Sunday, June 29, 2014

My World Cup so far

My previous article was hoping and preying for a great World Cup, lamenting the previous few tournaments and possibly an event in decline, a victim of global football media overkill.

Fear not, Brazil '14 to the rescue.

The first couple of weeks have provided a wonderful, heady mix of stylish attacking verve, established nations going out and no shortage of drama.

There have been a myriad of subplots, Brazil's nervous progress, Messi's magic, some wonderful South and Central American performances and some lamentable European ones.

So who looks like a likely winner?

Brazil the hosts were the first team in to the quarter finals but they look fragile. The defence is full of attacking panache but lacks solidity, Thiago Silva apart.

The midfield lacks energy although Fernandinho looked an improvement on Paulinho. My own Chelsea's Oscar looks a prime culprit for Brazil's toils however given the continuation of his listless recent club form. His place must come into question.

Brazil also have problems at centre forward with neither Fred nor Jo of the required calibre. Possibly pushing Neymar further forwards and bringing Willian in to the team would give Brazil more urgency and movement. It is time for Scolari to earn his salary.

Argentina, similarly look short of balance within their team. Lionel Messi has however shown up and how. Should he continue in this vein, echoes of Maradona and '86 will come to the fore. Could he drag them to the title almost single handed?

With the hugely attractive Chile and Uruguay now out of the tournament, South America's other great hope remains Colombia. They will certainly fancy their chances against Brazil and whilst they remain an outsider, they are certainly part of the discussion, especially if they go on to knockout the hosts.

The European challenge has proven very lopsided. Belgium and France have progressed unmolested but only really Holland and Germany have impressed in any great way.

For the Dutch, Arjen Robben is rivalling Neymar and Messi for individual feats and the Oranje will be preying he keeps his fragile body fit.

Germany possibly look the most complete team with strength in depth and quality in all departments.

Thomas Mueller is having a fine tournament and with the likes of Goetze and Kroos around to unlock defences, they are a major force. Khedira and the returning Schweinsteiger add solidity in front of the back four.

There was much talk of Belgium before the tournament and it is hard to gauge them properly so far as their group was so benign. Tough tests away this promising side with the acid test of a potential quarter final against Argentina should they progress.

The big disappointments so far.

Spain's instant and lamentable exit was the first big story of the tournament. Reminiscent of France's defence in '02, Spain crashed out after losing their first two games to admittedly good opposition in Holland and Chile.

For several players, Casillas, Xavi and even possibly Andres Iniesta, it looked a tournament too far. The team lacked energy, cohesion and ideas and with far too many individual mistakes.

Whilst this current 'tiki taka' generation has come to an end, Spain should not panic. The likes of Thiago Alcantara and Isco still offer a bright future for the deposed World Champions.

Italy's problems look possibly a little deeper as they exited the World Cup at the group stage for the second successive time. Whilst they reached the final of the last Euros, the mantra that 'Italy always find a way' seems to now be yet another stereotype.

For England, the reality is that other than through history, population size and the strength of the Premiership, they are no longer a world football power. Their problems are deep rooted in the youth system and the lack of numbers of top quality coaches at that level.

Their players lack the ability to compete technically at this level nowadays with the likes of Costa Rica looking far more comfortable with the ball at their feet. Throw in basic issues like an inability to defend simple high balls and it is a sorry tale.

It is too easy to simply blame the Premiership (yes it doesn't help) as the reality is that the majority of teenage players that are reaching the professional clubs are already not good enough.

Major changes are required are they to regain their place at the top table. Raheem Sterling was a single bright light but unless the issue of coaching at youth level in the UK is addressed then the status quo will remain.

Whilst we are talking about the negatives it is probably appropriate to mention the biggest individual story, that of Luis Suarez's actions and his subsequent ban.

The media in the UK has deemed his punishment appropriate or even lenient. There is clearly no place for biting in any walk of life and given that he is a serial offender then it is correct to throw the proverbial book at him.

However, having spoken to some South American friends who have a keen interest in football, it is clear that the incident is viewed very differently there and their opinion is not without merit.

In 1994, Mauro Tassotti broke Luis Enrique's nose, causing him to lose a pint of blood with a wildly violent elbow to the face. He was banned for eight games.

Now whilst Suarez as mentioned is a repeat offender, his vampire like actions result in little more than flesh wounds. It is quite simply 'weird' rather than especially violent or likely to result in serious injury.

Roy Keane admitted (in his book) to pre meditatively ending Alf Inge Halaand's career with a horrendous tackle. He received a three match ban for ending the career of a fellow professional.

Now whilst not excusing any crime on the basis that 'somebody else did something worse', it does seem that Suarez has received a punishment inconsistent with other players.

I personally don't like Luis Suarez (fine player that he is) and find his behaviour distasteful but this is a person with clear problems, someone who reverts to a pattern of behaviour during times of stress. Whether it is a childhood trauma that emerges or something else, only a professional could help.

Surely the offer of a reduced ban (possibly two months) in return for him entering some kind of counselling or therapy to modify his behaviour would have been a better and more humane solution.

It's a decision that will polarise opinion. There is clearly no place in football for biting but then surely we should be just as harsh on other acts of violence that do far more to threaten the careers of other players. The debate will rumble on, Suarez will sit things out in Montevideo.

Goals, goals, goals.

Back to the happier stuff and it's been a tournament for goals and some very good ones. Arjen Robben and Van Persie have provided some crackers. Lionel Messi has provided a one man video montage but for me, the best came from Tim Cahill with a sublime volley to reel the Dutch back in temporarily.

Messi's injury time winner against Iran for me encapsulated everything that the World Cup should represent.

A wonderful performance from an underdog against one of the tournament favourites, indeed for much of the second half, Iran looked the better team.

And then, in injury time, one of the all time great players stands up to be counted cutting inside and bending a winner into the corner, queue wild celebrations from the massed Argentine fans and despair from the Iranian contingent, it's the kind of drama that only a World Cup can truly provide.

Sitting here in Singapore, one point that should be addressed is the apparent lack of progress from the Asian nations. Both South Korea and Japan had in previous tournaments looked well poised to raise the bar for the Asian associations but their challenges have faltered badly at the first hurdle.

There is much to consider as to the reasons for this and how Asia harnesses the incredible passion and numbers that it possesses for the game.

At the time of writing, we have seen Brazil and Colombia progress and there is little doubt that we are now at the sharp end of the tournament.

The goals and free flowing football may well dry up to an extent from here  but the drama will not as the pressure and tension rises. Brazil and Chile's shoot out last night was almost unbearable and that was for a neutral.

Given that the matches could come down to the finest of margins, one must hope that the likes of Robben, Neymar and Messi can step up and really make this a tournament to remember.

As far as who is my most likely winner, I am probably more confused than I was at the start. Take your pick and sit back and enjoy what has so far been the best World Cup in years - No Nonsense.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

So who should I support at the World Cup?

As mentioned in my previous World Cup post and as will be glaringly obvious to all, Scotland shall not be there. So now the burning question, who do I support?

There is of course nothing wrong with being a good old fashioned neutral and just enjoying the show but that kinda reduces the fun for me, so it's time to assess the runners and riders and reasons for finding a back up horse
I guess as a Scot, it's polite to start with the English. I'm a Chelsea fan myself having lived most of my younger adult life in London. I've always had a soft spot for benign harmless teams such as Crystal Palace and in that respect that could be a good reason to go for the Auld Enemy this time around.

Jokes aside, unlike many Scots, I like to see England do well (except at rugby, Will Carling anyone?) and many of my best friends are English.

For once this time there is far less of a circus and sense of entitlement surrounding the team, they even have some fresh young players. Would I actually want them to win it? No, but they won't so they are worth consideration.

As a kid, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France. Back then, Platini was in his pomp (as opposed to just pompous). Good French teams have always been easy on the eye and they've been through a fairly tough few years since Zizou's headbutt, worth a shout? Possibly.

For some reason, wonderful though they are I simply haven't connected with this great Spain team. There is no doubt that they are a fantastic side but I've grown a little bored of the whole 'tiki taka' and 'false 9' gig.

A fourth straight tournament win would be staggering and whilst I would hold them in great adulation for doing so, it would be with a nod and not a cheer.

Teams in blue have always held sway with me, Scotland, Chelsea, Glasgow Rangers, France as mentioned above which brings us to the Azzurri.

Italy of course won my favourite World Cup back in 1982. Whilst they don't always have a reputation for the most exciting football, they have provided wonderful drama in my life time with the likes of Rossi, Tardelli, Schillaci, Baggio and even Marco Materazzi.

Italy are limping at the moment, shorn of their captain through injury and drawing just this week with Luxembourg. When the chips are down, sometimes that's when they are at their best?

For the Brits, the Germans have always been the bogeyman for stereotypical and historical reasons. For the Scots however there was always the exception of when they played the English.

Regardless of (petty) historical differences, German football was also always hard to like as it was also just so ruthlessly efficient, a bit like why so many people prefer Ferrari to Porsche.

The Porsche is far less likely to break down at the side of the road or kill you by going sideways through a corner but somehow just leaves you a little cold. Where's the fun?

Well the answer is in the current German team which plays a far more expansive brand of football and for me were head and shoulders the best team to watch at the last World Cup.

The Germans have been the perennial bad guys who everyone loves to lose but is it maybe time to break the preconceptions and cheer on a team that is genuinely trying to play exciting football?

The Dutch have always been an attractive team. The combination of the famous Oranje shirt, the production line of fabulous players (seemingly without end) and the wonderful technical football they play makes them in many ways, the European footballing aristocrats.

This Dutch team however doesn't quite seem to be of that ilk so maybe we'll pass on the Oranje this time around.

Is there an African team worth pinning my hopes on? Both the Ivory Coast (complete with Chelsea legend Didier Drogba) and Nigeria are in groups that they could qualify from. Ghana and Cameroon's groups do look a little tougher to me.

The African nations rarely play negative football and can often surprise even if 2010 was a slight let down in that respect. Definitely worth a thought.

Lastly of course the hosts, complete with four (soon to be three) players from my club Chelsea. Brazil are of course the undisputed kings of the World Cup with no less than five in their trophy room.

A sixth at home would go a long way to healing some of the wounds this vast country has endured simply building the stadia and infastructure for this tournament.

This is not a vintage Brazilian team in the vein that so many of us wish for and in that respect much of the burden falls on the young shoulders of Neymar, how they pray he will outshine Messi.

He does of course have a tidy support cast with the likes of Willian, Dani Alves, Oscar, Thiago Silva and a wiley old fox at the helm in the shape of Scolari. If they get some momentum and the Maracana is bouncing, they could be tough to stop.

Of course, finding a team to support is not about who is necessarily most likely to win. As mentioned above, everyone loves an underdog story and we all want to see good football along the way. It is indeed a very tough call.

So maybe I'll just stay neutral after all.............. No Nonsense.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The World Cup - please be a good 'un......

For a Scotland supporter the requirements for a World Cup are pretty simple nowadays, a good tournament with great games and moments.

Now I'm probably already sounding like a grumpy old man. but for me the World Cup has been in decline as an event for a while now.

There are of course many things in life that change as you get older and your perception of things is a large part of that.

I do however feel that there are many other factors at play meaning that recently for me, the anticipation has been far better than the actual event.

My first dim memories of the World Cup were in 1978 where as a 5 year old I recalled my father and older cousin in some kind of paralysis of belief as Scotland were beaten by Peru - I can still recall the white strips with the red diagonal stripe on the TV.

I then had my most basic introduction to supporting Scotland, that of the concept of glorious defeat as everyone went barmy when Archie Gemmill scored one of the great World Cup goals to defeat the Dutch 3-2. It of course meant nothing and we went out.

1982 for me was the best World Cup of my lifetime but again, it may be something to do with your memories as a nine year old. Everything was magnified to such a huge degree.

In those days, unless you went along to matches - I was lucky enough to get taken often to see Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen team - you basically got two thirty minute sections of football highlights every weekend on TV and the occasional thirty minutes on a Wednesday night if I was allowed to stay up late.

The vast majority of my TV football was Scottish with a few snippets from England's Division 1 and very infrequent European games.

So when 1982 came along and Scotland were drawn to play Brazil, the names Socrates, Falcao, Zico, Eder, Junior, well you can imagine what that meant to a 9 year old football daft boy.

Scotland did their usual, got stuffed by Brazil, beat New Zealand and then bowed out with a credible draw with the USSR.

We cared not, Espana '82 looked wonderfully glamorous and there were still the Brazilians, Italy, the French (under the spell of Platini, Tigana and Giresse) and Argentina had some chap called Maradona who looked a bit handy. West Germany weren't half bad either and Poland even had Zbigniew Boniek.

The tournament threw up some fantastic games, the 3-2 Italy v Brazil remains for me the greatest match I have ever seen and the semi final between France and Germany was simply epic ending in French tears after being on the wrong end of both penalties and Harold Schumacher's assault on Patrick Battiston.

Marco Tardelli's celebration in the final after scoring will remain in the memories of all who saw it. A truely timeless World Cup moment that you can play over and over.

On to 1986 and back on a more parochial note, more Scottish failure, beaten by West Germany (Gordon Strachan couldn't even hurdle an advertising hoarding) and Denmark before drawing with Uruguay to send us on the first plane home yet again, ho hum.

But Mexico was of course another fine tournament which belonged simply to Diego Maradona who scored two of the greatest goals ever in the World Cup - both against England - and a not half bad effort against Belgium in the round that followed.

The quarter final between Brazil and France was another fine match ultimately decided on penalties but the tournament was ruled and won by Maradona who came the closest ever to turning a team sport into an individual one other than Sir Don Bradman - who had a far better support cast.

1990 was a pivotal year for me (if you'll indulge me for a moment) as at the age of 17 I left home, school and Scotland and moved to and started working in London.

That Summer was a slightly odd one in that respect and may be the reason I have such vivid memories, or maybe it's the fact that Scotland reached new lows by losing to Costa Rica, both left imprints on the character.

Anyone watching in Scotland will remember the TV presenters' expression as he turned to the pundits after we returned from the adverts post mach, it was priceless. Of course we then beat Sweden and then lost out to Brazil (yet again) and went home (yet again).

For me, other than the classic BBC intro sequence featuring Nessun Dorma (worth a look on youtube), Italia '90 was far from a classic tournament.

There was of course high drama with Gazza's tears and England's defeat on penalties to Germany in the semi final.

There were also moments of pure inspiration from Roberto Baggio and Toto Schillaci illuminated the tournament with both bulging nets and eyes.

Dragan Stojkovic enjoyed a wonderful cameo against Spain whilst Maradona tried to drag a less than great Argentina to another unlikely triumph. A poor final finished off a fairly mediocre tournament - at least for me.

Germany led by Lothar Matheus were worthy winners but they weren't a team that inspired me despite having many great players.

1994 saw me start off in very grumpy form. First of all, for the first time in 16 years, Scotland had failed to qualify and now as a fully fledged adult with a responsible job, the kick off times in the States were highly inconvenient, indeed downright inconsiderate.

Scotland were not the only footballing powerhouse not to be represented as both England and France also missed out.

It was however a marvelous tournament and was the story of some great mavericks starting with the greatest of them all yet again, Diego Maradona.

Enjoying a wonderful renaissance, Maradona seemed reborn and performed a goal celebration against the Greeks that would scare most young children.

Unfortunately it emerged that Diego was enjoying himself a little too much off the pitch and he was banned for drug use. He would sadly never grace another World Cup match.

On a more positive note, four other great individual performances lit up the tournament, those of Roberto Baggio, Hristo Stojkovic, Georghe Hagi and Romario.

Baggio took Italy nearly all the way with a series of excellent performances and five goals after the shock of losing to Ireland in their opening game and scraping through their group.

Stojkovic inspired Bulgaria through a wonderful tournament seeing off Germany in the process and Hagi marshaled a hugely attractive Romania team that played some glittering football. Their second round match against Argentina was a true World Cup epic.

Romario however stole the show with a wonderful goal scoring display as Brazil won the trophy for the first time in 24 years. It wasn't a vintage Brazil team but it had been a great tournament.

The final itself was dreadful as Italy and Brazil cancelled each other out. But as ever with World Cups they never fail to provide drama and one felt terribly for the great Franco Baresi (who had played despite having knee surgery during the tournament) and Baggio who both missed in the shoot out, one felt they both deserved better.

Brazil were worthy winners however even if we've had to sit through Bebeto's baby rocking celebration for the ensuing twenty years after the tournament. It was great the first time lads.......

France '98 was for me the last World Cup I can say I really enjoyed in a footballing sense. It had a wonderful French team which grew as the tournament went on. A rampant Brazil spearheaded by Ronaldo through the early rounds as well as strong challenges from fine Dutch and Argentina teams.

It was also the first World Cup I attended in person and indeed for the opening match as Scotland lost (yet again) to Brazil. We cared not and had a wonderful day and many beers in the Paris sunshine, life was certainly good that day.

We also drew with Norway before losing heavily to Morocco in what would prove to be our last match in a major final to date. (Yet again) on the first plane home, but at least this time we could take the train.

There were other great stories at '98 such as the supremely talented Croatia team of Suker, Prosinecki and Boban. Jamaica provided some light relief also in the early stages.

Argentina were on the receiving end of a World Cup wonder goal from Michael Owen before finally beating England on penalties in a yet another English night of high drama with David Beckham being sent off.

Dennis Bergkamp then bettered Michael Owen's effort in the next round against Argentina again with a goal of sheer artistry assisted by a wonderful Frank De Boer pass, it was classic stuff. They would eventually be unlucky to go out to Brazil.

France of course provided the perfect end in Paris as they swept to a 3-0 win in what was a hugely compelling yet ultimately anti climax of a final. The circumstances that led to Ronaldo sleep walking through the final are still not known but the game provided Zidane with his coronation.

From there, the World Cup has gone downhill for me. I had moved to Asia by the time Japan and Korea '02 came around so I was perfectly placed time wise to watch the matches, the stars should have been aligned.

It was fantastic to see the joy that a World Cup brought to countries and to a continent outside of Europe or South America for the first time. The only problem for me was that many of the big teams and players appeared as if they have stayed on their own continents.

South Korea as co hosts provided a huge story as they rode their luck to make the semi finals. Senegal also provided huge romance by beating France in the opening match and making the quarter finals before being knocked out by the other big story, that of Turkey who also made the semis.

But here was the rub, these great stories of giant slaying were not actually what I wanted to watch. I wanted to see Zidane, Figo, Batistuta, Totti and co at the peak of their powers. A tough European season appeared to have shorn the tournament of many of its' leading lights.

Brazil of course did show up and won the tournament with an irresistible forward line of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. A hugely talented Michael Ballack had also arrived for Germany and they were the two best teams in a tournament that other than for pure shock value, failed to catch fire.

2006 remains fuzzy for me for some reason, maybe too many beers watching late night games is the reason but again many of the big teams and players flattered to deceive and despite it being one of the most recent, it remains one of the most distant in my memory.

Argentina had one astounding performance against Serbia and Montenegro, Germany looked hopeful and bright but not much else, Brazil were lousy (by their standards), the Dutch were out early and Portugal left you somehow unfulfilled even with the burgeoning talents of Cristiano Ronaldo.

So it was left to France and the old war horse of Italy to provide the eventual drama. The scene was of course set for Zinedine Zidane to bow out from football on the highest of highs as the 34 year old played his final game in another World Cup Final.

Marco Materazzi however had other plans for Zizou and the resulting headbutt from Zidane led to one of those live TV moments when you turn to the person next to you and ask 'did that just actually happen?'

Zidane was duly sent off, Italy won the shootout and the rest as they say is history. Somehow however that moment in some way didn't seem to diminish Zidane's legend and even made it greater.

And so to the last carnival of football and Africa's first with South Africa 2010 complete with vuvuzelas, a novelty that soon wore off for me but then again I wasn't there in person.

Italy provided the story of the opening round by being simply appalling and in the process allowing New Zealand to return home undefeated.

The eventual champions Spain lost in their opening match to Switzerland before gaining momentum and winning every match apart from their next against Honduras by the odd goal, the last four matches being won 1-0.

If Spain were efficient, then in a complete about turn, Germany were wonderful to watch as they swept away England and Argentina before falling to the metronomic men in red.

Again, in a complete change around, Holland who are usually Europe's answer to Brazil's style of play offered football of the most pragmatic nature.

Only the wonderfully talented Wesley Sneijder seemed to break the shackles as they made their way mundanely to the final disposing of another sub par Brazilian team on the way.

The tournament was light on romance with Messi managed by the dishevelled Maradona failing to shine.

Whilst Uruguay were a great underdog tale, Luis Suarez's handball against Ghana hardly endeared them to many neutrals.

It was a wonderful occasion for Africa and refreshing in that respect but it was hardly a World Cup to remember otherwise.

Right now I am currently experiencing my usual state of growing agitation and excitement as we grow near to the tournament. I will even be in the European time zone for much of the group stages meaning my evenings will be wondrous.

My advancing years and the reality of the modern day media mean that the excitement cannot however reach the fever pitch of previous tournaments.

We all get to see Messi and Ronaldo week in week out if we so choose rather than clamoring to catch a glimpse of Zico or Maradona in 1982. In that respect there are fewer surprises or shocks and I am no longer 9 years old. There are however many sub plots.

Can Lionel Messi finally do for Argentina what he has done for Barcelona? Could Cristiano Ronaldo  drag Portugal singled handed to an unlikely win? Could Spain win a remarkable fourth major tournament in a row? Could Wayne Rooney score a goal?

And of course the hosts Brazil with Neymar and co. Brazil for many will always be the team we want to watch other than our own and there is no doubt that a home win would be a popular one.

Preparing for the World Cup has been hugely divisive for this footballing powerhouse of a country so a Scolari galvanised triumph would be a hugely welcome one.

Scotland shall of course not be there and our prospects for future tournaments look bleak. So for me, all I want is for the great players to play to the peak of their powers, for some fantastic goals and matches and for not all the excitement and drama to come from penalty shootouts.

That for me would be a great World Cup.......... No Nonsense.