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.

The voice of an angel

NOT since I heard the music of a young Harry Chapin or an equally youthful James Taylor have I listened to a voice as clear and beautiful as that of the Aboriginal blind singer Gurrumul Yunupingu. He has been around for some time, as part of the well-known band Yothu Yindi, but it is only after he went solo that his name has become better known.

Gurrumul, who like many other Aborigines who rise to prominence, has now been christened with an English name, Geoffrey, has a voice that is haunting, that speaks directly to the soul, that makes one weep.

For anyone with even a slight knowledge of the history of dispossession that his people, and all the Australian Aboriginal tribes have endured ever since the white man stole their land, his voice also speaks to that part of his people’s history, without ever having to write lyrics either angry or accusatory.

His lyrics lose a lot when translated into English; on the surface they appear to be simple and, at times, even puzzling. But it is the music that counts, the music that endures, the voice that carries everything before him. His tones are at times strident, but mostly mellow, stirring and pure.

There is a plaintive quality about his music, creating a sense of sadness, loneliness, and at times there is the upward lilt that transports one to a realm of hope. But above all, the music is pure, untainted by technology and crosses the boundaries of many genres – blues, folk, rock and reggae – without ever sacrificing its own heritage.

After his first solo album, simply called Gurrumul, was released, he has attracted a remarkable amount of attention, played with Sting, taken a turn at a concert with Elton John, and is shortly due to tour the US. Exactly how he will fare in that land where fluff is more important than substance is uncertain.

He is a shy, retiring type even though he is a year short of 40, and the adulation of those he has admired – bands like the Eagles, Sir Cliff Richard and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits – probably would mean much more to him than the meaningless media merry-go-round which is geared towards extracting the soul from the soul musician.

His music is essentially simple; he plays a regular guitar left-handed as he could never obtain a left-handed instrurment when he was growing up. His mastery of the instrument is plain once one has listened to just a single one of his ballads.

The mix of a little English and his own Ylongu language which he uses is basic but powerful; the lyrics are unimportant, the voice is everything. Truly, these are tones from above, the voice of an angel.