactics and Howard Webb's cravenly incompetent refereeing allowed the game to be fatally fractured from early on. Spain finally imposed a sense of shape in the second half and, if the football was hardly top quality, there were plenty of chances and it turned into an enthralling war of attrition.

So it may not have been the most satisfying of tournaments but it was certainly far better than Italia 90, more consistent than USA 94, which lost its spark after the quarter-finals. And it was overall better than the last two tournaments too. In all I think only France 98 out of the last five tournaments was a conclusively better one.

It was also good to see Diego Forlán win the Player of the Tournament award. I thought Xavi possibly edged him, but the Catalan's integration into the wider woof of the Spanish tapestry may have counted against him. He resembled one of those anonymous medieval artisans so lauded by Roland Barthes in his essay on the Citroën DS. Forlán's performances were more grand-standing - and I mean that in an entirely positive way. As he has done so often with Atlético Madrid in recent years, he lifted Uruguay almost single-handedly. That is a little unfair, granted, as the celeste also counted on fine performances from Diego Lugano, Diego Pérez, Maxi Perreira and Luis Suárez, but Forlán's efforts were herculean and possessed of a level of character rarely seen in a player in the service of a team effort. He and Uruguay were among my stars of the tournament. A small country with a famous footballing history that acquitted themselves honorably, and who clearly enjoyed every minute of their stay in South Africa. There will be those that grouch about Suárez's handball against Ghana but Uruguay knew that they were paying a price for that. Their manager Oscar Tabárez could also have complained about Wesley Sneijder's offside goal in the semi-final but he chose not to, knowing that these things even out in the end. Uruguay fought to the very last in the 3rd place play-off against Germany and provided a fantastic finale with Forlán hitting the bar in the last minute when a goal might have given him the Golden Boot and his team 30 minutes of respite. And their wonderful national anthem also won new admirers across the world. It's one I could listen to again and again. I hope to see them in Brazil and, roll on next year's Copa America.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Netherlands and Spain: Unknown Quantities

The Netherlands and Spain have something in common in this World Cup in that they have reached the semi-finals without playing terribly well but also because they have both conquered a bogeyman that they would always have to slay in order to win the tournament for the first time. For the Dutch it was Brazil, whom they couldn't overcome in 1994 and 1998; for Spain, it was getting to the semi-final for the first time in their history (we'll disregard their appearance in the final-four group stage in 1950). Spain felled a similar foe in the European Championships two years ago when they beat Italy - albeit on penalties - for the first time since the Spanish Civil War, and that gave them the a marked rise in confidence for the rest of the tournament, which was obvious when they swept the Germans aside in the final.

Both sides face tough challenges in the semi-final though the Netherlands will be glad that Luis Suárez, who scored freely in the Eriedivisie last season for Ajax will be missing because of his dastardly deed against Ghana, and the fact that captain Diego Lugano will line out not fully fit suggests that Uruguay are being stretched a bit thin. Spain are, surprisingly, being given few chances against Germany, not least because of the Germans' impressive performances against England and Argentina. Joachim Löw's boys are irrepressible when they have the initiative, which they grasped early on in those games but if they are held scoreless for long enough they soon begin to look very ordinary, as they did against Serbia and Ghana. Spain's ball retention will make it difficult for Germany to find the spaces to exploit as they did in their previous games. Even though they haven't been too impressive so far, Spain have also shown they are difficult to score against too. It should be a fascinating match, which I think Spain will edge 1-0 or 2-1, provided they manage to strike first.

A Spain-Netherlands final would give us a fixture that is rarely played in international football. The two teams have never met in a European Championships or World Cup and friendlies between them are few and far between. This is unusual given the profile of the two sides. They did however play against each other in the qualifying round for the 1984 European Championships and the group ended in one of the more controversial qualifying results in modern times. In a high-scoring group (even third-placed Ireland knocked in 20 in their eight games), the Dutch and the Spanish both finished their qualifying with games against Malta in December 1983. A 5-0 win for the Netherlands in Rotterdam left the Spaniards needing to win by eleven goals five days later in Seville to progress. Despite being only 3-1 up at half-time, they managed to reach the magic target, with Santillana scoring four goals and Poli Rincón three. The Dutch cried blue murder at a fix and the result was as responsible as the Anschluss match between West Germany and Austria in Gijón at the previous year's World Cup for FIFA and UEFA mandating final group games be played at the same time.

Spain went on to shock reigning champions West Germany (at the time under Jupp Derwall's management a team as loathsome as the current Germans are admirable) in France and reach the final where Luís Arconoda's unfortunate blunder allowed Michel Platini's free kick to squeeze under his body. But I wonder what would have happened if the Dutch, with much the same players that would win the European Championships four years later, had got to France? Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman and Van Basten were already in place, together with a few of the older generation from 1978 as well as Arnold Muhren and Johnny Metgod. They then failed to reach Mexico 86, being edged out by Belgium. Who knows, if Spain had not scored that twelfth goal against the Maltese, the Dutch team of the 1980s would be remembered even more fondly than that of Cruyff, Rep, Rensenbrink and Neeskens.

Here are the goals from Spain 12 Malta 1. See if you can spot anything fishy:

The Pantomime Villain

A friend spent the first few days of the World Cup in Uruguay and Argentina, and was in Montevideo for the celeste's first match against France. As the friend was coming from Paris, his hosts assumed he would be supporting les bleus. He explained he wasn't because of the Thierry Henry handball, which struck the Uruguayans as unusually moralistic, as they would figure a win is a win no matter how you get it. And they should know, as their passage to South Africa was secured thanks to a goal against Costa Rica in San José that was offside.

So one shouldn't be too suprised that the Uruguayans are shrugging off the brouhaha over Luis Suárez's last-minute goal-line handball that kept his team in the tournament. The truth is any team would shrug their shoulders in the same way, though few would probably celebrate Suárez's ethically dubious action as he himself and teammate Diego Forlán have. That fits in with the Uruguayan footballing ethos of garra (guts) that combines toughness, guile and spirit. It has given the world the wonderfully redoutable teams that won two Olympic Games and two World Cups, but also, more unfortunately the disgraceful shower of cheats and cloggers that marred Mexico 86.

I'm not going to condemn Suárez too strongly. What he did was cruel and, in the spirit of the game, wrong but few fans or footballers would expect anything else of a player in that situation. It was a last-ditch effort to keep his team in the World Cup and he probably expected it to fail. Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty and Ghana missed the opportunity to become Africa's first ever semi-finalist. There has been talk about introducing a penalty goal to punish such infractions. There's something in the idea but Suárez's transgression was so egregious (committed in the very last minute) and so clear cut that it hardly serves as the best test case. How would one deal with Harry Kewell's goal-line handball in Australia's match against Ghana, which though seemingly less intentional still prevented a goal being scored? One can imagine, in the event of a rule change, goalmouth mêlées might give rise to any number of unjustly awarded goals because they ricocheted off people's arms two or three yards from the goal-line. It might seem perverse to say this but cheating to prevent a goal is a little more acceptable to me than cheating to score one, probably out of an innate defensive-mindedness. Therefore I am less inclined to condemn Suárez as I was to condemn Henry (or Maradona before him).

In any case Ghana have little to complain about. They benefited from two poor officiating decisions in the build-up to the goal (a free-kick resulting from a dive and two players were offside when the ball was flicked into the box) and the penalty was given and Suárez sent off. It's true that a chance to score does not necessarily equate with a clear goal but such are the rules for the moment. I feel sorry for Gyan, who was one of the players of the tournament and who showed immense character to return to the penalty spot two minutes later and put away his shoot-out spot-kick. But if he had scored, Suárez's handball would be a footnote in World Cup history. And Ghana should be thankful they got the penalty which is more than can be said for Arsenal when Stéphane Henchoz's handball went unpunished in the 2001 FA Cup final or the United States when Torsten Frings got away with a similar foul in the World Cup quarter-final a year later. I think that most of the outrage directed at Suárez comes from the fact he dashed an African teams' hopes. That's understandable but Ghana, fine team that they are, are well capable of craftiness when it suits them too.

Suárez is the villain of the piece now but few in Uruguay will care. He has fallen on his sword for the semi-final against the Netherlands and that will probably cost his team. But his last-ditch gamble paid off.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The One I Missed (and the One, Alas, I Didn't)

The first World Cup I fully had an interest in was 1986. I had been strangely indifferent to football until two years earlier, when the high drama of an end of season suddenly got me hooked, at the age of 8. There was Manchester United's run to the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, where they fell to Juventus; Watford and Elton John and their fairytale march to the FA Cup final; Liverpool and Spurs' penalty shoot-out wins in the Champions Cup and UEFA Cup finals respectively; and, most importantly there was Euro 84: Platini, Arconada, Elkjaer, Laudrup.

So it all teed things up nicely for Mexico 86. It didn't even matter that Ireland languished second from bottom in a qualifying group that featured both Denmark and the USSR; I assumed that that was the way things were (I was a bit too young to realise how close they'd come to qualifying for Spain 82). Both those teams got off to a flying start in Mexico before being cut down to size by the more constant Spain and Belgium in the last 16. Though my memory of the tournament is clearly tinged by nostalgia, I can confidently say it was one of the best, if not the best ever. It had loads of great games (and a few dire ones, of course), bucketfuls of fantastic goals, sizzling team performances from the afore-mentioned Danes and Soviets, and the Spanish, the French, the Brazilians. And there was also, of course, the man who, more than anyone else, put his imprint on a tournament: Diego Maradona. It also had one of the best finals ever, if not the best: Argentina powering to a 3-2 win over West Germany in a thriller that produced three goals in the last seventeen minutes.

But I didn't see it. Having watched as many of the games as a ten-year-old could expect to up until then (many of them kicked off at 11pm and 1am Irish time) the elements conspired to stymie me on final day. The night before a storm hit our village and the makeshift illegal deflector system that we all relied on in those pre-cable days broke down, presumably because the mast was blown down on a neighbouring hill. I was condemned to follow the match on the radio, obviously no substitute but something I was well used to in those days when there was rarely more than one live football match per week.

So I prepared to listen to it with a friend of mine. With five minutes to kick off, my Dad came into the house saying that he was going to watch it at the home of an acquaintance, who, for some reason had managed to circumvent the TV black-out. He said I could come, but for reasons that remain obscure to me, I didn't go. Maybe it was because my Dad was reluctant to bring both of the kids over to the house of somebody he wasn't really that friendly with; maybe the friend might have been persona non grata in the house (it might seem ridiculous that a ten-year-old would be treated this way, but the kid's father had plenty of enemies); or maybe I myself felt awkward about gate-crashing and wasn't terribly sure if we could both go along. I can't remember which one it was. In any case I dallied. I'm not even sure if the friend found out about the offer to watch the match but we continued listening to the medium-wave crackle of the ever-excitable Gabriel Egan relating the drama from the Azteca.

And I missed a cracker. It was only later that I saw this, in its entirety, of course:

Four years later I was in the Gaeltacht at Coláiste Lurgan in Inverin during the final of the dreadful Italia 90. A much less attractive Argentine side slouched and kicked their way to the final, shocking the Italians in Maradona's adopted home city of Naples. Germany, the only truly great side in the tournament were up against them again. I was worried that the directors of the school might have been soccer-phobes (almost any Irish person over the age of thirty can relate an anecdote of the petty attempts of GAA folk to thwart people's enjoyment of the 'foreign game'). But I needn't have. A TV was mounted in the assembly hall and we all strained our eyes to be able to follow the action (the screen was little more than 18 inches and the reception was poor). But the match was appalling. A dull spectacle marred by Argentine cynicism and a lack of German edge. Pedro Monzón was given the first red card in a World Cup final, later joined by Gustavo Menzotti when Argentina disputed the non-existent foul on Rudi Völler that gifted the winning penalty to Germany. Wretched matches have an annoying tendency to stick in your memory every bit as tenaciously as the great ones and they sear themselves on your conscience. There were many of those at Italia 90 (Ireland v Egypt was possibly the nadir) but for a final to take place in such an acrimonious atmosphere with little or no football being played was too much. Most the World Cup finals up until then had been exciting games (or so I learned from the testimonies of older people and from World Cup histories). I wanted to forget this match but I never can.

There's no way I'll be missing this afternoon's clash between the two giants.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Brilliant Orange Cracks the Brazil Nuts

They came, they saw, they kicked. And then they were caught out at setpieces, as in 1998 and 2008. Brazil are out and few real football fans will mourn. True, the Netherlands' win was not terribly pretty and their first-half performance was febrile at the very best. But they took the game to the Brazilians with admirable ambition in the second period and once they made the breakthrough they grasped the initiative. Wesley Sneijder once again underlined his credentials as a serious Ballon d'Or candidat with his wicked inswinging cross for Felipe Melo's own-goal (a misfortune you couldn't wish on a more deserving character) and his glancing header for the winner.

It wasn't a vintage Dutch performance but they played like a team that had more interest than merely cancelling out the opposition. I didn't expect the Netherlands to win but I had also said that if they got around the significant mental block of beating Brazil they could win the World Cup. There's a long way to go but they are surely as confident as they've been for three decades now. Given that the Dutch won all eight of their qualifying games and all five of their matches in South Africa so far, could this be the first time ever a team will win a World Cup with a complete grand-slam of qualifying and tournament games?

Quarter-final playlist


I've put them up before but here's Los Iracundos, one of the better beat combos from the banks of the River Plate in the 1960s. Still going strong:


There were many greats from Ghana's Highlife scene but none are bigger than E.T. Mensah:

The Netherlands

I could have gone for Nits, Shocking Blue or even, shudder, Acker Bilk but I'm going to pick a staple of my indie-youth existence, Bettie Serveert, named after the great Bettie Stove:


Where do you start with Brazil? Elza Soares on account of her being married to none other than Garrincha? Tom Jobim? Gilberto Gil? Chico Buarque? Bondê do Role? Tetin? CSS? Sepultura? Gal Costa? Marcos Valle? Quarteto em cy? João Gilberto? I'll settle with the godfather of samba himself, Cartola, and his magnificent cover of Candeia's 'Preciso me encontrar'


I suppose I should go for some tango but with a nod to Carlos Tevez, who likes this sort of thing, here's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs:


It can only be Can:


Los Planetas: presumably the Castillian for Hüsker Dü


OK, I'll admit, I had to dig out some Paraguayan rock. The ska group Ripe Banana Skins were the pick of the crop.


I'll admit I had to look hard to dig out some Paraguayan rock. Ska group Ripe Banana Skins were among the pick of the crop.

At Close Quarters

And so we get down to the business end of things: the quarter-finals are upon us. By rights, the tournament's most important action should be crammed into one-eighth of its matches though that's not always the case, as the drab petering-out of the 1994 and 2002 World Cups at this stage proved. Three of this weekend's four ties look enthralling, even if the Netherlands v Brazil could possibly be smothered out by two highly-organised sides with two holding midfielders each. That would be a shame, as the two countries, in their three World Cup finals matches to date have each time served up one of the matches of the tournament. Their first meeting in 1974 in Dortmund signalled the Dutch's definitive arrival as a force in world football. They prized apart the World champions, who resorted to an unusually physical game. I was reminded of this listening to a Dutch journalist speaking on the Guardian podcast earlier was pessimistic about the Dutch chances, particularly regarding Arjen Robben, whom he said would be double-gamed and 'kicked wherever he can be kicked' by Felipe Melo.

Other great matches took place in Dallas in 1994, where a squabbling Dutch side, mediocre until then and fortunate to beat Ireland 2-0 in the last 16, finally found their feet and pushed Brazil all the way, succumbing in the end 3-2 to the combined genius of Romario and Bebeto. Four years later in Marseille, Guus Hiddink's fantastic team looked like they would put an end to their twenty years of hurt, but although they outplayed Brazil for much of the match, they needed a Patrick Kluivert goal two minutes from time to save the game and when the match went to penalties, everybody knew one team was going to win.

The Dutch have been largely uninspiring so far without ever really being threatened in any of the four matches they have played. Their defensive approach hasn't pleased fans but they have done the minimum, which was surely always going to be to survive till this inevitable match. Bert van Marwijk has praised his defence, noting that the only two goals they have conceded yet were from the penalty spot. But there were a few hairy moments in the second half against Slovakia and they relied on a pair of fine saves by Maarten Stecklenburg to maintain their lead. Had the Slovaks expressed a greater deal of urgency, they could well have been in trouble. The prospect of Maicon bearing down on Giovanni van Bronckhorst is also an alarming one. While I hope the Dutch sneak this one, and save the whole world from another Brazil win, I think it will be beyond them.

Uruguay and Ghana looks a far more open game. The South Americans look by far the better team on paper but they way they surrendered control of the game in the second half against South Korea should provide some cause for concern. Ghana did fantastically well against the United States (and probably should have pushed Germany more than they did) but they still have the scoring problem. At least against the US they got off the mark from open play though their two goalscorers Kevin-Prince Boateng and the brilliant Asamoah Gyan are uncertain to start today due to injury. I would expect Uruguay to take it narrowly but if Ghana get that lift of playing for a whole continent that clearly gave them the edge against the US, they could become the first ever African team to make the semi-finals. Whoever wins, I will be happy.

Argentina and Germany is another chapter in a Titanic saga of World Cup football. Though the Argentines scarcely harbour the same enmity for the Germans as they do for England, this is a definite grudge match. The two countries faced off successively in one of the best World Cup finals ever (1986) and one of the worst (1990). Argentina had two players sent off in the latter and went down to a non-existent penalty converted by Andreas Brehme. Four years ago in Berlin, the majestic gallop of José Pekerman's side was curbed by the hosts, in what was a bit of a shock at the time. To be fair, the Argentines were much the better side in that game but a puzzling attempt to defend a lead, against the Germans of all people, backfired and a Miroslav Klose goal pulled the match into extra time. Then there's the famous story of Jens Lehmann's secret list of Argentine penalty kickers and the mass brawl that broke out after his winning save.

So far both sides have been among the best in the tournament, though it is difficult to gauge exactly good either are. Argentina benefited from a pitifully weak first round group and an offside goal by Carlos Tevez broke the spirit of Mexico in the last 16. That said, they have won all matches handsomely and Lionel Messi is having a stellar tournament, and surely it's only a matter of time before he finds the net. Germany have been hugely impressive in hammering hapless Australia and England, and less convincing against Serbia or Ghana. It's interesting that the Germans, previously the villains of the piece at almost every World Cup are now a side almost universally popular. It certainly helps that the rather one-dimensional football deployed by Jurgen Klinsmann four years ago and by Joachim Löw at Euro 2008 has been discarded in favour of a more dynamic counter-attacking game. The Germans are fearsome going forward and with three dodgy Argentine defenders in Samuel, Gutierrez and Dimechelis, the albiceleste could be in big trouble before they even get on the target. That said, the Germans are far from perfect at the back either. I think this one could be a 2-2 draw and then go to penalties. And we know who always wins on penalties...

The we have Spain, who have been winning relatively ugly too. Like the Dutch, they should be happy enough to get to the quarter-finals and open up the way for their first semi-final (if you discount the final 4-group stage they contested in 1950). After a rickety start they have grown in composure, even if Fernando Torres' continual inclusion remains questionable; Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente looked the part against Portugal and should prove a sharper tool in unpicking the Paraguayan defence. Paraguay are a team notoriously difficult team to beat (and a 0-0 draw against them in Saint-Étienne in 1998 effectively put Spain out of that tournament) but also a wretched team to watch. With the exception of Tunisia, Paraguay have been involved in the greatest number of dire World Cup matches I have had the misfortune to see. I haven't been convinced of their worth in this tournament either; they were incapable of stringing three passes together against Italy and scoreless draws against New Zealand and Japan are hardly the stuff of champions, even if they did deserve to go through against the Japanese. Paraguay have conceded only one goal so far and one will probably be all the Spanish get tonight. As we have seen against the United States in last year's Confederations Cup and against Switzerland in their opening match, Spain have difficulty with defensive opponents. A little extra width in the game with the introduction of the homesick Sevillano Jésus Navas should do the job. It will be a frustrating evening and it's unlikely to be pretty, but I thin Spain will carry the day.

My pre-tournament prediction for the semi-finals was Uruguay v Brazil and Argentina v Spain. There's still a fair chance of that being right.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Glass Half Full

The pruning has begun. The World Cup slims itself down to 16 teams, and, by and large, it's the right 16 teams. The tournament has livened up considerably after an opening few days marked by excessive caution and I would even say the final round of group games provided more drama than I can ever remember. A number of teams, such as Nigeria and Serbia were just a kick of a ball away from a place in the second round and the quality of the football has been high. I can even shrug off the dull scoreless draw between Portugal and Brazil as an irrelevance, about as indicative of things to come as a friendly international in February.

So of the teams left?

Uruguay v South Korea

Uruguay have surfed the wave of Latin American form in this tournament. After a cagey start against France, they have dazzled since. They swept aside South Africa with ease and brought the game to Mexico when a draw would have been enough to win the group. They have a superb defence and one of the tournament's best defenders in Diego Lugano. Monaco's Diego Perez has been inspirational in midfield, and Diego Forlán has brought the same immense character to the Uruguayan effort as he has to Atlético Madrid in recent seasons. Some say they are over-reliant on him. It's possible but it should be enough to get them to the semi-finals and certainly enough to beat South Korea, who have shown verve and industry in their matches so far but who are found lacking against stronger opposition.

United States v Ghana

A possible grudge match given the Black Stars knocked the Americans out of the 2006 World Cup with a 2-1 win in Nuremburg, thanks to a disputed penalty. The US have been impressive so far, showing a lot of steel and guts to come from behind and steal deserved qualification in injury time against Algeria. While they have been unlucky with bad refereeing decisions against them in both the games against Slovenia and Algeria, the idea among some of their new-found fans that there's an anti-American plot afoot could quickly lose them the goodwill the world is showing them. I expect them to beat Ghana, simply because Ghana have a chronic scoring problem. The Africans have scored both their goals from the spot and they missed a hatful of chances that could have sealed the game against Germany before Mehmet Özul's wonder strike. Despite their wonderfully fluid play and a powerful midfield, and Asamoah Gyan, a bundle of energy and character, their inability to find the net will cost them. The US to win 1-0.

More anon. In the meantime here's more Uruguayan rock. Los Iracundos:

Thursday, June 17, 2010


As an Irishman, it would be too easy to savour les bleus being predictably cut down to size, and I have to admit that the fact both goals came from debatable refereeing decisions made their misfortune all the more delightful. But we have to give credit to Mexico. The glimmers of promise visible in their warm-up games and in the opening match have now flared into something more substantial. The team's classy, elaborate passing did not always gain a foothold in a sometimes scrappy game but when they did things right, they were light years ahead of the French. Carlos Salcido's penetrating runs made me think of Jonathan Wilson's theory that the team with the best full-backs always wins the World Cup. That might be slightly beyond the reach of this Mexican side but the industry and flair shown by Carlos Vela and Giovanni dos Santos, and then, super sub Javier Hernández marks them out as one of the most exciting teams in South Africa. Rafael Márquez also marshalled his defence superbly, displaying an authority that will surprise many Barcelona fans that have seen him underperform in recent seasons.

They will be hoping to beat Uruguay in their final group game (no small feat) so as to avoid their perennial bogeyman Argentina in the second round. Either way, it is great to feast on the return of Latin American football to top form in this tournament. It's true that France are the first European side to be beaten by any of them but the South American qualifiers and Mexico have shown superb flair and initiative (well, perhaps not, Paraguay) and have defended well.

And the tournament is now alive, having thrown up six good games in two days. The curse of the first round of games has been lifted, with even Greece reacting to the hangman's shadow by going out and attacking. Leo Messi has once again being stellar, practically scoring a hat-trick for Gonzalo Higuaín. Argentina looked fantastic today but I'm still thinking it's probably too much too soon. The tournament though, is getting better. And I'm enjoying that.

The Slow Start

The slow start is almost engrained in our conscience as a prerequisite for a lengthy run in the World Cup, or any other tournament. The truth is however, there is a finite number of teams afforded a slow start (and the implication is these are the big ones). Germany and Italy have historically been slow starters, but it must also be pointed out that the last time each of them have won the World Cup, they were getting wins on the board from the off, and Germany's 4-1 hammering of a superb Yugoslavia side in 1990 was as explosive a start as you'll ever get.

Some people I know also seem to have got it into their heads that France start tournaments slowly though I think this may be because the last World Cup looms large in their mind. France do start slowly often enough but, 2006 aside, they usually proceed slowly and then exit the tournament with the leisurely gait of a Left Bank flâneur. Their previous wins, at the Euros of 1984 and 2000 and the World Cup of 1998, started with straight wins in the group stages (a sole defeat to the Netherlands in 2000 came when both sides were already through to the quarter-finals). When France get off to a shocking start, it's usually a bad sign. Of course that will all change if they beat Mexico tonight but then, with two games out of a maximum seven gone, it can hardly qualify anymore as a slow start.

A piece on Tim Vickey's blog over at the Beeb said that World Cup winners pace their tournaments. Viewed through the wide-angled lens of history that might seem as profound as saying World Cup winners win a few games here and there, but it's obviously intended as a corrective to those that think Germany and Argentina's free-scoring starts make each of them bound for glory. Of course they can't both be, not least because they are now likely to meet at the Quarter-Final stage.

Spain don't start slow too often but they are given to bottle it at the moment of truth. Their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland* may yet prove as fatal as their early defeat to Nigeria in France 98 but I think the greater space afforded them by both Honduras and Chile will favour them and see them through to the second round. But then they may have to get their world-beating hat on sharpish, with the possibility of playing Brazil in the last 16 and, should they win, the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. The slow start will have to knocked on the head. But that's only fitting, really because, in most cases future champions don't get off to a slow start, even if they rarely blaze from day one either.

*I'm still mystified as to the over-reaction in the international media to this result. Yes, it is surprising, and Spain are a clearly superior side to the Swiss but with Ottmar Hitzfeld, one of only three men to win the Champions League with two different clubs, pulling the strings, surely taking Spain down was within their capabilities? After all, one need only look at the last two sides to defeat Spain, Northern Ireland in a European Championship qualifier in 2006, and the US at last year's Confederations Cup. Two very ordinary sides, indeed.

Like the Team, Shame About the Regime

Like many, I was cheering on North Korea - or the DPR Korea, as its manager Kim Jong-hun, is fond of reminding foreign journalists - in their match against Brazil last night. The team, possibly benefiting from their international isolation, appeared completely unawed by their date with the five-times world champions, and matched them defensively for long stretches. They even created a clutch of half-chances and when Ji Yun-nam put the ball in the net, they got their just desserts. Back home the faithful undoubtedly went into raptures, seventeen hours later.

But a few people on Twitter were wondering aloud about the morality of supporting a team representing such a repressive country. I can understand that, even if the propaganda benefits Kim Jong-il is likely to get from three probable defeats at the World Cup are obscure to say the least. It'll be hard to put an ideological spin on that one. There's always a tinge of discomfort to be had when unsavoury regimes stand to benefit from the national team's sporting prowess, examples include Franco and Spain's 1964 European Championship win over the USSR (not to mention Real Madrid), Salazar's troika of football, fado and Fatima as weapons of mass distraction, the Nigerian regime of Sani Abacha during Nigeria's glory days of the mid-90s. Brazil's generals were also keen to claim credit for the selecão's glories, despite occasional resistance from the likes of Socrátes and Miguel Saldanha. Players of other national teams were subjected to terrorism by the tyrants their peoples laboured under, such as Haiti under Duvalier, Zaïre under Mobutu and Iraq under Saddam Hussein (or more precisely, his son, Uday).

The New Statesman, for the second tournament running, has compiled its list of World Cup qualifiers' ethical credentials. It is, of course, a laudable attempt to draw attention to the wrong-doings of countries but there would be few genuine football fans that would use it as a basis to root for someone, otherwise the likes of Denmark and Slovenia would have disproportionate support from neutrals.

Perhaps it's because I came to football at a very early age but I rarely associate a team with the politics of its country, or even its people. For instance, my current dislike of the Portugal side does not tally with my love of that country. I have supported Portugal in the past but I suppose a certain Real Madrid midfielder might have a lot to do with that disenchantment (his new club manager doesn't help their cause either). I have similarly fallen in and out of love (and sometimes back in love) with teams such as Spain, France, Italy and Argentina. My dislike of the English football team does not reflect on my attitude towards ordinary English people, but has more to do with the arrogance of their media; I can also say the same thing about France and their media's idea they have a divine right to be in the World Cup every four years. And I have huge sympathy for those faultlessly cosmopolitan Americans who play for and support the US national team, and draw brickbats from embittered right-wing isolationists at home and left-wing populists on their travels in Latin America.

There are heroes and villains at every World Cup. Usually the best are garnered in the drama of the game itself, except for the perennials: the grand guignol muppets of the rancidly corrupt national federations, headed by the big rancid cheese himself, Sepp Blatter. The corrupt will always be with us. But I won't hold that against the joy the citizen of any country holds in supporting their national team. Most do it in perfect innocence, and without thinking its the be-all and end-all.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dutch Masters and Their Apprentice

My dear Netherlands play Denmark in a wee while. The current Danish side might not follow quite the same Dutch-inspired ethos as Sepp Piontek's wonder team of the mid 1980s (and Richard Moller-Nielsen's 1992 European Champions certainly didn't) but the Danes do have a pleasing honesty about their play and a commitment to good passing. They also invariably contribute to one great match in each tournament they play in (anyone remember their stirring 3-2 defeat to Brazil in the 1998 World Cup?)

The Dutch are unbeaten in 19 games, have two of the best wingers in the world (though how long Arjen Robben lasts is another matter). I think they will edge out the Danes, who are missing Niklas Bendtner. That should open up the way for that quarter-final meeting with Brazil, which would be a likely contender for match of the tournament.

And wouldn't it have been something if this team:

could have played this one?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Day 1 (and 2)

It's all under way and it was an opening day that was familiar in its mix of sporadic drama and grinding boredom. What drama there was came in the second half of the opening game. After an initial ten-minute period early on where the hosts South Africa looked in danger of being overrun by Mexico's more able technique, bafana bafana found their feet. Fulham's Kagiso Dikgacoi played an exquisite forty-yard pass to Siphiwe Tshabalala who finished with a strike equal in its splendour.

The hosts should have finished it off after that but Mexico exposed their defensive frailties for Rafael Marquez to equalise five minutes from the end. What was refreshing about the South Africans though was the way they continued to chase the victory, with Katlego Mphela striking the post in injury time. Carlos Alberto Parreira's team is now thirteen games unbeaten and they will surely be capable of making life very difficult for the two other teams in the group.

Those two teams, as football journos are fond of saying, 'flattered to deceive'. Diego Forlán fashioned a couple of goalscoring opportunities but Uruguay were by and large appalling in everything but the marshalling of their defence. France looked the more lively but apart from Franck Ribéry's brilliant curling centre, which Sidney Govou should have finished from five yards out, they created little. Yoann Gourcuff had a poor game other than a cheeky free-kick that almost caught out Fernando Muslera at his near post. Anelka was another under-performer and was replaced by Thierry Henry, who was a little more industrious, though the whole world, not least the Irish, must have regarded with wry derision his efforts to claim a penalty from an unintentional handball. France are still short of ideas, but they are nonetheless well placed to advance to the last 16. A number of people I know are saying they usually start slowly in major tournaments. This is true but these slow starts generally don't generate any pace, and are the harbingers of an early exit. Of course, four years ago it was different. We'll have to wait and see...

South Korea and Greece are already off and away. 1-0 to the Koreans after Lee Jung-soo was left ridiculously unmarked at the far post on a Kim Sung-yeung corner. I have to confess that this is a match to cook pasta to (which I will be doing shortly) but Korea's enterprise is refreshing and I hope they bury the dour Greeks.

Later there is Argentina v Nigeria, two opponents that face off regularly in both World Cups and Olympic Games. I fancy the Argentinians to win this one comfortably bar a brief surge in Nigerian pressure in the second half. Both teams should come out of the group.

England v US, in the 'war-on-terror' group is likely to be a physical, possibly even bad-tempered, match. It may also be very ugly to watch. Though the Americans will fancy their chances I think both sides will cancel each other out. I also think that the US will be ill-prepared for the more mundane task facing them against Slovenia in the second game. I think Slovenia will do a smash and grab to put them into the second round before even having to face England.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Great Little Country

It was already easy, as an Irishman, to choose sides in tonight's Group A match between France and Uruguay. I have to say though that the look of the current Uruguayan side, with what is one of the most electrifying strike force in world football, Luís Suárez of Ajax and Atlético's Diego Forlán - close to 100 goals between them this past season. I also have an admiration for Uruguayan football that survived the experience of watching their ugly abrasive sides of the 1980s. It's hard not to admire a tiny country that dominated international football in its early days, shocking Europe by winning two Olympics in the 1920s, winning the World Cup on home soil in 1930 and only a fit of pique prevented them from travelling to Italy to defend their crown in 1934. And then there was the 1950 World Cup-winning captain, Obdulio Varela, (pictured) possibly one of the greatest, noblest men ever to play professional football. And there was also the magnificent Enzo Francescoli, the only saving grace of the disgraceful team that could have lit up Mexico 86 but chose instead to kick everyone in sight. Uruguay did nothing special in qualifying but the memory of their valiant efforts against Senegal and Denmark eight years ago is fresh enough to root for them and hope for some magic.

And they will believe of course that France and within their reach. I still believe les bleus will repeat their first round exit of 2002. Everyone blames it on Raymond Domenech but there's been a culture of shiftlessness in the French set-up that predates him by some time. The way they collapsed in Korea without Zidane and their uniformly awful performances in Portugal two years later suggest that the rot is deep set. I don't expect it to be resolved in this competition.

In the meantime, here's some classic Uruguayan rock from the 1960s. It's Los Shakers, you might be able to spot one or two of their influences:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cup of Plenty?

This occasional blog will become less occasional for the duration of the World Cup, barring other commitments and laziness. As I remarked when I posted around the time of the draw, few of us, not even professional football journalists, really know anything about any of the teams of the World Cup. Our knowledge is limited to the dozen of so big footballing nations, those players that have passed through the Champions League or Premiership. Of course, as ever there are places where people are more attentive than most - Latin America is the obvious example - but few Europeans know anything about Honduras, Paraguay or New Zealand, and few English speakers know anything substantial about the likes of Serbia (the former Luton defender Radi Antic's stewardship, notwithstanding), Slovenia or Slovakia. Our judgements of the collective merits of teams is largely based on hazy memories of performances in past tournaments, some of which stretch back a generation but never quite seem that long ago.

So, in short nobody knows anything. Or very little in the detail. That's why I can confidently predict that either Chile or Honduras will be a surprise package. As will Slovenia. And probably Uruguay too. What am I basing this on? Not a huge amount, other than a passing familiarity with a handful of players, a cursory study of recent form, and, most crucially, the fact that they all face favourable enough starts (Slovenia, for one, could already be qualified for the second round by the time they have to face England).

As for teams at the business end of things, unfortunately it's going to be Brazil. It's a long time since I thrilled at the auriverde. I think it was probably the 3-2 win against the Netherlands in the 1994 World Cup, a stellar match, which was one of the few sparks of brilliance demonstrated by that team, led to victory by Dunga. And Dunga is the manager of the well-oiled maquina that looks like it can sweep all and sundry aside as it powers in a business-like manner to victory. Brazilians are bored by it, but they are unlikely to be too put out if Lúcio lifts the World Cup for a sixth time on the 11th of July (in which case, will Brazil get to keep it, like they did the Jules Rimet trophy before it?) O jogo bonito is of more interest to Nike commercial directors these days than the Brazil coaching staff. Brazil are Germany in yellow shirts. A sexier Germany, but still Germany. And those once-every-four-years football fans who flock to bars to support the Brazilians even when the match is academic, my contempt knows no bounds for them (I remember having to walk for miles to find a place showing Croatia v Australia four years ago, as every bar was catering to yellow-clad non-Brazilians). My heart hopes they don't go all the way. My head tells me otherwise.

And what of the others? Spain are the favourites. I want them to win, as I wanted them to win two years ago. But their fabled breakthrough two years ago may not necessarily count for anything this time around. One defeat in 47 matches is a formidable record but that blip - a 2-0 defeat to the US in last year's Confederations Cup - was a significant one. And another such blip will undo the near-perfection of the past four years. That's the way great teams sometimes go. Injuries and fatigue may also affect them. In a just world they would beat Brazil in the final, and most of the world will applaud. But, in the world we know, they might even come up against the Brazilians as early as the second round.

Italy qualified comfortably enough but the guile they showed to win the tournament against all expectations is unlikely to suffice in itself this time around. They will probably stumble at the quarter-final stage, if not sooner. England are beginning to demonstrate a return to the mental febrility that has cost them dearly in past tournaments (only an Engishman seriously thinks penalty shootouts are a 'lottery'). They should qualify for the knock-out rounds after an early scare against the US, but a lack of strength in depth and a dodgy defence will ultimately be their undoing. Semi-finals are within their reach but they'll more likely be gone home by them.

The Netherlands, as ever, are my team. Bert van Marwijk has built well on Marco van Basten's unfulfilled promise. They emerged from a mediocre qualifying group with a 100% record and they've been sizzling in warm-up games. They have Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, two of the most influential players of the past season. Captain Mark van Bommel will provide the steel in midfield, and a returned-from-injury Robin van Persie could be in line for top scorer. If things go well, they will face Brazil at the quarter-finals. If they can conquer the side that edged them in the Titanic struggles of 94 and 98, they could win the thing. But as ever with the Dutch, there will be other things to reckon with.

Germany are likely to reach the quarter-finals at least, despite missing Michael Ballack, while Argentina are the real conundrum. Either they will implode disastrously under the wanton management of Diego Maradona, or he will prove to be the talisman that drives a team of wildly-varying talents to go beyond anyone's expectations. I suspect we will see them in the semi-finals. France will probably go out at the first hurdle, of which, more tomorrow. African teams' best hopes lie in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana, even if only the latter of those were impressive in the Africa Cup of Nations. Nigeria should progress from a manageable group, Ivory Coast, if Drogba is fit, should be able to outmuscle Portugal, while Ghana's lack of firepower up front will see them fail in the Group of Death against Germany, Australia and Serbia. None of them will get beyond the second round.

Of course, I will be pleased to be disproven in all of this. Just as I was when Russia tore my beloved Netherlands apart at Euro 2008. If the football is good, so be it. The last really memorable World Cup was 1994, and even then the fizz went out at the semi-final stage. If we see a tournament to rival Mexico 86 (and yes, I will be prepared to watch another England v Morocco or France v West Germany) I don't care who wins. The French or the English can even go ahead and do it if they want. Enjoy the tournament!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Better Luck?

There's an air of the consolation prize about Ireland's Group B draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers; perhaps this is what Sepp Blatter meant by the 'moral recompense' that was due us for suffering Thierry Henry's creative machinations last November. It's probably the best possible draw we could have expected as a third seed. Russia are most definitely the least fearsome of the top seeds and they have been unable to build on the promise of their Euro 2008 performance. True, Moscow in winter and the Luzhniki plastic pitch will present problems but if Guus Hiddink departs, as expected in July, I expect the Russians to revert to their usual febrile selves. Taking four points off them is well possible.

Slovakia took full advantage of a winnable, evenly-matched group to qualify for South Africa, their first ever finals as an independent country. How good they are is hard to gauge. Even under Stephen Staunton's shambolic reign Ireland were good enough to beat them in Dublin and almost repeat the trick in Bratislava. It probably would be a good idea to get the away game out of the way early in the campaign. Macedonia will send shivers up the spine of us all after the 3-2 defeat in 2007 and the last-minute goal two years later that cost us our place at Euro 2000. Avoiding the sweltering autumn and summer temperatures in Skopje will be paramount, even if we should fancy our chances. We will play Armenia for the first time, and Andorra for the second. At the risk of sounding cocky you would be expected to have twelve points there. It's not a terribly glamorous draw and the FAI won't be too enamoured of the task of putting bums on seats to watch Ireland play Armenia or Slovakia. But it gives us our best chance in years of winning a group.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Those Oscar Nominations

A rare plug here for the Hollywood self-congratulation fest, the Oscars, only really because of the unprecedented presence of three Irish films among the nominations, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty in the Best Animated Short category and The Door for Best Short. And there was also a welcome surprise, Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells. I saw the film last year here in Paris, where it did reasonable enough business during the Easter holidays. Unfortunately I saw it in a dubbed version (it's a Franco-Belgo-Irish coproduction) so I missed having the pleasure of hearing Mick Lally and Brendan Gleeson voicing cartoons. It's a superbly animated and thoroughly enjoyable film that fully deserves a big audience; it doesn't go on release in the States until April. It's unlikely that it will be able to see off the big guns such as Up, Fantastic Mister Fox or Coraline but Gunn and Kilkenny's Cartoon Saloon should get well established as a result of the publicity.

There were also Irish success stories within the machine with Ballyfermot alumnus Richard Beneham up for Best Visual Effects for Avatar and Peter Devlin for his sound work on Star Trek. This year the Academy has reverted to his original format of selecting ten films for best picture, presumably to allow five extra middle-brow movies with fine notions to claim some dubious prestige. The result is rather lopsided but it does at least allow some consolation to the scandalously overlooked A Serious Man, which garnered only one other nomination. It's probably a better film than either Fargo or No Country for Old Men, hitherto the Coens' most successful at the Oscars. But then again, what does the Academy know? (The nominations also remind me to finally watch The Hurt Locker; critically acclaimed though a friend of mine who has worked as a journalist in Iraq says it's rather risible, comparing it unfavourably to Generation Kill.)

Here's the trailer for The Secret of Kells: