Thursday, July 29, 2010


The Long Game

I'm very proud to have been associated, for the last three years, with the Melbourne-based football newspaper Goal! Weekly. As well as providing a comprehensive coverage of the Victorian Premier League and the A-League and concise summaries of the other state leagues, the paper often presents topical and fearless commentary on the state of the game here and overseas. In this week's issue, there is an article by the distinguished former Socceroo Eddie Krncevic which is, to put it mildly, well worth a read.

Krncevic takes the Victorian Premier League clubs to task for failing to take proactive steps to improve their lot and their reputation, and his suggestions (they fall under seven main headings) are all well-considered. And his comments could be applied with equal justice, mutatis mutandis, to clubs in the NSW Premier League.

Top of the list: the need to reduce the playing wage bill, to prevent the insidious bottom-up funding system which is having such a deleterious effect on the development and retention of young players.

Krncevic envisages all the clubs agreeing on a salary cap system of sorts, which would clearly be the only way to apply such a policy across the board. There have been moves towards this in NSW already (see here), but some of the old habits of out-spending the other clubs for short-term gain, and paying average players way over the odds, remain.

The point was driven home to me a couple of years ago, when I discovered that a certain NSWPL club had been paying an old returned hero of the club close to a thousand dollars per game. At the time, the said player was, not to put too fine a point on it, grossly overweight and waddling around in midfield week after week to very little effect. It was frankly shocking to think that the club's juniors were helping to subsidise what was effectively a bout of boardroom nostalgia.

This story is not an uncommon one, either. Clubs will tolerate abysmal facilities, pitiful crowds and a disgraceful matchday presentation as long as they can poach that star player from the club down the road, for a few dollars a week more.

Krncevic's basic point is that clubs should instead be investing to make their grounds more attractive and their matchday atmosphere more other words, that they should be playing the long game (rather than the long-ball game). A further point which emerges subtly is that the state league clubs, if they are to command the respect which their proud histories often deserve, need to get out of the constant cycle of whinging and finger-pointing that has taken hold since the formation of the A-League. One paragraph from Krncevic's article in particular needs to be enlarged, laminated, and pinned permanently to every NSWPL club noticeboard:

We all know that the formation of the A-League essentially killed off a number of avenues of revenue that previously existed for Premier League clubs. But, if clubs were clever enough then they could adjust accordingly to operate within the parameters of business now set before them, and display initiative to overhaul and maximise their assets instead of living in a vicious cycle of hand to mouth.

The former NSL clubs are, in many ways, deserving of sympathy. They have been marginalised in the post-Crawford world, their revenue streams have been circumscribed somewhat unfairly (some might say bloody-mindedly), and their ongoing contribution to the Australian game has been cynically airbrushed out of late, especially since the arrival of the various Dutch messiahs. But this does not mean that they need to give themselves up to indignation as a way of life and self-obsessed nostalgia as a virtue. They have a future; they just need to find the werewithal to grasp it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The Succession - update

A story about the search for Pim Verbeek's successor on the SBS World Game website today attracted a remark worthy of reproduction. The article mentioned the various names canvassed by the FFA for the vacant Socceroo position, none of which show much evidence of imagination or lateral thinking on the part of the national body. One of the comments reads:

So, an Italian failure, a Dutch failure, and a German who was rumoured to have had his assistant at the helm, before subsequently being a failure at Bayern. Worry not though, we still have a failure at Cameroon, Rangers and PSV in the pipe. I'm assuming we're in for Domenech too?

Although the description of Marcello Lippi as a failure is a little harsh given his 2006 exploits, I could hardly have put it better.

The obsession with the Big European Names is misguided and short-sighted, and it is yet another indication of the lack of football knowledge at the apex of Australian football. If we look at the foreign coaches whose teams have overperformed at some recent tournaments of relevance to Australia, a clear pattern emerges. World Cup 2010: Milovan Rajevac and Gerardo Martino. Asian Cup 2007: Jorvan Vieira and Helio dos Anjos. World Cup 2002: Bruno Metsu and...Guus Hiddink.

That's right, unheralded names, all of whom had knocked around the football world below the radar for some time. Even Hiddink deserves a place of sorts on this list, given that his stocks were at an all-time low at the time he took the South Korea job, after two disastrous spells in Spanish football.

This is a period of transition for the Socceroos, in which players with unsettled club careers and limited international experience will need to be moulded into a functioning national team in the lead-up to 2014. An expensive European aristocoach whose best days are behind him, or whose chief claim to fame is a playing career rather than a coaching one, is the very last thing Australia needs at present.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The Greek Gulf

It was a pity that such a modest crowd attended what was a brilliantly entertaining game of football this afternoon. The Sydney Festival of Football, a quadrangular international pre-season tournament, opened with a 5-3 victory for AEK Athens over their hosts Sydney FC.

The match was aptly described by Vitezslav Lavicka as "a big, bitter lesson" for his side. Sydney FC did not play particularly badly according to their lights, although there were one or two sub-par individual performances; they were simply outclassed, in every department. Given that one of the Sydney goals resulted from a bizarre, needless handball in the area and another came courtesy of a farcical goalkeeping error, 5-1 would have been a fairer reflection of the difference between the two sides. It was, in fact, a classic demonstration of the gulf in class between Australian club football and its European equivalent.

Of course, European clubs have financial resources that dwarf those of the A-League clubs, but there were still some lessons that watching A-League managers could take away. The movement of the AEK front three, which included two South Americans, was often scintillating to watch. In the dreaded "transition", AEK were close to impeccable, immediately giving the man on the ball two or more options when Sydney FC handed over possession in the middle third (this was never shown to better effect than on the occasion of AEK's third goal).

Nathan Burns, back from his prolific loan period on Corfu, made an appearance as a second-half substitute and looked a subtly different player from the young Adelaide star of a few years ago. The decision-making was more sure-footed, the movement off the ball more astute. He has learned something from his chastening European adventure, and although I would love to see him taste some real success at AEK, he has some formidable competition in the forward line.

The real star of the afternoon was the 34-year-old Nikos Liberopoulos, who was simply masterly in his three-quarter role. Starting with his sublime lay-off to Leonardo Pereira for AEK's first goal, and finishing with his driving diagonal run into the box in the lead-up to their fifth, he was never out of the action, and always inventive and adroit. It was an instructive pleasure to watch the distinguished former Greek international in action.

"Control, pass, move!" was the mantra of Gordon Jago, the former QPR coach whose excellent book on coaching I've quoted once or twice. AEK could not have demonstrated this simple but pertinent catechism better: once their players had completed a good pass, they didn't stand around admiring it in typical A-League fashion; they trotted off into position to receive the return. For all the A-League's straitened financial circumstances, their coaches could surely instil this basic principle a little better in their charges. The football would be a good deal better if they did.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


We Could Be Heroes - update #9

The Half-Time Heroes have produced a bumper World Cup review issue, with several intrepid travellers sharing tales of an African footballing adventure. All the usual suspects, including yours truly, are there as well.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


The Succession

Now that the World Cup is behind us, more mundane matters are on the Australian football agenda...and at the top of the list is the choice of a successor to Pim Verbeek.

Various names have been thrown around in the last few weeks...some reasonable, some not so reasonable, some outright hilarious. There were heavy hints that one of the coaches at the World Cup was in line for the post, with Paul Le Guen and Marcelo Bielsa two of those in the frame, but it is traditional for post-World Cup speculation to focus largely on those who were in the spotlight during football's busiest four weeks.

One thing is for certain: in making their choice, the FFA will rely very heavily on the advice of the man whose tune they have been dancing to for some time regarding coaching appointments. Han Berger has quickly and quietly become the most influential figure in the Australian game, and is currently taking an active role even in appointments which should not be within his purview at all. But that's an issue for a future post.

With Berger's approval a sine qua non, the odds on Verbeek's successor being a Dutchman are short, although not unbackable. Mike Cockerill's shrill appeal for an Australian to be considered for the post is quite in character, and at the moment quite misplaced given the continued underachievement of the smug closed shop that constitutes the A-League coaching ranks. The only (quasi-)local member of that particular club remotely deserving of consideration for the national position is Ernie Merrick, and plenty of informed little birds have told me that no-one of British extraction will be installed in the Socceroo job while Berger is around.

Aurelio Vidmar? I wonder how Cockerill would appreciate having Australia referred to as a pissant country.

One would hope, though, that Verbeek's successor shows more respect towards the domestic game than did the arrogant Dutchman. Time and again, Verbeek saw fit to belittle the A-League or (at best) damn it with faint praise, most often in his own interests - a blatantly obvious factor which was repeatedly ignored by those who chose, for a variety of reasons, to support his remarks. Of course the A-League is in need of improvement in some areas, but Verbeek's dismissive attitude did considerable damage to the cause of the local game here, of that there is no longer any doubt.

The performances of New Zealand at the World Cup could quite legitimately have been seen by some denigrated A-Leaguers as a vicarious two finger salute directed at Verbeek. The Dutchman's A-League teams laboured against Kuwait and Indonesia; Ricki Herbert's side, with a substantial A-League presence, drew with Italy and Paraguay. Any further comment is superfluous.

I'm still happy with my suggestion, some time ago, of Gabriel Calderon, who is still without a coaching position (to the best of my knowledge). Whoever is installed as Socceroo manager should have a good record in bringing younger players through, given the inevitable break-up of the "2006 generation", should preferably have experience with national sides in Asia, and should be affordable, given the straitened circumstances of the FFA vis-a-vis the A-League. Calderon qualifies on all three counts.

Friday, July 16, 2010


South Africa 2010: A Review, Part 2

A quick rundown of some of the other issues arising from Africa's first World Cup.

It would be only fair to mention that South Africa made a better fist of the organisation that many people (myself included) expected, and they deserve enormous credit for that. Not least the indefatigable and unfailingly decent Danny Jordaan, who bore the brunt of all the pre-tournament barbs of doubt from European football journalists. There were a few hiccups, notably the chaos at Durban airport prior to the semi-final and the frequent failure of the public transport infrastructure to cope with the sheer numbers, but the increased security seemed to ensure that, beyond the usual few hotel burglaries, there were no truly serious incidents.

Altogether less savoury was the unpleasant use of Nelson Mandela as a publicity tool by Sepp Blatter. Mandela's absence from the opening game, commented upon briefly and diplomatically by Jacob Zuma before the kickoff, was clearly an embarrassment for FIFA given how closely the tournament had been tied to the image of the man who has become synonymous with the sort of dignity that FIFA craves.

The refereeing in South Africa was less than impressive in many respects, Howard Webb's feeble performance in the final constituting a fitting comment on the officiating throughout. Violent play was often ignored while trivial, harmless infractions continued to attract cuckoo-clock yellow cards. The ultimate irony came when, after a final which set new standards for thuggery, Andres Iniesta was presented with a yellow card for a heartfelt tribute to a fallen comrade. The idiotic shirt-off yellow card is one of the few things in football that still makes me seethe with anger every time it is produced.

And the Jabulani.

Frankly, FIFA should have learned their lesson in 2002. The ball used in Korea and Japan had similar problems, and the propensity for long shots to fly into the stratosphere encouraged plenty of teams to keep a deep line at that tournament and restrict their opposition to shots from distance; this was one of the factors which made the 2002 tournament such a poor advertisement for football. Things weren't quite so bad in 2010, but the Jabulani's tendency to swing unpredictably made life hell for goalkeepers, and it was no coincidence that this World Cup featured more egregious goalkeeping blunders than any of the past instalments. Any new ball being brought into use for a World Cup should be tested at length by top-level footballers, not just physicists.

And so we're off to Brazil in 2014, under the aegis of a certain Ricardo Teixeira. God help us.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


South Africa 2010: A Review, Part 1

A mediocre and bad-tempered final often gives a false impression of the quality of a tournament as a whole. And the grim spectacle of South Africa 2010's showpiece should not detract from the fact that the event featured plenty of good football.

The knockout stage of the 2006 World Cup was frankly a complete turn-off. 2002 was fairly mediocre throughout, with a team as essentially ordinary as Germany allowed to progress to the final with three 1-0 wins against modest opposition. France 1998 and the European Championship which followed it were superb tournaments, and we may not see their like for quite some time to come, given the doctrine of conservatism which has become so prevalent in recent years.

If there was a tactical theme that ran through the event, it was the death of the pure striker. Both teams in the final featured players in the "point" role who shifted out wide, dropped deeper, and generally played more like Alfredo di Stefano or Johan Cruyff than Fernando Morientes or Marco van Basten. Germany, in the third place match, acted likewise, although of course the injury to Miroslav Klose was the main reason for this.

Increasingly, teams are tending to use "false nines", as Jonathan Wilson likes to say. The author of the recent influential tactical history has published his own review of the tournament's tactical trends, and although I don't agree with him in every particular, the thrust of his argument is definitely sound. Japan's use of Keisuke Honda in the pivot role was a classic case in point; Honda is used as a midfielder by his club and it became very clear during the tournament that he would have been better used as a playmaker (this was especially clear after the arrival of Shinji Okazaki against Denmark), but Takeshi Okada was determined to make the most of his midfield talents.

First Roma and Manchester United; now everywhere.

Pim Verbeek was a slave to the trend, of course; the pre-World Cup plans of shifting Tim Cahill or Harry Kewell into the striking role were prime instances of the modern shift away from out-and-out strikers. When a real if flawed No.9 in Josh Kennedy entered the picture, the Socceroos looked more dangerous straight away. Significantly, too, two teams that punched well above their weight at the event, namely Uruguay and New Zealand, regularly fielded two or three strikers (thereby playing to their own strengths), and benefited thereby.

I still believe there is a future for the old-fashioned No.9. Diego Milito showed that with abundant clarity in the Champions League final, and had Fernando Torres not been in such abysmal form in South Africa, we might have been able to cite Spain's triumph as an example as well. It was a shame that England saw fit to rely on a very two-dimensional No.9 in Emile Heskey in the early games, when an alternative approach would have been more appropriate.

Klose's continuing success at World Cup level is another case of bucking the overall trend, since Klose is very much a classical striker whose qualities gel surprisingly well with the fluidity of the system in operation behind him. And Asamoah Gyan was an archetypal case of the striker carrying his team, which was built around him and relied on him almost completely.

At the other end, the zonal back four is now almost a given. Strange that only eight years ago, three of the final four at the World Cup employed back threes (it would be inaccurate to describe them as sweeper defences), and that six years ago it was a man-marking system that allowed an average team to gain an astonishing victory at the European Championships.

Yet, once again, the rare instances of back threes (or flexible defensive systems) being used at the tournament often coincided with modest success. Mexico's bolt-like system against South Africa functioned excellently, New Zealand's 3-4-3 fitted them like a glove, and Uruguay's initial use of a back three against France blunted the attacking ambitions of Messrs. Anelka et al. very effectively.

The lesson to be learned from the tournament's most successful coaches - Oscar Tabarez, Gerardo Martino, Ricki Herbert, and, yes, Vicente del Bosque - was surely to be flexible enough to alter your system to fit your personnel, not the other way around. A simple message which, however, has never been more important in world football, in my view.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Final Flop

"It was probably the worst, most tedious, bad-tempered final in the history of the World Cup."

Brian Glanville in his History of the World Cup, talking about the 1990 final between Argentina and West Germany. Although this morning's game didn't quite reach the depths of that encounter, the words could have been applied with equal justice to the final of the 2010 tournament. A great shame that one of the best World Cups in recent memory should finish with a spate of richly-deserved yellow cards, spurned chances and referee ear-bashing.

It was some consolation that the right team won, and that the game wasn't decided by the unsatisfactory lottery of penalty kicks.

Bert van Marwijk, in fairness to him, got his strategy right, even if the implementation was unpalatable. Holland pressed the Spanish from the outset, as Paraguay and Chile did, and although Spain dominated the early exchanges, there was always the feeling that they hadn't quite settled into their familiar groove. Sure enough, by the half-hour it wasn't entirely clear who had the initiative.

By that stage, the succession of crippling fouls and cynical intimidation of the referee on the part of the Dutch had begun. Following the lead of the ceaselessly petulant Mark van Bommel, the men in orange whined, wheedled and berated Howard Webb throughout, and although plenty of yellow cards were produced, it could be argued that the bullying had its effect. Holland finished the last World Cup with nine men; this morning, they should have finished with seven. Both van Bommel and Nigel de Jong deserved automatic red cards for their shocking early fouls, de Jong producing a chest-high kick that would have done a kung fu master proud. And Arjen Robben, late on, already on a yellow, should certainly have been sent off for his truculent jab past Iker Casillas.

When Robben's two excellent chances arrived in the second half, his fading form, evident against Uruguay, was grimly apparent. Casillas did well to save on the first occasion, admittedly, but the Robben of the latter stages of Bayern's Champions League run would surely have buried the shot. David Villa hardly excelled himself in this game either, failing to make the most of a great chance that fell to him in the relatively more open second period.

It still baffles me why Vicente del Bosque refused to make use of Fernando Llorente after his brisk cameo against Portugal. With Fernando Torres plainly well off his best and Villa running out of steam, Llorente seemed the ideal choice to bring on in such a situation. Instead, the Spanish continued to boss the midfield but create little in the way of genuine opportunities. It seemed that the lack of a No.9, a Morientes, which I commented on earlier in the tournament, might come back to haunt them.

Luckily, Andres Iniesta was there to apply a good finish when it mattered. Had the game gone to penalties, Spain may still have won, given the legendary Dutch capacity for choking during shootouts (they are second only to England in that respect), but it would have been a hollow victory.

Congratulations to the champions. Spain have been the best national side in the world now for a good few years; they possess an array of midfield talent second to none, a deceptively strong defence, and probably the most dangerous striker in the world in Villa. Of course, cup competitions being what they are, del Bosque's men did need a bit of luck along the way; had Oscar Cardozo's penalty against them been retaken (as it unquestionably should have been), had Thomas Muller not been wrongly suspended for the semi-final, had Hugo Almeida's deflected shot crept inside the far post rather than outside it...

Never mind. In a sense, it was a righting of past wrongs, recompense for the terrible luck suffered by Spain's excellent side of a decade ago. But for Raul's missed penalty against France at Euro 2000, and some atrocious refereeing which denied them a quarter-final victory against South Korea in 2002, Spain's drought may have been broken much earlier.

And if anyone put a quick $100 on New Zealand finishing as the tournament's only undefeated team, that person could probably buy half of New Zealand by now.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Schweini and the Three Diegos

Third-place matches often provide good entertainment, but it's rare that they end up being one of the best games of the tournament in question. This morning's Germany v. Uruguay game was an exception. It was not only one of the best games of the was the best game of the tournament so far. An absolutely enthralling match, with plenty of goals and positive football from both sides.

One of the pleasing things about open games is that they depict the qualities of individual players very starkly. This morning, we saw all the players in their true colours, so to speak, and the stars in each side shone brightly. Both teams boast players with leadership qualities in abundance: Germany has one, and plenty of talented players alongside him to follow his lead. Uruguay has three, and they all happen to be called Diego. (One more and they could start a football radio show in Melbourne.)

Up front, of course, there is Diego Forlan, one of the players of the tournament. It was not just his sweetly-taken volley-on-the-bounce goal that impressed against the Germans; once again, he drifted all across the forward line, with greater licence to roam this time thanks to the return of Luis Suarez and the continued presence of Edison Cavani, drifting shrewdly between midfield and attack. It was fitting that Forlan had the game's parting shot, that free kick that rattled the German bar.

In midfield, we have Diego Perez, an underrated contributor to Uruguay's achievement in South Africa. The granite-faced Monaco midfielder hauled his side back into the game against South Korea in the Round of 16, and last night he gave a sure indication of his value on the occasion of the first Uruguay goal. Of course, it was Suarez and Cavani who played the final parts in the move, but the powerful lunging tackle on Bastian Schweinsteiger, followed by the neat prod forwards...that was Perez. He did tire as the pacy game wore on, eventually being replaced, but Oscar Tabarez has much to thank him for.

And at the back...the player who was dreadfully missed against Holland in the semi-final. Diego Lugano was the man responsible for repelling the early waves of German aggression, and throughout the game one got the feeling that he was keeping the backline together single-handedly. Diego Godin put in an improved performance with his captain beside him, and Jorge Fucile appeared to feel much more inclined to get forward with the knowledge that Lugano was there to marshal the defence.

In the young German side, Bastian Schweinsteiger was the unquestioned commandant. Other than his rare lapse on the occasion of Uruguay's opening goal, he barely put a foot wrong in midfield, breaking up opposition attacks and initiating German offensives in equal measure. Thomas Muller may have been Germany's player of the tournament (and his drive and movement against Uruguay constituted yet another reminder of how deeply significant his harsh suspension for the semi-final was), but Schweinsteiger deserves the accolade of king of the kids.

To repeat, it was a game which highlighted individual players' strengths and weaknesses, and the calm, unfussy defensive style of Per Mertesacker was especially impressive on this occasion. Arne Friedrich made one or two errors beside him, as usual, but Mertesacker was impeccable for most of the evening, despite the strong pressure applied by Uruguay's mobile front three (or perhaps two and a half would be a better description).

Speaking of frontlines, Germany didn't really have one as such; their line-up, in the absence of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, was a sort of 4-2-4-0 of the type that Jonathan Wilson has made mention of in the past; the space in front of the advanced midfield four (Cacau was more midfielder than striker for much of the night) was filled according to need, and the movement was superbly fluid.

Let us hope against hope that this match is a prelude to an even better contest in Johannesburg this morning. It was splendid to see two sides so vigorously committed to attack...and it shouldn't always take a game with limited competitive significance to produce such a spectacle.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


Tournament Smarts

All sorts of superlatives have been applied to the current Spanish side over the last couple of years, and despite their stuttering start to the World Cup, they will no doubt attract similar praise in the coming days for a truly fine performance in their semi-final win over a German team that seemed to have lost some self-belief.

One thing that has struck me about Spain's recent record is that they have somehow developed not only a beautifully-calibrated cohesion in midfield, but some tournament nous as well. There have been Spanish sides of this calibre in the past (notably in the mid-eighties, and in the early years of this century) but they have consistently shown a tendency to reach their peak at a short tournament too early.

Such has not been the case with Vicente del Bosque's side, which has grown steadily throughout the event and is now, with the omission of the out-of-sorts Fernando Torres, functioning superbly. Interestingly, if Spain win the final against the Dutch on Sunday, they will be the first team ever to win the World Cup after losing their opening game.

Joachim Loew, I feel, made a major strategic error in allowing the Spanish to settle so easily into their preferred passing rhythm so early in the piece. Such was the policy adopted by Portugal in the Round of 16, and the Spanish were rarely seriously troubled; similarly, for long periods of this morning's game, the phrase "only a matter of time" came to mind. Paraguay, by comparison, took the bold and correct approach of pressing the Spanish defence (notably the vulnerable Sergio Ramos) early on in the quarter-final, and forced Spain to work very hard to take control.

Still, for all the Spanish possession early on, they failed to create many clear openings; the German defence dealt capably with the attempted diagonal through-balls from the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and even the drifting of the latter into the centre failed to trouble Germany unduly. Arne Friedrich must have caused Loew some heart-flutters when he repeatedly strolled out of defence only to lose the ball, but in the first half Spain couldn't take advantage.

It was only at about the half-hour mark that Germany began to mount some attacks of their own, and Iker Casillas's preference for punching rather than catching - always his chief defect as a keeper - must have emboldened them a little. But one of the small but significant factors in the game, Mesut Ozil's loss of form, drew much of the teeth from their offensive efforts. They also, of course, badly missed Thomas Muller, and the incredibly soft yellow card against Argentina that resulted in his suspension can certainly be pointed to as a grievance.

Loew essentially admitted some selection mistakes with his changes after half-time, with the defensively-minded Jerome Boateng giving way to Marcell Jansen to halt some of the Spanish raids down the right, and Toni Kroos replacing the largely ineffectual Piotr Trochowski. But Spain were unruffled, and Iniesta's increasing mastery of Philipp Lahm on the Spanish left was ultimately the instrument of Spain's breakthrough. Germany rarely give away such simple set-piece goals.

With the introduction of last-chance Mario Gomez, it was pretty clear that Germany had given up the ghost. Spain proved that they could defend as well in the final minutes, creating a solid barrier in their own area thanks to the aerial prowess of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, who had an excellent game.

So two teams who have never met in the tournament before face off in the final, and a new name on the honour roll is assured. The struggle will be an absorbing one, with Spain's greater technical assurance matched by Holland's outstanding organization and physical power in midfield. Not to be missed.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Wes is More

All I can say after this morning's semi-final is that Wes Sneijder will need to have a pretty awful first half of the season with Inter in 2010/11 to avoid being named FIFA World Player of the Year.

Even against a defensive and under-strength Uruguay, the Dutch needed someone to step up and win the game for them, given the unexpected failure of Arjen Robben to enforce much penetration. And, for the fourth time in this tournament, it was the Inter playmaker who did so.

The first half was hardly a spectator's delight, with both teams building from very deep and taking few real risks. Although Robben managed to get past Martin Caceres (an excellent choice for the left-back role by Oscar Tabarez, incidentally) in only the third minute, he found the Juventus man a real stumbling-block thereafter.

It was significant that when Robben did get past Caceres in the course of the game, it was on the outside rather than the inside, and the time subsequently lost in Robben bringing the ball onto his favoured left foot helped Uruguay to consolidate their defence in the meantime. Something for Holland's opponents in the final to keep in mind: when in doubt, show Robben the line.

At the other end, Uruguay's midfield found it hard to link up with the front two, as indeed they did against France. Tabarez's understandable decision to stiffen the midfield with the addition of Walter Gargano, rather than bringing in Sebastian Abreu to replace the absent Luis Suarez, stifled the Dutch in the centre but it made it very difficult for Uruguay to create many chances, with Edison Cavani functioning this time as an out-and-out striker rather than a linking player.

Both goals in the first half came out of nowhere, although neither was truly against the run of play. Giovanni van Bronckhorst's breathtaking strike came when Diego Perez had been enticed into the middle, leaving the Dutch captain with some space on the overlap...although few could have expected him to score from the position in which he found himself. At the other end, Diego Forlan again showed his incredible knack for creating space in the midst of several defenders, and let fly with a dipping shot which Maarten Stekelenburg might have done better with - although the mysteries of the Jabulani trajectory played their part again.

Bert van Marwijk's decision to replace the groggy Demy de Zeeuw with Rafael van der Vaart at the break was an excellent one. He had clearly counted on Uruguay being unwilling to come out of their defensive crouch, and he was proved correct, as Holland camped themselves in the opposition half around the hour mark, with Robben, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt now switching positions frequently and (relatively) effectively.

The fine save that Fernando Muslera made from van der Vaart might have been a crucial moment, especially given that Robben made such a hash of the follow-up. But this Dutch side is psychologically much tougher than previous incarnations, and they kept their heads and indeed went ahead only a couple of minutes later. Was van Persie actively offside? Perhaps, and it's worth remembering that Uruguay were a little unlucky with a couple of offside calls in the first half, but on the whole the Dutch more than deserved the goal.

In many ways Uruguay seemed to lose hope after the goal. The third Dutch goal was simply a result of terribly lazy defending from Diego Godin, who allowed Robben to nip in front of him and win the header far too easily. It was a stark reminder of how badly Uruguay miss Diego Lugano when he isn't there to lead the defence.

Van Marwijk wouldn't be at all happy with the manner in which the Dutch conceded Uruguay's late second, with the Dutch falling completely asleep at a well-worked set-piece (reminiscent of Javier Zanetti's excellent goal for Argentina against England in the 1998 tournament). It was enough to re-awaken a spark in Uruguay which they had lacked for the previous twenty minutes, but it was never going to be enough.

The Dutch through to their third World Cup final, then, and this time they will not be facing fanatical home backing. Although there have been better Dutch sides, it's hard to say that they don't deserve to be there. There is pace, organization, football intelligence and modest flair in this Oranje side, and whoever meets them in the final will have to be at their very best to beat them.

Sunday, July 04, 2010


In Too Deep

An amazingly lopsided encounter between two of the favourites, and then more penalty drama (and another unfortunate penalty scapegoat) in an absorbing tussle decided ultimately by the Barca connection. All in all, a great day's entertainment to conclude the quarter-finals.

Germany v. Argentina

What on earth would have been the odds on a 4-0 victory for the Germans at the start? Australia at least had the excuse of playing with a man less for half an hour against Germany, and of course England can point to Frank Lampard's phantom goal to help explain their demise. But this was quite different: one of the most talented teams in the tournament was absolutely thumped by this confident young German side, and the margin of victory was fully deserved.

The strategy of having Lionel Messi drop far off the forward line to make his runs finally came a cropper, and Ned Zelic got it spot on in the SBS studio before the game, when he commented that the problem with Messi starting from so deep was that he was left with so many men to beat. Thus it proved, and Messi's stubborn refusal to push further upfield drew much of the sting from Argentina's attack. Carlos Tevez battled manfully as always, but he had little support. It was significant that Angel di Maria, switching flanks early on, was regularly to be found closer to Gonzalo Higuain than Messi was.

The Germans managed to post a comprehensive victory this time without a major contribution from Mesut Ozil, which must have the Spanish somewhat concerned. Instead, it was Bastian Schweinsteiger who took control of the midfield, putting himself at the centre of everything and setting up the third goal with a surging run down the left.

It was, in fact, richly significant that every single one of the Germans' goals had their origin on Argentina's right side of defence. Nicolas Otamendi was brought into the side to replace the suspect Jonas Gutierrez in the right fullback role, but his inadequacies were shown up throughout, not least when he was so readily tricked into a foul by Lukas Podolski in the lead-up to the opener.

Meanwhile, one of the finest right-backs of all time, an Argentinian who has just led his side to victory in the UEFA Champions League, was presumably watching the match on TV. Can anyone spot what's wrong with this picture?

Thomas Muller's suspension for the semi-final will hurt the Germans, since the 20-year-old from Bayern Munich has had a superb tournament and provided much of the side's attacking impetus. But the confidence in the German camp will be sky-high...even if there is that nagging feeling that they may have reached their peak too early.

Spain v. Paraguay

Spain are a side who have yet to reach their peak, or anything like it, but they deserve credit for snatching a late winner against a tough side who have enhanced their reputation at this tournament. It's hard to argue with Gerardo Martino's tactics: several changes to give the players who battled through 120 minutes against Japan a rest, and Dario Veron, nominally a central defender, drafted in at right-back to deal with the inevitable drifts of David Villa out to the left.

For quite some time, the game displayed the limitations of the "inside-out" winger strategy, employed ever more widely these days. With Villa cutting inside onto his right foot and Andres Iniesta always striving to play centrally as well, Paraguay simply stiffened the central areas and largely blunted the incisiveness of these two. The goal, pertinently, came after Iniesta had shifted to a central area, where he has always looked more comfortable and effective.

Martino got his match strategy spot on as well, I feel. With Paraguay pressing Spain from the outset and preventing them from finding their rhythm, Vicente del Bosque's side lost some self-belief, and there was a series of uncharacteristic errors from some of Spain's key men, not least Xabi Alonso. Once Paraguay had settled into an essentially defensive posture, Spain found it hard to get their game flowing.

The game then followed a predictable pattern, Spain's measured attacks balanced by the physical threat of Nelson Haedo Valdez at the other end. Then...the drama.

Both of the penalties in question, incidentally, were dreadfully soft, Villa and Oscar Cardozo both making the most of relatively benign challenges. But the refereeing thereafter was quite horrendous; at Cardozo's penalty, not only did Iker Casillas move off his line, but no fewer than three Spanish players encroached into the area...and yet the kick was not retaken. At the other end, Xabi Alonso's well-struck penalty had to be repeated after a fractional incursion into the area by a Spanish player.

It is incredible that we have come to accept such farcically poor refereeing at penalties as a matter of course, while wringing our hands constantly over much less relevant matters. This, incidentally, is one of the many reasons why penalty shoot-outs need to be abolished as soon as possible. But I digress.

Spain's winning goal, when it finally came, was very well-constructed; the contribution of Iniesta has attracted deserved praise, but Xavi's delightful touch-off to his Barca team-mate was a pleasure to watch as well. Off both posts and in - shades of Rainer Bonhof against Sweden in 1974, or indeed Tim Cahill against Japan in 2006!

Cardozo, like Asamoah Gyan last night, deserves plenty of sympathetic hugs in the aftermath. It was nice to see some Spanish players, notably Sergio Ramos, offering the poor Benfica man some comfort after the final whistle as well as his Paraguay team-mates; again, his contributions during the tournament outweigh his unfortunate penalty choke (and, it's worth repeating, it should have been retaken in any event).

Spain v. Germany should be a brilliant game. Spain, I repeat, are yet to hit their best, and if they can do so against the Germans, the entertainment level will be top-notch.

Saturday, July 03, 2010


Gyan's Grief

Poor Asamoah Gyan. The forward had been a mighty leader for his side throughout the tournament, scoring in every game save the 1-0 loss to Germany and truly leading from the front. His missed penalty in the final minute of extra time will haunt him for years, but I hope his team-mates and coach are reminding him that his contributions during the tournament more than negate the error. Without him, Ghana would never have made it out of the group, let alone come within an ace of a World Cup semi-final.

My mind went back to Juan Roman Riquelme in 2006, missing a similar penalty for Villareal against Arsenal that would have taken them to the Champions League final. Riquelme, of course, more or less carried the Spanish side that season. But the European Cup is not quite the World Cup, and Riquelme always affected rather a disinterested attitude towards his European clubs.

But first to the opening match of the day:

Holland v. Brazil

To call the result of this one a shock would be an exaggeration, but a surprise, certainly. Especially after Brazil scored that early goal, Andre Ooijer getting his geometry horribly wrong, after which the Dutch pressed but looked unlikely to find an opening, while the smooth interplay of Brazil's front three promised more goals.

That all changed in the second half, and the seeds of Holland's victory could be found on Brazil's left flank, where Michel Bastos was finally found out. The suspension of Ramires, one of Brazil's best players against Chile, was felt keenly, with Felipe Melo not proving as shrewd a covering midfielder as the Benfica man.

As it happened, Bastos found himself in trouble against the ever-dangerous Arjen Robben, but not quite as expected: Robben did beat Bastos on the inside a few times, but Melo was normally there to cover...or occasionally foul. Instead, it was the many unnecessary and clumsy fouls which Bastos was induced to inflict on Robben that hurt Brazil; the first goal stemmed directly from one of them. It's hard to say whether Melo or Julio Cesar was more at fault for that catastrophic equaliser, but if you step into the path of your goalkeeper, you ought to be pretty sure that you can put in a clearing header.

Robben is showing definite signs of approaching his best form, and after the first Dutch goal the Brazilians simply couldn't deal with him, allowing him to thrust past them time and again. The second Dutch goal again had its origin on the Brazilian left flank, with Robben winning a corner which the Dutch worked perfectly to go in front.

The Brazilians seemed to become obsessed with the perceived Dutch over-reactions to the fouling (and it's true that Robben and others were guilty of this at times), but it was a psychological error, preventing them from finding the werewithal to get back into the game, and ultimately leading to Felipe Melo's violent foul on Robben which earned him a deserved red card. In truth, neither side was entirely innocent in what was a very niggly match; in that respect, it was similar to the two sides' first World Cup encounter, in 1974. In that game, too, a Brazilian player was sent off.

Uruguay v. Ghana

For most of the mediocre first half Uruguay were marginally the better side, although neither team looked particularly impressive. The goal just before the break was completely unexpected, some insouciance from Egidio Arevalo allowing Sulley Muntari enough time to turn and shoot past an unsighted goalkeeper.

But it did have the effect of opening up the game in the second period, which was pleasingly lively. Diego Forlan's equalising free kick was the second example in this tournament (after Keisuke Honda's swerving special against Denmark) of the Jabulani ball curving first one way, then the other. A true goalkeeper's nightmare.

Uruguay showed the more invention in attack after that and should probably have gone in front after the hour; Luis Suarez missed a good volleyed chance after some good work from Forlan on the left, and was only denied by a superb save from Richard Kingson soon afterwards. He was also wrongly called offside when clean through on goal at one point.

The pendulum swung in extra time, when the Ghanaians (despite the extra time against the USA) looked more energetic. Muntari blazed wide after a Ghanaian penalty claim, and Gyan might have done better when a fearful defensive error from Arevalo presented him with the ball in the box. Then there was the penalty...enough said.

I can't see the Dutch slipping up against a Uruguay side which will be without not only Suarez, but also a key defender in Jorge Fucile, who has been one of the best fullbacks of the tournament. In his absence, Oscar Tabarez will probably restore Mauricio Victorino to the left side of defence, from which he was removed after the opening game. Not a good sign against a confident and very effective Robben.

The Dutch will not be at full strength either, without both Gregory van der Wiel and Nigel de Jong, who has fulfilled the important role of midfield destroyer for the Dutch throughout. But they probably have the personnel to fill the gaps adequately, while Uruguay are unlikely to be able to recreate the Suarez-Forlan partnership with an alternate frontman.

Friday, July 02, 2010


Some Reflections

Now that the World Cup has reached its first hiatus, it's time to have a look back at the course of the event so far, vis-a-vis the performances of the different confederations.

Not a day has gone by without another pundit making reference to the fact that this has been, on the field, South America's World Cup rather than Africa's. The men from CONMEBOL have been splendidly successful, all five teams advancing to the knockout stage (it's worth noting that four out of five made it through in 1998 as well), and four of them still alive at quarter-final time.

Tim Vickery has written a typically perceptive and well-argued piece for the World Soccer website, and it's hard to disagree with his conclusions. Leaving aside Argentina and Brazil, who are always competitive at the tournament, South America's teams have shown not only excellent organisation and fine individual skills but a bit of grit as well; the 18-game CONMEBOL qualifying marathon may infuriate European club coaches, but it certainly aids cohesion among the national sides.

The most salient example of the resilience of the South Americans was Uruguay's climb from the canvas against South Korea in the second round. The game, and particularly the second half, had been dominated by the Asians, but Uruguay were able to find a second wind when it mattered, after which the class of the forward line provided the breakthrough.

This leads us to Asia. It is the first World Cup without a West Asian side since 1974, and yet it has been Asia's best yet (discounting the host-friendly 2002 event), with two sides making the knockouts and another only missing out on goal difference. Is this significant?

I'm not sure, but it does seem that Australia's entry into the Asian confederation has caused the other nations, especially in the Eastern half of the confederation, to sharpen up physically. Japan proved much tougher in the air than in previous events, and the Koreans too - apart from that spell in the second half against Greece - were not as easily dominated physically as in the past. It will be a while before the Asians can think seriously of aiming for the semis or beyond, but they seem to be on their way.

What to say about Africa? Although there is one African entrant still in the frame, it has been a dismal showing on the whole for the host continent. I think there are a few reasons for this, but mainly it comes down to organisation once more; the two nations with far and away the best chance of making a real impression, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, changed coaches ridiculously close to the start of the tournament. As a result, the teams looked unsettled and the game-plans slapdash, and Nigeria in particular could have done better. The Ivorians were unlucky to be placed in such a tough group, but they too might have gone further had they been able to avoid the upheavals of the last few months.

It was a pretty typical World Cup for CONCACAF; Mexico out at the last 16, the USA gallant but short of guile. Having said that, I think that we will see the Americans continue to improve in the next few years, to the extent that they might be considered genuine semi-final contenders by 2018 or 2022.

Last but not least: Europe.

The old continent has never been more aptly named than in this event: too many teams were relying on old ideas, long-serving coaches, and players who had seen better days. Although the early exits of Italy, France and England had different immediate causes, the same thread of staleness ran through all of them. Elsewhere, teams like Greece and Denmark showed too much faith in old stagers, both on the field and on the bench, while Portugal were undone by the now-familiar phenomenon of a world-class star donning lead boots for his European national side.

The Swiss and the Serbs couldn't find a cutting edge and were also plagued by ill-discipline, and while Slovakia did well to reach the knockouts, they were never likely to trouble the confident Dutch. Slovenia presumably entered the tournament with limited expectations, and they acquitted themselves fairly well.

That leaves us with Oceania, and we can surely say that it was a very successful World Cup for FIFA's smallest confederation. Whether that confederation continues to exist within a couple of cycles is another matter...

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