Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Maradona out

It has today been confirmed that Diego Maradona will not be coaching Argentina any longer. While his run as national team coach was neither horrible nor marvelous, it did seem that his charisma and passion for the game would carry him through. However, his demands for his entire staff to be renewed as well were simply too much for the Argentinean FA, who will now be looking for a new coach.
Sergio Batista will take over as interim coach for a coming fixture against Ireland; having coached the U-20 national team and coached the Olympic gold team of 2008, he should be considered a good option for the post. However, Estudiantes de la Plata's succesful coach Alejandro Sabella should also be considered as a favourite for the post.
No matter what, a spell of dreams has ended for Argentina under Diego Maradona. Many fans, including myself, had hoped that he could bring his magic from the 1980s to bear on the Argentinean national team, but although the dream lived for a little while, in hindsight, it was obviously just a dream.
I am not unhappy that Mr. Maradona is leaving his post, but I am not happy either. It is probaby the best for the Argentinean national team, but no matter what, Diego Maradona remains the star above all stars.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Raul to Schalke 04

There are probably few players that symbolize Real Madrid so much as Raul, who got his debut in 1994, and has played 740 matches, scored 323 official goals for Real Madrid, contributing to winning three Champions League titles and six Spanish league titles. Although rumours have circulated for a while now, it is now official: Raul is leaving, and he is going to the German club Schalke 04.
That he is leaving is not so surprising, but I think a lot of people, including myself, are surprised that he will go to Schalke 04. Although he will be playing Champions League football, and surely in a German league with great atmosphere, it seems notable that he did not choose to go to the Premier League, or to a more Mediterranean league like Italy, France, Greece, or even Turkey (where another old Real Madrid player, Guti, who also announced he is leaving Real Madrid, is likely heading). Schalke 04 is surely a good club, but not the kind of club that has attracted super stars.
Raul's career is nevertheless ebbing, and it remains to be seen whether he will actually manage to become a starter on the German side.
No matter what, this is the end of an era in Real Madrid.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

El Diego in Venezuela (and El Erik)

I am back in Venezuela after the world cup, to a long football hangover. Surprised was I to see that as I returned my great idol, the reason I love football, Diego Maradona, was coming to Venezuela as well, as a guest of president Hugo Chavez.
Maradona has apparently been offered to continue as Argentinean national coach, a decision that is undoubtfully controversial, although I think he has been good, loyal to the style Argentina should be known for - the tragedy of playing beautifully, of dreaming, but losing anyway...
On TV I saw him stand next to Mr. Chavez as the latter announced that he was cutting diplomatic ties with Colombia. I think the only amusing thing about it all was that I have never seen Maradona be so quiet! It is quite impressive that Mr. Chavez can make El Diego himself speechless!
Maradona is still the greatest there ever was!
But El Erik is also in Caracas!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The best and the worst from the world cup

The 2010 World Cup is over. I feel it was a wonderful World Cup; much better than the disappointments of 2002 and 2006! The following is a top ten of the best and the worst respectively, starting with the bad things:

10) Petty nationalism: Many people only interest themselves in football every four years for the World Cup, as the nationalism and stereotypes appeals to them. They don't watch it for the football. At the same time, the results on the pitch are interpreted to confirm all types of stereotypes and situations in the world, and any comment about a play is interpreted as an insult of a nation. When France's team strikes, it does not mean all French are arrogant and selfish. When we say that the Dutch played like animals, it does not mean that we don't still love the Netherlands. When I say that the Spanish team deserved to have their air down against Switzerland, it does not mean that I find that all Spanish are arrogant....
Football is passion, but people who don't watch it often should learn to relax: it is only football!
9) People who kept complaining about the vuvuzelas: the vuvuzelas rocked!
8) Some empty stadiums: Incredibly, there were some empty stadiums in the first rounds, and I am certain that they could have been sold out. Why!?
7) Defensiveness: In the first round in particular too many teams are more afraid to lose than prepared to win. The few goals scored in this tournament are also an expression of a tournament where most teams are not prepared to take risks. Fortunately, the winners were not one of these (although being very inefficient up front, Spain relied strongly on its defense to win).
6) Some referees: In general the referees were quite good, considering the lacking assistance they get from FIFA and from players. However, still some referees were appalling, most notably Mr. Webb in the final, who allowed too much from the violent Dutch.
5) African sides: The first World Cup in Africa, and all but Ghana were eliminated in the first round. In particular Nigeria and Cameroon were hugely disappointing. Even in the long-term, Ghana remains the most likely African World Champions.
4) The Netherlands: To reach the final the Dutch were stable and efficient, as well as outright nasty (notably Van Bommel should have gotten a red card many times during the tournament). It (almost) worked, but many people miss the beautiful and entertaining football that has made the Dutch admired and respected.
3) The soap operas of the European sides: The most pathetic display came from the French side, but also England, who had a humilliating World Cup suffered from internal dicussions, pressure from the press, and so on. Finally, Italy grossly underperformed, perhaps due to a coach who still lives in 2006...
2) Paul the octopus: Who came up with this stupid idea of a psychic octopus...? Granted, it is funny, but as the tournament progressed the octopus got more attention and I personally got increasingly annoyed that it kept making better predictions than myself... Why not just cancel the next World Cup and let it make predictions - imagine how much money, time and nerves will be spared!
1) FIFA and technology: FIFA is a powerful and conservative organization that does not accept any criticism. Its stance on using some technology to improve the game is outright stupid: Lampard's goal against Germany was seen by the entire world, including the referees, within seconds of it happening, but still, the referees could not change!? I understand it is a more complex discussion, but intransigence to consider it in a game that moves billions, is stupid.

I must admit that I did not have an easy time thinking of ten bad things! In any case, it is much easier to mention the good things:

10) Andrés Iniesta: In my humble view, the King of the Tournament.
9) Diego Maradona: the most controversial person in football, and many would surely not put him on this list. But I do: he has been as refreshing as controversial, has tackled the pressure well, and made Argentina play good offensive football. In spite of Argentina falling apart against Germany, he remains one of the great memories of the tournament. Viva Diego!
8) Larissa Riquelme: Why one would unconditionally support Paraguay!
7) Uruguay: To many Uruguay were the surprise of the tournament. However, the small giants have an excellent team and a great history. The fact that they returned in Africa forty years after their latest semifinal also carries the symbolism that they were the first team to use black players nearly 100 years ago!
6) New Zealand: With three ties the Kiwis were in fact the only undefeated team of the tournament! Bravo for a team nobody expected anything from!
5) The finalists: The Netherlands played their third World Cup final while Spain played its first. Although both teams are giants, this was an unusual final, as it is the first final ever without the participation of Brazil, Italy, Germany or Argentina.
4) Ghana and their fans: Ghana is the best African team, and showed it again, being just one kick away from being the first African semifinalists ever. That they didn't make it was heartbreaking, partly for the team, but mostly for all Ghana's fans, who are surely the best fans in the world! The World Title for best fans went to Ghana!
3) Germany: Germany broke a lot of stereotypes with a young team that any football fan should look forward to seeing in the future. I was not expecting much of them, but was impressed by the German youngsters (notably Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller) who with style, pace and efficiency became the most scoring team of the World Cup.
2) Spain: World Champions for the first time ever, and breaking a longtime curse for the Spanish side. It has been amazing to see how they have united an otherwise disunited country, and knowing Spaniards, I am sure that the party was epic! Cheers!
1) South Africa: the country and people of South Africa silenced all critics (including myself) hosting a marvelous tournament, welcoming the world with hospitality, smiles and a gorgeous country. There are many world champions from this tournament, but South Africa is surely the foremost!

On a personal note, I had the privilege of watching the world cup in five countries, continuously travelling, with friends, family, plenty of beers, smiles, laughs, frustration, disappointments, happiness.... This is what football is about! Still, I have to go cold turkey on this football overdose for now!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Spain World Champion

Spain had until yesterday always been cursed by being the best nation to participate in a World Cup that had never won it. In fact, all they had was a meager semifinal in 1950 to talk about. After their triumph in the Euro 2008 Spain entered the World Cup as favourites and with enormous pressure to bring the long-awaited glory to Spain. It did not look well after opening with a loss to Switzerland (Spain is the first nation since 1978 to become world champion while losing a match on the way to the title), but that defeat may in fact have been Spain's luck: since that match the team seemed more aware of the task ahead, and looked at one match at a time.
Seen as a whole Spain were the best team of the tournament, and a deserved world champion in a final were the Dutch in particular did not win any friends, and where a terrible referee came close to losing the match for everyone by allowing the Dutch to play like animals.
That said, Spain have not been very efficient: eight goals in seven matches to take the title is not overly impressive, and although Spain has not been a defensive team there is no doutbt that the championship was won by their defence around Puyol and Piquet, and with the superb qualities of Xavi and Iniesta. There were seven Barcelona players in the starting lineup of Spain, and the influence of the Catalonian giants is clear in the Spanish style.

The Netherlands had been undefeated until this match (and with this result, only one team leaves the tournament as undefeated, namely New Zealand!), and losing the final for the third time is making it all seem like a curse. Spain on the other hand, now finally joins the ranks of European powers alongside Italy, Germany, France and England. All in all, it was a final with some historical remarks:
  • First time Spain wins the World Cup
  • First time a European side wins outside Europe.
  • With Spain, a total of nine European countries have been in World Cup finals of the 12 nations that have ever had the honour.
  • Second time a World Cup final ends with the score 1-0 (first one in 1990)
  • First time since West Germany in 1974, that a defending European champion takes the world title.
  • The first World Cup final ever that did not involve one of the following: Italy, Brazil, Germany or Argentina.
On a personal note, I have been very critical of Spain this year, but I am happy they won, mostly because of all my Spanish friends and family, who are surely still celebrating!
Viva España indeed!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Europe rules!!!

I have myself before talked about how this was in fact the worse tournament for European teams ever, as only three European sides made it to the quarterfinals. But the fact is that now, in the semifinals, all European sides advanced, easily pushing aside the South American sides that had been so talked about. Uruguay is the only non-European side in the tournament and I don't believe that they would have been there had they played any European side on their way to the semifinal (South Corea and Ghana would also have been swept aside by any European team). '
Truth is that European teams simply had an awful draw, running into each other in the last-16, but that they could plausibly have been in all the semifinal matches like it was in 2006!
Although three European giants, France, England and Italy performed poorly, the fact remains that Europe is the center of the world when it comes to football: the European championships are small world cups, and all the best football and players converges to the European leagues. When non-European players return to play for their home countries it is European styles and cultures they take with them, more so than they are giving it to European football!
In footballing terms, Europe rules the world, and it is perhaps also symbolic that the first World Cup on African soil will also be the first which is won by a European team outside Europe (no, Uruguay does not stand a chance), since Europeans brought football to Africa, and in spite of its popularity on the continent, football is as European as any other of the imperialist exports of the old continent.
In any case, no doubt that Europe rules the football world, and that this will continue for many years!

From disappointment to disappointment...

In any tournament, only one team can win, and it is most often never the team you support... I have the luxury of having many countries I support, but that has apparently not changed the fact that it is never the teams I support that win: Denmark went out early, Ghana dramatically, and yesterday Argentina crashed spectacularly against Germany (who are making good use of their psychic octopus...).
I watched the match in a bar on Place Luxembourg in Brussels. The place was full of fun Germans who of course were delighted at their team who have undoubtfully been the best team of the tournament, yesterday playing some world class counter-attacking football: Bastian Schweinsteiger was simply formidable, Thomas Müller again amazing (he will be greatly missed against Spain) and Miroslav Klose has now scored more world cup goals than Pelé... For the sake of football I believe that Germany is the team to support and for them to take the title.
In spite of the great respect for the Germans and the cool fans in the bar, I was heartbroken and left at Germany's third goal.
Now I know how it is to be English...
Argentina crashed spectacularly, but have been great to watch in this World Cup. Still, there will be much discussion on Maradona's choices, the weak defense and that Messi was another of the most spectacular flops of the tournament. Probably, Argentine football is only walking into yet another period of what it does most in its schizophrenic soul-searching.
As to me, some days full of disappointments, but as with everything in life, I have learned not to expect too much. I will have some beers, continue watching (although with some melancholy) and well, congratulate Germany, and hope they win the World Cup!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

This is what a World Cup is about

The play-off matches are the best thing about a World Cup, as it is when all the legendary dramas that capture nations and the world take place. Such a drama took place yesterday between Ghana and Uruguay: Ghana was as close as possible to be the first African team in a World Cup semifinal, while Uruguay played to reach the glory of former times. Both teams were organised, careful, but the match flowed well with chances for both teams.
Uruguay was seriously weakened when Diego Logano had to go out with an injury, and only a few minutes later Sulley Muntari scored a great goal for Ghana.
In the second half none other than Diego Forlán, with the marvelous kick, scored an excellent equalizer for Uruguay, and the match had to go into an exciting extra time...
This was when the drama came...
In the last second of the match Luis Suarez saved a ball with the hands on the goalline. As is usual, he got the harshest punishment, a red card (direct red card, so he will not play any more in this tournament) and a penalty kick for Ghana that undoubtfully would have put Ghana in the semifinals, but Asamoah Gyan did not take advantage of the punishment for Uruguay, and missed a horrible penalty to the delight of the Uruguayans.
South American teams are excellent at penalty kicks, and Uruguay were no exception: a great goalkeeper and cold-blooded and skilled kickers gave Uruguay the victory and a place in the semifinals for the first time in 40 years for a team that has made history before.
It was truly heartbreaking for Ghana, and it took me a bit of time to get past the drama. But truly, this kind of matches is what a football World Cup is all about, and I would rather not have been without it!
Cheers for Uruguay and Ghana!

Dutch delight

I was at a training course for work as the match between Brazil and the Netherlands started. When the match was only some minutes old, I heard a loud cheer, and discreetely checked my phone to see Brazil had gone ahead. I left the course for the second half and went to a bar with a friend, and saw Netherlands play much better than a lame Brazilian side. After the Dutch equalized, and went ahead 2-1 by Wesley Sneijder, Brazil, who have otherwise been an awesome winning machine the last few years, completely lacked the creativity one often has connected with Brazilians. It was a poor Brazilian side, and the "not-so-Brazilian" style that Dunga has promoted over the last years will surely have to be reconsidered. A Brazil without stars and creativity fell disgracefully to a much more efficient Netherlands side who should now be considered favourites for the title.
I saw many happy Dutch fans, and I am happy for them!