FIFA World Cup 2014 – Monday 30 June 2014

It is some sort of conspiracy?

Fulham get relegated in the 2013/14 season and then in this World Cup, those with a connection to Craven Cottage suddenly turn into world-beaters. So you think I’m exaggerating? Okay, Clint Dempsey. Left us under a cloud and after a spell at Spurs returned last season (just to keep himself in trim pre-Brazil) and has been inspirational for USA as Captain America. You want another example? Bryan Ruiz. Captain of Costa Rica. His time by the Thames was as lightweight and fragile as filo pastry. In Brazil he scores the winner against Italy and was instrumental in the victory over Greece to see his team into the Quarter-Finals.

But hey, what am I complaining about, I could be a Mexican fan. With two minutes to go against Netherlands, they were on their way to a Quarter-Final place. Then Sneijder smashes home from a corner and then in time added-on Huntelaar slots home a penalty. Just think how good the Dutch could be if Sneijder spent less time arguing with the officials and Robben stayed on his feet…

Today’s drama will come from the following ‘Europe v Africa’ fixtures:

France v Nigeria

Only one friendly international fixture between these two teams which came in 2009 and was won by a goal by Nigeria’s Joseph Akpala. Nigeria showed against Argentina in their last group game that they are dangerous opponents. Are France the real-deal or was their qualifying group one of the weakest of the tournament? Super Eagles to fly through or the French cockerel to strut into the Quarter-Finals? I don’t care as long as it’s another barn-stormer of a game!

Germany v Algeria

Much has been made about this Quarter-Final as it brings back memories of the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The pre-unified West Germany lost 2-1 to Algeria in the group and going into the last game against Austria knew that a 1-0 or 2-0 win would be enough to see both of the European neighbours through. West Germany scored after ten minutes and that was about it as far as any meaningful action went as the game was reduced to a walking pace so ensuring a mutually beneficial result. The Algerians were outraged and exited the competition. As a result FIFA decided that the final group games in future tournaments would kick-off at the same time to try and lessen the chances of sides manufacturing results. Revenge is in the air for the Algerians, but I can’t see it happening tonight. And anyway the Germans are my sweepstake team!

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Sunday 29 June 2014

I opted for the Brazil v Chile game yesterday and for once my TV choice proved to be a good one. It helps when you have a bit of an interest in the fixture and don’t mind admitting I was totally on the side of underdog Chile. Even sitting at home the passion of the crowd, the players and coaches was evident as the national anthems were belted out with an intensity that bordered on frightening.

And it was a level that translated onto the pitch in a frenzied, end-to-end opening forty five minutes. However, to think that it was just a game played at breakneck speed would be unfair as there was skill aplenty on both sides. Goals from David Luiz and Sanchez saw the teams go in level at the break enabling everyone to draw breath.

The second-half continued in the same manner although Brazil got the upper hand and Hulk for Brazil was single-handedly trying to drag his country through as Neymar was quiet. Extra-time came and nearly had a dramatic end as Chilean substitute Pinalla smashed a shot against the crossbar.

And so the drama continued into the penalties. With Brazil 2-0 to the good the result seemed a formality, but misses from Hulk and Willian allowed Chile to level. At 2-2 the pressure was all on the hosts and Neymar was next up. However he displayed great nerve in putting Brazil ahead and suddenly Chile knew that a miss and they were out. As in extra-time the woodwork was no friend of Chile as Gonzalo Jara’s penalty struck the post and bounced away.

As the Chilean players slumped in exhaustion and despair, the country of Brazil let out a huge sigh of relief and celebrated as if they had won the World Cup. This had been some game and some test of nerve, even as a supposed neutral I was drained, but understood once again why I love the game.

Hopefully providing more drama to come are the following fixtures:

Netherlands v Mexico

Only four international fixtures between these two teams, with Mexico yet to register a win. They were in the same Group at the 1998 World Cup in France, and both team qualified after a 2-2 draw. The Dutch were seemingly cruising after twenty minutes when two goals up from Cocu and Ronald de Boer, but Mexico hit back with two goals in the last fifteen minutes from Ricardo Pelaez and Luis Hernandez. Both teams emerged from their groups in Brazil unbeaten, but something has to give today. Netherlands to continue their 100% record in this World Cup.

Costa Rica v Greece

These two have never met in an international fixture, so what a time to play each other with a Quarter-Final spot up for grabs. Before the tournament Costa Rica were viewed as the team likely to finish bottom of the group containing England, Italy and Uruguay but instead finished unbeaten. Greece meanwhile just continue to find ways to win games and progress in competitions – England take note. This time having not scored in their two opening fixtures, they managed two when it counted most and it was enough to clinch the runners-up spot. It might not be pretty, but it works for them. And that will worry Costa Rica as they know the Greeks will be hard to break down. Will this be a victory for flair or attrition?

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Saturday 28 June 2014

100 years ago today shots in Sarajevo killed Archduke Ferdinand which proved to be the catalyst that led to the carnage that was to become the First World War. 100 years later we still haven’t learned and conflict and killing still exists in certain countries across the globe today.

It says much about the modern world though that the most significant shots for many on the planet today will take place in Brazil as the knock-out phase of the World Cup begins. Sixteen teams have departed and sixteen remain. Gone is the safety of the group games and second chances, this is winner takes all, whether in ninety minutes, extra-time or penalties.

The group stages have for the most part seen very open games, with plenty of goals and drama to match. England’s inability to escape the group stages was hardly a surprise, but the demise of Italy and Spain is something not many predicted. Whilst Spanish domination of World football had to end at some point, the like of Casillas, David Villa ad Xavi couldn’t have foreseen demolition at the hands of Netherlands and Chile being amongst their last memories of World Cup tournaments.

Others to have disappointed include 2018 hosts Russia (but then Capello is in charge of them) and Portugal who showed that without a fit Ronaldo, they badly struggle. Given both Japan and South Korea went well in the 2012 Olympic football tournament, it was a surprise that neither made much impression in Brazil. It’s been a mixed bag for the African teams, with Algeria and Nigeria making it through, but Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast deeply disappointing.

Today’s games are all about Latin America as Brazil take on Chile and Colombia face Uruguay. How would the tournament be affected if Brazil lost to Chile? This game you would hope could be a bit special as Chile have proved to be a more than capable outfit and Brazil will be under immense pressure. In the other game, well we all know what the sub-text to this fixture is whatever the result.

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Friday 27 June 2014

Yes I’m sorry, but I’m still banging on about Suarez.

He was quite rightly found guilty and consequently fined and given a suspension by FIFA. From my perspective he got off lightly, but that’s just personal opinion.

Whilst it is no surprise that the Uruguayan FA has appealed, I am surprised that FIFA hasn’t stated, like some other sporting bodies, that whilst an appeal is permissible, if after the appeal the accused is still found guilty, then any ban could be extended. In the case of Suarez what is there to appeal? It’s clear he bit the Italian, an action which is totally unacceptable in the game and given it is his third offence, he’s coped a ban.

The appeal will mean the story drags on during the World Cup and will then become a feature as the build-up to the new season in England begins.

What is difficult to fathom is the reaction of many in Uruguay who can’t see what Suarez has done wrong. Indeed he was greeted as a ‘hero’ as he returned to Montevideo yesterday. Are these people blind? Did they not see the incident? Now the Uruguayan press are in full-cry telling the world that this is a European conspiracy within FIFA to put down the Latin Americans.

But we know the world we live in is generally morally corrupt. Adidas for instance, look like they have no plans to drop their sponsorship of Suarez and will instead give him a slap on the wrist in reminding him of his responsibilities on the pitch. And we know damn well that if Suarez wanted away from England this summer there will be clubs willing to take him on.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing for once it someone took a stance. How naive am I…

And in the midst of it all the final group games took place to confirm the last four teams. Germany, USA, Belgium and Algeria emerged to complete the line-up for the last sixteen. Thankfully today there are no games and maybe just maybe I can get back to enjoying the action on the pitch rather than off it.

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Thursday 26 June 2014

When I sat down to watch the games last night, I promised myself I would only be writing about the action this morning, but unfortunately I don’t feel I can.

The fact is the biting incident has cast a shadow over the tournament. It happened; we can’t turn back the clock. The 2014 World Cup will be always associated with it and you know down the line in years to come that piece of footage will be shown time and time again. However, it’s not just the fact that it has occurred; it has been the reaction from those who are trying to defend Suarez. Whilst we all have had occasions where we need to close rank whether with friends, family or work, to deny that anything occurred is simply stupid. For the Uruguayan captain Diego Lugano to state in a press conference, “what incident?” and the President Jose Mujica to say, “I didn’t see him bite anyone” is inexplicable and does no credit to people who have responsibility that comes with their position.

FIFA need to act decisively, but whatever the punishment the story will rumble on with the games on the pitch feeling like little more than a side-show.

Rather like Suarez, I made all the wrong decisions yesterday in my selection of viewing. I let my heart rule my head and went for the ‘Fulham’ connection hoping that Ashkan Dejagah could inspire Iran to a victory that would take them into the last sixteen. In sticking with the game which saw the already eliminated Bosnia win 3-1, I missed a bit of a belter as Argentina beat Nigeria 3-2. Worse was to follow as I opted for France v Ecuador and was rewarded with a 0-0, although some credit goes to Ecuador keeper Dominguez who managed to get in the way of everything France tried. As a result I missed a decent looking hat-trick from Xherdan Shaqiri as Switzerland confirmed their progress into the knock-out phase with a 3-0 win over Honduras.

There is a World Cup tournament out there, but I’m struggling to reconnect with it right now.

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Wednesday 25 June 2014

The morning after the night before…

Should we just ignore it? Should we not bring anymore focus on the incident? It’s happened, so let’s move on…

If only it was that simple.

As a parent, I would have been mortified if my son had bitten another child at nursery school and I would have made sure it only happened the once. When a 27 year old man does it for a third time, there is something pretty seriously wrong and it can’t be ignored.

For those not familiar with the other incidents, here goes:

  1. November 2010: Whilst playing for Ajax Suarez bites PSV’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder and is subsequently banned for seven games.
  2. April 2013: During the Liverpool v Chelsea game Suarez bites Branislav Ivanovic and receives a ten game ban.

Throw-in the racist incident with Patrice Evra and his penchant for diving and the character assassination is complete.

What would I like to see happen? Well for a start Suarez needs to seek some professional help as he has some behavioural issues. FIFA should ban him for a season and Uruguay should lose the points from the victory over Italy. In addition, Liverpool should terminate his contract.

But this is football we are talking about which is as morally corrupt as the organisation that runs it.

What has been an enjoyable World Cup so far, has been marred.

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Tuesday 24 June 2014

The early games yesterday saw Group B played to a conclusion and in all fairness didn’t hold a lot of drama, given that Netherlands and Chile were already through and Spain and Australia were out. Of course there was top place to play for and at the other end avoiding the wooden spoon.

In the end it was the Dutch who took top spot with a 2-0 over Chile. Both goals came in the second-half from substitutes Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay. In between the goals though, Chile might reflect that they were unlucky not to get a penalty. From a corner, Dutch defender de Vrij appeared to hold back Jara and to compound the issue then made contact with the ball using his arm. It wasn’t to be and the Netherlands took the points leaving Chile as runners-up in the group.

Australia ended up with the wooden spoon in what was a pretty comfortable 3-0 win for Spain. The Spanish dominated from the off and it was a surprise that it took until the 36th minute before they scored. Juanfran got behind the Australian defence and his cross was cleverly back-heeled home by David Villa. It was much the same in the second-half as Australia got pulled apart at the back, with Torres and Mata completing the scoring.

The only fun to be had was in Group A. Cameroon were already out and were up against Brazil who were all but through. So it was the Mexico v Croatia game that was the one to watch. The Mexicans knew that a draw would be enough for them, whilst Croatia needed a win to progress.

Given the importance of the game it was no surprise that the game got at times a little physical with players all too willing to square-up to each other at times, handbags et al. Despite Croatia needing to win to progress, it was Mexico who had the better first-half chances, although the game remained 0-0 at the break. This World Cup has seen the officials be very good with the spray cans, but I would have like them to have been better at the ‘real’ elements of their job during the games. Here in the second-half there was another glaring mistake from an official, as Srna blocked a cross using his arms denying Mexico a penalty. However, it wasn’t long before the Mexicans went ahead when Marquez headed home. Within three minutes they went 2-0 up, as Guardola fired home. Croatia were now looking ragged and they were exposed once more on 82 minutes as a cross found substitute Hernandez for an easy finish. The Croatians though had the final word as a well worked goal saw Perisic finish cleanly. However, there was one last incident in what had been a frantic last fifteen minutes when substitute Rebic was sent-off for a nasty challenge on Mexico’s Carlos Pena.

In the other Group A fixture, the game was won 4-1 by Brazil, which sealed top spot, with Neymar Junior getting two goals.

Following those results it means that the fixtures for the next round are as follows:

Brazil                     v              Chile

Netherlands       v              Mexico

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Monday 23 June 2014

Sunday is traditionally a day of rest and it seemed that Belgium and Russia took that literally in the opening game yesterday. It was overall a game of poor quality, although Belgium started and ended it well. In between it was nothing much to write home about. Dries Mertens was dangerous out wide for Belgium in the opening spell of the first-half, whilst Eden Hazard rekindled the game in the last ten minutes of the second-half as the Russians tired badly. The Chelsea midfielder, Hazard, provided the winner as his cut-back ball allowed substitute Divock Origi to slam home with just two minutes remaining. Belgium through and the 2018 World Cup hosts, Russia, on the brink of exit.

The concept of ‘rest’ continued into game two of the day as South Korea might have well been sat in deckchairs on the Copacabana beach for the first-half against Algeria. Their defensive display by Korea was so inept that they found themselves 3-0 down at half-time (did someone say betting scandal?), although credit to Algeria as they capitalised on their opponents generosity. In the second-half, Korea briefly rallied as they pulled a goal back, but any chance of a comeback was killed off by a fourth Algerian goal, although Korea scored a scored to add some respectability to the score-line.

So to the last of the actions yesterday between the USA and Portugal. Nani had put Portugal ahead early in the first-half and they held the advantage at the break. The goal had come from a howler from Geoff Cameron and looked like it was taken straight out of the South Korean defence training manual used in the previous game. However, the game was all about the second-half. Jones showed real class to curl in the equaliser for USA and when Dempsey headed home with nine minutes remaining, it was Portugal who were heading home. But there was drama to come, as with seconds remaining, Michael Bradley lost possession to Ronaldo and the captain’s cross was headed in by Varela. This group is still up for grabs.

The last of the group games starts later today and hopefully more drama and shocks await…

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Sunday 22 June 2014

I genuinely enjoyed the Argentina v Iran game. To date I’ve been critical of some of the keepers in the tournament so far, but have nothing but praise for Romero of Argentina and Haghighi of Iran who between them kept the game at 0-0 with some excellent saves right up until time added-on. The goal that broke the deadlock on 91 minutes had to be something special and it was, as Messi curled in for an Argentinian winner. Iran deserved a point and whilst pleased to see Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah perform so well, I’d rather he had a quieter last game in the group stages so that he isn’t lured from the Cottage in the coming season.

A breathless evening of matches continued as Germany went up against Ghana. Despite an end-to-end opening forty five minutes, the first-half remained goal-less. Germany though went ahead early in the second period, when Gotze scored, with what looked like a header. Replays showed that it in fact bounced off the Germans nose and then his knee. The lead was brief though, as Ghana were level within three minutes, when Andre Ayew out jumped a static German defence to head home. Just after the hour mark things got even better for Ghana when Asamoah Gyan slotted home after Lahm’s slip allowed the Ghanian through on goal. The Germans though levelled it up at 2-2 when Miroslav Klose prodded in from a corner. The goal was significant in that it meant Klose became the joint leading score in World Cup Finals with Ronaldo (15 goals). Take note Wayne…

Nigeria v Bosnia-Hercegovina might not have stood out when the fixtures were released, but with a game that produced 20 attempts on goal from each side it proved to be worth a watch. Bosnia know they had to win to stay in the competition and Manchester City’s Dzeko was a constant threat to Nigeria. Just as in the Iran v Argentina game, the keepers were in good form. The game had two keys moments, the first was when Dzeko had a goal (incorrectly) ruled out for offside and the second was when in the build-up to when Nigeria scored, in which Emmanuel Emenike made contact with Bosnian defender Emir Spahic before crossing for Peter Odemwingie to fire home. Both were massive decisions, and yet both were accepted without protest by the players. I’m not convinced all the 32 teams in the Finals would have reacted that way – but refreshing to see from Nigeria and Bosnia. Premier League players take note…

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Saturday 21 June 2014

So (thankfully) that’s it. England are definitely out and we won’t have to suffer the media carrying on about the miracle required to make it through to the last 16.

Our fate was sealed by Byran Ruiz who as a Fulham player looked like a delicate flower in the ‘hot-house’ of the Premier League. Yet here on the World’s biggest stage, the Costa Rican captain led his team to victory as he headed home in the first-half in a game where the Italians looked strangely out of sorts. Yet again the standard of officiating was variable and how Chilean referee Enrique Osses didn’t award a penalty to Costa Rica just before half-time I’ll never know. Costa Rica incredibly through and Italy faced with the prospect of an early plane home if they lose to Uruguay.

The second game yesterday saw France play Switzerland. The French have gone about their business in a quietly efficient manner, seeing off the physical Honduras and now an accomplished win over the Swiss. France’s cause was helped though in the opening ten minutes by a nasty injury to the face of Steve Von Bergen which saw him replaced by the lumbering frame of Philippe Senderos. The substitute showed all his usual flair in defence, so familiar to those at the Emirates and Craven Cottage, as the Swiss conceded five goals. Keeper Benaglio also had a poor game, although he did save a penalty. France were 5-0 up at one stage, but conceded two late goals to give the scoreline a touch of respectability for the Swiss.

Completing the day was the other game in Group E which saw Honduras take on Ecuador. This was never going to a classic display of flowing football, but their there is something satisfying every now and again about a physical encounter. As Gordon Strachan observed, with challenges flying about, he felt like he’d got into a time-machine and travelled back to the 70s. Indeed it was a good old-fashioned punt down the field that saw Honduras take the lead, as Carlo Costly collected and blasted home from just outside the area. Ecuador levelled quickly though as Enner Valencia poked in a cross at the far-post after creeping behind a slumbering Honduras defence. Valencia got the winner on sixty five minutes to put Honduras all but out of the Finals, whilst giving Ecuador a shot at progress to the last sixteen.

England? Who?