Saturday, 14 February 2009

Indonesia, Qatar, England...Anyone else?

Bidding for hosting rights to 2018 and 2022 closes

February 2nd marked the deadline of nations who wanted to register their interest to host WC in 2018 and 2022. Of course the big hoo-hah in the UK press has been how England deserves to/will/must/is the only choice to host the competition, but there are ten further bids FIFA will have to consider between now and December 2010, when the hosts for 2018 and 2022 are announced. Anyone remotely interested in sports will realise that the quality of the bid and the claims of the host only have a certain amount of persuasion towards the final decisions of the FIFA Executive Committee. As was proved in the bidding for 2006 (the last time England fell by the wayside in humiliation), Germany weren’t supposed to pip South Africa for the rights. Yet some interesting, behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealing in certain quarters, a spot of legal advice and an abstention later saw the Germans win by the odd vote in 23. It is also worth noting that, should a nation win the bid in 2018, no nations from that continent would be allowed in for 2022.

2018 and 2022 promises to be no different. Gone is the certainty of 2010 (South Africa were never really going to lose it, were they?) and 2014 (after you, Brazil) and in comes BID WARS. The esteemed Keir Radnedge of World Soccer Magazine expects the 2018 tournament to end up in Europe. Yet, reading what the equally esteemed Andrew Jennings has to say simply underlines the fact that secret deals and handshakes behind the scenes are where the hosts are decided. His article suggests Mexico are favourites on the back of CONCACAF henchman Jack Warner. This compelling article delves into the voting tendencies of the FIFA Executive Committee, noting how Warner and his cronies could very easily secure the votes of the CONCACAF execs (3, including Warner himself), COMNEBOL (3), along with likely votes from African and Oceanic representatives. 12 and past the post is the rule and even if England were to win all 8 European votes (unlikely, what with Spain and Russia wielding more power and influence, it still leaves a lot of brown-nosing for the FA and their bid team.

Losing out on 2018 would spell doom for England, especially as the Australian bid seems the strongest candidate for 2022. Surely FIFA cannot leave 20 years between tournaments based in Europe? Not highly-organised, flushed-with-money, strong-and-secure Europe? Don’t bet against it.

Here, the 11 bids are ranked from strongest to weakest, in terms of actual chances of hosting the competition. If the hosting rights were decided purely on strength of bid potential, 2018 would go to England and 2022 would end up in the USA or Australia.

1. Mexico – The Warner influence is strong, the support is there from all aspects of Mexican life and it will have been a mammoth 22 years since they last hosted it. Big bucks are to be had in the Spanish-speaking market, giving the Mexicans a strong run to hosting rights. Weak infrastructure and communications will count for little.

2. Australia – The desire is there for the WC to be pushed out to the last continent it hasn’t visited (are we talking about Oceania still?), while Government backing is strong. Blatter has informed the Aussies to aim for 2022 and with either Mexico or Europe getting 2018, this bid – with plenty of stadia already in place – looks strong. Exec. Backing could be a falling point, but the novelty value is there – provided they have the Asian block vote.

(2a. SPAIN - Nothing has been announced officially but Sepp Blatter has stated that joint bids have no chance of hosting. This gives rise to the possibility of Spain leaving Portugal (see 10) by the wayside. Plenty of Spanish-speaking clout on the Exec., along with a decent infrastructure and quality stadiums. It would be the strongest bid from Europe should they go it alone.)

3. England – Likely to struggle for votes against fierce European competition. A strong bid team has been assembled and all of the right noises are coming from them (‘we are not favourites, etc...), while everything is in place to put on a good show. Lessons have been learned from that doomed 2006 bid but as Jennings points out, the plethora of European bids are likely to cancel each other out.

4. USA – Stadia? Check. Fans? Check. Chance to sell a hell of a lot of tickets, sponsorship and marketing rights? Check. So why are they only fourth? Mexico appear to have stronger backing from CONCACAF and with only one shot at this, the Americans are likely to miss out. Undeservedly so though. Don’t discount the prospect of mega-money talking though.

5. Russia – A fair bit of cash can be thrown at the unknown and low-key Russian bid. A country of this size, looking to boost their position on the global stage, would split the European vote. Organisation is the key – is there enough in place?

6. Japan – 2002 co-hosts and a country with an increasingly strong voice in AFC – and FIFA – affairs. 2018 might be out of the question but, like Australia, they could provide an interesting host for 2022.

7. Qatar – Something of a novelty bid (see Libya 2010), what with their underground stadium and petrodollars to splash about. Little in the way of a football infrastructure means there would be an awful lot of work to do before a 2018 or 2022 competition. However, said cash (and oil) reserves, along with the (waning?) Mohammed bin Hammam yielding FIFA power gives the Qatari bid ‘dark horse’ status.

8. South Korea – They co-hosted 2002 with Japan and are capable of staging the show on their own. However, Japanese clout amongst the AFC and their Executives would knock this bid on the head.

9. Spain/Portugal – An Iberian tournament would nail a few votes from Spanish and Portuguese speaking Executives, but joint bids are likely to struggle against those single bids above. Which means Spain will probably go solo.

10. Netherlands/Belgium – The Euro 2000 co-hosts need to see a numberof stadiums expand above the 40,000 all-seater criteria set out by FIFA for a start. With joint bids set to be discarded in favour of technically-strong single nation bids, this one looks dead and buried.

11. Indonesia – As much as I would like to see a WC in a country such as Indonesia, there is no way their bid will stand up against the likes of those above. They are the fourth best bid from the AFC and only have one stadium to write home about.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Asia Group 1 Power Rankings

  1. Australia – Who can possibly argue with their record thus far? Three games gone, three wins and no goals conceded, including away wins in Uzbekistan and Bahrain – neither a mean feat. The Japan match on February 11th will be their toughest, but with three of their last four matches at home, qualification is all-but assured.
  2. Japan – It has not been easy for the Japanese thus far, what with a close run win away to Bahrain and a draw at home to Uzbekistan. However, the tanking of Qatar in Doha has put them firmly in second spot in the group and they should have this place sewn up, regardless of the Australian match.
  3. Uzbekistan – A mixed bag of results for the Uzbeks so far, with the best result being draw away to Japan last October. Losing at home to Australia should not be considered a bard result just yet. A win here at home to Bahrain on February 11th will put them into third spot in the group. It is theirs for the taking.
  4. Qatar – The home loss to Japan has cost them dearly and, having played a game more than everyone else in the group, it gives their four points and third place delusions of grandeur.
  5. Bahrain – A tough trip to Uzbekistan on February 11th is their make-or-break. All three results have been close for them thus far, including close losses at home to Australia and Japan. They need something from this match if they are to grab the third spot that will lead to a play-off. It may be that it is beyond them.
















































Next matches:

11th February: Uzbekistan v Bahrain (Tashkent), Japan v Australia (Yokohama)

Monday, 2 February 2009

Mexico: A bit of a mess?

When Sven-Goran Eriksson left the zany climes of Manchester City in the summer to take charge of Mexico, he must have thought he was in for an easy ride to SA2010. After all, they had qualified for every finals since 1986 (save for 1990, when they were disqualified for fielding over-aged players in the Olympic qualifiers) and possessed a string of talented players, plying their tried all over the top European leagues. Sven would have known that El Tri were unfortunate to be knocked out of the 2006 tournament having out-played Argentina for lengthy spells in the last 16, before eventually going out after extra-time. He would also have known that, apart from the United States, the Mexican domination of CONCACAF has been strong for decades. So why did El Tri stutter so badly en route to the final qualifying round?

As things stand, Eriksson stands with a 50% win record whilst in charge of Mexico (four wins and four draws from nine matches.) Having stated his tenure with three wins in their qualifying group against Honduras, Canada and Jamaica, his side failed to win in the group again, suffering defeats against Jamaica and Honduras and coming back twice to earn a draw in Canada. This was nearly not enough: Jamaica only just missed out on goal difference after beating the Canadians 3-0 in their last match. Honduras won the group after their last day success, which saw Eriksson's men having Gerardo Torrado and Carlos Vela sent off late on.

Where the Mexicans seem to be going wrong under Eriksson is away from home. All four of their defeats and the draw have been away from home, while a worrying clash of styles between technically proficient players and a disconcerting team ethic could continue to see the Swede-managed side struggle in the final round. There are three places up for grabs, plus a half-spot for the fourth placed team, who will play off against South American opposition. With a tough trip to play the USA in their first match, along with injuries and suspensions, a baying press and disgruntled fans, it will take a huge effort from the Mexicans to get going.

But class will out come next June. Whether Eriksson remains in charge though is debateable.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

OCEANIA: Where things stand

What's happened?

Where have you been? It's all over.

So New Zealand won then?

Yes, convincingly in the end, despite a cringe-worthy 2-0 reverse at home to Fiji in their last group match. By then though the final group was as good as over, as the All-Whites had won all five matches and could not be caught.

So the might of New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu were no match?

No, not really. There was the odd close match, with an injury-time goal from David Mulligan required to beat Vanuatu away. However, the Oceanic football scene has more cupcakes than Mr Kipling. Even the Kiwis could not fail to qualify from that lot.

So we can look forward to the likes of Ryan Nelsen, Chris Killen and Shane Smeltz gracing the biggest stage of all?

Not quite. Oceania only have 0.5 of a spot at the World Cup table.

How does that work?

Despite having more members than the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), the OFC can only get one of their sides to the World Cup if they beat the fifth-best side in Asia. In other words, New Zealand have to wait around until October before finding out who they will play. At the time of writing, it looks as though it will be Saudi Arabia.

That's hardly fair...

I agree. All confederations deserve a right to at least one place in the bloated World Cup, regardless of how dire the competition is. Granted, New Zealand are, and never will be, world beaters. Their best players mainly ply their trade down in Australia and their homeland, save for a handful (Nelsen at Blackburn Rovers, Killen at Glasgow Celtic) who make it to Europe and the MLS (Duncan Oughton). Yet, with 32 spaces and the need for the competition to be truly global, a spot for Oceania is surely a must. However, FIFA does not seem to think so. Should the All-Whites manage to beat Saudi Arabia or whoever come October, it will go a little way to convincing FIFA that their confederation deserves their own spot. Yet with the pressure being turned on by Europe ("We want the same, if not more places"), South America ("Gringo, we deserve muchos placios"), etc... This is unlikely to happen until the World Cup bloats up to 48 competing nations.

So what can the All-Whites do to further their cause?

Travel about a bit more. In the past two years, they have lost heavily to Costa Rica and Venezuela away, while they also held Wales to a 2-2 draw (looking tasty in the process.) Yet, costs, distance to travel for competitive fixtures, etc are factors that thwart any rapid development. At least they have the Confederations Cup to play for this summer, where they will face Spain, South Africa and Iraq. Two wins out of that little lot would be a remarkable – if highly difficult – feat.

Time to get going again

After an enforced break, due to a myriad of personal reasons, it is time to get going again on Vuvuzela. South Africa 2010 is just over a year away, the qualifiers are about to enter their critical phase and the talk is starting to focus on those nations who are keen on landing the rights to host the competition in 2018 and 2022 (let's sit back and watch England FAIL in their bid to host the event.)

However, there are a number of nations that have already fallen by the wayside, each with their story – or stories – to tell. I still aim to put a lot of emphasis on these teams, while also looking at those who are putting up a good fight and might actually make the part in 2010. If I can provide some sort of footballing education to those who believe that the game only started in 1992 and doesn't exist outside of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, this will be a job well done.

Monday, 21 July 2008

URUGUAY – The case for the defence

Look at a list of World Cup winners and it is safe to say that the likes of Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Italy will all qualify for 2010. England – even they should get through with Fabio Capello at the helm. But what about Uruguay? Twice winners in 1930 (as hosts) and 1950, the small South American nation have had a major fall from those dizzying heights and generally miss out on qualification these days, with only their 2002 performance to shout about out of the last four tournaments. Why has this country failed to even get anywhere near those incredible heights? Is there a possibility that they could make it through to 2010 and, perhaps, put on a good show?

Defence becomes king

The first question is perhaps the harder of the two to answer. Since their 1950 win, the Uruguayans have also reached the last four in 1954 and 1970. Yet, to most followers of the game, football from Uruguay is synonymous with foul play (think Jose Batista against Scotland during Mexico 86), Enzo Francescoli and Diego Forlan. The former and latter may represent the real issues: a desire to put defensive football first goes against everything the Charruas stood for back earlier in the century. The constant squandering of goal opportunities is another thorn in the side of Uruguayan football. Such facets of the game would have the likes of Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Hector Scarone turning in their graves.

Football is important to the people of Uruguay though. The 1950 victory over Brazil at the Maracana in Rio is still lauded all over the small country, while their captain on that day, Obdulio Varela, is still held in high regard. His shirt and boots were bought by the Uruguayan government at an auction to preserve these 'national monuments.' Yet the sense of achievement in that match still holds sway over the national team today and with little else since to celebrate, this will only continue. Sure enough, there have been occasional victories in the Copa America (1995 being the most recent), but nothing will ever compare to the 2-1 win over Brazil. Think of England, 1966, and multiply it by 1000. It means that bit more to Uruguay, mainly because they have failed to scale anywhere near those heights since. Since these heady days though (and the subsequent 4-2 semi-final loss to Hungary in 1954), defensive football has taken hold of the game in that country. Tough, uncompromising and liable to smother the opposition, the Charruas were little fun to watch or play against.

Quality players – but disappointing disappointments

Although the likes of Batista and Paolo Montero hast a dark, physical shadow over the national team over the past 25 years, there has been a stream of good quality players coming out of the small, 3.4 million populated country over the years. Francescoli was twice South American Footballer of the Year, while Antonio Alzamendi and Ruben Paz also scooped the award before the 80's were out. Yet their campaigns in 1986 and 1990, at a time when there was a burgeoning confidence coming back into the national side, were disappointing. 1986 started brightly, with the Omar Borras side starting brightly against eventual finalists West Germany. Alzamendi gave his side an early lead and it looked as though they would scoop the win, only for a late Klaus Allofs leveler to put that one to bed. From there, the campaign came rapidly off the rails. The 6-1 capitulation against Denmark is the stuff of legend in Scandinavia, while Uruguayans tend to remember the implosion caused by the early sending-off of Miguel Bossio. Due to the ridiculous format of the competition, they were still able to qualify thanks to a 0-0 with Scotland in the last group match (and the red card dished out to Batista.) Argentina were the opponents in the last sixteen and, despite a step up in performance, there was always going to be one winning team in that one.

1990 was much in a similar vein. Matured under the leadership of Oscar Washington Tabarez (who would go on to coach Milan in later years – more on him later), a 0-0 draw in their Group E opener with Spain boded well. Yet the Charruas failed to recover from going down 2-0 early to Belgium in their second match. Despite the hirsute Eric Gerets getting sent off before half-time, Uruguay could not fight back and lost 3-1. Only a last minute Daniel Fonseca goal against South Korea saved humiliation and a place in the last sixteen was again assured, thanks to the daft third-place lucky loser nonsense. Alas, Italy put them to the sword in the next round. A lack of firepower proved to the downfall on both occasions, with two goals in each tournament.

Failure to beat Ecuador or Brazil at home put paid to hopes of USA 94 qualification, while France in 1998 was missed out on due to a poor campaign. It meant a golden generation of players such as Francescoli, Paz, Sosa and Alzamendi would never get to show their true worth on the biggest stage of all. Qualification was achieved at the expense of Australia in 2002, but an insipid start to life in Group A, only brightened by a stunning Dario Rodriguez volley against Denmark, saw them have it all to do against Senegal in the last group match. Despite coming back from 0-3 down at the break to draw 3-3, the same old defensive tendencies cost them.

2006 promised to be different though, with the attack-minded Juan Ramon Carrasco at the helm. Four man attacks, under-manned backlines and a bizarre mix of score lines were the order of the day during his tenure. Just look at the first qualifying scores of his time in charge: 5-0, 1-4, 2-1, 3-3, 0-3. The last one – a loss at home to Venezuela of all people, put paid to this great, white, attacking hope and Uruguay were back to square one and out of the competition via a play-off loss to Australia.

Reasons for latter-day lack of progress cannot be attributed to home-grown players playing abroad – the rest of South America has the same problem. A population just over 3 million cannot obviously produce a conveyor belt of talent, although what does come out of the country is usually very skilful. One look at the most recent squad sees players coming from clubs in the Netherlands, Spain and Germany, to name three. The top two clubs in the country – Nacional and Penarol – still hold sway in the league, tending to win it more often than not. The domestic game is short on capital and development, but again this is an issue recognized across the globe, save for a handful of footballing powerhouses. What Uruguay have perhaps missed since the halcyon days in the 1930's and 1950's are a selection of skilful players spread across the pitch. The fighting qualities are there, but the genuine class of a Francescoli and the discipline of a Varela are not.

Hope springs eternal

For the 2010 qualifying campaign, Washington Tabarez is back in charge and has been praised for blending his experienced players with some fine, up-and-coming players. A semi-final loss to Brazil (on penalties) in the 2007 Copa America showed promise, yet the qualifiers have not gone entirely to plan, with home draws against Chile and Venezuela certain to be costly come the end of the gargantuan group stage qualifying in South America. Having said that, a 5-0 win over Bolivia and a 6-0 thrashing of Peru illustrates that there are goals in this side. In fact, they are easily the top scorers in the qualifiers thus far, with 15 in their six matches. Yet with only the top four assured of qualification and Brazil not featuring in that quartet either, coming from 6th place (and two points down) already looks a tall order.

Who do we know?

Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid) is joint top scorer in the SA qualifiers with 4 at the moment. He is renowned in England for failing to hit a cow's backside with a banjo whilst at Manchester United. His time in Spain with Atletico and Villarreal has been a lot more fruitful for the striker. Cristian Rodriguez (FC Porto) is a fine winger and midfielder of note, who has also enjoyed good form in France, as well as Portugal for both Porto and Benfica.

Who did we know?

As already mentioned, the likes of
Francescoli, Alzamendi and Ruben
Paz have all been recognized as South American Player of the Year. Going back beyond that and you will find classic World Cup stars such as Juan Alberto Schiaffino, Hector Scarone, Obdulio Varela and Alcides Ghiggia. The latter two are synonymous with the 1950 WC success. Alvaro Recoba
looks to be dropping out of the international picture now, especially with the likes of Bueno, Forlan and Abreu enjoying such good form of late.

Who should we know?

Sebastian Abreu (Beitar Jerusalem) has had more clubs than Tiger Woods and currently plies his trade in Israel. Yet he knows where the net is, as does Carlos Bueno (Penarol), who has never settled in Europe, despite attempts to do so in France and Portugal.

When we were fab:

Look no further than 1930 and 1950. In recent years, the only worldwide claim to fame was that amazing comeback against Senegal in 2002.

2010 chances:

Never say never with the South American mini-league format. Yet the dropping of early points at home will haunt Uruguay, just as they have done during the previous two qualifying campaigns. It could well be another trip to the inter-continental play-off for them. At least this time around it won't be against Australia, as the fifth placed CONMEBOL side will play the fourth placed team from the COCACAF region. So, someone like Honduras, El Salvador or Trinidad and Tobago then.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

QATAR and the ‘Brazilian’ controversy

A recent article in When Saturday Comes
ground my gears. It spoke about how the Qatari team had benefitted from some flexible rule-bending by FIFA to enable them to continue to compete in the competition.

For those not in the know, the third stage of the Asian qualifiers saw the Qataris grouped with Asian Cup holders Iraq, the perennial under-achievers of the continent, China, and Australia. A Group of Death if ever there was one, especially when you look further down the list and look at the whitewash that saw Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan walk over Singapore and Lebanon.

Back to the Qataris. As has been the case with their national team in recent years – certainly since the advent of the money-spinning Q-League – a host of players have been given passports of convenience to turn out for the team. Remember the attempts to get Ailton and Dede naturalized for the WC2006 qualifiers? This failed due to a hastily-employed FIFA rule that dictated that the players would have to have parentage or have played in the country for two or more years. The case of Marcio Passos, better known as Emerson, should have been a lot clearer. That it wasn't was more down to the player, rather than the Qatari FA and this is what FIFA have said. He participated in the 2-0 win over Iraq in March, with the losers protesting after the match, rather than before. Emerson, who has enjoyed some success playing in both Qatar and Japan, should not have played. It transpires that he turned out for Brazil Under 20's in the 1999 South American Youth Championship, thereby making him ineligible to play for any other national team, as this was a major confederation tournament. Oh, it also transpires that he falsified his birth certificate to get his move to Qatar back in 2006. That's another story.

The main beef of the Iraqis (painted in simplified format by WSC), is that Emerson was ineligible. However, the Iraqis failed to get their complaint in on time, which WC2010 rules stipulate must be done within 24 hours of the start of the match. This is written in black and white for all to see. A pedantic pen-pusher at FIFA may write the rules, but they are there to ensure integrity and consistency is applied throughout the competition. As it was, Iraq were simply not good enough to reach the next stage of the Asian qualifiers. This has little to do with 'their campaign (being) undermined by an expulsion threat from FIFA,' due to government dalliance with the Iraqi FA (something FIFA has come down hard on before.) It had more to do with poor form on the pitch, a spate of injuries and playing all home matches in Dubai instead of an unsafe Baghdad, where only four points out of a possible nine were collected. Once again, elements of the western press continue to fawn over the Iraqis. This may have been nice and cosy copy when they won the 2007 Asian Cup, but in 2008, their football simply wasn't good enough.

Qatar may have more than their fair share of dual citizens turning out for their national team but, as WSC and other critics of Qatari (and non-Iraqi?) football are eager to point out. Sebastian Soria/Sebastian Quintana/ سباستيان
سوريا (call him what you will) is another fine example of this. Yet this is a country that is making massive progress at all levels of football. Despite floating around the mid-80's of the FIFA Rankings, the Qatari side were unfortunate to get knocked out of the group stages of the 2007 Asian Cup, while their Under 23 side recently won the Asian Games. The world famous ASPIRE academy will be churning out quality footballers for many years to come and is an academy the envy of many, more-established global clubs and associations. Khalfan Ibrahim was named AFC Asian Player of the Year in 2006 at the tender age of 18, proving that home-grown talent is starting to mature. This is just the start for the Qatari national team on the WC stage. They may miss out on 2010, but be prepared for them to make some waves come 2014, with or without Brazilians and Uruguayans. And there is always the 2011 Asian Cup, which will take place in Qatar.