Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Uncle Travelling Almanac

TSA regrets to announce that updates will be less regular over the next six weeks or so, as we will be taking off to South America for a bit of wander in that time. Obviously you'll agree that the break is well-earned after all that hard work at the World Cup, and hopefully will mean we come back all refreshed and ready to get back for more sporting blather in early September.

I will attempt to update the blog from South America (Chile, Argentina and Brazil) every now and again to keep anyone who is remotely bothered appraised of the trip.

On the sporting front, hopefully in my absence the following will occur: good, exciting and, most of all, open championships in hurling and football - more likely in the former than the latter, of course; someone from these islands winning a golf major at last when the British Open is played at Hoylake this month; the good football supporting public not to have to put up with too many interminable transfer sagas, a vain hope already, it seems, as the Christiano Ronaldo affair gathers stultifying momentum; the post-Lance Armstrong era in the Tour de France to see a tight, closely fought battle over the mountains to decide the new champion; a battle of the generations royale to ensue between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher; and, in the opening weeks of the Premiership season, none of the other challengers to slip up early on and give Chelsea an easy head start - one which, with Ballack and Shevchenko on board, they really don't need anyway.

Oh, and Cork City for the Champions League....

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Monday, July 10, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: The Day the Football Died

In a parallel universe somewhere, Zinedine Zidane is waking up around now, exhausted still, but smiling at the memory of his headed winner in last night's World Cup final, the crowning moment of glory in a truly great career.

In this dimension, however, that legacy lies in tatters.

The greatest footballer of the modern era left the game he graced so splendidly in a fashion beyond ignominy. If Zidane did have a premonition two years ago of how France's World Cup would transpire, it is a vision which has become unspeakably blurred.

Perhaps it will be revealed in time exactly what Marco Materazzi said to Zidane to prompt him to so lose control at a time when his team looked the better poised to give him his second World Cup winners medal. Whatever, the sense of devastation his sending off caused flowed not just through his own team, but around the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and throughout the football world.

Twenty years ago, as an 8-year old, I watched Diego Maradona slide a pass in front of Jorge Burrachaga to score the winner in the 1986 final, the Argentine number 10 crowning a tournament he had dominated with a typical moment of sublime intervention. Maradona's exploits that year inspired and instilled a profoundly magical sense of wonder in any kid of my generation who saw him; the spark, perhaps, that lit a billion football passions.

His own fall from grace in 1994 was sad, but in keeping with the mercurial nature of the man. Zidane's exit, on the other hand, so out of character with a player who embodied supreme grace and balance on the football field, was a shocking destruction of a dream, and of the irrational hope that one still has of football's narratives producing happy endings. Most of all, it was simply desperately sad.

World Cup tournaments often get the finals they deserve. 1970's technicolour dream ended in a carnival of timeless Brazilian genius; 1986 with the brilliance of Maradona finally outfoxing the grit and doggedness of West Germany; 1990's stupefying procession of defensiveness and cheating climaxed in a sour affair won by a dubious penalty; 1994's overheated ersatz finals stumbling to their end in a strange passionless venue, in a strangely passionless manner.

2006 was no different. Like the tournament, the match started in bold and open fashion. Like much of the tournament, there was a real technical quality to the play. But much like the way the knock-out stages of this World Cup descended into tense, conservative chess matches, the paralysis of fear soon gripped.

France had all the play from half-time onwards, but failed to commit the manpower to capitalise on their dominance. Italy, either through exhaustion or a reversion to extreme caution, refused to come out, and their lack of pace up front meant they generated little counter-attacking threat.

Ultimately the tournament was won through the resoluteness of the Italians, via the majestic Cannavaro, the dogged Gattuso and (perhaps an inspiration for future England teams) a new found steel in a penalty shoot out. Their thrilling victory over Germany in the semi-finals apart, they will leave little in the way of an inspirational legacy, other than in their exhibition of the less glamourous qualities needed to win at football.

But with their domestic football in meltdown, the pride in this victory will be a well timed tonic at home, and there was something quintessentially Italian about the hard-boiled, stubborn and obdurate way they won this tournament.

All the same, another World Cup has petered out to a tired, messy conclusion - and this time one denigerated further by the soul-destroying sight of a great hero's fall - and the quadrennial event which is supposed to create the legends that burnish the greatest game will instead seem to tarnish it. People will go back to their clubs now in search of that magic and international football's already battered reputation as the apex of the sport takes another blow.

I am glad I was not on 8-year old yesterday.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006


My, our beloved men of analysis are fickle. Last night France qualified for the World Cup final, a credible achievement you will agree, in admittedly scrappy and unconvincing fashion. Cue apoplexy on the RTE panel.

Stopping short of labelling the French a disgrace, the plaudits of Saturday and the defeat of Brazil, and of last Tuesday and the cursory dismissal of the hapless Spaniards were cast away, words rendered as meaningful as Neville Chamberlain's "this piece of paper" speech.

Steady on, I say.

France were poor last night, caution and diffidence infecting their game particularly in the aftermath of Zinedine Zidane's penalty in the 32nd minute. But with the summit of every footballer's ambition beginning to peek over the horizon, and the knowledge that Portugal's powder-puff attacking prowess could very easily be stymied, surely it is in some way understandable that some of the French players succumbed to hesitancy.

The likes of Abidal, Ribery and Malouda did not reproduce their form of the previous two matches, when their youthful vigour provided the perfect foil to the wiles of Zidane and co. These players appeared gripped with nerves in the face of an achievement that they would have little suspected was possible in the early stages of this tournament.

But for experienced men of football like Messrs Giles and Brady (whatever about Dunphy, whose knee jerks at the turning of the tides) not to recognise common semi-final symptoms in France's messy progress is surprising, given that last night's match, rather than Tuesday evening's classic, was much more typical of the genre.

The sense of destiny (what with Zidane's dream and all) which must be gripping the French squad will see last night's poor display quickly forgotten about, and, with several men insitu who now what it is to play in a major final, to dismiss on the basis of one functional semi-final victory the prospects of French is very probably folly.

On a side note, whatever you might think of France's performance, how good it is that this Portuguese team will not have the opportunity to disgrace the World Cup final. Their egregious response to having to chase this game, namely a series of the most outrageous dives in the often inglorious history of World Cup simulation, deserves some sort of retrospective punishment from FIFA.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Semi-Final (2)- Tale of the Tape

Will the King Midas of World Cup football, Big Phil Scolari, extend his unbeaten World Cup run to thirteen games and so propel Portugal to their first ever final? Will the magical Zidane help continue the regeneration of the men, to quote l’Equipe, who refuse to give back the jerseys?

The credit which Portugal’s manager receives for their success is probably inappropriate to his contribution, but there is no doubt that Big Phil has galvanised a good but hardly spectacular squad through his own particular gruffly inspirational management style. France’s rejuvenation, on the other hand, has drawn little in the way of praise for Raymond Domenech, their hitherto maligned coach, their recent success instead seeing bouquets thrown at the feet of Zidane, Vieira, Henry etc.

Who’d be a manager? In our usual no-nonsense fashion, let’s break down the fundamentals…

I would have jettisoned Fabien Barthez a long time ago, myself. Since his ill-fated spell at Manchester United and his subsequent six month drug suspension at Marseilles the bald pate of France's number one has not shone as brightly as it did in the glory days of 1998-2000. But his retention as a sort of good luck charm, another happy thread back to those days, has not cost Domenech yet, despite the claims, and much to the chagrin, of Lyon's Gregory Coupet. Still, that monumental gaffe sometimes feels just around the corner.

Neither am I a fan of Portugal's Ricardo, though for different reasons. His propensity to the cynical feigning of injury when his team are leading - knowing well that the goalkeeper is the only player who cannot be stretchered off for treatment - is odious. Still, he is agile and a tremendous man to have on your side in a penalty shoot-out. as England, of course, know only too well. Anyone with the chutzpah to claim that English players saw the devil when they approached him for their penalties has a lock on the psycho-terror of the shoot-out.

Not much to choose here, both back fours enjoying the protection of two holding midfielders (and to think it took Sven five years to contemplate having one) and therefore rarely being exposed by opposition midfield runners. Still, France's back four have been second only to Italy for steely resolve, with Thuram, Sagnol and Gallas giving Brazil in particular barely a sniff.

Portugal have one of the best full-backs in the tournament in Miguel, although he attracts attention as much for his attacking as for his defending. Ricardo Carvalho marshals a defence that has only conceded one goal, but France wiill be encouraged by how Mexico managed to get in behind the Portuguese back four in the second half of their group match.

This is where it has been turned around by France. Very rarely in the history of the game has a triumvirate like Makalele, Vieira and Zidane been put together: such a balanced composition of midfield talents you could not buy. Supported wide of them by the fresh legs of Ribery and Malouda, France appear to have gotten just right the necessary chemistry of attacking and defending. Because it is a five man midfield, however, much of France's success depends on the two wide men backing up Henry sufficiently, lest their probable dominance of possession be worthless.

Portugal shape up almost exactly the same, and can call again on Deco, their advanced schemer so missed against England, and Costinha. Because they use the same formation as France, it is easy to compare like with like. For Portugal the middle three of Deco, Costinha and Maniche, while strong, is visibly inferior to France's engine room. Out wide, if fit, Christiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo are talented and more reknowned than their opponents, but the former lacks the footballing intelligence to augment his considerable gifts, while the latter (watch him score a hat-trick now...) has lost through age a lot of his zip.

After the gluttony of midfield, the nouvelle cuisine of the opposing strikers. Both teams play with one man up front, but this is the only area on the field where comparison reveals a total mismatch. Making do with Pauleta up front is one of the key reasons why Portugal will always fall short in international football, as no matter how good their build-up play, the lack of a top-class striker leaves them seeming, frankly, a bit flaky.

Meanwhile, Thierry Henry is acknowledged as one of the best players in the world, and while he has rarely produced his club form in the bleu, he demonstrated his value in the quarter final. Had he not ghosted on to Zidane's dead-ball to strike the sweet volley which won France their place in tonight's game, his team could very easily never have transferred their obvious superiority onto the scoreboard.

Although football, especially at this elevated level, remains gloriously unpredictable, all reasonable analysis points to a France victory. Apart, perhaps, from their goalkeeper, there is not an area on the field where Portugal are visibly superior. Off the field, however, is a different matter. Victory tonight would be Big Phil's ultimate achievement, and should it transpire, he would deserve all the praise he would undoubtedly get. His best bet may be to squeeze it all the way to penalties and gamble all his chips on Ricardo.

This time, however, he might have to learn the taste of World Cup defeat.

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Thank God for that. Not that Italy won particularly, but that such a wonderful semi-final, full of honest, courageous, adventurous football and played in an electric atmosphere was not decided by the cruel charade of a penalty shoot-out.

Italy shaded it, possessing as they did in the end just the requisite superior quality in Andrea Pirlo's crafty through-ball and Fabio Grosso's beautiful finish. But most of all, they had Cannavaro. A more majestic performance has not been seen on an association football field since Paul McGrath in Giants Stadium. Perhaps the young Fabio was taking notes.

We're not taking any credit here for having called it, though. Toni and Totti, the pair TSA thought would give the obdurate Italians the edge over the enthusiastic Germans, may as well have been selling schnitzel to go outside Dortmund Hauptbahnhof such was the paucity of their contributions.

Toni suffered by Germany's high line forcing him out of his natural habitat in the penalty box, leaving lumbering ill-fittingly amidst the ebb and flow of this pulsating semi-final. Totti, on the other hand, simply couldn't, or wouldn't take control of a game the upper hand in which the busy Gattuso and committed Pirlo had gained for the Azzuri. Whither the cases of Gilardino, Iaquinta or dear good old Alex del Piero for the final?

And so the great adventure is over. The team which carried a thousand column inches on 'the New Germany' on its back finally gave way by virtue of its limitations. The transcendence of these and the nearly four weeks of tumult which has gripped the host nation will grant Jurgen Klinsmann an enduring place in his countrymen's hearts. It now remains for German football to continue this renewal and match with real quality and strength in depth the enthusiasm for football which cascades from their stands, and not just in this tournament.

What a semi-final though. Over to you, Zinedine and Luis.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Semi-Final - Tale of the Tape

Two European heavyweights, neither flashy fighters, both with iron chins and a career full of K.O.s.

Let's get ready to rumble.

Not that any World Cup semi-finalist needs to worry about motivation or justifiable cause, but both Germany and Italy have excellent back-stories. Germany, the hosts and on the crest of a wave of patriotic fervour, attempting to reposition themselves at their rightful place as one of world football's powerhouses. Italy, racked by scandal, their beloved calcio the subject of an ongoing catharsis which may well see some of the biggest names of Italian club football relegated. Add to that the tragic circumstances of Gianluca Pessoto's attempted suicide and you have a purpose greater than mere football.

So if both are driven on equally by a sense of purpose, let's look at who measures up on the park.

All square here. Jens Lehmann and Gianluigi Buffon are among the very best practitioners of the lunatic art working today. A couple of seasons ago, however, it would have been laughable to mention the Arsenal number one in the same breadth as the magnificient Buffon.
Athletic and agile, yet tall and domineering, Buffon has long been the rightful heir to the great Italian goalkeeping tradition.

Ironically, it is only Oliver Kahn in recent times who has compared to Buffon, but Lehmann's stellar form since moving to Arsenal - and the elimination of the odd howler he was once susceptible to - has seen him overtake the declining Olli as Buffon's only rival. Lehmann has a crucial edge on penalty shoot-outs however after his success against Argentina, while Buffon has admitted dreading shoot-outs since Juventus' loss to Milan in the 2003 Champions League Final.

It is said that the security staff at Fort Knox often watch the Azzuri in wonderment, shaking their heads in disbelief at how safe the fabled thin blue line is. Iron-clad defence is as much a part of Italian culture as corruption or ice-cream, so despite the proud German tradition of doughty back-lines (step forward Herrn Beckenbauer, Kohler, Berthold et al) Italy has the clear advantage here.

In Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta Italy have contenders for best central defender and full-back respectively, and while the return from injury of Alessandro Nesta would only add to the solidity, Marco Materazzi has proved a worthy replacement. Germany deserve credit for recovering from the concession of two soft goals to the mighty Costa Rica to subsequently only concede one, Roberto Ayala's header in the quarter-final, and in left-back Phillippe Lahm they have one of the stars of the tournament. However, the current curators of catenaccio are as redoubtable as any of their forebears.

In Michael Ballack, the hosts possess the one truly world-class operator among the two sides. Ballack has been an inspiration in helping transform the seemingly unlikely pre-tournament hopes of the home nation into the reality of a place at the brink of the World Cup final. Ballack was especially key in dragging his team back into the game in the latter stages against Argentina and it was his ball into the box which ultimately ended up on Miroslav Klose's head for the equaliser.

However, he will not be accompanied by the trusty Torsten Frings, suspended for his part in the post-shoot-out melee with Argentina, whose harassment of Juan Roman Riquelme throughout the quarter-final stopped the South Americans ever getting their rhythm established. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Bernd Schneider provide able but hardly flashy accompaniment from wide.

Italy's midfield revolves around the grunt of Gennaro Gattuso, who will undoubtedly be detailed to snap at Ballack's heels. It remains to be seen if Francesco Totti is deployed deeper behind a two-man front line, or whether he is played off Luca Toni up front. Otherwise, with the likes of Perrotta and Camoranesi, there is precious little other than huff and puff in the Italian midfield.
Ballack, if he can escape Gattuso for long enough, should lord this area.

Similarities here, in that both sides have hardy, experienced pros with excellent domestic goalscoring records leading the line, rather than bona fide stars. Both Klose and Luca Toni are physically strong and natural finishers, and there is little to choose between the two, given that Toni appears to have come into form at the right time.

Klose is backed up by Lukas Podolski, the great white hope of German football. Pacy and confident, one however suspects he is yet to meet as uncompromising a foe as Fabio Cannovaro.

Toni will either be supported by Alberto Gilardino, the Milan striker who is yet to fulfill the promise exhibited in his days at Parma, or an advanced Francesco Totti. The latter will probably get the nod, and given the way that Totti and Toni combined in the quarter-final to finally put away Ukraine, it is tempting to see in these two the potential to launch Italy toward the quarter final.

.....CALL IT!
50,000 screaming Germans notwithstanding, the Italian defence's solidity has seduced me, much like their dusky good looks have seduced our impressionable maidenfolk. If they snatch one, which, with Toni and Totti (sounds like a firm of hairdressers) is very likely, they will not be as dithery as Argentina in protecting it.

Andiamo a Berlin.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: The Quarter Finals

Here's an analogy for you: last Saturday was like watching a feeble, poorly scripted and predictably ending Steve Guttenberg vehicle, then taking in a classic Hitchcock, all sound characterisation and vintage performances. Or how about: last Saturday was like listening to Rolf Harris' greatest hits (not Two Little Boys though - a personal favourite) and then hearing the Berlin Philarmonic play Beethoven's Fifth. Or: last Saturday was like having taco fries in Abrakebabra as a prelude to a visit to L'Ecrivain (for non Irish readers, two Dublin food purveyors with contrasting quality control policies).

You get the picture.

So England are out, and have tacked on their usual brave, heartbreaking, add-a-dash-of-controversy ending to what has been a dismal tournament.

And so the delusion will continue. The country which knows all about underachieving golden generations for the second time in two years delivered a heart-breaking endgame to England's glory-bound super-heroes, and in doing so allowed dearest Albion to cloak her unforgivably poor performances with veneer of gallant, unfortunate failure.

As the man who made it all possible stole away with a bag marked 'swag' over his shoulder and the dilemma of what on earth to do with £24 million of the Football Association's money troubling him, the player who epitomised the pre-fabricated unreality in which this England football team lived almost did the decent thing.

At first it seemed that David Beckham was about to abandon his vainglorious 'bid' to overhaul Peter Shilton's record tally of England caps and announce his international retirement, as if finally embarassed at the glaring invalidity of his automatic starting place with his country.

But, in fact, yesterday's gibbering press conference in which Beckham resigned the England captaincy was only a small olive branch offering towards a return to a time when his country's first eleven was not picked by the dictates of marketing men and advertising demographics.

Sven Goran Eriksson's chronic inability to drop any of his leading players has long hampered any hopes of England building a forty-years-of-hurt-ending eleven from their finest raw materials in some time. The malfunctioning of the Lampard-Gerrard central midfield axis in the absence of a holding midfielder was only half-heartedly addressed as this tournament began, and the perseverance with David Beckham in light of Aaron Lennon's convincing claim to the right midfield berth appeared a policy cast in stone.

It was fitting, then, that England's best play of the tournament, even in the face of Wayne Rooney's dismissal (Christiano Ronaldo's assistance in this matter providing another distraction from the failures of the English team), came from Eriksson affording his team Owen Hargreaves' bustle in Michael Owen's injury-enforced absence and from Lennon's replacement of Beckham following the latter's achilles tendon injury.

On, then, to more refined matters, and France. How les Bleus have transformed from the tired-looking, unimaginative side which I saw limp to a scoreless draw against Switzerland in Stuttgart a few weeks ago into a team capable of the sort of complete performance which eliminated the 2002 champions on Saturday is intriguing.

How much involvement the previously derided coach, Raymond Domenech, has had in the change is not known, but, despite the magnificence of Zinedine Zidane's last two displays in this tournament, for me the rejuvenation of Patrick Vieira in midfield is the single most important factor in the French renaissance.

That day in Stuttgart, and in the following game against South Korea, Vieira appeared to be living out the obituaries to his career penned in the wake of Juventus' exit from the Champions League at the hands of Arsenal earlier this season. Off the pace, passing woefully and shooting aimlessly, the knock-on effect on a listless France was unmistakable.

Suddenly, in parallel with the always excellent Claude Makalele, Vieira has taken a grip of this tournament. On Saturday the French midfield's hard men so subjugated Brazil's featherweight pairing of Gilberto Silva and Ze Roberto as to make the champions' attempts to progress to a fourth successive semi-final as worthwhile as a moth's journey to the sun.

With this domination in place, the stage was set for Zidane to bloom, late, but as wonderfully as he ever did in his prime. In many ways the French victory was redolent of that evening in Paris in 1998, as the Brazilians were similarly made to look impotent, over-hyped and negligent of the fundamentals of winning football.

The sad exit of football's most successful nation speaks of players whose appearances in television ads for Pepsi and Nike provided more highlights than their flat efforts on the park ever did. It is almost as if the Brazilans expected a director and script to be provided prior to their matches, and on the call of "action" to be allowed to carry out their repertoire of tricks before smilingly dancing off with the trophy.

The shock of France's victory for Brazil, then, would have been a unexpected ending. Worthy, indeed, of Hitchcock really.

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