Thursday, June 29, 2006


In which we continue to look at the delicious spread of quarter finals which await this weekend....

Big Phil Scolari. Not only the coach of Portugal and former World Cup winner with Brazil, but also a moustachioed stick with which to beat Sven Goran Eriksson.

For every wan look Sven delivers from his ensconcement in the dug out toward his listless team, there is a fist-clenching, charismatic gesture of inspriration from Big Phil for the English press to observe sniffily. For every report of a stultifying half-time team talk from Sven sucking the zest from his players, there is another documentation of Big Phil's motivational powers. For every mention of Sven's toleration of David Beckham's decline, there is a reference to Big Phil's reinvigoration of Luis Figo.

If Eriksson is motivated by such base things as the pleasure of raising two fingers to detractors, then he must be fiercely determined to finally defeat his old nemesis, the man who didn't want his job, this Saturday.

In the Swede's favour, so far this tournament has often forgiven the shoddiest of early form. France's resurrection and Brazil's gathering momentum prove that the achievement of results always buys time for a talented squad to find its feet.

Whether England's several real match-winners can drag them through the fog of their complete tactical funk is the critical factor for the meeting with Portugal. The botch job which was the squad selection (well, the Walcott mystery mainly) and the injury to Michael Owen mean that, and wasn't it ever thus, much of Albion's hopes rest with the full recovery of Wayne Rooney.

The good news for England is that the Manchester United striker looked to be heading towards his best in the latter stages of the victory over Ecuador, and the completion of 90 minutes was a satisfying day's work for the young man who bears such huge expectations with insouciance.

Additionally, the form of Steven Gerrard (a man coming up to a year of constant football now) is consistent with the regular claims made for his pre-eminence amongst global midfielders, and Joe Cole's strike against Sweden was one of the moments of the tournament so far.

But England have not looked much closer to dispensing with the awful disjointedness which has plagued them this tournament so far. David Beckham 'saved' his country with a trademark dead-ball in the round of 16, but the captain's almost total invisibility and lack of penetration has contributed greatly to his team's bluntness. The glaring case for Aaron Lennon's inclusion must not be ignored much longer, if England are to triumph in their first real test so far.

It's a call that Scolari would probably not hesitate to make. His own selection decisions have been made easier by the suspensions inflicted by the debacle in Nuremburg last Sunday. The loss of Deco and Costinha will see Figo moved inside and, probably, Petit brought into midfield.

If Cristiano Ronaldo recovers from the injury sustained against Holland, the renewal of his epic battle with Ashley Cole from the corresponding fixture in the last European Championships will be interesting, but the bipp-topping combatants are the two men on the sideline. Scolari's team have demonstrated infinitely more cohesion in the matches so far but still look lightweight up front. Eriksson's have stuttered but retain a deadlier knockout punch.

This, finally, could be the time when the Swede comes off the ropes fighting.

Not really lacking in context either, is this one. Only a handful of combatants remain from the day in Paris in 1998 when a French football fulfilled itself and Brazilian football looked its saddest.

But the fact that those few include the scorer of a crucial first half brace, Zinedine Zidane, and the man whose mysterious troubles on the morning of the game saw his golden moment turn to dust, Ronaldo, gives this game huge resonance.

The two central characters that day have had a strangely symmetrical World Cup. In the opening matches Zidane and Ronaldo looked like the ravages of time and lack of fitness had rendered their once world-beating talents impotent. Indeed, in the case of Zidane, France's win over Togo which ensured their progression from their weak group, achieved in Zizou's absence, seemed to suggest that les Bleus were better off without their former talisman.

But both returned to sublime heights in the round of 16, doing what they both do best: in Ronaldo's case, deadly finishing after mesmeric lead-up play; for Zidane, the reappearance of his unmistakeable guile and balance.

France now look a decent bet. A solid back four with Makalele and Vieira in front of them, and the sprightly Ribery, the sleek Malouda and, of course, Thierry Henry assisting Zidance ahead of that, they have a good shape about them all of a sudden.

As we saw on Tuesday, Brazil profit from a team playing a high line against them (Ghana's bewildering decision to do so was a textbook case of how not to play against the Brazilians). The French will happily sit in and see if Brazil can break them down. No better men, of course, but more is needed from a hitherto off the boil Ronaldinho, assisting the excellent Juninho and Kaka, if the iron wall of Thuram, Gallas, Sagnol, Abidal and Makalele is to be breached.

Given that France have plenty to trouble their opponents with up front, their victory over Spain could even end up being a dress rehearsal for this one: come and have a go if you think you're talented enough. But that is a dangerous game to play against Brazil, who only need a sniff of goal from any sort of range to notch a winner. And if little Ronnie steps out of the ample shadow of his near-namesake at last, revenge for '98 might be complete.

....Read more!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


It's a handsome looking bunch, isn't it? After the motley collection that turned up in the last eight in 2002, the line-up for this weekend's quarter finals is the footballing equivalent of a Mr. Universe competition, just without as much baby oil. No disrespect to Senegal, Turkey, USA and South Korea, but allowing for Ukraine as the sole bearer of aw-shucks condescension (the 'Jack and the boys go to Rome' of this World Cup, if you will), the remaining competitors are the icing, the cherry and the marzipan on the cake of world football.

So who'll be the heavyweights with the knockout punches?

Having spent the past few weeks in Germany, I feel a good deal attachment to Klinsi and the jungs. For a nation with their majestic football history, their status as figures of ridicule in football in recent years must have been a difficult one to take. Although they won the European Championships in 1996 and reached the World Cup final in 2002, they have not had a truly great team since that of the late 1980s and early 1990s, those more recent achievements being by-products of weak fields and their own ingrained tournament savvy.

So can this callow bunch ride the current wave of home enthusiasm past the Argentines, the team whose brilliance has been fully unveiled only once in this tournament so far, but which lurks menacingly there? In their favour, they have a nice settled side; in Jens Lehmann, Philipp Lahm and Michael Ballack they have world class performers; in Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Christoph Metzelder exciting young talents and in Bernd Schneider, Miroslav Klose and Torsten Frings hardy pros in top form at the right time.

It all sounds like a classic German formula, until you consider whether they have really played anyone of substance yet. The memory of Paulo Wanchope waltzing through their defence in the opening match against Costa Rica must put a smile on the faces of Hernan Crespo, Lionel Messi and Javier Saviola, and Germany, at times in the group matches, ceded control of the game in midfield, a surely precarious weakness if Esteban Cambiasso can wrest domination from Ballack and co., and hand the keys to the semi-final to the master locksmith, Juan Roman Riquelme.

Germany will be hoping for a return to the hesitancy which has afflicted Argentina in the two games since the glorious thrashing of Serbia & Montenegro, and more specifically for Nicolas Burdisso's injury to persist and leave the dangerous Schweinsteiger/Lahm axis with the opportunity to exploit Lionel Scaloni's shortcomings. The hosts have the bark of their fanatical home support on hand, but the biting potential of Argentina, if their teeth are fully bared, should prove lethal.

As I mentioned earlier, Ukraine provide the heartwarming novelty factor much like Ireland in 1990, and, again like us 16 years ago, meet the Italians in the quarters. One envisages the parallel being stretched even further as well, as the Italians, fitful though they have been, and in beating Australia, downright fortunate, should manhandle the newcomers out of the tournament with all the ceremony of Neapolitan hoods extracting a gambling debt.

Italy should, therefore, find themselves in a semi-final, but only in a typically obdurate, pragmatic sort of way. Not for the Italians the pomp and circumstance of group stage thrashings or confident displays of WOW! football. A sneaked, jammy penalty here, an early-goal-and-sit-back there, a late breakaway sealer against tired legs to top it's all been there from the Italians this time around.

With the rumblings of the corruption controversy (which took a dark turn with the reported suicide attempt by new Juventus sporting director and former Azzuri player Gianluca Pessoto yesterday) continuing, it's staggering how Italian the whole world of calcio is looking at the moment.

I would even go so far as to foresee Friday evening's second quarter a little like this: Ukraine start full of heart and effort, the hard running Voronin and Kalinichenko doing their utmost to work a sniff at goal for Andriy Shevchenko, when the Italians steal upfield for a corner, say, in the 9th minute. The ball is turned in off Alberto Gilardino's shoulder with the Italian striker in an offside position, but the goal stands.

81 minutes of unimaginative Ukrainian toil (the parallels with Ireland in 1990 keep coming, don't they?) later, Tymoschuk is sent off for a last-man foul on Totti, who converts the penalty, and the Italians advance.

Or some variation thereon. Like the scorpion in the story, don't blame them. No, it's just their nature.

Tomorrow: England, Portugal, Sven, Phil and the small matter of the great 1998 World Cup Final Charity Reunion Match....

....Read more!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


As if to remind us of why Ireland are not at the World Cup, Aer Lingus weighed in with some good old fashioned Irish incompetence last night to leave us stranded in Munich for one more day. Like the crucial goals that never came against France and Switzerland in the qualifiers, the 19.45 flight to Dublin failed to appear, remaining grounded at home, the victim, like Ireland's attacking play, of technical problems.

This gave us a chance to watch Switzerland v Ukraine, however, an only slightly more enjoyable experience than two hours on EI 1357. A running gag throughout this tournament has been how certain matches are for one of the nations involved "their Stuttgart", referring to our own epochal day in 1988. E.g.: "This is Togo's 'Stuttgart'", or "this is Angola's 'Stuttgart'".

This works when a smaller country plays a big one, and one that they are either neighbours with or endured a bloody colonial past under. Which caused confusing when Switzerland played France in Stuttgart, making Stuttgart, er, their 'Stuttgart'.

Anyway, last night's game had emerald connotations also. For Switzerland, this time it was 'their Suwon', losing as they did a second round match on penalties, while Ukraine enjoyed 'their Genoa', beating their opponents after a rubbishy, scoreless match, in a shootout, and in their first finals appearance. Nice!

Anyway, Switzerland's performance at this World Cup is an interesting indicator of where we are. Namely, slightly inferior to a hardworking, youthful side who don't score many goals, and who managed to qualify out of a pretty weak group. Something to work on then....

....Read more!

Monday, June 26, 2006


Munich airport and the last leg. Homeward, like twenty other nations already (I am writing this just before the Italy v Australia match) and probably about as exhausted as each of them. The tournament continues of course, heading toward the stages where the history is made, and after being in the middle of it all for over two weeks I will watch the rest like most of the other billions gripped by this thus far thrilling tournament.

To tell you the truth, at this point my battered body is longing for some prolonged sofa-based slouching, some mild abstinence from alcohol (steady on, not total…), the absolute avoidance of pork products of any kind (even my beloved Saturday morning bacon sarnie will be jettisoned for a time), and the welcoming Cork burr of Bill O’Herlihy and the lads (replacing confused attempts at understanding the likes of Gunther Netzer and Rudi Voeller).

The parting shot for the participatory part of my World Cup was the, shall we say, ill-tempered contest last night between Portugal and Holland in Nuremberg. The Frankenstadion, in which the game took place, is right beside the grounds where the Nazis' notorious Nuremberg rallies took place in the 1930s, as unforgettably documented in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’.

Sitting on the very steps from which Adolf Hitler delivered his addresses, one wonders, firstly, why the unmistakable structure has been allowed to remain, particularly in a country which has reinvented itself in the intervening sixty years to such a degree as to make it seem that the whole tragedy was the plot of some outrageous, Orwellian, dystopic novel from the time.

Perhaps it remains simply from the desire to preserve a genuine historical site. Perhaps as sort of cautionary reminder of man’s capacity for evil. Or perhaps it is to provide a chancer writing a sports blog with the ready made opportunity to pretend to be a serious thinker on Big Things, and not just a bar-room bore with a keyboard.

Either way, you do pause for reflection before your eye wanders over from the emblematic image of the mid-twenieth century fascist nightmare to the shiny, multi-coloured corporate garden fete that FIFA has put on around the stadiums.

There is something Orwellian also about the suffocating modern brandfest that accompanies football nowadays (well, accompanies almost everything really). The carefully selected stadium songs attempting to manufacture the alchemy of what the Germans call ‘Gute Stimmung‘ (basically atmosphere or, perhaps, craic), the existence only of the sponsors products in the area, the advertising, the hedge fund managers high fiving in the row in front of Diego Maradona while real supporters remain locked outside; it all seems at times like a morphine-soaked blanket draped over, and for the supression of, anything resembling wit, originality or uncontrollable local idiosyncrasies.

Still, its only a game. And when you find yourself watching actual World Cup football unfold and cheering along and shouting at the ref exactly like maybe somebody was doing in Montevideo in 1930 during the first tournament, you know that they can’t take that, the game, away.

But then they wouldn’t want to. Oh well, nothing for it. I’ll have a Bud and a bratwurst please.

....Read more!

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Berlin, Berlin, Wir fahren nach Berlin!

And so they are. The first quarter final is lined up, and my, is it a tasty looking one. Germany v Argentina. Proper quarter-final, that.

750,000 Germans reportedly crammed into the Fan Park in Munich yesterday at the old Olympiapark. I was not one of them, having been on the way there only to read on the train station information screens that the park was entirely full and the gates had been closed.

To the biergarten in the Englischergartens then. A bit of trepidation here though. You see, we had spent a few hours there earlier in the day. Being a beautiful, sunny afternoon sunbathing was, naturally, the main activity. And when I say naturally, I mean naturally. Man, woman and child, but sadly mostly man, sons and daughters, but sadly mostly sons, of München, naked as the day they were born.

Quite a sight, and I can firmly say that following this particular vision my bratwurst eating days are definitively over.

Going back to the Englischergartens to watch the match, and I feared for my poor eyes. Would Germany's march to the quarter-finals be celebrated by, well, getting jiggly with it?

Thankfully the thousands who crammed around screens between the trees were generally appropriately attired, and rejoiced in their side's continuing progress.

If a national football team can't capture a zeitgeist when a country is hosting a tournament, then something is massively wrong, and in a country as football-mad as Germany the weight of enthusiasm behind Jurgen Klinsmann's team is naturally stupendous.

But the former World Cup winning striker has ridden the euphoria expertly. His childlike exuberance at every goal scored or chance created is perfectly in tune with the buccaneering spirit his team have embraced and which has transferred itself onto a giddy nation.

Now they face their first real test, against many people's favourites for the tournament. Argentina's overcame a stubborn Mexican side by virtue of a moment of brilliance from Maxi Rodriguez, precisely the sort of match-winning intervention good sides are able to produce even when not playing well.

Given the styles of play both teams employ, next Friday's quarter-final should produce a game to match the occasion. Let's just hope the Germans realise that you don't have to take your clothes off to have a good time...

....Read more!

Friday, June 23, 2006


Bavaria. It’s a whole other country. They speak different. It must be what it is like for a non-English speaker arriving in Newcastle and trying to reconcile the impenetrable Geordie dialect with the language they have been getting the hang of further south, or have learned in school.

I did German in school myself, and having been using those long rusted linguistic tools to get me by if necessary. Not that it often is, of course, given the proficiency of most Germans in English. But between that and watching the commentary and analysis of the football on TV (which is a useful language learning technique, as precisely the same stuff is said about football no matter what the language. You’re only watching England a few minutes when you make out “pretty good touch for a big man” after Peter Crouch’s first involvement) you find you start getting the hang of it.

And then you get to Bavaria.

Not a chance. Overhearing a conversation between a waitress and a guy at another table in a bar last night was like eavesdropping in Moscow or Tehran. The clear tones of the Ruhr Valley are seemingly completely unrelated to the language you hear, rolling and gargling as the order is taken.

The analogy with the north of England stops at dialectal complexity, however. Ingolstadt, the town we stayed in last night, is seriously affluent, being the home of a stupendous Audi factory. The car manufacturer employs about a fifth of the town’s 100,000 or so people.

Two of my fellow travellers spent a summer here ten years ago working in the Audi factory (hence our stopover in this unremarkable town) and spend the evening recounting youthful high jinks and the escapades on the production line.

Then, in the same night club they went to all those years ago, one of them meets the guy who is doing the exact same job as my friend did as a 19-year old student: namely, putting in the little triangular window thingy in the back seat doors.

Obviously it’s a beautiful moment. It’s a shame Audi aren’t one of the main sponsors of the World Cup actually. Talk about “a Time to Make Friends”? This is like meeting the brother he never knew he had; photos are taken, discussions ensue with furrowed brow as to the problems inherent with the little window thingy and its future, laughs are shared over certain idiotic supervisors still there, invitations to Dublin are issued and accepted.

So there you go then. Across the boundary of language and dialect comes understanding and friendship….through the triangular window thingy in Audi cars. Who’d have thought it?

....Read more!

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Yesterday saw the return of an old favourite. Remember, in simper times, when huddled masses congregated on sprawling terraces and men were men, one of the traditional sounds was the "Bull-shit ahhhh" which accompanied goal kicks.

Seemingly lost to progress, the concept of distracting the keeper is actually alive and well in Mexico. It´s the same drill, except on the moment of impact the chant goes up, guttural and loud: "Puto!" I don´t speak Spanish, but I believe that it does not mean "welll done".

Anyway the Mexicans were a fine bunch, probably the most enthusiastic supporters so far, apart, perhaps, from the Argentinians. Their meeting in the second round will be tremendous fun.

Has a little of the sheen gone off Argentina after the failed to sweep away the Netherlands in the same manner as they did Serbia & Montenegro? Not really. That match had ´draw´written all over it, and although the Argentine squad is so strong that resting players doesn´t really hurt them, they did make widespread changes to the team that started last Friday.

I wouldn´t expect Jose Pekerman to start both Messi and Tevez when the big games come along, as the absence of Crespo´s physicality was notable, and the former pair bring too many of the same attributes to the table.

There were still legions of England fans in Cologne last night. The Altstadt area rang out for hour after with the familiar chants of "Engerland", "Three Lions", "Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he´s big and he´s f#cking hard", and one unprintable classic which went along the lines of the old "Bestiality´s Best" number, except involving Sooty the bear, which partially made up for the fact that the city felt more Coventry than Cologne.

....Read more!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC. Day 10, 11, 12

Back in the wagon train now, about to saddle up for Gelsenkirchen again. Four days off the beaten track, in Maastricht, Trier, Bernkastel-Kues and Koblenz, all of which except the latter offered almost total respite from the World Cup hilarity, and a surprising lack of internet access, hence the tardiness of the latest update. Still, well rested its good to be back amongst it for the final push, and Portugal v Mexico today should get the juices flowing again.

Our sojourn began in Maastricht, a lovely little southern Dutch town of cobbled streets, which are firmly the domain of countless cyclists. Then it was back to Germany and Trier, near the border with Luxembourg. The heavy heat subdues even further this sleepy border town, and there’s no sign of the WM-2006 passing through. Only a couple of hours from host cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and, closer still, Kaiserslautern, but the contrast to the boozy, multi-coloured battalions of the main World Cup battlegrounds is pronounced.

Elderly tourists stroll through the streets or sit outside cafes and ice-cream parlours, melting in the oppressive afternoon sun. Trier is not bustling, rather today is barely murmuring. A couple busk in the street, she on out of tune guitar, he on noodling jazz keyboard, performing songs like “The Banks of the Ohio” in the style of those bizarre Pop Idol auditions they only broadcast for cheap laughs. That this is the only sound to be heard apart from the occasional church bells adds to the surrealness.

This is Riesling country, so we take a bus out to a Weinstube to taste the local produce. A rotund chap called Hermann, who has evidently spent a pleasant Sunday morning enjoying the fruits of his labours, mumbles and points his (inordinately thick, like a battered sausage) finger towards the wine. There are eight to be tasted, ranging from Ribena-like and harmless to sickly sweet and syrupy, with your classic Riesling somewhere in the middle.

That’s about it though, there’s not much else you can do with wine other than swish it about your mouth, sniff the bouquet and swallow, and as the joys of Riesling remain hidden to me, I don’t even buy a bottle for my troubles. Stick to the beer, mate.

At which point, and deciding that all that remains to be done in Trier is to have a beer and watch the football, I enjoy another brew for the ‘best of’ list: Schofferhofer Kristallweiss, a Weissbier with the freshness and sparkle of a Pils and settle in to see if Brazil can provide alternative entertainment to Sonny and Cher out in the square.

Brazil seem out of tune themselves still, however. The champions are disjointed and lacking in confidence, and, rather than looking like the fulcrum of a fabled attacking quartet, Ronaldo appears more suited to lining up at the Masters Football alongside Kenny Sansom and Matt Le Tissier. Once again the burly Real Madrid man is sacrificed, and Robinho’s introduction livens Brazil up.

But Brazil also cede a lot of possession and territory to the Australians and their inability to dominate their games in the traditional manner is worrying. Certainly, compared to the quality of Argentina’s destruction of Serbia, the Brazilians look decidedly unfearsome.

Monday takes us deeper into the Moselle valley to the charming town of Bernkastel-Kues: Bernkastel on one side of the river, Kues on the other. More wine-tasting here, in the company of a burly lady who, for some reason, assumes we are military men. Presumably this is because of the thousand-yard stares and killers’ physiques we possess.

Bernkastel-Kues must be where Germans go to die. There is almost no-one under the age of 65 and the general air of picture-postcard prettiness and coach tour creakiness, while undoubtedly relaxing, soon leaves you checking yourself for a pulse.

Up to Koblenz then, the end of the Moselle wine road and the point at which that river runs into the Rhine. Enough wine and roses, time ease ourselves back into the swing of things, which means the Germany v Ecuador match in a park by the river. But 45 minutes of drizzle and beer in a plastic cup is 45 minutes too many, so we find a bar, with real glasses and everything, for the second half.

The Ecuadorians don’t turn up, happy enough at having qualified and looking forward to a second-round match against England as reward for their successful tournament so far. Meanwhile, more momentum for Germany, who now have a bit of a strut about them, and a man in the goals in Miroslav Klose.

England just about seal top spot in their group, and avoid a second round match with the Germans, but its another pretty listless performance with two new, further woes: injury to Michael Owen, leaving England’s already paltry striking larder positively cobwebbed, and the loss of two goals from balls into the box suggesting hitherto unexpected troubles in central defence.

Sooner or later Eriksson will have to justify his selection of Theo Walcott in the squad, a decision which the Swede seems to be almost pretending he never made. By now Jermaine Defoe, for example, would have had a run-out, especially given the lack of fitness of England’s two main strikers, but in Walcott’s case, it seems that Eriksson is waiting for the genuine desperation situation.

Rooney’s lack of sharpness was repeatedly evident, especially in the minutes before his substitution when several balls played into his path were approached with tired lunges as opposed to his usual voracious enthusiasm.

Still, as demonstrated by Joe Cole’s wonderful goal and Steven Gerrard’s headed second, England have enough players capable of the spectacular to get them well into the latter stages, and, as they are on course to meet Portugal, one of the more manageable of the top seeded teams, in the quarter-finals, it could be a semi-final before their inability to control a game and dominate possession cost them.

....Read more!

Sunday, June 18, 2006


I wonder how he puts up with such gross intrusion into his privacy. Just trying to watch a game with some friends, minding his own business, desperately hoping to blend into the crowd, the painfully shy Diego Maradona must dread occasions like Friday’s Group C meeting of his countrymen and Serbia & Montenegro in Gelsenkirchen, such is the attention he is forced to endure.

He copes with it manfully, old Diego, modestly acknowledging the cheers and chants of his name, before settling sedately into his seat, in which he claps politely at any good play by either side. What a man.

Well before the end of Friday’s match, the performance of the legendary no.10’s successors served to command the wholehearted attention of all 52,000 to the extent that the ghost of Argentina’s past looked fully exorcised by the mesmerising present and the promise of a glorious future.

For the record, Argentina’s performance was easily the most complete, skilled and stunningly beautiful I have ever borne witness to in the flesh. In the giddy aftermath of the match, I pondered whether I had seen a performance for the ages, a Real Madrid 1960, a Hungary 1953, a Milan 1994. Serbia & Montenegro are not world-beaters, and this was only a group stage match, but the Europeans are no mugs, and indeed advanced undefeated through their qualifying group having only conceded one goal.

Yet they were rent asunder here in the most merciless and devastating manner imaginable, the Argentine substitutes bench being used as a sort of elaborate torture kit, raided for progressively more gruesome tools with which to skewer the opposition. Cambiasso - Ouch! Tevez - Aargh! Messi - Grrraaaiiieeegghhh!!!!!

But let’s leave that metaphor with the Serbs. For everyone else, this performance was bliss. By virtue of a ticketing mix-up, we somehow managed to receive seats three rows from the pitch, right behind the Argentina dug-out, about forty yards in front of where the Maradona entourage held court. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything done so well so close up in my life as watching the Argentine players’ touches and movement from a matter of yards away. It was like holding Michelangelo’s ladder while he did the Sistine Chapel roof.

People who know nothing of football, and even those who know plenty about it but are wearied by its modern excesses and vulgarities are quick to talk about footballers in terms of being overpaid, pampered and fortunate jocks taking advantage of the common man’s insatiable addition to the game. But if you could see what guys like Riquelme, Messi, Saviola, Tevez, Sorin, Rodriguez and co. do and the speed at which they do it - the flicks, the control, the dribbles, the passes, the movement - you wouldn’t begrudge them a penny of their millions, and you’d leave all that tired, cynical old man talk at the door and you’d be a kid again.

Just ask Diego, he understands.


Gelsenkirchen also came up trumps with the best beer of the tournament so far, Gruben, which is made in the Hibernia bar near the station. Fresh tasting and lively, and the best part is, as soon as you've had some you can turn on your heels and get on the train the hell out of there again.

With no game until the 21st now, we're taking a few days of R and R away from the madness, heading down along the Moselle from Trier to Koblenz. Silly hats will not be necessary...

....Read more!

Friday, June 16, 2006


It´s almost like the World Cup has paused for breath. The weather has cooled and for those amongst who have been here a week now, the frenetic, voracious pace has calmed a little too. Well there´s none of us getting any younger you know. We are shortly to embark from Cologne (stunning cathedral, sausage by the metre, local brew is smooth, pale Kolsch - Travelogue ed.) headed back to our beloved Gelsenkirchen to see the Argies play Serbia & Montenegro.

The chance to see one of the possible tournament winners is today´s main event as well as the oppportunity to get amongst some proper South American fans. There is, however, the now imminent risk that our rancid Ireland jerseys may see us ejected forthwith from the Arena, possibly through the retractable roof.

On that subject, above is a snap of the aforementioned jerseys in fresher times, taken last Saturday in Dortmund.

....Read more!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Day 6/7/Reprise

The football then. We’ve seen all 32 teams by now, and while it’s still probably too early to properly judge the contenders and separate the future national heroes from the soon-to-be ignominious failures (the next round of games should give context to compare and contrast and, with the rain due in, will provide a second chance for those who complained about the heat) we can have a try.

Time, space and inclination mean we can’t look at all 32 teams now, so here’s a top ten ladder as things stand on day 7.

They can’t can they? Next thing you’ll be saying we can write off the Germans! (Well, about that…) The ability of the Spanish to flimsily implode remains lurking in their psyche, but the 4-0 destruction of Ukraine was easily the most impressive performance of the tournament so far, and the fourth goal is destined to be featured in World Cup highlights reels for years to come. Their squad is youthful, at the same time with plenty of top-level experience, but will they have the mental resolve and belief for the psychological obstacle course of the knockout stages?

The standard ratcheted up a few notches at the end of Day 2 when Argentina and the Ivory Coast played out a gripping Group C opener in Hamburg. Others may have had more comfortable wins, but the Argentines were playing a stronger side than the likes of Italy and the Czech Republic. Without even calling upon Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez, Argentina still looked very potent, with Messrs Crespo, Riquelme and Saviola in fine fettle. Although they will be worried at how the Africans got in behind their defence in the fraught latter stages, their squad looks absurdly strong.

As with Argentina, they overcame a robust African side, but importantly for Italy there was a real sense that they knew what they were doing, organisationally and offensively. They looked lethal in counter-attack, breaking almost in formation at times, and not many defences will relish dealing with the muscular presence of Luca Toni. Ghana got some joy from running at the Italian defence, but one suspects the return of Gennaro Gattuso will help plug any vulnerability in front of Nesta and Cannavaro.

An impressive scoreline, and as the match in Gelsenkirchen on Monday went on the Czechs gained ever more control as the Americans heads went down; however not a performance without its worries. For long spells in the first half the USA controlled the midfield, with the not exactly fearsome pair of Claudio Reyna and Bobby Convey helping themselves to a fair amount of possession. However, the magnificient interjections of Tomas Rosicky showed that a bit of class always will out.

Their opening day defeat of Poland was a tactical master class and a flawless display of counter-attacking football. Strong at the back and with plenty of pace and guile in wide areas, and real South American brio to boot. Having just seem them play the most enjoyable football of this World Cup yet in beating Costa Rica, they could pip the hosts to the top spot in Group A.

The first team to six points and almost certain qualification, the Germans have had the benefit of a very weak group, and the standard of football in last night’s clash with Poland was at times more Dalymount than Dortmund. However, a bit of momentum is a great thing in a World Cup, as Jurgen Klinsmann undoubtedly understood when he chased the victory by bringing on the attacking substitutes Oliver Neuville and David Odonkor. That this pair combined to score the winning goal last night will have raised Klinsi’s stock no end. Looked a bit stronger at the back, albeit against a pretty limp Polish side and will have come on a lot by virute of last night’s result.

The strongest of the African qualifiers went toe-to-toe with one of the genuine trophy candidates and did not look in the least bit out of place. Like the Spanish, they have plenty strong, young athletes playing in top leagues, and Drogba, the Toures, Eboue and Kalou would grace any side here. Unfortunate to be in such a tough group in which recovery from an opening match defeat will be difficult, their game against the Netherlands should be a humdinger.

A scorching afternoon in Leipzig was a difficult environment to begin with, but notching up an opening win in such conditions against a dogged Serbian side sets them up nicely. In Arjen Robben they have a player bang in form, and looking fresh after a less than taxing club season. A big worry remains about their lack of experience at the back and they are sure to get a proper examination from the Ivory Coast.

Played some nice stuff against a surprisingly feisty Angolan side, but the old fear remains that for all their ability on the ball and capacity for nice football, they still lack a true killer instinct. In all the years since their ‘Golden Generation’ first emerged they have never had a real top class centre-forward, and Pauleta is not that man. They have Big Phil’s wiles on their side however, and course and distance is always good form.

Ok, they were pretty rotten really. Croatia more than deserved a point from their meeting with the World champions and the sad deterioration of Ronaldo is taking on near-Elvis proportions. But as Kaka’s fine winner proved, they have so much ability in that attacking division that for all their weaknesses it’ll take a big punch to put them down. Still, at this juncture the Hexa seems a long way off.

Trinidad & Tobago, Australia and Mexico all had reason to smile during the first week.

England looked rudderless and limp, France looked decrepit and lacking ideas (although both sides had the excuse of playing in oppressive heat in their favour) and Ukraine must be in a state of national mourning after that Spanish spanking.

....Read more!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


And so south to Stuttgart, the spiritual home of Hiberno-Prussian football matters. What was the Neckarstadion in 1988, is now named the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion, after the local automotive behemoth whose presence here, along with the electronics firm Robert Bosch, help make this one of Europe’s most prosperous cities.

The city is beautifully set in a valley, with elegant houses built right the way up, creating, in the current hazy heat, the illusion of Tuscan hills. We watch the South Korea v Togo match in the majestic Schlossplatz, before making for the stadium.

The name may be changed, and the athletics track which divided the exultant Irish supporters that day from the seminal events on the field is covered up for the tournament, but the elliptical sweep of VFB Stuttgart’s home ground is unmistakeable. Adding to the significance of the day for Ireland is the fact that our two conquerors from the qualifying group for this tournament, France and Switzerland, are playing each other, causing the mind to wander, once again, to thoughts of what it would have been like if we had made it to these finals.

One likes to think that we would have brought more passion and colour than the French, who are outnumbered by their smaller neighbours here, and whose odd relationship with their national team is always evident. In front of us, after the game, a Frenchman takes off his replica top, folds it neatly, and places it in a bag before going on his way.

More predominant than both of the protagonists in the city’s first World Cup match are the Croatians, many of whom are immigrants or at least second generation. Following their narrow and unfortunate defeat to Brazil, the Croatians take to cars and motorbikes and proceed to create a noisy boisterous scene which would suggest that they had actually won the tournament, not suffered an opening match defeat.

Looking for a place to watch this match, after returning from the stadium, we walk up a street which carries the hallmark of any wealthy successful city: the proliferation of, to put it crudely, Wankerbars. We are directed here by an Irish fellow we meet who lives in Stuttgart, and whose patter and manner suggests him to be firmly at home in the aforementioned establishments…

Such places are, of course, at odds with the rowdy, beery atmosphere you tend to prefer watching football matches in, and my hopes for Stuttgart temporarily sink.

To the rescue, as ever, ride the Brazilians. Like the T & T fans from the other day, the fact that Brazil are playing, albeit hundreds of miles away in Berlin, is a fine and proper excuse for a samba party-type affair, which goes on till the early hours and makes manageable the horrendous walk up seemingly thousands of steps to our hostel.


During the samba party-type affair, we are approached by Ger Gilroy and cameraman to talk inanely for RTE about what I cannot remember, so if you are watching RTE today and it comes on, go easy, please….

....Read more!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I’ve been in enough recovering post-industrial casualty towns to know a mendaciously upbeat tourism spin job when I hear one. Gelsenkirchen was the furnace of the German post-war economic miracle, but, like most forming coal-mining towns, suffered the withering effects of that industry’s downturn. Now the tourist blurb claims that deep pits have been replaced by high culture.

“The theatre and smaller performing arts audience now gathers where foremen and hewers once descended into the pits,” claims the Nord-Rhein Westphalia World Cup guide booklet. “Art rather than coal is on show.”

This all carried a similar whiff to the European City of Culture gong which is passed around between similarly rehabilitating former powerhouses trying to find their feet in the digital age, passing them a towel to cover the immodesty of their rusting erstwhile might.

But while the likes of Glasgow and Liverpool have developed burgeoning art and music scenes, or at least recognisably swish cultural quarters, Gelsenkirchen’s shabby, kebab-shop strewn main precincts suggest that this small Ruhr valley city has some way to go to match with genuine development the muscular confidence of its larger neighbours in Dortmund and Duesseldorf.

Football, of course, is one area in which this type of town is generally bullish, and Gelsenkirchen is no different. The Arena auf Schalke, home of Schalke 04, is one of Europe’s most recognisable stadiums. Built five years ago, the Arena has already hosted a Champions League final, in 2004, and its retractable roof and glassy, curving exterior make it easily the city’s most arresting feature.

In this case once again, however, Gelsenkirchen suffers by comparison to its neighbour, Dortmund. It is a little harsh to measure the Arena against the Westfalenstadion, after all, one of Europe’s most atmospheric and electrifying grounds. However, while sitting in the latter, you wonder as to how Borussia Dortmund could ever fail to win a home match, such is the noise-hoarding properties their home possesses.

The Arena in Gelsenkirchen, on the other hand, despite being filled yesterday with vocal and boisterous fans from both the USA and the Czech Republic, struggles to provide the same visceral thrill; the fault, one suspects, of that vaguely antiseptic, plastic feel many new stadiums have.


In fairness to Gelsenkirchen, the above lukewarm write-up was coloured by the atrocious form yesterday of your correspondent, on whom the excesses of days 1 to 3 of the World Cup began to catch up. The searing heat, the Chernobyl-like cloud of pollen which appears to be currently hanging over Germany, the punishing schedule of beer-drinking and the catastrophic nutritional effects of a bratwurst-heavy diet meant that had I been even perambulating through the streets of ancient Babylon my enthusiasm for its delights would have been negligible.

Still, with two more trips to Gelsenkirchen to come, and with the help of an increased fibre intake, there’s plenty of time for the place to win me over.

....Read more!

Monday, June 12, 2006


Entitled "Sweet Home Alabama, Or How We Taught the Americans About the World Cup"....

The chants from the Czech supporters came ferociously, unstintingly. Czechie, Czechie, Czechie was about all I could make out. The sort of dorky east coast college boys which make up most of the U.S.A.'s supporters here smiled nervously and mustered meek responses of their own. But their USA! USA! USA!s were soon stifled through shyness and lack of inebriation.

We'd have to do something about that.

Two hours, and several looseners later, we share table tops in a the German equivalent of a lock-in, and, freed from the bounds of cultural sensitivity and ethical tourism, the barmans choice of cast-iron American classics on the stereo hits the spot. Skynyrd, the Boss, Ike and Tina, the Stones (I know they're not American, but they sort of are really) and, just for a night, the sons of Massachusetts and upstate New York are free to just be.

The World Cup is for everyone after all.

....Read more!

Sunday, June 11, 2006


T & T, We want a goal,
T & T, We want a goal,

T & T, We want a goal,
T & T, We want a goal.

People from the Caribbean know about the space between the music. No blustering epic choruses, or verses describing historical woes and vowing sporting vengeance. Simple but effective, the chant that the Trinidadians (or is it Toboggans?) sang as their team of players from clubs like Wrexham and Port Vale earned a scoreless draw against Sweden was in keeping with the way in which the result was achieved. Hard work, intelligent use of possession and flawless organisation reflected well on the grizzled Dutchman Leo Beenhakker's management.

Flawless organisation then. Well it is Germany after all. Here's the bit about how wonderful the train system is and how everything is just so and nothing is left to chance. That's all true and this is a magnificent place to have a shindig like a World Cup Finals. But don't get the impression that it is some sort of coldly functional, glorified business conference. This is a spectacularly huge party, and the venue stretches the breadth of a nation.

Düselldorf, base camp for we merry Weltmeisterschaftpunters, is not a host city, and as such would be expected to feel like the proverbial kitchen of the aforementioned party. Still, arriving on Friday, and despite undertaking a profoundly dull city tour (in which we learned that Düsseldorf calls itself the "office desk of Germany" due to the proliferation of grey functionaries therein) we find that the city is in agreeable and downright jaunty form, serving as a holding zone for a menagerie of fans from various competing countries, and in our case, non-competing ones.

It turns out that the presence of Trinidad and Tobago in the tournament acts as a sort of multi-national invitation to supporters of minnows like Falkirk and St.Johnstone as well Wrexham and Port Vale to join in with things, and it is on Friday night in Düsseldorf that I first hear, from a band of intrepid Wrexham supporters, the immortal chant:

Na na na naaa, Na na na naaa, Hey hey hey, Dennis Lawrence.

It is, as you can undoubtedly gather, a plaintive paean to the Welsh club's centre-half who lined out so heroically yesterday for T & T in the erstwhile Westfalenstadion (all the stadiums have been renamed FIFA World Cup Stadium for the duration of the tournament, a typically preposterous and unnecessary branding exercise by FIFA, particularly in the case of the majestic home of Borussia Dortmund, which although denuded of its legendary Sudtribune terrace, is still volcanic in its atmosphere and big-occasion vibe).

If Düsseldorf was a lively introduction, the reality of a game-day host city is overwhelming. Upon leaving Dortmund Hauptbahnhof, the heat of a June afternoon is fused with a cacophonous melange of sounds and the visual spectacular of a robust looking German city overrun with supporters and a staggering carnival feel. Doubtless this is fuelled by the presence of the T & T contingent, the fact of whose inferior numbers to their Swedish opponents is rendered irrelevant by the natural celebratory nature they bring.

Calypso music plays on a stage near the Hauptbahnhof, which is but a gateway to innumerable squares and platzen in which the mood tends only more and more towards gaiety. It was decided amongst our party to wear Ireland shirts and, ahem, silly hats, on game-days. I baulked initially at this policy, believing that we would be irritating gatecrashers at someone else's party, but the enduring positivity towards the Irish means we spend the day in a succession of exchanges with good natured Germans, Swedes, Poles, T & T fans, Americans, Scots etc., all conducted through the intermediary of various degreess of inebriation.

The ubiquitous slogan "A Time to Make Friends" stirred up within me initial and predictable waves of cynicism toward FIFA, and their desire to market and brand even the concept of drunken exchanges with strangers. But maybe its just the Irish jerseys, or maybe its the tasty Altbier, but there isn't a bad word or an unhappy face anywhere, and that can't be a bad thing.

That is until one of our party had his wallet robbed on the train to the stadium. Ah well, where were we? That's right:

T & T, We want a goal,
T & T, We want a goal,

T & T, We want a goal,
T & T, We want a goal.....

....Read more!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: The Knockout Stages

LAST 16: The second round, or Round of 16 as you most likely won't be calling it, is a peculiar creature. Lacking the high octane importance of the later stages, but also bereft of the novelty countries and party atmosphere of the opening rounds, it is a sorting office where the competing nations' hopes are efficiently checked for substance, and then either dispatched home in anti-climactic disappointment or propelled quarter-final-wards in a fiery chariot of glory.

Match 49: Germany v Paraguay - Hosts, gathering momentum following surprisingly easy qualification and roared on by a patriotic Munich crowd, storm past the gutsy South Americans 2-0

Match 50: Argentina v Mexico - A glorious affair, and a great advert for the silky improvisations of Latin American football. With the teams locked at 2-2 going into injury, Lionel Messi curls a free-kick in to send the Mexicans south of the Rio Grande.

Match 51: England v Poland - Familarity breeds contempt in Stuttgart, with the teams who qualified for the World Cup from the same group cancelling each other out. It is the brave introduction of the electrifying Aaron Lennon which wins the day for a hitherto lacklustre England. A nation gets carried away with itself.

Match 52: Portugal v Holland - Another corker, if marred by a display of diving not seen since those old Esther Williams movies from Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben. The goofy-grinned Madeiran earns the penalty which Figo dispatches to win it for Big Phil's boys.

Match 53: Italy v Australia - England is in disarray as, despite the nation reaching the quarter finals, there is not a celebratory pint to be had due to all of London's barstaff decamping to Kaiserslautern to follow Australia's unlikely progress. Taps are running again quicksmart as a Luca Toni brace sends the cobbers back to their aprons.

Match 54: France v Ukraine - Despite the best efforts of an on fire Sheva, the Ukrainians are no match for a French side who seem to have found the right balance, with Zidane and Henry combining lethally, at the appropriate time.

Match 55: Brazil v Czech Republic - Brazil are in trouble. Their defence has struggled to cope with the lofty Jan Koller and the predatory Milan Baros, whose drifting wide has outfoxed the Brazilians aging fullbacks. Ronaldinho drags his team into extra-time and a fortunate penalty-shoot out win.

Match 56: Spain v Switzerland - We thought that even Spain couldn't screw this one up, but they do: another misfiring performance and another penalty shoot-out, this time the Swiss make a shock progression.

QUARTER FINALS: The best round of the tournament. Where the exciting stuff happens. Where Maradona scored that goal, and that one, against England, where Bonetti was blitzed by Der Bomber in 1970, where Ireland went to see the Pope, where Bebeto rocked the baby, where Bergkamp took that long pass down against Argentina in France.

Match 57: Germany v Argentina - The hopes of the home nation are extinguished, and it is that man Messi - fast becoming the man of the tournament - who does it. The Germans are gallant against superior opposition, but their attacking approach, while laudable, costs them dear on the break.

Match 58: Italy v France - Gallic finesse meets the rebirth of catenaccio. The Italians, desirous of restoring their nation's footballing pride, decide to champion the most innately Italian of methods. Gilardino cores an early penalty and two Italians are sent off as the French, and a frustrated Henry, are suffocated out of the tournament.

Match 59: England v Portugal - Rooney: "I have unfinished business with the Portuguese". Rooney makes his first start since recovering from a broken metatarsal and helps England to avenge the defeat to Figo and co in Euro 2004. Stevie Gerrard is the main man, however, and two first half goals from the Liverpool man take England through to the semi-finals for the first time since 1990.

Match 60: Brazil v Switzerland - In which the Brazilians finally get their groove back. Adriano finds form but the Swiss defence begins to resemble their native cheese at precisely the wrong time. The sight of a tearful Philipe Senderos, having put through his own net from a Robinho cross, is one of the enduring images of the tournament.

SEMI-FINALS: Where dreams are ended and rightful winners are consigned to the half-life of wistful regret. Usually by the Germans. But this time the teutonic ones are gone, with only the smooth organisation of the tournament a testament to their existence. So will the best team win this time?

Match 61: Argentina v Italy - The Italians are on a mission now. The azzurri nation takes pride in the restoration, nay renaissance, of their beloved calcio. Silvio Berlusconi attempts a coup, disgusted that Romano Prodi should lead the nation at this heady time. The Argies batter away at the redoubtable blue wall, but Nesta, Cannavaro and Buffon are resolute. That man Toni does the business with a back-post header in the first half.

Match 62: England v Brazil - Rooney, now seemingly fully recovered takes centre stage. He combines with Owen to put England ahead and then the most stirring of rearguard actions commences. The spirit of Dunkirk is invoked. John Terry sees the ghostly figure of Bobby Moore appear to him just as Ronaldinho advances one-on-one. Terry suddenly finds himself involuntarily sliding to the floor, lancing the ball from the brilliant Brazilian's toe, then rising to bring it clear. The apparition appears again, and smiles beneficiently at the World Cup finalist.

THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: Empty the benches.

Match 63: Argentina v Brazil - Whatever.

FINAL: Berlin hosts the biggest occasion in sport; in fact, the biggest occasion outwith moon landings, presidential and princesses funerals and terrorist atrocities. Big! Big numbers: of viewers, of advertising revenues, of media presence, of preview hype....after all of which the main event can't help but seem what it is: just a football match. Finals are usually disappointing, but how, in God's name, could they ever live up to the expectation?

Mathc 64: Italy v England - Both sides are paralysed by the tension of the affair, which suits the Italians. Rooney is shackled by Nesta, drops deeper and is shackled by Gattuso. Beckham and Lampard are invisible and Gerrard huffs and puffs to little effect. The World Cup Final trudges it's way, inevitably and grimly, to a penalty-shoot out. Peter Crouch misses one for England, the Italians convert theirs. Another four years of familiar pain for England, but Sven exits as a beloved hero as he hugs each tearful man in his squad. Italy erupts in celebration and Berlusconi is even allowed out on day-release to enjoy the celebrations.

....Read more!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


When, in 1998, FIFA increased the participating numbers for the quadrennial feast upon which we are once more about to gorge from 24 to 32, the apparent danger was that one could have too much of a good thing. The group stages, 48 games still packed into the opening two weeks of the tournament, are now a piranha feeding-frenzy of football consumption, a kaleidoscopic blur in which the hopes and dreams of 32 separate nations are tossed and blown, prised apart then reconstituted so that, like a battlefield on the morning after the bloodiest of struggles, all that remains are survivors: the strongest.

The knock-out stages that follow seem to play out with a leisurely grace in comparison, with a measly 16 games unfolding over the final fortnight, and - egads! - the eerie phenomenon of whole days sans football. Still, it seems the delights of World Cup football are immune to the pall of overfamiliarity, and the group stages, as bewildering and bloated as they are, are still the colourful heart of the tournament.

GROUP A is as good a place as any to start, wherein the the hopes of Mitteleuropa and two Latin American minnows dwell. The hosts, Germany, come to this tournament with their humblest prospects in some time. Only home advantage, tradition and the comfort of that old cliche about never writing the Germans off act as evidence toward a fourth German Weltmeisterschaft. But while they lack the quality of old, Jurgen Klinsmann's attacking philosophy is a refreshing change of approach and alongside Poland they should advance easily ahead of the diminutive challenge of Costa Rica and Ecuador. The Poles will give the hosts a right good test, and the prospect of avoiding England should add to bitter historical enmity to make Dortmund a very interesting place when they clash on June 14th.

The group about which you will hear the most over the next fortnight is GROUP B, where our plucky neighbours England take their usual place alongside Sweden. The Rooney Situation will remain irrelevant at this stage at least, as England without him remain a much superior force to their rivals. Sweden, however, could be in a bit of trouble in this group, their 36-year unbeaten record against England notwithstanding. Enormously dependent on the attacking talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg, their defence is shaky looking and their midfield sparkless. If Paraguay continue their improvement, with Roque Santa Cruz of Bayern Munich's recovery from injury paramount, they could take advantage of any lack of Swedish lustre. Trinidad & Tobago will provide the heartwarming stories and will get several spankings for their trouble.

Fascinating one, Group C. Two possible winners in Argentina and (stretching it a bit with such a young and inexperienced team, with decent attackers in Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dirk Kuyt, but not much in the centre of defence) the Netherlands, probably Africa's strongest side, the Ivory Coast and the perennial dark horses of Serbia & Montenegro. Argentina have a real chance of their first title since 1986. With a defence comprising of Roberto Ayala, Gabriel Heinze and Juan Pablo Sorin, the creativity of Juan Roman Riquelme, the flair of (injury permitting) Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez and the goalscoring of Hernan Crespo, they appear to have it all. Ivory Coast could surprise the two European contenders, however, with a team of familiar, Europe-hardened names such as Drogba, Bonaventure Kalou, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Aruna Dindane. Argentina and any two from three here.

From the group of death, as in all World Cups, to the group of sleep Group D. Mexico and Portugal should stroll though ahead of Iran and Angola, the latter in particular the epitome of the nation whose achievement was in their qualification itself. The Mexicans have long fancied themselves as genuine heavyweights in waiting, and their top seeding for the tournament is the result of excellent form over recent years. But they never seem to get it right at big tournaments and the fact that their best-known names are Jared Borghetti of Bolton and Rafael Marquez of Barcelona suggests a lack of true quality. The Portuguese look strong, and the offensive talents of Deco, Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo suggest they should top the group, but a their main striking threat comes in the underwhelming form of Pauleta, and the inability to turn pretty football into goals could scupper them again.

Group E is almost as much a group of death as Group C, if you attach any credence at all to FIFA's placing of the well organised but limited USA at 5th in their official rankings. Italy and Czech Republic are genuine heavyweights here, however, and the avoidance of Brazil in the second round will make the struggle for top place all the more interesting. The Italians are many people's tip for the big prize and their traditional defensive solidity is augmented by the red-hot form of Fiorentina's Luca Toni up front, backed ably by the fit-again Francesco Totti, the evergreen Alex del Piero and Alberto Gilardino of AC Milan. Add the desire to reinstate the nations good name following the recent scandals, and they should have the measure of an aging Czech side, for whom Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Jan Koller will be singing swansongs. Ghana are not the force of the Abedi Pele days, Michael Essien carrying the hopes of the group's minnows.

Another interesting group, is the one known as 'F'. Brazil go for the 'Hexa', and the national obsession with this honour demonstrates that five previous World Cup wins have not sated the hunger for success for the Selecao. Looking at their attacking riches, their favouritism is understandable, but there are question marks over their defence: the aging full-backs, Roberto Carlos and Cafu, Dida's poor season in goal for Milan and the lack of an obvious partner for Lucio in the middle. Edmilson's loss through injury denies them another defensively minded player, but the jewels of their attack - the world's best player, Ronaldinho, especially - will see them comfortably past well-organised Japan (whose hopes lie in the combination of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura in midfield), Guus Hiddink-coached Australia (who will have the meat and power of a middling Premiership outfit) and a Croatia side bereft of the great talents of their 1998 predecessors. Second place is a lottery between the three others.

Group G will see France and Switzerland, as they did in qualifying, progress, this time unencumbered by the snapping presence of the Irish and Israelis. The brief challenge of Togo will rest with Emmanuel Adebayor of Arsenal, while South Korea, without Guus Hiddink will find the success of 2002 a long time ago and in a land very far away. Despite the obvious talents in their squad, it is very difficult to back the French following the disappointments of 2002 and Euro 2004. The aging limbs of Zidane, Makalele and Thuram and the slightly younger but possibly equally jaded Patrick Vieira will carry much of les Bleus hopes, but not to the extent that Thierry Henry will, the Arsenal man requiring a performance on the big stage to cement his global reputation. Internal squabbles notwithstanding, they will lead their Alpine neighbours - a decent and relatively young outfit - through to the last 16 handily enough.

Finally, Group H is home to the hapless Spanish, whose abundance of talent and status as a soccer superpower has in the past nonetheless never prevented them from stumbling ignominiously from the World Cup in one way or another. Whether this is as a result of some fundamental flaw in the national mentality or an absence of genuine homegrown quality in a league containing the cream of multi-national talent, Spain's lack of success is puzzling. This time, as well as ability, they have youthful promise, with Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas occupying key roles alongside the faded, but still deadly Raul and the rugged Carlos Puyol in defence. Themselves and Ukraine, for whom, it goes without saying, Andrij Shevchenko carries the main threat, should have little trouble against Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, with the latter two playing next Wednesday for what should be their only points.

TOMORROW: Who will win the bloody thing....?

....Read more!

Friday, June 02, 2006

7 Days To Go

Around this time next week TSA will be landing in Germany, just hours before the eyes of billions focus on the perplexing sight of another World Cup opening ceremony. The TSA outside broadcast budget stretches to the group stages and last 16 round, during which we will don leprechaun hats and represent Ireland in Germay in the manner of obnoxious unvited party guests; after that we will be stuck in front of the telly like every other schmuck. Rather than spend two wonderful weeks stupefied in beer and sausage-induced Nirvana, TSA will remain keen-eyed and vigilant to bring you regular updates from the underbelly of the global kickaround, starting next week with the usual preview type rubbish you're already sick to death of reading in what we irresponsible cyber-types call the 'old media'.

Schones Wochenende!

....Read more!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Another Lame-ass GAA Controversy

I always think it is something to do with the amateur ethos of gaelic games, the annual appearance of a silly affair or controversy that is, which generally involves some misinterpretation of an obscure article of the GAA disciplinary code or rulebook. Because there are is no transfer gossip to fill up the column inches and airtime demanded by the public's voracious enthusiasm for the games, we must (as well as the bread and butter of team selections) instead dissect and consider the wheretofores of substitute misuse, was-it-a-point? controversies, high court suspension appeals, referee watch malfunctions etc.

Were the GAA a fully professional organisation the attention of the media this week would have been devoted to more pressing matters.

This week we would have been transfixed by the tapping-up scandal involving Dublin and Gooch Cooper. The gifted Kerry forward would have been papped in the restaurant of the Morrison Hotel, surrounded by sharp-suited minders, deep in conversation with his agent and the moneybags Dubs' oleaginous chief executive.

Or we could have been shaking our heads at the latest carry-on of the Roscommon footballers, allegedly implicated in a 'roasting' scandal involving Polish escorts, the night before a Bank of Ireland Premier Division clash against Galway at the Hyde Arena.

Or we could have been looking on at the plight of Declan Browne, whose come-and-get-me-plea to Tyrone has seen him ostracised by his own county, left to rot in the Juniors.

But no, this week it is the minutiae of the blood substitution rule and the labyrinthe GAA process which we are following. Ok, maybe that is no bad thing. Let us hope that roasting in the GAA is confined to the nice cut of beef on the table before heading off to match of a Sunday.

But the point remains: the GAA has created a professional environment in terms of player preparation and commitment, and in terms of the media and public attention which surrounds the field of play. But this professional superstructure is oiled and maintained by clueless buffoons with flourescent bibs of the type who allowed (and of course Offaly themselves bear some responsibility for the fiasco, but they did ask an official for approval and would surely have felt on safe ground when making the ill-fated final change) Sunday's error to take place.

The amateur, volunteer ethos is, of course, the glue which affords the organisation is strength. But the absence on the sidelines on occasions like Sunday's Leinster Championship fixture - with all the familiar attention and importance attached to it - of officials capable of administering and monitoring the status of the substitutes properly is profoundly unacceptable and will continue to result in annual reprises of the sort of dumb controversy we're now enduring.

Ok the tapping-up affairs and the roasting scandals we don't need; but how about a couple of half-decent fourth officials?

....Read more!