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!