Bring on the Germans and all that Jazz!
June 24, 2010

So it’s confirmed, we will be playing our old adversaries, the Germans, in the last 16 of  2010 World Cup. It just had to be didn’t it?  But I have a feeling that  playing them now, rather than later in the tournament, could be better for us!

The match will be played in Bloemfontein on Sunday afternoon. It promises to be a barbecue weekend here in the UK  so stock up on the bangers, burgers and beer!

Today, the sun is shining  already and I’m about to set off  for an all together more tranquil sporting occasion down by the riverside in Cardiff. England versus the Aussies in a day /night, 50 over cricket international at the SWALEC stadium in Sophia Gardens. Come on England let’s make it 2/2.

It heralds the start of a busy weekend with  friends arriving tomorrow, from the north-east, for the 25th annual Upton-on- Severn Jazz Festival.

So what with cricket, jazz, barbecues, beer and sunday’s big football occasion I’ll be putting the blog on hold until Monday.  By then the nation will be euphoric or wallowing in the depths of another depression.

 

Top tips for Fabio and England:

1. Same starting XI

2. Keep the red shirts

3. Extra practice on penalties

Let’s make Franz ‘the Kaiser’ Beckenbauer eat his words!

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The ugly face of player power
June 21, 2010

Just when we were sitting back having a chuckle at the antics in the French training camp, former England captain, John Terry, spoiled it all by seizing  the moment to assume the role of team spokesperson and alerting the eagerly waiting media to similar disharmony in the England camp.  

More of that later. First let’s start with our friends from across La Manche who, regardless of their walk of life, are never slow at voicing disapproval by taking strike action. This time it’s not students, teachers or farmers but international football players, high on pay but low on motivation.

There is no doubting, French coach, Raymond Domenech’s eccentricities (see post ‘Look to the Stars’ 12/6/10) and it’s been an open secret from the outset that senior members of the squad were not happy with his team selection and tactics. In effect, the French ‘stars’ were never favourably aligned and he had lost the dressing room before a ball was kicked in anger.

Having said that he is the coach and when Nicholas Anelka, who looked totally disinterested during the game against Mexico, refused to apologise for his foul-mouthed half time rant the French Football Federation had no option other than to back ‘star gazer’ Domenech and recall the player to France.

With their World Cup existence hanging by a thread, the French players then pathetically refused to train yesterday (for one day only)  to protest at the FFF’s handling of the situation, claiming they had not given Anelka a fair chance to explain his actions and because they “ did not at any point try to protect the squad.”

With the lunatics well and truly taking over the asylum and the whole situation, having degenerated into a French farce, the FFF has now issued a statement apologising to the nation for the team’s behaviour.

A state of national emergency has been declared and even President Sarkozy, never one to miss out on a bit of free publicity (seen showing Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger his nifty footwork), is getting involved.

Let’s hope Bafana Bafana, who do play as if they care, can raise their game enough tomorrow to put our Gallic friends out of their misery. I bet the Irish have been enjoying it all, and perhaps it does go to show that cheats never prosper!   

Meanwhile back in Rustenburg, following the debacle against Algeria, John Terry took it upon himself to set up a ‘clear the air’ meeting between the players and Fabio. In itself there is absolutely nothing wrong with that but it should have been kept behind closed doors.

What did he expect to gain from going public? Is it all about revenge for being stripped of the captaincy following his off the field fling with ex Chelsea and England ‘best mate’ Wayne Bridge’s former partner, or was it genuinely intended to make the coach sit up and take note of the squad’s opinions?

Whatever the motivation, thankfully the rest of the squad have now distanced themselves from Terry’s actions. He is considered to have gone too far by publically backing Joe Cole’s inclusion in the starting line up and suggesting a change of formation, many in the media have been clambering for, that would see Gerrard play a more advanced midfield role behind lone striker Wayne Rooney.

Terry ‘coming out’ in this way, showed a total disregard for the team captain, Steven Gerrard. Surely, if anyone should be representing the players’ views to the coach or making public statements it should be him .

Another alternative might have been to enlist the services of  David Beckham who could then have justified his place of favour in the dressing room, apparently some kind of ‘team mascot’, by stepping into any breach between the players and coaching staff and acting as a mediator.   

I must say the FA has also been less than supportive of Capello by suggesting that if England don’t make the last 16, they would expect him to resign. Well they can’t afford to sack him can they!

Capello may be everything he’s accused of:  authoritarian, single-minded, a disciplinarian, inflexible, unwilling to listen and unable to change his ways (which, incidentally, have proved successful for every other team he has worked with), but he was being lauded as some kind of footballing ‘Messiah’ by the FA, the team and the media just a few short weeks ago.

He is a proud individual with a proven track record and quite rightly will not succumb to player power. It is about time this ‘golden generation’ of pampered ‘England stars’ took a long hard look in the mirror and shouldered the responsibility for two under par performances.      

In the matches against the USA and Algeria, the same players that had qualified for the World Cup finals, playing a measured and successful brand of football instilled in them by Capello, looked a team devoid of technique, creativity, and commitment to the cause.

Capello may not be without fault, but neither are the players. In short, whether John Terry likes it or not, the team have bottled it. There is one more chance to put things right, and rather than following the example of ‘Les Bleus’, the England team would do better to draw on the team and work ethic of the lowly New Zealand ‘All Whites’ who yesterday pulled off the result of the tournament, to date, 1-1 against world champions Italy.

Pride, passion, effort and endeavour from a team where all its members are working for one another and the coach, within a well drilled playing system can bring about surprising results.

Slovenia will no doubt have a similar mentality plus added quality but nothing that our players, if they are as good as they think they are, should be worried about. Throw off the shackles, have a go and let’s see proper player power, on the pitch. Let the football do the talking!

Silly Hats, Strawberries & Streakers – The Great British Summer!
June 20, 2010

World Cup Final tournaments are addictive; they should carry a government health warning!

Admittedly the football, in South Africa, has hardly set the pulses racing, largely due to negative tactics and coaches preoccupied with self-preservation. Never the less the atmosphere is vibrant, results have been refreshingly unpredictable and the ongoing debate over the suspect ball and the omnipresent vuvuzela, have all been riveting for the football enthusiast. Not to mention the soap opera which the England team has become! Hopefully the best is yet to come, in the final group matches and knock out stages.          

Meanwhile, in the shadow of the ‘greatest show on earth’ and largely neglected by the national media, the great British sporting summer rolls on. It is of course the traditional season for silly hats, strawberries and streakers!   

This week at Royal Ascot the premier flat race meeting has come and gone with barely a by your leave. But even this traditional preserve of the sport of kings was infiltrated by the World Cup, with a Ladies’ Day vuvuzela hat, paraded on the front page of Friday’s Times newspaper.         

The Wimbledon Championship, at the All England Club, has crept upon us almost un-noticed. As from tomorrow, tennis enthusiasts will be descending on SW19, hoping for that elusive British success but ever ready to drown their sorrows with lashings of Pimms and strawberries. Normally the sports pages would have been hyping up Andy Murray’s chances for the last week or so, but in this World Cup year he has barely rated a mention. Hopefully this might work in his favour?

Similarly the razzmatazz of the county cricket T20 competition is passing us by and the forthcoming one day internationals will probably go unnoticed by many. Not by me though! I’m looking forward to making my debut, at the SWALEC stadium in Cardiff on Thursday, for the day/night England v Australia game. I’m looking forward to seeing Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann (a couple of part-time  Notts players) and, weather permitting, I anticipate it might prove the perfect antidote to England’s football performance against Slovenia on Wednesday!  

Yesterday, on the other side of the world, in Sydney, the England ruby team raised their game, at long last, and ‘hammered’ the Aussies 20-21! It was their first win ‘down under’ since they lifted the World Cup in 2003 (on the same ground) and only their second away win in two years. But this narrowest of victories might prove vital in England’s rehabilitation process, almost certainly keeping Martin Johnson and his coaching team in their positions until after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and perhaps proving the turning point we’ve been waiting for. Ever the optimist!

I don’t like to upset my Welsh family members by referring to their latest performance against the All Blacks, so I suggest they look away now. They were soundly thrashed 42-9!

Finally a mention for Formula 1 (Scalextric for grown ups!) where two Brits continue to the lead the way in what is becoming a highly competitive championship. It was good to see the oft maligned Lewis Hamilton back at is his best in Montreal and last year’s champion Jenson Button proving he wasn’t a one hit wonder!  Next up his Valencia, in a week’s time and then Silverstone on World Cup Final day!

I wonder what odds I might get on England to win the World Cup, Andy Murray to lift the men’s singles and a Hamilton/Button 1-2 in the British Grand Prix? Dream on!

Strangers in the Night!
June 19, 2010

On Friday, ‘ol blue eyes’ and ‘Strangers in the Night’ came to mind! England played like a scratch pub team, who had met up for the first time five minutes before the kick-off, as pass after pass went astray. Then there was the episode of the phantom intruder who waltzed into the England dressing room intent on giving our bereft team the benefit of his opinion.

Given that the anonymous interloper had made such short work of the FIFA security my curiosity was roused. Was it an undercover visit from Franz ‘the Kaiser’ Beckenbauer, popping in to reaffirm his earlier claim that, “What I saw from the English had very little to do with football.”  After last night’s sorry performance I think a few more might be with him on that one now!   

It was a huge disappointment for ‘birthday boy’ Fabio, not the sort of celebratory performance he had in mind, I’m sure. He seemed genuinely at a loss that the England players we see playing like world beaters, week in  week out, for their clubs and strutting their stuff on the training ground didn’t turn up for such a big game.

To be honest the rest of us could have tipped him the wink:  “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before, they just know, they’re so sure that England’s  gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away” etc.  (Badiel & Skinner) 

Of course, no team sets out to play badly, get booed off the pitch and castigated in the national press. They’re not the first team to disappoint at this year’s tournament but what made last night so unpalatable was the apparent lack of pride and passion. Too many players seemed weighed down by the occasion, the ball was like a hot potato and nobody appeared to want to take responsibility. This was Algeria after all, a 3rd world nation in football terms!

The honeymoon period with the media is clearly over for Fabio but I don’t go along with the criticism currently being levelled at him.  It’s little use turning on the coach and questioning his methods at this late stage. Let’s be honest, under Sven Goran-Ericksson, we qualified with some style for the 2006 World Cup but once at the finals the players under performed and we stuttered and spluttered our way to a quarter-final exit. We were told it was down to Sven not showing enough passion on the touch-line, being too loyal to certain favoured players, allowing an overly free and easy attitude in the training camp, and of course he never had a plan B when things weren’t going well.    

This time around, Fabio Capello undoubtedly shows passion from the dug out. He’s not been afraid to leave out players with big reputations, has a more austere and remote persona with the team, clearly runs a tight ship and has experimented with different formations, but seems to prefer 4-4-2 . Once again the team have under performed (so far at least) and now it’s being suggested that this is  because Capello’s style  inhibits the team and they are afraid of expressing themselves for fear of making mistakes.  

The media can’t play it both ways. We have seen two distinctly different approaches from two very different coaches but, both in 2006 and currently in 2010, our ‘top players’ have frozen on the big stage. Is it a mental attitude born of an unrealistic national expectation after years of  under achievement, or do we merely over-estimate their abilities? Are our England stars as good as we think or do they just look good at club level where they are in teams along side genuine world-class players who have the technique and creativity to provide them with the extra time and space they don’t get when playing with the national side?

Fabio isn’t one to panic or to pander to calls from the media.  I think he’ll get the team up for the do or die game against Slovenia and we will squeeze through. We might even, depending on the opposition, briefly flatter to deceive by winning our quarter-final and fleetingly raise national hopes once more before the inevitable anti-climax in the semis, probably going out on penalties; “Everyone seems to know the score ” etc!  I guess that would be judged a relative success.  

However it turns out there’s one sure thing, ‘ol blue eyes’ will spring to mind again with visions of Capello singing, “I did it my way!”

South Africa Youth Day – The Soweto Uprising Remembered
June 17, 2010

On June 15th we received the long awaited Saville Report into the atrocities of Bloody Sunday, 38 years ago in Northern Ireland.  

Yesterday, June 16th, was South Africa Youth Day, a national holiday commemorating the 34th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. The parallels are there for all to see.

The Soweto riots grew out of student protests against the ruling National Party’s apartheid regime which forced children, from black only schools, to be taught in Afrikaans, or in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “the language of the oppressor”.

Resentment grew amongst the children of Soweto, resulting in the formation of a Students’ Representative Council which organized a mass rally, in order to make their voices heard.

The student demonstration was planned with a degree of secrecy which took parents and teachers by surprise and, on the morning of June 16th 1976, thousands of black students walked from their schools towards the Orlando Stadium.

It set out as a peaceful protest but police barricaded the road along their intended route and a diversion had to be taken towards the Orlando High School. Estimates suggest that by this time up to 10,000 students had gathered; singing and waving placards.

When a police patrol arrived, to marshal the demonstration, the majority of students continued to march peacefully but some children reacted by throwing stones. A handgun was drawn and fired, causing immediate panic and chaos as the students fled for safety.   

Emotions were running high and, following a subsequent escalation in violent retaliation, 15,000 heavily armed police, supported by armed vehicles and helicopters, were deployed to the township. Shots were fired indiscriminately as means of dispersing the rioting crowds.

Government figures maintained there were 23 student fatalities whilst the Reuters news agency put the figure at ‘more than 500’ with over 1,000 men, women and children wounded.   

The BBC’s World Cup football coverage has been matched by a series of excellent off the field reports, providing a valuable insight into the recent history of South Africa and how the ‘rainbow nation’ has emerged from the apartheid era into the free country it is today.

Yesterday, following a report by Garth Crooks on the Soweto Riots, we saw Desmond Tutu, accompanied by former Dutch international Clarence Seedorf (right), at an Africa Youth Day celebration, where he reminded a group of students You and I, old and young, now have a very precious thing, this freedom that was bought with the lives and blood of all – young and old, black and white.”

On a lighter note he also said it was it was important for South Africans to rejoice in their moment of World Cup glory and that foreigners must accept their traditions, including the controversial vuvuzela, which was an integral part of their games. He urged football fans to blow them even louder!

Meanwhile, broadcasting  from the BBC studio in Cape Town, prior to last night’s South Africa v Uruguay game, Gary Lineker reminded viewers that not long ago his panel of co-presenters, Alan Hansen, Lee Dixon and Emmanuel Adebayor (right) would not have been allowed.

Unfortunately ‘Bafana Bafana’ could not add to the Africa Youth Day celebrations, losing 3-0 to a Uruguay team inspired by former Man Utd player Diego Forlan.

Let the Dancing Begin – Samba or Flamenco?
June 15, 2010

Four days in and the 2010 World Cup hasn’t caught fire yet. To be brutally honest, in the main, it’s been downright dull. With the exception of Argentina, flattering to deceive against Nigeria, and our old friends the Germans, running in four against the pretty inept Socceroos, there has been very little to write home about.

Yesterday, one of the favourites, Holland were well off the pace and a million miles away from the ‘total football’ of yester year, whilst current holders, Italy, put in a characteristically dour display against Paraguay.       

The tournament is in desperate need of some dancing feet and spectacular goals. Let’s hope that Kaka and the samba boys of Brazil ignite the competition this evening in their game against North Korea.

North Korea have hardly been regulars when it comes to World Cup finals (twice in 44 years) but they will forever remain in football folklore for their spirited performances in reaching the 1966 quarter finals.  

The smiling faces and twinkling skills of the little Koreans (they were all about 5 feet nothing!) won the hearts of North East England. Totally unexpectedly they removed Italy from the tournament, with a 1-0 group stage win at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, courtesy of a goal from Pak Do Ik (right). It’s one of those names that remains with you, and it’s certainly one the Italian journalists never forgot. For years after they referred to him as ‘il dentista’ (the dentist) for the pain he had inflicted on the national psyche!    

And, as if that wasn’t enough, North Korea then set about Portugal in the quarter-final. Playing,  in front of 50,000, at Everton’s Goodison Park, they took an amazing 3-0 lead, in the first 24 minutes, before eventually succumbing 5-3 to the ‘golden boot’ of the legendary Eusebio, who collected 4 goals!  If tonight’s game is anything like that it certainly will set the 2010 tournament alive. And of course all of those memories will come flooding back again when North Korea meet Portugal in Cape Town next week!  

Tomorrow the rhythm of the samba will be replaces by the foot tapping flamenco of Spain, as Fernando Torres (if he’s fit) and the European Champions take a bow against Switzerland in Durban. In 2006 the Swiss, better known for their mountains and cuckoo clocks than their footballers, set the dubious record of being the first team ever to be eliminated from the group stages without conceding a goal (harsh but true!). I don’t expect them to be a push-over but if Spain play as we know they can it could be fiesta time!

While the heart still says ‘England’, over the coming couple of nights we could be watching the dancing feet of the eventual tournament winners but will it be  the samba or flamenco?

The Spirit of ’66
June 14, 2010

This weekend was a rare event – all four of the ‘A Team’ meeting up in the Shire! It had been on the calendar for some time, an opportunity to catch up following my return from Africa and neatly wedged between my birthday, the previous Sunday, and Fathers’ Day, next week of course.

We had a great time. The house echoed to music and laughter. We ate and drank too much and generally put the world to rights! Saturday of course centred on the England v USA match. I’m pleased to say ‘the girls’ enjoy the big games and as the kick off approached, the neighbours were treated (several times) to Badiel and Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’, still the best football anthem by a country mile!

Of course “30 years of hurt”  might all too soon become 44 but, ‘we still believe, we still believe!’       

1966 and all that  is forever etched into the minds of English football fans old enough to remember. As a 13-year-old schoolboy I’d followed the tournament, in flickering black and white of course, from the inauspicious goalless opener v Uruguay through to the thrilling 2-1 semi final victory over Eusebio’s Portugal. Sandwiched in-between had been Bobby Charlton’s  thunderbolt against Mexico, which galvanised our campaign, and the infamous quarter-final brawl against an Argentina side, later labelled ‘animals’ by Sir Alf!

Come Saturday July 30th, with the whole nation focussed on Wembley Stadium, I was on my way to the coast, Great Yarmouth to be precise, and never saw the final live! Some months before, I had been invited to go on holiday with a friend and his family and had been looking forward to it until the realisation dawned that we would be missing out on the greatest day in England’s football history.   

I remember my friend’s Dad had a transistor radio so we were able to keep tabs on the score. We were staying at a guest house, four of us in a single room with a communal bathroom facility on the landing. On our arrival, having hurriedly unpacked, the gong summoned us to the dining room for our evening meal, just as extra time was about to get under way and my friend’s Dad had to ask permission for us to take the ‘tranny’ in with us!

Of course, I’ve seen the match highlights and goals so many times since that I feel as if I was there. One family member, my late uncle, was! I’ve always loved sporting memorabilia (ask Chris!) and he kindly passed on to me the ticket stubs for every game played at Wembley and his tournament programme. These are still a prized possessions. In the back of the programme, on the ‘notes’ page, he had carefully written the teams and goal scorers together with a brief summary of the game, which concludes, “The final whistle blew and Wembley erupted!”    

England’s hat trick hero that day, the legendary Geoff Hurst, now lives in the Cheltenham area. Just before I retired from Naunton Park School, it was brought to my attention that one of his grandchildren had started at the local playgroup. The playgroup leader very kindly asked Sir Geoff’s daughter if her Dad might provide me with a signed photograph, which I’m pleased to say he did!

44 years on, here’s to the spirit of ’66. “We still believe, we still believe!”   

England let it slip but no need for panic!
June 13, 2010

Get over it – I’m sure Fabio and the boys will! Despite the harbingers of gloom in this morning’s media castigating Robert Green for his costly goalkeeping slip, we did negotiate a potential banana skin and showed enough to suggest we can grow into this tournament.

As far as England World Cup openers go, and I’ve seen a few, believe me this wasn’t too bad and I still remain confident that we will top the group and be there or there about in the final shake up!

In 1966 we hardly got off to a flyer, with a goalless draw against Uruguay at Wembley and remember, last time around, the eventual 2006 winners , Italy (not the best team in the tournament, in my book) drew 1-1 in their group game against a USA side which was arguably not as strong as the one we saw last night.     

Yes, I was surprised that Green started in the keeper’s jersey, but clearly Fabio must have got wind of my Fantasy Football team selection and the posting I made earlier this week,  suggesting ‘Calamity James’ might eventually come good for England in this tournament. I need to transfer in a replacement now! Any suggestions – the Nigerian keeper, Enyeama, looked pretty handy yesterday?

What is it with England goalkeeping? For years it was the only position in which we had strength in depth but recently it has become a bit of an Achilles heel – Seaman, Robinson, Carson and of course ‘Calamity’ all producing howlers in big games. However, eternally the optimist, I would love to see Fabio give Green the chance to redeem himself and it’s a funny enough game for him to turn national hero in that penalty shoot-out that’s bound to come our way later in the competition (you heard it here first!).

If the glass is half full: there were fine performances from Gerrard, who really stepped up to the mark as captain, Heskey, whose ability to hold up the ball and link up play,  more than justified his selection, and Glen Johnson as an attacking full back.

If the glass is half empty: Rooney worked hard as usual but never got into a clear-cut scoring position, Lennon and Wright-Phillips still need to put in better quality crosses and  King (due to fitness) and Carragher (due to lack of mobility) are not the answer at centre back. For me, the latter is more of a worry than the goalkeeping position.

Is Fabio brave enough to throw in a rookie, Forest old-boy, Michael Dawson? I guess Matthew Upson will get his chance first, in the Algeria game, next Friday, when I expect us to win comfortably!       

Incidentally my Fantasy Football jinx also seems to have put the kiss of death on Lionel Messi’s chances of winning the Golden Boot – he created and missed at least five goal scoring opportunities as Argentina had to settle for 1-0 against Nigeria.

 Mind you, in true football parlance it’s ‘early doors’!

Look to the stars!
June 12, 2010

Bafana Bafana momentarily reached for the stars while France looked anxiously to the stars in their opening World Cup matches yesterday. And lest we forget, England take on the stars and stripes of the USA this afternoon!   

The pride and emotion emanating from the Soccer City Stadium in Soweto yesterday was tangible, to say nothing of the incessant buzz of vuvuzelas! For 45 minutes Bafana Bafana  were clearly overawed by the situation and could have gone 3-0 down to a Mexican team who, sadly for them, had been cast as party poopers!

The second half was different. Bafana Bafana began to play the flowing football of which they are capable and the tournament was up and running after being set alight by a slick passing team move and stunning finish from Tshabalala that set the standard for goal of the tournament!

However, the reality check came when  Bafana Bafana, always prone to lapses of concentration at the back, were found ‘ball watching’ and  Rafa Marquez  ‘shinned’ the equalizer. South Africa came back gamely and might have clinched victory late on as Teko Modise rolled the ball, past one of the dodgiest international keepers I’ve seen for a while, against the post!

The sense of euphoria that greeted the final whistle was tempered by the reality that this is going to be a tough group for Bafana Bafana to climb out of, and all eyes turned to the up-and-coming France v Uruguay game.

The notion that cheats should never prosper  is hanging like a big black cloud over Les Bleus, given their fortuitous qualification courtesy of the hand of Thierry Henry. There is also the issue of the impending departure of their eccentric coach Raymond Domenech, a keen amateur astrologist who looks to the stars for guidance in his team selection, or as Alan Hansen described him in BBC’s pre-match build up  ‘a bit of a nutter’!       

Well as it turned out the stars weren’t  shining on either side and this potentially fascinating struggle between two decent teams  suffered from ‘after the lord mayor’s show’ syndrome, finishing goal-less.

Attention now turns to the big one in Rustenburg this evening and let’s hope there’s no reality check for Capello and the boys and that 1950 doesn’t repeat itself, 60 years on, when the three lions take on the bald eagles! You just know it’s going to be an edge-of-the-seat job so everything crossed and  vuvuzelas at the ready!