Category: Soccer

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.’

The Bad, The Bad, And The Ugly… So Far

By , June 17, 2010 4:06 pm

Australia's Tim Cahill Sees Red

The Irritating Vuvuzelas

As the second round of the group stage begins, let’s take a moment to reflect on what’s happened so far.  While it may not be the goal-fest fans were hoping for, the World Cup flower is starting to bloom to the delight of viewers all over the world.  Games are opening up, forwards are fulfilling their roles, and fantasy teams all over the Internet are beginning to take shape.  That being said, there have been some downright atrocious elements infecting this beautiful tournament.  Errors, cards, and noisy plastic contraptions have conspired to ruin the competition before it really began.  Either way, the World Cup is finally looking like the World Cup with compelling stories coming from every angle.

I think it’s better to start with the bad (and ugly) so we can continue on a high note.  A part of the tournament that has gone, you could say, not unnoticed would be the now infamous Vuvuzelas.  While they may be part of a proud tradition in South Africa, the remainder of the world would prefer to have them destroyed, sooner rather than later.  The major complaint from viewers is that they feel as if a swarm of bees is accompanying their World Cup experience.  Not so bad if you’re a bee keeper, but the World Cup is making no new friends with these obnoxious blowers in its stands.  There are a number of movements to expel the horns from games, but to the chagrin of many fans, it’s doubtless any will be successful.

This is sadly a World Cup that has so far been marred by costly goalkeeping errors. Poor Robert Green had to seal his name into football history, and not by aiding his team to a second World Cup, but by making an atrocious howler in their first, and extremely important game against the USA. Pubs around England gasped in horror as the ball bobbled over the line, and the man now pinned with the headline “Hand Of Clod” has a lot of making up to do. Lucky for him, other keepers followed suite. Just as the U.S. can thank Green for their fortuitous draw, Slovenia can thank Algerian keeper Faouzi Chaouchi for flapping at the ball that led to their solitary goal. Rather than take responsibility for the blunders, the managers and players are blaming the Jabulani ball for the mistakes. At least Adidas have stepped forward to defend themselves and bluntly remind the teams that they’ve had ample time to practice with the lightweight ball, and while altitude may be a factor in its behavior, it is by no means the ball’s fault that goals were conceded. You stick it to them, Adidas.

What may be the ugliest part of the tournament so far is neither the buzzing vuvuzelas nor the slippery ball, but the enormous amount of yellow and red cards referees have been flashing all over the place. I think overall the referring has been top quality, but the red cards shown so far have ruined a number of games, and a few were far from deserved. Tim Cahill from Australia comes to mind. His foul was innocuous, at worst, and his utter bewilderment at the red he saw after was completely understandable. Australia were already 2-0 down, but their chances of coming back against a strong German team were nigh on impossible with Cahill’s sending off. South Africa’s loss to Uruguay was tragic enough after the host nation earned an impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico in their opening game without the sending off of their goalkeeper. Again, a very harsh call which essentially killed the match along with South Africa’s hopes of qualifying beyond their group. Player error and lack of goals are part and parcel of the game, but poor calls have a way of destroying a game like nothing else can.

Group H And How They’ve Changed The Tournament… For The Better

By , June 16, 2010 1:17 pm

Switzerland Midfielder Gelson Fernandes Scores The Only Goal To Defeat Spain

It’s midday and so ends the final game of the first round of the group stage in the World Cup; a game that has completely turned the competition on its head.  No one expected it, no one predicted it, and I doubt many can even believe it.  Spain, 2nd in the world rankings, a team heavily favored to win the tournament, were humbled 1-0 by Switzerland, a team with no real recognizable players and ranked a lowly 24th coming into this game.  Shock, awe, and bewilderment surrounded this final round one game as Spain now have it all to do in their remaining two group stage matches.

All credit must go to Switzerland in the end.  They defended astonishingly well despite Spain having 74% of the possession.  I’m not one to focus solely on stats, but the results of this game are something to note.  Spain had a walloping 25(5) shots (on goal) to Switzerland’s 9(2), the Swiss committed 19 fouls and collected four yellow cards in their attempts to thwart The Red Fury, and Spain and Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas had but one save to make.  It’s also worth mentioning how Switzerland have an excellent record of not conceding a goal since the previous World Cup, and once more extended that record today.  Watching the game as a Spain supporter must have been torture as they produced an attacking display to rival the best in the world, but for all their mesmerizing movement, talent on the pitch, and plethora of chances, a goal eluded them in the end.

The kickoff previous to this enthralling match was between the other Group H contenders, Honduras and Chile.  These two Central and South American teams, respectfully, were pretty evenly favored at the start.  And while most viewers who weren’t fans of either team watched the match merely to kill time until Spain kicked off, this ended up being quite the exciting encounter.  Chile took it to Honduras from the first whistle, and never stopped going at them throughout the match.  Chile scored a somewhat lucky goal, not unlike many other countries so far in the tournament, but one thing they did no one else has yet to do was continue to attack and aggressively achieve the win.  I want to say a special thank you to both Honduras and Chile for finally giving this competition what it needed: a desire to win. I’m speaking to you Portugal, Ivory Coast, and England.  These two teams went out onto the pitch accepting nothing less than a victory and they put everything into the game to make sure of it.  This particular World Cup has yet to win over many viewers, casual and die-hard alike, due to the fact that the games have been far too cagey.  Teams are so petrified of losing that they forget why they’re in the finals in the first place: to win.

That being said, every team in Group H proved why the World Cup is such an intense and fascinating tournament.  Just when it looked as though predictability would be the big winner in South Africa, a game or two comes along to smack a little sense into the contest.  And that’s exactly what the competition needed at this point.  Some of the games have been so tepid that they’ve lulled many into ennui already.  Granted, it is still only the group stage, but for football fans and especially for casual viewers of the game, we demand action, as these are supposedly the most dexterous players and teams in the world.  As one door shuts, another one opens.  The first round of the group stage ends, and we can all agree that it held few surprises, but just as we assumed this would be the way forward, four teams made quite sure it wouldn’t be.

A Tale Of Two Countries

By , June 14, 2010 4:28 pm

England Keeper Green Makes A Howler

Team USA Celebrates The Draw

Where to begin when discussing the England vs. USA World Cup match. For a game with few goals and overall little action from each team on the pitch, there could easily be a novella written in response to the game, which enraptured so many from both sides of the pond. That the game induced such a polarized response from each country was astounding. What was seen as a massive disappointment in the English camp for not producing a win they should have easily attained was conversely seen as a monumental triumph to the USA. How can two such disparate opinions be used to reflect the same 1-1 draw? In an attempt to answer this, let’s take a look at both sides.

For England, before the game even began and the team lineups were announced, there were definitely some raised eyebrows. Two things struck me immediately. One, where was David James? I think it’s safe to say that while James has had his “calamitous” moments for England, he’s still the most experienced and trust worthy keeper they have, surely the best bet to be in goal in what was always going to be a cagey match. Instead, Robert Green, a very good keeper despite having a somewhat mixed season at West Ham, was the starter between the posts. An interesting choice by Capello, but not a total shock. And two, young winger James Milner was on the left wing, a position I questioned who would fill before the start of the game. Despite the piqued interest the lineup brought, I decided to have faith in the manager, and especially applauded his choice of Milner over Joe Cole. While Joe Cole is one of England’s most creative players, he’s been injured off and on for almost two seasons and Milner has shown vast improvements in his game over the same period of time.

Even with a strong lineup, there was doubt in the team selection, and trust me, the English don’t need much of a reason to have doubts about their team, so much so that winning the World Cup wouldn’t quell them all. But even with those doubts, you felt a sense of confidence in Capello and his strategy. Conversely, you had the USA team. And, unlike England, the USA doesn’t need much of a reason to get behind their team. They felt confident in their manager, Bob Bradley, who proved that the USA can not only compete in the world of football, they can win, as their infamous win over Spain showed. Nevertheless, England were still highly favored to get the job done and after four minutes, with influential captain Steven Gerrard scoring, you felt it would be a day of vindication for England and a way to silence their own supporters’ ever-present doubts.

Five minutes before half time and once again, it was the England fans who felt vindicated as Green committed a howler to end all howlers. He fumbled what should have been a simple save and the USA went delirious with joy. The game continued for another 50 minutes, with neither team making much of a push to win and it ended in a 1-1 stalemate. England, perhaps as usual, started the game brightly with a lot of cut and thrust, as well as an early goal. They ended it, perhaps as usual, with a whimper rather than a bang. Despite Green’s massive mistake, England made no real effort to win. Golden boy Wayne Rooney was nonexistent, Milner was substituted after 30 minutes for being ineffective, and Ledley King came off injured at the half. A great wave of disappointment certainly washed over the England camp, even though they got what some would see as a respectable result.

On the other side, the USA celebrated as if they had just won the World Cup. They defended well, created some chances, and in the very American tradition of seeing the glass half full, they saw their team’s lucky draw as proof they can come up against the best teams in the world and walk away with a result. In some ways, I can see their point. This is a team who not so long ago were always amongst the lowest rated in the world, yet they recently beat Spain and now have an important draw against England in the World Cup under their belt. All credit to them feeling a great sense of accomplishment, but I’m afraid this really wasn’t much more than England living up to their reputation of bottling it when the pressure is on.

On The Eve Of The World Cup

By , June 11, 2010 6:32 pm

This morning I woke up with a sense of anticipation. I didn’t celebrate Christmas as a child, but I imagine this is the feeling kids have when they awake on that winter holiday. But today, the moment my brain re-entered consciousness, the emotions rushed over me as I realized… tomorrow, the World Cup begins. The day before an event like the World Cup is almost greater than the actual tournament. Everything is before you, clean and hermetically sealed in its pretty pre-tournament package, where dreams can still manifest and anything is possible.

Four years is a long time, and yet if feels as if no time has passed since the last World Cup. Germany 2006 was a grand competition, full of excitement and controversy.  In fact, it probably comprised the most controversial moment in recent sports history as Zinedine Zidane gave new meaning to the phrase “use your head” in a sporting context. The tournament began with a bang as host Germany’s Philipp Lahm scored a blinder to let everyone know how and why this is the biggest event on the planet. That was the moment I woke up and knew just how special this tournament is.

After an immensely heated and controversial final, I took all the pleasure I experienced over the previous four weeks and locked it into my memory. “Until next time” I told myself. Next time is finally here and once again I get to escape my life and enjoy something so visceral that there are no words to describe it. Granted, this is how I feel about football in general. My club team brings fourth a fire from inside me that I didn’t even know existed until I met them. I love, I hate, I cry, I smile, I scream, I cheer, I throw things. Over the years, many an innocent pillow has been hurled violently at the TV. But for every pillow, there’s been ten times as many jubilant wails. The pure elation, as mentioned earlier, is utterly indescribable.

The last World Cup revealed to me that this feverish enthusiasm was not, as I had previously thought, reserved solely for my club team, but for the country I supported as well. Sadly, they met their World Cup maker in the form of Portugal in the quarter-finals. After an intense penalty shoot-out in which I was poised rigidly in front of the television, I fell to my knees and began to cry. I don’t cry often, and I never dreamed I would be the type of person to cry over sports, but there I found myself, alone and shedding tears for a country that I loved and whose dreams I just witnessed shatter to pieces.

Again, fast forward four years. Despite my own life changing dramatically, the love I felt for my team the day they were knocked out is still very prevalent and raring to go. The butterflies in my stomach continue to flap their wings every time I think about the moment the first whistle is blown in South Africa. My team don’t kick off until Saturday, but tomorrow I will be tuned in and shut off to the outside world as soon as the tournament tells me it’s time to begin. I arose this morning with a fraught feeling of anxiety, and continued my day wondering what the next four weeks will bring to my life. Tonight, as I lay my head on a pillow that will more than likely be launched at the TV in the coming weeks, I can rest easy. Rest easy in the knowledge that I am on the precipice of witnessing the greatest sporting event of all time, with the whole of the world watching over my shoulder. This is the feeling that I want to hold on to, and the one I will remember fondly as the next World Cup rears its beautiful head in another mere four years time.

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