South Africa – Ready or Not?

May 1, 2010

Yesterday marked the six week mark before the start of the 19th world cup – the first world cup to be hosted in Africa.

Though FIFA, publicly, are showing 100% support for the tournament, one can’t help but wonder if, behind closed doors, they are regretting their decision to have South Africa host the cup. South Africa, you will recall in 2000, controversially lost the vote for the 2006 cup to Germany prompting Sepp Blatter to install a system of rotation amongst the confederations. Like so many Blatter initiatives this system was short lived and suited his personal agenda. With 2002 already scheduled for Asia and 2006 for Germany, Blatter decided 2010 would be Africa’s turn and South Africa outpolled Morocco for the honour.

But since being awarded the tournament there seems to have been nothing but problems for the host nation.

Like many hosts there was a necessity to upgrade some stadiums and build completely new others. And it is this rebuilding which has caused major head aches. Late last year there was a construction strike and it was made public that the majority of workers were on a monthly wage of just 2500 Rand. That’s about $NZ450…. Scandalous given the amount of money that the world cup is expected to generate. It seems that the stadiums are now complete, but in some cases there are severe problems with the playing surface, none more so than at Nelspruit, the venue of New Zealands match with the current world champions Italy.  The pitch in Nelspruit was re-laid again in Mid March, less than three months before the start of the tournament. It continues to be a problem. Fortunately the All Whites match is the second of just four scheduled for Nelspruit and hopefully won’t be too damaged before we play.

Further negative publicity arose surrounding the eviction of many homeless from the cities and into specially built shanty towns. The most infamous of these is in Blikkiesdorp, Cape Town, where it is rumoured that as many as 15,000 are living in an area designed for 1,500 families. The “accommodation” is little more than corrugated iron huts, which residents say are worse than townships created by the white government during apartheids reign. Similarly, in Pretoria – the administrative capital – thousands are living in squalor whilst the government builds new stadiums. In the suburb of Mamelodi East as many as 6,000 live in shacks without electricity or running water. No prizes for guessing which race these South Africans are…… There have been threats that there will be heavy protests and chaos during the world cup, to highlight to the world the problems of South Africa today.

 

Unlike previous world cup hosts, South Africa doesn’t have the transport infrastructure to cope with an influx of tourists. The main centre for the cup is Johannesburg which hosts 15 matches whilst 12 further matches are being played in nearby Pretoria & Rustenburg.  Yet travel between the three cities is very difficult. Pretoria is just 40 minutes away but according to many tourist websites travellers are advised not to use local trains and taxis are often unroadworthy and dangerous. To this end the City of Johannesburg promised a new train system linking the two cities – the Gautrain. Typically, whilst this seems a great idea, it won’t be complete until 2011. Parts of it are complete but not the most important parts…those which can transport fans to matches. The only way to be sure of getting from one city to another is to hire a car.

And of course South Africa is famous for its level of crime….levels which it seems have had an impact on the volume of tourists making their way to the country for the tournament. Despite FIFA adding a further sales phase and reducing ticket prices for locals, as many as 27 of the 64 matches still have tickets available for sale, some embarrassingly so. If you are still considering attending New Zealands second world cup, you won’t have a problem getting tickets to our matches I can assure you!

At the end of the day though we are sure to witness a great tournament. It promises to be the most open world cup in many years, and there’s nothing quite like coffee & toast at 4 in the morning watching a quality game of football, is there? We may witness a great football tournament but the chances are that it won’t be running too smoothly outside the stadiums

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Messi!

April 16, 2010

When we talk about the greatest players the world has ever seen, the same old familiar names continually crop up…..Puskas, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele, Maradona, Beckanbauer. Then fans add their personal favourites….Hoddle, Charlton, Dalglish, Larsson, Eusebio, Best etc   Invariably it comes down to the two number tens. Are you a Pele fan? Or a Maradona supporter? A Brazilian and an Argentine ……when it came to announcing the player of the century, even FIFA wimped out of making a decision and made them joint champions. Pele or Maradona? We have all got an opinion – the hard part is keeping Maradona’s off field antics out of the debate.

Now there is a player on the verge of making that duopoly, a triumvirate. In the space of five days last week we watched as two of Europes great clubs were reduced to a shambles by a player known as “the flea”.  Lionel Messi tore Arsenal to shreds in their champions league quarterfinal. Four goals of the highest quality. Messi’s movement, his vision, his touch, his whole game, were out of this world. Arsenal simply didn’t have an answer. To his credit, Arsene Wenger said as much after the game, likening Messi to a playstation footballer – that’s where one player seems to score all the goals and makes all the great runs.

Following the Arsenal slaughter our attentions were drawn to El Classico – Real Madrid v Barcelona ….and the supposed mouth watering subplot of the two greatest players in the world today. What a mismatch. Messi was sublime again, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo was virtually anonymous. In his first decent run he weaved past a defender saw the line of the penalty area and sank to his knees looking for a penalty….. Messi meanwhile was running amuck up front. His quick thinking and a wonderful one-two with Xavi resulted in “the flea” jinking behind a defender and putting the ball beyond Casillas and giving Barca the lead, a lead they would never look like giving up. Like Arsenal, Real just couldn’t handle Messi’s off the ball runs, his timing, his movement.  Its not the first time the two have faced each other – famously last seasons champions league final saw Messi – all 5’ 7” of him – score with a header as Barca won 2-0 against Ronaldo’s Manchester United. Ronaldo was missing in action that day too. Put simply there is no comparison between the two.

Messi is, of course, the current world player of the year, after being ranked second in each of the last two years and is streets ahead of whoever is considered second now.  But is he good enough to join the other number 10s? Well, not yet. Though he has proven himself at club level and in the strongest league in the world (the Champions League), he has still to shine at a world cup. Not only shine at a world cup, but win it for his country. When we recall Pele, we remember the 17 year old scoring for fun in 1958 and the star man in what is arguably the greatest team ever, Brazil of 1970. When we think back to Maradona, we recall a man who won the 1986 world cup almost single handedly and somehow inspired a poor Argentine side to the Italia 90 final. Magnificent achievements! Both those players played in four world cups.

Messi is just 22. He played in Germany and could potentially play in a further four world cups.  In 2006 he became the youngest player to represent Argentina at a world cup, and being the youngest scorer in the tournament, he was also the sixth youngest scorer of all time. He made three appearances at the tournament but was amazingly left on the bench as Argentina were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

It’s the great tournaments that define the truly great players. South Africa in June seems to be beckoning for Messi, but his country’s team are struggling under Maradona’s stewardship. We are looking at the most wide open world cup for a long time. Spain are as good as they have ever been, England (as always!) fancy themselves, and we can be certain that Germany and Brazil will be a threat as they always are.  There’s also the suggestion that Ghana, Nigeria & Ivory Coast will have some say as to who wins the trophy. Argentina may have struggled through qualifying but they will no doubt be a threat. If Messi can transfer his Barcelona form to his national team……if Maradona can build his team around him……we might well see Messi really stamp his authority as one the truly great players of all time.

Its almost frightening to think that he is still five years from his peak.


Who’s a Kiwi?

April 2, 2010

New Zealand’s qualification for this winter’s world cup has thrown up an interesting and probably unexpected problem – that of players suddenly interested in playing for New Zealand when they otherwise might not have.

There are three that spring to mind – Daniel, Tommy Smith and Winston Reid. Reid of course was born in New Zealand but moved to Denmark at the age of 10. Since then he has played for Denmark at under 19, under 20 & under 21 levels. At the start of March he confirmed his allegiance to Denmark but then remarkably changed his mind. That he is a Kiwi is beyond dispute. His mother is a kiwi and he was born here. He is good enough to fill the problem right back slot so why wouldn’t we take him to South Africa?

Tommy Smith though is not quite as clear cut. Smith is English but emigrated here as an eight year old. He returned to England at age 16 and played with England under 17 & England under 18 before declaring himself available for New Zealand and making his debut against Mexico. He played for England in the 2007 under 17 world cup and was on the bench AGAINST New Zealand!!!  It appears Ricki Herbert will be taking Smith as part of his squad…but should he? Okay he is eligible for New Zealand but is he really a Kiwi? I’m not so sure. He’s lived just 40% of his young life in New Zealand…he wasn’t born here, his parents aren’t Kiwis…. Within a year of returning to England he was playing for England against New Zealand. To The Thinker, this boy is English and we shouldn’t be selecting him however eligible he is.

Daniel is indicative of so many Brazilians around the world. There’s no doubt he has done a great job for Phoenix and he has often professed his love for New Zealand (well why wouldn’t he?!). He has taken out New Zealand citizenship in the hopes of playing for New Zealand but hasn’t yet satisfied FIFA’s five year rule. Citizen or not, its perfectly clear that Daniel is not a Kiwi – he is Brazilian. He shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our national team. His situation is similar to another Brazilian the Arsenal player Eduardo – he who is infamous for that shocking dive against Celtic in the Champions League qualifier.

Eduardo was scouted and signed by Dinamo Zagreb when he was 16. He moved to Croatia and since then has learnt the language, bought a home and married a Croatian girl. He lived in Croatia for just eight years before moving to London. He professes his love for Croatia and I am sure that every time he plays for the country he gives 100%. But simply he is NOT Croatian. He is a Brazilian and he quite possibly would never have gone to Croatia except that a Croatian club signed him. Now suddenly he is playing for the national team! He’s not the only one of course. In recent years there have been Brazilians playing for – amongst others – Japan, Qatar & Portugal. We’ve had Nigerians playing for Poland, Australians playing for Croatia, half the French national team were born in Africa and Netherlands regularly have players born in Surinam.

Its time FIFA closed these loopholes and became stricter on which country a player can play for. International football is becoming like club football, with players playing for the country which is the highest bidder. Your country should be limited to one of three things – your birthplace, your parents birthplace or a ten year residency period.

We live in a much smaller world than we used to. World travel is much more accessible  and affordable. The result is that players are playing all over the world ….usually a result of whichever team has come in for them offering the most money.

I am well aware that back in ’82 our squad was built upon a British immigrant foundation. The likes of Almond Boath McClure Malcolmson Wooddin Sumner & Hill were instrumental to our success. When they emigrated to New Zealand, it was always expected & accepted that they were emigrating for good.  New Zealand was their new home.  But those days are gone. Its time to tighten things up.


Video technology

March 20, 2010

In a year when football in New Zealand seems to be progressing in leaps and bounds and going from strength to strength, how disappointing it is that at the top of the football tree, FIFA have once again stuck their heads in the sand and refused to budge on an issue which would take the game forward.

I refer of course to the decision last week of the IFAB to reject completely the use of goal line technology – or any technology in fact.

It’s an issue that the vast majority of football fans around the globe are in favour of, its an issue that the lesser sports have embraced with no harmful effects to their games and its an issue that won’t go away.

On the very day that IFAB rejected the issue, Birmingham City were knocked out of the FA cup having scored a “goal” which was not awarded. It was as if the gods were having a wee joke at FIFA’s expense.

There seems to be no clear reason for FIFA’s decision. In fact as each month goes by there seem to be more and more reasons why we should use some form of video technology. We already have a fourth official at most top league matches around the world. What do they actually do apart from hold a board up for time added on or for substitutions? Can they not monitor the game from a television? If the technology is there, why can’t it be used?

Common consensus is that FIFA think that the resulting stoppages in play will “disrupt the flow of the game”. How absurd is that really? We’d rather have injustice than a stop in play?!

Around the world we watched in horror as Thierry Henry cheated France to the world cup finals. Within seconds we all knew he had handled that ball, not once, but twice. It was blatant and it was deliberate. It seems that only the three blind mice officiating inside the stadium didn’t see it. Because it was a goal, play had stopped! Long before the ball was returned to the centre circle we knew that it should have been a free kick. The fourth official using a tv could have radioed the referee and said “it was a clear hand ball, award a free kick to Ireland.” So to use video technology here, wouldn’t have disrupted the flow of the game.

And of course, if we used the video to award any of the litany of goals not given in recent seasons then yes the flow of the game may well have been disrupted…but then play usually does stop when a goal is scored!

Football has changed immeasurably in this generation. More games are televised from more leagues to more homes. We have the benefit of a number of camera angles which in an instant tell us whether a refereeing decision is right or wrong. Why are FIFA happy to allow their referees to be criticised so regularly when the technology exists to assist them in avoiding that criticism?

We’ve already had one world cup decided by human error in allowing a goal that never went in. Lets hope that FIFA’s obstinacy doesn’t result in a similar situation this year.


Fair Play

September 12, 2009

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Have FIFA taken the Fair Play thing too far?

Last weekend we witnessed some amazing scenes just prior to half time in the Scotland v Macedonia World Cup qualifying match.  Throughout the first half, Macedonian players were going down injured at every opportunity in an attempt to disrupt the flow of the match and waste time. It’s a tactic many teams – notably Arsenal – have used over recent years.  Around the 45th minute at Hampden, a Scottish defender kicked the ball into the side of the head of Macedonian striker, Naumoski. Not into his face, but into the side of his head. I’ve no doubt that it stung for a minute but Naumoski went down as if he had been shot. Scotland kept possession and mounted an attack before Macedonia regained possession deep in their own half. At that point German referee Wolfgang Stark blew his whistle to enable the “injured” Naumoski to receive treatment. Upon restarting with the drop ball, Scott Brown made it clear he was none too happy about being asked to give the ball back. As the ball was dropped he hit it as hard as he could straight into an opponent and watched as the ball rolled away for a Scottish corner. Of course pandemonium broke out as the visitors surrounded Brown berating him for his lack of fair play. After 3 minutes of pushing and shoving Stark booked two players including bizarrely James McFadden, whose crime, it seems, was to stay clear of everyone and wait to take the corner. Officially McFadden was booked for unsporting behaviour ie not giving the ball back.

Now this may have been clever refereeing by Stark. Had he booked the so called offending party – Scott Brown – it would have been a second booking and thus a red card. Stark, it appears, chose to book the nearest “other” player – a shame that McFadden was thus suspended for the crucial Scotland v Netherlands match as a result.

But why should he book anyone at all? Why should a team have to give the ball back – particularly to a team who has been playacting continually? Surely the level of “sportsmanship” is a personal thing and not something that can be demanded of a player? Is “not giving the ball back” any worse than taking it into the corner to run down the clock? Both lack sportsmanship in a kind of Old Etonian amateur “nice goal old chap” kind of way. Both are quite legal within the laws of the game. Surely Naumoski’s feigning injury was also worthy of a booking? Which is the worse offence – feigning injury or being competitive?

Football is more than just a game. It’s about passion. It’s about winning and playing to win. It’s about scoring goals and it’s about glory. Bill Shankly famously said it was more important than life or death. It is hard, it’s fast and it’s physical. It’s a competitive sport, not a pastime. It is not about pretending you are hurt to gain some kind of advantage.

Players usually know when an opponent is seriously injured and often we’ve seen a challenge for the ball resulting in one player going down injured whilst his opponent immediately stops and waves the trainer on, knowing that the injury is real and potentially serious. Human nature will see the majority of players automatically stop play for a serious injury.

Forcing players to give the ball back via threat of a booking is completely foreign to the competitive nature of the sport. In his own way, Scott Brown was letting Macedonia know that Scotland were fed up with their form of sportsmanship. It was noticeable that during the second half the Macedonians stopped getting injured every time there was a hard tackle.

FIFA Fair Play?? They can keep it. I’d much rather follow a team who is out there to win than a team who plays nicely.


Time for video replays?

September 5, 2009

 

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 The new season is barely a couple of weeks old in Europe, yet already we have seen enough controversial incidents for the subject video evidence to be raised again.

Possibly the worst refereeing decision since…..well last season at Watford I suppose….occurred at Bristol City last week where Crystal Palace had a goal disallowed because, despite the reactions of defending players, attacking players & fans, referee Rob Shoebridge didn’t realise that the ball had gone in. It seems Shoebridge – and his assistant – were the only people at Ashton Gate not to notice! Similarly at Watford last season Stuart Atwell awarded Reading a goal despite the ball going 3 metres wide!

At the Emirates last week Celtic’s Champions League hopes – already hanging precariously in the balance – were ended by a blatant piece of cheating when Arsenal striker Eduardo fooled the referee with a theatrical dive which won a penalty. It was a clear dive and fooled no one inside the Emirates nor in the millions watching world wide. You didn’t need to see a replay to know it was a dive, yet somehow Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez awarded a penalty.

These three incidents all have one common ingredient – apart from the obvious injustices – all were televised and everybody watching knew that the referees had made serious mistakes within seconds of the incidents occurring.  If we tv watchers can see quickly and clearly that these major decisions are wrong then it begs the question “why cant someone at the game advise the referee?”

Many other sports use video replays to adjudicate on potentially crucial moments. In cricket, tennis and rugby, video replays are now part and parcel of the game. Its true to say, though, that all those sports have “natural” stoppages in play whilst football tends to be a far more fluid sport. Thus, the overuse of video replays potentially disrupts the flow of the Beautiful Game.

However, in all three cases above, play was stopped by virtue of the ball going out of play. Given that in all cases play remained stopped as players protested the referees’ absurd decisions, it is fair to say that a quick look at a replay wouldn’t have affected the fluidity of the game.

One area of contention though, is what decisions should be referred to video? It is surely ridiculous for a 4th or 5th official to be watching every incident and checking that the referee is correct.  Every team accepts that you get some decisions and you don’t get others. We also acknowledge that referees are human and make mistakes. However it is clear that there are some decisions which are greater than others. Would it be so difficult to have an official in a position to radio the referee when incorrect match changing decisions are made?

In the 21st century football is big business. Refereeing decisions can cost clubs millions of dollars. The technology is there to ensure that blatantly wrong decisions can be avoided. Why don’t we use it?


Picking World Teams

August 23, 2009

It’s a game we have all played at one time or another.  If you could sign eleven players for your club, who would you pick? Select your world XI……

In the good old days it was a fun exercise because it was never going to be feasible that any one club could have the best eleven players or get close to it. For a start there were few imports to most countries, and of course, pre-Bosman, clubs held registration even after the end of a contract, so the exercise was hypothetical. You just picked your eleven players …probably gave a bit of thought to left & right and adjusted your formation to fit all your strikers or all your creative midfielders depending on your personal preference… and included your favourite player. There was no thought given to having a ball winner, to determining whether the styles of player would actually fit together, never mind the ego’s.

In this millennium it seems that building a world team is now perfectly feasible, if you are willing to pay enough money. Clubs such as Real Madrid and now Manchester City have seemingly endless sums of money and can lure the best players on the planet. But haven’t they gone about things differently???

Madrid are of course famous for Los Galacticos, the team they bought over a few seasons at the start of the 2000’s shortly after Florentino Perez was elected as president. His first move was for Luis Figo, an amazing coup from Barcelona, then Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian one!) and of course David Beckham. Those four players were arguably the best 4 players on the planet at the time, and were added to a team that already had Raul, Makelele, Roberto Carlos, Hierro & Morientes. Oh and Iker Casillas in goal.

Its commonly thought that Los Galacticos were a failure and won nothing but this is incorrect. In 2001 they were beaten in the Champions League semi by Bayern Munich and they won the tournament in 2002. They reached the semis again in 2003, beaten by Juventus. They won La Liga in both 2001 & 2003. The wheels fell off when they sold Claude Makelele to Chelsea. Makalele, the unsung defensive midfielder who controlled everything Madrid did. He protected the defence, he won the ball, he fed the stars. How many of us actually put a ball winner or water carrier, as Cantona once described Deschamps, in our hypothetical world XI?

In 2009 Real Madrid are building Los Galacticos mark II, in an attempt to keep up with the wonderful Barcelona team who were so admired throughout the world last season. Indeed at the Bernabeu in May, Barca hammered Madrid 6-2. Real’s response was to buy Kaka & Cristiano Ronaldo – that’s 2 of the top 3 players in the world – and supplement them with Benzema from Lyon, Alonso , Arbeloa & Albiol, adding them to a squad that boasts Van Nistelrooy, Robben, Raul, Guti & Diarra. Some names there!! It will be interesting to see if they can gel together to challenge Barce.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, Mark Hughes also has almost unlimited sums of money and is trying to build a squad capable of challenging their city rivals, and then going on to challenge, amongst others, Real Madrid for Europes crown. He started off, of course, with Robinho last September and has added Shay Given, Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Barry, Tevez, Bellamy, Santa Cruz and a host of others. Hughes also had a protracted bid for John Terry finally turned down and is now chasing Joleon Lescott much to Davie Moyes disgust.

Whilst Real Madrid have sought to buy the best players, it seems Man City have sought to build a team. Individually there seems no comparison between the two teams and yet one feels that perhaps Mark Hughes has been a wee bit wiser.

Both clubs have spent the money. It remains to be see whether they have built great teams or just great names.