Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Settling the Safety Issue Once and for All?

Interpol has been down to South Africa, poked around, checked the chatter on its listening posts and decided no tangible threats to the 2010 World Cup exist.

Well, that takes care of that, doesn't it? Imagine the international cops brushing their hands together and saying, "All done!"

"Nothing to see here! Move along!"

Here is a sort of epitome of hubris about security. A comprehensive, "hey, what could go wrong?" that in works of fiction would demand something ugly to prove the authorities wrong.

If you were the cops, wouldn't you give all this World Cup stuff a more careful, middling assessment? Along the lines of, "we like their plan; it looks good; big events can be unpredictable and we know they are working hard, and we are here to help, if needed."

Instead of the Interpol honcho telling journalists: "South Africa's planning covers everything. South African planning is above our expectations." (Emphasis added.)

Can anyone ever say a plan cover everything?

Of course not. Ask the security people at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Or those at Munich in 1972.

Terrorists can be cunning. Just because they haven't been active in South Africa, on some large scale ... doesn't mean it can't happen.

Then we have the harsh facts of South Africa's crime rate: It is No. 2 in the world both in murders per capita and total murders. (Trailing only Colombia in both stats.) Does regular one-on-one crime fall under South Africa's amazing, all-encompassing plan?

This is just a silly, scary story. It is organizations that believe it has every eventuality covered ... is one likely to get sloppy and open to mistakes. Just sayin'.
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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Maradona Hospitalized, Has Surgery

Admit it. You see that headline ... and you don't know where to go with it.

Diego Maradona, coach of the Argentine national team, has had such an erratic/sickly/substance-addled life ... you see he's in a hospital ... and you think, "Well, OK ... it could be just about anything."

In this case? Diego was bitten by his dog. He has had surgery on his face. Diego. Not the dog.

And what this reinforces is that the Argentines, as good as they are (and they are very good, individually) are led by the most erratic coach in the South Africa 2010 World Cup. Whoever is second isn't within a country mile of Mad Maradona.

(Unless one of those other 31 gentlemen have been hiding some massively corrosive personal shortcomings that include rampant cocaine usage, near-death experiences from substance abuse and, now, attacks from their own dogs.)

If I were Argentina's fans, or bettors on Argentina ... well, I would be worried. Because this guy is a loose cannon. A goofball. A man who can barely get through the day. A disaster waiting to happen.

And he is expected to make the decisions to get Argentina through the World Cup?

So, today it is a dog that put Diego Maradona in the hospital. What will it be next time?

Whatever it is, it won't surprise us.

And here is an update with a few more details. A couple of fun facts: Diego was playing with his Shar Pei and got wounds on his mouth ... ick. Also, the hospital he went to is the same he went to in 2007 to get his liver fixed up.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Ivory Coast Picks Sven-Goran

Hey, what was the rush? Ivory Coast finally settled on a coach for South Africa 2010, which begins in all of 74 days. And it is the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, best known as England's boss at two World Cups.

He has more than two months to figure out the Elephants and point them toward the correct goal.

What? You mean he never did figure out Mexico in 10 months running El Tri?


This has the feel of one of those marriages made in ... hell.

Guus Hiddink would have been the perfect guy for this job. A month ago. Bora Milutinovic, even.

Sven-Goran just gives off a vibe that he may not be able to coach outside Europe. Something kind of stuffy and mechanical and joyless about him that seems to say, "Let him coach a team from some cold, wet country. Or maybe Italy."

Ivory Coast is wet, but it's never cold.

It will be interesting to see how he gets along.

To be sure, Ivory Coast has talent. Just a few months ago, the Elephants were the fashionable choice as the "African team that will make a deep run in 2010."

Then came the draw into the official 2010 World Cup "Group of Death," a quartet that includes Brazil and Portugal (gulp). Followed by a spotty performance in the Cup of African Nations, followed by this really, really drawn-out search for a mercenary coach.

Hiddink was caught between commitments to Russia (leaving) and Turkey (about to arrive). So he fell out. And by the time Ivory Coast finished its dithering, Sven-Goran apparently looked as good as anyone else.

At least it doesn't have to last long. Ivory Coast could be eliminated as early as June 20, the day it plays Brazil. After opening with Portugal on June 15. Two defeats, and it could be buried even before it gets the eminently beatable North Koreans on June 25.

Did we mention Ivory Coast has talent? Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue ... all of whom play in England or Spain.

Anyway, Sven-Goran needs to get a look at these guys in the flesh, firm up the defense, figure out a way to get a result from Portugal or Brazil, and perhaps he can make some African history.

More likely, we're thinking, he will not. And he may already be back in Europe by the time Ivory Coast plays North Korea on June 25 to wrap up the group stage.
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Sunday, March 28, 2010

And on the Third Day, Becks Is Healed?

We shift from mind games to spiritual ... games?

This is one of the stranger sports medicine stories of recent times.

David Beckham has a ruptured Achilles tendon. It has been surgically repaired. Now he needs something like six months to rehabilitate. It is a serious injuries.

But a "spiritual healer" from Sri Lanka says he can get Beckham healthy in three days.


Our first reaction to this idea is ... "balderdash!" Second reaction? "Quack!"

Then you read a little deeper, and India's best cricket player, Sachin Tendulkar, says this doctor/healer helped heal his knee.

The guy, named Eliyantha Lindsay White, is the "personal physician" of the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse. And it was President Rajapakse who offered his healer to Becks.


The doctor apparently uses ayurvedic medicine, traditional medicine native to the subcontinent. It calls for herbs, massage and yoga. For us science-based Yanks, it sounds like quackery. But I should note that our insurance here in the UAE covers ayurvedic.

Where Dr. Eliyantha is involved, though, it gets a little more exotic, as this story notes.

I suppose I am willing to listen to someone promulgating treatment from a country with an ancient culture. But when Dr. Eliyantha suggests he has "special powers" ... and that "when someone sits before me with an ailment I can study his reports and feel his system, but what is more important I can see a light, as small as a welder's sparkle and I begin to hear and sense the medication for his ailment."

Anyway, the point is this: Dude says he can fix Beckham.

"I am ready to treat him," the good doctor said. "His condition can be easily treated and within three days he will be able to go back to playing. ... His case is simple. He can be treated. He can play again."

Well ...

What does Beckham have to lose? Plane fare to Colombo, maybe?

Anyway, if this guy fixes Beckham and we see him in England's starting lineup at South Africa 2010 on June 12 ... well, I may be taking a hop over to see about this achy back.
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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mind Games Week Continues!

This may be about a guy who doesn't like what he has seen. About a former player disgusted with a shaky performance.

That certainly is what it appears to be, on the surface. German scoring legend Gerd Muller saying Germany has no chance to win South Africa 2010.

But since this is Mind Games Week, here at Countdown to South Africa, maybe something else is involved.

And we are back to the classic "lowering expectations" gambit.

Perhaps Gerd Muller, the second-greatest scorer in World Cup history, wasn't satisfied with Franz Beckenbauer's "notice I don't mention Germany as a contender" statements earlier in the week.

So Gerd cuts to the chase: "We have too many young players."

And then he takes on Germany's attacking players, who failed to generate much of anything in a 1-0 home defeat to Argentina earlier this month, calling them soft. "They sign a contract and immediately become millionaires. They then have no inclination to work hard."

Again, it's premature to write off the Germans, even if Gerd really is trying to (as opposed to attempting to fire up the Mannschaft). Aside from the loss to Argentina in the friendly, it isn't as if they have been horrible. They won their qualifying group, twice defeating the runner-up Russians.

And they have some serious World Cup history: Since 1954, the Germans have been in the quarterfinals at 13 of 14 World Cups (missing only in 1978), made the semifinals 10 times, the finals seven times and won it three times (1954, 1974, 1990).

But the current team is trash! Awful. Sehr schlect!

We'll see about that.
Read more!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Playing Spanish Mind Games

This must be the week for psychological warfare.

A day ago, Franz Beckenbauer of Germany was talking up Wayne Rooney and England and talking down Germany ...

And now Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque is appalled at the expectations for his team -- co-favored, with Brazil, to win South Africa 2010 -- and out to remind everyone that winning a World Cup is a difficult business.

Sounds like good planning by Del Bosque.

Though he has a tough row to hoe.

Spain has been dominating European soccer for going on four years now. It has lost exactly one international match (to the U.S. in the Confederations Cup last June) since November of 2006. Before that shocking upset, Spain had set a record with 15 consecutive international victories and tied Brazil's record with a streak of 35 consecutive matches without defeat. Spain has reeled off another nine victories since losing to the U.S., giving it one defeat in its last 45 internationals.

Its record in those 45: 41-1-3. And one of the three ties went to a shootout won by Spain (over Italy, in Euro 2008).


Spain won the 2008 Euro Cup without defeat and won every match in qualifying for South Africa.

Del Bosque concedes Spain might have some expectations placed on it. "We can hardly say it doesn't make sense that we're singled out, given we're European champions and have won so many games in a row," he said.

But that doesn't mean he has to like it, and it doesn't mean that he can't get to work trying to manage expectations. Spain has never won a World Cup, and that first one is hard. Ask the Netherlands. Or Portugal, or any of the other serious soccer countries that are not among the seven nations that have won a World Cup.

Del Bosque doesn't like the vibe in his home country.
"Everybody in Spain thinks that anything except winning the World Cup is a failure," he said. "I think that's nonsense and an extremism but, in the times we live in, it seems that extremism sells."

To be sure, when you have a roster that includes Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso ... you are in pretty good shape.

He could also have mentioned that Spain, historically, has been considered one of the great underachievers of the World Cup. Lots of good teams, well-regarded ... and then they failed miserably. A rep they carried until Euro 2008, frankly.

Del Bosque's complaints about expectations probably will fall on deaf ears. But you have to give him some credit for reminding la puebla that this is not a done deal. Spain does have to play the games.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

German Mind Games Begin

I love this. And what I love about this is not the stroking of Wayne Rooney.

It's the biggest name in German soccer beginning a campaign to get inside the heads of Team Three Lions.

This is the story: Franz "Der Kaiser" Beckenbauer talking up Wayne Rooney, and how the England striker is so hot, playing so well, has become so unstoppable, that not only does Beckenbauer's Bayern Munich have little chance against Manchester United in the Champions League quarterfinals ... he is moved to say that, ach!, England looks like a favorite to win the whole thing.

What is really going on here? Well, this: These are not just statements made without foresight.

--Beckenbauer is playing possum, as we say in the States. (A possum being a marsupial than can play dead, thereby leaving predators, as opposed to carrion eaters, to leave it alone.). If you went to the linked story, Beckenbauer makes no mention of Germany as a potential World Cup favorite at South Africa 2010, as if the national team that he led to one championship as a player and another as a coach ... has utterly collapsed. And he says that even though the Germans somehow show up in the semifinals just about every four years even when they are dismissed as being down.

--Beckenbauer is playing to the well-known and self-destructive tendency of England teams, fans and executives to overrate their side in the months before the World Cup, setting goals for it that are unrealistic or sure to amp up the pressure on the players. To read the English press for the past five decades is to believe that England has won scads of World Cups.

England has won one. At home. In 1966. But the country already is in a lather about the 2010 side, and Beckenbauer just lobbed another big fat warm fuzzy at a team and a nation, that already thinks "this is going to be easy."

--Some of this is about Bayern Munich; Beckenbauer is the honorary president of the club, which plays Rooney's club, ManU, shortly.

But it also is about the World Cup. Something else Beckenbauer didn't mention was how England may well face Germany at Africa 2010. If both teams do what they are expected to do (England) or normally do (Germany), they will meet in the semifinals. With England having the monstrous advantage of Wayne Rooney.

I'm not usually one big on subtexts. Generally, like most sports guys, a compliment is a compliment.

But there are times when a guy says one thing and means another. When he is trying to get inside the heads of a team or a specific player. And I am convinced Der Kaiser was working that angle when he all but conceded victory to Wayne Rooney's teams.
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SA2010: Not a Sellout? Too Early to Tell

Not all tickets for South Africa 2010 have been sold. We know this. We knew it weeks ago when Fifa officials conceded something like 800,000 tickets hadn't been moved.

However, the Daily Mirror, one of England's down-market tabloids, wrote a story today raising the alarm that 650,000 (!) tickets remain unsold and breathlessly suggested this could be the first World Cup in history not to be a sellout.

Well, this isn't so much a story as part of a story.

Here's why:

Fifa already has conceded that the tickets it allotted to the other 31 nations in the World Cup have not sold out. The Mirror story has 330,000 of those tickets being returned.

But organizers and Fifa already have a solution in place, too: Selling them at a lower rate to South Africans. As reported a month ago.

South Africa is a significant enough soccer country that Fifa and the organizers probably can fill just about every stadium -- if it prices the tickets low enough. And it may do that, to keep away from this "first non-sold-out World Cup." stats. The Mirror didn't take this into account.

The Mirror story is a little dodgy, too, in that it asserts "Fifa admits ..." when all Fifa has said is that tickets are on sale in South Africa. Nowhere in that story does it "admit" that some of the matches might not be played before full stadiums.

What is true is the contention from the FA in England that the expense of a World Cup at the southern end of Africa has significantly dampened demand. There seems no doubt of that.

But to "discover" that the World Cup won't be a sellout ... is not accurate. Nor is it news.

We won't know until the end of the group stage whether South Africa 2010 doesn't sell out its stadiums. We can't say, right now, that it won't. We don't know that.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Messi Wants to Become 'Legend'

Is this anything like LeBron James telling reporters his goal is to be a "global icon"?

Well, yes, actually, it is.

Lionel Messi says he wants to be a "legend."

Interesting reality, from the perspective of a sports fan outside the United States:

Messi is more likely to succeed at his aspiration than is LBJ.

A fairly simple concept, really.

Basketball is America's No. 2 game. Except in those areas that prefer baseball. Then basketball is No. 3.

In many areas of the rest of the world, basketball is a fairly common No. 2 sport. Europe, where nearly every country has a pro league. Some parts of Africa. It might even be the No. 1 sport in, say, the Philippines.

But soccer? The game Messi plays?

If you're No.1 in soccer, you are really a global icon. And a legend, too. Soccer is the world's game, the clear No. 1 sport in the vast majority of the planet's countries.

Let's take a look at what Messi, a 22-year-old Argentina, already has done:

--His club team has won three Spanish League championships.

--His club team has won two European Champions League titles, and the Champions League victor generally is considered the best club team in the world.

--And just to reinforce that, Barcelona won the Fifa Club World Cup right here in Abu Dhabi, last December. With Messi playing the starring role.

--And, Messi is the 2009 Fifa player of the year.

Meanwhile ... LeBron James has won zero NBA titles. He has one MVP title.

LeBron may look like the greater athlete. He may act as if he is, and if he and Messi were competing in, say, the decathlon, LBJ probably wins. But in reality, he has to pick up the pace to catch Messi in "legend" status. Because he starts from so far behind him.

A soccer superstar is a household name just about anywhere in the world that isn't India.

A basketball superstar ... for him to replace soccer's best player in the minds of fans ... would take a very long run of over-the-top excellence. Not Most Valuable Puppet commercials. Lots of championships and MVP titles. Two or three huge Olympics performances. A starring role in several world championships. Which the would-be "global icon" hasn't managed yet.

Meanwhile, if Argentina and Lionel Messi win South Africa 2010, giving him a piece of every trophy there is to win in the world's most popular game ... it will be the unassuming little guy from Argentina who is the true global icon. And legend, too.
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Monday, March 22, 2010

Kiwis Don't Expect to be Whipping Boys

Well, sure. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

This story has been around for a few days now, "New Zealand can be competitive" ... and I have left it alone. But I now am in the mood to take on this sort of topic.

Like this:



This is one of those bits of optimistic nonsense that invite sarcasm.

The man speaking here is Ryan Nelsen, New Zealand's captain ... a title which, in this case is like being named captain of the Titanic -- people are a bit more inclined to remember your part in this disaster. (The Titanic's captain was name Smith. I know that without looking it up. See?)

"We are competitive now," he said.

On the basis of what? Defeating Bahrain to gain the final berth into South Africa 2010? Bahrain. Winning a home-and-home with Bahrain means you can "compete" on the world stage?

Uh, no.

In the past, Cap'n Nelsen said, "we haven't had many goalscorers or too much experience but I think we've got quite a bit of that now."

Hmm. Well, let's check. Scroll to the lower half of this wiki entry and find the roster of New Zealand's players and see where they play. I'll wait. (Hmm-de-hum ...)

How many of the Kiwis play for a serious professional side? Well, Nelsen plays for Blackburn Rovers in the Premiership, and is captain there, as well. That's nice. But ... that's also about the end of "serious club football" players. Unless you count Major League Soccer, and not even Americans do.

As for all that All Whites scoring prowess and experience ... perhaps he's talking about matches for the Wellington Phoenix and Gold Coast United. Which will not, we dare say, prepare you for Italy or even Paraguay and Slovakia -- the other countries in the seriously weak Group F.

"We are going to be very competitive ..."

Well, yes, we expect you will show up and run around.

"And if some teams have a bad day and we have a good day, you never know ..."

If those teams having the bad day are Bahrain or perhaps New Caledonia ... but Paraguay on a bad day beats you 2-0.

"I think a lot of teams will underestimate us, and that's what we want."

Had nothing to do with what you want. You will be estimated accurately -- as the softest mark in the tournament.

If New Zealand scores, it's a good World Cup for the Kiwis. If it somehow manages some ugly 0-0 tie after bunkering in for 90 minutes ... it becomes a great World Cup for the All-Whites.

But that probably is too much to expect. This appears to be the most overmatched World Cup crew since the U.S. in 1990 ... or maybe Canada in 1986.

I would like New Zealand to get to South Africa and actually be competitive. I just don't see it happening.

We don't expect the Kiwis to say "we expect to get our heads handed to us three straight times out" ... but it might be better to leave it at, "We're going to play as hard as we can and see how it turns out."

Anything more than that is being not quite honest.
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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Argentina: So Good Diego Can't Screw It Up?

Ian Hawkey has an interesting piece today in the Johannesburg Times.

In it, he suggests that Argentina is a legitimate threat to win South Africa 2010. Not because of Diego Maradona, but in spite of him.

Hawkey suggests Argentina has so many elite scorers (only Brazil seems as gifted) ... that it will be hard to screw this up. Unless the back falls apart, and it could.

Among the names Diego can put on his lineup card:

--Lionel Messi. Perhaps the best player in the world, and a guy who appears to be in from, with five goals in his last two matches with Barcelona. Yikes. He leads the Spanish League in goals with 22.

--Then there is Gonzalo Higuain, who scored three goals of his own last Sunday and now has 19 goals.

--And Diego Milito of Inter Milan, second in Seria A scoring.

--And Carlos Tevez, who has 16 goals for Manchester City, a total exceeded by only three men in the Premiership.

--And Lucas Barrios, fourth in scoring in the Bundesliga.

He also mentions 21-year-old Sergio Aguero of Atletico Madrid (the father of Diego's grandchild), Javier Saviola of Benfica and Lyon forward Lisandro Lopez.

Most teams in the World Cup would be happy to have one of those guys. Ecstatic to have two of them.

Hawkey, like this writer, is less than enthralled with Coach Diego, describing him as "a former cocaine addict, tax evader and all-around rascal."

But Hawkey suggests Diego may have such trouble settling on who will play for him because, especially in the attack, he is "spoiled for choice" -- as the Brits say.

Certainly seems that way. How to get all those guys on the field?

A problem about 28 teams World Cup teams would love to have.
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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fifa: No Worries about Next Meal

Sport? Or business?

With Fifa, sometimes it's hard to tell.

Soccer's world governing body announced a profit of $196 million for 2009, on revenue of $1.06 billion.

So if you've been worried about where Sepp Blatter's next four-star meal was coming from ... don't.

It strikes me that $196 million profit on revenues of $1.06 billion ... is nearly 20 percent profit. If one of the big oil companies reported a profit of 20 percent, people would go crazy.

So, why isn't Fifa pouring some of that money back into the sport? Maybe see if the group can get along on, oh, 10 percent profit for a year.

What could it do with the other $100 million from this year? Maybe buy soccer balls and distribute them in all those Third World countries where we read stories about guys kicking around a wad of paper. While they play barefoot.

Maybe open an academy in Africa and another in Central America. Perhaps infuse a little money into India, the last Black Hole on the soccer map. Where 1 billion people don't play soccer and don't care. Like, way, way more than Americans don't care.

What will Fifa do with the $196 million profit? Probably throw some lavish parties in Joburg. Give Sepp a raise. Buy him a gold-plated desk.

The rest ... they'll probably just waste.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Fifa Slaps Down 'Unofficial National Carrier'

Fifa can be a little, oh, fascistic when it comes to defending its marketing rights.

The budget air-carrier Kulula has received a cease-and-desist letter from Fifa's Thought Police in regards to an advertising campaign, the Johannesburg Star reports.

Kulula's ads had identified it as the "Unofficial National Carrier of You-Know-What."

Apparently, using words which might make you think of South Africa 2010 makes Fifa angry. The campaign might seem clever to you or me, but to Fifa it is "ambush marketing."

The airline fired back at Boss Fifa in a tweet:

"Oh dear, letter from Fifa's lawyers says we broke their trademark of the use of 'South Africa' and think our non-WC ad was about soccer ...

"Even the use of our national flag was an issue. It's absolutely outrageous. We've signed over our country, its symbols and our economy to one Sepp Blatter. Nasty."

Sepp is Fifa's President for Life. (Or he behaves as if he is, anyway.) He and his drones are beyond zealous (maniacal?) in protecting the advertising exclusivity of its official partners because Fifa likes the money the partners kick into the kitty, and want to charge at least as much at Brazil 2014.

"They said we cannot depict the Cape Town stadium, we can't use soccer balls, or the word 'South Africa', and the depiction of the national flag is not allowed," said the Kulula marketing manager Nadine Damen.

"We can't make any reference to the World Cup. They also told us we cannot use the vuvuzela, which, in our view, is representative of the people of South Africa and their love of football."

The vuvuzela is the annoying plastic horn that has become the symbol, almost, of South African soccer fans. Didn't think you could own the intellectual rights to the big brother of a kazoo? In Fifa's world, apparently you can.
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Becks Inspires Poet Laureate

This is almost camp, really. The poet laureate of Britain, Carol Ann Duffy, has written a poem about David Beckham and his ruptured Achilles tendon. No, really. The poet laureate. Of Britain. Has done a poem about Becks.

I'm not sure it will knock Alfred Lord Tennyson out of the British canon, but I bet it's the first time Britain's poet laureate has been moved to versify about a footballer.

And if they have, I doubt thoroughly that they released it first in, yes, the Daily Mirror, one of England's scandal sheets.

Anyway, here it is. Entitled, "Achilles (for David Beckham)" Read it and weep.

Myth's river — where his mother dipped him, fished him; a slippery golden boy flowed on, his name on its lips.

Without him, it was prophesied, they would not take Troy.

Women hid him, concealed him in girls' sarongs; days of sweetmeats, spices, silver songs ...

But when Odysseus came, with an athlete's build, a sword and a shield, he followed him to the battlefield, the crowd's roar,

And it was sport, not war, his charmed foot on the ball...

But then his heel, his heel, his heel ...

All-righty then!

Clearly, this is about the original Achilles. The inspiration, of course. The "not take Troy" part ... I suppose Troy is the World Cup. The bit about "concealed him in girls' sarongs" is about Becks' famous southeast Asian period when, yes, he did wear a sarong ... and the bit about "Spice" ... well, that's wife Victoria, one of the Spice Girls ... But who Odysseus was in this poem, "with an athlete's build" ... well, feel free to enlighten us on that one.

So, when is a Portuguese poet going to get busy on Cristiano Ronaldo?
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All the President's Wives

I know. I said I would leave South African politics behind. But so much is going on!

We've got Steven Pienaar saying he doesn't think England is all that hot, which is interesting because he plays for Everton in the Premier League -- and also is South Africa's best player. He likes Argentina, Brazil, Germany or Italy. Becks is devastated he can't play in the World Cup, but he may still have a role as a good-will ambassador. Beefy midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who wants to play for Ghana in SA12010, hasn't been cleared by Fifa yet and may not make it; he was born in Germany and played for German youth teams in international competition, which used to mean you were stuck but that process is becoming, oh, elastic. And that's most of the pressing soccer news.

And now back to the soap opera that is the South African government.

The New York Times has noticed.

NYT correspondent Barry Bearak writes that the nation always has wondered how its leaders live so lavishly on modest salaries. And "lifestyle audits" are turning up big numbers. One of those being examined is the infamous Julius Malema. And Jacob Zuma, of course. Bearak notes which sort of BMW the humble public servants prefer.

We also have this piece in the Johannesburg Times about how the government gives president Jacob Zuma's wives more than $2 million a year (once we convert the total from Rand) to ... just do what they do. It wouldn't be so expensive if the country weren't supporting three Zuma wives. And some of his children, too.

Have we mentioned lately ... it's a mess down there?

Well, it is. What these guys do year in and year out would get a guy chucked out of office in most of the First World ... but everyone is just truckin' along, in SA.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More Nutty Political News

Julius Malema. Remember the name.

It seems as if any ridiculous news story about South Africa right now that isn't about Jacob Zuma and his various families ... is about Julius Malema, leader of the African National Congress Youth League.

We will get back to the pitch quite soon, but in the meantime, let's get back up to date on the antics -- and, surprisingly, the trouble -- pertaining to Julius Malema.

The latest:

Malema has been fined by a judge for suggesting that a woman who accused Zuma of rape (the president was acquited) "had a nice" time. In this story, a columnist for the Johannesburg Times hammers Young Julius pretty hard, suggesting he merely represents a way of thinking that is common among men in the country.

And that isn't the only court problem one of the ANC's rising stars has. He is still at risk of censure or fine (prison: I don't think so) for singing that old resistance favorite "kill the Boer" at a rally at a university in Johannesburg.

Unfortunately, for Young Julius, over the weekend one white farmer was shot and killed, two others were shot but survived, but the wife of one of them was shot and killed.

Meanwhile, AfriForum Youth have lodged a complaint of hate speech ... as has the Freedom Front Plus party.

In this story, an opposition leader suggests that Malema is creating an atmosphere where "reckless thoughts and actions flourish" and he is an "accessory to the wiping out of farmers in South Africa."

The Freedom Front Plus party is preparing a report to send to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Which could lead to Malema being charged at an international court.

Anyway, that's what is going on in South Africa with less than three months until kickoff. We assume that if chief World Cup organizer Danny Jordaan had his way, Julius Malema would be under a gag order until the last group of SA2010 visitors is safely out of South African airspace, come mid-July.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

A World Cup without Becks

We vowed to try to keep you up to date on the injury situation as South Africa 2010 comes into view. And here is a guy who won't be playing. Not that he's a great player. But he is a great showman, and will be missed ...

As every soccer fan in the world has heard by now, David Beckham suffered an Achilles tendon rupture during a match with AC Milan last night.

That means that the one of the best-known players in the world won't be at South Africa 2010, an event he seemed primed to take over by force of personality during the draw back in December.

No one would suggest he is one of the planet's great players. Even when he was in his prime he had severe limitations.

But his star power ... that will be missed.

Where do we go from here?

--Good thing it was his left Achilles. Some snarky critics suggest Becks' left leg exists only to keep him from falling over. All that "bending" he did? ... Right leg.

--We have an opening for Aging Icon of 2010. Michael Ballack has been playing like he's 35, so maybe he could contend. If Carlos Dunga calls in Ronaldinho, the Brazilian wheeze/whiz could be in there. And is anyone quite sure that Roger Milla is done playing for Cameroon? Gary Lineker? Eric Wynalda?

--Becks is going to be out a minimum of three months, the medical people say. But that must be only because he will spend his convalescence at Lourdes. Last time I checked, a blown Achilles is more like a one-year injury. And with a year off, he will be nearly 36. At which point his relevance for any team (English national, AC Milan, even the L.A. Galaxy) seems minimal.

--Beckham's career with England is presumably over. Unless the side feels a need for a one-dimensional right wing during qualifying for the 2012 Euro Cup. He won't get the all-time record for England appearances, but he is No. 1 among outfield players with 115 caps.

--Back in Los Angeles, Galaxy lawyers are going over that five-year, trillion-dollar contract (or whatever it is), looking for a way to void it a couple years early. Though it's not as if Beckham was playing more than a couple of months for the American club, anyway.

--The World Cup did get a bit duller. Beckham is one of those handful of players who generates an opinion from everyone. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Kaka ... take it away. If you can.

If this is it for Becks, we have to concede that he may be the all-time one-trick sports pony. He parlayed one amazing skill -- an ability to strike a soccer ball at rest and put it almost anywhere he wanted up to, oh, 30 yards -- and became a global personality. A global brand. That takes perseverance, a famous wife and a really capable PR crew.

We can take comfort in the fact that Becks presumably can still sell cologne and watches and maybe even soccer camps, even with a bum leg. Hurry back Becks.
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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Africa and Its Foreign Coach Preoccupation

It's not just Africa. Asia is pretty deeply into this. The Middle East, too.

"It" being a preoccupation with the idea of a foreign coach running the national team. Africa has a bad case of it. Perhaps the worst, especially in World Cup years ... and with teams that have made the World Cup.

The Johannesburg Times, my favorite South African newspaper, has done a think piece on the topic of African nations being unwilling to hire African coaches.

Of the six African teams in South Africa 2010, guess how many hail from Africa? Go ahead. Guess.

Did I hear "one" somewhere in the back? Well, sir, you are correct. One. Of Six.

That would be Rabah Saadane of Algeria. Mr. Saadane is from Algeria. Yes. And somehow Algeria made the World Cup, despite the burden of not having a non-African coach.

Africa is just mad about European coaches. And the occasional Brazilian.

Cameroon has Paul Le Guen, a Frenchman.

Ghana has Milovan Rajevac, a Serb.

Nigeria has Lars Lagerback, a Swede.

South Africa has Carlos Alberto Parriera, a Brazilian.

And Ivory Coast had Vahid Halilhodzic, a Bosnian, until a few minutes ago, when the Elephants fired him. They took a run at Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman, and now are considering Philippe Troussier, a Frenchman. With Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede, in the wings.

The Joburg Times has some interesting stats in its "foreign coaches" story.

One of them: When SA2010 begins in three months, 36 African teams will have qualified for the finals in World Cup history ... and only 11 of them will have shown up with an African coach.


One really interesting quote on the topic, from a former Cameroon national team player, Joseph Antoine Bell: "I wish someone could explain why, after 60 years of independence, 60 years of football, a child (in Africa) has not been born who has played football and is deemed able to understand football like a European."

An interesting sidelight to this: Africa so often is so keen to shed any ties to its colonial past. Changing the names of cities, or the countries themselves. Changing street names.

But when it comes to soccer coaches, it's like it's 1930 all over again, and Africans don't seem to believe they can do it as well as Europeans. Rather curious, but not new, and not changing.

Unless, maybe Saadane and Algeria have a great World Cup.
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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ivory Coast Whiffs on Guus Hiddink

Well, now the Ivorians look a little silly. Ivory Coast chased Guud Hiddink for their coaching opening almost to Ides of March, and Guus today told them "thanks but no thanks" in a newspaper column.

Hmmm. Kind of a punking there. And, it's getting late. Eighty-nine days till South Africa 2010.

When we think about this a bit more, Hiddink probably didn't make much sense for Ivory Coast. Or vice versa. And here's why:

Guus was previously engaged. In a couple of directions.

For one, he is under contract with Russia through the World Cup. Even though Russia isn't in it. The idea that the Ivory Coast might have to buy out the rest of the contract and, well, it just starts getting messy.

Second, Guus is about to take charge of Turkey. Once the World Cup is over. In theory, he had a window there when he could coach Ivory Coast, before he took over Turkey, but he wrote today that he wants to follow Turkey during its trip to North American in May. When he would, otherwise, be trying to whip Ivory Coast into shape.

The Ivorians ran out their big guns. Didier Drogba, whom Hiddink coached at Chelsea, lobbied him to take over the Elephants. Guus had conversations with the head of the federation.

Let's assume Guus was at least tempted. Let's assume he wanted to take a team to the World Cup for the fourth consecutive quadrennium. (Netherlands in 1998, South Korea in 2002, Australia in 2006.) And Ivory Coast has some guys who can play. He would have had a good chance to continue his streak of always getting out of group play ... and a puncher's chance to get to the semis, as he did in 1998 and 2002.

But it ... just ... got ... complicated. In the end, it was far easier to pretend to finish off his obligations to Russia and then shift into the Turkey gig.

So, where does Ivory Coast go now? Philippe Troussier, a Frenchman who has coached no fewer than five African national teams. They are (deep breath) Ivory Coast (in 1993), Nigeria (1997), South Africa (1998), Burkino Faso (1997-98) and Morocco (2005). As well as Japan for four years through the 2002 World Cup, when he got Japan into the knockout phase.

Anyway, Troussier seems to be the top candidate. Doesn't hurt that he is a Muslim convert and Ivory Coast is about 25 percent Muslim.

After Troussier? Sven-Goran Eriksson is, perhaps, the backup to the backup plan.

For sure, we know Ivory Coast is not getting Guss. Sort of the Cristiano Ronaldo of this coaching transfer window. Ivory Coast now looks for some lesser light.
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Friday, March 12, 2010

Brazil President Cocky, But Not That Cocky

The way it is being pitched in this story ... Brazil's president is so sure his country's team will play in the World Cup final, on July 11, that he already is planning to be there for the match.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said "I'm so optimistic that ... I'm going to the final."

Which sounds a little arrogant, except for this:

Lula would be at the final anyway because Brazil is host of the 2014 World Cup, and generally the head of state of the next host country shows up for the final of the preceding World Cup.

That would be Lula, at the end of SA2010.

So, he's not necessarily tempting fate, not risking bad karma ... he's going to be at the match anyway. He may as well say "it's because I expect us to play in the final."

But, yes, it does seem of late that a lot of coaches and players -- and now a president -- are talking up their chances of having a nice World Cup. It isn't going to work out that way.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lippi, Higuain Set Lofty Goals

No point in saying "we're just going to show up and see how things go," is there?

Well, that's how Marcello Lippi and Gonzalo Higuain are looking at it, anyway.

England's coach and Argentina's striker both have set some high goals for South Africa 2010, and did it within a day or so of each other, so we will combine them here.

And what do they intend, for SA2010?

For Lippi, it is England in the semifinals, "minimum."

England has been playing well, and the semifinals don't seem like that high a goal, but England last got to the final four in 1990. So it doesn't happen like clockwork.

Lippi also believes a European team will win a World Cup outside Europe for the first time, and his dream matchup would be an England-Italy final. Lippi is Italian, after all.

Meanwhile, Higuain is out to win the Golden Boot. He didn't use the expression, but he said he wants to "be the top scorer at the World Cup," and that's the Golden Boot. In English, anyway. As in-form as he has been, it's possible.

Assuming Diego Maradona doesn't do something so incredibly silly that Argentina doesn't last deep into the tournament, and Higuain doesn't get enough matches to pile up goals. That's possible, too.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Harsh Words on the SA Political Front

This isn't about soccer, really. It's about South Africa. Which is going to host the World Cup in 90-some days.

South Africa is a place of some fairly intense political rhetoric. Given its history, understandably. But the place seems to move forward when it does its best to look ahead, not back.

And in this case we have the loose cannon of the African National Congress, name of Julius Malema, president of the ANC's youth league, singing a song about killing Boers in a public appearance at a university in Johannesburg.

"Boer" is the name usually given to the (mostly) Dutch settlers who dominated the country for about 400 years.

What does this mean for the World Cup?

Probably nothing. Governments of all stripes tend to put aside their internal rivalries when a huge event comes to their country. They declare a sort of truce until the event is complete.

That said, it's getting late for South Africa to have some fairly significant political turmoil. With some calling for the censure of president Jacob Zuma for various and sundry personal failings, and now we have one political figure laying "a criminal charge" against Malema (who may also be a crook, but that's another story) ... for inciting violence against Boers.

Malema apparently led a chorus of an apartheid era song that includes lyrics pertaining to killing the Boers -- who these days generally are known as farmers. Who are, in fact, sometimes victims of violence, as the linked story noted.

So, yes, fairly provocative. Where does it all go? Perhaps heated rhetoric is what South Africa does. I've been following the country only since last summer. Maybe it means nothing significant.

To those of us of a literal bent, a song that advocates killing on a race basis ... is pretty strong stuff. It would be the end of a politician's career in, say, the United States.

In South Africa, perhaps not. But it gives us a bit more insight into the backdrop on which the 2010 World Cup will be played out, three months hence.
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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

SA2010 Mascot Sweatshop Shut Down

This could be one of the seedier stories of South Africa 2010, and here's the latest:

The Chinese factory making "Zakumi" mascot dolls has been shut down, and we would like to think because it was paying its workers next to nothing. (Well, about $3 a day, actually.) And maybe that is the case.

It gets a little cheesier than the overt exploitation of Chinese workers.

Some of the workers are children.

As the story notes, the factory in/near Shanghai is owned by an ethnic Chinese who now lives in South Africa and in a member of parliament for the ruling party, the African National Congress.

Hmm. Not a great example. And the organizers haven't been exactly diligent, have they, about seeing where the contracts for dolls have gone.

Cosatu, the umbrella labor organization in South Africa, is not happy about any of this. It believes all souvenirs pertaining to the World Cup to be made in South Africa. For a decent wage. There has been talk of boycotts, etc.

And Fifa alleges to be shocked (shocked, I tell you) that this is going on. It took newspapers investigating to bring it to light, but at least Fifa didn't quite have the brass to say, "So what," issuing statements about how all the other souvenirs are legit.

However, the story quotes the owner as suggesting that the sweatshop will be open again soon. See, they're paying the folks more, etc.

This isn't over. Not if tens of thousands of figurines from exploited workers are knocking around South Africa and selling for something like 100 times what they cost to be made.

The irony of this is that China, a worker's paradise, is the country doing the exploiting, and South Africa, in theory a capitalist country, is the place with labor unions complaining. The world is upside down.
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Monday, March 8, 2010

Fifa Closes Door on Technology

You've heard about Fifa's slogan, right?

"World football: Where it's always 1934!"

So, Fifa has decided to give up experiments with video cameras to determine if a ball has actually crossed the goal line. Nothing that really matters.

The rich part of this?

Jerome Valcke, the mouthpiece of president Sepp Blatter, said he really hopes South Africa 2010 doesn't have a controversial goal/non-goal that accurate (but non-official) television replays fail to verify.

"Questons will always come," Herr Valcke concedes. "We just hope they will not come in the final of the World Cup."

Actually, I hope they do. Perhaps that is what it would take to drag Fifa, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. And, yes, I know we're now in the 21st century.

Look at some of the comments deeper in the linked story, from the retired referee. He suggests it mostly is about arrogance. "We are the world's No. 1 sport. We got here with the rules and the system we have now. So why change anything?"

Fifa officials wouldn't want to have considered that the world wasn't flat, either. Too much bother.

We have never suggested that every professional soccer game in the world needs to have instant replay. But for the World Cup? Yes. It should. Real goals should count. Non goals should not.

This seems really easy. But Fifa is easily befuddled.
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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Update on South Africa Stadiums

If you don't follow the Johannesburg Sunday Times as I do ...

The newspaper today did an update on the 10 stadiums that will be used for South Africa 2010.

Here is a capsule appraisal, stadium-by-stadium.

To see what it all means, check your team's schedule and see where they will play.

You probably don't want your lads playing in Nelspruit, where the stadium has no grass -- fewer than 100 days from kickoff. You may have some issues seeing matches in Cape Town, where the nearest rail line is several miles from the stadium. Ellis Park, in Joburg, has parking issues.

Oh, and back to Nelspruit: The Times warns that it will be dark, very dark, as you enter the parking lot.

Good stuff to know.
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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sven-Goran to Ivory Coast?

Doesn't he need to get one of these job soon or risk looking silly?

Talking about Sven-Goran Eriksson and Ivory Coast here. Our favorite former England and Mexico coach apparently is a candidate for the open job at the 2010 World Cup.

Let's see, what other jobs has SGE pursued?

His name came up in connection to the North Korea job, but it never actually came open, perhaps because North Korea had another bad harvest and can't afford him.

Then it came up for discussion when Nigeria went looking for a coach, and the England media seemed to think he would get it, and he was one of five finalists. But the job went to another Swede, Lars Lagerbeck, instead.

And now SGE is chasing Ivory Coast. And perhaps vice versa. He seemed to have the right idea when he denied being interested in the job when he saw Ivory Coast lost (2-0) to South Korea in London on Wednesday.

Everyone's first choice is Guus Hiddink, of course, but he still is being paid by Russia and perhaps the Ivorians don't want to deal with what could be a messy buyout.

So maybe Sven-Goran has a chance. But if he doesn't get this one, he officially becomes The New Bridesmaid of international soccer. Someone throw that man a bouquet.
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Friday, March 5, 2010

China Plays a Friendly; Dutch Do Not

Interesting story out of China.

China played Portugal in an international friendly in Coimbre on Wednesday, and when it was over China's coach told the Chinese media that he instructed his players not to play too roughly.

He didn't want anyone to get hurt. And miss the World Cup. Including Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he mentioned by name. "We don't want a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo because of our fault," he said.

The United States must wish the Netherlands approached these things in the same way.

The U.S. played the Dutch the same night, and they didn't bother with politesse.

One of their players, midfielder Nigel De Jong, made a truly ugly, over-the-ball, shin-high tackle of American midfielder Stuart Holden, one of his country's rising players, and inflicted a broken fibula on Holden.

Holden will be out at least six weeks. It could be longer. He might miss the World Cup.

De Jong has been pilloried by American fans for his tackle, and rightly so. It is hard even to imagine what he was thinking, when he went in so hard and so high and so late. He clearly took the "friend" out of "friendly."

We know why the Americans played the Netherlands and not China. Because the Netherlands is in the World Cup and China is not, and because the Netherlands vaguely resembles England, whom the Yanks get in their opening match, June 12.

But now that it is over, the U.S. coaching staff must wish the Dutch had approached the match with the same "let's make sure no one gets hurt" spirit that China's coach said was uppermost in his mind.
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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hiddink to Ivory Coast?

Guus Hiddink has a spare couple of weeks, so it makes sense that someone would hire him to lead their team to South Africa 2010.

That someone appears to be Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast confirms they are in talks with Hiddink -- who failed to get Russia to the upcoming World Cup.

But the Dutchman has had plenty of World Cup success before, which is why countries are lining up to hire him.

In 1998, Hiddink got Netherlands to the semifinals at France.

In 2002, he took South Korea to the semifinals.

In 2006, he led Australia to the second round.

In 2008, he got Russia to the Euro semifinals.

So Russia bombing out of the European qualifying for South Africa ... not exactly a career-wrecker for Guus.

He is under contract to Russia through the World Cup, and after that he will take over Turkey.

Presumably, he (or the Ivory Coast) will have to buy out the rest of his contract with Russia, and maybe even pay some sort of premium, if the Russians bargain hard.

Ivory Coast may be more inclined to do whatever it takes to bring in Guus, considering their coachless team was knocked around by South Korea, 2-0, at a neutral site in London. Not a good result for a team most people were touting as the most likely African team to make a long run this summer.

Look for it to happen, if Guus can escape the Russia contract maybe two months early.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Winners, Losers from Today's Friendlies

Twenty-six of the 32 nations headed to South Africa 2010 played today, an "international" day that also coincides with "100 days to go!" before the first match of the World Cup.

Seven matches were head-to-heads between teams headed for the World Cup.

Not yet critical moments, but definitely interesting.

Let's look at the winners and losers ... and those who didn't quite do either. And the score isn't always what we will base our opinions on.

Big winners (alphabetically): Argentina, England, Nigeria, Serbia, Spain, Uruguay.

--Argentina went to Munich and throttled the Germans, 1-0, and even 100 days out from the World Cup that is an important result for coach Diego "The Dope" Maradona. Arguably the most significant victory for his side since he took over. Gonzalo Higuain got the goal for the Argentines before a crowd of 65,000. Btw, the Germans were described as "tired, timid and disorganized" in a wire report. Hmm.

--England didn't venture further than Wembley, but the Three Lions fairly thrashed the recent winners of the Cup of Africa Nations, Egypt, 3-1, before a crowd of 80,000. The gangly Peter Crouch scored twice and winger Shaun Wright-Phillips also found the net. A nice result over a quality opponent that led 1-0.

--Nigeria was playing Congo (the big one), which is no great shakes, but thrashed it, 5-2. The fact that Nigeria showed any life is an improvement on its CAN performance and a nice start for new coach Lars Lagerback. Midfielder Osas Ideham had two goals, and both starting forwards (Peter Utaka and Victor Obinna) scored, as well.

--Serbia went to Algiers and nuked Algeria, 3-0, before 60,000 Algeria fans. This is the most impressive score of the night and will get the attention of those who play in Serbia's group (such as Germany). Zdravko Kuzmanovic scored a goal and assisted on another for the Serbians, who probably now rate as co-favorites to win Group D.

--Spain walked into the Stade de France and pretty much dominated the French, 2-0. It was Spain's first victory over France on French soil since 1968 and no fluke: Spain dominated time of possession 60-40 percent. David Villa and Sergio Ramos scored for Spain, which has lost only once in its last 45 internationals -- to the U.S. in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals.

--Uruguay is generally overlooked by those trying to forecast who gets to the knockout round, but winning 3-1 over the Swiss, in Switzerland, in cold weather, certainly is an attention-getter. Diego Forlan got the first goal for Uruguay, after the Swiss scored on a penalty. And Group A (France, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay) now looks as if it has another real contender for the knockout phase.

Semi-big winners: Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea.

--Portugal defeated China 2-0, at home, in Coimbre. Pretty much as they should have, considering China is a mess. Hugo Almeida scored for Portugal, as did Liedson, a sub at halftime for Cristiano Ronaldo. Not much of a crowd (20,000) and apparently an unimpressive performance by the winners.

--Slovenia blitzed Qatar, 4-1, at Maribor, and the Slovenes' coach suggested they should have scored more. And maybe they should have; the Gulf teams are particularly weak just now. A bit disconcerting that only 5,000 turned up for the match. Still, four goals ... will get the attention of fellow Group B sides Algeria, England and the U.S.

--South Korea played in London, at the home field of Queen's Park Rangers, and dominated Ivory Coast at a neutral venue, 2-0. Lee Dong Gook and Kwak Tae Hwi scored for the Koreans, who will be no pushover in South Africa. Ivory Coast generally is touted as the African side most likely to make a deep run at South Africa, and their excuse for this one is not having a coach. They fired their Serbian coach last week, and Guus Hiddink (or whomever) is not yet on board.

Tweeners: Cameroon, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, United States.

--Cameroon played Italy to a 0-0 tie at Monaco. Any time a non-Euro side gets a result on European soil, it's not a bad day. Not scoring makes it not a good day.

--Ghana played at Bosnia-Herzegovina, which narrowly missed the World Cup, and got beat, 2-1. They can shrug it off, though, because the Black Stars scored and they were playing on European soil against a solid opponent.

--Italy tied Cameroon in the match mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Nothing to be excited about, but coach Marcelo Lippi tried out a 3-4-3 formation with a half dozen guys who are unlikely to start in South Africa, and Italy had the better of the run of play, it seems. So, a little creepy not to score, but this wasn't the A Team that started, and those weren't stiffs on the other side.

--Mexico went to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, sort of "Azteca Norte" for El Tri, and rolled over New Zealand 2-0 before a crowd of more than 90,000. (Biggest crowd of the night.) Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela scored for Mexico, but this isn't a big victory because New Zealand is feeble; Mexico was playing, essentially, a home game; and because El Tri didn't score until the 54th minute.

--New Zealand. See above. Losing 2-0 to Mexico in southern California and not giving up a goal for nearly an hour gives the Kiwis hope they can perhaps steal a point out of SA2010.

--Netherlands defeated the U.S. 2-1 at Amsterdam before a crowd of 46,000. Nice result but not an overpowering one. Dirk Kuyt and Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored for the winners. At home, maybe the Dutch should win this one a bit more comfortably.

--United States. See above. Plus, the U.S. had never scored a goal against the Dutch in the Netherlands until last night, something Carlos Bocanegra managed in the 88th minute. And the Americans, known for their unwillingness to surrender, almost tied it in extra time.

Semi-big losers: Denmark, Germany, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Slovakia.

--Denmark lost 2-1 to an Austria squad last seen being hammered by Spain, 5-1. A mitigating factor: The match was in Austria.

--Germany lost to Argentina (see above), and didn't look good doing it, but the Argentines have some guys who can play and the Germans are known for often going into World Cups not looking like all that much ... and then making the semifinals. Too early to panic.

--Honduras had nearly its entire starting lineup in Istanbul to play non-qualifier Turkey, but the Turks handled them fairly easily, 2-0. We're back to the "difficult for non-Euros to win in Europe" thing, but if Honduras wanted to convince itself (or anyone else) that it isn't just an automatic victory for the other three teams Group H (Spain, Chile, Swizterland), it didn't do a very good job of it.

--Ivory Coast lost 2-0 to South Korea, which is ranked about 20 slots below them in the Fifa standings, but they don't have a coach, remember? Here's thinking they get smarter and sharper once Guus Hiddink (or whomever) takes over.

--Slovakia lost 1-0 at home to Norway, which is a bit disconcerting, but Norway finished second in its qualifying group, and isn't awful. Slovakia, though, is in a bit of a down patch and will need to get a result before heading to South Africa.

Big losers: Algeria, France, Greece, South Africa, Switzerland.

--Algeria should not lose 3-0 at home to anyone in the World Cup. Not to Brazil, and not to Serbia (see above, under big winners). A very alarming result, with 60,000 home fans in the stands. Following on a less-than-impressive Cup of African Nations performance.

--France's defeat at home to Spain, one of the two best teams in the world, would be only marginally worrisome, normally, but with Raymond Domenech still the coach, and still getting poor results, and the way Spain dominated the ball ... the French are shaping up as the top choice among seeded teams to get knocked out in group play.

--Greece lost 2-0 at home to Senegal, and that shouldn't happen. Clearly, the Greek system of fending off all challenges and scoring on a counter broke down. Senegal has talent, but the match was on Greek soil (albeit poorly attended, by 10,000), and non-Euro teams rarely defeat European teams in Europe. Otto Rehhegel needs to get his modestly talented lads back to what they do.

--South Africa tied Namibia 1-1, which would be an utter disaster had the whole Bafana Bafana team been at the match. (Their guys in Europe didn't come down.) Now it's just a regular disaster, because Namibia is ranked No. 111 in the world and started a mostly amateur starting lineup, players who were visibly winded by the end of the match. Namibia also scored the first goal (42nd minute) and led until the 70th minute. Played at Durban, before 50,000 in one of the World Cup stadiums, and with a bunch of hoopla marking the 100-days-till-kickoff point. South Africa still looks likely, very likely, to become the first host to fail to survive group play.

--Switzerland should not be getting blown out (3-1) by a South American team, at home, in early March. A scary result for Swiss fans, who thought their team was about to crack the ranks of the top 15-20 sides in the world.
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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

2010's Dirty Little Secret: Africans Priced Out

The BBC has brought us up to date on this.

Don't look for many Africans at the African World Cup.

South Africans? Yes, they will be at the 2010 World Cup. Organizers and Fifa set aside some $20 tickets for them, and then diverted about 700,000 more, last month, when foreigners didn't buy tickets in the numbers the officials had hoped for.

But for Africans who aren't South African?

Now we have a problem, as the BBC story points out.

The cheapest ticket for a non-South African is $80. Which is serious money in Africa. Well, it's serious money most places in the world. And none of those people are going to go either.

But those other poor non-Africans never intended to go. Fifa, meanwhile, has been calling this "the African World Cup" from Day 1. Some Africans might even have thought they meant it. That somehow it would happen.

It gets worse. To buy tickets, you need to go to the Fifa website. Most Africans don't have access to the internet. Certainly not easy access.

You also need a credit card to buy tickets. Again, a major problem for Africans.

And a concept the BBC didn't broach, but a significant one: How do Africans get to South Africa?

The African continent has very, very few country-to-country air links. Typically, to get to any country that's further away than a drive (which is dangerous) ... you have to fly to Europe, change planes and go back to Africa. Often, to get to the country not all that far from your own. Sounds crazy, but that's how it is -- Africans don't travel between countries on their own continent to generate commercial air routes.

So, getting to South African is almost as hard for Africans as it is for Americans. And harder than it is for Europeans -- who already are in Europe, where the planes for Africa take off.

So, no, don't look for scads of Nigerians, Cameroonians, Algerians, Ghanaians or Ivory Coast-ians at the World Cup, even though their teams will be. Because they can't afford the tickets -- even if they had an internet connection ... even if they had a credit card ... and even if they could get there.

So, let's not call it the African World Cup. Let's call it the South African World Cup, and leave it at that. That is ambitious enough. Let's not try to make this into something it can't be.
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Monday, March 1, 2010

Another Job Opening: At Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast has fired its coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, barely 100 days before the World Cup opens.

But not to worry. If Nigeria can find Lars Lagerback, Ivory Coast no doubt can drum up some cagey old European of its own for an early summer rental.

The name being bandied about? One guuess.

Yes. Of course. Guus Hiddink, the peripatetic Dutchman. Some think he is locked up by Turkey, and he is, but ...

But ... his contract in Turkey doesn't begin until after the World Cup. And if he doesn't have some clause forbidding him from filling up his dance card for South Africa ... the man who led both Holland (1998) and South Korea (2002) to the semis and Australia (2006) to the second round ... is available.

Hilolhodzic is not happy. He thought he was going to the World Cup. But Ivory Coast apparently decided they needed a heavier caliber man on the sidelines than their 57-year-old Bosnian. The excuse Ivory Coast is giving is that Hililhodzic didn't win the Cup of African Nations (going out in the quarterfinals), but they didn't need a reason. Just felt like changing.

If Hiddink is not available, who's next?

Ivory Coast could do worse than to pick up the search list that Nigeria put together. That includes Sven-Goran Eriksson and Glenn Hoddle.

Like Nigeria, except perhaps moreso, Ivory Coast has the talent to make some noise. Start with Didier Drogba (44 goals in 67 national team appearances) up front, and you're off to a good start. Then take your choice from a surfeit of European-based players, as their wiki page indicates down in the "roster" area.

So, that makes for two flat-out, no doubts about it, foreign mercenary coaches at South Africa 2010. Lagerback and whoever ends up in Cote d'Ivoire, as we say in Paris.
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