Category Archives: 2014 Previews

Costa Rica, Joel Campbell and the lost cause

Cristian Gamboa plays a one-two with teammate Christian Bolaños nine minutes into the second half in Fortaleza. Costa Rica trail Uruguay 1-0 but have gradually being gaining the upper-hand, with centre-half Óscar Duarte having just gone close when left unmarked at the far post from a free kick. Bolaños’ return ball is rushed and slightly overhit. It’s heading for the corner flag. Another of the mundane incidences of error to be expected in a game played at high a tempo as this one. Gamboa, an overlapping full-back, might be advised to let it run out of play lest he be caught out of position on a subsequent break. But he goes for it anyway, hooking his right foot at the ball as it hugs the touchline just short of the corner quadrant. Such last-ditch crosses usually end up being skewed off over the end line or land too close to the goalkeeper but Gamboa makes clean contact and gets real pace on it. The ball drops back around the penalty spot. Celso Borges mistimes his run but he has inadvertently sold two Uruguayan defenders a dummy and behind him Joel Campbell has the time to take the ball down and rifle a peach of a shot past a static Fernando Muslera. It’s a great finish but it is the unexpectedness of the chance that is so stunning.

Coaches of underage teams will be showing Gamboa’s exploit to their charges as an example of why you should never give something up as a lost cause but the true beauty of the action is the way it opened space up and altered the field of play, conjuring something out of nothing. It is usually the fancier, more technical flourishes, the Cruyff and Zidane turns, the back-heels that accomplish this on the field. Rarely do you see the more industrial efforts of a bombing, lunging full-back open the game up like that. It wasn’t a game-changer as such –– the Costa Rican equaliser had been on the cards since the restart –– but it represented a conquest of on-field space that both sucker-punched the Uruguayans and gave an enterprising Costa Rica even more confidence in attack. Neither was it a fluke, any more than Campbell’s perfectly weighted through-ball to substitute Marco Urena (who hadn’t yet had a touch) for the third goal was. Gamboa’s cross went where it was supposed to, where it would have if he had more time to take a touch and send an out-swinger into the box.

I have to admit to being one of those that wrote Costa Rica off beforehand –– largely on the basis of their defensive frailty in last week’s friendly against Ireland, in which, to be fair, they were also very good going forward and they were reduced to ten men for much of it. But it ought not to have been such a shock. Though they had never beaten Uruguay before in eight attempts, Costa Rica were deprived of a place at South Africa 2010 only by a wrongly disallowed goal against a Uruguayan side that later reached the semi-final and which was younger and much better than yesterday’s. I’m not sure what ideological shift (or slippage) has facilitated the wonderful festival of football we are seeing in Brazil but I suspect it may have something to do with its being back in South America for the first time in over three decades. The fact that two highly technical sides set the tone in the opening match also helped. Costa Rica have shown they are clearly well equipped to play their part. England and Italy are unlikely to be as compliant or inept as Uruguay were yesterday but Los Ticos will give both a game.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Preview 32 – Uruguay

 

This is a love story.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the summer of 1990. The lazy narrative has it that this was the year a generation fell back in love with football after the sociopolitical and sporting traumas of the 1980s. The point at which the perception of the sport changed irrevocably. Maybe, for once, the prevailing narrative is right. England’s pyrrhic success certainly garnered enough goodwill to be flaunted as a casus belli against the old First Division and eventual progenitor of the hyper-financed Premier League. Likewise, the tournament’s starring individuals formed a pincer movement on the zeitgeist – the unabashed populism of Gazzamania and the bourgeois sensibilities of An Evening With Gary Lineker applying a rehabilitative, even redemptive, balm to the popular image of the game.

As a nine year old, already nursing a nascent football obsession, Italia 90 was less about falling in love with football than the realization that a wider world existed beyond the parochial confines of the mesmerizing Liverpool team of Barnes, Beardsley and Rush. Beguiling countries with multiple syllables and rogue z’s suddenly became the subject of intrigue. Cameroon and the United Arab Emirates’ contrasting fortunes led to a furious thumbing of an atlas. Recently expatriated, even the grimness of Scotland’s defeat to Costa Rica was mitigated by the opponent’s mysterious quality. Twenty-four years on, I can’t recall another time where football seemed so exhilarating – an endless map of unfurling possibilities.

All of which brings us nicely, if belatedly, to Uruguay. The record books do scant justice to La Celeste’s performance in Italy. Two goals, one win, and a second round exit hardly looks the stuff of legend, but the team of Ruben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca were matched only by Cameroon in their ability to excite my juvenile enthusiasm. Like Cameroon, they had both the geographical obliqueness and mellifluous moniker to grab the attention. Equally, their melding of pace, grace and unabashed physicality made for an utterly absorbing proposition. Best of all, they had the drama – heading for an ignominious exit against South Korea until Fonseca’s injury time header inspired the kind of players-and-suited-staff pile-on that cemented their place in my affections to the point that I was disconsolate when they were hit by an Italian smash-and-grab in the Round of 16.

What Uruguay also had was history. A nation with a population smaller than Scotland who had somehow contrived to win two World Cups and maintain a regular presence in the knock-out stages until the 1970s. It was the perfect combination – an underdog with a tangible prospect of success. Uruguay would, I resolved, become my surrogate team for future World Cups – a failsafe for my already-stretched Anglo-Scottish dualism. It wasn’t to work out. Failure to qualify in 1994 or 1998, coupled with a showing in 2002 only marginally less risible than France (with the notable exception of this goal) saw them drift from memory, fading even further after making such a show of qualification in 2006 they lost to Australia in a play-off. By 2010 Uruguay had become something of an afterthought – a hazy recollection of a childhood conceit. And then, primarily thanks to one man, it all changed.

Playing up to a contrarian streak, I had originally intended not to mention Luis Suarez in this preview. Looking back, it was never going to be possible. Moreover, it would be wilful to the point of counterproductivity. Whichever way you slice it, Suarez dominates both the view of Uruguay’s performance in South Africa and just about everything since, culminating in the temporary hysteria that took hold following his meniscus scare. In South Africa Suarez was unplayable – his performance against the hosts the very epitome of World Stage Arrival and his winner against South Korea the most memorable of a curate’s egg of a tournament. By the time of the Quarter Final against Ghana, Suarez was already one of the tournament’s highest profile players and widely earmarked as a potential player of the tournament.

So much has been written about what happened next that it seems unnecessary to dwell on it here beyond saying that anything that reduces Peter Drury to spluttering apoplexy is alright by me. Whilst the incident is routinely ascribed to Suarez’s personality and pathological desire to win, equally pertinent is that fact that he only ended up as perpetrator because Jorge Fucile missed with his similarly athletic dive. Rather than being a solo indiscretion, the incident emblematized La Garra Charrua, the ferocious will to win that has become synonymous with the Uruguayan character and which leaves only the Dutch as comparators in per capita football overachievement.

What endures about this moment is the manner in which as Suarez leapt to cuff the ball away, I was instantly transported back to childhood – eschewing the prevailing narrative mood that ‘Africa is a country’ and punching the air with delight at the gloriously underhandedness of it all. This was regression at its finest. This was what football is about.

Freud’s theory of regression is, of course, a staple of the armchair psychiatrist. As adults, overburdened by stresses or the trauma of the ageing process – all diminishing hairlines and mortgage repayments – we seek solace in infantilisation. If the ubiquity of a psychological trait can by ascertained by the extent to which it has been monetized, then regression is big business. From cupcakes to corporate bonding weekends, this latent human desire has been commodified to within an inch of its life and sold back to us at twice the price. “Don’t worry about hating your colleagues. We’re off to Go Ape next week!”

Of course, this regression is not a universally bad thing. Indeed, large parts of football are founded on regression. The joy of performing a sliding tackle in the rain, scoring a goal, humiliating your opponent with a piece of skill all owe a debt to their capacity for emotional recall – generating no more or less pleasure as an adult than as a child. As fans, we are inherently regressive – constantly benchmarking players against the unmatchable standards of the idols of our youth. Moreover, as a Liverpool fan I’ve been aggressively pursuing this regression on a weekly basis for two decades, willing limited players to remind me of why I fell in love with the game. Finally, with Suarez, we once again have a player to facilitate such dreaming.

No player matches Suarez for clouding the manifold sins of the modern game. For all that I know that the Premier League is a ludicrous, overblown, overpriced facsimile of the game that I fell in love with, so brilliant is Suarez as a football exhilarant that I barely notice. A player of such fundamental and discordant brilliance – the football equivalent of a lobbed firework – watching Suarez in action is an instant regression to being nine years old, a bulwark against insidious adulthood and the abject illogicality of top-flight football. No matter how sportingly or monetarily corrupt the game becomes, a chronically overpriced and lopsided Rollerball-sideshow fuelled by gangster capitalists and petroleum despots, this capacity for regression keeps us coming back. If the excitement of youth captures the game at its purest form, then Uruguay is Xanadu and Suarez Rosebud. Hala la celeste.

 

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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Preview 31 – United States of America

It’s hard to gauge quite how much of the USA takes any notice of a World Cup; coverage in the mainstream media often seems faintly bemused, as if this thing the rest of the world is interested in is entirely incomprehensible. While football isn’t the marginal sport it once was in the States, and certainly isn’t only found in the post-industrial outcrops and distant immigrant suburbs Joseph O’Neill finds cricket inhabiting in his 2006 novel Netherland, it is nonetheless a sport that remains not quite part of the national consciousness. This might be because the American national narrative of new beginnings and the erasure of past ties extends to the sports of the old countries as well as other markers of identity. Never mind that the country is inhabited by descendants of settlers from all over Europe, America prefers to invent its own sports and then imagine them as world ones. Indeed, America has a strange relationship to its sports; it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exporting them across the planet like it does with its food and pop culture and foreign policy; instead it rather forlornly calls its equivalent of the cricket county championship the “World Series.” Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” is conspicuously only called that by Americans, and refers less to baseball’s global appeal than to the fact that American servicemen stationed overseas were listening to the Giants-Dodgers game on the radio.

This being said, not all Americans subscribe to the national narrative. Traditions and connections to the old countries remain, and if football in the US is often the preserve of the white middle-classes (in stark contrast to its working class and immigrant roots in Europe), it is also true that some of the most devoted fans of the sport in America are those who support teams other than the US national team. Only the other day, the attendance for England’s friendly against Honduras in Miami was bulked out by thousands of Hondurans who live in Florida. It would be interesting to see one of those maps that populate the internet – ones devoted to charting specific phenomena in minute detail, from the most popular music state-by-state to the county-by-county recording of voting patterns – that showed which communities supported which teams at the World Cup. Do the Scandinavian communities in Minnesota support the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes? What about the South Koreans and Japanese on the west coast? The Italians in New York?

Of course there is a narrative about the American ‘soccer’ team, one which is unsurprisingly and rather dispiritingly a sporting version of the national narrative of progress and excellence – one day, once it puts its mind to it, America will win the World Cup; that they haven’t already is really more to do with will than talent. The current coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, though, understands that lack of American success in footballing circles is not just down to wanting it enough. The game in the US is still years behind Europe and South America in very basic ways. As he said in a recent article in the Guardian, when he took the job in 2011, football “was still connected to the other big American sports, where there are seasonal sports – four, five months this game, then you play basketball, then you play baseball. So they don’t have the 10/11-month seasons like the football powerhouses in the world. USA kids never really develop that rhythm of the game in the same way, the stamina and the pure focus on the game.” This takes time, and Klinsmann’s job is as much about instilling in American kids the patterns and behaviours that are second nature in Europe and elsewhere as it is coaching the current team.

The USA won’t win the World Cup this year, or for the foreseeable future – if ever – and this is partly due to another narrative of American soccer, one that is familiar from the club side of the game but in Klinsmann’s remarks also present at the national level. Football in America is reliant on importing talent and expertise from elsewhere; it is a game trying to catch up with those “powerhouses” rather than striking out on its own. This has been the case for some time, and if you ask the average football fan about the game in the States, they’ll probably talk of fading stars from Europe going over for a valedictory year or two at the end of their careers, from Pele at the New York Cosmos in the 1970s to Beckham at LA Galaxy and Thierry Henry at New York Red Bulls. In fact those club names say a lot about the differences between the game in the US and elsewhere, names which are familiar more from basketball and baseball than football’s Uniteds, Wanderers and Harriers. There’s something in these latter names that bespeaks an embedded history to the game that simply doesn’t exist in America. It’s even more true with nicknames: the Addicks, the Cobblers and the Gas refer to a South London fish and chip shop, Northampton’s shoe-making industries, and the position of a stadium in Bristol next to a gasworks. Team-names and nicknames are loci of club histories, and if they already evoke  long-gone geographical or industrial pasts, they are especially important now that the game is becoming ever more globalised – witness the recent furore about Hull City’s proposed name change. (The same goes for team colours, too, as Vincent Tan has discovered). The Gas – Bristol Rovers – no longer play at Eastville stadium. It’s an Ikea now, but the gasworks are still there and everyone still talks of Rovers fans as Gasheads. David Beckham may be forming a team in Miami, but I can’t see it being called the Miami Academicals.

It seems to me that the US doesn’t quite know what it thinks – and feels – about football. In that Guardian article, Klinsmann says that MLS players don’t have the connection with the fans that other countries’ players do, where they’re more likely to be accosted in the street on Monday if they lose on Saturday. The US hasn’t not won the World Cup just because it hasn’t put its mind to it; it hasn’t won the World Cup because the game is still, for all the MLS’s recent improvements, an oddity on the American sporting landscape. Those layered pasts that are the hope for the ordinary football fan in Europe – and inspire and give impetus to the formation of teams like FC United of Manchester – aren’t present in the States, and the worry is that it will simply bypass them and move directly to the amorphous global entity it is becoming elsewhere. After all, globalisation began in America.

Posted by Mark West

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Preview 30 – Switzerland

There is a lot to be admired about Switzerland. The landscape, for one. The Alps are generally breathtaking and, as a half-Austrian, they occupy a very special place in my soul. I was lucky enough to spend a month in the Austrian Alps recently and it was the perfect antidote to life in London. You feel clean up there in a way you never can in London’s filthy air and it was wonderful to get so far away from the politics of austerity and the insane rental market currently tearing my home city apart at the seams. Indeed, up in the mountains it’s very easy to feel apart from everything, especially politics. The mountains shield you, protect you, cut you off from the outside world and give you the ultimately false sense that you don’t depend on or need anyone or anywhere else.

This geography has profoundly shaped Switzerland’s politics. Their system of direct democracy is a fascinating model of ground-up participation – no major changes can be made without the will of the populace. The electorate can veto laws. All it takes is a significant proportion of the electorate, and the Swiss can not only veto proposed laws – by triggering a referendum – but also propose new ones. If a law is passed in Switzerland, we can be reasonably sure that a lot of their people are behind it. This populace is, thanks to Switzerland’s approach to self-defence, also armed and trained – were it ever invaded Switzerland’s army would be its people. It’s hard to think of a better defensive set-up than that.

A country that cannot invade other countries, that can defend itself without a standing army and which can’t be governed without the continual consent of its people is one that is providing a powerful potential model , a model that many preach in their rhetoric but utterly fail to live up to in reality. This is particularly stark from the perspective of the UK experience of democracy, in which there is virtually no participation and very little consent required beyond the five yearly farce of first past the post. Worse, could anyone even delude themselves that our armed forces are for defence? We’re not even the playground bullies of international relations – we’re the principal bully’s ego masseur.

But this isolationism and self-reliance has a profound down-side. A great deal of Switzerland’s wealth is predicated on their famous banking system. Orson Welles’ famous delivery in The Third Man runs:

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Which gives the impression of an innocent, untroubled nation, lacking creativity due to a lack of hardship. It’s a great line and a great moment but grates for its promotion of the idea of Switzerland as a harmless country, an image that I feel it tries very hard to project with its ostensible neutrality. This neutrality is, however, a pernicious myth. Switzerland’s policy of neutrality encompasses a false attitude of neutrality towards money, in that they will take anyone’s, no questions asked. The nation’s celebrated wealth is built in no small part on blood, horror, death and the exploitation of countless humans around the world.

That mountainous geography comes into play again here. It’s easy to pretend that there’s no world beyond your borders when those borders are marked by massive fucking piles of rock. It’s not that the rest of the world ceases to exist, it’s that the lack of visibility of the rest of the world makes it easy to pretend that it doesn’t exist – like a small child playing peekaboo.

While banning the building of minarets with the support of its oh-so-democratic political system Switzerland will also field one of the most multi-ethnic teams in the tournament. Look at their squad. The prevalence of Albanian and southern Slavic surnames is indicative of the extent to which Swiss football has benefited from immigration from the Balkans, and captain Gökhan Inler should serve as a reminder that Turks have also played a significant part over the last twenty or so years (English fans will remember Kubilay Türkyilmaz’s equaliser at Wembley in the opening game of Euro ’96, for example). Like its larger neighbours France and Germany, but to an even greater degree, the strength of the Swiss national team owes much to the eligibility game. Yet this is a nation in which the largest party in the federal assembly is the right-wing, populist Swiss People’s Party, a blueprint for the likes of UKIP. The self-proclaimed ‘party of the middle class’ have been part of the Europe-wide campaign to refit racism and xenophobia as acceptable, an act of collective, continent-spanning amnesia which seems to become more pervasive every week.

The issue here, then, is one of cognitive dissonance. There is surely a Venn diagram which shows where Swiss people who vote for the SPP and Swiss people who cheer on the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka intersect, cheering immigration while simultaneously rejecting it and ascribing to it everything that is supposedly wrong with their system.  The attitude may be ‘fuck outsiders, we don’t need or want them’ but the reality is, in fact: ‘we want and need your money and we don’t care who we fuck over to get it’ – it’s a direct democracy for Switzerland but pure gangsterism to anyone else. An irony writ large when Switzerland play.

Love Switzerland for a system that the whole world could run on, more or less in peace, but hold Switzerland to account for having created that system, for themselves, from the sweat, tears and blood of the others they choose not to see. And in holding Switzerland to account, hold ourselves to account too, because Tate and Lyle didn’t make sugar out of local beets and Bayer didn’t make gas out of air.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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Preview 29 – Spain

Spain prepares for the World Cup at something of a moment – the king has decided to abdicate. King Juan Carlos: Franco’s king, the transitional king, democracy’s king, the consummate modern monarch, a living Borbón. Can any politically minded footballer pick up the baton from the huge Tercera Republica rallies in over 100 cities last week, and flash a bit of Republican purple when he scores?
 
As Joe suggested in his Sketches of Sketches Spain post, tracking the ‘politico-emotional logic of Iberian football’ is no easy task for the amateur. Clubs and the cities or regions they represent have played a considerable role in Spanish 20th century political developments – Real Madrid for example is never likely to be able to ward off the twin shitty-sticks of ‘el equipo del gobierno, la vergüenza del país’ with which rivals wield at them. Franco, said to be initially a fan of Bilbao’s more muscular approach, wised up to the potential prestige and reputational boost of backing the Merengues’ all-conquering 50s team. At the Nou Camp for City earlier this year, by far the most rousing chant in a generally drab atmosphere in the home ends was for Catalonian ‘independencia’.
The same cannot be said of the players currently at these clubs. It would then be easy to make cheap presumptions and claims about the squad, that the team’s Real players are either all clandestine Falange, with a false nostalgia for the Movimiento and the caudillo their dads have told them about, while Barcelona’s are all hardcore Catalonian separatists to a man, maybe even with a hankering for the anarchist days of ’36. Maybe the players from more impoverished backgrounds or regions are backing the Indignados and Podemos movements.
 
We can pick apart the cliques – the Real and Barca boys you all know, the Atlético Madrid crowd (Koke, Juanfran and Costa, as well as alumni De Gea and Torres), Valencia’s veterans (Silva, Villa, Mata, Alba, Albiol), and the Basque exiles (Martinez, Alonso and Azpilicueta) and find little, on the English-language web at least, to enlighten us on a player’s politics. [Although props to Alonso for taking part in the #DefiendeAlEibar campaign against the threat to rescind their promotion). Are they all too busy ignoring the real problem of racism in the Spanish game to give thought to their political allegiances? Maybe the chronic unemployment will be brushed away with a noble sweep of Sergio Ramos’ bullfighting cape?
These are all top-level players in the world’s top league, often more familiar to British fans than their local lower league or non-league strivers, and it would seem most dutifully play their role of performers of the spectacle, nothing more (except a pretty young wag), nothing less. Thus Spain, Spanish teams and Spanish footballing culture have made maximalist use of the ‘all about the football’ axiom to have a moment too, a 10-year glorious, luxurious bathe in the sun.
 
With the Primera Liga long taken over from Italy’s Serie A as the Brit’s continental’s league of choice, Spanish football’s hegemony has taken in: the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships in 2008 and 2012 for the national team; Barcelona’s European Cups in 2006, 2009 (including Spain’s first ‘continental treble’) and 2010; UEFA Cups for Valencia 2004, Sevilla in 2006, 2007 and 2014 and Atléti in 2010 and 2012; and now Real’s feted La Decima. Some even said La Roja’s 2010 triumph provided the moment when regional divisions evaporated into a benign plurinationalism, just like France’s victory eased racial tensions in 1998 (they’d be wrong on both counts, of course).
 
As with all hegemonies questions are being asked. Admiration for Atléti’s temporary break-up of the stifling Real-Barca duopoly comes with ongoing concerns over their tax affairs, mirroring scrutiny over Barca’s transfer practices, Real’s land deals, etc. There is a sense that they all have benefited from soft treatment at national and European level (echoes of Franco-esque backing for prestige-value here). On the field, there is ennui at Barcelona and the national team’s tiki-taka style.
 
Could Brasil 2014 crystallise a moment when British boredom with their pet football object syncs in with the relative waning of Xavi/Iniesta and the team’s desire to take on a more expansive style, leading Spain to the type of ignominious early exit we used to? Symbolic bloody noses like Luis Enrique’s actual smash-up are unlikely. If you have ever played with Spanish lads generally their desire is to pass you off the pitch as the bulldogs wheeze around trying to keep up. Tiki-taka, such as it is, is merely an intensification of that (Real’s different style was largely the work of Mourinho and the need to accommodate a true individual in Ronaldo). Besides, talk of tiki-taka can be a false flag – Del Bosque insists he is not a ‘Taliban’ as wedded to the style as people might think.
 
And the current golden generation is likely to give way to the next batch of international galácticos. As Jimmy Burns told Time a few years ago: ‘Training has something to do with it … there’s a very kind of ethical dimension to it, particularly with young kids. You don’t necessarily tell them that what’s important in life is to win. What’s important is team spirit, your creativity, to do things well and to do things nobly.’
That leaves us with hopes of one of these ‘noble’ players using the opportunity to make a political statement, maybe backing the grassroots social justice organisations, the calls for a republic in the wake of the big game hunter’s abdication or the Catalonian independence movement. But the evidence is these players don’t expose their flawless football careers to external faultlines, so, like expectations of an early upset or an eventual end to Spain’s prominence, don’t bet on it.
Posted by Murray W
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Preview 28 – South Korea

1966. So evocative. The cheering crowds in a packed stadium, the intake of breath as the ball drops and then the roar of approval as the 18,000 at Ayresome Park celebrate Pak Doo-Ik’s solitary goal in the encounter between North Korea and Italy. What? Oh.

Fergie’s Noisy Neighbour jibe doesn’t even come close in the case of South Korea. While Manchester City may have the economic equivalent of nuclear weapons, causing a mass retrieval of protect and survive manuals for the range of lower league clubs in Lancashire, they don’t have a minefield separating them from Old Trafford. Just Ordsall, which may be worse. And yet it was “AGAIN 1966” from the South Koreans as they hosted Italy in the 2002 World Cup, when the rumblings of discontent generated by the succession of Kim Jong-un were in the future and diplomatic interests were represented by Jimmy Carter, rather than Dennis Rodman. Those last two things might be related.

What is related is Korean identity. Despite Government wrangling, a tectonic game of not-quite-war, Koreans recognise Koreans, share in their achievements past and, despite the ongoing political turbulence of the present, the ghost of the shell of the Hermit Kingdom encapsulates both countries. The Koreans support the Koreans, regardless of the intended separation of politics and ideology. After all, they’re Korean, too. So 1966 again it was, and a remarkable host tournament too, not least because of the fascinating pairing with Japan. Even more remarkable, given that South Korea hadn’t won a game in the five previous consecutive World Cup finals. I’m not going to talk about referees. I’m not.

More consistent in qualifying and having progressed further in the finals than certain other 1966-centric nations in the last twenty years, South Korean players have used the platform of 2002 to spread far and wide. This year, 17 of their 23 man-squad play outside of Korea, a sharp reverse from the 7 who plied their trade abroad, mostly in Japan, 12 years ago. A sign of the rise of Korean football, or a willingness to recruit individuals to exploit the huge potential market of what is inaccurately called the ‘Asian market’? Roy Race romanticism or rat race economics? This battered carcass of a refugee from Portsmouth’s freefall says the latter, the desperate, brief spark of belief and hope and joy which gets its moment once every four years says the former.

I suppose we’ve now reached the point we bring up the other cultural ticket-barrier touchpoint when discussing modern Korea. And in a way, it’s representative of our treatment of Korean football. Gangnam Style was a targeted satire of aspirational money culture within South Korea, lining up and picking off references in a lyrically sparse catchy K-pop jaunt. But he did a funny dance and used enough English in the chorus for it to be a spannered-on-Revolutions-cocktails singalong classic, and two billion Youtube views later his follow up singles will forever be stuck in a deep shadow alongside Jordi Cruyff, Nicky Summerbee and the recently jailed Edson.

As goes PSY, so goes Korean football? Amusing, briefly interesting but ultimately disposable. A one hit wonder, who’s still gamely working the circuit. Familiar enough to be recognisable but an obvious lesser form of our own vastly superior Western genre. Look at the size difference, bless them. Look at how happy they are when they score, it’s almost like they understand what it means. Plucky, and an emphasis on the last five letters. Patronising bollocks at best, new ways of employing imperial and race based stereotypes at worst.

They are drawn in Group H with Algeria and Belgium, two nations who are no stranger to division, and Russia for whom the same could be said, but for entirely different reasons. It’s not one of the most scrutinised groups, but will be worth a watch to see which team finds its voice. Don’t rule out the team from south of the 38th parallel.

Posted by Dutton Peabody

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Preview 27 – Russia

There was a time when the novelty of a televised match was such that an enjoyment of the football ‘in itself’ was enough to sustain the neutral viewer’s interest. Now, televised football’s erstwhile scarcity has been replaced by the broadcast ethic of the soap opera, with each game marking a plot point along one or more of the sport’s intersecting narratives.

Gorging on the World Cup’s gluttonous bounty of up to three televised matches a day, it cannot be long before the disinterested viewer begins to, as it were, lose the plot. Liberating ourselves from the high-stakes drama and indulging in the spectacular ridiculousness of a game’s gaudy display, we can find ourselves cheering on a team or player for no other reason than that we like the colour of their kit, the unseemliness of their gait, the audacity of their haircut or – in arrogant Anglo-centric fashion – the purported silliness of their name. The Slavic and Germanic languages have traditionally provided such excuses for imbecilic mirth – all those “itches” and “offs” begging to be stitched on to body parts – and this year Russia has not disappointed. Arshavin may have won his last cap, but in Oleg Shatov, with a name like an exclamatory toilet mishap, there is cause enough for the raising of smirks around the lips of the more infantile and/or semi-inebriated among us.

Snapping out of this scatological reverie and back into the grander narratives provided by the competition between these proxy national armies, one is forced to consider the grim politics of the regime Russia is ostensibly representing. Far be it for a humble football blog to cast judgement on the geopolitical machinations of former superpowers, but when those actions are enough to prompt US senators to request that Russia’s football team be booted out of the tournament, it is all one can do to suppress a desire to see the Yanks get their hypocritical butts kicked in a potential Round Two grudge match. (For the more imaginative enthusiasts of this sort of thing, it is even conceivable that Russia’s group match with Belgium – home to the EU – provides a kind of ersatz battle between militaristic “hard” power and the “soft” power of the European Union’s economic hegemony.)

Given Fabio Capello’s propensity for building well-drilled defences and grinding out wins, such idle diversions might be the most reliable way of gleaning any enjoyment out of Russia’s matches this year. Dick Advocaat took a talented team to the 2012 European Championships, but, with the arguable exception of CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev, they failed to impress and crashed out after a defeat to unfancied Greece and a draw with their Polish hosts marred by some of the most foreseeable off-pitch violence in recent history. Ever the disciplinarian, Capello apparently does not particularly favour the occasionally hot-headed Dzagoev, and will pin many of his hopes for goals on Dynamo Moscow’s Alexander Kokorin. Make no mistake, though, Russia’s emphasis is on not conceding, and the imaginative, Arshavin-starring side of 2008 that had many reminiscing over the great Soviet teams is very much a thing of the past.

One question it would seem pertinent to ask is how personal this World Cup is for Capello. While it seems to be the case that he’s happy for England’s truly abysmal showing in South Africa in 2010 to be blamed on a mixture of a lack of commitment and sheer footballing naivety on the part of his charges, even the worst of Eriksson and McLaren’s sides did not display the ennervated, lumbering imaginative poverty that succeeded in finally reducing the tournament expectations of the London media. Will he be determined to prove that he can conjure a different kind of football, or will he insist on demonstrating that his methods were only inappropriate for a pampered, unmotivated squad? All the pointers seem to be towards the latter. Given Russia will meet Algeria in Curitiba in their final group game, there’s ample scope for a farcical rehash of Capello’s mistakes from 2010.

Posted by Steven Carver

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Preview 26 – Portugal

No longer burdened with a golden generation’s promise, Portugal have over the past decade morphed into one of the world’s more consistent tournament teams, even if they have yet to replicate the feat of reaching a final, which they did on home soil at Euro 2004. At the European Championships two years ago, Paulo Bento’s stewardship steered them through the group of death after an opening defeat to bogey team Germany. The Selecção also meet the Germans in their first match in Brazil, in Salvador on June 16th in what is again the toughest group in the tournament, with games against Ghana and the United States to follow.

Bento’s approach is a lot more expansive than that employed by Carlos Quieroz in South Africa four years ago, where a caginess against Ivory Coast and Brazil produced the requisite draws and Portugal were fortunate to benefit from North Korea’s only major collapse of the tournament, winning 7-0 in Cape Town. Queiroz’s game plan met its limits in the second round against Spain however, when Portugal put most their efforts into keeping Vicente del Bosque’s men at bay. Cristiano Ronaldo, in particular, was left fuming at the end of a match in which he enjoyed an unusual dearth of service. A clear contrast was the way Bento’s Portugal’s gamely went at the same opposition in Donetsk two years later in the Euro 2012 semi-final. João Moutinho and Raul Meireles more than matched Xavi and Xabi Alonso in midfield and Portugal had long stretches of domination. Ultimately they were undone by their severe lack of firepower up front, of which more later, with most of the threatening strikes coming from Ronaldo from distance. After a 0-0 draw, Spain, not too surprisingly, held their nerve to win on penalties.

While Portugal are definitely a more assertive proposition under Bento, and neither are they short on quality, there is still a tendency to funnel much of the play through Ronaldo, and, to a lesser extent, his former Manchester United team-mate Nani, on the opposite flank. The back four of João Pereira, Fabio Coentrão, Pepe and Bruno Alves is as strong a defensive line-up as any in Brazil and the midfield, largely unchanged from the Euros (and the last World Cup, other than Nani, who was injured) has been fluid and capable under Bento. It is understandable the reliance on Ronaldo though, even if Portugal are far from being a one-man team. Up front, they have scant supplies –– Hugo Almeida, so alarmingly toothless against Spain two years ago; Hélder Postiga, still around after what seems like forever and Braga’s Éder, who has just six caps to his name. A measure of the horses for courses required is evident from the six goals Postiga –– a man who can’t be faulted for trying –– scored in the qualifying group in which Portugal finished behind Fabio Capello’s Russia. When the play-off against Sweden came around, it was left to Ronaldo to deliver all four goals, including a hat-trick in Stockholm, his second of the qualifying campaign. This lack of attacking quality makes Bento’s decision not to end Ricardo Quaresma’s two-year international exile (though he did select Quaresma in the provisional thirty-man squad) all the more mystifying. Back with Porto after six months without a club, Quaresma has been on sparkling form for a team that was otherwise quite hapless last season. Clearly Bento decided that Quaresma’s notoriously prickly character was not worth the trouble but he has a level of inspiration and skill that none of the selected centre-forwards can match.

Portugal’s form in qualifying was stuttering, as it has been so often in recent years but they are also a side very much at ease when playing against top-class opposition. There is undoubtedly a bit of a fall-off in quality in the rest of the squad but youngster William Carvalho, who had a wonderful season with Sporting, and who made his debut in the second leg against Sweden, could be one of the tournament’s surprise sensations if he manages to get some playing time. Portugal are also solidly experienced –– fifteen players played in Poland and Ukraine and eleven in South Africa and they have been ever-present at international tournaments since 2000. If they can pull through the Germany game without losing, they will be well set up for the following games against Ghana and the US. Getting out of the group would leave them well-placed to face off against one of Russia, Belgium or South Korea in the round of 16. After that there would most likely be Argentina. The draw may ultimately mean that Portugal go home sooner than they might otherwise do  but they are not going to show an excess of respect to stronger opposition –– Quieroz’s main fault in South Africa –– and could well cause an upset should they need it against one of the big guns.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Preview 25 – Nigeria

On a personal level the choice for writing a World Cup preview for Nigeria is immense. I could set-adrift-on-memory-bliss about 1994, when England’s failure to qualify and the pre-tournament optimism of Nigerian classmates meant I supported the Super Eagles (the memory of Roberto Baggio’s late equalizer for Italy still stings). I could look at the troubling shift from the pre-teen innocence of simply supporting the team of your peers to the grim adult (self-)awareness of our racist and ironic society. I could even risk the vortex of Hornby-esque mundanity by over-sharing with you how my first heterosexual experience coincided with Sunday Oliseh’s stunning winner against Spain in the 1998 tournament.

However, thanks to western media’s pick’n’mix attitude to newsworthiness and the universalism of human rights, ever since I accepted this writing task there has been a growing clamor to view anything to do with Nigeria through the prism of kidnapped schoolgirls. Halfway between a moral panic and a blundering guilt panic, but one which seemed too dominating to ignore. I was considering dispensing with the editor’s 500 words altogether. A3 card and black magic marker in hand, I was quite simply on the verge of having to plumb the depths of Cameron-style empty gestures…

…Until a bloke on the bus intervened. I was travelling home on the Lewisham-wards 47 last week after a nightshift, a guy slumped asleep a few seats ahead of me. Suddenly, violently, he jumped up, wide-awake, spinning round to me (the only other person on the top-deck). He started ranting about the housing crisis.

“What is wrong with people in England?! Why are you so happy for the authorities to knock down council housing and replace it with inferior housing? Council housing is some of the best quality building in London, and yet you are knocking it down, to be replaced by more expensive smaller flats. Very greedy people are getting very rich.” I was amazed, not least as it is usually me that starts shouting about radical urban matters. I voiced my agreement. He shook my hand. “I’m pleased. White people normally don’t agree. They believe the lies. English people love to criticize my home country, Nigeria. They think we are savages. They think everyone is like Boko Haram. But at least we don’t knock down good houses with…” [he really belted this bit out] “…LIES ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS!! You understand?” Yes, I understood.

The moral of the story here is surely too obvious for me to insult you by spelling it out. But Christopher (for that was his name), as with the whole of this article, did the job for me. As the bus stopped outside Lewisham Police Station, he said, “They tell me this is the biggest police station in Europe… Full of racists.”

Posted by Robert MV

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Preview 24 – Mexico

 

Just under two years ago El Tri looked to be gelling into a formidable force ahead of the 2014 World Cup. The previous year, José Manuel de la Torre’s men had come from 2-0 down against the USA to capture a second successive CONCACAF Gold Cup in a thrilling final in Los Angeles. Mexico then breezed through the third round of the Confederation qualifiers, winning all six games against Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana, and in August of that year, the country experienced the most glorious day in its footballing history when it won the men’s football tournament at the London Olympics, under the guidance of de la Torre’s assistant, Luis Fernando Tena.

The wheels began to come off in a somewhat alarming way in early 2013. Mexico conceded scoreless draws at home to Jamaica and the USA and threw away a two-goal lead against Honduras in Tegucigalpa to draw 2-2. They dropped four more points from the next three games before heading off to Brazil for the Confederations Cup but with three automatic qualifying spots plus one play-off places up for grabs, there was a sense that things would fall into place in the end. De la Torre’s men were knocked out in Brazil after two creditable defeats to the hosts and Italy. More worryingly, they surrendered their Gold Cup crown, succumbing to two defeats against little Panama, the second in the semi-final. They would have to wait till September however to assess the scale of the disaster they had slowly been sinking into. On the sixth of that month, Honduras came to the Azteca Stadium and soon went 1-0 down to an early goal by Olympic hero Oribe Peralta. In the space of five second-half minutes though, the Hondurans turned the game around with goals by Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly, the very same pair who had clawed back the deficit in the earlier game. Mexico had no reply and suffered only their second ever home defeat in a World Cup qualifier. The fans and media were in uproar but de la Torre, whose position had until then looked unassailable, had a Jim Callaghan moment and declared his development of the national team to be going well. He was sacked the next day. A 2-0 defeat away to the USA promptly followed and things were looking dire. There was a serious danger of the country missing its first World Cup since a FIFA ban sidelined them from Italia 90.

Raúl Jiminez’s late winner against Panama at home settled the nerves but Mexico, now under the charge of former Monterrey coach Víctor Manuel Vucetitch, still needed a draw away to Costa Rica to make the play-offs. They were played off the park in San José and a 2-0 defeat left them all but out as news came in that Panama were leading the USA 2-1 with injury time approaching. Mexico got an unlikely helping hand from their northern neighbours though as the USA scored twice in quick succession to win 3-2 a match they could afford to lose. Mexico were in the play-offs but Vucetitch was out of a job.

Miguel Herrera, fresh from winning the Clausura with América, took over for a mismatched play-off with New Zealand, which El Tri won at a canter, 9-2 on aggregate. They could thank their lucky stars that FIFA had decided CONCACAF and CONMEBOL play-off teams would be kept apart (unlike four years ago) and would instead get more manageable opposition (presumably to ensure as many participants from the Americas as possible for the first Latin American World Cup since 1986). Now that Mexico are there, what are their chances?

The draw was favourable enough –– they are unlikely to trouble hosts Brazil much but they should be capable of fighting for second spot with Croatia, who experienced a similar collapse last year, and Cameroon, prone to misfire so often at this stage. Herrera named his 23-man squad early. Much of it was as expected –– eight of the Olympic gold medal team are there –– but there were a few surprises. Veteran former captain Rafa Márquez, now back home playing for Léon, was called up at the age of 36, suggesting that Herrera sees leadership outweighing physical freshness as a priority. Former Fulham left-back Carlos Salcido, so brilliant in South Africa four years ago and an overage member of the victorious Olympic side, was included despite being ignored by Herrera until now. Villarreal’s Javier Aquino was the one big name left out, presumably because of his mediocre strike rate –– one goal all told last season.

Mexico, as ever, have some superb natural talent but, the New Zealand games aside, they have also been struggling to score goals of late. Against Brazil they are likely to line out 4-2-3-1, with Javier Hernández up front and it’s hard to see where a goal is going to come from in that match. Chicharito will probably be paired with either Jiminez or Peralta in the other games but, Mexico being a team whose performance is always closely tied to confidence, they look like they will struggle in midfield against Luka Módrić and Ivan Rakitić in the Croatia game. Marcos Fabián’s belated introduction to the national side after a six-month suspension was one of the few bright sparks of 2013 but, paired alongside the perennially underachieving Giovanni dos Santos, he may not be the man for the job.

Key to getting out of the group will be a sharp start against Cameroon in the first game in Natal on June 13th. Mexico have not always been the fastest out of the blocks though. Anything less than a win will leave them under a lot of pressure in the following two games against Brazil and Croatia. With few of his overseas players dazzling last season, the best Herrera can hope for is that a string of good performances in warm-up games might reacquaint his men with self-belief and the habit of winning.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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