Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Our team of the Round of 16

Just a little light entertainment while we prepare our in depth review of the Round of 16. Here's an XI composed of players who enlivened our Round of 16 watching. This round saw some good football, even if it was predictably cagier than the group phase. The main disappointment was that not one of the underdogs prevailed; this WC has seen few fairytale results and even the Costa Ricans were the favourites against Greece. 

The bigger teams' progress wasn't always deserved, particularly not that of Brazil against Chile or Argentina against Switzerland.

Redressing the balance somewhat, we've included here plenty of plucky characters of whom the Round of 16 provided our last glimpse - for now.

Safe hands...
GK Tim Howard (USA): This was a great round for keepers. We could have picked Vincent Enyeama of Nigeria, and almost did; the nod could equally have gone to any of Algeria’s Rais M’Bohli, Germany’s Manuel Neuer, or Switzerland’s Diego Benaglio (the latter for his stoppage-time overhead kick on goal, if nothing else). But then Big Tim goes and makes the most saves in a World Cup match, ever. Move over, Lev. Move over, Gordon Banks.

LB Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland): Gave the single outstanding left-back performance of the tournament so far against the Argentines. Was certainly challenged at times down the left, but rose to it, and offered an outlet in attack too. He appeared to leave Di Maria unmarked for the winner, but he’d had to commit elsewhere. Harder to beat than Nigel Winterburn in his prime.

CB Johann Djourou (Switzerland): The former Arsenal man gets a hammering from the pundits for unreliability, but we love his doggedness. Against Argentina he did make mistakes, but he always recovered. Anything he squandered through lack of composure, he had usually earned in the first place through sound positional sense. Whenever the ball came into the Swiss box, Djourou was there.

CB Gary Medel (Chile): All of our defensive selections play for teams who lost their ties, which goes to show how much we think Chile, Nigeria and Switzerland were robbed. Against Brazil, Medel was the best man on the pitch, even if he could barely walk by the time he was subbed. 

RB Efe Ambrose (Nigeria): On a night when Nigerian wingers Peter Odemwingie and Ahmed Musa failed to shine, Ambrose consistently buckled the swash to provide his team’s main attacking outlet. Didn’t get what he deserved from a match in which France were fortunate winners.

DM Karagounis (Greece): One of the oldest outfielders in the tournament, but you’d never have guessed it from the way he covered every blade against Costa Rica. Showed terrific fitness and mobility for a player in his late thirties, and never looked slow. His defensive and attacking qualities were essential for Greece, just as they have been for over a decade now. Boy, will they miss him when he goes.

DM Blaise Matuidi (France): Adventurous forward runs are a feature of this deep-lying all-rounder’s game. Against Nigeria he consistently offered options in the box and had the energy to do his bit when reverse gear was needed.

AM Arjen Robben (Netherlands): Alright, he dived, and he didn’t score. He left the latter job to Wesley Sneijder – who had previously had a very, very quiet World Cup – in a frightening demonstration of the depth of talent in the Oranje attack. But Robben made the game once again. Once again, it was he who energized the Netherlands and gave flight to their ambitions. Won the crucial penalty in a tie the Dutch could easily have lost.

AM James Rodriguez (Colombia): Standout player of the tournament so far, and its leading goalscorer. James hasn’t played the crafty, creative No.10 at this World Cup as we expected, but has focused instead on offering goal threat from midfield. Colombia need him, because they lack a truly convincing striker without Falcao. James' screamer against Uruguay was the best goal of the round (maybe jointly with Bryan Ruiz' cute little roll-in).

AM Antoine Griezmann (France): Has burst from nowhere to stake a claim for himself as the future of French football. Slight but quick and determined, he’s included here for the way he changed the game against Nigeria, more than for his goal. We hope he starts the quarter-final.

CF Alexis Sanchez (Chile): It wasn’t a great round for centre-forwards (ask Thomas Mueller) and we were somewhat tempted to pick a false 9. But instead we’ve given the no.9 spot to the Barca man for his boss-like performance against Brazil. For whole periods, he basically ran the game.

Honourable mentions to Raphael Varane of France and Giancarlo Gonzalez of Costa Rica, both excellent at CB in this round, and to Joel Campbell of Costa Rica. The Arsenal youngster was too shattered in extra time to do anything much, but that's because of the energy he'd expended playing target man to perfection during the 90.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Suarez, and all that

We tend to assume, in writing this blog, that our audience don’t live on Mars or, at least, if they do, they’ve found a way of watching the World Cup from there. So you’ll all by now have seen the footage of Luis Suarez “appearing to bite” Giorgio Chiellini during the late stages of the Italy v Uruguay match yesterday.

Little about the incident makes immediate sense to the observer. There seemed to be even less build-up or provocation ahead of the event that there was in the incident between Suarez and Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. Suarez simply trots into the area as normal for a corner, jostles gently with Chiellini for the briefest time, and then… what?

That a deeper question than first may appear. For just what is it we are seeing, here? To watch Suarez yesterday, or to watch him take hold of Ivanovic’s arm and sink his teeth into it as one might a chicken wing straight off the barbecue, is to watch a man driven by forces we can’t readily comprehend. Likewise to watch him spring forth to bite Omar Bakkal’s neck, Dracula style, while playing for Ajax is to wonder what urges must be taking hold of his psyche. To bite another man would be considered a savage and disturbing thing to do if done when drunk, provoked and angry. In the course of an international football match, it is time-stopping in its dreadfulness, a moment of primal violence bursting in on the most managed and sanitized of modern sporting contests.

What on earth must possess a man, who himself has gone through the wringer of public opprobrium and, I don’t doubt, private self-disgust after biting on the field twice before, to do the same thing again on the biggest stage of all?

Frankly we are at the edges, here, of what we as sports fans and writers can comprehend or explain. Football needs to contemplate that one of its greatest current practitioners may be afflicted by something that is entirely beyond the capabilities of the sport, with its limited vocabulary, its narrow, still macho and blue-collar, frame of reference, and its cumbersome disciplinary procedures, to put right. Is there something badly wrong with Luis Suarez? It would seem inappropriate to speculate about matters of mental health, so perhaps we should just observe. Suarez’s shy and evasive demeanour when interviewed about the Ajax incident, and his play-acting on the field yesterday apparently to evade censure, have a childish quality about them, and biting, after all, is what toddlers do when frustrated or angry. His contrition after the Ivanovic incident meanwhile seemed, to this writer anyway, entirely genuine.  We must acknowledge the possibility that club suspensions and international bans are entirely inadequate measures, ineffectual and possibly unjust attempts to activate punishment-response mechanisms that simply aren’t found in this area of the player’s psyche. Luis Suarez at moments like this seems more tormented child than simple thug. We do not understand what it is that afflicts him.

If genius has a childlike quality, then perhaps yesterday's events were the dark side of that.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Teams of Round 1

By general agreement it's been a great World Cup so far, but who have been the teams who've really made our days? Here are our four picks - with one team who lost in Round 1, and another who only managed a draw, we hope there's a bit of controversy here.


People expressing surprise at how ordinary Brazil looked against Mexico had obviously forgotten the opening game, in which the selecao, for long periods, appeared clueless as to how to break down a spirited Croatia. In the end they relied on poor goalkeeping and a terrible penalty decision, the latter setting a sickening opening tone for the World Cup - from which it thankfully quickly recovered. Croatia make our list for showing the underdogs of this tournament the way, with a vigorous display of defend-and-counter which really deserved to be rewarded. From an unpromising starting point, playing natural centre-forward Ivica Olic out wide, Croatia consistently held their shape and made hay on the break despite a lack of pace. Every time they put ball in box it looked dangerous. If they don’t get a result against Cameroon this evening they’re out; it would be a harsh outcome, we think.


Yeah, Netherlands, obviously. There was nothing especially clever, in the tactical sense anyway, about the way they undid Spain; just sensibly applied counter-attacking and some moments of inspiration from their star twosome of Robben and Van Persie. Spain looked the better side in the first half, capably exploiting the space behind the young Dutch defence with angled balls to Diego Costa. It’s hard to remember now, but Holland seemed a bit lucky to be going in for half-time with the score at 1-1, after Van Persie rose like a salmon to equalise. Whatever Van Gaal said at half-time obviously worked, however, as in the second period Holland perfectly exploited Spain’s weakness, making high-pressing tiki-taka look uncannily like pushing a slow, under-muscled team further up the pitch than it could justify. Mistakes at the back didn’t help Spain, and once they slightly unluckily went 3-1 down, they had to chase the game, something they aren’t well equipped to do.  We’re not going to write them off, although they could be on the plane home tonight if Chile beat them. Nor are we going to make Holland favourites for the World Cup; but they were the standout stars of Round 1.


Brooks: Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Group G got off to a disappointing start as an insipid Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo anonymous, put up scant resistance to a Germany side who barely had to get out of second gear. How unlikely it seemed that the unfancied US of A (or “USMNT” as they’re known) would be the ones to liven things up. But they were out of the blocks straight away, Clint Dempsey showing the enterprise and aggression for which he’s occasionally been known to put the Americans in front after just 31 seconds. And even though for much of the game Ghana seemed to have more in their locker than did Uncle Sam’s boys, we never seriously doubted the USA would get something out of the game. After Ayew’s equalizer for the Black Stars, it fell to the big young defender John Brooks, one of Klinsmann’s German-American proteges, to convert one point to three. Next up: a real chance to take something off a dispirited Portugal and press on into the knockout phase.

South Korea

If this World Cup has seen a better display of rapid-fire technical football than South Korea’s yesterday, then we must have missed it. This is perceived as a relatively weak Korea side, but you wouldn’t know that from the way their midfield pinged the ball around against Russia. With every first touch accompanied by a perfect turn to take the ball into space, with every pass seemingly laser guided, the Koreans were easily the most attractive side we saw in Round 1. I’s just a shame they couldn’t put more of a cutting edge to it; both sides, in fact, seemed short of ideas as to how to get into the danger zone, and were forced to launch one long-range shot after another. Some of them were real howitzers, adding to the appeal of a game which had a touch of the spectacular about it. The draw helped neither side, and second place in Group H remains wide open – but we’re rooting for the zippy Koreans.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group H

Not a group whose members, Belgium perhaps excepted, have obvious potential to make a big impact on the tournament. This is, however, a very open group, with an interesting contrast of styles and, most likely, a real battle for second place. The exuberant attackers of Belgium remain an unknown quantity as a unit, but doughty and defensive Algeria and pacy, counter-attacking Korea will still most likely find themselves duking it out for second with a cautious, organised Russia, their squad packed with internationally unknown domestic stars. A good one for the neutrals.


Slimani: high hopes
Algeria squeaked through qualification after winning a goal-happy playoff against Burkina Faso, courtesy of the away goals rule. The 3-3 aggregate draw may seem rather untypical of the “Fennec Foxes”, who maintained a tight defence in their CAF qualifying group, but their group stage opposition was weak, and one question over Algeria is how well this side can maintain its defensive discipline against tougher opposition. Scoring goals may be a problem too, as we’ll see. But a decent draw, with no giants of world football to face in Group H, has given the Algerians hope, and they look far from pure also-rans.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic is known as something of a tinkerman, so within his preferred 4-3-2-1 setup we could see any number of possible combinations of personnel. That said, there is probably a clear first choice for the striker’s role, where Islam Slimani has a solid record of 10 goals in 20 games. He stepped up this season from Algerian club football to play for Sporting in Portugal, and has so far more than made the grade. He is an out-and-out, natural striker, uncomplicated but skilful and capable of scoring from anywhere. The other established forward in the squad, El Arabi Soudani, is a natural at second striker, and may play on the left side of the attack. There’s also Nabil Ghilas, of FC Porto, a burly striker who is relatively new to the international scene. He likes to run from deep with the ball, in a manner that may remind English fans-of-a-certain-age of one Stanley V. Collymore. Ghilas is likely to begin the tournament as a reserve, however, with Valencia attacking midfielder Sofiane Feghouli likely to start on the right of the front three, where his range of tricks and turns will make him Algeria’s best hope of cracking open World Cup defences.
In midfield the selection is likely to demonstrate a cautious attitude, with a preference for ballwinners and markers who can contain the opposition and generate opportunities to break. Hassan Yebda and Saphir Taider are solid choices with good European club experience; Yebda has crucial World Cup experience and will be the lynchpin of the midfield. Medhi Lacen, who partnered Yebda in South Africa in 2010, is still in contention and played in the crucial final qualifying game against Burkina Faso, but he will be battling for selection this time with Adlene Guedioura, who was also in South Africa and is an established presence in English football; Tottenham youngster Nabil Bentaleb and defender/midfielder Carl Medjani will also be in contention in this area of the park. There are more attacking options in midfield, with Yacine Brahimi of Gernada and Abdelmoumen Djabou of domestic side Club Africaine available, but both are likely to be used as options off the bench and will slot most neatly into the wider attacking positions than into the heart of the midfield. The same probably applies to Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez.
In defence, captain Madjid Bougherra is a rare guaranteed starter and is another one of the core of players with 2010 World Cup experience. He will be familiar to Rangers fans, having spent three successful years at the club, and is actually one of Algeria’s primary goal threats, from set pieces. The versatile Medjani is probably his likeliest partner at centre-back, although Rafik Halliche has a chance of getting the nod as he, too, offers World Cup experience. Liassine Cadamuro, an Italian-Algerian born in France can also play here, although he’s a natural right-back; and with enormous Watford centre-half Essaid Belkalem in the squad, as well as Mehdi Mostefa (who can also play in midfield), there is loads of cover. Indeed, with nine defenders in total, the shape of the squad betrays “Coach Vahid’s” likely priorities. At right back, Djamel Mesbah is the main man with his World Cup and Italian club experience, with Alissa Mandi of Reims a new challenger. Napoli’s Faouzi Ghoulam is first choice left back, while Mohamed Zemmamouche has recently displaced 2010 veteran Rais M’Bolhi – also in the squad – between the posts.
Algeria can’t be written off. They’ve got their work cut out for them against Korea, Belgium and Russia, but at the same time there’s probably no other group they’d rather have been drawn in. They will certainly be able to field an experienced, crafty and, hopefully, organised unit which will be solid in defence and comfortable on the ball. What is lacking is any real sign of individual brilliance, and on Feghouli’s slim shoulders rest virtually all of the team’s hopes of carving out opportunities in open play. He will need to be on form, or else Algeria will be hoping for counter-attacking opportunities, mistakes and set-pieces. Wobbles against Burkina Faso notwithstanding, we think Algeria will prove a decent defensive unit, and while we’re not prepared to tip them to qualify, they could prove a serious impediment to the hopes of Russia and Belgium in particular.
Strengths: Loads of experience; decent backup in most positions; flexible approach; organisation and solidity. We think.
Weaknesses: Lack of star quality – it’s not clear where the chances will come from. Few players established at very top level. Only one out and out no.9, in Slimani, though he looks like a good player.
Young player to watch: Bentaleb is a lively and highly promising midfielder who will fit well into Algeria’s system. Stretching the definition of “young” a bit, Ghilas at 24 is an exciting player looking for a breakthrough.
Verdict: A group stage exit is likely – but far from inevitable.



Courtois: Europe's best
You can call us Belgium sceptics, I guess. That they are still hailed as “dark horses” is remarkable, really; you can trek days by camel train into the depths of the desert and meet isolated, oasis-hopping Berber tribesmen who, in between sharing tokes on the sheesha, will chat for hours about how Belgium have a fairly handy First XI. Yes, everyone knows they are a decent side, but a realistic shout for the World Cup? We think that’s stretching it. Belgium have two problems. The first is that their current generation is almost entirely untested at this level. The last tournament for which Belgium qualified was, almost unbelievably, the 2002 World Cup, and gangling Bayern benchman Daniel van Buyten is the only current squad member who travelled to Japan/Korea. The second issue is that behind an impressive First XI, and save in one or two positions like goalkeeper, Belgium have little depth of quality. Injuries or suspensions could hit them hard, and even as it is, their starting team contains two converted centre-backs at full-back. The draw has been kind to Belgium, giving them every chance of getting through the group, but expectations may have grown to unrealistic levels now.
Taking it from the top, the withdrawal of Christian Bentecke leaves Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku pretty much unchallenged at centre-forward. Although Bentecke was coach Marc Wilmots’ first choice, Lukaku looks to us a more complete player, and more likely to make the adjustment to the environment of World Cup football. The only backup to Lukaku, in fact, is young Divock Origi, a raw 19 year old who has only one season as a first teamer under his belt at Lille. Belgium look heavily reliant on Lukaku to stay fit, although they don’t actually rely on him for too many goals; with six in 29 internationals, his goalscoring record for the national side is not spectacular. A big part of his role, however, is to play with back to goal and bring others in; Belgium scored lots of goals in qualifying but they spread them around. Except for van Buyten, there’s nobody in the squad who’s into double figures. In practice,  a lot of the goal will come from modern superwingers Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, both on decent club form although Hazard, in particular, is seen as having under-delivered at international level. Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and Napoli’s Dries Mertens are essentially understudies to de Bruyne and Hazard; Mirallas can also play as a striker, and is the only obvious third choice in that position, but it does not naturally suit his deep-dropping, dribbling style. Finally, in attack, Adnan Januzaj dealt Kosovan football a blow by deciding to play for Belgium at the last minute before this World Cup; his apparent stroll into the World Cup squad ruffled a few feathers and we don’t see him getting a starting berth just yet.
Like many teams who prefer 4-3-3, Belgium play a highly combative midfield trio behind their buzzing attack. There’s still plenty of silk to go with the steel, though. Moussa Dembele will start in one of the midfield roles; the Tottenham man has no shortage of fans to sing his endless praises at either club or national level, but in truth he has yet to really make his mark on the game. He does have an impressively complete range of skills, though, and is consistent if rarely spectacular for Belgium in a box-to-box role. A good World Cup would take him to the next level. Dembele’s clubmate, Nacer Chadli, has seen plenty of game-time alongside, and is an overtly attacking choice, but when the chips are down Wilmots seems to prefer Porto’s Steven Defour, who offers more defensive resistance. Between and behind Dembele and Defour, Axel Witsel will start in the deep lying position where he was ever-present in qualifying. While we don’t generally do pop trivia in our World Cup previews, it delights us to tell you that Witsel was named after Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverley Hills Cop. Although Wilmots, like the entire Belgian technical coaching setup in fact, is wedded to 4-3-3 as the national formation, there are options to switch up or down in midfield. The default is to play with Witsel deep and then to push Dembele and Defour or, especially, Chadli, on a bit; but there’s also the option of dropping the two back and bringing in a no.10, which could be the rumbustious Marouane Fellaini – surely desperate for a decent World Cup after a totally counterproductive move to Manchester United – or could be almost any of the winger/forwards, especially de Bruyne.
The centre of the defence is a real area of strength for Belgium, with an imposing trio made up of Manchester City’s steadfast Vincent Kompany, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen (on his day, the best footballing centre-back in the world for our money – and that includes Mats Hummels) and Thibaut Courtois, who was probably the best goalkeeper in Europe this season. On the flanks however there is a slightly odd situation in which natural centre-backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen play at right and left back respectively. Each is a good defender, but they are being played out of position, and there are limits, we think, to how far the notion of the modern total footballer can be stretched. It will be interesting to see how Belgium cope with pace and overlap down the flanks, especially since Hazard, in particular, is not exactly the model of the backtracking winger who helps his fullback. For all that, Belgium conceded very few goals in qualifying, in a difficult group. Curiously, this team with centre-backs for full-backs has, among its reserve defenders, at least two full-backs who can step in at centre-back: Laurent Ciman and Nico Lombaerts. Anthony Vanden Borre is a backup option at right back while the veteran van Buyten is a reassuring reserve in the centre and will likely be first pick if one of the starting defenders struggles. That Wilmots has taken eight defenders to the World Cup suggests a curious lack of confidence in his setup in this department, and it’s especially strange when one considers that Ciman hasn’t played for Belgium since 2011 and Lombaerts has played only one international in two years. It’s not clear why Wilmots wants to carry what looks like dead wood in this area. There is an excellent backup goalkeeper, on the other hand, in Liverpool’s agile, if occasionally slightly erratic, Simon Mignolet.
Although Belgium are perceived as a young side on the rise, this may yet turn out to be their best shot at the World Cup. Although a lot of the attacking players – Hazard, de Bruyne, Lukaku – are young, Dembele, Defour, Fellaini, Kompany, Vermaelen and Vertonghen will all be 30 or older in 2018. With this amount of quality in its prime, you have to wonder how Belgium managed not to qualify for Euro 2012 or the 2010 World Cup, and it seems a shame because there’s now a lot of pressure on this generation to make the most of what may be its only shot at the World Cup. Belgium have the quality, on paper, of a good tip for the semi-finals; they have the reputation of dark horses; but in terms of tournament form they are pure wild cards.
Strengths: Very high quality players with top club experience, distributed evenly throughout the team; togetherness and stability with a clear system and first choice selection; hugely dynamic midfield and a solid heart to the defence.
Weaknesses: Lack of tournament experience; pressure and weight of expectations; lack of options at centre-forward; lack of quality backup; questionable selection at full-back; Wilmots doesn’t have a reputation as a particularly tactical or adaptable coach.
Young player to watch: Hazard could be one of the real stars of this World Cup, and if Belgium do well, he will be at the centre of things. Also, keep an eye out for Januzaj, who starred in this year’s Champions’ League.
Verdict: Belgium have what it takes to win their group, and dealt easily in qualifying with sides the equal of Russia or South Korea. In the second round they will play whoever escapes Group G in second place, and look capable of handling that. We think things may get too tough for them in the quarters, though if everyone stays fit and plays well they could go further.


We love Alan
Russia are at the World Cup? Well yes they are, having seen off Portugal to top their qualifying pool. The relative stealth of their approach has much to do with the low profile of most of the squad members to foreign audiences, since, to a man, they play their club football in the Russian league. This parochialism, in fact, is one of Russia’s big weaknesses. With an attractive combination of good wages and home comforts on offer, there’s no reason Russian footballers should be criticised individually for failing to seek moves abroad, but collectively the lack of international experience is a concern. Russian football is idiosyncratic in certain respects – surfaces, weather, refereeing – and the outright quality of the domestic league isn’t quite up to that of the English, Spanish or Italian club games (to name three other countries whose players mostly stay at home).

The second big weakness is a tendency to waste their best stars. For a big country, Russia doesn’t produce top flight footballing talent in great quantities, so it’s disappointing that Andrew Arshavin, for instance, ended up falling so far short of his world class potential. The same risks happening to Alan Dzagoev, an absolutely sublime player who on his day is one of the world’s two or three best attacking central midfielders. He sparkled at Euro 2012 but has since fallen from favour with Fabio Capello, a coach whose emphasis (in our view, over-emphasis) on discipline does not sit well with the volatile Dazgoev. He’s made the squad and it will be interesting to see if and where he plays; his club play him in a holding role, which seems a waste of his formidable attacking qualities; we see him as an advanced playmaker, a midfield no.10. Russia need Dzagoev at his best, and it’s not clear Capello is the right coach to extract that from him.

With or without Dzagoev’s backup, Russia’s strikers (only one of whom is likely to play at any one time) have their work cut out. The man of the hour is Dinamo Moscow’s 23-year-old hit man Alexander Korkorin. Side-parted and serious-looking in the classic USSR mould, Korkorin looks amazing in those YouTube collages where three-second bursts of skill are interwoven to a dreamy eurocheese soundtrack. It will be interesting to see whether he’s that good in real life; he seems to have a knack of making finishing look easy, but isn’t in fact yet a really prolific goalscorer. He’s likely to start, although we marginally prefer Alexander Kerzhakov for the target man role. Kerzhakov, of Zenit, is something of a Russian Alan Shearer figure; a top scorer domestically, his form has been somewhat intermittent at international level; his playing style is even reminiscent of the famous English no.9. He had a disappointing Euro 2012 and has probably slipped from his previously assured starting position. 22-year-old striker Maksim Kanunnikov is very much the backup option, and is mainly here for the experience, having made his international debut only in May.

Capello hasn’t become football’s Mr Exciting since his rather dismal tenure as England boss, and his midfield setup starts from defensive principles, with one or two screening players in either a 4-2-3-1 formation, or the world’s least attacking 4-1-4-1. To be fair to Capello, this provided a good platform in qualifying, where Russia prospered primarily by virtue of a stern defence. The key screening man is Denis Glushakov, although former captain Igor Denisov also plays here and could either be an alternative to Glushakov, or play alongside him if a very stiff midfield is sought.  More likely, a key central role in either formation will go to new captain Roman Shirokov. Now 32, Shirokov is noted for his defensive qualities but has a very tidy pass on him and grabs more than his fair share of goals, often from range. To provide a more overtly attacking presence in the centre of midfield, we could see the third central slot taken by Viktor Fayzulin of Zenit, who likes to get into the box. However, if Dzagoev plays for Russia, it’ll be here, and Fayzulin will be the man to make way. On the left of the midfield we will see Yuri Zhirkov, now returned from his tour with Chelsea, who will combine with attacking left-back Dmitri Kombarov to launch attacks. Tricky attacking midfielder Oleg Shatov could also play out wide, although he’s probably a reserve, as is Aleksei Ionov on the right wing where Alexander Samedov will be first choice.

At the back, it starts with Igor Akinfeev, still undisputed first choice despite some Joe Hart-style wobbles in form. In front of him, it’s an experienced though not exactly pacy combination, with Sergei Ignashevich (34 years old, 94 caps) and Vasili Berezutski (31, 76 caps) still the first choice pairing. Andrei Zenyonov and the hard-sounding Vladimir Granat are the reserve centre-backs while CSKA Moscow’s energetic and tenacious Georgi Schennikov is a rival for Kombarov on the left. World Soccer magazine tells us that Schennikov’s dad won an Olympic silver medal for walking, but fear not, young Georgi has more pace. At right back there’s no undisputed first choice, as Alezander Anyukov, the long time holder of the position, has drifted from favour and didn’t make the squad. Instead, Dinamo’s Alexei Kozlov will slug it out with Anzhi’s Andrei Yeschenko.

Russia were extraordinarily mean during the first half of their qualifying campaign, starting to concede a few goals over the second half. Still, they let in only 5 in 10 games in total. Capello will be looking to use defence as a firm platform from which to snaffle tight wins. The side actually scored plenty in qualifying, but mainly against weak opposition, and attack looks like Russia’s weakness. There’s an overall lack of creativity, especially if Dzagoev doesn’t start, and not a huge amount of pace; much will depend on the form of Korkorin and Kerzhakov. Russian pundits have raised doubts about the fitness of the players, which rather subverts the stereotype of the well-drilled Russian super-athlete. If they can hold their shape, they may escape the group, but we do not expect great things.

Strengths: Experience at the back; solid defensive shape and good players available across the defence and defensive midfield.

Weaknesses: Lack of international exposure at club level for many of the players; limited attacking talent and a tendency to waste what they have.

Young player to watch: Korkorin

Verdict: Could escape a group in which the battle for second place is quite open, but we slightly prefer South Korea.


South Korea

Go on my Son
In the years since the breakthrough 2002 World Cup, East Asian football has failed somewhat to kick on and force its way into the top tier of the international game; and arguably no team has disappointed more than the one that did best in 2002, South Korea. Unimpressive in qualifying, the Koreans have not played a competitive game for a year, now, and the form in friendlies has been disappointing. Despite highlights like wins over Greece and Switzerland, the Koreans’ form against the kind of opposition who will make up their peer group at the World Cup has mostly been poor, with defeats against Ghana, Mexico, and the USA. It’s not a classic Korea side, and the squad looks quite transitional, but with only a moderately challenging group draw the second round is still a real possibility.
In defence, Jung Sung-ryun is still first choice despite doubts about his form. Kim Seung-gyu of Ulsan Hyundai is his main challenger. Coach Hong Myung-bo – a World Cup legend as a player himself – will then play a four-man defence in which his namesake Hong Jeong-ho has established himself as the new star. HE has recently trodden the well-worn path from Korea to the Bundesliga and established himself at Augsburg. Alongside him in what’s likely to be a youthful centre-back pairing is Kim Young-gwon, who plays his football in the PRC, under Marcello Lippi at China’s new club force, Guangzhou Evergrande. In terms of talent, this is one of the strongest areas of the Korean squad, but inexperience is a potential issue. At right back there’s a bit of choice, with Lee Yong of Ulsan Hyundai an aggressive attacking presence who will help Korea launch their preferred counter-attacks; but Hwang Seok-ho of Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima is an option too, as is enthusiastic overlapper Kim Chang-soo of Kashiwa Reysol. At left-back, Hong has ignored the claims of rising star Kim Jin-su, and taken Yun Suk-young, whose career has stalled a little since moving to QPR, and Park Joo-ho of Mainz. Park’s Bundesliga experience may sway the balance in his favour, although Yong Lee can also play on this side. It’s not an especially experienced defensive unit, it must be said, and for a team who will probably rely on sitting back to create room for counter-attacks, its ability to withstand sustained pressure must be a concern. There’s also a lack of backup in the middle of defence with only the veteran Kwak Tae-hwi as a reserve centre-backup.
There’s a bit more established star quality in midfield where Ki Sung-yueng, of Swansea and latterly Sunderland, is probably the team’s key player. He has been successful in English football, and plays deep for Korea, both screening the defence and dictating the play. His partner in a 4-2-3-1 formationis to be determined. If Hong wants to put someone a bit angry in there, then the tough-tackling but slightly unpredictable Park Jung-woo is an option, as might be the somewhat more placid Han Kook-young. Ha Dae-sung of Beijing Guoan can also play in the withdrawn role but is probably seen mainly as a deputy to Ki. Finally, Bolton’s talented Lee Chung-yong has played deep, as a playmaker, but he’s no enforcer, and it’s doubtful that Hong will be feeling generous enough to sacrifice ballwinning capability in that part of the field.
The attack will probably consist of three attacking midfielders behind a single centre-forward. Like their Asian rivals Japan, Korea have a host of pacy and technically skilled options in the advanced part of midfield. The “Sonsation”, Son Heung-min, probably has his hands on the leftmost position, although he could also play on the right, A classic counter-attacker, his aggressive running and precision shooting could be among Korea’s best weapons. Bolton’s Lee may play on the right side; with years of English league experience with Bolton now (albeit mostly second-flight), he has pace and plenty of skills in his locker, although we suspect his passing is his greatest strength, meaning he might be more effective in that deeper role he probably won’t get. Alternatives in this area of the field are replete. In the centre – behind the striker – Koo Ja-cheol of Mainz may get the nod although Cardiff’s Kim Bo-kyoung is also in contention. There’s also Ji Dong-won; the former Sunderland man is still young at 23 and has recovered his form since some disappointing seasons at Sunderland, earning a move to Dortmund from Augsburg this summer. He’s not in serious contention for the no.9 role, but he’s versatile enough to play anywhere behind it. The role of centre-forward will probably go to Arsenal’s Park Chu-young, never really prolific at club level but a reliable goal threat for Korea. He seems a little short of top flight quality but his only real rival here is big Kim Shin-wook, “The Wookie”, a 6ft 6 target man in the old school mode. Despite his height, Kim doesn’t rely solely on aerial threat, and has balls skills; but don’t expect that to stop Korea aiming balls for his bonce if he comes on late in games when Korea are chasing. Lee Keun-ho, who plays domestically and is a serving member of the army, is also in the squad as yet another option in that “second striker” role, somewhere in the middle or on the right of the attacking midfield.
Unheralded and on dubious form though they may be, we like look of Korea’s mobile and technical attack. Though sputtering performances in the friendlies – including blanks drawn against Ghana, Tunisia, the US and Mexico – hardly suggest a fearsome goalscoring machine, but friendlies are, for want of a deeper level of analysis, funny things. In the heat of the World Cup we fancy Korea to make the odd goal, but it will probably come on the break, where pace and movement can be exploited. Belgium will attack hard, and may allow for this kind of counter-punch, while Algeria look beatable; Russia, on the other hand, might outmuscle the Koreans. The big worry for a counter-attacking side is that the defence is inexperienced and may buckle under pressure; the attack, on the other hand, is quite experienced, with most of the options having over 20 caps.
Strengths: Pace; technical qualities of the midfield and attack; plenty of experience in forward areas.
Weaknesses: Poor form; uncertain selection in midfield; inexperienced defence; lack of a really top quality centre-forward.
Young player to watch: Son Heung-min
Verdict: With seemingly enough in attack to trouble anyone in this group, we make the Koreans our pick for second place. They seem unlikely to get the better of whoever they face in the second round from Group G, however.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group G


Who’d have thought it. After finally becoming a gifted attacking side who are heaven to watch, Germany seem to have lost the knack of winning. The 2010 generation are still young though, such was their precocity last time, and the production line has kept churning, offering up new additions to the squad like Mario Goetze and Mats Hummels. But nobody needs a lecture on the potential embodied in Germany’s playing staff. It’s time to deliver.

Quite a lot was made of coach Joachim Low’s decision to take only one “recognised striker” to the World Cup, in Miroslav Klose. In fact, this twists the truth a bit; it’s not as if Lukas Podolski or Thomas Muller are strangers to the front line. Low likes to keep the dividing line between midfield and attack fluid, and to rotate his players between different positions. Nonetheless it’s fair to observe that the rest of Germany’s squad isn’t as lavishly equipped as the midfield, something that has strangely been exacerbated by the tendency to convert strikers (Podolski) and defenders (Philipp Lahm) to middlemen. Low, nothing if not the modern coach, will almost certainly play one man up front and it’s going to boil down to a choice between an orthodox centre forward (Klose or perhaps Muller) or that trendiest of tactical contrivances, the “False 9”. 

You’ve got to hope it’s the former, especially for the likeable Klose who is chasing the World Cup goalscoring record, but the latter option might see the deft and creative Goetze make an impact. Muller, on the whole, is more likely to play on the right of the three in a 4-2-3-1, with Ozil in the middle. On the left side, the loss of Marco Reus to a last-minute injury has deprived the Germans of a bit of genuine pace, as well as goal threat and a lively haircut. In his absence, there’s the similarly spiky (in attitude and coiffure) Andre Schuerrle, or a more direct option in Podolski; Goetze has also played over there, which illustrates the sheer versatility of Germany’s multi-talented, adaptable roster. The formation can drop back to 4-3-2-1 or even step up to 4-1-4-1. In this setup, the bay-faced Goetze is perhaps the world’s most sumptuously talented utility man, but he is sure to feature. It would be fair to observe that for all their gifts, German’s running men, like Ozil and Reus, tend to beat their man as much with pace and anticipation as with trickery, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but Goetze is an exception. What he lacks in outright speed he makes up in balance, change of pace and touch; to watch him on the run is to be reminded of Gascoigne or Kinkladze in their primes. His youthful charm is increased by his endearing habit of just walking off looking embarrassed after scoring stunning goals. With Schalke’s Julian Draxler offering yet another option, there is creativity and goal threat all over this team.

With all these talents buzzing around up front, and a defence that sometimes goes to sleep (we’ll come to that) a fair bit of responsibility is vested in the deep lying midfield two. It’s still not exactly a unit of cloggers however. Toni Kroos likes to burst forward on any side of the pitch, more like a deep lying Ozil than a Pirlo style withdrawn playmaker. So untypical is he of a German central midfielder, he even does tricks and stuff. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who seems assured of one of the slots in this part of the midfield, is also an all-action player who likes to attack as much as to defend. The only established player offering a “pure” holding option, in fact, is Sami Khedira, now seemingly recovered from a bad injury, unless Low takes the slightly ludicrous option of putting Lahm in deep midfield. That seems like an unattractive option given that Germany don’t have anyone even approaching their captain’s world-class quality at full back. The lower reaches of German world cup squads are often an obscurantist’s dream (Serdar Tasci from 2010, anyone? Dennis Aogo? Cacau?) but that’s not really the case this time; there are however a couple of young defensive options in Christoph Kramer and Matthias Ginter.

Defence is the weak spot, right? Maybe. Certainly, a couple of rather concessionary results lately (a 4-4 draw and a 5-3 victory against Sweden, a 4-3 loss to the USA) suggest a bit of doziness can creep in at times. Germany definitely don’t keep as many clean sheets as you’d expect. They do tend to tighten up against stronger opposition though. Neuer in goal, and Lahm probably at right-back, are world class, but it’s fair to say that Jerome Boateng and Per Mertesacker – both seemingly  undisputed first choices despite the impressive claim of Hummels – don’t set any worlds on fire. Marcel Schmelzer was the leading option at left back, but with his withdrawal the field is open to Erik Durm, a tenacious 22-year-old who’s rarely beaten even when up against quicker players. Alternatively, with Dortmund’s Kevin Grosskreutz able to sit on the right, Lahm could come across to his old left-side turf. Youngster Shkodran Mustafi, from Sampdoria, offers back-up at centre-back, as does Schalke captain Benedikt Howedes either there or on the right. Neuer’s deputies as custodian are Dortmund’s Roman Wiedenfeller, recently an international debutant at 33, and the younger Ron-Robert Zieler of Hanover.

Germany’s transition is complete. Yesterday’s pragmatic, thunder-thighed box-to-box men with rude-sounding surnames have been replaced by a generation of blonde-tipped waifs who seem to surf and glide through defences as trippy ambient French synth music plays in the background.  So what’s the catch? Well, as yet, this lot do seem strangers to the old Germanic dark art of winning. Some of the explanations offered for this are rather unconvincing. There is no problem whatsoever with the personnel – not even the defence, which may not be star-studded (or always consistent) but has held up well enough in tournament play. There would be goals all over the team even if they didn’t have any strikers, but they actually do. Nor is it really possible to find fault with Germany’s mentality. Lothar Matthaus has said that they seem to lack a “nasty character” or two, to give them steel, but the Bayern and Dortmund players shouldn’t be strangers to winning by now. No, if you want an explanation for Germany’s recent tendency to fall just short then you need to look at Joachim Low’s tactics. Despite his reputation and his love of somewhat showy innovations like the false nine, it’s arguably that the Bundestrainer has yet to get it right against the world’s best. A lot of his earlier wins – such as 2010’s wallopings of Argentina and England – came through the use of counter-attacking football, exploiting space left by naïve opponents. That kind of Germany has typically come unstuck when faced with cannier opposition, be it the hard-faced defenders of Italy or the mastery of possession shown by Spain. Low needs to do better, and with Bayern in particular now playing Barcelona-style, high-pressing, possession-cycling football, he has the opportunity. This is his big test.

Finally, we couldn’t get through a Germany preview without mentioning the slapstick nightmare that has been their world cup preparation. Niggling injuries were still affecting Klose, Schweinsteiger, Lahm and others a mere couple of weeks before kickoff, and after the hubris of the DFB’s commissioning of a purpose-built training camp (seriously, guys?) the actual warmup has been dogged by mishap, not to mention hit-and-miss form in friendlies.  However, the fuss over injuries has subsided (and the talent pool is in any event deep) and a certain calm has started to settle. Germany aren’t easily unnerved, not even this new Germany, and we think it’ll be alright for them on the night.

Strengths: Crack midfield; generally outstanding quality of personnel; goals from everywhere; lots of tournament experience and a team packed full of winners from Bayern and Dortmund.

Weaknesses: Lack of a system that truly brings the best out of them – Low’s tactics are under scrutiny; many key players dogged by niggling injury; not an absolute wealth of talent in attack, with Klose ageing; defence sometimes error-prone.

Young player to watch: Get yourself in the mood by watching Mario Goetze sketch his beautiful shapes to some dreamy music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vopvneA7L_U

Verdict: Could get turned over by either of Ghana or the USA, which could make things lively; but likely to raise their game against Portugal. They’ll get through the group and then they’re quite likely to progress to the semis. Another team with an easyish draw. Up there with Brazil and Argentina.


Having come agonizingly close to being the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final, Ghana’s hopes of doing even better this time have been dented slightly by a tough draw and by the fact that so many of their stars from 2010 have failed to press on to great things at club level. For us they remains something of a wild card; there is enough verve in the side for them to do damage if things click, but the likes of Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari have a lot of work still to do to prove they’re not just one-hit wonders at this level.

The mercurial Gyan remains the focal point of Ghana’s attack. His goalscoring form at international level has never been matched by his achievements in his club career, which has not really taken off. At 28 he is playing in the UAE for al-Ain, and he may be looking at the World Cup as one last shot at a big move. Powerful and mobile, his only serious rival for the centre-forward slot is Abdul Majeed Waris, an exciting prospect who has spent the last few months scoring regularly for Valenciennes in France. The two might well play together however as Waris could also play on the right of attack in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. In the latter role however, Waris would need to unseat the established Andre Ayew of Marseille. A versatile and dynamic deep-lying forward, Ayew – the son of Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele – gets plenty of goals for his club, Marseille, in a central role, but is a winger for his country. Ayew’s brother Jordan is also in the squad, as a backup striker. The left side of attack meanwhile belongs to Juventus’ Kwadwo Asamoah. He is another versatile, pacy presence, and likes to roam about. The Prince of Ghana’s all-action attacking midfield is Boateng, often listed as a forward for his country although that doesn’t really capture the role he plays. He may have found his true calling, actually, as a modern box-to-box no.10, useful both as support for Gyan in the striking role and as a marker for deep-lying playmakers like Toni Kroos or Joao Moutinho. Boateng’s Wikipedia page, by the way, is a goldmine of linguistic innovations, highlighting among other things the German-born action man’s “footspeed” and “tempestuous sliding tackles”. Successful at Milan, he also seems to have had a spell at Tottenham a few years ago, but nobody can remember this actually happening.

Behind Boateng in the heart of the Black Stars’ midfield will sit two other Milan players, both with huge experience: Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Injury denied Essien his part in the glorious campaign of 2010, when he would have been in his prime, a prime which seems to have been only two brief; in the memory, Essien rose rapidly and peaked early. Injuries played a big part, and in nine years at Chelsea he was never the consistent, domineering force he might have been. However, he is playing regular football now and can still be a force; this World Cup could be more than just a farewell tour for him. Muntari on the other hand has experience of two World Cups and is the senior man in the squad, with more than 80 caps. However, despite picking up two Serie A titles and a Champions’ League in his time under Jose Mourinho at Inter, he has overall fallen short of greatness at club level, often struggling to consistently be selected. At his best though, he is a fizzing presence with an eye for the late run into the box, something that may be useful on the counter. The Ghana squad also boasts a couple of emerging midfield generals competing to take Essien’s place when he steps back – Rabiu Mohammed and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, the latter one of the latest Ghanaians to enter European football via the established staging-post of Udinese. There must be a production line in Ghana turning out this kind of uber-midfielder, because Afriyie Acquah is in the same mould. Even though the first option for a change of shape is probably to pull Boateng back and push the wingers forward into a 4-3-3, any of these guys could get time in the engine room as deputy for Muntari or Essien. For more attacking rotations in midfield, Ayew and Asamoah may find themselves under pressure from less experienced options Christian Atsu – of Chelsea, but loaned this season to Vitesse – or London-born Albert Adomah, whose progress to the World Cup must delight those who were watching him at League Two Barnet only a few short seasons ago. Both of these guys have a useful eye for goal. In a midfield squad that seems absurdly well-equipped with anchor men and left wingers, Mubarak Wakaso is another option on the flank. Fond of cutting inside, he has 7 goals in 17 caps for Ghana and is often seen running like a train through defences in the Russian league, where he plays for Rubin Kazan.

Defensive shape is fairly settled for Ghana, albeit that the players making up the flat-four rearguard don’t quite have the same pedigree as the forwards. Daniel Opare of Standard Liege at right back, the French based pair of John Boye (Rennes) and Jonathan Mensah (Evian) in the middle, and Harrison Afful, who plays in Tunisia for Esperance, on the left, are all fairly assured of their places. There isn’t a great deal of backup, with fullback Samuel Inkoom and young centre-half Rashid Sumaila the reserves. Probably Ghana’s greatest asset is Norwegian-born keeper Adam Kwarasey, a solid performer in Norway for a while now – he must be due a big move. He may keep out Fatau Dauda, who was first choice for the qualifiers.

Although their squad contains a lot of what looks like unfulfilled potential, Ghana still look like a decent counter-attacking unit to us. In qualifying they scored plenty of goals, and if Essien and Muntari an effectively screen the defence and spring quick breaks down the flanks, then they will be a threat. Boateng’s ability to add muscle to the defensive side of midfield, and then get forward, will be a boon. On the other hand, their group contains three other primarily counter-attacking sides, who may not give Ghana a lot of room to play; the question of whether Ghana are really good enough to unlock German or Portugal is a tough one.

Strengths: Experience; pace on the break; it’s a youthful side with most players in or approaching their prime years.

Weaknesses: This isn’t a team of particularly skewed abilities; overall the issue may simply be a lack of absolute top-end quality at both the business ends of the field. A number of players have had disappointing or intermittent club careers, suggesting consistency might be an issue.

Yong player to watch: Wakaso has a real chance of getting game time at the expense of Ayew or Asamoah, and scores goals.

Verdict We think they’ll raise their game for the World Cup again, and will be good enough to see off Portugal for second place here.


Can a one man team win a World Cup? No. It’s only ever happened once, in 1986, and to quote Jarvis Cocker, things were very different then. And if you do want to attempt it, we’re not entirely sure that Cristiano Ronaldo is the one man you need. We’re not casting aspersions on his impressive athleticism and range of technical skills, and nor can we challenge his imperious goalscoring record at Madrid. But in our view the Madeiran maestro remains first and foremost a supremely confident executor of chances, particularly on the counter-attack; a ruthless exploiter of weakness. His style, which emphasizes lightning quick runs into space and dead ball assaults after fouls have been given away, is not as suited as is Messi’s (or as was Maradona’s) to carving opportunities in the tightest situations against the best opponents. Although he had a decent Euro 2012, there’s also the suspicion that he tends to fall slightly short on the big occasion; even in that tournament, he failed to show much form against Spain in the semi-final, and got his calculations badly wrong in the penalty shoot-out.

In any event – as the quicker-tempered among you are no doubt now foaming at the mouth to point out – it Is unfair to refer to this Portugal side as a one man team. With Madrid’s Pepe and Fabio Coentrao in the back line and Joao Moutinho in midfield, as well as new arrival William Carvalho, Portugal have a core of established personnel that will make them competitive at almost any level. On the other hand, it’s unclear what level of genuine attacking threat they will pose, beyond Ronaldo on the left. His regular opposite number, Nani, is a similar player with analogous strengths and weaknesses, but lacks the domineering club form; he has had another difficult season and gets few games at Manchester United. Nani was subdued in qualifying, where he scored only one goal (it’s worth noting that Ronaldo was also not on heavy-scoring form, save for a hat-trick in Belfast). Between them Portugal play a fairly traditional no.9, with the enduring Helder Postiga first choice. Somewhat unfairly a figure of humour in England where he capped an epically disappointing season with Spurs by scoring against England at Euro 2004, he has persisted, and has a decent goalscoring record internationally. Alternatives at centre forward are the familiar, burly figure of Hugo Almeida, and his fellow power-forward Eder. The latter is a fairly new face in the set-up; something of a “unit” in terms of physique, he has enough pace and skill not to need to reply on brute force, but has yet to score at international level. The worry will be that the strikers won’t offer quite enough of a cutting edge against the very best of opposition. Meanwhile, backup turbo-winger Silvestre Varela (very reminiscent in style of Antonio Valencia) offers little threat to Ronaldo’s place, but either he or the more twinkle-toed Adelino Vieirinha might feasibly displace Nani.

In midfield the lynchpin and playmaker is Moutinho, a player of subtlety and sometimes delight who can do his work anywhere between the goal lines; he offers vision, passing range and the ability to carry the ball, as well as sound positional sense. There is however the slight feeling that in choosing to spend his prime years with Monaco in Lique 1, Moutinho has somehow ducked the chance of testing himself against the very best at club level. Alongside him is likely to sit the more functional (and visually unmistakable) Raul Meireles of Fenerbahe, and Dynamo Kiev’s Miguel Veloso. Beckham-like midfield heart-throb Veloso retains a superb delivery and a ferocious long-range shot, but in a side that seems to be slipping slightly from the very cutting edge, it’s worth noting that neither he nor Meireles any longer plays at the very top level of European club football. It’s a first choice midfield three with a fair bit of class but not that much sparkle, and combined with the brutal style of Ronaldo and fairly utilitarian nature of his attacking colleagues, it does again highlight a possible lack of goals. Carvalho, a promising addition to the squad, likes to sit deep so he won’t change that directly, but he may enable a shift to 4-2-3-1, and has an eye for the penetrating playmaker’s ball. That’s the main option for change of shape, with dependable backup man Ruben Amorim, a seasoned Europa League campaigner with Benfica also in the squad. Braga’s young attacking midfielder Rafa Silva, blessed with a frightening turn of pace, travels as well and would be an option at no.10 in a 4-2-3-1, or potentially another rival for Nani’s spot; he is likely to figure as an impact substitution at first.

At the back some doubts persist about Pepe, in his prime as a centre-back at 31 but slipping out of favour a Madrid. Leaving club troubles aside, however, he remains a high quality and experienced defender whose qualities will be valuable at this level. Expect Bruno Alves, now of Fenerbahce, to be his starting partner; with Ricardo Costa and Luis Neto in reserve, this is an area of the pith where Portugal, somewhat unusually, have reasonable depth, with any two from these four likely to make a decent pairing. Seemingly assured of their places, barring disaster, are Rui Patricio in goal and Fabio Coentrao at left-back. The latter forms an impressive left flank with Ronaldo, his club-mate at Madrid; although he didn’t have the best of seasons overall at Madrid, his confidence will be buoyed by a victorious appearance in the Champions’ League final. All-Madrid combinations down the left may be crucial, and Coentrao himself has plenty to offer going forward. Joao Pereira is the experienced first choice at right-back and Benfica’s Andre Almeida offers backup for either fullback position. Defence looks like the strongest part of the team for Portugal; they also have the benefit of an unusually experienced reserve keeper in Eduardo, who distinguished himself at the 2010 World Cup.

Ronaldo’s star power means that people associate Portugal with goals, but in truth their form at tournaments tends to emulate that of their captain and talisman; excellent at flat-track bullying weaker sides, they tend to clam up a bit when facing sterner opposition. They do tend to be a good, hard-to-beat competition side, rarely troubled at the group stage, although their best tournament performances in recent memory – in 2004 and 2006 – were achieved with a different generation of players. They look most likely to be effective as a counter-attacking side, with Ronaldo and Nani more than capable of punishing any side that naively goes through the throat against them. But in Group G they face three other fairly wily units who also like to sit back and counter-punch; this group could be a cagey affair.

Strengths: Ronaldo, obviously, and a sprinkling of other top class talent too; good defence; plenty of tournament experience; speed, especially on the break.

Weaknesses: Not a lot of obvious goal threat against the best opposition; slightly dull midfield and uninspiring choice of strikers; feeling that some of the players (Pepe, Meireles, Alves, Nani) may already have peaked.

Young player to watch: William Carvalho could be a good bet for team of the season if Paulo Bento’s tactics permit him time on the field.

Verdict: Big call, we know – but an early flight home, this time.


You-Ess-Ay! You-Ess-Ay! What does this tournament hold in store for the men of the Stars and Stripes, standard-bearers for a burgeoning football culture that has started to see off a lot of its doubters?
In terms of assessing the team on its own merits, it’s actually hard to say, as this is a very transitional team. The story of the last few weeks has been coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to jettison from the squad Landon Donovan, the most complete footballer his country has ever produced. In the absence of their long-time advanced playmaker, and under the captaincy of the sometimes unpredictable Clint Dempsey, it’s not clear what we can expect from what is quite a young squad. It’s a shame, in fact, that the almost ludicrous difficulty of the draw has probably made it academic.

Starting with the defence, Tim Howard’s place in goal seems secure, as does DaMarcus Beasley’s at left bak. That’s a relatively unusual position in this squad, as Klinsmann likes to mix it up, and in many positions his first choice isn’t settled. Beasley and Howard are the leaders of a defence which will probably see Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler in one of the central spots. Alongside, Omar Gonzalez of LA Galaxy is seen as the likeliest choice but we could also see Geoff Cameron in this position; he has become a very effective campaigner at Premiership level with Stoke City, and Klinsmann values his power and commitment. At right-back, Fabian Johnson is expected to get the nod but he faces a rival in the form of famed Rob Earnshaw lookalike Timmy Chandler, who like Johnson was born, and plays, in Germany. A youthful option in the same position is DeAndre Yedlin, while John Brooks, of Hertha Berlin, is another young reserve, again born in Germany. Brooks, 21, is rumoured to be in demand from a number of Premiership clubs. Versatility is the watchword in the USA’s defence, with a number of players able to cover different positions, so Klinsmann has the wide range of choie that he seems to enjoy.

The US possess an old school midfield general of a type that almost seems to be becoming extinct, in Michael Bradley, a box-to-box man who has plenty to offer on either the front or back foot. Fairly successful during club spells in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, he now plays for FC Toronto. To free Bradley from too much defensive work, the centre is likely to feature a couple of other tough-guys; quite a likely pick is Jermaine Jones, a Nigel de Jong-style torrent of midfield rage. If Klinsmann goes for 4-4-2, which he often has done, then a tightish midfield diamond will probably see Jones and Bradley in the centre, with box-to-box man Graham Zusi to their right. The left side seletion is much more questionable; Fabian Johnson is capable of playing there but the role may go to former Rangers man Alejandro Bedoya, whose international career may finally be taking off. He offers a creative presence that the US otherwise lack, especially without Donovan. On that note, however, one of the stories of the world cup warmup for the USA was the burgeoning form of young, Norwegian-American playmaker Mix Diskerud; he is an intriguing option but the question is how to accommodate him. The answer might be a shift to 4-5-1; this would suit the Americans’ personnel better in many ways, with Diskerud playing no.10 behind a centre-forward and Bradley sitting deeper, but it would probably mean moving Dempsey out to one of the wings displacing either Zusi or Bedoya. Jozy Altidore seems the overwhelmingly likely starter at no.9, his style and physical presence giving the US an outlet they need on the counter; conventionally, and unless the side is re-tooled to accommodate Diskerud, captain Dempsey plays either alongside Dempsey or just behind him in an attacking no.10 role.

In terms of other options, veteran Brad Davis can hold the left flank of midfield while much hope is placed on the long term future of 18 year old Julian Green, a midfielder/forward with a bright future at Bayern Munich. He may have value to add as a surprise substitute. Kyle Beckerman is an honest box-to-box grafter with a decent touch and plenty of international experience. Forward Chris Wondolowski is probably the only real alternative to Altidore as a conventional no.9, but Aron Johansson, an Ielandi-American playing for AZ in the Netherlands, offers a choice up front.

Klinsmann has made a big and bold decision in dropping Donovan, and on paper we don’t consider it a sound choice. It begs the question of whether the coach has already written off the chances of progress in this World Cup, and decided to experiment. With most of their emerging talent looking like it needs more time to emerge, and few players, even Dempsey, who look like real international match-winners, the US are a long shot indeed to progress.

Strengths: Good mix of youth and experience, even without Donovan; energetic midfield and an unlikely but somehow effective forward combination in Dempsey and Altidore; element of surprise with their young players.

Weaknesses: Lack of ultimate quality; limited creativity and goal threat; not clear how they’ll replae Donovan’s craft.

Young player to watch: Diskerud

Verdict: Not total also-rans, but unlikely to progress beyond the groups this time.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Why you should rewind the last day and a half of football, and live it all again

After one game this looked like being the worst World Cup ever.

After four it looks like being one of the best.

Who knew? Let's face it, anyone with half an eye for the way media brouhahas function knew that the talk of unrest, protest, unfinished stadia, alleged corruption and so on wouldn't actually make one blind bit of difference to how the World Cup is perceived among the world's footballing public. We're not belittling those issues in and of themselves, and both corruption in the game and the level of social and economic inequalities in societies like Brazil are hugely important concerns. The latter is much more important, in fact, than football, we freely admit. But it's football that determines how we remember a World Cup. Any World Cup.

So what kind of football did we get so far?

Well on the first day we got the kind of football match they'll show in the seventh circle of hell. People describing this as an open or unusually attractive curtain-raiser must have been watching a different game to us. Brazil v Croatia was an epic tragedy; not the camp, enjoyable kind of tragedy, but the real, awful, etched-on-your-retina-and-your-soul-forever kind. Utterly inept officiating turned what should have been a hard-earned if scrappy draw for the bustling Croats into an entirely false victory for Brazil, whose football for the most part was pitifully tepid.  The kind of football match, the kind of outcome, that leaves you feeling nauseous; to see a team undone not by their own frailties, but by refereeing error on an almost inexplicable level.

So that didn't look too good. Frankly, it was touch and go whether we continued writing about the World Cup, at this point, or whether we booked a last minute holiday somewhere in a gametime-unfriendly timezone.

But day two, oh. Day two.

Say whatever you like about rumoured corruption, mates, and say whatever you like about dubious construction schedules, arrogant political elites and unrest on city streets. Say what you like, moreover, about standards of refereeing. But we, my friends, live in a golden age of football, where standards of technique, tactic, and entertainment on the field have never been higher. Celebrate that. Yes celebrate.

You may have noticed, today, that a competent and enterprising Mexico side achieved a 1-0 win over a Cameroon team they'd actually beaten 3-0, and (if you're a night owl) that Australia recovered from an initial battering to give the Andean swashbucklers of Chile a fairly serious run for their money before falling 3-1. But in between these events, there was a much bigger one - a match that may well go down as the greatest ever contested in the first round of a World Cup. That's ever. The match between Holland and Spain combined surprise and exquisite quality in equal measure; the kind of surprise, say, that sees North Korea beat Italy 1-0 on a Middlesbrough afternoon, but also the kind of quality that sees a silver-templed but still athletic Dutchman rise to meet a cross he has no right to get to, and send the ball in a spare, ballistic parabola beyond where any keeper could reach. I could be describing van Basten in '88, you say? Yes. I could.

Those who once ruled the world have fallen; their castles, as the song would have it, exposed as built on pillars of salt, and pillars of sand. Washed away by the orange tidal wave, Spain's tiki-taka became mere short and unimaginative passing; their high-line pressing  became a slow, wide open defence easily scythed through by rapier Dutch passes and the explosive pace of Arjen Robben. Or Robben Rensenbrink, should we call him, for there was something of the seventies about today. The personification of it all, this evening, for Spain, was Iker Casillas, the great goalkeeper sad-eyed where once he has been stern with resolve. Humiliated for the last goal, Casillas was not, for once, at fault on that occasion, for the goal had been scored as soon as Robben set off from the halfway line.

Were Spain found out at last? Yes, obviously, is the answer, but the real question is how; it is too early to answer that, just as it is too early to recall what really happened in that crashing, delirious second half, that best 45 minutes ever played in a World Cup first round, that three-quarter-hour when worlds seemed to crumble.

We will breathe again. Tomorrow. And then, there will be football. Welcome to the World Cup.

Euro '88: The Best Tournament Ever

Guest columnist Sir Robert tells us why Mr Van Basten's opus remains the high point of international football

It was with great pleasure that I accepted my groundhopping companion and blogger of the moment, the Football Hipster’s, generous invitation to reflect on a major finals tournament of my choice as part of his ongoing focus on the build-up to Brasil 2014.

Your correspondent is now a veteran of fourteen World Cups and European Championships in total. Just totting them up made him shudder in late-thirtysomething Angst. From a callow ten-year-old who first experienced injustice in the adult sense when Maradona leapt like a salmon above Shilton, to unforgettable pub outings in his twenties (is there anything in football as simultaneously invigorating and crushing as watching England failing heroically in a packed, partisan pub?) and finally a somewhat cynical old git nevertheless enthralled like a young boy with Balotelli’s first-half performance against Germany in 2012 – he has seen a lot. However, the tournament to be relived here is not a World Cup finals, but Euro ’88 in the former West Germany.

The reasons for this perhaps slightly leftfield choice are several. Having first fallen in love with football in 1985 (Heysel being only the second live match I ever watched on television – I was perhaps too young to understand properly and hence was not put off for life), by 1988 I was more seasoned and yet still impressionable enough for the tournament to make a real impact on my soul. My Mexico ’86 initiation had taken place during a still-mythical and exotic era when a lack of twenty-first century wall-to-wall television coverage or UEFA Champions League in its modern format meant that the likes of Maradona, Platini, Zico and Socrates were not as universally well-known as Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are today. Moreover, as a subsequent Germanophile, Euro ’88 was my first introduction to that country, albeit via an 18-inch anything-but-flatscreen Philips in my parents’ lounge and Shoot magazine, coming a full fifteen months before my first tentative wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof? at school.

There were other factors in my choice: the presence of a then (even you must admit it, Hipster) beyond-cool, Rastafarian-locked European Footballer of the Year; his sidekick and eventual multiple successor to that same crown - the most technically accomplished European player I have ever watched; England going into the tournament as joint favourites and the concomitant wave of expectation; a burgeoning antipathy towards the German Nationalelf (which lingers to this day, despite my general Germanophilia); and, last but not least, an exciting young Italian number nine who in those days still had thick, curly black hair.

So, it was with a real buzz of excitement that I left school on Friday 10th June 1988 – my first year of secondary - and went home to await the curtain raiser, West Germany v Italy, from the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf. What first struck me was the sheer noise coming through from the stadium: my first experience of German football fans and, not far behind them, the outnumbered yet ever-raucous Tifosi. The anthems were different in those days, too, in the sense that they were played by brass bands and were purely instrumental, with “only” the 62,000 crowd providing vocals. Mancini, erstwhile enfant terrible of calcio (perhaps explaining his fatherly attitude to the wayward Balotelli at Manchester City), struck his first international goal at the fourteenth attempt and embarked on a histrionic run – evoking Tardelli six years earlier - in the direction of a paparazzo who had been digging him out in the Italian gutter press, before being simultaneously hugged and ushered back to the centre circle by his team-mates. The equaliser came minutes later from that enduringly (annoyingly, Paul Parker?) effective goalscoring full-back, Brehme, following a curious incident involving Zenga and too many steps in the area. I do not recall otherwise having seen that rule ever being enforced. The spoils were shared, and for the first time I was hooked on football in a more mature sense.

Incidentally, to this day no German or West German national side has ever overcome the Italians in a competitive fixture.

Mancini seeks out his tormentor
The following day, Spain beat Denmark 3-2 in Hanover. The historically under-rated Michel opened the scoring, the brilliant elder Laudrup (reprising his boyish brilliance of Mexico ’86 before his self-imposed exclusion from Euro ’92) replied with an equaliser. The Spanish proceeded to score two more. Denmark’s Anschlusstreffer came on 82 minutes from a young Povlsen, at the time with 1. FC Köln, but it was not enough. By way of observation, Povlsen would be a star four years later in that most unexpected Danish triumph where not a single Danish striker found the net in play in five games and one extra-time – although Povlsen did score a key shoot-out penalty after an intense battle of nerves and wills with van Breukelen. Following their opening reverse in 1988, the Danes replaced Rasmussen with Brondby’s big, blond 24-year-old goalkeeper with a German surname who had been playing part-time with Hvidovre only a year earlier (scoring six goals in three seasons, incidentally). He would go on to some degree of success despite this initial international disappointment.

The Azzurri's lead is short-lived; Brehme celebrates with a leap
On the Sunday, Group B opened with a match in Stuttgart which will not be discussed in detail for reasons which will be clear to any Englishman. This was the game in which Lineker’s lack of form at the time first became clear to a wider television audience. Shorn of his oft-now-forgotten pace over short distances as a result of a lingering bout of hepatitis, he nevertheless hit the bar as England forlornly sought to cancel out the (Glaswegian!) Houghton’s opener. Perhaps appropriately, the Irish had squeezed into the finals at the expense of Bulgaria thanks to Mackay’s goal for Scotland in Sofia. In the evening match at 1. FC Köln’s Müngersdorfer, the USSR beat The Netherlands 1-0 with a Rats goal early in the second half. The match was in hindsight an early, entirely unforeseen dress rehearsal for the final. The same happened in Portugal ’04, save that Portugal v Greece was the opening match and closing match of the entire tournament and the same team won both matches. USSR v The Netherlands (No. 1) was notable also in that Holland gave an indication of their ability with much of the possession and play, despite the narrow reverse, and of course the fact that one Marco van Basten was a mere substitute that day, lacking match fitness after having been injured for much of his début season with Milan. He had been overlooked in favour of his former Ajax team-mate Johnny Bosman, the Dutch squad’s top scorer in qualifying. Van Basten did hit the bar when eventually brought on, giving a small hint of what might follow. Depending on whom you believe, his mentor Cruijff either coaxed the depressed van Basten into travelling to the finals in the first place, counselled patience when the player was initially omitted from the starting eleven and/or advised the player to quit the camp after being dropped for that first game. It has also been suggested that Van Basten smoked cigarettes (offered to him by then-chimney Cruijff?) in secret while plotting the next move. With Cruijff, all things may be possible. 

One aspect of fascination to a stadium enthusiast is the juxtaposition of Euro ’88 with the 1974 and 2006 World Cups. Positioned neatly in between, Euro ’88 provides an interesting marker. The venues, eight in all, were identical to those used in 1974 save that in 1988 the Müngersdorfer in Cologne replaced the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund (which says something about the profile of the respective home clubs in the 1980s), and West Berlin was absent, the organisers this time having shown an element of deference to the Eastern bloc which was absent in 1974. The capacities of most were generally a touch smaller in 1988 as seats slowly replaced the predominance of terracing, but these were still “classic” stadia, perhaps best seen in the case of that blue-collar fortress, Schalke 04’s former Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen (surely the noisiest of the lot). By contrast, although the majority of the host cities in 1988 made the cut for 2006 (only Düsseldorf missed out), all had been either replaced or fundamentally altered to the extent that they were new stadia to all intents and purposes. Of those which were not actually replacements, one need only look at photographs of Hanover’s Niedersachsenstadion in 1988 and the renamed AWD-Arena in 2006 to see the contrast.


Another curious aspect is the choice of venue for the matches in 1988. Eight venues were used, and each hosted two of the fifteen matches with the exception of Hamburg which hosted only one. Five venues (Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hanover, Gelsenkirchen and Cologne) took in one match in each group. The anomaly was that Munich hosted one match (West Germany v Spain) in Group A, and the final, whereas Stuttgart hosted one match in Group B (England v Ireland) and one semi-final. Hamburg hosted a lone semi-final– albeit the arguable match of the tournament, as to which see below. Had the organisers used perfect symmetry, Hamburg would have replaced Munich as a Group A venue – albeit moved from the final round of group matches (West Germany v Spain) - with the latter stadium being saved for the final.

Such asymmetry is the kind of thing which irritates a somewhat obsessive-compulsive person such as me, for which I make no apologies.

Turning to the second set of matches in the group stage, the most famous is undoubtedly Holland’s defeat of England in Düsseldorf, with Gullit now purring in spite of the slightly more withdrawn role, by his standards, which he played in this tournament owing to team tactics. Van Basten - now in the first eleven – kick-started his (and arguably the whole) tournament in spectacular fashion. It is testament to Tony Adams, in for the injured Butcher, that at twenty-one he was able to lift himself from the experience to score in the final game and go on to establish himself as a fixture in the Arsenal and England teams, captaining both to great acclaim despite his well-documented off-the-field struggles at a certain time. Van Basten’s three goals in Shilton’s 100th international were straight from the textbook of goalscoring – a precise turn in tight space and a clinical finish for the first, a deadly accurate finish for the second, and a predatory strike from the initial set-piece for the third. Robson’s typically buccaneering equaliser at 1-0 gave merely temporary hope, Hoddle’s free-kick against the post (to name but one near-miss for the Three Lions) merely anguish. In the other Group B game in Hanover’s Niedersachsenstadion, Whelan hit a stunning, if shinned, volley from outside the area. It would not be the only time in the tournament that the USSR’s Dasayev, by general agreement Europe’s best guardian at the time, would be beaten by a spectacular volley from distance. The game ended 1-1.

In Group A, the Germans despatched the Danes 2-0 with goals from rising star Klinsmann and Olaf Thon, the latter playing for the last time in front of his Schalke supporters in the Parkstadion before a transfer to Munich to replace the Internazionale-bound Matthäus. In the other game, in Frankfurt’s Waldstadion (go up the TV tower in Frankfurt and you’ll see that the now-Commerzbank Arena is ringed by woods, Frankfurt being in the heavily-wooded central German belt despite its skyscraper-thronged city centre) the then-follically blessed and shinpad-less Vialli settled what was commonly regarded as the decider for second place in the group against Spain with a low cross-shot with a quarter of an hour to go.

Vialli puts Spain to the sword
In the final round of Group A games, West Germany beat Spain 2-0 in Munich, the master finally putting the apprentice in his place. Völler, his status under threat following the emergence of Klinsmann and amid clamours to be dropped due to lack of form, answered his critics in the perfect manner with two strikes to sink Spain. Italy secured their semi-final berth with a 2-0 victory over the Danes in Cologne.

In Group B, the USSR extended England’s misery with a 3-1 victory in Frankfurt, Aleinikov scoring the fastest goal of the tournament inside three minutes. But the real drama occurred in the other Group B game. Needing only a draw to pip the Dutch to a semi-final place, the Republic of Ireland held out for 81 minutes, even hitting the post just before Kieft’s freak, swirling headed (and possibly offside) goal, the ball meeting his cranium rather than the other way around following an Irish clearance from a blocked shot by Ronald Koeman. It is easily forgotten when reliving the vibrancy and colour of their first and so-far only major tournament win just how close the Dutch came to elimination that Saturday afternoon in Gelsenkirchen. What is also sometimes forgotten is that van Basten was Kieft’s heir-apparent at Ajax, the emergence of the former in the early 1980s hastening the departure of the latter to Pisa, only shortly after he had won the European Golden Boot with Ajax while still not quite yet twenty. The Dutch have traditionally blooded their stars young, but the failure of the national side to qualify for World Cup ’82, Euro ’84 or Mexico ’86 meant that Euro ’88 was the first time much of the viewing public had witnessed players who had exhibited great ability for several years. To that end, perhaps they were not quite as “novel” as might first appear. The Dutch lost out on Euro ’84 to a Spanish side who scored nine goals against Malta without reply in the second half of their final qualifier to win 12-1 and pip the Dutch on goals scored. They missed Mexico ’86 thanks to a late away goal conceded at home to neighbours and eventual semi-finalists Belgium in a play-off. To add to the sense of righted wrongs in 1988, the Dutch had been missing both van Basten and Kieft through suspension in the second leg of that play-off in late 1985, yet had still come within four minutes of Mexico. In hindsight, Spain’s second place in 1984 and Belgium’s fourth place in 1986 makes the Netherlands’s 1988 triumph perhaps less surprising than it seemed at the time.

The first semi-final paired West Germany and The Netherlands in a rematch of the 1974 World Cup final. Spice was added by the fact the West German coach had been the winning captain in 1974, whereas Dutch coach – Rinus “The Sphinx” Michels (so-called because of his serious on-field demeanour when a player) - was in charge on both occasions, during two of four stints as national boss.

Much has been written of this first semi-final in Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion, most notably in Simon Kuper’s classic “Football against the Enemy” and in particular his investigation of the psychological significance of the match on Dutch society in general. The Dutch had agreed to a request from the Germans to swap Hamburg hotels, ending up in the central Intercontinental and kept awake by German fans (and - in Gullit’s case – German journalists’ phone calls), late into the night - which suggests a certain insouciance, naïveté even, on the Dutch camp’s part. Come matchday, thousands flocked over the border for the short trip to Hamburg. In hindsight, the West Germans will have rued the tournament schedule and the allocation of the match to that city. As the German striker Mill sagely commented post-match, it would have been better had the game been played in Germany. The Dutch dominated the first half with their best technical performance thus far, but went behind after a questionable penalty awarded against the strong yet wonderfully elegant Rijkaard for a challenge on Klinsmann – the young striker beginning to carve out a second career as Greg Louganis’s understudy which stopped only when he joined Tottenham for the first time. As for Rijkaard, loaned out to Zaragoza for a season by Sporting Lisbon who had signed him from Ajax after irretrievably falling out with Cruijff– and promptly sold him to Milan in one of the worst pieces of transfer business ever - his ball-playing style was a revelation in an era of rather more primitive centre-back play in the UK. I recall well either the BBC or ITV commentator – perhaps Barry Davies, I’m not sure - watching Rijkaard calmly dribble around a couple of Soviets on the edge of his own box (!) before moving play on under pressure in the group encounter: “Rijkaard bringing the ball out from the back…oh, look at that”.

Back to Hamburg: Van Breukelen’s almost-successful attempt to keep out Matthäus’s kick only added to the sense of injustice on the part of the Dutch. Following this, their playing panache receded somewhat as the game became ill-tempered. Gullit was effectively handled by Borowka and had little tangible impact on proceedings. Just as it seemed the Dutch had played into German hands and were heading for noble defeat to their West German hosts once again, Ignea, the Romanian referee, awarded a penalty to the Dutch which seemed to bemuse even van Basten – if you watch the video, he gets to his feet with a bemused look as the whistle blows. Kuper reports that van Basten commented to amused Dutch journalists afterwards: “Kohler brought me off-balance, after which the referee pointed to the spot. And then I just had to bow to his judgment”. This would be the first of three intense battles between van Basten and Kohler, repeated at Italia ’90 and Euro ’92. Van Basten won two of them, but Kohler won two medals (one winner’s and one runner’s-up) to van Basten’s one in those tournaments.

Whether it was a case of the referee evening up an earlier error in hindsight, we shall never know. Ronald Koeman made no mistake, sending Illgner the wrong way to send the Dutch support into a buzzing frenzy of shouting and klaxons.

As the match drifted towards extra-time, Wouters, van Basten’s old comrade at Ajax, highlighted the oft-noted apparent telepathy between the pair with a slide-rule pass which split open the German rearguard. Van Basten was onto it in a flash and expertly rolled an equally slide-rule shot along the turf between Kohler’s leg and Illgner’s glove into the far corner of the net. There was barely time for the Germans to respond.

Van Basten's 87th minute winner against W. Germany
An unfortunate or –depending on your point of view – amusing coda to the game was provided by Ronald Koeman, who blotted his copybook (and, figuratively, something else close to him) when goading the distraught West German fans by mimicking wiping his backside with the shirt he had swapped with Thon.

The incident gave rise to a published poem by former Oranje stalwart, Johnny Rep, who commented that that “new shirt is only really worth wiping your bum with”, which Kuper notes is a play on the fact that The Netherlands’s home shirt for this tournament was “foul” and “tiger-striped”.

Koeman makes friends and influences people
The other semi-final was perhaps something of an anti-climax, viewed both against the backdrop of the previous night’s drama and in isolation. The Azzurri had been installed as strong favourites to beat the USSR, which is somewhat surprising given the relative inexperience of much of their side at this level and the fact that the USSR had topped Group B ahead of the Dutch finalists, although Italy had prevailed 4-1 in a friendly that spring. As it transpired, in a rain-drenched Neckarstadion in Stuttgart the USSR prevailed 2-0 through Litovchenko and Protasov, preying on Italian lapses on the counter twice within a few second-half minutes. In some ways, they had beaten the Italians – who had had the better of the play - at their traditional own game.

The 20y.o. Maldini faces the USSR
Mainly as a result of their rich vein of form, but partly due to the suspension of the best Soviet defender in Kutznetsov, the Dutch were installed as favourites to lift the trophy before the final in Munich against the USSR on Saturday 25th May 1988 despite the 1-0 reverse in the opening group game.

If the preceding Tuesday evening in Hamburg had been revenge in Dutch minds for the defeat in the World Cup final in 1974 (and, perhaps, other events of yesteryear as well…), then the Euro ’88 final was the coronation, appropriately enough held in the same stadium as that 1974 reverse. Built for the 1972 Olympics, the Olympiastadion represented innovation and modernity in 1974, and was still relatively new in 1988. It has of course since been replaced for footballing purposes by the Allianz Arena, becoming effectively obsolete only thirty-three years after its first major appearance.

Your correspondent recalls having been roped into a Boys’ Brigade athletics meet that day in South-East London (despite at the time being singularly unathletic, unlike the acrobatic van Basten - as we would see later). However, it was with great fortune that his battalion was eliminated early, and he was able to race home to catch almost all of the final. Gullit, as noted earlier, was sacrificed a little for the greater good of the Dutch team’s tactics in this tournament, but he would have his moment around the half-hour mark. For all the artistic guile of the man, the goal was a bullet header which beat Dasayev more by power than precision, a Dutchman (I forget who) having thankfully raced back onside as the original corner was cleared.

Van Basten’s goal on 52 minutes, from a looping, lingering Muhren cross, is one of those footballing moments which I will take to the grave. As did the late Rinus Michels, no doubt, whose delighted disbelief as he came off the bench in celebration with his assistant was caught beautifully by the cameraman. Van Basten remains the only player capable of scoring a hat-trick against England and nevertheless remaining to this day my favourite-ever player bar none. The Hipster will confirm that a limited edition signed poster of Marco playing in Oranje circa 1990 (possibly one of the World Cup matches), resides at home – although this has in later years been somewhat cravenly moved by me from the lounge to the study. My attempt at justifying such an unjustifiable relegation is that Marco inspires me as I write…

'ave it...!
That goal was the last van Basten would ever score in a major finals, aged only 23 (though he did have one incorrectly not awarded in the group game against the now-CIS in Euro ’92, a perfectly timed, difficult volley when half bent-over smacking against the bar and just over the line, before rebounding out). It is poignant to acknowledge that statistic now but, at the time, the possibility did not occur at all.

There was still time for the USSR to come back, and the tide was certainly turning when van Breukelen committed a needless foul on Belanov who was going nowhere. However, “Positivo” (as he was sarcastically known back home due to an allegedly overweening personality) saved from the European Footballer of the Year but one, and the Dutch were able to see out the game with relative ease.

The final was, incidentally, the last major final in either the Euros or the World Cup to be played on a Saturday. For me, there is something inherently satisfying about Saturday afternoon finals in springtime, and seeing the Dutch squad lined up on benches in the stadium all stamping their feet in unison while singing and clapping crowned this tournament perfectly for this impressionable twelve-year-old. Euro ’88 may in fact have been a mixed bag technically, not particularly goal-laden (only 2.27 per match, compared with 2.21 in the lambasted Italia ’90 and behind Mexico ’86 on 2.54) and an unmitigated disaster for England. But there was not a single 0-0, red card, extra-time or penalty shoot-out (unique in this respect, I believe) and for colour, noise and drama it’s my favourite tournament finals to date.