Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"You and I travel to the beat of a different drum..."

ENGLAND’S World Cup flops didn’t leave the World Cup entirely empty-handed – and that’s without counting the smokes and booze.
Ashley Cole and Jermain Defoe both have bulky new adornments for the mantelpiece, whether at Jermain’s dear old mum’s house or wherever Ashley lays his hat at nights these days.
In the face of non-existent competition, both players picked up official man of the match awards this summer – Cole against Algeria, Defoe versus Slovenia.
Not for prize sponsors Budweiser a same-old-same-old silver plate, trophy or figurine.
Instead, they are handing players a more distinctive keepsake, designed by a South African graduate and modelled on a traditional ‘djembe’ drum.
Jonathan Fundudis said he wanted his glass-and-wood sculpture to capture ‘the universal languages of rhythm and football in the form of an iconic African instrument’.
‘Drumming is an integral part of African life – it celebrates life and unity,’ he added.
‘The same can be said of this beautiful game of football – look at how the World Cup has unified our country.’
Ten players have received two of the trophies, including Keisuke Honda and Cristiano Ronaldo who both go home with three tucked under their arms.
But the drums now back on English soil might end up in a home no one could have expected – that is, poor hapless Emile Heskey’s.
As the England squad slunk off their plane at Heathrow on Tuesday morning, the misfiring striker’s young children could be seen playing with one of the prizes.
While, incidentally, grinning at the same time, but perhaps they at least can be let off for that.
WHAT with all their provocative cigar-smoking, lunch-guzzling, holiday-booking and – get this - smiling, England’s World Cup flops continue to leave a bad impression.
Yet they responded to earlier exits by enjoying a rather better impression.
It’s tricky to imagine Fabio Capello responding with calm if he caught a member of the England camp impersonating him behind his back.
Yes, even the rather desperate Capello of recent days, forcibly grinning Gordon Brown-style when joking about free beers or now pleading about how much he ‘likes’ his job.
Yet former FA insider Dan Freedman found himself confronted by Sven-Goran Eriksson in the hours after the 2002 quarter-final defeat to Brazil – and ordered to ‘do’ the Swede in front of the class, to help lighten the tension.
Freedman, now author of children’s football fiction including new book Man Of The Match, recalls: ‘He took it in good spirits, but I was absolutely full of nerves at the time.’
He now writes football novels for children about wonderkid winger Jamie Johnson, including new book Man Of The Match – promising a happier ending than England’s woeful World Cup.
‘I had to create Jamie Johnson because, at the moment, we simply don't have a player like him in reality,’ he added.
According to another incident Freedman remembers, Capello’s men might count themselves lucky only to be showered in abuse this time.
‘When we lost away in Croatia, some fans who were kept in the upper part of the ground after the game even urinated on the players as they made their way on to the team coach,’ he shuddered.
Perhaps the players’ displays this summer were their own way of doing it back.

LIONEL Messi is ‘The Spark’, Diego Forlan is ‘The Bomber’, David Villa is ‘The Blaze' and John Paintsil is ‘The Engine’.
No, it’s not the set-up for a new Fifa film franchise, a World Cup version of ‘The Fantastic Four’ – even if the basso profundo film-trailer voiceover man could really give some oomph to Bastian Schweinsteiger.
(‘The Illusionist, in case you were wondering – perhaps it was he who convinced Mauricio Espinosa the ball didn’t cross the line.)
Instead, these are just some of the try-hard titles given to a set of paintings on display in the swanky Johannesburg suburb of Sandton.
According to the exhibition’s major sportswear firm backers, Steve Gerrard is, apparently, ‘The Powerhouse’.
Alas, his portrait appears to have been based not on the kind of all-action display sadly missing this summer, but an old photo of Gerrard as a perky-faced schoolboy.
The kind of picture to make even the most rampant powerhouse wail: ‘Muuuuuum!’
Jozy Altidore, incidentally, is described as ‘The Trigger’, even if he played more like a carthorse last Saturday.
And here's Kaka, looking like his much-discussed fitness concerns aren't necessarily injury-related:

MISCHIEVOUS Diego Maradona keeps on happily lashing out at Press conferences that have had to become ticket-only.
Now Italian hardman Claudio Gentile has retaliated after being labelled ‘a killer’, by dismissing the Argentina coach as ‘a buffoon’.
The pair went toe to toe – or, rather, boot to shin – in a 1982 World Cup clash, after which the less-than-genteel Gentile reminded his indignant victim this wasn’t dancing-class.
Maradona could dish out a kicking himself, as shown by a red card that tournament and infamous streetfight-style footage from the 1984 Spanish Cup final.
Earlier this week, he condemned Ricardo La Volpe as ‘a traitor’ after the former Argentina goalkeeper and ex-Mexico coach said he would cheer on the Mexicans last Sunday.
Twenty years ago, Maradona was provocatively urging the locals to snub their own homeland and support Argentina in their Naples semi-final at Italia 90.
Consistency has never really been part of Maradona’s make-up – and perhaps that’s all just part of the fun.

AFTER all the doomy, gloomy fears and warnings yesterday finally brought the nightmare everyone knew must come but no one wanted to imagine.
For the first time in 20 days, there was not a single minute of live football.
And what’s more, there’s another 24 hours without it today.
Stay strong. Together we can get through this. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"All we are saying is give pace a chance..."

“We failed to slow them down.”
Perhaps it was just the customary sombre tone – and slumping head – that made Marcelo Bielsa’s resigned post-match verdict sound so sad, as if he was announcing the end of the world rather than Chile’s World Cup.
Yet there was something both poignant in his distress, and yet admirable in the reminder his words gave of Brazil’s thrilling pace in attack – and Chile’s valiant attempts to fight back.
Even when 3-0 down, an unfortunately emphatic scoreline, Bielsa’s now widely-admired team kept pressing, kept passing, kept trying to keep Brazil pinned back without sacrificing their own commitment to open spaces and fluid movement.
Quality tells in the end too, of course – meaning Brazil could not only ultimately overpower their willing opponents, but also counter-attack with more devastating effect than Portugal could manage 24 hours on.
Like their brothers-in-language, Portugal were set up against Spain to absorb pressure and hit back on the break.
But unlike Dunga’s men, Portugal lacked – as, seemingly, ever – a lethal finisher after the fashion of Luis Fabiano, or playmakers accelerating quite like Kaka or Robinho.
While Chile – as against Spain – hurtled forward from kick-off in high-energy style, they were a little too fuzzy up-front with enganche Jean Beausejour less menacing than he might have been on the wing – or Valdivia or Fernandez might have been in his place.
Humberto Suazo almost tried to do too much, proving somehow too elusive, as he flitted from tip of attack to deep in midfield – and claiming almost every set-piece for himself.
Yet they remained attractive to watch as ever, even after being undone by a quickfire brace – Juan’s basic pummelling header from a basic lofted corner, then a treat of technique linking Robinho, Kaka and scorer Fabiano.
Brazil’s third goal, while harsh, was another one whisked out of the (yellow-and-)blue, created by a driving-running Ramires and swept home by Santos homeboy, the rejuvenated Robinho.
Dunga, talking a surprisingly patient and informative game afterwards, suggested Robinho was now combining both tactical nous – and free-spirited fulfilment.
‘Robinho’s played in varied positions and he asked me, “What is my function?”
‘I asked if he didn’t feel a bit constrained with his positioning. He said, “No, I just want to play and I just want to score.”’
The man who once boasted of ‘no more joga bonito’ is placing trust in his players to at least make their own minds up, though evidently with instructions when it comes to defending – seven men, at least, back when conceding possession – and other (almost-paradoxical) commands to be flexible.
‘My players have the liberty to play,’ he insists.
‘I try to give them advice, to guide them to have the best performance. So we know when the midfield is very closed, we try to go down the flanks, for example.
‘We’re fortunate enough to have players who can play in different positions. Robinho can exchange positions with Kaka, for example.
‘Kaka moved more down the wings and Robinho’s positioning confused the Chilean defence a little bit and this allowed us to score.’
Very big on giving a ‘for example’ each time, perhaps this is Dunga the pragmatist, Dunga the empiricist.
But as Woody Allen’s new film suggests, Whatever Works, and so far the Brazilian approach does, and with slightly more dazzle than the Dunga reputation going before him.
They’ve certainly offered a little more excitement than a Dutch team that really is grinding out results, though always with the promise of more expansiveness ahead – whenever they want, whenever they need.
A third World Cup meeting with Brazil since 1994 this Friday will surely have to enliven them, especially in revenge for those two previous defeats.
Spain, of course, should have a much smoother task ahead when facing Paraguay on Sunday, especially after Gerardo Martino’s men barely squeezed past Japan.
Their penalty shoot-out in Pretoria was of a much higher quality than the 120 minutes preceding, both teams looking understandably cautious as each teetered on the brink of a first ever last-eight place.
Yet Spain too still looked to be playing a little within themselves, in inching past Iberian rivals Portugal thanks to another David Villa goal.
The fact he fluffed the first shot before sweeping in the rebound with his other foot might detract slightly from the majesty of the winner, though yet again it was his new Barca team-mate Andres Iniesta providing an assist with utmost precision.
In fact, the (eventual) finish only emphasised what an inexorable goalscorer Villa is – his seventh in seven World Cup appearances suggested even when he does miss, he still scores merely a split-second later.
The breakthrough goal came just minutes after Fernando Torres was withdrawn, having looked – if anything – even more lumpen than ever. If he’s the Spanish Emile Heskey – ideally, creating the space allowing Villa to flourish – then tonight he proved as irrelevant as the actual Heskey is to the other Villa.
More encouraging signs were there, including another rampant display by Sergio Ramos – one of the few who were relatively subdued at Euro 2008, but here in South Africa storming down the right without looking too much of a liability behind.
Rumours suggest Jose Mourinho intends to shift him back into the middle of the backline at Real Madrid, but even ‘The Special One’ might struggle to restrain him entirely.
Despite all Spain’s possession, Portugal did manage to stymie them for more than an hour – and not only thanks to some robust and well-timed heroics from Braga goalkeeper Eduardo.
The Portuguese even managed to create the most clear-cut – if opportunistic – chances in the first half, only to be let down as ever by their substandard striking. Echoes of Pauleta – at tournaments, anyway – all over again.
And a subdued – and, later, sullen – Ronaldo certainly didn’t help, either the team he was supposedly captaining or those sportswear executives spooked by an alleged ‘Nike curse’.
A shamelessly blame-shifting Ronaldo suggested after the game, perhaps having received tuition at Patrice Evra’s captaincy academy: ‘Blame Queiroz.’
But his peripheral performances, both in qualifying and on the South African stage, will reasonably see questions asked of by far the world’s most expensive player.
As one of his Nike pals might put it instead – all together, one two three: ‘D’oh!’

"Just like a wavin' flag..."

WORLD Cup referees went back to school today – and not before time, you might well think.
All those not on match duty elsewhere were called to class at Pretoria's F H Odendaal school, to practice such fiendish tasks as running with a flag in hand or not getting hit by the ball.
Well, not quite everyone was there to answer the register – predictably enough, despite assurances to the contrary, two under-fire refs sent notes to excuse their absence.
Roberto Rossi and England’s villain Jorge Larrionda both opted to spend the day in their hotel rooms instead of facing colleagues – or, more understandably perhaps, the mouth-foaming Press.
While those two dunces stayed in bed, England’s last man standing Howard Webb could saunter around as school swot having achieved the remarkable feat of ... making no major blunders so far.
(While, admittedly, doing about as sensibly as could be when both Italy and Slovenia started playing silly beggars - resisting temptation to flash a red card or several, that might only have turned the closing moments even more chaotic.)
He even felt comfortable enough chatting about – while, of course, playing down – his chances of being given the final, the refereeing equivalent of being made head boy.
And there was a visit by former pupil Urs Meier, who might have offered Larrionda advice on being England’s public enemy number one – though there’s more competition this time from the coach and players.
Meier was the Euro 2004 official who had the audacity to disallow Sol Campbell’s late ‘winner’ against Portugal, merely because an opponent attacked the elbow of England’s Brave John Terry.
But despite suffering torment by tabloid in 2004 – with nuisance calls and death threats from England’s lunatic fringe – magnanimous Meier was yesterday surprisingly sympathetic.
He spoke out in favour of goal-line technology – and insisted serving officials all agreed, but were too frightened to speak out until safely retired.
Those running today’s lessons – including hapless headmaster figure, refs’ boss Jose Maria Aranda - had done their best to recreate match conditions.
The portable plastic goals and patchy training pitches, overlooked by stern redbrick school halls, looked more village green than Soccer City.
But some rickety speakers blared out a recording of incessant vuvuzelas, one to file on your shelves next to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.
Meanwhile, elsewhere Sepp Blatter was making an astonishing apology – and U-turn on video technology – in rather plusher surroundings, a swanky hotel in upmarket Sandton.
His words still got quickly back to refs’ school, however – printed on 200 sheets of A4 and rushed to Pretoria by police escort.
Over-reaction or otherwise, Sepp’s statement was weighty indeed, marking a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion – if, indeed, this proves more than just a time-stalling sop to be kicked back into long grass when – that is, if – the current fuss fades.
It could yet mean war with Uefa president Michel Platini, if his pet project of two extra assistant referees on the touchlines actually gets moved to the sidelines instead.
But then, Blatter is bidding for Fifa re-election next summer and might be vulnerable to someone promising populist reform.
And ven the folksy-talking, ‘Teflon Sepp’ must have felt embarrassed on Sunday, the afternoon that left English, Uruguayans and Swiss all for various reasons sent to the bottom of the class.

"Whistle a tune and think of a catchy, happy little song..."

LOOK a little on the sunny side, advised the Kinks – even when you feel you’re on the slide.
Easier said done yesterday morning after the nightmare before, especially with the usually crystal-clear sky above South Africa surprisingly clogged by grey clouds – just waiting to envelop England’s plane.
The drizzly gloom made it more of an effort to find signs of cheer, though for those of us lucky to be sticking around there are of course plenty – from the richest enjoyment to the smallest of pleasures.
For a start, not everyone in the England squad comes out badly – Michael Dawson, at least, has played a blinder.
Just recalling his beaming, tongue-wagging excitement when bounding on to a Rustenburg-bound plane must toast even the chilliest heart – even if he did probably spend his surprise holiday parked with Rodney Trotter’s ‘Groovy Gang’ kids.
Then there’s the finishing of Spain’s happy slapper number seven, David proving the most audacious Villa outside a Donald Trump estate.
Or the finishing, for alternative entertainment, of Nigeria’s too-well-fed Yak.
That wise(ish) new greybeard Diego Maradona, on the touchline or at ticket-only press briefings, in both settings kicking as many balls as he can.
Or his lumbering full-back Gabriel Heinze getting nutted by a camera, then giving it a bit of a slap in return.
The legions of stadium volunteers who refuse to simply point to an allotted seat but insist on clambering all the way with you – only to invariably need extra sherpas sent out for themselves.
Or else the Cameroon fan who made his vuvuzela sound like the chilling saxophone stabs from Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Taxi Driver’ score.
The under-rated ‘keeping of Wigan’s number three Richard Kingson, and the clever tenacity of Kofi’s alleged nephew Anthony Annan – despite looking about as well-built for a holding role as Lionel Messi or Shaun Wright-Phllips.
And the whole Ghana team’s Roy Of The Rovers exploits, from the winner against America to their Melchester Rovers borrowed colours.
Or Jogi Löw’s strangely lovable German whizzkids, or Dunga’s silky yet street-tough Brazilians, or the Uruguay of Sally Gunnell double Diego Forlan – a revelation as poacher-turned-playmaker, even if we’ve probably heard enough now of how he flopped at Old Trafford.
The prospect of Messi taking on his Barca mates, and the laughable fact he somehow still hasn’t scored – and the feeling that after a first, he might just hit five in the final.
And the assurance that an exciting climax can’t now be bogged down by that most tainted ‘golden generation’, stinking out 2010 as they did 2006.
A fair few breaks in the clouds, then, at least.
Even if, for England, it might feel like – to flick to another Kinks track – there was no hope, no reasoning, this rainy day in June.

Monday, June 28, 2010

"They'll hit you and hurt you..."

‘SOME things you will see – and some you will not see.’
So smiled Jerome Valcke, Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man at Fifa, as he talked up officials on the eve of yesterday’s England-Germany encounter.
But he was talking about those providing extra security outside the ground, not the match officials doing so much for English insecurity within.
What at least 15,000 England fans did see – but not one Uruguayan in charge – was that rarest of sightings: a World Cup ‘goal’ by Frank Lampard.
A World Cup shot in target by Lampard was startling enough, which might explain Mauricio Espinosa’s apparent daze.
What then went missing was the equalizer for England, surely sparking campaigns for not only (Monte)video technology, but a 43-year statute of limitations on claiming for goal-line karma.
All this will have been seen by Valcke’s boss Sepp Blatter, a strangely low-profile presence at this World Cup – apart from Blatter’s ‘tweets’, or ‘bleats’, on Twitter.
He had let followers know he was on his way to Bloemfontein, though probably didn’t see the same traffic jams as England fans taking the only main road in – the N1 from Johannesburg.
Struggling along that highway from Jo’burg wouldn’t be England’s last difficulty of the day caused by the route-one approach.
An abandoned, emergency-landed light aircraft sat by the side of the road, about 25km north of the stadium – another odd sight, and perhaps an omen.
A warning that sky-high aspirations might be brought down to earth with a bump?
Or that you won’t go far if you set out with only one proper wing.
Supporters making their way along Bloemfontein’s Nelson Mandela Drive – no South African city should be without one – might have noticed Swiss fans had left a more lasting mark than their team managed.
Spraypainted across street furniture was the optimistic – or perhaps ambiguous – ‘Allez Suisse’. Allez oops.
Perhaps that was done by mischievous Swiss mister Blatter himself.
What no one could have missed inside the stadium itself were English flags everywhere – just as there had been in Rustenburg the previous evening, reminders of how the journey to glory was supposed to pan out.
Back in Bloemfontein when the ref finally ended yesterday’s misery, England fans stooped in the stands or slumped in their seats seemed in no mood to blame him – well, not blame him alone, anyway.
How typically, eccentrically English it all felt, to be so authentically robbed – and yet so emphatically outclassed at the same time.
For what everyone did see yesterday was a sluggish, unimaginative England bamboozled by Germans showing more devastating intelligence, incisiveness and just counter-attacking zip.
Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller rightly enjoyed the acclaim - along with Joachim Low, who had the faith to promote them from the U-21s, just as Louis Van Gaal fast-tracked and transformed raw Bayern talents into Champions League finalists.
But Bastian Schweinsteiger also showed up - even more - the sorry and out-of-shape Gareth Barry, combining composed rigour in defensive midfield with dynamic and intelligent surges into attack when suitable. A holding-midfielder-PLUS, the instincts and technique of a winger still simmering.
Meanwhile, England - having shifted John Terry uncomfortably to the right of central defence, all the better to showcase Matthew Upson's clod-hopping left foot - remained dulled and doltish throughout.
Even when they did put a few passes together, they tended to be the shortest and most exchanged across a flat-back-four, as if filling a quota before invariably allowing themselves the treat of ... an aimless, witless punt up-field.
Pass-pass-pass-pass ... hoof, back to Neuer.
Germany even did that old English staple, the long ball, better.
On the eve of the match, Valcke also said Fifa never expected a ‘zero-fault’ tournament.
That time he was talking about referees and linesmen – and this time few could argue.
Though he could have been referring to English defenders.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Never Ghana give you up..."

IN A parallel universe, Wayne Rooney is currently stewing over the second World Cup red card of his career – emulating Rigobert Song and Zinedine Zidane – after again lashing out as England are crashing out.
Perhaps that’s just a little harsh on newly-matured, new father Rooney – or maybe instead tempting fate, as England prepare for that German clash on Sunday afternoon.
Yet it was tempting to imagine, as the US toiled – only to be foiled – against the ‘Black Stars’ of Ghana, just how England might have coped in this apparently-easier fixture.
Having struggled so dismally to penetrate both the US and Algerian defences already, England could well have struggled some more against a formidably compact and well-organised Ghana backline.
A few weary lapses aside - especially as tonight’s extra-time encounter dragged on - it was hard not to admire a defence marshalled by John Mensah and bravely (sometimes foolhardily) bolstered by his young namesake John.
And in front of that granite-hard back four, the ever-diligent, always-pressing, under-sized Anthony Annan – a nephew of Kofi’s, he claims – was keeping both defence and attack ticking neatly over, despite looking like a mascot who just won’t be shooed-off.
For the unlucky USA, twice more caught napping after an opening whistle, Landon Donovan yet again emerged as “Mandon” Donovan.
As dynamic on the pitch this summer as he has been drably taciturn off it, it was his seizing of momentum and surging more purposively forward after half-time that threatened to upend Ghanaian control of the game.
His neat through-ball led to the penalty he himself clipped past the otherwise-excellent – and under-heralded – Wigan sub ‘keeper Richard Kingson.
But despite drawing level, when they should have shifted up several gears more the American momentum somehow again stalled – and Ghana could see out the match if not quite in comfort, then certainly at their own preferred pace.
Perhaps, in the end, the likes of Donovan, Dempsey and coach’s son Michael could do strive so much when carrying lesser drudges such as the error-prone Richard Clark and too many blunt-edged, surprise-call-up strikers.
The sprawling Rustenburg athletics-track stadium perhaps does not quite do full justice to a breakthrough sure to be acclaimed as redemptive for an entire continent, at this African World Cup.
Ghana can certainly expect to benefit from full-throated support throughout the rest of their run – though, as cold-conscious medics are now imploring, do make sure only your own throat has been filling that vuvuzela.
And Soccer City – twice the size – next Friday should certainly be crackling with just a little more charge, even before
But then, before Asamoah Gyan powered his way through to that extra-time winner – his fourth World Cup goal, just one behind the continent’s top scorer, that man Roger Milla – Ghana looked badly in need of a prolific, pure finisher.
Someone like, say, Diego Forlan – or Luis Suarez, this afternoon’s hero with a pearler of a curler, just when it looked like sitting back to soak up South Korean possession might just Uruguay and their unusually-sloppy defenders.
Next Friday should provide, then, an engaging battle between two contrasting – yet both attractive – styles.
In the meantime, Ghana’s energy-sapped, collapsing ‘Black Stars’ should probably catch up on plenty of rest.
They might need it – and they certainly deserve it.

Hod one out...

NICOLAS Sarkozy has been shown a yellow card as the French farce that dumped the country out of this World Cup could now see them barred from future competitions - though the threat could puzzle one ex-England boss with a penchant already for scratching his head...
The French president has ordered an investigation into all that went so disastrously wrong with Raymond Domenech’s revolting squad, who flew home in economy and as first-round flops this week.
But world football chiefs have already been on the phone, warning French politicians to be careful – after all, government interference could break Fifa rules.
Other countries have been suspended from playing international matches – and receiving Fifa money – when governments have meddled in football federation affairs.
At least 15 nations have not only had their wrists slapped but their Fifa membership suspended during the past few years – including three-time offenders Iraq, Euro 2012 hosts Poland and then-reigning European champions Greece.
Euro 2008 winners Spain have also been threatened with Fifa action, a case cited today by Fifa chief executive Jerome Valcke as he insisted the ‘bigger’ footballing countries were not protected species.
He said: ‘It’s like Iraq and other countries, it’s not that because it’s in Europe it’s treated differently.
‘I spoke to the sports ministry office and told them to be very careful, that there can’t be political interference in what’s happened.
‘They can meet, they can discuss, they can ask for apologies from the different people that have been involved.
‘But any time there is interference Fifa will react, for France as for any other country in the world.’
Suspension also means a country loses its vote at Fifa congress – something El Salvador recovered just in time for the summit earlier this month, when their recent ban was lifted.
Iraq received their third sanction in quick succession last November, when the country’s government ordered security forces into the Iraqi Football Federation’s HQ.
Other nations to suffer similar punishments in recent years include Peru, Madagascar, Chad, Ethiopia, Brunei Darussalam and Kuwait (twice).
Poland almost had the Fifa whip withdrawn in 2008 when the government threatened to replace the country’s football association with an administrator, in a row over co-hosting plans for Euro 2012.
And Spain were threatened with similar that year, when the sports minister demanded all sporting bodies hold new presidential elections – before backing down when the Fifa call came through.
What Sarkozy or his motormouthed sports minister Roselyne Bachelot could have done is express their disapproval on a French equivalent of This Morning – Ce matin, perhaps?
After all, it was when subjecting himself to yet another of TV’s toughest grillings that Tony Blair did for England coach Glenn Hoddle, over his comments about the disabled in 1999.

Blair gave just the simple, fateful word ‘Yes’, when worn down by fearsome interrogator Richard Madeley and the query: ‘If Glenn Hoddle has said what he is reported to have said, should he go?’
Within hours the Evening Standard was splashing with his alleged demand for Hod’s head, and sure enough FA bosses quickly made sure Glenn atoned with his job for his current-life sins.
To be fair, this was one regime change that Mr Blair did swiftly regret.
Alistair Campbell’s diaries tell of a genuine camaraderie between the men, sharing sympathy over scrutiny of their respective ‘toughest jobs’ and both being committed to England’s bid to stage the 2006 World Cup.
Well, someone had to be.
Campbell does seem genuine – or, at least as close to genuine as can be – when describing the gloom he and the PM felt, when realising the effect of those This Morning words.
The man who allegedly ‘never said them things I said’ would later admit feeling ‘surprised’ at the PM’s intervention – ‘because he didn’t know the facts, that is what saddened me’.

Glenn’s goose was probably already reaching roasting point, alas, after that diary of his own and the lacklustre opening Euro 2000 qualifiers.
But it’s still sad to recall just how his truly-promising England team of 1997-1998 – well-knitted, composed on the ball and with added Owen – under-achieved, their qualities so quickly squandered.
Graeme Le Saux’s doziness against Romania, David Beckham’s petulance against Argentina – two aberrations that prematurely ended England’s World Cup, in a tournament where only Brazil looked unbeatable.
Only to go on to half-beat themselves.
Tony Blair and the English FA escaped back then – though perhaps it’s only fair Fifa inexplicably weren’t tuning in to Richard and Judy that day.
Both parties would put themselves through plenty of suffering, if not actually sanctions, in the torrid and conflicted years to come. Could be karma...

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Sitting here in my safe European home, don't want to go back there again..."

A NEW depression is spreading across Europe.
Greece have already gone into leaderless meltdown, Italy rapidly heading that way too.
Ireland have long since bailed out already, while Spain and Portugal have had to do some tricky clinging on – though desperate times mean they must now turn on each other.
So much for the so-called PIIGS.
Elsewhere, despite a brief recent upturn England remains vulnerable and split in top leadership positions, while Germany is starting to creak under the burden of maintaining momentum.
Meanwhile, Brazil continues to thrive – alongside emerging South American neighbours – while efficient Asian nations surge forward while Africa still struggles.
It’s not the economy, stupid – but the World Cup, of course, now making tough cutbacks of its own by shedding 16 squads.
Seven of those flying home are doing so to Europe, leaving just six from what was the tournament’s best-represented continent.
And all six now face each other in what is somewhat inelegantly, yet universally being referred to as ‘the round of 16’ (rather than, say, simply the second round).
That does still guarantee that almost half of this summer’s quarter-finalists will come from Europe, and despite recent difficulties most bookies would hesitate to price Spain much longer odds than marginal favourites Brazil.
Yet the overwhelming mood seems to reflect a South American surge at the expense of old Europe, especially with the catastrophic plunges of France and Italy.
Key factors vary for each team, making any attempts at sweeping explanations rather difficult – and, also, unhelpful.
Yet several have suffered for lack of ambition and imagination, above all this evening’s casualties Switzerland.
Having conceded no goals during four games in 2006, before losing on penalties to the Ukraine, they exceeded expectations by beating European champions Spain in the first match this time around.
While not especially pleasing on the eye, the muscular work of Blaise Nkufo and the selfless persistence of Eren Derdiyok helped pull off a counter-attacking triumph – marked by Gelson Fernandes’ admittedly-scrappy winning goal.
Yet, after losing by the same scoreline to a more vigorous Chile, tonight’s insipid goalless draw against Honduras allowed Chile to go through despite losing to Spain.
After leading Chile one stage further than he managed with his native – and then much-admired – Argentina eight years ago, Marcelo Bielsa will struggle to find anyone begrudging him.
With their grain-opposing fondness for a 3-3-1-3 formation, Chile have certainly been one of the most curious propositions of the tournament so far – and also one of the most exciting to watch, with Matias Fernandez pulling strings and Alexis Sanchez pulling full-backs to shreds.
There was a fear, however, that the progressive return to form of a Swiss-shellshocked Spain might just be enough this evening to not only topple Chile from the top of Group H, but from the qualifying places all together.
Any Swiss win could easily have left Chile to rue the hordes of chances they created for just one goal apiece in the two previous games.
They did look like paying a hefty price for further wastefulness against Spain, most head-shakingly a close-range, 11th-minute shot blazed embarrassingly over by Mark Gonzalez.
Found in space on the end of Beausejoir’s cutback cross, the winger born not too far away in Durban showed finishing worthy of the Bafana Bafana.
And he and his team-mates were swiftly made to pay, as Spain were roused by another audacious goal by happy slapper David Villa – lofting in a first-time shot from not far inside the Chilean half, after goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had raced out to clear.
Encouragingly for Barcelona fans, and ominously for La Liga opponents, new Catalan signing Villa was soon combining deftly and incisively with a left-scurrying Andres Iniesta.
Back in the side after yet another of his season’s injuries, Iniesta virtually passed the ball into the net after a one-two with Villa – paying no heed to Fernando Torres lying slumped in the background.
While his strike partner is flourishing – his first goal against Honduras and his strike against Chile making him perhaps the most audacious Villa outside a Donald Trump estate – Torres is toiling.
Like the substitute who later replaced him, Cesc Fabregas, the injuries of the past season look to have left their mark – leaving neither one looking quite sharp enough, either in body or mind.
In both matches so far, Torres has tended to snatch wildly at chances with his feet, or miscue with his head, while the Fabregas cameos have been tentative, to put it politely.
Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney – goalless and spark-less ever since that injury against Bayern Munich – are also still playing their way back into condition, in the most scrutinised of circumstances.
Van Persie is off the mark now at least, while for all the carping Rooney continues to face his movement did look a little more nimble and defence-stretching against Slovenia.
Bringing the very best out of Rooney on Sunday will be Capello’s most pressing challenge, while Del Bosque faces further tinkering to a side whose displays he rightly termed ‘weird’.
Sergio Busquets hares here, there and everywhere across the field, with admirable energy – though perhaps not always with such need or indeed helpfulness.
The Spain of Euro 2008, for all their eye-boggling tiki-taka – allied with the urge and ability to counter-attack at lightning-speed when crucial – had at their base the immaculate Marcos Senna in holding midfield.
His unfussy distribution, barely-there-but-triumphant tackles, and ability to cut off more passes than the cast of Bonanza ought really to have renamed the so-called ‘Makalele role’.
His own injury-dogged season with a below-par Villareal meant he misses out this summer.
Perhaps it has also been a temptation to stamp his own mark on Luis Aragones’ prestigious achievers that prompts Del Bosque to field not just one deep-lying midfielder but two, in the form of Busquets and Xabi Alonso.
Yet in the marginally underwhelming Spain games so far, this has resulted in phases of frustration, when the likes of Xavi and Iniesta have been forced higher up the pitch – trying to launch those mesmering moves with a little less space opening up clear ahead.
David Silva disappointed in the first game, Jesus Navas has tried to hurl over a madly prolific number of crosses without quite connecting right, while Javi Martinez and Juan Mata have not quite got hold of the games in short substitute appearances.
Already only four of Spain’s 19 outfield players are still waiting for their first 2010 World Cup action, suggesting the strength in depth of the squad – but also a nagging sense of Del Bosque still fine-tuning.
Or maybe he’s just trying to keep everyone happy.
The trailing jet smoke of the now-flown French and Italian squads should act as some solace for all European survivors – there but for the grace (not hand) of God, go we…
The Dutch did did manage three wins out of three, despite their performances being about as flat as, well, the Netherlands – though stabs of élan from Elia and Sneijder suggest there should be plenty more still to come.
Although a defence featuring the old-timer likes of Van Brockhorst and Boulahrouz hardly looks like a World Cup-winning rearguard in waiting, the evidence so far suggests they make more than the sum of their parts.
After all, Bert van Marwijk’s side conceded fewer goals than any other European side during qualifiers and have let in just one so far at the tournament itself – and that a Samuel Eto’o penalty, in Thursday’s meaning-lite third match.
Perhaps the most mouthwatering test for that defence would come from the tournament’s strongest attack, the rich Argentina palette of Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Milito and, yes, even ever-willing hoofer Martin Palermo.
Their respective routes to the final would mean having to meet in the final itself, an alluring rematch of 1978 – though this time with added Maradona, one of three players cut at the last moment from Cesar Luis Menotti’s squad back then.
But before then, for all their dreamlike movement and interconnectedness up front, Argentina’s own wobbly defence might have been toppled by others.
Even against the lowly likes of Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, failings and fissures could be glimpsed at the back – whether in the gaping spaces left behind false right-back Jonas Gutierrez or when Demichelis and partners were pressed in possession.
Then again, when you have Lionel Messi showing such sparkling verve – whether as striker, winger or deep-drifting playmaker – just winning the ball back will be a sturdy challenge itself.
Cristiano Ronaldo has gone one better than his World Footballer of the Year successor, by hitting the back of the net – though an uncharacteristic self-deprecation in his grin suggested his ball-juggling strike owed equal credit to both judgment and luck.
Kaka, despite playing with his usual grace, has suffered another stop-start opening to this World Cup, though will be under pressure to do better even against the leg-choppers of Chile.
While he and Rooney are perhaps the only superstar names to have under-performed, several more emerging talents have captured the attention – and imagination.
Mesut Ozul, of course, though also impressive have been Uruguay’s versatile defender Jorge Fucile and their poacher-turned-playmaker Diego Forlan.
Then there was Robert Vittek’s barnstorming performance for Slovakia against Italy – all the alleged qualities of Heskey, but with surefire finishing too – while Japan’s free-kick-swisher Keisuke Honda and Ghana’s diminituve cruncher Anthony Annan have also caught the eye.
Others quick off the mark include adventurous Portugal wing-back Fabio Contreiao, New Zealand’s indefatigable goalkeeper ?? Paston and US inspirations Landon Donovan and, more surprisingly, half-pint right-back Steve Cherundolo.
Still there has been a irritating shortage of goals in too many games, currently averaging out at 2.1 per match – worse than the all-time World Cup low of Italia 90’s 2.2, with Germany ’06 managing not much more at 2.3.
At least things could only get better after the first set of first round matches produced just 25 goals in 16 games, with 42 in the next batch and 34 in the third.
Whinges about vuvuzelas and Jabulanis have been waning ever since sides started to hit form – and the net – with smoother ease.
Or else, still-thrilling chaos - as in the cases of Cameroon-Denmark and Slovakia-Italy above all.
Packed eight-, nine- or ten-men defences when not in possession held a relative balance of power for the tournament’s early stages, but the most unambitious teams are thankfully on their way home now.
Off the field itself, stadia have been crammed with noise if not capacity crowds.
A rather casual air around security has so far led to only embarrassment and not calamity.
And most people have managed to get to the games they intended – even if a tournament navigable by car or plane alone tends to favour only those with plenty of patience. And cash.
The Fifa and LOC strictures which have cowed local traders – while cow-towing, of course, to official sponsors – have threatened at times to dully homogenise an event idealised as something deliberately, exciting different.
But the outbursts of outrage heavy-handed officials have faced – sloganised on T-shirts as ‘Fick Fufa’ or ‘Mafifa: we own the game’ – may fade gently away as they count the governing body’s $1billion annual profits.
Carping aside, even when the World Cup’s bad, it’s still worth cherishing just because it’s the World Cup – and this has so far been a not-bad tournament anyway.
Previous finals tended to turn cagier – though dramatic, if all-too-often penalty-decided – when the expansive group stages gave way to winner-takes-all knock-outs.
Perhaps this time we might see the opposite effect. Either way, the next fortnight can only be compelling.
Never mind the quality – feel the drama. Though some quality treats would be welcome as well.

"No one was saved..."

AFTER a first round littered with goalkeeping errors, little wonder those wearing gloves are relishing the start of the knock-out stages – and the inevitability of penalty shoot-outs.
For once, the goalkeeper is the man who can hardly lose – possibly elevated to hero status, yet if not still seldom ending up public enemy number one.
In a shoot-out, as England players know all too well but could yet discover again on Sunday, the pressure is all on the kicker, not the keeper.
In fact, in normal or extra time, only six more World Cup penalties have actually been saved than those hitting the woodwork or missing the target entirely.
David Villa’s surprise sidefoot wide, against Honduras on Monday, was the 16th that failed to even test the ‘keeper.
Even more notable misses include Antonio Cabrini’s, for Italy against West Germany, in no less a game than the 1982 final – not to mention Diana Ross’s opening ceremony howler when the US played host in 1994.
Once the game goes to spot-kicks alone, the burden can only grow bigger on the shoulders of players nominated to strike out – though gravity seemed to have an inverse effect when, say, Chris Waddle and Roberto Baggio stepped up.
Oliver Kahn today described the face-off between ‘keeper and taker as ‘a permanent psychological battle between the keeper and the shooter’, and that the notion of homework can be over-rated.
He admitted not only failing to remember any of his research on opposition takers, when his Bayern Munich beat Valencia on spot-kicks in the 2001 Champions League final.
Indeed, so intensively focused was he on just saving each kick, he didn’t even realise the scoreline – or that his final decisive save was enough to clinch the trophy.
But he did say: ‘In order to be able to save a penalty you always need a certain amount of luck but of course there are other facets.
‘Preparation, for example - you need to familiarise yourself with who will be taking the penalty: is it more of a technical player, or a player who will resort to strength and power?
‘You can read a lot from the body language, where he will shoot. And it’s also down to eye contact.
‘You can irritate a penalty taker with your body language. You can see whether a player is fearful, you can see from the eyes if he makes a small mistake which corner it will go to.’
‘This psychological battle is often invisible to the spectators.’
Yet this idea that you can never quite replicate the atmosphere and mental challenge of a big-game penalty shoot-out has perhaps been foolishly abused by England in the past, as an excuse for doing no preparation at all.
Anyone can miss a penalty, of course – as shown by recent fluffs by England’s Frank Lampard, usually so metronomically reliable and who put away not just one but two more retaken penalties in quick succession against West Ham last season.
Last month, however, he dragged his FA Cup final penalty wide of the Wembley posts, before later stabbing a spot-kick straight at Japan’s goalkeeper in a pre-World Cup friendly.
He also, of course, was one of the three English players who so limply flopped, in the quarter-final showdown with Portugal four years ago.
Jermain Defoe has revealed this England squad have been practicing penalties every day of the tournament.
Tempting as it might be to imagine a World Cup entirely settled in open play, shoot-outs have been depressingly widespread at every tournament since West Germany and Harald Schumacher infamously beat France, thanks to the first, in 1982.
Another 19 have been needed since then, including two that settled the destination of the trophy itself – Baggio’s sky-high ‘effort’ being by far the most memorable element of the 1994 final.
Four of the 16 knock-out matches at the 2006 World Cup could only be decided by a shoot-out, so if England are to go all the way this time they should need to finally break that penalty hoodoo.
Only once have England won a major tournament match on penalties, against the even more notoriously jinxed Spanish at Euro 96 – with David Seaman making one save, and seeing another penalty screwed wide.
While Defoe may hope that his latest practice makes perfect, his own recent record is the most alarming of England’s lot – missing five of his last ten, though at least his latest, against Chelsea, thundered in.
But his last-minute failures against West Ham United and Everton, costing Spurs two points each time, hardly provide reassurance about his ability under pressure.
Kahn, speaking today at an Adidas ‘penalty day’ press conference in Sandton, tipped Germany’s number one Manuel Neuer to prove psychologically strong if it goes to penalties this Sunday.
Despite having only eight caps, and still being ‘just’ 24, the Schalke ‘keeper has several years of Champions League experience.
He was also in goal for the German side that crushed England in the final of last summer’s under-20 European Championship.
Kahn said: ‘Neuer is very, very young and has many positive things to say - he does not have a lot of contact with negative experiences yet.’
He also criticised England and leading clubs Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal for fielding foreign goalkeepers – hindering the development of a world-class option for the national side.
Petr Cech, sitting to his right, gave barely a flicker of response when Chelsea’s foreign choice was mentioned – retaining a robotic air both on and off the pitch.
Yet Germany themselves have hardly come into the competition with overwhelming faith in their choice of number one.
Rene Adler had been officially anointed, after lengthy indecision, only to instantly, seemingly suffer the ‘yips’ with a glaring blunder against Argentina in a friendly last March.
His subsequent rib injury meant a choice between three much-of-a-muchness contenders, the more promising Neuer finally given the nod above Hans-Jorg Butt and Tim Wiese.
Neuer did make some robust enough interventions when defensive lapses allowed Ghana through on goal, in Wednesday night’s final Group D match.
In the approving words of Kahn, never renowned for modesty himself: ‘He has a lot of self-confidence, he sees himself positively and as a winner.’
Yet while praising this ‘untypical’ German team for their attractive ‘combination football’, he acknowledged they lack experience – especially compared to England.
Age and experience can be over-rated – or, at least, irrelevant when World Cup responsibility calls.
Michael Owen, at 18, showed no hint of nerves with his emphatic spot-kick in the 1998 shoot-out against Argentina, with those rugged seniors Paul Ince and David Batty the ones who faltered.
A penalty shoot-out may be more than just luck, and Kahn and Argentina’s Italia 90 hero Sergio Goycochea both recoil at descriptions such as ‘lottery’ or ‘Russian roulette’.
But for all their rehearsals, both nerves and the self-perpetuating effect of England’s alleged penalty ‘curse’, means more spot-kicks on Sunday could be too much to bear.
Just for good – or bad – measure, Germany’s three squad goalkeepers have saved 15 of their last 27 penalties faced – Neuer four from ten, Butt four from seven and Wiese seven from ten.
England’s three, however, have managed just one save apiece in their last 26.
Better to win then, if possible, before having to form those awful and ominous centre-circle circles.
After all, knock-out matches don’t all have to end that way.
And before being given the no-lose chance of glory, a goalkeeper can find himself falling victim and villain in an actual game – as Vincent Enyeama, Fawzi Chaouchi and of course Robert Green have all already found to their, and their country’s, cost.

"Love's got the world in motion, and I can't believe it's true..."

ENGLAND could still take on Brazil this summer, even if certain other opponents stand in the way for the moment.
A prospective England-Brazil final might still seem as laughable as, say, Diego Maradona’s whinges about handball or Dunga’s about persistent fouling.
Or a South African newspaper’s confused correspondent, who this week described Flower of Scotland as the Welsh national anthem.
Yet England and Brazil are already emerging as rivals in mopping up fervent home support from South Africans coming to terms with the Bafana Bafana’s early, if expected, exit.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Brazil have plenty of enthusiasm from stadium volunteers, hotel workers, drivers and South Africans on the streets.
Yet the hordes of supporters here from England are certainly being strongly bolstered by locals, whether prompted by family or historical ties, or passionate support for Premier League stars and sides.
Ex-England international Chris Powell, coaching Cape Town and Johannesburg youngsters for education-for-all campaign 1GOAL, told Metro: ‘The kids all love Premier League football over here.
‘You see everyone walking round in Premier League shirts before their own local teams’, which does seem a bit bizarre.
‘England does actually seem to be their second team, after Bafana Bafana, because English football is so hugely popular here. It could be a great asset.’
South African tourism officials, while not quite so wide-eyed, were among those cheering as not only England but also the USA squeaked through to the next round.
Both countries are among the best-represented and biggest-spending out here.
Locals with their eye on the takings could face a Sunday dilemma, though, since the Germans are also here in vast numbers and generously dipping into also-vast pockets – though Angela Merkel might not approve.
Bloemfontein, where England and Germany will resume their rivalry, seems to have had a premonition about the coming invasion while also nailing its colours to the mast.
Even as the hosts prepared to take on France on Tuesday, the only non-South African flags or customised vuvuzelas being hawked by street-traders were those bearing the St George’s cross.
Fans of the local football team, Bloemfontein Celtic, already enjoy a reputation for vociferous, steadfast support – despite their wealthy team being starved of actual honours for too long.
Hm, sounds familiar. The Free State city’s stadium, with its old-fashioned English-style grandstands, might also prove a comfier fit for players and fans than Rustenburg’s athletics track or the artier new surroundings of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
What better setting, then, for England to be inspired – especially if a pack of new recruits can help the ‘Three Lions’ roar?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"What-a you think you do, why you look-a so sad...?"

THE VERY split-second the ball crashed into the net, it unleashed a scatter of fireworks and ticker-tape from the sky. An 80,000-strong intake of breath, almost as instantly blasted out again as a bellow. And the inevitable blast of ‘We Are The Champions’, soon to be followed by that oh-so-obvious segue, ‘Nessun Dorma’.
It all added up to intoxicating drama, the night four years ago when Italy were crowned world champions – and Marcelo Lippi was safely lodged in the elite pantheon of World Cup-winning coaches.
There’s where the story ended. And for Lippi, alas, it should have stayed that way – but didn’t.
Nothing will rob him of that July 2006 glory.
But it felt somehow embarrassing not only for him, but those watching – and waiting, indeed, to accuse – for a manager of such stature to be left so forlorn and cravenly apologetic as he was today.
To lose one 2006 World Cup finalists before the 2010 first round has finished might be judged a misfortune – even if they did happen to be France.
To lose two begins to look like carelessness, especially when they are the defending champions.
Today’s dismal 3-2 defeat to Slovakia, coming after 1-1 draws against Paraguay and even more infamously New Zealand, must rank high on the surprisingly-extensive list of Italian World Cup calamities.
Up there with the 1966 humbling by Pak Do-Ik and North Korea, even worse than the contentious 2002 defeat by South Korea, Ahn Jung Hwan and some over-zealous, underwhelming officials.
Today brought glints of controversy for any Italian fans intent on indignation at referee Howard Webb and his officials.
Explosive – and under-used – substitute Fabio Quagliarella thought he had scored twice before the sumptuous chip that finally counted, albeit in vain.
He saw one smart finish ruled out for offside, a decision that might have been right – but perhaps only by as little as the length of a bootlace, or thickness of sock.
Although the linesman’s flag went up instantly, it felt like a wincingly lengthy stretch of time before the bad news had eventually spread through all the Italian players – and supporters.
Quagliarella also saw a volley bounce back off Martin Skrtel’s knee, perilously close to being behind the goal-line.
Yet it’s tricky to imagine any outraged Italians having their hearts quite in it, bearing in mind their most insipid performance – at least, until the last ten to 15 minutes.
In a quite astonishing post-match Press conference, Lippi commandeered his microphone and interrupted the emcee opening the floor for questions.
No, Lippi insisted, he wanted to start by making a statement of his own – which he launched with a suitably no-nonsense: ‘Right.’
The abject apology that followed made it clear he took ‘full responsibility’ for Italy’s woeful performance, having clearly failed to prepare his players ‘psychologically, technically, tactically’.
So sorry was he, at times he looked like he might start crying – while only just stopping short of scourging himself with whips and chains. (These melodramatic Catholics…)
Yet at the same time, while insisting incessantly on how the players should be absolved, his dismay and exasperation at today’s display soaked through.
They played with ‘terror in their hearts, in their heads and in their legs’, he vividly claimed – later yelping: ‘They didn’t press, they didn’t build – they didn’t do anything!’
Admitting he hadn’t expected to retain their trophy, but did expect ‘to progress’, ‘to keep up our standards’, Lippi seemed at a loss to know quite what had gone wrong.
But rather than admit over-estimating his players, he found it easier to admit he must have coached them all wrong – a doubtless genuine regret, though as the session went on he seemed increasingly eager just to get all the soul-searching easily over and done with.
Whatever the motives, his open and humble words certainly offered a stark contrast with the defensive and niggly tones of Raymond Domenech, in similar circumstances on Tuesday.
Domenech, the defeated coach in that 2006 final, was lucky to survive France’s failures at the European Championship two years later.
Italy’s coach for that tournament, Roberto Donadoni, might just be allowing himself a smirk this evening – having been sacked for only reaching the quarter-finals, though only losing on penalties to rampant, eventual champions Spain.
That was when Lippi agreed to return, disregarded that age-old advice ‘Never go back’ – a decision that now looks even more unwise than even the most pessimistic Italians could have imagined.
It has become something of a truism to accuse Lippi of simply picking his 2006 team over again, four debilitating years on.
Of the starting eleven today, five were part of the 2006 squad – Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Gattuso, De Rossi and Iaquinta.
While Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon were only denied starting-places by injury, few would argue with their continued inclusion if available – this summer, anyway.
Indeed, while looking clearly only half-fit still, second-half substitute Pirlo still looked second only to fellow sub Quagliarella as Italy’s most influential performer.
His spraying around of classy passes, into attacking channels, threw into even sharper relief Italy’s witless, long-ball strategy of the first 45 minutes.
Buffon, too, might have offered more composed distribution – and reassuring command of the defence – than his promising, yet hesitant replacement Marchetti.
De Rossi will certainly be a key player – perhaps the key player, and likely captain – under incoming coach Cesare Prandelli.
Zambrotta looked a little uncomfortable and exposed at times today, especially after switching sides at half-time with the substitution of rookie left-back Domenico Criscito – who himself had looked terrified for much of the tournament.
But while Zambrotta’s best days are slowly receding behind him, the two veterans who most failed to live up to Lippi’s faith were – sadly – 2006 dogs of war Gattuso and Cannavaro.
Gattuso’s first game of the tournament, with his imminent retirement from all forms of football already announced, looked from the start like a triumph of hope over reality.
He offered little in his role slightly left of central midfield, neither able to harry and rush opponents like he used to – nor link up the play between Italy’s defence and attack.
The only mark he left was the ugly gash on Strba’s thigh, albeit not inflicted deliberately nor punished by Webb.
After he too was hooked at half-time, post-interval camera shots occasionally caught him looking bewildered on the bench – perhaps, like Lippi, wondering just what had gone so wrong.
Captain Cannavaro made it to the end, both of the match and his 136-cap international career – yet was arguably lucky to do so himself.
He could have been sent off in the first half for two reckless lunges in two minutes, yet more evidence of the loss of judgment and timing gathering apace since, well, that 2006 triumph.
At Real Madrid his once-immaculate reading of the game seemed to go into swift decline, bringing spates of yellow and red cards – or exposure to goals – as he too often rushed headlong out of position.
A couple of neat and sturdy interceptions, deep in defensive territory towards the close of today’s match, showed remnants of the old touch and control.
But while fellow centre-back Chiellini was the one caught out most by Slovakia’s second and third goals, Cannavaro must share the blame for a most unItalian, disorganised defence.
The third goal conceded was particularly basic, substitute Kopenek racing on to a throw-in and lofting the ball over Marchetti with his very first World Cup touch.
(The Slovak forward had been waiting an hour to come on, though, having been called to the touchline when Strba was Gattuso-ed – then hurriedly called back again, when Strba got up again, and just before Webb had noticed.
(Then again, the Slovaks – while more neat and progressive in possession than their two previous group-games – remained rather unsympathetic with all their Italianesque time-swallowing writhing and squirming. The goalkeeper Mucha the most excruciating of them all.)
Clearly Lippi felt his Dubai-bound skipper was the safest option available, with squad back-up Bonucci still seen as more raw than ready.
Despite popular consensus – and though it took him until merely months before the finals – Lippi had begun to discard members of the old guard whose selection could no longer be justified.
Grosso, Ambrosini, Toni and Perrotta were among those moved on, while younger prospects such as Candreva, Criscito and Marchisio brought in – even though the first didn’t quite make the final 23, while the latter pair might well now wish that they hadn’t.
Yet a sense of staleness seemed to pervade the set-up, summed up by the forwards’ desperate struggles to conjure up and score open-play goals.
Even Di Natale, on the back of a heroic, Serie A top-scoring season for relegation battlers Udinese, could not transfer his clinical finishing regularly enough.
Again, however, perhaps Lippi was hamstrung by a shortage of obvious replacements – Totti unreliable, Balotelli obnoxious and distracted, finally-naturalised Amauri as lumbering as Iaquinta but even less prolific.
While wondering just how crisis-ridden Italian football should now feel, Internazionale’s status as European club champions offers only partial solace.
After all, Jose Mourinho’s team that saw off Bayern in the final contained no Italians in the starting line-up, with only ancient warrior Marco Materazzi among the subs – seemingly almost like little more than emotional tokenism.
But perhaps the coach who rotated five strikers so effectively four years ago, and proved so adept at experimental and adventurous formations, shied away from crucial leaps of faith this time around.
Disciples of pie-loving Sampdoria engancheAntonio Cassano can now rally hindsight to their cause.
And Quagliarella’s explosive cameo that very nearly saved Italy despite themselves begs the question: why had he not featured at all until now?
But whether Lippi can feel up to – or bothered about – now tackling such questions remains to be seen, as he vows to take another lengthy break before focusing on whether he wants to return. To any kind of football coaching at all.
As another European ‘super-power’finds themselves gracelessly bundled out of South Africa so soon, part of him must be wishing he’d stayed quit when he was so ahead in the first place.
Today’s grimly compelling – and marvellously melodramatic – scenes? Or a nice long nap in the garden? He chose.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Ja, das ist Musik fur mich..."

A JUST-ENOUGH 1-0 win thanks to a volley, against opponents who proved frustrating to break down while also unable to finish for toffee themselves, now paves the way for a clash with arch rivals which should test – but also ideally inspire these under-performers like no other opposition.
That was my (convoluted) English take on today’s edgy, nervy victory over poor Slovenia.
But there seem to have been similar thoughts going through German fans’ minds, as they came away from Soccer City after a similar scoreline and outcome against Ghana.
Of course, Mesut Ozul’s finish was rather more dashing than Jermain Defoe’s, whether for distance travelled – or the fact it didn’t simply bang in off his shin.
And on current form, Ozul looks a more cutting-edge influence than any of England’s so-called creative talents – when his team-mates make sure to bring him into the game, and not isolated out on a wing.
The Germans emerging from Soccer City, who were hoping their team might need the English challenge to finally raise their game, must be tricky to please if that annihilation of (admittedly) Australia didn’t count.
But while the refreshing verve of the country’s youngest ever World Cup squad certainly looks to be lacking the stodginess of England’s – incidentally, our oldest of all time.
Yet hope may rest with the holes glimpsed in the German defence, with Per Mertesacker often looking apt to go back into his ice-skating Bambi act.
And despite his skills in the kitchen, cookbook-author Arne Friedrich looks no more commanding in the centre of defence than he looked a faltering full-back four years ago.
It’s a long way to Bloemfontein, as a leg-anaesthetising drive there and back yesterday proved – but in those days of too much hype ahead, there might just be a little hope.

"Drink to me, drink to my health..."

DESPITE scowling when subbed and still looking a little out of touch, Wayne Rooney might now raise a toast to the ‘loyal support’ who yesterday laid off the boos – while getting stuck into the booze.
Many England fans were already celebrating a result even before kick-off, checking their change in pleasant surprise after stocking up on bottles of beer for 13 Rand, or £1.15, apiece.
Little wonder the bars surrounding Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay stadium were crammed about as tight as Diego Maradona into his suit, as clogged with grappling bodies as the Slovenian box at set-pieces.
The England faithful were not the only ones supping up for the cup.
John Terry’s attempted putsch over a pint might have fizzled out over the weekend.
But Fabio Capello has suggested that getting the beers in the night before action might have stopped time being called on England’s World Cup crawl.
He even smiled as he announced the players’ Tuesday evening tipple, his shoulders suddenly loosening as if he’d actually been carrying the kegs on his own over-burdened back.
‘YOU’RE playing Slovenia? Two million people? And you’re frightened? Impossible!’
Nevertheless, even as one of the World Cup’s most notable minnow-magnets flapped his arms in contempt, England fans had hands shaking, knees trembling and fingernails being bitten down to the marrow.
Especially when Slovenia launched a stoppage-time raid on the penalty area, Matthew Upson lunged in – and nightmare visions of Phil Neville at Euro 2000 flashed by, fortunately too soon.
The morning’s contemptuous critic was Bora Milutinovic, who has at least enjoyed World Cup triumphs over such European superpowers as Spain, Sweden and ... Scotland.
Compared to five-timer Bora, Capello’s a World Cup novice – though this tournament alone already seems to have lasted a lifetime.
That Costa Rica embarrassment of the Scots came 20 years ago, in the tournament Jamie Carragher has been avidly re-viewing on satellite TV.
Back then, Bobby Robson’s men endured plenty of ridicule, dressing-room dissent, a 1-1, a 0-0 and a scrappy 1-0 before a transformative surge to the semi-finals.
Amid a blizzard of flags in the Port Elizabeth stands, proudly showing off more red crosses than Wayne Rooney’s old schoolbooks, one wry banner yesterday read: ‘Things can only get better.’
But if some fans want to party like it’s 1990 – fine...

JUBILANT England fans enjoyed drinking at the last-chance saloon as choruses of ‘In-Ger-Lund’ and ‘God Save The Queen’ rang out around Port Elizabeth.
Fabio Capello’s men were cheered on to victory by the overwhelming majority of the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium’s 36,893-strong crowd.
Even a smattering of pre-match grumbles when Wayne Rooney’s name was announced failed to mar the mood once the game kicked off.
Rooney, forced to apologise at the weekend for sarcastically condemning England’s ‘loyal support’, had his every touch cheered when the game kicked off – and chants in his honour were among the most-sung.
South African police and specialist squads sent over from the UK were on stand-by for any disorder, especially if England were knocked out by either a draw or defeat.
There were also concerns about security inside the stadium, with police on duty in place of stewards after a pay dispute caused contract staff walk-outs last week.
Yet spirits seemed to remain high, both in the hours before 4pm local time kick-off and in the hours after the final whistle.
English flags bearing the St George’s cross covered all areas of the newly-built stadium, even though organisers had tried to keep English, Slovenian and South African fans separate.
In both the petal design-inspired venue, and packed bars in the surrounding streets, England fans were estimated to outnumber Slovenian supporters by at least ten to one.
Keven Osborne, 27 and from Chichester, described the ambience throughout yesterday as far more positive than for the previous games against the USA and Algeria.
He said: ‘Before those matches, I felt nervy, but even before the kick-off yesterday, the atmosphere among the fans just felt better.
‘There was a more confident feel, even though we knew we had to win – and that showed on the pitch, with the players too.
‘When the goal went in, the place went mental – my friends and I ended up in the row behind, six of us all on top of each other.
The England support’s noise even managed to overwhelm the din of the vuvuzelas, the controversial horns which have dominated the tournament’s soundtrack.
Much-heard chants during the match yesterday included ‘In-ger-lund, In-ger-lund, In-ger-lund’, songs hailing Rooney, the national anthem and ‘Rule Britannia’.
‘Singing ‘you can stick your vuvuzelas up you’re a***’ was also quite popular,’ Mr Osborne added.
Simon Jasinski, 30, from Portsmouth, said: ‘I thought we would either go on a four-goal rampage – or sneak it nervously. The important thing is, we’ve made progress.
‘The bars around the ground have been jam-packed all day, and England flags have been placed literally all over the stadium. Everyone’s been up for it, right from the start.
‘The South African people have been really friendly too, with a lot of them saying they want England to do well.’
Mr Jasinski was also pleased England’s second-round tie will now be Sunday, not Saturday, after they finished group runners-up.
‘I fly home on Saturday, so this means I’ll now be able to watch it on TV, instead of getting the score from the pilot,’ he said.

"It's time for Africa...?"

ROGER Milla has blamed too much chopping and changing by both football officials and foreign coaches for African failures at the continent’s first World Cup.
The Cameroon legend and World Cup’s all-time oldest scorer also accused African sides of being too ‘complacent’, while attacking the trend for expensive imported coaches like Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Milla spoke of his dismay and disappointment that African teams have under-achieved at this World Cup, despite high expectations - and fervent stadium support at every match.
Going into today's games, there were fears that the second round could feature no African teams for the first time in 28 years.
The last time that happened was 1982 in Spain, Milla’s first World Cup, when his Cameroon side were eliminated despite going unbeaten.
They drew three games, including one with eventual champions Italy, but it was their run the quarter-finals eight years later that won Milla – and his corner-flag dancing – iconic appeal.
That remains the furthest any African side has reached in a World Cup, equalled by Senegal in 2002 – but in Germany four years ago, Ghana were the continent’s only second-round representatives.
South African cities have been plastered in posters and billboards proclaiming slogans such as ‘Africa United’ and ‘It’s a home game for Africa’.
Yet each side has suffered distinctive difficulties, such as key injuries Nigeria’s Jon Obi Mikel, Ghana’s Michael Essien, Algeria’s Mourad Meghni and the Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba – though he has played with a cast on his broken elbow.
Cameroon’s prospects were hampered by internal unrest, while only North Korea have a lower place in Fifa rankings than hosts South Africa.
There has also been criticism of the fact only Algeria have been coached by an African, Rabah Saadane – now in his fifth spell in charge of his homeland.
Other African football associations have spent hefty chunks of their budget on short-term contracts for the likes of Nigeria’s Swedish coach Lars Lagerback and his compatriot Sven-Goran Eriksson, briefly leading the Ivory Coast.
Milla, speaking while coaching youngsters with education charity 1GOAL, yesterday said: ‘It’s a problem, if you’ve only had three months to prepare a team.
‘You should be working consistently through the Africa Cup of Nations and then the World Cup, not picking one team for one competition and one for another.
‘We have to start being less complacent – we have to choose a coach to train and beat teams in Africa.’
Of the first two African teams to fall so far, he said: ‘Cameroon picked a team that was too young, Nigeria picked a team that was too old.’
He was disapproving of Cameroon’s French coach Paul Le Guen, who suffered a squad revolt when he dropped Alex Song and Achille Emana for their opening-game defeat to Japan.
Changes were made for the follow-up, with captain Samuel Eto’o asserting more dressing-room – and Press conference – control.
But a haphazard 2-1 defeat to Denmark meant the ‘Indomitable Lions’ were the first team knocked out of the tournament.
Milla, who denied claims he himself had fallen out with Eto’o, said: ‘The Cameroon people need to know the truth – the coach didn’t do his job correctly.
‘The second, against Denmark, the players picked the team themselves.
‘They had the possibility of beating Japan and Denmark, but it was a just a failure.
Yet Cameroon’s hopes of reaching the finals had looked bleak before Le Guen took charge in July 2009 and took them to South Africa on the back of four wins in their closing four qualifiers.
Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, by contrast, both entered the tournament with new Swedish coaches appointed at short notice and on lucrative, short-term contracts.
But Lagerback’s ‘Super Eagles’ are flying home after two defeats and a draw, while Eriksson’s ‘Elephants’ need to not only trample North Korea but also see Brazil beat Portugal – and a ten-goal swerve in their favour.
South Africans were yesterday reflecting on their bittersweet exit from their own World Cup, as pressure mounted for one of their own to take over as coach.
Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over France failed to prevent South Africa becoming the first host nation to fall at the first hurdle of a World Cup.
They might count themselves a little unfortunate – the USA finished in the same place in their group when staging the competition in 1994, but different rules at the time meant some third-placed teams progressed.
The favourite to replace the outgoing Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is his assistant Pitso Mosimane, a South African.
But another World Cup pioneer, much-travelled coach Bora Milutinovic, yesterday insisted the nationality or language of a coach did not matter – but their mentality, and how rigorously they got to know their players and their backgrounds.
He also accused too many Africans of being too unambitious when preparing for World Cups.
Milutinovic was the first man to lead five different countries at separate World Cups, including a Nigeria side who reached the second round in 1998.
He insisted: ‘Africa needs to think more seriously about what they need to do to become World Cup winners, not just win a couple of games here and there.’
But he acknowledged that social and economic difficulties, and above all lack of education opportunities, held back many African players and teams trying to develop.
‘Sometimes it’s not enough to have talent or to train – you have to know how,’ he added.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"You say you want a revolution, well you know - we all want to change the world..."

AMID the English civil war and the French revolution, an strange harmony reigns in the Dutch camp this tournament – so far.
Perhaps it’s all down to coach Bert van Marwijk giving impromptu performances on the piano in their team hotel’s lobby.
Or maybe they’re picking up feelgood vibes from their HQ’s location in central Johannesburg, near the exuberant heart of this World Cup’s capital city.
Van Marwijk expressly wanted his players to really feel - to use a 2010 World Cup buzzword – if not the full-throated ‘Ayoba’, or exhiliration, of the event then certainly a flavour of real-life South Africa.
Some of Spain’s players have even been spotted doing their own shopping in stores beside their base in Potchefstroom, near Johannesburg – about as close to ‘slumming it’ as today’s superstars get.
Meanwhile, England’s incredible sulks stew in not-so-splendid isolation at their aristocratic Rustenburg pad, miles and miles of scorched and unspectacular velde away from the major cities.
The daily routine of ‘breakfast, training, lunch, bed, dinner, bed’ sound quite enviable, up to a point.
Wayne Rooney's grumble also calls to mind the exasperated complaint of Wilfred Brambell, when stuck with earlier Scousers in Beatle film A Hard Day’s Night: ‘So far I’ve been in a car and a room, and a train and a room, and a room and a room.’
Whatever the company, though, being cooped up in what Steven Gerrard has described as ‘five-star prison’ - even for five (fingers crossed) weeks - seems a scant enough sacrifice, and par for the World Cup course.
Bryan Robson, injury-prone as ever, developed blisters to become all-England (squad) Pacman champ as they languished behind armed guard, for fear of Basque separatist attack in Bilbao, back in 1982.
Simply calling up Jimmy Bullard and his ukulele – or a few Rustenburg neighbours toting vuvuzelas - would hardly guarantee a future as bright as the Oranje’s so far appears.
Nor does van Marwijk, like Capello, ever resemble a ray of sunshine himself, though both cantered through qualifiers before Capello’s sternness supposedly turned from asset to obstacle.
Meanwhile only a few flashes of pizzazz from still cruise-controlling Ballon d’Or contender Wesley Sneijder have lifted some Dutch displays almost as flat as Holland itself.
But without hitting the peaks, they at least know they’re sticking around in town for now.
A simple England victory today could mean the players’ hours suddenly start flying by – if not necessarily singing, then winning’s a handy counter-revolutionary tactic.

"It's a shame about Ray..."

SOUTH Africa’s footballers and fans have gone out on a relative high after all - while Raymond Domenech and France did the apparently-impossible and found a new low upon which to finish.
Just as the final whistle was blown on the latest French farce - leaving seemingly little more to do except get heads down, scurry down the tunnel and tout suite back to Paris - Domenech snubbed a handshake and thus embraced fresh indignity.
The coach loathed by his public, abused and humiliated by his players, but bafflingly backed for too long by his bosses, did try to end today's World Cup-ending defeat to South Africa by making up with his mutinous troops.
He could hold out a hand to such rebels without a conscience as William Gallas and Franck Ribery.
Yet he snatched it away again - only offering a wagging index finger instead - when his opposing number suggested the most straightforward of post-match pleasantries.
Carlos Alberto Parreira comes across as one of the most innocuous of personalities, and he appeared genuinely bemused when trying to account for the snub when facing the Press soon afterwards.
Domenech had attempted no such explanation, repeatedly ignoring requests he expand on what Parreira had done to deserve such a ticking-off.
It was left to Domenech's back-up staff to tell Parreira what had caused such offence - apparently a
Long-forgotten by Parreira, but not by Domenech - who evidently had too little to occupy his mind otherwise.
The outgoing French coach's typically-prickly post-match briefing included several incredible claims - above all, that his six years in charge had been 'a splendid adventure'.
He also rebuked reporters, threatened to walk out, denied any of his squad had refused to play - but rather ungraciously revealed Eric Abidal had pleaded to be excused, admitting he 'wasn't in a state to be able to play'.
Ah, but when has that ever meant the hapless Abidal missing out before?
Whether being sent off at Euro 2008 for France or in a Champions League semi-final for Barcelona, or clumsily conceding the decisive penalty against Mexico last Thursday, Abidal carries the air of a defender cursed - especially when inexplicably fielded in the centre, instead of marginally more comfortably at full-back instead.
Despite refusing to condemn the players this time, even praising them for only losing 2-1 once down to ten men, there was one subtle suggestion that, yes, he had headed a truly disfunctional body.
Domenech, who is being replaced by former national captain Laurent Blanc, added: ‘I believe the team has a future and I wish them long life.
‘I hope they’ll also be able to get to the next World Cup and they’ll find a team which they weren’t able to find this time.’
Of course, in other news, the home side made unwanted - though expected - history by becoming the first World Cup hosts to bow out in the first round.
Yet they were inspired by a rousing crowd in Bloemfontein, enjoying a 2-1 victory over a team already in meltdown - even before Yoann Gourcuff's first-half red card for giving MacBeth Sibaya an unhelpful elbow.
South Africa’s 3-0 defeat to Uruguay last Wednesday had left a nation dejected, but business and political leaders – including Nelson Mandela – had urged fans to rally for yesterday’s game.
President Jacob Zuma made a personal visit to the players’ dressing room to congratulate them after last night’s victory - then he and his security/wifely entourage briefly threatened to give Domenech a little relief, by blocking off journalists en route to the Press room.
The crowd had kept up a raucous din of vuvuzela horns and pro-‘Bafana Bafana’ chants throughout the 90 minutes - even if sloppy finishing meant Mexico still progressed on a better goal difference.
Spectator Mpho Mphake, 35, from Bloemfontein, said afterwards: ‘The team played with a lot of spirit, a lot of heart – they made us proud.
‘The atmosphere here today was great and we will still enjoy the rest of the tournament.’
After being snubbed by Domenech, a perplexed Parreira said: ‘As a matter of politeness I went to greet him, but he said I had offended the French team.
‘For the life of me I can’t believe what it is I’ve said. I’ve never insulted the French - on the contrary, I’ve always praised them.
‘One of the French coaches said in the qualifying matches, when Henry scored the so-called “hand of Gaul” I made a comment that perhaps France shouldn’t have been here.
‘It’s very lamentable this happened. It seems to be the attitude towards them is justified. I don’t remember saying anything like this.’
Even if he had, then so said the rest of the world - as affronts go, his was hardly the first or the worst.
Domenech need only glare at himself and his team if determined to declare: 'J'accuse.'

Monday, June 21, 2010

"And those home fires burn, scorching a hole through me..."

A MOCKED foreign coach, players at war with him and each other, and dispirited fans ripping off the rip-off shirts bought in such hope just a few weeks ago.
So that’s South Africa, anyway – how’s the mood back in England?
In fact, the attitude here seems to be not so much shocked outrage, as slightly miffed surprise.
Mobile phone and fast food firms who plastered the highways in adverts about not only hosting the World Cup, but actually winning it, are on alert to start shredding at dawn.
A second round place now looks about as likely, local wags say, as president Jacob Zuma deciding to settle down ... and not get married again.
Members of the South African squad have been swept up in the craze that’s sweeping the nation and gone public on rifts splitting the camp.
Suitably enough, one of the players wielding a dagger is MacBeth Sibaya, who claims Johannesburg-based ‘cliques’ have been favoured over Kwa-Zula Natal natives like himself.
But, as his Shakespearean namesake’s not-so-good lady wife put it: ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’
Nelson Mandela, even in his time of rather more serious grief, has tried to rally fans’ spirits while assuring the team of the country’s ‘unwavering support’.
Evidently, some fear tonight’s match against the revolting French could take at face value Wayne Rooney’s suggestion that it’s ‘nice to see your own fans booing you’.
Yet the World Cup occasion itself should mean plenty of pride is expressed loud and as clear as the vuvuzelas allow - fired by still-lingering feelgood factor from the Mexico second half, Siphuwe Tshabalala's wonder opener, and simply playing mein host.
Even if, to use the modern-day MacBeth's analogy, the Tuesday night task is to ‘climb Everest’.
Of course, the revolting French could yet hand them some crampons, if Raymond Domenech’s again go AWOL and concede a 3-0 walkover win – which might just be the hosts’ best hope.
There were always fears this World Cup would be hit by industrial action.
But no one expected the walkout-threatening police, nurses, customs officials and energy workers to be beaten to the picket lines by the players themselves.
An uneasy truce appears to have been brokered in the English civil war, with John Terry proving about as popular a coup-leader as Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon - with perhaps similar disgrace awaiting.
If, indeed, one man can attract any more - and assuming, of course, he actually feels any shame.
But vive les Divas, the French keep on feuding.
If Kader Keita’s Rivaldo impression briefly made the Ivory Coast just like watching Brazil, then the angsty English and French have become the new double Dutch.

'The way things are going, they're gonna crucify me...'

EIGHT years on, that bad Rivaldo karma has backfired on Kaka – surely seen as the man least likely to have a World Cup red card flourished in his baby face.
In keeping with his saintly air – and ‘I belong to Jesus’ attire – even last night’s dismissal against the Ivory Coast won’t do him much damage, martyrdom status coming quickly in the watching world’s eyes.
The true villain of the piece, twice over, was of course Ivory Coast substitute Kader Keita, who flung himself to the floor clutching his face after Kaka had barely brushed him in the chest.
Nudge, nudge – sink, sink...
Kader shouldn’t even have still be on the field to dash himself to the ground, having not long earlier hurled his studs into Michel Bastos’ shin in what could well have produced one of those ‘please look away now’ pictures.
Then again, such unsavoury Keita-ing had been on the menu all evening long, players from both sides incessantly rolling around, grimacing wildly, and clutching body parts that had gone untouched.
Lucio, Luis Fabiano and Robinho for Brazil, Zokora, Kalou and of course Drogba were among the offenders – while even choirboy Kaka has significant previous for diving.
Italy’s captain Fabio Cannavaro had looked even more ridiculous just a few hours earlier, and not just for the draw and his delicate assist for New Zealand.
When knocked over in an innocuous enough challenge, he seemingly suffered agonies in front of the camera – then turned suspiciously alert when presumably assuming it had panned elsewhere.
Here’s hoping for rather less ridiculous antics when the football kicks off again this afternoon.
Ah wait – well, it was an admirable idea. But never mind – I see next it’s Portugal playing...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Someone knocking at the door, somebody ringing a bell..."

QUESTIONS are rightly being asked about how an intruder managed to get into England’s dressing room.
Barely articulate, needlessly distracting, and really just a fan who should have felt lucky to be there, David Beckham nevertheless insists he’ll attend again on Wednesday.
As for Pavlos Joseph’s unwanted appearance, perhaps the biggest surprise isn’t that he evaded security – but didn’t do more angry damage when he did.
Or else, that he wasn’t bundled down en route by clod-hopping Jamie Carragher.
In a first World Cup week dominated by sturdy rearguard actions on the field, off it security teams seem to have taken their cue from the South African defence and not, say, the Swiss.
Little wonder, maybe, that it’s the Zurich-based Fifa – and its compatriot president Sepp Blatter – putting the verrou, or Swiss bolt, on those ‘ambush marketing’ Dutch.
Elsewhere in and around the stadia, the local approach – whether by underpaid and undermotivated stewards or even police stand-ins – has been, if not exactly lax, then rather relaxed.
Even in the last days leading up to the big kick-off, visitors could wander into the main Soccer City complex in Johannesburg without even having to flash a stadium pass.
Entry checks for matches since then have been cheery, yet cursory – with only random confiscations here and there, more often a sandwich or drink that might offend official sponsors.
Fans of Nigeria’s so-called ‘Super Eagles’ were disappointed to be blocked from bringing their own birds in – but a French fan did smuggle his rooster into the Polokwane stands.
(Please, no crude jokes about 11 more something-or-others on the pitch.)
The largely-chilled vibe seems worth celebrating, especially with alarmist forecasts of al-Qaeda attacks proving (fingers crossed) as accurate as those about squad-eating snakes.
The atmosphere coming out of the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, above all, has crackled excitingly with brisk midwinter mingling and anything-goes relish - with a few wafts of suspiciously-illicit smoke too.
The slightly ramshackle air and organisation can both charm and annoy, as all those left stranded by disrupted or disjointed public services might agree.
But perhaps we should be grateful security officials are being a bit tentative about demanding credentials – lest England be locked out before being knocked out.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

As if a cracking match between two not-too-cracking teams were not energising enough, Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld stadium last night produced an ear-catching new sound - someone playing their vuvuzela exactly like one of the chilling saxophone crescendos in Bernard Herrmann's 'Taxi Driver' score.
Well done, that fan.

"The Lions sleep tonight..."

THE WORLD Cup schedules are giving us night-time matches which make for ideal bedtime viewing – last night’s England-Algeria game soporific, tonight’s between Cameroon and Denmark just exhausting.
In their third meeting ever, the two teams finished 2-1 for the third time – yet it could have ended five apiece, at least, with both defences seemingly keen to bump up 2010’s slender goal average.
Cameroon, haphazard at both ends of the field, become the first country eliminated from this year’s competition – one African team down, another five soon to go?
Hopefully not so fast, though Ghana’s underwhelming draw earlier today, against an Australia team yet again reduced to ten men, was a setback for continent’s only winners so far.
Cameroon could have won several games over with the chances they created – with a little help from the Danes – but squandered during 90 crazy minutes tonight.
Instead, the Indomitable Lions proved all too, er, domitable.
Pierre Webo was especially wasteful, while the returning Achille Emana added much-needed drive and verve in midfield, yet only scuffed efforts when shooting on goal.
Substitute Mohammadou Idrissou could have scored a couple when introduced late on, only to see the ball pop off the top of his head and on to the top of the net, moments after his shot had rebounded over and off the prone Christian Poulsen’s face.
In the post-match press conference, Paul Le Guen insisted he had no regrets – other than their premature elimination, of course.
But he came close to admitting the players had been driving him mad, saying only partly diplomatically: ‘All teams are difficult to manage so I don’t want to compare. It’s a great job - difficult but a great job, even in this case.’
At least he was allowed to hold the press conference himself this time, after Samuel Eto’o had conducted a players’ briefing earlier in the week.
It had also been suggested that Eto’o was picking the team – or at least strongly suggesting he do so – and, sure enough, Emana and Alex Song both started tonight, having been bafflingly exiled for the opening match against Japan.
Le Guen’s line-up last Saturday was supposedly his attempt to quell dressing-room dissent over his alleged alienation of the ageing Rigobert Song, but only seems to have stirred up further friction.
Song initially seemed to bring more poise to the Cameroon midfield tonight, and did contribute one last-ditch six-yard-block from Tomasson – though his error had gifted possession in the first place.
Yet neither defence nor midfield ever looked especially sturdy, with Cameroon’s self-harmingly high line invariably vulnerable to Danish counter-attacks.
Dennis Rommedahl was the most dangerous and beneficial outlet.
He first sprinted on to Simon Kjaer’s cross-field pass, sliding the ball across the box for Nicklas Bendtner to slide in and equalise Cameroon’s opener by Eto’o.
Former Charlton flop Rommedahl then hit what proved to be the winner, enjoying what seemed an aeon to turn inside Jean Makoun and swipe the ball past the ‘keeper with his supposedly-weaker left foot.
Not that that goal, as early as the 61st minute, ever felt likely to be the game’s last, as too many clod-hopping touches by the Danish defence kept allowing Cameroon attackers to squirm their way through – only to worm the ball high or wide.
Danish coach Morten Olsen looked as furious as a winner can be when Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrondia finally brought the harem-scarem entertainment to an end.
He afterwards admitted: ‘We had far too many elementary mistakes we made. I can’t allow that from my players.’
And overworked centre-back Daniel Agger – bemusingly named man of the match rather than, say, the more influential Rommedahl – confessed: ‘Particularly in the first half, it’s one of the worst performances we’ve given in a long time.
‘If they were a bit more clinical, they would have scored more goals and we would have been out of it in the firsrt half.
‘We tried to fight, and we all stand together – sometimes it becomes a bit of a kick and rush, kick and rush, up and down, up and down, and that’s not how we want to play really.
‘We got three points – that’s the most positive thing I can say.’
Bendtner, one of three Danes carrying injuries, did at least last to the end this time, having scored his goal and just about won a battle of North London rivals with Sebastien Bassong – who, on a night of Cameroon losers, lost worst than most.
The Arsenal striker was especially exercised by the Tottenham defender tugging at his shirt – presumably because Bendtner prefers publicly undressing himself.
But both Danish goals tonight benefitted from another Tottenham man doing wrong, the often dozy and indifferent Benoit Assou-Ekotto caught recklessly out of position both times.
Bassong, too, found himself virtually in a different postcode as then Danes whipped forward in counter-attacks more effective than their own defending.
When asked if the (substituted) Bassong would play against the Netherlands, Le Guen would only say: ‘Well, leave me a little time and we’ll have to see whether he too is keen on returning to the side. We’ll see.’
While perhaps wishing either he or his two North London-based, Cameroon-convert defenders had decided to stick around in their native France instead.