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Preview 22 – Ivory Coast

The Africa Cup of Nations final defeat on penalties to Zambia in 2012 seemed to herald the end for Ivory Coast’s greatest generation –– after a decade of trying, the Elephants’ old warhorses, Drogba, Romaric, Zokora, Barry, Boka, the Touré brothers, Keïta and Eboué had been left empty-handed once again. Along with Hassan Shehata’s Egypt, they were the greatest African team of the decade. But while Egypt won three ACN’s in a row –– including a 2006 shoot-out win against Ivory Coast –– the Ivorians got nothing. Then again, Ivory Coast did get to three two World Cups, which is more than Egypt did during that time. A team that might have otherwise lit up the 2006 and 2010 editions of the tournament, and maybe even become the first African side to reach the semi-final, was cruelly stymied by the draw each time. Argentina and the Netherlands stood in their way in Germany and two defeats sent them home early despite stirring Ivorian performances in each game. Four years later, they had the misfortune to face Portugal and Brazil, the former of whom frustrated them sufficiently to grind out a scoreless draw and then chanced upon a North Korea in disarray.

Now the ageing generation has one last chance, if not to win a trophy (the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations remains the only senior title in the country’s history), then to make their mark on the world stage. This time they have been given a far more manageable draw –– Colombia, Greece and Japan –– none of them pushovers but a great deal less onerous than in the past two tournaments. Many of the old hands are still there –– Abdul-Kader Keïta departed after the 2012 final defeat in Gabon, while coach Sabri Lamouchi left Jean-Jacques Gosso Gosso and Emmanuel Eboué out –– and they all get to keep their places in the starting eleven. There might be young blood in the overall squad but the legs on the field will not always be the freshest. Sol Bamba, after an injury scare earlier in the year, should be on hand to partner Kolo Touré in the centre of defence, a pairing that kept a clean sheet in the six games of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations but still lost. Didier Zokora, now playing for Trabzonspor in Turkey, will marshall the midfield and allow Yaya Touré to make his runs forward. Saloman Kalou provides an extra attacking edge in the middle of the park as does Toulouse’s bright young prospect Serge Aurier, a right=back who scored six goals in Ligue 1 last season. Up front there is a resurgent Gervinho and Drogba –– whatever you think of him, he has always been a lion in his national colours, a superb leader.

It’s a line-up that will fancy its chances in the three group matches and they will be grateful the toughest one, against Colombia, is not the first. The experience does not spread across the whole squad but the Ivorians do have options –– Wilfried Bony, Cheikh Tioté and Saint-Étienne’s Max Gradel, one of a number of players who have had good seasons (Yaya Touré and Gervinho too). If fatigue can be resisted, the Elephants could well do something interesting. A 10pm kick-off against Japan in the opening game will spare them the worst of the heat in Recife though they may be forced into a de facto play-off in subtropical Fortaleza against a physically strong and tactically astute Greece.

Lamouchi, in his first coaching position at 42, will be the youngest man in charge in Brazil. Since taking over two years ago he has done creditably enough, presiding over only two defeats in nineteen games, one of which came in last year’s Africa Cup of Nations to eventual winners Nigeria. Qualifying was comfortable enough, apart from a brief period of jitters late on against Senegal in the second leg of the play-off when a Moussa Sow penalty left the Senegalese just a goal away from causing an upset. They never really looked like capitalising though and an injury-time strike by Kalou put the tie beyond doubt. It may testify to the general weakness of African football that an Ivorian team that is past its peak would still be considered one of the strongest sides on the continent. Even so, there are enough players on the team (and the bench) who continue to be in flying form for their clubs that you suspect they could finally make it out of the group stages this time, though it is hard to see them getting any further than that.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Preview 19 – Honduras

They won’t thank me for saying so, no doubt, but, despite this being the second successive World Cup the Central Americans have qualified for, Honduras remain what the commentators winkingly term ‘an unknown quantity’. We can perhaps use this as a stick with which to beat those indolent pundits happy enough to berate a player they believe is not trying hard enough but who consistently shirk the research element of their job. Every tournament seems to set a new low for this, and Euro 2012 was negatively exceptional in the propensity of those tasked with analysing the games to declare, almost proudly, their lack of knowledge about teams and players. It is scarcely believable that, in an age where amateur-staffed websites like In Bed With Maradona can produce consistently informative material about footballing minutiae from across the globe, the likes of Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson can’t seem to memorise a few useful facts about, say, a Greek right-back who has had the temerity to stymie England or France’s ‘rightful’ passage to victory.

Because it has become so prevalent, the insouciant ignorance displayed on the studio sofa is a regular target of critique. I think, perhaps, we need to go a bit further and think about the resonance of the ‘unknown’ in football, for it signifies not only a lack of research but also, perhaps, a whole erotics of the sport. To not know about something, for it to be unknown, is a stimulus for anxiety, but it is also, paradoxically, a form of stabilisation in the world in as much as it represents a remainder, a banked guarantee against the death-in-life of boredom. In my piece on Toni Kroos, I mentioned Ernest Jones’ formulation of ‘aphanisis’, which he called the ‘total, and of course permanent, extinction of the capacity […] for sexual enjoyment’, something we might generalise as the extinction of libido. Such an extinction would appear to occur in the sense that there is nothing left to discover, the the world’s capacity for enjoyment has been exhausted.

In all walks of existence, an encounter with something emanating from the unknown heralds the certainty of additional potential existing elsewhere: there is always more. That there is a ‘greater unknown’ speaks to us, offers the (false) promise that our curiosity, or our capacity for curiosity, is limitless. As a kid I used to invent imaginary worlds which had dimensions bordering on the limitless, not so much as a result of the prodigiousness of my creativity but because I wanted to ensure that there would always be space on the ontological drawing-board in which creation could happen. The ‘blank spaces’ which Marlow recalls poring over as a youth in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are only partially there to be explored; more pointedly, they indicate a future of exploration which, ideally, will remain virtual because to actually explore is to finalise the world.

Yes, once again, all very highfaluting for football, or its sister sport ‘it’s only football’. But these points would appear to be applicable to so many of our formative experiences as fans of the game. For so many, peer pressure or familial influence can only provide a spark, and the more resonant memory of the early part of following football is one of deep, borderline obsessive curiosity, a curiosity which speaks simultaneously of the desire to know and of the desire for there to be more to know. At the age of eight or nine, no part of football in England is more exciting than the first round of the FA Cup, in which several teams will come into the national spotlight from regional leagues, indicating that the professional set-up is only the visible arborescence of a vast root structure. You start to go into the small-printed part of the results section of the Sunday newspapers, reading about games between teams representing places you’ve never heard of, and it turns out that there are thousands of these clubs, and that football is unlikely to burn out your interest any time soon.

The most famous twenty-first century consideration of the unknown was, of course, Donald Rumsfeld’s gnomic meditation on Iraq’s ability to supply WMDs to terrorist groups in 2002. Although it may well be scorched into your brains by now, here it is again:

there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

In Rumsfeldian terms, the fantasy structure of football fans’ unknowing attaches itself most closely to the ‘known unknowns’, the still-to-be-discovered which is already posited as such. But it might be profitable to link this to Slavoj Žižek’s characteristically provocative extension of Rumsfeld’s speculation in How to Read Lacan:

What [Rumsfeld] forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things that we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge that doesn’t know itself’, as Lacan used to say, the core of which is fantasy. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the ‘unknown unknowns’ […] what we should say in reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the ‘unknown knwons’, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves, but which nonetheless determine our acts and feelings.

What is disavowed in the fantasy of ‘known unknowns’, to put Žižek’s point to a different purpose, is the repressed knowledge of the finitude of our curiosity, that sense of an ending which we must by necessity forget in order to give meaning to our lives. We can shift this idea onto a more political level. Capitalism itself sustains its existence through its determination that there is always more to be commodified in order to maintain growth, even as its acts of commodification become increasingly divorced from the material in the form of derivatives and comparable ‘products’. With this in mind, we can perhaps perceive another logic at work in the declaration of the ‘unknown quantities’ on the part of commentators and pundits, namely the avoidance of the death of interest and even, perhaps, of death itself. What would happen if, as the internet occasionally seems to make possible, football became ‘known’ in an absolute sense? Would anybody still care? Apologies, then, to Honduras for the lack of a proper detailing of their prospects at this World Cup, but their reputation as a kind of anti-reputation opens onto something fundamentally unsettling about our entire engagement with the sport that deserves addressing.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Preview 9 – Colombia

Carlos Valderrama. Has there ever been a cooler footballer? I mean, just take a look at him for god’s sake:

Twenty years after his heyday and the man was still oozing excellence out of every pore. Now remind yourself of some of his football with an obligatory YouTube clip. He was the very best kind of player. A playmaking midfielder, utterly devoid of pace, a style the word ‘insouciant’ could have been invented for and, of course, a barnet that redefined people’s perceptions of what human hair could be capable of. Some of those passes were so finely weighted that CERN engineers are studying them in the hope of discovering the one responsible for mojo. His hipster credentials are impeccable and the only European club he ever played for was the fashionably unfashionable Montpellier so why is it the chain smoking Socrates who makes it onto all the T-shirts?

Well, there is one crucial difference – Socrates played for Brazil’s ’82 team, the second most fetishised side in world cup history, and the one preferred by self appointed purists everywhere. That side impacted upon the European consciousness, resonating with memories of previous sides to create the collective Brazilian mirage – one that in my view belittles their spectacular footballing achievements considerably.

Of course this process happens to anywhere that isn’t Western Europe or the United States. It is particularly bad in England which politically treats the U.S.A as its neighbour and the rest of the world as practically non-existent, and which in a football sense has only recently developed a sense of object permanence towards Spanish and, to an extent, German football to add to some lingering memories of the Italian game largely fostered by the 1990 World Cup and Football Italia, the James Richardson fronted Channel Four show which proved the vanguard of football fashionista culture.

While Brazil are lumbered with the patronising but, superficially at least, pleasant sunshine and salsa clichés others have attached themselves equally powerfully to the other South American teams. Argentina are the dirty Argies, still remaining a handy outlet for risible nationalistic posturing especially now that Germany, having hosted a phenomenal world cup and boasting an impossible-to-dislike national side and domestic clubs who have won the approval of various football subcultures, have apparently abdicated their role as England’s pantomime villain.

Uruguay, on the other hand, are the scrappy street fighter Rocky Balboas of football. A team English fans love to see beat almost anyone else, despise when they play us and secretly wish we could be. I doubt there has been a footballer in history more emblematic of an imposed cultural stereotype than Luis Suarez, but as far as England is concerned Uruguay is him and he is Uruguay.

And then there is Colombia’s lot. In a discussion of South American football that’s essentially where it, until very recently, stopped. When it comes to football Colombia haven’t even registered enough upon our consciousness to generate any decent stereotypes relating to their style of play, despite the incredibly rich source material.

Colombia, land of Andes, birthplace of Salsa, one of the most rich and fertile and varied countries on the planet. Home to both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Colombia, home of the finest emeralds and perhaps the most spectacular tradition of gold working ever seen. Colombia, which has the most floral endemisms on Earth – an estimated 10% of the world’s species. Not only that, but Colombia also created the world’s finest variation of the pasty. If you’ve never tried an empanada then, amigo, you are missing out.

Out of sight, out of mind. The ‘problem’ for Colombia is that their ‘first’ golden generation never really came to much. They infamously crashed out in the second round in 1990 to Cameroon and the 187-year-old Roger Milla, at least in part thanks to Rene Higuita’s outré approach to goalkeeping. In 1994, Pele anointed and cursed them with his customary pre-tournament tip, and he was perhaps not entirely unjustified in doing so. They were typically unheralded in the British media, but they destroyed Argentina 5-0 in qualification and turned up in the States with undeniable caliber. Notoriously, this was to end in not only disappointment but tragedy, as popular defender Andres Escobar, scorer of an own-goal in the group stages, was murdered on his return to his country. Subsequently, they fell back into ontological limbo, leaving behind only the ‘crazy Latino keeper’ meme as a relic of their best ever team.

Barry Davies’ commentary, a classic of inept British match analysis, on the clip of their ill-fated match against Cameroon makes my point better than I ever could, describing Valderrama’s exquisite long pass with the withering ‘he’s so much better employed playing that kind of pass instead of the short angled balls from around the edge of the penalty area’ just as the midfielder produces, you’ve guessed it, a short angled pass from the edge of the penalty area, setting up a superb team goal. Tim Vickery writes a decent summary of that period – though a warning to any Colombian readers, all of the usual stereotypes are touched upon there – and hits upon the very simple and sad reason why that team never got the recognition it deserved. Of that team, only two players were playing in Europe at the time, every single one of the others was domestically based. Out of sight, out of mind.

But maybe things are changing. In Falcao they now have a genuine world icon whose non-presence will loom large over this World Cup. Inevitably, if they don’t win it will be a case of what might have been but, looking forward instead of with hindsight, it may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Yes, in Falcao they have lost a lethal weapon, but they have also, in a stroke, lost the glare of publicity that fell upon them thanks to that Pele prediction. Now they are no-one’s favourites, and with Falcao out they are no-one’s dark horses either, with teams like Belgium as the punter’s chance instead.

This Colombia is a team with goals in it, and in Jackson Martinez they have an able replacement who has a whiff of the Geoff Hursts about him, a striker replacing a legend but who has all the credentials required to, ahem, carpe diem and ‘make a name for himself’. Certainly this is a chance for him to secure his long-touted move to one of the European giants, or at least large ogres. Their first choice defensive pairing only conceded 13 through qualification, but with the veteran Yepes at 38 there may be a weakness there. Still, many a world cup run has been built on the virtues of a solid defence and quick attackers – the patience likely to be required in Brazil perhaps also favouring older and wiser legs – and of course Colombia are used to the playing conditions.

Perhaps the nicest irony is that coach Jose Pekerman is Argentinian. An Argentinean coaching the team responsible for Argentina’s worst defeat in Brazil’s world cup? If narrative logic has any say in the matter then Colombia are surely one of the teams to watch.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Preview 7 – Cameroon

 

This time round Cameroon’s shirt is not sleeveless, as they tried in France 2002, nor is it all of a piece with the shorts, as they tried in the 2004 African Nations campaign. But their current Puma shirt with its natty ‘Lions indomptables’ patterned imprint (link) could be the non-conformists’ choice this tournament (still more may opt for the ‘82 replica). Seven times qualified, one quarter final appearance and with a few genuine icons of the game in Roger Milla (just ask Walsall!) and Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon can lay claim to the title of Africa’s most successful World Cup nation.

However, on Cameroon’s football blogs and news sites there is only a measured buzz about their prospects for Le Mondial 2014. That’s not because they do not have a strong squad, but more to do with the group confronting them as well as financial wrangles and disputed elections to its Fecafoot governing body, which appears to contain enough irregularities even to worry Fifa.

So the size of the players’ tournament fee ($104,000) as well as the specific sum Fecafoot was getting for Sunday’s Germany friendly – and how it intended to distribute it ‑ have topped the agenda. Throw in last July’s temporary suspension from Fifa over the Fecafoot ballot and the installment of an emergency committee over claims of government interference after complaints from losing candidates, and it would be easy to paint a picture of a typically messed up developing-world footballing nation. The Lions’ issues – a player’s worth when vast sums slush around the modern game, executive-body corruption, commercial interference (Puma seem to use Cameroon as a testing board for their wackier schemes) – may be more magnified and more disruptive but they merely match the wider game’s issues.

On the pitch, various blends of expectation and hope rest with Lorient’s Vincent Aboubakar, Mainz’s frenetically syllabic Jean-Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and the ageing-but-still-canny Eto’o, who now seems to be playing a less divisive role after rows with Alex Song and claims of a plot not to pass to him in the crucial Tunisia play-off. But the expected 23-man squad contains other experienced operators such as Jean Makoun and Song. Expect a decent showing too from Stéphane Mbia after he put his QPR nightmare behind him and won the UEFA cup with Sevilla. Truly, they have moved a long way from the 1990 Cameroon of the Englishman’s imagination, which Reuters in patronising style said won them ‘worldwide affection with their dogged style and colourful kit’. Xenophobes may argue they still play in a recognisably ‘African’ style, but their biggest issue – a lack of true inspiration and creativity to link the midfield with the strikers – are issues that dog teams the world over. It is this that German coach Volker Finke must address if calls for his sacking are not to get louder.

Having landed one of the toughest groups (Brazil, Croatia and Mexico), with a punishing travel schedule to match (Natal, Manaus and Brasilia), don’t expect dancing on the streets of Douala, Yaoundé and Garoua after a glorious negotiation of the group stages. But their decent 2-2 against Germany showed they will be able to compete.

For any African qualifier now, the goal is to exceed what Cameroon themselves did in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 and get past the quarter finals. With a draw like theirs, you can forgive the relative lack of optimism but solid performances will still be expected. Given Ivory Coast’s arguably easier group, the battle for supremacy in West Africa will also be tough.

Posted by Murray W

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Preview 6 – Brazil

Ahhh Brazil. Brazil, Brazil, Brazil. Samba football! Caipirinhas! The girl from Ipanema!

Magic aren’t they? Look at them pinging it about, expressing themselves. All that natural rhythm – it comes from the streets you know. Like Pele. Like Ronaldinho! The elastico! That buck toothed grin – like the real Ronaldo, another buck-toothed genius, genius, lightning quick. Like Garrincha, twinkle toed – he had gammy legs! Played from the heart though, played with joy – expressed himself he did. Played with a smile on his face, like Pele! That shot from the half way line. The audacity! You can’t teach that. That’s Samba football no?

No.

That’s the product of one of the most highly professional and ruthless footballing machines ever created. As it is in Brazilian politics, so it isn’t in their football. The audacity, the spontaneity, the expression – it’s trained. Trained by the most consistently cutting-edge and innovative football nation in the history of the game. Take a look at your team. Whoever it is. Flat back four? Full backs pushing forward? Wingers tucking in? It’s just like watching Brazil, and it is so because they either invented or pioneered so many of the features we so associate with modern football.

That samba style? Nowadays they indoctrinate it with futsal but Brazilians have been deliberately training with the ball at their feet since before the English (that’s English, not Scottish) understood the concept of proper passing. Shankly’s revolution in domestic club tactics was how Brazil, organized pressing aside, had been playing since the fifties. Someone like Ronaldinho may well be an archetypal Brazilian footballer, but what we tend to forget is that Lucas Leiva is too. Here’s Brendan Rodgers’ take on him:

We’ll use him to go and look at some games for me, because he’s tactically very good, he’s someone that I’ll get to go with my analyst and look at some games…[he is a player who] understands totally what I’m trying to implement [tactically]…He’s one of the disciples I would say, he understands totally what we’re doing. 

Tactical, intelligent and highly professional. These are the qualities which we like to ascribe to ‘continental’ football, but how else to describe the Brazil of 1990? They were somewhat dour, functional, and highly efficient. Gerard Houllier would later win a cup treble with a team that was almost a carbon copy of the 1990’s Brazil, with Michal Owen as Chester’s own non-lothario Romario. Dunga himself updated the template last time around, creating one of the fiercest Brazilian teams I’ve seen, a terrifying mix of excellence in possession, physical imposition and speed on the break. They played a little like Jupp Heynkes’ Bayern Munich and have arguably formed something of a blueprint for the club sides currently exciting football’s chattering classes – City, Liverpool and the Madrids.

Now look at Big Phil’s Seleção. Coutinho? On holiday. Ramires? On the plane.

Brazil don’t play to entertain, they play to win. Anything less is abject failure and Big Phil’s big balls will be stamped upon with gusto from Rio to Iguaçu if he fails to make it number 6 from their unblemished qualifying record, but if they do win you suspect that Brazil won’t be mourning the lack of a Coutinho, just like they don’t moan about the 1994 team’s more prosaic style.

Yet who do we revere? The beloved losers from ’82 who played the best football ever, and a bloke called Socrates who smoked 250 fags a minute, had a fucking massive beard and could pass it through the eye of a cliché blindfolded. The team in ’70 who played in the best final ever, were the best team ever, the high watermark of football history before the game became shite and back when we all just played to attack and for the glory of the game – though of course should you ever sit through the previous 80 minutes of the best final ever you’ll find that a combination of high altitude, sweltering heat and negative tactics created a match that was actually pretty dull until the final 10 minutes, topped ultimately by that admittedly glorious goal by Carlos and that reverse pass by Pele.

That pass. Pele, Pele! Look at him not looking! Not even looking at the pass, a smile on his face. Magical. Telepathic. The audacity! That finish! From a full back! Like wingers they are. Their wingers are strikers, their full backs are wingers and their strikers are Pele, Neymar, the real Ronaldo, Ronaldinho. Smiles on their faces, all of them. Impish. Audacious. Like Garrincha! Magical! He had a disability don’t you know? The wingeriest winger ever and his legs were all bendy. Polio or something, tragic except oh, oh, oh could he play – and he COULD play. Twinkle toes, Samba football is what it is.

Murray W wrote an excellent article here detailing this exoticisation, the fetishistic following of Brazilian football and its reduction to a smiling Benetton cliché while ignoring the brutal reality behind this World Cup’s façade – a subject we will return to at length – particularly as regards Samba music. A Brazilian student of mine agreed wholeheartedly with Murray’s frustration here, as there is a rich and varied musical culture in Brazil, of which samba is just one tiny part. The general attitude to Brazilian music is like reducing all music from the USA to jazz. This patronising stereotyping is typical of our relationship with any country we see as less developed, but as Murray points out, it gets a little deeper when it comes to Brazil and football.

For me we ignore their systematic devotion to football improvement partly because it doesn’t fit in with our image of what they are, but also because it doesn’t fit in with our image of what we want them to teach us. Unlike Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we don’t want to see behind the curtain. We don’t want to know that such football comes from graft as much as from the gods. We want to see in them qualities of the noble savage that we simultaneously feel above and sense ourselves bereft of.

George Monbiot articulates some of this in talking about our evolutionary heritage, hunter-gatherer instincts that are ill adapted towards ‘modern’ living but which still drive us and make us delight in the primality of risking our own lives. In a footballing sense this isn’t about wanting to risk our lives, but a desire to return to some mythologised notion of ‘pure’ football, jumpers for goalposts, if you will. It’s Brazil we’ve chosen, more than any other nation, to be our simultaneously wiser but nevertheless inferior neighbour, invested with qualities that stem directly from primitivising them – and that’s the mechanism by which we can patronise while seeming to praise. Poor us, who have lost our spiritual intelligence thanks to our comfortable lives, our money, our cars, our luxuries, our stronger economies, our technology and grasp of the sciences and, *sigh* the ultimate burden of our ‘tough job but someone’s got to do it’ sense of world dominance. If only we could be like them – or, actually, no, if only we could have them as a sort of handy zippedy doo dah friend.

That’s Brazil. The less developed nation who consistently show us the errors of our ways. Brazil, who help show us what the game could be if only we could open our hearts and accept the pure love of football. Brazil, whose second most iconic team is the one that didn’t win but, deary me, didn’t they play so beautifully? Brazil, whose ‘natural’ talents can’t be taught, can’t be bought, but which infuse the whole nation via a samba-driven vibrational osmosis.

Brazil, who we patronise as the magical negroes of football but who, once again, will defy our orientalism and instead play like they always do – with their eyes on the prize.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Preview 4 – Belgium

For some players being at the World Cup is almost a contractual obligation, and they plod through their games just hoping to avoid injury before pre-season training at their day job starts, or before they’ve confirmed a move to Manchester City or PSG. If this is particularly true of players that already play – or want to play – for the big European club teams, then it’s something most international teams have to deal with, as long as they have at least one recognisable star. Sometimes it’s most clear when a team only has one; watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s exasperation with his mediocre national team-mates is quite often a delight, simply because of the school playground emotional dynamics that seem to result. Watching Portugal is a bit like this, but Ronaldo usually comes across like that kid in the playground with the new boots who never passes, which makes it less entertaining.

For these players club > country, which results in fairly lacklustre games, no rare thing in international football. Dullness also comes from the way the competitions are structured in such a way as to allow for the development of the concept of “the usual suspects” who you “can never write off.” These teams are usually the seeds minus the traditional blip (this year it’s Switzerland, in 2010 it was South Africa): Germany, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands, sometimes Portugal, maybe England at a push. Because of this fairly unaltering hierarchy, though, there are usual suspects at every level, so you also have those teams that seem to always be there but whose only role seems to be to offer the desired cushy second round tie: the Scandinavians, Switzerland, an occasional Balkan state, Japan, South Korea. This also seems the immediate destiny of teams like Ivory Coast and Ghana.

What there aren’t much these days are genuinely exciting teams. By that, I mean a group of 11 players who are more than the sum of their parts, who are exciting to watch because of the way they interact with one another. Often they are young and relatively unknown. Germany in 2010 were like this; their victory over England was one of those that is also a “victory for football.” Perhaps the team with the most potential for this sort of excitement in 2014 are the Belgians. They’re not “usual suspects” in either sense: they’re unlikely to win it and they’re not always there. This will be the first time they’ve qualified for a World Cup since 2002, where they reached the round of 16. Their Euros record is even worse: the last one they qualified for was 2000, and that’s because they were hosting it. Before that you have to go back to 1984. What this means is that the team that assembles in Belo Horizonte on June 17th for their first game against Algeria will be one that is to all intents and purposes unknown to the world footballing audience.

Of course there are other teams of whom that is true (does anyone know anything about the Hondurans, for instance?) but what marks out the Belgians is the range of talent they can call on: Thibaut Courtois or Simon Mignolet in goal; a choice of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Daniel Van Buyten, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen in defence; Nacer Chadli, Mousa Dembele, Steven Defour, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini (ahem), Adnan Januzaj, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, Axel Witsel in midfield/attack; Romelu Lukaku up front. By any measure, that is not a bad group of players. If they played in a Liverpool-style attacking formation, a front four of Januzaj, Hazard, Mirallas and Lukaku is pretty mouthwatering.

What should we expect from them though? Perusal of the internet reveals that they have been given the dispiriting moniker “The New Golden Generation”, which almost certainly condemns them to suffer from being over-hyped. And how much do they care about the World Cup, given they’re all players doing well for their clubs and are still quite young? The fan in me finds it hard not to get carried away by fantasy and imagine a perfectly calibrated team buoyed by a sheer love of the game. Clearly that’s not going to be the case, but it does raise an interesting question. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Ian Crouch questioned our conceptions of what athletic success means in a set of reflections initiated by a speech given by Kevin Durant on the occasion of his election as this year’s NBA M.V.P. (Most Valuable Player). “Unlike the aggressive, competitive, and sometimes vicious player whom we watch on the court,” Crouch wrote, “Durant was open, vulnerable, emotionally brave, and sincere. He reminded everyone not only of his own humanity but also of that of his teammates. They joined him onstage, and he took the time to address each of them, often sharing deeply personal stories.” If Crouch saw in Durant’s words another criterion of success, an old-fashioned one almost religious in its attention to moral uprightness, he broadens this into a consideration of the place of “the champion” as an alternative gauge of greatness:

The idea of championships as the ultimate expression of athletic success has gained a firm grip on the basketball psyche in recent years, bolstered by former greats … who continue to be held to account for their near-misses and their teams’ failures. It has been peddled especially hard by the kinds of sportswriters who often fret about players’ so-called legacies. The looming shadow of history seems omnipresent, as if moments no longer matter in real time but only in how they will change the rankings of the best and worst of all time. But this is a myopic kind of fandom, and it confuses what a spectator wants – which is to vicariously win something – with the myriad experiences that a player might hope to accumulate in his career. Durant offered another way: [his team] the Thunder are still alive in the playoffs, but, regardless of what happens, this was his championship moment. And it could be the fans’ moment, too—surely as meaningful and as thrilling as getting to see him riding on the back of a float holding a trophy.

The myopia Crouch talks about is precisely the kind that creates labels like “Golden Generation,” which are always destined to be disappointing. Not that anyone will say it was a great World Cup because Eden Hazard tears up when talking about how much he loves Axel Witsel, but when it is so difficult to assess what a team might do one response might just be: who cares? If the main question of Belgium is “how good are they?” another version, one I find more exciting – and, yes, more romantic – is: “how good could they be?” Even this question is usually couched in terms of improvement and “player development” and the sort of stuff that makes us think about players’ “trophy cabinets” and “medal collections,” but when you have teams made up of exciting players with no real pressure or predecessors to live up to (save for the “original” Belgium “Golden Generation,” that is), the mind wanders and is allowed space to imagine different scenarios. Personally I’d like them to play exciting attacking football unhindered by worries about winning the tournament, and for them to be a refreshing antidote to the slog-a-thon that almost undoubtedly will accompany England’s campaign, or the tired tiki-taka of Spain’s. But we’ll see. Part of the benefit of imagining different scenarios is it lessens the importance of what actually happens (unless you’re Belgian, presumably).

Posted by Mark West

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Preview 3 – Australia

As a footballer, you have pride in yourself and your performance and helping your mates out. But right now, without doubt, we’re going to get hammered.

For a nation whose image within the popular sporting psyche is one of relentless bellicosity, former captain Paul Wade’s summary of Australian prospects in Brazil make for sobering reading. A lack of self-confidence is not something usually associated with our antipodean cousins, whose monolithic prowess at those other Anglian sporting exports of cricket and rugby was built on the cult of the larrikin – a term reclaimed from its pejorative origins to become a byword for an uncompromising and unremitting desire for victory.

No matter the odds or unfavourable conditions, we have grown accustomed to expecting a degree of chest-jutting belligerence from the Australians (a notion that, perhaps uncomfortably, extends beyond the parameters of sporting achievement and finds its genesis in the ANZAC campaign at Galipoli). The perilous draw in 2006 was met with a determined shrug followed by an expectation-confounding progression to the knock-out stages. An even more unnavigable draw in 2010 brought a near miss tinged with misfortune and a sense of underachievement. Australia, it seemed, had cemented a place as serious players in the second tier of international football.

As Wade’s comments illustrate, this bright future has not so much stalled as started rolling backwards down the hill – sparks flying and passengers wailing, like a bad scene from Last Of The Summer Wine. It’s not just Wade playing down the Socceroos’ chances. In a particularly joyless set of media briefings prior to this tournament, manager Ange Postecoglou has adopted the self-limiter’s vocabulary of choice, bandying about terms like “transition” and “regeneration” and making little secret of the fact that the Asian Cup and the subsequent qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 are this team’s priorities.

Appointed on a ticket of team rejuvenation last October, Postecoglou has overseen the dismantling of 2006’s “Golden Generation” with old stagers like Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell and Mark Schwarzer swiftly jettisoned in favour of a group of younger, predominantly home-based players. The fossilized husk of Tim Cahill is the most notable exception to this rule and he, along with Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak, at least provide a modicum of experience in an otherwise embryonic squad. At the time of writing sixteen of Australia’s provisional party have ten caps or fewer. Seven are based domestically – a sign that the A League is slowly improving or that the Australian team is declining, depending on your point of view – with only Swindon Town midfielder Massimo Lugano and Preston defender Bailey Wright joining Jedinak in fulfilling the quota of anglocentric interest so relied upon by commentators.

Openly dismissive of their chances and with a squad so lacking in international nous it makes England’s own youthful effort look like a gaggle of superannuated veterans, Australia would be one of Brazil 2014’s least fancied sides even without the additional barrier of a dreadful draw. Lumped in with 2010’s finalists and a Chilean side who, whilst not quite matching the manic, Bielsa-tinged brilliance of 2010, progressed through the COMMEBOL qualifiers with ease, Australia’s chances look even bleaker than their public self-abasement suggests.

Further testimony to Australia’s status as one of the weakest teams in the tournament comes from their apologetic limp through qualifying – a mix of defensive obduracy and late goal fortune allowing them to cling to contention before a victory over Jordan and fortuitous win against Iran sealed their spot. Unlikely to make much of a mark in Group B or the tournament itself, it is in the very fact that Australia faced the likes of Jordan and Iran in qualifying where the real interest coalesces around this side.

Fed up with routinely racking up double figures against the likes of New Caledonia and Kiribati – a state of affairs so acutely uncompetitive that three of the top four individual goalscoring records in international football are held by Australians – before habitually failing to make it through a play-off, Australia withdrew from the Oceana Football Confederation in 2006. Since then, they have become a case study in geographical disconnection – the apotheosis of the steady erosion of boundaries in international football. Germany may be the popular example in terms of playing staff, and the semi-artificial furore over Adnan Januzaj’s convoluted lineage demonstrated that England are not immune from such intrigue, but for an entire nation to swap affiliation for sporting rather than geopolitical reasons is without precedent in the modern game.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In an age where national and individual self-identity has been marketised almost to the point of obsolescence, it is little wonder traditionally rigid lines grow fuzzier. Likewise, the Australian change in perspective is not limited to the sporting sphere, with a steady politico-economic shift towards the geographical expediency of closer ties with China, Japan and Indonesia. As the Oceanic construct begins to look increasingly anachronistic, Australia’s sporting move begins to look like one of a number of fault-lines the full effects of which will be played out over the coming decades. That one of the side effects is the type of habitual World Cup qualification that makes for the dismissal of a quadrennial competition as a transitional staging post is unlikely to be lost on a nation of sporting winners.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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Preview 1 – Algeria

If you set aside all the real big hitters of global political geography, the superheated paracontinents of Russia, Canada and Australia, Algeria is one of the largest countries on the planet. Stuck between Kazakhstan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the world rankings, it is the biggest nation in Africa: facing northward across the Mediterranean, launching ferries towards Marseille, Cagliari and Genoa, it also plunges south, charging towards the centre of its land mass. The Atlas Mountains cut the urbanised north off from the vast, thinly inhabited Saharan south, whose provinces, once combined, contain a population barely as high as that of Algiers.

For such an enormous state, Algeria seems to struggle to present an image of an intrinsic national identity. Sadly, its main connotation in modern times is the appalling internecine conflict of the 1990s, which only really caught the global imagination once its repercussions were felt in the Parisian Metro bombings and the hijacking of an Air France flight. Typically, Algeria was ignored until its nearness to Europe was made palpable. In fact, it would not be absurd to say that the world at large thinks of Algeria as not one, but two nations, the first an inscrutable, largely uninhabited North African republic characterised by governmental and religious instability, the second a deterritorialised, quasi-European entity existing sort-of amorphously within the political boundaries of France and increasingly separate from its geographical origin. When an Algerian acquaintance said to me recently that he regarded Marseille as an ‘Algerian city’, I don’t think he meant simply that Algerian people live there, but that it is the focal point around which this ‘second’ Algeria functions, a point of reference for diasporic energy like Manchester or Liverpool.

The two northwestern, ‘Irish’ English cities are worth mentioning for context as there is no clear parallel between France and Algeria’s relationship and the one between Britain and its former African and Asian colonies. The geographical proximity made the northern part of the country little more than a territorial extension of metropolitan France throughout much of the twentieth century, and the idea of independence for le plus beau fleuron brought the coloniser to the brink of a military coup in the 1950s. More, I think, than any other country – Israel, Syria, Morocco – Algeria is the ‘near abroad’ of Europe, a land which seems a concrete realisation of abstractions about slippage and liminality. Indeed, two of France’s most prominent twentieth-century thinkers of uncertainty, Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, were technically Algerian. (So, come to think of it, was Louis Althusser, poorly referenced but not infrequently present in a conceptual sense on SotB.)

Camus’ novel The Plague, set in Oran, made the pestilential devastation of the Algerian city into a metaphor for fascism in Europe. It’s tantamount to the degree to which Algeria had been absorbed into France that the author did not appear to see the irony of staging his allegory about occupation and resistance in a city which had itself been under occupation since the middle of the nineteenth century. Reciprocally, perhaps, modern Algeria might assert a claim over the novel, taking it in turn as a symbol of its own fight to emerge not only from the experience of colonisation but from an epistemology which makes it into an annex in which Europe can stage its psychodramas, a not-quite-Europe pulsing with allegorical potential.

Algeria go to Brazil with a squad which could, in some lights, look representative of an attempt to raise a specifically Algerian consciousness. It would not be unfair to speculate that fans in Algiers and Oran might have looked on with irritation and a sense of what if as France started to capitalise on the footballing consequences of the diaspora during the 1990s. The greatest ever player for Les Bleus – sorry, but I’m not arguing this point – was born to Algerian parents in Marseille; Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, present day players who have aux armes citoyensed at Saint Denis, also qualify for both nations. Although Nasri and Benzema were still finding their feet in the under-21s as Zidane’s career came to its filmic conclusion, there are presumably Algerian fans who have imagined all three taking to the field together for their country.

The current set-up seeks to mobilise the effects of the diaspora for its own ends. No team has gone to the World Cup with such a huge proportion on its squad born abroad as Algeria in 2010, when 17 players were French-born, and around half of the players Bosnian coach – and, perhaps tellingly, former Paris Saint-Germain star – Vahid Halilhodžić has selected in his 30-man provisional squad come from north of the Med. Indeed, several of the Algerian players have played at age group level for France, thus allowing Halilhodžić to benefit to some extent from centralised French investment in coaching and youth development.

One suspects, given the disastrous results of the European elections in France, that Algeria’s 2014 side will provoke a reaction with shades of Norman Tebbit’s infamous(ly stupid) ‘cricket test’. Perhaps it’s worth, in a World Cup where expanded eligibility and player naturalisation is a significant issue, to frame an argument as to why the Tebbit position on these things needs to be dismissed – it’s good to have a stock line for these things when the idiot in the pub starts citing them approvingly while you’re trying to concentrate on the game. First of all, why should individual players be more or less forced to represent a country from which they are simultaneously marginalised as abject and to which they are told they must demonstrate patriotic fidelity? This is nothing less than the reactionary expediency of the pseudomoral discourse of ‘integration’. Second, the notion that a member of a diaspora ‘should’ play, as opposed to ‘should be allowed to play’, for the country of their birth creates a myth about how the ‘non-indigenous’ owe the country that ‘hosted’ their parents or grandparents a favour. This needs to be challenged in all situations, not least in that lines of migration invariably open when the receiving country experiences a need for cheap labour, but particularly in those where political instability in the country being left behind is a direct outcome of colonisation.

Algeria have been handed a tough group with Belgium, South Korea and Russia. Even if the weight of expectation causes Belgium to have a World Cup pratfall on the scale of the Netherlands in 1990 or Colombia in 1994, the Koreans are formidable opponents for anyone in the group stage and Russia have both footballing and political points to prove. The only way in which Algeria could encounter France is if they make it to the quarter-finals, which would be a huge task regardless of the Greens’ swagger through the African qualifiers. If that does occur, however, we could be looking at one of the most ideologically fascinating games of the tournament.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

SotB World Cup Previews – A Preview/ Disclaimer

Today we’re going to be beginning posting our team previews for the 2014 World Cup. These are coming out according to a brute alphabetical logic, so there’s no categorisation by group – Algeria, like Accrington Stanley, will therefore take pride of place at least once during the tournament.

A few words about the previews. As with a remix album, we basically asked lots of different SotB writers, old and new, to pick a team or a couple of teams and effectively do what they want. As a result, you’ll read some previews which offer you a genuine account of the footballing strengths and weaknesses of particular countries, some which use the country as a launchpad for an essay on something completely different, and various approaches between these two extremes. If the team you want to read about doesn’t receive what you take to be ‘appropriate’ coverage, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that SotB is not, or not for the most part, aspiring to Guardian-type connoisseurial coverage of the tournament as a footballing event, and we tend to work predominantly from the notion that football is something that isn’t, or shouldn’t be conceived as being, present to itself. So, sorry if we don’t talk about the Ecuadorian reserve full-backs or the pre-tournament form of the Netherlands – these things are, we believe, covered amply elsewhere. That some of our previews do work in this way is, we hope, indicative of our commitment to heterodoxy.

Anyway, we hope these interest, entertain, inform, provoke.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Meaning of… Ross Barkley

On a cold night a couple of months ago my friend Jonathan and I climbed the many stairs of the Leazes stand at St James’s Park Newcastle and took our seats in the top corner, which, even though it was now past seven and was dark, had a clear view of the headlights and taillights of vehicles travelling up and down the A1 motorway as it cut through Team Valley. When I lowered my gaze, I could see the entire pitch below – players from both sides warmed up, but their numbers and even their physical characteristics were somewhat disguised by my distance from them. It was like watching the game from an airship – or, if you’re theologically-inclined, the kind of view God might have of a football game between Newcastle United and Everton.

The game kicked off. In the run up to the match, Newcastle had been doing badly and Everton well, but the home side dominated for the first fifteen minutes before being pinned back into their half.

A free kick was awarded to Everton outside the Newcastle penalty area. A figure in blue stepped up. ‘Oh no! Barkley’ a nearby Magpies fan muttered to himself. Sometimes a stadium is an amplification system for thousands of anxious internal monologues that, when externalised all at once, sound like a single voice: the roar of the crowd.

Except it wasn’t Barkley – it was Leighton Baines, and the free kick came to nothing. The nearby fan had, nevertheless, given voice to the growing buzz that surrounds Barkley. Barkley’s ability to turn a game was feared by opposition fans, even if there hadn’t actually been much proof of that potency. Barkley had had a reasonable season, and had started perhaps half of Everton’s games. But he was still more likely to tire or lose the ball than galvanise a victory – his uncompromising physicality had a tendency to burn itself out, and his individualism often blinkered him to the simple pass that kept possession. He had scored a handful of excellent goals and put himself about admirably. I was a little amused, however, by the way opposition fans anticipated his brilliance – it seemed, to me, a bit of an urban legend, like the way the children on the streets of Baltimore tell tales of the renegade stick-up man Omar in The Wire.

Then Barkley picked up the ball in the Everton half and ran two-thirds of the length of the pitch, dodging half-hearted tackles from the Newcastle defenders and ignoring his teammates’ invitation to pass before thumping it into the goal at the Gallowgate end.

As an Irish Everton fan, drawn to the club after the World Cup in 1990 because Kevin Sheedy played for them, I had seen a couple of friendlies Everton had played against League of Ireland sides over the years, the most recent of which was an August 2011 friendly against Bohemians. The game actually took place in the second week of the Premier League season – Everton’s away game against Tottenham had been postponed because of the riots a few days before. In Everton’s side was Jermaine Beckford, who had enjoyed a fairly indifferent 2010/11 season with the club, aside from a remarkable goal against Chelsea where his solo run from the edge of the Everton area ended with him hitting the net. He scored against Bohemians too, and even though the game was pretty dull and ended 1-1, Barkley impressed in midfield. The overriding impression I still hold of him was his raw, unfinished quality: he galloped around chasing the ball, he mistimed challenges – but his touch and control were generally very impressive. He was still 17 years old.

Ross_Barkley_Bohemians_V_Everton_(3_of_51)

In football, a sport where careers are short, youth is fetishized. Many Evertonians can reel off a list of players who started young for the club and went on to great things: Joe Royle made his debut for the first team in 1966 aged just sixteen. Wayne Rooney was the same age in 2002 when he came on at Goodison Park against Tottenham Hotspur. Some others who got their start young: Jack Rodwell, Jose Baxter, James Vaughan, Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri. (A couple of years before, I had seen Dundee United play a friendly against University College Dublin where Cadamarteri was an unused substitute for the Scottish side. He retired at the end of the 2013-14 season, having played for two years with Carlisle United.) The fetishisation of youth is in part a mania focused on potential – what a player could become, based on the possibilities projected onto the imagination by their every move, shimmy and shot.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s highly entertaining autobiography is particularly good at ignoring the relative importance of the kind of everyday drudgery most people know essential to football – instead, he concentrates on the pivotal, kinetic moments of his career. These transformative events take place largely when Ibrahimovic knows he must impress a scout or a potential manager. They are performed, in other words, when an opportunity – often financial – presents itself. Ibrahimovic conceives these moments – the memorable, often stunning passages of play where time appears to stand still and the crowd collectively holds its breath – as not just the product of the game on the pitch as it happens, but part of a larger game of contract negotiations and transfers to bigger clubs. (Although, this being Zlatan, there is also a persistent motivational factor of spite in some of his greatest performances.) Given Ibrahimovic’s contextualisation of these moments, one must applaud the contemporary player who creates a moment of undomesticated transcendence in a comparatively meaningless game – applaud him not least for his lack of self-control.

When Barkley picked up the ball in St James’s Park, I still had an idea of him as a raw player, full of potential. When the ball hit the net, I began to think about how that raw individualism – responsible for the kind of outlook that makes you elbow your fellow players off the ball and dribble eighty yards – might be educated out of him in the future. A few weeks later, he scored a spectacular long-range goal, struck from an angle against Manchester City, that was later awarded Everton’s goal of the season.

When Barkley was named in the England squad for this summer’s World Cup, manager Roy Hodgson echoed what Everton manager Roberto Martinez had been saying all year: it might be a little early for Barkley, but his potential makes him an exciting prospect. It remains to be seen whether his rawness – that which makes Barkley great, but also unpredictable – is harnessed or discouraged at international level.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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