The Netherlands: Orange Madness

There is something very unique, captivating and insane about Dutch football.  Almost every World Cup the Dutch appear with a fantastic team that plays some wonderful and exciting football, and yet, somehow, always fails to win the trophy in the most spectacular, unlucky and unbelievable circumstances.  This combination of ecstatically good football with catastrophic failure is the reason the Dutch have captivated the imagination of so many fans and neutrals around the world.

Until the 1970’s, Dutch football was not a global force. Having been eliminated in the first round in 1934 and 1938, the Dutch then failed to make the World Cup until 1974. But when they made it that year, they made it with a thunderous bang. Out of nowhere, a great team was born, mainly based around the great Ajax Amsterdam club side of the early 1970’s, which had won the European Cup from 1971-1973. Under genius coach Rinus Michelis, and led by Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest players of all time, the Dutch pioneered a revolution that was to change the way football was played. ‘Total Football’ turned football into a real team sport; the team was no longer divided into specific tasks, now the whole team was responsible for attacking, defending and playing the ball.  Any player should be expected to defend, attack, pass or score.  All players should have competence in all skills, and should be counted on to perform these when needed. The team maintains a shape but the players alternate in performing different tasks. Football has never been the same since.

That 1974 team were favorites to lift the trophy.  But somehow, in a way that was to become ingrained in Dutch football culture, they failed to achieve this.  They inexplicably lost to their West German hosts in the final.

They were back in four years’ time in the Argentina World Cup, but this time they were missing their best player Cruyff.  The circumstances for why he refused to go remain shrouded in mystery, but the then-Barcelona player has revealed that he feared for his family’s safety if he travelled.  There have always been rumors in football circles that the real reason comes from threats from the Argentinean military junta, which knew that Cruyff would be the biggest threat to Argentina winning the World Cup on home soil.

Nonetheless, the remaining Dutch team was no joke, and contained some remarkable players like Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, and Johnny Rep. They again dazzled the world with Total Football, they were favorites again, and yet, were again defeated in the final by the Argentinean hosts.  There are a lot of allegations of corruption and military influence in that tournament that continue to taint Argentina’s victory, but the bitterness of defeat was to taint Dutch football forever, and endue it with its defining characteristics.  The first golden generation of Dutch football had arrived on the world stage, but tasted two bitter defeats when they had expected glorious victory.  A trend was to be set.  And a new football catchphrase was born: “The Dutch Disease” came to symbolize the inevitable tendency of the Dutch to fight amongst themselves whenever they make it to a major tournament.

As swiftly as they appeared on the world stage, the Dutch disappeared, failing to qualify for the 1982 and 1986 finals.  But then in the late 1980’s a new generation of Dutch footballers appeared, and they seemed ready to avenge the fate of their predecessors.  Marco van Basten was the most feared striker in the world, and his AC Milan team-mates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard were some of the top midfielders in the world. They had helped Milan win several trophies in their prime, and were ready to transfer their form to the international stage.  Aaided by wonderful talents like Barcelona’s defender Ronald Koeman and goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen, they were inspired as they defeated Germany in the semi-final and the Soviet Union in the final.  Van Basten’s volleyed goal from that game will forever live in memory as one of the greatest goals of all time.

But in the 1990 World Cup, Holland were to again fail to win the trophy, this time losing in the second-round to their German nemesis in an ill-tempered match.  They lost in the semi-final in Euro 1992 to the Danes on penalties, but came into the 1994 World Cup with high hopes, particularly with the arrival of the exciting young genius Dennis Bergkamp.  But the Dutch were defeated by Brazil in a great quarter-final match. Brazil went 2-0 up, but Holland equalized only for Brazil’s Branco to score from a memorable free-kick to break Dutch hearts.

The story of the 1998 World Cup team was one of similar heart-ache, again at the hands of the Brazilians, but this time in an agonizing semi-final, on penalties, after the Dutch had wasted a half-dozen near certain chances to seal victory.  This new team was fortified with the third great generation of Dutch footballers, that of the Ajax team of the mid-1990’s.  The team that had won the Champions League in 1995 had produced a dozen stars that went on to play for some of the top teams in the world: Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Michael Reiziger, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar and the twins Ronald and Frank de Boer. Many felt this was the best team of the entire tournament.  They were excellent in beating Argentina in the quarter-final, with this particular gem from the great Dennis Bergkamp:

In 2000, the Dutch co-hosted the European championships with Belgium, and had very high hopes of winning it again but were again denied, in a penalty shoot-out, in the semi-final—this time against Italy.  The Dutch had laid siege to the Italians’ goal, missed two penalties in the game and three penalties in the shoot-out.  Defeats do not get more agonizing than that.

Such was the trauma of this defeat that they then failed to make the 2002 World Cup.  In 2004, another semi-final defeat eliminated them, this time to the Portuguese.  But it was in 2006 when the fourth great generation of Dutch footballers emerged, the generation that has now matured and arrives at this World Cup full of expectation.  They lost to the Portuguese again, this time in a second round encounter so ill-tempered and violent it saw 4 red cards and loads of yellows.

In the 2008 European championship, the Dutch arrived and played wonderful football the like of which I’d never seen before.  Such was the speed and magnificence of their performance one suspected it was pixels in a Playstation game running around, not real live humans. They opened their tournament with a 3-0 smashing of world champions Italy, followed by a 4-1 demolition of World Cup finalists France.  Their second team then beat the Romanians 2-0, before they were to meet the Russians in the second round.  Just look at these highlights to get a feel for the kind of football they were playing:

It is often joked that the only ones who can stop the Dutch are the Dutch themselves.  With every outbreak of Dutch Disease, the team succumbs to any opponents.  This time, the Dutch were also stopped by the Dutch, but this time, it was a Dutchman from outside the squad who stopped them: Holland ex-manager Guus Hiddink, one of the greatest tactical minds in football who had now taken over the Russian team.  Holland’s coach in 2008, Marco van Basten, was a great player in his days, but not a great tactical coach, and he was no match for Hiddink, the man who had coached Holland in the disappointments of 1994 and 1998. Hiddink played the perfect plan to derail the Dutch players and walked away with a 3-1 victory.  The defeat of the Dutch was as shocking as their football was mesmerizing.  That it was a Dutchman who denied this Dutch generation was such a remarkably Dutch way to go out.

Today’s Team

Van Basten resigned and was replaced by the experienced wise head of Bert van Mawrijk.  The ex-Feyenoord and Borussia Dortmund coach may not be a spectacular and world famous manager, but he does know his tactics and he does have a cool head that could be more useful than the young van Basten.  Under him, Holland did exceptionally well in the qualifiers, becoming the first European country to seal its qualification to South Africa.

The Dutch players of 2008 have matured and improved in the past couple of years, and

Robben

have achieved remarkable success with their club teams.  The real brilliance of the Dutch is exposed when one recounts the wonderful talents at their disposal.

The best feature of this Dutch team are the fantastic four attacking players: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder.  Currently, Robben and Sneijder are probably the two best players in the world after Lionel Messi.  They were both instrumental in leading their teams (Bayern Munich and Internazionale, respectively) to the champions league final this season.

Arjen Robben has had a remarkably successful career at the top of European football for the past 8 years—a remarkable feat considering he is still only 26.  Two impressive seasons with PSV in Holland saw him win the Dutch title and secure a deal to Chelsea in 2004, where he won the title twice, before moving to Real Madrid in 2007 for a 25m Euro transfer fee.  He won the Spanish League in Real Madrid, but failed in doing so in 2009, when Real went crazy buying everyone in the world, and sold him to Bayern Munich. The joke was on Real, however, as it was Robben who led Bayern to the final of the Champions League, in Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium, as Real’s expensive stars crashed early.  He won the German double with Bayern, and lost the final of the Champions League.

Sneijder has been one of the best players in the world recently

He lost that final to Wesley Sneijder’s Internazionale.  Another product of the Ajax talent factory, Sneijder has been a consistently improving player recently. He was Robben’s team-mate in Real Madrid, but was also allowed to leave last summer. Like Robben, he won the double with his team, and like Robben he led his team to the Champions League final in Madrid’s stadium.  Unlike Robben, he got the golden medal.

The two are wonderful players to watch. Their speed, movement and intelligence is remarkable.  Robben’s runs from the wing are always dangerous, as are Sneijder’s long range efforts. To have those two in the same team will be a great spectacle.

Robin van Persie is more of a striker than those two, and he has a remarkable ability to sniff out a goal from nowhere. He plays for Arsenal and his career has been hampered by a series of bad injuries, which barely allowed him to play last season.  He is supposed to have recovered and should be fit to play, fully rested after a season on the sidelines.  If he is fit and in the mood, expect fireworks from him.

Finally, Rafael van der Vaart completes the quartet. Another Ajax product, the young midfielder moved to Hamburg in Germany before moving to Real Madrid. He did not leave when Robben and Sneijder left, and he had an instrumental role to play in this last Real Madrid season.  He’s an intelligent midfield creator who can turn a game with a move, and should be eager to excel this World Cup.

If those four can play like they did in 2008, expect great things.  I have never looked forward to watching a team as much as I look forward to watching this Dutch team because of these players.

Van Persie

Beyond that, Holland still have a lot of talent. Dirk Kuyt is a hard-working and reliable midfielder/attacker who plays for Liverpool.  He will likely start ahead of one of the fantastic four, as he provides better defensive cover.  The young Eljero Elia is an exciting winger who promises much, and AC Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a clinical finisher upfront.

But their midfielders are not all flashy creative types, they also have the hard-working holding midfielders needed to secure the defense and control the game: Bayern’s Mark van Bommel and Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong are both no-nonsense hard men who can boss any midfield.

But, as is usually the case with the Dutch, they look suspect in defense.  Gregory van der Weil is an exciting young talent at right-back, but questions remain about his defensive skills.  Left-back and captain Gio van Bronckhorst is an excellent player, but at 35, there must be questions about his speed and ability to defend at the highest level.  Everton’s John Heitinga and Hamburg’s Joris Matheisen are the central defensive pair, and although solid on paper, they are not exactly as reassuring as some of the other teams’ defenses.  Their goalkeeper is likely to be Maarten Stekelenberg, who is yet unproven on the global stage.  Overall, this defense has inspired some skepticism about how well they can play together.

Still, this will be a formidable Dutch side.  Coach van Mawrijk  has shown he can get them to play together well as a unit.  With Lionel Messi never having showed his Barcelona form for his country, Sneijder and Robben may well be the two best players going into this World Cup.  Considering the talent at their disposal, there is no wonder the Dutch are among the favorites to lift the trophy.

But, of course, it would not be a Dutch World Cup side without the internal battles.  Van Persie and Sneijder apparently can’t stand each other, as this recent Guardian piece explains.

And so we see the makings of a classic Dutch tragedy: incredibly talented players with the ability to perform insane stuff on the pitch. Several players who have the potential of entering Dutch football folklore alongside the greats of the past, who will undoubtedly give us some marvelous Dutch goals.  A slightly suspect defense that could implode catastrophically. Bitter rivalries and schisms between the players.  As much as one would like to believe that this team can win it, one can’t help but see the catastrophe coming together as it always does for the Dutch.  So don’t be too surprised to see them impress in the first round, demolishing their opposition, and then somehow imploding in the later stages in unbelievable circumstances.

But whether their talent manages to live up to its potential and win what the cup they feel they deserve, or if they implode in a typical Dutch tale, one thing is for sure: it will be a joy to watch the Dutch this summer.

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Serbia: Potential dark horses

The Serbs are another descendant of the great Yugoslavian football team. Football nerds worldwide will remember the last great Yugoslavian side of the early 1990’s which could really have gone on to be a major force in world football had the country not been broken up.  That generation had won the 1989 U-20 World Cup in Chile, even while missing some key players. In 1990, they made the World Cup quarter-finals and only got eliminated by Argentina on penalties after a pulsating match.

But in 1992, just as they were maturing, they were banned from competing in the 1992 European Championships in Sweden.  They were replaced in that tournament by the team they had eliminated in the qualifiers—Denmark. The Danes went on to win the tournament.

That generation of players contained some of the brightest talents of Europe.  I once tallied the names of all the players who were eligible to play for a potential Yugoslavia in the mid-1990’s, and came up with these names:

GOALKEEPERS

Ivica KRALJ

Drazen LADIC

DEFENSE

Igor STIMAC

Slaven BILIC

Aljosa ASANOVIC

Robert JARNI

Dario SIMIC

Igor TUDOR

Zeljko PETROVIC

Srecko KATANEC

MIDFIELD

Robert PROSINECKI

Zvonimir BOBAN

Mario STANIC

Vladimir JUGOVIC

Dragan STOJKOVIC

Sinisa MIHAJLOVIC

Dejan SAVICEVIC

Dejan STANKOVIC

Dragan STOJKOVIC

Slavisa JOKANOVIC

STRIKERS

Goran VLAOVIC

Predrag MIJATOVIC

Savo MILOSEVIC

Darko KOVACEVIC

Davor SUKER

Alen BOKSIC

Zlatko ZAHOVIC

One could write an entire book about these players, but I’ll only briefly mention a few of the great names: Predrag Mijatovic, Davor Suker, Alen Boksic, Dragan Stojkovitch, Robert Prosinecki, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and Zvonimir Boban were all some of the best superstars in Europe around the mid-late-1990’s.

Internationally, they were spread out over several national teams as the country disintegrated.  In 1998 these teams separately achieved well in the World Cup finals.  Croatia won third-place after beating Holland, Germany, Romania, Japan and Jamaica.  Yugoslavia made the second round where they barely lost to the Dutch, who were possibly the best side in that tournament.  Slovenia had also qualified, though they were eliminated in the first round.  Had these teams been one, they could have won it.  The 1998 Yugoslavia team is the greatest team to have never existed.

This is not such a surprise when one considers the international sports pedigree of the countries of the former Yugolsavia.  They constantly do well in basketball, volleyball, handball, and several other sports.  It is quite remarkable to think of how successful these countries are, particularly given how small their populations are.

And today’s Serbia have every bit of potential to live up to their predecessors’ feat.  They finished ahead of France, Romania and Austria in their qualifying group. This is a good side with plenty of quality players through and through—particularly in defense.  Chelsea’s Ivanovic and Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic are two of the best defenders in the Premier League.  Left-back Kolarov is an exciting player with Italy’s Lazio, Dejan Stankovic plays for European champions Internazionale, Milan Jovanovic has excelled in the Belgian league and is moving to Liverpool. And Nicola Zigic, while not the most prolific striker, plays for Valencia and is an imposing physical presence upfront at 6’8”.

They are coached by Radomir Antic, who is a respected manager that has won the Spanish Liga title with Atletico Madrid in 1996—a formidable accomplishment, considering how rare it is for Atletico Madrid to manage to win the league.

They might not have a great attack on paper, but with good organization and a good gameplan, they can control games and manage to score through set-pieces, relying on the excellent execution of Stankovic and the height of Zigic. One worry for them will be Nemanja Vidic’s tendency to falter under pressure when confronted with good strikers.  As a Liverpool striker, I cannot help but recall with immense joy all the wonderful times Fernando Torres has demolished Nemanja Vidic.

Zonal Marking’s tactical analysis.

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Algeria: Spurred by memories of 1982

The Desert Foxes

The Algerians make their first appearance in a World Cup since their historic and heroic first appearance The 1982 World Cup in Spain—an appearance that will live in infamy for German and Austrian football forever.

The great 1980’s Algeria side arrived at the World Cup unheralded and underrated on the international front.  But they shocked the world with a 2-1 opening victory over the mighty West Germans, who had won the World Cup just eight years ago.  It was an incredible performance, and the first time an African or Arab country had defeated a major football power in the World Cup.  Algeria lost their second game against Austria, but were impressive in defeating Chile 3-2 in their final game.

Then came the final game of the group between Austria and Germany.  Because of the two late Chile goals against Algeria, Austria and Germany went into the game knowing that a 1-0 win for Germany would see both teams go through to the second round.  And in front of the unbelieving eyes of the watching world, Germany and Austria went onto the pitch and did not play football; they fixed the score.  They both went through to the second round, and denied Algeria the chance of being the first Arab or African team to make the second round.

It was an infuriating day for millions of Algerians, Africans and Arabs as well as for millions of neutrals, and millions of Germans and Austrians.  Here’s how the Guardian’s Paul Doyle describes the story:

A smattering of Algerian fans in the Gijón crowd burned peseta notes to show their suspicions of corruption, while most of the Spaniards in attendance waved hankies throughout the second half in a traditional display of disdain. The next day newspapers in Spain denounced “El Anschluss” and there was outrage in Wst Germany and Austria too. Eberhard Stanjek, commentating for the German channel ARD, almost sobbed during the match as he lamented: “What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you like, but not every end justifies the means.” The Austrian commentator, meanwhile, told viewers to turn off their sets and refused to speak for the last half-hour. Former West German international Willi Schulz branded the German players “gangsters”.

The gangsters, however, were unapologetic. When German fans gathered at the team hotel to protest, the players responded by throwing water bombs at them from their balconies.

Even less bothered was the head of the Austrian delegation, Hans Tschak, who made these extraordinary comments: “Naturally today’s game was played tactically. But if 10,000 ‘sons of the desert’ here in the stadium want to trigger a scandal because of this it just goes to show that they have too few schools. Some sheikh comes out of an oasis, is allowed to get a sniff of World Cup air after 300 years and thinks he’s entitled to open his gob.”

Did the Algerian players take offence? Not at all, Merzekane says. “We weren’t angry, we were cool,” he says. “To see two big powers debasing themselves in order to eliminate us was a tribute to Algeria. They progressed with dishonour, we went out with our heads held high.”

From all over the world came calls for Fifa to punish the Europeans or stage a replay, but in the end all the world’s governing body did was rule that henceforth the last pair of games in every group must be played simultaneously. “Our performances forced Fifa to make that change, and that was even better than a victory,” Belloumi says. “It meant that Algeria left an indelible mark on football history.”

That Germany team was to go on to reach the final, and lose to Italy 3-1.  That golden generation of Algerians made to the 1986 World Cup, but only managed a draw with Northern Ireland and losses to Brazil and Spain.  Algeria did not make it to the World Cup again, but its players were to go on to have good careers playing in Europe.  Their most accomplished star is the great Rabeh Madjer, who scored in the European Cup final as Porto defeated Bayern Munich in 1987.  He established himself as one of the top players of the world at that time, and remains one of the greatest African players of all time, second, perhaps, only to George Weah. (Today, Madjer can be seen in the tactical analysis studios of Al-Jazeera.)

Algerian football went into the doldrums since then, with the political problems in the country clearly taking their toll.  But recently, the Algerians have managed to put a decent team together, and somehow succeeded in eliminating the best African team around, Egypt, in the infamous qualifier that became a major international incident between the two countries.

The rivalry between those two goes back a long way, and was ratcheted up for these qualifiers.  I’d love to sit and recount the story, but the Algeria game has started and I don’t want to type as I watch, so if you care, just Google it.  You’ll find a ton of stuff; I remember the Guardian had a couple of good pieces.  Suffice it to say, I was very thankful for the existence of Libya, which ensured those two countries did not share any borders.

Algeria have an underrated team today. Having watched them in the qualifiers, I know they can be a very solid, organized and intelligent team.  They are physically tenacious and fast. Their elimination of Egypt should not be under-rated, as Egypt are quite clearly the best African team today.

Algeria’s players mostly play in European leagues.  They don’t quite have any superstars who have broken into some of the elite European teams, but the nonetheless have a lot of good players.  Their best player is probably creative midfielder Karim Ziani who has had a few very good seasons with Souchaux and Marseille and now plays for German side Wolfsburg. Midfielder Hassan Yebda has played a great season with the awful Portsmouth team of last season, and earned himself a transfer to Portuguese champions Benfica. His Portsmouth ex-team-mate Nadir Belhadj is a good defender, as if Rangers’ Majid Bougherra.

Overall, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Algeria have players who are at least of the caliber of the US team’s players. They are probably not as physically fit, and the Americans have more international experience than the Algerians.  But don’t be too surprised if the Algerians trouble the Americans or qualify ahead of them.

The Algerians have a lot of history to live up to, and they do not want to put in a performance that sullies the memories of the memorable 1982 side.  They will certainly be up for this World Cup.  They also happen to have a certain famous Algerian on board the technical team of their World Cup mission; a man by the name of Zinedine Zidane. Surely he can’t be a bad influence.

Zonal Marking’s Tactical Analysis.

Squad list with links to player profiles on Fifa.com:

Algeria

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Day 2 round-up: Special Providence edition

“God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

Historians have long debated whether Otto von Bismarck really did utter these words, or if they were just unscrupulously attributed to him. Today, however, The Long Ball to Freedom can exclusively (EXCLUSIVE!!1!1!!) reveal that Bismarck did indeed say these words—and he said them precisely around 19.10 GMT on June 12 2002 after watching Robert Green gift the YOU-ESS-AYE!!1!!1!! a point they ill-deserved from an encounter against God’s brave soldiers England.

Ok, that’s it for me impersonating a British tabloid; now for a more sober take on today’s action.

South Korea have put in the best performance of any of the ten teams to play so far in this tournament.  They were incredibly good against Greece, and could’ve scored six. They sure made me look silly for only mentioning in my preview that they were a shadow of their 2002 side.  The 2010 South Korean vintage today came out with a confident and controlled performance to murder a pathetic Greece side which defended as badly as it usually attacks. The South Koreans defended well, controlled the pace of the game and were deadly in attack.  A bit better finishing could’ve seen them bag six. If they can keep this performance up for a couple of more games, it will be perhaps more significant than their 2002 performance because this time it will not be tainted with the allegations of corruption.

Speaking of corruption, the team representing the country cursed to be governed by corrupt, profligate and senseless governments today gave the worst performance of any team so far.  Greece had always been ok with the fact their attack was ridiculous, but they always had their defense.  Today, at least, their attack performed as well as their defense.  Unfortunately, this was because their defense sunk to unchartered depth and not because their attack improved.  Any Greeks who thought that the World Cup might bring a welcome distraction from reading about their government’s shenanigans should think again—reading an audit of government finances will be far more entertaining and optimistic than watching the national team take to the field.  The less said about their performance, the better.  I’ll spare you the gory details in order to discuss Argentina.

Diego Maradona’s boys were very happy to record a victory against Nigeria today.  Make no mistake, there is cause for elation: Nigeria is a solid team, and a win against them in the first round goes a long way to ensuring qualification, and eases the nerves of the players.  But there is, unfortunately, much to worry about.

Argentina do not look like world beaters—yet.  Their defense looked shaky, and a more confident side than Nigeria would have capitalized on many of their slip-ups.  Their midfield was virtually nonexistent, and failed to impose any authority on the game.  Argentina seemed to be playing with only an attack and a defense at times. Their midfield’s only bright light was Mascherano, who practically played as a defender.  Juan Sebastian Veron did everything possible to vindicate those who had criticized his inclusion, and Angel Di Maria looked completely lost in Argentina’s midfield.

Upfront, Carlos Tevez was useless and Higuain disappointed me hugely with his weak performance. The world’s best player, Lionel Messi, showed us many glimpses of why he really is the best player in the world, but unfortunately, he seemed to have lost his clinical finishing today. Overall, there is much to worry Maradona and his fans. The team might have won, but its defense, midfield and attack all failed to convince. Their only goal, after all, came from a set-piece and an awful bit of marking by the Nigerians.

The final verdict is that Argentina did not do enough to convince us that they should win the World Cup, but they did do enough to make us think that they might win it.

Nigeria, on the other hand, do not look very promising.  Yobo was calm and composed in defense, but the rest of the team did not impress.  A more confident side would’ve snatched at least a goal from Argentina’s sloppy defense.  With the form of South Korea, they may not go much further this tournament.

Which brings us back to England vs the US.

It was a good game; definitely the most gripping game of the five played so far.  The pesky Americans put in a solid game and managed to frustrate England.  They were obviously remarkably lucky, these rebellious sorts, but then again, Bismarck was onto something when he talked of special providence.  The Americans celebrated their draw as if they’d won the World Cup, which makes sense, since after all, for the Americans, this is their World Cup final.  Still, it speaks volumes of England’s performance and how much they’ve improved under Capello that they’re now at a point where the US will celebrate a draw against them.

England played much, much better than expected.  This was, by far, the best England performance I’ve seen since their 5-1 defeat of Germany in 2001.  England actually could string more than three passes together!  For the first time in ages, the English players realized they play together in a team. They could find each other with their passes, their runs were timed well, their movement made sense, and they looked like one of those “team” things England had not seen forever. Whatever happens, Capello can take credit for having turned this rag-tag bunch of prima donnas into a proper football team that doesn’t look like a pathetic national embarrassment on the global stage like England in 2002, 2004 and 2006. Except for Frank Lampard, of course, who was as much of a national embarrassment on the global stage as Prince Philip taking a leak on an orphaned homeless girl.

Hero

On the bright side, Steven Gerrard was inspiring. He was on fire in a way that he had only exhibited for Liverpool in the past, and not this last season.  The captain’s armband is what did it for him, in my opinion.  This performance from Stevie, at least in the first half, was Istanbul-esque.  He attacked, defended, tackled, passed, scored and ran like his life depended on it.  England should have made him captain ages ago if it would’ve meant a performance like this.

His first half performance reminded me of the old Arabic poetry verse by Imro’ Al-Qais:

مكر مفر مقبل مدبر معا . . . . . . كجلمود صخر حطه السيل من عل

But there were also many negatives for England.  Frank Lampard, again, put in some of the worst performances ever by an international player.  An England shirt is like kryptonite to Lampard.  It is truly unbelievable how awful this man can be when playing in an England shirt—a fact made the more astounding by how good he is in a Chelsea shirt.  He was utter and complete shit today, and he should never, ever, be given an England shirt based on this pathetic performance.  The last proper game Lampard played for England was in 2004.  He has not done anything decent for England since.  His apathy was only rivaled by his degenerate skills.

Zero

If England are to do anything this tournament, Capello has to drop Lampard.  This isn’t just because he plays like shit; more importantly, this is because if he keeps him in the first team, he’d be clearly announcing that England are a team that picks players based on reputation rather than on performance.  No team can ever win like that.

Emile Heskey worked his giant butt off, but sadly, his best is not quite good enough.  Playing behind him, Rooney could not prosper in the same way he does when he’s alone upfront.  Also, England’s biggest problem, as tweeted by the incomparable ZonalMarking, is that they could not keep possession.  The best way to remedy that is to replace Lampard—the worthless sack of potatoes clogging England’s midfield—with a football player.

If Capello wants my advice (and really, why the hell could he possibly not want my advice?) he should drop Heskey and Lampard from this team and replace them with Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick.  He could then move Steven Gerrard to a withdrawn striker role behind Rooney, and have Carrick and Barry play as central holding midfielders in a 4-5-1. This would play to the strengths of Captain Marvel Steven Gerrard and Wonderboy Wayne Roonye; it would allow England to maintain more possession in midfield thanks to Carrick and Barry’s dictating of the game; and most importantly, it would consign Frank Lampard to a place on the bench, sending a clear signal to every English player that reputations, sponsorship deals and a giant teenage fan-base matter for nothing—only performances count.

But, unlike those sitting in Row Z when Frank Lampard takes a free-kick, I’m not holding my breath.

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USA: A growing force looking for validation

YOU-ESS-AYE! YOU-ESS-AYE! YOU-ESS-AYE!

Americans should drop the pretense of not being a football nation.  They are as much a football nation as anybody else—they just have a terrible football league. No one should be surprised if they do well this summer.

[Editorial Note: throughout this piece, the word “football” will be used to refer to the beautiful game played with your foot, whereas the word “Gridiron” will be used to refer to the American bastardised version of Rugby. Live with it.]

By now everyone thinks of America as not being a football nation.  America likes to think of itself as anti-football, and football, at times, seems to think of itself as Anti-America.  It has almost become a part of American folklore to hate the sport, and disdain foreigners for daring to prefer this boring no-action sport to good fun American ones like Basketball, Baseball, and Gridiron. Just look at this recent spate of Onion articles mocking the World Cup.

On the other hand, football has for long appealed to people worldwide as a great arena of international competition precisely because Americans were so pathetically bad at it.  The US Army’s invasions of the world may be only matched by those of American brands like McDonald’s, Friends, Madonna, Puff Daddy, and Coca-Cola; but in football, you could regularly count on the Americans getting their asses handed to them by the likes of Germany, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia and… yes… Iran.

And as much as American brands of all types succeeded in conquering the world, American sports could never really gain much appeal outside America.  Baseball and Basketball have developed some popularity abroad, and the Super Bowl is occasionally watched by a some foreigners (nowhere near the ridiculous usually touted 1-Billion viewers figure,) but these sports have nothing like the appeal of football around the world—in viewership or participation.  America has completely failed to conquer the world with its sports.

It seems, however, that America is now trying, instead, to conquer the world in the world’s sport.

But, before we discuss that, let’s get one thing straight.  America is a football nation.

Having just lived in America for five years, I know that football in America has come leaps and bounds from where it was a few decades ago.  Football is one of the most popular sports to play in all America.  Youths of all ages and demographics and locations play it.  It is not a game restricted to recent immigrants from football-crazed countries; it is now played by most all classes and ethnicities of American society.  Red-State, Blue-State, rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, immigrant, recent immigrant, and distant immigrant all take part.  Some statistics even show that it is the most played sports among youths.

Flying into American cities one is struck by how many more football field once sees from the sky than baseball fields.  And the site of a baseball field being used as a football field is now a common occurrence across America.  All around America, baseball youth leagues have been consistently losing players to football leagues.   There is no questioning the mass success the game has enjoyed in attracting people to play it.

And the American national team has improved as a result, and has come a long way from the shambles of the 1990 team that was only able to make the tournament after Mexico were disqualified for faking players’ ages—or as part of a FIFA-USA conspiracy to promote the game in America ahead of the 1994 World Cup to be held in the States –depending on whom you believe.  The 2002 team was impressive in reaching the quarter-final and only barely losing to a fortunate Germany side.   And though America was eliminated in the first round of 2006, one must remember they were in the Group of Death in that tournament, with the three other teams all in the top 10 of FIFA world rankings. The US also put in a respectable performance to draw with eventual Champions Italy.

Today, America’s top players are respectable players on the world stage.  Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jonathan Spector, DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann all play in top European leagues and perform well.  Dempsey, in particular, has been excellent with Fulham.

As more and more young Americans continue to play the game, especially young boys, things should continue to improve in the future.  American football can also be encouraged by the prospect of being able to lure the best young stars from around Latin America and the Caribbean to come play for the USA and get the nationality.  Jozy Altidore, an exciting young talent, is a Haitian who came to America to play football and took the US nationality.

Further, we must remember America is a country of 300 million people.  In football, the bigger the country’s population, the more likely you are to field a stronger team. Brazil is the world’s best because it has three times the population of any other football-crazed country.  As more and more Americans play, more and more exciting talents will emerge.

America is also a very rich country, which means a lot of people can spend a lot of money on training, coaching, equipment and the like.  This can only help.

Because of all of this, I personally expect America to continue to improve.  I have even placed a bet with a skeptical American friend that America will win one of the five next World Cups.

There is, however, a lot to suggest that I might lose this bet.

Firstly, whereas the game has succeeded in attracting a mass number of players, it has failed in attracting viewers.  The MLS, America’s awful “top” league, is a terrible spectacle that struggles to draw viewers. The games are awful, the amount of talent is very little, and the baseball-isation of the game is an insult to football purists like myself.  The MLS is not a competitive sport. It is organized in the American “franchise” system, which works well for made-for-TV sports like Gridiron, but will strangle a competitive sport like football.

Joke

The beauty of football is in its competitiveness and unpredictability.  A football game is not watchable if the outcome doesn’t matter.  Just think of the awful first round Champions League matches between the top European sides and the minnows who make up the numbers.  No one bothers watch these games because they are not competitive.  The same could be said of the entire MLS season.  The teams play each other four times in the “regular season”, and then the eight highest-ranked teams from 14 advance to the play-offs. The good teams will early-on seal qualification and can afford to lose many matches, and the bad teams will be out of it and will not bother with many matches. This effectively means that the vast majority of “regular season” matches do not matter at all. To then determine the league based on a play-off system is an insult to the game.  A league champion should win the title based on their form all year long, and not in some play-off games.

Since the league is run as a franchise system, the uncompetitive cabal that controls the teams has it in its interest to close out competition from other teams entering the league, and so there is no relegation or promotion in the league.  And so most teams have nothing to play for most the season.  There are many minor leagues across the country, and the game would benefit immensely from doing what every other country in the world does with its football league: opening up competition to everyone through promotion and relegation.  Potential success is unlimited for a small team that does well, and the potential failure is unlimited for a good team that does badly.  The result would be a highly competitive league system where only the best survive. Eliminate relegation and promotion, and you end up with awful teams phoning in their performances when their owners would rather see them lose so they can get a better “draft pick”—another American monstrosity deforming the game.

The result of this is an anemic league with half-empty stadia and an undedicated fanbase that actually excludes a lot of real football fans.  The American “Eurosnob” fan is an outcome of this: Americans who like the game but only follow European leagues, not the MLS.  While these fans are the object of derision of MLS fans, there is no denying they have a point.  In five years in America, I never was tempted to watch an MLS game, and would instead wake up in ungodly hours to watch European games.

US Soccerball draft picks--ruining football in America since 1996

The US football authorities have tried to succeed by turning football into an American sport, which has killed the beauty of the game.  If football is to succeed, it will succeed as it has succeeded the world over: a competitive and open game that captivates everyone.

Another byproduct of the way football is played in America is that there are very low wages for players.  Every team has a “salary cap”—another American monstrosity that makes every team pay a few players very highly, but pay a pittance to the rest of the players. It is common to find MLS players earning $40,000 a year, playing next to David Beckham who earns $40million a year.  This is not a healthy way to build a league.

This failure of football as a spectator sport is very important because it is the major hindrance to the development of American players and the national team.  While America has produced plenty of decent players, it has not produced any great players yet.  The reason, as any American will tell you, is that all the elite athletes in America would rather play baseball, basketball or gridiron, because the amount of money they could make in these games is enormous compared to the money they could make playing in the MLS.  Why train day-and-night to become a professional football player and earn very little in the MLS when you can instead train for basketball, baseball or gridiron and make many millions in their leagues.

Had the US had a proper football league, it would attract a much larger fanbase and teams would compete strongly with each other by paying highly for superstar players.  The league would be competitive and Americans would be drawn to it.  It would be good for the players, good for the fans, good for the national team and good for football itself to see so many Americans play it.  It would, however, be bad for the cabal of ‘franchises’ that currently controls the game.  Since they control the game, don’t expect things to change much anytime soon.  And for as long as the MLS continues to try to sell football as baseball to Americans, expect this mediocrity to continue.

Nonetheless, the Americans have a decent team that has been improving over the past few years.  The level of the current team, however, remains a bit of a mystery.  They did not do well in the qualifying rounds and at times faced the prospect of failing to qualify for the World Cup.  This is particularly bad news when you take into account that the Americans compete in the CONCACAF region, by far the easiest one from which to qualify—basically an open invitation to Mexico and the US.

Key man Clint Dempsey

The US’s best players play in England. Clint Dempsey has been excellent for Fulham recently and I rate him as America’s best player. Tim Howard in goal is a reliable and solid and has several years’ experience playing in the Premier League. Jozy Altidore is only 19, but has shown a lot of promise and played regularly for Hull City in England.  Landon Donovan, perhaps the best known American player, has just had a successful loan spell at Everton.  Oguchi Onyewu is a solid defender who has just made a big move to AC Milan, but has failed to play all season because of injury.  He should be fit to start the World Cup, though.

The USA’s best strength is its players fitness.  One advantage of being the richest country in the world is that sports science has advanced there beyond other countries. Players’ physical training and conditioning has always been impressive, and American players, even on their worst days, will put in physically strong performances.  This should stand the Americans in good stead against most teams, particularly those whose fitness levels are low–Slovenia and Algeria need to be wary of this.

Landon "Landycakes" Donovan: The combination of an international football pedigree with an awful American nickname could prove potent

The US team will be really up for their opening match against England.  There is a healthy American hatred of English football driving them, borne out of an inferiority complex because of England’s superlative achievements in the game, and its superior, proper, football league.  The Americans would love nothing better than to have their MLS players beat the Premier League’s A-list stars.

They do, of course, have precedent in this regard.  America perhaps caused the greatest upset in World Cup history when they defeated England in 1950.  England, until then, had never bothered participate in the World Cup.  Exhibiting the sort of smug colonialist mentality many Americans would love to have, the English had long derided the international game as something lesser than the proper real English game played by full-blooded Englishmen.  England had no reason to compete in this inferior game where people from the colonies played against pesky Latins.   There was even a sense that England would ruin it for the foreigners if they participated and won it easily.

Having then changed their mind and deigned to participate in the 1950 World Cup, the English arrived fully expecting to walk through the tournament.  They certainly expected to murder the Americans in their opening match.  And yet, the ultimate shock arrived when the English team that had legends like Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen was defeated by a rag-tag bunch of truck drivers, plumbers and other part-timers representing Uncle Sam.

This American team is far better than that one, with many professional players in the best leagues of Europe.  And they will be desperately hoping for a similar upset, particularly with the recent optimism in England that Capello’s men could win the World Cup.  Closet American football fans, those who love to pretend they don’t like the game, will be watching eagerly, and in case America wins, they will come out of the closet and feel justified in supporting the game.  America loves a winner, and if their football team can start beating the best regularly, expect the Americans to rally behind it.  Let us hope, however, they don’t win the whole thing, yet, as their fans are likely to then develop an insufferable superiority complex that will make England’s pre-1950 complexes seem mild.

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Day 1 Round-up

It was a mixed day for all four teams.  Each had highs and lows to take from the game.

It was a delight to see South Africa play so well today.  The country will be delighted with their players’ performance. The organization has now gone well, and whatever happens, the national team has acquitted itself well and played a good game.  Bafana Bafana looked startled at the beginning of the game, almost looking like they don’t belong on this stage. Fortunately for them Mexico were very wasteful enough that they were let off.  This gave them confidence and they grew into the game. They played well at the beginning of the second half and their well-deserved goal came from a superb counter-attacking move for which Carlos Alberto Parreira must take credit.  And what a finish from the delightful Tshabalala.  South Africa had several chances to get a second, and will be utterly disappointed not to have bagged the points.

Mexico have much to be disappointed about as well. They showed a real lack of edge to their game, and were very profligate in front of goal.  They did not seem to play well together, and Vela and Dos Santos did not look like they were ready for this yet.  Cauthemoc Blanco could not run, or even move, when he came on.  How he was included in the squad is beyond me.

The France-Uruguay game was atrocious.  This was a toxic Domenech team par excellence, and as expected, he failed to get the players to play well together.  Rarely has a team been worth so much less than the sum of its parts. The players seemed like they were all playing out of position.  Govou, Anelka and Toulalan were particularly terrible.  This does not bode well for the French.

Uruguay, however, can draw some positives from this clash. They went into the game in the knowledge that the earlier draw means they would be in a good position if they just get a point. As was expected, they defended solidly and with physical tenacity, and hoped for their front duo to create a goal. The defense part of the plan worked well. Forlan and Suarez were energetic and came close, but couldn’t manage to score, particularly as they were always outnumbered.  Had Uruguay decided to go for it a bit, I believe they could’ve won because the French team is not coherent enough to withstand regular pressure.  But Tabarez was clearly happy with the point and chose to sit back trusting his defenders were more than capable of handling the pitiful French attack.

On a tactical note, it was a delight to see Uruguay contain France so well with a 3-5-2 formation.  The long-standing criticism of 3-5-2 (see The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson or ZonalMarking) is that it doesn’t work well against an attack of three players.  France today practically played with three forwards (Ribery, Anelka, Govou) and yet never really threatened Uruguay’s back three.  The full-backs did well tracking back.  It remains to be seen, however, whether this plan would work well if Uruguay wanted to attack more.  Uruguay’s attacks were floundering because there were no wingers in support of the strikers, and the midfielders were all sitting deep, leaving Forlan and Suarez isolated.  The true test of Uruguay’s 3-5-2 will arrive when the full-backs and midfielders attack more; will that expose the defense or not?

So, overall, things are pretty matched in this group, and as I said in my preview, every team has a real chance of going through and of getting eliminated.  The Uruguayans, however, will feel they have the advantage, and the South Africans will be more optimistic about their chances.  The French, on the other hand… well… they have a lot of thinking to do.

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Prediction time

With every World Cup, there comes a point when a real fan must make their predictions, and in the process hand everyone a big box of eggs to throw in their face when these predictions turn out to be wrong.

Here are my predictions:

Champions:

The winner should be Spain.  This is theirs to lose.  If they do mess it up, it will be Holland.  Failing that, a miracle could happen, and England wins.

I don’t think Argentina will win it, but they could, if everything aligns perfectly.

Top scorer:

In order of decreasing likelihood:

David Villa (Spain)

Robin van Persie (Holland)

Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Wayne Rooney (England)

Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)

Dark Horses:

Slovakia

Denmark

Uruguay

Surprise players to watch:

Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)

Luis Suarez (Uruguay)

Yoann Gourcuff (France)

Milan Jovanovic (Serbia)

Gregory Van der Weil  (Holland)

Team of the tournament:

In a 3-5-2:

Goakeeper:

Julio Cesar (Brazil)

Defenders:

Lucio (Brazil)

Maicon (Brazil)

Ashley Cole (England)

Midfieders:

Wesley Sneijder (Holland)

Xavi Hernandez (Spain)

Andres Iniesta (Spain)

Steven Gerrard (England)

Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)

Strikers:

David Villa (Spain)

Robin van Persie (Holland)

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