Friday, October 30, 2009

New Zealand and the World Cup

As noted in a previous post, the All Whites' improbable lurch closer to qualification for South Africa has sparked a bit of interest locally, although not from either of the woeful main TV channels.

The specialised New Zealand sports media (rugby, cricket) is sometimes slightly more well-informed on its subject than the general press, with its celebrity obsession and gleeful know-nothingness about serious matters.

But for football there is little objective analysis. So the aftermath of the Bahrain game saw celebrations of a "heroic" defensive performance and some lamentations that the 0-0 result would require a "clear win" in order to go through. With the classic something-for-nothing expectation that sometimes typifies Kiwi attitudes, there seemed to have been hope that we would somehow sneak an away goal in Bahrain, get a 1-1 result, and then desperately hold out for 0-0 in the return leg.

So much for the assumption that the least you can expect of a nation seeking a place with the world's best is to win at least one game against a half-decent team. In reality, the All Whites are extremely lucky to still be in the contest, and would have been four or five behind if Bahrain's front men hadn't been competing for the most outrageous miss.

Lest anyone think that I am just knocking, I should stress that I think there is some promise in the New Zealand team, and that part of the problem lies with the odd tactics of coach Ricki Herbert, whose hit-and-hope approach in Bahrain was reminiscent of the New Zealand cricket team's top order batting.

In the Bahrain game, Herbet seemingly set out to simultaneously batten down the hatches and go for all out attack. He picked three strikers, with Australian League top goal scorer Shane Smeltz tucked in behind "target men" Chris Killen and Rory Fallon, and pretty much everybody else relegated to a defensive formation. Leo Bertos, the player with the most creativity and pace in the starting lineup, who usually plays on the left, was placed in the unfamiliar position of right back.

The result of this was that there was no real midfield, and Bahrain strolled through there at will. Only their profligacy in front of goal saved us. Meanwhile, New Zealand lumped long balls forward to their stranded front three. Smeltz, goal poacher extraordinaire and used to hovering around the goal mouth, looked lost in his position in the "pocket", and struggled to get into the game.

Ironically, there was one area where New Zealand were dominant: their larger physique meant they won almost every header. Much as I'm not a fan of a game based around long balls and set pieces, I have to acknowledge that under some circumstances these are legitimate tactics. Yet playing long balls to target men also requires structure, and relies on there being support coming through from midfield to latch on the balls knocked down or held up by the big men. The ball has to go to ground at some stage, and in this case, numerous hard-won headers simply fell into empty space and were collected by the Bahrainis, who then launched another attack.

New Zealand looked much better in the last twenty minutes when Central Coast Mariners midfielder Michael McGlinchey and West Bromwich Albion wunderkind Chris Brown came on. Hopefully, Herbert will see fit to give at least half a game to these two and move Bertos and Smeltz back to their normal positions. With a more orthodox lineup, a fit Ryan Nelsen, great crowd support, and a bit of luck, the All Whites could still be in with a chance.

In truth, however, even if they win, New Zealand should not be at the World Cup. As I've pointed out in all my posts on qualification for South Africa, the departure of Australia from Oceania has left possibly the easiest pathway to qualification that a team has ever had -- a far cry from the epic road taken by the 1982 New Zealand team that beat Australia and worked their way through a tough Asian qualifying group, getting a shot at qualifying thanks to a stunning 5-0 away win over Saudi Arabia.

In South Africa, we would provide novelty value at best, and would constantly be a striker's good day away from complete humiliation by one of the bigger teams. The best thing for New Zealand football would be for the national side to play in a conference of the Asian zone (as it did in 1982) and get regular games against teams that are tough, but not several classes above. This, along with continued progress by the Wellington Phoenix including perhaps a spot in an Asian champions competition, could provide a solid diet of meaningful competition that would allow players to grow and progress, and the public to be legitimately excited and engaged.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Road to South Africa: Almost Done

In the end, Argentina qualified for the World Cup with a 1-0 away win over a hapless Uruguay. I didn't see this, but apparently Diego Maradona's triumphant, vulgar outburst at the post-match press conference was something to behold. It's worth reading Marcela Mora y Araujo's piece in the Guardian, and the following comments section, for an analysis of this, certainly for those who share an interest in both football and Latin American culture. The use of violent sexual imagery to express competitive success reminded me of my recent reading of Mary Weismantel's analysis of Latin American race and gender relations.

There would have been great rejoicing in Honduras, who qualified for the first time since 1982. That was a bit tough on Costa Rica, who were at one stage 2-0 ahead of the already-qualified United States, only for the Americans to equalise in the 95th minute and send Honduras through on goal difference. Costa Rica will now go into a playoff against Uruguay.

Ecuador's 0-1 away loss to Chile meant that no Andean country now has a chance to qualify. There were consolation wins for Colombia, 2-0 away to Paraguay, which pushed them past Venezuela into 7th, and Peru, whose 1-0 result at home over Bolivia was still not enough to divest themselves of the wooden spoon after Bolivia's 2-1 home result against Brazil in the previous round.

In Europe, Switzerland got the point they needed against Israel to consign Greece to the playoffs, while Slovakia's 1-0 away win in Poland was enough to send them through to a first-ever World Cup as an independent nation. I imagine that would have been greeted with great celebrations, since qualification also came at the expense of more-fancied neighbours the Czech Republic. Portugal also managed to confirm their playoff spot with a 4-0 win over Malta.

The playoffs of the second-placed European teams will be on November 14 and 18, and these will line up France, Portugal, Russia and Greece on one half of the draw against Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Ireland and Ukraine on the other. Now, much as I would prefer to see the likes of Portugal and Russia go through, I wonder whether it's really fair to have seedings for these playoff matches. After all, every team involved has already been second-best in its group over the course of 12 matches, so surely at that point seeding is irrelevant and every one starts square? Things are tough enough for small countries as it is, and FIFA's system makes it harder still.

The same dates inNovember will be when all the remaining places are decided. The final matches in Africa see Cameroon, Algeria, and Tunisia aim to confirm their advantage over Gabon, Egypt and Nigeria respectively. It would be a pity not to see the dangerous Nigerians at the World Cup, and Egypt looked capable of causing an upset at the Confederations Cup this year, but I guess that shows how tough the African qualifying groups are.

November 14 is also the crucial date for the culmination of New Zealand's unlikely qualifying campaign, still alive after the 0-0 draw in Bahrain. The return leg will take place here in Wellington, in front of what is expected to be a crowd of around 35,000 people. More on that in another post.

List of qualified teams so far

South America: Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina
North America: United States, Mexico, Honduras
Asia: Australia, South Korea, Japan, North Korea
Africa: Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, South Africa (hosts)
Europe: Netherlands, Spain, England, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia

A correction to my last post. Chile's 4-2 away win over Colombia that sealed their qualification was in fact played in Medellin, not in Bogotá.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Road to South Africa: the Last Stretches

It's been a while since I wrote about football, and in the meantime there've been several more qualifying rounds for the World Cup in South Africa 2010. In fact, the current round is the final one for many groups, so most qualifying places will be decided.

The biggest story in the last few rounds has probably been the downfall of Argentina. A while ago I commented that Diego Maradona was making himself an example of the truism that a great player does not necessarily make a competent coach. That's been borne out, as Maradona's naiive tactics and haphazard selection have been factors in the position that Argentina find themselves in now, at some risk of not qualifying.

In this part of the world, there's been sudden interest in the fact that New Zealand is, improbably, still in the hunt for a World Cup place, after a most fortunate 0-0 draw away in Bahrain, but that's a topic for another post.

Also of note, the last round of games look to have ended the possibility of no fewer than four countries from the former Yugoslavia qualifying for South Africa, but even with Croatia having slipped, three of them (Bosnia Herzegovinia, Serbia, and Slovenia) are still in the hunt.

The Americas

A few rounds ago, Argentina were near the top of the qualifying group, but things have gone from bad to worse since Diego took over. When I was in Peru, we listened on a static-ridden radio at the bottom of the Colca Canyon as Ecuador comfortably beat them 2-0 in Quito. In the next double header, Brazil exposed the defensive naiivety of Maradona's team, winning 3-1 away, which was followed by Paraguay cruising to a 1-0 result in Asunción and confirming their own qualification.

Meanwhile, abject Peru did all its Andean neighbours a favour by losing successively to Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, while sandwiching in an improbable home win over Uruguay. In the most recent round, they gave the Argentinians a scare by equalising late in the game, before 36 year-old Martin Palermo snuck a 90th-minute winner (apparently offisde), to take the game 2-1 and leave his team on 25 points, clinging to 4th spot. Meanwhile, Chile confirmed its spot with a 4-2 away in Bogota that shuts Colombia out of qualifying.

Wednesday's round of games will be nail-biting: Argentina play Uruguay in Montevideo, and just need a draw to secure a spot. They can only be overtaken if Ecuador manage to win away against Chile by more than four goals. If Argentina loses, they will be out if Ecuador win. Venezuela can still sneak into the playoff if they beat Brazil and Ecuador lose.

In the North American zone, Mexico and the United States have predictably qualified, while Costa Rica and Honduras will contest the final spot, with the loser in a playoff against one of Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador or Venezuela.

Africa and Asia

In two of the final African qualifying groups, Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire, both of whom I fancy to do well in South Africa, have confirmed their places. In the other groups, it's going to go down to the wire between Egypt and Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia, and Cameroon and Gabon.

Qualifying in Asia ended a while back, with Australia, South Korea, and Japan predictably confirming their places. North Korea also makes a first finals appearance since their remarkable run in 1966. The remaining place is of course up for dispute between Bahrain and New Zealand, to be decided on 14 November.


The Netherlands, Spain and England confirmed their places in the last round, and this round Germany, Italy, Denmark and Serbia have joined them. Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Ireland, Russia and France will feature in the playoffs, and Ukraine will almost certainly join them, after Ukraine's 1-0 win at home against England meant that they only have to win in Andorra to shut out Croatia. Groups which still have something riding on Wednesday's final games include:

Group 1: Portugal, the team I follow, have manged to drag themselves back from the brink in the last few rounds with a last-gasp winner against Albania, followed by home and away wins over Hungary, while Denmark did them a huge favour by beating Sweden 1-0. Portugal now just has to beat Malta at home to secure a playoff spot.

Group 2: Switzerland is top, three points ahead of Greece, but Greece's last game is a probable win against Luxembourg, meaning that Switzerland needs at least a draw at home against Israel to qualify. Israel looks out, as they would have to beat Switzerland and have Luxembourg hold Greece to a draw.

Group 3: perhaps the most interesting. Slovakia are top, and guaranteed at least a playoff place, but second-placed Slovenia are only two points behind, with equivalent goal difference, and in their last game should comfortably beat San Marino, meaning that Slovakia really have to win away in Poland, otherwise Slovenia will leapfrog them to an automatic qualifying spot. Realistically, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic now have no chance of qualifying.