Go with a smile!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

World Cup

1. Where I have been watching the World Cup:
I will probably catch all the free matches in the comfort of my living room. So semi-finals onwards, no going out.
Robertson Quay
A friend’s place (he installed a pirate receiver)
TCC Circular Road
There was a place in the newly built OrangeTee building, but I balked at them charging $30 cover pp.
I think 1 or 2 coffeeshops were screening them but I didn’t watch any at a coffee shop this time.
I was watching 1 match (Germany Argentina) at a community centre. There is quite an atmosphere when you’re there, but also a lot of assholes who just come up and block your view, and they wait until you tap them on the shoulder and ask them to move aside. But to be fair, there were hundreds of viewers in that place, and I would say that of all the locations, that was the one with the best atmosphere.

2. This has been a dreadful World Cup.
I did a calculation of the group stage. The goals to game ratio was abject: 2.0. In the first game of all the teams, you could place bets on all the games to finish under 2.5 goals, and you would have won the majority of them. I think there were more goals in the knockout matches.

I heard that the World Cups all the way until 1986 were pretty decent. The one in 1994 was quite OK. The rest of them were total crap. I think in 2006 there was still some pretty decent football. There was the Argentina demolition of Serbia. It was nice to see Zidane rolling back the years. This tournament? I shudder at the thought that they will put together a compilation of "best moments" and we won't see anything worth watching.

Brazil became tactical. Holland became tactical. Argentina didn't deliver. Portugal became ultra-defensive. The Brazil Holland quarter final was exciting but ultimately it was decided by which team made the fewest defensive errors.

3. A lot of journalists have had to eat their words
A lot of predictions did not come true. One of them was the prediction that Ivory Coast was one of the favourites. To be fair, they would probably have progressed to the second round if they weren’t bunched in together with Brazil and Portugal.

Another prediction was the desperate hope that England would have a good World Cup, and they listed other examples of countries that had good tournaments in spite of starting slowly: England in 1990, Italy in 1982. It didn't happen. Yet another prediction was that England's group was EASY - England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks. Not for this cohort.

All the South American teams reached the 2nd round. Then there were 4 teams in the quarter-finals. This was hailed as a period of South American dominance. Then after the quarters were over, all the South American sides were massacred, and the only one that got through used desperate measures. I thought that this tournament would have an European winner because the winter conditions favour the Europeans. I had some reason to doubt that in the last few weeks but now it seems like that prediction would come to pass.

After Argentina reached the quarter-finals, there were some people ready to canonise Maradona, attributing the "success" of the team to his crazy man-management skills. There were reports of his team bonding sessions. Of how he often consulted Jose Mourinho. Of how he, like Jose Mourinho, often used his outsized personality to deflect attention away from his players. There was even a report of how he was in a near death state in 2004, and how this amazing turnaround, for him to be - uh - 3 matches away from an amazing World Cup victory and a naked romp through Buenos Aires. Another report that slammed Pele for being a bitter old man for saying that Maradona couldn't coach. (To be fair, that report had some merit: Maradona exceeded some admittedly low expectations in his performance as a coach, while Pele, I think, had proven himself to be a lousy coach.)

Well, Maradona himself did say that South American sides were not at the level of the European sides yet. Maybe somebody should have listened to him. In retrospect, we found that none of their opponents so far - South Korea, Greece, Nigeria or Mexico - were top class opposition. That the qualification campaign was very shaky. That while having talented players relaxed enough to perform was good enough against them, when it came to the Germans, you needed to have the best coaching, the best tactics.

Another prediction that failed to happen was that Brazil would turn out to be world beaters. People forgot that Dunga was a first time coach, and they started to entertain the possibility of him shaping a team in his own image, the tough and committed tackler. They didn't have Elano, Kaka was below his best, and he left out Ronaldinho. That means that Robinho was the only special player. More significantly, the defence didn't do its job: or rather, they made 2 very significant mistakes. In the end, Dunga didn't know how to chase a game.

4. Quality of the coaching left much to be desired.
Many of the coaches, coming into this game, had big reputations. There were the former Real Madrid coaches: Fabio Capello, Vincente Del Bosque, Carlos Quieroz. Sven Goran Eriksson, latterly of England, was managing Ivory Coast. There were former World Cup winners, like Carlos Alberto Perreira and Marcello Lippi.

Then there was Raymond Domenech. More about him later.

The coaching has left much to be desired. Fabio Capello was already reported to be in a bad temper just before the World Cup, justifiably concerned at the poor form of the English. Morale was not good. In many ways he was the opposite of Eriksson, who usually pandered to the whims of his players. He was an alpha male who did not bow to player power, especially when he stripped John Terry of his captaincy. But some players did not like his decisions, and John Terry mouthed off to the pressed about some player dissent. That could not have been good for morale in the camp.

Eriksson looked lost as Ivory Coast was run over by Brazil, a result which cost them qualification to the second round. Carlos Alberto Perreira could not take advantage of the fading French to qualify for the second round either. In truth their campaign was lost when they drew the opening round to Mexico instead of winning. As we now know, Uruguay are quite good.

Carlos Quieroz's credentials have often been questioned. Just like Steve McLaren, he was Alex Ferguson's number 2, and a very good one at that. But on his own? His time in charge of Real Madrid was the start of 3 or 4 barren years without a trophy, in spite of having a galaxy of stars. His Portugal had a bad start to the qualifying campaign. To be fair to him, managing Real Madrid is very difficult because the boss always questions your decisions. And the Portugal is not the same one that reached 1 major tournament final and 2 semi-finals in the last decade. But it still had Cristiano Ronaldo, and hopes were briefly raised when they trashed N Korea 7-0. In the end, though, against Spain, they didn't have a clue about what to do once they got behind. There was no plan B. Portugal was set up to defend, not attack. After they were 1-0 behind Spain, they just kept on defending.

Cristiano Ronaldo was unhappy with his tactics, and his remark, when somebody asked him why Portugal lost, was "go ask Quieroz".

"There was no plan B" was also the problem with Brazil vs Holland. Brazil had never been behind before in the World Cup. When Holland equalised, they started panicking and looking lost. I think that Brazil play the tough-defence and counter attack with flair players. So without 1 of their flair players, and when their defence started looking shaky, that was the beginning of the end.

Argentina didn't have a clue against Germany. The Germans were always closing down on space, but Argentina didn't know how to do that. Considering their quality of players, Argentina deserved to make the semi-finals, and with a tournament where France and Italy went out, who knows? In the end, this was a missed opportunity, especially when you have somebody like Messi in your side.

Marcello Lippi won a lot of praise for winning the World Cup in 2006, but essentially his tactics were very defensive. I wonder what his place in history is, given that his side flopped so badly. Same for Roger Lemerre, who won the 2000 Euros with the best French side in a long time, and then royally screwed up 2002.

Otto Rehhagel was lionised for winning Euro 2004, and while it is one of the greatest managerial achievements of all time, his record after that was mixed, going out in first rounds in 2008 and 2010, and not even qualifying for 2006. Perhaps it was the right time for him to go.

Vincente Del Bosque must have felt some satisfaction at having knocked Quieroz's Portugal out of the World Cup. He was fired from Real Madrid after having won both the Champion's League and La Liga, because the president wanted a more media friendly coach - Quieroz. Del Bosque inherited a very talented squad from Aragones, who was the hero who won Euro 2008. But the loss of a very significant member of that squad - Marcos Senna - unbalanced the team, and as a result, they are slightly weaker than the one which mopped the floor with everybody else in 2008. They came in as favourites to win the World Cup but after shaky performances against Switzerland, Paraguay and Honduras, many are doubtful they can get past the seemingly imperious Germany.

5. Precedents were meant to be overturned
No host nation has ever failed to get past the first round. The US could have been one, but they were a little lucky in getting past Columbia (that was the match that doomed Andres Escobar to get murdered).

Until 2002, no defending champion has ever been kicked out of the first round. But France did it, in one of the most abject defences ever. And then Italy got kicked out of the 2010 tournament. Suddenly it’s looking commonplace.

Spain lost their opening match. Commentators said that no team has ever lost an opening match and yet still gone on to win the finals. But Italy (1994) and Argentina (1990) came close, going on to the finals. And there were a few incidents of countries being beaten once in a group stage, and yet winning the World Cup.

6. Some of the minnows were impressive
Since 2002, there has been a levelling of the playing field. The Asian sides were no longer minnows, there to make up the numbers. The European sides were no longer as powerful as yesteryear, when all the dark horses were European. Remember Belgium (1986)? Denmark (1986)? Croatia (1998)? Romania (1994)? Bulgaria (1994)? Even Sweden (1994)?

Now the dark horses were Senegal (2002), Turkey (2002), South Korea (2002), USA (2002), Ghana (2010), Uruguay(2010).

There are countries like Portugal, England and Holland who are on the periphery of great soccer powers, but are not dark horses either. In part the decline of the Europeans can also be attributed to some countries splintering into smaller ones (USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia). Those 3 countries would have been minor soccer powers, but now they're just minnows.

In this world cup, there were quite a few surprises from the minnows.

- Slovakia emerged top of a group that included the Czechs (The Czechs' golden generation which included Nedved, Koller, Baros and Cech had recently retired). They surprised many by beating Italy.

- Slovenia surprised many by qualifying ahead of euro 08 semifinalists Russia, and later on they made the US crap their pants.

- Algeria drew with England and cost me $10. In fact, many people thought that Egypt should have qualified in their place.

- Greece finally won some points, and beat Nigeria.

- New Zealand was a surprise qualifier (although the team they did beat in the playoff, Bahrain, would also have been a surprise qualifier). They did not make the final round, but they never lost any of their 3 matches either.

- The Swiss didn't qualify, but they gave the Spaniards something to think about. And judging from the imperious form of the Germans so far, who would have thought that a little-fancied side like the Serbians failed to beat them?

- Honduras qualified.

- Chile had a better than expected qualifying campaign and got into the second round.

- USA, Japan and South Korea got into the second round.

That said, minnows don't usually make for exciting football. You couldn't look at the minnows and say that some incredible football talent has been unearthed at the tournament. Nowadays scouting networks are so good that it's very rare for a major talent to exist, but the world doesn't know about it.

7. The quarter finals were dramatic
To be sure, they weren't exciting in the football sense. Everybody expected Brazil to brush off Holland like it was swatting a fly. It was a game that had relatively little flair, considering the pedigree of the 2 sides involved in that match. But as I watched this on the 2nd level of a shophouse with 50 other people, it was exciting to see the Oranje defy expectations, and equally so to see Brazil implode so spectacularly, like they did 4 years ago.

I was especially pleased because I'm superstitious: if the World Cup winning team has won it for the nth time, if n is low, I have a good 4 years. If n is high, I have a lousy 4 years. I had a good 4 years after France won it for the first time, or Argentina won it for the 2nd time. It was not so good for me after Germany won it for the 3rd time. Pretty lousy for me after Italy won it for the 4th time, or after Brazil won it for the 4th and 5th times. So I felt very happy that Brazil would not win it for the 6th time.

I decamped to a McD's and watched the Uruguay Ghana match up until the Sulley Muntari 30 metre special. (I've seen him do that for Portsmouth before) Then I got sleepy and drove home, not expecting the spectacular drama that was to take place in the last moments of extra time.

We know about it because it's been written about so extensively: Ghana shoots, a goalkeeper punches. Ghana shoots again, a defender clears it off the line. Ghana shoots for the third time, and Suarez clears it off the line with his hand. The resulting penalty is missed. Then Ghana loses to Uruguay on penalties.

People can argue about whether this is cheating or not. There are people who say that he was a hero for sacrificing himself to get Uruguay into the semis, something they had not managed since Switzerland 1954. There are those who considered it cheating, since it's no big deal to be playing with 10 men for the last 1 or 2 minutes. The benefit from the handball was not obvious: when Suarez walked off the pitch, he was crying, because the penalty would have put Ghana through anyway. Except that the penalty was missed.

Some people said that it was not cheating, because he did the crime, and he did the time. Some people thought that it went against the spirit of the game, which is to get a fair result. It would have been a goal if he hadn't handled, that's the one thing everybody agrees.

There was a time when I was in a Maths quiz. I was in sec 2, up against the sec 1s. At the last question, we were 2 points up. It was a snatch question, worth 2 points. I remember thinking about whether I wanted to snatch that question first, since if the first team failed to answer and the other team answered it, the other team would only get 1 point instead of 2. In the end, I didn't, and it got into a draw. Then I lost the tie-breaking question. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.

In other words, I think I should have done what Suarez did.

The Argentina Germany match was a spectacular one. Maradona faced Germany twice in 2 world cup finals, in 1986 and 1990. He won one and lost the other. The Germans were the nemesis for Argentina, as much as they were for the English. In the end, the scoreline was sensational. It wasn't a trashing, because those who saw the match (in the cc hall, most of the Singaporeans were rooting for Argentina) would know that Argentina pegged Germany back for long periods in the match. Player for player, Argentina were probably better, but Germany knew how to defend and Argentina didn't.

The last quarterfinal would have been comparably unexciting, except for the 2 missed penalties, and a disputed call that disallowed a Paraguay goal.

Well if this is when the tournament finally comes to life, it's a little too late for that.

8. Jabulani and Vuvuzela
These are the twin villians of the current World Cup. The Jabulani ball received numerous complaints. To be sure, every time the match ball is changed, there are complaints, but none so many as this. There are people who believe that the Jabulani has contributed to the lower quality of play in the matches.

Some have already commented on the vuvuzela before the World Cup began. It's quite irritating, although I can imagine that someday somebody will record My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" with a Vuvuzela orchestra.

9. Handballs
The "Hand of God" in 1986 was a spectacular piece of cheating, because it was the most blatant incident up till then. To be sure, the Argentines had already been infamous for playing rough, as were the Uruguayans. But that was an incident that involved the best player in the world at that time, against a country that had just won the Falklands war against them. Maradona would later cheat again, by taking drugs in 1994 to enhance his physical capabilities.

This campaign has seen 3 instances of handballs change the course of crucial games. First was the infamous Henry handball against Ireland, which was the most controversial incident, because it involved the deception of a referee. Henry was basically in no man's land immediately afterwards. If he had admitted it to a referee, he would have been praised by everybody outside of France, but he could have cost them a place in the World Cup, and he could have been lynched by his own teammates. As it turned out, he kept quiet and now everybody thinks of him as an asshole, even his fellow Frenchmen.

Second was how Luis Fabiano handled the ball in the buildup to a goal against the Ivory Coast. OK, it wasn't the hand, it was the arm. But it was equally serious. And the referee afterwards seemed to say to him, "it was alright, no handball". Stupid referee. Since Brazil beat the Ivory Coast by more than 1 goal, it didn't change the result.

The last incident was Luis Suarez, which I discussed earlier.

10. France and Italy
Even by the very low expectations of France, they did badly. We knew that Domenech was a dickhead as a manager, but surprisingly his players turned out to be even greater dickheads.

Patrice Evra went on strike. He led a few players to strike against what they felt to be unjust treatment of Anelka. They imploded. After a creditable draw with Uruguay, they lost to Mexico and South Africa. Evra said, right after the loss to South Africa, that soon the truth will be known, as though he were in the right. But I don't know whether that's the case. Alex Ferguson is reportedly very angry with him. Lilian Thuram, Evra's predecessor as France's left back said that Evra should never play for France again.

Some people also think that Anelka should not play for France again.

Another rumour exists that, if proven true, should be a source of everlasting discredit to the French team. Apparently everybody hates Yoann Gourcuff, a player who's style of playing is similar to Zidane, and an apparent heir to his position as France's playmaker. The 1998 and 2000 teams had a backbone of children of immigrants. For people who want to criticise Singapore's team for having foreign imports, look at that team. They had parents from Senegal (Vieira), Algeria (Zidane), the Congo (Makalele), and the Guadelope (Henry and Thuram). There was also Bixente Lizarazu, who's Basque. Of course these places are more closely associated with France than Nigeria, Bosnia or Brazil are associated with Singapore. But still...

Well apparently Gourcuff's problem is that he's too French. He's from a privileged background, talks like somebody from the upper class, and is too scholarly and nerdy. Reminds you of Zidane, to be sure, but at least Zidane had street credibility: he was somebody who grew up in a tough slum. I think the players were instructed to put him in the middle of the plays. Well the other players hated him and refused to pass the ball to him.

I think this is reflective of French society as a whole. The French were the inventors of the slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", and to their credit, they embraced the immigrants who won the 1998 World Cup for them. But they're not good at integrating the immigrants into their society. The typical Frenchman will champion values like human rights, democracy and equality in the abstract, but they will stay far away from the immigrants. The society is very divided.

The immigrants, on the other hand, have failed to reach out to the French. A lot of them are Muslims, who came from countries where the government has very little legitimacy because they are dictatorial, or are laughingly ineffective. They are glad to receive government handouts, but many don't want to find jobs or become more French, because they're too happy with their underdog, "wretched of the earth" status.

A case in point: Patrice Evra. I don't know if he is one of those who feels that he is one of the beleaguered underclass, but I once saw an article about him where he was praising one of his "minders" at Man United. The "minder" was somebody who helps foreign players in the EPL get things done in their daily lives: essentially some kind of butler who finds housing for you, fixes things for you, and organises parties for you. In inadvertently he was advertising the fact that he was a spoilt brat. How does he square this the supposed indignation at being a member of the oppressed minority?

And if you thought the coach was stupid, and the players stupider, you should see what the parliament did. They're calling an inquest into the French Football team. FIFA always denounces it when the government interferes with football. There were a few incidents where the Sports Ministers made statements about the national team, which were not welcome. Like how the Togo government told the national team to return home from Angola. Sepp Blatter is reportedly not impressed with the French.

But in a way, this will be interesting, and it will reveal a lot of what French society is really about. I don't know if Sarkozy ran the inquiry in order to boost his flagging popularity with his people. We don't like it when Mah Bow Tan talks about Goal 2010 because it's such a naked way of scoring points. We don't like it when they mix sports with politics because it's always distasteful. But hidden in here are some issues that finally need to be addressed.

What happened to Italy? I don't know. They won the 2006 world cup by being extremely stingy with the defence, and goading Zidane into making that headbutt. Now they don't have younger stars to take over the great generation, and the older ones like Cannavaro - I think he went downhill after that tournament. They'll be missed as badly as Greece 2004 - which is not at all.

11. Nudity
There were a few declarations from people who promised to strip nude and run around if their country won the World Cup. First Maradona promised to run naked through Buenos Aires if Argentina won. Possibly that was a vote of confidence against himself, ie he was sure he wouldn't win.

Then there was Larissa Riquelme, who was amply endowed, complete with a blackberry stuffed down her generous bodice, who said that she would run around naked if Paraguay won. It must have convinced a few to go against Spain in the quarters.

Last but not least, there was Enrique Iglesias who promised to water ski naked of Spain won. There is a significant possibility of this happening.

I listed these possibilities on an internet forum, and got a reply from a female that it couldn't have been hard to choose between the Paraguayan model and Maradona. Here is my reply:

"Actually it was hard for me to choose. Paraguayan model - just another naked model on an internet that has too much porn on it anyway. Diego Maradona - how many times does the greatest athlete / elder statesman of a sport - any sport - run around naked? I mean, when not on a CK ad or a sports illustrated shoot? How often in this day and age do people run around naked without the intention of making you part with your money?

In the end I chose the Paraguay chick so that people wouldn't give me funny looks."

Well 11 points for now for 11 ppl on the pitch. I'm sure there will be a few more talking points in the last 3 matches.



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