November 19, 2010
Ignoring the FIFA World Cup fiasco for the moment, there’s been another furore keeping the press busy in England. On Wednesday evening an experimental England side was comprehensively beaten at home by France in an international friendly. Cue naturally laments of how depressing the future of English football is looking (on the back of 90 minutes), but the funny undertone of the entire thing was how seemingly pointless such friendlies are. This has been an attitude growing over the years as club teams play more and more important fixtures in Europe and domestically, and so some of the less events (the League Cup and international friendlies) have lost their importance. It’s funny then that there was so much soul searching for a defeat in a pointless game – where most of the usual England team didn’t play. But I guess it gets readers on to your website…
Moreover though, as hinted by the BBC blog linked earlier, an additional controversial aspect of the friendly was that Steven Gerrard of Liverpool was played for a devastating 85 of the 90 minutes, instead of the reportedly agreed 60 minutes. The Liverpool staff apparently weren’t too impressed. So there have been mootings from others, including Tony Pulis, manager of unfashionable Stoke, that the FA should be liable for the injuries to players when playing in international friendlies.
Now that’s all well and good; it may be an effective and sensible system: After all, the players are contracted to their clubs and their clubs pay their wages. But of course it’s all part of a power struggle in English football between the clubs and the Premiership and the national team, one that seems to be increasingly won by the Premiership, usually at the expense of the national team. Perhaps we must just accept this; we love the way the Premiership is, apparently, and wouldn’t miss it for the world. But perhaps that Premiership doesn’t allow for a successful national team because that national team is pushed to the margins.
The implication of making the FA liable in friendlies is basically that friendlies will stop happening: Why would the FA even bother to play these games if an injury means that it will be liable for hundreds of thousands of pounds, maybe millions? And of course, if we pander to the brigade who tell us that all international friendlies are now pointless, then we end up that the only games the national team plays are meaningful and hence there is no time for the international-level players to gel into playing together via some less high-pressure games – the standard way in which any team prepares for a new season. It strikes me those proposing to abandon all international friendlies haven’t really thought this through, and the implications of it.
July 5, 2010
There was a strange response in England to Germany’s latest four-goal victory: We somehow felt better about the thumping we received from the Germans! The usual theory about a World Cup is that the stage at which you are knocked out is the stage at which you face Brazil. That’s not quite right any more as shown by the Dutch this time round and the French (hard to believe but true) in 2006. It seems it’s when you face Germany that you go out now – and the youth of their team suggests that this may be the case in 2014 too (although the tournament is in Brazil then), and 2018 also possibly (though with the possibility that 2018 happens in England, my patriotic sense hopes England have a young team to compete by then!).
Moreover, again there’s the tacit recognition of the remarkable ability of German teams to do well in tournaments – how do they do it? This time round it’s clear – they have a fantastic team. But they’ve made the semis in six of the last eight World Cups – that takes us back 32 years to 1978. The period 1978-1990 is a given – Germany had great teams then. But since 1990 – perhaps since 1996 when they won the European Championships, no German side has been in any way spectacular – and from an English perspective, no better than any English side since then. Yet Germany has still made the final in 2002 and the semis in 2006 – as well as a European Championships Final in 2008 to boot. What is that organisational ability, that human capital at the management level, that means that a very average German team (e.g. 2002) can make it to the final? My theory is that it’s the stage at which they faced Brazil (England met them in the quarters) – but that doesn’t explain the other successes since the mid-1990s. Answers on a postcard.
But in 2010, have the Germans peaked a little too soon? A tournament is seven matches, the last four in knock out stages. It’s a fairly long haul, and it pays to conserve energy and momentum for the very latter stages. Italy are a great example of this, only really coming good against Germany in 2006, and then in the last few minutes of extra time – before beating France in the final. Germany on the other hand have well and truly revealed themselves on the world stage now. No sneaking past the Argentinians – they trashed them devastatingly. But their higher profile now means more pressure – expectations from themselves and others to repeat that level of performance. Will that pressure yield a more nervy performance against Spain? In 2008, the Netherlands started explosively, beating the French and Italians by three goals a piece. But they slunk out in the last 16 to Russia, having seen their momentum run its course.
June 22, 2010
From today onwards, the third round of group matches take place: All four teams play head-to-head in decider matches. After the warm-up stages, we are now at the business end of the group stages.
Today, France, South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico play at the same time (3pm), and this evening Group B is decided. Tomorrow, England’s fate will be sealed as they face Slovenia, and by 5pm tomorrow we will know whether the two soap operas of this World Cup will continue in South Africa, or will be transplanted back home.
There is little consolation for English football supporters right now, but what consolation they can find is located over the English Channel in France, where the word “implosion” is probably quite apt. After striker Nicolas Anekla insulted manager Raymond Domenech and was sent home by the French Football Association, the players went on strike, refusing to train, and now government ministers and even President Sarkozy is getting involved. Domenech has described his players as imbeciles, and government ministers have apparently lectured the players on how they have let down the entire nation of France. Always good fun when politics gets involved with football…
England, on the other hand, have simply had something of a mutiny from within. John Terry, their central defender and former captain (until he had an affair with the girlfriend of another then Chelsea and England teammate Wayne Bridge), held a press conference on Sunday discussing the difficulties the players were having with the Capello regime. If Terry was hoping to lead a mutiny, that quickly dissipated as amongst others his Chelsea teammate Frank Lampard spoke out to say all was well and Terry did not have the support of the rest of the team. Then, ominously yesterday Capello himself described Terry as having made a “big mistake, a very big mistake” in speaking out. In the British tabloid press Capello is now Don Capello.
Needs dictate though: England has two central defenders injured and another suspended, and hence Terry will still play despite his outburst. Would be great fun to be a fly on the wall currently in the England dressing room though…
June 18, 2010
Last night France fell abjectly to defeat against Mexico in the World Cup to leave them needing something close to a miracle to progress to the next stage.
The recriminations are vast and too many to list in a blog. How have the French now exited three of the six major tournaments since their World Cup and European Championships double of 1998 and 2000 at the first stage?! Why did they stick with a poor manager after exiting Euro 2008 at the group stages? Why were they seeded in the Play-Offs for this World Cup, helping ensure they got here (and they still needed a handball to get here!)?
It leaves an interesting situation in Group A though: France lie 3 points behind Mexico and Uruguay now, who are in the two qualification positions. This suggests that Mexico and Uruguay, who face each other in the final match, might conspire to play out a boring goalless draw (as happened in an infamous match between West Germany and Austria in a previous World Cup). But will they?
The second place team in Group A will face Argentina, who appear to be picking up steam after their 4-1 win over South Korea: Not an easy prospect. The winners of Group A will face one of Nigeria (least likely), South Korea (more likely) or Greece (hard to say): A much easier prospect. If Mexico and Uruguay play out a dull goalless draw, Uruguay tops the group and gets the easy match in the second round and Mexico gets the tough assignment of Argentina.
So, and excuse my game theory ignorance, but is this something of a prisoner’s dilemma? If the teams conspire/collude for a goalless draw they both qualify (albeit with different rewards after qualification). It’s a safe passage through to another game. But Mexico may feel they want to go all out for the win to avoid Argentina – but the risk with that is they may leave themselves exposed and could lose. If they lose and France beat South Africa (not necessary any more…) then it is possible that France could still progress. So the potential risks of gambling on victory for Mexico or Uruguay are elimination from the tournament.
The more I write, the more I realise it’s far from a prisoner’s dilemma, but nonetheless it’s an intriguing situation…
November 19, 2009
The fall-out of last night’s France-Ireland World Cup Play-off match will continue to reverberate around: The BBC currently has a live news feed, the type of thing reserved for actual football matches. At 2pm Ireland will make a statement, apparently, but of course all focus remains on UEFA and FIFA reactions – both of whom are firmly tight lipped over the episode.
The calls are there, for video technology, and all sorts of reforms, but there does appear to be something somewhat forgotten in all of this: Ireland were not heading into the World Cup but for Henry’s handball. Henry’s handball moment came minutes after France were denied what to many was a clear penalty and furthermore, had the “goal” not happened, Ireland still needed to put the ball in the net themselves to make it to South Africa, or triumph in the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. So it’s a little strong to say that this one decision cost Ireland all those potential millions.
Football is a fluid game with one controversy after another, and much of that is what makes the game such a money spinner for many: The BBC and other more commercial news outlets would be having many less hits today had the game been conventional and boring, with video technology ruling the goal out.
The interesting thing naturally is the conspiracy theorists: France were seeded in the play-offs, ensuring they didn’t face Portugal or Russia, the other big nations in the play-offs. Then they got the awful decision in their favour, as opposed to Ireland. Many English Premiership watchers notice that Manchester United and Liverpool always get the decisions in their favour, particular at home. But is this just a perception, given our cognitive abilities, or a general statistical pattern? I feel a research idea blossoming…