Friday, June 29, 2007
The Pioneers, Part 4
Australia v. Chile
Australia's only "result" at the tournament was also their most enthralling game. It is odd that it has generally gone down in the annals of football history as a dull scoreless draw in a dead rubber, a game in which the heavy conditions made anything resembling football more or less impossible in any case.
Time to dispel a few myths.
First: it was emphatically not a dead rubber. The Chileans still stood a good chance of progressing if they could beat the Australians, and the West German hosts could defeat their Communist neighbours by a couple of goals. In the event, of course, East Germany beat the eventual champions 1-0 in the biggest shock of the tournament. Although this did indeed render the result of the Australia v. Chile game academic, bear in mind that the clash between the two Germanies took place after the supposed "dead rubber".
Second: there was indeed heavy rain in the second half, but there was also plenty of exciting football. Neither the Chileans nor their allegedly unsophisticated opponents were prepared to abandon all attempts to play the ball along the carpet, however sodden it may have been.
Third: Although the first half was relatively insipid, the second period was awash with chances. It was hardly a "game with 0-0 written all over it".
And so to the game. Rale Rasic decided not to rest Adrian Alston, despite his injury in the West Germany game; he again started at centre-forward, but this time Atti Abonyi was handed a possibly overdue start on the right wing.
Chile had their stocky, elusive little right winger Carlos Caszely back after his suspension against the East Germans, and the 23-year-old would prove a considerable handful for the Australian defence with his mesmerising runs and sudden bursts of pace. Otherwise, the Chilean manager Luis Luque kept faith with the team that had held the East Germans.
With Chile playing a more patient, less forceful game than the West Germans, Australia started far more confidently than in their previous match. Peter Wilson now had the time to pass the ball out of defence rather than loft it, and with Abonyi full of energy and Jimmy Rooney effective in midfield, Australia had the better of the opening exchanges.
Yet Alston's injury was clearly hampering him; he was quite unrecognizable from the powerful striker who had twice embarrassed the world's greatest defender in the previous match. Had Rasic made the right decision?
The first 20 minutes was barren of chances, with each defence having the measure of the opposing attack, and the final balls from both sides lacking wit. Caszely, on the first of a few memorable sorties, nearly burst through at the halfway point of the first period, but eventually found a crowd of yellow shirts too much for him. A half-chance for Elias Figueroa at one end, Alston at the other...the game needed a shot in the arm.
It got it, inevitably from Caszely. A marvellous slalom on the right saw him glide past three men before planting a perfect cross onto the head of Carlos Reynoso. Jack Reilly's brilliant point-blank save rebounded to Reynoso again, and the latter's attempt to palm the ball into the net failed.
Chile began to take over. Reilly did well again on the half-hour, holding onto a low cross from Chile's left winger Leonardo Veliz, despite being badly unsighted by Wilson. Then, on 37 minutes, Ray Richards reacted to the award of a free kick to Chile by kicking the ball away angrily. The unimpressive referee, Jafar Namdar, produced a yellow card. Just slot that into your memory bank for the moment...
Australia came back into the game towards the end of the half, and Branko Buljevic was the man responsible. Making a number of purposeful, sinuous runs from his deep left-wing position, he inspired the Australians to start passing and pressing again; one fine move shortly before the interval ended with a powerful shot from Jim Mackay, which was fortuitously blocked.
At the other end, Caszely again tore past Colin Curran and headed for the by-line, only to be nastily upended by Wilson, who was fortunate to escape without a caution.
As the players emerged for the second half, the rain was pelting down in the Olympiastadion. The pitch, already not in the best of states, began to break out in large puddles. It would be easy to assume, then, that the second half was an unwatchable war of attrition, with long balls and aerial challenges predominating.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It was, on the contrary, a vibrant, exciting 45 minutes, in which both sides, to their great credit, tried to play football despite the atrocious conditions.
Australia might have had a penalty when another superb run from Buljevic - taking up where he had left off in the first half - was halted by a sly elbow from Figueroa. Then Alston, coming to life at last, slipped the tireless Abonyi through in the inside-right channel; sadly, the St. George man slipped at the vital moment. Abonyi turned provider a few minutes later, storming forward on the right before giving a neat infield pass to Mackay, who shot just wide.
The struggling Alston was replaced by Peter Ollerton on 65 minutes. The sequel, however, was a renewed Chilean onslaught; first the centre-forward Sergio Ahumada, having a distinctly quiet game, turned away from Manfred Schaefer in the box but shot wide; then a misplaced header from Buljevic put the ball at the feet of Alberto Quintano twelve yards from goal, but his audacious attempt to chip Reilly was unsuccessful.
On 74 minutes came Australia's best chance of the night. Curran, breaking splendidly from defence as he did so often during the tournament, hit the by-line and cut the ball back sharply for Mackay; the blond midfielder, with no time to react, sent the ball over the top from five yards out...
After another headed chance for Figueroa following a rare misjudgement from Reilly, Curran badly injured himself in a challenge with the Chilean right-back, Rolando Garcia. As he received treatment by the touchline, Ray Richards came across to take the Australian free kick. Now, the plot thickens.
Ruud Doevendans has told the story in admirable detail here, so I won't repeat it. Suffice to say that the confusion of the Australians when Namdar did eventually flash the red card at Richards was indescribable. Hands flew everywhere, faces wore expressions of complete bewilderment. Yet off he went.
Amazing that (to the best of my knowledge) only two World Cup games have featured instances of the referee forgetting to send off a player who had received two cautions - and that both games featured Australia!
Meanwhile, Harry Williams had come on for Curran, and the young Aboriginal defender did a superb job in the frantic final minutes. He made a number of important clearances, including a magnificent last-ditch tackle on the rampant Caszely.
The Chileans now came forward in droves, but the resolute defending of the Australians, with Wilson unbeatable in the air, kept them at bay. The side in red were reduced to long shots, and three of them whistled past Jack Reilly and out for goal-kicks in quick succession.
Then, an extraordinary moment of late drama. A straightforward long ball from Reynoso produced a moment of potentially disastrous confusion between Wilson and his goalkeeper. The latter, running the risk of eternal execration in his adopted country, dropped the ball. It fell to the feet of Ahumada, whose reflex shot...was stopped by Wilson's head on its way to goal.
As the final whistle sounded, Wilson the captain raised his arms to the heavens in a gesture of triumph. The part-timers and first-time participants had held the World Cup veterans, semi-finalists in 1962, to a richly deserved draw.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
The Pioneers, Part 3
Australia v. West Germany
The encounter with the hosts and eventual champions was the only game in which Rale Rasic’s side was comprehensively outclassed from start to finish. Although the West Germans won 3-0, it could easily have been a couple more. Having said this, a few slack moments in the German defence might just have given Australia a reward for their dogged efforts during the game, as we shall see.
The man of the match, in every respect, was the outstanding West German playmaker Wolfgang Overath. His raking, pinpoint left-footed passes from his deep midfield position constituted an absolute masterclass in the art of midfield generalship, à la Andrea Pirlo.
Other stars for the hosts were the young, skilful centre-forward Uli Hoeness, occasionally over-elaborate, popping up everywhere in the best traditions of Total Football, and the tricky winger Jürgen Grabowski, who posed constant danger on the right flank.
And the Australians? None were remotely disgraced, but Jack Reilly, in goal, deserved particular commendation for his efforts in keeping the Germans to three. Although at fault for the third goal, his handling and positioning were generally excellent, and they needed to be.
In the only change to the Australian side, the injured Johnny Warren was replaced by Ernie Campbell on the right flank. The West German side was unchanged from their game against Chile.
The hosts went on the attack immediately, with Australia ceding them the lion’s share of the park from the outset. Overath made his presence felt early with a fine ball through to Grabowski on the right; his cross found the prolific Gerd Muller in the centre, but Doug Utjesenovic managed to block the shot. Muller had another chance a few minutes later, when a clever backheel from der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, put him through. He failed to trouble Reilly.
It seemed only a matter of time, and sure enough, Australia were breached on twelve minutes. A neat West German passing move on the right flank left the Australian defence in disarray, and the ball broke to Overath in an acre of space in the middle. Calmly picking his shot, he airmailed the ball into the top corner with his formidable left foot.
The one-way traffic continued. A free kick was touched off to Hoeness on 15 minutes, but he couldn’t find the target; a minute later, a cross from Berti Vogts found Muller unmarked in the box, but the latter’s header pinged off the bar. It was his best chance of a half in which Peter Wilson, marking him (as Muller later complained) very aggressively, kept him reasonably quiet.
Colin Curran was having a torrid time at left-back, up against the superbly resourceful Grabowski. The West German winger had already beaten his man on a couple of occasions when he finally placed a cross on the head of a team-mate, the left-winger Jupp Heynckes. Reilly saved well.
Meanwhile, the Australians were doing what they could. Long balls out of defence proliferated, the determined pressing of the Germans often leaving the overawed Australians with little choice. After one such “clearance”, the ball broke to Overath again; his gem of a pass found Muller, who set up Hoeness for another near miss.
As in the previous game, it was Adrian Alston who provided the Socceroos with some hope. Finally receiving the ball in an advanced position, he burst past Vogts and cut inside Beckenbauer to create a shot for himself, but failed to keep it down.
Soon afterwards, Australia went further behind. With Curran upfield and out of position, the ball broke to Hoeness on the right; evading Wilson, he crossed, and this time it was the midfielder Bernhard Cullmann who nipped in between Utjesenovic and Manfred Schaefer to head in.
The home team might have gone in even further ahead but for a splendid save by Reilly after a German corner reached Vogts, who sent a blistering cross-shot at goal.
Alston was getting precious little support from the flanks, with Branko Buljevic rarely advancing into the opposing half and Campbell ineffective on the right. Yet, towards the end of the half, Australia finally began to put together a few pleasing passing moves; at the conclusion of one of these, Jim Mackay’s adroit pass found Curran, who had slipped unnoticed into the box. Sepp Maier, the West German goalkeeper, had to plunge at his feet to save.
At half-time, Campbell was replaced by Atti Abonyi, and Australia rallied. Not least because the Germans clearly slipped down a gear in the second period, content to maintain possession and threaten occasionally.
Alston had the first good chance of the half, again proving that he could be a handful to even the finest defences. Sweeping past Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, he again managed to get goal-side of the great Beckenbauer…but his eventual shot was a disappointing one.
Although the Australians were looking far more composed and confident, Curran in particular handling Grabowski far better after the interval, they conceded a painfully soft goal on 53 minutes. A straightforward corner from Hoeness on the right found Muller, who had snuck ahead of Schaefer and Utjesenovic. Reilly, for once, was caught in no-man’s land, and Muller collected his eleventh World Cup goal.
With their heads down, the Socceroos were extremely lucky not to concede a fourth moments later. A superb run down the left by Bernd Hölzenbein, a half-time replacement for Heynckes, ended with a neat cross to Hoeness in the middle. An open goal faced him: he headed over the top.
The centre-forward Peter Ollerton replaced a tiring Buljevic, and Alston withdrew to the left flank (somewhat to his relief, one suspects). From his new secluded position, he sent a lovely diagonal ball through to Abonyi, whose cross nearly gave Ollerton a goal within minutes of his arrival. A fine clearance from Berti Vogts thwarted the danger.
Sadly, the game was to turn sour for Alston. Injured in a tackle midway through the half, he was forced off the field for several minutes, and played only a peripheral role thereafter, limping wretchedly along the left touchline.
The West Germans came to life in fits and starts. Another move initiated by Hölzenbein created a chance for the Germans’ second substitute, Herbert Wimmer. Wimmer would have another chance shortly before full-time, when another sublime long pass from Overath just eluded him in front of goal.
Out of the blue, there came a golden opportunity for Australia to open its World Cup account. Jim Mackay, having a mixed game, ended a sudden burst through the midfield with a perfectly-weighted pass through to Abonyi, on a diagonal run into the centre. The substitute held off Paul Breitner, prodded deftly past Maier – and the ball came tantalizingly back off the inside of the far post.
There was time for one last Australian chance, when Curran’s clever pass put Alston clean through; the Alston of the first half might have gone all the way, but the hard-working Vogts got back in time to make a crucial tackle.
Although the Socceroos left the field comprehensively defeated, they had again clearly gained the respect of the crowd, who applauded Rasic’s side off the pitch, and had even taken to booing the home side as they became somewhat languid in the second half.
Next: Chile, and Australia’s first, treasured point at the World Cup.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The Pioneers, Part 2
So, to Australia’s matches at the 1974 World Cup. And first up:
Australia v. East Germany
There must have been plenty of nerves jangling before the start of this game. The two countries were both playing their very first World Cup game (it would be 24 years before another pair of debutants, Croatia and Jamaica, faced each other in their opening group match).
The East Germans were favoured, of course. They had edged past Romania in their European qualifying group, scoring eleven goals in their final three games, and had posted an impressive series of results in pre-tournament friendlies.
Australia’s team was largely an unknown quantity. They had played two warm-up games against Uruguay at home (the latter featuring the notorious “karate chop” incident which ended Ray Baartz’s chances of appearing in Germany), and friendlies against Indonesia and Israel en route to Germany. On the whole, they must have been only slightly less mysterious to the football cognoscenti than the North Koreans of 1966.
Australia took the field in what was supposedly a 4-4-2, but it gave rather the appearance of a 4-5-1, with Branko Buljevic – nominally a striker – dropping back into a virtual left midfield position for much of the time. The East Germans played a fluid 4-3-3. The stadium was barely half-full - the World Cup was far from the marketing and TV bonanza of today.
The opening was tense. Australia had clearly set out to defend resolutely and attack mainly on the break, and indeed they played rather better without the ball than with it in the early stages. Peter Wilson, the central defender and captain, was impressive in his positioning and heading power, but less so in his distribution, especially from free kicks.
Twice in the initial period, Colin Curran broke upfield from left-back to good effect, combining well with the front pairing of Buljevic and Adrian Alston. With Manfred Schaefer alert at the back and Curran’s excursions making Australia an awkward proposition on the break, East Germany didn’t have things all their own way for the opening twenty minutes. A wild long shot from their left-back, Siegmar Wätzlich, was about all they managed.
Sadly, Johnny Warren, playing on the right of midfield, picked up an early injury in a tackle and his effectiveness was greatly limited thereafter. It was surprising, in fact, that Rale Rasic kept him on the field for the entire ninety minutes.
The East Germans were not averse to a bit of calculated fouling, but the Australians’ free kicks went to waste all too often; the general method employed, a hefty whack into the mixer, was predictably ineffective. There were two exceptions late in the half, however; once Ray Richards laid the ball off cleverly to Alston, whose shot lacked the requisite power and accuracy, while Doug Utjesenovic almost scored what would have been a stunning goal with a narrow-angled free kick late in the half. The East German sweeper, Bernd Bransch, managed to get his foot in the way.
On the half-hour the East Germans finally managed another half-chance, Jürgen Sparwasser evading Schaefer but blazing wide. Then it was Adrian Alston’s turn to come to the fore.
On an inspired infield run from an outside-right position, he skipped past three East German defenders before being fouled by the centre-back, Konrad Weise. Soon afterwards, he tormented Weise again, this time by the left corner-flag, to be eventually brought down again. It should perhaps be mentioned here that in a later game, the same East German defender reportedly kept a certain Johan Cruyff uncharacteristically quiet.
The Germans finally engineered a palpable chance a couple of minutes from the break. The left-winger Eberhard Vogel, by far their best player of the night, got away from Richards on the left and crossed for the centre-forward Joachim Streich, marked a little too loosely by Schaefer. The blond striker had his header saved by the legs of Jack Reilly.
Half-time, and the Socceroos had surpassed themselves. As they headed into the sheds, Warren giving Schaefer a deserved pat on the back, the commentator John Motson remarked that the Australians had “defended remarkably well”.
The second half began even more hopefully for the Socceroos, with East Germany resorting to long balls and aimless passing in the search for a breakthrough. The manager, Georg Buschner, sensibly replaced the right-winger Wolfram Löwe, who had been getting nowhere against Curran, with the teenager Martin Hoffmann. Slowly, East Germany began to assume the initiative.
Hoffmann’s presence was only incidental to the opening goal, however. After a fairly innocuous passing move from the Germans, the ball reached the baby-faced Jürgen Pommerenke on the left. Suddenly, a quick through-ball caught the Australian defence off guard; Sparwasser had nipped into a gap in the inside-left channel. As Schaefer appealed vainly for offside, Reilly dashed out of his net to narrow the angle; Sparwasser deftly jabbed the ball past him, and as it rolled inexorably towards goal, Curran’s attempted clearance only succeeded in finding the inside netting. 1-0.
Sparwasser was now rampant. Soon after the goal, he glided past Rooney and shot just wide. Australia did what they could on the break, but although Buljevic continued to display some fine touches and an admirable knack for drawing fouls, the Germans were now on top. For one thing, Alston was finding it harder to get into the game.
If the East Germans’ first goal had owed something to defensive inattention, their second was of the highest quality, and few teams would have been ashamed to concede it. Shortly after Reilly had saved well from Streich, a neat touch from Sparwasser released Vogel on the left, with Utjesenovic out of position; the winger rounded Schaefer with ease and sent in a perfect cross to Streich, who met the ball with a ferocious half-volley which whistled past Reilly. The Socceroo goalkeeper would barely have sighted it.
The game petered out. Curran drifted upfield in the final quarter-hour, but the Australians, clearly tired from their long defensive exertions, were unable to press remotely effectively. Strangely, too, Rasic persisted with the manifestly unfit Warren on the other wing; a substitution (Ollerton or Abonyi, perhaps?) might have resulted in some increased verve from the Socceroos.
The East Germans, too, were content to sit on their lead. Sparwasser hit the outside of the post ten minutes from the close following an incisive right-wing move, and Vogel too had a couple of half-chances in the final minutes. At the other end, Alston managed another sinuous right-wing run, but his eventual shot was blocked.
A two-goal loss was widely perceived as a success for the part-timers from down under. The West Germans, who had found beating Chile hard work, were next…
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
The Pioneers, Part 1
I'd heard plenty about the side, of course; in the first edition of Matthew Hall's The Away Game, there were some tender reflections from Adrian Alston and Andre Krueger, the "crazy German" who has followed the Socceroos so passionately over the years, on the tournament. Krueger (whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Germany last year) has a website dedicated to the 1974 Australian team, which constitutes one of the few proper online records of Australia's first foray into the World Cup.
On seeing the games, the characters and characteristics I'd read about so often finally came to vibrant life. The tough tackling and mesmerising "inside-out" long throws of Ray Richards. Branko Buljevic's subtle control and bursts of pace. The dogged industry and modest inventiveness of the two midfield Jims, Messrs. Rooney and Mackay.
The power and nimble footwork of Adrian Alston up front. The vigorous enterprise of the attacking left-back, Col Curran (Australia's player of the tournament, in my opinion). And, last but not least, the bravery and agility of Jack Reilly in goal, who had a World Cup to be proud of.
These days the average Australian fan is likely to identify the 1974 World Cup with Johnny Warren, but the sad truth is that the tournament came at the wrong time for the late SBS analyst and former Socceroo captain. At 31, he was somewhat past his best, and after picking up a knock early in the game against East Germany, he had a minimal influence on proceedings and took no part in Australia's final two matches.
So, how was Australia's standard perceived by the European football media? Over to the venerable Brian Glanville, whose account in his famous History of the World Cup reads:
Australia's team, made up almost entirely of immigrants, well coached by a Yugoslav, Rale Rasic, would prove far the best of the three outsiders.
Australia conceded five goals and scored none in the course of the 1974 event, which might lead one to conclude (especially by comparison with last year's efforts) that their campaign was a failure. But when one considers that the players in the green and gold were all part-timers, with only a smattering of European experience among the migrants, their achievement suddenly appears commendable at the very least.
By way of comparison, the two other tournament "outsiders", Zaire and Haiti, conceded a whopping 28 goals between them in their opening-round encounters (Haiti at least had the consolation of putting a goal past the Italians, who had kept a series of clean sheets prior to the event).
The Australians played fair, too. Although Gerd Muller, the great West German striker, was later to complain about the Australians' rough approach, they played in an excellent spirit in general; in their first match, in particular, they were far more sinned against than sinning in the foul stakes. Ray Richards was sent off in the game against Chile...but there's an interesting tale there, about which more anon.
I had thought of presenting an overall review of the tournament, but there's so much to chew over that I've decided instead to do a match report of sorts on each of the three games. They are all very watchable, and full of incident (even the 0-0 draw against Chile, a far more lively encounter than it has generally been portrayed).
Tune in next time, then, for Australia v. East Germany - our first appearance at the world's greatest sporting event.
Monday, June 25, 2007
The Football Room, Part 2
The version of the game currently being touted as a prime developmental tool is played with a smallish, hard ball, ensuring that the game is conducted almost exclusively on the carpet (or rather, the floorboards). Developing close control and quick, accurate passing is the aim, and, as I mentioned in the piece linked above, it had a small positive effect in this respect, in my own case.
The reservations I have about futsal not per se, but as a developmental tool, are the following:
1. No aerial component
Much as some might dislike the fact, football proper is played partly in the air, and skill and nous in this area is crucially important.
The correct technique for a sliding tackle is, again, an important skill for young players to familiarize themselves with. In futsal, such tackles are virtually non-existent, for obvious reasons.
One of the advantages of futsal, of course, is that it can be played even when the local field is waterlogged, or the wind conditions make normal football impractical. But the ability to adapt to less-than-ideal conditions is, of course, of paramount importance for a footballer.
4. Weighting of Passes
The clever through-balls of the Pirlo, Hamann and Okon variety depend on a shrewd judgement of the “resistance” offered by the grass, and the resultant slowing up of the ball. On a smoother surface, this factor is greatly lessened (interestingly, I've observed a similar problem at the Sutherland Sharks' Seymour Shaw ground, with its artifical surface, this season; many of the through-balls have been badly overhit).
The general retort to all this by the proponents of futsal is that these elements can be addressed at other times; futsal is there as part of the development process, to deal with skills, short passing and decision-making (among other things).
Fair enough. But, I am always inclined to think, small-pitch five-a-side ticks all of the above boxes while offering most (if not quite all) of the benefits offered by futsal.
In other words, futsal strikes me as a good developmental tool, but not by any means an essential one.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Yet Another Notice re: Comments
Department of Youth - another update
Extending the length of the A-League season should indeed be a top priority for the FFA. Leaving aside the player aspect, football must be able to maintain a reasonable profile in the "off-season", and when that off-season does not feature a World Cup or Asian Cup, that may be hard to engineer.
Yet the key issue, which Foster hints at towards the end of the article, is that a 21-game season is simply not enough for a player aspiring to play professionally at a high level.
As for the following statement:
Do I take the highest bid given that football is a precarious career at best, or choose the biggest club, the best coach to learn from, or the best league to improve my game? And how important is the language barrier? It's a maze of variables to negotiate.
It is time for the FFA to design a better support system to encourage better choices...
I'm reminded of a suggestion I made here. Some dispassionate advice on club choice would surely be welcome for the likes of David Carney and Mark Milligan; perhaps Foster is considering his own move to Crystal Palace in 1998, which proved such an unfortunate decision.
And the language barrier is not to be underestimated (consider, for instance, the case of Claudinho at Melbourne Victory last season). Foster's implication throughout seems to be that Carney's mooted transfer to Sheffield Wednesday - a club in the English second tier - will not be beneficial for his development. He may well be right, but Carney has played in England before, he is familiar with the culture and the language, he probably has friends over there to help ease the transition.
It's important, as always, not to overlook personal considerations when looking at things from a developmental point of view. In the long run, the player and his family will choose whichever option they feel fits them best, and future national team considerations can only ever play a marginal role in the decision.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Given that the Melbourne media (particularly the radio station 3AW and the commercial television networks) have jumped at any opportunity to denigrate football ever since it became clear that Melbourne Victory were now a big hit, it is hard to see what the club had to gain by organising a game against "South". The Greek-backed club, with its proud NSL history, was perhaps one of the most disappointed clubs come the dissolution of the old competition and the advent of the A-League. Not that, it would seem, their fans were the instigators of the relatively minor troubles that ensued.
Interestingly, a mooted trial game between Sydney FC and another club with Hellenic roots, Sydney Olympic, was cancelled a few months back; there may have been concerns that the "new football vs. old soccer" clash might have given rise to some unsavoury moments, given the supposed indignation felt by the Belmore faithful. To be honest, although I've heard the occasional A-League-related grumble at Olympic matches, I don't think the feelings run as deep as they do at Bob Jane. Certainly, there was no trouble at all when Sydney FC played Marconi (its early rival for the Sydney A-League franchise) in another Asian Champions' League warmup.
A pity, then, that the reports from Bob Jane have mostly centred around the flares and the ejections, rather than Archie Thompson's superb goal.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Few Australian players of the last thirty years have promised more than the elegant defender-cum-holding midfielder; in the long run, he fulfilled that promise only partially.
In one of the pile of back issues of World Soccer which I peruse from time to time, a report on the World Youth Championship of 1991 struck my eye a while ago. Australia, of course, performed very well in that event, and the report singled out Australia's sweeper, "Paul Okon-Engstler", as a real star of the tournament. (Whatever happened to the "Engstler" bit?)
He went on to excel in Belgium in the early nineties (his transfer to Club Brugge eventually becoming a bone of considerable contention), even gaining the league's "Golden Shoe" in 1995. When he moved to Italy, it seemed as if he had entered the European A-List.
Yet injuries constantly dogged him, and opportunities at international level were inevitably limited, given Australia's position in the absurd Oceania confederation.
When Frank Farina took over the national side, Okon became an ever-present. Although Farina was later heavily criticised for persisting with Okon past his supposed use-by date, his early performances in the Farina era gave reason to believe the team should indeed have been built around him.
The 2001 Confederations Cup, in which Australia gained a merited third place, represented Okon's finest hour in the green and gold. Passing intelligently and often incisively, and controlling the pace of the game from his deep midfield role, he was unquestionably one of the players of the tournament.
Sadly, most people now remember him as the captain who went missing in the fateful second leg of the 2001 playoff against Uruguay. But it should always be remembered that he was desperately short of first-team football at the time, having perhaps unwisely moved to England, where his unhurried, thoughtful style was not so highly valued.
His one-year A-League stint was only a mixed success, but we did see flashes of his undeniable quality. After an uncertain start (to put it charitably), in which he made more than his fair share of defensive howlers, he gained confidence as Newcastle began to reel in the wins, and was often to be seen striding purposefully out of defence, often providing the deadly ball through to the forwards for which he had become well-known.
It is this facet of Okon's play, above all, which will be sorely missed. In his final Socceroo appearance, against Jamaica in a friendly in 2003, he played just such a killer ball from deep to put Harry Kewell through for Australia's second goal.
It was a fitting note on which to depart the Australian side, which he had served well.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
The Football Room, Part 1
Last night, I filled in for an indoor football team run by a friend of mine. Never mind that the rain was pelting down outside and the Sydney roads were treacherous - to the continuing despair of my wife, I'll never turn down an offer of a game of football, of whatever variety.
I very much enjoyed the game (my friend's team won), and the experience was an instructive one. Below, then, some musings on the phenomenon of indoor football as a whole, and in particular the current interest in "Futsal", the variant of the game gaining increasing credibility as a developmental tool.
The name "Futsal" simply means "room football" (FUTebol de SALão, in Portuguese), although the use of that specific term is fairly recent. Now that the rules of the "official" indoor game have been strictly codified, it would be incorrect to describe the version we were playing last night as "Futsal", even though it was five-a-side and played indoors, on a hard surface.
But there are certain characteristics that I feel would apply equally to all modes of the indoor game. In this post, some of the positives I felt were offered by the indoor game as opposed to the outdoor version; in the next, some reservations about its use as a developmental tool for outdoor footballers.
There is certainly a premium placed on the ability to work in tight spaces, and find one's way out of a corner. I found early on that because the space in which I had to operate was being closed down much more quickly than usual, I was having to make decisions much faster...and often I chose the wrong one. Later on, I began to adapt a bit better.
My friend and his team-mates are Italian, and like so many footballers of Italian descent, they look elegant and comfortable on the ball, and rarely hesitate to take on their man. The interesting thing was that they had more cause to do this than they would get in outdoor football, because of the limited space, and (I felt) because of the immediate possibility of a goal if they succeeded. Almost every time they got past their opposite number, they were able to get in a shot.
Short passing is, of course, at the core of the indoor game, and the smooth surface (plus the lack of decision-making time which I referred to earlier), certainly puts a premium on quick, precise passing.
Towards the end of the game, I found that, after a hack-like beginning, I was actually making some good, accurate, and necessary short passes. It was, dare I say, something of a breakthrough.
More to come in Part 2.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
La Liga Longa
The unlucky country is the landlocked Francophone African state, Mali.
Like their African counterparts, Mali are currently engaged in African Nations’ Cup qualifiers. On FIFA’s calendar, this weekend has been set aside specifically for these matches, and one would think that the likes of Mali are perfectly within their rights to demand the attendance of their top players. Two such players are Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid, and the prolific striker Fredi Kanouté, of Sevilla.
Yet, bizarrely, FIFA have backed their Spanish clubs’ demands that the players be available for the final round of matches in La Liga this weekend.
All sorts of explanations could be offered for FIFA’s rare championing of the cause of club football over the international variant – including the fact that the Brazilian striker Robinho, in a similar situation, had already been given leave to play for Real Madrid rather than join Brazil’s preparations for the Copa America. Frankly, though, it is hard not to suspect that FIFA’s decision over the two Malians constitutes some sort of sop to the G14 group of clubs, to which FIFA is, in general, bitterly opposed.
D-Day is not far off in the explosive Oulmers case, and if the judgement in that particular matter goes against FIFA, the financial consequences could be ruinous for the world governing body. There may be some compromise settlement being worked out behind the scenes, but the G14 would appear to hold the upper hand (their arguments, it must be said, appear far more valid in legal terms).
The fact that two Algerian clubs also have Malian internationals on their books, but have been unable to secure their services for matches this weekend due to their international commitments, suggests very strongly that FIFA’s position is inconsistent at best.
But enough on FIFA for the moment. In all this, there’s an elephant in the room.
Namely, the stupidity of the RFEF – the Spanish FA – in making their league season extend so ridiculously far into the European summer.
There were already problems with their elongated championship last season, when they needed special dispensation from FIFA to play a postponed match in late May. La Liga functioned perfectly well when it was limited to eighteen teams (as all European leagues should be, incidentally), but a 20-team league, combined with a winter break, a prolix cup competition and a lack of midweek fixtures, means that the players must soldier on into June.
Whatever one makes of FIFA’s motives, the real villain here is emphatically the RFEF.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
The comparison of the MLS to the old “Third Division South” is a little unfair (and it’s amusing to note, in passing, that the calamitous embarrassment of the 1950 World Cup still rankles with the Poms), but there’s certainly a point to the analogy.
Steve McLaren’s ditching of David Beckham so early on in his tenure seemed to be a statement of intent rather than any comment on Beckham’s form, or his usefulness to the national side. Although he was hardly at his best, it’s worth remembering that if not for Beckham’s right foot, England might have struggled to get out of the first round at the World Cup.
Following Beckham’s resuscitation at Real Madrid, McLaren has come back, hat in hand, and brought him back into the fold – with immediate results. That hasn’t stopped Brian Glanville having his usual literate spray, though…
The story of Tommy Lawton may be a salutary one, but to my mind, there is a more telling comparison: the move to the old North American Soccer League by the great Franz Beckenbauer, some thirty years ago.
The parallels are obvious. Both in their early thirties. Both icons in their respective countries. Both purportedly aiming to spread the good word in the United States, rather than just collecting one last fat paycheck before hanging up the boots. And both still very much in the plans of their respective international managers.
In a recent interview, Beckenbauer detailed, with some derision, the efforts that were made to lure him back into the (West) German side for the 1978 World Cup. Again, there are some echoes of McLaren’s recall of Beckham (although, of course, the latter hasn’t crossed the Atlantic just yet).
The fact that there is already talk of a loan deal to a European club, should the LA Galaxy fail to make the MLS playoffs, surely indicates that Beckham still has international ambitions. Not that England is likely to win a major tournament any time soon, but some of his best (and worst) moments have come in games for country rather than club.
Easily the best game I’ve ever seen Beckham play was the 2-2 draw with Greece that sent England to the 2002 World Cup. To borrow a phrase from Beckenbauer, if you’d put everyone in the England team that day, bar Beckham, into a sack and then hit it, you’d have got someone who deserved it.
There is one clear difference between the two players. Beckenbauer had nothing more to achieve when he went west; he’d won the World Cup and the European Nations Cup, and had racked up a hat-trick of European Cup triumphs with Bayern Munich. Continuing to turn out for Helmut Schoen’s West Germany side was clearly pretty low on his list of priorities.
But Beckham is clearly keen to continue representing his country – and it could make his American sojourn even more problematic than it already appears to be.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Eurolyroos - update
But not, as some have implied, an impossible one. Yes, Iraq's Under 23s knocked a misfiring 2004 Olyroo side out of the previous tournament. Yes, North Korea pumps ridiculous amounts of money into its youth sport program, largely (well, entirely) for propaganda purposes.
There are some hopeful signs, however; the most salient of which is the fact that this time, all the matches fall on FIFA designated dates (although August 22 is only a "friendly" one). Thus, it should be easier to secure the participation of our European-based Under 23 contingent. Iraq and Lebanon are both far closer to Europe than to Australia, and the Euro brigade will surely be crucial in those two away encounters.
None of the other three nations in the group will be particularly comfortable places to visit, but those who have made much of the Matildas' travails in Pyongyang should remember that the Matildas were beaten fair and square at home too. North Korea have always been a force to be reckoned with in women's football, but their men's teams, after the glorious blip of 1966, have been underwhelming.
Perhaps (one might cynically suggest) Rob Baan has chosen the right time to jump ship. But his successor should still be able to face the final round of qualifiers with significant hope of progressing.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The Asian Cup Squad
So: the Asian Cup squad.
Not all that many surprises, of course. Graham Arnold has not been exactly daring in his selections thus far, and no one expected him to pull a late rabbit out of the hat.
It's good to see that Nick Carle has secured a place, despite his gaffe against Uruguay. Australia possesses so few players capable of turning a game with a single moment of brilliance that Carle, despite his frustrating inconsistency, is well worth a guernsey, if only as a reserve.
The inclusion of David Carney is somewhat more puzzling. He had an excellent first season in the A-League, of course, but the general consensus is surely that the second instalment of the competition showed him up as something of a one-trick pony. He needs to add some subtlety to his game...and he desperately needs to develop some power and/or accuracy in his right foot.
I feel that the lack of a genuine right-winger in the squad (Mile Sterjovski has never really convinced on the right flank) might have made Travis Dodd, who is also useful on the left, a potential bolter for the 23. Instead, he has failed even to make the provisional list, while, predictably, the ubiquitous Jade North is there.
Craig Foster has summed up the strengths and the weaknesses of the squad very cogently in his most recent Sun-Herald article. It is undeniable that, if Arnold is to resolutely stick to his lone striker system, a fit, in-form Mark Viduka is a necessity if Australia is to succeed. Scott McDonald was a lost soul in the target-man position against Uruguay, and others too have been found wanting in the role.
Foster correctly surmises that the absence of Craig Moore leaves the defence alarmingly short of nous; it's strange that throughout the Arnold era, the experienced, dependable Steve Laybutt has been completely ignored. Still turning out regularly for his Belgian club Gent, the veteran defender has generally performed well in the green and gold. The likes of Patrick Kisnorbo and Michael Thwaite were hardly faultless against Uruguay, and in their first major international tournament, they may struggle at times.
One final comment on the squad: Danny Vukovic must consider himself extremely unlucky to miss out yet again. With Brad Jones clumsy and unconfident against Uruguay and Michael Petkovic never having convinced in the green and gold, this was surely the time to give Vukovic the national squad call-up he deserves.
As this article tells us, we will be sending two (2) referees to the Asian Cup. I wonder if the AFC knows that one of them managed to thoroughly bugger up two (2) of the playoff games in the finals series of A-League Version two (2).
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Apart from the opener against Iran, I've seen only brief snatches of the games, but certainly the reports of their play have been glowing.
To my mind, what the Olyroos' achievement again underlines is the importance of the European "second tier"; some time ago, I suggested that the situation for Australian youngsters in Europe was not nearly as bad as it was often portrayed.
The truth is plain to see. The contributions from the likes of David Williams (scorer of two fine goals against Jordan last night), Neil Kilkenny, James Troisi, Aaron Downes and Trent McLenahan throughout the campaign were, by all accounts, crucial, even if they had good support from A-Leaguers such as Mark Bridge, Bruce Djite and Danny Vukovic.
Would we have gotten through with an A-League bunch alone? Rob Baan, it would seem, certainly didn't think so.
Monday, June 04, 2007
In Defence of Arnie
Right now, that piece is more relevant than ever.
Graham Arnold is copping an absolute bollocking on football forums around the country. Most of this criticism is extremely vague (he couldn't alter the formation to suit the situation, he's too soft on the players, he hasn't got the experience for this job...and that's the more specific comments).
To my mind, one of the few criticisms that's really valid is that, like Hiddink and Farina before him, he has stuck to a single-striker system for too long.
One of the sillier whinges is that he makes too many substitutions in friendlies, thereby altering the shape of the team and disrupting cohesion. All well and good, but, erm, didn't Frank Farina get regularly blasted for failing to give younger players enough of a run in friendly games? That's partly what they are for, after all.
The truth is that, as Cockerill aptly concluded, Arnie is on a hiding to nothing.
It has been made very clear that he will probably be replaced, no matter how Australia fares in the Asian Cup. Certain pundits have placed on him the ridiculous expectation that anything less than victory in the Asian Cup (in our first try, in conditions many of the players will rarely have experienced) constitutes failure.
The FFA, a model of efficiency in its handling of the national team while Hiddink was in charge, has become mysteriously spineless. Arnold was miserably treated in Kuwait City, and the Argentina friendly has been swept from beneath his feet (I still harbour a sneaking suspicion that the Argentine FA would not have had a leg to stand on had the FFA decided to stick to their guns over the game). And a replacement friendly has not been organised for June 6, with the result that few of the top players were willing to rush back to Sydney for a single match - and understandably so.
And had Arnold decided to put his foot down over player availability, would the FFA have backed him up, as they did Hiddink?
In short, Arnold has been provided with inadequate preparation for a major tournament.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Friendly Fire - yet another update
The mainly second-string side played with enterprise and confidence for most of the first half, but appeared to lose their collective composure in the second, when Uruguay's well-organised defence and slick inter-passing were impressive.
Brad Jones did not inspire much confidence in goal. Even apart from his horrific error late in the second half, he appeared slow to take command in his area for much of the evening.
At the other end, Scott McDonald became the latest to thrash about in a lone striker role for which he is obviously unsuited (when on earth are we going to take the field with two genuine strikers?). Brett Holman had nothing like the influence he exerted in China, and his mostly anonymous performance tends to suggest that he would be better employed in a genuine striking role, rather than the "three-quarter" position he occupied last night.
It was good to see Nick Carle back in the green and gold, but his cameo (which should, perhaps, have started a little earlier) neatly encapsulated some of his admirable and not-so-admirable qualities. Among the former you can count his penchant for pulling surprises on the ball - more than once, he found himself space in a tight area with an unexpected little shimmy - and his ability to slide clever balls through to the front-line.
On the minus side of the ledger, his comparative one-footedness blunted his general effectiveness at times, not least when he tried, rather over-elaborately, to employ his better left foot for a cross over from the right. The result was not flattering.
He is worth a place in the squad, certainly. And I hope Graham Arnold does not repeat Frank Farina's mistake of 2004, when he left Carle out of the squad for the Athens Olympics. Players who can pull surprises are always welcome, if only as options on the bench.
Set-pieces? Poor, once again, especially by contrast with Alvaro Recoba's insidious left-footed heat-seekers. Australia's defence from set-pieces, too, gave cause for some concern.
Still, let's not forget that this was Uruguay's first team against a much-depleted Australian eleven, in a match which produced its fair share of entertainment. An engaging game with some youngsters on show - you can't ask for too much more from a friendly.
Friday, June 01, 2007
The Spanish Illness
Phil Ball's superb Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football strikes, in my opinion, the perfect balance, and offers much else besides.
It's no surprise that the book was published under the auspices of When Saturday Comes, one of the most readable and least self-important football publications in the English-speaking world. The author, Phil Ball, is a regular contributor to the magazine.
For someone such as myself, who tended to see Spanish club football in rather simplistic terms (Real Madrid = Franco and the nationalists, Barca = Catalan resistance, Athletic Bilbao = ETA), the book is sure to be an eye-opener. Ball gently casts doubt on some of the accepted versions of the Spanish story (such as the oft-repeated assertion that Barca were unfairly robbed of the services of Alfredo di Stéfano, who came to virtually personify Real Madrid), while casting light on some of the fascinating early history of the game in the Iberian peninsula. He devotes a whole chapter to the club which started it all, Recreativo Huelva, now happily ensconced in La Liga once again.
Ball is neither obsessed with statistical detail nor given to gushing digressions on "fan kulcha", and the book strikes, once again, a good balance in this respect. Also pleasing is the fact that the distant past is covered in just as much loving detail as the diverse present; Ball's research skills are impressive without the detail becoming oppressive.
In his first chapter, Ball attempts to explore the meaning of the word in the title; although a morbo is, according to a Spanish dictionary, an illness, it is clear by the end of the book that the bug, whatever it may be, has sucked him in good and proper. Indeed, the tone is affectionate throughout, and the book is all the better for it...although perhaps this results in some of the more unsavoury aspects of the Spanish game, such as the racism of Real Madrid's Ultra Sur among others, being glossed over fairly quickly.
Yet this is very small criticism; I found the book a really engaging read. And the following excerpt, from the final chapter, gave me a big grin:
I have to admit that I am a convert. Having been suckled on the particuliar milk that is English football, I am still moved by the strains of Match of the Day...but aesthetically and cerebrally, I am cured. The Premisership looks a crude offering indeed after the Spanish version, and the general gap in technique, fitness and tactical nous seems to me to be ever widening.
Remind anyone of a certain Australian pundit?