Monday, June 21, 2010


Time has come now for some musings about this tournament… It is bound to be relatively uncontroversial, and, mind you, it is coming from far afar from any reputable soccer-lands.

My first grown-up decision was not to watch the game with the ubiquitous Irish accent this year. Instead, I am watching “la copa del mundo” led by the inimitable Fernando Fiore and a crew including, among others, the unforgettable Paraguayan goalkeeper Chilavert. Granted, he is no Gunter Netzer, but at least his analysis of goalkeepers’ work is worth its every Guarani-accented syllable.

As much as the initial 16 matches infused me with deep disappointment over the quality of the game (and I am not spoiled by the Champions League – unavailable here unless you pay extra for ESPN), the mid-point is bringing some more constructive thoughts.

I will not dwell here on the quality of the referee work. I think we all agree that a Mali guy permitting Greek-Roman wrestling during Slovenia-USA game and then annulling a US goal to expiate himself was out of his bald-headed depth. A Guatemalan dude whose main job was to be impressed by World Champions’ captain and offer a PK against New Zealand should have his eyes gouged by flightless birds. Allowing Luis Fabiano to score while helping himself with his arm must have occurred only to a guy in awe to his own wet dreams about Gerson and Tostao. And sending off Klose against Serbia was somewhat light-headed, to say the least. But nothing beats referees’ deference to guys who find face-magnets in their fingers. This is how a French referee was conned into sending off Kaka, and a day later another referee sent off Switzerland’s Behrami (whose arms should have been flying a little less ‘free style’, given Kaka’s experience a couple of hours before). These decisions are a disgrace. Does FIFA really have to enlist Mali, Guatemalan and Frogland referees just to make it “international” ? I fear the day when a game is adjudicated by a man from Somaliland.

So let’s get back to the game now.

It was supposed to be Africa’s World Cup. The only true authorities about the beautiful game, such as the revered sports magazines in the United States, had proudly proclaimed that the tournament prefigured “The Rise of the African Soccer”. For anyone who traveled around Africa, this bold statement would have come as a little surprising. Soccer needs not only talent, but also capital, local follow-up system, organization, corruption-limiting third party oversight and a ticket-paying fan base. None of this exists even in the most successful countries of West Africa. To top it all, the highest FIFA-ranking African team has not even qualified for this World Cup (Egypt, starring a new player by the well auguring name: Zidan). The result? Africa is 1-4-7 after the initial games and chances are that not even Ghana will qualify for the next round. Ghana may be the best organized of all the African squads, and the author of the continent’s single win thus far, but even Gyan & Co have trouble with finishing touches and score only on PKs. The only other positive surprises from the host continent were individual – such as Algeria’s stout Boughera or Ivory Coast’s tireless Gervinho.

Yet, the haplessness of Afrikan football is mindboggling. From South Africa’s :”ticky-ticky”, through Etoo’s unbelievable disappearance in the hands (feet?) of Japan’s Nagatomo, to Nigeria’s utter emotionalism (and self-inflicted red cards), all the way to Ivory Coast’s ueber-hard tackle – this tournament is anything but Africa’s. Send your boys to Europe and forget about bringing them back, you losers.

Next in line comes Asia. Despite plucky Japan’s and South Korea’s initial wins, the tiny players somehow can’t rise to the next level. Surely, these two sides have potential, but it never comes anywhere near the high-league level. Australia’s move to Asia’s football association deprived Uzbekistan (or is it Iran?) of the even more pathetic showing. Then, there is Kim Jong Il and his tearful squad stuffed by Japanese-born ethnic Koreans. The fact that they chose to play for the red star team (rather than for South Korea, or Japan) tells us more about Japan’s (and UN’s) problem with sanction-breaking ‘Chosen Soren’ in Osaka, than about the quality of North Korean soccer. Add to this a bunch of Chinese “fans” for whom Kim Jong Il’s regime bought tickets to cheer on the untravelled national side and you have the result. Portugal’s 7:0 comes close to the 1974 records of Yugoslavia-Zaire and Poland-Haiti. Good riddance to the North Korean military. I wonder what they are going to do now? Commit ritual suicide? Defect? Go back to toil on potato fields? The fantastic forward Jong Tae-se will probably go back to being Japan League’s top striker. The commie dream is over. The (real) Asians stand at 2-0-4.

Then we have the (non-European) Anglo-Saxons. This time Australia has disappointed, and the US – always an unknown quality to heavyweights – is yet to clinch the qualification. But the nicest, most unspeakably thrilling surprise came from New Zealand – the only country (next to North Korea) without any professional league. The fact that they could notch 2 points in just as many games is a great testimony to the mates’ dedication to this game. The Anglo-Sax group stands at 0-5-1.

Next comes Eastern Europe. Despite all the oligarch money, Guus Hiddink’s Russia did not make it here. This bodes poorly for the likes of China (or India) which may try to buy their way into future world cups. Instead, we have Slovenia – which is leading its group, the ever-unpredictable Serbia cheered on by fascist-clad fans whose military caps are somehow allowed into the allegedly post-racial South Africa, the dejecting Slovaks and the drab-as-usual Greeks (I know, they were not part of the Eastern Bloc, but they are Orthodox, further east than anything else in Europe and their soccer is the dullest of all). Despite the fact that the best team from this part of the world (Croatia) is not here, the group is actually outperforming the expectations, with 3-2-3. I suspect the 1/8s will be as far as they go. Or have you seen a Stoichkov, or a Hagi, or a Lato? I have not.

This brings us closer to the source of all the moans. Western Europe. With a tally 7-5-6, the score of unfulfilled expectations is brimming. But I guess these sides are firming up. Two of them have a real problem, though. One is France. Bringing to South Africa suspected pedophiles was a bad idea. It now turns out that they (led by their token white bloke – Ribery) terrorize the rest of the squad. Most non-French believe that the team should not be in South Africa in the first place, given Henry’s hand-driven goal against Ireland. Aren’t the French stars apt at destroying their own legacy with last minute outbursts? (think Zidane). In any case, the Afro-French team has a real problem – its coach has lost control. Three pieces of advice. Leave criminals at home. Get a coach who does not understand French (insults addressed to him by Anelka or Malouda). Try to score with any part of your body, except your hands and family jewels.

The next on the list of troubled nations is less surprising in this tournament – the perennial underachiever (and inventor of excuses for its underachievements) - England. A couple of weeks ago, at a European airport, I spotted a British tabloid asking with big titles – “who is the best player in the world: Messi or Rooney”. I beg your pardon? I never knew I would enjoy the British sense of humor that much. What a delicately skewed pique!!! Masterful. By the way, seen Rooney in the last two matches? In a more serious British newspaper this week, a gum-in-chin comment reads: “plucky England holds off mighty US and almost wins against Algeria”. Apt indeed.

Next would be Italy. Here, at least, you can give them some credit. Yes, their penalty area theatrics is risibly passé. Yes, they have the custom of starting out in a rusty manner. And yes, New Zealand are a formidable foe (sorry, I needed three reasons, it’s the style thing). But it is true – spaghetti soccer oldies do not even have a single top 10 world star in the line-up. Doesn’t it make their expectations a little lower this year? I guess so.

Then there are the statisticians. They looked at Spain and concluded that no team ever became a world champion after losing the opening game. And only Germany followed up on the European Championship with the world crown two years later (1972-74). Ergo, Spain is out. Not quite. True, Iniesta is failing and Torres in poor form. But there are countless inferior teams around. The real trouble for Spain and for the soccer spectacle is that the diagonal Barca-style has been deciphered not only by Mourinho’s Inter, but also by Swiss coach Hitzfeld, and possibly by many others (though not Honduras). The side is not infallible. Shame about the timing.

Germany had the only impressive opening among the first 16 games. The Polish-born fronting duo, supported by a new Turkish star in the middle and a young Tommy Mueller seemed to get it all right. Then, reduced to play with one man down, die Mannschaft revealed the weakness in its substitutes. Germany could always boast the depth of its squad. If not Netzer, then Bonhof. If not Voeller, then Bierhoff. If not Ballack, then Ozil. But, in turn, Ozil, Podolski and Klose are hard to replace. Marin has been given blinkers against low-hanging South African sun and thus finds it hard to believe there are any teammates raound, Cacau rams single-mindedly through the middle and Mauro Gomez hardly gets anything spherical in his vicinity. Joachim Low has spent some time cracking Ghana. My bet is that Germany will send the only decent African team home. But later?

Then we have Holland. Star-studded and famed to be the next best thing after gouda (and Cruyff), the side came here to reclaim its rightful place. The Dutch are soccer mad (though, apparently, Norwegians are madder). My partners in Amsterdam seem to have stopped working 10 days ago. And the results are coming (not in terms of the company’s performance, but in soccer terms). But results only. I do not know if this is down to Robben’s absence, or the dehydrating altitude in Joburg, or the fact that Afrikaans does not conjugate Dutch verbs, but the van Pierse/Sneijder side has been the shadow of its own expectations. And the back does not seem to support the movement as in the eras of Krol, Koeman or de Boer. We want more. Begrijp je me?

Portugal? Still hard to judge them after the second half against North Korea turned into training practice. There is potential here, with Cristiano Ronaldo taking Deco’s directing role with some bravado. But can they beat Chile or Spain?

Of the less fancied teams, both Denmark and Switzerland have a chance. Denmark needs to knock out Japan. Tough, but not impossible. Switzerland needs a high score against Honduras. The Swiss side are the authors of the biggest sensation of the first round and they boast Diego Benaglio – probably the best goalkeeper of this tournament (this is, in any case, Jose Chilavert’s view).

All this brings us to what we quietly expected from a tournament taking place outside Europe. In 70 years, never did a European team win World Cup outside what Norman Davies calls a “Penninsula” – an appendage to Asian landmass. Due to Africa’s meltdown (or rather freeze-up, given the glacial age temperatures in Joburg), the responsibility to edge out Euro-trash teams falls, once again, on Latinos. And indeed, the first 32 games produced an impressive result – 9-2-2, with the two defeats by Honduras (one in the hands of another Latin American team).

There is a lot to celebrate here. Mexicans finally came with a full-control game against the Afro-French disarray. Paraguay almost plucked away Italy. Chile has a consistency and great talent, if not always the finishing execution. From this list, the most impressive is possibly Uruguay. Forlan’s incredible footwork, rat-sneeze shot and midfield command make him into one of the grandest figures of this tournaments so far. Uruguay produces a memorable player every decade: Mazurkiewicz, Francescoli, Recoba. Forlan could yet be the best of them all if he can fully count on the team’s support.

Which leaves us with the two contrasting sides: the touch’n’pass Argentina and the long-cross-ball Brazil. Argentina shocked die Zuschauer back in March, when they beat soporific Germany 1:0. Still nobody cared. After all, a cocaine addict runs the team, so what’s the big deal? But can anyone stop Messi’s uebermenschlich footwork? Hardly. Maybe, by taking the ball from Mascherano, so that it never gets to Messi.

This should be Brazil’s plan. After all, the two are bound to meet in the semi-final and then one of them will head to a final game that could oppose either of these teams against Germany or Holland. Dunga’s team is more like Dunga-the-captain’s team of 1994. Not once since Paolo Rossi trounced the Falcao/Zico/Socrates magicians, did Brazil again try to play for the sake of beauty only. The way Maicon broke through North Korean (Chinese?) wall was the apex of the unexpected. The way soccer should be. Brazil does seem to be a little messy, it breaks the rhythm, it does not dance. But it finds imaginative ways into the net, eventually. That counts. And you have to add to it Gilberto Silva’s astounding long crosses (I always thought Philipp Lahm was the best human in this department, but now he has competition).

The spectacle is improving. We had some spectacular goals – Tschabalala’s (RSA) against Mexico in the opening game. Heintze’s (Arg) header against Nigeria. Park Ji Sung’s (S.Korea) bolt netting against Greece, Forlan’s (Uruguay) first against RSA. Macoin’s acute angle shot into North Korea; two similar rockets – by L.Donovan (US) against Slovenia and by Luis Fabiano (Brazil) against Ivory Coast. But Podolski (Germany), Gerrard (England), Birla (Slovenia), Vera (Paraguay), Tiago (Portugal) and Villa (Spain) also showed flashy and effective execution.

Individually, who were the best players? There are already a couple of stand-outs. In the goal: Enyeama (Nigeria), Sorensen (Denmark), Julio Cesar (Brazil). Among the full-backs – Criscito (Ita), Demel (Ivory Coast), Grichting (Switzerland), Lugano (Uruguay), and Chipperfield (Australia). On the side, the defending stand-outs were Glenn Johnson (England), Zambrotta (Italy), Salcido (Mexico), Cherundolo (US). In the midfield – Mbia (Cameroon), Simon Paulson (Denmark), Gerrard (England), Malouda and Toulalan (France), Mueller (Germany), van Bommel (Holland), Gervinho (Ivory Coast), Riveros (Paraguay), Fabio Contrao (Portugal), Birsa (Slovenia) and Tschabalala (RSA). And up front, we have Tevez (Arg), Robinho and Luis Fabiano (Brazil), Sanchez (Chile), Heskey (England), Podolski (Germany), Gyam (Ghana), Elia (Holland), Honda and Matsui (Japan), Martins (Nigeria), Jong Taese (N.Kor), Cristiano Ronaldo (girl scouts), Villa (Spain) and Altidore (US).

Naturally, this leaves out my own top 11, which goes like this:
Benaglio (CH) – Heinze (Arg), Boughera (Algeria), Nagatomo (Japan), Lahm (Germany) – di Maria (Arg), Gilberto Silva (Bra), Ozil (Germany), Forlan (Uru) – Messi (Arg), Krasic (Serbia).

Can you get a better one?