Saturday, June 24, 2006

Let the Games Begin

So to round two. For a while there it looked like the qualifiers would almost all be traditional powers. But while all my favourite flaky underachievers have gone though - Portugal, Spain, Holland, Mexico and England - there's also been a few surprises. The success of Ghana, Australia and Ecuador means there will be some new faces in the second round, and still a chance of a bolter getting right through to the semis.

I've rather been beaten to the punch by an article in the Guardian / Observer blog in describing my fears for the knock-out stages of this World Cup. After a pretty entertaining series of group games, with attacking play, plenty of goals, and some skillful, intricate play by Argentina and Spain in particular, there's still the chance that part two of the tournament could be a damp squib.

History says that when World Cups get to the winner-takes-all stage, teams feel heavily burdened by the fear of losing, and matches become tight, dour affairs decided by the odd goal or going down to penalties. Japan / Korea 2002 was a good example of this trend.

A reaon for being optimistic and expecting this time to be a different is the theory I described previously, relating to the movement of the ball and the improvement in attacking play, which have seen goals being scored from everywhere and teams wary of sitting back. In addition, with fewer minnows through, most games will see a contest that both sides think they can win, perhaps resulting in a more aggressive approach.

Games at this stage often turn on a stroke of luck, or a refereeing decision, so that the side with the moral claim to being "better on the day" doesn't necessarily progress.

The other great confounding factor is the vagaries of the draw.

Because the trajectories through to the semi-finals and final are already set out in a neat geometric patterns, we can already discern the likely match-ups, and groan as we see two of the favourites pitted against one another at a too-early stage. The draw for the knock-outs is divided into quadrants - and just as there are "groups of death", this time there is both a "quadrant of death", and one that looks comparatively weak.

The quadrant of death features Spain, France, Brazil, and Ghana. The last two World Cup winners, one of the two best teams at the tournament so far, and the exciting Ghanaians. Only one of these four teams can reach the semi-finals. My biggest fear here is that the aging French will call on their experience and shut out the Spanish, thus depriving us a of a classic mano a mano clash between Spain and Brazil in the quarters. Assuming, that is, that Brazil gets past Ghana, who I think will give them a huge fright and may even cause an upset.

Next quadrant across is a complete contrast, with the winner of Italy vs. Australia facing either a moderate Switzerland or a pedestrian Ukraine in the quarters. It makes you want to weep. Granted, Italy has had some bad luck in the past, going out to penalties in 1990 (semis), 1994 (final), and 1998 (quarters), and being on the wrong end of some dubious refereeing in the 2002 2-1 second round loss to South Korea. This time it looks like they've got some good karma. If they play to anything like their potential, Italy will surely be in the semis.

The other worrying fixture comes in quadrant 4, where Argentina and Germany are headed for a showdown in the quarters. It's a concern that Argentina, now probably the favourite team for most neutrals, have to face up to the hosts at such an early stage. Argentina certainly won't be beaten for skill, but with the Germans' strength, persistence, and the self-belief instilled by their home crowds, there's every chance they could squeeze a win.

Of course, it would be sad for the home team to go out, too, but it would also provide an opportunity for the amenable Germans to concentrate 100% on being fantastic hosts to a great tournament. Let's hope that Riquelme, Crespo, Saviola, Messi et al refuse to be overawed.

The other quadrant is something of a consolation, since it features three of my underachievers - Portugal, Holland and England - plus Ecuador, who have the chance to earn more respect for the next tier of South American football - much better, I feel, than the impression given by the non-Brazil/Argentina teams' usual performances at World Cups. One of these four teams will also make the semis.

I'm not going to make any predictions for the individual games, but I am:
-sticking to my orignal prediction of a Italy vs. Argentina final
-dreaming of a possible Spain vs. Argentina final
-hoping against hope that it's not Italy vs. Germany

NB (written before the matches Germany vs. Sweden and Argentina vs. Mexico,to be played in the next few hours)

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

As Long As Its Not Italy vs. Germany

Thrilling stuff in the World Cup's first week, with lots of goals, attacking play, and several excellent games. In addition, nothing so far has contradicted my prediction that the two teams to watch would be Argentina and Italy.

Yesterday's stunning 6-0 win by Argentina over Serbia & Montenegro, with several goals which brought tears to the eyes, demonstrated exactly what I meant when I talked in previous posts about the "elaboarate interweaving of individual skills".

Overnight, there's been a lot of jumping on the bandwagon, with the Guardian, for example, asking "Can anyone stop Argentina?". But of course the caveat is that it's all too common for teams which dazzle in the group stages to be knocked out later by an opponent which is more clinical, or simply has luck on its side. And World Cup history is replete with examples of teams, which begin looking thoroughly ordinary, transforming themselves in the later stages.

It's pleasing that my favourite flaky, underachieving teams - Holland, Portugal, Spain and Mexico - have all won, and look good to go through to the second round. In fact, Spain has been the other team to impress most, with a dazzling 4-0 demolition of Ukraine, leading some to suggest that they might finally replicate the flair and confidence of their club teams at a national level.

Of the other teams, England have looked flawed and extremely pedestrian despite their two wins. Brazil were also disappointing, and appeared brittle in their win over Croatia. Worst of all, France can't seem to buy a goal, and appear unlikely to erase memories of their disaster in 2002.

On the other hand, the pessimism of the German fans has rapidly dissolved, with a couple of bright displays. They look quite potent up front, and with the home advantage and their traditional resilience, I'll be suprised if they don't make the semifinals.

The distinction seems to be between the teams that seem determined to play all their "stars", no matter how unfit, out of form, or past it (e.g. Brazil, England and France), and those which have placed an emphasis on form, youth, and a proper team structure (notably Argentina, Spain and Holland). In the former case, there's more than a suggestion that coaches have half an eye on the desires of the sponsors.

What's different from South Korea and Japan four years ago, and many previous World Cups, is that so far there haven't been any real shock upsets. I'm of the view that this is a good thing. While upsets give unpredictability to the tournament, they also lead to some poorer quality matches later on, as the minnows can't sustain their quality of play.

This time it looks like the knockout stages will be dominated by the bigger teams, so whoever gets through to the final will have proved themselves in a number of major contests.

Worst piece of luck is the demise of Ivory Coast in the "group of death". After narrow losses to Argentina and Holland, they're already out, despite having played some of the best football of the tournament so far. And like many others, I must apologise for my dismissal of Ecuador's prospects at sea level - they've been the surprise performers of the World Cup.

Overall, there's no doubt that already it's been a much better tournament than Korea & Japan 2002, or Euro 2004, where a heroic but uninspiring Greece squeezed out wins against all comers.

One of the reasons for this may be the longer preparation time - the finals have started nine days later than in 2002, so teams have had longer to overcome injuries, rest, and prepare. In addition, it may be that some of the bigger teams got such a shock at their poor performance in 2002, that they have prepared more carefully this time.

My view is that an important factor is the controversial tournament ball. So far, it's been a goalkeeper's nightmare: it flies, it swerves, it dips. With each game, more and more spectacular goals are being scored from ever more improbable distances (to my mind Torsten Frings' goal against Costa Rica was one of the best, but was upstaged by Bakary Kone's sensational effort for Ivory Coast against Holland).

The ease of scoring from distance has meant that the defensive approach of sitting deep and putting the majority of players behind the ball becomes a lot riskier. You might try and play conservative, but then - ping! - you go behind to a 30-metre screamer. Better to take an attacking approach and try and score first.

Only time will tell if this approach continues in the knockout stages.

So, what are my predictions for the knockout rounds? Really, I can't do better than pure speculation, but I will say that's I won't be at all surprised if the semi-finalists don't go outside the big four of Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany. If one of them misses out, my pick is for Brazil's fragilities to be exposed in the quarter-finals. Fourth semi-finalist? Spain or England. Don't laugh, England have a strong defense, are capable of pinching a goal or two, and usually play better against the bigger teams. Wouldn't bet on it, though.

Though I'll be holding out for a Spain vs. Argentina final, really I can live with any combination as long as it's not Italy vs. Germany. While both teams look to have made some changes and are playing in a way that gives the lie to their dour reputations, my prejudices just run too deep. Key perhaps is that my formative football-watching experience was in 1982, when Italy knocked out the beloved Brazilian team of Zico, Socrates et al, and a cynical West Germany stopped Michel Platini's France on penalties in the semi-final.

Speaking of which, if there's one more request I could make to the footballing gods, it's that as many matches as possible are won by the side that score more goals in open play. I know there's no obviously better and fairer way of separating two sides, in this day and age of tight schedules and domination by TV. But please, please, if at all possible, let there not be penalties.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

World Cup Fever

What could possibly console you when you return from fun-filled adventure in the steamy Amazon to the cold, dead world of a Wellington office job in winter?

Well, the beginning of a football World Cup makes a pretty good start. Tomorrow night (NZ time) Germany 2006 kicks off when the hosts play Costa Rica, followed by six weeks of what we all hope will be skill, excitement, and lots of goals.

When I last posted on the football, I was still hanging on the outside chance that one of my "home teams" might sneak into the finals. In the end, none of Peru, Guatemala or Colombia got through, though Australia did secure an historic place for Oceania, and I suppose we're honour bound to support them.

With a reasonably dispassionate eye, then, who do I think will win the tournament?

As usual, it's very hard to go past the big four of Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany. A year and a half ago I was picking Argentina, who have developed a fluid, attacking style based on the elaboarate linking of individual skills. But they seem to have lost confidence a little since then, and Brazil have been beaten them on every occasion that's mattered. Even in the Copa America final, a Brazil team missing its stars was completely outplayed but managed to scrape a 2-2 draw and win on penalties.

As an article in the weekend Guardian pointed out, whoever wins the tournament will need to find a bunch of goals from somewhere, and no one appears to have a better guarantee of this than Brazil, with four or five players likely to make their mark on the scoring sheet. Though it is claimed that not all the stars are at their best, it looks a more complete team than in 2002, when they won relatively easily. If they maintain a half respectable defense, they have a good chance of taking another crown.

Germany seems to be on the decline, and is the despair of many of their fans. But it would be a foolish mistake to write them off: they made the final in 2002 while looking pretty ordinary, and have a funny habit of coming back from the dead. Home advantage will be a major boost.

Italy is my another story again. Though they are rarely among the glamorous sentimental favourites, with every Italian team you can be sure that they will give nothing away, and that they will convert the oppotunities they get with skill and ruthlessness. As always, they have a strong defense, and it will just one of their attacking players to discover himself for them to have a very good tournament.

England is being talked about in many quarters, and it is true that they have their best team (playing XI at least) for a very long time, with strength in defense, midfield, and attack. But I feel that at the top level they rely heavily on Wayne Rooney as a creative link between midfield and attack, as well as a goalscorer. He is being rushed back from injury and is not yet 100 percent. Without Rooney at his best, I doubt they will go past the quarterfinals.

Of the other European teams, I doubt that France will go close to repeating their 1998 success, unless Thierry Henry breaks with tradition and performs in a major international tournament. My other "second favourites", Portugal and Holland, will once again flatter to deceive. The Spanish national team will again fail to reproduce the flair and confidence shown by its players at club level. The Czech Republic played the most attractive football at Euro 2004, but its squad may be past its best.

Japan and South KOrea will turn in some good performance, but I don't think they will repeat the heroics seen on their home soil last time around. Of the African teams, Ivory Coast looks the strongest, with good goalscoring potential.

For a dark horse, I'll go with Serbia and Montenegro, who look pretty solid and could embarass Argentina or Holland in the "group of death", Group C. The United States is another that is underrated.

My pick for the final? Italy vs. Argentina, with Italy having knocked out Brazil in the semi-finals - as in 1982, a star-studded Brazilian team defeated by the more clinical Italians. I'll be cheering for Argentina, but won't pick a winner.

I just hope it doesn't come down to penalties. At that point it's a lottery, and I won't be watching.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Last Word on the Peru Elections

The second round of voting for the Peruvian presidential elections is scheduled for this Sunday, and all the polls are showing that Alan Garcia is likely to defeat Ollanta Humala by as much as 60 to 40 percent.

Polls before the first round of voting suggested that an Alan-Ollanta faceoff in the second round would be veru tight, some even showing Ollanta more likely to win. So what has changed?

The key seems to be that many who voted for Lourdes Flores or Valentin Paniagua in the first round have looked at the options actually in front of them, and decided to apply Polly Toynbee's peg to their nose and give Alan a tick. Even my friend Hugo, who had previously sworn to jamas vote for Alan, was having doubts. "Hmm, it seems that Alan may be the best candidate", he acknowledged.

He, like a significant proportion of others, is now planning to turn in a blank or spoiled vote in disgust at the choices on offer. But it seems that enough people will reluctantly vote for Alan just to keep Ollanta out: as much as Garcia's record is offputting, there is a sense that what an acquaintance of mine referred to as "ese militar" would be even worse.

Crucial in this turn has been the heavy-handed, bullying interventions of Hugo Chavez, who has repeatedly abused both Garcia and incumbent president Alejandro Toledo while endorsing Ollanta Humala.

Most Peruvians don't want to become a satellite of Venezuela, and given that many whom I talked to see international investment and tourism as crucial to their country's future, aren't keen to go down the Bolivian road of heavy-handed nationalisation.

It also helps that Alan has at least sounded like a model statesman, talking of "responsible change" and respecting democracy. He has moderated his populist appeal to hardcore followers and the poor with increasing sops to the centre-right. When he speaks, if you didn't know of his previous record, you could be mistaken for thinking he is the archetype Third-Way social democrat personified.

The western mainstream media's references to a "resurgence of leftism" in Latin America was always an unsophisticated description of diverse developments in different countries. True, as there has been a pretty consistent reaction against the failure of Washington consensus neoliberal economic policies to improve living standards for the great majority in the region. But it's more complicated than that. As I mentioned in my first post on the Peruvian elections, there is more than one vision of how to address the social problems of the continent.

An excellent analysis of the different approaches is provided in this article by former Mexican foriegn minister Jorge G. CastaƱeda. He distinguishes on the one hand the reformist social democratism of Lula in Brazil, Lago as Bachelet in Chile, and Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay. On the other, the authoritarian populist nationalism of Chavez, Morales in Bolivia and Peronist Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Peronism being that country's unique brand of populism. Ollanta Humala is cited as an example of the second tendency.

There's no secret which left he (and I) favour. The former approach aims to incrementally improve social indicators; the latter tends to ignore these and focus on battling real or imagined enemies while making grand seeming but poorly evaluated gestures at "helping the poor". While social improvements and reductions in inequality have been slow or uneven in countries like Chile, Peru and Brazil, in Venezuela poverty has actually increased over the last six years of Chavez's mandate.

A Colombian paper I read the other week also made quite a clever distinction between "Chavezism" vs. "Blairism"as the competing forces on the international left. Brazil and Chile were again held up as examples of"Blairist" policies - mixing a broad faith in markets and international trade with increased investment in education, health and infrastructure (New Zealand, of course, is another in the sway of the Blairist model).

Garcia has embraced this dichotomy, and painted himself into the reformist corner. In recent days he has even specifically said that he wants to follow the example of Chile and Brazil, and that "Chile is an example for the region". Since Peruvians routinely like to beat up on Chile and blame it for their own country's ills, this represents a welcome attempt to model a more mature attitude. Mind you, this was an interview reported in the Chilean press: as in all politics, the message varies according to the audience.

Even more importantly, he has jumped heavily on the interventions of Chavez and suggested that Peru faces a choice between determining its own destiny (i.e. voting for him) or becoming another obedient client of big brother Hugo. "Peru or Chavez" has been his slogan in recent days, and this seems to resonate with many.

The bad news is that, after a relatively restrained and responsible first round of voting, things seem to have got progressively more disorderly. Humlala has called Garcia a "thief" and Alan responded by calling Ollanta a "murderer of policemen". Violence broke out between the opposing supporters at a May 25 political rally, and shots were fired. Both sides are accusing the other of having made a pact with Peru's favourite betes noires, Fujimori and Montesinos. Humala has made (unsubstantiated) allegations that a fraud is being prepared for Sunday's vote.

Even if the result is clear cut in terms of votes, the winner may well face questions as to their legitimacy, since both have chequered past records, many of their votes will have been registered as a protest against the other candidate, and the proportion of blank or spoiled votes will be high. At worst, there could be ongoing threats to the political stability that, for all his difficulties, Alejandro Toledo has maintained over the past five years.

It is to be hoped that likely loser Humala will maturely accept the result and focus on working from within the system to help make a difference to the lives of the 50 percent of Peruvians who still live in poverty.