World Cup 2010: Day Fifteen

Ok, a slightly different approach for the final round of group fixtures. In Spain in 1982, West Germany and Austria played out a tepid 1-0 win for the former that allowed both teams to progress to the next stage at the expense of Algeria, who had played their final fixture the day before.  This has widely been deplored as one of the most shameful episodes in the tournament’s history, but I’m not sure what West Germany and Austria were expected to do about it; even a 2-0 win to the Germans would have put themselves and Austria into the next round, and it could be argued they were simply preserving their energy for the next group stage. For the World Cup in 1986, FIFA decreed that the final two games in every group should kick off simultaneously to avoid such shenanigans, although in reality it still happens. A team can go into their final fixture knowing a draw or a narrow defeat will suit them, and they simply don’t rock the boat.

In any case, as FIFA still selfishly insist on playing 50% of the games while I’m at work, and with the simultaneous kickoffs, I managed to see only four live games this week. In many ways, this would turn out to be a blessing.

Matches 33 & 34, Group A

Monday’s three o’clock kick offs saw the impressive Uruguay take on Mexico, while the unimpressive France sorely needed to beat hosts South Africa to retain any shred of self-dignity. Coach Raymond Domenech, a man not universally loved, had already had a tiff with Florent Malouda before the opening game, then at half-time France’s best striker Nicolas Anelka shared a few choice words with his coach, and was sent home. This caused a simmering discontent to boil over, with several senior players players claiming they wouldn’t play against South Africa unless Anelka was reinstated. Somewhat surprisingly, they were able to field a strong line-up against Bafana Bafana.

However, there was no spirit, and the South Africans, still clinging to a faint chance of qualification, raced into a two goal lead thanks to Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela. Les Bleus did manage to pull one back thanks to Florent Malouda, but they were unable, or simply unwilling to try and score any more.

Meanwhile, in Rustenburg, Mexico and Uruguay knew that a draw, a win for Mexico or a narrow win for Uruguay would see both sides through, and so were content to not exert themselves too much (see the first paragraph). However, perhaps Uruguay were mindful that the losers of this game would likely face Argentina in the round of 16, and Luis Suarez gave them the narrow win that suited both teams.

And when the final whistles sounded, France, who were beaten finalists four years ago, were eliminated during the group stages this time around. And to be honest, they never looked like troubling Uruguay or Mexico. Some people might say this is a rare example of karma in football, as France’s decisive goal in the play-off against Ireland resulted from Thierry Henry handling the ball before squaring for William Gallas to score, although it should be pointed out that many Georgians would have been supporting France for similar motivation.

Final scores:

Mexico 0, Uruguay 0 (Suarez)
France 1 (Malouda), South Africa 2 (Khumalo, Mphela)

Uruguay and Mexico progress.

Matches 35 & 36, Group B

Argentina, under the capricious stewardship of Diego Maradona were already guaranteed progression, but they’re not a team that knows how to play in any other way than all-out. They were matched up against a Greek team that had looked at the calibre of players it produces, and how they compete against the big boys, and decided that defence was the best form of attack. Greece, to paraphrase the film Mystery Men, defend well. They defend very well. But it doesn’t make them a footballing super-power. They managed to keep Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Diego Milito at bay until the 77th minute, thanks mainly to the diligent, dogged man marking job on Messi by the terrific Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

Allow me to digress for a moment; too often the terms ‘anti-football’ or ‘negative football’ are used pejoratively to describe teams that defend and attempt to score either through counter-attacks or set pieces when playing higher quality opposition. Defending is as much part of the game as attacking is, and it’s just as hard to do. If anything, it requires more concentration and discipline, and when done well, as Greece did for most of this match, it is fascinating, and sometimes exciting to watch.

Somewhat ironically, given their reputation for free-flowing football, and with Greece’s habit of scoring from set-pieces, Agrentina’s opening goal came from a corner. Ángel di María’s ball into the penalty area was met by Martín Demichelis, whose header was inadvertently blocked by his own striker, Milito. Unfortunately for Greece, the ball dropped at Demichelis’ feet, and he blasted high into the net from close range.

Argentina’s second goal might turn out to be one of the more memorable of this edition, at least to me. Having been followed all around the pitch by Papastathopoulos, and not given time of space to affect the game, Lionel Messi could have simply stopped trying. But, like all the true greats, his inarguable talent is married to a huge heart and engine. He’s also patient. It might have taken him 80 minutes to finally start dictating play, but when he did, the Greek defence had no answer. Picking the ball up on the right hand side of the pitch, he evaded several challenged before stinging Alexandros Tzorvas’ palms with a fierce shot. The goalkeeper couldn’t hold on to the ball, and it fell to substitute Martin Palermo, whose first-time finish into the far corner was simply perfect.

Palermo’s is an interesting story in itself. He apparently holds the Guiness World Record for missing three penalties in a single international game, for Argentina against Colombia in the 1999 Copa América. His international career seemed to end at that time, and he went on to suffer serious injuries, and play in Spain for a while. By age 31 he was back in Argentina to rejoin Boca Junior, where he seems to be happiest and has been playing well.

In 2009, Diego Maradona called him up for a World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay, his first international game in ten years. He then went on to score two goals against Ghana in a friendly, and most significantly an injury time winner in a game against Peru Argentina simply had to win to qualify for the finals. Maradona kept faith with his 36 year old front man, and called him up for his final squad selection, and the look of rhapsody on his face after his excellent finish was a joy to behold. There should be more moments like that at the World Cup.

In the other game, Nigeria and South Korea could both have qualified for the round of 16. Kalu Uche gave Nigeria the lead, but South Korea hit back with two goals. Yakubu Aiyegbeni should have equalised in the 67th minute, but contrived to miss an open goal from six yards. He did however have the fortitude to score a penalty a few minutes later, but a draw wasn’t enough for Nigeria.

Final scores:

Nigeria 2 (Uche, Aiyegbeni), South Korea 2 (Lee Jung-Soo, Park Chu-Young)
Greece 0, Argentina 2 (Demichelis, Palermo)

Argentina and South Korea progress.

Matches 37 & 38, Group C

For all the talk of the English Premier League being the ‘strongest’ in the world, England’s superstar players have never really impressed on the International stage. Having failed to qualify for Euro 2008, there seemed a real chance that England could exit this tournament at the group stages. By dint of goal differences, points and head-to-head records, England needed to beat Slovenia. And they did; by all accounts, the performance was much improved on those delivered against the US and Algeria, but perhaps still not of the calibre expected. Still, with Jermain Defoe’s goal taking them to five points, England were sitting on top of the group, and facing whoever came second in group D…

On 90 minutes, as things were, England and Slovenia were going through to the last 16. The US had to find a goal against Algeria to stay in the competition. I’ve already mentioned the Americans seem to have a bottomless reservoir of resolve and determination, and that they just keep plugging away, and so it was no surprise that in the 91st minute, when Clint Dempsey’s shot was spilled by the Algerian ‘keeper, the intelligent Landon Donovan was on hand to tuck the ball into the net. It was too late for the Algerians to respond, and the United States topped the group.

Final scores:

Slovenia 0, England 1 (Defoe)
United States 1 (Donovan), Algeria 0

United States and England progress.

Matches 39 & 40, Group D

The footballing rivalry between Germany and England is a curious one. Depending on which part of Germany you ask the question, who the Germans consider to be their arch-nemesis on the football pitch seems to vary between the Dutch, the Austrians, the Italians, the Argentineans, and sometimes the English. The English however, would probably cite the Germans first, followed by maybe the Argentineans, and then perhaps the Scots. With the way the groups were drawn, there was always a chance that these two sides would meet in the last 16.

Marina Hyde wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about the mutual rivalry between the two nations (or indeed the lack of); however, the prospect of playing the Germans in the next round seemed to spur any number of old hacks into an excess of salivation as they relished the thought of airing out their collection of clichéd clap trap they could spout about ‘the war’ and ‘German efficiency’ and so on. Unfortunately, the commentator for tonight’s game is Clive Tyldesley.

I’m not sure when I became aware of just how awful a commentator Tyldesley actually is, but he’s been around a while, and inexplicably, still gets work. Many Scots aver that one of the reasons they like to see the England team lose is because it subdues the hyperbolic English football media, at least for a while, and Tyldesley is the very embodiment of this complaint. Jingoistic, xenophobic, pretentious, obnoxious, small-minded, ignorant, lazy and inept are all accusation that could be justifiably levelled at ITV’s chief commentator, but still he bumbles on, shoe-horning Manchester United and England into very game he watches, regardless of context or which teams are actually playing. Tyldesley has already confessed to being biased towards England, which is perhaps understandable, but it’s his obvious bias against Germany that is the problem.

From early in the game, he can’t help making crass remarks about ‘having another Frankfurter’, and implying that Germany’s early exit from the 1938 World Cup was because the team were somehow involved in the genesis of the Second World War. We have to listen to him squealing when on the fourth or fifth replay of Philipp Lahm’s goal-line clearance, he notices that it might have hit the German defender on the upper arm. “Penalty,” he shouts. “And a red card!” He rambles on about what a shame for the game it would have been had Lahm been sent off, implying that he certainly should have. Nonsense; the ball hit Lahm on the chest, but there’s no telling Clive that, despite no Ghana players claiming a penalty, or any other news outlet reporting the ‘blatant’ handball.

Germany however got on with the game. Despite not playing particularly well, they did enough to win the game and the group, and the only goal of the game came on the hour mark when Mesut Özil sent a glorious controlled half-volley into the top corner of the Ghana goal. Defeat wasn’t a disaster for the Africans however, as they could only be eliminated by Serbia beating Australia…

However, by the 73rd minute, the Antipodeans were 2 goals to the good. Tim Cahill had given them the lead on his return from suspension, and Brett Holman had added a second with a long range groundy-rolly goal (™ Sean Lock). Serbia pulled one back late on through Marko Pantelić, but they couldn’t find the two more they needed.

Final scores:

Ghana 0, Germany 1 (Özil)
Australia 2 (Cahill, Holman), Serbia 1 (Pantelić)

Germany and Ghana progress.

Matches 41 & 42, Group F

Italy, the defending champions, were in very real danger of exiting the tournament when they kicked off against Slovakia at 4pm local time. Of course, that couldn’t happen; the Azzurri would have more than enough to see off the Slovaks and make it to the next round. And that’s why I’m bottom of my office’s prediction game. Slovakia won 3-2, with Italy seeming to only play in fits and starts, and even then after they’d already gone 2-0 down. Italy’s problems seem to be due to an ageing squad, and a lack of young Italians coming through at the big clubs in Serie A. They’ll have to prepare for qualification for Euro 2012 now.

With Italy throwing away their tournament life so recklessly, the All-Whites of New Zealand had a slim chance of progression. Playing in their black away kit, more synonymous with the country’s intimidating rugby team, they had to beat group winners Paraguay, and this unfortunately proved too big a task.

Final scores:

Slovakia 3 (Vittek 2, Kopúnek), Italy 2 (Di Natale, Quagliarella)
Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0

Paraguay and Slovakia progress.

Matches 43 & 44, Group E

As the Dutch had already qualified, and the Cameroonians were already out, this was almost a dead rubber, with the only thing to play for being first place in the group. I watched this game rather than the more vital Denmark versus Japan game, as there’s just something about the way the Dutch play that I love to watch. Unfortunately, it won’t be a game that lives long in the mind; the Netherlands were happy to probe patiently and not exert themselves too much. They did make the breakthrough in the 36th minute when Robin van Persie fashioned an exchange of passes with Rafael Van der Vaart and stabbed his shot through Cameroon ‘keeper Hamidou’s legs.

Cameroon equalised in the second half when Van der Vaart was penalised for blocking a shot with his arm in the penalty area. Samuel Eto’o confidently converted, but the Dutch scored the winner in the 83rd minute when Arjen Robben’s shot rebounded off the Cameroon post and fell kindly at the feet of fellow substitute Klass-Jan Huntelaar, who expertly swept home.

In the other game, the mathematics were simple; whoever won would seal second place. Japan took the lead when Keisuke Honda’s long range free kick arced into the net, and thirteen minutes later Yasuhito Endō added a free kick that was just as good. Denmark were awarded a soft penalty, which Jon Dahl Tomasson took. His weak effort was saved, but he managed to scuff the rebound into the net, injuring himself in the process. Denmark had made all three of their allocated substitutions by this point, so he had to limp on. This was to be no comeback for the Danes however; Shinji Okazaki put the seal on Japan’s win and progression after being set up by the guile and skill of Honda.

Final scores:

Denmark 1 (Tomasson pen), Japan 3 (Honda, Endō, Okazaki)
Cameroon 1 (Eto’o pen), Netherlands 2 (van Persie, Huntelaar)

Netherlands and Japan progress.

Matches 45 & 46, Group G

Both of these games were something of dead rubbers; Brazil had already qualified, and North Korea were already out. Portugal were almost guaranteed second place due to their 7-0 thrashing of North Korea; The Ivory Coast would have to defeat the Koreans heavily, and hope Brazil could do them a favour and beat the Portuguese, scoring a few without reply in the process. While the Ivory Coast did as best they could, winning 3-0, Portugal and Brazil played out a 0-0 draw, meaning the Africans joined three of their four continental counterparts in exiting the tournament at the group stage. Only Ghana have made it through to the round of 16.

Final scores:

Portugal 0, Brazil 0
North Korea 0, Ivory Coast 3 (Y. Touré, Romaric, Kalou)

Brazil and Portugal progress.

Matches 47 & 48, Group H

I’ve mentioned before that Spain are a team I enjoy watching, so I was delighted that their final game against Chile was one I’d be able to watch live. Chile had been playing well thus far, so the match promised much. Then I found out it was being broadcast on ITV. ‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘as long as Tyldesley isn’t the commentator…’

People probably think I’m over-reacting; why don’t I just turn the sound down, or listen to radio commentary instead? Well, aside from the fact the radio commentary is normally provided by Alan Green, who is just as obnoxious and ignorant as Tyldesley, why should I have to lose out on hearing the atmosphere of the crowd? More to the point, why do I have to put up with a complete incompetent braying over football matches? It surely can’t be that hard to find someone lucid, informative, knowledgeable and entertaining, although given the paucity of both BBC and ITV’s line ups, I’m beginning to think it is.

“But this is subjective; you just don’t like the commentator”. No, I don’t. And it used to be subjective, but it’s not anymore. Before the game, Tyldesley pointedly and poignantly observed none of the Spanish team were singing their national anthem, as proof of how nervous or determined they were for this game. It had nothing to do with the Spanish national anthem not having words?

Unlike the Germans, Tyldesley seems quite fond of the Spanish; he expressed concern at Torres’ lack of fitness and bemusement that Cesc Farbregas can’t cement a regular starting place in the Spanish national team (perhaps it’s because when Fabregas came on, he gave the ball away more in his 35 minutes than Xavi, Iniesta and Xavi Alonso had combined for the entire match).

On the pitch, Spain were two goals up by half-time, and two wonderful goals they were too. The first came when Chile’s goalkeeper Claudio Brava came rushing out of his goal to clear from Torres. Unfortunately for him, the ball went straight to David Villa, whose first time chip with his weaker left foot sailed straight into the unguarded net. The second was technically better if anything, if not so spectacular. Andres Iniesta broke from midfield and fed Villa wide on the left. His cut back to the edge of the area was simply, and with the minimum of fuss, stroked home by the great Iniesta.

Chile, who had started the game showing some attacking verve, began to lose their discipline a little, and several players were booked. Waldo Ponce was lucky to avoid a second yellow card in the first half, and after seemingly having avoided his own second yellow, Marco Estrada was booked for the second time and set off after an incident involving Fernando Torres in the build up to Spain’s second goal. Estrada appeared to clip Torres’ heel, accidentally, and the Spain striker tripped and fell. Perhaps not a booking, but perhaps he should have been booked again a couple of minutes previously.

Chile’s Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielso is a fascinating character; instead of reorganising into a more defensive formation after being reduced to ten men, he simply retooled his attacking options, and the bold move seemed to pay dividends when substitute Rodrigo Millar’s deflected shot looped over Iker Casillas and into the net.

Meanwhile, Switzerland were drawing 0-0 with Honduras in the other game. In a game the Swiss really had to win, and score a couple of goals in, they seemed curiously cautious. Perhaps word of the score had been passed to the Spain and Chile players, because for the last fifteen minutes of the game, any urgency or directness in either team’s play evaporated.

Unfortunately, this passage of pedestrian play just allowed Tyldesley time to waffle. He pondered how Spain won Euro 2008, despite England having apparently the better players, and towards the end he embarked on a surreally unfunny imagining of what David Silva would tell his wife what he did at work today (while the substitute waited for a break in play that never came to come on). He’ll be commentating on the Germany versus England game. I won’t be watching it.

Final scores:

Chile 1 (Millar), Spain 2 (Villa, Iniesta)
Switzerland 0, Honduras 0

Spain and Chile progress.

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World Cup 2010: Day Eleven

Match 30: Portugal versus North Korea (Group G)

Portugal, like England, have often been described as possessing a ‘Golden Generation’ of players that perhaps never lived up to expectations. Of course, this often says more about the expectations than the players, but the fact remains that a few semi-finals, and one final aside, they’ve never done particularly well at the World Cup. North Korea had displayed in their match against Brazil that they might not be the pushovers some people expected them to.

And then Portugal hammered North Korea 7-0. It was still quite close at half time, with Portugal leading 1-0 thanks to Raul Meireles, but the Koreans collapsed in the second half. Simao added a second just after the break, Hugo Almeida made it three three minutes later, Tiago scored two, and Liedson and Cristiano Ronaldo rounded off the rout. Apparently this match was shown live in North Korea.

Final Score: Portugal 7 (Meireles, Simao, Almeida, Tiago 2, Leidson, Ronaldo), North Korea 0

Match 31: Chile versus Switzerland (Group H)

After a terrific result against Spain, the Swiss came unstuck against the second of their three Spanish-speaking opponents. Switzerland were reduced to ten men when Valon Behrami was red-carded, perhaps harshly, perhaps fairly. Mark Gonzalez scored the scrappy winner for Chile in the 75th minute, heading a cross from Esteban Paredes into the ground and into the net.

Final Score: Chile 1 (Paredes), Switzerland 0

Match 32: Spain versus Honduras (Group H)

I realise that, by the last game of the second round of fixture, I’ve more or less failed what I set out to do with this blog. I’m barely seeing any games. I’m not finding out anything about the teams and the countries taking part, and I don’t feel I’m decanting any knowledge into the mind of that one poor addled sot that’s actually reading this.

Spain losing against Switzerland was unlikely. Spain losing against Honduras would be utterly unthinkable, and it would turn out the footballing gods aren’t that imaginative. Spain controlled the game, had most of the possession and chances, and had the elemental David Villa on their side. It was his quick feet and incisive run and shot put Spain in the lead, and although he perhaps should have been sent off for slapping a Honduran defender, he went on to score a deflected strike in the second half and even had time to miss a penalty.

Spain were guilty of over-elaboration at times, and it remains to be seen whether squandering so many chances to improve their goal difference will come back to haunt them.

Final score: Spain 2 (Villa 2), Honduras 0

World Cup 2010: Day Ten

Sunday would be another day I would fail to see a single game all the way through. The reason was a certain sexagenarian Scouse music legend playing a sell-out concert at Hampden Stadium. I’ve been a huge Paul McCartney fan for as long as I can remember (which I partly attribute to my parents attending a Wings gig at the Apollo when my mother was six months pregnant with me), and the chance to see him play in my home city was too good to miss. So, I managed to see one half of each of the two early kick offs.

Match Twenty-seven: Slovakia versus Paraguay (Group F)

Both sides had drawn their opening fixture, although perhaps the former have greater claim for frustration with not attaining all three points. The South American contingent at this year’s tournament have been the most impressive of all continents represented however, and Paraguay would secure the win. Their first goal was a rather stylish affair, with the exciting Lucas Barrios feeding Enrique Vera on the edge of the penalty area, and he stabbed home with the outside of his right foot. The second goal came four minutes from time when Cristian Reveros fired home from 18 yards.

Final score: Slovakia 0, Paraguay 2 (Vera, Reveros)

Match Twenty-eight: Italy versus New Zealand (Group F)

Football, as the tired old cliché goes, is a funny old game. Normally you wouldn’t expect the reigning World Champions to draw with a nation a fraction of their size and with nowhere near the footballing pedigree. Of course, as in the Discworld canon, million-to-one chances are an everyday occurrence at this World Cup. New Zealand in fact took a shock lead when Shane Smeltz, from what appeared to be an offside position, poked past Italy’s second choice goalkeeper Federico Marchetti. Italy dug in, and found an equaliser when Daniele de Rossi went down in the box and a penalty was awarded, much to the Kiwis’ fury. Vincenzo Iaquinta found the net from the spot, but Italy couldn’t find a winner, and the Antipodeans held on for a famous draw.

Final score: Italy 1 (Iaquinta pen), New Zealand 1 (Smeltz)

Match Twenty-nine: Brazil versus Côte d’Ivoire (Group G)

This promised all along to be one of the most interesting matches of the group stages, and it’s perhaps the one game I was excited about seeing. Unfortunately, I was otherwise engaged, so I had to make to with highlights. Apparently Brazil weren’t brilliant, but they still had enough class to see off the Africans. Luis Fabiano opened the scoring for Brazil with a thunderous drive 25 minutes in, and the same player doubled his side’s advantage five minutes after the restart (despite there being more than a whiff of handball about the goal). Just after the hour, Kaká made some room for himself in the Ivory Coast’s penalty area and rolled the ball to Elano, who turned the ball home. Kaká then received a second yellow card as a result of some possiblr over-acting by Abdelkader Keita. Didier Drogba managed a late consolation but that’s all it transpired to be.

Final score: Brazil 3 (Luis Fabiano 2, Elano), Côte d’Ivoire 1 (Drogba)

World Cup 2010: Day Nine

Life would once again interrupt my football viewing proclivities. I spent the granite-meltingly hot afternoon aimlessly wandering around a non-descript village Gala Day in Ayrshire with my two infant nieces, but it was fun and great to spend some time with them, even if they are both insane.

However, this meant I missed Saturday’s two early kick-offs.

Match Twenty-four: Ghana versus Australia (Group D)

Australia, a country where football has never really taken root, were soundly beaten 4-0 by Germany in their previous game, and lost the services of their best player Tim Cahill through suspension. This would perhaps make Ghana favourites for this game, but Australia took the lead when Brett Holman tucked away the rebound from a free-kick. Ghana equalised in somewhat controversial circumstances, when Harry Kewell was adjudged to have deliberately blocked a goal-bound shot on the line with his arm. While the ball did strike his am, it could be argued there was nothing Kewell could do to remove it from the situation without some fairly hasty on-field surgery. He was red-carded and Asamoah Gyan made things worse for the Australians. By scoring from the penalty spot I mean.

Final score: Ghana 1 (Gyan pen), Australia 1 (Holman)

Match Twenty-five:  Netherlands versus Japan (Group E)

The Dutch, for all their near-universal admiration in the game for their organic, flowing approach to football, have never won the World Cup. They came closest in 1974 and 1978 when they reached the final, only to be beaten by the host nation (West Germany and Argentina). This game proved to be a test of their credentials for winning the trophy this time round; Japan were tough to break down, and it took until the second half for the Netherlands to take the lead, thanks to a steam hammer of a shot from Inter Milan midfielder Wesley Sneijder. And that was the way it finished.

Final score: Netherlands 1 (Sneijder), Japan 0

Match Twenty-six: Cameroon versus Denmark (Group E)

Happily I had made it home to see this match, between two sides perhaps dreaming of past glories and the attendant calibre of player. But there are still some great players on show; Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o remains one of the World’s great strikers. However, murmurs of discontent had emerged from the African team’s camp, of dissatisfaction with coach Paul le Guen’s tactics. As the Frenchman managed the club team I support for seven months or so a few years ago, I can empathise with any frustration directed at his team selection and tactics.

Indeed, Cameroon set up slightly differently to the way they had against Japan in the previous game. Eto’o would play through the middle, and whether this was due to player power or not, it appeared to pay instant dividends as the Indomitable Lions pounced on some dithery Danish defending, and that man Eto’o delivered the killer blow. However, Denmark equalised 23 minutes later with an excellent goal; Simon Kjaer’s excellent long pass was controlled and steered across the goalmouth by Dennis Rommedahl, and Niclas Bendtner arrived to tap home. The Danes won it in the second half when Rommedahl was afforded far too much time and space in the Cameroonian penalty area, and he curled a low left-footed shot beyond Hamidou Souleymanou and into the net.

Final score: Cameroon 1 (Eto’o), Denmark 2 (Bendtner, Rommedahl)

World Cup 2010: Day Eight

Match Twenty-one: Germany versus Serbia, Group D

After all my praise about their performance, preparation and penalty-taking prowess after the game against Australia, they were always likely to lose this game, and miss a penalty in the process. In his own analysis of their opening game, former Germany player and manager Jurgen Klinsmann observed it would be telling how this young team would cope with setbacks during the tournament, such as going a goal behind. They did so in this game when a hesitant defence allowed Milan Jovanovic to volley into the net from close range. Lukas Podolski saw a feeble spot-kick saved, and both teams wasted further opportunities to score further.

Final score: Germany 0, Serbia 1 (Jovanovic)

Match Twenty-two: Slovenia versus USA, Group D

Both sides’ cup of confidence would have been near full, if not quite running over after their respective first round games. Slovenia beat Algeria, while the USA claimed a creditable draw against England. By half-time however, Slovenia had taken a two-goal lead thanks to Valter Birsa and Zlatan Ljubijankic. While some disdain has been directed (undeservedly in my opinion) at the Americans’ technical ability, the one thing that is not in doubt is their willingness to roll up their sleeves and fight when they need to. Shortly after the restart, they pulled one goal back when Landon Donovan blasted past Samir Handanovic. And they kept going and going, and found their equaliser with eight minutes to go from head coach’s son Michael Bradley toe-poked home a Jozy Altidore knock-down. And they could have won it, if Maurice Edu’s late volley hadn’t been disallowed for an apparent offence.

Final score: Slovenia 2 (Birsa, Ljubijankic), USA 2 (Donovan, Bradley)

Match Twenty-three: England versus Algeria, Group C

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that as a Scotsman, I don’t draw from a deep well of love for the England football team. So far, so obvious you might think. But the issue is more complicated than that.

A story emerged today that a branch of HMV in Kirkcaldy had been the subject of a police complaint because they were selling t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘ABE’, an abbreviation of ‘Anyone but England’. HMV have decided to stop selling the shirts. A group advocating an English parliament denounced the garments as being ‘racist’, and that’s where I think things are getting out of hand.

The stereotype is that all Scots, and Welsh, and most Irish actively despise the English, and sit in their houses each evening muttering under their breaths about their larger, more successful neighbours. The truth of the matter is more complex; several polls have purported to show the majority of Scots want England to succeed or have no real interest in their progress. Even the traditionally Loyalist, Unionist support of Rangers can be divided on the issue. Some Scots genuinely hate the English, but I feel the majority of people from this country (including me) see the matter as simply one of sporting rivalry.

The relationship between Scotland and England has been a long and turbulent one, before and after the 1707 Act of Union, and was distilled into two freshly minted football codes in the 19th century, rugby and soccer. While the two countries continue to do battle in the oval ball game, they’ve met just three times on the football field since 1990. England have since gone on to establish themselves as an International tournament level side, while Scotland have continued to struggle. If you asked most England fans now, they’d probably say their closest rivals were Germany or Argentina; WWII, the Falklands, the Hand of God and two penalty shoot-outs account for that, and you could argue that the fact Argentina and Germany are far more successful sides probably plays a part as well.

And so the dynamic has changed somewhat. Scotland fans, mainly because of our inability to form a new rivalry with anyone else, continued to see England as the big bad. England fans in return seem to view Scotland as anything from compatriots to cheer on (if clumsily and condescendingly on occasion), to the archetype outlined in paragraph 3.

So let me reiterate my position. Without wishing to stray into the racist and homophobe’s disclaimer of “I’m not racist/homophobic, I’ve got black/gay friends”, as the great-grandson of an Englishman, let me state that I have no time for the England team for a number of reasons, and all of them are because of sport. I’d also like to point out that during my five years living in England, I had to endure any number of ad hominem attacks any time I expressed an opinion in English football; it’s not, as commonly believed, a one way street.

To the game itself, which I confess to not watching. I curled up with the DVD of Frost/Nixon instead. But having read the Guardian’s match report of the 0-0 draw and text summary, several recurring themes have manifested, and several factors were blamed. I mentioned in an earlier post I didn’t think England were as good a team as they were being touted to be, and I’ll attempt, as constructively as possible, to explain why I think they continue to underwhelm on the World stage.

The players

The British sporting media remind us regularly that England have a collection of World Class players. These can number from 11-12 to a steady core four of Terry, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney. But what being ‘world’ class’ entails is ill-defined and varies from observer to observer. I feel it is the strata of professional footballer able to dominate games at both the top levels of international and club football. England’s squad of 23 players, all based in the FA Premier League, can present only four Champions League winner medals in total, for all the English league’s supposed dominance of what is arguably the hardest to win club competition in the World. For comparison, Spain’s squad can boast 15 Champions League winners medals. The English national team haven’t won a trophy in 44 years. That isn’t a great return by any stretch of the imagination, but it leads us to:

The players’ form

England’s squad is primarily made up of players from the top six club sides of the English Premier League. These players play starring roles for teams that dominate the rest of the league and often reach the last four of the Champions League. So why do they so often look so bereft of confidence when they pull on an England shirt? This is the most contentious point I’m going to make; it’s quite likely that the vast number of highly-paid foreign talent in those Premier League teams makes the English players look better than they actually are, and the way they play for England is more in correlation with their actual abilities.

Some people will flat out reject that argument, and many more will think it extremely infeasible. But consider the impact Xavi Alonso leaving Liverpool had on that team’s fortunes last season. Shorn of his influence and hard work in midfield, Liverpool, and more markedly Steven Gerrard, looked lost and bereft of confidence.

Wayne Rooney has been continually described as the best centre-forward on the planet over the last year. While he can be an excellent player at times, I still feel his abilities are over-stated. It’s worth noting that while Rooney scored 34 goals in all competitions last season, Manchester United’s third top source of goals was own goals, with 10. This suggests that the quality of the supply of passes into their opponent’s penalty area was incredibly high. While this by no means suggests Rooney is a poor, or even average player, it does appear to me he requires a certain level of support from his team-mates to maintain such a high goal-scoring return, and is perhaps not quite capable of the miracles so often expected of him. At this juncture, I feel obliged to point out that many of Rooney’s goals over the previous season, for club and country, have come against the more limited opponents.

The preparation

A story emerged on the morning of the Algeria game that England had been sent a consignment of the official tournament ‘Jabalani’ football to practice with (for those with little interest in such technicalities, sporting equipment can differ in performance and behaviour from manufacturer to manufacturer). These balls then ‘disappeared’, and it was implied in the story that the team had gone into their opening match having still not experienced playing with the tournament ball. Nine years ago, a mockumentary of meat-and-potatoes manager leading England to the World Cup finals was released, titled Mike Bassett: England Manager, and this story was highly redolent of a scene where the team attempt to train in Brazil, and realise they have no balls. The coach is despatched to fetch a ball from some nearby youngsters, and having failed, the team is forced to go through a training session with an imaginary ball. This blurring between reality and the absurd reminds me of my Irish friends saying Father Ted isn’t a surreal comedy about the Irish priesthood, but a hard-hitting documentary. This links into:

Attitude

I also get the impressions that there’s something of an attitude problem with the players, both going into the tournament, and going into individual games. It has long been a complaint north of the Border that there is a certain arrogance in the English media going into World Cups, that the tournament’s there for the taking, that England have the best players (see above), and with the best will in the world, it’s hard not to level that accuasation against some of the players. Before this game, even after the disappointing (in terms of result and performance, from England’s perspective) draw against the United States, there still seemed to linger the notion among the players that all they had to do was turn up against Algeria and the victory would be assured. I’ve since heard many people label Algeria one of the worst teams in the tournament, but aside from being disrespectful, it’s completely beside the point; you should prepare for each match as you would against the best in your sport, regardless of the perceived abilities of your opponent.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing why England have failed to meet expectations, whether it’s any of the reasons above, some, none. They could be doing everything right, and are just having their energy sapped by the altitude. Of course, they can still qualify for the last sixteen, so all is not lost. For any of the four teams in the group.

Final score: England 0, Algeria 0

World Cup 2010: Day Seven

Another day, another dollar…but two more World Cup games missed. This wouldn’t be so bad, but after the cagey opening round of group fixtures, the second round has fairly exploded into life.

Match Twenty: Argentina versus South Korea, Group B

Both of these sides claimed victory in the opening round, but it was hard to tell who was the more impressive; Argentina had lots of possession against a decent Nigeria team, but were profligate in front of goal and could only claim a 1-0 victory. South Korea meanwhile despatched an unimaginative Greece side 2-0.

A betting man would put money on Argentina coming out on top in this fixture (although he might have had second thoughts given what happened to Spain against the mighty Swiss), and that’s ultimately how events transpired. Even though Lionel Messi still doesn’t appear to have taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck yet, his performance was enough to inspire Argentina to a 4-1 victory. However, his team mate Gonzalo Higuaín will claim the headlines after scoring the tournament’s first hat-trick.

Final score: Argentina 4 (Park Chu-Young og, Higuaín 3), South Korea 1 (Lee Chung-Yong)

Match Nineteen: Greece versus Nigeria, Group B

The match between group B’s first round losers didn’t promise much; neither Greece nor Nigeria had flattered to deceive last time round. Nigeria took the lead, and then lost Sani Kaita to a red card after he petulantly kicked Vasilis Torosidis after the pair squabbled over the award of a throw-in. Numerical advantage handed tactical advantage to Greece, and they exploited it. First, Dimitrios Salpingidis’ deflected shot levelled the scores up, and then Torosidis pounced after Vincent Enyeama had spilled Alexandros Tziolis’ shot.

Final score: Greece 2 (Salpingidis, Torosidis), Nigeria 1 (Uche)

Match Eighteen: France versus Mexico, Group A

These two nations have something in common, something that perhaps acts as a generational shibboleth. When people talk about acrobatic, bicycle kick volleys, people born in the seventies would hail Mexico’s Manuel Negrete as the master of the art. Those born in the 80s however, might instead refer to France’s Jean-Pierre Papin.

Tonight’s two teams have produced teams both entertaining and functional. France won the World Cup in 1998 with a good team which consisted of a great midfield and an average striker. Nowadays it could be argued they have an average midfield and some good strikers. However, based on the two nations’ recent records, and their opening games in this tournament, neither looks to be a side that will particularly trouble the latter stages.

Perhaps surprisingly then, this turned out to be an entertaining game, spoiled only by some dreadful finishing by both sides. France’s offence was strong and skilful, the Mexicans’ fast and direct. But the French looked laboured and uninterested, the unmistakable and periodical fug of ennui and a laissez-faire attitude in the air.

Mexico scored two incisive goals in the second half; Rafael Márquez fed the young striker Javier Hernández, who side-stepped the French keeper before slotting home. Mexico doubled their tally with a penalty, awarded after Éric Abidal needlessly fouled Pablo Barrera. The 37-year old national hero Cuauhtémoc Blanco kept his cool to score from the spot.

Final score: France 0, Mexico 2 (Hernández, Blanco)

World Cup 2010: Day Six

Match Fifteen: Honduras versus Chile (Group H)

Honduras, from the Central America isthmus (I do love that word; apologies for working it in), are one of the smaller nations in the finals this time round. Their opponents in this match were from 3500 miles further south, and that strange mountainous strip on the western side of South America, Chile.

Nominally, Chile are the stronger team; they don’t have a terrific record at the World Cup, but there’s a reason for that. Competition for finals places between the South American sides is fierce and any of the ten members can secure the usual five qualifying places. In contrast, Honduras are members of the CONCACAF confederation, a far larger concern in terms of membership, although perhaps one of the World’s weakest in terms of quality. This is only Honduras’ second appearance in the World Cup, and their first since 1982.

In accordance with anticipation, Chile came out on top, but it was a marginal victory, sealed by Jean Beausejour’s slightly fortunate close range goal.

Final score: Honduras 0, Chile 1 (Beausejour)

Match Sixteen: Spain versus Switzerland (Group H)

I must confess to something of a soft spot for the Swiss. When I was 11 or 12, they played Scotland in a couple of qualifiers for the 1992 European Championships, and I loved their kit. Shortly afterwards, I found out my great-great grandmother was from Geneva, and my grandfather had ‘named’ his semi-detached bungalow for the small town in Northern Switzerland he and his father regularly holidayed in.

I bought a Swiss shirt after Euro 2008; they’re perhaps not a great footballing side, but I’ve formed something of an affinity for them now. That said, the football realist in me didn’t expect them to get anything from the game against the side commonly hailed as being currently the best in the World. Spain play football in a way that manages to be both brutally effective and beautiful to watch; it’s a rare feat.

Remarkably, Switzerland won, thanks to a scrappy second half goal from Gelson Fernandes. For all their attractive football and possession play, Spain couldn’t find an equaliser, and the Swiss held on for a famous, shock victory.

Final score: Spain 0, Switzerland 1 (Fernandes)

Match Seventeen: South Africa versus Uruguay (Group A)

The South African hosts and their South American guests had both drawn their opening game, but perhaps the former had greater scope for optimism going into this match.  As usual with football, this wasn’t the way things were going to pan out. Instead, Uruguay, lead by the still bafflingly under-rated Diego Forlán stole the show. The striker scored with a deflected long-range shot in the first half, kept his composure remarkably during a five minute wait to score a second half penalty, and was involved in the move deep into injury time that saw Álvaro Pereira score Uruguay’s third and condemn South Africa to group stage elimination, a fate which has never befallen a host nation before.

Final score: South Africa 0, Uruguay 3 (Forlán, Pereira)