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World Cup Highs and Lows!

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been pretty cynical about this world cup, but you have to admit, not without good cause!

Even before the events of the England and Mexico games, I wasn’t impressed with refereeing standards at what should be a showcase for all that is best in football. While both Germany and Argentina were deserving winners, their great performances were somewhat overshadowed by atrocious decisions. Referees in football have the hardest job in sports. Usually FIFA just hangs the refs out to dry, but perhaps this time they will get some help. We got the usual crap from Sepp Blatter right after the games last weekend, but the fact that England, being such a high-profile nation, were the victims here, could see video replay actually get a fair trial.

While all the press has been focusing on the big mistakes made by the tournament referees, lets not forget that some officials have been very good. With England out of the World Cup, the outstanding Howard Webb has a great chance at being the WC Final referee, and it would be well deserved. Webb’s odds have probably increased given the Lampard disallowed goal, as FIFA is a very politically driven organisation, and it would be a consolation gesture to the English FA if Webb was to get the gig. Howard Webb’s head also has the distinction of being the only thing at the world cup rounder than the Jabulani ball!

The Jabulani Ball

The Jabulani Ball

Less has been made of the Jabulani ball in the past few games, but it still seems as erratic as ever, and goalies are still being made to look bad. When Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas, arguably the two best goalies in the world, think it’s a terrible ball, you have to listen – Cassilas famously comparing it to a “beach ball”. They are not alone though, with pretty much universal agreement that the ball is affecting player performance. Outfield players have seen crosses, shots, corners, and free-kicks balloon off into the proverbial ‘Row Z’, while the travails of the goalies is already well documented.

I don’t think the strange movement of the new 8-panel ball is solely to blame for the goalie errors – although I don’t recall seeing as many goalies totally miss punches as I have with the Jabulani. Starting with Robert Greene and throughout the whole tournament, goalies have been treating the ball differently, preparing to catch it differently, and trying to simply block it away, or punch it, instead of catching it. The hype surrounding the ball seems to have frightened them, and many fumbles have resulted from poor technique and lack of confidence. They are expecting it to do something strange, so even when it doesn’t, they are liable to make errors.

Some goalies, however, didn’t seem to start the tournament with a lack of confidence. Schwarzer and Kingson were outstanding early on, putting in solid and confident displays that probably made Capello jealous! Eventually though, the Jabulani had its day, and they both fumbled balls that lead to goals. Some outfield players also figured out the ball, to a degree, and we have seen some outstanding strikes, sadly they seem to be fewer and farther between than in previous World Cups. If you believe the player himself, Maicon’s amazing strike from an impossible angle was intentional, and if so certainly shows that the Jabulani can be tamed. Japan scored two outstanding free kicks in one game (poor Denmark), and Tevez’s strike against Mexico was probably the pick of the bunch. There have certainly been highlights in South Africa.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo - and from the Russian judge?

Unfortunately, the highlights have been overshadowed by discussions of refereeing, the ball, and of course the dreaded Vuvuzela. I won’t say too much more on the annoying, droning plastic horns, but it is nice to see that right-minded teams and organisations worldwide have already banned them from future sporting events… if only FIFA had! On top of these low-lights, the usual suspect has reared its ugly head… no, not Tevez, diving. Some of the on-field antics of players at this world cup have beggared belief, but I have to admit, not as many refs were conned as in past tournaments. I don’t recall seeing as many refs telling players to simply “get up”, and that’s great, but where are the yellow cards? Cristiano Ronaldo, especially, seemed to be the ‘victim’ of his own press. Even when he was fouled, refs were ignoring his petulant pleas, and rightly so – the boy who cried wolf! His reputation preceded him, and for once refs acted accordingly.

Worse even than diving are the con jobs – the rolling around or grabbing your face like you were just assaulted. These unsporting behaviours are even more unsavoury because they are not just intended to con the ref, but are attempts to get your fellow professionals carded or dismissed. Sadly, some worked. Until FIFA gets serious about the diving and cheating, the reputation of the game will suffer. I would gladly give up goal-line video replay to see FIFA institute retrospective reviews that targeted cheats and divers, rescinding cards when required, and meting out punishment when warranted.

Finally, after discussing the seedier elements of the game, I think it is only fair to single out Uruguay and Mexico for their final group match. Both teams only needed a tie to advance, and the concern was that they would just collude to achieve that result, seeing them both into the knock-out stages. Far from it! This was probably the most entertaining match I’ve seen to date, and it was clear from the start that both teams were out to win. That game momentarily restored my faith, the integrity shown was a breath of fresh air – which sadly only lasted until the Brazil v Portugal game.

Whatever the outcome from here on in, the World Cup in South Africa has been newsworthy, and a financial success – and as far as FIFA are concerned, that is all that matters. I still think that Spain will win it … I would love to see Uruguay go all the way though.

Go Go - Diego!

Go Go - Diego!

The World Cup is finally here!

June 12, 2010 1 comment

Well, the World Cup 2010 is finally here, and as usual, there is plenty going on off the field too.

Four days and almost a dozen games in, the biggest talking point is the vuvuzela. Never mind that the players can’t hear anything, neither can we as fans. You can’t hear the crowd singing either. You would think you would be easily able to drown out a constant droning noise during a football match, well, the married men should be able to! It kills all atmosphere, though, and is beyond annoying. The atmosphere is as flat as the pitches.

The vaunted Jubilani ball is as big an issue. It is making goalies look stupid, and was the deciding factor in three games… so far! Even when it isn’t moving around in the air, the Jubilani is making goalies prepare differently in all situations. The ball is as big an issue for outfield players, making set-piece takers look like Sunday leaguers.

As in World Cups past, FIFA have decided to intervene and introduce another pointless “directive” to officials, this time they have targeted the scourge that is the penalty run-up. WTF? Forget the real problems in the game, let’s focus on the minutiae again… sigh.

More bitching? Why yes, as if the overly-round and light ball isn’t enough to deal with, the ridiculously high bounces are also causing issues. Pitches that are part artificial turf aren’t helping.

On the pitch, little of note, although Germany’s performance stood out. If FIFA wanted to have games decided by anything BUT talent, job done. Great disappontment so far, and since FIFA have decided to do nothing about the vuvuzela, I don’t see it improving.

The dirtiest teams of all time

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

The Korean short-track skating team got disqualified so often at the recent Vancouver Olympics they must qualify as one of the dirtiest teams in Olympic history – not including issues with drugs, anyway. They may have even eclipsed Bonnie Blair of the US in the annals of short-track skullduggery, which is saying something!

This got me thinking, where would the Koreans rank in the pantheon of all-time dirty teams. I’m not sure I can place them, but where do you think they fall in this less than illustrious list, arranged alphabetically.

The Argentinian National Football (Soccer) Team
Even if you don’t include the “hand of God” (yes i’m still bitter, deal with it!), the Argentinians have dived and cheated their way to legendary status on this list. I’m still bitter about Simeone and Batistuta too.

Charlestown Chiefs (from the movie “Slapshot”)
Did i say they all had to be real teams? They were loosely based on the Johnstown Jets after all. The Chiefs, led by Paul Newman as player-coach Reggie Dunlop, are certainly one of the funniest teams of all time too, but don’t let that fool you. With the Hanson Brothers leading the way, the Chiefs made the fans happy, and started winning, when they turned to goonery. Easily one of the funniest sports movies of all time – “puttin’ on the foil coach!”

Detroit Pistons – circa 1990
The Pistons had some really great players, but they also had three of the toughest players ever in Lambier, Mahorn & Rodman. When Rodman was seen as the nicest of the three, you know what we’re dealing with. Ted Davis, longtime announcer for the Milwaukee Bucks, on Lambier: “Dirtiest player: Bill Lambier. The dirtiest of the dirty. Actually tried to hurt his opponent. Actually tried to hurt his teammates in practice. Was WWF before WWF was cool.” 😀

The Italian National Football (Soccer) Team
The don’t have a single defining moment like the Argentinians, they have a series of them! Ask the French and Aussies most recently, but you could make a good case they deserve the top spot. They have defined diving in world football for a long time, and have an amazing ‘pedigree’ in this category.

Los Angeles Raiders – NFL
The Raiders have long been known as a tough team, but Al Davis instilled a whole new level of belief in various iterations around Southern California. Davis was always the glue, and really built up the reputation. The fans, the “Raider Nation” also bought into it, and are some of the most fervent in the NFL.

New York Islanders – circa Early 80’s
While the Islanders were nowhere near as tough as the Chiefs or the Flyers (see below), having Billy Smith in net more than made them eligible for this list. It was a very dangerous job skating even CLOSE to the Islanders net with Billy around. Bashing the back of players in front of net is one thing, but anyone who remembers him felling Gretzky lumberjack style while he was skating BEHIND his net knows why this team made the list.

Philadelphia Flyers – circa 1972-1978
The ‘Broad Street Bullies’ era in Flyer’s history loosely parallels the Charlestown Chiefs, with a mediocre team rising to prominence once they started getting physical. Dave Schultz led the team in penalty minutes, but the whole team bruised and bashed their way to success throughout the 70’s, and on into the 80’s.

Wimbledon – circa 1980’s/90’s – Football (Soccer)
The original Wimbledon, most often remembered as “the Crazy Gang” didn’t have a reputation for playing a beautiful brand of football, they were one of the first recognised ‘long ball’ teams. They were tough though, and one of those teams no-one wanted to play against. Now a Hollywood movie actor, Vinnie Jones summed up the Wimbledon approach with one of the most infamous marking jobs of all time on Paul Gascoigne (see picture). Best sports picture of all time!

I’m sure I’ve missed some other classic nasties, both real and fictional, perhaps “The Bad News Bears” deserved a spot? The original crew anyway, with Matthau. Another honourable mention to the Mean Machine from the movie “The Longest Yard”, with Burt Reynolds.

After reviewing this list perhaps those Koreans aren’t as bad as I first thought!

More Olympic Musings – We all become experts, don’t we!

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment

The 2010 Winter Olympics have certainly had their problems, what with the weather, ice conditions, snow conditions, and the usual griping, debatable judging decisions, and of course the odd accusation of cheating – doping I’ve heard of, but magnets on your sled in skeleton?

All that aside, I’m still loving the whole thing. I much prefer the more obscure events, the ones you don’t see every week on TV anyway. Luge, Skeleton, Biathlon, Freestyle skiing, it’s all fantastic to watch. One thing I notice every Olympics is that we all seem to become experts at events we only see every four years. During the brilliant Gold Medal freestyle run by Alexandre Bilodeau we were sitting around dissing various athletes as they came down those moguls … “his knees are all over the place … he’s not sliding from mogul to mogul” etc. etc.  This from one person who can’t ski, and three who consider a mogul anything that is not dead flat! The same happened with speed skating. One bottle of wine later and we were critiquing the finer points of skating technique. Well, I was, the wife was discussing the finer points of the male skater’s skin-tight costumes … were the Japanese men really wearing thongs? It would explain a lot of Japanese game shows and web sites!

Kidding aside, it’s hard not to feel amazingly proud and patriotic watching these athletes compete. I simply cannot imagine training for four years and ending up losing a medal by a few HUNDREDTHS of a second, like Kristina Groves did today. The Olympics is about so much more than medals though. The effort these athletes put forward is beyond inspiring. More than that, to see the absolute joy of athletes who simply perform to their best, or beat their personal best but don’t come close the podium, is wonderful.