Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"Gold against the soul..."

AFTER the curse of ‘Goldenballs’ might have struck his England pals – and Andy Murray – a different Golden Ball jinx looms over those in Soccer City this Sunday.
At the last three World Cups, the man voted best player has suffered a memorably forgettable final – making Fifa’s post-match announcement more poignant than triumphant.
In 1998, it was Ronaldo, suffering a fit before his Brazil offered pitiful resistance to the French.
Four years later he thrived as Germany’s Golden Ball – and Golden Gloves – winning goalkeeper Oliver Kahn turned butterfingers at the last.
And in 2006 Zinedine Zidane, having hauled even a Raymond Domenech-led France to the final, then butted them back out of the reckoning against Italy.
The rush to anoint this summer’s stand-out star has been frenetic from the start.
Pity poor Keisuke Honda, Alexis Sanchez or even Lionel Messi, as early bouquets brutally withered in popular consensus – or the unpopular Press.
Germany, whatever Wednesday night’s result, can at least count on a second successive prize for best young player.
Four years ago Lukas Podolski’s three goals, glimmers of brilliance and home favouritism put him above a scratchy field of Antonio Valencia, Cristiano Ronaldo and, er, that’s about it.
This time he and 25-year-old, 78-cap Bastian Schweinsteiger are almost gnarly elder statesmen in a German side faced with slicing the statuette in half for Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil.
But Mueller’s absence this evening is doubly unfortunate –semi-finals are the games that help clinch the bigger, round baubles, good news for Schweinsteiger or Spain’s David Villa.
Better news for Wesley Sneijder, who may have again been quiet for patches of tonight’s win over Uruguay – despite starting the first half of the first half in startlingly tenacious, pressing mood – but got good and slightly lucky with another crucial goal.
(Nice of his pal Robin van Persie to leave the ball, as it passed … if that’s indeed what he meant. Or if indeed it was legal. Both points debatable.)
Sadder news for Diego Forlan, whose passing looked a little off at times this evening, but who cut a dashing figure throughout even while shoved further forward and deprived of Luis Suarez – and scored with another swooshing shot, aided a little by a goalkeeper’s limp wrist.
Alternative contenders who seem surprisingly popular here in South Africa include usually-unfashionable full-backs such as Germany’s hollow-eyed Philipp Lahm or Spain’s wild-eyed Sergio Ramos.
He was a rare subdued Spaniard at Euro 2008, but has been a rampaging asset here – pause for thought, perhaps, for even Jose Mourinho as he ponders shifting him back into the middle in Madrid.
Other outsiders could yet include Iker Casillas, after that penalty save against Paraguay proved Sara Carbanero’s not his only impressive catch.
But he’d presumably prefer to lift another gold prize instead – and show he can do what Oliver Kahn couldn’t.
Today’s long drive south to Durban – from bitter to balmy, scorched fields to verdant valleys, mountainous heights to ear-popping sea level – evoked more memories of that 2006 tournament.
If only because after passing familiar-sounding places such as Heidelberg or Frankfort, Durban city centre was decked in German flags and welcomes of ‘Wilkommen’.
Perhaps every other team received similar tribute, though the only others still fluttering were for South Africa itself and long-departed Japan.
Viel Glück, perhaps, for Germany and ominous for those like myself who could happily watch Spain pass the phonebook.
Yet while Joachim Löw might cling to that treasured blue sweater – though tentacled turncoat Paul The Octopus now snubs his adopted Vaterland - tactics and technique should tonight mean more than signs and lucky charms.
Whoever does make the final, however, should maybe cross their fingers they can dodge that Golden Ball – let alone bump into doom-laden David Beckham.

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