From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.28 :: Jul. 11, 2009

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FOOTBALL / FEATURE

Is the game in chaos?

There remains every bleak reason to fear for what will happen when a tournament as bloated and over populated as the World Cup descends on South Africa next year, writes Brian Glanville.

AP

Landon Donovan of the U.S. in action against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.

South Africa may or may not turn out as I fear, and I am not alone, to be a disastrous choice to stage the World Cup finals, but the mini-tournament known as the Confederations Cup, played there, was strangely significant.

By the time it was over, the astonishing USA team so narrowly beaten in the final by Brazil, all sorts of previous assumptions seemed to have gone by the board and international football per se looked sunk in mediocrity. Never since that astounding day in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, when a ragtime American team beat a seemingly mighty England side (Ramsey, Wright, Finney, Mortensen) 1-0 had there been such a surprising USA side. Though this time, of course, the bunch of obscure but dedicated part timers who had humiliated England had given place to an all professional USA side. Though it should be pointed out that two of those young pros, the striker Joze Altidore and the attacking midfielder, Michael Bradley, son of the proud USA coach, Bob, usually warm the bench with their respective clubs. Altidore with Villarreal in Spain, Michael Bradley, alas suspended from the final, with Borussia Monchengladbach, in the Bundesliga.

Landon Donovan, who scored the USA’s second goal against Brazil in the final, knows all about that kind of bitter experience. As a teenager he was snapped up by Bayer Leverkusen, but never got a game. Recalled years later from the States, where his attacking talents had been highly evident, he again failed to cut the mustard, so he is back in the Major League Soccer once again.

America’s first game against Brazil in Pretoria did nothing to suggest what they would later achieve. They went down 3-0 with a new Brazilian star, the powerful midfielder Felipe Melo, now with Fiorentina but allegedly pursued by Arsenal, scoring one of the goals. But between then and the final, what a dramatic transformation! A handsome 3-0 win against an Egypt side which had been highly unlucky to go down 4-3 at the last controversial kick to Brazil, on a Kaka penalty awarded, it appeared, on the evidence of a pitch side monitor. Three goals against Brazil! And the Egyptians then had the temerity to beat Italy, the World Cup holders, in case you have understandably forgotten, 1-0. The lame excuse by the azzurri manager, Marcello Lippi, that his highly experienced team had ignored his tactical plans in the first-half, was risible.

Nor did he make any more sense after the Italians had been thrashed 3-0 by Brazil in Pretoria. This time Lippi told us, “This is a very disappointing performance, I know. But it doesn’t reflect our real level. I really hoped our physical condition would improve match by match, but it hadn’t been the case.” This is plainly an Italian side in a deep state of crisis. No significant absences; the gang, you might say, was all there: Gigi Buffon, Luca Toni and Fabio Cannavaro who, by an irony, was actually, in the debacle against Brazil, equalling the record of the just retired Paolo Maldini of 126 caps. Not a happy game for him and his defence.

But what of Spain, largely seen as World Cup favourites, who contrived to lose 2-0 to the Americans in Bloemfontein? That would have been their 36th match without defeat. Even in the largely irrelevant third place match, without certain of their key men it is true, they struggled through extra-time to edge out the increasingly effective South Africa team by the odd goal.

Having said all this there remains every bleak reason to fear for what will happen when a tournament as bloated and over populated as the World Cup descends on South Africa next year. To their shame, the English Press barely covered the recent tournament at all, giving excessive space to the highly marginal Under-21 tournament in Sweden, which ended with their own team being thrashed 4-0 by the young Germans in the final.

Note the name of Wagner, the gifted striker who scored his team’s last two goals with either foot. In a German team full of players of foreign origin, he it was, as a fully-fledged German, who ran rings round the English defence. The current full German team, which didn’t, of course, compete in South Africa, is in need of renewal and in Sweden, the signs were that hope is close at hand. But what can one say of England?

Simply this. That in an international football world in which mediocrity is the name of the game, in which potentially powerful teams like Portugal, £80 million Cristiano Ronaldo and all, are struggling in the shallows, England however modest, may well have as good a chance as any. Certainly better than, say, Argentina under the over promoted Diego Maradona, who lost their last South American qualifying match 2-0 in Ecuador. Yes, there is always the precocious brilliance of Lionel Messi, but note that he played in the debacle as well.

Significantly, perhaps, Fabio Capello, with one excuse or another, didn’t bother to come to Sweden for that final; which brought critics on his head, plus the speculation that he won’t be keen to prolong his managerial contract after the 2010 World Cup finals. I’d love to see Steve Coppell, now a free agent, having resigned from Reading, succeed him, but I doubt this will happen. Coppell, of course was an exemplary all purpose right-winger for England before, at age only 28, a Hungarian kicked him on the knee at Wembley and ended his playing career. He was one of the few British footballers of his epoch to have a university degree — in economics, from Liverpool — and brought Reading into the top division after well over a century of trying.

Spain’s defeat by the Americans was of huge psychological significance, after all that talk of an irresistibly bright and inventive midfield of clever little men. If the Americans could resist it so successfully, then so, must run the feeling, could any of a number of leading European teams.

The Times did at least send a sophisticated correspondent to South Africa and he reported alarming transport conditions. Dangerous, in that crime-ridden country, to use buses or trains. Cars? There are huge differences between cities. He gave an alarming account of driving the four hours between Bloemfontein and Johannesburg — a frightening city — along pitch black, unlit roads. So how are the hundreds of thousands of fans next year going to get about the country at all, let alone in safety? It is difficult not to fear the worst. This time, alas, there was no maverick old New Zealander to abstain from the host-vote, so that Germany, not South Africa, got the 2006 World Cup. Too late to do anything about it now.



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