Premier League Roundup – Tottenham Top Early Table and United Humbled

My new wallpaper

My new wallpaper

Spurs Top of the League!

Ah, if the season were but two games long, my pre-season prediction of Tottenham winning their first title since 1960/61 would already have come true!  Spurs sit atop the early table thanks to a 4-0 demolition of Queens Park Rangers at White Hart Lane, the visitors being managed by Harry Redknapp and tactically coached by Glenn Hoddle, two of Mauricio Pochettino’s predecessors in the Tottenham hot seat.  Neither Redknapp, nor club legend Hoddle, had the depth of talent in their squad that the Argentinian has available to him – though ‘Arry did of course have Gareth Bale – but what has impressed most about Pochettino’s tenure in the early stages has been the manner of Spurs’ performances.  A high, pressing game has been adopted and when in possession, there is a fluidity about the movement of the ball and players; last saturday, that was particularly true of the triumvirate of Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela.  The latter’s excellent showing against QPR, on the back of two assists that helped turn around the Europa League qualifying playoff against AEL Limassol, has led to many declaring that he will finally live up to the £30m transfer fee he cost Tottenham last summer.  In truth, he was barely given a chance in his first season, making cameos off the bench and being played only in Europa League fixtures – during which he displayed a nice touch but was obviously playing like he had something to prove – before injury curtailed his campaign at the start of the calendar year.  Now that Lamela looks likely to start every game (including in pre-season), he is has been able to establish himself and is playing with more confidence and that is paying off wonderfully for Tottenham – particularly in the third goal last weekend when he picked up a pass (the 44th of a lengthy spell of possession), glided past three defenders, then delivered a pinpoint cross for Chadli to head into the back of the net.

It is not just the resurgent Lamela that gives Spurs fans reason to be cheerful: 20-year-old Eric Dier looks like he will be one of the best buys of the summer, at a cost of just £4m he already looks assured in either the centre of defence or at right back, plus he has scored in both of his first two Premier League matches; the addition of Ben Davies to the squad has seemingly put a rocket under Danny Rose, who played fantastically against QPR as he now faces competition at left-back; and although Michael Dawson has been a great servant to the club who gave his all in every match, it was the right time for him to move on – Dawson joined Hull this week – as he lacks the pace needed to succeed in Pochettino’s pressing system.  With the transfer deadline approaching on Monday, it is likely that a few players will leave, but I doubt there will be any major new additions at White Hart Lane.  Federico Fazio joined from Sevilla in midweek and is likely to form a central defensive partnership with Younes Kaboul; but other than up front – where the combination of Emmanuel Adebayor, Harry Kane and Roberto Soldado still seems to be lacking a 20 goal a season striker – it is hard to see where else the squad can be realistically improved at this point.  Finally, Tottenham also made the Europa League group stages on Thursday with a 3-0 home victory over AEL Limassol and will now face Besiktas (knocked out of the Champions League by Arsenal on Wednesday), Partizan Belgrade and Greek side Asteras Tripolis in the next round.  As for the league title, you do not get anything for being top in August, but it is still better to be 1st than anywhere else no matter what the stage of the season – but my clairvoyance will have to wait until May to be proven correct!

United Continue to Stumble

With Louis van Gaal sticking to his guns and attempting to implement his favored 3-5-2 system at Manchester United, the teething problems continued this past week.  Last Sunday in the league, the Red Devils were lucky to hold on to get a point against Sunderland; then they were demolished 4-0 by League One outfit MK Dons, in the second round of the Capital One Cup.  Since 1996/7, clubs that have been involved in European competitions have not had to play in the second round of the League Cup, instead being given a bye to the third round, so this was the first time that United had played in this stage since 1995, when they were also knocked out by lower league opposition as York City beat them 4-3 over two legs.  This time it was not even that close, as MK Dons took advantage of poor defending – particularly from Jonny Evans who was returning from injury – to completely humiliate a side that was crowned Champions of England less than 16 months ago.

Alongside the new tactics, van Gaal is also trying to improve the quality available to him in his squad: Angel DiMaria joined this week for a British transfer record fee of £59.7m, while the Dutchman is still pursuing Arturo Vidal and Daley Blind.  Whatever van Gaal might say about the talent available to him, his current squad is the most expensive in Premier League history as their total transfer fees are £401.2m (though Wilfried Zaha – who cost £15m – has just been loaned back to Crystal Palace), whereas MK Dons assembled their playing staff for just £500,000.  If only all management was as easy as bringing on a substitute keeper for a penalty shootout to fluster the mighty Costa Rica…

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Premier League Recap and Preview – Week 2 2014/15

United lose to Swansea

"You make the squad better, than I'll take over and become a legend.  Cheers."

“You make the squad better, than I’ll take over and become a legend. Cheers.”

In his first Premier League match in charge of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal was able to return normal service to the club – at least “normal” in the post-Ferguson era – as they were beaten 2-1 at home by Swansea.  The Welsh team have been widely predicted to struggle this year under the stewardship of Garry Monk, but they were full value for their first ever league win at Old Trafford.  In the 28th minute, the Swans exploited gaps in the United back line to take the lead, as Ki Sung-yeung was unmarked as he converted Nathan Dyer’s pass; but an acrobatic volley from new Red Devils’ captain, Wayne Rooney, leveled the score early in the second half.  However, Gylfi Sigurdsson – who had a successful loan spell at Swansea prior to his tenure at Tottenham – celebrated his return to the club with the winning goal 18 minutes from the end, as the visitors hung on to the lead despite much United pressure at the end of the match.

Louis van Gaal’s favored formation of 3-4-1-2 would take any squad time to get used to if they had not played it before, but one of the biggest issues for Manchester United is that they do not have the personnel for that system.  The central defensive trio of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and youngster Tyler Blackett are all reasonably talented, but there is no dominant player like Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand (in his prime) to hold them together and keep everyone disciplined in their positioning.  On the flanks, neither Ashley Young nor Nani is the type of winger that enjoys tracking back to defend, but at least the addition of Marcos Rojo will help there.  The center of midfield was an obvious weakness last season and new signing Ander Herrera will take time to embed himself in the team, while Michael Carrick – someone who helps protect and use possession so well – is out injured with ankle ligament damage.  For all the problems that face United, they expect Robin Van Persie to return this Sunday against Sunderland and van Gaal will be hoping that his fellow Dutchman can help instill some much-needed confidence back into a club that were crowned champions just 15 months ago.

Spurs win at West Ham

In my ridiculously optimistic season preview, I had Tottenham winning the league and, if I had written a script for the opening match of the campaign to back up that viewpoint, it would not have deviated too much from what actually happened at Upton Park last Saturday.  Firstly, Spurs were reduced to 10 men after just half an hour, as Kyle Naughton was harshly red carded for a handball in the box.  Without doubt, it was a penalty as Naughton’s hands were up above his head and blocked the shot, but the right-back was less than a yard away from Kevin Nolan, so there was nothing deliberate about the handball.  However, Mark Noble dragged the penalty badly wide and despite dominating the game for the next 30 minutes, West Ham were unable to find a breakthrough and the numbers were then evened up when James Collins was dismissed for a second bookable offense.

Putting the "Chav" into Xavi

Putting the “Chav” into Xavi

Up until the 90th minute, the best efforts for both sides had been a Stewart Downing chance in the box, which Hugo Lloris did brilliantly to block; and a free-kick for Spurs, which was first taken by a pitch-invading West Ham supporter, who got the attempt on target, something that Christian Eriksen failed to do when the intruder was caught and removed.  However, during injury time, Eric Dier – the young central defender who joined from Sporting Lisbon in the summer – popped up in a striking position and scored on his Tottenham debut to give Mauricio Pochettino a win in his first Premier League match in charge of the club.  Not only did that goal secure all three points for Spurs, it also helped banish the memories of the 2013/14 season, a campaign that saw us lose three times to West Ham. Read more of this post

Premier League Preview 2014/15

New teammates John Terry and Diego Costa square off during last year's Champions League

New teammates John Terry and Diego Costa square off during last year’s Champions League

Over the last month, while I have been preparing to write this preview for the 2014/15 Premier League season, I have only been able to envision one team winning the title: Chelsea.  Jose Mourinho has an incredible record in his second year at all of the clubs he has managed (lifting the domestic title with Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid in such campaigns) and this will be his sophomore season in his return to Stamford Bridge.  Add to that the fact that they have invested very shrewdly in the summer with the signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa – filling two of their main holes in their team from last year – and all I could imagine was Chelsea topping the Premier League and to be honest, the odds are on that happening.

However, in the last week I have started to doubt this viewpoint – after all, I had Argentina claiming the World Cup every time I filled out a bracket – sometimes, things are just too obvious.  For the last seven days, the image of one other club lifting the league title just could not be shaken from my head – so which team?

Arsenal: the arch-rivals to the side I support and who have brought in the Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez during the summer, strengthening their options up front, while they have the best collection of creative midfielders this side of the German national team.  On that note, they have also hired a fitness coach from Die Mannschaft and that should help them avoid them suffering the costly injuries of recent campaigns, last year most notably to Aaron Ramsey, who looked stronger than ever in the Community Shield last Sunday.  Nevertheless, there is still a fragility in Arsene Wenger’s side in the centre of defense and they would need a dramatic improvement in their results away from home against their main rivals if they were to make the leap from fourth to first this year.

Manchester City – the reigning champions and a team that has maintained stability this summer by securing David Silva and Sergio Aguero on long-term deals, while only adding a couple of new faces, including the veteran Frank Lampard on loan from the new MLS club, NYCFC.  Although the Citizens will be strong once again this campaign, but I think their primary focus will be the Champions League and their domestic challenge will falter as their progress in Europe.

Liverpool – the club that finished second behind City in 2013/14 and were within a Steven Gerrard slip of maybe claiming their first title since 1990.  They have invested wisely and brought in three of Southampton’s best players: Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, while Brendan Rogers showed how much improvement he can garner…wait, they sold Luis Suarez? No chance – they will be out of the top four this season.

Manchester United – now led by self-proclaimed genius Louis Van Gaal (to be fair, a lot of people in the media seem to agree with that prognostication).  Many pundits are tipping United to be back among the title contenders, I’m assuming they have not looked at the Red Devils squad list and seen that their central defensive options amount to Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.  Look for Tim Krul to make a crucial save from the penalty spot to deny Manchester United a victory against Newcastle. Poetic justice.

Everton – a side that made significant progress both stylistically and results wise last year under the guidance of Roberto Martinez.  However, though they have improved their playing squad with the addition of Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry as permanent transfers over the summer, both of them were at Goodison Park last term on loan, so their team has not actually progressed from where they were in 2013/14.  I think they will be competitive in the league, but the added pressure of the Europa League will see them drift away from the top four by March.   Read more of this post

World Cup Semi-Finals – Picking Sides

Messi strikes late against Iran to give Argentina the victory

Messi strikes late against Iran to give Argentina the victory

The 2014 World Cup has been a fantastical spectacle of football so far, as the group stages had plenty of goals and excitement, while the knockout rounds have managed to continue delivering drama, even as the scoring ratio has dropped and the favorite in each tie has progressed.  With the semi-finals taking place today and tomorrow – and no natural allegiance left for me since the USA narrowly succumbed to Belgium in extra-time – here is my preference for which of the four remaining countries I would most like to see win it all at the Maracanã this Sunday:

1. Argentina

I have always had an affinity for Argentina thanks to Tottenham legends Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa*, but I became an even bigger fan of them in the 2006 World Cup.  In that tournament, their blend of football was enthralling and spectacular to watch, most notably in their 6-0 demolition of Serbia that included my favorite goal of all time – the 25 pass move finished by Esteban Cambiasso. Although they have not been anywhere near as entertaining or convincing this time around, Lionel Messi has played very well and controlled games in the style of his predecessor in the number 10 shirt – not Maradona, but Juan Romàn Riquelme.  Everything has been going through Messi for Argentina – who can blame them when you have a player of his ability – and that will continue to be the case as Angel DiMaria is out for the rest of the World Cup, while Sergio Aguero is far from full-fitness, even if he is likely to be risked against the Netherlands.

*ESPN just released a fantastic 30 for 30 documentary about Ardiles and Villa’s time at Spurs, focusing on the effect that the Falklands War had on the two Argentinian footballers playing in England at the time. I highly recommend checking it out.

My bias is further increased by the fact that every single time I filled in a bracket prior to the World Cup, the only thing that I did not change my mind on was who I though would win this World Cup – Argentina.  I picked them when the draw for the tournament was made in December and again in the preview just before the World Cup kicked off last month, so it would be nice to be proven right about one thing, given that my other three semi-finalists in the latter post were Chile (not bad, only missed out on getting past Brazil on penalties), Spain (oops); and Switzerland (pushed Argentina in the Round of 16, but I thought they would top the group and have an easier route).  Beyond just wanting to be right though, I really want this Argentina team – in particular Lionel Messi – to end their drought in international tournaments and win this World Cup.

2. Germany

Another country that I started to really root for in 2006 and my enjoyment of Germany came through another former Tottenham player, Jürgen Klinsmann.  When he was manager of the German national side, Klinsmann completely overhauled their style of play into one that was attacking and exciting to watch, far different from the 2002 version of the team that was effective but dull as they made the World Cup final in spite of a paucity of talent (outside of Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn, they did not have any top class players).  Now they have an abundance of great midfielders – my favorite being Thomas Müller, but also Mesut Özil (whom I liked a lot more before he went to Arsenal, but still rate as a fantastic passer of the ball), Toni Kroos, Andre Schürrle; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Götze and Sami Khedira – the best goalkeeper in the world, Manuel Neuer; and the joint top-scorer in World Cup history, Miroslav Klose, who needs one more goal to pass Ronaldo and have the record to himself.  They are a vibrant side to watch and their defeat of France means they are the first nation to appear in four consecutive World Cup semi-finals; while they have also reached this stage in their last five major tournaments.  However, it has been 24 years since they won the biggest prize of all and they have not done so as a unified nation, as all three of their triumphs have come under the moniker of West Germany.  Coincidentally, the only other two countries that have won the World Cup three times, lifted it for a fourth time 24 years after they had their third: Brazil (1970 – 1994) and Italy (1982-2006) – the Germans have a great chance to continue that trend in 2014. Read more of this post

World Cup 2014 Preview and Predictions

Brazil-2014-World-CupThe 2014 World Cup starts in São Paulo next Thursday as the host country, Brazil, take on Croatia. Although I made a gut-reaction to the draw when it was made, a lot has changed since then.  Most notably, Radamael Falcao – who I predicted would be the Golden Boot winner – is out of the tournament having injured his ACL in January, an absence that will severely hamper Colombia’s chances of making the latter stages.  Also, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo head to Brazil short of full fitness, so their ability to lift their respective countries to a new level is questionable.

Group A

The most obvious place to start is with Croatia the hosts, Brazil, who will be playing a World Cup on home soil for the first time since 1950, when they were beaten in the final match by Uruguay.  Neymar is the player most likely to inspire the Seleção to their sixth triumph, having been the cornerstone of their success last summer in the Confederations Cup.  However, over the last two club seasons with first Santos and then Barcelona, Neymar has not reached the high levels he set in the earliest part of his career, but is definitely the one Brazilian in 2014 who could put the team on his back and take them a long way in the World Cup.  With the pressure rising on the hosts, Neymar’s jovial personality, along with David Luiz, should help Brazil’s squad relax and ease the pressure on them.  Since they reappointed Luiz Felipe Scolari – who took them to World Cup glory in 2002 – as manager, the team unity has improved dramatically and it would shock nobody if they went all the way this summer.  If the tournament were merely a measure of midfield talent, then I would rate Brazil as joint favorites with Spain and Germany, since the collection of Neymar, enforcer Luis Gustavo, Paulinho, Fernandinho, Ramires and Willian are as good as any you would find at this year’s World Cup.  However, up front Hulk, Fred and Jo are hardly up to the standards of legends like Ronaldo or Romario, while in goal, Julio Cesar looks like his best years are behind him and he has spent the last few years playing for Queens Park Rangers and Toronto FC.  I do not think the gaps in their squad will cost them in the group stages, which I expect them to come through comfortably, but in the second round they will face either Spain, Netherlands or Chile (sorry Australia) and against that level of opponent, they could be found out.

Brazil face Croatia in their first match and the Europeans will be without their main striker, Mario Mandzukic, who was sent off in the second leg of their playoff against Iceland and is suspended for the contest.  In his place will come the Brazilian born Eduardo, while they will also have a Champions League winner in the form of Luka Modric in their starting lineup.  Modric is just one of four former Tottenham players in Croatia’s squad, joining Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who spent some time at White Hart Lane on loan, though never made an appearance for Spurs.  With a tough opener, it does not get any easier for Croatia who must play in the tropical Amazonian conditions of Manaus in their second game against Cameroon, though if they can play a possession game against the African champions, the heat might actually favor them.  The big question for Cameroon is whether or not they can keep Samuel Eto’o happy, since the veteran striker refused to play a match against Cabo Verde in 2012 because of what he described as an “amateurish” setup of the national side – move over Roy Keane.  The strength for the Indomitable Lions is in the centre of midfield, where they have Stephen Mbia and Alex Song, while the best option up front might not actually be Eto’o, but rather Vincent Aboubakar, who scored 16 for Lorient in Ligue 1 this season.

Finally in Group A comes Mexico, who would not have even made it to the playoffs had they not been rescued by the USA scoring late on against Panama to keep El Tri in fourth place in the Hexagonal qualifying group, despite their own loss to Costa Rica.  It is not just the struggles in qualifications that suggest Mexico may perform badly in Brazil, they will also be without their best player, Carlos Vela, who has made himself unavailable for selection due to his poor relationship with the country’s football association.  However, they have made it to the Second Round of the last five World Cups and new manager Miguel Herrera has fostered more of team spirit in the squad.  Up front, Oribe Peralta is a proven goalscorer, while Javier Hernandez, who did not have a great season for Manchester United, still provides a threat to opponents and could make a good impact off the bench in particular.

Predicted Group Standings: 1. Brazil 7 points; 2. Mexico 4 pts; 3. Croatia 3 pts; 4. Cameroon 1 pt. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – Germany 2006

Unknown-2In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am doing a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts:Italia 90USA 94France 98, Japan/South Korea 2002

By the summer of 2006, my support of the English national team had worn very thin and I expected nothing other than a disappointing exit from the World Cup in Germany, most likely on penalties.  My negative expectations were colored by the end of Tottenham’s season, when they had missed out on finishing above Arsenal in fourth place – and thus qualifying for the following campaign’s Champions League – in their final Premiership match. Memorably, they lost to West Ham with many players feeling the ill effects of having some dodgy lasagna the night before.  While my love of club over country had always existed, it was growing stronger as I was, by that point, a Spurs season ticket holder and also traveled to several away games each year.  As well as Tottenham being my main footballing interest, my desire to move to the United States – which had been growing ever since my first trip to Brooklyn in 2000 –  made me feel even less connected to the patriotic fervor that always surrounds the English national team in the lead up to major championships. By the end of the tournament, I was officially done with the England football team and within 9 months, I finally made the move to New York.  Before all that though, came some football!

Group Stages

Group A: 1. Germany; 2. Ecuador; 3. Poland; 4. Costa Rica

Although they had made the final of the 2002 World Cup, Germany had been a team in decline since their 1996 European Championships success in England.  However, under the stewardship of Jürgen Klinsmann, a new wave of youth players were brought through for the World Cup in 2006, which was to be played in Germany.  Instead of the traditional manner that the country had previously played, which was controlled and measured, Klinsmann brought in a vibrant, pacy, attacking style of play that won over not just the German public but also many football fans from different nations.  Up front, two Polish born strikers led the line and Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski had an immediate impact in the first game against Costa Rica, with the former claiming two goals in a 4-2 victory for the host nation.  More than just being a win to start the tournament, the exhilarating performance by Germany gave their supporters hope, while their first and fourth goals were fantastic strikes by Phillip Lahm (a mint finish…) and Torsten Frings, meaning that Paulo Wanchope’s brace was mere consolation for Costa Rica.

Neither of the Polish-born strikers scored in Germany’s second match against Poland, but the hosts still picked up another win thanks to an injury time goal by Oliver Neuville; then Klose got two and Podolski the other in their final group game with Ecuador to give Klinsmann’s team a 3-0 victory and a perfect 9 points in the first round.  Although they lost that final fixture in Group A, Ecuador still qualified for the knockout stages as they had already beaten Poland 2-0 and Costa Rica 3-0.

Group B: 1. England; 2. Sweden; 3. Paraguay; 4. Trinidad and Tobago

It only took three minutes for England to get their first goal at the 2006 World Cup, as a David Beckham free-kick was turned into his own net by Paraguay’s captain, Carlos Gamarra. That was as good as it got for Sven Goran Erikkson’s team for the next 170 minutes of playing time however, as they ended up beating the South Americans 1-0, then took 83 minutes to break through against the minnows, Trinidad and Tobago.  A second goal in injury time from Steven Gerrard – past Shaka Hislop, who he had also beaten in the last moments of the FA Cup final a month before – could not hide the fact that England were far below par, but they had picked up six points from their opening two matches and qualified for the knockout stages even before their 2-2 draw with Sweden.  The Swedes finished in second place despite their disappointing 0-0 draw with Trinidad and Tobago to start their campaign, as they beat Paraguay 1-0 thanks to an 89th minute strike from Freddie Ljungberg.

Cambiasso finishes a breathtaking move for Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro

Cambiasso finishes a breathtaking move for Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro

Group C: 1. Argentina; 2. Netherlands; 3. Côte D’Ivoire; 4. Serbia & Montenegro

Watching Argentina in their first match against Côte D’Ivoire, I was mesmerized by the beautiful play of Juan Roman Riquelme, whose passing and control of the game was like seeing a metronome playing football.  Riquelme’s pass to Javier Saviola for Argentina’s second goal in that match was pure magic and their performance against Serbia in the second round of fixtures made me fall in love with the team.  Argentina won the match 6-0, but their second was absolutely beautiful – a 26 pass move that ended with Esteban Cambiasso playing a ball into Hernan Crespo, who back heeled it to Cambiasso once more and the midfielder provided the finish to the best goal I have ever seen live.  The final goal of the match was scored by a very young Lionel Messi – who also provided an assist for the fifth – which remains to this point the only time he has found the net in the World Cup.

What had been billed as a group of death before the tournament, Group C actually ended up being a saunter for Argentina and the Netherlands, as the Dutch also won both of their first two fixtures, meaning both had qualified prior to playing out a goalless draw.  Arjen Roben scored the only goal in the Netherlands’ contest with Serbia; then Robin Van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy were both on target against Côte D’Ivoire.  Although their involvement ended early in their first World Cup, Côte D’Ivoire still had one thing to cheer about as they came from 2-0 down to beat Serbia 3-2 in their final group match.

Group D: 1. Portugal; 2. Mexico; 3. Angola; 4. Iran

After they had reached the final of the European Championships in 2004, there were high expectations for Portugal in 2006 as they headed into the World Cup led by the manager who had won the trophy with Brazil four years earlier, Luiz Felipe Scholari.  The biggest asset for Portugal was that they had three of their best players of the last 15 years all available at once, as Luis Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo all lined up for them.  They had no problems in the group stages, winning all three of their matches and finishing top of the group, while Mexico sneaked through by drawing against Angola and beating Iran 3-1.  And there’s not much more to say about Group D, so moving on…

Group E: 1. Italy; 2. Ghana; 3. Czech Republic; 4. United States

Italy came into the tournament with their domestic game in severe crisis, as the calcipoli scandal was unfolding, where Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio were found to have been match-fixing through the selection of favorable referees for their fixtures.  However, the national side were seemingly gelled in the face of adversity and qualified top of their group thanks to a victory over Ghana in their first match; a draw with the United States in a game that saw three people sent off; then a 2-0 victory over Czech Republic.  The Czechs had started well in the tournament, beating the US 3-0 in an impressive performance, highlighted by two fantastic goals from Tomáš Rosicky, but they followed that up with a 2-0 defeat to Ghana before the defeat to Italy in their final match.  The Black Stars were the only African nation to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup, as they confirmed their place with a 2-1 victory over the United States in their third group game, with Stephen Appiah scoring the winner from a penalty spot in stoppage time at the end of the first half.

Graham Poll doing his magic card tricks

Graham Poll doing his magic card tricks

Group F: 1. Brazil; 2. Australia; 3. Croatia; 4. Japan

As they will this summer, Brazil started their 2006 World Cup campaign with a game against Croatia and eight years ago, they earned a 1-0 victory thanks to a beautiful left foot shot from Kaka.  The reigning champions had Adriano partnering Ronaldo up front in Germany and the former got his first World Cup goal against Australia in Brazil’s second match, which they won 2-0 to clinch qualification with one fixture to spare.  Nevertheless, the seleção did not let up in their final group game against Japan, racking up a 4-1 victory that included two goals for Ronaldo, making the joint all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with Germany’s Gerd Müller.  Somewhat surprisingly, Australia joined the South Americans in the Second Round, as they came from behind to beat Japan 3-1 in their opener, with all three of their goals coming in the final six minutes – two of which were scored by Tim Cahill.  In their final match in Group F, Australia came from behind twice to draw with Croatia 2-2, but that contest was most memorable for a mistake made by English referee Graham Poll, who issued three yellow cards to Josip Šimunić before finally sending him off.  The next time Poll came to referee at Tottenham, we offered him sympathy by singing “World Cup, and you f*cked it up”.

Group G: 1. Switzerland; 2. France; 3. South Korea; 4. Togo

Following their goalless performance in Japan/Korea 2002, France were eager to make amends at the World Cup in Germany four years later, but they were once again kept off the scoresheet in their first match against Switzerland, which ended 0-0.  Thierry Henry did end their drought in the 9th minute of France’s second game against 2002 semi-finalists South Korea, but a late goal from Park Ji-Sung denied them a victory and put them on the brink of a second straight group stage elimination.  Switzerland and South Korea had both beaten Togo, so heading into the final fixtures, they were both on 4 points, while France sat on 2. There were no slip ups by the French this time around however, as they beat Togo 2-0 to qualify for the second round, while Switzerland beat South Korea by the same scoreline to claim top place in the group, without conceding a goal.

Group H: 1. Spain; 2. Ukraine; 3. Tunisia; 4. Saudi Arabia

Whatever the opposite is of the “Group of Death” (forgoing the obvious, “Group of Life”) that is what Spain faced in the first round of the 2006 World Cup.  They opened up by thrashing Ukraine 4-0, in which they were unnecessarily aided by a very soft red card for Vladyslav Vashchuk, who had at most given Fernando Torres a slight tug as they tussled for the ball in the area.  Spain then had to come from behind to beat Tunisia 3-1, before finishing off with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia to end the group stages with the maximum 9 points.  Ukraine recovered well from their opening match thrashing, as they then won 4-0 themselves against Saudi Arabia, before beating Tunisia 1-0 to claim second place in the group.

Second Round

I am going to do this in ascending order of excitement that the round of 16 matches produced:

Switzerland 0 – 0 Ukraine (Ukraine with 3-0 on penalties) – this match was like watching paint dry, in slow motion.  It was so dull that the Swiss players could not even make the penalty shootout exciting, missing all of their spot kicks to become the first nation ever eliminated from a World Cup without conceding a goal.

England 1 – 0 Ecuador – David Beckham scored directly from a free-kick to send England into the quarter-finals…not much else happened.

Italy 1 – 0 Australia – In the final minute of injury time at the end of 90 minutes, Italy were awarded a very cheap penalty that was converted by Francisco Totti to eliminate Australia from the competition.

Germany 2 – 0 Sweden – Germany still looked good, but two early goals from Lukas Podolski effectively ended the match as a contest before it had really begun.

Brazil 3 – 0 Ghana – Ronaldo claimed his 15th career World Cup goal in the 5th minute to move him one ahead of Müller for most all-time in a routine victory for the Brazilians.

Spain 1 -3 France – All the good work that Spain had done in the group stages unravelled in the first knockout round, as they took the lead against France, but then conceded three times, including late goals for Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane.

Argentina 2 – 1 Mexico Argentina fell behind early against Mexico, but Hernan Crespo got them back on level terms in the tenth minute and then the contest went all the way to extra time.  In the 98th minute, Maxi Rodriguez won it for the South Americans with an absolutely stupendous volley from the edge of the box.

Portugal vs Netherlands - the first World Cup game with a naughty step

Portugal vs Netherlands – the first World Cup game with a naughty step

Portugal 1 – 0 Netherlands – While the result may not make this contest sound like the most entertaining, it was one of the best games of football I have ever witnessed.  In what became referred to as the Battle of Nurmberg, 16 yellow cards were issued by referee Valentin Ivanov, as well as four reds in a game that saw numerous flash points.  So ridiculous was the officiating and state of the match by the end, three of those who had been dismissed – Khalid Boulahrouz, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Deco – were pictured all sitting together on a step behind one of the dugouts, with the latter two (who were teammates at Barcelona) chatting about the events that had occurred on the pitch.  Oftentimes commentators will state that nobody wants to see players squaring off or a game “ruined by sendings off”, I could not disagree more – I absolutely love watching those types of contests and I think many other people agree with me.

Quarter Finals

The most obvious place for me to start with the quarter-final ties is where my time as an England supporter ended, with their defeat on penalties to Portugal.  The match itself went pretty much as most England performances have gone in the last two decades when they have been getting knocked out of major tournaments: there was a red card to a crucial player, this time Wayne Rooney; ire from the fans towards an opponent instead of the idiocy of the Englishman who has gotten himself sent off (in 1998 it was Diego Simeone, in 2006 Cristiano Ronaldo for winking after Rooney’s dismissal); and then a spirited performance ending in a penalty defeat.  At least on this occasion, there were no delusions that the shootout would end in anything other than a loss, as Portugal’s keeper Ricardo was renown for his ability to save spot kicks, while of the four England players who took a penalty, only Owen Hargreaves – who had spent all of his professional career in Germany with Bayern Munich – found the net (with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all missing).  Everything about the manner of the defeat had annoyed me, but what ended my tenure as an England supporter was my discovery the next morning, I went to my car and discovered that a rear panel had been kicked in and severely dented, most likely from drunken fans who had gone on something of a rampage following the elimination from the World Cup.  What my poor little Toyota Yaris had to do with England’s defeat on penalties to Portugal, I do not know – but it summed up a dissatisfaction I felt with the national team and I have not supported them since.  My animosity toward them was exacerbated when John Terry was named as the captain, around the same time he was sent off at White Hart Lane for saying…something…to Ledley King – for the next half-dozen years I actively rooted against England, now I am just completely indifferent to how they do.

In the other quarter-final match ups: Argentina were also eliminated via a shootout, as the hosts, Germany, progressed after coming from behind to tie the game at 1-1 with ten minutes remaining of the ninety; Italy had a relatively simple 3-0 victory over Ukraine, who had not conceded in their three fixtures since the 4-0 loss to Spain; and in a repeat of the 1998 World Cup Final, France knocked out Brazil 1-0, with Thierry Henry scoring the only goal.

Semi-Finals and Final

In the semi-final between Germany and Italy, it took 118 minutes for either side to break the deadlock and when the Italians did find the net, it was an absolutely beautiful goal, one that deflated the host nation.  Andrea Pirlo played an incisive pass into the area for Fabio Grosso, who hit the ball first time with his left foot, around Jens Lehmann and into the corner of the net, putting Italy within two minutes of keeping up their record of appearing in a World Cup Final every 12 years since 1970 (’70, ’82, 94 and 2006).  As Germany pushed for an equalizer, they left too much space at the back and it allowed a breakaway from Italy that Alessandro Del Piero finished wonderfully to ensure Italy went on to play in the final in Berlin.  There they faced France, who knocked out Portugal thanks to a penalty scored by Zidane, but that was won with a a blatant dive by Henry, who went over Ricardo Carvalho despite there only being minimal contact.

4081zidaneThe 2006 World Cup final came down to two players: Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi.  Before Zidane famously head butted Materazzi in the chest – apparently because of something that was said about his sister – the two had been involved in both of the goals that were scored.  The Italian defender was the offender in giving away a penalty to France in the 7th minute, which Zidane converted with a chip that hit the underside of the bar, went just over the line, before bouncing out again.  Some call it a cool, calm spot kick, others called it lucky – but it was a wondrous moment from the magician who was playing in his final match before hanging up his boots for good.  Eleven minutes later, Materazzi rose highest at a corner to head Italy level and that is where the scoring ended.  Ten minutes before the match went to a penalty shootout, Zidane turned around off the ball and did his infamous headbutt into Materazzi chest and his magnificent playing career was brought to an end when the referee eventually showed him the red card, but seemingly only after being advised to do so by the fourth official, who had watched the incident on a video replay.  Zidane should be remembered for that incident, but also as one of the greatest players of any generation and someone who could do wonders with the ball and performed at his best when the pressure was at its highest level (he scored the crucial goals in the 1998 World Cup final, plus the winner for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final – the best goal to ever win a trophy).  David Trezeguet was the only player on either side to miss a penalty in the shootout and that was enough to give Italy their fourth World Cup triumph, their first for 24 years.

Finally, the return of Larry – who you can follow on Twitter @uccoachlarry – with his memories from the 2006 World Cup which he attended in person (all of his pictures from the trip can be found here)

 

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USA fans before the match with Ghana in Nurmberg

Germany marked the first time I had the opportunity to travel to a World Cup, and I managed to score tickets to three matches, so I packed a dozen books, an iPod, and left for two weeks.  For the first match, Sweden against Paraguay in Berlin, I received my seat due to a last-minute allocation, getting a discount due to a partially obstructed view. I boarded an extremely crowded subway car for my ride out to the Olympic Stadium, the Swedes making their customary yellow-kitted wall of noise.  I grabbed a stadium schnitzel, and, believe me, I was giddy to learn my seat in Row 5 was so close, the Paraguay bench was the object in my line of sight.  Don’t remember much else significant about the match, except for Paraguay’s extremely capable defensive teamwork.

For the rest of the week in Berlin, I touristed and traveled in the mornings, and found a bar or two to watch matches in the late afternoon and evenings.  The WC2006 committee gave all ticket holders free train passes for the length of the tournament, so I even took a train to the Polish border to have a Zywiec in its native country.  On the return to Berlin, we just stopped for no reason, and I exited when I noticed everyone else doing so.  Through some intricate hand miming, I discovered the train couldn’t continue into the city, therefore I was instead to look for a bus marked, “Schienenersatzverkehr.”  Guess I also could have just followed the crowd.

After a week, I transferred my base of operations to Frankfurt and met my (now) wife for her week of vacation.  Naturally, she arrived jet-lagged, but on the day the Netherlands met Argentina there, so we had a very nice pork knuckle lunch near the main square as Dutch fans serenaded all within the town limits.

The next day, we headed to Nuremberg to see the United States and Ghana.  We had a great lunch of tiny sausages, I ran into a couple of people I knew, and we went off to the stadium.  Of course, I only had one ticket, so she found the official FIFA fan fest area to watch on her own.  The US crowd did our anthem proud, Dempsey got the red, white, and blue level, but the team couldn’t recover from the first-half stoppage time penalty conceded.

Aussie Aussie Aussies!

Aussie Aussie Aussies!

We continued our travels, visiting Heidelberg during its bridge festival, taking a Rhine cruise, and watching matches wherever we happened to be.  We watched Ukraine versus Tunisia at the fan fest in Frankfurt, with seats lining the Main River and the 30 foot screen placed squarely mid-stream.  That horror show of a match between Portugal and the Netherlands, featuring 16 cards and four expulsions also stands out.

Next stop in the list was Kaiserslautern for a Round of 16 match between Italy and Australia.  Typically, before the match, K-town (Ramstein AFB is not far away, and most service men and women seemed to use this moniker) crawled with Aussies having a great time.  As I again only had the one ticket, my wife scouted a place to watch and found the local branch of the Hofbrauhaus for viewing.  Again, the match proved mostly tactical, featuring careful play from the heavily favored Italians, and they advanced on a highly dubious penalty in the last minute of stoppage time.  Then the Italians finally made their presence felt in town with a long, flag-waving, whistle-blowing victory parade.

The next day we left our hotel, and I hopped a train to take me back to Berlin so I could fly home.  I arrived in Hanover for my train switch not long after the match between France and Spain had ended.  Judging merely from the singing and friendliness of both sets of fans, I had no idea which team had won.   As I walked toward my car for my Berlin leg, three more friends from college greeted me with bear hugs.  I had the chance to sit outside the Berlin train station reminiscing with friends before boarding that last flight home.

And then, who can forget that Zidane head butt.  I still have a hard time believing Italy won that cup given their display against Australia.

 

 

 

World Cup Memories – Japan/South Korea 2002

379In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am doing a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts:Italia 90USA 94, France 98, Germany 2006

The World Cup in 2002 could not have arrived at a better time for me, as it started a few weeks after I had finished the exams for my final year of University, but I was still on campus for the first round with nothing to do but to get up early to watch the games in the bar.  Half way through the tournament, I headed to Northern California for a couple of weeks to visit some relatives, which meant that I was viewing the quarter-finals onwards at very strange hours, with the impression that I was the only person who cared about the World Cup for many miles around.  It also resulted in me being nonplussed when England did exit in the last 8, since staying up until 2am to watch the match on the edge of the Redwood Forests enabled me to be removed from the usual nationalistic euphoria that accompanies the national team, especially as they approach the latter stages of a major tournament.  Full disclosure: the final started at 4am on the west coast and, despite my best efforts to set enough alarms to wake up in time for the kick off, I only managed to join the game at half-time – though the second-half was when both of the goals were scored. That is jumping ahead however, so let’s start off with not the group stages, but a game nine months before the World Cup even began.

Germany 1 – 5 England – September 1st, 2001

“Five one, even Heskey scored” became the refrain from the England fans to taunt the Germans, who were thrashed on their own turf in a qualification game for the 2002 World Cup.  Sven Goran Eriksson – the country’s first non-English national team manager – was hailed as a genius who was going to lead the nation back to World Cup triumph once again; while Michael Owen – who had continued his progression from the boy wonder tag he had earned when he scored the fantastic goal against Argentina in 1998 – scored a hat-trick against Germany.  The fact that the opponents were nothing like the quality of their predecessors – who had knocked England out of the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships on penalties – did nothing to abate the enthusiasm in the nation, especially as it marked the second consecutive competitive victory over Germany, after they had failed to achieve any between 1966 and 2000.

-However, I was in a completely different place, both figuratively and literally, to enjoy that victory for the country in which I was born.  I had spent the summer of 2001 in western Massachusetts, working on a summer camp and had then spent a couple of weeks touring the north-east; based in Brooklyn using an Amtrak pass to visit Philadelphia, Washington D.C, and Boston. Towards the end of my trip, I decided to pay for a flight up to Buffalo so that I could see Niagara Falls, a decision that meant my funds for the summer ran out a couple of weeks earlier than I had originally planned for, so I changed my flight home from September 15th to the 1st.  Obviously there ended up being major benefits to my leaving New York when I did, but at the time the only relevance the alteration of departure date had to me was an early end to the best summer of my life.  I did not even realize that I was flying home during the England vs Germany match and I think I remember hearing people talking about the result on the airplane, but it is possible that I did not find out the score until I landed at Heathrow Airport and saw the jubilant headlines on all of the newspapers. Of course, that result did not actually gain qualification for England to the World Cup and they had to come from behind to earn a 2-2 draw against Greece to clinch the place, with David Beckham earning his own redemption for the red card from 1998 as he scored from a free-kick in the final minute of injury time.

In the build up to the finals, Beckham was injured while playing for Manchester United in a Champions League quarter-final on April 10th, a matter of weeks before the World Cup was to start on May 30th.  Not only were England’s hopes considered to be riding on how quickly the midfielder could recover, but everyone in England learned the word “metatarsal”, especially when Gary Neville suffered a similar injury that ruled him out of the squad for South Korea and Japan. My fervor for the England team had diminished as I could only stand the disappointment of being a Spurs supporter if I did not take the travails of the national side too much to heart, plus my enthusiasm had been decreased even further in 2001 when Sol Campbell – an important defender for both club and country – had defected to arch-rivals Arsenal.  That is probably enough background however, so onto the tournament itself – the first not only to be held in Asia, but also to have co-hosts as matches were played in Japan and South Korea, both of whom were given an automatic place in the competition. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – France 98

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In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90, USA 94; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

Two years prior to the 1998 World Cup, England had made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships where they were once again knocked out on penalties by Germany, after they had come the width of a post and Paul Gascoigne’s toe length away from winning the match in extra-time.  The tournament had been held in England and the fervor and excitement around the team had reached fever pitch beforehand with the release of the anthem “Three Lions” by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds.  The unfortunate manner of their exit in those European Championships – although they once again were beaten on penalties, it was not until the first round of sudden death since both sides converted their first five spot-kicks – there was a growing belief that the generation of England players could actually achieve World Cup glory for the first time since 1966.

One of the most exciting things for me about France 98 was not just the increased expectations for England – which had grown even further thanks to a victory in Le Tournoi, a friendly tournament held in the summer of 1997 and also featuring Italy, France and Brazil – but also during the competition, there were going to be special episodes of Fantasy Football League.   The show was based around the premise – unsurprisingly – of a fantasy football league, with various celebrities having teams as well as the two hosts, the aforementioned Baddiel and Skinner. In truth, it was just a vehicle for comedy about football and had started on Radio 5, before transferring to the BBC2 between 1994 and 1996, but the show had been off the air for two years, thus its return – on a different channel – was almost as exciting for me as the tournament itself.  Essentially, Baddiel and Skinner were just fans of the game so their comic take came from a place that was very relatable to the average supporter, just phrased in a much funnier way.

There were several highlights of Fantasy Football League that summer, but the one that stick in my head 16 years later is Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, an Arsenal fan, blaming the national team’s failings on the “Tottenham influence”.  France 98 was probably the height of my England fandom – the end of which I will cover in the 2006 Memories – in part because their manager at the time was the Spurs legend, Glenn Hoddle, but club tribalism was always more important than the international game.  Even then – and infinitely more times now – if I could choose, I would pick Spurs winning the league of even F.A. Cup over England being World Cup champions and finding out Rotten was an outspoken Arsenal fan also resulted in me never wanting to listen to the Sex Pistols’ music.  My loyalties to Tottenham also meant that I was actively rooting against France for the tournament, because two of their main players – Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieiria – had just helped the Gunners win their first Premiership title.  The unfortunate side to this was that I never fully appreciated the genius and talent of Zinedine Zidane in his prime.  In retrospect, I wish I had been rooting for Zidane during his career, because he was such a great player to watch.

Group Stages

Group A: 1. Brazil; 2. Norway; 3. Morocco; 4. Scotland.

The holders of the World Cup starting off their defence of the trophy with a 2-1 victory over luckless Scotland, who had recovered from conceding an early goal to draw level before half-time through a John Collins penalty, but then Tom Boyd scored an own goal to give Brazil the win.  Compared to 1994, there was far more style and flair to the 1998 version of the South Americans, as they were led by Ronaldo up front and had the talented Rivaldo in the midfield.  Also, at left-back Brazil played Roberto Carlos, who had come to everyone’s notice with a ridiculously brilliant free-kick in Le Tournoi the previous summer, before he spent the rest of his career sending most of his set-pieces into the stands, the wall and anywhere but the net, as he attempted to emulate that one great goal.

There was plenty of attacking brilliance on display in Brazil’s second victory, as they won 3-0 against Morocco with goals by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto.  However, they were defeated in their final group match, 2-1 by Norway, who scored twice in the final seven minutes to secure qualification to the knockout stages.  That was harsh on Morocco, who had the stylish Mustapha Hadji in midfield, as well as  Yousseff Chippo, Salheddine Bassir and Abdejalil Hadda – all of whom had good tournaments – and they beat Scotland 3-0 in their third fixture, but were eliminated because of that Norwegian comeback and have not returned to the World Cup since. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – USA 94

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In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

It’s hard to remember exactly how my love affair with the United States started, but before I was 19 and visited the country for the first time, I had become fascinated by the thought of one day living in New York.  While several factors probably contributed to that: movies of course, but more than that, television, since the shows I was most fond of in my formative teenage years were The West Wing, E.R, Seinfeld and even Friends; plus my love of the NFL and baseball which turned into full-flung fandom by the time I was 16.  But while the genesis of this interest in America is unclear – and it proved to be a well founded desire, since when I moved to Brooklyn it became clear that it was home – the World Cup of 1994 must have been a huge contributing factor.  Just take into account the opening credits from the BBC’s coverage of the tournament (click here to see them) – it was full of Razzmatazz, an upbeat soundtrack and great images: the Status of Liberty; the U.S. Capitol; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Chrysler Building; three cars bouncing down a road…it all just looked so…American.Now, 20 years later, this will be the first World Cup I am watching as a citizen and fully-fledged fan of the US national team – part of the reason that has come about is due to USA ’94.

Because of the time difference between the UK and America, many of the games kicked off late at night – or in the case of the semi-finals and final, early hours of the morning – so much of my viewing was on a 10″ television in my bedroom, using the bedcovers to shield the light to avoid waking up the rest of the house.  Maybe staying up till all hours to watch football might seem crazy, but with the tournament occurring only every four years I would do it again now, even as a sleep-deprived parent, rather than just a teenager who often stayed up late anyway.

Onto the tournament itself: like Italia 90, there were 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup in the USA, so once again the first round consisted of six groups of four countries, with the top two guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds, alongside the four third-placed teams with the best records.  The tournament kicked off with a glitzy opening ceremony, complete with Diana Ross missing a penalty from just a few yards in front of a massive goal and the USA’s opening match against Switzerland at the Pontiac Superdome in Michigan was the first in World Cup history to be played indoors.  That moment of history was just one small part of the competition’s many storylines however, as there were several fascinating narratives that emerged during USA 94.  I will start with the most tragic.

Colombia and Andreas Escobar*

*I suggest everyone should watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars” about this subject – it is available for streaming on Netflix in the US

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup, Colombia were being touted as one of the potential favorites, with Pele even predicting that they would win the tournament – at the time the Brazilian legend’s prognostications were taken seriously, now he is notorious for being wrong with his picks.  However, there was a good logic behind the thought that Colombia could go far in the competition: they had been in good form in the two years before the tournament – although they finished only third in the Copa America, they did secure their qualification for the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Argentina.  More than that, they had a group of players who were dynamic, exciting to watch and skillful – most notably the big-haired Carlos Valderrama in midfield, Rincon and Faustino Asprilla up front, plus the assured defensive presence of Andres Escobar.

One player who was missing from the squad was the talented but eccentric goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, who was deemed not fit enough to be included in the 23 heading to the United States due to an 8 month spell in prison for kidnapping.  It was a big loss for Colombia – even though he had made a notorious mistake against Cameroon in their Second Round defeat at Italia 90, Higuita was a dominant presence for his country in goal and in the 1989 Copa Libertadores final, he had saved all four penalties he faced in the shootout to help Atletico Nacional become the first Colombian side to win the trophy.  In that penalty contest, Andres Escobar had scored his spot kick to give Nacional the advantage before Higuita shut out Olimpia, and Nacional were owned by the renowned drug lord, Pablo Escobar.  During a period that was known as narco-soccer in the South American country, many leaders of cartels used football clubs not just to launder money, but also as their own personal play things as they competed with each other for domination, with Pablo Escobar even ordered the death of a referee after he felt he had cheated his side out of a victory.

For all his myriad faults and crimes, the one thing that could be said about Pablo was that he loved his football team and wanted them to come to visit and play with him first in his compound, then in the Cathedral Prison where he was incarcerated.  Some of the players were happy to do this and considered the drug lord a friend who had built football pitches in poor suburbs that could not previously afford them – in particular this was true of Higuita, who claimed that following his arrest, the only thing he was asked about was Escobar – but Andrés was more reluctant to cosy up to the notorious criminal, but had little choice in the matter.  However, in December 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police and after that, there was no protection for the national football team and that would prove to be fatal for Andres Escobar in particular.

Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper - the only own goal of his career.

Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper – the only own goal of his career.

In their opening match, Colombia dominated Romania but could not find the break through and were then caught on the break by their opponents, who took the lead through Florin Raducioiu, then doubled their advantage thanks to a brilliant goal from Gheorghe Hagi.  Just before half time, Adolfo Valencia got Colombia back in the game, but they could not find an equalizer and Raducioiu added a third for Romania in the last-minute to make the final score 3-1.  Following the loss, the Colombian players received death threats and it was made known to the manager, Francisco Maturana, that if he should select the midfielder Gabriel Gomez for the match against the USA, the entire squad would be killed.  Although he was reluctant to do this and wanted the veteran Gomez in his lineup, Maturana felt like his hand was forced and thus dropped the player who was known as “Barabbas”.  Once again, Colombia were all over their opponents in their second fixture, but they could not put the ball into the net and in the 35th minute, Andrés Escobar diverted a cross from Tab Ramos past his own goalkeeper.  The look on his face suggested that the defender knew the serious implications that could come from his mistake and although Colombia conceded another in the second-half before grabbing a late consolation, it was the own-goal from Andrés that stood out.

Despite a victory in their last match against Switzerland, the highly touted Colombian team were eliminated in the first round and on July 2nd in the car park of a nightclub in Medellin, Andrés Escobar was shot six times in his car and died.  According to reports, Andrés was berated by people for having scored the own goal and called a “faggot”, to which he replied that it was an honest mistake – and it seems that his decision to talk back was another error since it cost him his life. A vehicle that was used by the shooter(s) was connected to the Gallon brothers – who had previously worked with Pablo Escobar, but then later joined “Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar = People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) but they then paid off the prosecution to focus the investigation on their bodyguard, Humberto Castro Munoz as the sole shooter.  Munoz was convicted and served just 11 years of a 43 year sentence before being released in 2005, while the Gallon brothers faced no charges for the murder, even though their bodyguard would likely only have shot Escobar on their orders.  The Colombian defender was just 27 when he was killed and the death put the rest of the tournament in perspective, though not for BBC pundit Alan Hansen who – the day after Escobar was murdered – said that an Argentine player “warranted shooting” for some particularly poor defending in his team’s second round defeat to Romania. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – Italia 90

In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: USA 94; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

Italia_90_mascotBackground to Italia 90

Because I was only five when it was played, I do not have any memories of watching the 1986 World Cup that was hosted by Mexico, so my only knowledge of Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God“* goal and his brilliant second against England in the quarter-final are from watching videos at a later time.  Thus the first World Cup tournament I vividly remember viewing at the time is Italia 90, which in retrospect, was one of the poorer major tournaments of my lifetime (perhaps slightly ahead of Euro 2004 in terms of quality).  However, it was a formative experience for me since it was only the second time I had the chance to watch anything outside of English domestic football, following on from the 1988 European Championships.  Back then, there were only four channels to choose from in Britain – the Sky revolution was still a couple of years away – and with English teams banned from European competitions as a punishment for the Heysel disaster in 1985, seeing other countries playing football was something completely novel and exciting to my nine-year-old self. Even the official World Cup anthem – Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma – was fascinating and, for want of a better word, completely foreign to me and made me want to take in every single moment of the competition.

*One note about that handball goal – it is often said that the only people who did not see the handball were the referee and the linesman, but in the linked video, it is not until the second replay that commentator Barry Davies realizes that the appeal from the England players is not for offside, but for use of the hand.  It is clear looking back what happened, but in the instant it happened it was easy to miss that Maradona had hit the ball with his hand not his head.

Despite my young age, I had already become a fanatical football fan and was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, so the fact that two of their main players were on the England team (Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker) was particularly exciting, as well as Chris Waddle, who had been jinking around defenders at White Hart Lane for a couple of years prior to his move to Marseille in 1989.  From the 1988 European Championships, I knew something about the Dutch team, whose main three players were Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten and the Netherlands played with a style and panache that was completely exhilarating.  Ireland had also qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history and were led by former England player, Jack Charlton, so I found myself having two rooting interests for the tournament, which was only tough when they met in their first game.

Unlike now, when 32 teams compete at each World Cup, there were only 24 countries that took part in 1990 and thus they were split into six groups of four, with the top two in each – plus the four best third place teams – progressing to the Round of 16.  Another difference was that a win was only worth two points, compared to three now, so a victory and two draws was worth the same as two wins and a defeat (four points for either – now the former would get four points, the latter six).  Looking back at the list of nations that competed in Italia 90 also provides a snapshot of European history from that period:

Group AItaly, Austria, United States and Czechoslovakia – A year before the tournament, the Velvet Revolution had brought an end to Communism in the country and on January 1st, 1993, it peacefully dissolved into two nations: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

Group B: Argentina, Romania, Cameroon and Soviet Union – Following on from Lithuania declaring itself an independent nation in March of 1990 – with other states following suit over the coming months – the Soviet Union was dissolved in December of 1991 and this would the final World Cup at which the unified team would play.

Group C Brazil, Costa Rica, Scotland, Sweden

Group D Colombia, United Arab Emirates, West Germany – The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and on 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified and henceforth played as a united team, including in the qualifiers for the 1992 European Championships, when West and East Germany had been drawn to face each other in the same group. Yugoslavia - This was also the final tournament at which Yugoslavia played as the Socialist Federal Republics of Yugoslavia: in 1992, they were banned from the European Championships due to the Yugoslav Wars, with UEFA making the decision just ten days before the first match was to be played and their place was given to Denmark, who ended up winning the trophy.  Serbia and Montenegro continued playing under the name of Yugoslavia until 2003, but now each compete under their own name alongside Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Group E Spain, Belgium, Uruguay, South Korea

Group F England, Netherlands, Egypt, Ireland Read more of this post

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