Thursday, October 24, 2013

Real Madrid Fan Club in Liberia

I am not a Real Madrid fan. But yesterday a friend invited me a long to the "Yellow Bar" in Monrovia to watch the match between Real Madrid and Juventus among the recently created Real Madrid Fan Club of Liberia. This is the first fan club of its kind in Liberia.
There was a good atmosphere in the bar, in spite of loud annoying music playing during the match. And the fans were lively and with good knowledge of the match. Although Real Madrid won 2-1, it was nevertheless not the best evening to be a Madrid fan: the team is playing poorly under Carlo Ancelotti. There is lack of creativity, speed and pressure on the opponent, and yesterday they were indeed helped by a referee who gave a thin (although defensible) penalty and an outrageous red card to Giorgio Chiellini. One had to feel sorry for a Juventus side that during the first half largely outplayed Real Madrid.
Real Madrid is nevertheless looking solid to win the group where Copenhagen again lost, this time to Galatasaray. In spite of this, Real Madrid fans have to expect more from their team that what they saw last night (the referees will not always be helpful).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Saved by the USA

Mexico has for decades been the leading footballing nation in North America. But over the last ten years, the USA, their neighbour from the north, with all the historical and social ties that bind them and separate them, has also become the arch-rivals of Mexico on the football pitch. In spite of the USA's massive advances, Mexico has also enjoyed success, taking the Gold Cup title in 2009 and 2011, and taking Olympic goal in 2012. But in 2013 Mexico has surely been surpassed by the USA, who took the Gold Cup title, and was by far the best in World Cup qualification, becoming the first CONCACAF nation to qualify. In the meantime, Mexico was struggling for a play-off match as they suffered to get points, most notably losing to Honduras in the intimidating Estadio Azteca for the first time ever.
Soon, Honduras and Costa Rica were set to join the USA, while Mexico was bound to dispute the play-off match with Panama. They did well last weekend when they defeated Panama at home, but in their last match Mexico lost 2-1 to Costa Rica, and thus had to hope that Panama did not defeat an already qualified USA side, who went to Panama with many of its reserves.
With the 90 minutes gone Panama were 2-1 up, and heading to a play-off match with New Zealand.
But alas, the US Cavarly came to the rescue of the beleaguered Mexicans in the 91st minute: first Graham Zusi and then Aron Johannsson (both to become national heroes in Mexico, with a few rancheras named after them) scored for the USA to give them a victory, a cold shower for the Panamanians, and a lifeline to the beleaguered Mexicans.
Mexico has been poor to say they least; while they surely be favourites against New Zealand, they should not take it for granted, as New Zealand can surely take out the Mexicans on a good day. And this time, there will be no USA around to help the Mexicans!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ghana... GHANA!

I was unable to watch Ghana-Egypt today, as I was still in the office, but was following a live feed of the match as goals were pouring in. Egypt, 2010 African champions and the only African nation to go through a clean sheet in the first round of qualifying seem to have been no match for Ghana!
But let us face the real World Cup facts: only one of these two nations belong in Brazil, and that is Ghana. Twice beloved in 2006 and 2010 for their World Cup participation, Ghana is a nation that embodies the best of African football: discipline, physical strength, technical skills, and not least, the best fans in the world. 
What about Egypt? World Cup participants in 1934 and 1990, winners in Africa many times, but without the stamina to qualify to World Cups. And what are their fans known for...?
No, Ghana belongs in Brazil, and I am more than delighted that they so thoroughly crushed the Egyptians today!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ethiopia can only hope

I went to an Ethiopian restaurant near my place in Monrovia to watch the World Cup play-off between Ethiopia and Nigeria in Addis Abbaba. The atmosphere was good as I noticed a cautious optimism among the Ethiopians in the restaurant. And this optimism only increased in the first half as Ethiopia played excellent and entertaining football to pressure the African champions. They even had a goal disallowed which in my view had crossed the line (there is no goal-line technology in Africa, and it will remain controversial, but I think Saladin Said's shot was across the line), and were largely the better team in the first half.
In the second half Ethiopia went ahead 1-0 on one of the strangest goals I have seen: Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyaema misjudged a pretty bad cross, and when catching the ball he seemed to cross the goal-line. It is as unclear as the first half goal, but this time the goal was awarded.
This made Nigeria wake up, and Emmanuel Emenike equalized with a great strike, where, if anything, the Ethiopian defense gave him too much space. And that is what may make Nigeria a great side: they score on their chances in spite of not playing better.
Ethiopia clearly stopped believing after this. In the restaurant where I watched the match it was clear that the cautious optimism turned to disappointment, and that also seemed to be what happened in Addis Abbaba. In fact, they never really believed they could do it, and the rest of the match they showed no danger to the Nigerian goal. On the other hand, in the last minute Nigeria was awarded a penalty which Emmanuel Emenike scored on, and gave Nigeria a victory. The next match will be in one month in Nigeria. I cannot believe that Ethiopia has much of a chance there, where Nigeria is is almost certain to win a spot in their fifth World Cup.
It is great that the African Champions are going to Brazil, but it is impossible not to feel a little sad for the Ethiopian side. With a largely home-based squad they play very entertaining football, valuing speed and technical quality much more than the overly tactical sides of today (Like Nigeria!). It is surely a bit naive, but it would be fantastic to have a team like that in Brazil next year, if anything, to add a little spice to the tournament.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Intensity in Ouagadogou

I just had the pleasure to watch the first leg of the African Play-off World Cup qualifier between Burkina Faso and Algeria. After Burkina Faso's sensational runner-up spot at the Africa Cup of Nations, they are now looking to qualify for their first World Cup ever. The Algerians are an experienced side who have already been to three World Cups, and are probably still favourites with their many young players plying their trade in leagues such as the Italian, French and Spanish.
In the first half things looked good for Burkina Faso when they got a correct penalty, but Aristide Bance missed it. However, in the last minute of the first half Jonathan Pitroipa, who plays in Rennes in France, brought the Burkinabes ahead 1-0 on an elegant header. In the second half Sofiane Feghouli equalized for Algeria, before Djakaridja Kone brought happiness back to the Burkina fans. But poor defending signified another equalizer for Algeria by Carl Medjani.
In the last minutes of the match Burkina Faso was awarded a highly controversial penalty. Watford defender Essaid Belkalem was penalized for a handball in the area, but on TV it could clearly be seen that it was not a handball, and he even seemed to be outside the area.
It would perhaps have been more fair if Aristide Bance had missed his shot this time, but on his second try he did not, and his goal gave Burkina Faso a 3-2 narrow victory and took the a step closer to Brazil.  However, be sure that on 19th November, the Algerians will give a hellish welcome in Algeria. I hope the Burkinabes make it, but I think I would put my money on the Algerians.

Epic Colombian qualification

A tie at home against Chile was enough for Colombia to qualify for their first World Cup since 1998. So there was a festive mood in Barranquilla, where Colombia has been awesome during this qualification campaign, and perhaps it was some of the reason that the Colombian team seemed to forget that they had to play the match before celebrating. Withing 30 minutes they were 0-3 down against an efficient Chilean side that seems likely to make it to Brazil.
Barranquilla was quiet, but Pekerman, the Argentinean coach of Colombia, must have spoken harsh to his players at half-time, as they came out with renewed attitude and attacking prowess. It took a harsh red card to Chile's Carlos Carmona, a strike by Teofilo Gutierrez and two penalty goals by Radamel Falcao to seal an epic comeback and a deserved spot in Brazil 2014.
That said, Colombia will suffer from the enormous pressure by the hugely expectant and critical Colombian fans, who can be as passionately unforgiven and cruel to their players as they can support them with emotion when they win. Few teams in the world face the kind of pressure Colombian players face, and this will probably be their downfall in Brazil next year, in spite of me hoping the opposite.
At least this time they will be able to blame it all on an Argentinean coach.

In spite of it all, Colombia's star players and excellent style of play are one of the teams that simply belong in Brazil next year, as the World Cup would not be the same without Colombia.

An anticipated elimination

I watched Denmark's match against Italy today somewhat reluctantly. There were other interesting matches at the same time, but with Armenia's victory against Bulgaria, Denmark had, against all odds, a chance for second place in their world qualifying group and perhaps even a play-off match. And I did not regret it: I got emotionally into the match as Denmark equalized Italy's lead, and even went ahead 2-1 in the second half, on two goals by the drunk-driving returnee Nicklas Bendtner. But alas, in the last seconds of the match Italy made it 2-2, and Denmark's sudden dream of a World Cup spot were suddenly shattered.
Suddenly, because they were never really there: two ties against Bulgaria, and an epic 0-4 home defeat to Armenia were the reasons that Denmark did not qualify, and in spite of the emotions of today's match, they had little to do with Italy's late equalizer. In fact, I had the sense that Italy's reserve side could have scored at will, in spite of Denmark second-half dominance. All Danish fans have to face the fact that Denmark is simply not good enough for a World Cup this time round. It is as simple as that. The return of Nicklas Bendtner could not have been more positive, with him scoring two goals. That said, it is still with regret that one looks at a player that has clearly wasted his talent, but he is surely the best striker Denmark has, which just goes to show the very low quality of strikers produced in Denmark...
Italy wins the group, and the second placed side of this group seems unlikely to get a play-off match, which also tells you of the low quality of the group.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Belgium to Brazil

Belgium have qualified to the 2012 World Cup in Brazil with a 1-2 away victory to Croatia on two goals by Everton's Romelu Lukaku (he is in fact on loan from Chelsea, and frankly he is far better than any striker Chelsea has). The victory against their closest rivals in the World Cup qualifying group (whcih also counts Wales, Macedonia, Scotland and Serbia) seals their superiority in a group where they were far superior to their rivals, as well as an extraordinary climb on the FIFA world rankings over the last few years, where they are now in the top-10.
Belgium's return to the World Cup is not only great for Belgian fans (or for fans of Belgian football, of whom I count myself as one), but also for football fans in general: Belgium's rise over the last few years under coach Marc Wilmots (who does not remember his extraordinary bycicle kick goalagainst Japan in the 2012 World Cup?) is the result of targeted work with young players, many of whom are now plying their trade in the Premier League. Besides Lukaku, some players worth mention are Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin de Bruyne (Chelsea), Moussa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United) or Christian Benteke (Aston Villa). There are many more young talents, but these are also complemented by strong and more experienced players such as Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) and Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich). With this Belgium has achieved a near-perfect balance before the world cup. Many may even mention them as outsider candidates, but that may be going too far for such a young team. No matter that, they can surely defeat any team, and they will be truly exciting to watch in Brazil!
And on top of it all, it gives us all an excuse to say cheers in good Belgian beer! Cheers!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A historic day

If anyone were ever to write a biography about me (pretty boring, but please play along), today would be a day to write down: the very first time in my life that I supported Real Madrid! It was of course the Danish champions of FC Copenhagen, whose second defeat in a week would give me more happiness after Brondby finally defeated them last Saturday in the Danish league.
However, after Real Madrid went up 2-0, I must admit that I stopped watching: Real Madrid were not even trying, but were obviously far superior to FC Copenhagen. Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel DiMaria ended up giving Real Madrid a comfortable and easy 4-0 victory, and I am grateful.
But in the end, I could care less.
Instead, I switched channel to watch a much more interesting match, where the defending Champions League champions, Bayern Munich, under Pep Guardiola, played a fantastic match away against Manchester City, winning 1-3, putting themselves firmly at the top of Champions League Group D. In that same group I should mention that CSKA Moscow defeated Viktoria Plzen 3-2, and their third goal was probably the silliest goal ever in Champions League history: