World Cup diary 2018 – Friday 22 June

Only one place to start really and that is the last game of Thursday’s action, involving Argentina and Croatia at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.

Much has been made in the press of the image of Lionel Messi with his hand pressed against his head as the camera passed down the Argentina team line-up. Was he stressed? Did he have a headache coming on? Could he not face the camera? Was he merely offering a prayer? And this is where the image becomes determined by the outcome of the game. Argentina put in a lacklustre performance, are soundly beaten by Croatia and therefore the automatic assumption of the press is that Messi was stressed, weighed down by the expectation of a nation and once more has to carry the team through another game. For all his quality and records at Barcelona, the World Cup stage has not brought out the best of Messi and it looks like his final fling at becoming a World Cup winner is about to vanish.

With all the attention on how poor Argentina were, the absolute blooper by ‘keeper Willy Caballero (what a wonderful chip to set up the volley) and the lack of impact of Aguero and substitute Higuain made, Croatia haven’t been given the credit they deserved. The volley by Rebic was technically brilliant and Croatia’s second by Modric one of the best goals of the tournament. By the time Rakitic fired in the third in stoppage time, Argentina were a bewildered rabble who could only stop and watch as their humiliation was completed.

However, despite having only a point after two games in Group D, Argentina know that qualification for the knock-out stage can still be achieved. Don’t cry for me Argentina? Well not yet at least.

Elsewhere yesterday, two games in Group C, with Australia up against Denmark and France taking on Peru. Denmark went ahead against the Aussies with a well worked strike from Christian Eriksen, only to be pegged by a dubious penalty for Australia. The Aussies appeal was half hearted as the ball appeared to be headed at the arm of Poulsen, with no intent as far as I could see. For me a case of VAR not working and not making the right decision as the penalty rate continues to rise in the competition.

Finally to France against Peru, where Les Bleu did enough to earn a 1-0 win courtesy of a scrappy goal from Mbappe in the first-half. The French at times showed great flair, but struggled at other times with the physicality of the Peruvians, who huffed and puffed but couldn’t find an equaliser. At least half-time provided a couple of comedy moments, with Patrice Evra’s bow-tie and sweater combo a sight to behold and the fact that his two ex-Manchester United colleagues, Messer’s Giggs and Keane looke so bloody miserable. Do they know they are getting paid to watch football? If Patrice needs fashion tips he should have looked no further than the kit the Peru side wore against France, surely one of the most iconic kits in World Cup history.

Anyway, the weekend approaches and the build-up to England’s game will start to build up, but before that The Three Lions nemesis from Euro 2016, Iceland are in action against Nigeria, completing the second round of games in Group D. Whilst the other two games today see Group E encounters between Brazil and Costa Rica and Switzerland and Serbia. Serbia and Brazil to win? Or is there a banana skin awaiting Neymar?

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Postscript

As the Final between Germany and Argentina entered the second-period of extra-time, I desperately wanted a goal from either side to settle the contest rather than it go to penalties. The reason? Brazil 2014 has been a memorable tournament and it needed to be sealed with something special.

Thankfully it arrived on 113 minutes, Schurrle (who had done well whenever he came off the bench for the Germans), bustled down the wing before delivering a ball inside where another substitute, Gotze, controlled it beautifully on the chest before volleying home. A wonderful finish to a brilliant competition.

My memories of World Cup Finals stretch back to 1978 and I can’t remember there being a better tournament for the quality of games, the drama and the shocks. Who saw Italy and Spain not making it out of the Groups stages? Did anyone see Portugal being dismantled so easily by the Germans? Costa Rica in the Quarter-Finals?

Of course the competition could so easily have been remembered for the Suarez biting incident, and it therefore needed an even bigger story to wipe away the tawdry behaviour of the disgraced Uruguayan and thankfully it duly arrived as Germany humiliated the host nation Brazil 7-1. That was and will always be a significant moment in football history; nobody who watched it will ever forget it. The Brazilians with the ghost of the 1950 loss to Uruguay embedded into their psyche now have added a skeleton that would fill a mansion never mind a cupboard.

The fear from the media and perhaps even from within the country, was that going into the tournament, Brazil off the pitch was not ready to host the biggest competition in football. The irony is that actually it was on the pitch that Brazil weren’t ready.

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Thursday 10 July 2014

The second Semi-Final was always going to struggle to shine after the events of Tuesday night and indeed the ninety minutes of normal time were as damp as the weather conditions in Sao Paulo.

None of the ‘big’ names stood out as even the basics seemed to be beyond both teams at times. However, the Dutch ended the stronger of the sides in ninety minutes and Robben was denied a late winner by an excellent block tackle from Mascherano.

The first period of extra-time brought no chances for either team despite the fact the game was becoming stretched. Eventually, Argentina woke up with five minutes to go in the second period, when Palacio had a chance, but he tamely headed into the hands of Cillessen. Almost immediately a rare break from Messi created a chance for Maxi Rodriguez, but his shot lacked power. And that was that…and so to penalties.

With the Dutch having made all their substitutions, there was no option for them to bring on the penalty hero Krul. Therein lies a conundrum. If van Gaal hadn’t used all his substitutes would he have brought Krul on again? If it worked once why wouldn’t it work again if the coach believed (as he stated) in the reasoning of using a keeper with better height and reach? For me, Cillessen was left in a difficult position as he was under pressure to perform given Krul’s exploits. In these penalties though it was the Argentinian keeper Sergio Romero who was the hero with penalty saves from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder. It was another blow to hosts Brazil as their arch-rivals made it through to the showpiece event.

So no repeat of the ’74 Final in Munich, but a repeat of the Finals from Mexico in 1986 and Italy in 1990 as Germany take on Argentina on Sunday. For the shell-shocked Brazilians and the Netherlands they have the ‘pleasure’ of the 3rd/4th Place Play-off fixture on Saturday.

One last effort gents and we are nearly there.

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Wednesday 09 July 2014

I really must stop my late night port and Stilton snack before bedtime. It gives you the weirdest dreams. Last night I dreamt that Brazil lost 7-1 at home in a World Cup Semi-Final. Really? No, please you’re kidding me – what do you mean it wasn’t a dream…

It was quite simply the craziest six minutes of a football game I have ever seen as Germany scored four goals against a Brazil side that simply imploded, and in the process tarnished the name of the great Brazilian teams of the past. Do I feel sorry for them? Not a bit. The antics of Marcelo and coach Scolari in the opening game against Croatia and their fortunate penalty in that fixture set me against the hosts from day one. And in amongst their spineless display against Germany last night, they dived and were cynical in the tackle. Okay they aren’t the only team in this tournament doing it, but for me the myth about Brazil and their tradition for the ‘beautiful game’ was shattered. Credit to the Germans they beat what was in front of them and good luck to them in the Final. Congratulations also to Klose for setting a new record for goals in World Cup Finals.

What that result does is keep alive my images of 1974; British referee Jack Taylor, that first minute penalty, Cruyyf, Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller – the incredible structure that was the Olympic Stadium in Munich. It was the first Final I remember watching and it will always take me back to a time of youthful innocence.

For a repeat of that ’74 Final the Dutch have to overcome Argentina. The game later today brings back memories of the 1978 Final in South America which the hosts won 3-1 in extra-time. Those ’78 Finals were the first time I watched most of the games and can remember staying up in the early hours, listening to the wonderful commentary of David Coleman. But the teams also met four years earlier in West Germany in 1974 when the Dutch romped to a 4-0 win – ‘total football’ with goals from Cruyyf (2), Rep and Krol. A time when the phrase, ‘the future’s bright, the future’s orange’ referred only to Dutch football.

More genius was to follow when the teams next met in 1998 and is remembered for the memorable finish from Dennis Bergkamp in time added-on to clinch a 2-1 win which took the Netherlands into the Semi-Finals. However for all those classic Dutch memories, the last meeting in the Finals came in 2006 in Germany when they met in the group stages and they played out a 0-0. We’ll forgive both teams for that one as both teams had effectively qualified for the knock-out stages.

What can we expect tonight? After last night, to try and make any sort of prediction about the result seems like madness. Surely nothing will top the events in Belo Horizonte?

Make mine a large port…

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Friday 04 July 2014

Friday 04 July 2014

France v Germany

As West Germany these two teams have met in three World Cup tournaments. The first was in 1958 when in the Third Place Play-off game France emerged winners 6-3. The next encounter in 1982 was perhaps the most memorable and not only for a dramatic game that after finishing 3-3 saw West Germany win 5-4 on penalties, but for an unpunished ‘assault’ by German keeper on Patrick Battiston that saw the Frenchman injured suffering two missing teeth, three cracked ribs, and damaged vertebrae. The last encounter was in 1986 when in a Semi-Final Germany emerged 2-0 winners with goals from Brehme and Voller.

This could be close encounter and maybe goes all the way to penalties. With my sweepstake money riding on Germany, its Deutschland gehen!

Brazil v Colombia

In their fourteen international meetings, Brazil have won seven, Colombia just the once and the remaining six games have been draws. In fact the last four meetings have been drawn. They have never met in the Finals of the World Cup.

During this tournament both teams are unbeaten, with Columbia still boasting a 100% record with four wins out of four. Despite the number of draws between these South American neighbours this one will be settled in normal time and could be a battle between the respective No: 10?s. For Brazil there is Neymar, whilst Colombia have James Rodríguez who currently plays his club football at Monaco. Rodriguez is the leading scorer with five goals having score in every game so far. Neymar is just behind with four goals and also handled the pressure in slotting home the winning penalty against Chile in the last round.

As Brazil progress the pressure intensifies so the expectation of a nation grows. Is this the round where it all goes wrong for the hosts? Will it be James who’ll be making the Brazilian fans sit down?


Saturday 05 July 2014

Argentina v Belgium

Only two meetings between the teams and both at World Cup tournaments. In 1982 they were drawn together in Group 3 and in the opening game in that group, Belgium emerged winners 1-0 win a goal from Erwin Vandenbergh. Both qualified from the group but then finished bottom of their second round groups after losing both games. In 1986 they played in the Semi-Final where two goals from Maradona put Argentina on their way to the Final and a second World Cup title.

Argentina came under massive criticism for their lacklustre win over Switzerland, when Messi seemed to be the only player for the South Americans to put in a performance. Belgium have quietly gone about their business, with coach Marc Wilmots getting the most out of a squad that seems to have a strong unity and work ethic.

Messi to be the difference between the teams.

Netherlands v Costa Rica

These two have never played each other. Costa Rica the surprise package, against a Netherlands team epitomised by Arjen Robben. A man who has such talent, but prone to a spot of diving and more than happy to have a moan at the officials.

Surely the Costa Rican run will come to an end? Their captain Bryan Ruiz made his name at Gent and FC Twente in the Netherlands and it would be ironic if he could put out the Dutch.

Looking across the fixtures, it’s interesting to note that the most influential players often wear the No: 10 shirt. England’s wearer of that shirt? Rooney. No don’t get me started…

FIFA World Cup 2014 – Wednesday 02 July 2014

In the office World Cup predictions competition I had the following as the Quarter-Final line-up:

Brazil v England

France v Portugal

Netherlands v Italy

Argentina v Belgium

The reality as we now know after yesterday’s final last sixteen games is:

Brazil v Colombia

France v Germany

Netherlands v Costa Rica

Argentina v Belgium

63% success rate – not bad. However, looking back the selection of England to make it this far was at best blind faith and at worst delusional. It also puts into perspective how well Costa Rica have done in getting this far at the expense of Italy.

Overall the last sixteen games have reflected the tournament’s group fixtures with late drama, goals and open play. There have been exceptions though and Argentina v Switzerland last night only sparked into life in the last five minutes of extra-time. However, there was also a great couple of minutes when the Brazilian fans in the crowd got behind the Swiss with chants of “ole, ole” as they strung together a few passes.

I honestly don’t think there is an obvious favourite to win the competition as all the teams have had some inspirational wins and some when they have looked very, very ordinary.

For me though the word of the last sixteen has been ‘plucky’. The reason being that the ‘big’ sides have emerged over the less fancied teams, but they have all been made to battle hard for a result. So although Chile, Nigeria, Algeria, Mexico, Switzerland and USA have now departed, they have done so with honour intact.

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…

Book Review: Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri (Translated by Mara Faye Lethem)

PITWWhen I think about Argentinian football there is one standout memory and that is the 1978 World Cup. As a football mad sixteen year old, I can remember staying up into the early hours to watch the games from South America. One of the most memorable images came in the Final when the host nation played the Netherlands. With the entrance of the teams onto the pitch in Buenos Aires, the stadium sky became filled with blue and white tickertape. The volume of the streamers was such that it adorned the pitch throughout the Final as Argentina overcame the Dutch 3-1 after extra time.

That image came to mind not only because Papers in the Wind is set in Argentina, but for me the book title simply evokes that image of the tickertape torrent of 1978. However, this interpretation is only a very personal one, as it could equally be seen to reflect the player contract which is part of the plot of the book or even a metaphor for the uncertainty and turbulence of life.

And as the title works across a number of themes, so does the book itself. At the centre of the story is Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi who dies of cancer, his elder brother Fernando and their best friends Daniel “Ruso”, and Mauricio. Mono fails to make the grade as a footballer, but becomes a successful systems manager and is offered a promotion as regional manager. However, he turns down the job and instead takes a redundancy package. With a desire to be involved in football, Mono invests $300,000 into an upcoming player, Pittilanga, who has played for Argentina’s Under 17’s.

However, when Mono dies of cancer, the promising player is found struggling in the lower leagues and Fernando, Ruso and Mauricio are left to try and resurrect the career of the player and somehow get a return on the $300,000 investment, so that Mono’s daughter Guadalupe might be provided for in the future.

The often comic story of their schemes and travails are interspersed with flashbacks to the time of Mono’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment. In these evocations of the past, the decline in Mono’s health is echoed through his feelings and reflections on the lack of success of his beloved team, Club Atlético Independiente.

However, this is not simply a book about football, or indeed a comic novel. This is a book about relationships and loyalty – the bond of brothers, of best friends, of husband and wives and of parents and children.

Ultimately, Eduardo Sacheri has crafted some wonderfully rounded and believable characters and given them life through some excellent dialogue. A great read whether you are a football fan or not.


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