Monday, July 31, 2006


A Modest Move

In one of the more pleasing transfers of the summer from an Australian perspective, Luke Wilkshire has completed his anticipated move from Bristol City to Dutch Eredivisie club Twente Enschede.

In my opinion, Wilkshire sorely needed, and deserved, to move away from the rough-and-tumble mediocrity of the English “Division One” (a ridiculous appellation). The Dutch league should suit him well.

Guus Hiddink, during his time in charge of the national team, placed a great deal of faith in Wilkshire, and suggested at one point in Australia’s preparations that the 24-year-old was masking his batteries in his appearances for the national team. In what seemed to be an over-reaction to his coach’s words of encouragement, Wilkshire launched into two wild tackles in the pre-World Cup friendly against Holland, and got himself sent off.

Many coaches would have discarded him from their World Cup plans then and there, but Hiddink persisted; Wilkshire was used at right wing-back in Australia’s opening game against Japan. He failed to impress, allowing Japan’s attacking left-back, Alex, to cut inside him far too easily, and not contributing substantially to Australia’s attacking moves. It seemed, once again, that we had seen the last of him.

Not so. In the absence of Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton, Wilkshire stepped up to the first eleven again in the second round game against Italy.

It was in this game above all that he repaid Hiddink’s faith, and won over many of his often vociferous critics.

Tackling neatly, distributing simply and effectively, he played with the poise and assurance that had been lacking in his previous few appearances. Towards the end of the game, he did give the ball away cheaply once or twice, but these were small blemishes. He had, on the whole, looked the part.

It is probably no coincidence that Wilkshire has found employment in Hiddink’s native Holland; Australia’s Dutch supremo hinted after the tournament that a move to Holland would be beneficial, and one hopes that he will be proved right.

Even after the tournament, Hiddink returned to the theme of Wilkshire’s timidity. “He doesn't know his own possibilities because he is a modest player, too modest,” he remarked. It was noticeable in the Italy game, as it has been in the past, that Wilkshire is not at his best in advanced positions. He tends to hesitate when he should be looking for the incisive pass, or the quick one-two.

Let’s hope he can make the most of his “possibilities” in Holland.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


The Graceful One

I have no particular European club affiliations, and as a result I tend to follow players, rather than teams, in the world’s most prestigious leagues. Perhaps my favourite player of the last ten years has recently hung up his boots, and been honoured by a testimonial match. When I mention that he has played for Ajax, Internazionale and Arsenal, and suffers from a pathological fear of flying, you’ll probably know who I’m referring to.

Many adjectives have been used to describe Dennis Bergkamp on the pitch, but for me the one that fits best is graceful. Although there was (we must, sadly, refer to his career in the past tense now) plenty of urgency to his game, he never gave the impression of being in a hurry, and he managed to find space in the tightest of situations.

Although he was never a great goalscorer, some of his goals are among the best of recent years. His unforgettable decider against Argentina, in that magnificent game from the 1998 World Cup. “That” goal against Newcastle a few years ago.

But Bergkamp’s job was never merely to score goals – except at Inter, where he was mistakenly used as a target man. He was the prompter supreme, the king of the instinctive pass; his contributions in this respect often went unnoticed.

Take that 1998 match against Argentina. Everyone, now, talks about Bergkamp’s goal. Few remember Bergkamp’s assist for Patrick Kluivert’s opener, one of the cleverest you are ever likely to see.

Our hero had peeled out to the left, with Kluivert remaining in the centre. The ball was played out to Bergkamp chest-high, hard and flat. Not an ideal pass, under the circumstances, and certainly difficult to bring under control. Bergkamp declined to do so; instead, he stooped, off-balance, and played a sublime, cushioned, first-time header into the path of Kluivert, who ran on to score.

Just as good a goal as the famous second, in its way.

Bergkamp teamed up with Kluivert again to good effect two years later, in another quarter-final; this time, it was in the European Championship, against Yugoslavia. The Dutch were stupendous that day, putting six past a defence considered one of the toughest in the event. It was Kluivert who scored the first four, and naturally he received most of the plaudits afterwards. Yet Bergkamp, just behind him, was the chief provider, supplying the deft touches and accurate passes that allowed Kluivert to run riot.

The other Dutch goalscorer that day was Marc Overmars, the lightning-quick winger who had formed such a devastating partnership with Bergkamp at Arsenal. Towards the end of the 1997/98 season, when Arsenal took off on an inspired run to reel in Manchester United and make off with the Premiership title, Arsene Wenger’s team were playing some of the best football I’ve ever witnessed. With two greyhounds in Overmars and Nicolas Anelka chasing the rabbit-balls knocked their way by Bergkamp, Arsenal were unstoppable.

Overmars was there for Bergkamp’s testimonial match, held last week at Arsenal’s new Ashburton Grove stadium. As were such greats of the Dutch game as Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, and Frank Rijkaard.

Bergkamp, at his very best, stood comparison with any of them.

Saturday, July 29, 2006


A-League Anticipation, Part 6

And now for a trip up north.

Queensland Roar

Everyone’s choice for Most Unlucky Team last time out, Queensland have had a relatively quiet winter, compared with some of their southern rivals. The cosmopolitan coaching staff is still there, but the playing roster has changed considerably.

Three highly promising young players have left the club, and the major additions have been players of more advanced years, with the exception of local hopeful Dario Vidosic, currently injured. Nonetheless, the news isn’t all bad.

Ante Milicic will, one hopes, provide the finishing touch that the Roar were so plainly lacking for much of last season. Sadly, the man who would surely have been his chief supplier, Alex Brosque, has headed south. But there are still players there in midfield to provide service for the new signing from Newcastle; Spase Dilevski, Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca all come to mind.

The performances of Marcus Wedau and Simon Lynch, two newcomers to Australian football, will be observed with much interest. Wedau is the classic journeyman, having spent much of his career at yo-yo clubs in Germany. With the excellent Hyuk-Su Seo looking after the back four, Wedau will presumably be used as a playmaker of sorts. The transition from the fringes of the Bundesliga to the A-League might be easier than one would expect; the style of the A-League is, in my opinion, not dissimilar to the (admittedly little) German football I’ve seen.

The loss of Brosque and the terrier-like Jonti Richter leaves Queensland somewhat short of options out wide. Andrew Packer is likely to be used in his preferred role of right-winger as a result, especially since Miron Bleiberg can call upon a multitude of defenders at present (not to mention a useful reserve right-back in Seo).

The two pre-season cup games so far have not been especially encouraging - a loss to the champions followed by a draw with last season’s whipping boys - but it’s worth remembering that Queensland played the majority of their match against Sydney with ten men, and that the Knights are, in the opinion of many, a much improved outfit.

With a fine new goalkeeper, an accomplished striker and a number of last season’s impressive youngsters still on their books, the Roar must be a pretty good bet to make the finals this season.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Mighty Matildas

In case you haven’t heard, Australia has just achieved its first major success in Asian competition. And I’m not talking about the Socceroos’ 3-1 victory over Bahrain in Manama in February.

Instead, it is the Matildas, finally facing peer opposition in a regional event, who have advanced all the way to the final of the Women’s Asian Cup in Adelaide. As a result, they have secured participation in the Women’s World Cup in 2007. A tremendous achievement in their first Asian outing.

Women’s football has never commanded great attention in Australia, and the crowds at Hindmarsh for one of Asian football’s showpiece events have not been especially encouraging. But, as John O’Neill aptly commented during his informative, dignified Press Club address this Wednesday, Aussies love their successful sporting teams. The Matildas have gained many new friends, and even some respectful media coverage, thanks to their achievements against Asia’s best.

I must confess to not having seen much women’s football beyond the park variety, but it certainly can be engaging for the spectator. In some ways, the international women’s football that I have seen has reminded me somewhat of the men’s game as it was played in the 50’s and 60’s.

And that is intended as a compliment. There is more time on the ball, the play tends to be more constructive, there is less reliance on the long ball, and, as Paul Marcuccitti has pointed out, the gamesmanship and offhand violence which so degrades men’s football is rarely to be found.

In a bitingly witty episode of the nineties current affairs spoof Frontline, entitled “Add Sex and Stir”, a TV producer describes women’s sport to one of his underlings as “the natural enemy of ratings”. Certainly this seems to be the prevailing view in the Australian media at the moment, where only women’s tennis commands airtime commensurate with its male equivalent.

Nevertheless, if the Matildas can continue to compete successfully in Asia (and at the Women’s World Cup, to be held, it should be added, in our time zone), the media may begin to take notice. After all, the fascination with the fortunes of the Socceroos in Germany revealed the truth of O’Neill’s axiom; even those who had treated football with utter contempt in the past - and there are many - “came out”. A meretricious conversion, perhaps, but who‘s complaining?

Successful Australian women’s teams at past Olympics have received generous publicity. The 2007 World Cup is sure to attract huge crowds in China; the sight of an Australian team making waves in foreign climes is sure to get most Australians at least mildly interested.

Best of luck to Cheryl Salisbury and her team in the final on Sunday.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


A-League Anticipation, Part 5

On to our friends from the Vest…sorry, west.

Perth Glory

It is sad to see the club that once represented all that was progressive in the Australian game reduced to its current vassal status. At least now they have a new coach, and a CEO with prior experience in football.

On the playing front, things are not looking quite so bad, although the need for an extra striker is plainly apparent. The ageing pair of Despotovski and Young can hardly be expected to carry the burden up front for the entire season, and the loss of Damian Mori, with his composure, superb positioning and precise finishing, is a serious blow.

A tug-of-war with the New Zealand Knights over South African Keryn Jordan is still unresolved, and Perth may need to move quickly for an alternative if the 30-year-old striker, having a prolific time of it in the New Zealand league, should slip through their fingers.

Talking of New Zealand, there is now a distinct Kiwi tinge to the Perth squad, with the addition of Adrian Webster and Leo Bertos during the winter. Bertos will be one of the league’s more interesting additions; Australian football followers might remember him as the serpentine little winger who regularly embarrassed the highly-rated (until then, anyway) defender Shane Cansdell-Sherriff during the Oceania Olympic playoff two years ago.

He has certainly made a bright beginning in a Glory shirt, scoring an impressive solo goal in the opening pre-season match against the Mariners, and playing an important role in their equaliser against Melbourne on Saturday.

On the other wing, Stan Lazaridis has arrived back in his hometown after an illustrious career in England. If he can stay fit and sharp, he will surely pose opposition defences a multitude of problems this season.

With the addition of Bertos and Lazaridis, Perth should be able to cope with the absence of Ishida and Caceres. The loss of Nick Ward, however, is more serious. After a wonderful 2005/06 season, the lure of Europe proved irresistible for the youngster; in his absence, Perth’s attacking options in the centre of midfield do not appear extensive. There are high hopes for the young Josip Magdic, who has stepped up from the WA state league, and he did indeed show some flashes of quality against the Mariners in his brief time on the park.

Simon Colosimo is a better player that last season’s performances would suggest, and Perth fans must be hoping he will show some of the form that made him, in the eyes of many, a viable alternative to Vince Grella in the Socceroos midfield not long ago. Currently he is sidelined, but he should be back in action by August.

The acquisition of a new goalkeeper will be one of the new coach’s priorities. Jason Petkovic was injured in the match against Melbourne, and Ron Smith is currently left with only young Aleks Vrteski as backup, a player who failed to enthuse outgoing caretaker Alan Vest.

The appointment of Ron Smith has been welcomed in Australian football circles, and with good reason; his qualifications and experience easily eclipse those of his new managerial colleagues in the A-League. Nevertheless, it’s quite a while since he was involved in day-to-day club management; it might take a little while for him to settle in properly.

If the likes of Lazaridis, Bertos, Colosimo and Despotovski find some form, and if the squad stays relatively injury-free, Perth could yet have a season to be proud of.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Local Faith

Recent quasi-official statements, to the effect that the Australian squad to face Kuwait on 16 August will be made up almost entirely of locally-based players, are somewhat disquieting.

It is true that we can field quite a competitive team from the A-League contingent. It is true that the AFC scheduling is often insensitive, and awkward for nations that have several players based in Europe. But the idea that we can be a dominant force in Asia even with sub-par teams is misguided, and could damage our reputation in the region.

The 3-1 victory over a dispirited Bahrain in February, and Asia’s poor overall showing at the World Cup, have engendered some triumphalism among Australian supporters. Perhaps this over-confidence has infected the FFA, because their current diplomatic stance on call-ups for the European brigade is in sharp contrast to their decision to enforce club bans on Mark Viduka and Scott Chipperfield, after they failed to attend the foolishly-arranged friendly against Venezuela in early 2004.

Now, it appears, the policy is to avoid clashes with the European clubs if at all possible.

Commendable, up to a point. In the past, the stubbornness of Australian administrations in calling players away from Europe for ill-considered friendlies made us somewhat unpopular, and arguably even had a detrimental effect on the careers of some young Australian players.

But now, thanks to the skilful political manoeuvres of Frank Lowy and John O’Neill, we have the opportunity to play regular, competitively relevant international matches against opposition more substantial than the Cook Islands.

In my opinion it would be a mistake to adopt a locals-if-possible policy for competitive matches on Australian soil, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Asia is more competitive than many seem to think at the moment; our qualifying group for the Asian Cup is not especially challenging, but World Cup qualification will be another matter.

Secondly, there is the matter of the fans. One of the great positives of the move to Asia, in my view, was that the fans were now likely to see our “star” players - some of them, at least - on a far more regular basis. The absence of the Europe-based elite will surely adversely affect the gate takings, and may bring into question some of the prices currently being demanded for seats at an Australia game.

And lastly, let me return to the matter of our reputation. We have been accepted into the AFC with great warmth and enthusiasm (publicly, at any rate…my private opinion on the likely Asian attitude to our inclusion is somewhat different). We cannot afford to repay them with contempt. And as much as an A-League squad would give our opponents a better chance against us, it is likely to be perceived as a snub.

August 16 is a “friendly” date, and a release from Euro club duty in time to join the squad fit and ready would be difficult, if players were required for club action on the weekend prior. But many of Europe’s leagues do not commence until late August.

It should be added, in fairness, that some players may risk their place in the starting eleven at their various clubs if they sacrifice pre-season preparation time for an international match half a world away. But is this really the case for all of our players? Let’s not forget that we’re not just talking about the Vidukas, Kewells and Neills; there are plenty of players milling around the less glamorous leagues of Europe who should perhaps be preferred to similar candidates from the A-League (who will not have played a genuinely competitive match for some time).

Let it not be forgotten, the key figures in our victory against Bahrain were Josip Skoko and the half-time substitute Brett Holman. Both are based in Europe - just not Fox Sports One Europe.

Ensuring that we field a strong selection while not causing too much friction with the European clubs - or threatening our players’ first-team status therein - will be a delicate balancing act. But the FFA must not swing the scales too far in the opposite direction, after the over-reaction of February 2004.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


A-League Anticipation, Part 4

From the solid South Australians to the A-League club that has made the news for all the wrong reasons over the past month.

Newcastle Jets

It has been, to put it euphemistically, an interesting off-season up the Hunter. A new coach, a number of changes in personnel, a couple of highly-publicized ego clashes, and a poor start to the Pre-Season Cup.

One player will be missed particularly from last season. Ante Milicic, perhaps the most accomplished finisher still plying his trade in Australia, has departed for Queensland after having his thoughtful style subordinated to the dreary long-ball tactics of Richard Money for much of last season. Vaughan Coveny, the recipient of many of those long balls, has come back to the club, but there has been no proper replacement for Milicic as yet.

Mark Bridge partnered Coveny in the Jets’ most recent hitout against Sydney. Bridge’s form in the state league has been ordinary, however, and one would think that Tolgay Ozbey, a pacy, energetic young attacker who has come off a substantial season with Blacktown, should be given a try as a partner for Coveny before long.

Paul Okon’s return to Australian football, in his preferred sweeper role, will be fascinating to watch. Most of the reports of his performances so far have been cautiously positive; despite his seemingly endless run of injuries, Okon is very much a class act, and could prove even more influential than the increasingly moody Ned Zelic.

If Okon has arrived in Newcastle after a wearisome journey through the leagues of Europe, Tony Faria and Adam D’Apuzzo, like Ozbey, have stepped up from the anonymity of the state league. Faria, a former Northern Spirit player and a star for Marconi in the early part of the winter, has pace, but, in the opinion of his critics, little else. From the little I’ve seen of him, he appears to operate best with a target-man type in the centre, allowing him to do his work on the flanks. In the centre, he is far less effective.

D’Apuzzo, who, like Faria, favors a position on the left, is a graceful and skilful player, but appears vulnerable to pace and strength. I was there to see him being relentlessly out-muscled by the Sydney United midfield in the state league minor semi-final, and he apparently experienced similar troubles against Sydney FC’s speedy Robbie Middleby in the recent match in Canberra.

One piece of good news has been the return of Andrew Durante after his horrific injury at the hands - or rather the feet - of Nick Mrdja in the Jets’ first competitive game last year. He will add experience and class in defence, although it may be a while before he recovers full match-fitness; against Sydney, it seems, he was still slightly off the pace.

Liam Reddy’s departure has meant an opportunity for local boy Ben Kennedy. Although the signing from Broadmeadow has made a bright enough beginning for the Jets, Nick Theodorakopoulos will surely want to add an established ’keeper to the squad before the A-League begins.

And so to the new Jets manager. He has clearly (in fact, somewhat blatantly) been angling for an A-League job for some time, and now he has his chance. But the beginning of his reign has not been altogether sure-footed; clashes with first Ned Zelic, then new club captain Okon - the latter apparently arising, in part, from some loose-tongued discussion of Okon’s remuneration by Theodorakopoulos - have not exactly enhanced his reputation. Nor, to be frank, did his appearances on SBS’s World Cup studio panel. His pronouncements were often ill-considered and bizarre, in my opinion.

Life is never boring at Newcastle Jets FC, but one wonders if they will be finals material this time around. There appears to be a lot still to sort out.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The Penalty Curse, Part 3

So much for the "palliatives". Now to the genuine "penalty cures" - alternative means of deciding a cup tie when a replay, for logistical reasons, is not possible.

1. Institute a system whereby individual players attempt to beat the goalkeeper from the halfway line, with unlimited touches

This system has been tried in America, with, apparently, mixed results. Certainly it requires a greater level of individual skill (though, arguably, less mental toughness) than a single kick from twelve yards, but there are several drawbacks to the procedure. Firstly and most obviously, what happens in the case of fouls? If the "penalty"-taker is fouled within the area, one would assume that a penalty would result; but if he is fouled outside the area? Penalty again? More questions begged there.

Secondly, bare one-on-one challenges between attacker and goalkeeper are frequent harbingers of injury for one or the other. One of the few things to recommend the penalty shoot-out is that it scarcely ever results in an injury. In a one-on-one challenge, however, the physical risk should not be underestimated.

And the final objection is simply that one would expect the conversion level to be greater even than from penalties; as a result, the procedure could last an intolerably long time.

2. The team with the better record in the event thus far progresses

This is an obvious and expeditious solution, but an equally obvious drawback is that one side will go into the game knowing that a draw is sufficient for it to progress. Impenetrable defensive solidity and lack of ambition could well be the result. However, in practice this can work either way; in the 1982 World Cup, Poland and Brazil both needed only a draw from their final second-round game to progress to the semi-finals, against opponents with inferior records. Poland did indeed play a plodding, dreary game against Russia which ended 0-0. Brazil's match against Italy, however, was one of the most exciting in the history of the competition.

Another major objection to this method is that "tournament records" cannot fully take account of the respective opposition faced. Manifest injustices could occur, as a result of one team racking up a hatful of goals against inferior opposition, then getting through on "tournament record tie-break" against a side that has faced much sterner tests in the earlier rounds.

3. Result decided by total number of shots at goal during the game

There are a number of suggestions similar to this, including decision by corner count, overall possession, etc. I will deal below with as many as seem vaguely sensible.

We all want to see teams going for goals, but endless hopeful whacks followed by long drawn-out goalkicks would be a spectator's nightmare. An often-suggested refinement to the idea is decision by the number of accurate shots (sometimes referred to as shots on goal), but in my opinion it would change little. A joyful thump as soon as a player finds an inch of space, and endless wasted time.

Corner count is occasionally deceptive, especially since one corner is often followed by a few more for the same team. Some styles tend to produce more corners than others, too, and it seems unfair to punish those teams who prefer the slow build-up through the middle. They are entitled to try to win in the way they deem most effective, without consequent disadvantage.

As for possession, this rather subjective statistic is not always a true reflection of the balance of the play. We regularly see defences lazily passing the ball around as if taking some light exercise at a picnic; the thought of such time-wasting non-football actually being, in effect, rewarded is not a comforting one.

4. Result by means of foul count

My perennial favourite, for a number of reasons.

Number one: it discourages fouls. Wouldn't we all prefer football to have fewer fouls (and stoppages therefrom)?

Number two: it would generally favour the team that has shown the more enterprise; it is rare that a defensive team suffers more fouls than it commits.

Number three: the idea allows for some flexibility, but can remain objective. Particularly violent or cynical offences are punished by yellow or red cards, and such sanctions can be allotted a larger proportion in the "count". But is a yellow worth two fouls? Three? More for simulation? Is a red worth four? Six? Trials could indicate the most appropriate system.

Number four: the count would be easy for the fans to keep track of (unlike, for instance, possession statistics), but in my view, the likelihood is that the players, with their minds firmly on the game, would NOT be able to keep track of it.

There are certainly problems with the idea. The most common objection is that the incidences of simulation would skyrocket. Possibly, but if referees are aware that a decision by foul count is possible in a cup tie, and that successful simulation is therefore more in the players' interest than ever before, would they not be more likely to police it more strictly? In my opinion, simulation should add a red card's worth to the foul count even if it only attracts a yellow. This would surely make it a risky option.

A similar objection is that the foul count method would give ever-fallible referees an even greater influence on the outcome of the game. True enough. But how many matches at the recent World Cup had eventual foul counts that did not reflect the balance of the play? In my opinion, surprisingly few.

The referee would, effectively, only have a decisive influence on a tie were the count to be relatively close.

There you have it, folks. A summary of some ways in which football could rid itself of that hateful procedure, the penalty shootout. Any other suggestions or comments from my fellow tragics would be most welcome.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


A-League Anticipation, Part 3

And now to last season’s minor premiers, the tough, determined team formed in the image of their abrasive manager.

Adelaide United

From the fans’ point of view, Adelaide United’s pre-season has been dominated by one anxious question: “Will we get him back?”

The “him” in question being, of course, Shengqing Qu, the Chinese striker who made such a substantial contribution to Adelaide’s success last season.

Sadly, without Qu, Adelaide’s frontline hardly looks a fearsome proposition. At the moment, only an ageing Carl Veart and the unproven Dez Giraldi occupy the nominal “striker” slots in the squad. Fernando Rech, for all his quality, is more of a schemer than a striker, although his partnership with Qu last term was often a joy to behold.

To make matters worse, Rech and Giraldi are currently struggling with injuries, prompting Adelaide to obtain the temporary services of two AIS youngsters, Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns. Of the latter I know little, but I have seen something of Djite this season in the NSW state league (he was drafted into the Marconi side to replace the injured Jay Lucas), and he looked some way off A-League standard.

Qu offered skill, guile and considerable finishing ability, and he was surely the most impressive foreign player in the league, especially considering the initial scepticism surrounding him: a Chinese player?

He proved all the doubters wrong, and, it would seem, the club is even now pulling out all the stops in an effort to bring him back down south. From a neutral perspective, one can only wish them the best of luck. Qu was a true credit to the league last season.

Adelaide United led something of a charmed life last year, with few key players forced into lengthy absences through injury. This year, things are already a little different; the unfortunate Lucas Pantelis will be out for the entire season. Recently the club has been engaged in efforts to sign the former Celtic winger Bobby Petta, a mercurial talent; certainly, if he can show some of his old class, he will be a more than adequate replacement for Pantelis.

If Petta proves unavailable, what then? The versatile Richie Alagich may be asked to fill the right midfield slot again, with Robert Cornthwaite stepping in at right-back; in any event, Adelaide’s options out wide, like the Mariners’, are somewhat limited.

United’s key player last season, if not Qu, was probably Angelo Costanzo. Equally at home in central defence and central midfield, he provided the defensive solidity in the middle of the park which allowed the likes of Aloisi, Dodd and Veart to push upfield on a regular basis.

He will no doubt be influential once again, but an injury in central defence might compel John Kosmina to bring Costanzo into the back four, leaving the midfield without an anchorman. Those who witnessed Costanzo’s dominant performance in the major semi-final second leg last season, in which he thoroughly eclipsed Dwight Yorke in the centre, would surely agree that Costanzo belongs in midfield, other things being equal.

So far, Adelaide can be quietly pleased with their pre-season results; another 1-0 win over Melbourne Victory - the fourth such result in less than a year - was followed by a draw with a depleted but still respectable Mariners side in Orange. Travis Dodd is in crisp form, by all accounts, and the defence is proving as hard to breach as they were at the beginning of last season.

Qu or no Qu, Adelaide will surely be very, very competitive in 2006/07.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


The Red Army

I have many precious memories of my World Cup jaunt. The euphoria of Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern (against Japan, that is), the exuberant generosity of the German hosts, and the chance to meet some of the world's foremost English-language football journalists - I'm not just a football tragic, you see, I'm a football writer tragic.

But one of my fondest memories is of a certain game I attended in my "base" city, Frankfurt. In particular, it was a group of fans, rapidly gaining a reputation for jubilant and boisterous celebrations, who put on an unforgettable performance.

I refer to the South Koreans.

Perhaps encouraged by the fact that their opponents on the day, Togo, were rather short of support, the Koreans sang their lungs out at the vertiginous stadium, accompanying each attack with deafening roars of encouragement. Some high-pitched voices could be distinguished inamongst the roars, too: the Koreans, like the Japanese, have a distinctly co-ed approach to football fandom.

Even before the match, there were signs that this would be an afternoon to cherish, from a fan-spotting perspective. A continuous stream of red T-shirts stretched from the Main river to the stadium, each, it seemed, sporting a different slogan or image. Not for the Koreans the name-on-the-back productions favoured by their Japanese rivals; most of the catch-phrases printed on the Korean attire constituted an appeal to collective effort and struggle.

In an amusing sidelight, the media representatives who emerged from the shuttle-bus bathed in sweat were faced by a wall of red at the media entrance; this assemblage of smiling Korean fans had clearly not been informed that this entrance was not intended for them. Not that the German volunteers seemed to mind, and it was hard to stay angry as the red brigade courteously made way for the flustered journos bullocking their way towards the turnstiles.

The opening half of the game was pretty joyless for Korea. Struggling to find openings in attack, their defence was regularly made to look ordinary by the excellent Mohamed Kader Cougbadja, Togo's most effective and dangerous player. On the half-hour, Kader scored a richly-merited goal, and the Korean players looked a dispirited lot. There was no let-up from the fans, however; you would have thought it was Korea who had scored, such was the din emanating from the south-west corner of the stadium, where the Korean throng was thickly massed.

The game turned on a single incident early in the second half. Togo's captain, Abalo, fouled Park Ji-Sung on the edge of the Korean box, and was given his second yellow card. Togo down to ten.

And then there was the free kick; the baby-faced Lee Chun-Soo, perhaps the most popular of the Korean players, sent an absolute corker past Kossi Agassa in goal. 1-1.

The Korean chants, accompanied by their insistent drumming, quickly became deafening. And the team responded, finding more space (and width) for their attacking moves. On 72 minutes, Ahn Jung-Hwan - hero against Italy four years ago, and a half-time substitute in this match - scored the winner with a fine shot from the edge of the box.

The football in the second half was thrilling, but the display after the final whistle was better still. "Go, Korea!" sang thousands of voices in near-perfect unison, while the Korean drums resounded magnificently around the arena.

Half an hour later, I was back in the shuttle-bus, a good 500 metres from the ground, with a thick layer of glass between me and the Korean battalion inside the stadium.

They were still going full bore, and I could still hear them loud and clear.

Here's to Korea making it through once again to South Africa 2010. Even if their players aren't on song, their fans will provide a more than worthwhile spectacle.

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Friday, July 21, 2006


A-League Anticipation, Part 2

So much for the champions. What of their opponents in the inaugural A-League Grand Final, the most consistently impressive team last term?

Central Coast Mariners

Perhaps the best news for the Gosford club is that Lawrie McKinna has been retained. The fans showed impressive generosity and understanding when McKinna was involved in talks with Sydney FC, but the truth is that the Mariners would have sorely missed him. He managed to steer the club into the top four of the competition despite a seemingly endless run of injuries, and deservedly took his charges to the final. They surely would have won it with an established finisher (such as Nick Mrdja?) on the park.

Poor Mrdja is still sidelined, and will probably not be able to take part until the season is already a few weeks old. But the Kwasnik-Petrie partnership has been impressively prolific during the warmup matches, and in the first pre-season game against Perth, they looked a menacing combination. Sadly, there isn't much in the way of backup, just yet; John Hutchison, such a surprising marksman last season, is also out until at least August. Tom Pondeljak, too, is stuggling with a groin strain.

As always in Gosford, the treatment table is constantly in demand.

The Mariners' major off-season losses have, of course, been in defence. Michael Beauchamp, the outstanding defender of the first A-League season, has joined 1.FC Nürnberg, along with the rampaging left-back Dean Heffernan. Vuko Tomasevic has arrived from Marconi as a direct replacement for "Heff"; he offers pace, tenacity and elegance on the ball, but his positioning might be cause for concern at times, if the opening pre-season fixture is anything to go by.

Against Perth last Saturday, McKinna's answer to the absence of Beauchamp was to move Alex Wilkinson into the centre of defence along with Andrew Clark, using young Brad Porter at right-back. A qualified success, one might say, since Porter set up the first Central Coast goal, but did look somewhat raw at times. Wayne O'Sullivan is perhaps too aggressive a player to be an ideal right-back in a back four; will McKinna be forced to use Porter as a regular starter?

Wilkinson may eventually move back to the right, but this would mean that one of the other centre-back slots would belong to either the injury-prone Paul O'Grady or young Nigel Boogaard. A potentially worrying situation.

The news is better in midfield, but there is a potential lack of depth out wide. Noel Spencer, Andre Gumprecht, new signing Jamie McMaster and Tom Pondeljak are all more comfortable in the middle, and although Matthew Osman is capable of operating out wide, he was used in a central role by McKinna against Perth. With O'Sullivan currently struggling with injury, the options on the wing are not wide (if you'll pardon the pun) at present.

You can't help but wish the Mariners the best. Their supporters are passionate, likeable and knowledgeable, their manager is affable and shrewd, and their players can never be faulted for effort. If McKinna has a little more luck with injuries than he did last term, a top four finish is surely likely.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


The Penalty Curse, Part 2

Several of the suggestions that come up when alternatives to penalty shootouts are being sought are not, strictly speaking, alternatives. They are merely intended to heighten the chances of the game being decided in extra time (or, indeed, normal time).

In a sense, this is only going half-way to a true solution. But it's worth taking a good look at some of these penalty palliatives, many of which have considerable merit.

Here are the three most common suggestions, plus a little-known left-field idea which I believe deserves consideration. All the alterations below, let it be noted, would only apply in extra time.

1. Remove players from each side

I don't propose to deal here with the intricate variations on the theme - two men off every fifteen minutes, one man off every five minutes, etc. A brief summary of the pros and cons will suffice.


Certainly, common sense would tell you that this makes a deciding goal more likely. It would probably improve the game as a spectacle as well; one would hope that attacks could be constructed more quickly, and space found more easily.


The remaining players, most of whom would have already played ninety minutes of football, would undergo a brutal test of stamina. Many of FIFA's showpiece events are summer competitions, and the strain of playing on a full pitch with reduced numbers during extra time may prove genuinely dangerous for the health of the players. But it's hard to know without a trial.

2. Remove, or reduce the scope of, the offside rule

The offside rule is controversial enough as it is, and removing it altogether has frequently been suggested; sadly, the trials conducted with no-offside football have, apparently, not been encouraging.


Again, it would make the scoring of a goal far more likely, and would almost certainly ensure an end-to-end game.


In other ways, the game would most likely be adversely affected as a spectacle. The midfield could well disappear in a flurry of long balls, penalty-box jostling, and the aerial clashes so despised by the purists.

3. Allow (or enforce) extra substitutions


More fresh legs, more fresh ideas.


Would it really change anything, especially if a side is already committed to defence?

And now for an interesting one. The following suggestion comes from a letter from a Chinese fan to World Soccer magazine nearly fifteen years ago. I have not seen it mentioned anywhere else; and yet there is much to like about it.

4. Disallow the goalkeeper from handling the ball except within the six-yard area

The six-yard area is one of the most mysterious entities in football. It serves no particular purpose in the modern game, and I've often wondered whether the traditional marking could be put to some practical use. Why not as suggested above?

Breakaway attacks are so often foiled by goalkeepers rushing adroitly to the edge of their eighteen-yard area to plunge at the feet of an onrushing attacker. Goals would surely be more likely were this option to be removed. Set-pieces, for one thing, would become infinitely more dangerous for the defending side.

There are only two disadvantages, as far as I can see. One is that, as with Option 2 above, it may result in endless long balls into the mixer. But once again, we won't know without a trial.

The second is that in a crowded penalty box, handling outside the six-yard area could be very difficult for referees to spot, especially if the game is being played in box-to-box fashion. But with a little help from the linesmen, I believe this would not be an insurmountable obstacle.

Tune in next time for the "genuine" alternatives.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


A-League Anticipation, Part 1

It is now little more than a month away.

That glamorous but somewhat disappointing event in Europe is over, and the real business starts up again at Olympic Park on my cousin's 35th birthday, August 25.

Over the next few weeks, your favourite tragic will be presenting a brief piece on each team, in the lead-up to the national competition. And where better to start than with the defending champions, my very own hometown club?

Sydney FC

How should Sydney FC's off-season be described? Interesting, disquieting, dramatic? At times, it was all of these. The boardroom manoeuvres certainly took centre stage for the period immediately following the Grand Final, and with the World Cup commanding much of the fans' attention from May onwards, there has been little discussion about the team itself until now.

David Carney and Dwight Yorke will wear the light blue jersey again this season, much to the relief of the Cove. The retention of Carney is indeed a blessing, but the fans will be earnestly hoping that it is the Yorke of 2005, rather than the meek, uninterested midfielder of early 2006, who will take the field.

There is reason to assume that he will show a little more commitment this season. His dip in form towards the end of the 2005/06 A-League season seemed to have more than a little to do with Trinidad and Tobago's qualification for the World Cup; no way was Yorke going to let an injury sustained at club level prevent him from taking part.

There have been only two departures from the club during the off-season. Andy Packer has left for Queensland, and all those who remember his commanding display in the Grand Final will acknowledge that he is a considerable loss. Matthew Bingley has also ended his stint at Sydney FC, but most fans will feel that the veteran utility man, who saw perhaps more game time than he deserved last season, is eminently replaceable.

Sydney FC's playing roster still looks the best in the country. They have captured two exciting young players in Alex Brosque and Jeremy Brockie, and can still call upon the services of the estimable Clint Bolton in goal, and the still underestimated Steve Corica in midfield.

The acquisition of Brosque and Brockie does present an interesting conundrum: how will Sydney FC set out their stall on the flanks? The two young recruits both function most effectively on the wing, and with Carney, Robbie Middleby and Ruben Zadkovich already on the books of the defending champions, there will probably be a couple of talented players reduced to bit parts this term. Zadkovich, it must be said, looked ill at ease on the wing during the finals series; one hopes that he will have the opportunity to occupy a central position at times this season.

Midfield, then, appears to be the area of least concern for Sydney FC. Ufuk Talay - unfairly written off by some supporters last season - and the pugnacious Terry McFlynn are still there, to fill the central places. It is quite possible that the current midfield preponderance will induce Terry Butcher to move Dwight Yorke back into a striking role, a switch which would surely be welcomed by many fans. David Zdrilic is still there, and the consensus among the fans seems to be that he is something of a dead weight. I'll reserve judgement on that until he is able to play at full fitness for an extended period.

Perhaps the squad is short a defender at the moment, particularly in the light of Packer's departure. Nikolai Topor-Stanley, a short-term signing from the state league, apparently showed some form in the pre-season outing against Queensland, and Terry Butcher may be tempted to snap him up, rather than look for an established name to fill the breach.

Finally, there is the matter of the new manager.

Anxious perusals of Motherwell fansites by Sydney FC fans were rewarded with mostly positive references to our new man. By all accounts, his Motherwell charges played enterprising football, and he wrung more out of the squad than expected.

Those Sydney fans present must have groaned, however, when the team took the field against Queensland on the Gold Coast with Carney on the right and Corica on the left...exactly the deployments for which Pierre Littbarski was so roundly criticised last season. But Butcher shifted his formation as the game wore on, suggesting that the Littbarski system might not last too long under his stewardship.

Next: our pirate neighbours from up the coast.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


The Penalty Curse, Part 1

All sorts of complaints have been made about the 2006 World Cup. Too much diving, atrocious refereeing, negativity aplenty from timorous coaches and players.

But for me, one of the saddest things about this World Cup is that, as in 1994, it was decided on penalty kicks.

The majority of football fans, it seems, see no real objection to penalties being used as a means of deciding a cup tie which has failed to produce a winner after two hours of football. It is a test of mental toughness, we hear, and not simply a lottery. Teams at the top level need to be prepared for it.

This, of course, is true. But there are many other objections to the procedure, and I have believed for some time that FIFA should at least try some of the alternatives.

Here, in a nutshell, are my three main objections to the penalty shootout.

1. It has no real connection whatsoever with the game that has just finished.

You would think that some aspects of the intense two-hour fight just finished would figure in the calculations to determine who will progress in the case of a deadlock. Nothing of the sort! As a result, far too often we see teams who have failed to offer anything in a footballing sense winning simply because they keep their nerve better from twelve yards.

"Playing for penalties", as practised by the Red Star Belgrade team in the European Cup final of 1991, the Italian national side in the semi-final of Euro 2000 and many others since then, should never be a legitimate tactic in order to "win" a game of football. In a sense, however, it is difficult to blame these opportunistic sides, since the rules gave them clear licence to shut up shop in defence and wait for the shootout.

2. It places inordinate responsibility for defeat or victory on the shoulders of just one or two players, and creates convenient scapegoats.

There will always be a "penalty victim", a player who guessed wrong on the goalie's dive or got his angles askew. Like it or not he will always carry the can - whether he deserves it or not - for the defeat. This, in my view, is unnecessary, cruel, and contrary to the spirit of the game.

Images of a shattered David Trezeguet played mercilessly over TV screens worldwide in the aftermath of the recent World Cup final. His crime was to have had his shot rebound off the crossbar a few inches short of the goal-line.

Would he have attracted the same amount of attention, unspoken blame and inevitable self-reproach had he been guilty of a similar miss in normal time? Of course not.

Even more poignant was the case of poor Roberto Baggio. In the 1994 World Cup, his magnificent displays in the knockout phase had propelled a frankly mediocre Italian team all the way to the final of the most distinguished international football competition. In that final, he battled through 120 minutes of midfield attrition despite carrying a serious injury. When his turn came in the shoot-out, with Italy needing a further goal to stay alive, he trotted up to the ball, exhausted, and sent it flying over the bar.

I will never forget the headline on the front page of the paper the next day. "BAGGIO – HOW I LOST THE WORLD CUP".

Enough said.

3. The propensity of goalkeepers to come off their lines (and the failure of linesmen to police this) is currently making a farce of the whole procedure.

I hardly need to quote examples. The most obvious case in recent times was the 2005 Champions' League final. On kick after kick, Jerzy Dudek waltzed happily off his line before the Milan players had gotten to the ball. Any reaction from the linesman? You must be joking. They barely seem to notice goalkeeper encroachment anymore.

Even at the World Cup, we had a penalty shootout blighted by the usual cheating. Before saving the penalty kicks of Roberto Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso, Germany's Jens Lehmann had clearly moved off his line (as, indeed, he did for Arsenal in the FA Cup Final last year). Not, it is true, as far as Lee Woon-Jae quite shamelessly did before saving Joaquin's penalty in the Korea-Spain quarter-final in 2002, but still...

Lazy linesmen need to be made aware that this is a serious problem. If the current level of indifference continues, shootouts will simply become a test of which goalkeeper can cheat more outrageously.

Several "alternatives" to penalties have been suggested, and I will deal with them in some detail in the next couple of instalments. But a distinction needs to be made here: some of the suggestions aim merely to lessen the probability of a shootout being required, while others allow for the procedure to be altogether dispensed with. The former I will refer to as "palliatives", the latter "alternatives".

In Part 2: the palliatives.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 7

I had intended to limit my ramblings on our erstwhile national manager to six, but I thought it might be interesting to see how the rest of the world - and the "established" football nations in particular - viewed Australia's second World Cup outing, and how prominent a role Hiddink played in the reporting thereof.

In the course of my (very brief) research, one thing struck me particularly. Petty parochialism, still the bane of Australian football writing, is a universal phenomenon in sports journalism.

A case in point was my first stop: the preview of the Australia-Croatia game in the respected Italian journal Gazzetta dello Sport, a copy of which I had picked up in Germany prior to the match. Almost the entire article dealt with the possibility of a return clash between Italy and a Hiddink-coached side; and this was before Italy's qualification for the second round had even been confirmed!

No mention of the Australian team at all, except - wait for it - the announcement that Marco Bresciano (a Serie A player, as the writer, Alessandra Bocci, punctiliously informed us) might be back in the starting eleven.

The view presented of Hiddink was interesting, and rather amusing. "Hiddink is a kind and friendly man, but whenever he sees something Italian, he turns almost sadistic," complained the writer.

Certainly there seemed to be an impression among the Italian contingent that Hiddink had it in for them, and Gennaro Gattuso's gleeful celebration in front of the Dutchman after the Australia-Italy match certainly marked Hiddink out as Enemy No. 1. After some typcial kidology from Hiddink prior to that encounter, Marcello Lippi was quoted on another Italian website as saying:

"He's a real trickster, to be saying these things. Four years ago he caricatured Korea, saying that that match was the football of the rich and famous, of the actors, against young unknowns. Now he's at it again, talking about David and Goliath; it's a smart trick, but he's erring on the side of humility. Australia is a good team..."

The French journal, L'Equipe, gave a slant to their World Cup preview that I rather expected from most foreign media.

Its previews of the various teams were accompanied, on the L'Equipe website, by one photo each. Only two of these pictures featured only the coach, and none of the players. Roger Lemerre (the former French coach - parochialism again) was one of the lucky pair; the other, predictably, was Hiddink. An excerpt from the text follows:

"In the year since he became coach, the Dutchman Guus Hiddink has performed miracles with the Australian team, which he qualified (yes, he) for its second-ever World Cup. The PSV Eindhoven coach reorganised a team on the slide with the touch of a master."

Monsieur, you should write for an Australian newspaper.

Perhaps the most balanced view of Australia's tournament came, not surprisingly, from the German press. Most of the reports I read over there (those that my limited German could encompass, anyway) gave considerable credit to the players who had performed crucial roles, while giving due mention to Hiddink's benign influence.

A glance at the website of the well-known weekly Der Spiegel confirmed my initial impression. The match report for the Australia-Japan game mentioned Hiddink's role in the win in passing, but gave the chief credit to Tim Cahill and John Aloisi.

Another piece in Der Spiegel, published prior to the Japan game, contained a charming little paragraph about Hiddink, which will serve well to close off this series of musings.

"Guus Hiddink, 59, knows the world. And the world knows Guus Hiddink. As player and coach, this globetrotter has worked in Europe, America and Asia. If fame were to be measured by Internet sites, the Dutchman would be easily the most well-known national manager at the World Cup. There are more mentions of him on the Internet than there are footballs and cows in his homeland.

"And that's where it all began for him. With footballs and cows..."

A Dutch country boy made very, very good, in other words.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


My Name is Luka

Every player has "his day". One of those games where everything goes right; every shot, every pass, every half-hearted backheel finds its mark. And every player earnestly hopes that "the day" will coincide with a game of some importance, one which is the subject of considerable attention and competitive relevance.

That hope was realised today for young Sydney United striker Luka Glavas.

In a final which provided some fine football if little genuine drama, Glavas was magnificent, scoring four well-taken goals and never allowing the Blacktown defence a moment's respite.

Glavas is slightly built, with the frame of Marco van Basten and the chiselled looks of Gianfranco Zola. His performance at Marconi Stadium bore comparison with either of those two great strikers of yesteryear.

His and United's first goal arose from an error by Blacktown's right-back Paul Karbon, later exacerbated by the keeper Necevski, whose maladroit attempt to tackle Ben Vidaic left him in no-man's land. Glavas managed to get on the end of Vidaic's curling cross from the left.

The second was an absolute beauty. Glavas released Peter Markovic on the right; it looked as if the United winger had been forced too wide, but his cross was a good, low one, and Glavas applied a sublime close-range finish by the near post.

After Mitchell Thompson had been quite needlessly upended in the Blacktown box early in the second half, Glavas completed his hat-trick with a powerfully-struck penalty, Necevski's dash off his line proving fruitless. Then, after Blacktown coach Aytek Genc had thinned out the defence in a desperate bid for late goals, Glavas again made space for himself in an advanced position, and coolly blasted the ball past Necevski for number four.

His was certainly not a faultless display; his goals were interspersed with a couple of wild misses, and he does still have a tendency to be bundled off the ball too easily. But a little more experience should see him improve in this area. He significantly favours his right foot, but he can score with his left as well, as Marconi can testify.

One would have expected the other highly-rated young striker on display, Blacktown's Tolgay Ozbey, to have lit up proceedings at some point. But apart from a good opening twenty minutes, in which he gave Milan Bosnar a torrid time on Blacktown's left flank, Ozbey did disappointingly little. This was partly due to poor service; United's Mile Jedinak, utterly dominant in the air, did a fine job stifling Blacktown in midfield.

Mention must also be made of Ante Juric, who turned in a magisterial performance in central defence, reminiscent of his finest days at Olympic. As is so often proven in football, the ability to read the game can compensate for a lack of pace, and Juric's anticipation was exemplary.

But the afternoon belonged to Glavas. With many A-League squads not yet filled, the young frontman's Midas match could not have arrived at a better time.

His name is Luka. He is now well and truly in the shop window.


A Family Affair

I always enjoy my visits to the Central Coast Mariners' little gem of a stadium, now renamed the Bluetongue Central Coast Stadium in honour of their brewer sponsors.

Last night, the A-League pre-season cup kicked off there. The Mariners, missing a number of key players, saw off a similarly depleted Perth Glory side 2-1. Not a classic game by any means, but there were some bright moments.

The Central Coast club has recently given the impression of being a new focal point for the local community, and the glib label "family club" fits them unusually well. As always, I was struck by the large number of pre-teen children in the stands, eagerly following the action and occasionally firing sensible questions at their parents. Outside of Bay 16, the Mariners definitely cater for all ages.

Local pride was boosted by the solid contingent of local talent in the squad, and there was a proud response from one of the more knowledgeable patrons when a fellow spectator asked who the Mariners' No. 5 was. "That's Brad Porter...he's a local lad!" came the triumphant reply.

That particular lad provided a fine cross for Stewart Petrie's opening goal. Only a couple of minutes later Petrie turned provider, holding the ball up on the edge of the box before sliding a perfectly-weighted pass for Adam Kwasnik to run onto, and double the lead.

I was particularly interested in the battle between two A-League newcomers, Leo Bertos and Vuko Tomasevic, on the Perth right. Bertos is the speedy Kiwi right-winger who gave the 2004 Olyroos many a headache in the Oceania playoff for the Athens Olympics. Tomasevic, a veteran of the NSL (and scorer of a famous, spectacular goal for Northern Spirit), has been in commanding form for Marconi this season.

I felt that Tomasevic came off the better, with the exception of an extraordinary moment in the second half when the Mariners' new recruit simply lost track of Bertos, and allowed him a hectare of space on the right in which to pick his shot...and score.

It should be added that Tomasevic was looking to get forward more than one would normally expect from a fullback. He has been signed, evidently, to fill the left-back slot vacated by the Germany-bound Dean Heffernan, but I was left in some doubt as to whether left-back is Tomasevic's true position.

The combination of Petrie and Kwasnik up front looks full of promise; the Mariners may be able to make light of the continuing absence of Nick Mrdja for a little while longer. Matthew Osman capably filled Noel Spencer's shoes in defensive midfield for the first half-hour...another good sign for Lawrie McKinna. On the minus side, Danny Vukovic, so impressive last season, had a few difficult moments in goal.

5,682 was the official attendance. Five and a half thousand may seem a disappointing crowd at first, but when you consider that this was a day of relentlessly miserable weather, and a game of limited importance, the turnout bodes fairly well.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 6

In the crucial group decider against Croatia, Hiddink made perhaps his most controversial selection choice of the event: Zeljko Kalac replaced Mark Schwarzer in goal.

Many of those who had routinely hailed Guus as a genius prior to the match in Stuttgart were doing swift 180-degree turns on 56 minutes, when Kalac blundered horribly to give Croatia a 2-1 lead. When quizzed about his goalkeeping switch at the post-match press conference, Hiddink's reponses were, for once, awkward and almost truculent.

There was some, albeit not much, justification for the choice. Although Schwarzer had played magnificently against Holland in Australia's most high-profile pre-tournament friendly, his misjudgement of Shunsuke Nakamura's gentle cross in the first game could have cost Australia dearly. Against Brazil, it was hard to fault his efforts. However, Hiddink perhaps felt he could have taken greater command of his area, particularly in the latter stages of the game, when Australia's defenders were rushing upfield leaving Schwarzer to double as sweeper at times.

The fact is, however, that Kalac's pre-World Cup performances gave no cause for confidence whatsoever. Jittery in his handling against Greece and uncertain against Liechtenstein, he appeared to have put himself out of the running for the tournament proper. He also made few friends among the fans with his ill-considered comments regarding Schwarzer's club form just prior to the event.

It was an error of judgement on Hiddink's part. But it could readily be forgiven, not just in view of Australia's progression to the group stage, but also because Hiddink again proved shrewd and courageous in a critical game. He started Kewell, figuring that crunch games brought out the best in players who badly needed to prove themselves. Smart move number one.

He surprisingly sacrificed Vince Grella, Australia's only purely defensively-minded midfielder, for John Aloisi after 63 minutes. Again, there was solid logic behind the decision: Niko Kranjcar, Croatia's supposed playmaker, was having a joyless night, looking short of fitness and ideas. There was no longer any need for a Grella to keep an eye on him.

And finally, as against Japan, he was not afraid to leave his defence undermanned. It was Scott Chipperfield who made way for the third striker, Kennedy; Brett Emerton's defensive duties multiplied as a result, but he coped admirably (before his moment of foolishness). Again, the flexibility of the Australian side under Hiddink was impressively apparent.

Australia, deservedly, got through. Then, there was Italy.

In retrospect, holding the eventual champions over ninety minutes appears an outstanding achievement for such an unheralded side. But Italy had yet to truly blossom - in fact, they had been unrecognisably poor in their last two group matches - and after Marco Materazzi's send-off, the game was there for the taking.

Oddly enough, Hiddink, the bravest coach at the event, failed to make the changes that might have allowed Australia to snatch victory against an undermanned side.

There are a couple of interesting parallels in World Cup history to Hiddink's unexpected freeze.

In 1986, the first Africans to reach the second round, Morocco, were looking good against a nervous, unpopular West German team in a second round game. The sultry conditions in Mexico were, not surprisingly, more congenial to the North Africans than the Europeans. As the game went on, the Moroccans would surely come into the ascendancy. Yet the Germans avoided the necessity of extra time: Lothar Matthaus smashed in a free kick on 88 minutes.

After the game, Morocco's manager protested that he'd intended to bring substitutes on, to rejuvenate the team, in extra time.

A similar story in 1994. This time, it was the host nation, the USA, with a huge upset within reach; their second-round opponents, Brazil, had had a man sent off just before half-time. The score was still 0-0. Forty-five minutes of football to play, against a World Cup aristocrat reduced to ten men. Sound familiar?

The USA's coach Bora Milutinovic, however, took few risks in the second half, perhaps hoping to hold the Brazilians until extra time, and pick them off then. Again, it didn't work; Bebeto scored the winner seventeen minutes from the end.

It was the same story for Australia against Italy. Materazzi's exit provided the perfect opportunity for Australia to deploy the Aloisi-Viduka combination which had looked so dangerous in recent times, without compromising Australia's defence unduly.

Aloisi did finally arrive. His impact was palpable. And had Italy not scored, Australia may well have gone on to dominate extra time, even score, despite Italy's defensive resilience. But it was a late, late move...Hiddink was clearly thinking primarily of extra time. As had already occurred, in fact, against Uruguay in Sydney.

Whatever your opinions of the penalty which gave Italy victory, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Australia failed to take the initiative early in the second half, when they had ample opportunity to do so. Luke Wilkshire, never altogether confident coming forward, found himself pitifully short of employment in the second half. It was perhaps he, rather than Mile Sterjovski, who should have been sacrificed for John Aloisi; with Sterjovski's departure from the right flank, Fabio Grosso was able to get forward occasionally...with the well-known result.

To some in Australian football, Guus Hiddink is already a saint.

To me, the impression that is left is of a decent, engaging man, and a clever, meticulous, forward-thinking coach who oversaw a sharp improvement in the national team. In the end, one or two small misjudgements might have cost him the extraordinary achievement of taking three different teams to the World Cup semi-finals.

Australian football has much to thank him for, and we will continue to follow his career with great interest.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Places at the Table, Part 3

If Africa is to be given an extra half-spot or full spot at the next World Cup, which is surely inevitable, then the likelihood is that South America or Europe, despite their impressive overall results in Germany, will be the unlucky ones. The third world momentum within FIFA makes it highly unlikely, in my opinion, that any of the other confederations will be forced to return their gains of recent cycles.

It would be cruel of FIFA to take it away from the South Americans, but they just might. After all, the nation making up their extra half, Uruguay, failed to make it through the playoffs, although they faced easily the strongest opponent of the remaining three stragglers. I have earlier commented that the same nations routinely progress from the Asian and Central/North American qualifiers, but it shouldn't be forgotten that the same thing has happened in CONMEBOL for the last two cycles.

Furthermore, Brazil and Argentina aside, the South American nations are usually among the also-rans at the World Cup. No South American side other than Brazil and Argentina has reached the semi-finals since 1970, and few have remotely threatened to.

The plain fact remains that South America's No. 5 team is likely to be far stronger than, for instance, CONCACAF's No. 4. But such considerations do not typically prevail in FIFA's decision-making process.

One further reason to believe that South America might be the ones forced to give ground is that they initially received just the four places for the 2006 cycle, only gaining an extra half thanks to some shrewd political manoeuvring, and to New Zealand's dismal results at the 2003 Confederations Cup.

Set against this is the fact that Europe only received its 14-strong World Cup allocation as a result of Germany hosting the event; in 2002, they had half a place more, but the relative failure of European teams at the Asian World Cup cost them dearly in the wash-up. Effectively, they lost a full place for 2006.

Nevertheless, after Germany, Europe has a very strong case for maintaining its complement of 14. No less than ten of these progressed to the knockout stage, and from the semi-final stage onwards, it was an all-European event. Even with home advantage (so to speak), that's an impressive showing.

Perhaps the only good argument against letting Europe keep 14 at the World Cup is that the tournament should feature a variety of styles. Not that there is any great variety these days, but there is still an evident distinction between the physically tough, tactically astute European sides and the quick, skilful but often naive contenders from Asia and Africa. A poor argument, you might say, but would you really want to sit through the two hours of Switzerland v. Ukraine again? Probably the most entertaining, if not the best, half of football I attended in Germany was the second period of Korea v. Togo in Frankfurt. Both sides were committed to attack and played with enormous enthusiasm. There is something to be said for that, particularly in the context of a World Cup which became horribly sterile in its latter stages.

Here, then, is what I think FIFA might come up with for 2010. Note: this is what I think will happen, not necessarily what should happen:

Europe: 14
South America: 4
Africa: 4.5 plus South Africa
Asia: 4.5
Oceania: 0.5

A repechage tournament for the four "halves" would have to be a strong possibility.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Demon Days

In case any of you didn't know, a football match of some significance took place on Sunday night. It ended 1-1 after normal time, extra time produced chances but no goals, a player was given a straight red card for violent conduct, and penalties decided the issue.

I refer, of course, to the Vodafone Premier League preliminary final between Sydney United and Bankstown Lions. (I hear there was a match played in Berlin a few hours later with some similar characteristics - I'll have to check the details of that one some time.)

Sydney United did superbly well to get back into the game after being hit with a double blow - a Bankstown goal and the harsh dismissal of Mason Palmieri - early in the second half. In the end it took an elementary error from Peter Vassilis to allow them to equalise, but in truth, they had always looked likely to conjure something up, even with ten men.

Now they face a Blacktown City Demons side enjoying an enviable run this season. So far, they have collected the Continental Tyres Cup, the Johnny Warren Cup (defeating United in the final), and the league minor premiership.

Blacktown are a team with few big names, even by state league standards; their star performer has been the A-League bound Tolgay Ozbey, but from what I've seen of them this season, they are a team in the true sense. Fit, pugnacious and tactically well-organised, they will present a formidable hurdle to Sydney United.

Having watched United's last two games, I feel they may not have quite enough to challenge Blacktown, to whom they lost twice in the league, in the final on July 16. Currently they are using a young strikeforce of Ben Vidaic and Luka Glavas, both talented young strikers but a little short on strength. In the first half, despite plenty of service, they found it hard to hold the ball up.

United playmaker Lisandro Berbis, another youngster, is a player of considerable promise. However, he still appears somewhat raw, not to mention prone to the odd rash challenge. Behind him is the resourceful Mile Jedinak, easily United's best player of the finals series so far. Strong in the air and in the tackle, he was largely responsible for United's domination of the first half on Sunday.

The Croatian-backed club has another able midfielder in the right-sided Peter Markovic, astute in his movement off the ball, and especially quick to spot an opposition fullback out of position. The Demons will need to keep a close eye on him next Sunday.

The central defensive partnership of Ante Juric and Joe Vrkic is sturdy and experienced, but perhaps a little lacking in pace. United may well be vulnerable out wide as well; Shane Webb, Bankstown's best player on Sunday night, twice made a monkey of Todd Brodie on the United right; after one such incursion, Webb's cross resulted in the only Bankstown goal.

Despite all these reservations, Sydney United are an excellent side and should provide far more than token opposition for the all-conquering Demons. Sunday, July 16, Marconi Stadium, 3 p.m. If you're in the area, come along. It should be an intriguing afternoon's football.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Places at the Table, Part 2

Certain changes in the allocation of places for the 2010 World Cup will undoubtedly be necessary, partly as a result of Africa enjoying hosting rights. The now-traditional five places for Africa might become five and a half or even six, given that it would be somehwat unfair to expect all of the Africans bar South Africa to play off for only four spots. The confederation includes such seasoned competitors as Cameroon, Nigeria and Tunisia, as well as currently impressive sides such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Not to mention Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Mali, all of whom are quite capable of giving any mid-ranking European side a fair shake.

The Asian confederation pulled off a very neat trick as a result of South Korea's success in 2002, wangling four and a half places out of FIFA for 2006. This despite the fact that they recieved only three and a half spots in 1998, and that the two Asian nations who lacked the benefit of home support in 2002 flopped embarrassingly. A real political coup for Mohammed bin Hammam.

Asia can consider itself very lucky that the ersatz Asian team at the tournament, Australia, made it past the first round this time. Otherwise, Asia's collective performance at the event was dismal, and the fact that the usual suspects qualify from Asia with monotonous regularity and yet fail to convince at the finals must surely be setting some alarm bells ringing in Zurich. Nonetheless, it is hard to see Asia losing any ground for 2010. Unfortunately for Australia, it's hard to see the AFC gaining any ground either. Four and a half is likely to be the limit once more, despite the addition of Australia.

What, then, of Oceania? It is now a pathetic shell of a confederation with a half-spot it scarcely deserves. The remaining "half-spot" confederations, one suspects, will be queuing up to knock over the Oceania champion in late 2009. It's quite possible that FIFA, in order to avoid any bad blood, might finally have to consider the option of a cross-confederation repechage tournament on neutral territory, for the playoff orphans. The playoff ties in 2005 were a patent absurdity, Australia facing Uruguay while Bahrain played Trinidad and Tobago. Either of the former two teams would almost certainly have butchered either of the latter in a playoff. Hence, probably, the lack of a repechage tournament for the cycle just finished: the Asians and CONCACAF, both of whose supremos wield considerable influence within FIFA, would never have countenanced it.

CONCACAF does not deserve its three and a half places, but the influence of its bully-in-chief Jack Warner, not to mention the necessity of ensuring that the U.S. qualifies, will probably ensure that it keeps them. As with Asia, the same teams routinely emerge from the CONCACAF qualifiers every time.

And so to the big guns: South America and Europe. To be dealt with in my next instalment.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 5

So much for the playoff. What of the World Cup?

Hiddink, I felt, got things wrong against Japan initially, marshalled his forces superbly well against Brazil, did similarly well against Croatia despite the ill-starred choice of Kalac, and finally failed to take his chance against the Italians.

If the eleven chosen for the opening game against Japan had many of us in Kaiserslautern scratching our heads, the eventual deployment of the troops on the pitch caused even more confusion. Brett Emerton in the centre with Luke Wilkshire at right wing-back; Jason Culina on the left side with Harry Kewell just in behind Viduka, a use of Kewell for which Frank Farina had often been criticised.

Martin Tyler commented to me a few days after the game that "some coaches like to fit their best players in, somehow or other; Hiddink prefers to use players who know his system, and can fit within it." Fair enough. The need for flexibility again, especially if a substitution is necessary. But Australia, despite their fitness and determination, looked like a Ferrari in third gear during the first half. Wilkshire and Culina made no inroads down the flanks at all, and Wilkshire allowed his opposite man, Japan's left-back Alex, to cut inside him and bring the ball to the edge of the penalty area on more than one occasion.

The obvious move would surely have been to switch Wilkshire and Emerton, but it didn't happen.

In the second half, Hiddink showed his mettle and then some. Australia's sharpness began to return with the arrival of Cahill, and Japan's counterattacks plainly lacked punch. Two more strikers arrived, replacing a defender and a midfielder, and still Japan could make nothing of their breakaways. Hiddink's shrewd judgement that the Japanese final balls would pose little danger, even with the defence so undermanned, paid off. A final flurry saw Australia go top of the group.

It was a much-altered Australian eleven who faced Brazil. Brett Emerton and Scott Chipperfield now filled the wing-back roles, but they had clearly been detailed to follow Brazil's nominal wide midfield men, Ronaldinho and Kaka, infield whenever necessary. Chipperfield, in particular, allowed the dangerous Kaka the minimum of time on the ball, with the result that the service to the Brazilian strikers was poor in the opening 45 minutes.

The Australians were swift in the tackle, neat in their passing and intelligent in their off-the-ball movement; only up front did they appear blunt. With the game barely half an hour old, Hiddink took steps to rectify this by sacrificing Tony Popovic for the attack-minded Bresciano.

How many coaches in world football would have the chutzpah to bring on an attacking midfielder for a central defender in the first half of a World Cup match against Brazil?

Sadly for Hiddink and his team, referee Markus Merk, perhaps overly influenced by articles such as this, appeared determined to add "tackle on Brazilians" to the "tackle from behind" on FIFA's no-no list.

Brazil snatched a goal at the start of the second half, and despite many vigorous attacks from the Socceroos thereafter, some adroit defending from Ze Roberto and some poor finishing allowed Brazil to maintain their lead. With the arrival of Robinho, given much time and space on the right thanks to the upfield excursions of Chipperfield, Brazil finally looked like scoring again, and did so a minute from the close. But it was the most unconvincing of victories.

Next: Croatia and Italy.

Monday, July 10, 2006


World Cup 2006 - The Football Tragic Awards

The tournament is over, the fever has subsided, the cup has been covered with Italian saliva. Time for the unofficial awards ceremony, courtesy of your resident tragedian.

Player of the tournament:

No question here. Fabio Cannavaro is streets ahead of the contenders.

Despite a few lapses of judgement in the final, his overall tournament performance was the most commanding we've seen from a defender in a very long time. His nullifying of Mark Viduka in the round of 16, his endless clearances against Ukraine, his telling role in Italy's second goal in the semi-final...and the list goes on. Cannavaro was dominant in the air and on the ground, impeccable in his positioning, and refreshingly "clean" in his tackling. Simply magnificent.

Flop of the tournament:

Plenty of those players expected to make a significant impact in Germany were hampered by injuries; Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko, Wayne Rooney, and even Francesco Totti failed to fire when their teams required something special. But these national talismans can provide an excuse, of sorts. No such allowances can be made for Ronaldinho.

Even as the beneficiary of a number of "free kicks by reputation", Barca's magician was simply unable to make much impact in Germany at all. Targeted by opposition defenders, it's true, and not helped by Carlos Alberto Parreira's eccentric formation, which virtually compelled him to peel off to the left in order to find sufficient space in which to operate. But extraordinary players are expected to rise above close marking and tactical awkwardness. Ronaldinho emphatically did not.

Luckiest team of the tournament:

One is tempted to say Italy, but the gong goes to England.

"England? Lucky?? The team that had its star player seriously injured before the tournament?"

Ah, but that's before the tournament, isn't it...

An easy first-round group, in which they played execrable football for the most part, was followed by a second-round matchup against perhaps the weakest team in the final 16, who treated them with far too much respect. Even so, the game could only be decided by a typically accurate Beckham free kick, just as the opening match against Paraguay had seen England go ahead thanks to a lucky deflection.

In the quarter-final, they could surely hardly believe the Portuguese tactics after Wayne Rooney's deserved send-off: no extra strikers, and Cristiano Ronaldo, a winger in anyone's language, playing centre-forward, with predictable ineffectuality. The team did fight well when down to ten men, but the game should have been done and dusted long before the shootout.

Unluckiest team of the tournament:

We Australians have a right to feel aggrieved about the manner of our exit. But what about the USA?

Beaten pointless by the Czechs in the opening game, Bruce Arena's team rallied superbly in the final two group matches, only to be denied by some abominable refereeing. Even against Italy, they could count themselves unlucky to be down to nine men - Eddie Pope's dismissal seemed somewhat harsh - and they deserved to go ahead in the second half, when wave after wave of American attacks were thwarted just shy of the Italian goal.

Their loss against Ghana was just a travesty. A goal conceded after Claudio Reyna had been fouled, an obvious penalty denied, and then a penalty given wrongly to the Africans to decide the encounter.

The USA ended up last in Group E, with only one point from their three matches. Extremely unjust.

Most entertaining team of the tournament:

FIFA, ridiculously, gave this award (from the result of an online poll, apparently) to Portugal. That's right, the side that gave cynical play-acting a bad name.

By rights, and against stereotype, it surely belongs to Germany.

After they reached the final in 2002 thanks to a strong defence and an outstanding goalkeeper, the world could have been forgiven for expecting the Germans to adopt a stonewall approach, especially after their ignominious exit from Euro 2004. Instead, Klinsmann fielded two central strikers, encouraged his fullbacks to get forward, and his team banged in the goals. Even against Poland, when the Germans only just broke through in the final stages, they always looked likely to score. The winger David Odonkor showed much promise (although the Italians dealt with him most efficiently in the semi-final), and Miroslav Klose is now so much more than the aerial poacher of 2002.

The friendly attitude of the German people was not all there was to like about Germany at this World Cup.

Most boring team of the tournament:

Take a bow, Ukraine.

Although one has to give them credit for rallying after the shock of their 4-0 defeat to Spain, it was hard to feel much sympathy for Oleg Blokhin and his side after their quarter-final exit. They finally came to life in the second half against Italy, after two deadly dull performances against Tunisia and Switzerland. Defeating the former thanks to a non-existent penalty, they bored the latter to death before strolling past them in the shootout.

Andriy Shevchenko's injury struggles help to explain their blunt, over-physical style at the tournament, but they surely had enough talent in their ranks - Voronin, Tymoshchuk, the sadly under-used Ruslan Rotan - to provide the fans with better memories. On behalf of football fans everywhere, I wish Oleg Blokhin a long and successful career in the Ukrainian parliament. He can stay there.

Best match of the tournament:

Several pundits have nominated the Germany-Italy semi-final for this accolade. Although it featured a number of memorable moments and two splendid goals, the second half, sandwiched between the intriguing opening forty-five minutes and the thrilling extra-time period, was mediocre.

My vote goes to the first-round clash between Holland and the Ivory Coast.

A first half shaded by the Dutch, and featuring two fine goals, was followed by a second in which the Ivorians demonstrated just how unfair the draw had been to them. In almost any other group, they surely would have reached the knockout stage.

Bakary Kone's marvellous solo goal was followed by as sustained and inventive an assault on the opposition goal as we saw in Germany. The Dutch could only hang on for dear life as the Africans took control of the midfield and sent telling through-balls everywhere; but Edwin van der Sar, and the Dutch defenders, were in defiant mood, and held out. It was a thrilling, uplifting display of football, a real treasure of a game.

Worst match of the tournament:

Several contenders here. Ukraine v. Tunisia, Ukraine v. Switzerland, France v. Switzerland, Mexico v. Angola...but for sheer, sustained, unutterable banality, the award goes to England v. Paraguay from the first round. I had the misfortune to be present at this game, and, not without a certain malicious pleasure, I quizzed some of the English journalists milling around afterwards about their team's performance. Red faces and heartfelt apologies were the order of the day.

Decided by an utterly trivial winner, an own goal from a long, hopeful free kick, the game featured virtually nothing else of interest. Paraguay's star striker was clearly struggling for form and fitness, and England, under Sven-Goran Eriksson's less than glorious aegis, were a wretched sight, lofting constant long balls in the direction of Peter Crouch while a half-fit Owen chased pitifully after the knockdowns.

A diabolical display of football.

Let me close by offering my congratulations to the champions. Their success was aided at times by some unsavoury gamesmanship, but any team that concedes only two goals - one of them an own goal and the other a highly debatable penalty - in over eleven hours of football is a pretty worthy winner in my eyes. Twelve goals scored is a perfectly respectable total, too; more, for instance, than the Brazilians of 1994 managed.

Rallegramenti, Italia.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


The Phantom Strikers

There was rich significance in the fact that it was Nuno Gomes, so perversely ignored by Luiz Felipe Scolari for the majority of the tournament, who scored Portugal's consolation goal against Germany in the World Cup third-place playoff. A deft finish it was, too.

Gomes is one of a number of players, including David Trezeguet, Fred, Dirk Kuyt and John Aloisi, who have been, at this World Cup, the victims of world football's current tactical fad: the lone striker.

Scolari has, no doubt, enhanced his reputation in Germany. After all, Portugal were considered little more than a dark horse before the tournament; reaching the semi-finals has garnered him considerable acclaim. Far more than he deserves.

In truth, Portugal found themselves in an easy first-round group from which they progressed with little trouble. The win over Holland in the round of 16 was a match the football world would prefer to forget. England looked a better side with ten men than Portugal with eleven in the quarter-final. And against France, they never looked like equalising Zidane's first-half penalty.

After Maniche's superbly-taken goal against the Dutch, Scolari's side in fact failed to score for over six hours of football. That's right: six whole hours without the ball hitting the back of the net. And don't forget, Portugal possess the attacking talent of Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Figo, the long-range threat of Maniche, plus one of the most consistent scorers in European club football.

But for the majority of the tournament, Pauleta was left totally alone up front, and all the trickery of Ronaldo, the experience of Figo and the brilliance of Deco went to waste.

In the semi-final, Scolari absurdly substituted Pauleta with Simao Sabrosa, leaving his team with three wingers on the pitch, and no strikers. It was a similar story in the quarter-final, when Cristiano Ronaldo was inexplicably moved into the centre. He was never sighted there.

The hard truth is that the Portuguese were capable of better. And if their coach had shown a little more courage, they might just have achieved it.

Scolari's compatriot, Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, became the latest convert to the 4-5-1 club in Germany. He started the quarter-final with Ronaldo alone up front. Next to Parreira in the dugout sat the venerable Mario Zagallo, World Cup winner as player and coach, and advisor to Parreira in 2006. This is the same man who, in 1990, excoriated the lone-striker tactics of Brazil's then manager, Sebastiao Lazaroni, implying that such a setup went against all the principles of Brazilian football. Evidently, times have changed.

The current deity in football is the "holding" midfielder, and it seems every top national side needs two of them. France have Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. Brazil use Ze Roberto and Emerson in the role. Portugal have a veritable crowd of them.

It is usually the extra holding man who nudges out the second striker from a team's starting eleven. But is this second anchorman really needed?

Certainly, from the fan point of view, we could easily do without him. And despite what most national team managers seem to think, I believe their teams just might play better football, and even be more successful, with a bit of added help for the poor lone man up front. Australia, for one, generally looked a far more threatening unit in Germany once John Aloisi had arrived...and their defensive solidity was not unduly affected.

The upshot of this slavish addiction to 4-5-1 is that the World Cup has been deprived of some of the best strikers in world football. It would surely have been a more entertaining event if the Nuno Gomeses of the world had been preferred to the Costinhas now and then.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Places at the Table, Part 1

A number of scribes have commented that this World Cup has re-established the traditional football "first world" - Europe and South America - on its erstwhile pedestal. The two heavyweight confederations provided thirteen of the sixteen teams in the second round, and all of the teams in the quarter-finals; Ghana, Mexico and alas Australia failed to clear the second hurdle.

As a result, the inevitable discussion concerning allocations for the different confederations at the next World Cup seems to have already kicked into gear. Before detailing my own views, let's take a look at the bare facts for this tournament. Places allocated, and teams progressed to the knockout phase. It makes pretty dismal reading for football's "third world":

Europe: 10 teams progressed out of 14.
South America: 3/4
Asia/Oceania: 1/5
Africa: 1/5

Technically, of course, South America's allocation should read 4.5, and that of CONCACAF 3.5; however, the above record will suffice for the moment.

Interestingly enough, the second-round complement at Germany 2006 had exactly the same composition, confederation-wise, as the initial 16 that competed in Argentina in 1978. That's significant, because the 1978 World Cup was the last to include only 16 teams at the finals. The competition was subsequently expanded to 24, largely because the third-world confederations felt they were getting a raw deal. The allocations for Argentina, apparently, did not properly reflect the potential of football's "outlying regions".

And yet here we are, 28 years later, and little seems to have changed.

Of course, this impression is illusory. For a start, this tournament was held in Europe, with all the concomitant advantages of familiarity and support for the European nations. Secondly, there were none of the traditional cricket scores against teams from the third world - Ukraine did knock in four without reply against Saudi Arabia, but the PR nightmare of an 8-0 or 7-1 loss was avoided. The heaviest defeat of the event was actually suffered by a European side.

Lastly, there is the matter of Africa.

The perennial collective underachievers of the World Cup did it again; only Ghana managed to progress, and they were inordinately lucky to do so, benefiting from no less than three poor but highly significant decisions in their final group match against the USA.

Yet it's worth remembering that the African qualifying series, normally a purveyor of few surprises, was awash with shocks this time. Romantic stories, no doubt, the triumphs of Togo and Angola; but they probably did rob the World Cup of African sides with genuine chances of making the knockout phase.

So what's to be done for 2010, with all this in mind? Part two coming up soon.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 4

In my previous three sets of musings, I've given my impressions of some of Guus Hiddink's contributions to Australian football, and our World Cup performance, in a broad sense.

Now down to the mechanics. First, the pre-World Cup period.

To deal briefly with his pre-World Cup tactical schemes: he made two significant changes to the Australian setup familiar from the Farina era. One was the deployment of Lucas Neill in central defence, and the other was the switch to a three-man back line (although he did employ a back four on occasion). Both of these adjustments were mostly successful.

In Montevideo, I feel he was lucky to get away with the puzzling step of using Harry Kewell on the right wing for the entire match. Kewell has always looked more threatening on the left, and failed to generate many attacking possibilities at the Centenario on the opposite wing. In addition, he clearly tired towards the close, and the subsequent bluntness of the Australian attack in the second half allowed Uruguay to take the initiative completely. In truth, Australia was very lucky to leave South America with only a one-goal deficit.

In Sydney, Kewell started on the bench. However, Hiddink threw him on after 32 minutes, sacrificing a defender in Tony Popovic. Kewell took up a position on Australia's left wing, and the team took wing. Most pundits declared (probably correctly) that we would not have seen such a vigorous step from Frank Farina.

In the wake of that joyous night, it seems almost churlish to suggest that Hiddink's decisions were anything other than masterly. But I believe he missed the chance to clinch the tie without recourse to penalties, and this missed chance had a curious echo in Australia's second round match with Italy in Kaiserslautern.

For much of the second period of normal time, Australia were enjoying long spells of possession in the opposition half. Kewell was making regular inroads on the left, although, as in Montevideo, he did tire. Mark Viduka, however, found himself regularly crowded out once the final ball arrived.

From about the 70-minute mark on, many of those sitting or standing near me at Telstra Stadium were clamouring for the presence of John Aloisi. As was I.

Aloisi finally replaced Marco Bresciano six minutes into extra time, but by then Australia's momentum had whittled away, and penalties were already looking likely. In Hiddink's defence, it must be added that he had taken the possibility of penalties into account in his pre-match plans; but, even with 83,000 fans cheering the home side on, they are a chancy business.

In the end, Aloisi became the hero of the piece.

Hiddink placed a great deal of faith in Viduka as the lone central striker throughout his time as Australia coach. This was one case in which I believe a different approach was required; and it was not the last.

To be continued...

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