Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Stopping Simulation: Football faces the ongoing challenge of stamping cheating out of the sport

Following Frank Lampard's already infamous 'goal that never was', two different themes have dominated the work of many football writers. The first, which I briefly touched upon if my previous post, is the reinvigorated campaign for goal-line technology to be implemented by FIFA. The second has been the labelling of Germany's goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, a 'cheat'.

Neuer stated after the game: "I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over." His actions and this subsequent quote have created a fresh wave of articles criticising the lack of ethics in football today. What he did maybe cannot be claimed to be cheating but it was certainly unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Many would claim that those who criticise Neuer's lack of honesty are 'naïve'. Surely that is the problem. Few have directed any blame over Lampard's non-goal at Neuer. We live in an age where you would be considered foolish to think that sportsmen would show a shred of honesty or integrity if it impacted upon their chance of winning.

Cheating comes in many forms. The difficulty is where you draw the line. Is shirt pulling in the box cheating? Technically it is against the rules. It is, however, done by all teams and is therefore not of benefit to any one specific individual or team.

One of the greatest threats to the game is 'simulation'. The current World Cup has been riddled with it. Players falling down clutching their face on the lightest of contact, diving or feigning injuries to delay the game are now all commonplace. Players are lying to win penalties or to have their opponents reprimanded. Who can forget Rivaldo falling to the ground as if he had been on the end of a Mike Tyson right-hook having merely been struck on the shin by a football.

Last night Ricardo Costa unintentionally elbowed the Spaniard Capdevila who promptly delivered his rendition of an extra from Platoon. If you watch the replays carefully you can see he starts to sit up before seeing the referee approaching Costa and then continuing his performance. It is intentional and blatant cheating.

The win at all costs attitude that currently exists means that moments like Maradona or Theirry Henry's handball will only continue to occur. What can be done? Quite simply, an example ought to be made of these players. Diving, unfair red cards due to simulation, pressuring referees to produce cards and obvious cheating actions, like handballs, need to be reviewed and severely punished. It is the only way this problem can be tackled.

Fines will do little with the wages that most footballers are on these days. Perhaps instead there ought to be match bans which increase for re-offenders. This way moments can be put under review and examined after the match and so referees are not expected to manage the problem single handedly. The sooner there are serious implications for dishonest behaviour the better chance there is of removing, or at least limiting, acts of simulation or cheating.

I am not going as far as to say that cheating or simulation is ruining the game but it a serious problem nevertheless. Like drug-use in athletics or like the fake-blood tactics employed by Harlequins, it is threatening the integrity of the game. It is now an accepted part of the game and is probably a tactic discussed on the training ground and the English are as guilty as anyone else.

Football is criticised by onlookers as a game of 'fairies' and 'cheats'. The reaction of the players to the slightest contact makes such opinions increasingly understandable. It is, as the responses to Neuer's actions clearly illustrates, becoming synonymous with the sport. Dishonest behaviour is not only accepted but is expected. Action ought to be taken and repercussions need to be implemented so that cheating in whatever form it takes does not remain an unnecessary facet of the beautiful game.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Four More Years of Hurt: The FA ought to dig deeper in its inquest into the state of English football

England's footballers are on their way back home after a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Germany capped off what was a poor tournament in South Africa. Casual racism and loutish behaviour will once again been pushed to the periphery of acceptability and all England fans will have their opinions on where it all went wrong.

On the day the players and the fans will inevitably look to the goal that never was as the key turning point in the match and, to an extent, they would be right to do so. Had Lampard's shot - that clipped the crossbar before bouncing a foot behind line - rightly been awarded as a goal the match would have certainly been very different. At 2-2 England would not have committed such great numbers forward and left themselves so exposed to the counter-attacks from which the German's third and fourth goals came.

Perhaps Mauricio Espinosa's decision not to give the goal will be the straw that breaks Sepp Blatter's back and sees goal-line technology or officials introduced to international football. It is always a shame when avoidable errors effect games of this magnitude and now calls for football's governing body to once again reconsider their stance on such issues will only gain support. Ultimately, however, the blame will lie with England and not with the row over goal-line technology. It is now for the FA and not FIFA to implement the much needed changes. From the players to the management their were faults throughout England's trip to South Africa.

I stated in my last post that it was difficult to assess either sides credentials after the opposition they faced in the group stage. Many felt as though Germany had defensive weaknesses that could be exploited. They did but, more importantly, so did England. Conceding two early goals gave England an extremely difficult task and thus the fingers can be directed towards a faltering defence for England's loss. Glen Johnson found himself out of position on a number of occasions. The centre-back partnership lacked pace and David James made several mistakes in what will probably be his last appearance for his country. Rooney looked uncharacteristically flat again and the attacking play generally was slow and unimaginative. England, once again, succeeding only in frustrating and under-performing.

Credit ought not to be taken away from Germany though. As much as it would pain any Englishmen to say, they were the better team on the day and probably in the tournament. As per tradition the country was filled with patriotic optimism in the build up to the game. People were of the opinion that the German's were weaker and that England were stronger than they realistically were. Germany had youthful pace and enthusiasm. They broke superbly, pressured England for 90 minutes and, despite frailties at the back, they were a more threatening attacking force. 4-1 was a flattering scoreline but the result was not unfair.

On paper, as you so often hear, we may have had the better players, marginally. But if we have learnt anything from the last 15 days it is that our great players do not make a great team. England showed promise in qualification but since arriving in the Rainbow Nation they have looked little more than ordinary. What went wrong? No doubt the inquest is imminent.

England were at fault for not making the quarter-finals largely because of their sub-par performances in their opening three matches. Had they beaten Algeria or the USA they would have avoided Germany in the last 16. Instead they would have had as attractive a path to the World Cup semi-finals as a team could wish for. The mistakes, the turning points, the chances and the misses from the loss to Germany will be replayed endlessly and over analysed in the immediate future.

The future of Capello and the senior players in the squad will be drawn into question as radical action will no doubt be called for. A change of personnel, on and off the pitch, will be suggested but what good will it do? Tactically Capello was not without fault. He insisted on playing Gerrard on the left which prevented possibly England's best player from having any real influence on the game. Rather than hastily enforce wholesale changes, however, the FA would be better off looking towards stability.

What seems clear to me is that now more than ever English football needs to look to long-term solutions in favour of attempts to find a quick fix to quench the mobs thirst for blood. Improving grass-roots football in England ought to be an absolute priority as many around the world of English football have been saying for a long time now. England's current squad may have contained many players who were part of the supposed 'golden generation'. It was, however, a generation of habitual under-performers on the international stage and now the 'golden generation' have, unfortunately, had their last chance to shine. Are there players waiting in the shadows to make up a new generation of talent which will produce greater strength in depth and help bring England that ever elusive World or European Cup glory?

I am no place to attempt to suggest specific action that the FA need take nor could I confidently say where exactly the blame ought to lie for England's disappointing World Cup campaign. But as we face four more years of hurt it has become obvious that attention must now be focused on producing a new generation of footballers for Brazil 2014. How one would go about fixing the infrastructure of English football I do not know but the time for applying more paper over the cracks has hopefully now finally elapsed. Big name managers can come and go as figureheads for our national team but the changes must ultimately be made much lower down the English footballing hierarchy.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Rivalry Resumed

It has been nine years since England recorded one of their most famous and emphatic of victories, a 5-1 thrashing of Germany. England's fans and players will be hoping for history to repeat itself this Sunday as the two sides meet in the last-16 of the World Cup.

England and Germany both finished the group stage with 1-0 wins over Slovenia and Ghana respectively. A Jermain Defoe goal put the inquest into the state of English football on hold, for a little while at least. The performance of the team was much improved. Gerrard played with far greater discipline on the left wing which gave the side much needed balance. England were more aggressive without the ball and incisive with it and the had it not been for some wayward finishing the scoreline could have looked more convincing. Had England found the net two more times then they could have avoided meeting their fierce rivals Germany in the next round and bigger teams beyond it.

Germany took part in an entertainingly open match against Ghana yesterday evening and eventually began to stamp their authority on the game by the second half. A great strike by one of the star players of the tournament thus far, Mesut Ozil, was all that separated the two sides. Ghana exploited Germany's defensive weaknesses on a number of occasions and had they not progressed despite losing the match then they will have no doubt have felt aggrieved at not getting at least a point out of the match.

Needless to say, neither Germany nor England have faced a stern enough test to assess their true quality yet. Both have had mixed performances in their group games but it would be safe to assume that Sunday's game bring more out of each team. Many optimistic fans are quietly confident of England's chances against this new-look Germany side. The view shared by many is that a match against Germany is just what Capello's men need to help them elevate their game.

Franz Beckenbauer has once again been outspoken about the England team. Having accused them of playing 'kick and rush football' in their opening game he has now called the England team 'stupid'. The Fuhrer was not referring John Terry's attempt to block a shot with his face, which was as stupid as it was brave. He was referring to England's failure to top their group and avoid the much tougher side of the draw. Unfortunately he is right. Germany may not strike the same level of fear as they used to but they are certainly a trickier obstacle than Ghana will have been. If England can overcome Germany on Sunday then they will probably go on to face their other great footballing rivals Argentina in the quarter-finals, assuming Maradona's team beat Mexico in their next match.

England may have put in a much improved display against Slovenia yesterday to qualify for the final 16 but they are now paying the price for their slow, or stationary, start to the competition. One thing goes without question, Rooney must improve if England are to progress far into the knock-out stage. He was more like usual self yesterday but the striker is still not anywhere near his formidable best, perhaps a match against the Germans will give him the extra motivation he needs.

The elephant in the room is the dreaded 'p' word. Expect to hear a lot about penalties in the build up to England's clash with Germany and it will not make for easy listening for England fans. The Three Lions have exited four of their last six International tournaments from the penalty spot and have lost all three of their World Cup penalty shoot-outs. The Germans have never lost a penalty-shoot-out at a World Cup having won all four that they have taken-part in.

The action at Wimbledon, meanwhile, is doing its best to steal the spotlight from events in South Africa as the records continued to tumble - 6 in total - in the epic and metronomic match between Mahut and Isner. The two players have just finished their enthralling slugfest that started on Tuesday afternoon. There was over eleven hours of play until the American Isner emerged an exhausted winner with a score of 70-68 in the fifth set. Andy Murray went through in straight sets infront of the Queen but this was eclipsed by this historic match. The quality of the tennis took a back seat in the comically bizarre contest as the crowds rallied around Court 18 to see what became a sporting freak show. The games were been predictable, the rallies non-existent and yet this match encapsulated those people at SW19 just through its display of stamina and will power.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Terry Press Conference - Not a 'Big Mistake'

It is hard to find a football writer who appears not to have spent the last two days trawling over the footage of John Terry's press conference on Saturday. In a climate of conservative and predictable responses to questions the former England captain's more honest answers have provoked a great deal of attention from the country's media.

We have become so use footballers using a set of rehearsed phrases to tackle any question thrown at them that most interviews have become like pulling a string from the back of the latest set of media-trained puppets with a set number pre-recorded responses. Press conferences and interviews are seemingly practised like set-pieces on the training ground. Terry's, however, did not follow a script.

Many, including Capello himself, have criticised the centre-back's outspoken attitude, while journalists have feasted at the buffet that Terry laid out before them. Was Terry right to stray from the safety of the 'Footballers Phrase Book'? At the end of the day, I think he was.

J.T may have been stripped of the captaincy but he remains a pivotal leader within the squad and he spoke like it. Terry claimed that some of the England squad were to have 'clear-the-air talks' with their Italian manager, which has been taken by some as a call-to-arms. This meeting never took place but yesterday Capello struck back at Terry's comments by saying it was a 'big mistake'.

England's uninspiring and lacklustre performances in their first two games have clearly heightened tension in the squad and it is pleasing to hear a player willing to offer his opinion on issues surrounding the team. His passion for the team to succeed led to his honesty and that ought not to be criticised. Perhaps, under the strict disciplinarian Capello, we have become too use to the England camp being shrouded in mystery.

It is well within a player's rights to speak their mind. It is also very refreshing. Terry's comments were far from detrimental for the team. Compared to the waves of unrest stemming from the French squad Terry has done little more than create small ripples in Capello's pond. Frustration would be the term to describe most fans feelings towards England's World Cup so far and Terry clearly shares this frustration. It is frustration at an under-performing squad and at a manager's unwillingness to correct a faltering tactical system.

Terry's hints at a desire for a change in formation and personnel, namely the inclusion of Joe Cole, were far from subtle. I have some sympathy for Capello's far from favourable reaction to the press conference. He has stated that the players have had the opportunity to air their grievances privately but instead Terry made his grievances inexplicably public. Capello's response - to publically criticise Terry.

No sooner, however, did Terry dare to speak out against Capello's absolutist reign then was Lampard swiftly sent in the paper over any cracks that had emerged. It was business as usual. The midfield played down a rift between the players and the manager and attempted to ease any worries that Terry had raised 24 hours earlier.

Ultimately, Terry's comments were blown out of proportion. Having been stripped of the captaincy by Capello many have now attempted, unfairly, to portray Terry as a loose cannon with mutiny on the mind. The reality was simply a frustrated man leaking more information than we have become use to and revealing more than the manager deems acceptable. Two dire England performances and the weight of expectation on the team may have worn down Terry's willingness to paint a picture of serenity within the squad.

I would be more concerned if Terry had done the latter. Changes need to made and to see a key player speak with the passion that the team has seemed to have lacked on the pitch thus far was a positive sign. So what if Terry was not cagey when confronted by the media on Saturday. He simply spoke his mind and answered the questions he was asked in a frank and honest manner. It may have been better to have been done in private but Terry's public comments were far from revolutionary.

Capello may consider Terry's press conference to be a 'big mistake' but perhaps the Italian ought to occupy himself with addressing England's on-the-field inadequacies rather than with maintaining his screen of secrecy on all things England.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Another Painful and Frustrating England Performance - Capello Must Fix a Broken System

While England fans attempted to forget the night before, few will have taken note of an extremely impressive victory for our rugby union team over Australia yesterday lunchtime. Martin Johnson's men, after a lacklustre display in the first test down under, pulled out their finest performance under the current manager as Jonny Wilkinson, back on the scene of his career defining drop goal to win the 2003 World Cup, played a decisive cameo role by kicking the winning three points in a 21-20 upset.

The shape of the ball may differ but - and this is certainly not something I foresaw myself saying during Martin Johnson's reign - there are things that the footballers in South Africa can learn from the men in Australia, who's victory yesterday could not have been in greater contrast with their round ball counterparts' painfully poor performance the night before. Perhaps the rugby team thrived off playing outside of the spotlight and without the pressure of expectation. If adversity helped to unite and rally Martin Johnson's team to such great effect, then the circumstances are undoubtedly right for Fabio Capello's side to do the same when they take to the pitch on Wednesday.

I am not, of course, about to compare tactics but there is something to be said for comparing the mentality of the two teams and the approaches of the respective management. The rugby team played with a simplicity that enabled them to play to their strengths. The footballers, however, appeared guilty of over-thinking every move they made and every touch on the ball leading to widespread confusion. Moreover, the rugby team's victory was due, largely, to a united team spirit and passion that the England football team seemed utterly devoid of. England's footballers cut forlorn figures against Algeria as their frustration and apparent helplessness was all too evident.

Assessing the failures and inadequacies of the England's performance against Algeria is, however, too long, tedious and painful a task to explore at length. They were as tactically, technically and mentally weak as they have been since the dark days of Steve McClaren's time as manager of the national team. Ultimately, blame must fall equally between Capello's tactics as it must with the players who left the field to deserved boos from the travelling swarm of fans.

It would appear as though Fabio Capello needed his Italian to English dictionary on hand to look up the words 'left' and 'wing' so he could try and tell a player to fill that vacant role. A wandering Gerrard, uncharacteristically sloppy Barry, aimless Lampard and out-of-sorts Rooney packed the centre of the pitch and left England with no attacking outlets. Cole was left in isolation down the left while Heskey was hopelessly trying to lead the line with little to no quality service to feed off.

The players' technique may have failed them but it was their attitude and team spirit was that was far more concerning and which angered fans. Since the squad came together at the end of the domestic season they have given us no reason to believe they warrant the label 'genuine contenders' many had given them in the build up to the tournament. They have been consistently uninspiring. They look dejected and fatigued. Probably the result of the weight of expectation placed upon them rather than a lack of trying. It is far easier to show good team spirit and passion when a team is winning and playing well and one would assume that in their final must win group game on Wednesday they will have corrected this.

As infuriating as it has been to watch the team so far in the competition you would still assume that they will beat Slovenia and scrape their way into the last 16. The only hope that can be taken from the painful 90 minutes of football on Friday night is that Capello will realise that the current formation is not utilising our key players and, more importantly, the team itself looks neither comfortable nor confident in the system. They play with no swagger, style, flair or belief. Something has to change and back-to-back draws in England's opening two games may be enough to make even a character as resolute in his own decisions as Capello willing to rethink his plans.

Gerrard, who was apparently suppose to be playing on the left of midfield against Algeria, was ineffective. Rooney, meanwhile, has shown none of the threat that he so menacingly carried throughout Manchester United's season. The saying goes, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. England's 180 minutes so far would quite obviously suggest that it is broke and it needs fixing.

Pundits, commentators, players, managers and every Tom, Dick and Harry down the pub has been pleading down the television screen for Capello to change the system. What people almost unanimously want to see is Gerrard playing off Rooney, the lone striker, in the positions they play in for their clubs to such great effect. Milner, Joe Cole or Shaun Wright-Philips could then play on the left and give England the width and balance they have desperately lacked in South Africa.

Will Capello break from the system that has served England so well in qualification? We can only speculate. Will England still reach the knock-out stage? You would assume so. One thing remains inevitable. Watching the Three Lions will never be easy. Nevertheless, things can change very quickly in football. Three points, a couple of goals for Rooney and a better team performance and England's World Cup dream will be reignited so all hope is far from lost.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Friday, 18 June 2010

Better Football, Worse Punditry and African Spirit

With the world's gaze fixed firmly on South Africa some major sporting events are going relatively unnoticed. The US open teed off yesterday, Wimbledon starts on Monday and England's rugby union team are currently touring Australia yet all pale in significance to the World Cup. As the greatest competition in the biggest sport takes centre stage once every four years not even Tiger Woods, Andy Murray or Martin Johnson's men can draw peoples attention away from the Rainbow nation. People may accommodate other sports around the football schedule but deciding which one to watch is a non-contest for most.

The World Cup has begun, finally, to deliver some more entertaining matches. After a somewhat lacklustre first set of fixtures in the group stage, the last couple of days have offered some good football and some memorable upsets.

The autopsy is set to begin in France as they suffered a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Mexicans and now find themselves on the brink of exiting the tournament at the first stage. The Spanish, meanwhile, lost their first match against the Swiss. Argentina hit their stride and showed their attacking flair with an impressive 4-1 win over South Korea. Germany are currently playing Serbia and are trailing 1-0 and are down to 10 men in what what prove to be a shock result. Meanwhile, this evening, England look ease the concerns of a nation with an improved performance and, more importantly, three points against Algeria tonight.

The action on the pitch has inevitably come alive to match the highly praised atmosphere and enthusiasm that has surrounded the competition. It is the first time that the tournament has been held on African soil and the thing that I have found most striking about the World Cup is the unity of the African spirit. The tournament has transcended the geographical boundaries of South Africa and galvanised the Africa as a whole. For this enthusiasm to continue, however, it is extremely important that one of the African nations progresses beyond the group phase.

The matches are played in South Africa but there is great support for any and all of the African teams as if they were the home side. Whether it be Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast or the hosts themselves, the whole continent rallies behind their teams. You can see it in the stadiums and you can hear it from the presenters. Imagine English fans cheering for a French, German or Portuguese team or Brazilians celebrating a Uruguayan or Chilean victory. It is extremely refreshing to see.

Nigeria's loss yesterday was unfortunate but completely self-inflicted. They led 1-0 against Greece and looked comfortable before Sani Kaita was sent off for a petulant kick at an opponent and they went on to lose 2-1. They can still progress on goal difference though if Argentina beat Greece and they beat South Korea. Ghana, who won their first match, play Australia in their second game and are the African side most likely to progress with Ivory Coast in the 'group of death' and Algeria losing their opener.

For no African team to enter the knock-out stage of the tournament would be of great detriment to the competition. The sheer passion and unique traditions that the African teams have brought to the World Cup has been what has made it so special. Their delight just to be taking part in the tournament, to have the greatest footballers in the world playing on their continent and to have the worlds spotlight on them is something we have not seen in previous World Cups. If an African team did get beyond the group stage then they would get the backing of the entire continent and the host nation which would allow for the atmosphere and enthusiasm that has characterised South Africa 2010 to continue a little while longer.

On a tangent, a final point I wanted to make, which I have alluded to in my previous two posts, is a general disappointment at the coverage on the BBC and ITV. I have read a couple of blogs by Tom English and Rob Marrs who share my discontent with the commentary and punditry which, although may do little to detract from the tournament as a whole is still, nevertheless, very frustrating. The commentary has been dull, passionless and predictable while the analysis has been poorly researched and is overly simplistic.

The likes of Alan Shearer, Mick McCarthy, Clarence Seedorf and Andy Townsend have all been tedious and frustrating to watch. They have been lazy in their preparation, joking about not having much to offer in pre-match analysis for matches involving smaller countries. They lack insight and charisma as they sit around chatting like members of some sort of exclusive 'International Footballer Club'. Yet, despite all of their footballing experience, the points they make are no more advanced than pub talk.

Alan Shearer may have been a great striker but he is not a political correspondent. Watching a piece on the BBC after the France match last night in which Shearer was sent on to the streets of South Africa to see what impact the World Cup was having on the general population was like watching a dad trying to spark up conversation with locals on holiday. Perhaps the broadcasters should focus on doing some more interesting punditry than on making repetitive gags about the oppression in North Korea.

Also, completely unrelated, the NBA Finals concluded last night with a dramatic win for the LA Lakers over their great rivals the Boston Celtics. The seven game series went to a final game as the Lakers retained their crown with Kobe Bryant taking the Finals MVP trophy.

Thought, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Patience is a Virtue

We enter the fifth day of the World Cup and few would disagree that the tournament, or at least the football being played, is yet to set the world alight. The hosts may have captured the imagination with their fervent passion and enthusiasm but the action on the pitch, however, has left most of the expectant football fans somewhat disappointed. Despite the pessimistic moans of many fans and pundits all that is required is a bit of patience as better football is guaranteed.

Mark Lawrenson, while commentating for the BBC, has sounded so bored and miserable that you would assume he was being forced to watch a Songs of Praise marathon and not the greatest sporting competition in the world. The quality of the matches thus far may not have hit the dizzying heights that had been billed but criticism will prove to be premature. Perhaps the hype around this summer's tournament was too great, anything short of a Messi hat-trick, a convincing England win and a few wonder goals n th opening week was going to dismissed as an 'anti-climax'.

There has been finger-pointing at the new ball or the vuvuzelas as reasons why teams are not playing at their best but that is little more than scape goat seeking. In my opinion, the level of play can be understood through the combination of three factors. Firstly, teams are obviously still settling into the tournament. They are acclimatising to the conditions, the opposition and to their team-mates. It would be unrealistic to expect flowing football from the first whistle but it should come with time.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, there has been a nerve induced conservatism in the opening group games. No team with dreams of progressing beyond the group stages can afford to lose their first game. The pressures and expectations upon each team, especially the larger footballing nations, has resulted in the majority of the teams favouring the safety of a draw through a defensive approach over expansive attacking play in their opening games.

Thirdly, the nations competing are, I believe, more evenly matched than in past tournaments. The general level of football may appear to be lower because people are assuming certain teams will have no trouble in dismissing their opposition. Their failure to do so may well be because many of the weaker opposition are slowly but surely bridging the gulf in quality between themselves and the bigger nations. Countries such as the USA, Japan and Paraguay are all improving sides who have proved that they are not in South Africa merely to make up the numbers. These underdogs now have more members of their squad playing in the big European leagues which has helped them as individuals and thus as teams, both mentally and technically. Although it is easy to direct criticism and blame at the bigger teams for dropping points, it is these World Cup minnows that deserve credit for making themselves extremely difficult to beat, even if it is at the sacrifice of more entertaining and open football.

Needless to say, despite some uninspiring performances in the opening 11 games, there can be little doubt that more exciting football is at hand. The two hot favourites to lift the trophy on the 11th July, Brazil and Spain, are yet to appear and both will be expected to play an attractive brand of football. The Ivory Coast play Portugal in a few hours and that too should hopefully deliver a more enjoyable 90 minutes of football.

As the tournament progresses settling for a draw will no longer be an option which will inevitably lead to fewer cagey performances and more memorable matches and moments. As the group stages unfold and we enter the knock-out phase of the competition the tense and nervy opening games will be replaced with far more exhilarating encounters. There should be no doubt that the football will match the tremendous atmosphere in the stadiums and on the streets of South Africa. Frustration will quickly be forgotten and perhaps even Mark Lawrenson will appreciate that getting paid to watch the World Cup is not all that bad.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Monday, 14 June 2010

Too Two Dimensional

Two days on from England's opening game and although the pessimism seems to have subsided for now there is still certainly plenty of food for thought for Fabio Capello. Aside from the goalkeeping debate there are more fundamental issues that need to be addressed between now and England's next game against Algeria on Friday.

The initial response to the unfortunate 1-1 draw with the USA from many, including myself, was far more doom and gloom than it ought to have been. England were by far the better side and did, at times, play some good football. The three points slipped through Rob Green's gloves but England looked untroubled for the majority of the game. Moreover, England are not, of course, the only side to struggle in their opening game as it is only Germany who have put in a performance worth taking notice of.

Nevertheless, there are still concerns to come out of this match, concerns that were all too clear in England's warm up matches. The draw may not have been 'terminal', as everyone has been quick to point out, but it was far from the start the nation had hoped for. England had 45 minutes to get a winner after the Americans equalised and they proved unable to do so. They lack the attacking impetus to cut through their opponents defence. Watching Germany pick apart Australia last night illustrated just how off the pace England are. I would not advocate radical changes nor would I expect them but Capello faces the same old problem of how to get the most out of this current group of players.

Gerrard and Lampard can play together in the middle of the park but in doing so you will inevitably sacrifice the attacking qualities of one of the two. Watching Gerrard standing on the halfway line and playing simple passes was made all the more frustrating by Shaun Wright-Phillips' uninspiring performance on the left-wing.

Barry's return will undoubtedly simplify Capello's tactical and personnel problems as it is safe to say that he will slot into the holding role along side Lampard allowing Gerrard to move back onto the left flank. Despite all the praise that has been heaped upon Capello the national team is still being troubled by the same midfield dilemma of trying to accommodate Gerrard and Lampard as well as the lack of a genuine left-winger. The option of playing a 4-5-1 formation is one that has been too rarely experimented with but would be a useful alternative at certain times or against specific teams.

Heskey did play well on Saturday night, as good as anyone in an England shirt. His lack of goals, however, make him a relatively two-dimensional threat and, in my opinion, the 4-4-2 formation that is currently being employed by Capello on the whole is somewhat predictable and two-dimensional. It allows for teams to comfortably match up against England and it also forces Rooney to come deep to join up the midfield. This may have suited his game four years ago but with when he is collecting the ball on the halfway line and only has Heskey ahead of him it is easy to see why England have been failing to create enough clear cut chances over the past few weeks.

Playing a 4-5-1 would enable our best players to play in their preferred positions. Rooney could play up front on his own as he has for Man United with great success this season. Barry could sit in front of the back four giving Lampard the chance to get forward at will and also allowing Gerrard the freedom to play off Rooney in a role similar to that which he plays for Liverpool. Lennon would continue on the right and then Milner, Cole or Wright-Phillips could play on the left wing.

I am aware that many would say that this is not the time nor place to experiment with such things. The players themselves, however, would be playing in the positions that they are familiar with. With Algeria and then Slovenia our next two opponents I see no reason why these changes cannot be implemented.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Good, The Bad... and Those Bloody Horns!

So the World Cup is finally under-way and so I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the opening day of the tournament. It was a day that delivered moments of mixed emotion, from the inspirational to the tediously irritating.

The matches themselves were predictably closely contested encounters. In the opening match, the hosts played most of the game on the back foot while Mexico lacked the quality to break them down. It was an entertaining match that came to life in the second half and South Africa did have their moments though and showed they were capable of some slick one touch passing which threatened to carve open the Mexican defence on a number of occasions. The highlight of the match was, of course, the spectacular strike by Siphiwe Tshabalala ten minutes into the second half, at which point there will have been few neutrals not hoping that the home team could not hold on for a famous victory. Rafael Marquez's simple back post finish spoilt the party and earned Mexico a point with just twelve minutes remaining.

In the evening match France and Uruguay played out a forgettable 0-0 draw. The French team under Raymond Domenech is in a state of disarray as each day is met with new strories of unrest within the squad and their failure to beat a 10-man Uruguay team will have done little to settle matters. Both of yesterday's matches illustrated the difficulty of producing good football from the start of a major tournament. All of the teams showed the inevitable problems of playing as a cohesive unit after only a few weeks training a handful of disjointed warm-up matches and as such the fact that all the points were shared is not surprising.

As much as I would like to be writing this post purely to sing the praises of the South Africa 2010 that is not the case. The passion and enthusiasm that the hosts have brought to the competition has been extremely refreshing and certainly a positive aspect of the tournament and therefore I do not want to overshadow this. The vuvzelas are, however, threatening to do just that. I am aware that I am running the risk of sounding like an old man complaining about people playing their music too loud but I find the horns utterly infuriating. It is less about the sound the horns make, which resembles a swarm of angry bees, but it is more to do with what the horns drown out. How many times during either of yesterday's matches could you hear the cheers, groans, whistles, boos, chants or songs of the crowd? I can struggle to think of many. The fans, who create the atmosphere in any match, were replaced by the endless and monotonous noise of these horns.

The second thing that annoyed me yesterday was the punditry. I thought that Adrian Chiles did a good job on ITV but the people in the studio for both the BBC and ITV were, in my opinion, boring. They were as insightful as they were charismatic and that is not even to mention Alan Hansen's patronising tone towards Emmanuel Adebayor – very uncomfortable. This is not a shock as these are the faces we have become use to but 31 days of it could grow tiresome. The sooner people realise that being a 'great footballer' does not translate into having a personality suitable for television the better. I may be misplaced in my criticism of the punditry and the horns, does no one else find them annoying?

Nevertheless, we have three more games to look forward to today and each promises to be an entertaining encounter (as most matches will). England will finally get their campaign under-way this evening and I, like many, am expecting a slow start from the team in what could prove to be a tough test from the USA.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

24 Hours To Go

We are less than a day away from the start of the 2010 Fifa World Cup! The red and white of St. George has taken over the streets of England as the nation suffers its latest bout of football fever. The flags are on the cars, houses, shops and are painted on the pub windows, the majority of adverts on television are now football themed and you can even here the Lightning Seeds football anthem being played in the pubs and clubs (if only in some of the less reputable establishments).

Is it foolishly optimistic to dare to think that we could actually end the 44 year wait to get our hands on the World Cup once again. I do not think so. We are not, of course, favourites for the tournaments but neither are we huge outsiders. Capello and his men are genuine contenders in the competition and I think the small poll on this blog, as predicted, shows just how divided opinion is on who will come out victorious on the 11th July.

Spain are rightly the favourites. They have the strongest squad and showed in Euro 2008 that those individuals can play as a cohesive unit. Brazil and Argentina are going to be likely challengers as they are every four years. The European teams are perhaps weaker than usual. Italy, France, Germany and Portugal are all attracting far less attention than has come to be expected in the build up to the World Cup. The Netherlands are quietly being touted as dark outsiders while England seem to float in between somewhere. The African teams meanwhile, Ivory Coast in particular, have been given a far greater chance of success over the next month.

Each of the main contenders has a squad littered with World Class players and thus it is not difficult to imagine any country going all the way. A bit of luck, a bit of magic, a controversial refereeing decision or the dreaded penalties can be all the stands between a team and the most prestigious sporting trophy of them all.

Ultimately, it is somewhat futile to attempt predictions for the tournament at this stage. Little can be said that is not already known. It is very likely that there will be shocks a long the way as teams such as Uruguay, Mexico, Serbia or even the hosts could exceed expectations at the cost of one or two or the bigger sides. That is the joy of the tournament and it seems that attempting to predict the fate of each team or the result of every game would be as inaccurate as it would pointless.

This is not to say that I do not have an opinion on who I think will do well or poorly or that I have not put money on the outcome of the tournament because I do and I have. I happen to think Brazil will lift the Cup and England will only get as far as the quarter-finals. Chances are I will be wrong but who cares. For me, all that matters is that for next 31 days the world's best players compete against one another in the greatest tournament of them all. You wait for four years as a football fan for this month and it has finally arrived.

England's progression through the tournament may be mine and most people's primary concern but aside from this there is still the enjoyment of watching football of the highest calibre. Whether it be the underdogs earning the most unlikely of victories, the contagiously nail-biting tension of extra-time and penalties (regardless of who is playing) or the ridiculous goals that will be scored and skill that will be on display, this is the pinnacle of the sport and it never fails to deliver.

Putting into words why everyone is so excited about the World Cup is extremely difficult. It differs for everyone. For some it is because England have a realistic chance to go far in the competition. Some only watch football at this time every four years just because it is almost impossible to avoid it. But for football enthusiasts it is the opportunity to not only support your country but also the sheer enjoyment of watching the best footballers on the planet going head-to-head. All that there is left to do is sit back, get comfortable and enjoy... except for when England play which will inevitably consist largely of you being perched on the edge of your seat shouting furiously at the television.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A Quick (and Belated) Round-Up

I have been rather lazy with my blogging over the last fortnight because of the end of uni festivities but am ready to get back to it. With the World Cup just six days away I thought I would refrain from doing a post exclusively about that right now as it will no doubt consume most of my attention for the next month. Instead, I will look at a few stories from the past week or so and then dedicate future posts to the World Cup and the Three Lions.

Firstly, Bangladesh have travelled to England to take part in a two test series, the second of test of which is currently being played. England took the first test courtesy of a massive 226 runs from Jonathan Trott which helped the side towards a first innings total of 505. England made the Tigers follow-on thanks to some good bowling from the youngster Steven Finn. Two innings of 282 then 382 by the visitors left England with a second innings target of 160 which they comfortably achieved with eight wickets in hand to win the first test.

In the second test, which is currently in its second day, England stuttered to a respectable first innings total of 419 thanks, in large, to Ian Bell's score of 128. Bangladesh have a bright start to their innings as they currently stand on 106 without loss. With England playing less than convincing cricket in this brief test series they have come under inevitable criticism.

It appears that only a demolition of Bangladesh will do as any mistakes against the test minnows will be scrutinized and needlessly exaggerated. England are winning even if they are making relatively hard work of it. There are certainly concerns to be had as England will, of course, be facing far sterner tests ahead, namely the Ashes down under. I personally believe, however, that the current England squad have the ability and experience to raise their level of play when and where needed and thus the endless negativity surrounding this series seems unnecessary. Any positives are dismissed because of the level of the opposition whereas mistakes or under performers suffer the wrath of journalists ready to pounce upon any and all signs of weakness.

Last week in Paris Andy Murray was sent crashing out of the French Open in the fourth round after a straight sets defeat to Tomas Berdych. My last post was on the British number one's five set thriller against Richard Gasquet in the first round but this victory did little to spark a promising run in the tournament. Murray has been struggling to find his form on the clay and with the grass court season approaching the gaze of a nation will soon once again fall upon him. Murray was always going to struggle on clay but to lose in the manner he did was somewhat concerning. Perhaps the extra rest his early exit will have given him will have done him some good and he can now focus on retaining his title at Queens before Wimbledon.

Across the Atlantic, just briefly, the NBA Playoff Finals have gotten under-way as one of the great sporting rivals has been resumed once more. The LA Lakers are facing the Boston Celtics in the best of seven series and it was the Lakers who took the first game on Thursday night. The two franchises have delivered many memorable moments and this is a series well worth keeping an eye on.

I could not attempt my quick round-up of some of the bigger sporting stories over the last week or so without delving into the world of football. Benitez has left Liverpool, Walcott was left at home and Ferdinand left the hospital on crutches. News and stories have been flying around non-stop over the past week and it is impossible to comment on them all but these three were perhaps the biggest.

Capello's final 23 man squad was, for the most part, unsurprising. The only shock, in my eyes at least, was the exclusion of Theo Walcott for Wright-Phillips. Despite his hat-trick in the qualifier against Croatia Walcott misses out on a place in the squad as if in some form of cruel punishment for his pointless inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad. Nevertheless, with Lennon likely to have the number seven shirt the choice between Wright-Phillips and Walcott as his deputy seems relatively inconsequential.

Benitez's exit from Anfield was as predictable as Capello's final squad. Rafa had been in charge for six years at Liverpool but his decline in the last season, in which they finished seventh, was a dramatic and, ultimately, a damning one. He failed to pay good value for money for any player other than Torres and despite leading the side to Champions League glory in only his second season he failed to fulfil the club's desire for domestic success. Names from across the footballing world will no doubt be linked with the job but with high expectations, a flawed squad, and little money to spend, it is not a role that is as tempting as it once was.

And finally, yesterday the all too familiar news came through that England's preparations for a major tournament had once again been hampered by an injury to a key player. Captain Rio Ferdinand injured his knee in the team's first training session in South Africa and will miss the entire World Cup. Tottenham's Michael Dawson has already been flown out to replace him while Gerrard will take the arm-band with Frank Lampard stepping into the role as vice-captain.

Ferdinand is unquestionably a loss the team could have done without and it will impact upon England's chances. Rio has been far from his best over the last two years, however, as he has suffered endless injury problems. The centre-back position is probably the one position in which we have real strength in depth but few bring the calming influence or reassuring experience that Ferdinand will have. Let's just hope that the rest of the team can remain healthy at least till they take to the field in a weeks time!

I think that is plenty for now but I will have a more comprehensive look at how the World Cup is shaping up in a few days time.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

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