Thursday, December 31, 2009

Story Lines for the 2010 World Cup

It's already 2010 where I am, in the Gulf. So I can look ahead, not back.

And here are five story lines I think will be pertinent in the 2010 (we're here now) World Cup.

1. Can England, Masters of the Game and all (blah blah blah), win a World Cup for the first time since 1966? Everyone on the left side of the Pas del Calais is thinking "yes, yes, yes!" and the rest of the world is thinking, "uh, probably not."

2. Can a European team finally win a World Cup outside its own familiar and teeny continent? They haven't managed it yet, (as in 0-for-9), but they have the advantage, this time round, of getting a non-Euro World Cup that is 1) only an hour or two off their home body clocks and 2) cold and wintry, just like the conditions of their pro leagues. So, could happen. But don't bank on it.

3. Can an African team go deep in the tournament? Cameroon made the quarterfinals of Italia 1990, but that is the high water mark of African soccer, so far. Africa has six teams in the 32 at SA 2010, including the host, and I think the answer to the previous question is "yes." I see someone in the semifinals. Cameroon, or Nigeria or Ghana.

4. Is Diego Maradona such a colossal idiot that he can, single-handedly, manage to keep Argentina out of the second round? I think, yes, he can. That is the level of my faith in him. I see some combination of Nigeria/Greece/South Korea moving on at Argentina's expense. And maybe that will finally free Argentinaville from its ridiculous need to have Diego "Hand of God: Maradona coach their side. The man can't coach. At all.

5. Will South Africa become the first host nation to fail to make the second round? All the vuvuzelas and home fans aside, yes, it can. South Africa isn't very good. Not at all.

Those are my five questions, and if they make sense, then maybe I should write more often while over the legal limit in California of .08 blood-alchohol content, because that's where I'm at,
two hours after our New Year's Eve party in (officially) dry Abu Dhabi ended.

Happy New Year, y'all.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Becks in WC? All Up to Ancelotti

Will David Beckham be with England in the 2010 World Cup?

Don't ask Fabio Capello.

Ask Carlo Ancelotti.

Capello, England's manager, effectively booted responsibility for Becks' World Cup future right over to his countryman, Ancelotti -- Beckham's coach at AC Milan.

Weird way to make a national team, but there you are -- if media reports are accurate.

As you might have seen in the story, if you followed the link ... is Capello essentially saying, "sure, Becks makes our team ... as long as he's playing regularly for AC Milan."

Beckham is being loaned to the Seria A contender from the Los Angeles Galaxy again this year. And if he is fit (that is, plays regularly), Capello is ready to take him, he said.

Meaning this is up to, Signore Ancelotti.

If Ancelotti puts Beckham in his First XI and pretty much leaves him there ... then Capello's decision is made for him. Or so he says.

Seems sort of a weasel-ly way to make a decision on one of the world's best-known players -- even if he no longer is anywhere near close to one of its best players, as he closes in on age 35 (in May).

Becks is really good at only one aspect of soccer, and that's placing with great precision a ball he has struck while it was at rest.

He probably helped his cause with his appearance on stage at the World Cup Draw in Capetown on Dec. 4. It was a canny move on the part of Team Beckham, seeming to tie him to the tournament.

And perhaps Capello now feels pressed to take the aging midfielder with the team and is ready to capitulate -- as long as Ancelotti plays Beckham in Milan between now and May.

So, Becks in South Africa? You'll know by checking the starting lineups for AC Milan.
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another Look at South Africa Stadium Debate

We've got more voices on the ongoing debate of "are all these stadiums worth the money ... in a poor country?"

It is a Reuters piece picked up today by the Johannesburg Times.

It pegs the cost of new stadiums for South Africa 2010 -- and there are (gulp) 10 of them ... at $1.7 billion -- up dramatically from the original estimate of $390 million.

We've got both sides talking.

On one side are the people who look at South Africa's shanty towns and AIDS epidemic and wonder how the nation's rulers can look at the country's blight and sleep at night, knowing so much has been spent on stadiums. When all figure to be underutilized and some hardly used at all, once the 2010 World Cup is over. Yes, the word is "white elephants" for the kind of massive projects that never pay for themselves.

On the other side are those who say Africa -- the whole continent -- needs a success, and the cost is almost irrelevant.

No less a personage than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace prize laureate, is in favor of the expenditure.

Said Tutu: "With all the negative things taking place in Africa, this is a superb moment for us. If there are going to be white elephants, so be it."

OK then. For more, go to the story.
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Monday, December 28, 2009

Spain Extends Coach Two Years ... Why?

Feliz Navidad, Vicente del Bosque.

Two days before Christmas, Spain rewarded its coach with a two-year extension on his contract, taking him through 2012.

Which is a bit curious, and leaves me pondering these questions:

1. Is that a guaranteed contract? Does del Bosque get the money no matter what happens to him? Say, a sudden collapse by his team and subsequent firing?

2. If so, why?

3. He reportedly was getting $2.2 million a year. Did he get a raise on that in the next two years, after Spain went unbeaten in European qualifying? Is the entire value of his contract up to Fabio Capello money ($10 million a year) yet?

4. If not, why not?

5. And what prompted Spain to guarantee money (or go through the show of extending a contract that isn't guaranteed) before the World Cup? Is Espana going to buck the trend and, if it doesn't win a championship that it is co-favored to win (along with Brazil) ... smile and say, "no problem, Vicente. We're sticking with you."

Most federations consider anything but an advance to the knockout round to be a failure ... and sack the coach.

Some of the elite nations consider anything short of the semifinals a failure ... and sack the coach.

And for those special elite nations expected to play for a championship (Brazil, Spain, maybe England), anything short of the finals is going to be considered a failure ... and the coach is sacked.

So, I just don't get it.

Maybe if it's a contract that del Bosque gets only if he doesn't get fired ... you know, like NFL contracts, that are worth millions unless you get cut ... then it makes sense. Otherwise, no.

OK, I've thought of the only way this makes sense.

Let's say Spain wins the World Cup ... well, Spain has their now massively brilliant coach already under contract through the Euro Cup (which isn't far behind the World Cup, to Euro nations), and doesn't have to give him even more money (post Jules Rimet Trophy) than they just did.

OK. That makes sense.
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Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Case You're Thinking of Driving in SA ...

South Africa is a difficult place to move around in. You take a commuter plane, you may exit it somewhere off the end of the runway. You take a train, it could collide with another.

You go for a drive, and you end up dead.

The Jo-burg Times has the fairly horrifying December road toll death statistics here.

So, say you're an English fan and you want to see the Three Lions play. Match 1 is in Rustenburg, near Johannesburg.

Match 2 is in Capetown, which is 900 miles road miles away.

Match 3 is in Port Elizabeth, which is 500 road miles from Capetown.

(Oh, and an update on the air situation: Most of the Airlink fleet has been grounded for safety reasons. The good news is, you can't travel on those scary planes. The bad news is, you can't travel at all.)

So, that's 1,400 miles of group-round travel for England fans. By planes, trains or automobiles. And all are scary options.

Pcik your poison, fans.
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Saturday, December 26, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different ...


Not video. Just audio

Courtesy of the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

The Jo-Times has a mini podcast, I suppose we would call it, on its sports home page. Here it is. Can't vouch for how long it will be up there. It's the picture of the South African soccer team, over on the right side of the page. Click on the arrow there.

What it is, is a sort of interview with the sports psychologist, Dr. Gericke, that the South African soccer team just hired. And he has some suggestions for South Africa fans, on the run-up to South Africa 2010.

Dr. Gericke suggests South Africa fans can help the Bafana Bafana (the silly silly name for the home team) by ... singing.

Singing can inspire people, the good Doctor suggests.

He also hopes ... and this is vaguely controversial ... that South African fans blow those plastic horns -- the vuvzelas -- that were the aural cockroaches of the Confederations Cup, back in June.

He seems to advocate that fans play music on those horns, but my sense is that you've got one note. Unless maybe you have the lip control of a bugler.

Not everyone likes vuvuzelas.

The president of Japan's football association called for a vuvuzela ban after Japan played a scoreless tie during a friendly in South Africa last month. And there was one fairly arch quote from Japan's coach, on the vuvezelas. "Perhaps if they play good football (the fans) will be quiet and watch."

During the Confederations Cup, Spanish star Xabi Alonso also suggested the plastic horns be banned.

I was hoping the audio at the Jo-Times would have some droning vuvuzelas ... but it doesn't. Maybe later.

One other interesting aspect of the audio bit ... you get to hear two forms of South African English accents. From a black woman (the interviewer) ... and from an Afrikaner (Gericke) -- a white resident of (usually) mostly Dutch heritage.
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Friday, December 25, 2009

England Is Really Good ... Have We Mentioned That?

More news on how good the English side is, six months and change ahead of South Africa 2010.

Shall we go ahead and even bother with the tournament? Does anyone have a chance against the Three Lions, conquerors of all they see ... well, at least in 1966, they were.

Today, it's Michael Ballack talking down Germany's chances and talking up England's.

(Anyone else think the Chelsea midfielder looks a bit like Matt Damon? It's just me?)

Here is Ballack lavishing praise on Mario Capello's side.

We've been over this, yes? England's bipolar approach to its team. Oh, yes, we have. How English fans and media people absolutely are in one of their manic phases right now.

A question that often comes to my mind is ... do any of QE2's subjects understand the concept of "poor-mouthing"?

That's the practice of someone associated with a good team sighing deeply and shaking his head and confiding that his historically good squad just doesn't have it this week, this season.

Most veteran sports people recognize this. And give it little credence.

A famous American football coach with the wonderful name of Amos Alonzo Stagg used to poor-mouth his teams relentlessly, on the off chance that someone would believe what he was saying and underprepare for his team. Or show up fat-headed and overconfidence.

Stagg spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, which was a power back in the 1920s, and Stagg's protestations became so ridiculous that when he worried aloud about his mighty team's chances against a much lesser opponent, the headline was written: Stagg Fears Purdue." And everyone laughed. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, England fans are free to believe their team will waltz into the semifinals ... and that Germany is awful. But since England won its one and only World Cup championship, Germany has finished in the top four seven times, reached the final five times and won twice.

Let's just guess and say that Germany will be competent. Let's just guess and say Ballack actually believes that.

And let's say that England is in real danger of thinking this is going to be far easier that it will be.
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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Back when this blog started, in July, my second and third entries were entitled "If I Got to Choose the World Cup Teams" ... and were about which nations I would have preferred to see in the World Cup.

Not from a Ground Zero perspective, but looking at qualifying that was well-advanced and including only those sides that had a realistic chance. Like, one of the "Stans" (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.) in the World Cup would be cool, but they had no chance by mid-July. China would have been interesting, but the Chinese were already out.

Since it is Christmas, or almost so, let's take a look back at my wish list ... and see if Santa thought I was naughty or nice, and rewarded me accordingly.

So, looking back at what I wanted, and what we got, and how that strikes me, on Christmas Eve:


Wanted: Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria.

Missing: Egypt, Gabon.

Instead: Algeria, Cameroon.

Comment: Got only 60 percent of my wish list, but the changes aren't a disaster. Gabon would have been fun because it's a tiny nation that has never played in the World Cup finals and has some really obscure players. A Cinderella story, you bet. But Cameroon blew past Gabon to win the group, and that's fine. The Indomitable Lions are headed for their sixth World Cup, and have a better chance of making noise than little Gabon would have. And Algeria instead of Egypt? Well, I still prefer it the other way round because Egypt has more than twice the population of Algeria (77 million vs. 34 million). And since Egypt covers the "North Africa needs a team" part of things, we then come down on the side of the country with more people, generally. But no gnashing of teeth here.


Wanted: Australia, Bahrain, Japan, North Korea, South Korea.

Missing: Bahrain.

Instead: New Zealand.

Comment: All the nations I "wanted" (aside from Bahrain) already had qualified. The other four were in. I'd rather see one of the "stans" or China rather than both Koreas. But that ship had sailed. ... As for Bahrain, I wanted them to give the Gulf a team. Bahrain got past Saudi Arabia in the Asia fifth-place playoffs, which was good, because Saudi Arabia has been to several finals and been a crashing bore ... but Bahrain choked against New Zealand in the last playoff. Australia already is the "Oceania" representative, as far as I'm concerned, and adding New Zealand to South Africa 2010 is gilding the antipodean lily. Plus, the Kiwis can't really play. Fine chaps, and all, but a tiny country that brings nothing to the table. Not like one of the central Asians would have (in terms of curiosity) or China would have (in terms of population) or, specifically, Bahrain would have (representing the Gulf). So I rue this one. Yeah.


Wanted: Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Serbia, Turkey.

Missing: Ireland, Israel, Russia, Turkey.

Instead: Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland

Comment: A bit annoyed with how this turned out, too. First, though, I have to express my thanks to the soccer gods for giving us the six Euro teams I said, back in July, no World Cup seems right without. Those being England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Spain. It's the rest that rankle. How can you not want the Irish in the tournament? Their matches are an automatic party, and they're not nearly as likely to brawl as other Britons. Israel would make people think, bringing some geopolitical tension to the event, which often makes for good story lines. Russia? They should be here. An important soccer nation. But they gagged/quit when it came down to a playoff against tiny Slovenia. And Turkey would have been the standard-bearer for all those central Asian countries from the Turkic-language speaking group. ... Instead, we get the thrill-an-hour, defense-first (second and last) Greeks, Slovakia and Slovenia (which is one Gutty Little Minnow too many from Europe) and Switzerland, which we all know is going to do nothing important. OK, the Swiss are becoming vaguely interesting because one of the most uptight nations on Earth is allowing some minorities onto its national side, but they're still not that good. I still want the four I didn't get. And of the ones who are coming, I wouldn't mind Slovenia or Slovakia, but not both, and not the other two. Ugh.


Wanted: Nobody.

Missing: Nobody.

Instead: New Zealand.

Comment: See the Asia comment, above. New Zealand is making only its second appearance, and that seems about right for a country that prefers rugby and cricket to soccer. And did I mention that New Zealands has, like, one semi-significant club team? As I noted, back in July, since Australia left Oceania for Asia, Oceania is New Zealand and about 10 coral reefs. Nothing personal, Kiwis. ... We just have about 55 million more people with a "neighborhood" rooting interest if Bahrain had made it instead of you.


Wanted: Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, United States.

Missing: Costa Rica.

Instead: Uruguay.

Comment: As a native North American, I was hoping that the fourth-place team in the Hexagonal could win the playoffs with South America's No. 5 team and give Concacaf four berths. It didn't happen, with Costa Rica going down by a 2-1 aggregate to Uruguay. No disaster. Mexico was in a bit of trouble, when I wrote my wish list, and we have to have them, so El Tri making South Africa is good. The U.S., gotta have them, too. And Honduras ... first time since 1982, and it's a big deal to them, and they've got the sidebar of the upheaval in the government, so I'm OK with this. One Banana Republic in the World Cup is never a bad thing.


Wanted: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay.

Missing: None.

Instead/in addition: Paraguay.

Comment: At least Argentina made it, despite having a ninny (Diego Maradona) as its coach. It did go down to the wire. ... Brazil has to be in. No discussion. It's not a World Cup otherwise. (Only nation to play in 'em all.) And if we have to have four out of South America (and we do, even if the rest of the world doesn't really care who the others are, once we get past Brazil and Argentina), why not Chile, which has some interesting attacking players? And Uruguay, a nation with lots of World Cup history (two championships) and a reputation for playing dirty? That's kind of fun. ... I guess. ... Gaining Paraguay does nothing for me, though. I know the Paraguayans can play a little, but I'd rather see Costa Rica. I imagine it's a wash, for everyone in the Old World. (What's the difference between Paraguay or the Ticos in the World Cup, if you live in Europe, Africa or Asia? Right. Nothing.)

So, am I happy? Was Santa nice to me?

Yes. On the whole. Yes. A couple of key teams (Argentina, Mexico and Portugal) survived rocky qualifying runs and got in. I got Nigeria by dint of a late rally and a Tunisia collapse.

My biggest beefs are in Europe (Greece, an extra "Slov" and Switzerland) instead of the four I wanted, which are more interesting for a bunch of reasons, and Asia, which already was done, aside from Bahrain/Saudi.

I'm not complaining about what's in my stocking. Of the 31 teams I was backing (not counting host South Africa), 22 got in ... and of the nine that didn't make it, a couple already faced long odds of surviving.

Be nice to have Russia in this thing, and Ireland, and a Gulf team, and Turkey ... but I think we will be OK.

Thanks, Mr. Claus.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Coming Up to Speed on African Football

Much of the world has a few fairly simple and common conceptions of African soccer.

Fast. Athletic. Almost too colorful for its own good. Technically sound. Tactically weak.

It is all that, but much more, and we now have a well-received book on the history of the African game on book shelves.

Well, on, anyway.

It is entitled "Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of Football in Africa."

As this review in the Johannesburg Times notes, the book comes out at a propitious time -- just six months before the biggest moment in African football history, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

This is Africa's moment in the sun. Its chance to prove it can handle the biggest event in sports and perhaps even succeed on the pitch, as well. No fewer than six African teams are in the 32-team draw, and more than a few observers (including this one) are predicting an African team in the semifinals, for the first time.

It's as if most of the world has a blinkered view of African football. From the players exported to the big clubs in Europe and the once-in-a-quadrennium glimpse of this or that African side in the World Cup.

Those glimpses -- individual players, specific teams at one moment in time -- don't provide us with enough information to have an informed understanding of the African game.

The author of "Chameleon," Ian Hawkey, covers eras and countries, according to the review. And since Hawkey writes for the London Times ... we can be almost certain his prose is easy on the eye.

I will be buying this book. I have been fascinated by African football for a long time now ... its raw passions, stunning skill and often chaotic situations. I have mentioned on this blog, a time or three, that one of my unrealized ambitions is to see an edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, the semi-annual continental championship that brings Africa almost to a halt.

This is the time to buy the book and read, learn and inwardly digest the grand pageant that is African football.
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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Torres: A Classic Club vs. Country Conundrum

The Daily Telegraph, a first-rate British daily, today has done a piece on the quandary Fernando Torres is in.

Does he keep fighting through the pain of a hernia to play for Premier League club Liverpool?

Or does he get surgery to repair the rupture, miss a couple of months of the EPL season ... but then be ready to play for Spain when South Africa 2010 begins in June?

Some other factors here:

Liverpool is struggling. So does that make Torres more inclined to limp back on to the pitch to help Liverpool?

Rafa Benitez, Liverpool's coach, is being showered with massive amounts of criticism over Liverpool's failure to contend for a championship, not to mention its fade down the standings. We would guess Benitez would like to see Torres rest all week and then give whatever he's got for Liverpool on the weekends.

And, of course, there is Spain, one of the 9-to-2 favorites (along with Brazil) to win the World Cup. But Spain is significantly less formidable without their dyed-blond striker up front.

Will he possibly be ready for the World Cup if he is still suiting up for Liverpool into May?

In Spain, they have to be thinking, "Let our boy get his surgery because Liverpool is getting nowhere fast."

While back in Liverpool, fans and management can say, "But you get most of your salary from the club, and you owe it to us to play until you drop."

This club vs. country thing will be played out again and again, in the run-up to SA2010, the next few months.

But Torres and Liverpool/Spain may be highest-profile case we will see.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

'Other' World Cup: Barcelona Wins That, Too

In the Old News department ...

Barcelona concluded 2009 with an unprecedented six trophies by winning the Club World Cup here in Abu Dhabi, 2-1, over a determined and upset-minded Estudiantes club.

First, let's recap the six trophies Barca hoisted in calendar in 2009. Get ready ...

1. La Liga championship, 2008-09.

2. Copa del Rey, 2008-09.

3. Supercopa de Espana, 2008-09.

4. UEFA Champions League, 2008-09.

5. UEFA Super Cup.

6. Club World Cup.

They may need to build an annex on Camp Nou for all that hardware.

To explain ... La Liga is the regular-season championship for top Spanish clubs; Copa del Rey is like the FA Cup -- every pro club in Spain plays until there is a winner; Supercopa de Espana is semi-silly, a home-and-home playoff between the winner and runnerup of the Copa del Rey that has been held only eight times; the Champions League is made up of the top clubs in Europe; the Uefa Super Cup pits the winner of the Champions League against the winner of the Uefa Cup (the competition for the not-quite-as-successful Euro club teams); and the Club World Cup is six continental champions.

Maybe too many trophies. Do we (or Spain) really need the Supercopa de Espana?

Anyway, the Club World Cup went over very well here ... at least once it reached the semifinals and Estudiantes and, especially, star-studded Barcelona got involved.

Both Barcelona matches were played before capacity crowds. Barcelona trailed Atlante of Mexico 1-0 in the semi before rallying to win 2-1, with Lionel Messi coming on as a sub to score the tying goal in the second half. And in the final, Estudiantes, the South American champion from Argentina, led 1-0 on a Mauro Boselli goal in the 37th minute ... and hung on doggedly ... until Pedro tied for Barca in the 89th minute.

Messi put Barcelona ahead in the first half of extra time, and then Barca held off Estudiantes' desperate attempts to get even again.

So, yes, a success, and Abu Dhabi seems to be looking forward to another round of this in December of 2010. Though it seems unlikely anyone will be going for six trophies while here in the UAE.

The Club World Cup may be seen as overkill by jaded Europeans, but it's a pretty big deal for the rest of the planet's top clubs.
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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bafana Bafana Hires Itself a Shrink

I've never been really sure that this stuff works. Sports psychologists having you "picture success" and all, and it somehow making you a better performer.

How many great athletes need a sports psych?


But the way South Africa has been playing, since the Federations Cup, it can't hurt.

This story was reported in the Johannesburg Times, which says Henning Gericke "could talk the hind leg off a donkey." (That's a compliment. I think.)

Given the teams South Africa gets in the first round, he will have to do some really convincing talking.

South Africa opens the tournament against Mexico, which assumes it will get to the knockout round of every World Cup. Then it gets Uruguay, a tough South American side with scads of history, and it finishes with France, a 2006 finalist.

If South Africa had been playing well -- at all -- over the previous six months, you might think the Bafana Bafana have a shot to make it out of group play, which is their goal. South Africa is more than a little worried that it might be the first host country not to get to the final 16. And with reason. It is ranked No. 85 in the world.

But being at home ought to be a big bump for the team. Unless it's too tight to take advantage of it. And that is where a sports shrink comes in, we would think.

The shrink says South Africa's players need to "harness the pressure and let it work for them." He added, "You need to feed the subconscious mind to get a relaxed, creative mode."

And everyone all together now! Ommmmm . . .

Gericke plans to do what sports shrink normally do -- put together videos for players showing they succeeding. And just generally try to chill them out and have a little fun.

His claim to South Africa fame is working with the South Africa rugby team before and during the 2007 rugby World Cup -- which South Africa won. Then, South Africa is one of the elite rugby nations ... but it is most certainly is not an elite soccer nation.

Again, I imagine it can't hurt. But I wonder if it will help. Let's just guess and say coach Carlos Alberto Parreira would rather have another 2-3 world-class players instead of a sports psychologist.

But shrinks are easier to find. And he could come in handy for some long sessions on the couch if/when the Bafana Bafana goes out in group play.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

North Korea Looking for a Coach

Think about it. You're a soccer coach with some international chops. Speak two or three languages. Have done coaching time on a coupla-three continents, working through interpreters in countries you normally wouldn't visit unless someone held a gun to your head.

Bora Milutinovic, Guus Hiddink. You know, those guys. Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Then you see this want ad on the "" jobs website*:

"Hermit Kingdom, ruled by a legitimate madman, a country where half the population could starve to death at any time, looking for coach for South Africa 2010 World Cup. Oh, and only if you win will any of your matches be shown on TV back in Pyongyang. On the 104 licensed TVs in the country. Feel free to use corporal punishment on any players who deviate from party line or finish last in wind sprints. Send resume, video of players cowering and fraternal socialist references to ... Kim Jong Il, c/o Axis of Evil, PRK Division."

You're intrigued, right?

What could be freakier than coaching North Korea? What would be crazier, more random and madcap?

Anyway, North Korea is looking for a World Cup coach, and Philippe Troussier apparently is a candidate.

I say, "Go for it!"

North Korea is the country no one gets into. And hardly anyone gets out of. It has been the strangest place on the planet for about 60 years now, and without any real rivals since Albania opened up about 20 years ago. (OK, maybe Myanmar. With Equatorial Guinea and Yemen shaping up as wannabes.)

Most of what any Westerners know about Kim Jong Il is thanks to the Trey Parker/Matt Stone/South Park crew's marionette movie entitled "Team America: World Police". And they portray Kim as crazy as a loon, a guy in thick glasses who drops F bombs and feeds Hans Blix of United Nations fame to the sharks in his monster fish tank.

So, yeah, you get to go work with him.

You will spend months in beautiful downtown Pyongyang, or in some work/re-education camp. Whatever you prefer. They money will be pretty good, but you can't ever talk about it. You won't be able to say much of anything about the competence of your team ... but you sure as heck can keep a diary (if you code it cleverly enough) and write a great book when it's all over.

Dealing with the soul-crushing bureaucracy of the PRK. Maybe meeting Kim Jong Il. Detailing how the players cringe when you raise your hand ... to scratch the top of your head. What the crowds are like if and when you play a home friendly. What your living quarters are like.

The little stuff; like what the players eat. How you don't trust your translator and are sure he works for the secret police and records everything you say. And those four goons who insist on driving you around.

How locked down your training site in South Africa is. How nobody from North Korea actually came to see you play in South Africa. How the players whimpered in fear of retribution when they went out in the first round without scoring a point. (North Korea is in the Group of Death, remember?)

On and on. This is a book waiting to be written. I would buy it right now.

And the one really weird thing of this? Somebody in North Korea is clear-minded enough (and has enough political power) to convince a rabidly nationalistic government that, really, comrades, we have to have a foreigner coach the team or we're going to get destroyed. (Or maybe a foreign coach to blame when we get destroyed.)

Almost makes you a teeny bit optimistic that not every single guy in the PRK politburo is nuts.

Anyway, this should be fun. Well, interesting, anyway. The planet's last great paranoid Communist state, with one of the planet's elite Cults of the Personality going on right this minute.

Can't beat that with a stick.

* -- And no, there isn't such a website. I just made it up. If there were, Bora would sign up for the RSS feed.
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Friday, December 18, 2009

France Misses Chance to Abandon Domenech

I'm not sure any but the greatest of coaches make much difference in the fate of a soccer club or a soccer nation. If the talent is there, some very mediocre managers can coach champions.

However, I do believe that a bad coach can destroy a good team and waste great talent.

Which brings us to Raymond Domenech.

The France Football Federation decided today to keep Domenech as coach through the 2010 World Cup. Which makes us wonder what they were thinking.

One of the FFF board members called for Domenech to be dismissed, prompting the board meeting today.

This, after almost two years of spotty France results that included losing the World Cup group qualifying championship to Serbia ... a 1-0 (!) victory over the Faroe Islands in August ... a 1-1 tie in Saint-Denis against underpowered Romania in September ... and the infamous Handball Game playoff victory over Ireland last month.

Domenech certainly has many of the "qualities" of the incompetent coach. Pig-headedness. An unwillingness to listen to others or use criticism constructively. Weird tactical ideas. An inability to command players' respect.

And, of course, getting bad results with very good talent.

Zinedene Zidane may be retired, but France still has a full cupboard of talent. Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Youann Gourcuf, William Gallas, Patrice Evra, Hugo Lloris ... wouldn't you think that group of players could do some damage in international competition? How do you think they might do under any half-dozen of the Dutch mercenary coaches knocking around? Semifinals? Finals?

So, what is holding back les bleus?

After two years of mediocrity, you pretty much have to come back to ... the coach.

It makes you wonder what sort of leverage Domenech has over the FFF. He's something of a goofball as well as a coaching cipher. Yet there he goes, headed for South Africa.

Well, it does set up this one intriguing subplot:

Who can get the least production out of the most talent? Diego Maradona? Or Raymond Domenech.

Fans in Argentina and France may not be amused as this competition-within-a-competition, but the rest of us will be.
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Then Maybe Fifa Needs a New President

I felt the "disturbance in the force."

HRH Sepp Blatter is in the same town as I am ... and I should have realized what that tingling sensation was about.

(I attributed it to my foot falling asleep.)

Sepp is in-country, here in the UAE, because Abu Dhabi is playing host to the Fifa Club World Cup. (Barcelona and Estudiantes play for the championship on Saturday.)

And, while here, the president of Fifa made clear that he stands in the forefront of soccer progress, modernity and forward-thinking.

Or not.

Sepp today said here that soccer will never have instant replay as long as he is president ... and you know what the obvious response to that is.

Maybe it's time for a new president.

Not using some basic form of instant replay indicates that Blatter is a sports Luddite. Opposed to all that new-fangled machinery that might, just might, bring a modicum of justice to the sport's biggest matches.

Wouldn't want that. Not if it means more technology. The new Fifa s;ogan: "We'd rather be old-fashioned than right."

Sepp actually said soccer fans have to accept horrible errors -- such as the handball that preceded France's World Cup-clinching victory over Ireland -- because "there are always errors in life."

So deal with it, Ireland!

We know the game prizes its free-flowing style. No interruptions aside from the half. Etc.

But when a match is big enough, or in the 60-seconds-plus of dead time after a goal, why not at least allow the chance to review a goal?

I don't believe anyone is talking about reviewing every foul call. Not like in American football.


The reality is, if Sepp stays healthy he also will stay on as Fifa president about as long as he wants. He has lots of support in the Third World and in North America, and even if the Europeans pretty much despise him, so what? They don't have enough votes to oust him.

So we can look forward to more horrendous calls in the beautiful game not being reversed or even reviewed. Thanks Sepp.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Algeria: More 'Heart' Than England?

A kid from Algeria who plays for Scottish club Rangers has gone on record suggesting that his team can defeat England when they meet in group play at the 2010 World Cup.

And, really, what do you expect the guy to say? "We stink. We have no chance against the mighty Three Lions. We just hope we don't get hurt or so embarrassed that we can't go home to Algiers."

Here is a link to the story, which really is fairly mild.

Here is the money quote from Madjid Bougherra:

"England may be better than us in physical and tactical terms with Fabio Capella as their coach, but we are stronger skills-wise. We also have a quality they don't have -- we play with heart. So on a good day, we can really beat them. And even if we can't manage to do that, we won't be embarrassed, believe me."

What is interesting about this?

It got big play in England ... and in all forums where English fans lurk (that is to say, every English-language soccer site on the planet) ... and the point of the great display it got ... was to cheese off English fans. Which isn't hard to do.

The popular (if not universal) narrative, among England fans, at the moment, is that their lads not only will advance out of their group, they will hardly break a sweat before the quarterfinals.

Just remember that English soccer is profoundly bipolar.

Either their fans and their journalists love their team to death and expect Great Things from it -- generally during the run up to any World Cup ...

Or they hate their team, and despair ever of winning that second World Cup ... and wonder how it all went so horribly wrong these past, oh, 43 years.

Short term, that means that the three minnows (to use a Brit soccer cliche) that find themselves in Group C along with the mighty English can count on every single vaguely interesting value judgment of English soccer to get enormous attention in English media.

Not only do we have this example, of an Algerian guy saying, basically, "Yeah, we'll show up, and we think we can win." (Imagine. The audacity.) A week before we had the Slovenia coach saying much the same thing. And he was hooted down, too.

Anyway, please take note, you Algerians, Slovenians and United States-ians. For the next six months, anything anything you say about England's side that can be interpreted as even possibly negative is going to get you massive attention in England. And its fans, who are in a giddy phase, will assault and mock you over it.

Just be aware. That's how it works. And when England crashes, whether it's in the Round of 16 or the quarterfinals ... you can just chuckle and remember when English fans had plotted a course right into the championship match.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ticket Stampede

May not want to wait too long to buy your World Cup tickets.

More than 500,000 from the final batch to go on sail (about one-third of the total) were ordered in the first 10 days they were made available. That's a pretty brisk pace and is explained by fans now knowing exactly who is playing where and when. In the group stage, anyway.

You can see that story here.

Most of the tickets were sold inside South Africa. Which makes sense. They're hosting it, and it's not exactly easy to get there from ... wherever you happen to be that isn't South Africa.

Apparently, approximately 500,000 tickets to the event are left. Of a total of more than 3 million.

Don't let the grass grow under your feet. If you live somewhere where grass grows.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

South Africa Wasting Money on World Cup?

Here's a news flash:

All those big, gleaming stadiums South Africa is building ... might not be particularly useful after the 2010 World Cup.

They might even be, in the expression used by contemptuous critics of big sports events, "white elephants." A waste of precious resources in a country ravaged by AIDS and dealing with an enormous gap between rich and poor.

Who says so? The maker of a documentary about South Africa and the 2010 World Cup. And some of the people he interviewed in the film.

It is tempting to dismiss the man behind the documentary as a sports killjoy. But he is pressing right on the sore spot of our consciences when a nation spends lots and lots of money on ... games.

How appalling this all is generally is a function of how rich a country is.

Or how poor it is.

By African standards, South Africa is fairly well off. Per capita annual gross domestic product (GDP) is $5,700, according to the CIA World Factbook figures.

By global standards, however, South Africa is significantly below the global mean of $9,100 and miles behind First World countries where per capita income is $40,000, $60,000 or more -- and where it is far more equitably distributed.

If it's the United States or Japan putting on a big event, there are complaints. Certainly, that money could be used in a better way. But wealthy countries can put on big events basically in the margins of their economy. It isn't an either/or proposition, usually.

When the country is less wealthy, the choices that were made ... begin to seem harder to defend.

In South Africa, Fifa-approved stadiums were, basically, nonexistent. So South Africa built a bunch of them, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Billions, actually.

The documentarian asks the questions of the righteousness of all this, and he has a number of South African politicians decrying the financial outlay for football.

Those are fair questions. And sports fans can react in a couple of ways.

1. This is the World Cup/Olympics. We don't care if someone starves.

2. Sure, that country is spending a lot of money on stadiums (or infrastructure or hotels), but the attention brought to the country by this big event will pay for the outlay, down the road, in tourism or in intangibles like "respect" or "face." (This was how China approached the 2008 Olympics. "This is our coming out party, and we don't really care if the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube are empty for the next five years.")

Many of us find ourselves whipsawed between those two concepts. Feeling a bit guilty ... that we are enjoying this ridiculously expensive event so much.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

England Gets One Royally Sweet Home Base

Our favorite South Africa 2010 World Cup soccer source, the Johannesburg Times, is on the case again.

This time, the Joburgers have the specifics about the palatial digs where England will be based during South Africa 2010. (Crowing that they walked straight in, after English reporters were rebuffed.)

As the Times points out, the Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex actually was built for a king and includes first-class on-campus facilities as well as two royal suites and four presidential suites.

The Times describes it like this:

The Royal Bafokeng is "the most coveted team base on the World Cup list, since it offers luxury, seclusion, altitude and superb training facilities. England will have 10 match-quality football pitches and a high-tech gym right on their doorstep."

The Times suggests that England's early qualifying enabled it to get a jump on other rivals when it came to securing lodging and practice fields. And now that the team's first match is in Rustenburg, which is nearby, the whole set-up is nearly perfect.

Even the infamous English WAGS (wives and girlfriends) won't have far to travel to see the lads -- on those rare days they will be allowed to see the lads -- because Sun City, the Las Vegas of the region, is only "20 minutes away."

The Times also pokes a little fun at England's imperious Italian coach, Fabio Capello, wondering who will take the other royal suite - once Fabio has nabbed one. And at David Beckham, whom, the Times titters, "will be thrilld by the hotel's abundance of giant mirrors."

Wonder where the likes of Slovenia, Algeria and North Korea will be staying. Someplace far less posh, no doubt.
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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Coaches: Getting What You Pay For?

If you wonder what World Cup coaches are worth ... here is a not-quite complete list of what they are being paid.

This originated in the Spanish daily newspaper Marca (presumably rendered in euros), then went to the Guardian in England (rendered in pounds sterling), and that is where I saw it.

And now we convert it from pounds into dollars.

Note: Five of the six nations deemed most likely to win at South Africa 2010 ... are in the top six in the coach pay scale.

The contender not in the top six in the salary standings? Brazil. Coach Dunga is 11th. Maybe the theory there is that anyone can coach Brazil.

The list:

Fabio Capello, England, $9.93 million

Marcelo Lippi, Italy, $3 million

Bert van Marwijk, Netherlands, $2.71 million

Otmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland, $2.61 million

Joachim Loew, Germany, $2.31 million

Vicente del Bosque, Spain, $2.21 million

Carlos Quieroz, Portugal, $2.01 million

Pim Verbeek, Australia, $1.99 million

Javier Aguirre, Mexico, $1.81 million

Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa, $1.81 million

Dunga, Brazil, $1.23 million

Diego Maradona, Argentina, $1.21 million

Takeshi Okada, Japan, $1.21 million

Ricki Herbert, New Zealand, $1.121 million

Otto Rehhegel, Greece, $1.15 million

Paul Le Guen, Cameroon, $960,000

Marcelo Bielsa, Chile, $853,000

Vahid Halilhodzic, Ivory Coast, $743,000

Raymond Domenech, France, $723,000

Huh Jung-moo, South Korea, $603,000

Note: The only non-threat to win the Jules Rimet Trophy among the top six earners is Hitzfeld (Switzerland). And the only serious contender outside the top 10 is Dunga.

Look at how much more England pays Capello than any other nation pays its coach. Will England get full value? (Anything less that a championship, it would seem.) Or might it been able to find someone competent (perhaps even Fabio himself) for maybe half what it is lavishing on him?

Note, also, how little France pays Domenech. Perhaps that explains his longevity despite what appears to be near-universal national loathing.

Also interesting: How much non-elite Australia and New Zealand pay their coaches.

Verbeek is a guy with some chops, but who knew Australia the Soccer Nation had that kind of cash to lavish on the Dutchman? And New Zealand? It doesn't have a serious pro league ... but it can spend more money on Ricki Herbert than Otto Rehhegel gets from Greece? Herbert's job involved mashing the minnows in Oceania, then beating Bahrain. Meanwhile, Rehhegel already has a Euro Cup championship (2004) on his resume and survived a tough European qualifying campaign and led his team to a home-and-home playoffs victory over the Ukraine.

Go figure. Rehhegel probably was trying to figure it out, when he saw the list.

If anyone has salary information on coaches not listed, above (such as Bob Bradley of the United States), feel free to let us know.
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Friday, December 11, 2009

Keeping Track of Injuries Ahead of SA 2010

From a macro perspective, this is one of the great mysteries ahead of South Africa 2010.

Which players are hurt?

Fans are likely to have a pretty good idea about the physical form of the players from their home team. And they may have an idea about the injured elite players in the top professional leagues in Europe.

But when we try to keep track of the middling or fringe-first-XI guys for 32 nations (one of which is secrecy-shrouded North Korea) ... well, we're going to be guessing.

In this case, Ghana has lost its best player, Michael Essien, for at least two months with a torn hamstring. (And my study of torn hamstrings is that two months is a very, very optimistic time frame for a return.)

The London Times tells us about Essien's injury here.

Get well soon, Mr. Essien.

The bigger topic ... is about how we will get close to the World Cup and make projections based on a team showing up with its first XI. And could be badly misinformed because several key players are hurt and we don't know it.

Here is just one example:

The United States may be the planet's elite sports nation. But when it comes to its soccer team, otherwise well-informed fans in other parts of the world don't really know more than a few names of players on the U.S. team.

And the United States's chances in the World Cup are, at the moment, typically forecast by others ... based on the assumption that the first XI it used there for that runner-up finish in the Confederations Cup will be the same it uses at the World Cup.

However, that is not the case.

Two of the first XI are on the shelf at this moment. One, Charlie Davies, who scored in the crucial match against Egypt, nearly died in an automobile accident in October. He suffered numerous broken bones and almost certainly won't play in South Africa -- and maybe never again. And how many non-Americans know that?

The other seriously injured U.S. player in central defender Oguchi Onyewu whose knee exploded in the latter stages of the World Cup qualifying match vs. Costa Rica, in November. Onyewu has a higher profile than most of the U.S. players, being under contract with AC Milan (albeit lashed to the bench there, before he was hurt) ... but it seems safe to assume most of the soccer world is unaware that he will not really begin his comeback until spring and may not be back in form by June 11.

And that is just one nation.

Multiply the not-quite-aware factor by 32, and you begin to see the really extraordinary level of Not Knowing (among pundits and fans alike), about what to make (and expect) of this, that or the other World Cup contender.

Because we won't, and can't, know who is hurt.

Complicating this further? The dearth of accurate information that World Cup teams will allow to leak out about its players and their injuries as we get close to the Big Event. As if it weren't already difficult enough to keep track of (say) Paraguay's guys -- even if we read Spanish-language publications from the country.

We will attempt here, as we get closer to this, to keep track of the players who suffer major injuries. But that injury report will most assuredly be skewed toward the big soccer nations and players in the major leagues.

Very good players, very important players, competing or club teams back in their home nation ... they could be in a full body cast, and we may not know about it until the opening match, when Team X takes the field without Player No. 11.
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Algeria May Pay Costs of Fans to Go to SA 2010

That's one way to get 5-10,000 friendly fans in the stands.

Pay for them to get there.

Algeria famously charged nothing for about 11,000 of its fans to fly to the Sudan for the special playoff match against Egypt ... the one Algeria won, 1-0, putting it into the finals in South Africa.

Now, the government apparently is considering a reprise of that generosity for the finals, during which the Algerians will play two countries that have lots of fans paying their own way -- the United States and England.

The Guardian, an English newspaper, has some details on Algeria's planning.

The question not quite answered in the story is whether Algeria actually intended to let 11,000 fans show up, on its flag-carrier airline, at Sudan. Notice the wording about how the fans crowded onto the flights, and most were never charged a fee. Was that a plan? Or a mini-stampede that got out of control?

This time, 3,000 seats have been "blocked out" for Algeria supporters. Will that turn into another freebie? It's a much longer flight, from Algiers to South Africa than it is from Algiers to Khartoum. Much bigger expense, per flight.

Seemingly, Algeria will need all the help it can get. Algeria hasn't been in the World Cup since 1986, and was not favored to survive Egypt in the special playoff. It generally is regarded as the weakest team in Group C, which includes little Slovenia.

Several thousand sympathetic fans traveling at government expense ... that would go a long way towards making Algeria feel more at home in South Africa.

Just don't look for too many other governments to follow suit.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

South Africa, Zulus and Bulls

As of 10 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, no trains had jumped the rails and no planes had skidded off runways in South Africa, but that won't stop us from giving more attention to an undeniable reality of the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

It isn't going to be your typical First World World Cup of recent vintage. (Thinking Germany, Japan, South Korea, France, the United States, Italy.) This is a different culture at a different place in its history. It may someday resemble Western Europe or North America, but right now it doesn't.

Which leads us to today's topic ... the ritual slaughter of a bull by young Zulu warriors, in South Africa. With their bare hands.

Now that's not something I think you will see in France. Though they do force-feed geese to make foie gras out of their livers.

But back to the bulls and the Zulus.

This story appeared in the New York Times. It notes that animal rights people objected to what apparently is a very old Zulu tradition ... and how that objection ticked off a lot of people in South Africa (and not just Zulus). It smacked of racism and colonialism, they said.

The story notes how the South African judiciary was asked to rule on the killing-a-bull-with-our-bare-hands thing, and decided it was OK. With the ruling judge saying something like "I don't want to be responsible if something bad happens to the Zulu king because I banned this ceremony," which doesn't quite strike me as a legal opinion that would rival something Coke or Taney would have authored, in terms of depth of analysis.

And the author of the story does his best to explain how it all went down, even though reporters were pushed some distance away from the ceremony.

The point being, again ... this will be a different World Cup than any that has come before it. And not just because it is 2010.
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Traveling Around SA Is, Uh, an Adventure

OK, yes, there's crime. The second-highest murder rate in the world -- both as a percentage and in raw numbers. (Trailing only narco-state Colombia in each category.)

And, yes, some teams are going to bring their own paramilitary security forces (as detailed in the previous entry on this blog).

And we hate to keep coming back with bad news, but this actually is news. As in "just happened."

A couple of examples why it is difficult and dangerous to travel a significant distance, inside South Africa: A plane crash and a train crash.

First, the train crash.

It occurred Monday on the passenger line between Johannesburg and Cape Town -- which is only the most important rail line in the country.

South Africa already had a reputation for barely functioning rail. Slow, expensive, doesn't take you where you want to go. (Sounds like the United States.)

And now trains are running into each other?

Be careful, England fans, trying to get from Game 1 in Rustenburg to Game 2 in Cape Town.

Here is the link to the plane crash ... which was "only" an Airlink commuter plane running off the runway in a place called George.

What I don't get is how 35 people were "ejected" but only one hurt. This also happened Monday. Yesterday.

Anyway, a day later, the transport minister says he is considering grounding the Airlink fleet. A day after dismissing the off-the-runway thing as no big deal. Hmm.

Also, this probably is a good place to mention that Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated is on the record as saying he will do whatever he can to tar the reputation of South Africa's main airline, South African Airways, which he dealt with, apparently, during the Confederations Cup. He said he hated it on just about every level.

So, if you are going, and you need to commute any distance around the Texas-sized country ... well, good luck. Trains spotty and dangerous. Planes spotty and dangerous. Driving in a big country with some second-tier roads and lots of crime? Sounds dangerous, too.

Not all teams will be dragged around the country during South Africa 2010. The U.S., for example, has all three of its group matches in a fairly small area in the northeast.

But if you have to make that Joburg to Cape Town trip ... again, consider yourself warned.
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Monday, December 7, 2009

Teams to Hire 'War Zone' Security?

This is a story that came out of today's editions of the Pretoria News, an English-language newspaper in the city of Pretoria, in South Africa.

Pretoria, by the way, is a host city for the 2010 World Cup. The United States' last game, vs. Algeria, is in Pretoria.

The gist of the story: That some of the teams going to South Africa are bringing their own security men, and that some of those guys have backgrounds in war zones ... and terror zones.

I would link you to the Pretoria News, but they charge for the story in question. So I'm picking it up from other South African media.

Here it is:

"Many of the nations taking part in the World Cup will use private security firms - including war-zone specialists who operate in Iraq and Afghanistan - to safeguard their players and officials.

"Sources in the private protection industry have said that high-profile football associations from Europe and South America have already hired firms that will use ex-military personnel, some of them special forces veterans, to look after players and their families. The firms will provide round-the-clock armed bodyguards, bulletproof vehicles, hijack prevention advice and squads that can handle kidnap situations. Kidnap insurance is also offered by some agencies.

"The revelations come amid fears there could be 'gaps in the coverage' provided by the organisers. A number of football associations from around the world and senior figures in international administrative circles have concerns sparked by lapses at last summer's Confederations Cup, which was effectively a small-scale test event for 2010.

"'There was no single major mishap, but some worrying gaps were noted, suggesting there won't be enough properly trained security at every place they'll be required,' one source said. 'Security contracts weren't in place until very late, some players had property stolen from hotels, and some fans were victims of crime.

"'And at the Confederations Cup there were just eight teams, playing in four stadiums, three of which were within (112km) of each other. The World Cup is in a whole different league, with 32 teams, 10 stadiums in nine cities across more than a thousand miles, and millions of fans, hundreds of thousands from overseas.'

"Another source said: 'South Africa has a fantastic reputation for sports events. It has staged the Rugby World Cup, Lions tours, and major international cricket - but its infrastructure is under pressure. Booking rooms and internal flights is already a struggle, and the security is just as susceptible.'

"Fifa said it was satisfied the South African authorities had done all they could to secure the safety of players, officials and fans."

Well, there you are. We've been writing about this for months. That South Africa can be a dangerous place. Our sense always has been that the fans paying attention to their surroundings will be save.

(Reminds me of the Scandinavian journalists who covered the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. They were staying on the east side of the Harbor Freeway, and they decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood and got mugged. If they had asked literally anyone from SoCal, they would have been warned off a pleasure walk in that neighborhood.)

Also makes me wonder what sort of laws South Africa has about foreigners carrying weapons (concealed or otherwise) in South Africa. If that is a problem, will they be hiring South African security firms?

Remember, too, the German team apparently has been counseled to wear bullet-proof vests when outside the team compound. Hmmm.

Could be interesting. Well, it all will be.
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Odds Facing 32 Teams

It seems odd to me to gamble on soccer. Not enough goals. I know you can bet on all those "propositions" (like who takes the first corner kick, who commits the first foul, etc.) ... but it just doesn't seem like a bettor's sport. American football and basketball seem more attractive betting propositions. Rugby, too.

Though much of the world disagrees with me on this, because people writing about the soccer match-fixing stories coming out of central Europe are keen to note how many millions and millions are wagered online on soccer, in Europe and Asia.

So, think of this list of odds (posted on Sports Illustrated) as less of an incentive to bet ... and more as a piece of real news interest -- from the sense of the teams the bookies believe will receive the most support.

Here they are, from best odds to worst:

9-2: Brazil, Spain.

6-1: England

9-1: Argentina

12-1: Germany, Italy

14-1: Netherlands

16-1: France, Portugal

22-1: Ivory Coast

40-1: Chile

66-1: Ghana, Paraguay, Serbia

80-1: Cameroon, United States

100-1: Australia, Denmark, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Uruguay

150-1: Switzerland

200-1: Japan, Slovakia, Slovenia

250-1: South Korea

300-1: Algeria, Honduras

500-1: South Korea

1,000-1: New Zealand

Some thoughts: I might be interested in a couple of exotic bets. If gambling were legal here. One would be "I'll take Brazil and Spain against the field ... what odds will you give me?"

And I wonder what sort of odds I could get for picking a half-dozen middling teams (beginning with Argentina) with the proposition being, "These X number of teams will not win. How much can I win if I bet $100 on that?"

But just looking at the list, I might lay a fiver down on Nigeria, at 100-1. I believe the African teams are going to have their best World Cup, and Nigeria has a decent draw. I also fancy the Netherlands at 14-1. Though I wish Van Persie hadn't hurt his ankle the other day. I'd bet $1 on New Zealand, too, but that is just so not going to happen, I may as well sail a dollar bill out the fifth-floor window of my hotel in Abu Dhabi.

Anyone you see there that seems like a bargain? Or a sucker's bet?
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Oh, And a Million Tickets on Sale Today

If you have, oh, $10,000 in spare change lying about, and want to go see some matches at South Africa 2010 ... this is the time to get busy buying.

One million tickets went on sale today, the last big chunk of tickets offered to foreigners.

What the story I linked to, above, doesn't tell you is ... you need to go to to buy tickets.

Here is a link to the ticketing starting page.

And if any of you actually do buy tickets, send me an e-mail, so I can ask you how cool it is to have a confirmation for South Africa 2010.

If you're an American or a Brit, you won't be the only one in-country. Sources in the U.S. bought 84,000 tickets from the first batch and English bought 49,000 ... and it looks almost certain those two will be the biggest groups of fans, aside from the home team. Of course.
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Some of the English Get a Grip on Chances

I did a post a few months ago noting the quadrennial giddy-ness that is a particularly English feature in the run-up to the World Cup. Or should we call it "barmy-ness"?

As erstwhile Masters of the Game ... as the home to the richest and most prominent pro league ... the English seem to feel as if they ought to win the World Cup again sometime soon, and they have a point. They have some nice players who play on the largest of stages.

And it is their sport, after all. Or was originally. Imagine the United States going 44 years between basketball world championships. Right. Unthinkable.

So, yes, there is generic English happiness about being drawn into what doesn't appear to be a difficult group -- Group C, with the United States, little Slovenia and underwhelming Algeria.

Patrick Barclay of the once-reserved London Times practically hyperventilates in this piece while describing why England not only has a great draw ... but is his choice to win the Whole Tournament. You'll have to go to the link. His gushing would make this item too long ... and too soggy.

But not everyone in England is banking on their lads hoisting the Jules Rimet Trophy (or is the Jules Verne Trophy?) on July 11.

Here is one snarky naysayer, Paul Hayward, in the pages of The Guardian, one of England's leading newspapers, counseling national skepticism, given England's recent history of World Cup failure:

"In the last two decades England have limped home from Italy (1990), traipsed back from France (1998), stumbled west from Japan (2002) and sounded the retreat from Germany (2006), where Wayne Rooney was sent off in a quarterfinal defeat to Portugal.

"Next summer's competition therefore presents a fresh opportunity: to be knocked-out on a whole new continent, in winter time, rather than the clammy temperatures that help redden faces, along with the tears. To break this anti-climactic pattern, the FA have hired two foreign managers on a salary of £5m a year each. Four years is long enough for the memory of the last implosion to fade and expectation to erupt again, but there is no disguising the gulf between the Premier League's wealth and power and the under-performance of the national team.

"(Coach Mario) Capello caught the infectious mood yesterday. 'I believe the facilities will be perfect for a great tournament, and the fact that the people here love football will make it even more special to be part of it,' he said. 'If you are the manager of England, it must be your aim to win the World Cup. That is the only thing that matters.' The special relationship, if it exists, is on hold."

Ouch. But give the man credit: He hasn't been slurping the "this is England's year; no, really" Kool-Aid that most of his countrymen have been quaffing by the gallon. (Though he could also have mentioned the failure to qualify for the World Cup, at all, in 1994.)

Not that England shouldn't do well. It ought to win Group C, and then face a fairly difficult Round of 16 match -- against Serbia or Ghana, most likely. But the English also don't have to play Brazil, Spain, Italy or Netherlands before the semifinals. And that can't be bad.

England was immediately installed as third-favorite to win the Cup, at 11-2 odds, behind only Brazil and Spain.

Meanwhile, Alan Hansen, writing in the Telegraph, laid out what certainly is the standard English analysis of their 2010 chances.

Wrote Hansen: "England have landed what can only be described as a dream draw and Fabio Capello will be delighted with it.

"If you start worrying about facing the likes of USA, Algeria and Slovenia, then you really shouldn’t be in the World Cup.

"Everything is in England’s favour. They will play two games at sea level, the weather conditions will suit them perfectly and the draw opens up kindly.

"England will be based at altitude, so they will be well prepared when they face the US in Rustenburg in the opening game.

"Algeria and Slovenia shouldn’t pose too many problems, although Algeria could be awkward for the other two teams and I’d go for them to finish second.

"If England win the group, as they should, the second round doesn’t hold too many fears. Even if it’s the Germans, Capello’s players won’t be scared of that.

"The only downside is that Brazil look likely to be waiting in the semi-finals if England get that far, but you would take that right now.

"England’s second team lost narrowly to Brazil in Doha, but it will be a different scenario altogether in a World Cup semi-final.

"Brazil aren’t the Brazil of 1970 or 1982, when they were the best team never to win the World Cup, so who knows what could happen?

"All Capello needs now is his team to perform."

Wow. If the English just show up ... gotta love their chances. Just like every other World Cup since the only one they won ... at home, just the other day, in 1966.

Jeffrey Marcus, writing on the New York Times's "Goal" blog, noted that the Americans feared getting into a group with two Euro powers (say with Portugal or France, as well as a seeded Euro) ... and suggested England might be a bit of a break for the Yanks, 2-7 all-time against England.

Wrote Marcus: "The United States was scooped out of the bowl and plopped into Group C with England," Marcus wrote, "of whom much is always expected and little delivered."
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Draw: Winners, Losers, Instant Analysis

The Finals Draw for South Africa 2010 is over. The singing and dancing and overly complicated processes and illegible names on the main board and bad graphics and silly celebrities and outwardly emotionless coaches in the seats ... and one horrible David Beckham haircut. It's done.

We now have eight groups of four.

First, let's nominate some winners and losers.

Winners: France, Mexico, Argentina, England, United States, Italy, Spain, Paraguay, Cameroon, Netherlands.

Losers: Australia, Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal, Germany, Denmark.

Now let's look at all eight groups, each given its own name, and how the eight groups ought to shake out.

Group A (Group Charmin): South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France. Finish: Mexico, France, South Africa, Uruguay. Comment: The second-softest group in the tournament. Unless South Africa catches fire, playing at home. It seems unlikely, but we should keep in mind that no host nation ever has failed to gain the second round. Mexico has pulled itself together and should get out of this group and maybe win it, especially if it fights off the Bafana Bafana in the first match of the tournament, June 11. Uruguay is solid but modestly talented. That leaves France, which is the team much of the world wants to see lose immediately because of the whole "hand ball vs. Ireland" thing. But France as we have known it ... the France that would be tres formidable if its whole ever equalled the sum of its parts ... hasn't been seen for more than a year. I see the French getting out of the group, barely. But they are the wild card here and coach Raymond Domenech probably is the joker.

Group B (Group Diego): Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece. Finish: Greece, Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea. Comment: Argentina ought to win the group, but it still has that bloated idiot, Diego Maradona, coaching, and we have great faith in his ability to screw this up so badly that Argentina goes home after group play. That leaves tremendous opportunities for the other three, and I see the mechanical but massively disciplined Greeks and the massively talented but often erratic Nigerians taking advantage. South Korea will do well to get a point.

Group C (Group Rule Britannia): England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia. Finish: England, U.S., Algeria, Slovenia. Comment: England has been gifted a very direct route into the semifinals. The question: Can the often under-achieving English take advantage? They really ought to win the group, which would give them a beatable Serbia in the Round of 16 and a beatable Mexico or France in the quarters ... before they could possibly face Brazil or the Netherlands in the semis. Also, if Mario Capello's crew wins the group, it can't possibly see Spain, Italy or Germany until the championship. If England is going to win ... this is the time. The U.S. ended the year badly, losing some key players to major injury, but this is a group it could escape. Which is probably exactly what Algeria and Slovenia are thinking, too. Though neither of those two has much athleticism or World Cup experience, and the U.S. is in it for the sixth straight time.

Group D (Group Deutschland Uber Alles): Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana. Finish: Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia. Comment: This is almost a Group of Death, but Australia isn't quite there, Serbia is in the WC as its own country for the first time and Ghana is coming on but lacks big-game experience against coldly efficient sides like the Germans. We see Deutschland grinding through the group (and it will be a grind) and then the Serbs finishing second. Though Ghana could be there, especially playing in Africa. Australia ... better than most people realize, but not good enough to hang with the other three.

Group E (Group Dutch Treat): Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon. Finish: Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan. Comment: The Dutch are the most unpredictable side in Europe. Capable of greatness on any given day, capable of meltdown on any other given day. They caught a break by getting a group with no one that should give them real trouble, aside, maybe from Cameroon, the most successful African team in World Cup history. Japan is gritty and Denmark is clever and well-organized, but neither can match the Dutch skill and flair, and both will have real issues with Cameroon's speed and attacking style.

Group F (Group Buongiorno!): Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia. Finish: Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, New Zealand. Comment: Happy birthday, Italia! Must be the country's birthday, because the Azzuri sit atop the weakest group in the tournament. New Zealand is an automatic three points, Paraguay isn't nearly crafty enough to deal with Italy, and neither is Slovakia. Italy should get nine points out of this. The Kiwis' goal should be a goal. Scoring one, that is. Because they won't win or tie. That leaves Paraguay and Slovakia, and we see the South Americans beating out the first-timers from Central Europe.

Group G (Group of Death, Kinda): Brazil, North Korea, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal. Finish: Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal, North Korea. Comment: Three-fourths of a Group of Death. North Korea messes things up, because all four Asian teams are weak and they appear to be the weakest. But the other three here ... Brazil is Brazil. It ought to win this group. But Portugal and Cote D'Ivoire are serious, serious sides. Portugal will have back Cristiano Ronaldo in June, and he's only the best player on the planet. And Portugal is ranked No. 5 in the world at this minute, and it's no accident. Ivory Coast has Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou and a bunch of other Europe-based stars. Brazil wins, but is pushed, and the former Ivory Coast begins its run to the semis by edging Portugal for second place.

Group H (Group Viva Espana): Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile. Finish: Spain, Chile, Switzerland, Honduras. Comment: Aside from Italy, Spain has the best draw in the tournament. Well, the best group-play draw, anyway. It really ought to win all three matches against the talent-starved Swiss, the unsophisticated Hondurans and South American also-ran Chile. After that ... we're thinking Chile dumps Switzerland and finishes second.

A couple more thoughts:

--The lower half of the bracket is far tougher than the top half. Group winners in the upper half can't possibly meet Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands or Italy before the semis, and those four are the top-ranked teams in the world and Italy is the defending champion.

--Ivory Coast probably is the strongest African team, and I'm on record as predicting an African team will reach the semifinals, but they caught no breaks here. They have to beat Portugal to get out of the group, then get Spain in the Round of 16 and Italy in the quarters. Do-able, but that's a rough go.

--Cameroon is probably the second-best African team (Samuel Eto'o, etc.), but the Indomitable Lions also are in the lower bracket, and they would face Italy in the Round of 16 and Spain in the quarters.

--So maybe Ghana (England in the second round, Mexico in the quarters) is the best hope for Africa. Or Nigeria (Mexico in the second round, England in the quarters).

Anyway, we're set. Let's see what everyone else has to say, and go from there. The next week should be full of prognosticating by players, coaches and pundits.
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Is Sepp Blatter a Dope?

How can such a wealthy, global entity such as Fifa ... be run by a guy who, apparently, does something supremely foolish about once a day?

Today's permutation of the Ireland story (and it should have died two weeks ago, except for Sepp Blatter's gaffes) ... is that the Ireland federation's suggestion that it be the 33rd team in the South Africa 2010 draw, as reported by Sepp two days ago, was ...

1) Apparently not serious and certainly never made in writing by Ireland.

2) Clearly not meant for Sepp Blatter to use as comic relief in a public forum. Which is what he did ... mention the 33rd team thing and get laughs.

And that is why the Ireland story has legs ... right up to the day before the 2010 draw takes place.

Here are specifics on the latest "open mouth, extract foot" moment for the exalted ruler of all things soccer:

Did I mention that this comes in the hours before the draw? When we ought to be talking about nothing except the game?

Could Fifa and Sepp have handled this any more ineptly?

Instead of doing the right (if unusual) thing and calling for a replay the day after the bogus France goal, Blatter shrugs and says "sorry, that's the beautiful game for you."

He then excoriates the Fifa-employed-and-assigned referee for not seeing a violation ... on the touch line ... in the 105th minute of a supremely tense match. (Hence the expression, "throwing someone under the bus.")

(Another aside: Hasn't anyone in soccer yet realized how crazy it is for a game involving 22 supremely fit and speedy players, played on an enormous surface, for two-plus hours, to be officiated by one middle-aged guy -- and two linesmen discouraged to do anything except make offsides calls? Aren't we long overdue for a second referee? Even before we get around to video replays?)

Meanwhile, it also is acknowledged that Fifa could take some steps to clean up its innumerable refereeing mistakes (oh, yeah, it turns out the decisive Uruguay goal in the Costa Rica playoffs for a World Cup berth should have been disallowed because of offsides) by adding an official behind the goal (and maybe someday using video replay).

But Sepp and Fifa continue in their staunch opposition to improving the game till after it can give serious study to the idea of an official behind the goal.

(I mean, this ain't splittin' the atom, you know? Stick a guy back there, and he does nothing except watch ... and wait to see if the referee asks for his help. We're pretty sure Fifa can afford to hire guys to do this.)

Meanwhile, Fifa launches an investigation of Thierry Henry, the French player who handled the ball twice before the goal that put France in the World Cup (and eliminated Ireland). Apparently, Henry should have gone directly to the referee and insisted, "That one doesn't count. I handled the ball." Even as the Stade de France is rocking and teammates are celebrating. The fallacy of this confess-your-sins approach being ... that no professional athlete has turned himself in for breaking the rules for, oh, a century now. The expression "that isn't cricket" ... doesn't even apply to cricket anymore. Professional athletes seem to have decided, en masse, about the year 1900, that it should be up to professional arbiters to get things right. But now Thierry Henry is at fault? And he faces a ban of a match of two?

I usually don't like criticizing the heads of major sports organizations. Their jobs are tougher than they appear. A whole world of sniping federations, billions of critical fans ... Generally, muddling through is good enough for me. Fifa can't manage even that.

Sepp just keeps pinning a "kick me" sign to his pants. Which leads me to believe that, yes, the president of Fifa is a dope.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Draw 'Pot' Losers: France, Concacaf

Finally. All of two days ahead of the Finals Draw, we know which teams are in which pots.

Thanks for all the warning, Fifa.

The winners? Argentina, the Netherlands and Africa.

The losers? France and Concacaf.

First, let's break out the four pots, as identified by Fifa today:

Pot 1 (seeded): Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, South Africa (host) and Spain.

Pot 2 (Asia, Concacaf, Oceania): Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea; Honduras, Mexico, United States; New Zealand.

Pot 3 (Africa, South America): Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria; Chile, Praguay, Uruguay.

Pot 4 (rest of Europe): Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland.

OK, back to winners and losers.

The winners:

-- The Netherlands, which probably deserved to be seeded but would not have if Fifa had used any one of its recent formulations for determining seeding (the ones that include recent results in World Cup finals). Netherlands didn't even play in the 2006 World Cup, so that would have buried it under the formula used just four years ago.

Instead, Fifa went off rankings ... and Netherlands is a top-five club, so it's seeded.

--Argentina. Forget the rankings. Argentina under Diego Maradona has not been anything like one of the world's top eight clubs. If France is going to be punished for recent form (see below), why not Argentina, as well?

--Africa. By being placed in a pot with the South American countries (the three that aren't Brazil and Argentina), that lifts Africa out of the "loser" pot it shared with Concacaf as recently as 2002. Now the five Africans are guaranteed at least one match with Asia, Concacaf or New Zealand.

And the losers ... some of which we already have referred to:

--France. Is Fifa punishing the French for the Ireland/Thierry Henry hand-ball mess? Certainly seems so. Under the old system of recent World Cup performance, the runners-up in 2006 ought to seeded. If Fifa went with its most current rankings, France is No.7 and ought to be in. But by going back to October's rankings, France is edged out by England.

(Hey, Ireland, we're not letting you in, but we're messing with France. Might even just by accident end up in a group with Brazil, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Feel better? Didn't think so.)

--Concacaf. The North American teams clearly are considered bottom of the barrel, along with Asia and Oceania -- and the latter two groups clearly deserve it. But Concacaf had two of its three teams ranked in the top 18 in October (United States No. 10, Mexico No. 18) ... yet they are stuck with the weak Asian teams and New Zealand -- which means they can't be in the same group with any of them of those quite-beatable five.

Concacaf teams, then, can look forward to a draw that will include a seeded team, one of the eight unseeded European teams ... and then either an African team (playing on its home continent) or South American team.

That is, a tough draw. The best the North Americans can hope for is getting into South Africa's group. South Africa will be infinitely better, at home, but it still looks more vulnerable than the other seeded teams. Aside from a Diego-led Argentina, maybe.

Seems as if Concacaf should have been thrown a bone and put in the same pot as Africa's five, considering South American already has two teams seeded and one of them (Argentina) is semi-bogus. Let the top two qualifiers out of Concacaf have a chance to play one of the four Asian teams -- none of which are ranked anywhere near the USA and Mexico. (Australia, at 24, is the only Asian team ranked above No. 40, as of October.)

But punking Concacaf is a hoary tradition, in Fifa. All the Yanks and Mexicans and Hondurans can do is go out and get results against at least two good opponents.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Yes, Ireland Asked to Be No. 33

In this story, we have Ireland confirming it asked to be added to the World Cup finals as the 33rd team.

And then we have Sepp Blatter seeming to say 1) it won't happen but 2) it will be discussed with the executive committee.

Guess there won't be much to discuss.

Blatter didn't exactly improve the situation by suggesting that if Ireland came in ... Costa Rica would have to, as well, since the decisive goal in Uruguay's playoff victory over the Ticos should have been negated by an offsides call.

So, yes, that's one of our reasons for not letting in Ireland: We screwed the pooch so enormously in two matches ... we can't let you both in!

Some questions raised by this story.

I would love to know if Ireland had any sort of plan for a 33-team World Cup. Must have, right? But haven't heard of any, yet.

Maybe a "play in" match against New Zealand? The Kiwis are the weakest side among the 32 that will be in South Africa, by global acclamation. But that wouldn't be quite fair to the Kiwis, who did what they were asked to do ...

How else?

Some variation of the European group qualifying scheme? Maybe three groups of five, three groups of six, the top two from each group go into the knockout phase ... and the final four come from the best of the third-place sides? (With results against bottom teams in the six-team groups thrown out?)

Of course, it would mean for a weird schedule. An extra match for 15 teams, two extra matches for 18 teams ... 75 group-phase matches, instead of 48. So, given the number of matches, perhaps the knockout phase begins with the quarterfinals? Six group winners and the top two runners-up?

Or, seven groups of four, one of five (including Ireland), and only four extra group-stage matches, and ...

That would be the smallest mess, but still.

The only way this could have been fixed was immediately after it happaned. With a replay between Ireland and France within days of the original. When that didn't happen, this all became academic.

And now ... one day from Fifa announcing (in theory) how it will arrange the pots for the Finals Draw, which is coming on Friday.
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Monday, November 30, 2009

Now Ireland Is Being Silly -- According to Sepp

Any semi-serious follower of the game of soccer feels badly for Ireland's national team.

The Irish lost a World Cup finals berth to France on the strength of an extra-time goal scored by William Gallas moments after teammate Thierry Henry twice handled the ball.

Everyone on the planet saw it. Everyone except the referee, that is.

Ireland made several appeals for a replay, for redress, all turned down.

And now Fifa boss Sepp Blatter suggests the Irish are making an even stranger request.

The Irish would like to be the 33rd team at South Africa 2010.

At least, that is what Blatter said today, in South Africa, ahead of the Final Draw scheduled for Friday.

In this story, Blatter said the Irish asked today to join the World Cup as an extra team. How a tournament with 33 might work, Blatter didn't address.

Given the black eye that Fifa got, deservedly, for the way the Ireland match in France ended, and the now-instinctive cynicism I bring to all Fifa pronouncements ... we would be remiss if we failed to note that we have no source out of Ireland's federation confirming they made any such request.

It would not strike me as out of the realm of the possible if Blatter took some throwaway line and pushed it forward as a formal request, just to make Ireland look silly.

At this point in the proceedings, Fifa is as likely to take vows of poverty as add a 33rd team.

And if Ireland actually made that request, in the light of day ... well, yes. Then the Irish are being silly.
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Sunday, November 29, 2009

How Will Draw Work? Fifa's Secret

How teams are distributed in the World Cup draw is of utmost importance.

If your country gets into a group with three teams it has trouble matching up with ... well, figure on a short stay in South Africa.

So, you bet, there is great interest in the Finals Draw, which will be held Friday in Cape Town.

But here's the kicker: Fifa still hasn't announced how it will divide up the 32 teams into four pots (groups) of eight. And it won't announce the procedures until Wednesday.

A delay which is almost inconceivable, in the world of 21st century sports. So, we are left to guess.

And here we go.

This is an educated guess.

Pot 1 (top-seeded teams and the host): Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Spain.

Pot 2 (the rest of Europe): Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland.

Pot 3 (Africa and Concacaf): Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria, United States.

Pot 4 (Asia, Oceania, South America): Australia, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, North Korea, Paraguay, South Korea, Uruguay.

This is actually almost tidy.

Remember: Teams from the same continents are not supposed to be in the same group -- aside from the five groups that will have two European teams

Some possible permutations:

1. Argentina doesn't get seeded, Netherlands does ... and that leaves only seven in Pot 2. Easily solved by sticking Argentina in with the seven Euros. A little weird to separate it from the other three South American teams, but in terms of "what it has done in the past" it makes more sense to put Argentina in with seven Euros than, say, the other orphan team, New Zealand.

2. The five African teams that aren't the host are put in the same pot with the three South Americans who aren't Brazil and Argentina. Which means the final pot would be Concacaf, Asia and New Zealand.

In theory, then, when the draw is made, which teams get pulled from the three non-seeded pots is completely random. But with Fifa, you always worry about how legit it is -- though the organization makes a point of insisting it is random. Well.

The group to be in will be Group A -- the one with South Africa in it. Host countries always always always play better than expected, but South Africa is truly weak. And if that's your seeded team ... well, the three who end up in the SA group will be feeling fairly comfy.

On Wednesday, we find out, presumably, who is seeded ... and which confederations are in which pots ... and then we wait for the names to be drawn.
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