Friday, June 30, 2006

"Hesitating to become the fated ones..."

Berlin today stages its biggest sporting event since a rather controversial little Olympics in 1936.
When Germany and Argentina take the field this evening, the 2006 World Cup will have gone a whole 66 hours with a ball kicked in anger.
Or in England´s case, languor.
And Berlin can be entitled to feel more impatient than most.
A vast Coca-Cola poster, replicated across the Berlin skyline, proclaims: ´1954 Bern, 1974 München, 1990 Rom, 2006 Hier´.
That 1974 German triumph was achieved with only three run-of-the-mill group games in then-West Berlin.
And when the 1988 European Championships came to German, pre-unification Berlin was missed out entirely.
No wonder an estimated 65,000 people took to the streets of Berlin celebrating last Saturday´s victory over Sweden in Munich.
Yet the last two days have seemed strangely subdued in the capital - the calm before the ´Sturm-und-Drang´, perhaps.
The bulbous, Eiffel-outsoaring TV Tower, so long an odd symbol of East Berlin, has been given a pink lick of paint to resemble a giant football - owned by Barbie.
Here and there you can spot a straggle of early-arriving Argentinians, even-earlier-arriving Britons or Brazilians.
Or a stray hazy Aussie, who can´t quite bring himself to follow his team home yet.
But the big screen and the ´fan fest' at the Brandeburg Gate look a little lonely, dominated by paid and voluntary staff filling in time.
Even the omnipresent mobile beer stalls haven´t all bothered to open all hours yet.
Today they will, though.
The second round - indeed, the whole tournament since the second set of first-round matches - may have been a case of ´never mind the quality, feel the quantity´.
But now the business end of the World Cup will finally hear from Berlin its Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome - and hopefully live up to those premature boasts of ´best tournament ever´.
These past two days have felt like two too many.

"Do you remember Walter...?"

England is not the only country to indulgently wallow in World Cup nostalgia.
Germany may have won the trophy three times to our sole success.
But for England’s 1966, read West Germany’s 1954 – and for Bobby Moore, see Fritz Walter.
Black-and-white images still surround, of the first German side to win the trophy – a surge of sporting optimism in a land still struggling with post-war reconciliation.
As elsewhere and anywhere, football provides a cherished, collective folk-history – the game remains the same, only the special dates, names and golden moments differ.
The heroes of 1954 can still be seen in public monuments, on big and small screen in archive and dramatised form – and even, this summer, in MTV pop videos.
Herbert Zimmermann’s climactic radio commentary, ‘Das Spiel ist aus!’ (‘The match is over!’) is the German equivalent of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s ‘They think it’s all over – it is now!’.
Just try mischievously suggesting German football began with Beckenbauer or Bert Trautmann – and see how swiftly you can reach the border.
For official purposes, only three of the 12 World Cup stadia have been allowed to use their real names.
Commercial sponsors such as Allianz, AOL and Kommerzbank have been censored.
But the Fritz Walter Stadion in Kaiserslautern is a protected species – much like the man himself.
Walter captained the West German side that beat favourites Hungary in the 1954 final, having lost 8-3 to the same side in an earlier round.
He died during Germany’s run to the 2002 final – and the anniversary was marked with a minute’s silence during this year’s tournament.
His memory also hovered over Germany’s match against Sweden, rivals since an ill-tempered semi-final in the 1958 World Cup that ended Walter’s career.
Now canny brewers in Kaiserslautern, where he spent his entire career, have produced their own tribute - ‘Fritz-Walter-Bier’, an eight-euro bottle-and-beerglass combination.
How fortunate for brewers Bischoff, that Kaiserslautern hosted those un-abstemious Australians not once but twice.
Walter was said to save his best for when the weather was bad – the wetter ‘das Wetter’, the better.
Becks – the sickly footballer, not the beer – and his sun-stricken England colleagues would welcome a forecast of ‘Fritz-Walter-Wetter’ this weekend.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"And in the middle of negotiations, you break down..."

Fifa’s tough talk on ticket touting doesn’t seem to have filtered through to all officials on the ground.
I tried on Monday to return two tickets my brother had been allocated, was unable to take up for the Switzerland-Ukraine game and had (a little belatedly) asked me to try to return and be refunded.
Unfortunately, I was told on arrival at one of the Fifa ticket centres that they could only be transferred online.
Staff at the official centres would refuse to take them back in person for refund and resale - despite the long queues for returns, armies of touts charging outrageous prices.
There was an alternative, ticket centre staff suggested – I could try selling them on myself.
"What, on the streets?" I wondered, unsure whether I'd understood this uniformed official quite correctly.
"Yeah, I guess. Good luck!"

No news from home yet on the two heavily-pregnant brothers' wives (that's the wives who are pregnant, not the mothers), so I'm still waiting to become an uncle. Not long left now if either of them wants to give birth to a "World Cup baby", and the opportunity to christen the child something significant like, I dunno, "Wayne" or "Aaron" or "Crouchy". Or "Sven". Or "Jurgen". Or "Goleo".

On second thoughts, burdening a child with any of those names risks running up thousands of pounds' worth of psychiatry sessions for years to come.
Especially if it's a girl.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"I want it all - the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles...!"

The dizzying highs have been obvious – the swashbuckling, eye-popping, almost physics-defying skills of the Argentinians, the freshness and fervour of the German hosts, the attacking instincts of Spain, Ivory Coast and Holland, and all those glorious goals flying in from here, there and everywhere.

And, of course, the lows have been no less noticeable: every time England have taken the pitch, for example.

Then, after the second set of first-round matches ended, we’ve come to settle, it seems, in more of the creamy middles: climactic matches reduced to half-hearted battles for first and second place, meaningless walkabouts between two sides already packed and ready to go home, or all-too-easily yellow-carded stars being obliged by their bosses to sit out 90 minutes for the greater, risk-averse good.

And so, onto the second round – the time to start weighing up in more considered, bigger-picture-here-folks terms whether this really will go down, as this copy of Sport-Bild rather prematurely decrees, as ‘Die beste Weltermeisterschaft aller Zeiten’.

Well, now the second round is indeed done and dusted and, well, it seems those creamy middles might just have begun to curdle.

The Germany-Sweden opener, while uplifting for the hosts, was virtually over as a spectacle within 12 minutes and Podolski’s two goals, and certainly so after Lucic’s red card after barely half an hour had been played.

Ignoring hypocritically all I may have previously posted about the England game, the less now said about that Ecuador game the better – likewise last night’s Ukraine-Switzerland snoreathon and, indeed, while it was a superbly tight defensive display by the Italians yesterday, their narrow win over Australia was more entertaining in the stands and the streets outside than on the pitch.

Brazil’s cakewalk against Ghana today required little of them other than riding their opponents’ reckless challenges effectively enough to avoid major injury, while giving the viewer less the impression they were watching Brazil, more that it was rather like watching Barnsley.

Then tonight’s Spain-France game, so full of enthralling potential, thus so sure to disappoint – but as both teams hesitantly circled, squared up and eventually sparred together, there was interest if little excitement.

That, then, leaves the two genuinely good games out of eight: the good good, and the bad good.

The first being, obviously, the Argentina-Mexico game, one of the finest of the tournament so far and a credit to both sides – Mexico for refusing to be intimidated by the supposedly all-conquering Argies and combining tireless efforts with intelligent probing and admirable passing. And Argentina, for withstanding the first up-and-at-‘em assault to look like troubling them so far, for patiently, very patiently working out how to somehow win Juan Riquelme a little more space and time than the very little the Mexicans were allowing him – and finally, for that stunningly-executed winning goal by unlikely star-in-the-making Maxi Rodriguez.

Then, there was the bad bad, of course, the deplorable yet also compellingly enjoyable royal rumble between Holland and Portugal, of which more below.

So what went wrong? Well, apart from the ever-present dangers of too-much-too-soon hype and hoopla.

There must be that fear of losing, when the stakes have suddenly raised that significantly higher. When the permutations and careful strategies of the first round have proved successful enough so far, now needing tactics and timing and fitness and flair to be recalibrated for different, one-off conditions.

When going all out for goals, laying down a marker or flying high a standard, is no longer so important as simply getting through, and making sure the other guys don’t.

Until tonight’s game, only the exceptional (in more senses than one) Mexico-Argentina game featured a goal from both sides. In the other cases, the teams that took the lead found themselves able to sit back, hold on for the win in variously easy or difficult circumstances.

Also disappointing has been the constant brandishing of cards which have made this World Cup’s signature colour yellow, even more than the outfits of Brazil, Togo, Ecuador, Sweden, Australia and Ukraine and their followers.

A booking all too often now seems the inevitable accompaniment to a transgression – brief burst of dissent, a petulant but petty kicking-away of the ball, a mistimed but not dangerous tackle. And already, then, you’re half way to being banished from the pitch for the rest of the game – not a trivial punishment, a minor inconvenience to give someone a signal the ref has got a little bit fed up with them. While dangerous, goal-denying or career-threatening behaviour must be both punished and deterred, it’s ridiculous to see otherwise-innocuous games end without a full quota of players on the pitch at the end because of a few minor faults have been over-punished.

And once the yellow cards stack up, further match-wrecking tensions and tournament-undermining suspensions surely follow and follow apace. The referee in the Portugal-Holland match got the red cards about right, managed to somehow miss despatching a few more – but perhaps should take some of the blame for how the game turned so nasty, by waving around so many yellow cards in the very earliest moments of the game.

Maybe he meant them to settle things down from the start, act as a warning to the players to behave. That backfired. Instead the oft-appearing yellow card acted as a red rag, inspiring the aggrieved players to dive, play-act, lash out as much as, even more than before.

Leaving a sour taste in the mouth, in what was shaping up to be a month-long celebration of Champagne football at its finest.

Hopefully the next two days’ breather will provide the refreshment required.

Then again, after enjoying so much of this non-stop football for the past fortnight-and-a-bit – even when it’s been ‘never mind the quality, feel the quantity’ – even two days seems like too much…

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."

Angry Italian fans are already turning on their football officials, even as the team stumbles through another round.
Alongside the pro-Azurri banners in the crowd for the Australia game, one pointedly condemned ‘Carraro infame’.
Franco Carraro is one of 26 people charged last week over the Serie A match-fixing scandal, which had already forced him to quit as chairman of the Italian football federation.
Carraro remains a member of both football’s governing body Fifa and the International Olympic Committee.
Indeed, his influential support – and friendships with Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi - helped London win the 2012 Olympics.
But a few eyebrows rose when now-disgraced Carraro presented a report to this month’s Fifa Congress – as chairman of Fifa’s internal audit committee, set up to clean up earlier scandals.
How you say...?

A rubar poco si va in galera, a rubar tanto si fa cariera.

"Teardrops are falling from your Spanish eyes..."

Patrick Vieira had the ball at his feet, as he sauntered in customary style across the familiar field. And then, suddenly he didn’t – the ball whipped rudely from him by some suddenly outstretched legs, which swiftly strolled up and away as Vieira stumbled over himself as much as anything else, gradually and dazedly to regain his balance just in time to see his disposer Cesc Fabregas, at the other end of the pitch, deftly setting up that crucial first goal.

Not tonight in Hanover, but a few months ago at Highbury – the moment which seemed to encapsulate how old master and young pretender had been transformed into young pretender and old master: Vieira of Juventus, and only formerly of Arsenal, humbled by the teenage tyro who had replaced him. Fabregas is talked of as the future of Spanish football – not so, say team-mates; he’s the present – Vieira was surely the past: very, very past-it.

Ah, but perhaps that wasn’t quite the neat ending to the story it seemed. Tonight Vieira added an intriguing and unexpected epilogue – and Fabregas showed that for all his phenomenal talent, self-assurance and potential, there are still things to be taught by the bigger boys.

I was just noting down how the excellent Italian referee had reached 65 minutes without booking a player, only to look up and see Vieira very lately catching Fabregas with his studs and deservedly earning a yellow.

But Fabregas, if he proved an inch too quick that time, wasn’t quite emulating the influential poise of his earlier cameo appearances this tournament. At times, as the stylish Spaniards struggled to break down and break away from a dogged, unspectacular French defence, he looked the most perplexed and lost of the lot.

Sadly for him, the worst was to come – a free-kick dubiously won by Thierry Henry was floated across the box by Zinedine Zidane, the defending likes of Fabregas for a vital moment confused and confounded, watching the ball bounce aimlessly off a leaping Xabi Alonso only back into the simple path of Vieira to nod in from virtually on the goal-line. Two-one France with just seven minutes to go – the 92nd minute extra by the still-got-it Zidane was a beautifully-intelligent spectacle, but otherwise the referee might as well have blown the final whistle nine minutes earlier, for all the likelihood of deflated Spain equalising.

Such a shame they’ve shown the old Spanish disease yet again, and again so early, having strolled through the group stage playing some of the most attractive football of the tournament.

Oh, and their fans really, really wanted this one – not least to avenge the French hex over Spain from crucial clashes such as the Euro 2000 quarter-final, when Raul blazed a late penalty embarrassingly high, and the 1984 European Championships final when Platini, Tigana, Rocheteau and the rest reigned triumphant.

Approaching Hanover stadium felt less like entering a top-level football stadium, more like a secluded but spacious private health farm, or the sports grounds of a particularly well-off school or college – or at least one lucky enough to sit alongside a pretty park in suburbia.

The inside of the stadium was similarly airy and spacious and, well, pleasant – even with the odd rail along the roof resembling the looping track round which the fake hare runs on and on and on at the greyhound stadium.

Ah, but the Spanish were in no mood to exchange niceties and discuss the scenery, booing, jeering and whistling La Marseillaise far more fiercely than I’ve heard any fans treating a rival national anthem this summer. In fact, I can’t remember any abusing the opposing anthem, even those infamous English.

The corner chunk of bright red Spaniards were certainly relentlessly rowdy and enthusiastic from then on (until the 83rd minute, anyway), without quite enveloping the entire stadium in their aura – more like crimson, cut-price Argentinians in their fervour and musical appeal.

Zidane, trotting across to take an early corner only for the referee to eventually, albeit very slowly, change his mind and award a French goal-kick – was booed and abused mercilessly. Not everyone, then, was happy to bow the old man out with style and a smile. Mais, c’est le foot.

Funny old game. Just ask those two Arsenal midfield lynchpins, past and present.
Only expect one of them to smile just now.

"I don't feel safe in this world no more..."

Jens Lehmann has curbed his usual instincts to dash from his goal-line so far this summer, instead remaining rooted in position.
Perhaps the Arsenal and Germany goalkeeper is still haunted by his red card in the Champions League final – but this caution extends off the pitch too.
Lehmann, nicknamed ‘Tarzan’ by his international colleagues, was invited to pose on top of an elephant for a women’s magazine photoshoot.
But he explained: ‘I’m mustn’t do any dangerous things – no diving, no ski-ing, and certainly no riding elephants.’
One quirky photo just isn’t worth the risk of having your feet trampled with all the delicacy of a late lunge by Sol Campbell.

Monday, June 26, 2006

"And did we tell you the name of the game, boy? We call it riding the gravy train..."

Once a rule-breaker, always a rule-breaker, it seems.
Despite German liberality on lighting up in public places, Fifa has insisted this be a no-smoking World Cup.
All 12 tournament stadia have been decreed smoke-free zones – as pre-match adverts featuring Michael Ballack and Owen Hargreaves make clear.
The pair demonstrate their disgust at the merest wisps of smoke spreading their way – then give cheesy thumbs-up when the offending cigarettes are stubbed out.
Yet one troublesome spectator just keeps puffing away on his cigars every time he celebrates a goal.
When your side is Argentina, this can be a regular occurrence.
But then again, when your name is Diego Maradona, perhaps it would be a brave steward who tried to stop you.

"It took me years to write, will you take a look...?"

A lucrative little book industry is cashing in on Jurgen Klinsmann’s ‘New Germany’ revolution.
His American fitness guru Mark Verstegen has brought out a guide to his unorthodox techniques.
These have had Ballack, Klose and company waddling around with rubber bands around their ankles and harnessed to weights like drayhorses.
Right-back Arne Friedrich has published his own cookbook, Kochen Wie Die Weltmeister, featuring such recipes as Chili Con (Oliver) Kahn and Chicken (Torsten) Frings.
Friedrich’s book, translated as Cooking Like The World Champions, is gaining more and more prominence in bookshop windows the further Germany progress.
But poor reserve goalkeeper Oliver Kahn’s autobiography Nummer Eins has been spotted tucked away at the back of a display – with a shaming red ‘Reduced’ sticker slapped across the front.

"The native dances and their charming songs - but wait a minute, something's wrong..."

Kaiserslautern and the surrounding greenery of the Pfalz are best viewed from above – but the city doesn’t look bad from down below either.
It’s just that the lofty 286.5-metre setting of the ‘Betzenberg’, atop which the Fritz-Walter-Stadion sits, suggests an expansive beauty beyond the tight and bustling city streets.
Here are quizzical church spires peeking over the clusters of peagreen trees, as fat and full as a child’s crayon drawings.
There are the wriggling town squares, one brimming with vivid shades of big-screen viewers, another waiting for the tipsy kickabouts when dusk falls, still another quaintly oblivious to all the football fuss elsewhere.
Kaiserslautern is perhaps the smallest and most compact Weltmeisterstadt this summer.
Unlike in other host cities, where the friendly Fans’ Festivals can seem a little detached and enclosed, Kaiserslautern’s is unavoidable whichever turning you take.
The festival is, in fact, the streets – where crowds of all coloured shirts bustle down narrow lanes, crammed between stalls offering food, booze and all manner of inevitable football tat.
Never have I seen, before this summer, so many people willing to cake on so much face-paint, from the daintiest little flags upon one cheek to an alienesque, all-over coating of many colours.
Queues of all ages were waiting to have Australian or Italian flags virtually blowtorched across their flesh – safe in the knowledge, the paint can all come off at the end of the day.
Staff at a nearby tattoo parlour, perhaps having hoped to cash in on the drunken hordes, looked rather more miserably – and redundantly – on.
There were educative elements about, too.
While one stall banner promised to teach German in five minutes, that quickfire course remained elusive when I lingered a little too long and was instead invited to take a short trivia test.
That five-minute solution, even a refresher, could have been useful since before answering the questions they had to be translated from German.
But I managed to get through most of them, either educatedly guessing or, in one especially easy example, just knowing somehow, that ‘das legendaere Wembley-Tor’ was probably scored not in 1954 nor 1974, but 1966.
What else was there to be learnt?
Well, that Kaiserslautern was the birthplace in 1862 of the Pfaff sewing machine – that the city was named after Kaiser Friedrich I, also known as ‘Barbarossa’ for his red beard.
Also, that Kaiserslautern is 730 years old, 1 FC Kaiserslautern last won the Bundesliga in 1998, and that the Betzenberg peak is, yes, 286.5 metres high.
Unusually for the second round so far, both teams were returning to a city which had already paid them host.
(I think Germany, in Munich, are the only others to make such a swift comeback.)
Everyone certainly seemed settled and comfortable, careening through the streets to play up in their own different ways, languages and dances for the large numbers of small camera crews.
I even managed to take my modest international media whoreing up a level.
Having been quizzed by Russian radio, and filmed ‘working’ by German TV (actually discussing travel and hotel arrangements with my dad), now I could be reaching out to the soccer-philes and –phobics of the US.
American comedian Drew Carey, host of the US Whose Line Is It Anyway?, was performing a piece to camera in the middle of the street – inevitably with catcalls, cheers and beery AAAAAAAARGH!s from passing Aussies.
Having felt his mild-mannered TV vehicle, The Drew Carey Show, was a little unfairly-maligned – at least, when watching hidden-away late-night ITV showings in a phase of student insomania – I popped over for a quick chat.
He insisted on having our conversation about England and Germany, football and soccer, shot by his on-call cameraman.
Drew’s over here for 40 days, filming a series of shows for a US travel channel – or maybe, the Travel Channel – and indulging his three-years-and-counting enthusiasm for the game.
He spent last night in Stuttgart, hanging out with a crowd of England fans – doubtless the best indoctrination for an eager-to-learn American.
‘Half the England fans are the greatest – and the other half I want to run away from as soon as possible.
‘I just haven’t worked out yet how to tell which is which.
‘At least, not until I get up close – and can tell how drunk they are.
‘But they have taught me all the words to, what is it? Three lions on the shirt, somebody still gleaming… Is that right?’
Sadly, tonight’s match wouldn’t have done much to convince the millions of American non-believers of their utter, utter wrongness when it comes to the (sometimes) beautiful game.
Having started the tournament looking rather un-Italian in all their attacking flair, the Azurri have slipped back into uninspiring ways.
The strikers once again lamentably failed to tuck away any of the chances offered – Toni, Gilardino and substitute Iaquinta.
Surely even the lumbering and aged Christian Vieri could have done better – especially today, a match made for the only Italian who speaks like Crocodile Dundee.
The straight red card for Marco Materazzi looked harsh, forcing Italy to withdraw even more deeply into themselves for much of the second half – even though a knock-out win obviously needed to be seized.
The man he fouled, Lazio’s Marco Bresciano, proved a pest throughout – as did Scott Chipperfield, the defender who managed to pop up for the Australians’ two best chances.
Vince Grella, in midfield, also harried and hassled the Italians throughout – managing to out-Gattuso Gattuso, as it were.
That dodgy last-minute penalty, just when we were expecting another turgid 30 minutes, was cruel – enough to provoke pity even for the Aussies.
Fabio Grosso, in his surging dart from left-back into the box, showed more persistence and invention than any of his colleagues in the preceding persistence and invention than any of his colleagues in the preceding 94 minutes.
He rode Bresciano’s first challenge well – then again, it was outside the area.
The second, from the again-excellent Lucas Neill, appeared to have passed him by – and he the tackle – when he did suddenly take a stumble over the prone Aussie defender.
And Spanish ref Luis Medina Cantelejo pointed straight to the spot for an Italian penalty – and you just knew instantly, it was going in, it was game over.
Even the Australians didn’t seem to muster much of a justifiable protest – and once Francesco Totti had dispatched the inevitable, the ref duly put them out of their misery and blew the full-time whistle.
Not that Italy’s delirious players seemed likely to have returned to the pitch to kick off again, anyway, having been buried under a mountain of substitutes, coaching staff, physios, kit men, coach drivers and tea ladies.
A dull, forgettable game had somehow reached a dramatic finale – though it seemed strangely anti-climactic as well.
At least the 'foul' will make useful footage when the Italians make their four-yearly complaints about refereeing bias and an anti-Italian conspiracy when they eventually depart this tournament.
The whistling, booing Australians were still 286.5 metres high – yet had nonetheless been brought back to earth with a most almighty bump.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

"Sunday night's all right for fighting..."

After all that heat, almost as soon as people began emerging from the stadium, it started spitting – and within minutes, we were in the midst of a full-blown thunderstorm. Perhaps the England players would have enjoyed those conditions more.
The temporary structure of the media structure here in Stuttgart suddenly seemed rickety and rocking, as panic-stricken journalists packed up their bags and rushed for – well, I’m not quite sure where they thought they might find shelter.
But for the next few hours, the rain, thunder and lightning beat down in quite perplexing contrast to the tropical torpor of just a few hours earlier.
The real Sturm und Drang, though, was to be found in Nuremberg tonight, where a game of football occasionally threatened to break out between Holland and Portugal.
Instead, both sides seemed happy to settle for a night of all-in wrestling instead, from which any player who ended the game without at least one card to his name just hadn’t tried hard enough.
Four men off – and it could have been more, such as Nuno Valente for some kung-fu fighting on the otherwise-anonymous Arjen Robben, and Luis Figo for a sneaky headbutt.
The ref did actually card Figo for that instance, so Fifa may not step in with extra sanctions ruling him out of the England game.
I suppose we can’t be too greedy, though, the absence of Deco (not so much Costinha) being a significant factor.
It all became so undisciplined and reminiscent of WWE, I half-expected the substituted Figo to run back onto the pitch brandishing a chair.
Then, all that would be needed was David Coleman to present the Match Of The Day highlights of the ‘Battle Of Nuremberg’, sternly warning viewers of a sensitive disposition to take themselves off to bed with a mug of Horlicks now.
Thanks to an anonymous stranger for stepping in with the lovely photos above, of the bad little boys from both sides, sitting together on the ‘naughty step’ at the end...

"Getting away with it..."

Just as World Cup fever looked like fading away entirely, lacklustre England managed to sweat it out a little longer – just about.
But the stifling heat wasn’t the only thing yesterday to be closer than expected.
The biggest winners were the touts who somehow managed to sell England tickets for £1,000 apiece – double the top price for the hosts the day before.
Anyone judging this England good value for a grand deserves a place on Fifa’s technical panel, which added John Terry to the list of baffling ‘Man Of The Match’ recipients.
Terry had looked the most likely to gift Ecuador a lead that would have left England even more red-faced than the Stuttgart sun had managed.
Thankfully Ashley Cole, perhaps feeling freed from the burden of that unsavoury little News Of The Screws ‘sensation’, managed a stunningly swift rescue lunge.
Even the usually-raucous (for good and for bad) support seemed a little stunned into a stupor by the conditions – and the players’ failure to cope.
The first brass band version of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ was a long time coming – and even then sounded strangely jaded and lazy.
This was not so much singalong terrace stomper, as jazzy after-hours lounge Muzak.
Rival managers Sven-Goran Eriksson and Luis Fernando Suarez looked like those improbable ‘before’ and ‘after’ models from a Charles Atlas mail-order muscle-building ad.
Yet Sven was quickly both jacketless and jumpy, leaping twice in the first-half to tap the ball back to an England player.
If only Frank Lampard had shown such accuracy.
Eriksson’s decision to belatedly go for a defensive midfielder behind Lumpalard and Steve Gerrard suggested he’d been reading two-week-old papers in Baden-Baden these last few days.
Michael Carrick justified his selection through the quality and vision of his passes.
Yet he didn’t really do much in terms of being an apparently ‘defensive’ midfielder.
Even my blue-and-lilywhite-tinted contact lenses couldn’t help but notice how few tackles he actually made, or attacking opponents he closed down.
Partly this was down to the sheer paucity of effort by Ecuador, who arrived looking like they expected defeat – and became impatient for its confirmation.
Carrick’s contributions today could just as easily have been made, and admired, pushed up alongside Gerrard – with redundant Lampard replaced with an extra striker.
Wayne Rooney’s control of the (long) ball, and defender-bamboozling tricks, were wasted by having him facing away from the goal for so long, and with no one in support.
Lampard was abysmal – seemingly in a contest with new Chelsea colleague Michael Ballack over who can have the most long-range shots without actually scoring.
But Ballack is at least contributing to the German side in other, effective ways.
Ironically, the one time you wanted Lampard to shoot was when he inexplicably tried to play in Rooney, only to see his half-hearted pass trickle to an opponent.
Having denied being ‘married’ or even ‘engaged’ to Beckham, Sven must have felt tempted to go down on one knee after that free-kick somehow arced in.
After that, for all the ineptness on display from both sides, the most anxious moment came when ‘keeper Paul Robinson fell awkwardly and a nation shuddered as one: ‘David James…!’
Robbo just about clung on – as did England.
Yet as one relieved but rueful fan remarked on his way out: ‘I think Ecuador’s problem was, they showed us too much respect.’
Inside the stadium, fans were paid the rare honour of hearing Baddiel and Skinner’s authentic ‘Three Lions’ rather than the bowdlerised, ubiquitous German version.
On this weekend’s showings, however, when it comes to convincing World Cup contenders, England rather than Germany look more like the pale imitations.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Away from the numbers is where I am free..."

This is the triumphant era of the squad number. Yearning even casually and comically for the return of rigid 1-11 selections can mark you out as a hopeless nostalgic for the days of the W-M formation, gentleman amateurs in flat caps and longjohns hoofing a medicine ball across a boggy swamp of a "pitch", and the England team being selected not by a manager but an FA committee (actually, that may explain the continuing presence of David Beckham in the starting line-up…)

But still, but still… This World Cup has thrown up a few still-odd discrepancies between a player’s number on his back, and his position in the line-up.

For example, Asamoah Gyan of Ghana, an excellent, probing striker – wearing “3”, a left-back’s number if ever there was.

Wearing the perennial, left-on-the-bench signifier, number twelve: Thierry Henry, France’s Zizou-otherwise talisman even if, as Guardian Unlimited put it, his international party trick seems to be “shamelessly icing a cake baked by someone else”.

His club team-mate Emmanuel Adebayor notionally leading the attack for Togo, but taking his unusual number 4 shirt too much to heart and thus haring around the field trying to do much – yet ending up achieving very little, other than confusing his own colleagues.

At least Argentina appear to have adopted a more conventional approach – though they have perplexing previous.

Handing out squad numbers not by likely place in the side, but alphabetical order, may have seemed a thinking-outside-the-penalty-box wheeze by which to avoid too many ego clashes.

(Though, oddly enough, the much-prized number ten shirt appears to have fallen to Germany’s Oliver Neuville this time almost by default, with no-one else actually wanting it – not even captain Michael Ballack, hoping to prove a lucky 13 this tournament).

There’s just something a little too jarring, however, in the footage of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup triumph, with midfield playmaker Osvaldo Ardiles at the hub of matters – in the number two shirt.

Too outré, too soon, for Luddite football to embrace?
It would certainly seem so, though Argentina did at least persevere for their ill-fated attempt to retain their title four years later.

This was just too odd, though – witness the sight of Ardiles still in midfield, but now wearing number one. Telling, though, to see that even then, Maradona insisted on wearing the ever-important number ten.

If the rules of the game won’t constrain him from enjoying his own way, then why should something as insignificant as the alphabet?

"The winner takes it all, the loser standing small..."

So “Klinsi” and his Elf go storming on.
All that feverish build-up, and then this first match of the second round is over within 12 minutes.
Sweden coach Lars Lagerback has just summed it up: Germany got off to a very good start, and we didn’t defend very well.
That about covers it – Teddy Lucic especially having a day to forget, from the fourth-minute moment his head could only divert Lukas Podolski’s header into the net, to the 12th when he was turned inside out by Miroslav Klose to set up Podolski’s second – to the 33rd minute, when a strangely-smiling referee showed him a second yellow and then red card.
Having been ridiculed after the very first game for the shoddiness of their defence, Germany have now gone three games without conceding – nor looking too likely to.
Even Sweden’s second-half penalty, which could at least have turned the prematurely-settled game interesting again, was probably destined to end up in Row Z, judging by how their big day had gone so far.
And so Henrik Larsson obliged.
He was not the only one firing into the stratosphere, with German captain Michael Ballack appearing to want Frank Lampard’s record for most long-range shots without scoring.
At least Larsson could share the misery otherwise with Zlatan Ibrahomivic, turning in the kind of display that could and should have him stuck in Serie B with Juventus.
At the other end, while the Pole Podolski got the goals, it was the Pole Klose who deserved his man of the match award.
He created both by a combination of relentless niggling at defenders and the ball, vision to spot the right run and the right pass at just the right time, and surprising power and bravery for someone not quite slight, but certainly no Koller.
Should they go through against Mexico tonight, you have to assume Argentina’s attackers – oh so many of them – would pose a rather sterner test in the quarter-final.
Germany could help their chances by tying their bootlaces up properly beforehand – several times their players, especially Torsten Frings, held up proceedings to redo their double-knots.
I only just managed to sneak my way into this evening’s game in Munich, having been rejected in my first application but signing on successfully to the waiting list.
The scrum for tickets, both among those approved but a little late collecting, and those desperate for any leftovers, was hectic and heated to say the least.
Eventually the system worked, doling out according to priorities of first German and Swedish, then countries still in the tournament, then countries who had been knocked out, then finally your Denmarks, Irelands and Indias.
Dog eat dog, hack eat hack – but in the end everyone was fed.
The streets of Germany should be tumultuous tonight – rot, Schwarz und gelb everywhere again.
Good to see Klinsmann’s team playing a more entertaining style than German sides past – to see the hosts going far, taking the fans and the momentum with them.
A German exit –with England and Brazil following – might make it easier to get hold of tickets for future games.
As late as this afternoon, the Fifa media channel was inviting applications for tonight’s Argentina-Mexico match – should anyone be able to make it to far-flung Leipzig with time to spare.
At the moment, I have approvals in hand for England-Ecuador tomorrow and Italy-Aussies on Monday, while a decision on Spain-France is “pending”.
Not bad, and certainly can’t complain - for someone predominantly just playing at being a proper sports hack this summer.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

"Who needs remote control...?"

AS WITH German football, so it seems with German football coverage on TV: keep it simple, brisk – and effective.
Just one commentator in the gantry, for example.
Respectful audiences sitting in silence for each coffee-table football forum, broadcast every night.
But in pundit Paul Breitner, German TV boasts an unusual quirk - perhaps the only committed Maoist to have won the World Cup.
And as one of three men to have scored in two World Cup finals, his international CV rather trumps Ian Wright’s four goals against San Marino.
Breitner’s once-extravagant Afro has now been tamed to a sleek, silvery mane.
His Zapata-style moustache and beard are now so sheared, they barely crackle across his thin wolfish features.
But his punditry still has bite.
He clips his words with the precision of a Linguaphone tape yet condemns like a Teutonic Martin O’Neill – only furrier, and a little easier to understand.
While Breitner’s is a fiercely intense glare, former team-mate Gunther Netzer has developed a sadder stare.
Every morning, every noon, every night, there he’ll be – quizzed for the umpteenth time about France’s offside trap or Croatian full-backs.
But the most inescapable TV star has been the man rejected by 1860 Munich as a teenager, nipping next-door to rivals Bayern instead.
While, in some celestial saloon, that unfortunate 1860 official drowns his sorrows with the Decca boss who snubbed the Beatles, ‘Der Kaiser’ is cashing in.
He’s won the World Cup as player and manager and the Champions League as club president, before organising a World Cup.
Now he’s turned his hand – and feet – to acting. And advertising.
One minute you’ll see Beckenbauer lashing a football into the back of the net, despite his white hair, business suit and brogues.
The next, he’ll play for laughs as a horrified homeowner with a lounge gatecrashed by rowdy football fans.
If only his influence could end German TV’s obsession with giant orange foam microphones, which turn even the most distinguished expert cartoonish.
Arsene Wenger was quizzed with a black mike, but still looked like some hideous flesh-eating bug had devoured half his face.
Imagine 1930s crime caper The Arsenal Stadium Mystery remade as a shlock horror B-movie – now that make for intriguing football TV.
Even Paul Breitner might crack a smile.

"Surely I must be somebody else you've known..." - a few World Cup "lookalikes"...

Dave Hill (Slade)

Maniche (Portugal)

Robert Duvall (The Godfather)

Esteban Cambiasso (Argentina)

Terry Gilliam (The Life Of Brian)

Tomas Ujfalusi (The Czech Republic)

Robert DeNiro (Heat)

Ricardo Lavolpe (Mexico)

David Cameron (Conservative Party)

Robert Huth (Germany)

Jon Tickle (Big Brother)

Theo Walcott (England work experience)

"Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June..."

Ola, Brasil. Welcome to the World Cup.
After almost a fortnight of a finals just so wunderbar, there was just one notable element missing.
Better late than never, tonight it arrived – the beautiful game, samba-style.
Perhaps there’s a danger in going overboard with the same old Brazilian clichés, after a comfortable win played out in an end-of-term-style atmosphere.
Yet after a brace of underwhelming wins, it was a joy to see Brazil turn on the style in their 4-1 win over Japan tonight.
For the first time this tournament, Ronaldinho was sublime not just in the briefest of cameos, but for his 70-minute starring role before a well-earned rest.
Stand-in full-backs Cicinho and Gilberto showed the kind of intelligence, flair and commitment to suggest perfect long-term replacements for the winding-down Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
And a man named Ronaldo demonstrated, with ideal and historic timing, that maybe he’s not quite ready to be wound down himself just yet.
The rapturous Japanese fans swarming down the steep slopes of the stands, so close as to be almost spilling onto the pitch, kept chorusing Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer.
And their players certainly contributed to the entertainment, passing as neatly as throughout the tournament yet this time suggesting they might finally have located that elusive cutting-edge.
Tamada and Maki seemed quicker-thinking than the front pair they replaced, keen to catch the flat back four off-guard and slip in behind.
This Tamada did to give Japan a surprise lead, latching onto an inch-perfect pass from Brazilian-born wing-back Alex Santos.
The breakthrough sent the Japanese players and fans into understandable raptures – though no doubt there was a certain shock to the celebrations too.
The goal came against the run of play, though for the previous ten minutes Brazil had appeared to lose a little of the first half-hours rhythm.
From the kick-off, Ronaldo, Robinho, Ronaldinho and especially Juninho Pernambucano were thundering so much shots Kawaguchi’s way, it was only a matter of time before his net began bulging.
Perhaps the Japan goal stunned Brazil back into more clinical frame of mind, after drifting into sloppy complacency.
Maybe, in fact very probably, it caused Japan to relax a little too much, content to have achieved their excitement, their moment of glory – and that would do.
The ever-eager Robinho had impressed again with his willingness to hare about here, there and everywhere in search of the ball – but with the nimbleness of feet to dance his way through any return tackles.
But it was Ronaldinho’s more languid approach which helped carve upon Japan and turn the game back around.
His loft across the box, cleverly headed by Cicinho, into Ronaldo’s sights for the equaliser?
His effortlessly stylish through-ball for Gilberto to suddenly arrive upon and drive emphatically past Kawaguchi for the third - just minutes after the ‘keeper was fooled by the swirl of Juninho’s fierce thunderbolt through his arms.
The skipping backheel volley. The bunny-hop with the ball in an intricate one-two-three-four which should have created another goal-of-the-finals contender, only for Ronaldo to inexplicably screw wide.
Maybe they felt a little riled by the accolades bestowed upon Argentina in recent days, especially after Cambiasso’s breathtaking 28-pass goal.
Brazil seemed to string together at least 50 passes in the closing moments today, each player adding almost-experimental variations of spin, loop and pace on each contribution, as if daring each other to keep up, keep control, then do better.
Ronaldo’s second goal, Brazil’s fourth, was also his 14th in World Cup Finals – equalling German Gerd Mueller’s record.
And the way he maaged it was assuredly the Ronaldo of old, giving little thought but power and precision from the edge of the box, having been fed by surging Gilberto.
The Ronaldo of old? Well, with a few more pounds – several, several more, indeed – and even less willingness to break into the laziest of jogs than ever before.
The wanderings of Ronaldinho and Kaka behind him, drifting wherever and whenever they want with no mind given to tactical restrictions, allow him to prowl a confined but deadly space in between the centre-backs.
With the record now equalled, indeed there soon to be beaten, those ridicule-laden reports of Ronaldo’s demise were certainly slightly premature.
He’s not finished yet – and it seems Brazil are, finally, just getting started.

"You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire..."

The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was the first one I really remember - squinting at a little TV in my bedroom, from my top bunk bed, at midnight matches such as England's disastrous 0-0 draw with Morocco (my mum called out before going to bed herself, to ask how we were doing: "Not good - Bryan Robson's just gone off injured, and Ray Wilkins was sent off a minute later..." "... Oh. Oh dear...")
Or the teatime games such as the famous "Hand Of God" nightmare on a Sunday evening - and the wild claims in school the next day that so-and-so had heard Fifa were going to order the game replayed (just as similar tales spread in desperation after the 1990 semi-final, this time that an Argentine player in the other semi had failed a drugs test and for some reason, England not Italy would benefit by their disqualification... Such useless self-delusions...)
Other memories of '86: Lineker's wrist cast - and the agonising way the ball somehow bounced back off his head instead of into the net as that Argentina game came towards an end; Maradona's solo goal in the semi-final win over Belgium, a lesser-remembered rival to his England effort as a World Cup thing of greatest beauty; Jorge Valdano, in the same game, trying to get away with a copy of Maradona's other England goal, only this time being caught football-handed; the giant spider-shaped shadow thrown over the Aztec Stadium pitch in midfield; Uruguay's Batista being sent off for a foul on Gordon Strachan after less than a minute - and Scotland still being unable to get better than a goalless draw; the cartoon chilli pepper mascot Pique, and his imprint all over the free merchandise brought back home by my dad; Josimaaaaaaaaar the flying Brazilian right-back drilling a speculative but spectacular shot past a stunned Pat Jennings; and a series of penalty shoot-outs, the most dramatic coming in France's quarter-final win over Brazil.
Before the shoot-out, Brazil should have won it in normal time but with the aid of a penalty - only for newly-arrived, injury-hampered sub Zico to miss.
He scored in the shoot-out, but two team-mates didn't - allowing France through, and ending for a third time Zico's hopes of winning the World Cup, one of the finest footballers never to have done so.
Well, he won't win it as manager of Japan, but it will be intriguing this evening to see his adopted side take on his homeland, here in the fine old Dortmund stadium.
His side look likely to bow out of the tournament today - but hopefully Zico's Japan will do so with a little of the style and flair of Zico's Brazil, while inspiring today's Brazil to finally start doing the same this summer...

I don't really like that song about him by Peter Gabriel, though.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"I've been turned down, I've been pushed round..."

Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz could for given for feeling a little left out - all because he's been left in.
When playing for RKC Waalwijk, then-boss Martin Jol (who he?) condemned his fitness levels as "equal to a policeman's". Cutting.
Now, having fought his way back from this hurt and toned himself up, he found himself playing for Holland in the World Cup tonight.
Except, of nine players on both sides to have already picked up a yellow card, and facing suspension if booked again tonight, he was the only one not given the evening off.
A rather harsh little message seemed loud and clear.
Robben, Van Bommel, Van Bronckhorst, Mathijsen and Heitinga in one dug-out, Heinze, Saviola and Crespo in the other - each and every one, too important to risk.
Khalid Boulahrouz - hmm, not so much...

"For the love you bring won't mean a thing, unless you sing, sing, sing - sing..."

And there I was, preparing to write something about the English being no good at the Eurovision Song Contest but by far the finest singers in this alternative global tournament.
But then – came the Argentines…
Tonight’s match against Holland wasn’t perhaps the classic, such an encounter between these two could and should have been in a knock-out round. Or if tonight’s game had any meaningful matters of qualification hinging upon it, other than who finished top and who second in Group D.
In fact, Holland may be the more pleased with a potential route offering up Portugal then England, rather than Argentina’s of Mexico and then, crucially, hosts Germany.
So for all the quality, the decorative passing from two sides flexing their squad muscles, a stalemate was always likely: some spasms of sparring, each weighing up the opponent but ultimately keeping something in reserve for more important days to come.
Not that Tevez and Messi didn’t fizz up-front for Argentina, nifty feet moving several times swifter than even the most watchful Dutch defenders. Riquelme was graceful, Cambiasso all-action.
But perhaps, on another day, a left-winger like Arjen Robben would have enjoyed taking on replacement right-back Coloccini, the crazy-haired hacker coming on early for the trampled-upon Burdisso.
But still… those fans. A Trivial Pursuit chunk-shaped bunch to our left, of bouncing blue-and-whites, twirling their Argentine sashes around their heads while bellowing out non-stop anthems, the odd swirl of ticker-tape fluttering down upon them.
Did I say ‘bellowing’? Too harsh – for this was an awesome roar which was also powerfully melodic. Thousands of voices in unison – but sounding as true as just the one, segueing wordless chants into hymnal glorification.
And they just wouldn’t shut up. Much like, also, the English – taking for granted a tradition of ‘sing-up-sing-up-and-play-the-game’, whether desperately trying to infuse our dirge-like national anthem with rousing joy (the linking ‘all together now’ surely not in the original lyrics), or the irresistible Great Escape, or the basics of ‘Ing-er-lund’ or ‘Roo-ney, Roo-ney’, or homely little tributes, tricked up by someone or other – ‘Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he swings it from 40 yards – he’s big and he’s fookin’ ‘ard – Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…’
Like the flags pasted to blank space, all-out singing on this scale seems the domain, mainly, of just the English and the Argentines.
Germany’s following seem to peak too soon – sucking in hefty breaths to holler the surname of each selection as names are announced pre-match.
Number ten Michael – ‘BALLACK!’ Number eleven Miroslav – ‘KLOSE!’ Number 17 Bastian (deeper breath) ‘SCHWEINSTEIGER!’
But then, that done, the game tends to progress to a stable rumble, leaving the songs to the stereos.
Ah, Brazil give good noise too, of course – those stereotypical samba rhythms, when not whistling their own players for daring to pass back to the ‘keeper.
So Brazil lays down the percussion, Argentina supplies the tunes, England the bombardment of backing vocals.
There’s the sound – add Holland for the sight, those banks of orange advancing like several armies.
All advancing onwards, for now – Argentina in stylish ease, Holland skilful patience, Brazil doing just enough while still finding their magic feet…
And England – ah, what to say? Which England to see?
Hopefully not Sol Campbell, misleadingly solid enough for much of last night’s cameo, then dreadfully sloppy at the important last.
Sadly not Michael Owen, cursed ever since – silly boy – signing for Newcastle.
But ideally, much much more of the joyous Joe Cole, the wonderboy Wayne still an agonising fraction away from bringing off great thoughts, and bumblebee Lennon as a terrorising late arrival.
And also, it might be nice to have a little more variation from our should-be-deadly set-pieces.
See, for example, Sweden’s last night : a different tactic each time, near post, far post, penalty-spot – not just a hopeful chip across goal.
But above all else, please produce a performance on the pitch, to match that in the stands, when singalong Saturday comes…

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"For a minute there I lost myself, I lost myself..."

ONCE you’ve wandered into weird “Worldcupworld”, time quickly loses meaning beyond the essentials - 3pm kick-off, 6pm, 9pm.
When exactly does the night before blearily become the morning after?
It gets just too tricky to tell.
Is the day finally done, when fans still in the parks stop re-enacting the latest winning goal – and start crumpling into lumpen human heaps?
Maybe as you fail to focus on the pre-dawn timetables, cursing all the booked-up hotel rooms this side of the Luxembourg border?
Or when, stationed in the station, the blues and reds of tonight at nine start merging with the greens, whites or whatevers of tomorrow at three?
More likely yet, yellow everywhere you look – a mustard fug blending Brazilian and Australian, Swedish, Ecuadorian and Togan, back always to Brazil?
Perhaps it’s when the chants start to change, new melodies replacing the raucous choruses of tonight’s winners and the rueful defiance of the losers.
If it’s Thursday, if it’s Friday, it must be… who?
“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – oy, oy, oy”…?
“Porrr-TEW-gal, Porrr-TEW-gal”…?
“Hop, Schweess! Hop, Schweess!”…?
“Braaaa-seel, Braaaa-seel”…?
Or, of course, “Ing-er-lund, Ing-er-lund, Ing-er-LUND”…?
Perhaps instead the hosts, gradually growing in assurance as they insist: “Wir fahren, wir fahren, wir fahren nach Berlin”…?
Or can you tell the time, by scanning the students signed up as dogsbody stadium volunteers…?
All the night long, you’ll see those recently-fresh faces now turned grey and drained – their sky-blue uniforms navy-stained by sweat.
Yet through the opposite station doors, the next bright-eyed batch arrives - in impeccably-pressed, soon-to-be-sodden shirts, and dreaming of meeting Beckham.
Maybe tomorrow becomes today, when the patient café-mistress brews her first fresh pot then toe-taps alive again all those under her tables?
Or when the impatient, passing Polizei take a more direct approach, ordering all awake and out of each waiting room – come on, come on, raus, raus…?
After all, there’ll be plenty of time in this life to sleep - once the football’s finished, the final’s final whistle blown.
(Or if you must – catch a quick nap, when the French next kick off...)

Monday, June 19, 2006

"But sleep won't come, the whole night through..."

Germany's resurgent footballers have had to share front page space with TV star Ottfried Fischer (nope, me neither), mired in a quickfire sex scandal.
First came photos of the married celeb with a young mystery blonde.
Then his wife kicked him out, his new love’s sex-worker past was exposed and – it never rains, eh? - he crashed his car and ended up in hospital.
Still, one columnist thanked poor Otto for distracting attention from any great discussion of the German team’s weaknesses.
If only a TV star back in Britain could have made a similar sacrifice for Sven’s sake.
Well, anyone but Ulrika...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Nowhere man, please listen - you don't know what you're missing..."

Hmm. With South Africa preparing to host the 2010 World Cup, you might expect the country to take a keen interest in this summer’s contest.
Yet among more than 2,000 journalists accredited by Fifa, only four are from South Africa.
And one of those hasn’t bothered to turn up after all.

"Got to match the engine's pace, win imaginary race - yeah..."

This World Cup could prove costly for Diego Maradona.
Not only has he booked suites in four separate hotels for himself and his ever-growing entourage.
It would be a surprise if they got to bed in any of them, after leading the raucous revelries when Argentina hit Serbia and Montenegro for six.
Just hours before kick-off, Maradona had been forced to put his hand in his pocket again after being caught speeding by German police - fined 200 Euros for driving 120km per hour in an 80km zone.
Next time, Diego, give the keys to someone else – or at least apply the (ahem) hand-brake of God.

"The trouble with Fred is, he's too hasty..."

They attack with pace, piling on power, passion and devilish trickery – with ruthless results.
Not, for the moment, the Brazilian players – but the Brazilian Press.
I’ve just emerged, sweat-sodden and woozy, from my first experience of a World Cup “media zone”.
Just? Only just about.
Unlike the mediator-led, polite probing of the managers’ post-match Press conferences, the media zone is a frenetic free-for-all - and not for the faint-hearted. Footballers included.
As the players rush along a thin alleyway separating dressing rooms from team buses, reporters get to holler questions and prod recorders in their faces – in the hope that someone might just take the bait.
And when it’s the fearsome might of the Brazilian media coming a-calling, it's probably wisest not to think you can resist for long.
If only the footballers had been quite so dynamic in the Munich Arena tonight, labouring England-style to a flattering 2-0 triumph, just days after a similarly underwhelming 1-0 victory.
Before the World Cup kicked off, most England fans would probably have been delighted to be told they would be bearing comparisons with Brazil nine days in.
Sadly, the manner of both teams’ performances has been rather more underwhelming than the scorching standards set by, say, Argentina and Spain.
At least Ronaldinho looked to be slowly cranking into something approaching the right gear tonight.
And The Guardian’s so-called “man who ate Ronaldo” contributed too, setting up the first goal - despite contributing little else beyond an embarrassing airshot and plenty of plodding and wheezing.
As the woman from The Sun sitting next to me appeared to be drafting it: “The two Ronnies finally got their act together last night” – but again, only just about.
The great “walking football” of swaggering Brazilians past was slowed to a pensioner’s pace for long periods.
The ever-vivid crowds were not quite so slow to begin jeering and whistling, especially as key midfielder Emerson kept indulging a fondness for very unBrazilian backpasses from the halfway line.
The arrival of Robinho with 20 minutes left couldn’t have offered a starker contrast to Ronaldo, the man he replaced for the second game running.
For a start, Robinho actually seemed to want the ball – even haring back into his own half to scythe a couple of Aussies, each almost twice his size.
His instinctive, diagonal drive as injury-time began, provided the rebound which fellow substitute Fred (Fred??!) couldn’t help but tap in from two yards.
That sealed a hard-fought win, which at half-time had looked a long way away.
Adriano’s calm pass past goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, shortly after the second half kicked off, had first broken down the tough, Lucas Neill-led Australian resistance.
The Australians, cheered to the rafters and beyond by their own bright yellow army, could even have scored several times themselves – especially after Harry Kewell replaced Tim Cahill.
Unlike Cahill, who sped on head down, mouth clamped shut, Kewell was chatty in the media zone.
He predictably sidestepped attempts to lure him into complaining about his relegation to the bench, while talking up both teams in perfectly placid footballer-speak.
Mark Viduka was the media zone star, though, chattering on for what seemed like hours, bounding from hack-pack to pack, even gabbling in Croatian for a select few.
Yes, he does take some relentless abuse when playing the pantomime villain at White Hart Lane – and, to paraphrase Alan Partridge, I may occasionally have been party to that goading.
But he was surprisingly personable this evening – even joking about the pre-match AC/DC played over the Tannoys, and how he was inspired by the thought “it was just like wrestling”…
Eventually, though, even Press-feeding powerhouse Viduka was desperate for respite, desperately shrugging: “I’ve just finished a tough game – I’m stuffed, guys!”
Similarly-helpful Gilberto Silva, the one Brazilian source for us English hacks to pounce upon, finally had to be dragged away by one of the team minders.
But Ronaldinho was still somewhere buried in the crush, Brazilian reporters aggressively hollering questions in a manner which seemed to have reduced Roberto Carlos to the brink of tears.
Ronaldo was one of the first to face the herd – and long after assuming he’d escaped, I spotted him furtively rising from one scrum and making a relieved dash for the exits.
Goalscorer Fred, on the other hand, had entered the media zone with the broadest of beams illuminating his face, and looked like a man prepared to answer questions and pose for photos until the minute before kick-off next time around.
Then again, seeing how the eight-goal hero of four years ago has now become a laughing-stock (not helping himself, of course)...
Perhaps Fred should just enjoy this moment while he can.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

"Don't you forget about me..."

Graham Poll really has been groomed for great things by Fifa, hasn't he?

After being given the privilege of refereeing Togo versus South Korea, the "Thing From Tring" has been handed the one must-must-must-see of the coming week: Saudi Arabia against the Ukraine.

No doubt the bookies are preparing themselves for a welter of bets on just how many times he will inevitably award a penalty, flourish a red card, wave his arms in the air like he just don't care, or whatever else it may take to guarantee his rightful place at the centre of attention.

Perhaps, just perhaps, though, the refereeing powers-that-be don't have quite such a lofty opinion of Graham Poll as, well, Graham Poll does.

"If you're rated X, you're some kind of goal..."

Phew. Hopefully the reluctant little girl forced into heartstring-tugging, ticket-seeking duties by her dad will join the ranks of fervent football fans.
But perhaps it would have been better if her family did indeed miss out on tonight’s pulsating Italy-US match.
With all the crunchy tackles flying in, this blood-and-thunder, ligaments-and-lightning cup tie was anything but suitable viewing for children.
Fantastic fun for adults, mind.
After the fiasco of their three-goal rout by the Czechs, the Americans were a team transformed tonight.
This time, against the defensive masters of world football, the US were a much tighter, controlled unit at the back.
Tactically, that is – sadly, not tackling.
Sadly, a certain indiscipline probably denied them the win they deserved, more than their opponents.
This enthralling World Cup may have captivated every country in the world except the US, where friends assure apathy reigns, and remains, rampant.
But the American supporters here were proudly outsinging the Italians from the first whistle.
And their players were the most positive, testing the full-backs if not the goalkeeper, and provoking Totti into a fifth-minute booking.
Captain Claudio Reyna and defensive midfield lynchpin Pablo Mastroeni were putting together intricate passing movements, starting to jut into the final third of the pitch.
But just as wingers Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey were realising they had every right to feel confident, the Italians struck first blood – metaphorically speaking, though the real stuff would flow in the fullness of time.
Mastroeni’s enthusiasm got the better of him, for the first ominous moment, when he upended Totti on the right-hand side of the US box.
The American accused Totti of diving – not the first nor last time for the Italian playmaker.
But harsher injustice – albeit comical, too – came when Andrea Pirlo floated over the free-kick and Alberto Gilardino stooped low to nod past Kasey Keller.
Replays showed Luca Toni and Oguchi Onyewu locked in what looked the most passionate of embraces.
A wrestle-turned-romantic it may have appeared, but the Americans weren’t whispering sweet nothings as they protested about the clear obstruction on their most impressive defender.
Toni versus the centre-backs, Onyewu and Eddie Pope, could have made for a lively, honest, six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other battle of the powerhouses.
Yet despite his 1.94m in height, 89kg in weight, Toni kept crumpling like a Wendy house in a strong wind, every time Onyewu so much as glanced his way.
When the game was still goalless, he had helped find Pope’s way into the book, collapsing under a 50-50 challenge in a chase for the ball.
But just as they had set themselves up for a comfortable cruise into the second round, the Italians pressed the self-destruct button – twice in as many minutes.
First, the often-hesitant Cristian Zaccardo swung a left foot at a Reyna free-kick that had cleared a congested penalty area – only to swipe at thin air, the ball bouncing off his standing foot and dribbling into his own net.
Seconds after the restart, snarling Daniele De Rossi – already facing a third-match ban for any yellow card – received a straight red for bloodying Brian McBride with a flying elbow.
He made as if to protest his innocence, before rightly stalking straight off the pitch – the clearest-cut dismissal so far this tournament.
The inevitable Italian sacrifice, sadly, would be Totti – hauled off after just 35 minutes, to allow the tenacious Gennaro Gattuso to shore up the midfield.
This invited Andrea Pirlo to sit even deeper in front of the centre-backs, while switching Perotta from probing right-wing to defensive left.
As the game turned out, Italian manager Marcello Lippi might later come to regret the loss of Totti from the attack.
Mastroeni, at that point the most dynamic player on the pitch, might have made the difference with a curving 30-yard drive which landed millimetres high, on top of the net.
But he ruined the effect a minute before half-time, lunging late and two-footed into Pirlo’s thighs and promptly following De Rossi down the tunnel.
He too tried to look innocent and bemused at Jorge Larrionda’s decision, but for all Pirlo’s predictable histrionics, the foul was flagrant – and dangerous.
Lots to do for Larrionda – barely two minutes into the second half, he was again flourishing that fluorescent red, this time despatching US veteran Pope for a second yellow.
The first had looked harsh – the US later insisted the second was too, though he was far from the ball in a hack from behind on Gilardino’s ankles.
Perhaps greedily looking for further US dismissals, the Italians continued to sprawl theatrically at the slightest touch.
In this, captain Cannavaro seemed to be setting the unsavoury example, infuriating his counterpart Reyna with lengthy calls for “treatment”.
In contrast, Reyna was a more admirable inspiration, keeping his calm, keeping his position – and keeping his thoughtful passing going, from the heart of the midfield.
When dropped DeMarcus Beasley got a shot at redemption, as a 62nd minute sub, he and Reyna were unprepared to let the nine-man team simply shut the game down and hope to hold the score level.
Their canny one-twos threatened to carve open the surprised Italian defence, only to be let down by McBride’s slowness of thought and delivery when set free.
The lone striker was to blame for a Beasley “goal” being ruled out, sloppily straying and staying offside as the substitute – and a deflection – lashed the ball past Buffon.
Full-backs Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo proved as sturdy and stubborn as their Italian counterparts looked flaky and uncertain.
Zambrotta at least earned relief from Cherundolo’s rampaging raids, by surging forward himself and daisy-cutting a shot just wide.
But Zaccardo, an own goal to the bad and perplexed by Convey and, increasingly, a right-drifting Landon Donovan, was put out of his misery and replaced with 35 minutes still to play.
Lippi’s most progressive shift was to bring on Alex Del Piero for Zaccardo, encouraging him to fill the gap left by Totti.
Del Piero came closest to breaking the deadlock, stretching to flick a toe to a volley, only for Keller to arch even more painfully to tip it away.
Keller then produced a more conventional save, to beat away a long-range Del Piero drive – sealing for himself the man of the match award.
But while Del Piero worked hard to conjure these two three-quarter-chances, he lacked the Totti curiosity to wander deep and dictate attacks a little more imaginative.
The excellent Onyewu had finally seen off Toni for the equally-ineffective Iaquinta.
And he rudely interrupted the final Italian attempt to steal the win, by hoofing into Row Z a Del Piero cross.
Like the game itself, it certainly wasn’t pretty – but in the moment, in the circumstances: worth a hearty cheer or several, all the same.

"Gee, we looked swell - full of that yankle-doodle-dum..."

Any game featuring Germany, England or Brazil – sure.
But Italy versus United States didn’t appear the most obvious target for ticket touts hoping to do big business.
Yet walking through Kaiserslautern today, I saw more people appealing for tickets than during any other pre-match afternoon hours this past week.
Of course, when seemingly every other passer-by is proffering a card saying “Need tickets / Brauch Karten”, the true entrepreneurs turn more emotive.
One burger-munching American dad had weighed down his young daughter under a sweltering Stars and Stripes felt hat, and a billboard bigger than herself.
‘Her’ message read: “I really need to buy four tickets for my family – pleeeease help!”
Let’s hope daddy dearest was at least prepared to foot the bill, rather than raid his downcast-looking daughter’s piggy bank.
The ticket-beggars seemed split between the Italians – whose players will hopefully maintain last Monday’s superb standards – and the Americans, whose players surely can’t play any worse.
Perhaps a clue to this match’s popularity should have been picked up, when it became impossible to book overnight accommodation afterwards.
Not even a Linton Travel Tavern-style “sordid little griefhole” is on offer for me tonight.
Instead, I’ll be either hanging around the poky Kaiserslautern Haupbahnhof – or, more likely, nipping onto the first Munich-bound train I can find, and catching whatever sleep possible.
Hopefully the match will prove worthwhile, for all concerned.
After all, the Americans appear to have taken their defeat to the Czech Republic rather badly.
Or, indeed, maybe not. Maybe one day...

Friday, June 16, 2006

"Don't stop moo-ving..."

ENGLAND may have plundered the Network Rail book of excuses by blaming the hot weather for their poor performances, as Mike pointed out earlier.
But Germany’s rail equivalent, the Deutsche Bahn, came up with their own alternative to “leaves on the line” and “the wrong kind of snow” today – suicide cows.
The train on which I was travelling, heading for the Holland-Ivory Coast game in Stuttgart, was delayed for an hour after colliding with two cows who had paused on the line while on the run from a farmer.
Even when the train finally got moving again, everyone on board had to endure a grim journey at an unrelenting 28 degrees Celsius, since the crash had knocked out the air conditioning.
Then again, the poor cows didn’t come out of it too healthily either...

"Pass, the Dutchy, on the left-wing side..."

Job done. The Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion Stuttgart has been effectively fumigated.
(Hopefully that was originally done when the stadium was renamed from the Adolf Hitler Arena, anyway).
After the French-Swiss snoreathon of 72 hours earlier, only a twin outbreak of end-of-season Spurs-style sickness could have stopped Holland and the Ivory Coast serving up anything other than a breath of fresh air here tonight.
An all together more invigorating evening was guaranteed with the arrival of the Dutch supporters in such force, in such vivid colours – that is, colour.
Every England matchday is a full-on flag day, with fans bringing more banners than you’d find on the Incredible Hulk’s family tree.
But with Holland, only the simplest of dress codes applies – wear what you like, as long as it’s orange.
Not a faint, flimsy, namby-pamby-pastel orange, either, but the most garish blaze which turns the terraces into what resembles a genetically-modified poppyfield gone slightly, strangely wrong.
The players, while wearing the same, were not quite so dashing, save for a brutal double-blow in five minutes of the first half.
First, Robin van Persie punished his Arsenal team-mate Kolo Toure for bundling him over on the edge of the Ivorian penalty area.
Van Persie himself swiped the free-kick into Jean-Jacques Tizie’s top right-hand corner – yet again this tournament, the new football swerving and spinning and rising and dipping along the way.
Four minutes later, with not yet half-an-hour on the clock, the other Dutch winger Arjen Robben came skipping inside from the left.
Apparently only reluctantly lending the ball to Marc van Bommel, he made the most of the midfielders half-return ball, half-stumble to cleverly reverse pass into the path of Ruud van Nistelrooy – with inevitable, net-bulging results.
Van Nistelrooy seemed overcome with relief more than anything at scoring his first World Cup goal, sinking to the turf and hollering joyfully to the sky – or perhaps towards Manchester.
To suddenly find themselves two goals down again, for the second successive game, was tough on the Ivory Coast who had started positively again.
Again, Didier Drogba was leading the line powerfully, surprisingly selflessly – and again, amazingly ready to rise from the ground quickly rather than writhe in supposed agony.
Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure, behind the single striker and bunch of support strikers, belied such apparently defensive roles by proving more artist than artisan.
Zokora, especially, was unfortunate to step inside only to see his 25-yard shot cannon off the corner of crossbar and post, and bounce safely away.
But one of the two Kones, the more creative Bakary, swung them suddenly back into the game after picking up an innocuous pass from Zokora.
In a run reminiscent of Michael Owen’s against Argentina in 1998, he swept his way past the Dutch defence before lofting the ball powerfully past Edwin Van Der Sar.
Is it just me, or is every goal this World Cup a stunner?
Well, maybe not Gamarra’s own goal against England – but still…
When the goal of the tournament nominations are in, even such belters as Steve Gerrard’s last night may struggle to be remembered.
After such an end-to-end, pulsating but high-quality first half, the second surprisingly lost a little pace and excitement.
The Ivorians, needing at least a draw to keep their World Cup alive, kept on trying to drive forward.
Drogba, especially, was desperate to dredge up an equaliser, after a harsh booking for appearing to stick a late foot in on Van Der Sar – he is now suspended from the final group game.
But then again, he was perhaps lucky the referee did not notice his flying elbow which sent Mathijsen sprawling.
Bakary Kone’s replacement by Aruna Dindane seemed a little baffling, with his side needing a goal.
Kone had been one of those troubling Dutch defenders the most, despite the steady sturdiness of Mathijsen and Ooijer (the latter not to be confused with the similar-sounding song by Chas and Dave).
Dindane, in contrast, repeatedly failed to force his way past an Argentinian defender during his cameo last Sunday, and remained consistent at least today.
The Lens winger has been linked with West Brom in the past – perhaps a more suitable level than World Cup football, on this evidence.
The Ivory Coast, thought of as the best hope among the Africans and the World Cup debutantes this year, stepped up the pressure in the final minutes.
They forced a quickfire series of corners and free-kicks in a lengthy injury-time, with the referee perhaps reluctant to end such an entertaining game.
But as against Argentina – and as with Ghana against Italy – their finishing was just too wayward to reward their build-up play.
Ivory Coast had 24 shots, to Holland’s 17 – but thinking back, van der Sar was not seriously tested nearly enough.
Well might manager Henri Michel have broken a corner bar of his dug-out in frustration, after Drogba’s downhard header across a congested box was chested off the line by Van Persie.
When the final whistle finally sounded, the jubilant Dutch players took an age to be dragged from the pitch, dancing along to Go West and Amarillo as only distraught Bakary Kone stayed, statue-like in the beaten team’s dug-out.
Three groups have now sent a pair of teams safely through, with a round of games still to play.
That’s a shame – the more last-day drama, the better (as long as it’s not England involved).
But even if both Holland and Argentina rest a few players, and ease down a gear or two next Wednesday, there should be enough quality – and pride – in abundance to produce more pleasure.
Even if both have now survived the “Group Of Death” with not even a flesh wound.
Hopefully the attractive Ivory Coast players, rather than the rather dirty Serbian side, get to go home with a consolation win when they meet in Munich.

"I'm a travellin' man, and I've made a lot of stops..."

This here-today-gone-tomorrow approach to the World Cup is enabling me to enjoy plenty of wonderful football, both live in person and on the stadium screens – none more pleasurable, perhaps, than the sublime performance Argentina have just completed.

Yet there are some days it would be good to stick around in one city a little longer and see some of the sights – for a good example, Nuremberg yesterday, which gave glimpses of fascinating, low-lying yet high-soaring medieval architecture, the olde-worlde churchyards and Holy Roman Empire-hosting official buildings and somehow-sinister arenas and sparse cell-like blocks giving off the air of Nazi fervour past, and steel-eyed eventual justice.

Even when swarming with beery, cheery England fans around the Hauptbahnhof and the central squares last night, crowding around diner TVs to eke out any inkling of excitement from the Sweden-Paraguay game, or peering blearily at train timetables, there was a feel a little different from some (just some) of the other German cities through which I’ve so far shuttled – far fewer glitzy blinking towers, or identikit Apothekes or sky-nudging advertisement billboards than scattered around, say, Frankfurt.

A more downhomie atmosphere, touching a little more on the feel of that first night in neighbouring (well, also Bavarian) Munich. But these were merely instinctive impressions – a few repeat trips to cities should fill in a few richer shades and tints…

I’m especially looking forward to finally reaching Berlin, the week after next – at which point, indeed, we hit the first real breather of the tournament. Two days without a game, between the second round and the quarter-finals, which should allow a little exploring of both Berlin and, en route, Hamelin, which I last visited as a six-year-old enthralled by the Pied Piper story.

When attending the Euro 2004 semi-finals in Portugal, we got to stop off at a few interesting heritage sights on the trip from Lisbon to Porto and back – including Fatima, where the Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared to two young boys and their sister (and where ardent Catholics still come, trudging the last stretch of the journey on their knees in self-abasement), as well as the Santa Clara Convent and cathedral in Coimbra. This all made for a fascinating distraction from just football, football, football, and now the first week’s done and dusted and I’m well settled in, I could and should be doing a little more such similar here in Deutschland.

As it is, I'm becoming more of an expert on the relative differences between the Ibis and Etap budget hotels (I prefer Ibis - a slightly friendlier feel from the staff, and more fruit and cheese at the stock-up-for-the-day breakfasts...) I did have to spend an astonishing 285 euros on a Novotel night in Kaiserslautern the other night, but at least it was just a few minutes' walk from the stadium. And the nearest alternative hotel available at short notice that night was in, er, Luxembourg...

But still... away from the art and history, displays such as that of Argentina just gone have their own aesthetic wonder, as well...

I’m in Stuttgart now for Holland versus the Ivory Coast, and while it would be good to see Van Basten’s men hitting their heights – and firing up even further the vivid orange spreading across the city – I’d now prefer an Ivory Coast win.

This would mean that the forthcoming Holland-Argentina game, to which I’m also going, would have something riding on it still.

As long as tonight’s game is better than the last one here in Stuttgart, though, any result’ll do.

That one stank the stadium out – time to cheer on even the Chelsea boys on both sides, Drogba and Robben, to help well and truly clear the air...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

"Everyone walks around, with a perpetual smile upon their face..."

AUSSIES, Aussies everywhere (and all of them on the drink).
No matter which German city you visit, you’re never too far from an inflatable kangaroo with a sozzled “Socceroo” at the other end.
Their first World Cup finals appearance for 32 years has attracted even more Australians than a job ad for bar staff in Earls Court.
Okay, so some seem a little confused as to what this World Cup is all about.
Amid the herds of toy marsupials bounding the streets, one group wielded an inflatable David Boon.
Though perhaps that actually was David Boon.
A-plus for optimism – but D-minus for geography – for the Australians occupying a hotel in Frankfurt for all four weeks of the tournament.
Their only chance of a game at the city’s stadium is by topping Group F ahead of Brazil, then reaching the quarter-finals.
More realistic focus is fixed upon Stuttgart next Thursday – when Australia’s Croatians clash with Croatia’s Australians.

"It's gonna take patience and time, to do it right..."

There appears to have been an attack of the clones in Nuremberg tonight.
For a start, they’ve clearly replicated Trinidad and Tobago coach Leo Beenhakker and been letting their creation loose to wreak media mischief.
The real Dutchman has just had to fend off a challenge that he described his England opponents, at half-time tonight, as “too predictable”.
What rubbish, he quickly countered.
“I wasn’t interviewed at half-time. That wasn’t me. Call me a lookalike – I don’t know…”
Not content with that stunt, the copycat-creator must have set to work on a few of those wearing England shirts this evening.
Surely, for instance, that can’t have been the real Frank Lampard, scourge of Premiership defences with his fierce firepower, his pinpoint accuracy?
This one certainly looked like the real deal, sure, in face and physique.
But he might as well have been one of those life-size Lampard cardboard cut-outs following you at every turn in Tesco, for all his accuracy when countless chances came his way.
Then how about that alleged “Paul Robinson” out there in Nuremberg, going walkabout and flapping around with all the goalkeeping prowess of his Neighbours namesake?
Most misguided impression of all, however, was the entire England side’s pale imitation of genuine World Cup contenders.
Except, except… they got away with it. Again.
David Beckham, switched to right-back in one of the most unlikely of improvisations, redeemed his stinker of a performance with the dead-eyed cross for Peter Crouch’s late breakthrough.
That 82nd minute goal redeemed Crouch, who had earlier combined truly humiliating finishing with a shoddy lack of effort to track back and generally do the good-natured hard work he should at least always have in his favour.
Then Steve Gerrard, like Lampard and Beckham a calamity against the Caribbeans tonight, also salvaged the night – albeit in more stunning style, with the injury-time flyer.
So we’ll moan, and it was miserable for much of the match. But we’re through to the next round with a game to spare – and the boy Wayne-der was resurrected, for a heftier-than-expected 35 minutes too.
Also encouraging was the cameo for Aaron Lennon, ever keen to skin a full-back with his pace and trickery.
He even managed to stretch his tiny frame a crucial extra millimetre or two to head an ambitious Downing pass back into play, teeing up Beckham to tee up Crouch.
So England managed to rally in Nuremberg, endured an arduous trial, and eventually got out of jail.
Or something like that, I’ll leave tomorrow’s papers to polish the inevitable metaphors.
Perhaps, if tonight’s Sweden-Paraguay game ends a draw, guaranteeing us top of the group, we might even see key players rested and our rookies blooded in an experimental line-up next Tuesday?
Certainly a change of approach of some kind would be welcomed, if we are seriously to trouble the likes of Italy, Brazil, Argentina, the Czechs or even Germany?
For long, oh-so-very-long periods tonight, we were just so laboured, so ponderous and predictable (yes, Leo may not have said it but plenty did).
Neither were we the stylish, patient passers of Continental aspirations – nor the pacy, pressing
This was the third way – and it proved a dead end.
Or surely will do if we don’t move into a higher gear – and then another, and then another – when the serious stuff starts, second round onwards.
So Beenhakker was eventually tempted to say, in a detailed and convincing critique of his (narrow) conquerors tonight.
“Almost every time, the first option for them was looking for the high ball for Crouch. I understand that.
“But at the moment, you’re eliminating some very important midfield players like that.
“Every coach is driving the same road, but we’re all of us driving in different cars. Coaches of other teams know their players much better than I do.
“But to go on in this tournament, you have to demonstrate a little bit more patience.
“It’s important and dangerous to bring in someone in the box like Crouch or Ibrahimovic.
“It’s an option – but not the only option.
“When they meet stronger teams, they will probably have to show more patience.”
Friendly and intelligent guy, that Beenhakker. Maybe it’sch that Dutschh accschent that does it.
But still: “This is free advice. I will not ask payment for it.”
Minutes later, we had Sven insisting: “I think we played a lot better than we did on Saturday, especially in the second half. We showed a lot of patience.
“If we had taken the chances in the first half or earlier in the second half, it might have been a different match.
“If we play the big teams in the tournament, it will not be much like today. We will be better.”
A bargain at a meagre £4million per year...!

"Poles" apart...

You can take the boys out of Poland, but maybe you can’t entirely take Poland out of the boys.
Germany’s adoptive strikeforce Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose somehow spurned the simplest chances to score against the land they left as children.
The misses may have endeared them to their Polish partners – and they can blame Oliver Neuville for the strike that finally sent Poland packing.
Pre-match, the émigrés from Eastern Europe had tactfully praised Polish women as prettier, calmer and “erotischer” than German girls.
But perhaps it would be best to avoid both subjects when the in-laws next come to call.
The "derby" was typically tasty and frenetic – the rivalry between the two countries does, as they say, have a little history to it.
But not everyone was enticed.
Yes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was there, despite failing to disguise just how dull she finds football.
But it was hard to ignore all the empty seats in the VIP area around her.
Presumably Fifa will be enforcing their policy of yellow cards for all no-shows – and warning: one more absence, and you’re out for good.
... Won’t they?

Bochum around the clock...

“Hilfe, unsere Nerven!” was the headline on the front-page of today’s Bild, which must have had many early morning commuters – or late-late-late-night bedragglers – painfully nodding their hungover heads in rueful recognition.

The opening-day victory over Costa Rica ushered in the feelgood factor, the introduction to what looked like becoming an enjoyable, if merely frivolous party for the hosts.

Last night it turned serious, however. And that last-gasp goal by Oliver Neuville, more or less securing safe German passage to the second round at the expense of niggling Poland, kicked open a pressure valve.

News reports today suggest about 300 fans were arrested in post-match skirmishes, which had been feared since Poland and Germany were drawn together and self-consciously stoked up by media-manipulating hooligans’ “spokespeople”.

But coming away from the Dortmund stadium – or trying to – last night, the major mood music appeared to be, not howls of pain or threats, but joyful chants and cheering. Even from the defiant “Polska”, in place, but mainly from those decked out in the “rote, gelbe, schwarze” decorations which now seem de rigeur wherever you look.

England in 1996, France in 1998, Portugal in 2004, and now Germany in 2006 – on an international football level, there’s little more enthralling than being among a host nation crowd, inside or outside stadia, when their team is doing well in a major tournament.

Everything here in Germany, every subject, every announcement, every story, is seemingly now being streamed through the imagery of football, the atmosphere of celebration – qualifying for the next round, and the privilege of hosting this whole jamboree, combined.

There is, of course, a long way to go. But already I’ve decided: England-Germany would be the perfect final. The resurgent host nation following, up against the ever-exhilirating swathes of support behind England. Purely before you get to any added spices such as that long (mostly good-natured nowadays, surely?) rivalry, and the resonances of 40 years since ’66.

Assuming all goes well enough to see England safely through Group B, we’re in line to play the hosts in either the second round – or the final.

Germany’s exuberance last night, with car horns blaring, crowds carousing, anthems reverberating, may indeed have penetrated England’s pre-match preparations. Reports today suggest the noise was likely to have filtered through into their Nuremburg hotel.

At the classically, right-angle-contoured Dortmund stadium, standing areas temporarily removed to reduce to a mere 65,000 spectators, what in the first half played out like a scrappy, but spicy local derby, looked like settling up as a thrilling goalless draw – as the ball ricocheted back and forth off Polish bar, post and lunging central defenders. Philipp Lahm at left-back for Germany again posed as much danger powering forward as your most conventional of left-wingers, puzzling the Polish defenders with his right-foot chips for his back-to-goal strikers to spin on. Ashley Cole and Roberto Carlos, so long seen as the world’s leading left-backs – despite Cole’s injury problems, and Carlos’s recent performances not matching the ball-bending hype – may have serious competition for that unofficial title by the end of this tournament.

Oh, and inevitably today’s papers have linked Lahm with a move to Chelsea.
Another day, another day…

Dad drove me to my latest of one-stop shops last night, a hotel in Bochum – 15 miles from Dortmund, but feeling like so much more as we trundled along in car park-like conditions on the rammed Autobahn – and this at two o’clock in the morning.

Approaching 6am I was back up and out again – as were the multitudes, still. Still singing and drinking and embracing and pledging, as ever but with rising certainty: “Wir fahren, wir fahren, wir fahren nach Berlin…”

Some were starting up early for the day, many more were still running on late-late-late from the night before.

Klinsmann’s players may have taken their time to break down a stubborn, if unambitious, Polish rearguard – and the Polish-born German strikers seemed curiously reluctant to accept great goalscoring opportunities.

The defence can still look creaky, even if Per Mertesacker was much-improved and slid in for two crunching, crucial tackles in his own area. And Michael Ballack’s much-hyped return to the side seemed oddly ineffectual, perhaps distracting Torsten Frings alongside him while not suggesting too much danger going forward.

But this German side looks as potentially-progressive in attack as any of recent memory. And the swelling momentum piling up behind and around and amongst them can’t be too much of a hindrance, either.

After all, of the last 13 World Cup finals, all but one have featured either Brazil or Germany or both – such as four years ago, when Rudi Voller’s men somehow scraped their way through by dint of, er, efficiency and resolve despite obvious limitations.

Nuremberg is about to give England the ideal platform to prove the Paraguay performance was merely a stumbling start, from which things can and will only get much, much better.

If the result from Ecuador-Costa Rica, about to kick off, manages to make a German first-place in Group A much the most likely, then that dream final could…

Nah, steady on now. One careful step at a time.
Especially if your name’s Wayne Rooney.