12 July 2010 – Postscript

That’s it then. A month of football consigned to the pages of history. Congratulations to Spain on their first World Cup, overcoming a Netherlands team who were at times  more “Brutal Football” than “Total Football”. Intriguing though is the position of the BBC World Cup team who now sees itself as the moral guardians of the game, in stating that a Netherlands victory would have been “…bad for football…” It smacks of managers who complain, “…they didn’t let us play…”. I’m sure the Dutch fans would have been overwhelmed with joy if their team had allowed Spain the time and space to play the ball around and romp to a 4-0 win. I presume the BBC has phoned round the Premier League teams and demanded that Arsenal be allowed all the time and space they require so that they can pass their way to the title, while opponents sit back and be grateful for the football lesson they are being taught. The Dutch had a game plan, which unsightly as it may have been for some, thwarted the fluency of Spain. It nearly took them to penalties and who knows a possible victory. That’s football. Simple question. What would you prefer? Your sides plays lovely and finishes mid-table or a team that is physical, functional, organised and wins the title?

So what will I take away from the first African World Cup? With the coverage so total in all forms of the media, it’s hard to escape the clichés that were things such as the sounds of the vuvuzela’s, dramatic sky-lines providing backdrops to the stadiums, questions over the ball and the failure of the “stars” to shine. My hope is that FIFA does look to address a number of issues between now and 2014 in Brazil.

  • Ticketing: there were problems with the pricing and of the distribution of tickets which led to many empty seats especially in the Group games and last 16. Greater understanding of the host countries economy needs to be considered, as does the policy on who receives tickets.
  • Playing surface/balls: as the pinnacle of football events, shouldn’t the playing conditions and equipment be the best they possibly can? Some surfaces required “patching” to cover bare parts of the pitch and some couldn’t be used to practice on because of the condition. In a World Cup were goalkeeping mistakes seemed more common place and players seemed to have difficulty in the control and judging the weight of passes, the ball must have been a contributory factor.
  • Replay technology: the decision must be to bring this in now. The question is how and for what decisions? Just for seeing if a ball has crossed the line? Off-sides? Where players encroach during the taking of penalties?  
  • FIFA branding: my most irritating aspect of this World Cup? The FIFA letters which appeared after every replay in games. We know if the FIFA World Cup, I don’t need it stuffed down my throat every minute of the game. An image of the trophy itself, the competing countries crests – anything but the Big Brother image of FIFA.
  • Penalty-goals: for a hand-ball on the line, consider the adaptation of a rule used in both codes of rugby, the penalty try. If the referee believes that a try has been prevented by the defending team’s misconduct, they can award a try to the attacking team. A player handling on the line where the referee considers that the ball would have gone in without this intervention should be allowed to award a penalty goal. The player would also be sent off.
  • Legacy: ensure that the projects set in place during the World Cup come to fruition in the coming years. Report on their progress so that it doesn’t mean the World focus turns away as soon as the FIFA circus has left town.

My thanks to all those that have stuck with me during the World Cup. Goodbye South Africa, see you in four years in Brazil…….2018? Well we’ll know in December.

11 July 2010 – Day 31

The biggest and most important game in the football diary. A Final which only happens every four years. Watched across the entire planet; the world stage on which the players can shine. A game which is burdened with an expectation that it will be exceptional and therefore forever remembered. Players aware that it is their last international game – a chance to change their life – carrying the hopes of a nation. A pressure that will either crush or inspire.

The coach will try and maintain that this is just another game. And is it, if the players can shut out everything that is going on around them. But that won’t be an easy thing. Days of media built up, interviews to give. Training to go through…please don’t let me get injured…

Sunday is now here, the game is less than 8 hours away. Every minute now a moment nearer kick-off. Your mobile just keeps ringing and texts fly in to wish you good luck. You know you have to eat but you can’t face it. Pre-match fluids have to be taken on board. You sit on the coach and stare out of the window.

A young boy is kicking a ball around the streets, slamming it hard against a wall and laughing with his mates. That simple but powerful joy rushes through you. Suddenly you are aware that hot tears are rolling slowly down your face, you are lined up and singing the National Anthem with a pride you have never felt before. You dreamt of this moment as a child, it has all led to this…..

10 July 2010 – Day 30

Saturday morning, a time of rest. What is occupying my thoughts as I wake today? Tea or coffee? Bacon or sausage sandwich? What time am I meeting my son? What time am I due at the BBQ tonight? All these things and without wishing to cause offence to any Germans or Uruguayans reading this, not the 3rd/4th Place Play-Off game this evening. Can you remember who played in this game in 2006? I certainly can’t. In fact, the only time I watched this particular fixture was when England lost to Italy in 1990 and I’m not sure I even saw the whole 90 minutes. I honestly do feel sorry for the players. Imagine, you’ve just missed out on getting to a World Cup Final, with all the heartbreak and huge disappointment that it brings and then you have to go out and play one more time. Quite simply pointless.

Just when I was beginning to think that FIFA had the monopoly on this type of futile fixture, I discovered that the English FA gave it a go in the seventies! The FA Cup third-fourth place matches were introduced in 1970 replacing the traditional pre-Final match between England and Young England (how interesting a game would that be now?). They were generally unpopular (what a surprise!) and were only played for five seasons. The 1972 and 1973 matches were played at the start of the following season and the last, five days after the Final. The 1972 match was the first FA Cup match to be decided on penalties.

FA Cup third-fourth place matches

1970 Manchester United Watford 2-0 Highbury 15,000
1971 Stoke City Everton 3-2 Selhurst Park 5,031
1972 Birmingham City Stoke City 0-0 St Andrew’s 25,841
1973 Wolves Arsenal 3-1 Highbury 21,038
1974 Burnley Leicester City 1-0 Filbert Street 4,000

So if you do tune in tonight, just think of the recent roll of honour Germany and Uruguay will join and memorise for use at your next pub quiz or indeed keep as useless info to impress your friends with……

 World Cup third-fourth place matches

2006 Germany Portugal 3-1 Stuttgart 52,000
2002 Turkey South Korea 3-2 Daegu 63,483
1998 Croatia Netherlands 2-1 Paris 45,500
1994 Sweden Bulgaria 4-0 Pasadena 91,500
1990 Italy England 2-1 Bari 51,426

Good luck gentlemen, but can we please get on with the main event?

09 July 2010 – Day 29

Somewhere in the respective camps of Germany and Uruguay there must be some players who have that “end of holiday” feeling. You know the sensation. You ask yourself how can the time have gone so quickly, it only seems like yesterday that you arrived, all full of excitement, raring to go. There’s only a day left and then you fly back home tomorrow, back to routine. You’ve got one more night out, but it will be a bit of an effort, you feel so flat and all you want to do now is get back home to your own bed and your home comforts. To cap it all that dream of a holiday romance never came to fruition. Oh well, there’s always next time.

Meanwhile across town, some of the players of Spain and the Netherlands may be feeling like they have been on a residential course. That feeling when you are miles from home, but are determined to do your best. You do all the pre-course preparation, you feel ready, you don’t want to mess this chance up. Your company has faith in you, that’s why you are here, you’ve earned it, you deserve it. You’ve come through all the tests they’ve put in front of your so far. There’s just the final exam to take. You didn’t come all this way to not be the best. You want to be top of the class, you want that respect. Second place is simply not an option. It’s now all about you nerves on the day, is there one more performance left? What does fate have in store for you? What is your destiny? Hero or villain? Victor or vanquished?

08 July 2010 – Day 28

As I’ve got older, I’ve come to find that I appreciate different things, my tastes have changed and I view things and come to understand the world we live in, in a different way. This has manifested itself for instance in my drinking habits. I still do enjoy a decent pint of real ale, but I’m just as likely to be found appreciating a decent glass of Shiraz or Merlot. Older and wiser? Not necessarily, but certainly in a position to be able to draw on years of experience.

You may ask what these philosophical musings have to do with football. Well, having praised the BBC for their coverage in earlier posts in this diary, I was irate at the commentary team at last night’s Semi Final and their insistence that the first half hadn’t lived up to expectations. Yes it was goal-less and yes there hadn’t been many shots on target. However, for me, Spain had got it absolutely spot-on in terms of the tactics. Del Bosque ensured that the threat of the German counter attack was nullified with the Spanish dominating the midfield and not allowing Ozil or Schweinsteiger the time or space to control the game as they had in previous rounds. Not only that, but Spain attacked, and passed the ball around in an accomplished fashion making the Germans work hard throughout the first half. The passing was a pleasure to watch. I’d be more than happy to watch that week in, week out. Now is it just that as I’ve got older I want something different from watching football or is it I’m more tactically aware from watching over the years and appreciate different nuances? Probably a bit of both. What concerns me is that the BBC commentary team didn’t give the game the credit it deserved in the first half. Was I watching a different version of events? These guys are experts and I presume well paid for their efforts. I can’t help thinking that perhaps they are blinded by the Premier League and therefore confuse the self anointed “best League in the World, with the World’s best players” with what actually is World class as seen last night. Thankfully at the end of the game the studio panel were rightly praising the Spanish performance and the game itself.

If England is truly to change and improve its chances in future major tournaments, get all those in positions of power within the game in this country and our young players and make them watch, and keep making them watch games like the one last night, until they appreciate they have witnessed the “beautiful game” and the way it should be played………..

07 July 2010 – Day 27

The future’s bright, the future’s…….well you know the rest. Gefeliciteerd to the Dutch for making their third World Cup Final. Third time lucky? And for all those on the high veldt of football morality, yes what goes around comes around; the Uruguayan Olympic Basketball team is out. All that remains for them now is the most meaningless game of the tournament, the 3rd/4th Place Play-off. But of course, silly me, it’s not worthless, there are FIFA ranking points at stake…

As for the game itself, with a final score of 3-2 you might assume it was a bit of a thriller. In truth, apart from the excellent strikes from van Bronckhorst, Forlan and Pereira and the frantic last period of time added on, it was far from a classic. For the most part it was a niggly, nervy and generally uninspiring game; dominated by defences and lacking in attacking ideas. It was a World Cup Semi Final, so perhaps I was expecting too much. Certainly the hordes of Dutch fans won’t care how they got through.

Later today we have the all European Semi Final as Deutschland take on España tonight. Really am left wondering how this will go. Can Germany continue to blast another team away on the counter attack? Will Spain finally produce a performance that the “names” in their line-up warrants? As my attempts at predictions have been poor, I’ll turn to my namesake the psychic octopus Paul who has backed Germany all the way so far, but has gone for Spain tonight.

On a more note serious, I’d like to dedicate this piece today to friends in London caught up in the bombings 5 years ago.

06 July 2010 – Day 26

The Netherlands and Uruguay take centre stage later today as the first Semi Final kicks-off place in Cape Town. There will be many people hoping that Uruguay come unstuck after the “Saurez slap” kept out Ghana in the Quarter Final. If the karma that followed the French into this tournament befalls Uruguay, they’ll be back on the plane to Montevideo come Tuesday evening.

The Dutch team that reached both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup Finals is best remembered for “Total” football, which was pleasing on the eye, but didn’t win them the trophy on either occasion. Whilst the 2010 team doesn’t play with the flair of the 70’s era, they have a determination and organization that has served them well in the tournament and does have class in players such as Kuyt, Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, Huntelaar and Van der Vaart. It would also set up the possibility of the Dutch meeting Germany in the Final. Whilst we English reach boiling point at the thought of any game against the Germans, they on the other hand see the game against the Netherlands as providing their greatest rivalry. Perhaps that is why the world was treated to the spitting-fest between Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Voller at Italia ’90. Now doesn’t that whet the appetite for a spectacular Final…

05 July 2010 – Day 25

Any World Cup or indeed major international championship is a strange time for the coach or manager of the participating teams. Some are brought in just for that competition, others resign as soon as their team is knocked out, some wait for their football federation or associations to sack them. We’ve seen coaches who hold their hand up and accept the blame for their teams exit, some who hide behind other “factors” to explain their teams demise. As in life some men are more honourable than others.

When England were knocked out there was the usual outcry in the media and amongst the public about whether Mr Capello should stay or go. What we got was a rather curious situation. Mr “my players is tired” Capello said he wanted to meet with the FA to ensure he had the backing of the ruling body. In return he got a, “you’ll have to wait two weeks” for the FA decision. Now I was never great at maths, but when I went to school, two weeks was 14 days, I’ll even be cocky and say 10 days for a working week. So after 4 days we get the FA saying, don’t panic, Fabio you are the best man for the job, carry on till 2012. Did this have anything to do with Hodgson moving to take the Liverpool job? Now as each day passes, polite noises about how Mr Capello is the right man continue to trickle out from administrators, journalists and players.

So given the situation, what happens next? England have a friendly against Hungary at Wembley on 11th August. The FA in their wisdom have set prices at a sensible level (£40 top price) and every effort should be made to get a good crowd in for that game. My view is that is should be billed as “England: A new start” or “England: the next generation”. The FA should be up front and say that it is to be an experimental side and will be through the 2012 European Championship Qualifying campaign. The media and the public then have to be patient, however big an ask that is. I would exclude from selection any of the players who actually started in the World Cup. A young squad should be selected so that the crowd has nobody to get on the back of in terms of association with the doomed South African campaign. It is drastic and some would say simplistic, but can it be any worse than what we suffered in June 2010?

04 July 2010 – Day 24

Half time in the Mystic Hatt Quarter Finals predictions showed Europe 1 South America 1, my 3-1 punt was still on, but would now require Argentina and Paraguay to win. 

Armed with nothing stronger than a mug of coffee I settled down yesterday afternoon to the game from Cape Town. I’d not had chance to blow gently on my chosen beverage to cool it down, before the Germans were one up. You can but only admire the Germans. It was a master-ausstellung in discipline, tactical success and breakaway finishing. As I watched I found myself applauding the second, third and fourth goals. Simply clinical. A team without big names showing unity and emphasing that Germany should never be dismissed in any tournament.

In the evening, I was unsure what to expect after the drama of the three previous Quarter Finals, but was for the most part disappointed by the war of attrition that was Spain v Paraguay. With an hour gone though and my mind turning to the serious prospect of switching to watch something else, a mini penalty shootout ensued. It kept me watching to the end and saw Spain edge through with a late Villa goal.

With the Semi Final places all booked and Argentina and Brazil not part of that last four, the procession of players that were supposed to shine are left simply to only collect earlier than expected air miles rather than medals. Coaches too depart not only from the competition but their job, with greater regularity than National Express.

Full time Europe 3 South America 1

Seems that my crystal ball is an unreliable as a Jabulani……….

03 July 2010 – Day 23

Yesterday saw the most dramatic day of the World Cup to date. Favourites Brazil lost their heads as the Netherlands used theirs to upset the five times winners and progress to the Semi Finals. All looked to be going to plan as Robinho scored from a simple and direct ball through the Dutch defence, a goal that had the quality mark of English defending all over it. Back came the Dutch in the second half and two headed goals later they were in front. Brazil then resorted to their bully-boy tactics of World Cup ‘74 and had Melo sent off for a vicious stamp on Robben. Brazil out now, that’s nuts…

How could the afternoon fixture be topped? Well Uruguay and Ghana did a bloody good job. Africa’s team kept the dream alive as they took the lead, only for one of my players of the Tournament, Forlan to level it up. So Extra Time comes and almost goes. In the last attack of the goal, a scramble, ball pings back and forth and the official spots a handball on the line by Suarez. One penalty and Ghana are through. But we know Gyan misses and Ghana lose 4-2.

What has been a memorable evening to watch is then ruined for me by a ludicrous statement from the ITV “experts”. Suarez is cast as some dastardly “Johnny foreigner” who has “cheated” and got away with it. Hang on, so they are saying he should have let the ball go in and then Uruguay would be out of the World Cup. Suarez paid the price, he got sent-off (misses the Semi Final) and Ghana got a penalty. They are the rules of the competition; he didn’t know Ghana would miss. If the forward from Ghana in the last minute had been fouled in that incident and a penalty awarded, would that have been cheating? Players react in the heat of the moment and as a player, manager or fan I would expect nothing less. Does that make me an unsporting old cynic? Nope, it’s part of the game.

Thank goodness today’s games are on BBC. Adrian Chiles has looked as out of his depth as ITV front-man as much as his beloved Baggies will be in the Premier League in the coming season. His classic moment from last night? With penalties about to start, Chiles informs the nation that he fancies Ghana keeper Kingson to see the Africans through as the Uruguay keeper, Muslera doesn’t look to be a penalty expert. As the coverage switches from studio to stadium, the match commentator tells us that Muslera made his name last season in the Coppa Italia with Lazio saving 4 penalties in his teams Cup triumph, including 2 in the Final. It’s called research Adrian…..