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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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stars, Top Teams Who Won't Be in SA

In the previous post, we noted that Asia is pretty much missing in action from South Africa 2010.

And leading up to the final few qualifying matches, we were keeping close tabs on Lionel Messi of Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal -- the last two Fifa players of the year -- as their teams struggled to join the 32 going to the 2010 World Cup finals.

Those two players have made it. But several well-known players have not. As well as some fairly well-known soccer nations.

For example:

Andrei Shevchenko of the Ukraine. Andrei Arshavin of Russia. Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden.

For each, their World Cup aspirations were dashed late in the process. For those first two, literally on the last day of qualifying. For Ibrahimovic, on the final week of European group play, when Sweden was caught and passed by Portugal for second place -- and lost out on the chance to qualify via Europe's home-and-home second-place playoffs.

South Africa's news agency did a collection of the guys playing "left out" in 2010, which can be seen here. The story, printed in the Johannesburg Times, also notes how two of the most famous players of the last half-century never did play in a World Cup -- George Best and George Weah, who each played internationally for weak sides (Northern Ireland and Liberia, respectively).

In terms of missing teams, we have Turkey and Croatia, each of which are semifinalists of fairly recent vintage -- Croatia in 1998, Turkey in 2002. Also not coming: Egypt, the reigning African championship.

Russia will be missed by some, along with Arshavin. The Russians currently are ranked No. 13 in the world.

It's inevitable that some good teams and good players won't be at a given World Cup. Tha's why they have qualifying and not direct seeding from rankings.

Actually, when we look at South Africa 2010, the people and sides we would miss most ... are safely in the field.

And here is the rest of it.
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Friday, November 27, 2009

Enormous Void on the World Cup Map

Noticed this the other day. While studying the list of 32 qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

An enormous swath of territory, extending from eastern Europe across nearly the breadth of Asia has ... zero ... teams in the World Cup.

From the eastern borders of Slovakia and Serbia and Greece ... to the border of North Korea, the continent of Asia is shut out of South Africa 2010.

And Fifa can't be happy about that, if we assume that it believes every region on the planet would like to have at least one or two countries from their neighborhood in the finals. To root for ... to root against ... just someone to bring the event a bit closer to home.

Didn't work out this time. Not for the 90 percent of the contiguous bulk of this population-dense area.

How did this happen?

--In part, it is bad luck.

Russia, Ukraine and Bahrain were on the edge of qualification. Each was in a home-and-home playoff for one of the 32 berths, playoffs in which each was the favorite. Each stumbled in the second half of the playoff.

--In part it reflects bad planning on the part of FIFA.

Soccer's organizing body allowed Australia to shift from the Oceania qualifying group into the Asia qualifying group. The Australians took a look at Asian soccer and decided -- quite accurately -- that their chances of getting to South Africa via one of the four guaranteed Asia berths were much better than winning Oceania (which essentially means beating New Zealand) and getting the region's half-berth -- and surviving a home-and-home roulette with Asia's No. 5 finisher.

That doesn't mean Fifa should have allowed the Aussies to move. Anyone paying attention (and apparently it doesn't include Fifa) knew that Australia represented a strong threat to qualify out of Asia, and that Oceania without Australia is a one-country "region" named New Zealand.

Australia rolled right through Asian qualifying, not losing in eight matches (6-0-2) of final group play, and poof! there went one of Asia's four berths -- to a country usually considered a continent of its own and not part of Asia.

--Some of it is the sheer weakness and/or incompetence of soccer federations in the massively populated Asian mainland.

China plays lots of soccer, has hundreds of millions of fans ... but its federation is corrupt and incompetent. India also has a horrible federation and doesn't play much soccer. Pakistan is a soccer nonentity and doesn't seem to mind. Ditto, Bangladesh. Indonesia is hardly better. None of those five countries reached even the final 10 in "Asian" qualifying.

Iran usually is competent, but it fell two points short of qualifying outright, one point short of the fifth-place playoffs. Saudi Arabia lost to Bahrain in the fifth-place home-and-home, and then Bahrain lost to New Zealand. There goes the Arabian Peninsula.

And that leaves Asia represented by Japan, the two Koreas ... and Australia. Three countries on the edge of the continent, and one on another continent entirely. And it leaves seven time zones, from central Europe to Korea, with no World Cup teams.

So, from Turkey and the Middle East, from Poland, Romania ... through all the "stans", across Mother Russia and its breakaway children, through China and Mongolia, across Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and down into Indochina and Indonesia and over to the Philippines ... a chunk of territory that probably holds something like two-thirds of the world population ... it's World Cup armageddon.

For soccer fans there, the 2010 World Cup will be about watching teams from the rest of the world. (Unless they feel kinship with the Koreas or Japan.)

Meanwhile, Europe has 13 teams, Africa has six, South America has five, North American has three and even little Oceania has one.

We can be fairly certain Fifa would prefer that an Iran and a Russia and China and maybe an Arabian Peninsula team were in the World Cup. None of them are.

It leaves a yawning void on the World Cup map. Maybe it won't happen again anytime soon. Fifa has to be hoping so.
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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ticket Sales: Not an Issue Yet

I have made my share of mistakes in pursuit of journalism. I take no pleasure in pointing out the mistakes of others.

But this story and (essentially) the retraction that followed, by the Johannesburg Times tells us about the ticket system for South Africa 2010 -- as well as illustrates how the newspaper didn't quite get it right the first time.

The trap was the Times checking ticket sales and determining that only about 20 percent of tickets to the 2010 World Cup have been sold. That is a good story, considering the event is barely seven months away.

However, it seems that only about 20 percent of the tickets have been offered to buyers, with organizers holding the rest for sale after the Dec. 4 World Cup draw. Which makes perfect sense, because not until the draw will fans know when their team is going to play, and where. So far, fans are just buying tickets at locations, with no idea who might be there that day.

The Times owns up to all that in this story, which appeared today, one day after the "holy mackerel, only 20 percent of tickets are sold" story ran.

It is fair to ask if the citizens of an impoverished nation will turn out to see the likes or North Korea, New Zealand, Slovakia, Chile ... and whether those teams will send enough of their own fans to fill stadiums.

I wonder. Yes. I wonder. It wouldn't be a surprise in the least if not all tickets are sold.

But it's too early to suggest that we know the answers.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Breaking Down the Field by Appearances

Another way to parse the field for South Africa 2010:

By World Cup experience.

For some of these countries, a finals appearance is tantamount to a national birthright. For others, it is a rare and precious treat.

Let's go down the list of the 32, from the old hands to the (as the British would say) debutantes.

Nation, appearances (notes)

Brazil, 19 (all of them; the only country with that distinction)

Germany, 17 (didn't attempt to appear in the other two)

Italy, 17 (missed in only one attempt, 1958)

Argentina, 15 (only one qualifying failure, 1970)

Mexico, 14 (three failed attempts; banned from 1990)

England, 13 (three failed attempts for putative "masters of the game")

France, 13 (and four straight; thanks Thierry Henry)

Spain, 13 (maybe it's time to win one?)

Uruguay, 11 (though only two of last five)

Serbia, 10 (counting Yugoslavia days)

Netherlands, 9 (yes, a bit erratic, even with that talent)

Slovakia, 9 (counting Czechoslovakia days)

Switzerland, 9 (good success for a little country)

United States, 9 (and six straight for the "non-soccer-playing" USA)

Chile, 8 (but first since 1998)

South Korea, 8 (and seven straight)

Paraguay, 8 (and four consecutive; good for another little country)

Cameroon, 6 (from last eight attempts; all-time African qualifying leaders)

Portugal, 5 (yes, they used to struggle to get here)

Denmark, 4 (and all since 1986)

Japan, 4 (the last four, too)

Nigeria, 4 (missed only 2006, of last five)

Algeria, 3 (and first since 1986)

Australia, 3 (including last two)

South Africa, 3 (hosts made it twice on their own, 1998, 2002)

Cote d'Ivoire, 2 (consecutive)

Ghana, 2 (see above)

Greece, 2 (first since 1994)

Honduras, 2 (first since 1982)

North Korea, 2 (first since 1966, the stunning quarterfinals appearance)

New Zealand, 2 (first since 1986)

Slovenia, 2 (in three tries as independent nation)


--Some consider Serbia and Slovakia to be first-timers, and they are under those names. As mentioned above, players from what is now these two independent countries played in previous World Cups.

--Seventy-six nations have qualified for at least one World Cup.

--Nations with the most appearances who are not in South Africa 2010: Belgium (11), Sweden 11), Czech Republic (9), Hungary (9), Russia (9).

--Nations/countries with longest drought (and at least one appearance): Cuba and Indonesia (1938); next, Wales (1958).

Check this wikipedia entry, for more information on this.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Something Rotten in the State of Fifa

Fifa is like sausage. You really don't want to look too closely at how it comes together. You could lose your lunch. Maybe your mind, too. Just consume it; usually it goes down fine.

Today, we have Sepp Blatter caling for an super-duper-extraordinary-ultra-secret-super-double-probation meeting (or something like that), in Cape Town on Dec. 2, to do nothing at all about three major issues that have sullied the image of the organizing body.

As if you can sully the image of something that always tends to get mud on its face.

Here is the news story, but we can boil it down to three main issues for you.

1. OK, yeah, we blew that hand-ball call in the Ireland-France match. We blow calls all the time, and the hubbub usually dies down straight off. We didn't know this was the match that the entire English-speaking world (at the least) apparently was watching, and it's getting a little warm here in Zurich, even in late November.

Not that we're going to do anything about it other than to appear concerned and toss about ideas about better officiating ... that we will do nothing about.

2. That match-fixing thing brewing in Germany and various and sundry other countries in Eastern Europe. OMG. If you knew half of what we know ... oh, did we say that out loud? You know how easy it is to fix matches in which only one goal is scored? We do. Did we say that out loud too?

3. Oh, and the Algeria-Egypt thing, the players cut by flying debris and the siege atmosphere that Algeria had to play in, in Cairo, and the reprisals toward Egyptians back in Algeria, and the generic disgusting ugliness of the whole mess, making a mockery of the "beautiful game" and "fair play" platitudes we mouth ... well, we're going to talk about this very seriously as well, and frown, and maybe even wag a finger at somebody or other. Not that it will maatter.

All in a day's work!
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Monday, November 23, 2009

How We Will Speak at South Africa 2010

The 32 teams/nations are in.

We are going to look at them a bit more closely, running up to the official Draw, on Dec. 4. Today, by how they communicate.

Cup teams by languages:

(Note: Includes several countries where a language is rarely a native tongue but has "official" status.)

English: 8 (Australia, Cameroon, England, Ghana, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, United States).

Spanish: 7 (Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Spain, Uruguay).

French: 4 (Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, France, Switzerland).

German: 2 (Germany, Switzerland).

Italian: 2 (Italy, Switzerland).

Korean: 2 (North Korea, South Korea).

Portuguese: 2 (Brazil, Portugal).

And one each: Arabic (Algeria), Danish (Denmark), Dutch (Netherlands), Greek (Greece), Japanese (Japan), Serbian (Serbia), Slovakian (Slovakia), Slovenian (Slovenia) ... and several African languages, including Afrikaans, Akan, Bantu, Baule, Berber, Ewe, Dagbani, Gurma, Hausa, Igbo, Malinke, Senoufo, Xhosa, Yoruba, Zulu, to name most of those most commonly spoken.

So, if you're going to the World Cup, English is the best language to know, because it is an official language of South Africa (though spoken as a mother tongue by only 8 percent of the population) ... and because fans from seven other national teams ought to understand you.

If you also know Spanish and French ... now you've covered 19 World Cup countries, and that doesn't even count places such as Denmark, Germany and Switzerland where English is widely spoken, or the United States, where a significant number of people now understands Spanish.

So, with one language, English, you will be able to get along. With three (English, French, Spanish), the odds are good you will be able to communicate on some basic level with just about everyone.
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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Also, Note the Counter is Going to Hit 200 Days

Two hundred days until kickoff of South Africa 2010. We counted down right past that during this 24-hour period.

Seems like a long time but ...

Two hundred days is just 18 days over half a year.

Napoleon's return to France from Elba, his recapture of the government and his career-ending Battle of Waterloo ... all of that took less than 100 days.

For Americans ... the period of time during which Franklin Roosevelt pushed through his massive social programs, in 1933, is known as The Hundred Days.

Two hundred days is only a little more than two seasons of the year.

Two hundred days is 35 times as long as the map-changing Six Day War of 1967 between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It is also 26 days longer than the 1982 Falklands War between England and Argentina.

Two hundred days is less time than it takes for a human to be conceived and be born. Usually.

Anyway ... we're getting close.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ireland Replay? Fifa Says, Uh, NO!

It might have seemed reasonable.

The Ireland-France match, so important, so fatally flawed by the missed hand ball by Thierry Henry that led to the winning French goal ...

Of course it should be played over. It's only fair. It's reasonable. It could be done.

But those of us who have been watching Fifa for, oh, a couple of months or more knew that it would never happen. Fifa is infallible. Fifa never admits to mistakes. Sort of like popes. Judgment call, end of story.

The official decision came down Friday. And, surprise, Fifa still has never made a mistake. That's 1 billion for 1 billion in getting things right.

I know this won't make the Irish feel any better, but Thierry Henry apparently said that Ireland deserves a replay. Which was easy for him to suggest, knowing 1) his reputation in the English-speaking world was taking a beating (all that "cheater-cheater pumpkin-eater" stuff) and 2) Fifa would never allow it.

This also won't make the Irish feel better, but I am convinced France goes to South Africa 2010 next year with some really vile karma in the ol' kit bag. Something Heavy will fall on this French team, dysfunctional, disjointed, led by a toad (Raymond Domenech) and qualified by dint of a horrible mistake.

No way they last, not with that cosmic burden on their bleu backs.

It won't heal the wounds in the Emerald Isle, when the French go down ... but maybe it will numb them a little.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Should Ireland Get a Replay?

The anger seems to be building.

France won a spot in the World Cup at Ireland's expense in extra time Wednesday night on the strength of a goal set up by a player, Thierry Henry, who handled the ball -- twice -- before actually using his feet to pass it to William Gallas, who scored.

Ireland is calling on France and Fifa for a replay. Another match. Which would be nice. But, for better or (in this case) worse, this is not how soccer works.

Soccer prides itself on uninterrupted play. Fans of American sports often are mocked, around the world, for putting up with all the stoppages of play in their games. American football, in particular.

Some of the sports stoppages in the U.S. are television-driven. Some of them are just part of the games. And others, increasingly, are made to allow electronic review of critical calls. To get them right, or as close as possible to "right" as the technology will allow.

It seems clear that Ireland would have benefited greatly by even the most primitive video-replay technology. The video of the key moment appears to have been taken down all over the web by the rights holders, but there seems universal agreement from those who saw TV of the match that Henry handled the ball twice -- and the referee just missed it.

This would not have happened in an American football game. A coach would have called for a replay, the game would have been stopped and various cameras would have caught Henry in the act, which the referee would have seen, and reversed himself. The goal would have been disallowed, Henry may have been assessed a yellow card and the Irish given the ball. And, presumably, eventually someone would have won the match ... fairly.

But ...

But ...

Is soccer ready for instant replay? Will it allow "the beautiful game" to be held up while the officials go to the video, American-style?

Only for goals? How about for offsides (now there's a can of worms)? To the legalistic American mind, soccer is maddening in its inability even to get right such simple calls as "who gets this throw-in?" Even in the biggest matches, linesmen get that "possession" wrong a dozen times, on throw-ins.

Soccer and quasi-"instant" replay? We don't see that happening any time soon. It goes too much against the grain of the game, and its traditions. It is a game that seems to have built in a certain, shall we say, "elasticity" when it comes to rules.Everyone knows it and they allow everything from kiddie games to World Cup matches ("Hand of God", anyone?) to be decided by blatantly illegal plays that go unseen by referees.

Also, bringing technology to all levels of World Cup qualifying might not be possible. Think of all the early matches in the underdeveloped parts of the world that aren't even televised. When and where, then, does Fifa start using viedo-replay? All the time, in Europe? In the last qualifying stage in Africa?

There are basic technical problems.

But, ultimately, soccer just allows X amount of stuff to go on. You either accept the game in its entirety -- and that means the more-than-occasional horrific, game-changing call -- or you don't have the game you have now. Can't have it both ways.

So, the Irish have a right to be angry and upset. But as coaches and athletes have been saying, of late, "it is what it is" ... which is jockspeak for "can't do anything about it now."

There will be no replay. Not saying that's right. But that's the soccer way.
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

And No. 32 ... Uruguay!

No more calls please! We have a lineup!

You can examine it right here on the home page. Just look down the column on the right ... and there are the 32 who are going to South Africa 2010. It took nearly three years of qualifying to figure it out, so it must be right.

Uruguay was last in the tournament, and is last in the alphabet ... but will never be "least." Not as long as New Zealand is around.

Uruguay got the final berth because it didn't play until late in the day, Wednesday. And not that the rest of the world doesn't respect Concacaf teams, but after Uruguay was held to 1-1 at home by Costa Rica (winning the aggregate 2-1), coach Oscar Tabarez felt compelled to promise that his team would play better in the World Cup.

Hey, Costa Rica can play a little. The Ticos had that bad stretch where they were outscored 8-0 and lost three straight (Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador), which killed their chances for a guaranteed berth, but they led Concacaf qualifying at the midpoint.

So ...

Let's divide the 32 teams into five groups, by order of what we might expect from them come South Africa, little more than 200 days away:

--The Just Here to See the Sights and Leave After the Group Stage Group: Algeria, Japan, Honduras, New Zealand, North Korea, Slovenia, South Korea, Uruguay.

--The Could Sneak into the Knockout Round Which We Will Consider Success Group: Chile, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Paraguay, Slovakia, South Africa, United States.

--The We're Thinking Quarterfinals Even if It's Not Realistic Group: Argentina (as long as Maradona is coach), Denmark, France, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland.

--The Four Who Could Make the Semis if Everything Breaks Right Group: Cameroon, England, Italy, Serbia.

--The One of Us Is Gonna Win and Most Everyone Knows It Group: Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, Spain.

More interesting breakdowns of the Final 32 in tomorrow's post.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In: France, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Algeria

The final day of 2010 World Cup qualifying, and it did not disappoint.

Maybe the tactics were a little cautious ... OK, more than a little cautious as none of the first five matches produced more than one goal in 90 minutes ... but the results were anything but predictable as underdogs won three of the five South Africa 2010 berths decided so far today. With only Costa Rica-Uruguay left on the docket to settle the 32nd (and final) 2010 berth.

The biggest shock? Slovenia 1, Russia 0, at Maribor. And now Slovenia goes to its first World Cup finals on the strength of an away goal on a 2-2 aggregate.

No. 2 shock? Algeria defeating Egypt 1-0 in the unfortunately named "Match of Hate" in Omdurman, Sudan. Algeria's victory in the one-game playoff comes just four days after Egypt's last-gasp victory in Cairo. Most thought Egypt would carry that momentum to victory at the neutral site.

Greece 1, Ukraine 0 is something of a surprise, too, but it's the sort of surprise Greece has been springng for the past half-decade. Greece won the 2004 Euro Cup with the same tactics it used to dispatch fancied Ukraine -- defend like mad and convert one of your few opportunities. Greece wins the series on aggregate 1-0, which sounds about right for Otto Rehhegel's squad.

France continued its dicing-with-death shtick by giving up a first-half goal to Ireland and going to extra time before William Gallas scored (on a pass from Thierry Henry who is, I believe, 55 years old) to give the French a 2-1 victory on aggregate. Under deeply unpopular coach Raymond Domenech, France has made a habit of just escaping disaster, and did so again. But les bleus are through.

The one clear non-upset was Portugal subduing Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1-0, to win 2-0 on aggregate. Portugal played without Cristiano Ronaldo (bad ankle) but had enough left to handle BH, which had become a sort of out-of-nowhere darling that seemed to melt on its home pitch in Zenica -- with its first World Cup finals at stake. Raul Meireles scored for Portugal, which advances to its third consecutive finals -- but only fifth all-time.

Further observations from a frantic night of action:

Biggest party? Probably a tie between the nations of Algeria and Slovenia.

Algeria goes to the finals for the first time since 1986, and (making it far sweeter) it goes at the expense of its arch-rival Egypt.

Meanwhile, Slovenia -- which back in 1986 was just a piece of Yugoslavia -- is in the finals for the first time in its brief history, and got there by dispatching big, bad Russia. Slovenia is a Balkan nation of only 2 million people, living in a country the size of Massachusetts.

Best sad party? The nation of Ireland, crying in its beer ... probably gallons and gallons of beer (dare we say, a Guinness record?) ... as it pushed France to the verge only to lose in 120 minutes.

Biggest disappointment? Russia, which just didn't show up at Maribor. Slovenia's 87th minute goal at Moscow on Saturday opened a crack for the Slovenes, and when Zlatko Didic scored in the 44th minute, Slovenia was in control, needing only to hold on to that 1-0 lead to advance, on the strength of the after-thought away goal on Saturday. Russia embarrassed itself in the second half, rarely threatening to score, even with big names such as Andrei Arshaven and Yuri Zhirkov on the pitch ... and ended with only nine men on the field after red cards on substitute forward Alexander Kerzhakov and Zhirkov (two yellows). Vladimir Putin can't be happy.

Biggest bore: Greece. Of course. The world's dullest good side, a team so negative and stultifying that it makes Italy look like a bunch of risk-taking wild men, is with us still and (sigh) headed for South Africa. Ukraine can blame only itself, especially after falling prey to the same tactics Greece has been rolling with since Rehhegel took over and they won the 2004 Euro. Dimitrios Salpingdidas got the goal in the 31st minute, and then Greece just killed the game, and nobody kills a game like these guys. Adieu, Andrei Shevchenko.

Sweetest vengeance? Algeria, for sure. When Algeria arrived in Egypt last week its team bus was stoned by Egyptian civilians, and three players suffered significant cuts from flying glass. Then the Algerians went into a stadium that the Algeria federation president suggested was a war zone, not a soccer pitch, and needing only a one-goal loss to advance ... Algeria saw that go poof on an Egypt goal in the fifth minute of extra time to win 2-0, forge a dead-heat atop Group C and force this extra game. Taking down the Egyptians, on a 40th-minute volley by Antar Yahia, had to be the most fun Algerian sport has enjoyed in a long time.

The best match I saw in Abu Dhabi? That would be the only one available on standard cable, and that was Egypt vs. Algeria, seen at a hotel tavern. An Egyptian who was in the bar stormed out when Algeria scored its goal, but there was still nearly an hour to go of Algeria hanging on and packing the box with nine or 10 men ... and winning. No horns honking tonight on the streets of Abu Dhabi (as opposed to Saturday night) which tells me one thing: There are far more Egyptian expats in this town than Algerian expats.

Gutsy losers: The Irish. And haven't we said that a time or two in the history of the Emerald Isle? They gave France, 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up, all they wanted ... but it wasn't enough to get the Irish into the big event. Erin Go Broke.

Greatest soccer country not headed to South Africa? Russia would have to win this one, though they looked far less than great the past four days. Followed by Croatia (actually ranked higher than Russia by, 8 vs. 12) with the Czech Republic (15 in Fifa) coming in third.

And we'll see, tomorrow, how things turned out with Uruguay and Costa Rica.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Six Matches, Six Qualifiers for 2010 Finals

This is all fairly dramatic.

6x90 = 6

Six matches left in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Wednesday, and when they're over the final six slots to South Africa will be filled.

Five of the matches are the second half of home-and-home playoffs. In none of them is a team leading, after one match, by more than one goal.

The sixth match is the special one-game, neutral-site playoff between Egypt and Algeria, who finished tied atop their African qualifying group after the ultra-intense 2-0 Egyptian victory on Saturday.

We have a sense at least one of these will go down to penalty kicks. And how nervous would that be?

A look at how the final six shape up, in order of appeal:

--Greece at Ukraine. Yes, a Euro matchup, and we ought to be all excited about it, blah blah blah. But Greece is dull and the Ukraine is not a first-tier power, either, so it's hard to get fired up about this one. Especially after they went 90 minutes without scoring a goal in Athens in Game 1. This one is in Donetsk, and if the planet's soccer fans are lucky Andrei Shevchenko or someone will score for Ukraine and keep the play-not-to-lose Greeks out of 2010.

--Costa Rica at Uruguay. Again, those of us from the Western Hemisphere find this interesting: "How much better is South America than North America?" is of lasting fascination in the New World. Uruguay got a key goal in the first leg, at San Jose, but it isn't as if Costa Rica couldn't score a couple in Montevideo. Ticos coach Rene Simoes told his fans that they are playing a 180-minute game, and only half of it is over, and also brought up some history of upsets -- specifically Uruguay over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup. The Ticos have been in a three-month funk; they need Bryan Ruiz or Walter Centeno to score. Otherwise, the Uruguayans will just drain the match away and give Conmebol its fifth World Cup team.

--Russia at Slovenia. The Slovenes managed a late goal away, at Moscow on Saturday, in a 2-1 Russia victory, so that gives Slovenia a shot to make its first World Cup finals. A 1-0 victory puts them through on the strength of that away goal. Russia is a much more solid club, boasting international stars such as Arsenal striker Andrei Arshavin, Everton midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov. Russia also is coached by Dutch master Guus Hiddink. Slovenia's team doesn't have the same sort of credentials. Veteran striker Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne) is probably their best scoring threat, followed closely by captain (and West Bromwich Albion midfielder) Robert Koren. The match is at Maribor, and no one outside the borders of tiny Slovenia thinks Russia might lose, but it would be a major upset if it did.

--Portugal at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tactically, competitively, this might be the most interesting match of the day. A couple of fast, flashy teams known for coming forward boldly. But BH isn't really on the global radar yet and has never been in the World Cup, so it's not quite as sexy as the matches listed next. But it's certainly significant. Portugal is a world power and has the best player in the world in Cristian Ronaldo (out with an ankle injury), and some other guys who can play, as well, led by Simao, Deco and Liedson. Bosnia is considered a team on the rise, which is another way of saying not everyone knows who they are quite yet. We'll just go with their good young forwards, Edin Dzeko (who plays at Wolfsburg) and Vedad Ibisevic (Hoffenheim). Portugal won the first half 1-0, but Bosnia certainly is capable of flipping that score at Zenica and knocking the Portuguese out of the World Cup.

--Ireland at France. In some ways, this pairing seems tired. Haven't we been talking about it for a month? And haven't we all been waiting for France (and Raymond Domenech) to fail for half a year? Well, yes and yes. But it's France, 1998 champion, 2006 runner-up, and Ireland, a side that gets the formidable machinery of British journalism revved up. So here we are talking about it again. France got a lucky goal in Dublin on Saturday, a shot by Nicolas Anelka that bounced off an Irish defender, and all they have to do in the Stade de France tomorrow is keep the Irish from scoring, which isn't as exactly the toughest task in world football. Hard to imagine Ireland going forward, but don't tell them that. This one probably will be seen by more people than any match of the day.

--Algeria vs. Egypt at Omdurman, Sudan. The Unexpected Game ... the reprise of the Saturday match that was supposed to clear up who got to go to South Africa. But Egypt scored in the final seconds of play to win 2-0 and force a dead heat atop their group and this one-match-for-all playoff in the suburbs if Khartoum. Given the extreme partisanship of this pairing, Sudanese officials must be wondering whom they offended to have to host this thing. Half the 40,000 tickets are reserved for fans from Egypt and Algeria, and Algeria's national airline apparently is ferrying in 60 planeloads of fans for a cut-rate price of $200. Algeria's team seemed frightened and intimidated in the Satuday match in Cairo, and for good reason, considering their bus was almost destroyed on the way to the hotel. Egypt is surging and may be hard for the Algerians to hold off in what has turned into Africa's hottest rivalry.

Bring 'em on. After this, the next match isn't until June 11.
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Monday, November 16, 2009

Sad Story of Goalkeeper's Suicide

Robert Enke, 32, was one of the top goalkeepers in Germany. He had a chance to be Germany's starting keeper at South Africa 2010.

Enke, however, committed suicide last week, stunning the world of German soccer.

The episode was a bit overlooked, coming as it did just before a round of key qualifying matches.

But now we have time to link to the main news story, here ...

Followed by some of the stories that came in subsequent days.

Here is a story about how he apologized to teammates in a suicide note.

And here is another about Germany returning to practice today, after cancelling a friendly with Chile last Saturday. The Germans have a match with Ivory Coast on Wednesday.

Enke was buried next to his 2-year-old daughter, who died of a heart infection in 2006.

The whole thing is very sad. It just demonstrates, anew, that successful athletes are not immune to mental illness. Money, fame ... it doesn't inoculate anyone.
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Maradona Given Two Months in 'Thinking' Chair

That's what they call it, in kindergarten. The "thinking chair."

It's where the teacher sends the errant little brat ... to remove him from the the scene where he is acting up and acting out. As punishment.

Diego Maradona, the 49-year-old kindergartner (and Argentina's coach), will spend the next two months in the thinking chair. It's not long enough.

Fifa announced today it is suspending Maradona from all soccer-related activities, effective today -- which is hardly any punishment at all.

Maradona will miss exactly one national match. And from what we know of him, he'll spend a big chunk of that time in a weight-loss clinic or a rehab clinic, anyway, same as he would have if he were actively carrying out his coaching duties.

One might think that the Argentina federation would take this opportunity to ask their boorish and foolish coach not to come back, thank you, but that would make too much sense. Argentina seems committed to a guy who was a great player (but an idiot coach), right up till they lose in the first knockout game of the 2010 World Cup. Assuming they survive group play.

Dieguito also was fined about $25,000, which the federation probably will pay.

About the only good part of this? Maradona won't be at the World Cup draw in Cape Town on Dec. 5. The affair can unfold with no worries that Diego Maradona will start hurling profanities at anyone who doesn't kiss his ring.
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Advantage France, Portugal, Russia ... Greece?

The first half of the four home-and-home playoffs between second place teams out of European group qualifying ... are complete.

The scores on Saturday: France 1 at Ireland 0 ... Bosnia-Herzegovina 0 at Portugal 1 ... Slovenia 1 at Russia 2 ... Ukraine 0 at Greece 0.

And the advantages now lie with the four seeded teams -- France, Portugal, Russia and Greece. In that order.

Here is why:

France won on the road, at Croke Park in Dublin. It wasn't decisive, but a road victory is a very big deal for les bleus, who have struggled to beat anyone anywhere. But especially on the road. France now needs only a tie at Stade de France on Wednesday to secure passage to South Africa.

Portugal had a victory, at home, without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, which is nice, because all it needs now is a tie at Zenica on Wednesday. And that might be about all the Portuguese can hope for against the testy and talented Bosnians.

Russia also has a victory, but it is stained a bit by the "away" goal the Russians surrendered in the 87th minute. Slovenia has to win, yes, but it has a little wiggle room in types of victory. To wit: A 1-0 Slovenia victory (in Maribor) sends Slovenia to South Africa 2010 because of that "away" goal. No extra time (or eventual penalty shootout) needed. But Russia still has the upper hand. A tie will do, as will any defeat in which Russia scores two goals or more.

Greece ... this isn't much of an advantage. Ukraine now gets to play at home, and will be favored to win. The advantage to a scoreless tie at home is that "away" goal thing, again. Any tie that isn't 0-0 sends Greece to South Africa. Ukraine has only one way into the finals that doesn't call for a victory, and that would be another 0-0 tie ... capped eventually by a shootout victory.

Africa had a wild day, but it was typical European order, Saturday. No victory by more than a goal, and everyone still with a shot to win on Wednesday.
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Egypt, Algeria Will Play It Again

This already was too intense.

And now?

Things were on the verge of chaos before Egypt and Algeria met in their Africa Group C finale tonight, with a berth in South Africa 2010 at stake.

Three Algerian players were injured when their team bus was pelted by stones on the way from the airport to the hotel. An event that sparked outrage in Algeria and, at first, complete denials in Egypt (and a rather shameful media report that the Algerians had trashed their own bus) ...

That was followed by Fifa warning Egypt to take care of security, the sort of blunt "you better get this right" threat that the world governing body rarely issues. And Egypt giving up its "we didn't do nothin' " stance and promising to provide unprecedented security to the Algerians.

And for more "fun" ... Algerians attacked an Egyptian work camp, in Algeria, and looted their quarters.

Hmm. Soccer War II, anyone?

And now ... with Egypt scoring in the final seconds of the fifth extra-time minute, to win 2-0 in Cairo ... Algeria and Egypt are in an exact tie in the Group C standings, and will have a one-match playoff to determine a place in the 2010 finals ... on Wednesday at Omdurman, Sudan.

Egypt and Algeria, bitter rivals in soccer. Who (outside of north Africa) knew?

The match had generated such strong emotion among fans of the two teams ... that here in Abu Dhabi, all the way across the Arabian Peninsula from Egypt, Egyptian expats were driving up and down the streets honking horns and waving flags two hours after the match was over.

So, yes, they get to play it again.

Sudan is a neutral site, but it is Egypt's preferred neutral site. When Fifa figured out that the teams could end in a absolute tie, it opted for the extra game and asked the combatants (uh, contestants) where they would like to play it. Algeria preferred Tunisia.

And the draw to decide who got their choice was so closely watched that the web site posted a series of photos to the process, intended to show that it was on the up and up.


You almost wonder, now, if the best way to approach the playoff game, on Wednesday, is to close the stadium. Allow the players and media in, but no fans. But show it on television, of course.

Four European teams will play their way into the World Cup on Wednesday, as will one from the Western Hemisphere ... but the single hottest match would appear to be Algeria and Egypt. In the Sudan.
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Nigeria (!) and Cameroon Join the 2010 Party

Cameroon took care of business.

Nigeria took care of the upset.

Cameroon put an exclamation mark on its worst-to-first surge in Africa Group A, going to Fez and throttling Morocco 2-0 to clinch its sixth appearance in a World Cup final -- a high for any African nation.

Meanwhile, Nigeria pulled a dramatic switcheroo on the final day of qualifying in Africa Group B, winning a 3-2 goalfest at Kenya while Tunisia was shut down and shut out, 1-0, at Mozambique.

Leaving just one South Africa 2010 berth out there to be won today (probably), Algeria or Egypt out of Africa Group C.

Nigeria was in trouble, before today's action began. It suffered a surprising (at the time) tie at Mozambique, then saw a home victory turn into a 2-2 tie when Tunisia's Oussama Darragi scored in the 89th minute, back in September.

That left Tunisia in control of its destiny, at Mozambique. And then the matches kicked off.

Tunisia didn't score in the first half, but its two-point lead looked secure because Nigeria trailed 1-0 at halftime in Nairobi.

Things turned in a hurry. Nigeria got even in the 62nd minute on a goal by Obafemi Martins and went ahead three minutes late on a goal by Aiyegbeni Yakuba. Kenya got even in the 79th minute, but Martins scored the winner in the 83rd minute.

Meanwhile, Tunisia not only couldn't win, at Maputo, it surrendered a goal to Dario in the 83rd minute ... and a quarter-hour after that Tunisia had failed to qualify for the first time since 1994, and Nigeria was in. Rest assured the change at the top was celebrated in Abuja and Lagos.

Turns out, Mozambique was a tough place to play. The 'biques tied Nigeria at home and won against Kenya and Tunisia, and it is that one point Nigeria got for the tie at Maputo that has it going to South Africa. What looked, a day ago, like a bad result, actually was decisive -- in a good way for Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Cameroon proved it was just too strong for its group, taking care of Morocco with the help of a goal from Samuel Eto'o. The victory was rendered moot when second-standing Gabon couldn't manage to win at Togo, going down 1-0.

That settles Africa's lineup for South Africa 2010 -- South Africa, the host; Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and the winner of the Egypt-Algeria game currently underway.
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Kiwis Headed for South Africa 2010

New Zealand defeated Bahrain 1-0 on what looked like a blustery night in Wellington -- which was what the Kiwis were hoping for as a favorable atmosphere for heat-loving Bahrain.

Rory Fallon headed home the only goal, just before halftime, and goalkeeper Mark Paston saved a penalty early in the second half to put New Zealand into South Africa 2010.

It is the first result in today, from the 15 qualifiers on tap. The Saturday night match actually ended before Saturday even dawned in a big chunk of the world.

Here is a link to the story posted by the Post Dominion newspaper in Wellington. The page has a video link that nearly summarizes the match.

Later today I will post a link to one of Bahrain's English-language newspaper for what, no doubt, will be a mournful account of the proceedings.

(I would hate to be Sayed Mohamed Adnan, the man who failed to convert the penalty. He probably instantly became one of the 10 most infamous people in Bahrain.)

The ramifications of this:

--Bahrain's failure means that Gulf Arabs won't have a team at South Africa. If they want to root for fellow Arabs, they will have to settle for the Tunisians or Algerians, if they advance, later today.

--It means Bahrain has come tantalizingly close to its first World Cup for in consecutive quadrenniums. The Bahrainis lost a similar home-and-home, winner-goes-to-the-World Cup vs. another "unfancied" squad (as the English would say) in Trinidad & Tobago before the 2006 World Cup. How do you say "Close but no cigar" in Arabic?

--New Zealand gives Oceania a team in the World Cup. Although Australia also is in. The Aussies, however, shifted into Asia beginning with this qualifying round. Thus, New Zealand had to defeat only sad little sides such as New Caledonia and Fiji to get to the playoff with Bahrain. It is by far -- by far -- the weakest region in the world, and the Kiwis are all but guaranteed a playoff shot ... forever. Or until Australia comes back.

--It is New Zealand's first World Cup appearance since 1982, and second all-time, and there may not be many more -- even with the nearly-straight-to-the-playoffs reality of the current Oceania setup. Not if some of Asia's enormously populated, soccer-mad countries ever get their acts together. (Talking to you, China. And you, India and Indonesia and Malaysia.) That would put a side more formidable than Bahrain into a playoffs with the Oceania champ. (That is, New Zealand.) New Zealand has only 4.3 million people, and soccer is no better than its third-favorite sport, far behind rugby and cricket.

--New Zealand now is the darling underdog of South Africa 2010 (assuming the hosts have to play better than they have shown, of late). And they also are officially the team Everyone Wants in Their Group when the 2010 draw is made on Dec. 5.

But just being there ... that's a big deal for New Zealand soccer. Congratulations.
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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Eve of the Last Big Qualifying Day

Fifteen matches are scheduled for Saturday. Only six will be left on the qualifying schedule, after tomorrow's action is wrapped up.

Yes, five of those last six will be the second leg of home-and-home playoffs for South Africa 2010 berths. But in terms of numbers of matches, Saturday is the last big hurrah of the long, long qualifying process.

Here is a survey of the Matches That Mean Something, from Saturday's schedule, in order of what we believe to be increasing global interest:

--Uruguay at Costa Rica. This game is of significant interest in the Western Hemisphere ... but not so much around the rest of the world, where it seems to be assumed the Uruguayans, the No. 5 team out of South America, should have little trouble with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf, the one that struggled down the stretch and couldn't hold a 2-0 lead over the U.S. in its final regional qualifier -- thus condemning it to this home-and-home with Uruguay. However, Costa Rica is formidable in San Jose, on the artificial turf of Estadio Saprissa, and a victory by the Ticos (a goal or two by Bryan Ruiz, perhaps) would not surprise anyone who has been to Saprissa. The return match is in Montevideo on Wednesday.

--Cameroon at Morocco. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon win Africa Group A with a victory over the Moroccans, at Fez. Cameroon is the favorite, given that Morocco hasn't managed a victory yet in Group A play, but a tie wouldn't be out of the question, and that would leave a crack open for Gabon to win the group -- with a victory at Togo. Gabon would be a great story, a World Cup first-timer with a small population and a profoundly anonymous roster. But Cameroon won the two head-to-head matches with Gabon and probably deserves to go. It would be Cameroon's sixth World Cup finals -- an African record.

--Tunisia at Mozambique. Tunisia is two points clear of Nigeria atop Africa Group B and clinches a berth in South Africa with a victory on the road. Mozambique has been formidable in its two previous home matches, in Maputo, holding Nigeria to a 0-0 draw (which is why Nigeria is trailing Tunisia) and defeating Kenya. So Tunisia shouldn't show up with fat heads, because if the Tunisians stumble and Nigeria wins at enfeebled Kenya, the Super Lions would jump to the top of the group -- either by goal differential (Tunisia tie) or by raw points (Tunisia defeat).

--Slovenia at Russia. One of the four home-and-home playoffs involving European group runners-up, and probably the one in which the underdogs seem most under the gun. The match is at Moscow. Slovenia's goal will be keeping it close and hoping to end ahead after the teams play in Maribor on Wednesday.

--Ukraine at Greece. Another of the Europe runners-up playoffs. Greece struggled to finish second in perhaps the weakest group in European qualifying, Group 2, and their negative tactics (keep it scoreless and hope to poach a goal late) that worked so well at Euro 2004 are getting a bit tired. But, then, Ukraine wouldn't be here if it hadn't gotten a home victory over England after the English already had clinched Group 6; Croatia would be in this playoff, instead. Greece probably needs a victory here because assuming it will get a result out of Donetsk on Wednesday would be foolish. Not when Ukraine boasts a reinvigorated Andrei Shevchenko.

--Portugal at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Cristiano Ronaldo is out for the Portuguese in this two-game Euro runners-up playoff, and BH is keen to nail down its first World Cup finals berth ... and it certainly could. Portugal will need production from the likes of Deco, Simao and Leidson, and probably needs a victory at home, in Lisbon. The return match is at Zenica on Wednesday, and a BH victory there isn't hard to imagine. Portugal is one of the two global powers in mortal danger of not getting to South Africa 2010. And the other is ...

--France at Ireland. Speaking of highly regarded teams seemingly prepared to take a fall ... there is Raymond Domenech's bleus who have never found their pace throughout qualifying. They probably can take a lot of starch out of the Irish with a victory at Dublin, but the Irish say they are unafraid, and we believe them. And the Irish probably were not amused when Domenech said Ireland represented something of an "England B side." Robbie Keane bulks large for Ireland, as does keeper Shay Given. France will bring its usual host of elite club-side stars ... and probably again struggle to score. (1-0 over the Faeroe Islands? Really?) The return match is at the Stade de France on Wednesday, and Irish fans are snapping up tickets. France clearly is the more talented side, but Ireland seems more cohesive and more assured, making this the most interesting of the four Euro playoffs.

--Algeria at Egypt. The Algerians are no slouches, but most analysts figured Egypt would win Africa Group C. The Pharaohs gave away points early in qualifying and find themselves three points in arrears, even after a surge in recent months. But the final qualifying match is in Cairo, where the home crowd can be intimidating, and things could get interesting. Algeria advances to South Africa with a victory or a tie -- or a one-goal defeat. If Egypt wins by three goals, it takes the group. However, if Egypt wins by two goals, the Pharaohs finish in a dead tie with les fennecs ... and a one-game playoff would follow in Sudan on Wednesday. Striker Mohamed Zidan is back for Egypt, and just in time. Lots of permutations possible here, and that makes it fun.

--Bahrain at New Zealand. The Showdown of the Little People. Two sides ranked deep in the poll (61st and 83rd, respectively) meet in chilly, probably soggy Wellington with a berth in South Africa at stake. Bahrain never has played in a finals, and would become the smallest country (770,000 population) to reach one. New Zealand has been to the finals only once, back in 1982. The first half of this home-and-home was a 0-0 grind in steamy Manama a month ago. The Kiwis need to win to advance; a 0-0 score means a penalty shootout. Bahrain goes forward with a victory or a tie in which goals are scored. The atmosphere should be electric, and the winner will be the Official Underdog of the 2010 World Cup.
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Zealand Hopes to Erase/Make History

Maybe the most interesting qualifying match on Saturday is the winner-take-all affair between New Zealand and Bahrain, in Wellington.

These are the two lowest-ranked teams (Bahrain is No. 61, according to; New Zealand is No. 83) still in the running for South Africa 2010.

One, Bahrain, has never been in a World Cup, and if it qualifies ... would instantly become the smallest nation, by population (770,000), ever to play in the greatest event in sports, eclipsing Trinidad & Tobago (1.3 million).

The other, New Zealand, has been in the World Cup finals only once, and that was 28 years ago.

Which is a bit of history the pioneers of 1982 wouldn't mind seeing set aside by a new batch of Kiwis in the Big Event.

The Dominion Post of Wellington has done a story on some of the players from the 1982 New Zealand World Cup team, guys approaching middle age now, and they seem to have one opinion on the big game Saturday -- they want the Kiwis to win and take away their "first and only" appellation.

They would be fine with being the first.

New Zealand probably ought to win this match. It is a sports-crazed country that ranks among the world elite in cricket and rugby, a country that always has an elite runner or two.

It has a population of 4.3 million, too, presumably giving it a bigger talent pool from which to draw.

Bahrain, however, has some naturalized players (Nigeria-born striker Jaycee John, most prominantly) , which levels the pitch more than a little. It also plays tougher competition, in the Asia zone, than New Zealand sees in Oceania -- which no longer has Australia in it.

The first half of this long-distance home-and-home playoff was a 0-0 draw in Manama.

New Zealand advances by winning, or by winning a shootout after a 0-0 draw. Bahrain goes forward with a victory or tie from 1-1 on up (by dint of "away goals").

The Kiwis will have a packed stadium of 35,000-plus, and are hoping for vile weather. They said they "suffered" in the heat of Bahrain last month, and one of their players was pulling for strong wind, sleet and temperatures of 7 or 9 celsius (50 or so Fahrenheit), and see how the Bahrainis like the cold.

This is fun. Whoever advances will be the Official Underdog of the 2010 World Cup.
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Batch of World Rankings

The idea of world rankings in soccer always has struck me as something of a fool's errand.

Especially when it is statistically driven ... by anything more sophisticated than who beat whom and where in the last year or so.

Certain sports lend themselves to statistical analysis ... because the numbers they generate are so enormous that, eventually, you have a sort of "truth" revealed by close study.

Baseball is the prime example of this, with 162 games in the major leagues, and 600-plus plate appearances for position players and 180-plus innings for starting pitcher. A bad player is not going to compile good numbers over that large a sample.

Basketball isn't far behind. Especially the NBA. Again, lots of games, lots of numbers.

Soccer? I am convinced that any dozen reasonably well-informed fans from anywhere on the planet are as likely to pick out the quarterfinalists of the upcoming World Cup as is the numbers-heavy system unveiled today.

The U.S.-based sports network commissioned Nate Silver, best-known now as a left-leaning but numbers-driven political analyst and blogger and, previously, as a mover in the "Baseball Prospectus" brands.

He has compiled a top-100 ranking of the world's soccer rankings for, which indicates the self-proclaimed "world-wide leader" finally is sitting up and taking notice of the sport.

I am a proponent of statistical analysis, and I give credence to the conclusions in many cases -- particularly in the two sports named above.

Soccer, however, is different. I am sure of it.

Not enough matches. Not enough matches against comparable competition. Not enough matches by the key players.

And, also, soccer is a famously fluky sport. In a goal-scarce universe, one lucky shot can lead a bad team over a good one, or a middling team over a great one.

But at the end of the World Cup, we almost all know who is going to be hanging around. And we don't need statistical analysis to tell us. We don't need a million numbers crunched.

Right this minute, I will give you six teams that will be in the quarterfinals at South Africa 2010: Brazil, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

I did that without adding up goals and comparing scores and giving points for a country's players who do well in club competition. We already know that.

What Nate Silver is doing for is interesting. It's fun. It stimulates discussion. But it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.

There is the global elite, most of which can be depended on to go deep into the World Cup. There is the second tier of 10 or 12 nations that have a reasonably good shot of getting to the knockout phase. And there are the next 20 or so who might be in the current World Cup, but have little or no chance of surviving group play.

We all know this. Without studying statistics.

Bringing on a Big Brain like Nate Silver is an interesting concept. But I believe he has little or nothing new to tell us about the World Cup, and how it will sort out. The game resists statistical predictions much more specific than "never bet against Brazil."
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ronaldo Out of Bosnia-Herzegovina Playoffs

Some of us have been quietly rooting for Portugal to make the World Cup because we want the world's best players to be at South Africa 2010. Just as we were pulling for Lionel Messi and Argentina, despite the Argentines being coached by that loutish boor (yes, that's redundant, but he's worthy of it) Diego Maradona.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, current Fifa player of the year. Messi, previous player of the year. Just nice to have them around, let them do their thing, on the biggest of stages. While in their prime.

Ronaldo, however, will not be in South Africa -- unless his Portuguese teammates get him there.

Ronaldo has been ruled out of the home-and-home playoff between Portugal and a very solid Bosnia-Herzegovina side. This is one of the four second-place playoffs going on among European teams, and will generate four World Cup participants.

Not having CR9 can't help Portugal's chances. Portugal isn't a one-man team, but the current squad isn't widely considered to be the equal of the Golden Generation that came through about a decade ago, the one led by Luis Figo that won a Euro Cup.

But, there's nothing to be done about it. Ronaldo has had a bad ankle for more than a month now, and he aggravated it in a Portugal match back on Oct. 10, and it hasn't gotten better -- despite the best efforts of his club team, Real Madrid.

Earlier, it seemed as if this might be one off those club-vs.-country things, but it now seems fairly clear Ronaldo just can't play. Unless this represents an absolute cave-in by Portugal and coach Carlos Quieroz.

Portugal rallied sharply to finish second in its European group, and perhaps that momentum can take it past Bosnia.

The Portuguese talent cupboard isn't bare. Quieroz still can call on the likes of Simao, naturalized Brazilians attackers Deco and Liedson, and Duda and Bosingwa. And Nani, the 22-year-old from Cape Verde, probably will take over on the right wing for Ronaldo ... and Nani is good enough to play for Manchester United.

Still, you'd prefer to have the player of the year lining up for you with the World Cup on the line, but Portugal won't have that luxury Saturday, in Lisboa, and Nov. 18 in BH.
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Long Way to Go to Determine a Berth

It's getting close now. The last few matches that will determine the final nine participants in South Africa 2010. Nov. 14 and (in some cases) Nov. 18.

All the teams still in contention have made long journeys, figuratively. Hard matches, long schedules.

One team, Bahrain, is making a very long journey, physically, as well.

Bahrain is the fifth-place team out of Asia. If these guys weren't being jetted around on Gulf Air charters, they would have some huge frequent-flier miles amassed. All those trips across Asia, the biggest of continents.

Since World Cup 2010 qualifying began, in 2007, Bahrain has traveled to Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Uzbekistan, Japan again, and Australia. And now to New Zealand for the second half of their home-and-home playoff for a World Cup berth.

This story in the Gulf Daily News, an English-language newspaper published in Bahrain, has some details from the team's departure, today, for Australia, where the team will practice several days before "hopping" from Sydney to Wellington on Thursday -- which is a flight of 3-4 hours. (Since when is that a hop?)

But given Bahrain's itinerary the past two years, that's a short trip.

The other long hauls here in the final 10 days, among matches that matter ...

--Slovenia and Russia take turns playing at the other guy's home. Get out your atlas. Moscow to Maribor is not a commuter flight. It appears to be 1,100 miles; I thought it was more.

--Costa Rica and Uruguay go home and home. -- Concacaf No. 4 vs. Conmebol No. 5. Another lengthy flight (about 3,500 miles), and I'm just going to guess that you can't fly direct from Montevideo to San Jose, or vice versa.

--Cameroon plays at Morocco, and those two aren't exactly next door. Cameroon needs to win, too, to clinch a berth.

--Tunisia goes to Mozambique, needing a result. and that's from the north tip of Africa to almost the south end. Africa is a big continent, and especially north-south. A site I'm checking suggests it's 4,500 miles, but that seems high. It might involve a plane change, because very few African countries have direct flights to other African countries. Usually, they have to go back to Europe to get back to Africa. Yeah. Wacky.

But the winner is Bahrain, 9,000 miles from Wellington, New Zealand. Also, the Bahrainis jump forward 10 time zones. A tough trip. But Bahrain goes to South Africa if it manages a victory or a tie at anything that isn't 0-0. I guess that makes it worth the trip. It's latest long trip.
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Ticket Fraud

Have to be careful when buying tickets to South Africa 2010. The cyberspace cockroaches have hit upon internet sales of non-existent World Cup tickets as a gold mine for scamming.

The latest? Australia has uncovered at least one bogus ticket operation, as this story outlines.

The story notes that Australian watchdogs found the site, which offers tickets in bad English -- which ought to be your first warning sign. If your site doesn't do grammar, it probably does do fraud.

All that's missing is a simulated Nigerian businessman named Prince Innocent asking you to hold a couple of million dollars for him after you send $10,000 to him in Lagos, via cashier's check, to demonstrate your good will.

This really is a very simple process. If you are not on the site, you're taking a risk.

Yes, there will be an after-market for tickets. But consumers need to be very careful and follow all the common sense warnings. Be very stingy with your credit card information. If it seems too good to be true, it certainly is.

Fraudulent predators take advantage of enthusiastic consumers. And who is more enthusiastic than soccer fans who want to be in South Africa for the big event?
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Saturday, November 7, 2009

When Players Go Off on Coaches

Don't you wonder what a player gains by trashing his national team coach for not including him on a team?

Take, for example, France midfielder Patrick Vieira, who verbally slapped around Raymond Domenech for not being called up for the two-game playoff with Ireland for a 2010 South Africa berth.

Here is that story. It's out there now, and soccer fans around the planet have seen it. But what did Vieira gain?

Perhaps he gained some momentary mental relief from blasting Domenech. "Ah, that felt good, mon ami!"

But how does this work for Vieira in the long term?

Is Domenech likely to change his mind here at the last moment and call in a 32-year-old who hasn't been a regular for Inter? The one who just pilloried him in L'Equipe?

If France qualifies, and Domenech continues to South Africa as coach (which seems a near-certainty), is the coach more likely to feel all warm and fuzzy about Patrick Vieira, upon further reflection, and call him in next year?

However long Raymond Domenech survives ... it now seems quite unlikely Vieira is going to appear with les bleus.

It takes some mental gymnastics to see how this helps Vieira. OK, let's try ...

If France qualifies, but looks awful doing so, like perhaps an Ireland own goal puts the French through ... maybe the French federation fires Domenech now, and hires someone for 2010, and Vieira has contributed his own bit of criticism against the guy who just got dumped, pointing out the horrible mistake he made by not calling in Patrick Vieira ... and maybe he is more likely to be seen as a positive "change" that the new coach can embrace.

Well, probably not. If anything, Vieira probably just identified himself as a crabby old guy looking for one last shot at la gloire before shuffling into the golden years of his career. It's more likely that France's next coach will say, "That Patrick Vieira is a whiny guy who will rip me if I decide he can't play anymore, so I'm not even gonna bother with him."

I guess the main idea here is ... be really careful before you trash a coach. If you're at the end of the career, and you are sure you have nothing to lose ... well, then, go for it.

If there is the slightest chance you might be called in at some later date, or that you might pop up again on the roster after a regime chance ... just keep quiet.

Save the really tart stuff for when you're a TV commentator, or having columns ghost-written for you in the press. Discretion, valor, all that.
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Friday, November 6, 2009

The Ireland-France TV Tiff, in English

We knew something was up, two days ago, when we saw the story, in French, about TV negotiations between Irish and French TV stations about televising the two matches in the upcoming European playoff. When we wrote about it on this blog and tried to puzzle out what the French story was telling us.

Now we have an English version of it, thanks to the Irish Independent newspaper's Web site.

This is about the France vs. Ireland home-and-home playoff, one of four two-match playoffs pitting second-place finishers from European group competition -- for the final quartet of South Africa 2010 matches.

The issue seems to be ... that France is annoyed that Ireland sold the broadcast rights for the Dublin match on Nov. 14 to an independent outlet ... and now France is asking for far more money (about $3 million) than Ireland expects to pay (about $1.2 million) for the Paris match on Nov. 18.

Television problems are not unusual in qualifying matches, unfortunately.

The story mentions how Ireland was unable to see the 2000 Euro Cup qualifier when the Irish played at Turkey.

Just last month, the critical United States-Honduras match, in Honduras, was sold to a Spanish firm that decided to show the match via closed-circuit TV -- an archaic distribution system that limits exposure to individual outlets that pay high rates for a hookup.

A tiny fraction of American soccer fans saw the match, and many of the rest were outraged that the game was, effectively, blacked out in Anno Domini 2009.

And now ... if the French and Irish don't get this figured out, fans in Ireland (and the rest of Britain, it appears) won't be able to see the match at Stade de France. With a World Cup berth on the line.

That would be awful.

The way FIFA handles this? The home country controls television rights. Usually it works out. Reasonable people get together and make reasonable deals. But then there are times ...

FIFA ought to consider making rules that establish basic over-the-air TV access for all qualifying matches. It only hurts the sport, frustrating and angering fans, when critical matches go unseen.
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ronaldo, and Country vs. Club

I don't think it was always like this. Ten years ago, certainly 20, players were eager to play for their country, and clubs let them. Or so it seems in the warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned images of my memory.

In recent years, it has been less of an obvious connection. Clubs have begun to come ahead of country.

In Germany 2006, a leading Brazilian analyst suggested the country's players didn't even want to be in the World Cup. They wanted to rest. They feared injury. It didn't make economic sense. They were too good to be messing around at the World Cup.

And that is why Brazil went out in the quarterfinals, according to the author of the piece. A collective lack of interest in playing hard enough to win.

Now we have another brouhaha developing. Involving Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal and Real Madrid.

Ronaldo is the reigning FIFA world player of the year. And he just arrived at Real Madrid, from Manchester United, at a cost of about $120 million. So, yeah, Real has a serious investment in the guy.

Real's issues are two-fold. The last time Portugal had a big qualifying match to play, Oct. 10, Ronaldo showed up and lasted 26minutes before he aggravated the ankle injury Real already had said he had. That's beef No. 1.

Now, Portugal is in one of the two-game playoffs for the final four European berths into South Africa 2010. A fairly big deal, that is. In the World Cup or out of it, determined in matches Nov. 14 and 18. Portugal vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is a very solid side.

Beef No. 2 for Real is ... it says Ronaldo is still hurt. And doesn't want Portugal to take their investment and mess him up some more.

Portugal's coach, Carlos Queiroz, insists he is going to call in Ronaldo, no matter what Real says. Queiroz wants national team doctors to look at the kid. Real is unhappy. Ronaldo probably is torn between trying to please both club and country.

This sort of thing no longer is unusual. Clubs suggesting their expensive players skip this or that national match. Because countries don't pay the sort of money the clubs do.

This is bad for the World Cup because it means some of the best teams may not advance because some of their best players won't want to play -- or their clubs won't want them to.

This will get worse before it gets better as long as clubs are throwing around enormous sums at players ... and country's can answer with only pin money and the gratitude of a country -- unless their teams fall short of expectations.
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lost in Translation: France-Ireland TV Issues

Ireland and France are paired in one of the four European playoffs for a 2010 World Cup berth.

I'm keen to find out what's going on, so I've been poking around the Web sites of Ireland's leading newspapers, looking for what they have ... and not seeing much.

So, I then went to France's well-known sports newspaper, "L'Equipe." And it has some news about the upcoming matches -- at Ireland on Nov. 14, in Paris on Nov. 18.

The problem being ... it's in French. Which I don't actually speak.

Anyway, there appears to be issues about TV rights for showing these matches. Which will create a lot of consternation on both sides of the English Channel ... if it doesn't work out. It may not be shown, is what I take. And the issue appears to be the second leg. Showing it back to England and Ireland, that is.

Anyway, some of you might find it amusing to see the French text ... and then the English translation through "

Here are the two versions.

"Décidément, rien n'est simple pour la diffusion du barrage entre la France et l'Irlande des 14 et 18 novembre. Pour le match aller en Irlande, M6 avait acquis les droits de retransmission au nez et à la barbe de TF1 en négociant en direct avec une petite agence outre-Manche pour 5 millions d'euros. Selon Le Parisien, mercredi, c'est au tour de la FFF de faire monter les enchères pour la diffusion en Grande-Bretagne du match retour.

"Selon le journal, la Fédération, propriétaire des droits de diffusion des Bleus à domicile, a mis à prix la rencontre du Stade de France à 1,5 millions d'euros. Problème, les offres cumulées du bouquet payant Sky et de la chaîne nationale irlandaise RTE atteignent pour l'instant à peine 600.000 euros. Si la FFF n'assouplit pas sa position, les Britanniques seront privés du match retour... et la Fédération d'une rentrée d'argent non négligeable."

OK, and now the "" translation.

"Really, nothing is simple for the dissemination of the dam between France and Ireland on 14 and 18 November. For the first leg in Ireland, M6 had acquired the broadcasting rights to the nose and beard of TF1 by negotiating directly with a small agency for the Channel 5 million euros. According to Le Parisien on Wednesday, it was the turn of the FFF to raise the stakes for distribution in Britain's second leg.

"The newspaper said the Federation, which owns the broadcasting rights of the Blues at home, put a price on the encounter at the Stade de France 1.5 million. Problem, offers the combined Sky pay-TV bouquet and the Irish national broadcaster RTE reach for now just 600,000 euros. If the FFF does not relax its position, the British will be deprived of leg ... and the Federation of money coming significant."

Clearly, that "nose and beard" thing is a French idiom. It seems to have to do with somebody stealing the rights from under the nose of somebody else.

Anyway, the point of this whole exercise is to demonstrate how difficult it is to gather information on a global sport when it is reported in so many languages. In this case, only French and English.

One of the four playoffs is between Greece and Ukraine. I don't even want to go there. Yes, it would all be Greek to me. Except for the part that would be Russian.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Kiwis Find Soccer Lesson in Rugby History

Only in New Zealand.

Well, maybe in South Africa or Australia, too.

We have a professional sports journalist here, at the New Zealand Herald, writing (in all seriousness) a story about how the All Whites -- meaning New Zealand's soccer team -- can "learn from the mistakes" of the All Blacks -- meaning the Kiwis' rugby team -- that were made during the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Now that soccer/rugby connection/comparison would not have occurred to me.

Here is the link to that story.

The gist of this is ... a former coach of the New Zealand national soccer side says it would be a bad idea for the current coach of the national side to rest players ahead of the Nov. 14 showdown, in Wellington, with Bahrain.

The match that has a 2010 South Africa berth at stake.

Yeah. That match.

New Zealand is the champion of Oceania (Australia the Fair having bolted for Asia), and that got the Kiwis a home-and-home playoff with Bahrain, the No. 5 team out of Asia.

The first leg of the playoff was a scoreless match in Manama, Bahrain, back on Oct. 14.

It's a very straightforward thing, now. If the Kiwis win, they're in. A scoreless tie goes to overtime and then to a shootout.

But any tie in which Bahrain scores ... means Bahrain goes forward on the basis of "away goals." And New Zealand is out. Again. Same as every World Cup since 1982.

And back to the Herald story. New Zealand's soccer talent is so thin (it has one professional club in the country, and it plays in the Australian league) ... that some suggest the Kiwis should make bloody sure no one gets hurt here in the last 10 days before the match.

But the former coach is saying, "No, you have to play matches to be ready for a big match."

And then we have the 2007 rugby World Cup squad invoked. Apparently, that team rested or sat many of its key players before some key matches, and when they finally got back to playing, they were rusty or unfit, or both ... and the Kiwis crashed out.

So. Play the soccer guys ... because we learned our lessons from rugby. Sports which have as little to do with each other as team handball and basketball. But never mind. It's New Zealand, and over there, I'm sure it all makes perfect sense.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Another World Cup without Bora?

Bora. As in Bora Milutinovic.

For five consecutive World Cups (1986-2002), our favorite Serbian/Mexican/citizen of the world coached somebody in the finals. And never the same somebody.

And four of those times (Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the U.S. in 1994, Nigeria in 1998), he got his team into the knockout round of the World Cup. Which is no small feat. Well, actually, it's an unparalleled feat. No one has taken three different sides to the knockout rounds, let alone four.

So, here we have the man with the best track record of wringing something out of teams (including two quarterfinal appearances) in environments as vastly different as the U.S., Nigeria and Mexico ... and seven months ahead of the World Cup ... he doesn't have a job.

I don't get this. Why isn't Bora Milutinovic getting somebody ready to spring a 2010 South Africa surprise?

I dealt with him, a lot, back in the early 1990s. I was covering the national team during the run-up to the 1994 World Cup, which meant I saw a lot of Bora and heard a lot of his fractured English. English being, to be fair, no more than his fourth-best language (behind Serbian, Spanish and Italian).

I remember interviewing him for a story in 1991, shortly after he had taken over the U.S. team. He let me drive him from practice at Denver's Mile High Stadium to the team hotel, a day or so before a friendly with Uruguay, and we talked ... though it was hard to take notes while driving.

This is a guy who should, absolutely, write an autobiograpy. The things he has seen and the places he has been ... from the day of his birth (during World War II Yugoslavia, a very rough place) to his stints running this, that and the other national team.

I have a sneaking suspicions a bunch of his relatives died at the hands of other Balkan ethnic groups, during World War II. Maybe both of his parents, actually. In that Denver conversation, I asked him about his languages. And I mentioned "Serbo-Croation" -- which was what the tongue was commonly called, before Yugoslavia completely fell apart. And Bora said, "No. Serb." So, yes, I think he may have some issues with Croats ... though 99.9 percent of the time he alleges to love all mankind, and maybe he pretty much does.

Ok, he was a bit of a phony, in what struck me as more of a Mexican than Serbian way. (But it could be Serbian, too; I don't know Serbia like I know Mexico.) A backslapper and a guy who tossed around a far from convincing (but still emphatic) "hello my friend!" when he couldn't come up with your name, which was often. There were times, more than a few, when I wondered why the United States had a coach who could barely communicate with his players, never mind journalists.

But the man could coach. He seems to have an ability to almost immediately size up a team's strengths and weaknesses, and go about emphasizing the former and hiding the latter.

He has been described as being a defense-first kind of guy, and a bit stodgy and, perhaps, now a bit old-fashioned, at age 65 ... but anyone who saw him with his last three World Cup teams (the Americans, Nigerians and Chinese) recognized that he did what he had to do to give those teams a chance to win.

The fact that he got the U.S. to the second round, in 1994, with players from a country with no professional league worthy of the name and only a handful of guys who had played overseas, was nearly miraculous. (The own goal by Colombia in the 2-1 victory at the Rose Bowl helped.) Nigeria had some players, but that was the first and only time it has been in the final 16. And then China ... OK, the Chinese didn't win a game ... or tie a game ... or score a goal ... at Japan/Korea 2002 ... but getting that motley crew into the 2002 World Cup was a feat that hasn't been managed since.

Anyway, this is a guy who can adapt to anything. Who can coach anywhere. We most recently saw him leading Iraq at the Confederations Cup. Where he actually had Iraq with a shot at advancing up till the final match of group play.

But now ... he does nothing. (Unless he's somehow still on Iraq's payroll, and I don't think he is.)

He was mentioned as a candidate for the South Africa job, the moment there it was open. Indeed, two of his four second-round jobs came with host teams -- Mexico in 1986, and the U.S> in 1994. Maybe he has some special talent for whipping together teams that don't "enjoy" the rigors of qualifying.

I think the guy has something left. He always has been lean and active and seemingly full of joie de vivre (he remains me of USC football coach Pete Carroll, actually) ... but he can't get at South Africa?

It's not too late. Someone who hires Bora in the next month can get six solid months of him before South Africa 2010, and have more than a decent shot of advancing. And I don't care if you're Honduras or either of the Koreas. Bora could take you as far as you could go.

He absolutely would make Argentina better than Diego Maradona will manage. I would rather have Bora than Carlos Alberta Parreira, actually. And, well, fill in the blanks.

Bora is being left behind, it seems. Which is too bad. I think he had another couple of World Cup shockers left in him.
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Maradona, 'Violent Emotion' and His Job Future

The investigation of Diego Maradona's profane outburst directed at reporters on Oct. 14 has begun.

The lawyer for the Argentine Football Association said the national team's coach was in a state of "violent emotion" when he directed lewd remarks at journalists after Argentina qualified for the World Cup in its 18th (and last) match in South American competition.

So, the question is ... is "violent emotion" an excuse? An explanation? Or should we expect more from the man in charge of one of the planet's top teams?

As the story notes, Maradona could be suspended up to five matches, if he is found to have been out of order. Well, he was out of order. Out of order enough that FIFA actually does something about it and punishes an oftimes sacred cow.

If that punishment comes down -- and it would be a shock if it does -- Argentina would have to think hard about sending the squad to South Africa with Diego in charge.

So, he made the tournament. Does anyone really think he can get Argentina deep into the tournament, given his record (two victories in nine qualifying matches) and clearly fragile emotional state?

Could he get Argetnaine out of group play ... before losing his stuff? Past one round of knockout play? To the championship match?

I think not. Here, then, is an excuse for Argentina to uncouple itself from its moody, explosive, irrational coach ... and get someone who can run a team without "violent emotion."
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