Saturday, June 30, 2018

The great Mbappe

The second best thing about France defeating Argentina 4-3 is that Messi and his attachments are finally out of the tournament and that hopefully Argentina can now enter a renewal.
But the best thing about an otherwise weak match (just because it had seven goals does not make it a good match; both sides were poor, with only the occasional moments of its brilliant players) was Kylian Mbappe. We already knew he was a coming superstar from his time in Monaco and Paris St. Germain, but now he stepped up for his national team on the stage where people who hardly know about football are watching.
In four years, most people will have forgotten Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
"Lionel Messi!? Who is that!!!?? Kylian Mbappe is the greatest player of all time!"

Friday, June 29, 2018

Germany out

Germany is out after losing a poor match against South Corea 0-2. This is the first time the Germans are out in the first round since 1938, underlining the poor performance of the defending world champions.
What are the reasons they are out so early? (in no particular order of relevance):
  • Bad luck: Germany is the team that has most shots on goal. Still, they only managed a meager two goals! Of course, the high number of shots can also be attributed to the fact that they had the back against the wall
  • Arrogance: Just like Spain four years ago, the defending champions thought that the mere name could get them through, and it seems that Joachim Loew did actually not study Germany's opponents and adapted style and selection accordingly.
  • Risky style: Four years ago Germany won the World Cup with a high defensive line, often saved by Manuel Neuer acting as an extra sweeper and the ever-present Phillippe Lahm. Even then, they did have some lucky breaks in Brazil. This is not the case any longer: without Lahm and with a Neuer past his prime, their defense was too exposed and easy to overcome.
  • Tired players: As well as with Spain four years ago the players seemed tired and without the commitment to the team that characterized them in Brazil. Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng; all performed below the high class we have seen them play before.
  • Lack of an all-out striker: They shot and shot, but without a replacement for Miroslav Klose or a sharper Thomas Muller, Germany's attack was simply not good enough. Using the veteran Mario Gomez seemed more like a desperate gamble than a real option.
It will be interesting what the German Football Federation will make of this. Joachim Loew will have to go, and perhaps a complete renewal of the team will be in the air.

The plot against Africa

Japan are a disgrace to football. Playing against the poor Polish side, and perhaps wanting to give the weak Europeans a victory out of courtesy, the Japanese relied on Colombia's 1-0 lead against Senegal. A Japanese goal would have put them through, but they decided to stop playing football instead.
Football is not about winning. It is about entertaining. If it were about doing what the Japanese did, nobody would watch it, and I do not understand why a team would not want to be eliminated with honour (such as Peru) rather than continuing in the tournament as a disgrace to the game, such as Japan are doing now.
I hope Belgium hammers the Japanese back to sumo wrestling.

All this said: that Senegal is eliminated because they had two more yellow cards is also disgraceful, since anyone knows how randomly referees award their yellow cards. The referee gave all the small calls to Colombia, who was mainly victorious because of a serious defensive error. Senegal are the last African team out. Nigeria were eliminated after losing 1-2 to Argentina in a match where they should have been given a penalty for hand-ball. With all three North African sides out early (although both Morocco and Tunisia finished off with a decent tie and a victory, respectively) Russia 2018 has most certainly not been the World Cup for Africa.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Belgium in the house!

Belgium are fantastic, and pulled a great 5-2 against Tunisia. With Croatia, they are best team of the tournament so far. Although the have some weaknesses, hey play direct football and have splendid strikers. I hope they make it far, but still I have a lingering doubt whether they will make it when it counts.
Belgium is one of my favourites to go far, a country that loves beer and football, all football fans, not least myself, have a little Belgian part of our football hearts!

For the first time in my life

When Argentina faces Nigeria it will be the first time in my life I will not support Argentina. Argentina are the reason I love football, remembering their legendary 1986 victory with the amazing, incredible and great Diego Maradona (I do admire him more than anyone!). Since then, Argentina has given me both happiness and frustration over the years, but still, one knew that it would be a quality side of players who fight for the Albiceleste shirt.
That is not the case any longer, and I believe that Argentina needs a renewal; and this renewal will not come if they continue in the tournament. The squad is in total disarray; it appears Sampaoli is being thrown out by the players, while players appear to blame each other and nobody (I wonder if anyone, even some of the friends he has forced onto the squad, have told Messi that he should have sweat a bit against Croatia?).
While they may have hope, one thing Argentina must also remember is that Nigeria will give nothing away; that their strikers such as Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho surely have the quality to run around the inept Argentine defense and their even more inept goalkeeper (in case Caballero starts at all). I think Nigeria deserves to be more in the last-16 than Argentina (or Iceland), and African representation would be great.
Finally, in the (unlikely) case Argentina wins, I would rather spare them the probable humiliation of facing a quality side in the next round, likely to be France. The French strikers and midfield are likely to have a field-day against Argentina! And we all know how Messi behaves when something is not to his little liking: just by walking around like a petulant child. He should grow some cojones.
It actually saddens me to say it, but I will support Nigeria.
In any case, I will not be able to watch the match, as I will be in Rostov-on-Don.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The nice thing about Costa Rica

The nice things about Costa Rica is that they have a great goalkeeper and defend heroically. But that is about it, and any football fan should be happy that Brazil won a well-deserved victory against a defensive side.
That said, Brazil were not great, and they are difficult to like with Neymar's petulance and acting. He would be 100 times a better player if he didn't waste his time (although to his benefit, one has to wonder whether the pressure these guys are under is too much. I don't think so; they get paid more than Doctors, Teachers, Nurses, Cleaners, etc., for kicking a damn ball!).
The cancellation of the penalty has completely justified VAR. And I hope Neymar and many of the other players in the tournament who do more acting than playing, are learning the lesson.

Why is nobody talking about Nigeria

Nigeria opened by losing to the best side of the tournament so far, Croatia. But a victory today could put them almost surely in the last-16. And it is not impossible, although Iceland are a good and solid side. A tie will mean that the last match for either team will be a final, with Nigeria having the better chances when facing the minnows of the group from Argentina. But do not count Nigeria out, and today we will have an indication of who will follow the Croatians out from the group.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The disaster waiting to happen, happened

Nobody who has been watching Argentina under Sampaoli can be surprised about today’s 3-0 humiliation by a great Croatian side (where Luka Modric outshone everyone). Argentina are not a football team, and have not been one for long. They don’t work together, have any ideas, and their defenders are among the worst in the world. And when Lionel Messi does not perform, their only real football player, the team ranks below the mediocre levels of mediocrity. Nobody performed today and the slight hope any Argentina fan had (and it was just a slight hope) were dashed by the incompetence of the team.
Argentina are out (I do not mind much their slight theoretical chance if they defeat Nigeria).

But let us look forward a bit. This could be good for Argetina. Just like Brazil’s 1-7 defeat to Germany led them to re-organize, this could lead to Argentina starting from fresh: (1) get some competence into the Argentine FA, who has been largely to blame for all the chaos around the national team for years; (2) revamp the failing Argentine youth system that used to be one of the best in the world, but has failed because of FA incompetence; (3) get rid of many of the current players, notably Aguero, Higuain and Mascherano, and build something around new younger players who, first of all, must play with heart for their country. This generation of Argentine footballs did their part, but shall quickly be forgotten. And all this must also include a farewell with gratitude to Lionel Messi. Gratitude, because he did a lot for the country during a difficult time for Argentine football: great player with amazing skills, perfect for the age of Playstation and Twitter.
But among the best there ever were..??
No way in the world.

I am personally hugely disappointed to see Argentina out. I will not bear my Argentina shirt for a long time. But I certainly hope and expect that a revived Argentina will be back. Not least because of the fantastic fans.

Gracias Peru!!!! Sos Grande!!!!

Peru are out of the World Cup after their initial defeats to Denmark and France. Peru doesn’t deserve it. They played a great game against Denmark and gave France a good fight in which they should have scored. But that is the tragedy of football; the better team does not always win because it is about scoring goals, the one thing Peru failed at.
Peru are a more see-worthy and entertaining team than either Denmark or Australia, so surely any objective football fan will be supporting whoever one of them will face in the last-16 (Iceland, Croatia or Nigeria).
Peru are also a young side, and thus I hope they will not be brought down by these defeats. They should know that they have to continue playing great and that football fans all over the world will be hoping to see their team and the great Peruvian fans in four years!!!!!

It wasn’t jetlag

I have just traveled for 22 hours from El Salvador to Denmark. I arrived a few hours before the Denmark-Australia match. I fell asleep during the match. It was not because of the jetlag, but more because this was perhaps the match with the lowest quality of the entire tournament. Two very poor sides with low levels of technique and organisation.The only good thing in the match was Eriksen’s goal. And while Australia’s penalty can be said to be controversial (in my view it was), it is not the reason Denmark did not win. Denmark did not win simply because they were crap.
And I will sleep again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The best about the World Cup (so far)

For the first round of the World Cup I have been in El Salvador. I have before said how negative I am about this World Cup generally, but I would like to strike a more positive note by mentioning the top five things I have liked most about the World Cup so far in this first round of matches:
5) Denmark's luck: I watched the Peru-Denmark match in a Denmark shirt in an empty bar called Strikers in San Salvador. Denmark were lucky to say the least, but it felt good to finally have some of that elusive football luck that seems to favour everyone else but me.
4) VAR: I must admit that I did not like it in the first few matches. But as I see referees use it with more restraint it is becoming better; players do seem more careful that a crazy challenge could lead to a penalty or a goal, but at the same time referees are not using it all the time. Of course some of the decisions remain unclear (I do not think France should have had a penalty against Australia), but that should be part of the game. Now, the next step is to use it against all the acting that is still way too much....
3) The excuse for drinking beer: Perhaps pretty obvious, but the more I travel around the world I see this as one of the most common and best traits of the World Cup. And here in El Salvador it is no exception amid great people, football fans and the occasional beer.
2) Russia and its fans: Russia has been exceptional against expectations. Of course they are yet to face quality opposition, but an 8-1 score remains a great way to start any World Cup. And best of all they have been supported by fantastic fans that should put all the people who doubted a World Cup in Russia to shame.
1) Mexico and its fans: The Mexicans were very pessimistic before the tournament. Now they have turned around completely and consider themselves World Champions. But they always had a good team and defeated a lame Germany fair and square. But who needs to win if you have fans like the Mexicans? No matter the result they would have turned Russia into a party, and just the more so because of their victory. I will wear my Chapulin Colorado shirt for Mexico's next matches! Viva Mexico!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Qué Kagawa!

Colombia expected to defeat Japan as they did in 2014. Back then it was a stronger Japan side, and a Colombia side that was yet to take on the world stage. Today world renown Colombia faced a crisis-ridden Japanese side.
The first minute was probably crucial for how the match went: Carlos Sanchez was correctly awarded the first red card of the tournament when he made a hand save inside the area that must have been the envy of David Ospina. The great Shinji Kagawa did not miss the penalty (as others have done). Ten men down Japan were surely the most intelligent and fighting side against a Colombian side that clearly do not handle pressure well. Despite them equalizing thanks to a Juan Fernando Quintero free kick (with the help of hapless Eiji Kawashima on goal), Japan were the better team. Not even the great James Rodriguez coming on helped a side that stopped believing in the own skills as soon as Japan scored.
And all respect to an organized Japanese team: they did not seem in crisis, but were instead swimming in confidence. A splendid Yuya Osako scored the winner, and now Japan are suddenly looking like contenders for the next round.

Poland lost to 1-2 to a fantastic Senegal (giving Africa its first victory of the tournament). For many  people Poland and Colombia were the favourites of this group (in my personal opinion Poland has always been the most overrated side of this tournament; they play horrible football, relying on only Lewandowski's brilliance, and their fans are the most pathetic in the world). Now Poland and Colombia will be facing each other in the tournament's first "final".
Colombia are in my view a far better team, but if they play with as little heart and confidence when things go against them as they did against Japan, they will lose and break the hearts of millions of Colombian fans (including myself!!!).

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Disappointing Brazil

Alongside Germany, Brazil has been touted as one of the favourites for the title. And in the first part of the match against Switzerland they looked like possible champions. Right until Coutinho scored his fantastic goal, Brazil were by far the better team. But it seemed as if the goal was the end for them. They took down the pace, pulled back, and let Switzerland slowly enter the match, instead of attacking to get a second goal.
When the game seemed at its slowest, Switzerland equalized after a corner kick. Surely Steven Zuber seemed to push Miranda before scoring, and surely the Brazilians might have had a penalty denied. But this was not why they did not win. Switzerland were cynical, organized and physical. As the match progressed they did some tasteless free kicks and continuously stopped the game. Brazil were slightly unlucky not to score in the end, but one did leave with the impression that Brazil was unable to put on a higher gear when things seemed to go against them. Their reaction was petulant frustration, which the Swiss were good at pushing.
A future World Champion is tested when things go against them. In this regard, Brazil did not succeed today, but hopefully it may be that this meager 1-1 against Switzerland may represent a wake-up call for the great Brazilians.

Mexico defeats the World Champions!

Germany has been hailed as a favourite to defend their title, and today we saw what they are made of: a 0-1 defeat to Mexico, who had studied Germany's main weakness, namely their high and slow defense. This defense also almost cost them the title in 2018, but a German side without Lahm continues to use it, and this gave fantastic space to Miguel Layun, Carlos Vela, Chicharito, and most notably to Hirving Lozano, El Chucky, who scored the Mexican lone winner amid their many chances.
Germany pressed on, but bad luck, good goalkeeping and heroic defending gave Mexico the victory and Germany a costly defeat. But in the end, Germany have only themselves to thank: they entered the match with arrogance and underestimating Mexico. You cannot defend a title with such an attitude.
Mexico defeated the World Champions, but I hope this victory does not go to their heads. There are more very difficult matches ahead.

Denmark winning in El Salvador

I went to a place called Strikers in San Salvador to watch Denmark-Peru after the big disappointment of watching Argentina-Iceland. I was surely the only Dane there (I doubt there are any other Danes here) against a small group of Peruvians who seemed much more into it than I did.
Denmark won, and I was happy. Denmark played bad and were lucky to win, but that shows the luck factor in football. But you cannot count on luck throughout the tournament, and after having seen such a shitty performance, I cannot say that Denmark are certain not to lose against Australia or France. Peru on the other had showed skills but lacked to keep their head cool.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Messi and his attachments

I want to start by saying that Messi is a splendid footballer. In fact, he is the only real footballer on Argentina's side.
That said...
I have before said that this is the worst Argentina side ever. And I believe this more strongly than ever after having seen a side that doesn't know how to defend and that seemed never to have watched Iceland play (Iceland are a solid side that played as predictably organised as they did during Euro 2016 and during the qualifiers).
And Messi was a mess. I am not only talking about his missed penalty, but also about his attitude; he did not seem a man who wanted to win. Much has been made about him being better than Maradona or not and in my view this misses a point after having seen the match today: Maradona played for the team, but Messi plays for himself.  Messi does not understand, like Maradona did, that carrying a team is not about you doing everything, but about making your team-mates better, even if it takes attention away from yourself.

Back in Maradona's day he was as much a star as Messi is today. All eyes were on him and his carrying the team. And he did carry the team, even without having the ball: in many matches Maradona used the fact that all eyes were on him in order to pull back, pull some opposing players along, and thus give space to other skilled Argentinean players. He knew how to use the attention for the best of the team. Messi has no such skill; instead, it seems that Argentinean players have been told that all they need to do is pass it to Messi. Against Iceland is seemed that some otherwise decently skilled players (except the defenders, who do not even deserve to be called defenders) were afraid of taking any initiative of their own, because all initiative is supposed to be done by Messi. And when Messi doesn't perform, nobody is supposed to overshadow him, probably because Messi, as a narcissistic millennial, doesn't want anybody else to overshadow him, even if it may cost the team.
Messi will never do like Maradona, by giving space to other players, because that will overshadow his little own selfish self. That same little selfish self who cannot score on the penalties when it counts.

Argentina are supposed to be a great team, and they would be great if they were not just a one-man team, but a team where the best of each player came to its best (does the best of DiMaria or Aguero come forth???), and not just Lionel Messi's ego.
But Argentina cannot be World Champion. With or without Messi they are simply not good enough. That said, it is a wonder if they want to play and win or lose with honour. As it is now, there is no honour in just always passing the ball to Messi, who clearly does not have the willingness or skills to lift the skills of each of his team-mates; to make a group of players into a team, and not just an attachment to Lionel Messi.

In the meantime, Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0. Croatia are bound to defeat Argentina, and Messi and his attachment will be facing elimination against a Nigerian side that should be much more a team and a group than Messi and his attachments.

The use of technology

France deserved to win against Australia; they are clearly a better team than Australia (Bert van Marwijk has made them a solid, boring, physical team, which works better than what he did to Netherlands in 2010). But what this match will be remembered for is the use of technology by the referee, for good and for bad....
I am not in favour of using VAR for penalty situations or off-sides. It should only be used for outright violence or for goal situations. And in my view France's penalty was such a case: maybe it was a penalty (I do not think it was), but it is clear that VAR does not take the controversy away, but just adds to it. Such a call has a high degree of subjectivity that VAR does not eliminate.
The second French goal clearly showed the good use of goalline technology, and I can think of other situations where this goal would not have been called (think Germany-England 2010 or Brazil-Spain 1986). It is great that the message that the ball is in goal, goes directly to the referee, avoiding the use of VAR. This is a huge improvement, but the way VAR is being used is no improvement, but just serves to further create controversy.
I look forward to a faraway Star Trek future where AI Androids are refereeing. At least they will be immune to temptation, if not to hackers!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Opening match

I did not watch the opening match of the World Cup. But I heard it ended 5-0 for Russia. I am happy for the Russian fans, who have been vilified by the West. Otherwise, not much to be happy about: this is the largest winning scoreline in an opening match ever. So history happened, but not much to be happy about: it just shows that there are too many mediocre footballing countries in the World Cup, such as Saudi Arabia, and that we will have to wait a while before we start seeing some real football (knock-out rounds). And just expect this to be even worse when the World Cup is expanded to 48 teams: opening match between Saudi Arabia and Nepal...

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"World Cup" 2026

Today the "World Cup" 2026 went to the USA, Mexico and Canada in order for FIFA to make billions. Because of course the priority is not the game, but FIFA's money. A tournament in three countries (of which only one can be called a footballing nation) with what seems will be 48 teams participating cannot be called a World Cup but rather a nationalist get-together of mediocrity. The last World Cup will be this one in Russia.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My predictions for the World Cup... or not....

I was going to make my predictions for this World Cup. But the truth is that I cannot. It is not because the usual reason (that I am always wrong). Rather, it is because I have realized I have a hard time getting excited about this World Cup.
I fell in love with the World Cup in 1986, and since then every four years have been special in my otherwise dull life. I remember where I have been every time, and remember many matches in a special way. Four years ago I was incredibly excited, and after trying vainly to get tickets for Brazil, I instead made a trip to many of the countries participating in the tournament, watching the tournament with friends around the world. My first disappointment in this tournament was again being unable to get tickets through a system that lacks transparency and ease.
But it goes deeper than this.
A friend recently asked me "Is it because it is in Russia?".
Absolutely not: I believe Russia will be as great hosts as anybody else would be!

No, the problem goes deeper to football: the ugly nationalism that football promotes (more or less consciously); the corruption and match fixing (having read the book "The Fix", I think this is much more widespread than us fans would like to know about); FIFA's insincere management of the game (well illustrated by the ticketing and the initiatives to expand the World Cup); the widespread misogyny in football that few really want to address; the hatred between fans that still assails the game; the players, who more as examples for youth, spend their time showing off their money and fame, and spend half their time acting on the pitch (football is sadly the most dishonest sport in the world); racism and xenophobia (yes, it exists and is growing in every single country and league); the hypocritical infiltration of politics into football (recently illustrated by German fans booing Gundogan in a match against Saudi Arabia); football's half-hearted and dishonest efforts in really trying to address all these problems....

Many years ago I read a comic by the great Enki Bilal, "Hors Jeu"; a bleak future world in which the last football match is being played, following the deterioration of the game due to violence, money, corruption, etc. While the comic ends with some hope when the narrator describes some children playing football on the street, as a symbol of the innocence of the beautiful game, I do wonder whether this innocence barely exists any longer, and that football is heading towards its own destruction.

The last World Cup...? Maybe I will get excited in a few days, but I have been trying without luck.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Clubs in the World Cup

In my view Club football surpassed national team football in terms of quality and entertainment a long time ago (but it does not appeal to the nationalist passions of people who usually never watch football), and in this context it was interesting for me to look into how the club representation is at the World Cup. So with a lot of time to myself I put it all into an Excell ark and started inputs.
There are 311 clubs from 53 countries represented among the 736 players in the World Cup. Of course, some country leagues, like Norway, Honduras or Guinea, are represented by one single player (Iceland, Panama and Senegal respectively), while others are very well represented. So according to the number of players alone, these are the top-ten leagues in the world:
  1. England: There are 133 players from 28 different countries in the World Cup. Only Panama, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Uruguay (perhaps a bit surprising due to the quality of its players) do not have players in England. The English League is not only the Premier League, but also Championship teams are well represented. The dominance of English teams is so strong that for instance Stoke, with five players, is better represented in the World Cup than giants Ajax Amsterdam!
  2. Spain: 79 players from 22 countries shows the strength of the Spanish league, although one should mention that 35% of these players come from two well-known clubs (more about this later). There are 23 Spanish teams with players at the World Cup.
  3. Germany: 66 players from 19 different countries play in Germany.  
  4. Italy: Italy did not qualify, but still Italy is very well represented in terms of clubs, and would probably be even better had they qualified. There are 59 players from 21 different countries playing football in Italy. This is of course not surprising with many players in big clubs like Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and even Sampdoria!
  5. France: 49 players play in France, with quite variety as they come from 19 different countries. One team accounts for 12 of these players (PSG), but note that the French team with players from most countries is AS Monaco, with 8 players representing 7 different countries (Senegal, Colombia, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Belgium and France).
  6. Russia: Perhaps a bit surprising, but the hosts are well represented also at club level, with 37 players plying their trade in Russia. Although 10 different countries are represented, 21 of these players are in fact playing for Russia. The non-Russian teams with most players playing in Russia are Iceland and Iran (3 each).
  7. Saudi Arabia: 31 players are playing in Saudi Arabia, but this is because Saudi Arabia has 20 players in the squad playing there, 16 of which play for two teams (Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal). Egypt and Tunisia each have five members of their squad playing in Saudi Arabia, and Australia has one.
  8. Mexico: 22 players from seven different countries play in Mexico. Eight of these are in the Mexican squad, and seven in the Peruvian squad. The only player not from South- or North America playing in Mexico is the great Japanese Keisuke Honda (who is one of two Pachuca players in Russia).
  9. MLS (and this includes both US and one Canadian side): The growth of the MLS is shown by the fact that they are represented despite neither USA or Canada having qualified. There are 20 players from seven countries playing in the MLS. 12 of these players are from Costa Rica and Panama.
  10. Turkey: There are 19 players from 11 different countries, representing 11 different Turkish clubs. Perhaps most surprising is that Bursaspor has four players from three different countries in Russia (Nigeria, Senegal and Australia).
Now, perhaps more interesting than the individual leagues is to know which clubs are best represented in the World Cup:
  1. Manchester City: There was much talk of Germany not selecting Leroy Sane. And surely he will be lonely in Manchester, from where 16 players are going to the World Cup. These come from eight different countries. Brazil has four players from Manchester City, which is more than they have playing in the Brazilian league!
  2. Real Madrid: There are 15 Real Madrid players from eight different countries in the World Cup. This is despite some stars, such as Bale and Benzema, not going to Russia. Six Real Madrid players are going for Spain.
  3. Chelsea: The English side may have had a dreadful season but at least 14 of the players get to go to Russia with nine different teams, some of which will be fighting for the title, such as Spain, Brazil, Germany or France and perhaps even Argentina, Belgium or England...
  4. FC Barcelona: 13 players from nine different countries ply their trade in Barcelona. The most famous of these plays for Argentina, but many also represent some other big countries such as Spain (3), France (2), Brazil (2), Germany (1) or Uruguay (1)
  5. Paris St. Germain: 10 players from six different countries, the Parisian giants are well represented, particularly among the South Americans with Brazil (3), Argentina (2), Uruguay (1), but also with three French, two Germans and a Belgian.
  6. Tottenham: With 10 players from six different countries they are tied with PSG (but I decided to top Paris alphabetically). Five of these players are representing England.
  7. Juventus: If Italy had qualified Juventus would plausibly have been among the top clubs. Still, they are seventh with 11 players representing 10 different countries.
  8. Bayern Munich: The German giants have eleven players representing five countries. Seven of these are nevertheless playing for Germany, underlining the club's dominance in Germany.
  9. Manchester United: Ten players from six different countries play for Manchester United. Four of these play for England, but also two for Belgium, and one each for Spain, Sweden, France and Serbia.
  10. Al-Ahli: The runners-up of this season's Saudi championship are heavily represented in Russia with ten players from four different countries. Seven of these are in the Saudi squad (but Al-Hilal beats them with nine players in the Saudi squad), but also include one player each from Tunisia, Egypt and Australia.

The Greatest World Cup matches 1930-2014

Four years ago, for the 2010 World Cup, I did a series of the 50 greatest world cup matches of all time. I updated the list with three matches in 2014, and now it is time to update it with two matches from the 2016 World Cup, with a total of the 55 greatest matches in World Cup History (in chronological order!):
  1. France-Mexico, 1930
  2. Uruguay-Argentina, 1930
  3. Italy-Czechoslovakia, 1934
  4. Brazil-Italy, 1938
  5. Italy-Hungary, 1938
  6. USA-England, 1950
  7. Brazil-Uruguay, 1950
  8. Hungary-Uruguay, 1954
  9. Hungary-West Germany, 1954
  10. Sweden-Brazil, 1958
  11. Brazil-Czechoslovakia, 1962
  12. Italy-North Corea, 1966
  13. England-Argentina, 1966
  14. Portugal-North Corea, 1966
  15. England-West Germany, 1966
  16. West Germany-Italy, 1970
  17. Brazil-Uruguay, 1970
  18. Italy-Brazil, 1970
  19. West Germany-East Germany, 1974
  20. Yugoslavia-Zaire, 1974
  21. Netherlands-Brazil, 1974
  22. West Germany-Netherlands, 1974
  23. Argentina-Netherlands, 1978
  24. Hungary-El Salvador, 1982
  25. Algeria-West Germany, 1982
  26. Italy-Brazil, 1982
  27. France-West Germany, 1982
  28. Italy-West Germany, 1982
  29. Morocco-Portugal, 1986
  30. Brazil-France, 1986
  31. Argentina-England, 1986
  32. West Germany-Argentina 1986
  33. Cameroon-Argentina, 1990
  34. West Germany-England, 1990
  35. Italy-Argentina, 1990
  36. West Germany-Argentina, 1990
  37. Russia-Cameroon, 1994
  38. Italy-Spain, 1994
  39. Bulgaria-Germany, 1994
  40. Italy-Brazil, 1994
  41. USA-Iran, 1998
  42. Croatia-Germany 1998
  43. Argentina-England 1998
  44. France-Brazil 1998
  45. USA-Mexico, 2002
  46. South Corea-Spain, 2002
  47. Germany-Brazil, 2002
  48. Italy-Australia, 2006
  49. France-Brazil, 2006
  50. France-Italy, 2006
  51. Ghana-Uruguay, 2010
  52. Germany-Spain, 2010
  53. Spain-Netherlands, 2010
  54. Brazil-Germany, 2014
  55. Germany-Argentina, 2014
Cheers, and hope we will have more history in the making for Russia 2018.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Greatest World Cup Matches: Germany-Argentina 2014

The 2014 World Cup final will be remembered for two things: it made Germany the greatest footballing nation of all time and it made Lionel Messi the greatest player never to win a thing for his country.
Argentina entered the tournament by winning the always-difficult South American qualifying group (Brazil did not take part as they were hosts). Manager Alejandro Sabella had built up his team around the Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, who he had made captain of the team. While Messi had scored 10 goals in qualification, he kept being criticised for not being as good with his home country as he was with Barcelona. But truth was that Argentina had been struggling with setting a style where Messi could be used optimally in a team. It was not because Argentina lacked strength in other positions: an ageing but experienced defense around Manchester City's Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta, alongside Benfica's Ezequiel Garay and Sporting's Marcos Rojo, in front of Monaco goalkeeper Sergio Romero. The difficulty of finding midfielders in support of Messi was not because of lack of choice: Fernando Gago from Boca Juniors, Lucas Biglia from Lazio, Enzo Perez from Benfica and Maxi Rodriguez from Newell's Old Boys were all in the squad, and complemented the sure starters Javier Mascherano from Barcelona and Angel DiMaria from Real Madrid, the only two players on the squad, besides Messi, of superstar quality. To play up front Argentina had what on paper looked like luxury choices with Inter's Rodrigo Palacio, PSG's Ezequiel Lavezzi, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Napoli's Gonzalo Higuain. These choices proved to be purely on paper.
Sabella was an intelligent manager who knew that a team, to win the World Cup, needed to balance play with defense and pace itself for the tournament. Argentina won its group with three victories against Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Despite Messi scoring four goals there was criticism of their slow defense and over-dependence on Messi, as their apparent star strikers could not score (the two other goals were an own-goal and one by defender Rojo), and Messi, despite it all, looked tired, and only showed his brilliance occasionally. In the last-16 Argentina struggled to defeat Switzerland, with DiMaria providing a 1-0 victory late into extra time. Against Belgium in the quarterfinals Argentina won a hard-worked 1-0 victory with Higuain's only goal of the tournament, and in the semifinals Argentina again worked through a penalty kick victory against a difficult and cynical Dutch side. Although they had not looked impressive Argentina were nevertheless in the World Cup final in none other place that in their big rival's home, Brazil. Argentine fans were ecstatic as Brazilians clearly feared the humiliation of Argentina winning in Brazil. Of course, a Brazil-Argentina final would have been what everyone wanted, but this was not to happen when Brazil suffered the greatest humiliation in World Cup history when losing 7-1 in the semifinals to the other finalist, Germany.
This was the third final between Germany and Argentina following 1986 and 1990, with one victory for each. And Germany probably entered the final as favourites, not just because of their Brazil trashing, but because the had been impressive throughout the tournament: they opened with a 4-0 trashing of Portugal, an exciting 2-2 tie against Ghana and a routine 1-0 victory over the USA. They had fought hard to defeat Algeria in extra time in the last-16 and then went on to defeat France 1-0 in the quarterfinal before the now infamously legendary semifinal against Brazil.
Brazilians were surely supporting Germany before the final, and their final lineup had at this point also become admired by the entire world: Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer was the best goalkeeper on the tournament; in front of him in central defense he had Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels and Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng. On left back was Schalke 04's Benedikt Howedes and on right back the Bayern Munich and Germany captain Philipp Lahm, who had been one of the tournament's best players. A young Christoph Kramer from Borussia Monchengladbach was a surprise starter alongside Bayern Munich's veteran Bastian Schweinsteigger in central midfield, just behind the young Toni Kroos, who had been the best midfielder of the tournament and man-of-the-Match against Brazil. Behind the veteran striker Miroslav Klose (who against Brazil had become the most scoring player in World Cup history) were the splendid pair of Mesut Ozil from Arsenal and Bayern Munich's versatile Thomas Muller.
Argentina had been seriously hurt in the quarterfinal when DiMaria got injured. His replacement, Ezequiel Lavezzi, was nowhere near his level, and this proved crucial for Argentina's offensive capabilities in the final. That said, Argentina could have won a very tactical final with few chances: Gonzalo Higuain missed an open chance, alone with the goalkeeper, not even hitting the target, in what has become an infamous miss for a striker that has missed other crucial final goals for Argentina. A goal he scored in the second half was correctly disallowed for off-side, while Rodrigo Palacio, who came in for the hapless Higuain, also missed a big chance at the end of the match. Despite Argentine chances one always had the feeling that a German strike could prove deadly, and it was certainly close when Howedes hit the post following a corner.
But the match ended 0-0 in ordinary time, the third final ever with this result, and it could look as it was going into extra time when two substitutes constructed Germany's winning goal: Chelsea's Andre Schurrle had come on for Cristoph Kramer (who had been injured) and Bayern Munich's Mario Gotze had come in before extra time for Miroslav Klose. Schurrle crossed from the left and inside the area Gotze elegantly controlled the ball with his chest before hammering the ball into goal with a first-timer. He was the first substitute to score the winner in a World Cup final, and at only 22, the youngest as well.
Argentina did not really have any response in the last minutes, and Thomas Muller instead almost made it 2-0. But 1-0 was enough for Germany to be crowned World Champions for the fourth time, and the first European team to win in the Americas. To everyone's surprise (not least to himself), Lionel Messi was named best player of the tournament, a title which seemed more to be for the sponsors than for the player, who had seemed tired throughout the tournament.

Match Stats:
  • 10th July, 2014 Estadio Maracana, Rio de Janeiro 
  • Spectators: 74,738 
  • Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)   
Germany-Argentina 1-0 
Goals: 1-0 Mario Gotze (113)

Germany: Manuel Neuer; Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Howedes, Cristoph Kramer (Andre Schurrle, 31), Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil (Per Mertesacker, 120), Miroslav Klose (Mario Gotze, 88)
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Martin Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Marcos Rojo, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia, Enzo Perez (Fernando Gago, 86), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Sergio Aguero, 46), Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain (Rodrigo Palacio, 68) 

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Greatest World Cup Matches: Brazil-Germany 2014

The semifinal between Brazil and Germany in the 2014 World Cup was, if anything, perhaps the strangest match ever, with a result that left the football world perplexed and Brazil on their knees. When Brazil won the hosting of the 2014 World Cup expectations were immediately enormous. Last time the greatest footballing nation on Earth had hosted the World Cup was in 1950, when they lost a traumatic final to Uruguay in what was remembered as “O Maracanazo”. Since then Brazil had won five World Cups, but the lack of winning it on home soil still lingered in Brazil's memories. So now was the time: this was to be not only the greatest World Cup ever, but would bring home the overwhelming superiority of Brazilian football. Brazil seemed to have reason to believe in their strength when they won the Confederations Cup rehearsal for the World Cup. Even though it had never been a priority for Brazil, the buildup of the World Cup made it crucial for the Brazilians to win at home, and a 3-0 final victory against the defending World Champions from Spain gave the Brazilians such an overwhelming confidence that some of the managers of Brazilian football, such as Carlos Alberto Parreira (managed the 1994 World Champions) and manager Luis Felipe Scolari, confidently announced that Brazil was on the way to winning the title. The squad on paper looked solid enough, as Brazil, as always had a selection of experienced players from Europe's biggest clubs: captained by the solid Paris SG defender Thiago Silva, who in defense had Chelsea's picturesque David Luiz, Barcelona's superstar Dani Alves as well as Real Madrid's offensive right left back Marcelo, and complemented by Bayern Munich's Dante and experienced players such as Maicon (Roma) and Maxwell (PSG). In midfield they had Chelsea's young star Oscar, his team mate Ramiro, Tottenham's Paulinho and Manchester City's Fernandinho. Not impressive, but experienced players to support the team's superstar, Barcelona's Neymar, whom all of Brazil was expecting to lead them to victory, despite the fact that Brazil side lacked quality strikers: Zenit St. Petersburg's efficient but inelegant Hulk and Fluminense's Fred were expected to put in the goals. Brazil were at this time not a team that had been playing the “Jogo Bonito” they had become famous for: they had won the Copa America in 2004 and 2007 playing a defensive and physical style, and in 2011 being eliminated in a strange penalty shootout where they missed all their penalties. In the 2010 World Cup Brazil made it to the quarterfinals, losing to the Netherlands more physical style, and so had not been impressive. Their Confederations Cup victory had been well-deserved but they were against a Spanish team that looked tired and burnt out (and confirmed the end of their greatest generation when they were eliminated in the following World Cup). The faith Brazilians had in their team was totally out of proportion with the quality, and as soon as the team started showing weaknesses, criticism and insecurity quickly made the confidence crumble. In their opening match Brazil had beaten Croatia 3-1, but were criticized for a non-existent penalty that got them started. In their second match they did not manage to impress in a 0-0 match against Mexico, and although they defeated Cameroon 4-1 in their last match, this did not take away the impression of a team that had eased their way through the first stages. In the last-16 Brazil faced a confident Chile side with one of its greatest generations, and as Chile were unlucky not to win, Brazil took a nerve-wrecking penalty victory. Colombia had been one of the best teams to watch in the tournament, and led by the elegant James Rodriguez, they looked to be able to upset the Brazilians. But Brazil came out to the match with one objective: stopped the rhythm of the Colombians and kick James in every occasion. It was one of the ugliest displays of any Brazilian team in history in a match where the referee completely failed. But it worked as the locals went ahead 1-0 by Thiago Silva, and then took a 2-0 lead on a splendid free kick by David Luiz. Although James got one back for Colombia, the Brazilians won. But there was a prize: the Colombians, without scruples to kick back on the Brazilians, took their revenge by a violent (and dangerous) kick to Neymar's back, taking him out for the rest of the tournament. Brazil's greatest star was out, and the team spent their time talking about how they would dedicate the title to Neymar, rather than concentrating on their next opponent: Germany.

Germany had been reforming its football since their weak appearances in 1998 and 2000. Despite their World Cup final in 2002, they were building up a young side for their 2006 hosting of the World Cup. Led by a team of young managers, many of them from Mainz and led by Jurgen Klinsmann, they were undertaking big changes to German football. Out was the focus on physical fitness and strength, and instead young players were being schooled on technique, ball possession and pressing football. In 2006 for the World Cup at home, the new team took over Germany with style: despite them not winning their positive style, their outgoing personality and their charm came to symbolize a new Germany for whom winning was not the most important, but who enjoyed the game. This new German side grew to become more competitive, and in 2008 made it to the Euro final only to lose to the best Spanish side in history. In the 2010 World Cup they made it to the semifinals, only to narrowly lose to Spain again, but with their young players looking better than ever, and in the 2012 Euro they made it again to the semifinals, losing to Italy. After qualifying in style, Germany certainly entered the tournament as one of the outsiders for the cup, although not as hyped as the Brazilian hosts, Messi's Argentina or Spain's defending champions. Manager Joachim Low, who had taken over the side from Klinsmann after the 2006 World Cup had been building up a squad of players that had played together for many years and besides understanding one another were really good friends. It included Manuel Neuer from Bayern Munich as arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world, behind a defense that included Bayern Munich captain Philipp Lahm, also from Bayern Munich Jerome Boateng, Borussia Dortmund captain Mats Hummels, Arsenal's experienced Per Mertesacker, and Schalke 04's Benedikt Howedes, as well as a young Kevin Grosskreutz from Borussia Dortmund. The midfield was a pure luxury of youth and experience with Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteigger, Real Madrid's Sami Khedira, Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, as well as Bayern Munich youngsters Toni Kroos and Mario Gotze. Also along was Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller who had been named best young player of the 2010 World Cup, and could plausibly play in almost any position, including attack. Although a versatile team, where players could play almost any position, the attack was led by two experienced veterans with Arsenal's Lukas Podolski and Lazio's Miroslav Klose, who was participating in his fourth World Cup and would go on to set many records in this World Cup. Germany opened the tournament with a stylish 4-0 trashing of one of the outsiders to the title, Portugal, where Thomas Muller scored three goals. In the following match against Ghana, Germany showed some defensive weaknesses in going down 1-2, but Miroslav Klose ensured a 2-2, making him the third player ever, alongside Pele and Uwe Seeler, to score in four different World Cups. In their last group match the Germans relaxed with a 1-0 victory over the USA. Despite making it to the next round Germany had shown some weaknesses with their high pressure and at times slow defense, and had to use all their quality to defeat a well-playing Algeria (who had wanted revenge for the 1982 scandal), being saved by a splendid Manuel Neuer playing as sweeper and a last minute of extra time victory goal by Mesut Ozil. In the quarterfinals the Germans had played an intelligent and solid match to defeat France 1-0, and were now to play the hosts of Brazil.

In the book “Das Reboot” the German players explain how they prepared for the match mentally; they knew they were up against a team under great pressure to have success at home, and that Germany could use this to their benefit. At the same time they expected to face a team that would give everything in front of their fans. As it turned out, the Germans were right on the first part, but wrong on the second. In the first half, as much as Germany were good, Brazil were disgracefully bad. The first goal, in the 11th minute, came when Thomas Muller was left completely uncovered for a corner kick. One could at this point have thought this was one of those typical mistakes that are punished by any quality team, but as the match progressed one could see that the Brazilian players were on another planet on that day. In the 23rd minute the German combinations tore apart a passive Brazilian defense and Miroslav Klose scored record goal beating Ronaldo to become the most scoring player in World Cup history. This started a complete Brazilian collapse: within six minutes Toni Kroos scored two goals and Sami Khedira one, to make it 5-0. All the goals were excellent combinations, and in particular Toni Kroos, who would be named Man-of-the-Match, played more as a Brazilian than any Brazilian.
As the home spectators were crying, the rest of the world could hardly believe what they were seeing. It was impossible to rejoice as one saw Brazil, a team everyone liked, being humiliated in such a resounding way. But as the first half ended with a 5-0 score, it was also impossible to wonder how Brazilians like David Luiz, Paulinho, Marcelo or Fred, were playing so dismally bad in a World Cup semifinal at home!? Most Brazilians in the world would have played better than what these guys did on that day!
Brazil were better in the second half, when there really was nothing more to play for and the Germans slowed down a bit. But when the Brazilians came forward, they encountered Manuel Neuer, who was the world's best goalkeeper. On the other hand, the Germans extended their lead: Andre Schurrle, who had come on for Miroslav Klose (clearly taking him out was not to spare Brazil), made it 6-0 and 7-0. The last goal was a spectacular strike worthy of any World Cup semifinal in Brazil.
Only in the last minute Oscar scored for Brazil. It mattered because it prevented the match from becoming Brazil's greatest defeat ever (so it only equalized their 6-0 defeat to Uruguay in 1920). But it was a game of records anyway: the greatest scoreline in a World Cup semifinal and Brazil's greatest home defeat ever. With it, Germany surpassed Brazil to become the most-scoring World Cup team ever and made it to their record 8th World Cup final. In the meantime, this was the greatest humiliation Brazil ever suffered and lost Brazil their place as the greatest footballing nation of all time, an honour that surely belongs to Germany today.

Match Stats:
  • 8th July 2014, Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte 
  • Attendance: 58,141 
  • Referee: Marco Rodriguez, Mexico 
Brazil-Germany 1-7
Goals: 0-1 Muller (11) 0-2 Klose (23) 0-3 Kroos (24) 0-4 Kroos (26) 0-5 Khedira (29) 0-6 Schurrle (69) 0-7 Schurrle (79) 1-7 Oscar (90)

Brazil: Julio Cesar; Maicon, David Luiz, Dante, Marcelo, Fernandinho (Paulinho, 46), Luiz Gustavo, Hulk (Ramires, 46), Oscar, Bernard, Fred (Willian, 70)
Germany: Manuel Neuer; Jerome Boateng, Philipp Lahm, Mats Hummels (Per Mertesacker, 46), Benedikt Howedes, Sami Khedira (Julian Draxler, 76), Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Miroslav Klose (Andre Schurrle, 58)