Category: Football

The Lucas Lesson

By , July 9, 2012 5:10 pm

In just a few short years, Lucas Leiva went from being a midfield pariah, to the rock that anchors Liverpool’s midfield down. It was a transition that was anything but swift, and looking back, I think every fan is amazed he wasn’t driven out of the club. At one point, the vitriol against him was so immense, all it lacked was actual torches and pitchforks to literally run him out of the city.

Lucas’ story is a great one, and for a number of reasons. It taught an ever increasingly impatient fan base patience. It taught players, managers, pundits, and the media that you can’t always rush to judgement on a young, foreign player. And most importantly, it taught everyone what a self-motivated and talented young footballer can achieve when he truly believes in himself and his ability. Add to that Lucas’ uncanny knack to stare adversity in the face and win without even blinking, and you have yourself a player that taught us all a lesson.

To give some context, Lucas arrived at Liverpool as a mere 20-year-old from Brazil. He shined for Gremio and caught the eye of more than one manager in Europe. But it was Rafa Benitez who saw something special in the young Brazilian midfielder and decided he would fit well into Liverpool’s setup.

He joined the team at a time when the Reds were on the rise. They had just competed in their second Champions League final in three years, and were building towards continued success for the future by investing in promising, youthful prospects such as Lucas.

A Young Lucas Looked Increasingly Overawed When He First Joined LFC

Fast forward to the 2008-2009 season, and Lucas struggled. Badly. He was disappointing in a number of performances for Liverpool, so much so that the Anfield faithful took to booing him off after several lackluster games. Benitez, being the kind of manager he is, leapt to Lucas’ defense. He claimed none of us knew just how good Lucas was. And in return, we claimed that Benitez had no clue just how terrible he was. Many, including myself, struggled to see what the manager saw in the diminutive Brazilian.

To be fair, it couldn’t have been easy competing in a midfield stacked with talent. At the time, he was up against Mascherano, Alonso, and Gerrard. And as we all so cruelly remember, the axis of Alonso and Mascherano was phenomenal, and Gerrard’s inspired role behind Torres was ingenious. Lucas was the weak link, and the fans and media were intent on getting him out of the team. At least, I know I was.

Then the bottom dropped out. The 2009-2010 season was a disaster. Alonso was gone, the team were never able to build on their incredible success the season before, and in the end, it all cost Benitez his job.

But, while the team was most definitely on the wane, Lucas was on the rise. With Alonso’s departure, the Brazilian was finally given more responsibility, which he seemed to grab with both hands. His first half of the 2009-2010 season was decent, but he grew in stature as the season went on.

And while the 2010-2011 season (the first half of it anyway) was something most Liverpool fans want to forget, Lucas’ performances were tremendous. Rumors have it that Hodgson actually wanted to flog Lucas off. Thankfully, no such thing happened. He continued his excellent run of form when Dalglish replaced Hodgson mid-season, and enjoyed a wonderful run that saw the team go from a lowly 12th to 6th in about 4 months.

In May 2011, Lucas was voted the fans’ player of the year. He also made the most tackles in the top 4 European Leagues for the 2010-2011 season.

Lucas Showed Fans How Good He Really Was

His barnstorming form returned at the start of the 2011-2012 season, and he was absolutely immense against Manchester City and Chelsea in November. Sadly, his season was cut short from a terrible ACL injury, and the collapse of form of the team following his injury tells you a lot about how much influence he truly began to have. From a player that most would have been happy to sell, to a player that, through his absence, the team around him disintegrated.

In the five years since Lucas was brought to the club, he has undergone a transformation few players have the opportunity to make, namely because time is never on a player’s side when trying to impress a new team. But every fan that maligned the very name of Lucas, was singing his praises last season, and no one could mention the demise of Liverpool in 2012 without uttering what a loss Lucas had been to the midfield. There was an enormous chasm that opened up after his injury, one that was never filled by Dalglish. The team lost its balance, and most importantly, they lost its metronome. Two things Lucas provided in spades.

I honestly haven’t been as impressed with a player’s improvement as I have been with Lucas.

So what does this story teach us? It teaches us to give players time, especially players who come from halfway across the world, don’t speak the language, and are only 20 years old.

But it also teaches the importance of a mentality, belief, and intelligence that belong to only a handful of players ever to have graced the beautiful game. Lucas took the anger that was aimed at him, misdirected or not, and he turned it into a reason to work harder, rather than pack it up and go somewhere more comfortable, somewhere a little easier than the cauldron of cruelty that he experienced at Anfield. But he didn’t.

His story is a brilliant one. For once it wasn’t a player asking what the club and fans could do for him, but rather what he could grab onto deep inside and give to the club and fans. And all that in the face of rancor from every corner of Anfield and every media outlet that needed a new person to beat down.

So while the fans also needed to learn a few lessons, chiefly in their patience skills when it comes to a young player’s development, it was an even bigger lesson for players. Perhaps other footballers will take something from Lucas’ story. Perhaps they’ll walk away thinking that it’s them that have to impress the club and the fans. Perhaps they’ll realize, that deep down, the fans always want a new player to succeed, and that if the player gives it their all and more, they will, and with the fans’ backing.

Lucas has taught us all a lesson. And I hope he continues to do so for Liverpool for years to come. He’s an excellent example of a player you can be proud of. And more than anything, he should be proud of himself for reminding every one of what players need to show the fans, and how the fans should really treat the players. We were lucky he stayed. And if we didn’t learn the Lucas lesson fully, we may not be so lucky the next time a young player like him comes along.

Kenny Dalglish: A Breakup of the Worst Kind

By , May 17, 2012 10:45 am

Disappointed. Saddened. Confused. Surprised. All these emotions and more were felt immediately following the news that Kenny Dalglish had been sacked by Liverpool Football Club. While the fans can’t seem to agree on anything these days, I imagine a great majority felt the same way I did. Whether the decision proves to be the correct one remains to be seen. But right now, it just feels like an agonizing, soul-crushing breakup.

Goodbye, Kenny. Thanks For Everything, Always And Forever

You know the kind I’m talking about. Where there are lots of wonderful things about the other person, things you adore and wouldn’t change for the world. Such as Kenny’s undying love and affection for Liverpool, the institution, and the fans. His passion and electric smile on view every time Liverpool scored a goal. His pure outpouring of emotion when Liverpool reached and subsequently won the Carling Cup final. And most of all, the way you just knew that he, of all people on the planet, understood the fabric of the club like no one else. Since his arrival in the late 1970′s, the process of weaving the club’s DNA into his own had begun. And it continues to this day despite his unfortunate dismissal.

But with the good in someone you love, there are also a handful of things you find difficult to understand, and even dislike. While I believed in Kenny throughout the season, there’s no denying the league position was not good enough. Sometimes his tactics seemed strange. His substitutions would come too late, or not come at all. His squad selection was often baffling as several players were off-form, but still chosen ahead of others who had more to offer. And while I appreciated his surly demeanor with the press, the press obviously did not. And so the smearing began and continued throughout the season, culminating with the crescendo that was the Suarez/Evra debacle.

Despite all this, I trusted Kenny to get things right. And sporadically throughout the league campaign, and 99% of the time in the cups, he did get it right. Many forget that he was working with a team that had several new players, several young players, and that he lost his best central midfielder for almost the entire season with no suitable replacement. The woodwork, lack of clinical finishing, and lengthy suspensions and other injuries affecting the other world class quality in the team all lead to a dismaying league campaign to say the least. But anyone that doesn’t think Liverpool often didn’t get what they deserved based on their overall play throughout the season, wasn’t actually watching the games. In many cases, it was small margins between winning and losing, which can almost be worse and infinitely more frustrating than overall dire displays and performances. While the old saying goes “the buck stops with the manager,” I think the players should take a sizable amount of responsibility for the results in the league. After all, Kenny couldn’t run out onto the pitch and score goals for them, as much as we all would have loved to have seen that.

Like a breakup, sometimes you know when it is time to call it quits. Other times, you feel in your heart it deserves one last go before throwing it all in. I felt the latter. My head understood the reasons for dismissing Dalglish, but my heart believed he had more to offer. Another chance, a bit more time, and things would turn around. And if not, then you would at least know for sure it was time to part ways, however painful that may be.

FSG didn’t see things quite the same way I did. They operated with their minds, and their wallets, in performing a cold, calculated separation as soon as the season ended. Their hearts were not involved and how could we expect them to be? They may know business, but they don’t know enough about Liverpool Football Club to truly understand what a breakup of this magnitude would do to the fans of this great institution.

As with any breakup with someone you still love despite knowing they just aren’t right for you deep inside, it hurts to see them go. You start to think about how you’ll never spend the afternoon with them, share an inside joke, or lie next to them at night. As a loyal and emotional Liverpool fan, it hurts to think of how I won’t get to see Kenny’s goal celebrations, his beaming smile, and utter unbridled elation at seeing his team succeed while putting an arm around their shoulder when they fail.

Other clubs, other fans, and the media will never understand what Kenny Dalglish means to Liverpool and to Liverpool fans. The breakup might be best for our future, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And to read Dalglish’s own gracious words describing how he wants the fans to be happy with whoever their new manager is, just makes it hurt even more. Because you know he means it. He loves us, perhaps like no other manager can possibly do, so he can truly let us go and wish us only the best.

I hope all fans, no matter if they were for or against Dalglish’s sacking, can understand what the man gave to this team, not just in the distant past, but in the more recent past as well. He united the club after a period of great turmoil and disillusion. He brought us a trophy, three trips to Wembley, and some of the best performances individually and collectively that we’ve seen in years. But more than anything, Dalglish deserves the best in his future just as he wishes that on us. We may never be together as we once were, but Liverpool and its fans will always love Dalglish. I just hope he knows that.

Chelsea Football Club: The Next Fallen Giant?

By , February 18, 2011 3:50 pm

According to Frank Lampard, “It would be a disaster” if Chelsea don’t qualify for the Champions League. At this point in time, there is a fairly decent sized question mark over whether the West London club will indeed capture fourth place. With Tottenham grabbing fourth spot by securing a win last weekend while Chelsea could only manage a draw at Fulham, and Liverpool insistent on nipping at both their heels, nothing is a guarantee. Such is the shock of how far they’ve fallen that Lampard now insists it’s hugely important to reach the finals of the cup competitions they remain in, as well as keep their eye on the ball when it comes to finishing in the top four at the end of the season.

Champions No More - Frank Lampard Laments Chelsea's Downward Spiral

It is no surprise that the Chelsea and England midfielder is concerned about his team’s position. At the start of the season, Chelsea looked to run away with the title leaving the rest of the pack to chase after the remaining three spots for the Champions League. A massive shift in the last few months has seen Chelsea go from first to fifth. They have remained strong in the cup competitions, but their league form has taken a massive nosedive.

It may be a bit cheeky as a Liverpool supporter to say that Chelsea’s downward spiral began when Liverpool (with Fernando Torres) beat them 2-0 back in November. But since then, their record has been Won: 5, Drawn: 6, and Lost: 6. The dropping of 30 points in the matter of three months is enormous and has left Chelsea floundering for a Champions League place with twelve games left to play.

For all the talk this season of just how bad Liverpool have been, they are six points behind Chelsea in sixth place. Granted, Chelsea have a game in hand, but the gap is not as wide as it may seem based on Liverpool’s performance in the first half of the season.

It remains to be seen where each team will finish come May; such is the nature of this up and down season. And Chelsea may well surprise everyone and climb their way back to the top. Not to the top of the league, but at least into the top four.

Just a year ago, finishing seventh was a new low for Liverpool, and being out of the Champions League for the first time in years was a huge blow. It never occurred to most Liverpool fans that that was even a possibility until it happened. It signaled the end of a successful era, as well as the end of Rafael Benitez.

There seems to be a longstanding view from rival teams that Liverpool has an attitude of entitlement, and that the club feels its rightful place is firmly in the top four. Whether or not that’s true, that belief was shattered after finishing seventh.

But if other clubs can paint Liverpool with this entitlement brush, than surely they must be painted as well? For Frank Lampard to say it would be a disaster if Chelsea finished outside the top four, than it was undoubtedly a disaster for Liverpool when they did.

It was a tough season to endure, compounded by the following six months of negative transfer dealings, Roy Hodgson, and the worst run of games in over 50 years. That season truly set Liverpool back further than just being out the Champions League. The owners’ and manager’s relationship became untenable, the club sold one of their best players in Javier Mascherano, and they brought in players not nearly up to the level that Liverpool normally requires. All this combined with Roy Hodgson’s clueless undertaking at the helm eventually lead Fernando Torres to his Liverpool exit, under very acrimonious circumstances.

Fernando Torres Has So Far Failed To Live Up To Expectations In Chelsea Blue

The attitude toward Liverpool has remained one of “they deserve it,” “they’re not good enough,” “their players are rubbish.” In the span of a year and a half when the team barely missed out on a first placed finish, they went from hero to zero. Yet somehow you don’t get the same feeling when it comes to Chelsea. All you ever seem to hear is how Chelsea have the quality needed and shouldn’t be finishing outside the top four, it just wouldn’t be right if they did.

The press and Chelsea fans seem to think that because of having one of the most expensive and successful squads in recent years, they can do no wrong and that they too are now “entitled” to finish in at least the top four. Well Chelsea, welcome to Liverpool’s world, where nothing is a guarantee when it comes to football.

That’s not to say that Chelsea aren’t capable of finishing fourth. They are more than capable. But then, you could say, so were Liverpool.

Chelsea need to face facts just as Liverpool were forced to. They have a squad with multiple players perhaps having had their best days behind them, and this includes Fernando Torres. Whatever he’s done, £50 million was still an enormous amount for a striker about to turn 27 and with a massive history of injury problems. Chelsea were definitely looking to him to salvage their season with a cup win, but you have to say that outside the FA Cup, it’s not looking likely with the strength of teams in the Champions League this year.

Liverpool have had to endure a very difficult eighteen months, and with Fernando Torres leaving in January, things only seemed more bleak. But now there’s a new sense of renewed pride in the team that has been instilled by Kenny Dalglish. With new owners taking over in the fall, two new strikers signed in the January transfer window, and the youth team looking frighteningly good, the future seems quite bright for Liverpool and the hard times look to finally be over.

For Chelsea, the future is a little less certain. Ancelotti has the massive weight of expectations on his shoulders to deliver Chelsea back into the Champions League while he keeps one eye looking over his shoulder to see if Abramovich is ready to wield his axe. And with more financial losses announced, plus the gargantuan £70 million plus outlaid for players last month, it’s a wonder how Chelsea will cope with the Financial Fair Play rules. Without the bottomless bank account to recruit players for a team on the precipice of an immense overhaul, you wonder just how they will handle the seasons to come.

As Liverpool have had to put up with the disappointment that came with not being in the Champions League, so too will Chelsea if they don’t manage to finish fourth. Perhaps it is what they need to be reminded that no club is entitled to anything in football.

Women And Football: The Legacy Of Andy Gray

By , January 25, 2011 3:55 pm

I think it goes without saying that the decision to dismiss Andy Gray from Sky following his remarks regarding a female linesman was correct. The fact that he and his co-commentator, supposedly refined journalist Richard Keys, decided to have a dig about the young female referee was pretty shocking to the football world as a whole, and not just the women. It may be an exaggeration to say that their behavior sets women in sports back 50 years, but it might not be far off. Fortunately for the women in football today, there are enough people in power to not let two big-headed presenters get the best of all those women that have worked so hard to get where they are in such a male dominated arena.

The Smug Ones - Andy Gray And Richard Keys Mug For The Camera

I can pretty much guarantee that when 25-year-old Sian Massey took to the pitch at Molineux Stadium, she never envisioned herself becoming the catalyst for the sacking of one of Sky Sports’ most well known commentators. I imagine that she woke up that morning, ate a healthy breakfast in preparation for the game, had a cup of tea to relax, and then proceeded to go about her business on the field as an official for the match. Ninety minutes later and she was most likely headed home, feeling very confident in the fact that she did a fine job officiating a big Premier League contest. And to her dismay and bemusement, she awoke the next morning to find her name branded all over the print, online, and television media. Not for her laudable performance as an official, but because she is a woman, and according to Keys and Gray, women don’t know enough about football to be anywhere near it.

Understandably the chain of events that followed, first the suspension of Keys and Gray followed swiftly with Gray’s sacking, had very little to do with her in the end. She was merely the focal point for a couple of over-the-hill chauvinists who believe they are living in the 1950s, a time when it was perfectly acceptable to chastise women all in the name of being manly. And what makes the whole situation even more comical is that Keys and Gray, who are not well liked by many viewers, are often questioned about their knowledge of the offside rule. Something they ignorantly believed Massey was incapable of knowing simply because of her gender.

Kenny Dalglish, whose own daughter works in the field of football as a presenter, first on Sky Sports and now on ESPN, claimed he didn’t even know a woman was officiating until after the second half began. As the whole situation gathered momentum, the Liverpool boss was then questioned about his thoughts on the matter. Ever the intelligent diplomat, Dalglish simply replied, “I don’t know what Sky’s attitude is towards women, but certainly for me if you’re good at your job I don’t think your gender should be a restraint. If they’re there, then fine. As I said, I didn’t even realize until the second half that there was a woman running the line. It didn’t bother me in any way, shape, or form. The most important thing is how they see and interpret the laws of the game. The fact that we never knew tells you something. And, by the way, I never noticed if it was a guy on this side either.”

Dalglish has since poked fun at the situation by asking the press before his press conference, “Is it OK for a lady to be here? It doesn’t affect Sky?” His daughter Kelly followed suite and supplied her own quick-witted response to the inanity of Keys and Gray’s comments. She said on Twitter: “Phew am exhausted. Just read about something called ‘the offside rule.’ Too much for my tiny brain. Must be damaged from nail polish fumes.”

I can say as a woman who has played, watched, and analyzes football that I’ve never understood some men’s obsessions with constantly wanting to remind women of their inferiority. Many men, such as Keys and Gray, take some kind of pleasure in making others feel subordinate. Anyone with an ounce of self-confidence knows that the best way to make themselves feel better about their own self-image is not to degrade, but to enhance. With Keys and Gray, it seems a clear case of projecting their own inferior lack of knowledge onto someone else.

In all honesty, despite the prevalence of men like Richard and Andy in the world and especially the world of sports, I’ve rarely come across such antiquated attitudes in my personal life. As a kid, I played on official league teams with all girls, but spent the rest of my time playing with the boys. They always picked me for games and I was often one of the first to play. Was this because I was a girl? Was it because I wasn’t a boy? Or was it simply because I could play and no one gave a toss what I was as long as I contributed to the game?

This being the twenty-first century, I assumed people would be able to notice that one person can do anything just as good as another, no matter what their gender, race, or beliefs are. Perhaps it was naive of me to think that Keys and Gray’s sexist opinions were a thing of the past. I can only hope, along with the rest of the intelligent football community, that with Gray now out of the game for the foreseeable future, it will send a message that such behavior is unacceptable. That, and maybe Sian Massey can become a shining example of just what women can do in football when given the chance, despite what some people might say about them.

A Message From Liverpool To Manchester United: We’re Not So Different, You And I

By , October 19, 2010 1:14 pm

Wayne Rooney Eyes A Move Away From Old Trafford

They say that football, like most things in life, is cyclical. Peaks and troughs await the best and worst of teams, and just how long each one lasts is up to those involved. By no means is either a high or low guaranteed to be forever, which for some teams can ultimately be good, or for those at the top, a disaster.

Just ask Liverpool. This is the team that was at one time the best in England and the best in Europe. Consistently, year in and year out, they competed with the best players and best managers the game had to offer. It must also be pointed out that this period of utter dominance in the 70s and 80s was followed by a period of footballing wilderness in the 90s, at which point another team took over as the dominant force in England (more on them in a bit).

Even in the 2000s, Liverpool maintained their dominance in the “Top Four” domestically and continued to be commanding on the European stage. Under Rafa Benitez alone, Liverpool made it to four European semi-finals in six seasons, along with two finals, winning one of them. Although there were always some setbacks, Liverpool looked a great side in Benitez’s penultimate season by finishing second in the Premier League, their best finish in a long time.

But alas, Liverpool still find themselves in the position they are in now. From finishing second place two seasons ago, to seventh place last season, to currently in the relegation zone. It’s a harsh reality to observe after five years of steady highs and rebuilding, but the crash has hit and hit hard. The team now flounders after three years spent under poor ownership and previous and current miss-management. While there’s no one person to blame, whether it be the owners, Benitez, or Hodgson, the club has slid from its position of grace and is struggling to cope.

Then there’s Manchester United. A team so dominate in the 90s and 2000s that they climbed from winning seven division titles before that period to winning 11 in the last 17 years. Oddly enough, they won their 18th league title two years ago, equaling Liverpool’s all-time record, the same year Liverpool finished second at the end of an excellent season. Both teams finished the 2008-2009 season on a high, with a visible momentum for the future.

Eighteen months later and United look a completely different side, while, like Liverpool, selling their best players off and not bringing in adequate replacements. You can look at the negative impact owners such as George Gillett and Tom Hicks have had at Liverpool and see a very similar impact the Glazers have had at United. While they appeared to improve for a time under the American family, they have found themselves faltering after some notable sales and a heavy increase in debt.

This season has no doubt started poorly for the runners-up. A succession of dropped points to teams like Fulham, Everton, Bolton, Sunderland, and West Brom have left them stewing in mediocrity. No longer are they the fearsome team from the Northeast that used to put teams to the sword, but rather a side with a geriatric core and a defense resembling a sieve.

It’s not necessarily a game of “Let’s Blame The Owners,” but the debt that United now find themselves in, despite their large gate receipts and continued appearances in Europe, has to be worrying. And even with the incredible haul of £80 million for Ronaldo, whom have they replaced the prolific player with? The team has failed to attract stars of that caliber and started to become a team of unimpressive ‘value’ players. The likes of Valencia, Javier Hernandez, Michael Owen, and Gabriel Obertan have yet to impress at Old Trafford, and most importantly, they’ve yet to impress the only star player left in Wayne Rooney.

It’s sad news for those that follow United to hear of Rooney’s apparent desire to leave the club, following in the footsteps of his former strike partners Ronaldo and Tevez. The situation may change, but he appears out the door to the nearest trophy winning side in blue.

As Ferguson and Rooney remain at odds, it’s the first time the public have been privy to chinks in the United armor. While it may seem unfathomable to United fans to be protesting outside a courtroom to oust their current owners and languishing in the drop zone in desperate need of a turnaround, that’s exactly what Liverpool fans thought a year ago.

Goodbye Old Friend

By , July 12, 2010 1:12 pm

Spain Win The World Cup

The World Cup is an extraordinary 64 games in a four-week span. So much football in what seems like a massive span of time. Yet the competition went in a flash and suddenly a new winner is crowned and the glorious world tournament is over for another four years. There is a feeling of slight depression when saying goodbye to this old friend, that stops by but once every four years. They leave you in a state of awe, sadness, surprise, joy, and most of all, hungry for more. It’s a cruel, cruel way to come and go, but alas, this is what we love about the beautiful game’s most prestigious tournament.

You could say many things about this World Cup, but in the end, it was a tournament of firsts. South Africa became the first African nation to host a World Cup, and they put on a brilliant show. People all over the world were opened up to a new culture and vibrant people who were as enthusiastic about football as any other great footballing nation around. The crowds were full of energy, and supported their home countries, as well as the other African nations all the way to the bitter end when Ghana were overcome by Uruguay.

It was also the first time the host nation went out of the tournament at the group stage. It wasn’t for lack of trying, South Africa had a splendid start against Mexico and earned a well-deserved 1-1 draw, but they capitulated to a very strong Uruguay side. Their win against France was a nice way to go out, but may have been overlooked due to France’s ultimate display of atrociousness.

Spain, the victors, proudly walked away with the World Cup trophy for the first time in its nation’s history. Not only did they win the final, but they made it to the semifinals for the first time as well. And not only that, but they also were the first European team to win the cup outside of Europe. To go on such a run as they did, and beat Germany in the semifinal, you had to think this was their tournament to lose. That being said, if the Dutch had overcome this resilient Spanish side, they would have also been declared winners for the first time in their history as well.

Wesley Sneijder Dejected After Holland Lose The Final

The World Cup 2010 was not just a time for firsts, but also for surprises. Massive footballing nations bowed out of the competition at much earlier stages than anyone had anticipated. And it’s not even to say they were beaten by far better teams. One of the major stories at this year’s World Cup has to be the way many teams performed well below par. You could name a handful of countries including favorites Brazil and Argentina, as well as England, France, Italy, Ivory Coast, and Portugal that crashed out. The stars on these teams all have a lot to answer for as many of them left the tournament embarrassed and disgraced.

It wasn’t all roses, though. France deserves some kind of medal for being the most deplorable side in attendance. Raymond Domenech should be ashamed of himself and his team for putting on such a ridiculous World Cup campaign. You could argue they had no right to be there after Henry’s “Hand of God,” but to play their games with such a poor spirit and lack of respect was a shame. Many other countries would have been happy to take France’s place.

Only A Yellow? Poor Refereeing Calls Made The Headlines In South Africa

There’s no way to talk about this World Cup without mentioning the officiating. The refereeing has got to be one of the most abysmal displays at a World Cup to date. What started off strong in the first few group games slowly turned into a nightmare for the tournament’s referees and FIFA. Too many red cards and important, game-changing plays missed by the officials cost teams dearly when the stakes were incredibly high. Lampard’s well over-the-line goal and Tevez’s clear offside have to be two of the biggest mistakes. And of course, who could forget the perfectly good goal-that-never-was for the USA against Slovenia to win the game 3-2. The USA still topped their group, but it made their last game a must-win in the end. The sad thing is, despite these easily correctable offenses, Sepp Blatter and his gang of misfits don’t seem intent on fixing things anytime soon. Knowing them, we’ll be watching the ball cross the line and waved off at the next World Cup in 3-D, but still with no goal-line technology.

I suppose football wouldn’t be football but for all the ups and downs. When all is said and done, it was an engrossing tournament. Full of shocks, headlines, referring decisions, star names (new and old), and in the end, it exploded with footballing wonder as only the World Cup can produce. It’s a shame we have to wait so long to meet again, but as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Goodbye old friend, until we meet again in Brazil.

Why Holland Could (Should) Go On To Win Their First World Cup

By , July 2, 2010 1:23 pm

Dirk Kuyt and Mark van Bommel Celebrate Their Win

Holland beat Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals. A masterful display, some might say. Not many people had picked Holland to progress through to the semifinals, but there you have it; the beautiful game at its best, with all kinds of twists and turns. What made the game great was not just that Holland won, but also the way that they won. The Dutch were down 1-0 only ten minutes in against the mighty Brazil, the team ranked number one in the world and favorites to win the competition for a 6th time. Most teams would have capitulated and Brazil would have wiped the floor with them, but Holland never gave up.

Although Wesley Sneijder was rightfully chosen as man of the match, the Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg must be given a huge amount of credit. When Brazil was on the front foot after Robinho’s goal gave them the early lead, Kaká took a wicked curling shot from just outside the box, which Stekelenburg parried. A brilliant, and perhaps game changing save. At 1-0 down, Holland always had a chance to come back. At 2-0, you’d feel that Brazil was on their way to the semis.

Let’s be honest, some amount of luck fell the Netherlands’ way. Sneijder wanted to take credit for the excellent ball he swung in that nestled into the back of the net to make it 1-1, but it was the slight touch off of Felipe Melo’s head that deceived the goalkeeper. The midfielder unwittingly let Holland back into the game, and in the end, they really made their own luck. Suddenly the momentum switched allegiance. Holland attacked with intent and Brazil, for the first time in the tournament, looked afraid.

Wesley Sneijder Scores The Winning Goal For Holland

In the 67th minute, the floodgates opened for Holland. With another good cross and a pristine header by Dutch maestro Sneijder, Holland came back from 1-0 down to take the lead 2-1. Grolsch must have been hitting the roof of every bar in Holland. And within six minutes, Brazil fell apart. Melo fouled Robben, and in his frustration stomped on the winger’s thigh to earn himself a shiny red card and an early shower. After his assist to give Brazil the opening goal, Melo went from hero to villain by first committing the own goal, then getting a red card and leaving his trailing team a man down. He is perhaps the most hated man in Brazil at the moment.

The last 15 minutes of the game were tense, to say the least. But the Dutch kept their cool, and Brazil were the ones to capitulate in the end; tears of joy from Holland, tears of sorrow for Brazil. It has to be said that although they were favorites, they didn’t come up against a team as strong as Holland before the quarterfinals. North Korea put up a noble fight, the Ivory Coast played too cautiously overall, and Portugal, with the exception of their 7-0 thumping of North Korea, looked a dim version of the team they should be. Chile looked bright in the group stages, but Brazil easily wiped them aside. Holland, however, blocked their paved road to the semis by putting on a rugged and heartfelt display.

Brazilian Playmaker Kaka Walks Off The Field Dejected

This is a quarterfinal win that speaks volumes about this Dutch team and the World Cup overall. They are the country that almost every football fan can agree are the best team to have never actually won a World Cup. Winning from a position of being behind against a team like Brazil is brilliant enough, but Holland must see this as their golden opportunity to finally win the prize that has eluded their talented team for decades. Sneijder, who has been a revelation for his country, scored the winner and is probably counting the minutes until he can take the pitch once more next week. Holland have the talent, the tactics, the confidence, and all the momentum going forward. They not only could win this World Cup, they absolutely should win it.

Holland Supporters Celebrate

Two World Wars And One World Cup: Is The Rivalry Real, Or Merely An Apparition?

By , June 25, 2010 2:45 pm

England v Germany: Will It Be World War III?

An old rivalry will spark into life on Sunday, June 27, 2010, as England prepare to take on Germany in the first knockout round of the World Cup. To say there’s some history between the two countries is a gross understatement. But when faced with the cold hard facts of bygone days, the rivalry does tend to lean more to one side than the other. The feeling the English have of a genuine enmity with the Germans comes from a place far deeper than football, because the so-called football feud is one of illusion rather than pure truth.

This is not to say that the heated antagonism between the two nations when they meet on the football pitch is unfounded. Since the World Cup final in 1966, in which England won 4-2, the matches between the sides have been hotly debated, contested, and analyzed. The thing to remember is not just that England beat Germany that night, to win their first (and so far only) World Cup, but rather what has happened since. Germany have appeared in 11 major tournament finals, and won five of them, including three world cups. In contrast, England have appeared in two semi-finals. It’s not worth pointing out exactly how those ended.

That being said, England must be given credit for always believing in their side during these encounters. It’s not as if they haven’t beaten Germany since 1966, or at least come close. The 1990 World Cup semi-final was indelibly etched into the minds of the English as an “almost there moment” due the dramatic penalty misses from Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle. The match was also famous for a photograph that encapsulated not only a moment in time, but also a decade of change across England. The sight of Paul Gascoigne crying after being shown a second yellow card of the tournament, effectively forcing him to miss the final had England reached it, seeped into the national consciousness and created an emphatic rise in the levels of support the country showed its team. With his England shirt pulled over his mouth and tears streaming down his cheeks, the player affectionately known as Gazza helped remind the fans what this game means to their country.

Paul Gascoigne Sheds Tears For England

England and Germany were to meet again through the decade, but it wasn’t until 2001 that England finally lived up to the hype surrounding the antagonism. A 5-1 mauling of Germany in Munich, with little Michael Owen getting a hat-trick, proved to be another twist in the tale. As both teams eventually qualified for World Cup 2002, the result meant a lot more to England. Yet still, while the game’s full time score was intimidating, it brought England no closer to glory. It did, however, give England something to be proud of and headlines reading, “Don’t Mention The Score” proudly circulated the nation reminding a new generation of the bitter history between these two countries.

Perhaps now is the time, South Africa the place, for England to prove why this rivalry is indeed a rivalry. After years of hard fought battles and generations of both countries irreversibly affected by two world wars, football matches may seem insignificant. But as the world has progressed in the last 65 years and peace formed across Europe, these games remain as a symbol for the two sets of fans. And leave it to the English to remind us at every turn just how much these games symbolize a historic moment in time. According to an England supporter at the tournament, “This World Cup is exactly like the second world war,” he chuckled. “The French surrender early, the US turn up late, and we’re left to deal with the bloody Germans.” If they are indeed dealt with, it will send shock waves of the past across England and the country may well be on their way to re-living the glory they witnessed in 1966.

Beyond The Hand Of God

By , June 23, 2010 6:22 pm

Diego Maradona, Manager of Argentina

I have to say, I like this Argentina team. I’ve never been a particular supporter or proponent of the Argentineans before, but something about this team merits my attention and admiration. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I happened to be in a bar full of football supporters, from all different countries, when Argentina had their do or die qualifying match against Peru back in October of 2009. The energy was electric and the game was incredible to watch. Astonishingly, Argentina had not done well in qualifying up to this point. They left it late into the rounds before finally securing their, some might say “rightful place” in the World Cup. The game was played under heavy rain and Argentina remained at 1-1 into the dying minutes. Commentators were practically writing obituaries of Argentina manager Diego Maradona as they scrutinized the last few moments of the match. As the rain poured down in injury time, 36 year-old Martin Palermo of Boca Juniors sprang into action and scored the winning goal. While it was not the match that completely clinched qualification, it was a match they could not afford to drop points in and the rest is history.

Nine months later, Argentina arrived in South Africa ready to be taken very seriously. But before they even had a chance to kick a ball in anger, pundits were writing them off. ‘Do so at your peril,’ I thought. The obvious choices of Spain, Brazil, and Germany were on the lips of journalists as favorites to win, but I believed that there was something special brewing in this Argentina side. Despite their somewhat wobbly qualification, they endured and most likely cemented an incredible team spirit through their trials en route to South Africa. And while no one ever completely writes off Argentina, there was less confidence in this team than in previous years.

Many saw Diego Maradona as a liability rather than an asset. Not Argentinean supporters of course, who believe the man is God incarnate, but rather the objective football fan. Understandably, Argentina sees Maradona with rose-colored glasses, but even they can admit the man has not had the most illustrious past. Despite his football acumen, his struggles with drugs and weight have hit the headlines more in the past 15 years than his playing prowess. But all credit to him; in the last few years he cleaned himself up, had an operation to help with his weight gain issues, and re-emerged in Argentina as a respected football pundit. He was handed the illustrious reigns of managing his country in 2008, and no one in Argentina would think to argue the choice.

The man knows glory, and lucky for him, he has a squad brimming with talent. To say, “the next Maradona” is now studying under him wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Lionel Messi, at the young age of 22 (he turns 23 tomorrow) is perhaps the most prolific player in the world since El Diego. His touch is mesmerizing and after a season where he scored 34 goals for Barcelona, no one would dare disagree with his standing as best in the world. And yet, Argentina still has an embarrassment of riches to call on other than the pint sized forward. You could start with the man Maradona famously used when describing his team, “My team is Mascherano and ten others.” The combative midfielder doesn’t posses the grace and skill of some his compatriots, but what he lacks in style, he makes up for in pure aggression. Add to that Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Maxi Rodriguez, and Martin Dimichelis, and you’ve got one good looking squad. Maradona was so blessed he was even able to leave behind veterans Zanetti and Cambiasso and take instead Juan Veron and Martin Palermo.

Now we come back full circle to Palermo. Some were shocked at the player’s inclusion, even after his extraordinary goal in qualifying. As one of only six players playing their club football in Argentina, Palermo was a man Maradona was not leaving behind. And yesterday, against Greece in their final group match of the World Cup, Maradona was proved right. Rather than sure things up at the back with a 1-0 lead in tact, Maradona put Palermo in at the end of the game to go out and score another. He did just that. Palermo poached a goal and in the celebrations after, his entire team came running over to him. Maradona jumped into the arms of one of his staff on the sidelines, unable to contain his excitement.

This moment epitomized Argentina so far in this World Cup. They are a unit, banded together and there for each other on the pitch. Maradona’s wild enthusiasm and the love he shows for his players go beyond the typical relationship of a manager and his squad. Maradona didn’t pick players based solely on reputation and name, he picked the players he believed in with the conviction that they will return the favor with performances. And not necessarily performances that are only sensational blowouts, but performances with heart. This is the first team in South Africa to look as if they are truly enjoying themselves. And a lot of the credit must be given to Maradona, the man many believed to be the team’s major liability. Before the tournament, I believed Argentina would win the World Cup, or at the very least go far, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Now I know. It’s not just the talent, but the spirit Maradona and his 23 men have that will see this team reach great heights, in this World Cup and beyond.

Is England The Future France?

By , June 21, 2010 11:39 am

Fabio Capello and Raymond Domenech: They Could Be Twins

Two group games into the World Cup and France have fantastically imploded for all the world to see. Perhaps it’s fitting considering their path to the finals in the first place. To say Les Bleus’ qualification was ‘questionable’ is an understatement. Thierry Henry’s now infamous “Le Main De Dieu” (Hand of God) against the Republic of Ireland was shameful. Even French newspaper Le Monde titled their headline “Blues Relieved, Irish Disgusted.” Yet, Henry didn’t seem to feel any shame as he came out publicly and admitted to the use of his hand that led to the goal for France, subsequently allowing them to qualify in place of Ireland. Sadly, this is a player who was revered around the world as one of the best in the history of the game. With one incident, he marred his good name forever. But at least he got France qualified. The French are the only ones to forgive him so far.

Fast-forward eight months and France’s karma has kicked in. Their first match, while not a total disaster, was a toothless draw against Uruguay. This was the first of many dull opening round games, but as 2006 runners up, people expected more. In the second game, France began to unravel. Another awful display led to a 2-0 loss to Mexico. The difference in body language between the sides, epitomized by the two managers, was astounding. Mexico’s manager Javier Aguirre was demonstrative on the sidelines, cheering his players on, congratulating their efforts at every turn as they played admirably against France. On the other end of the spectrum, French manager Raymond Domenech cut a lonely and uninterested figure on the sideline. He stood frozen, arms crossed, blank expression on his face. No effort was made to inspire his team, it almost felt as if he didn’t care whether they won or lost, conceded or scored. The team was dreadful. What followed was a break down of epic proportions. The squad refused to train, France striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home after a profanity filled tirade against Domenech, and France’s team director, Jean-Louis Valentin, resigned. Before driving away after he angrily walked out on the French squad, Valentin added, “As for me, it’s over. I’m leaving the federation. I’m sickened and disgusted.” That really says it all.

England, on the other hand, do not look like descending into this kind of chaos, but many similarities can be drawn between the two sides, much to the England fans’ irritation. In regard to England’s latest group game against Algeria, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a worse performance. The image of former England and Liverpool player Steve McManaman, one of the panelists covering the match, slamming his head against the desk after the final whistle was something to behold. To claim the team lacked inspiration, creativity, passion, and talent would be a massive understatement. They looked an empty shell of a football team, with no idea as to what they were doing there. Most predicted an easy victory for England, as Algeria is not a team that should be feared by players of England’s magnitude. The result couldn’t be further from that assumption. The England squad even used the word ‘fear’ in the aftermath of a shockingly dull 0-0 draw. Fear? What exactly were they scared of? These are players who play for Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool. They’ve played in Champions League finals, won league titles, and many can be named with the best in the world in their respective positions. And yet they were scared of Algeria, a team that should have been swept aside with consummate ease, especially after a disappointing draw with the United States. This was their opportunity to regain confidence and propel themselves easily into the round of 16. But rather than resemble the great team they are quite capable of being with players like Rooney, Gerrard, and Lampard, they looked like… well, France.

Capello had a lot to answer for after the game against the USA, but even more to answer for after Algeria. He once again refused to use Joe Cole, probably England’s most incisive player when it comes to unlocking defenses with sheer creativity. Instead, he opted for Gareth Barry in the middle. A player I am still not convinced should be there, and shoved Gerrard out to the left. But rather than allow the formation to shift from a rigid 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 with Gerrard just behind Rooney, where he is devastatingly dangerous, he was forced wide and had no impact on the game. Neither did any of his teammates. Wayne Rooney thrives on having boundless energy from the first to the last whistle, and chasing back to defend is something he is renowned for. By the closing stages against Algeria, he barely walked back to defend, let alone run. And what of Capello? He stood frozen on the sideline, arms crossed, blank expression on his face. He made no effort to inspire his team or look for solutions to shake them out of their slumber. Instead, he resembled Domenech and his team resembled France.

But there is still hope. While France has dissolved into turmoil, England is attempting to band together and pick themselves up. Largely due to the USA’s unlucky draw against Slovenia, they now hold their fate in their own hands for Wednesday’s third group stage match. With a win, they become the England team everyone believes they are. Anything less, and their future has an undeniable feel of French ‘je ne sais quoi.’

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