Sunday, June 29, 2008

Euro 2008 Final: Spain or Germany?

Can the flaky underachieving Spanish finally make the most of their talent and take their first title in 44 years? Or will the pace and physicality of Michael Ballack, Lucas Podolski et al once again prove the observation that "football is a game in which eleven players pass the ball up and down the field until Germany wins".

Perhaps more crucially, will I get up in time to see part of the game?

Questions to be answered in a few hours time.


Miracles do happen. Not only did Spain shake off their hoodoo and take the game 1-0, but I also got up early enough to catch the second half (the first half had to wait for the replay at 8:30 pm. I join most neutrals in being overjoyed at Spain's achievement, both because of my penchant for the historical underdog, and because they were the best team in the game and the tournament overall. As someone who has seen it happen too many times, I always expected Germany to sneak an equaliser in the 88th minute, but in the end it didn't happen, and Spain's relative profligacy didn't cost them (at times you felt like shouting at their tricky little midfielders to just take a goddamn shot as they decided to make three extra passes when five metres from the goal).

It was a pretty exciting tournament with the goals and fluid, attacking play continuing into the knockout rounds (and just two quarter-finals decided on penalties). A fan of the international game should come away feeling rather more positive than after the eventual letdown that was the last World Cup. The improved spectacle was due perhaps to more evenly-matched teams (meaning fewer boring mismatches), perhaps to younger lineups without experienced defensive formations (meaning attacking tactics were necessary), perhaps to good refereeing.

In any case, the boring dour teams largely fell out at the earlier stages (France, Italy, Sweden and the stonewalling Greeks) while those who progressed were those with greater enterprise (in particular the finalists, Holland, Turkey, and the at-times dazzling Russians).

For football fans, attention now shifts to the qualifying stages for the next World Cup in South Africa in 2010. While the European teams are just starting off, other continents are already part way through their process. I'm pleased to report that many of my favoured teams remain in contention, including Colombia, Guatemala, and even lowly New Zealand. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Peru, who after recent losses by 5-1 to Ecuador and 6-0 to Uruguay appear to be doing their best to get relegated to another continent. Maybe we should let them join Oceania.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bogotá Tales

A story told by Paola's flatmate Olguita about her an experience of her mother's cousin's wife (that description alone may sound a warning, but we'll get back to that later). For now, let's call Olguita's extended family member Rosa.

It was the señora Rosa's first trip to Bogota, and she was very nervous, having heard so much about what a dangerous place it was. Travelling across town on the bus, she was seated next to a man who she thought looked like a suspicious character. While looking out the window at the crowds and sights, she suddenly felt that her purse was lighter in her hand.

Convinced that she had been sneakily robbed, in a flash of panic she turned to the man sitting next to her and snapped: "the wallet!". The man gave a startled look and started to shuffle guiltily away across the seat. Rosa's heart was racing. She clutched her keys in a fist and jabbed them towards the man's ribs. "Give me the wallet" she demanded, her voice shaking.

Looking uneasily at the pointy object being pushed towards his stomach, the man reached slowly into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wallet, which the señora Rosa snatched back and placed in her purse. The man got up from the seat, beat a hasty retreat to the front of the bus, and got off at the next stop.

When the señora Rosa got to her cousin's place and was able to check her belongings, she found that she had an extra wallet -- belonging to the man on the bus.

Certain aspects of this tale, such as the relation of the protagonist to the story-teller, and the lack of further details (like, what did the señora do then?) raise alarm bells*. It has many of the characteristics of an urban legend. But I guess the point is not so much whether it's true, but that it could be. In Bogotá, the moral says, people can even get mugged by accident.

I actually like better another story told by Olguita, this time about her immediate family. Her cousins had gone out on the town with a friend, taking the family car. The boys were out partying until the small hours, until in a rather inebriated state, they somehow managed to drag the car back home and sneak into the house.

The next day Olguita's uncle asked them how the night had been. "Oh, you know, nothing special, said Olguita's cousin. " We came home really early".

Olguita's uncle nodded sagely. "Yes, isn't it amazing how early they're getting the paper out these days", he mused.

On their arrival home, the boys had parked on top of the recently delivered morning newspaper, which was found jammed under the car's right front tyre.

*This story relies on the tendency not to use possessive pronouns in Spanish for things where ownership is obvious -- so the señora demanded 'la billetera' rather than 'mi billetera'. But it also requires a suspension of disbelief that in a situation of dispute she wouldn't have insisted she wanted 'my wallet'.

Venezuela, Once More

If you get past this first paragraph without a groan, it's because you not only read my previous posts

So I'll skip the

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Peru to (Finally)Get Ministry for the Environment

In a couple of posts on Peru, I've mentioned that it has no Ministry for the Environment. Within a generally weak state apparatus, this appears a particularly glaring absence. With its huge tract of jungle and numerous ecological niches, Peru is one of the world's greatest reservoirs of biodiversity. It also has a long history of rapacious resource exploitation: boom and bust periods of nitrate, guano,and rubber exploitation left scars on the environment, while the mining industry has a long history of contamination and damage.

Despite this, until no central authority has been charged with overseeing the protection of the environment. Bodies like the National Commission on the Environment (CONAM) and Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) lack teeth and have roles that gap and overlap with regional governments. The Ministry of Mining and Energy has the role of assessing environmental impact reports at the same time as it is supposed to promote investment in mining.

Credit to Alan Garcia's government: it has recently announced that a Ministry for the Environment will be established. The exact shape and role of the Ministry is yet to be determined by legislation, but it will be part of central government with its own Minister and oversight of all things environmental.

Some commentators are suggesting that the long-overdue measure has only occurred because the government needs to demonstrate that it is serious about getting its laws and regulations in shape for the entry into force of the free trade agreement with the US. This may be so, but it's better than not happening at all. This also suggests some credit should be given to the centre-left Democrats like Charles Rangel and Sander Levin who negotiated the strengthening of the labour and environmental conditions in the FTA.

Of course, the real test is just how active and effective a Ministry for the Environment will be in a country where the president has recently complained that too many natural areas are 'lying idle' and declared several major mining projects to be 'in the national interest'.