Sunday, January 31, 2010

Africa's Year? Columnist Says No

I'm on record predicting that an African team will make the semifinals of South Africa 2010.

But those who have watched the Cup of African Nations, the biennial continental tournament, seem to be fairly unanimous in their disappointment over the level of play. And organization. And spirit.

Egypt won the thing tonight, defeating Ghana 1-0, and was easily the most impressive side in the tournament. African title No. 7 for Egypt, and its third straight.

The Egyptians, however, are not in the World Cup. They stumbled early in qualifying, rallied to force a one-match playoff with Algeria (the infamous Match of Hate) in November, and lost it ... and all they had to play for this year was the CAN, which they won. Grand. See you in 2014.

Anyway, one columnist at the Johannesburg Times, in South Africa, is depressed/disappointed.

A writer named Bareng-Batho Kortjass watched the tournament up through the semifinals, and he didn't like what he saw.

In the link, under the title of "So much for an African contender come June ..." he goes down the list of the African qualifiers for South Africa 2010 and tells you what is wrong with them.

He believes Ivory Coast has an inferiority complex ... and also has an issue with not being tricky enough to finesse someone to death, but not rough and tough enough to overpower opponents, either. Hmmm.

As for Cameroon (one of the two African teams to make the quarterfinals, in 1990; Senegal did it in 2002), the author suggests they got old suddenly in the back, turning them into a defensive sieve ... and the lack of a playmaker of any talent deadens the offense by starving Samuel Eto'o of the ball.

The author seems annoyed by Nigeria, which, as he notes, has 150 million people, all of whom think they know more about football than their coach. A team of individuals who collectively are inferior to their parts. The Super Eagles, he says, are now known as the Super Chickens back home. They went out in the semis to Ghana's Kiddie Korps.

Ghana made the final, but the author doesn't much like the Black Stars, either. Too young. Too offensively challenged.

And then there is Algeria, which got to the semifinals only to be undressed, 4-0, by Egypt, in an ugly game in which the contentious Algerians ended the match with eight (!) players on the pitch. He asks, and it is a fair question, how seriously anyone can take a team that loses its composure so completely.

As for South Africa? The Bafana Bafana didn't even qualify for the Cup of African Nations, and watched it from afar. So how good can they be?

I still believe at least one African team will catch fire, come June, and become the darling of South African fans, and will ride that momentum deep into the tournament -- until a Brazil or an Italy ushers them out.

But the people actually on the continent of Africa ... don't seem to agree with that assessment.
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Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Smart Way to Approach the World Cup

This is how you handle the long run-up to the World Cup. This is how it is done.

Be modest. Talk your team down a little. Better yet, talk about how good everyone else is.

Have to give credit to Greece's goaltender, Kostas Chalkias. He gets it. In this story you can almost hear him sigh and see him shrug and talk about what a tough group Greece has been drawn into.

But this isn't about hopelessness.

The Greeks know what they can do. What is essentially the same team, six years later, won the 2004 European championship. And also qualified out of a tough group last year (by winning a second-place playoffs from the Ukraine) to make South Africa 2010.

My guess is that inside the team, the Greeks are quietly confident. These guys have won before. And if you can win the Euro championship, you certainly are a contender for the World Cup.

Now, few of us really want that. Greece, under coach Otto Rehhagel, has been about sitting back and counter-attacking and winning 1-0 games of the sort that would make calcio fans yawn. But it works for this group.

Greece is a little bit under the radar for this World Cup. Chalkias said nothing to change that. In fact, he reinforced it. "We did well to get here," etc.

Talking down your chances even when you have some fairly recent history of significant success ... that's how you go to a World Cup. Not like Japan's coach, who says the semifinals are his team's goal. Not like the entirety of England, which is talking about who the Three Lions will get in the semifinals.

Like Kostas Chalkias. "Hmm. Gonna be tough. We'll be happy to survive the group phase." And then, on a team that knows what it is about, that understands how it plays, with a proven formula for success ... anything can happen. We may be surprised, but the Greek team won't be.
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Friday, January 29, 2010

SA2010 Dolls Being Made in Chinese Sweatshop

Not exactly the feel-good story of the day. It seems as if the "Zakumi" dolls being churned out for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa are made in a sweatshop outside Shanghai.

But for anyone who has paid any attention to the exploitative practices of big bosses in China -- who are beginning to make capitalist oppressors look like amateurs -- we can't really call it a surprise.

According to what appears to be a major investigation by an English newspaper not normally known for quality journalism ... the people who are making the official mascots of South Africa 2010 labor and live in wretched conditions and net 23 Rand a day -- which converts to $3.

But the dolls will be sold ... for $48. Each.

The Johannesburg Times picked up the story from the News of the World and got some outraged remarks from South Africa's labor union.

What do we take from this?

Mostly cynical stuff.

Such as ...

Never be surprised when a poor nation is particularly bad about taking advantage of its workers. You would think there would be some collective sense of "we all were poor, a couple of years ago" ... but the new rich, connected to the government or to the Party or both ... seem to have no qualms about taking advantage of their countrymen.

Never be surprised by the grim details of the production of any knick-knacks you buy around a sports event. Think "poor country, wretched conditions, negligible pay" and remember that some huge fraction of the purchase price is going to middle men and licensees. (Which reminds me; all those bobbleheads U.S. ball teams give away? Nobody got rich from making those.)

There is some irony, as several of the people who commented on the Times story noted, that a country with an often-exploitative economy (see: miners) decided to go to China for its dirt-cheap labor. Why not stay local for dirt-cheap?

Anyway, if you go to South Africa 2010 ... or if you just want one of the "official" Zakumi dolls ... the ones that light up ... pause a moment to recall the poor creatures back in the Workers Paradise who slapped those things together.
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Criticism of South Africa 2010 Valid?

So, this is going to be a great, fantastic event.

No, actually, this event will be a mess.

Pick your narrative.

Here is a story on England returning 6,000 unsold tickets to Fifa, which certainly doesn't sound like good news.

And here is a story on Fifa and South African officials complaining about negative media coverage and suggesting that some -- many of them in England and Germany -- have already decided 2010 will be a failure.

Well, let's consider some concepts.

Africa as a continent doesn't have much of a track record for international events. A rugby World Cup, and what else? No Olympics. No World Cups. Those are facts. Until now, neither the IOC nor Fifa felt confident enough in African bids to accept them -- and there haven't been many, actually.

Factor in South Africa's crime rate (particularly its daily average of 50 murders, second-highest rate in the world), and the terror attack on the Togo team while it was in Angola this month, resulting in three deaths ... and a reasonable person might be expected to wonder if it is a safe destination.

And certainly, it seems hard to discount the reality that getting to South Africa will be quite expensive for people from Europe, which constitute the hard core of international fans, or from the United States, which has more money than the rest of the world.

On the other hand ... the European media does have a reputation for trashing any events set outside its borders. Even events in the U.S., Canada and Japan -- First World countries all -- get attacked by European media, particularly from England and France. That's what they do. If it's not Euro, it sucks. That's the point of departure.

In 1994, the World Cup in the U.S. was widely predicted to be a failure, and it set an attendance record (with fewer matches than currently are scheduled) that still stands. Japan and South Korea put on a fine World Cup in 2002.

But, and this is a big but ... Africa has no track record of successful global sports events. There is no history. South Africa can change that. But for now, it probably needs to show a little tougher hide when it comes to criticism. The country will have a month to show what it can do.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

England Fans: Known Hooligans Must Stay Home

England fans ... all the rage on this blog.

England is working on plans to seize the passports of some 3,200 soccer fans considered hooligans. Doesn't seem quite democratic, but England has been embarrassed by yobs too many times in the past.

Certainly, the heyday of English hooligans is long past. The infamous book, "Among the Thugs," published in 1991, now is much more about English history than it is current events.

No doubt, however, that hooliganism was a significant problem for a decade or four. England fans raised havoc on the other side of the channel (getting their club teams banned from Europe for nearly five years following the Heysel Stadium Disaster of 1985, when 39 Italian fans died) and were a menace at the 1990 World Cup, when they gave Sardinia a fairly thorough rubbishing.

There was undisguised glee among organizers in the United States, in 1993, when England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, which was played in the States. The thinking was quite simple: We won't have to spend a lot of time and energy heading off England's drunk-and-disorderly yahoos.

Perhaps the last gasp of England's yobs was after the Three Lions' first match in the 1998 World Cup in France, after England defeated Tunisia, 2-0 ... prompting some of their sociopathic followers to battle local French residents of North African origin in what was later remembered as The Battle of Marseille.

In the past decade, England's fans seem to have grown much more sedate. Is it about authorities tracking down ringleaders? A change in stadium security precautions? Or some more subtle change in the English populace?

Perhaps someone can research it and give us a guess why.

Anyway, England is collecting 3,200 passports to keep thugs from going to South Africa. Twenty years ago, they probably would have to pick up 32,000 passports, to be safe.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2010 World Cup Too Expensive for England Fans?

Last week it was Franz Beckenbauer who suggested that the apparent disinterest among Germany fans for buying World Cup tickets was a matter of economics, and we wrote about it on this blog ...

And now we have someone at the Times of London reporting the sobering numbers that a firm has crunched, about how much it would cost to follow the English team all the way to the final. (As if, but let's just go with the idea ...)

So, how much to see the Three Lions through to the imaginary final?

A whopping 6,400 pounds sterling. Or $10,300 at current exchange rates. That includes airfare, tickets and housing -- and it appears as if housing is the backbreaking part of this deal.

England, also, has tickets left over from its allocation. Something like 6,000. Which seems almost unimaginable, considering the madness of English fans -- until you begin to check the cost.

Note that the story mentions that SA2010 is going to announce a new ticket system tomorrow ... and that there may be excess tickets floating around during the tournament.

Which strikes me that ... if you are brave (or foolhardy, perhaps) ... buy nothing ahead of time ... and just show up.

Buy a plane ticket in early June, turn up in Johannesburg a day or two before the June 12 match against the U.S.. Get tickets from touts at the last minute. Just show up at hotels that, a month before the event, realize they outpriced the market and stay for far less than they are charging all these worry-wart months-ahead itinerary freaks ...

And it might be only horribly expensive. Not ruinously expensive.

The story also notes the obvious: If fans from First World countries can't afford SA2010, how are the African and Latin fans going to be able to pay?

(And thanks to David Lassen for pointing out to me the Times story.)
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Monday, January 25, 2010

Add to Missing Players: Paraguay Striker Shot

Knee injuries. Ankle injuries. Those happen to soccer players, and we are trying to keep track of them for you as they relate to the World Cup.

But getting shot in the head while sitting in a bar with your wife? Not remotely as common. Thank goodness.

Paraguayan standout forward Salvador Cabanas was shot in a Mexico City bar early Monday morning and is in serious condition -- with a bullet still in his skill.

It brings to mind that playing soccer can be a dangerous life, in Latin America.

One of Colombia's starting defenders, Andres Escobar, was shot to death outside a bar in Medellin in 1994. Some believe he was killed because he allowed an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, just a few days before, leading to a 2-1 defeat vs. the United States and to Colombia leaving the tournament after group play -- when no less an authority than Pele had suggested Colombia could win the tournament.

But others suggest Escobar's slaying was just a shootout outside a bar (not an uncommon event in Colombia, then or now), and Escobar was hit.

What Cabanas shares with Escobar, besides coming from South America, is that he was in a dangerous place when he was shot -- a bar in a Latin city known for drug trade/wars.

(Cabanas is in Mexico City because he plays for Club America, based in the Mexican capital.)

It now seems as if Cabanas will do well to survive the attack. Thinking that he will be able to play for Paraguay in South Africa 2010 is getting ahead of a sad story.
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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Another Top Player Goes Down

If you are keeping score at home, here is another first-tier player who apparently will be out of South Africa 2010:

Filipe, the winger from Brazil.

Filipe suffered a broken ankle while playing for Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday, and looks unlikely to be back at full speed in time to play for Brazil this summer.

The difference between Brazil losing Filipe and the United States possibly losing Clint Dempsey (as noted on this blog last week) is fairly stark, however.

Dempsey is one of the handful of U.S. attacking players who has a significant amount of skill.

Filipe is one of dozens of Brazilians who can play at the world level.

So while this is a personal disaster for Filipe, who stood a good chance of making Dunga's squad, it absolutely is not some sort of World Cup death knell for Brazil.

Dempsey, by the way, did not suffer an injury as serious as first thought. His club team, Fulham, hopes he will play again for them this season. Which means he stands a good chance of being ready for the World Cup.

Good luck to Filipe on his comeback, as well.
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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Getting Another Dose of Becks

What has it been, a week or two without any David Beckham items on this blog?

Time to fix that!

Here is a link to an item in which Becks unburdens himself. Well, as much as a person who is more a commodity than a person can unburden himself.

Becks says he is OK with the prospect of falling short of Peter Shilton's record for appearances with the English national team. Shilton racked up 125, and Becks is at 115, and even if he somehow manages to insinuate himself into the England lineup for its run-up matches to South Africa 2010, as well as for however long it lasts in the World Cup ... it seems unlikely he will get 10 matches.

And then it is beyond difficult to believe he ever will be called back into the England side, considering he is 35. Though I suppose fantasists could imagine him being part of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. If he somehow produces something resembling his old form this summer.

Becks says he expects Wayne Rooney to be the key player for England at South Africa 2010.

And he said his role for England is to do anything that Fabio Capello asks him to do. Which is exactly what the man ought to say, considering his age and diminishing physical skills.

I'm sure it won't be the last we will hear from Becks between now and June 11. We wouldn't have it any other way.
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Weird Story: Threats of Murder, Theft at SA2010

This is a strange one. It involves two shadowy crime figures appearing on a South Africa television network and vowing to attack World Cup tourists, robbing them, perhaps killing them ...

And it comes just as concerns about the safety of visitors to the 2010 World Cup seems to be heating up, in the wake of the Togo national team being shot up in Angola.

It involves the apparent suicide of a man who put the TV network in touch with the criminals, and the arrest of one of them, with some "freedom of the press" issues thrown in, as well, because the police subpoenaed the TV news station reporter who interviewed the criminals.

Basically, it's a mess.

Here is the simplest version of the story, from Reuters.

Here is a more detailed one, out of the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

The gist of it is ... the TV news station found two guys. Apparently actual thugs. With thug credentials. Who said they planned to attack visitors, presumably mostly Europeans and Americans, for the abuses of colonialism over the centuries. Well, and because tourists from Europe and the United States might actually be lucrative targets for robbery.

And this sent the South African establishment into a tizzy, because it confirms/reinforces the concerns percolating out there in the First World of South Africa as an crazy-unsafe destination.

Certainly, South Africa has problems. We've been over this. It has 50 murders a day, and is No. 2 in the world in murders -- both on a per-capita basis and in total numbers, trailing only Colombia.

So, South Africa cops, etc., went nuts over this, and strong-armed the TV station perhaps a bit more brazenly than it needed to, and now the bullying by the cops is turning into a cause celebre for other South African media who don't like the show of force one bit.

The cops allege to have arrested one of the guys and "know the other." And then there is the dead middleman.

It's all murky and a bit disturbing. But don't let it worry you. Nope.
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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bafana Preps without Overseas Stars

Hmm. Carlos Alberto Parreira concedes he won't have his best players at the three pre-World Cup camps he is staging for the South African national team.

Can't be good.

The story in the Johannesburg Times list those who Parreira acknowledges won't be released by their (mostly) European clubs.

Top of the list?

Crafty little midfielder Steven Pienaar and the nation's all-time scorer, Benni McCarthy, both playing with Premier League teams in England that don't have to (and won't) allow their players to be gone for long stretches of time.

Pienaar is playing well for resurgent Everton, and McCarthy has re-emerged with Blackburn. The idea that their clubs would let them go over to Brazil or Germany for extended camps -- which is what Parreira has planned -- wasn't realistic.

As it is, national sides are lucky to pry away their stars from club commitments when a legitimate international play date is on the calendar.

What Parrereia was thinking when he formulated this plan is fairly obvious. He wants to get the Best of the Rest together, and somewhere out of the country, and see if he can get a change of chemistry from the long run of bad results that South African suffered through in the second half of 2009.

Of course, not having your best midfielder and best forward (for starters) means that whatever cohesion is developed in the camps will immediately be torn up and discarded when South Africa opens the 2010 World Cup against Mexico on June 11.

In theory, having its best players going hammer and tongs in top leagues week after week makes them better players. In practice, it would be nice to integrate them into the national team a little more often than will be possible.

No host team has failed to make the second round of the World Cup. South Africa lives in fear that it will be the first.

This sort of halfway approach to the run-up doesn't seem likely to improve the Bafana's chances of group-stage survival.
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Der Kaiser: Not a Fan of SA2010

I think it's fair to mark down Franz Beckenbauer as "not a fan" of how South Africa 2010 is shaping up.

Der Kaiser ("the king"), as he is known in Germany, apparently was asked why Germans have purchased fewer than 7,000 of the 21,000 tickets to SA2010 set aside for them.

And the former German captain and national team coach went off.

To wit:

He believes getting to South Africa and finding lodging there is too difficult and too expensive (can't argue that), that ticket prices are too high (hmm; has he priced a Super Bowl lately?) and that security concerns are legitimate.

Here is Der Kaiser, via AFP and the Johannesburg Times: "Not only are there doubts by those thinking of travelling there, because of security, but the tickets are too expensive. What normal person can afford 5,000 to 6,000 euros for one week?"

And after noting that no organizing committee can ensure safety for fans, he added, "People need to be watching out everywhere they go. It's best to be over-cautious, stay in groups whenever possible."

Yes, this is just one guy sounding off ... but it's one guy who happens to be the most important figure in German soccer (he also is a member of Fifa's executive committee).

Be interesting to see if SA2010 organizing committee boss Danny Jordaan feels obligated to respond to this batch of criticism.
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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

England: Won't Be Caught Up in Own Enthusiasm

It's coming full circle. The easy qualification from a weak group, the self-congratulation, the beatification of the coach, the applause for the skill and great of the players, the fevered plotting of the "easy" route to the semifinals ...

And now someone involved in English soccer has thought to remember that, hey, nothing in the 2010 World Cup is guaranteed.

English veteran Frank Lampard said he and the lads won't get caught up in the unbridled enthusiasm.

Lampard told AFP that "The experienced players who have been here before know that it doesn't really matter what you say before the tournament or what your form's like a few months before the tournament. What really matters is how you play when you get there.

"You get asked the question a million times: 'Can you win it?' And the obvious answer is, 'Yes, we can if we are playing well,' but you have to go there and win it."

What? We can't just award this one to England on the basis of being Masters of the Game and winning the 1966 World Cup?

It's good for England that at least one of its key veterans is giving voice to the realities of it all. Unreal expectations almost always lead to real disasters.
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Monday, January 18, 2010

But of Course It Didn't Cost Him Time

Update on blog item below:

Thierry Henry, not punished for handball.


Fifa is like the pope: Infallible. Or it's like your annoying friend ... and never admits to a mistake.

The excuse here was the one we anticipated: No legal right to proceed.

Next case!
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Handball Could Cost Henry World Cup Time

Thierry Henry, the French national guilty of the infamous hand ball in a decisive World Cup qualifier vs. Ireland, will get up in front of a Fifa disciplinary hearing today to talk about what happened.

The worst-case scenario is not a good one for Henry or France.

The veteran striker could be hit with a suspension, and could miss a match of two at South Africa 2010.

More likely, is ... nothing. Which will annoy the Irish and much of the world soccer community -- or at least that part of it convinced France might getting ready for the 2014 World Cup if not for the Henry handball -- which set up the winning goal by William Gallas.

Henry will argue that soccer's laws on handball punishment pertain only to infractions that prevent a goal from being scored.

Henry's handling only kept the ball in play, from where he passed it to Gallas. No rule seems to apply to him.

But Fifa hasn't always been consistent when it comes to its judgments, and perhaps throwing Henry under the bus, as the cliche goes, might make it seem as the organization realizes the magnitude of the error.

Still, the smart money is ... nothing happening at all.
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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dempsey: One of Those Injuries That Matter

I mentioned this a month or so ago ... that one of the difficult tasks for anyone who pretends to be up to date on the fortunes of the 32 teams headed for South Africa 2010 is to have a grasp on injuries.

And when it's not your national team, or one in your region, you may not notice when a guy goes down with something, and you go around thinking John Smith will be facing your team in group play when he's actually still in a cast.

Well, one of those apparently serious injuries happened to a U.S. player today.

The player? Clint Dempsey of Premier League side Fulham, injured in a 2-0 defeat at Blackburn today.

His coach believes Dempsey suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament. And if he is correct, Dempsey may be out of the World Cup, which begins on June 11 -- and on June 12 for the United States, in a match vs. England.

Dempsey is only, oh, the second-best attacking player on the U.S. team. He plays on the wing and has moments of true inspiration around the net.

He has been enjoying his best season, at Fulham, and would have been counted on for long minutes and even a goal or two at South Africa -- where he scored three goals in the Confederations Cup last June, including strikes against Brazil and Spain that helped the Americans finish a surprise second.

If Dempsey is out, the U.S. is seriously compromised because it does not have much depth of talent, particularly among players who can actually score. There is the First XI, which actually has about six First XI quality players ... and now one of them is injured, perhaps badly.

Just put it in the back of your mind: One of the best U.S. players is down and maybe out of the World Cup. A day ago, they seemed like a potential dark horse candidate to get into maybe the final eight. Not so much so, now.
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Saturday, January 16, 2010

We Have Maradona to Kick Around Again

Diego Maradona has served his two-month suspension for using vile language while talking to reporters after Argentina clinched a spot in the World Cup.

We've missed him. When the biggest fool among the 32 coaches in South Africa 2010 is absent ... the comedic value of the event just plummets.

Diego will kick off his return by flying to Pretoria to check out Argentina's base camp for the 2010 World Cup. Though the Argentines may not need it past the group phase of the event.

You wouldn't think he could do much damage there, in Pretoria, looking at a hotel and some practice fields. No players to confuse. No game plans to mess up. No lineups to pull out of his hat.

Unless he starts spewing obscenities at South African reporters, perhaps.

Welcome back, Diego.
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Friday, January 15, 2010

Knife-Proof Vest for SA 2010 Fans?

The company's name is Protektorvest, and what it will sell you is a knife-proof vest for $69.95.

And it is getting a lot of attention, both positive and negative in South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup.

The firm selling the vests appears to be South African, too.

One school of thought is, "If anyone knows what kind of protection you need in South Africa, wouldn't it be a South African firm?

And the second is, "This is someone hoping to take advantage of irrational fears from First World fans."

Anyway, it's getting a lot of notice. Including in the Daily Mirror of England.

Here is the link to the story about the vest.

Returning to the on-one-hand, on-the-other frame of mind ...

South Africa is a dangerous place. We have established that. Maybe not dangerous in an Angola sort of "organized rebel group" way, but in a "50 murder nationwide daily" way.

Sascha Cotura, co-founder of the company, says, "Of course people think it is crazy, but South Africa is is famous for knife crime."

Ao, a knife-proof vest? Maybe it's not that crazy.

And to spiff up the whole sale, you can get your knife-proof "Protektorvest" in your nation's colors.

Meanwhile, the Football Supports Federation of England is suggesting the knife-proof vest is is unnecessary and a fear-mongering concept. Said FSF spokesman Michael Clarke: "This will just panic people and introduce a degree of tension. They are not exactly going to endear fans to the host nation and we would advise them not to buy these things."

Anyway, if you're thinking of going and you want some sort of protection from a stabbing, here is the link to the Protektorvest company site.

The company co-founder says he's just offering a service. ''I can imagine that the organizers of the World Cup say it is safe, but fans want to do what they can," Cotura said. "Football fans can get into trouble. They can be drunk and rowdy unlike in other sports, so they can have problems. If they approach situations with the wrong attitude it could go horribly wrong."

Hmm. Hard to argue with that.
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Thursday, January 14, 2010

What South Africans Are Thinking ... Is Scary

I was going to link to a story from the Johannesburg Times on how the United States ambassador to South Africa said that Americans understand that Africa is not one country.

Well, I suppose I will do it, anyway.

It's a short story, and the gist of it? That Americans won't jump to a conclusion that Togo's soccer team getting shot up in Angola means terror is due to break out in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, as well.

But what I found more interesting were the comments posted on the story.

What makes them interesting?

There's the anti-Americanism, of course. The whole "they know nothing about geography" thing, which no one would dispute. Though I would guess we would discover that lots and lots of people in the world have no idea where much of anything is outside their own country, too.

But more telling -- even if we take into account the contentiousness endemic among people who post comments on websites -- is the byplay/interplay between what are clearly African and European-African commenters. It is fascinating. In a disturbing sort of way.

This was a country that, the movie "Invictus" would have us believe (as well as the generic South African tourist-board line of patter) ... that blacks and whites settled their differences in the country 15 years ago ... or at least after the South African rugby team won the 1995 world championship.

Yet, here we have insults flying, many of them along race lines. There are charges of continued apartheid, of ignorance among black South Africans. The black president is called a village idiot.

Shortly, it is the sort of "look under the scab" sort of thing that isn't uplifting. But certainly is informing. Have a look.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Japan Coach Planning for Semifinals

You don't expect coaches of even the most modest World Cup qualifiers to poor-mouth their teams.

No team goes to the World Cup planning and expecting to go three-and-out after group play. No one says, "Hey, we're Honduras! No way we advance!" You just don't say that. Even if you know it to be the likely scenario.

But talking about getting to the semifinals, when you coach Japan ... talking about how the semifinals is your goal ... is just plain wacky.

Either coach Takeshi Okada is massively deluded ... or he's got some sort of career deathwish by setting the bar his team way, way too high.

Let's hear from the coach:

"All of our opponents are a bit stronger than us but are in a range we can deal with." Okada said. "We are aiming for a place in the semifinals and don't intend to change that."

"It's never easy whoever you play. This might sound strange but I don't think it's a bad group to be in. We are not up against teams that we have absolutely no chance of beating."

Japan, remember, is in the same group with Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon. The average fan would say "Japan finishes last there."

Japan is one of those teams (and every World Cup has 15-20 of them) who have no chance, none, of winning the championship.

Japan has been out of the first round only once, when they were playing at home in 2002. The Japanese play hard, and the team is well-organized, but it has very thin talent, and unless it gets a batch of Brazilians naturalized in the next few months (and maybe Okada knows something we don't) ... there's no way they get out of that group and win two games in the knockout round.

Anyway, weird prediction. Nobody should talk about the World Cup semifinals in South Africa this year unless they are named Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany, Netherlands and (maybe) England.

Everyone else, most certainly including Japan, should talk about playing hard, getting out of the first round and maybe winning a knockout game. But semifinals? No. Don't set yourself up in a scenario that isn't going to happen.
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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Serbia Unhappy with 'Decrepit Dump' of a Hotel

Remember how England was raving about how it loved its World Cup accommodations?

Serbia ... is at the other end of the spectrum.

According to the Johannesburg Times, the travel agency charged by the Serbian federation with finding lodging for the 2010 World Cup, is unhappy with the hotel first offered.

How unhappy?

Well, a Belgrade newspaper used the words "decrepit dump" to describe the place. (I wonder how "decrepit dump" sounds in Serbian. As awful as it does in English?)

The agency didn't like the size of the rooms, beds or bathrooms, and the agency also complained of an "odor of staleness" outside the hotel.

The place is considered a three-star hotel. Most of us who have traveled on a budget would consider a three-star hotel something of a splurge. But we're not world-class soccer players, are we.

England, remember, is staying at a royal retreat.

Anyway, it occurs to me that it wasn't all that long ago that posh accommodations were not considered the divine right of World Cup soccer players. The theory being, as I recall from some spartan U.S. camps, that they were in country to play soccer, not to luxuriate in plush rooms.

So soccer players have come up in the world. And the Serbians want their four-star accommodations, too. Make that "five-star".
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Monday, January 11, 2010

For a Few Teams, an Embarrassment of Riches

You think there are, oh, about 25 national teams that are headed for the World Cup who wish they had the "problems" a handful of elite squads have in winnowing down all their talent into a 23-man squad?

Well, of course, would be the answer to that one.

Most nations are happy to have a fairly decent First XI ... with a couple of soft spots they will try to hide, in South Africa. Others have 4-5 real players, and the rest are mediocrities.

And then there are that handful of nations where coaches sigh deeply and express their dismay at having to limit the team to 23.

Take, say, Italy.

You may remember from the other day, when we linked to a story about Francesco Totti expressing interest in coming out of international retirement to play for Italy.

Now, we've got another veteran striker, big and rangy Luca Toni, talking about how he would like to play at South Africa 2010, too.

And in that story Italy coach Marcelo Lippi is quoted as saying Toni had a nice game, for AS Roma, in his first match this season since Bayern Munich dumped him.

Lippi is also quoted as saying he doesn't get to take 35 guys to South Africa.

How many other teams have that worry? How to get 23 players from 35 or 40 or 100 really good players?

Well, let's make a list:

I count seven teams that have that problem.

1. Brazil. The Brazilians could field four World Cup teams and two of them might end up playing each other for the championship.

2. Italy. Can't decide if Totti and Toni could help them. And they're only 33 and 32 respectively. That's depth.

3. Germany. The Germans will never admit this, though. They will tell you how this guy isn't ready and that guy is too old but they dozens of guys who can play at an elite level. That's how they get to the final eight nearly every time.

4. Netherlands. Getting their guys to play together always has been the Dutch problem. But no one doubts they go 2-3 deep at every position.

5. Argentina. Real players everywhere. The test of Diego Maradona's incompetence will be managing to waste all the talent.

6. Spain, at the moment. Though I'm not sure they're much deeper than 20.

7. England. Though they have that issue of "who to pair up top with Wayne Rooney," which is a bit of an embarrassment for an elite side.

And now we're done. France doesn't quite make it. Lots of competent players, but how many of those guys would start for any of the teams above? Really. Who do you want off of France's team who will make you instantly and massively better. See? Portugal has a half-dozen really good guys, but do you want all 11 of them? Didn't think so.

After that, we have teams with good players and some not so good, teams that play well together and have cohesion or style or heart and character ... but not great talent.

Anyway, when it comes to having talent deep enough to beat other people's First XI with your Second XI ... what a luxury that must be!
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

More 'South Africa Isn't Angola'

This time it comes from Danny Jordaan, president of the 2010 World Cup organizing committee.

Which means generic angst about security in South Africa must be something the South Africans are feeling.

Jordaan, who is in Angola for the opener of the Cup of African Nations competition, basically said what we suggested yesterday: That South Africa is not Angola.

The examples he used?

Germany and Kosovo, as well as London and Madrid.

To wit:

"To say what happened in Angola impacts on the World Cup in South Africa is the same as suggesting that when a bomb goes off in Spain, it threatens London's ability to host the next Olympics."

And, "If there is a war in Kosovo and a World Cup in Germany, no one asks if the World Cup can go on in Germany, everyone understands the war in Kosovo is a war in Kosovo."

It probably shows more than a little lack of appreciation of African geography and the geopolitical scene there for some of the former colonial states to seem to suggest, "Whoops, there goes Africa again."

At the same time, South Africa has to know that thinking of that sort still exists.

A veteran of African soccer conceded the attack in Angola on the Togolese team bus, in which three died, certainly wasn't good for the image of African soccer.

"It's a very negative blow for African and our football," Kalusha Bwalya, former African Footballer of the Year and president of Zambia's football association, told Reuters.

"It's really disturbing that something like this has happened in the months leading up to the World Cup."

Hence, taking this issue head on ... as Danny Jordaan has ... and addressing it is the proper thing for the president of the organizing committee to do.
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Saturday, January 9, 2010

South Africa is Not Angola

Another blast of bad news for Africa. As if it doesn't get plenty.

Terrorists shot up the team bus of the Togo team, killing three people who weren't players, as the Togolese made their way south to take part in the Cup of African Nations tournament in Angola -- which is in the southern half of Africa. Along with South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup.

Fearing an assessment of guilt by geographical association, South Africa's organizing committee felt obliged to issue a statement today. The gist of it?

"We wish to state that there is no link between what happened in in Angola and South Africa's preparations to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup," Rich Mkhondo, a spokesman for SA2010 said.

If you glance at a globe, Angola seems in the same neighborhood as South Africa.

Actually, it's a stretch. Africa is a big continent, and the Angolan capital of Luanda is 1,600 miles from the South African capital of Johannesburg. Comparing what happened there to South Africa would be like fearing violence in Los Angeles because of some drug shootout in Mexico City. It's not really next door.

And the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, where the shooting took place, is even further away from South Africa than is Luanda, the Angolan capital.

That's not to say South Africa has no history in Angola. South Africa intervened on behalf of a different set of rebels during the Angolan civil war in the 1980s, back when South Africa was still under apartheid rule. Certainly, that South Africa government sent aid to rebels that eventually lost out to the current government, and there were reports of actual South African army formations entering Angola.

But, again, that was 20 years ago.

To be sure, South Africa isn't the safest place in the world, as we have noted here before. The world's No. 2 murder rate (both per capita and by volume) in the world.

But South Africa has no restive, separation-bent geographical bits that will be playing host to matches in the World Cup, as Cabinda will for the Cup of African Nations.

That is the biggest difference. South Africa is violent in a random and individual way. But Angola has a small bit of territory that is not contiguous with the country, a small bit that apparently wants to be its own country, and that is quite a different thing.

The unfortunate Togo team, which was not expected to take a bus to Angola (but air travel inside Africa is erratic, as we have noted), was attacked about six miles inside Cabinda.

Now, Togo is going to quit the tournament, and Africa's coloful continental event is already under a black cloud.

That doesn't mean anything like this will happen in South Africa.

South Africa isn't Eden. But it doesn't have the same issues that Angola has. Read more!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mexico Opening Match Key; Well, of Course

Match Mexico and South Africa on a soccer pitch almost anywhere in the world ... and any mildly attentive soccer fan would expect a Mexican victory.

Mexico has been among the planet's two-dozen best teams for decades, now. Just consistently solid and routinely competitive in the World Cup. And South Africa has been good for a month or two, here or there. Ever.

But Mexico vs. South Africa ... when the match is in Johannesburg? And when it represents the opening match of a World Cup?

That could be a different situation. As well as the key to Mexico surviving the group stage of the 2010 World Cup. As Mexico (and Barcelona) defender Rafael Marquez correctly notes in this story from the Associated Press that ran in the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

Normally, you'd think "Mexico 2-1 or 2-0. But ...

What has to be a bit troubling, for fans of Mexico, is its consistent failures to win in the United States, over the past decade. Mexico is far, far better at home, especially in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Big games on foreign soil have been a bit tricky for El Tricolores.

Mexico also has the disadvantage of being first up, against South Africa.

The crowd will be 98 percent pro-South African, we have to assume, and in the opener, South Africa won't yet know how good it isn't and how it has no chance. In the first match you always still have a chance, right? And you play with a bit more confidence. Or hope, anyway.

Have to think both France and Uruguay, the other members of Group A, are pulling for a Mexico victory -- to take some starch out of the home team before they take the field against them. And they also have to be happy they weren't up first.

I still believe Mexico will win. But that first match will be intense, difficult -- and probably the pivot for advancing to the second round for whoever can get three points out of it.
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Thursday, January 7, 2010

That's Why Fifa Inspects the Stadiums

Fifa went through South Africa to see the condition of its 10 new stadiums, and nine passed. Which isn't bad.

The 10th was Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, perhaps the least-known city (and venue) in the 2010 World Cup.

The field at Nelspruit has drainage issues, and Fifa wants them fixed.

The cost of replacing the field is estimated at 5 million rand -- which is $680,000. Which is real money, but nothing compared to the original $145 million cost to build the stadium.

Nelspruit is the farthest north and east (close to Mozambique, actually) of the nine World Cup cities (Johannesburg has two stadiums), which means it also has the warmest climate -- because going north in South Africa is moving closer to the equation.

Nelspruit has a population of about 220,000, and why it needs a 45,000-capacity, $145 million stadium isn't quite clear. But there you are. And it will have a field that drains, too.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

No Joke: Totti May Return for Italy

Francesco Totti has dropped off the soccer map, a bit, the past few years. He has had injuries, with AS Roma, and he said he was finished playing for the national team after Italy won the 2006 World Cup.

But Totti now says he is interested in coming back. In time to play for Italy at South Africa 2010.

Whether Italy wants him back, at age 33, after he did nothing to help the Azurri qualify ... we don't know.

But it could be fun to have the onetime Golden Boy of Italian soccer back ... if only for the jokes.

In the early years of his career, Totti earned a reputation as a great scorer, a fine-looking fellow and a very dim bulb. People made up "he's so dumb that" jokes about the guy, and they were easy to believe.

He was smart enough, however, to turn the gibes around. They were collected into a book (and then another), which sold very well and helped popularize him further -- as well as make money for charities.

Here is a story about the first book, as well as several of the more popular Totti jokes.

And here are a few more jokes.

If you didn't follow the links, my favorite joke probably is the one about Totti's girlfriend asking him, "Francesco, do you love me? Huh, do you love me? Huh, do you love me?" And Totti says, "Hey, one question at a time."

Ultimately, the issue won't be if he can make anyone laugh ... but if he can help Italy score.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

SA President: Five Weddings, Three Wives

Another installment of "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" ... World Cup edition.

Far be it from us to condemn someone's cultural traditions.

If Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, has the cash and the patience and bravery to be married five times -- but, most interestingly, to three women at once -- well, more power to him. A better man than I. (Though perhaps not as good as Brigham Young, or some of the early Mormon polygamists of truly epic marital proclivites.)

I didn't know that polygamy was going strong in some precincts of South Africa. We get that straightened out in this story from the Johannesburg Times, which plays this as straight as it would a couple of college kids getting hitched.

Note that Zuma apparently is considering wife No. 6 -- which would be four at once. And the man is 68? You go, bro!

The other issue with polygamy ... if a couple of guys marry 4-5 times ... what does that mean for 7-8 men whose female counterparts (assuming a 50-50 split between genders) have been snapped up by two guys?

Seems as if we have the beginning of trouble within that society. Women without marital prospects is often a sad thing. Men without marital prospects often is a dangerous thing.

I believe the one-at-a-time thing that most of the world is working with is to encourage more stable societies. Sometimes it has religious sanction. But it just seems to make sense.

Anyway, if you go to South Africa, and you meet a major player ... the women with him may be his wives. All of them. Just to avoid some faux pas, etc.

If you didn't follow the link, here is the bit about the polygamy issue:

"The 68-year-old president is a proud Zulu and has repeatedly defended polygamy despite those who sneer at the practice as outdated, especially in the age of Aids.

"Though this was Zuma's fifth wedding, Mabhija is his third current wife. One of his wives, Kate Mantsho, reportedly committed suicide in 2000, and Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma divorced him in 1998.

"The president is still married to his first wife, Sizakele Khumalo, whom he met in 1959. She has no children by Zuma because the president was arrested shortly after their marriage and had to spend many years in exile.

"Zuma married Nompumelelo Ntuli, his fourth wife, three years ago in a traditional wedding at his home.

"He is now said to be preparing to take yet another wife and was last week traditionally engaged to Durban's Gloria Bongi Ngema. The Zuma family, however, will say nothing about the date of his next wedding.

Many of those attending the ceremony yesterday saw nothing wrong with Zuma taking more than one wife.

Ntombi Masinga, a 40-year-old cleaner at a local lodge, defended Zuma's polygamy.

"Unlike in the West, Zulu culture does not limit how many wives a man can have," said Masinga. "The president is well within his rights to marry as many women as he wants.

"Who am I to object to a cultural practice spanning decades and accepted by our ancestors?"

S'bu Mdlalose, a local businessman, said he was happy to be at Zuma's wedding.

"He is proud to be Zulu. It is a good thing and I think some people frown on it because they don't understand it."
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Monday, January 4, 2010

Becks Media Tour Continues

What's with English players? They can go a year without generating a paragraph of printable quotes, on the record. Then when they feel like turning it on ... they're all over the place.

Remember that lengthy David Beckham piece from yesterday? Well, you ought to. It just appeared.

But now here's another Becks interview. One that he gave to chose to lead with "Becks fears Messi." Which is curious, because Messi has never done much for the Argentine national team, and especially not since Diego Maradona took over as coach.

To sum up, if you didn't follow the link ...

Asked whom England has who can compare to Messi, Beckham was diplomatic and named half the first XI. When, of course, England has no one like Messi.

He stroked coach Fabio Capello a bit more. He's really getting good at it.

And he said his best and worst World Cup memories both came with Argentina on the pitch. In 1998, in an infamous match at St. Etienne, Becks stepped on the head of, who was it, Diego Simeone? And got red-carded, and England finally went down, after playing a man short for an hour or so. That was the worst memory. And the best, he said, was at the 2002 World Cup, when he scored on a penalty in a victory over the Argentines.

Maybe tomorrow we can hear from someone who isn't the CEO of Team Beckham.
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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Becks Speaks at Length

No, we don't get enough news about England or its most famous soccer lad, David Beckham.

Becks did an extended interview with BBC radio and, actually, extended interviews are a rarity in British journalism. British papers will run a 72-point headline (that's big) over a five paragraph story based on one half-sentence of utterance that may have been overheard before a player boarded a bus. There just isn't much access to players, in Britain.

So, this story is fairly meaty.

What has Becks got to say?

For one, he credits Fabio Capello with giving English football some swagger and attitude.

He says he will play anywhere on the field for AC Milan, which he is joining this week on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy.

He will do anything to make the World Cup team. Up to and including BBC stroking of the coach. (See above.)

He looks forward to trying to sell England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. Which seems to be a factor in Capello's willingness to put him on the South Africa 2010 team.

And he remains a Manchester United fan and wants ManU to win every time out -- except when it plays AC Milan later this year in the Champions League.
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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Van Persie Out: Dutch Odds Go Up?

Robin van Persie, perhaps the most talented striker the Netherlands can field at this moment in history, is hurt. Seriously hurt. To the point that he may not be back in time for the World Cup and almost certainly won't be fully healthy and match-fit.

So, should we add a couple of points to those 14-1 odds put on the Netherlands' chances of winning the tournament, barely a month ago?

In this story, Arsene Wenger, Van Persie's coach at Arsenal, suggests that Dutch fans (and Arsenal supporters) can be optimistic and suggest van Persie will be back from ankle surgery in April ... or they can be "a bit cautious" and say "May."

So ...

Shall we adjust the odds posted on this site last month? Want to make the Netherlands 16-1? 18-1?

Or is Holland deep enough to cover up for the loss of a guy who was such a big part of the Arsenal attack -- with eight goals in 11 Arsenal matches, before he got hurt?

If we check the calendar, it doesn't look good for van Persie making it back.

Let's say the May return comes in. If that means only that he can return to training ... do you think he will be sprinting and pivoting on that ankle the first day? The first week? Does he get in one or two matches before the Premier League season ends?

Figure that Holland's national team camp will open no later than the start of June, and probably more like May 23-24. Which gives him about three weeks to be ready to go with Netherlands for its opening match at South Africa 2010 -- June 14, against Denmark.

Or do the Dutch go forward with some attacking combination of Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben, Klaus-Jan Huntelaar ... or even Ruud van Nistleroy (coming out of age-related exile)?

The Netherlands may have no choice but to do just that.

Injuries are sort of the invisible men of the World Cup. Lots of fans don't take into account who is missing when they watch a couple of teams play. Presumably, Dutch fans will be keenly aware of who's not there.
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Friday, January 1, 2010

New Zealand Taking Advantage of Opportunity

So, your national team makes the World Cup every 28 years, like clockwork.

That is to say, you're not very good in soccer.

So, how should you approach the tournament? What level of comfort should your players expect?

In New Zealand's case, as this story outlines, the answer is "the highest level" of comfort.

Interesting way to approach things.

Realistically, if you're going home after two weeks, why not live it up? Spend some money. Put the lads in a "seven-star" hotel. (And what makes a seven-star hotel? Does someone comb your hair for you?)

Anyway, New Zealand is a 1000-to-1 shot to win the World Cup. Most people will be surprised if they score a goal in three group matches (against Italy, Slovakia and Paraguay). A victory would be an enormous shock.

But while the All Whites are there, they should be happy with their accommodations and grateful that their federation has set up things as nicely as possible.

I remember the 1990 World Cup in Italy, when the United States was appearing for the first time in 30 years ... and the U.S. was based in Florence -- only the city that invented tourism. But the U.S. camp was in a little seaside town more than an hour away. They players were stuck inside a camp, and couldn't get out, and had zero fun. And then there was the 1998 U.S. team that was in France, but you'd hardly know it from the old mansion they stayed at way out in the countryside north of Lyon.

And those two U.S. teams each lost three straight.

May as well enjoy yourself. If you go three-and-out, at least you can go home and talk about the great resort you stayed at, and the way the federation took care of you. Makes for some fond memories until New Zealand makes another World Cup. Along about 2036.
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