Sunday, February 28, 2010

France Fears Cold at SA2010

One of the more curious comments of the day.

France coach Raymond Domenech suggesting that teams will not play their best at South Africa 2010 because it might be cold.

Huh ... what?

If anything, playing the tournament in June-July in South Africa -- the winter down there -- should make the European teams feel quite comfortable. Because all their pro leagues play right through the Euro winter, which in most cases is more severe than South Africa's. In some cases is far more severe.

This is what has happened in past World Cups, especially outside of Europe:

The Euros have melted in the heat of (fill in the blank) ... the United States, Mexico, Korea, Japan, Brazil ...

European club players rarely play in matches with temperatures higher than 90. And the 1994 World Cup, for one, played in the United States, was brutally hot. European players and teams had significant difficulty with the temperatures.

High temperatures are a common suggestion given for the inability of a European team -- any of them -- to win a World Cup played outside Europe. The Euros are 0-for-forever off their little continent.

South Africa matches will probably be played in the 50-70 degree range (Fahrenheit), and that should be right in the wheelhouse for the Euros. Well, maybe a bit too warm, if anything.
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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nigeria Hires Swedish Coach

And, no, it is not Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Lars Lagerback has been chosen to lead Nigeria at South Africa 2010. He was given a five-month contract -- which takes him through July -- and his appointment was announced today.

Lagerback was perhaps the darkhorse for this job, especially if you read the English media, because they fancied the two guys whom they know -- Eriksson, the former England coach; and Glenn Hoddle. Anyway, of the five finalists, Lagerback tended to get named last.

Unless Ivory Coast makes some last-minute swap of coaches, and rumors are afoot that it could happen, that makes Lagerback the Official Hired Gun Coach of 2010.

This is a title that Guus Hiddink has held the past few World Cups, and that Bora Milutinovic dominated from about 1986 through 1998 -- when he led Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and Nigeria, as it turns out, to the second round of World Cups. All four of them.

It might be kinda fun to be a mercenary coach.

No pretense of putting down roots.

No bother with forging any real relationships with players.

No need to even know "your" guys' names nor speak anything that resembles a local language. (That's why Sepp Blatter invented tranlators.)

No need to coddle the media. Or fans. Or the federation, even.

You just show up, call in the guys who have made an impression on you ... watch them play and practice for a few months ... and then run them out there and see what happens.

It isn't the high road, of course. It's far too businesslike. Far too cynical.

But I would take my chances with Nigeria's talent. They have a batch of guys playing in Europe's top leagues (including 10 in the Premiership), and even though they looked like a disinterested, selfish crew during much of the African Cup of Nations, and several of their best attacking players are nicked up ... who says they can't have a hot couple of weeks in South Africa, playing on their own continent, and do some serious damage?

Take a look at their roster on their wiki home page. Way more guys playing in top European teams than, say, the U.S. has. More than any qualifier from North America, Asia and all of South America that isn't Brazil or Argentina.

Lagerback has World Cup experience, making the second round in 2002. He knows up from down and quality from trash. If he gets to the second round, he will get lots of job offers. If he doesn't, he never goes Nigeria again and goes back to what he was doing in Sweden. Which was just chillin' after not quite getting Sweden to the World Cup.

This could be fun.
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Friday, February 26, 2010

Greening of SA2010: Jerseys from Plastic Bottles

Today's feel-good story. Well, most days we have a "feel-bad" story, don't we? So this would be "this week's" feel-good story ... or maybe "this month's" ...

Anyway, Nike says it will outfit players from nine teams with jerseys made from recycled plastic bottles.

One of the teams is that from the United States, where Nike is based. Another is Brazil, the favorite to win the whole shootin' match.

This is not one of those moves that will save the world but the sort of small gesture that gets attention and certainly doesn't hurt. I recall South Africa 2010 as, in theory, environmentally friendly, but we haven't seen many examples of it.

The bottles -- 13 million of them -- apparently come from landfills in Japan and Taiwan. The bottles were melted down and turned into polyester.

Nike claims the shirts are actually superior to previous models. They will keep players drier and cooler. (Drier is fine but "cooler" may be not such a great idea considering the tournament will be played in the late fall/early winter, in South Africa.)

Anyway, Nike is trying to wrest soccer-shirt market share from Adidas, its longtime rival, which apparently has dominated the market.

And the story linked, above, notes that South Africa officials concede that carbon emissions for their tournament will be significantly higher than those of the 2006 World Cup, in Germany.

So those jerseys from plastic bottles ... every little bit helps.
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Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Official: More Tickets for South Africans

This has been an odd story. A week ago Fifa conceded that demand for tickets to the 2010 World Cup was soft. Something like 800,000 tickets were unsold, from a total of 2.9 million, and on the order of 350,000 fewer tourists would be in South Africa.

But then Fifa insisted that ticket prices would not be slashed.

When, of course, they will be.

Finally, it's official. Yes, those $20 tickets are going from 11 percent of the total to 29 percent, which pretty much accounts for the 27 percent of tickets that were unsold, as of a week ago.

Anyway, in a philanthropic sense, this is good because the masses of South Africa's lower classes, many of whom are rabid soccer fans, now have a shot at seeing a World Cup match for probably the only times in their lives. They were priced out of the event, until this.

In a bigger sense, we're back to where we were a week ago. Those 800,000 unsold tickets (down to maybe 650,000 now) represent tens of millions of dollars in unrealized ticket revenue for the organizers. It also means vacant hotel rooms and empty seats on airlines because all those soccer tourists aren't coming.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this story will be one we don't quite see for months or even years -- what it means to the economy of South Africa to plan for X amount of tourist dollars and to receive X-minus-Y in reality. All those new stadiums, all that infrastructure and a lack of high-end customers to take advantage of it all.

This could turn out to be a massive boondoggle for a country that doesn't really have the spare cash to put on a big party that doesn't pay for itself.
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

La Volpe: Mexico Better Advance (as Usual)

Mexico may be the most underrated national side on the planet. It shows up to the World Cup with its undersized players who almost all play in the country's domestic league, which is of a high level but little-known outside its own borders. And then it makes it to the second round like clockwork (four straight), and how many countries in the world who aren't Germany, Italy, Brazil and Argentina can say that?

So it was a sort of an interesting non-story of a story the other day when Ricardo La Volpe, the coach who helped El Tri get to the final 16 of Germany 2006, where Mexico lost to the hosts 2-1 in extra time, said, to the effect, that current coach Javier Aguirre better get to the second round.

Which is something of a "well, duh" moment, because the second round is expected in Mexico, even if the rest of the world is mildly surprised nearly every four years.

La Volpe's comments, including that observation that not getting to the second round would constitute "a low blow" for Mexican soccer, seemed to be motivated by Aguirre's revelation that he plans to leave El Tri after South Africa 2010 and go coach in Europe. Aguirre cited national insecurity caused by narco-terror.

La Volpe seems to believe that by making that announcement ahead of the World Cup that it could somehow hurt the national-team effort. Well, perhaps. But it isn't as if Aguirre is some long-term coach with whom players have bonded. He replaced Sven-Goran Eriksson less than a year ago, and Eriksson replaced Hugo Sanchez (Mexico's answer to Diego Maradona -- as a coach) a year before, and Sanchez had replaced La Volpe.

Plus, no one in Mexico these days really blames prominent sports figures from leaving the country. Well, they do blame them, but they don't hold it against them.

An increasing number of Mexico's top players play in Europe when, for decades, Mexican players were fully expected to stay home for their entire careers. Among the most prominent to go to Europe: Rafael Marquez, at Barcelona; Ricardo Osorio, at Stuttgart; Giovani dos Santos, at Galatasary; Andres Guardado, at Deportivo; Omar Bravo, at Liverpool; and Carlos Vela, at Arsenal.

Mexico is in Group A with South Africa, France and Uruguay. Not an easy group, but not a brutal one, either. I think El Tri is still playing when half the field goes home.

La Volpe may have broached the whole subject because the Argentinian says he is ready to resume running Mexico's national team. And he may get the chance, after SA2010 -- and Mexico's likely second-round appearance, particularly if/when it defeats South Africa in the tournament's opening match.
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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fifa: South Africa Not Ready

Wow. This is like your mom saying, "Actually, he's not getting it done."

If Fifa says anything negative about a host country's preparations ... that's a punch to the gut equivalent to 20 or 30 rants in the British press. As an organizing committee, you expect unconditional love from Fifa.

If Fifa's No. 2 guy says "no, they're not ready," he's saying, "you better get going because we're not going to cover for you anymore."

Jerome Valcke, Sepp Blatter's favorite boy, said that today. "Could we host the World Cup tomorrow morning? The answer is no."


He is correct, of course.

He cited several issues:

--The main stadium, Soccer City venue in Johannesburg, is not finished. The first match will be played there in little over 100 days. The stadium not being ready ... is an issue. A few days ago, Valcke said something to the effect that it's never a comfortable feeling when the main stadium isn't ready. Uh, yeah.

--Fifa and South Africa 2010 have 700,000 tickets (of 2.9 million) still to sell.

--The quality of the playing surfaces is patchy.

--Some of the accommodations for the incoming teams aren't done, either. Such as that allegedly posh place England would be staying at. Not done.

So, there's a shot over the bow, for South Africa. Clean this stuff up. Finish it off. Momma Fifa says you need to get it done.
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Monday, February 22, 2010

Ronaldo and One More Go-Round?

Talking about the other Ronaldo here. And you know it's been a rough few years if you are a three-time Fifa player of the year ... and some other guy has taken over your name. That other guy being Cristiano Ronaldo.

We're talking about the first famous Ronaldo. Full name ... Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima. Of Brazil. Who played on the World Cup-winning teams of 1994 and 2002.

Ronaldo said today he will retire next year. But he wants to play in one more World Cup.

Will he get the chance?

Only if his former Brazil teammate, Dunga, calls him in. Which seems unlikely. Ronaldo hasn't played for the national team since 2006, so ...

Do you remember how good Ronaldo was? Really, really, really good. If you can't remember, check out this youtube video of highlights from the 1998 World Cup.

It's all there. The size. The speed. The sublime technical skills. Not many big men could hold a ball in traffic the way he did, nor run as fast. He had the whole package: athleticism as well as skill.

He was extremely good in that World Cup -- right up to the championship match, when he suffered some sort of attack -- a seizure, or perhaps a panic attack. But he wasn't very good, and Brazil was trounced 3-0. Years later, journalists were still writing about it. But note, too (if you stayed to the end of the video linked above), the violent collision he had with France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. That couldn't have helped.

Ronaldo has had a rough time the past few years. He has been hurt nearly all the time. He gained weight. Or maybe he gained weight, then got hurt.

He is back playing for a club in Brazil, but he would like one more shot at the Big Event. South Africa 2010.

Most teams in the world, they would bring him along, for old-time's sake, and also because he might still have some real use. But Brazil has no need of sentimentality ... and far too many players in their prime, as opposed to 33, chubby and hurt.

But the Original Ronaldo was just amazingly good. (I just remembered the TV commercial that showed him dribbling through, what, an airport? This isn't the version I was thinking of, but it gives you an idea.)

Put that on our wish list: Ronaldo with Brazil in South Africa. And maybe a few minutes in a first-round match. Can we make that happen?
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sven-Goran to Nigeria?

This is the coaching rumor du jour. Former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, a leading candidate for the Nigeria job.

He has experience, sure. Five years with England, including the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. A year with Mexico.

However, it wasn't quite as if he covered himself with glory at either place.

He was considered a bit rigid and unimaginative while running the Three Lions program. England tended to do well in matches that weren't high on the pressure scale ... but not nearly as well when the competition was stiff and the match crucial.

To wit: England lost in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup (2-1 to Brazil), lost in the quarterfinals of Euro 2004 (to Portugal on penalties) and lost in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup (3-1 to Portugal).

Then there were the mini-scandals in his personal life, which seemed to take attention away from the England team. (Some are recounted in his wiki entry.)

And then his one year with Mexico was fairly disastrous. He attempted to turn Mexico into a European-style team, with disastrous results. In 2009, his Mexico teams lost 2-0 to the United States and were crushed 3-1 by Honduras, and he was fired. mexico more or less rejoiced, and immediately went back to being a regional power, qualifying with ease for the World Cup. Once SGE was gone.

So, how would he do in Nigeria? Presumably, their playing style is a bit more like England's than Mexico's (with an emphasis on speed and power, vs. Mexico's guile and technique). Hard to say, though. I still think Bora Milutinivoc, who got Nigeria to the quarterfinals in 1998, would be a better choice.

What Eriksson represents, however, is a high-visibility European coach who presumably could take any pressire off the Nigerian federation. If the team fails, it's that Swede's fault.

Glenn Hoddle apparently is in the running, too. And there may be more.
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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Another Take on Ticket Situation

The version of the story that appeared in the Johannesburg Times is more interested in which tickets aren't sold, rather than how many.

And this may be the more interesting way to look at this.

Instead of focusing on the "800,000 of 2.9 million tickets haven't been sold," the AP version of the story that the Times ran singles out a dropoff in VIP-level tickets.

And the demand for those is half of what Fifa and organizers expected.

Not selling the expensive tickets is an issue because the profit margin is so much higher, as the story points out.

A Fifa spokesman blamed it on the economy, saying the past year "was the worst year to sell hospitality programs," suggesting it impacted sales by 50 percent. But the AP writer also makes note of the important point of the cost of getting to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, and the cost of staying there. "Price gouging" is the expression. Plus, fears that South Africa isn't safe.

Oh, and another stat I'm not sure the London Telegraph story we linked to yesterday had:

Jerome Valcke, Fifa's man, suggested that South Africa will get perhaps 350,000 tourists instead of the 450,000 it expected.

So we stand by our suggestion yesterday that the prices for housing (especially) and air travel may be about to take a dive.

Hang tight. Wait for the bargain. A gap of 100,000 fans opens up a lot of seats on jumbo jets, and a lot of hotel rooms.
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Oops! Fifa Concedes 2010 Ticket Gaffes

Fifa and South Africa and some of those in the travel industry clearly overestimated the global demand for high-priced tickets as part of high-priced trips to the 2010 World Cup.

Fifa's first clue? Beyond the quite-public grousing by officials in several countries ... and the sticker shock expressed by just about every fan who priced the trip ...

Fifa's first clue? Less than four months ahead of South Africa 2010, only 2.1 million of 2.9 million tickets have been sold for the planet's biggest sports event. That is, more than one-fourth of all tickets (27.4 percent) remain unsold.

And now Fifa concedes it didn't quite get this right. A startling admission for an entity that rarely allows that it gets anything less than perfect.

The biggest fallout from these miscalculations: Fifa is going to all but give away 800,000 or so tickets to South Africans. Which is nice for the poor people of South Africa, but bad for the bottom line of the ledgers for Fifa, the organizers and the South African tourist industry.

This event was overpriced from the first day. And then when fans actually began to try to figure out how much travel and lodging would cost ... ticket demand fell dramatically.

I don't know how many tickets Germans eventually bought, but a month or so again they had purchased only about one-third of their allotment of 20,000-plus tickets.

Even England didn't buy its full allotment, and English enthusiasm for its national side is as crazy-giddy as it has been in years. Well, since at least 2006.

Instead of reacting to that flabby demand, and adjusting ticket prices downward (and allowing the travel market to adjust its unrealistic expectations, as well) ... Fifa is going to downgrade high-cost "category 2 and 3" tickets to "category 4" -- and sell them for about $20 each.

Fifa lives in terror of stadiums that are not full, especially when the host nation has just spent billions on building them. It looks bad on TV, too, when matches are played in half-empty stadiums. (And will South Africans pay even $20 a pop to see, say, Honduras and Chile? ... New Zealand and Paraguay? ... North Korea and Portugal?)

How Fifa and the organizers miscalculated so badly is puzzling. South Africa isn't geographically close to any of the usual sources of traveling soccer fans. That is, Europeans or Americans (North and South). It is a long, expensive flight to South Africa from anywhere in the First World, and Fifa had to know that South Africa's hotel industry would try to wring every last dollar/peso/pound out of the tourists, complicating the expense in the middle of a global economic slowdown.


Look for the resale price of tickets to plummet, now that more than a quarter of them have just been re-priced at something that seems rather like "free" to residents of the First World ... and watch for airline prices and hotel charges to fall off a cliff. Because 800,000 fewer foreigners are coming to town, and now we all know.

If you happen to hold tickets ... well, our condolences for buying at the higher prices ... but if you haven't yet purchased your plane ticket or booked your hotel ... wait at least a few weeks and let the panic set in.

Look for a massive shakeout of the tourism side of this, and far better prices than you could have hoped for even a few days ago.

Fifa just burst the overpriced balloon of financial expectations on this World Cup.

It now is about filling stadiums and saving face. Not about making money, anymore. At least not a fraction of what Sepp Blatter and the boys could have counted on flowing in ... had this event been held in the First World. Or had they done a realistic assessment of likely demand.

Rather a mess. Rather.
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

England's Heir and Spare to See SA2010

Wills and Harry are coming! Wills and Harry are coming!


Don't you always get a bit embarrassed when people from countries without native royalty ... get all weak in the knees over the British royals?

South Africa may be about to demonstrate this.

The Johannesburg Times is reporting, and attributing it to The Daily Mail, that princes William and Harry will be in South Africa for at least part of the 2010 World Cup.

Be still, my beating heart!

William and Harry are Nos. 2-3 on the in-line-to-the-throne list, behind their father, Prince Charles. (Their mother was Diana Spencer, who died in an automobile crash in Paris in 1997.)

Wills' and Harry's proximity to the throne (even a powerless one) seems to get people fired up. People who have forgotten they are anti-royal republicans or democrats or comrades, etc.

Anyway, I suppose this is good for the 2010 World Cup. A bit more buzz with those guys around for however long it is.

They apparently will see England play at least once. Imagine how fired up the English players will be knowing the Heir and the Spare (as they were once known) are watching. Yeah.

William turns 29 during the World Cup. Henry (Harry's actual name) is 25.

The two of them apparently are sharing a house, and they generally don't travel together, and why I'm still writing about this, I don't know.
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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Guus Hiddink: Out of World Cup Circulation

Nigeria has an opening for a coach. Japan might. North Korea might.

All we know for sure about those three jobs is this:

Guss Hiddink won't be taking them.

Hiddink is the planet's leading soccer-coach hired gun. Have passport, will travel. (And yes, I know that expression means nothing to non-Americans under the age of 50. It comes from an old American TV show, named "Have Gun-- Will Travel" and having to do with a gunslinger known as "Paladin" who would go wherever the pay was good.)

Guus is like that. A "show me the money" kind of guy. (Another American cultural reference. From the movie "Jerry Maguire..")

Anyway, Guus is golden after getting Holland to the 1998 World Cup semifinals, South Korea to the 2002 WC semifinals and Australia to the second round in 2006. Not to mention the Euro 2008 semifinal surge by Guus and his Russia team.

He will not, however, be coaching at South Africa 2010, and I'm a little disappointed in him because of that.

Guus apparently will sign a contract with Turkey when his stint with Russia is up, later this year. Which is fine ... but Turkey didn't qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and I think SA2010 is diminished by his not being there.

Really, this story is more about Euro 2012 than the 2010 World Cup. Well, of course. Hiddink's first goal is to get Turkey qualified for the big Euro event, after Turkey crashed out of South Africa qualifying.

I liked the concept of Guus as free agent. I would have like to see him in charge of Nigeria's talented but underachieving squad. Or Japan's or North Korea's -- if those jobs come open.

But Guus is living up to his Russia contract, then shifting to Turkey, and that's nice for those who like to see contracts fulfilled ... but takes away a little of the cachet when it comes to "who will Nigeria hire?" to coach its 2010 team.

Some other Euro, no doubt. Just not someone as successful as Guus has been.
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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pressure Even on Teams with No Chance

Japan is not going to win the 2010 World Cup. Just isn't going to happen. We could add another 15 countries here who Have No Chance, and take it to Las Vegas and bet it and collect in early July. All of Asia, all of North America, the lesser Euros, South America aside from Brazil ...

Anyway, wouldn't you think that the federations in those countries would remember that ... every minute of every day ... and give their coaches just a bit of wiggle room?

That is not the case in Japan. No-chance Japan. Which is getting increasingly agitated by the Blue Samurai (never heard that one, till today) and their lack of scoring punch of late.

Coach Takeshi Okada appears to be in danger of losing his job, even though it's getting quite late to change coaches in time for SA2010.

Tying China, which has a federation in crisis, isn't good. Getting "only" three goals against Hong Kong, which probably couldn't beat some street teams in Brazil, doesn't help.

But, c'mon, people. Japan is not going to win this World Cup. It would be a miracle if it survived the first round. Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark ... any soccer fan who doesn't have a rising sun flying over his house already has marked Japan for last in that group.

So, if Okada has a decent history, and is a good guy, and at some not-too-distant point in history (like, during qualifying last year) seemed to know what he was doing ... just ride it out. It's late. Bringing in somebody at the 11th hour ... that's difficult.

Anyway, the point here is ... even the no-chancers feel pressure from fans and media and respond to it.

Maybe they're all thinking, "Guus Hiddink is still available!"
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Club vs Country, Spanish Style

We have noted the neverending club-vs.-country struggle.

It is particularly intense during two of the four years of a quadrennium -- the year before a World Cup, when qualifying is going on; and the first half of the year the World Cup is played in.

And we are in the middle of example No. 2, above, with South Africa 2010 less than four months off.

Here is a rather bald example of the club-country thing, involving Spain and its coach, Vicente del Bosque, and Liverpool of the English Premier League.

Generally, it is the clubs that are more vociferous about how a player is used. As when Real Madrid almost went nuts when Cristiano Ronaldo seriously aggravated an ankle injury while Portugal was trying to wring out a few minutes from him in a crucial qualifier last fall. When Ronaldo got hurt, Real Madrid essentially shouted, "We told you so!"

This time, it's the national team coach who is being blunt.

Del Bosque tells it like it is: The less that star striker Fernando Torres plays for Liverpool, his club team, the better.

In this case, we have a specific injury at issue, involving his knee. (The hernia situation apparently has been put on hold; Torres seems a bit fragile for such a young guy.)

Anyway, del Bosque probably sums up the feelings of national coaches around the world -- at least, those going to the World Cup -- when it comes to his star players: Better that they miss a few (or more than a few) matches with an injury, as long as it's not catastrophic, and save on the wear and tear of the endless matches of the club season.

If the guy is a lesser player -- say, any U.S. player who isn't one of its 4-5 stars -- a national team coach such as Bob Bradley actually wants him competing for his club as often as possible. The idea being that he stays sharp (before he grows dull from over-usage). When you're the coach of second-tier national teams, you worry more about your First XI sitting on a bench somewhere, watching the club play.

That isn't the case with your Torreses and Ronaldos and Messis. They are proven stars. All that can come from the club season -- from the national team perspective -- is injuries and exhaustion.

It's just not often that a coach is as candid about it as del Bosque has been about Fernando Torres.
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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bafana Plan ... Do They Have One?

One of the more interesting sports writers in South Africa is Carlos Amato, who works for the Johannesburg Times.

And Amato is agitated about the way the host nation's team is preparing for the World Cup. Or hardly preparing.

In this story/column, he contrasts South Africa's preparations with those of Mexico, the nation the Bafana Bafana plays in the 2010 World Cup opener on June 11.

Most of his complaints seem well-founded.

To wit:

--South Africa has only one practice (friendly) match scheduled between now and June 11, vs. Namibia on March 3. No matches during the team's training camp in Brazil have been finalized. Neither have any been set up during the team's camp in Germany, in April.

--South Africa's schedule may be a function of the soccer federation having no money.

--The Bafana made things worse by cancelling a March 3 match against Chile, a South American side that will play in the World Cup, and had to pay Chile damages for quitting. The reason? South Africa's third-rate league season has been extended because of rainouts, and the Bafana players would not be available.

--Honduras plays Ghana in South Africa on March 3 -- yes, the same day that South Africa plays Namibia. As the author notes, either Honduras or Ghana would give South African a much more valuable test.

Meanwhile, Amato notes, Mexico has 10 matches lined up against significant opponents, including Argentina, England and Holland in May, and Italy on June 3. All four are headed to the World Cup, and all four are seeded first in their groups.

South Africa already was at risk of being the first host country to fail to survive group play. And unless the federation lines up some real opponents, and soon, about all it will have going for it on opening day, June 11, will be the home crowd.

Which may not matter if/when the veteran and tested Mexican side jumps to a 2-0 lead.
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Saturday, February 13, 2010

First XI of World Cup Coaches

Interesting concept.

Who are the best 11 coaches in the World Cup?

I would not suggest I know all 31 of them (because Nigeria still has a vacancy) well enough to form a top 11. I like a half-dozen ... and I dislike two -- Diego Maradona of Argentina and Raymond Domenech of Argentina.

But that hasn't stopped Robin Hackett over at from picking his 11. A British guy, I do believe. And, whaddaya know, he has Fabio Capello at the top of the list.

Other coaches on his first XI are ...

Otto Rehhegel, of Greece -- who has done the most with the least, in my opinion.

Raddy Antic, Serbia.

Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa, Chile.

Vicente Del Bosque, Spain. Hard to argue with what Espana has done, in the past 2-3 years.

Marcello Lippi, Italy. How is that Italy produces so many fine soccer coaches and so few competent generals, over the past 100 years?

Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland.

Joachim Loew, Germany.

Dunga, Brazil. OK, just about anybody could take over Brazil and run some random collection of 11 guys out there and probably make at least the quarterfinals ... but Dunga appears to be a real coach. The hard man that the sometimes wandering minds of the Brazilian players need.

Milovan Rajevac, Ghana. This guy is pretty good. Just ask him.

Morton Olsen, Denmark.

One guy not on this list that probably should be? Matjez Kek, Slovenia. When you get a country of 2 million souls into the World Cup, finishing ahead of finals regulars Poland and the Czech Republic in qualifying and then eliminating Russia in a home-and-home playoffs ... that's an accomplishment. He would make my 11, perhaps instead of Rajevac of Ghana.
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Friday, February 12, 2010

Injury Update: England's Ashley Cole Out

The first-team left back for the English national team, Ashley Cole, suffered a broken ankle during Chelsea's game Wednesday vs. Everton ... and Cole will be out at least three months.

That takes Cole to May 10, only a month ahead of the June 11 starting date for South Africa 2010. England has depth at the position, but if Cole's replacements were as good as he is, they would start, wouldn't they?

Two interesting sidelights to this injury:

1. Cole's national-team backup is Wayne Bridge. Yes, the same Wayne Bridge whose girlfriend was snared by his Three Lions teammate, former captain John Terry. Apparently, Bridge isn't very fond of Terry right now, and if Bridge moves into the starting lineup with Terry ...

You don't have to love the guys you play with, but it's generally better if you don't hate them.

2. Cole's injury came after a semi-reckless tackle by Everton's Landon Donovan. That would be the same Landon Donovan who is one of the leading attacking players for the U.S. national team. And England plays the U.S. in its first World Cup match, on June 12 in Rustenburg.

I know Donovan, and I can't imagine he had the slightest intent to injury Ashley Cole. But English players may not see it that way, and it could be open season on the U.S. midfielder for the duration of his loan from Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy to Everton.

Landon may want to keep his head on a swivel until he leaves England, is what we're thinking.
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sepp Blatter Is a Dope

Sepp Blatter, president/emporer of Fifa, really shouldn't speak in public much at all. Or not without a prepared statement.

He sticks his foot in his mouth far too often. He must have no concept of embarrassment, and his flunkies must be too afraid of him to suggest he tone it down a bit. OK, a lot.

Two Sepp stories today. Both of the same sort, though. Ill-considered statements. Actually, probably not thought out at all. That is how Sepp rolls.

In the first, he invokes sweeping stereotypes of "Latin" vs. "Anglo-Saxon" nations ... and how many years do you have to be president of the most important multinational body this side of the United Nations to understand you really shouldn't be slinging around ethnic generalizations?

In the second, he suggests criticism of the 2010 World Cup is essentially about old colonial powers looking down their noses at Africa.

And yeah, Sepp, great way to build up good feelings between European fans and South Africans by playing the "colonialism" card. The Nobel Peace Prize can't be far off.

The Latin vs. Anglo-Saxon thing is about John Terry. While in Vancouver, where the International Olympic Committee is meeting ahead of the Vancouver Games, Sepp said Terry's apparently infidelities would "be applauded" in certain Latin countries, and that the condemnation of him was about "a special approach in the Anglo-Saxon countries."

Oh, those prudish Brits. All in a lather about their national team captain dallying with the former girlfriend of a Chelsea and Three Lions teammate. If this had been the French team or the Italian team, the lads and the nation would have laughed it off. Sure.

And the colonialism thing (which is also mentioned in the Times of London story, linked first, above) ... Europe knows about colonialism. So does Africa. Do have the president of Fifa bring it up adds nothing to the discussion but, in fact, inflames it. Grand.

We could mention that Germany had a very brief and very limited history as a colonial power, in Africa. But why let facts get in the way of Sepp when he's on a roll.

And that he adds a ridiculous statement about Europe taking raw materials out of its African colonies ... and now coming down and "taking" its best soccer players, as well. As if all those guys in Europe would rather stay home and play for peanuts rather than go to the Premiership or the Bundesliga and make millions of dollars.

A few other Sepp musings, as posted by the Times of London:

March 2008 -- On women’s football: "There are gay footballers but they don't declare it because they think it will not be accepted in these macho organizations. Look at women's football: homosexuality is more popular."

April 2004 -- On women’s football: "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts."

July 2006 -– On China inventing football: "We have to say thanks to the British associations -- especially England -- to have organized the game of association football. But you cannot deny the history that in China there is a recollection and evidence they played the game a thousand years ago."

This guy is a gaffe waiting to happen. I'm thinking world soccer would be better off with someone else in charge.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Critic Said 'What a Lot of People Feel'

A few days ago, we noted that the boss of Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, believes it was a mistake to give the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.

Well, now the head of the Bundesliga -- Germany's top club league -- has suggested Hoeness said "what a lot of people feel."

Perhaps in Germany, anyway.

Actually, Christian Seifert seems more exercised about the cost of going to SA2010, while Hoeness seemed to focus on safety concerns, saying the security issues "were not 100 percent solved."

From what we can tell, however, costs are more likely to scare off fans than South Africa's crime rate or terrorism potential. And that is what Seifert talks about.

A columnist in the Johannesburg Times suggested that South Africans involved in the tourism industry were hoping to soak visiting fans, and bemoaned that fact.

We wrote about that, too.

So, yes, a little drumbeat of criticism for SA2010.

We can't really be sure it's valid until the event is over and done with, July 11.
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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nigeria: Now It's an Official Job Search

Remember the opening for a coach in Nigeria?

It has become an official global job search ... because the name Guus Hiddink has been mentioned as a serious candidate.

It isn't a real search until Guus is mentioned. The man who replaced Bora Milutinovic as the No. 1 hired-gun of a coach.

The issue with Guus is that he still is under contract with Russia. He earlier said he would serve that out.

But that was before the Nigeria job came open.

Guus has a remarkable World Cup coaching record. In 1998, the Dutchman got his countrymen -- famous for the fractiousness -- into the semifinals in France, where they lost in a shootout to Brazil (a match I covered, if anyone cares). He took Australia to the second round in 2006.

But his most famous accomplishment was getting South Korea to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. He's been gold ever since.

Not even the failure to get Russia into the World Cup seems to have hurt his marketability. Most observers seem to blame Russia's players, not Guus. It also helped that he took Russia to the semifinals of the Euro 2008 competition.

So, this is a real coach. But he will demand real money. Is Nigeria ready to spend it? Does Nigeria care enough?

Guess we will find out.
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Monday, February 8, 2010

Meanwhile, in China ...

One of the biggest underachievers in world soccer has a new man in charge.

Which is good news for China, because things could hardly get worse.

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world's most populous country, but China is ranked No. 97 in the world and is sitting out the World Cup. As per usual.

So, after owning up to a rotten situation ... China has a new guy running its federation, Wei Di. And he's not even from soccer, which probably is good, too. Wouldn't want anyone who has been tainted by the stink of failure/cheating that has surrounded the sport there.

China has been laughably inept. Playing in the world's weakest region, it couldn't even get into the final 10 of Asian qualifying last year.

It gets worse. The professional league there is massively corrupt. The last head of the football association is being held after investigations of bribery and match-fixing. Yes. It's that bad.

How China, so disciplined and straight-laced in so many endeavors of the sports type, can allow their football federation to decay into incompetence and vice ... is almost inexplicable.

The new guy, whose background is in water sports, is approaching this in the right way. He said China's first goal is to become a "strong team in Asia." Which right now, would be a big step forward for a nation of 1.3 billion soccer fans.
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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nigeria Looking for a Hired Gun

I don't know why this fascinates me so. The second-tier World Cup teams who figure they won't go anywhere at the World Cup ... unless they hire some (usually) big-name foreigner to come in and run their team.

Nigeria has done this in the past. And Nigeria is doing it again.

On Saturday, Nigeria fired its home-grown coach, Shaibu Amodu, with the 2010 World Cup barely four months away.

Amodu's crime? Well, there are two of them.

His team lost 3-1 to Egypt in the Cup of African Nations, and then lost 1-0 to Ghana in the semifinals. That's crime No. 1.

Crime No.2: He's Nigerian. Nigeria doesn't think it's going anywhere at the World Cup unless a foreigner is in charge. Say, like in 1998, when Bora Milutinovic got them into the knockout phase of the World Cup in France.

The usual names are coming up: Guus Hiddink first and foremost. Even though Guus says he will serve out the remainder of his contract with Russia.

(It strikes me that some of the top hired-gun coaches seem to come from two regions: Holland and Serbia/Croatia. Bora is a Serb. So is Ratomir Dujkovic, former Ghana coach, listed as a candidate for the Nigeria job.)

Actually, Nigeria could be a pretty good gig. There is some talent there (Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Obafemi Martins, Mikel John Obi, Dickson Etuhu, Joseph Yobo). A little jaded, perhaps, and individual-oriented. But it isn't like trying to win with New Zealand's guys.

So, drop in, make $500,000 or whatever for four months, with all sorts of incentives for doing anything good in South Africa ... with the chance that your guys catch fire and get deep into the playoffs and pop you up to Guus Hiddink status -- where your name comes up for every lucrative job opening in the world.

Also, this may be the only job opening before the 2010 World Cup. North Korea was thought to be looking for a coach, but it now seems as if the craziest country in Fifa will stick with their local guy. Which is probably just as well, considering North Korea has no money.

Nigeria is in a difficult but not impossible group: Argentina, Greece, South Korea. All three of those matches are in play, considering Diego Maradona coaches Argentina. Somebody may about to be famous.
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Saturday, February 6, 2010

SA 2010: 'I Always Considered It Wrong'

Well, here's someone significant in the European soccer community who isn't mincing words.

Uli Hoeness, president of German club team Bayern Munich, just puts it out there:

"Mr. Blatter had to have his way. I always considered it wrong. Now you have to make the best out of it (but) I am convinced that deep down Mr Blatter has realized that giving the World Cup to South Africa was one of the biggest wrong decisions he ever made."

OK. Thanks for your honesty.

Hoeness's comments were picked up in this story.

His opinion probably is one widely held in Europe but not promulgated in quite such a blunt fastion. It would seem that opinion is particularly common in the countries where fans might normally have been expected to travel to a World Cup. But apparently won't, in their usual numbers, for reasons of security and/or expense.

Germany and England are high on the "usually travel" list.

South African officials, such as Danny Jordaan of the organizing community, have complained about the treatment South Africa 2010 has gotten in English and German media ... but it has always been my experience that British and German tourists are some of the most adventurous in the world. They will go anywhere and tend to love the exotic, and South Africa is nothing if not exotic.

But this tournament seems to have issues that are pushing them away.

That probably says more about the 2010 bid, its organization, its cost, the difficulty of travel to and within South Africa and the country's fairly shocking crime statistics ... than it does about German and English fans -- or the soccer honchos who have talked to them.
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Friday, February 5, 2010

England Dumps Cap'n Terry

Does the identity of a national team captain matter? Can argue this either way, and I will do that now.

In practice, a captain doesn't do much. The guy wearing the armband gets to yak at referees a bit longer before a yellow card is shown. He leads the First XI when it steps out onto the pitch. He might make a few more media appearances.

But, then ... sometimes a captain is a sort of global shorthand for what your team is about. Big or fast. Cagey or slick. Inspirational or experienced. The guy with the armband ... is supposed to reflect what is best about your team.

And that is why England coach Fabio Capello stripped John Terry of his captaincy today. Because Terry had reached a point where he was an embarrassment to English soccer rather than an inspiration.

Terry had some rough patches before. When he got caught in a sting by a newspaper for taking money to allow a tour of Chelsea's training grounds. When his mother was caught shoplifting and his father trying to sell illegal drugs.

But what made him ex-captain was the sex scandal he is caught up in.

It appears that Terry had an affair with the girlfriend of a former England and Chelsea teammate, Wayne Bridge. Who might end up at South Africa 2010. With Terry and England.

Bridge is not happy that he lost his girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel, a French model, to the blandishments of Terry, and apparently is not interested in playing on the same team with him. And then there is the sort of cloud of "he's the kind of guy who will steal your girlfriend" thing, and that's not something you do to one of your "bros."

And, too, you don't want the world to see your team march into a World Cup stadium and have hundreds of millions of fans around the world say, "and their caption is the guy who stole a teammate's girlfriend."

That probably is the bigger issue. The guy who is your captain does, then, matter. He doesn't have to be a perfect angel. In fact, he might be the hardest man on your team. But he shouldn't be best known for a high-visibility personal indiscretion. And that is where John Terry is right now.

England shouldn't be damaged by this. Rio Ferdinand is the new captain, and he should do fine. A guy respected by his peers. Respect. Something John Terry no longer could command.
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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Profiteering: Now It's News

A few days ago, it was a columnist bemoaning price-gouging for the 2010 World Cup.

Now the Johannesburg Times has a news story on the topic.

This is a bit of a predictable story, with an arc that we can anticipate. We've seen this before at other host countries at the Olympics and World Cup.

Here's how it goes:

Prices get jacked up as people in the host country anticipate insane demands for all services. A few saps pay those high prices.

But mostly, they scare off potential buyers. Hoteliers, air-carriers, ticket touts ... try to hold the prince line. People will come around, they figure. The fat cats will emerge, and we will shear them. We just have to hang tough. And they wait. And wait.

About a week before the Big Event, with all sorts of inventory stacked up, the whole travel/tourism crew panics. The foreigners aren't coming. The Russian oligarchs or American hedge-funders or Saudi princelings. They aren't showing up in the numbers everyone anticipated. And prices tumble.

Some of the greedy get burned. They wait too long, and they don't fill rooms and don't fill planes and don't sell tickets. And tough for them.

And at the last minute, some brave and resourceful fans slip in and buy during the trough of panic and actually see the World Cup for a reasonable rate.

Right now, South African merchants still believe they can turn the World Cup into a gold mine. But they forget about the scope of the global recession. They neglect to take into account that not a single country with significant wealth is within a 10-hour plane ride of Johannesburg. They are pricing out the African fan, who is close by but doesn't have much money, as well as the European fan, who has some cash but sees ruinous airfare costs and difficult commutes.

The Times, however, has figured this out. And perhaps the story we linked to will bring around some of the greediest.
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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

'Greed Killing Our World Cup'

Yikes. The columnists at the Johannesburg Times aren't shy about criticizing events inside their own nation, and bravo for that. That's what a good and responsible media outlet does.

In this column, Peter Delmar is good and convinced the country is gearing up for some intensive price-gouging and, in the process, is scaring off fans from around the world. And especially from Europe, where enthusiasts are thought to have money and be willing to spend it.

If you didn't follow the link, here is some of his choice stuff:

He says most South Africans are "jostling with their snout in the trough to milk fans, who are all supposedly as rich as Croesus, for six weeks or so. And now their chickens are coming home to roost. We've realised with a nasty shock that even the Germans, the richest soccer fans in the world, can't afford us.

"Thanks to those who're dead set on bleeding this soccer tournament dry, we're going to be stuck with half-empty stadiums, half-empty aircraft, half-empty rooms and a mountain of unsold Chinese sweatshop-manufactured Zakumis that an ANC MP got the contract for.

"And the local organising committee didn't see this coming? Like no one told them about the worldwide economic meltdown?"

Pretty tough stuff. And the column was filed a day before the news story about a half-dozen airlines being investigated on suspicion of colluding to fix prices (high, of course) for travel during the World Cup.

Read about that one here.

And then there is the daily Jacob Zuma stuff. This time around the country's president admits, in a statement, he fathered his 20th (or so) child out of wedlock, insists it says nothing about the dangerous of "unprotected sex" in an AIDS-ravaged country ... and seems to suggest that by publicizing child's mother's name that the South African media could be in some trouble.

That sounds like a threat, actually. The fault is the Johannesburg Times reporting on the life of the country's president ... not the president's lack of good judgment. Yeah. Right.

Not a pretty picture down there, at the moment.
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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More Zuma: Outrage from Columnist

South Africa seems to be annoyed, mostly, with President Jacob Zuma. Or maybe it's just their version of the chattering classes.

He managed to make some news, anyway. That 20th (or so) child he sired, at age 67. And now there are stories suggesting he intends to marry the child's mother -- the daughter of one of his former best friends, apparently -- which would be his sixth marriage and give him four wives concurrently.

Anyway, a woman who writes for the Johannesburg Times pretty much went off on the Prez today. Suggesting he has more sperm cells than brain cells. And like that.

You can see that column here. It's the one under the headline, "A Taint on Our Highest Office."

She suggests that "as a woman and a South African, I am outraged."

Meanwhile, the expected support from Zuma sycophants is building. A student group with connections to the government suggested to report on Zuma's latest conquest shows a lack of respect for the elderly. Really. If you don't believe me, here's the link.

Anyway, Zuma is getting a lot of attention. (The Times notes in this story how much reaction is going on, some of it from overseas.)

Lots of attention. Nothing to do with the World Cup, though. Except a sort of odd guilt by association.
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Monday, February 1, 2010

President's 20* Children, 5 Wives, 1 Baby Mama

* = "about"

Different people, different cultures.

Well, that's one way to look at the president of South Africa, one Jacob Zuma, who has had five wives (only three currently), approximately 20 children and a mistress who just gave birth to a child he fathered.

Turns out it is a scandal, even for a Zulu (the tribe practices polygamy) because, clearly, the president was having unprotected sex in one of the world capitals of HIV/AIDS. Not exactly setting a good example for the nation, now is he.

The story was broken by my favorite South African newspaper, the Johannesburg Times, but this link will take you to a Bloomberg story that is a bit more accessible to those of you who haven't been keeping score of Zuma's wives/kids at home.

This isn't about the World Cup, exactly. Aside from the fact that Zuma will throw out the first ball, or something, when the tournament opens on June 11 in Jo-burg.

The fact that he is the Brigham Young of South Africa, well ... it might not be such a significant story except for that AIDS angle.

As the Bloomberg story notes, "In 2006, he was tired and acquitted of having raped an HIV-positive family friend half his age. He testified that his accuser had consented to having sex and he had not used a condom because he did not have one available. He said he took a shower after the act to minimize the chance of infection."

Um, yeah.

The story also notes that about 11 percent of the South African population of some 50 million is HIV-positive. Which makes it something close to the AIDS epicenter of the planet.

The government has, in the past, denied that the disease was transmitted sexually and did little or nothing to treat it on a national level. The previous president wasn't willing to concede it existed, so Pops Zuma being on board with the reality of the concept ... well, that's positive movement, right?

There's cultural differences, and then there is just wrong ... and I don't think you have to be a prudish Westerner to think the Prez is a bit indulgent and reckless when it comes to matters of the, uh, heart.

Ladies and gentlemen, the president of your 2010 World Cup hosts!
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