Sunday, June 20, 2010

5 Points on the World Cup

We’re almost a week into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and it’s been…well it’s been just OK really, hasn’t it? The competition hasn’t got into second gear just yet, but there’s been plenty to talk about. So what have we learned?

1. Four years is a long time in football. Just ask fans of Italy and France. The two finalists from 2006 have both struggled early on, and have serious questions they have yet to answer. There are rumours of discontent in the French camp, and their performance against Uruguay will be even more worrying to their supporters. In the second half of that match, Franck Ribery gave the ball away countless times…the occasions of genuine threat from the French were all too easy to count. Meanwhile, the Italians looked short of pace, talent, and ideas in their match against a tough Paraguay side. The Italians are in better shape than the French, and it’s an old clichĂ© that Italian sides don’t have to play well to win, but the Azzuri must be better if they are to achieve what is expected of a nation with such a rich history of success.

2. Argentina are the early favourites this time around. There were questions before the tournament about Argentina’s manager, the relatively inexperienced, and often volatile, Diego Maradona. Two impressive performances later, and the doubters have been quieted. The Argentineans followed a clean sheet against Nigeria with a very impressive performance in a dominating 4-1 win against the South Koreans. Argentina has quality all over the pitch and depth on the bench, not to mention the best player in the world, Lionel Messi. There is a confidence and togetherness about the team that bodes well for the later stages, and for this, credit must go to Maradona; could El Diego’s legend become even greater in his native Argentina?

3. The Adidas Jabulani ball is a factor. There were some complaints from the players about the new ball before the tournament, while England manager Fabio Capello called it, “the worst ball that I have seen in my life.” Six days into the tournament and there is definitely something strange going on. It could be the high altitude, or the new ball, or a combination of both, but the number of over-hit crosses, long balls, and through passes has been quite astonishing. Getting comfortable with the new, lighter ball will go a long way to assuring success for any given nation.

4. The vuvuzela is a part of African football. The popular horns are blown non-stop through every match, turning every stadium into a buzzing nest of people. There have been calls for the horns to be banned, which is absolutely ridiculous. Accusations that the vuvuzela ruins the atmosphere could not be more off point. The vuvuzela is part of what makes the atmosphere in South Africa. Is that atmosphere the same as those found in Barcelona and Madrid, Milan and Manchester? No, of course not. That’s part of what the World Cup is all about. The coming together of cultures and nations. Embrace the vuvuzela…you have no choice anyway.

5. The best is yet to come. So far there have been only a handful of notable games. England’s slip-up against the USA, who are a good side, but should have been beaten on the day, Germany’s destruction of a weak Australia team without its best player, Ivory Coast’s damp squib of a game against Portugal was maybe the most disappointing so far, and of course the massive upset that was Switzerland over Spain, which may have been the best match so far. There have been some surprises, and some great performances, but we have yet to see a game to really savour. A real clash of two great teams playing great football. Fear not, we can always count on the knockout stages to make the heart race, and the group stage still has some tasty encounters to serve up. France plays Mexico tonight in what is a massive game for both teams, with the loser on the outside of qualification looking in, while both the Ivory Coast and Portugal will test themselves against the always formidable Brazilians to decide who will come out of the Group of Death. This World Cup has started slowly, but it will undoubtedly find an extra gear in the coming weeks. Enjoy!

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup Blog: Day 1

It's finally here. At times it was all I could think about all day, and sometimes I almost forgot it was coming. I've stayed up all night to make sure I don't miss anything at the beginning. It's like a girlfriend, the World Cup, in the beginning you can't look away, then your attention might start to wonder, before, at the end of it, she takes over the whole world again, for better or worse. When I was little, the only things worth staying up all night for were Easter, birthdays, and Christmas...basically any day where there was a chance of presents, hidden or otherwise. Then, when I was about 8, there was football. Now, at 23, I can go to sleep for birthdays and the rest of it, but the World Cup? No chance. Up all night waiting.

So for the next month I'm living in a dreamworld. Top class football every single day...more than one game a day even. It does not get any better for the millions of football fans worldwide, and to try and savor it as much as possible, I'll be keeping track of every day of the tournament; the matches I watch, the players that have caught the eye, and any and everything else.

I stayed up because the opening ceremonies started early, and I wanted to see them. Then I turned on the TV and remembered that I can't stand opening or closing ceremonies in anything, and unfortunately the World Cup is no different! After sitting around wishing I had had a good nights sleep, the ceremonies ended (thank God) and the tournament began in earnest, with host nation South Africa kicking off against Mexico. Not a bad match, although I got the feeling I was watching a very small fish gamely hold off another, slightly bigger, but still quite small, fish. South Africa was predictably full of spirit, buoyed by their fantastic fans. I fear for the Africans though, they didn't really look that threatening, except on the counter. That said, they have the home support behind them, and they showed that they have the ability to grind out a result. Mexico will be so disappointed not to take 3 points against a side clearly inferior to themselves. The Mexicans rely on a very young strike-force, with Carlos Vela supported by Gio Dos Santos. This lack of nous and experience in attack was personified by Dos Santos. He is undoubtedly supremely talented, and was very dangerous in the opening stages. As the game wore on, however, Dos Santos was increasingly predictable and almost exclusively left footed, and he's no Arjen Robben yet. Perhaps to bring up the average age of their strikers, the Mexicans have brought their talisman, 37 year old Cuauhtémoc Blanco. It's an amazing achievement to be playing at a World Cup at his age, but on what evidence we were given, Blanco is well past his sell-by date. He reminds me of the old guy at every pick-up game in the world, you can guess he might have been good once, but he isn't that useful now. Blanco chugged around for a spell at the end of the match, sweat streaming down his slightly chubby looking face, but couldn't break the deadlock, and the opener ended in a 1-1 draw.

This is where my all-nighter came back to haunt me, making me fall asleep and miss the first half of the France-Uruguay game. By all accounts, I didn't miss much, and I must say, the second half was very disappointing on many accounts. France looked really average. What is worse is that this was no surprise. The French are maybe the most dysfunctional team in the world, with reports of unrest throughout the camp for any number of reasons, all equally ridiculous. The only bright spot was the play of Jeremy Toulalan, who was immense in the centre of midfield. Toulalan was committed and oozed effort, someone that many of his teammates should try to emulate in their attitude. I don't know if it was attitude, or what, but I have never seen so poor a half from Franck Ribery as the one I saw against Uruguay. Again and again he gave the ball away, and never really created anything of note. It's so early in the tournament, but I can't see this French team getting past the first knockout round, and they'll only qualify from the group at all because it is such a weak one.

The underachievers on this day were not all French, however. Much has been made of Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, after a great season with Ajax. Linked with the likes of Manchester United, Suarez posed very little threat, and struggled to involve himself in the match at all. But this was only the first game, and both the French and the Uruguayans have time to make ammends.

That's all for day 1 of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Fantastic month ahead!