Will a ninth country join the list of World Cup winners?

The World Cup football tournament has been played since 1930, with a break forced by the second World War, but only eight countries have emerged winners at the 21 competitions.

The 22nd competition kicked off in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar on November 20. The competition is the biggest as far as TV viewership goes, outdoing even the Olympics. It is watched in more countries than the Games.

Brazil have won the trophy on five occasions, the most recent being in 2002, and finished runners-up twice. Germany is next, with four wins, three as West Germany, and one, in 2014, after unification. Continue reading “Will a ninth country join the list of World Cup winners?”

The heart of football has stopped beating. Diego Armando Maradona is dead

Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios,” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”). —How Diego Maradona described his exploits to a select few reporters sniffing around for the day’s killer quote after the quarter-final against England in the 1986 World Cup.

Diego Armando Maradona is dead. By any measure, the man was the greatest footballer who ever lived, a short, stumpy man who seemed to have the ball on a string, one who looked terribly clumsy but who had the feet of an angel.

He died of a heart attack, no doubt brought on by the way he abused his body, with cocaine and alcohol use high on his list. The genius on the field was a man who could not control his self-destructive urges.

Maradona came from a poor background, being raised in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. His talent was spotted at an early age, when he appeared for trials with the Argentinos Juniors, for whom he played 10 days before his 16th birthday.

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Germany and Argentina: who will win?

NEVER in the history of the world cup football tournament have there been such vastly different results in the semi-finals: Germany mauled Brazil 7-1 while Argentina scraped through via a penalty shootout over the Netherlands, neither team being able to score in two hours of play.

Argentina’s win came after what was surely the most boring game of the tournament to date, with the number of scoring attempts less than the number of digits on one hand. The tie-breaker was not tense either; the very first Dutch attempt was saved and provided an indication of which way it would go.

The German win was remarkable in many ways; it was the highest number of goals scored by any team in a semi-final over the 20 tournaments held so far. The eight goals scored by both teams was also the most goals scored in a semi-final.
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Why is so much taxpayer money wasted on sport?

How much taxpayers’ money does Australia spend on sport? It appears to be a huge amount and something the governments, both federal and state, would prefer stayed hidden.

Sport is an obsession in the country and politicians know that when the country is occupied with it, then the people won’t bother about the comings and going of those in power.

Hence, they encourage sport to the hilt. Wealthy associations receive big handouts for this and that even though they do not need the money and can manage on their own. This keeps the sport and the sportsmen on-side.
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The beautiful game but not when it comes to the World Cup

WHILE Spain rejoices over having won the World Cup, it seems somewhat churlish to remind those who are overjoyed that the game played in the final against the Netherlands was anything but the beautiful game.

It was an awful game, presided over by a referee who was out of his depth. One cannot forget the influence that a referee has in a game; the man can set the tone by impressing on the players the fact that no nonsense will be tolerated. Once that is done, the referee can melt into the background and let the game go on.

But Englishman Howard Webb appeared to want to be as prominent as the players. He engaged in verbal duels with several of them and never bothered to lay down the law early on in the game. The result? There were nine yellow cards given to Dutch players and five to Spanish players; one Dutch player was given a second yellow which meant a red and hence he had to leave the field.

I was reminded of the 1990 final when Germany played Argentina for a second tournament running; in 1986, the Argentines, inspired by Diego Maradona, defeated the Germans by the odd goal of five. In 1990, the Germans put one man, Guido Buchwald, to mark Maradona and that took him out of the game altogether. But, despite this, the Germans only won through a dubious penalty which they gained through the dying swan, Juergen Klinsmann.

Many people admire the type of game that Spain plays, keeping possession all the time and making the occasional foray up the field. Football is supposed to be about scoring goals, not hanging on to the ball and boring people witless. The quality of passing is definitely to be admired but not when 90 percent of it is backwards in a bid to prevent the opposition from doing anything. It’s a dog in the manger attitude and does the game no good. Of course, no matter what methods a team uses, it takes home $30 million when it wins. The losers get $6 million less.

But the Netherlands does not deserve any praise either. They came prepared to literally get Spain off the field by playing a robust, physical game. Here the referee is to blame; the moment the Dutch started fouling with gay abandon, he should have sent off one of their players. But Webb was more interested in arguing with players and proved that just because one is an Englishman it does not make one an expert in the administration of the game.

For all the horrible methods used, there were at least seven clear chances when goals could have been scored. If just three of those chances had been taken, the public would have had something worth watching. But in the end, there was just one goal, scored a few minutes from the end of the two-hour-long game.

By the time 2014 comes around, if FIFA has not put in place some kind of system to use video replays to avoid the kind of horrible refereeing errors seen in the 2010 tournament, then football will be in danger of becoming the laughing stock of all the codes.

Some lessons from the World Cup

THE World Cup football tournament is almost over; just three games remain and within a few hours the second finalist will be known, the one who will take on the Netherlands on Monday morning (Australian eastern time) for the title.

There have been plenty of upsets this time – Italy and France, the two finalists in the last tournament went out in the first round, Spain was beaten by Switzerland in the group games, New Zealand drew with Italy, Brazil were put out in the quarter-finals, and Germany gave England a thrashing in the second round and Argentina a similar hammering in the quarter-finals.

But for all that, it has become apparent that football has some catching up to do with other sports in many respects. Take for instance, the refusal on the part of football authorities to use video replays to aid referees; England scored a legitimate goal against Germany that wasn’t awarded and the US did the same against Slovenia. Both goals would have been given if referees had the benefit of replays.

In the quarter-finals, Paraguay scored a goal against Spain and it was not given because the scorer was deemed to be offside. Replays showed that this was clearly not the case.

There were also numerous penalties given when they were not deserved; in some other cases, penalties should have been awarded and were not given. FIFA, however, does not seem inclined to accept the use of video replays.

Rugby union (and several other sports) uses video replays to make judgements when the referee cannot decide and thus there is no doubt left in the players’ minds about the correctness of a decision. Of course, the referee is still left to interpret things in most cases.

One case where football could take a lesson from union is in the case of deliberate handballs in the six-yard box. In the case of football, the player concerned gets a red card — which means that he is sent off and misses at least one more game in addition — and the opposition gets a penalty which they then have to convert in order to get a goal.

In rugby union, if the referee is convinced that a player would have scored a try were it not for some illegal tactic by an opposing player, he can award a penalty try. That means there is no need to score – the five points are awarded. The conversion becomes a matter of course as it can be done from right in front of the posts.

Football could introduce a similar rule – if a player is deemed to have deliberately prevented a goal by using his hands, then the goal should be awarded right away. A classic case is that of the Uruguayan striker Suarez who used his hands to punch the ball away from the goalline in the quarter-final against Ghana. He got a red card but the subsequent penalty was muffed by Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan. He denied Ghana a win but in the end his team won as the match went to a penalty shootout. The rugby union rule would have been more equitable.

How long is a piece of string?

WITH the end of the league phase of the ongoing World Cup, more than half the tournament is over – 48 out of 64 games are done with. But how much football have we seen?

The game of football runs for 90 minutes by the referee’s watch. But if one looks at the half-time or full-time stats, then one realises that the ball is in actual play for anything from 28 to 35 minutes. And rarely is that upper limit reached.

Time is wasted when the ball goes out of play. Players take their own sweet time to get to the sidelines and take a throw-in, especially if they are ahead on the scoreboard. The goalkeeper wastes as much time as he can when taking a goalkick.

Players who have to take a corner kick show no sign of urgency – unless the score is against them. When an indirect free kick is involved, the drama is even more as players go through the motions to take one.

Hence while the 90-minute game is sold as such, what the spectators get to see is anything from about 56 to 70 minutes of play.

Here’s where Australian rules football makes sense. The time is counted only when the ball is play. The game is split into quarters and is an 80-minute affair. But this is actual playtime, not the time wasted on players’ dramas, not the time when the ball is out of bounds.

The time is maintained by a timekeeper in the pavilion and the beginning and end of each quarter is marked by a siren which is sounded by the same individual. The ball does not need to be in play for the game to end as it does in football. Neither does the ball have to go out of play for the game to end as it does in rugby union.

This is why even players from rugby league, which looks terribly physically demanding, have stamina problem when they cross over to Australian rules – the game may look physically less taxing but given its duration it is awfully draining physically.

If football were to adopt the system of time-keeping followed by Australia rules, the game would probably run to about 110 minutes or even two hours to accommodate all the time-wasting that goes on.

That’s how long a game that goes into extra-time lasts – two halves of 15 minutes each are played if a knock-out game does not end with a result after the regulation 90 minutes. And such a game does leave the players really drained.

Football world cup gets down to business

THE world cup in South Africa is slowly coming down to the business end with the conclusion of the group matches in a day. Four groups have finished their fixtures, two more will complete their engagements in a few hours and the rest will finish off tomorrow.

Australia bowed out as expected, leaving everything to the end by expecting to record a big win and also be helped by a result from the other game in the group. The team was humiliated in its opening fixture and that put paid to any chances of going into the round of 16.

Thus far, the traditional powerhouses Brazil and Argentina have looked the goods. Germany put up a horrible show in their second group tie but are still a force to be reckoned with, and teams like Portugal, Holland and Paraguay are also showing signs of being competitive.

Holders Italy, normally a sluggish starter, have to win their final game to qualify, with a shock draw against minnows New Zealand putting them somewhat off their stride. Pre-tournament favourites Spain have also left it to the end to qualify.

The teams from Africa have been a disappointment – only Ghana will be there when the knockout phase begins. Ivory Coast was the strongest contender but unfortunately is in a group with Brazil and Portugal. The other African team to perform well in the past, Cameroon, looks like a shadow of what it used to be. The hosts, South Africa, have been knocked out as well.

But none of the games played so far have produced classic soccer. There have been upsets a plenty – Switzerland defeated Spain, New Zealand drew with Italy – but the kind of top-drawer performance that one sees at every world cup is yet to be seen.

There is no star player either. Nobody can yet call this world cup his own. It’s a reflection of the fact that football is now a game which attracts so much money that not losing has become paramount.

A football mirage

THERE are times when mismatched teams go up against each other in sporting contests and the team expected to get massacred gets the expected whacking, but only after putting up a fighting performance. But if the lower-ranked team capitulates without a fight, then there is reason for despair, reason to panic, reason to think that the defeat will affect more than just that game.

Australia is bleeding this morning after its national football team, the Socceroos, gave as abysmal a display as possible in their opening World Cup fixture, getting a 4-0 hammering from world football powerhouse Germany. There have been bigger defeats in the World Cup, there have been more mismatched contests. Yet this defeat is going to ensure that Australia finishes bottom of the group as it would have lowered the team’s morale to zero.

Some factors which have never been highlighted have masked the definciencies in the Australian team. In 2006, after 32 years, Australia finally managed to qualify for the finals. The coach, the canny and experienced Guus Hiddink, had a clever mix of defence and attack and knew the limitations of the team. Hiddink came to Australia after having guided South Korea to the semi-finals in the 2002 tournament and earned that country’s praise in buckets.

For the 2006 tournament, Australia was in the Asia-Oceania group for qualifying, a much tougher set of opponents than the current set in its Asia group. Politicking enabled Australia to compete in a less difficult group for the 2010 qualifying process but that has also resulted in masking several weaknesses in the team and allowed the new coach, the ultra-cautious Pim Verbeek, to retain older players instead of focusing on the essential process of team renewal.

Verbeek has still retained the team’s dependence on players who are at, or near, the ends of their careers; he has also infused the team with a cautious style of play, that has not done it good at all. And he hasn’t made any effort to bring in new blood, probably since he knows he cannot be deemed a failure if the team qualified for the Cup.

Going up against a German team that was without its captain, the mercurial Michael Ballack, things were not made easier for Australia by Verbeek’s decision to experiment by leaving out any genuine striker for the toughest match that Australia will have in the group. Most national teams play a lone striker these days. It looked as though Australia had come to play for a draw. Expecting a roving midfielder like Tim Cahill to play striker was a silly decision.

Germany’s pattern of play surprised everyone. Deutschland has a reputation for dour, solid performances; the young team played with a freedom that one would expect from a south American team. They were given ample space to play in by the Australians whose sole tactic seemed to be one from the dark ages, that of catching their opponents in the offside trap. Professional players of the calibre of Mesut Oezil and Lucas Podolski spend hours and hours practising the right moment to break for an overhead pass and hence this tactic was clearly a waste of time.

The Germans were dynamic in their approach, constantly forming and re-forming pretty patterns as they roamed upfield in a quest for goals,. They could have scored a dozen if Miloslav Klose had been on target half the time and the gifted Oezil had done likewise. They exposed the gaping gaps in Australia’s defence and the foolishness of the use of the offside tactic. And they kept physical play down to a minimum.

The Australian goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, put up a poor show as well but then that was not much different from the rest of the team. Disappointingly, the Australians resorted to far too much physical play, their frustrations increasing as the Germans made them look like amateurs time and time again.

The red card for Cahill was probably a bit harsh given that he had touched the ball less than half-a-dozen times before that. But referees have been asked to clamp down on contact, especially when it involves key players, and there is no-one more central to the German team than Bastian Schweinstager. Cahill has probably played his last World Cup match; the FIFA panel that sits down to decide on his punishment will probably out him for the remaining two group games.

But the scoreline apart, one doubts if any Australian would have been disappointed had the team turned up to play, fought and lost. That was not the case. They had clearly come looking for a draw and any team that does that in the World Cup deserves to lose and lose badly.

It’s fine to cheat – as long as you don’t get caught

France has qualified for the World Cup football tournament in 2010 by cheating. Captain Thierry Henry showed the way, using his hand to guide the ball back to himself before passing it to a colleague to score.

The last time one saw a hand blatantly in use in any match connected with the World Cup was back in 1986 when Diego Maradona scored a goal against England during the league stage of the Cup.

There’s one difference – Maradona tried to spin his way out by saying it was the “hand of God” that had touched the ball. Henry is open about having intentionally touched the ball and saying it was the referee’s duty to spot such infringements.

Henry is one of the top earners in world football. All the money and ability he has does not appear to have improved his sense of fair play. He just wants to win and at any cost.

There is talk of a re-match after ireland, which was the team dudded out of the competition by Henry’s hand, complained to the world football governing body, FIFA.

France has had an up-and-down World Cup record; it won the cup in 1998 and then went out in the first round in 2002 before reaching the final in 2006. In 1986, it played one of the epics when it beat Brazil via a tie-breaker in the quarter-finals.

Henry’s cheating is just the latest such incident to illustrate the fact that in sport nowadays, given the amount of money at stake, winning is the only thing. It doesn’t matter if you cheat, you just shouldn’t get caught.

When India toured Australia for a cricket series back in 2007-08, Andrew Symonds was caught behind off the thickest of edges during a Test match in Sydney.

He stood his ground even though the nick could be heard in Tasmania. The match turned ugly later when Symonds was allegedly called a monkey by Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh.

But Symonds defended his conduct even though he admitted that he had edged the ball. Singh got away with the mildest of raps on his knuckles.

While Ireland hopes for a re-match, it is highly unlikely. FIFA has already shown some kind of bias towards both France and Portugal during the qualifying stage by allowing teams to be seeded well after the qualifying process began.

There are some teams in world football which are, evidently, more equal than others. France is one among them. And Ireland does not stand a hope in hell of getting anything like justice.