Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The Phantom Strikers - update

This morning's Champions League semi-final saw Barcelona FC knocked out of the competition by a side playing well below its best - for the second year in a row.

And weren't there some parallels. This time, Samuel Eto'o was at the point of the attack, but in greatly diminished form, one might say. On either side of him, Lionel Messi was running at the defence with great energy and effectiveness, and Andres Iniesta was playing his typically thoughful, clever game on the other wing. And yet Barca had nothing in the centre.

Surely Rijkaard must have thought back for a moment to last year's Round of 16 second leg at Anfield, when Eidur Gudjohnsen arrived very late in the piece, and scored Barca's only goal of the tie in accomplished fashion?

In the studio at half-time this morning, Tony Palumbo very justly observed that Gudjohnsen had to come into the picture at some point. It was the obvious move; a second striker with perhaps not the sublime skills of a Messi or Ronaldinho, but a genuine eye for goal and an acute positional sense.

And Gudjohnsen finally did, erm, the 88th minute.

Even in the brief period he was on, it was clear why the Icelander had been so badly missed. One minute before the end of normal time, Bojan Krkic makes a run into the box in the inside-right channel; he tries to wriggle past his man, rather than cutting the ball back to Gudjohnsen, who has positioned himself bang in front of goal, ten yards out, completely unmarked.

Then, a minute later, Carles Puyol sends a dangerous ball across the goalmouth. Wes Brown puts in a desperate clearance, but had the ball evaded Brown, guess who was there, beautifully placed, ready to tap the ball home? Gudjohnsen again.

Had he been given half an hour on the field rather than a couple of minutes plus injury time, he would surely have been at short odds to find the net, given Barca's continued territorial dominance and penetration on the flanks.

All that aside, congratulations to Manchester United for making their first Champions League final since 1999, and to Paul Scholes - probably United's best player in the first leg - for scoring the scorching goal that got them there. And great credit is due to Park Ji-Sung, who was magnificent for United this morning in an otherwise fairly mediocre team performance.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Five-Ring Foolishness

Everyone seems to be having their say on the Danny Vukovic reprieve. I'll join the crowd.

Suffice to say that the appeals committee in question has made itself look very foolish, and the precedent is a poor one. The punishment handed down was excessive, but the convenient splitting of the ban into pre- and post-Olympic periods is laughable.

It is, however, consistent with the massive and undue importance afforded the Olympics by Australia at large. The Olympic obsession is fuelled largely by the media, but governing bodies are not immune...and have a tendency to make bad law out of hard cases as a result.

What, after all, has been behind the extraordinary and misguided sympathy expressed for Nick D'Arcy? None other than the idée fixe that not appearing at the Olympic Games is a life-destroying blow for an athlete.

With the steady growth of public interest in football in Australia, more attention will probably be paid to the fortunes of the Olyroos than at previous Games. Pleasing in a way, but of course Graham Arnold's charges will find it extremely hard to emerge with a medal...unlike many other Australian competitors, who enjoy such generous government funding in sports which few other nations take particularly seriously.

The availability of Vukovic will no doubt help, but it frankly defies both logic and common sense.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Rounded History

David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round, an ambitious and laudably inclusive history of the game, weighs in at over 900 pages, and took me a few months to read, on and off. It deserves a lengthier review than most.

John Foot, a noted football writer, reviewed the book shortly after it was released. Although I broadly agree with many of his comments, I can't share his gushing enthusiasm for the work as a whole. In parts, it is indeed informative, entertaining, and innovative. Yet there is a certain academia-inspired glibness about Goldblatt's social, political and economic ruminations, culminating in the wretchedly pretentious and inappropriate epilogue...on which more later.

The early chapters of the book are, in many ways, the best and most enjoyable. Here Goldblatt simply tells the story of the game's early development, pausing only to stress its symbiotic relationship with industrialization and urbanization (which is undeniable). There are plenty of quirky stories, lovingly told, which keep the narrative chugging along nicely.

Particularly interesting is the account of the fragmentation of the rules, with the "dribbling" version of the game eventually holding sway in most parts of the world...the main exceptions, of course, being North America and Australia.

Unfortunately, Goldblatt's interest in the rules of the game is fleeting, and a significant omission in the later chapters is any discussion of the rule changes since the war. The issue of substitutions is not really dealt with, nor are developments in tie-breaking systems, the back-pass law, and the trials of the Golden Goal and Silver Goal systems, among others. Players, too, are given surprisingly short shrift by Goldblatt: depictions of the great exponents of the game, and their achievements, are often disappointingly brief.

Instead, Goldblatt focuses intently on the intersection between football and society, and it is this relentless desire to place the footballing development of the various regions of the world in its political context which is both the book's strength and its weakness. We are constantly told of how a country's footballing rise mirrored its economic and/or social progress (by the end of the book, the reader will never want to hear the word "boom" again), yet these comparisons are often somewhat superficial.

In John Foot's review, he notes that Goldblatt is at his best when describing football in Latin America, and I agree. The author seems to have a genuine affection for the fervent football culture there, and his depictions of life and football under the various military regimes of postwar CONMEBOL are evocative and convincing. His account of the Chile v. Russia World Cup playoff embarrassment of 1973, while unashamedly partisan, is one of the most powerful episodes in the book...capped off by a memorably clipped mini-match-report:

21 November 1973
Chile 1 USSR 0
Estadio Nacional, Santiago

This is a game beyond metaphor. Its evil is real. Beneath the pitch in the impromptu holding pens and torture chambers are the remnants of Santiago’s radicals. Pinochet and his kind are not content merely to handicap their opponents, or subject them to systematic bias; they do not intend to play that game any more. They are going to eradicate the opposition altogether.

The Chilean team and the match officials take to the pitch but the Soviets are not there. A smattering of people are on the terraces, but they make no noise. Many, heads in hands, do not seem to be watching at all. The touchline is ringed by impassive soldiers. The Chileans pass the ball among themselves before rolling the ball over the line. The game ends.

(Notice the punctilious avoidance of a split infinitive in the first paragraph. Goldblatt knows his grammar.)

These little inserted match reports work very well as a means of spicing up the book, and on the whole the ploy is realised well, although Goldblatt occsaionally gives way to flights of unnecessary purple prose in these parenthetical musings.

Towards the end, sadly, the book goes off the rails. Factual errors and/or misrepresentations are rife, obsessive social commentary becomes the norm (at the expense of several other important elements of football history), and the book concludes with a ten-page epilogue which quickly degenerates into onanistic waffle. Instead of offering a measured appraisal of the state of the game in the early 21st century, Goldblatt gropes needlessly for an over-arching metaphor for the game, taking in religion, theatre and (again) politics.

It is a shame that such an important and often illuminating book ends with pop sociology. The excellent first half of The Ball is Round deserved a better conclusion.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Burning Down the House

Messrs. Hill and Slater were not slow to bestow all manner of praise on Nathan Burns for his "assist hat-trick" last night, which included a spectacular darting run to the by-line followed by a crisp cut-back for Travis Dodd. Not the first time that we've seen such a move from Burns, in fact.

Burns' brilliant ten-minute burst helped to disguise the fact that, for most of the game, Adelaide were very ordinary indeed. Aurelio Vidmar's inexplicable deployment of Travis Dodd as a central striker, when he is so obviously more effective on the wing, didn't help; but there were several other sub-par performances in the first half, notably from Jonas Salley and a palpably rusty Kristian Sarkies.

Had Truong Giang Tran's fierce shot early in the second half actually found the back of the net rather than the inside of the post, it might have been a very different story.

Aurelio Vidmar claims to be fairly sanguine about losing Burns to Europe, but the spark he provides for Adelaide in games like last night's will be very sorely missed. But it is time for Burns to try his hand overseas, in my view, partly to get away from a manager who seems determined to misuse him.

Once again, Burns found himself on the left wing against Binh Duong, and once again, as has happened every single time he's been stuck out there, his effectiveness was greatly diminished. He belongs in the centre, as Ross Aloisi correctly pointed out after the game.

It might be argued that last night's scintillating run to set up Travis Dodd, as well as that classy assist for Richie Alagich in the clip linked above, originated from a position on the left. But it was an inside-left position, and in each case Burns was well within the area when the layoff occurred.

It looked likely to be a frustrating night for Burns in the first half. He found himself with his back to goal too often, and he failed to form a particularly good link-up with the overlapping Cassio. In truth, when things are running against him he has a tendency to try too hard, and this was often the case last night.

After his superb cameo, he became a little over-confident, and tried a few tricks when simple passes would have been more effective. The whole game provided an interesting illustration of both his weaknesses and his very considerable strengths.

Pace Messrs. Kruse, Zullo, Holland and the rest, Nathan Burns is the most exciting talent to have emerged since the A-League's inception. But he would, I feel, benefit from a move to Europe, where his deficiencies will not be quite as easily glossed over...or drowned in a torrent of adulation, as they were last night.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Marquee Lite - update

Les Murray, in his latest opinion piece on the World Game site, has come out strongly in favour of the FFA's "Youth Marquee" initiative. He states his case fairly enough, but in mentioning the current glut of young talent at the Queensland Roar, he has in fact touched on one of the weaknesses of the plan.

It often happens that two or three promising youngsters make their breakthrough at a club at the same time. This has been the case in banana country, with Robbie Kruse, Michael Zullo and Tahj Minniecon all making solid contributions to Queensland's 2007/08 season (not least from an entertainment perspective). Who gets chosen for the one "Youth Marquee" slot?

This is one of the most illogical aspects of the plan. The potential for disunity within a club squad as a result is considerable. And, again, the grounds for suspicion, given the existing Sydney FC-FFA nexus, are hardly negligible; a little bird has made me aware that Mark Bridge's salary will be, shall we say, within Marquee Junior range.

As for Les's other point, that youth are not given a sufficient run in the A-League, there is evidence on both sides. Certainly, in the case of Nick Tsattalios and (to a lesser extent) Kaz Patafta and Nikita Rukavystya, club coaches were shown to be a little on the conservative side last season. Even Frank Farina didn't actually make use of his young hopefuls until the injuries mounted, and Queensland were crying out for some wholesale changes following their dismal start to the campaign.

But there have been success stories, too. Not least the introduction of Nathan Burns at Adelaide, James Holland at Newcastle, Dario Vidosic at Queensland, and even Ruben Zadkovich late in 2005/06.

But we have seen some cases of younger players making a dazzling debut, yet failing to maintain their early momentum. This was certainly the case with Zadkovich, and I would argue that it applies even to Vidosic and now Zullo to a lesser extent.

In the eternal balancing act, the coaches should probably take a few more risks now that the competition has built a solid foundation. But I don't think that the A-League coaching fraternity has been quite as craven as Les alleges.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Déjà Roos

If the Olyroos' opening round group at the Beijing Games has a familiar look, that's because it's very similar to that of 2004. Re-attach Montenegro to Serbia and replace Côte D'Ivoire with Tunisia, and you have the Olyroos' round-robin opponents from Athens.

The task will be much tougher this time around, however. At the last event, the Serbia-Montenegro side was beset by internal squabbles just prior to the event, resulting in a virtual B team being sent to Greece...where it was comfortably thrashed by both Argentina (the eventual champions) and Frank Farina's Australia side. It's unlikely that the Serbians, runners-up at the European Under 21 championship, will suffer such a crippling fiasco twice in a row.

Argentina will surely be the favourites for the group. Leo Messi, Fernando Gago, Sergio Aguero, Ever Banega...the talent at Sergio Batista's disposal is frightening. The Ivorians deserve respect as well; sub-Saharan African teams have a proud recent history in the Olympic football tournament.

So where does that leave the Olyroos? In my view, this is a slightly more talented bunch overall than the 2004 crew, but some of the players - Mark Milligan and Nathan Burns in particular - have suffered dips in form recently. Graham Arnold has indicated that he is likely to draft in the three permitted over-age players for the event, and one can understand his logic, given that the old-timers were responsible for four of the six goals Australia scored in 2004.

The Olympic football tournament, as I've often argued, is not of earth-shaking relevance from a developmental point of view. Yet the usual knee-jerk opinion pieces will no doubt proliferate should Arnold's charges fail to progress to the quarter-finals. If the Olyroos do indeed fall at the first hurdle, you might hear a sibilant whisper emanating from the general direction of Artarmon. That would be Les Murray mouthing the word "crisis".

In reality, the achievement of fighting through two Asian qualifying stages to reach the tournament was impressive enough in itself, and a good result in Beijing would be something of a bonus.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Rosario Revisited, Part 2

I've stated before that history has been somewhat unfair to the Argentinians of 1978 (while it has been perhaps over-indulgent with the mediocre side of 1986). This was an exciting team that played positive, fluent football, and their cohesion – their manager Menotti had deliberately kept them close-knit in the months leading up to the event – often gave the impression of a club side rather than a national team.

Yes, they occasionally resorted to strong-arm tactics (especially the captain, Daniel Passarella), but they received plenty in return, too…not least from their Dutch opponents in the final. Yet because Menotti's men were seen as representatives of the brutal Videla regime, they are often remembered as a bunch of thugs who cheated their way to a World Cup.

In the game against Peru, they were ferociously committed to attack from the outset, and some of their combination play in midfield was thrilling to watch. The two forwards, Mario Kempes and Leopoldo Luque, combined superbly at times, as they had in previous games as well.

Peru, for their part, were hardly lying down, as has been suggested. True, they sat back and kept a deep line in defence, but they looked quick and often effective on the break. Twice in the opening twenty minutes, they posed considerable danger to the Argentina goal.

First the speedy right-winger, Juan Muñante, beat his man and shot against the inside of the far post; then, in a mirror-image move, the other wide man, Juan Carlos Oblitas, whipped a shot just across goal. Peru were committing four or five men to these breakaway attacks, and the speed of their two wingers caused the suspect Argentina defence plenty of headaches.

The opening twenty minutes of the game are enough to make the conspiracy theorists think twice.

However, Peru were, I feel, a little naïve when it came to taking the wind out of Argentina’s sails. They took their goalkicks, for instance, surprisingly quickly, considering that the home side were clearly relishing the frantic pace of the opening stages.

But in any case, it’s foolish to gainsay the quality of Argentina’s play. They created several chances in the opening period by committing numbers to attack, switching the play rapidly, and interpassing crisply. It’s worth adding that they should have had a penalty when Daniel Bertoni, the excellent right-winger, was patently fouled in the box. Otherwise, the French referee, Robert Wurtz, was fairly impartial throughout.

When half-time arrives, it’s 2-0, but it might have been six already. Argentina have hit the post twice, flashed plenty of shots just wide of goal, and generally looked as hungry as a team can look. Meanwhile, some of the virtue has gone out of Peru; in an important sidelight, Argentina have managed to close off the supply to Peru’s two dangerous wingers, and both have been forced to move inside in search of meaningful action.

The second half begins, and almost immediately Argentina score the finest goal of the game. Luque, under pressure in the box, plays an exquisite back-heel into the path of Kempes, who nips in between two defenders and whacks the ball home. A minute later, a demoralized Peru concede again, after a left-wing cross is headed back across goal to an unmarked Luque.

Then things get interesting.

Argentina have reached the magic four-goal cushion. No longer do seven or eight men rush forward into attack: in fact, Menotti’s side visibly relaxes. Now, shuffling the ball across the back and occasionally punting upfield becomes the order of the day. And, as one would expect, Peru gradually, almost imperceptibly, start coming back into the game.

After fifteen minutes the change is becoming noticeable. With the subtle Cesar Cueto at the heart of their midfield moves, Peru are starting to come forward in numbers again, and posing something of a threat to the Argentina goal. With a half-chance to Peru’s defensive midfielder just after the hour, Menotti knows it’s time for action. If Argentina let in a couple of late consolation goals, they’re out of the final.

This is where the great coaches earn their money. And Menotti picks exactly the right area of the pitch in which to make a change: Bertoni, who has tormented the Peruvian defence for much of the game, is clearly running out of steam. On comes Argentina’s hero of 1974, the tricky Rene Houseman, to revive Argentina on the right.

Result? One minute later, Houseman scores.

Two minutes after that, Houseman is upended in the box for what should have been another penalty.

Another few minutes later (with another Argentina goal in between): a sinuous run from Houseman ends in a shot that fizzes just wide of goal.

In short? The substitution wrests the initiative, which had shifted to Peru, back into Argentina’s hands.

6-0 it finishes. An open, entertaining, enjoyable game of football.

And anyone who has seen the game without knowing the context would find the conspiracy theories pretty hard to swallow.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Rosario Revisited, Part 1

Another excursion into the past today.

One of the most controversial matches in World Cup history is the infamous 6-0 victory by Argentina over Peru in the final second group match of the 1978 World Cup, in Rosario. Argentina, the hosts, thereby sneaked into the final on goal difference ahead of Brazil.

The facts are these: the match was played, for somewhat arcane reasons, after the parallel game between Brazil and Poland (won 3-1 by Brazil), thereby allowing Argentina to ascertain exactly what margin of victory would be necessary.

Other snippets that have attracted the attention of World Cup historians: Ramon Quiroga, the Peruvian goalkeeper, was actually born in Argentina (in Rosario, in fact), and Argentina's manager, Cesar Luis Menotti, held a clandestine meeting with his team, minus goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol, prior to the game.

In short: everyone outside of Argentina now seems to assume that the game was fixed...not that the evidence is at all compelling. There's a lively discussion of the whole issue here.

I've long been keen to see this game for myself, and tracked it down recently. So then?

As my father always likes to say: "Given the choice between conspiracy and screw-up, it's a screw-up every time." When one actually watches it, this game doesn't look like a conspiracy at all.

Consider this: one team, playing in front of a massive contingent of home fans, has everything to play for, and has a precise objective. The other team has absolutely nothing to play for, is facing a very loud, hostile crowd, and has just lost two games on the trot.

The fact that the margin was so great is probably due instead to the highly questionable system adopted in the tournament (the "second stage" leading directly to the final), which ensured that there could be such a divergence in the two teams' level of commitment at such a late stage of the tournament.

I can put it no better than one of the commentators on the above thread:

It seems to come down to this: if you've seen the game (and perhaps some others from WC78), you don't buy the conspiracy theories. If you look at the score line, you can't believe it could be a legitimate result.

In fact, it's one of the most entertaining World Cup games I've seen. And it deserves a more lengthy description than most, including as it does a number of tactical and strategic points of interest, and a crucial, instructive turning point in the second half.

More to come.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Marquee Lite

Another interesting initiative from the FFA...but this one comes with plenty of relevant questions attached.

First, the old Sydney FC conflict of interest chestnut.

Frank Lowy, of course, remains in an obviously anomalous position in the Australian game, and the cynics have been laughing heartily (or grumbling mightily) today. The point being that two of the most coveted Olyroos still playing in Australia, Mark Bridge and Stuart Musialik, have recently signed lucrative contracts with...Sydney FC. Olyroo marquee? No worries.

One wonders whether Nikita Rukavytsya or Nathan Burns would have been offered rather more incentives not to head for the northern hemisphere had the "Junior Marquee" plan been announced just a little earlier. Issues of fairness certainly arise with the announcement.

And although at first hearing the initiative seems laudable, a few moments' reflection might lead one to it really necessary?

If the cap is to be expanded, why the emphasis on youth players only? In terms of improving the quality of the competition, one of the critical issues to be addressed is attracting a better class of import; our recent experiences in the Asian Champions League have demonstrated this only too clearly (not to mention the disastrous spells down under of the likes of Mate Dragicevic, Brian Deane and Mario Jardel). Part of this is down to the judgement of the individual clubs, of course, but a smidgen of extra cash wouldn't go astray.

As it is, the cap has been raised significantly, but the clubs will effectively have no more to offer their foreign signings. They may even end up having even less than before, if they take up the Junior Marquee option (and there seems to be an implied moral imperative for them to do so) but find themselves in a straitened wage bill situation despite the cap.

And looking at it from another perspective, should 21-22-year-olds of close to international standard really be playing in the A-League?

I'm on awkward ground here, I realise, but in my view the developmental benefits accruing from a European move (as long as it's a sensible one...see here) would, from the player's own point of view, outweigh the supposed "consolidation" which David Davutovic's source alludes to. Please note: not for 17-18-year-olds such as James Holland, but for those with a couple of seasons of professional football already under their belt.

Artificially boosting the pay packets of the younger brigade might - yes, might - prove attractive to the punters (although, I would argue, not more so than acquiring a genuinely good foreign crowd-pleaser), but in the long term it could prove a developmental disadvantage.

The notion that there is some mad rush to Europe on the part of our younger stars is, in any case, a false one. In fact, the opportunities offered by the A-League have ensured that more youthful talent has remained in the country of late, as a brief glance at the places of employment of the 2008 Olyroos compared with the 2004 and 2000 cohorts would indicate.

Monday, April 14, 2008


More Asian Observations

I've finally managed to have a look at last week's two Asian Champions League games involving the Australian sides. Time for some tragic thoughts.

The Melbourne v. Gamba Osaka game was, above all, fantastic entertainment. It is a real credit to the Japanese side that they pushed up and played for the win throughout, even after they'd brought the scoreline back to 3-3 in the second half.

Melbourne, to my mind, actually played a lot better than they have been given credit for. With no Thompson, no Hernandez and no Brebner, and up against a side featuring a few internationals, they caused plenty of problems for the Japanese side in defence. At the other end it was a different story, but Michael Theoklitos, sadly, must bear a fair bit of responsibility for that. One of the A-League's best 'keepers managed to cram all the mistakes he didn't make during the regular season into one ACL tie.

A friend of mine who recently spent some time in Japan has commented to me that the speed of the J-League really takes one by surprise. Certainly, although the A-League has quickened considerably since its inception, the likes of Masato Yamazaki and the rampaging fullback Michihiro Yasuda made Melbourne look sluggish at times.

Yet in most other respects Melbourne were a match for Gamba, as Sydney FC were for Urawa last season (with the exception of Robson Ponte). I wouldn't be at all surprised if Melbourne were to snatch a point in the return leg, although a win is not all that likely.

As for Adelaide, they have been demonstrating the benefit of their experience in the competition this season. Against a fairly ordinary Vietnamese side, enlivened only by the presence of the South African Philani up front, they controlled the play impressively, paced themselves well, survived a shaky period in the second half, and got the goals they needed without much ado.

It was, in fact, the same strategy that Australia adopted in the only Asian Cup game in which they did themselves justice - the quarter-final against Japan. Sustained spells of possession (some might say shuffling the ball around aimlessly at the back) followed by brief, minatory periods of pressing. Minus the occasional pressing, the same basic game-plan was adopted by Pim Verbeek in Kunming.

And Adelaide managed to prevail despite a bizarre formation (Nathan Burns on the left? Travis Dodd as a lone striker?!?) and the indifferent form of several players. It appears that Adelaide are starting to become adept at winning ugly in Asia, a skill which will become critical for Australian sides in the years to come.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Three Brits and the Catalans

A very familiar line-up for the Champions League semi-finals, then, with Liverpool and Chelsea again proving that their particular brand of physicality and pragmatism hits serious paydirt in Europe. Manchester United have played some of the best football in the competition and richly deserve to be there at the business end, while Barcelona, despite their mercurial form, still have the quality to be a serious threat.

Whether Barca can get past Manchester United clearly depends very much on whether Leo Messi can regain match-fitness by the time the tie comes around. Although Bojan Krkic did very well against Schalke in Messi's position (often preferring to hit the by-line rather than cut inside as Messi tends to do), he is not quite as reliable a provider as the Argentinian.

Samuel Eto'o showed only flashes of his best form against Schalke, and Thierry Henry has been a great disappointment this season. Frank Rijkaard will surely be tempted to rest the Frenchman against Manchester United; perhaps the much under-used Eidur Gudjohnsen could be given a start alongside Eto'o at the Nou Camp, to provide a bit more bite up front.

At the back Barca will be weakened by the suspension of Carles Puyol in the first leg, and in truth they have looked vulnerable at the back in general in the Champions League, even if their opponents have usually lacked the quality to capitalise. Facing the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez will be a tough ask indeed.

United are probably favourites for the tie at this point, but so much will depend on Messi. If he can really turn it on at home, Barca could gain the confidence (and the goals) necessary to progress. There doesn't seem to be anyone else in the Barca ranks at the moment who can provide that sort of one-man rescue mission, with Ronaldinho fading, Deco out of favour and the forward line misfiring.

The Liverpool v. Chelsea tie will again be ferociously tight, and probably not all that pleasing to the eye (having said that, the Liverpool v. Arsenal second leg was one of the best Champions League games in years). If Liverpool can police Didier Drogba as effectively as they did last year, then they will surely go through, but Sami Hyypia is just starting to show his age this season. Martin Skrtel looks a good long-term replacement, however.

At the other end, Fernando Torres remains an omnipresent danger, with his uncanny ability to make the most out of the tiniest chance.

And any significance to the fact that this is the second successive Champions League to feature three English sides in the semi-finals?

Only that the TV riches of the Premiership have created an unequal playing field in Europe, and that even the match-turning Latin players who would otherwise have headed for Italy or Spain are now starting to settle in England.

Monday, April 07, 2008


The Undiscovered Turning Point

Back on deck after a particularly frantic week. Apologies for the lack of recent posts.

And since no recent football news has piqued my interest particuarly (apart from some fairly predictable first-leg results in the Champions League quarter-finals), herewith another excursion into the past.

The latest of my old World Cup acquisitions has been the legendary quarter-final from the 1966 tournament, between Portugal and North Korea.

To set the scene: Portugal, making their first appearance at a World Cup, packed with players from the glorious Benfica side of the sixties, are the favoured team. They have blitzed the first round, defeating Brazil and Hungary (back when they were a team to be respected) on the way.

The North Koreans were the tournament unknowns, who had demolished an underdone Australian team to qualify for the finals. Starting off with a loss to Russia, they had gained confidence with a draw against a leaden-footed Chile before providing the shock of the event, beating a 10-man Italy in the final group match, and progressing to the knockout phase. They were not particularly well-endowed technically, but their speed and interplay in the attacking third was quite was their finishing.

You probably know the story. Amazingly, the Koreans went 3-0 up in the first twenty minutes against a stunned Portuguese side. Thereafter, the great Eusebio took charge, banging in two penalties and two other goals, before helping to lay on the match-sealing final goal for his tall team-mate José Augusto. The match finished 5-3 to Portugal...a true World Cup classic.

One of the things I love about watching these games that have been committed to legend is the chance to discover key moments that, for whatever reason, rarely get mentioned in the accepted version. The tale goes that, once Portugal stepped up a gear, it was only a matter of time before the Korean citadel collapsed.

Yet there were a couple of very interesting turning points at a crucial moment of this game, that are worth a serious look. Just as there were in the supposedly one-sided 1986 semi-final between Argentina and Belgium, where the Belgians had two clear, critical runs at goal in the first half (both of which would almost certainly have resulted in goals) wrongly, in fact ridiculously, ruled out for offside. It's surprising how many significant details get tossed in the bin, in the wash-up.

But I digress.

In the 40th minute of the 1966 game, North Korea are still 3-1 ahead. They are tiring (as they did so markedly in the second half), but still more or less in control. Portugal have looked shaky at the back throughout, and sure enough, another short pass in the defensive third gets intercepted by the impressive left-winger, Yang Sung-Kook. He rides a desperate foul by the Portuguese captain Mario Coluna and surges on, with three team-mates running up alongside him and only two Portuguese defenders in sight. A goal would surely have been likely.

Suddenly, the Israeli referee Ashkenazi whistles. For Coluna's foul!

It's one of the most absurd decisions you will ever see. The play is pulled back just at the moment when Yang, unchallenged, is on the edge of the area, with the central defenders being drawn across to him. A clearer example of when to play the advantage rule would be hard to find.

The Koreans get no change out of the free kick, and only a minute later comes incident No. 2. North Korea's right-back, Shin Yung-Kyoo, is moving the ball out of defence; the Portuguese centre-forward, Torres, clatters into him from behind. It's a clear foul, yet Ashkenazi waves the play on. Sure enough, the Portuguese push forward, the ball comes to Torres again...and he is tripped in the area, ironically by Shin himself. Penalty.

Eusebio slams it home, it's 2-3, and the tide has turned.

Who knows what would have happened had the sides entered the tunnel at 4-1 instead?

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