Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another guest column today from Jim Smith (not the former Oxford United manager, I should add).

Sven-Goran Eriksson is an odd manager; one clearly more suited to league football than cup football (which is odd, 'cos international football is about winning cups and it's an international job he's doing), as shown by the way England handle themselves in qualifying and group stages, grinding out mostly wins, the occasional draw and the odd infrequent loss, totting up the points and being on top at the end. They then bottle it in the knock out games 'cos of the conservative way they often play.

We have much to be grateful to Eriksson for. His record is excellent (four competitive match loses, one of those on penalties, three quite easily achieved qualifications, three quarter finals) and he's made England a team that punch at their natural level, top ten if not top spot. One does have to suspect that Sven doesn't have the sheer nous and/or ruthlessness to tactically improvise sufficiently to overturn a game that his team are chasing, that he can't go the final yard. He lacks that which O'Neill, Saint Jose, Scolari and Hiddinck have. What Venables had. In that respect, the naysayers are right - he lets his players down there and he has stayed too long, but what he brought to England when he came in - organisation, efficiency, solid defending, a team spirit that goes beyond blind, stupid, ranting patriotism, shouldn't be forgotten. We thought he was mad when he said 'win the group' was his plan in the 2002 qualifiers, but win the group he did despite Keegan's lousy one point from six in the first two games. (Remember when Keegan played Gareth Southgate in midfield? What the Diego Forlan was all that about?)

I'm 100% certain that Portingale and Argentina fans (not to mention the Swedes or Mexicans or the Dutch) would much rather have ground out a 1 - 0 win in 93 minutes than fought the games they did instead and while I don't think that England will beat Portugal, it's something they are capable of. The worst thing about Britain (and I do mean Britain, not England, although the English are more guilty of this than the Scots in my experience) is an absolute inability to be moderate and balanced. Everything is amazing or shit. Doctor Who (according to its fans) is either in the middle of a golden age and everyone loves it or it's the worst thing ever and the ratings have collapsed. Tony Blair is either the most popular prime minister of all time, or he needs assassinating. England are either a brilliant team who should win everything and keep being robbed or they're lucky, fluky bastards who are overpaid, stupid and smug - and Ecuador are either really underrated, were brilliant against Poland, only lost to Germany 'cos they played their reserves and were going to really hurt England, or they're the weakest team in the last sixteen and even then England only just beat them. Where's the balance?

The British find enthusiasm embarrassing (actually, we find most things embarrassing) and I think that can be quite a good thing, because strident pride and nationalism and anger are a bit pish and lame, but relentless self-eviscerating cynicism isn't any better, really, and that's what a lot of the supposedly smarter end of the UK media do: substitute an embarrassed, off-hand, self-mocking and bet-hedging stance for the equally vile tabloid boldness and call it balance, but it isn't balance at all. It's a diametrically opposite but equally ludicrous position.

England are in the last eight. It's about right. That's our level. Not as good as Argentina, better than Sweden or America. About as good as Germany. For anything better than that, you need a bit of luck and luck is one thing this England side have always been short of. It must be encouraging to have got there without playing to the level that they can, surely? The worry is that maybe they'll never quite cohere and become the sum of their parts. With Rooney, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard all being players that can change a game all by themselves you'd expect this squad to catch fire. But they haven't, and they probably won't, but they might.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

As a mindless champion of the sporting underdog, I’ve been doing down Brazil’s chances of winning this World Cup (see previous post). This is partly because everybody else has been blithely proclaiming them to be favourites and I sincerely hope that they don’t walk their way to the trophy. However, it is also my genuine opinion that they won’t win it, and if they do go on to win it I promise not to go back and delete that bit. This opinion was partly based on what little I’d seen of them up to now (obviously good, but not clearly better than half a dozen other teams), and the unlikelihood of one team playing in four World Cup finals in a row, and one of those gut feelings which so rarely prove to be accurate.

I was therefore slightly relieved to see Brazil not being all that good against Croatia last night. Granted, we shouldn’t judge a team on their first outing, because we all know that England can play better than they did against Paraguay. However, even the below-par performance of Michael Owen was streets ahead of the showing from Brazil’s own former prodigy. If the 2002 tournament was Ronaldo’s equivalent of Elvis’s ’68 Comeback Special, then Croatia game was perhaps the beginning of his Vegas years.

Consider it. He’s overweight, he’s started making bizarre pronouncements (he recently called Pele ‘stupid’), and on Tuesday night he didn’t seem to care about the standard of his performance at all. I worked harder during that match than he did. (Seriously, I had my laptop on and did three pages of a script.) It was quite sad to watch, really.

Although it was also slightly funny, because for some reason Ronaldo has never been a very likeable player, has he? Unlike Ronaldinho, whose tricksy manoeuvres seem to exude a real joy for the game, Ronaldo has always had a sulky quality about him, as though he’s never come to terms with the idea that the other team also want to win the match, and they’re not just trying to stop him scoring because they want to upset him. On the evidence of the Croatia game that has now turned to arrogance. His single decent attempt on goal, a creditable long-range attempt, confirmed that his talent is still in there, but this was precisely what mitigated against any sympathy: it would be genuinely sad if he was trying hard but had lost his touch, but he instead he just didn’t seem like he was bothering.

Brazil as a whole, of course, are much better than Ronaldo. Croatia did make themselves hard to break down, Roberto Carlos was busy running up the wing, Ronaldinho wasn’t at his best but still caused problems, and Kaka’s goal will surely be in the running for best of the tournament. And they wouldn’t be the first team to improve during the tournament on the way to a win (West Germany and Argentina both lost group games on their way to victories in the 1970s, and Italy were of course dreadful in the first round in 1982). But Greece’s win at Euro 2004 should have been a wake-up call for the international superpowers, proving that a well-organised side can shoot down a team of galacticos if they work hard enough.

I think this World Cup will be won by a team that works hard. And if Ronaldo persists in being the footballing equivalent of Fat Elvis, their challenge for this trophy is going to have a heart attack on the toilet.

Friday, June 09, 2006

On a day like today, those claims that the Champions League is now a bigger event than the World Cup (admittedly usually advanced by managers of very big clubs, who have obvious reasons for saying that) look fairly silly, don’t they? When has anything in the Champions League been given this level of coverage, or seen this level of interest in its minutiae? There’s just no question about it, it’s the biggest thing in football. It’s also my favourite thing about football, and in a flurry of excitement I’m going to list some of the things I’m looking forward to.

Obscure matches. Tonight, ITV – noted caterers to the lowest common denominator – will screen Poland vs Ecuador in prime time. That’s the power of the World Cup – a match you wouldn’t usually cross the street to discover the result of suddenly becomes intensely interesting. Ideally I like to watch as many World Cup matches as possible, and I missed a lot of them last time due to the time difference. During this tournament I fully intend to enjoy Mexico vs Iran, Ukraine vs Tunisia and Ghana vs USA. I’ve realised that I’m scheduled to work on the afternoon of Japan vs Australia and am seriously thinking of taking the time off.

Complaining about whoever has sponsored ITV’s coverage. Every advertiser has been leaping on the World Cup bandwagon, regardless of whether the product has the remotest connection to football. Some of these ads have been great: the best of the bunch is Carlsberg’s all-star pub team. Some are poor: whoever did that Kellogg’s ad with the father and son eating cereal in front of a live match, it seems that nobody told them that this World Cup isn’t taking place in the Far East and will therefore be on at congruent times. But you can guarantee that the official sponsor of ITV’s coverage will come up with something that is at best poor, at worst actively irritating. I’ve actually come to look forward to this: watching ITV’s sports coverage is a necessary evil, so you might as well get some fun by mocking them. Their habit of pretending that the matches they’re not showing cannot be seen live anywhere is always good for laughs too.

Park Chu-young. And all the other players I’ve bought in Pro Evolution Soccer and never actually seen play in real life, such as Ryan Babel, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Johnny Heitinga, Xavi, Lee Woon-jae, Yuji Nakazawa, Masashi Oguro, Kim Nam-il and Naohiro Takahara (picking up Japanese and Korean players for cheap is a good way to get out of the second division in PES). I’ve singled out Park Chu-young (not to be confused with midfielder Park Ji-sung) because he’s my tip for Obscure Player Likely To Get Signed. He’s 20, currently playing for FC Seoul, and with an IQ of 150 he brings genuine meaning to the cliché ‘intelligent player’ – so I’m going around saying he’s one to watch in the hope of appearing to know something about football when in fact I just play a lot of PlayStation.

Surprises. I think another big team will go out in the first round this time – my money’s on Italy (not literally, I don’t have enough confidence in my predictions to put an actual bet on). With all the scandals kicking off back home, and a group that features two teams with a higher FIFA ranking (admittedly one of those is the USA, who have a perennially high ranking considering the actual quality of the team), it’s well set up for them to screw up. And overall it’s a very open tournament, with no obvious winner – everybody keeps saying Brazil are obviously the favourites, but I think this is just because nobody knows and Brazil are an uncontroversial choice (they win it a lot and everybody likes them). They made heavy weather of qualification and Arsenal showed that it’s possible to contain Ronaldinho. No team has ever reached four successive World Cup finals, and I’m going to stick my neck out and say it’s not going to happen this year. Plus, I’ve just drawn Croatia in the office sweepstake and stand to win upwards of ten pounds if they finish top scorers, so fingers crossed for a leaky Brazilian defence.

Alex Ferguson getting annoyed with Sven. Because apparently he has been, over the Rooney issue, but I’ve seen no evidence of it thus far. I can believe it’s happening, but the press is claiming that the managers are at loggerheads without supplying a single quote from anybody at Manchester United, and this rather takes all the fun out of it. I want to see Fergie stamping his little foot over the issue. And hopefully breaking a metatarsal.

That’s all for now, but don’t forget that the official MCFF fantasy football game is still open to entries until 1630hrs this afternoon at http://fantasyfootball.metro.co.uk.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I’m posting today for two reasons: firstly, to invite all readers to join the official MCFF Fantasy World Cup league at http://fantasyfootball.metro.co.uk. I’ve picked the Metro one, in spite of it being linked to a tawdry, pathetic rag of a newspaper, because (a) it’s free and (b) it has fairly sensible rules (unlike the ones which take all the skill out of it by putting no value on each player, so you can pick whoever you like, and one absurd league which allows three transfers PER DAY). Once you’ve created your team – or if you’ve already joined the Metro’s game – e-mail me at eddie@shinyshelf.com and I’ll give you the code for the MCFF league. But you’ll need to get a move on and get your team in before the tournament starts.

Apart from that, Jim Smith has sent me another guest column, which saves me putting one up for a few days.

For an Englishman to express a dislike of Diego Maradona is, I'm sure, far from uncommon. It is also far from uncommon for people to attempt to claim that it is an overreaction to despise Maradona for his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal twenty years ago and that it is, frankly, just another example of English football supporters whinging and moaning about a decision that didn't go their way and that they (we) should just shut up and get over it.

Well, no, it isn't and no we shouldn't. The implications of the 'Hand of God' incident should be discussed more often than they are. They should be picked over until the lessons of the that game have been fully absorbed, not into the festering and often tedious resentment culture of ‘England was robbed’ but into football's perceptions of someone still perceived as one of the greats of the game.

The ‘Hand of God’ is an action in a wholly different class to your average footballing decision gone awry. This is not any mere example of rough and tumble or of the referee getting it wrong. (Although only the criminally stupid could believe that Maradona could out-jump Shilton; given their respective heights, it is actually impossible while both are within Earth's gravitational pull.) This is not only the single most blatant bit of cheating ever seen in the World Cup finals, it is also the most successful (Shilton has stated that the England players were so shocked that the goal had stood, they found it hard to concentrate on the game afterwards). So successful, in fact, that the simple fact that it comprehensively undermines the idea of Maradona as polymath player who effectively led his team to World Cup glory is conveniently ignored.

Far more than Maradona’s other given goal in that game (often mentioned as amongst the finest ever scored) the 'Hand of God' presents us with an action that gives a broad understanding of the man responsible for it. It speaks (unlike the other, actual goal) not of his abilities, but of his selfishness, his corruption and his obvious contempt for the spirit, tone and rules of the game that the World Cup is meant to celebrate.

It speaks of a need to win which, in so far as anything in sport can have a moral context, drifted into the amoral. Only a man with no regard for football could have done that. What it demonstrates that whilst Maradona was physically very, very good at football, he was personally not good enough for football. It is, despite his abilities, his moral and personal shortcomings, his absolute failure to reach even the fairly low level of human decency expected of competitive sportsmen, that should brought to the fore by any contemplation of that match. Instead they are excused. To me this is, in and of itself, absolutely inexcusable.

It's not that I dislike Maradona because of that incident but that incident is the epitome of why I find the man quite so unpleasant. Maradona's ‘goal’ and his subsequent attempts to both label it a divine intervention and then to justify it within the political context of a then recently finished war are surely both objectively wrong and morally indefensible? Or is it only wrong to equate football and war when the English press do it? (I would argue that it's always wrong myself.)

The ‘goal’ and its aftermath are indications of the man's monstrous self-regard (a not entirely disproportionate reaction to his extraordinary talent it has to be said) and like his later convictions for drug-related cheating, his public disowning by his own son, his championing of rule by military dictatorship and his very public financial misdemeanours they say nothing good about the man responsible for them.

Are the records of Pele, Cruyff or Puskas marred by such moments? No. In fact, the polar opposite is true. Cruyff’s noble refusal to play in the 1978 World Cup because he could not morally contemplate playing a tournament in a country ruled by a corrupt military dictatorship is one of the crowning glories of his career. Like Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam war it places him on an inspirational moral plane above mere games and competitions. Cruyff’s actions speak volumes about the true calibre of the man. As do Maradona’s.

Of course it is not necessary, or even common, for an artist (and the best footballers are artists) to demonstrate a flawless moral character. That Eric Gill sexually preyed upon his own family does not mean that the typographical fonts he designed are of no use but it does comprehensively destroy the effectiveness and validity of his sculptures that attempts to portray a divine, paternal love to the extent that even an atheist like myself can find the continued use of his work in churches offensive. This is because there are occasions when when the essential nature of someone's work collides with their actions with such force that the work is damaged beyond repair. While it would be crassly inappropriate beyond anything even a British tabloid would do to equate Gill's actions with Maradona’s in anything other than a purely analogical sense, surely both are examples of occasions where someone’s moral shortcomings impact upon any reasonable appreciation of their art?

Maradona is not one of the greats of football for the simple reason that he was personally incapable of playing the game with even a miniscule percentage of the sportsmanship required to make any arbitrary team game functional; to make it worthwhile. Unlike other men who have imprinted themselves indelibly on the World Cup, like Viera, Pele or Ronaldo, Maradona couldn't do it within even the very broadest conceivable interpretation of the rules of the game he was meant to be playing. That, surely, doesn't simply ameliorate the achievement, but actually renders it worthless?

The bloated, ranting, hysterical, drug-crazed Maradona seen weeping uncontrollably on television after England comprehensively outplayed and outwitted Argentina in 2002 will always remain, to me, the single most enduring image of the man. I would go further. That, rather than the spectacular, magnificent other goal from that 1986 quarter-final, should be his visual epitaph. It's a far more accurate and appropriate representation of the man's venal, broken and ugly soul.