Saturday, August 28, 2010

Experiencing the World Cup first-hand...In Europe

For most football fanatics, a trip to Europe means one thing, football! Yet, as I jetted across land and sea to a faraway place, I pondered just how I managed to arrange my Europe trip for the one time football won’t be plentiful in Europe.

But ohh how wrong I was. The 2010 FIFA World Cup may have been in South Africa, but sitting in pubs in Austria, Slovakia, France, Belgium and Germany, you wouldn’t know it. In those pubs, the World Cup could have just been down the road, such was the intensity that radiated through their walls.

First stop on the World Cup bandwagon was a day trip to Slovakia, from my base of Austria, to watch the Slovaks play Paraguay. After a train ride to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, and some quick site seeing, my friends and I settled down at an Irish pub in the centre of the city, ready to watch the game.

And wow. The pub wasn’t that full, but nevertheless the atmosphere was great. Not having to watch the game while trying to keep open your eyelids also added to the experience.

The next trip also involved an Irish pub, but this one much closer to my home away from home, in Vienna, Austria. A quick jaunt down to the city centre took me into Flanagan’s Pub, a hearty place with televisions everywhere, and quality beer on tap.

After settling down for a beer...or three, I set my eyes on the afternoon’s entertainment, Chile v Switzerland. After the Swiss beat eventual champions Spain, and Chile had been unspectacular against Honduras, everyone was expecting a tight encounter. Well everyone in my area of the pub, two Germans, my friend who doesn’t follow football, and myself. Ok, I expected a tight encounter.

However, an early bath for Valon Behrami, after the West Ham United midfielder was sent off in the 30th minute, swung the game towards Chile. Despite failing to capitalise on many chances, the man advantage eventually proved decisive, and Mark Gonzalez headed the ball home with 15 minutes to go, pushing Chile towards the next round.

The final game to be watched in Austria, once again at the local Irish hangout, was the big one for any Aussie, the Socceroos v Serbia. Wearing my colours in the form of a Socceroos jersey, my Aussie friends and I eagerly awaited a thrilling game.

Sadly, despite the victory, the aged Socceroos didn’t progress, but the atmosphere in the pub almost made up for it. Almost.

With one half of the establishment crammed with German and Ghana supporters, and the other half full of Serbians and a few Aussies, the atmosphere was electric. As the Socceroos progression relied heavily on the other game, multiple trips were made to the other side, seeing if a favourable result was in progress.

Alas it was not to be, and as friendly banter between Serbian and Australian fans started to get heated, I decided to cover up my Socceroos shirt and head home.

After my sojourn in Austria, I headed to France, where I had to contain the urge not to shout out how pathetic their football team was. While in France I spent many nights in various hotel bars, watching all manner of games, but it wasn’t until I headed north to Germany that the real fun began.

A trendy hotel’s bar in Aachen was the scene for Germany v Spain, and after writing for a while on Spanish football, and tipping Spain to win before the tournament, my geographical location was not going to prevent me from supporting La Furia Roja.

After betting a pint on the result of the game with a friend, I sat back and enjoyed Spain’s domination, but was worried about the lack of end result. Thankfully, a Carles Puyol header sealed the deal, and I made some noise while getting death stares from various Germans, and Australians sharing the bar with me.

I must say, the Germans sure know how to prepare for a big game. Walking the streets before the game, I saw all manner of flags, banners and football paraphernalia. A house without something German related on it was a rare sight indeed. And the locals were walking around draped in Germany shirts and flag while drinking beer, at four o’clock, four and a half hours away from kick-off.

The morning after the game I went on a tour of some nearby battlefields, indulging my inner history nerd. Being led around scenes of fighting in the Second World War, by a German soldier who had actually fought in the area, I was somewhat surprised with myself when I started talking to him about football. He was understandably angry that Germany had lost, and I decided to keep my Spanish support quiet.

This moment however, maybe more than any other, truly underlines what I love about football. It is the global game. While a conversation about football may be more difficult in Australia or the US, ultimately, in any country in the world, you will find someone who you can talk to about football. From the Faroe Islands to North Korea, from New Zealand to Qatar, someone will talk to you about football. It is, the world game.

However, Europe tops this off, because in Europe, you don’t have to find someone to talk to about football, anyone will talk to you about football. From random bus drivers to WW2 veterans, from bar-tenders (see below) to...well, to everyone more or less. Football and Europe, practically synonymous.

Possibly the most humorous moment related to the game came the next night when I asked the rather cute bar-tender for a drink. She paused and looked at me before explaining “No, you were the guy supporting Spain last night.” Thankfully after laying on the charm I got myself a drink, although sadly not a phone number...

After listening to police sirens all night after the game, I was pleased to return to France, where my Spanish allegiance was less likely to get me mortally injured. However, upon returning Paris, I discovered to my horror that my plane flight would see my in the air during the World Cup final.

Needless to say I was devastated, and even an exciting 3rd place game couldn’t lift my spirits. Sitting nervously on the plane home, waiting for the pilot to announce the score, I got more and more worried as the minutes ticked on.

My logic that extra-time and penalties would make a win for Spain slightly less likely ultimately proved flawed however, and in a heavy Thai accent our pilot informed us that Spain had won one-nil after 120 minutes. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and went back to my movie.

After assuring quarantine that I wasn’t trying to bring home anything dodgy, I found myself a newspaper before getting ready for a long bus ride home to Canberra. Flipping through The Daily Telegraph, it was perhaps reassuring to see that football (or soccer as they may prefer to call it) is hidden 12 pages from the back cover.

This in an edition that went to print only hours before the World Cup final, the biggest sporting event in the world. It certainly rammed home the fact I was back in Australia, where, sadly, football is not the number one sport. Wait, why did I leave Europe again?

Preview - Málaga CF v Valencia CF

Málaga CF

After spending 12 weeks in the relegation zone early last season, Málaga fans would have been pleased to find themselves sitting comfortably mid table with 10 games to play. However, a disastrous run during the home stretch of the season left the side sitting 18th in the penultimate round, staring relegation in the face.

A 1-1 draw with Real Madrid on the final day of the season may have secured Málaga another year of top flight football, but it may all be in vain unless new manager Jesualdo Ferreira can dramatically improve the side.

Another season in a relegation battle may not please their new owner however, after the Spanish side were brought by Qatari billionaire Abdullah Al-Thani. The new money has certainly helped in the transfer market, with the arrival of Uruguayan international Sebastián Fernández and 26 year old Brazilian midfielder Sandro Silva, strengthening the squad significantly.

Despite a dismal previous season, Málaga is strong at the back, and had the 7th best defense in La Liga last term. While this may have been nullified by their inability to score, they only found the net 42 times, the side does still have the potential to cause Valencia problems. Málaga won't be relying on their home form though in their first encounter of the 2010/2011 season, as they had the 4th worst record at home stadium last season.

Key for Málaga against Valencia, and indeed throughout their season, will be defender Jesús Gámez (pictured). The 25 year old Spaniard started 32 games for the club last season and was a key reason for their defensively solid performances. If the right sided defender can keep Juan Mata quiet this weekend, Valencia could be in for a tough night at La Rosaleda.

Málaga CF squad:

Goalkeepers: Francesc Arnau, Rodrigo Galatto

Defense: Jesús Gámez, Welington, Manu Torres, Iván González, Patrick Mtiliga

Midfield: Fernando, Apoño, Eliseu, Sandro Silva, Juanito

Strikers: Albert Luque, Edinho, Sebastián Fernández, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Juanmi, José Rondón

Valencia CF

A turbulent summer in the transfer window will see a vastly different Valencia side taking the pitch on Saturday night. While a full season preview can be found by clicking here, the biggest piece of news regarding the new look Valencia is that striker Roberto Soldado will miss 2-3 weeks with an injured hamstring. Fellow new signing Aritz Aduriz (pictured) is sure to get the start for this match, when also taking into account the fact that Chori Domínguez has failed to recover from his lingering knee problem.

Another interesting thing to look for v Málaga is to see which formation Unai Emery decides to go with, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Spanish newspaper Super Deporte reported during the week that Emery has decided against employing a 4-3-3 formation, and will instead be sticking to last season’s 4-2-3-1.

With the squad for this weekend's match being released on Friday, Emery raised some eyebrows by deciding to leave Portuguese midfielder Manuel Fernandes at home. Fernandes had a pretty solid preseason for VCF, and this will surely just increase his desire to leave the club, as he has wanted to do since last January. Another interesting player left out of the squad is Vicente Guiata. The young goalkeeper had a far superior preseason to Miguel Ángel Moyà, but it seems that, for now, Emery is sticking with the player he signed last season for €5 million from Mallorca.

Sofiane Feghouli and Ángel Dealbert have also been left out of the squad, while Chori and Soldado will miss the match due to injury.

Valencia CF squad:

Goalkeepers: César Sánchez, Miguel Ángel Moyà

Defense: Bruno Saltor, Miguel Brito, David Navarro, Hedwiges Maduro, Ricardo Costa, Jérémy Mathieu, Jordi Alba

Midfield: David Albelda, Mehmet Topal, Éver Banega, Tino Costa, Joaquín Sánchez, Pablo Hernández, Juan Mata, Vicente Rodríguez

Strikers: Aritz Aduriz

La Happenings: World Cup review special

After over two years of beautiful passing football, with exquisite goals to match, Spain had to play ugly to win the World Cup, and with close one-nil wins and goals from headers, they did just that. La Furia Roja became world champions after Andres Iniesta slotted home a pass from Cesc Fabregas in the 116th minute of the final in Soccer City, Johannesburg.

They were hailed as the kings of champagne football, as the most watchable side in the world, yet they were also critiqued for their lack of a plan-B, the lack of an ability to break teams down. A loss to Switzerland in Spain’s opening game only increased these worries, fears that the World Cup would be won by the Inter-Milan of the international scene, rather than the Barcelona.

However, wins over Honduras, Chile, Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and finally Holland saw the European champions lift the ultimate honour in football, the World Cup. For the first time in their history, the Spanish national team became World champions.

And oh did they celebrate. Cities all around Spain went wild, with huge parties in Madrid and Barcelona. However the victory was sadly not as dramatic as was widely tipped. Many labelled it beforehand as a game of passing football, pitting two of the ‘prettiest’ teams in world football in the ultimate spectacle. Spain v Holland was only just behind Spain v Brazil in the hoped for final.

But when it came, the victory was soured by a poor 120 minutes of cynical play. 13 yellow cards and a red to John Heitinga turned the opportunity for a brilliant display of passing football to a game of rough tackling and bad football.

While some may argue that Holland had every right to use such tactics, seeing it as a perfectly legitimate way to play, there is no denying that it ruined the possibility for a night of gorgeous football.

Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque said after the match that, Holland made it very difficult for us to play comfortably. I’m here to speak about the beautiful things in football. It was rough at times, but that’s part of football.” Sadly, these things happen, but ultimately the better team won, and justice was served.

Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk also felt like adding that “It’s not our style to commit horrible fouls. It’s not our kind of football. But I would love to have won it with football that was not so beautiful. Both sides, also the Spaniards, committed terrible fouls.” Wouldn’t we all have loved to have won the World Cup?

Spain played like Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, Holland as Inter. Only this time, tactical genius Jose Mourinho was not involved, and La Furia Roja, a large chunk of the side made up of Barca players, were too good. Just too good.

The Spanish side are now both European and World champions, and despite having won everything available to them, the side will not be slowing down yet. Stars David Villa, Xavi and Iker Casillas all have another World Cup in them, while other important members of the squad, David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres, are still relatively young. Even if Xavi, at 30 the third oldest member of the World Cup squad, was to call it a day soon, he would be replaced by Fabregas or Javi Martinez, two world class midfielders.

Spain has always enjoyed incredibly talented players, from Telmo Zarra to Raul, Alfredo di Stéfano to Fernando Hierro. However there was always that doubt, that lack of confidence in a team that never before made a World Cup final. After taking the Euros in 2008, a team brimming with star quality finally found its feet.

They surpassed negative football and foul play to win the World Cup in South Africa 2010. With such confidence now instilled in the team, a second and even third World Cup does not look doubtful. After years as the ‘coulda beens’ of world football, La Furia Roja, the Spanish national team, is now ready to write themselves into the history books. World, watch out.

The best part of the victory? I tipped it! I predicted in the Half Time Heroes World Cup special that Spain’s “...time has finally come,” and I was right. Pity I didn’t put my money where my mouth was...

Featured in Half Time Heroes World Cup Special, the best web magazine around!

Persecution of the Precious

Persecution of the precious

The French Football Federation (FFF) last week announced its response to Les Bleus’ disastrous World Cup campaign, with Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribéry, Jeremy Toulalan and Manchester United star Patrice Evra all receiving serious punishment. However, the sanctions handed down by the FFF raise a more intriguing question…

Are the players to blame for making a stand against a coach whom they had lost faith in?

After guiding France to an unexpected spot in the 2006 World Cup final, former French international Raymond Domenech failed dismally at the 2008 Euros, finishing last behind Romania in their group. Despite calls for 58-year-old Frenchman to step down or be sacked throughout the two years between the Euros and the 2010 World Cup, Domenech was handed the task of leading a talented French squad in South Africa.

While rumours had brewed that Domenech was unpopular with the players, the abysmal nature of the French World Cup campaign and the subsequent scandals left a nation shocked at the FFF’s failings. Letting Domenech, a man hated by his team, guide them through a World Cup seems nonsensical, and this was only reaffirmed by the antics of the squad in South Africa.

After Chelsea striker Anelka was sent home following a row with Domenech, the team revolted and refused to train, retreating to the sanctuary of the team bus. This eventually led to France exiting the World Cup after the group stage, suffering a humiliating defeat to hosts South Africa in the final game.

In response to the failure of the French squad at the 2010 World Cup, the FFF handed down match bans to four of the players involved in the so-called ‘mutiny’. Anelka has been banned from international football for an astonishing 18 matches, while United star Evra will miss five pending an appeal launched yesterday. Bayern Munich winger Ribéry, absent from the hearing, was given a three match ban, and Olympique Lyonnaise star Toulalan will miss a single game.

Unsurprisingly the decision has been greeted with disgust and derision from the players involved, and others involved in the world game have followed suit.

Before the sanctions were handed down, Evra started his pre-emptive defence, questioning the FFF’s hearing

“Why punish us more than others? It’s over now,” said the French captain.

“The penalty of not selecting the 23 players from the World Cup for the Norway friendly is consistent. That showed there were not five or six ‘ringleaders’ as had been written.”

But the FFF had to act, had to turn attention away from the failure of a federation that allowed a manager, who clearly no longer had support of the players, to lead the side to the World Cup.

“I am surprised, as I thought everyone wanted to turn the page after the World Cup. We must think about the future,” Evra adds.

However, the FFF clearly thought differently, and wanted to punish those who had apparently led a strike in protest against the decision to send Anelka home. While the comments attributed to the French striker that led to his exclusion were less than kind – “Go &@$% yourself, you son of a whore” – the real issue is that the FFF is trying to hide its woeful inadequacy.

Another to receive a ban, Ribéry, has tried to play down the decision to keep his international spot once the ban is over. The 27-year-old winger questioned the wisdom of not punishing the squad as a collective.

“I do not understand why some players were sentenced to a five-match ban while others have not been punished. All these players participated in what happened at the World Cup,” said Ribéry last week.

Ribéry has a valid point, the judgment to sentence only some players, predominantly those in leadership positions among the team, is intriguing. Ultimately, didn’t those players, as the leaders of the team, have the right to question manager’s authority they no longer believed in? After Domenech made a decision, which they felt left the team in an untenable position.

Such an occurrence is common-place in Premier League sides when managers get the boot. Often the old heads of the team will have questioned his position at the club. The FFF’s decision, therefore, can be seen as trying to lay the blame for a poor World Cup on those who do not deserve it – ultimately using Anelka, Evra and co as scapegoats.

Not everyone agrees with such a view though, and French legend Lillian Thuram wasn’t supportive of United’s beloved defender Evra. One of the most successful figures in French football, Thuram belittled Evra.

“I demanded that the players be harshly punished and that Evra never returns to the France squad. When you are captain of the France team, you must have a responsibility to the jersey and the people,” said the 142-cap legend.

“When the players shut themselves in the bus…that showed that the coach was no longer respected.”

However, if the coach was no longer respected, is it not the captain’s job to make this known? While a safer option was to grin and bear it until the end of the tournament, Evra made a stance and demonstrated to the world how flawed the FFF’s decision making is.

Unsurprisingly there are many who are ready to back Evra and his role at the World Cup. Newly signed Tottenham Hotspur defender William Gallas was quick to redirect the finger of blame.

“If it was a fiasco, then there are reasons for it,” the former Arsenal captain told the Daily Telegraph.

“And for me there is no need to draw a veil over why: they emanated from the coach. The real problem is the coach. Ok I wasn’t good, we weren’t good. But the coach wasn’t up to scratch either.”

“Anelka’s incident was a case of him being fed up for a few weeks prior to that. Domenech hammered into us time and again: ‘Put your egos to one side’. But I believe that he forgot to do that himself.”

While Gallas was already disenfranchised with Domenech after a disputing the side’s captaincy he makes a valid point.

Even new French manager Laurent Blanc isn’t positive about the punishments.

“I thought the collective punishment [the Norway friendly] was both necessary and sufficient…Our only concern is to establish the best possible squad for those fixtures in early September against the Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said the former United defender.

Given the man charged with turning around the fortunes of French football disagrees with the punishment, one must wonder why the FFF felt compelled to act and not move on.

Finally, the man at the centre of the controversy, Anelka, sums up the farce.

“For me, this whole thing with the commission is an aberration, a masquerade to make sure they don’t lose face,” said the Chelsea striker.

“They have punished a void, as Nicolas Anelka never existed in this pitiful and colourful affair. They are real clowns, these people … I am doubled up with laughter.” While the laughter claim may sound arrogant, his argument is striking and direct, much like the Frenchman’s playing style.

While the decision to exclude the players from France’s recent friendly is widely seen as justifiable, the bans handed down by the FFF recently are not. Instead, it is a crude attempt to hide the organisational failures at the top level of French football.

There is however one benefit the punishment brings United fans; Patrice Evra won’t have to attend any pesky international games in the next few months!

I'm back!

After a bit of an absence as I traversed Europe, thoroughly enjoyed the World Cup, and then sadly returned home, I'm back!

And with good news. I have multiple articles in Soccer International's Leagues of Europe Season Preview magazine; including articles on Manchester United, Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla. I have also been working away on a veritable thesis on the future of the Socceroos, which will be in next month's Soccer International.

In between I have been interviewing Nathan Coe, who I must add is a great guy, and trying to secure interviews with a whole host of Young Socceroos.

So, I'm back, and have a heap of articles for your enjoyment (hopefully)!