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Unlikely Stars of the World Cup – No. 2: Ángel di María (Left Wing)

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

To describe Argentina’s di María as a potentially unlikely star of the World Cup is a little disingenuous. He clearly doesn’t have the profile of a Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, yet he was subject to interest from Manchester United in the January transfer window, and is generally viewed as a supremely talented prospect for many of Europe’s top clubs. An intrinsic part of Benfica’s current-season resurgence, di María’s ball control is excellent (although perhaps not Messi-standard), his shot technique ridiculous, and his running explosive. Everton were ripped-apart by Benfica on the two occasions when the teams met in this season’s Europa League, with di María a central influence in both games.

Although yet another untested South American teenager at the time of his transfer to Benfica, di María’s fee of €8 million from Rosario Central is beginning to look particularly cheap. Not only does he have a minimum fee release clause of €40 million, should he help Benfica break Porto’s recent monopoly on success in the Portuguese Liga (Sagres) and so qualify for the Champions League proper (which is looking increasingly likely), the club will have received a substantial return on their investment.

If di María had one weakness, it was his lack of apparent goalscoring ability. However, having gone some way to allay such concerns this season for both club and country, there is no reason to presume that he won’t prove to be a success at the World Cup this summer.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance upon di María’s World Cup performance shall be the squad in which he his playing. Whilst it’s all-too-tempting to blame the vagaries of a national coach who avoids training in the morning to prioritise his lie-in whilst ascribing all success and failure to simple acts of fate, there are wider issues facing the Argentine squad. It is undoubtedly something of an unbalanced team – there are far too many attacking midfielders rather than out-and-out strikers, although the rapid emergence of Gonzalo Higuaín is making this concern ever more redundant. Likewise, there is a genuine lack of defensive and goalkeeping talent. Despite criticism aimed at Maradona over his refusal to pick Internazionale’s Walter Samuel, it would be fair to say that he is somewhat past his best. That is no to say that the situation has not significantly improved in the last few months. Argentine players, from Carlos Tévez to the much-maligned Éver Banega and Juan Sebastián Verón, besides the usual suspects, are having superb seasons. The contrast with a team such as England could hardly be more stark where, the incredibly impressive form of Rooney aside, there are few prospective World Cup squad players having anything other than disappointing years.

When Argentina beat Germany recently in Munich they displayed a strength in organisation that was also present in the very last moments of their World Cup qualifying campaign. For a team which has several of the world’s most talented players, the British, if not global, media’s dismissal of Argentina is founded on the naive belief that Maradona’s rather chaotic approach to life will transfer directly to his team.

Weaknesses in defence aside, there is no reason why Argentina cannot be viewed as potential winners of the World Cup with di María emerging as one of football’s global stars.

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Unlikely Stars of the World Cup – No. 1: Humberto “Chupete” Suazo

February 15, 2010 1 comment

As part of this blog’s 2010 World Cup preparations, this is the first in a series of posts looking at players who, despite not always receiving the greatest degree of media attention, may perform particularly well – an alternative XI in its own way. Clearly, these are not players that are completely unknown quantities but, rather, those who are unlikely to feature in much of the pre-tournament hype. As an aside, this blog will compare the World Cup performance of its own standard XI (one similar to those found throughout the wider media) to this alternative at the end of the tournament and draw conclusions as to which team experienced greater success overall.

Before profiling this blog’s first choice, it seems appropriate at this point to list (in formation) the more typical XI of players likely to (and expected to) prove stars at the 2010 World Cup (injuries withstanding):

GK: Iker Casillas (Spain)a pretty obvious choice. Starts in the pre-tournament-favourite-team with a particularly solid defence and no little amount of talent himself.

RB: Maicon (Brazil) – this will, somewhat surprisingly, be his first World Cup. Again, playing in a highly fancied team – a ridiculously talented right-sided fullback/wingback.

RCB: Carlos Puyol (Spain) – the key aspect of Spain’s strong defence.

LCB: Rio Ferdinand (England) – returning from injury and appears to have recovered extremely well. Back to his best and vital for England’s overall chances.

LB: Philipp Lahm (Germany) – in the likely absence (or at least relatively unfit state) of Ashley Cole, Lahm is usually both a dependable defender and dangerous attacking threat.

RM/RW/anywhere: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) – clearly it’s somewhat pointless to ascribed a set position for Ronaldo given his tendency to play all over the pitch. Has become an even better player at Real, if a little more aggressive.

DM: Andrea Pirlo (Italy) – crafts countless opportunities for those further forward. A close choice between Pirlo and Xabi Alonso, but the former possesses the greater attacking threat.

AM: Lionel Messi (Argentina)probably the best player in the world.

LM: Franck Ribéry (France) – likely to push France on quite far, despite Domenech’s best attempts to sabotage.

RF: Didier Drogba (Côte D’Ivoire) – at his best Drogba is completely unplayable. Needs to perform better than at this year’s African Cup of Nations in Angola but in great form for Chelsea

LF: David Villa (Spain) – despite the British media’s claims to the contrary* Villa is undoubtedly Spain’s number one striker. Performs better in international football than Torres, as is evident when comparing their respective goalscoring records for the Spanish national team (Villa 36 goals in 54 games; Torres 23 in 71.)

On paper, this team is likely to significantly outperform the alternative XI, yet the World Cup very rarely goes entirely to form (see 2002). In the following weeks, this blog will profile each of the choices for the alternative team in depth, giving justifications for why they will prove a success during the summer.

Humberto “Chupete” Suazo (Chile): Centre-Forward

Having knocked around the Chilean Primera División for several years,  Suazo’s big break really came with a move to Colo-Colo of Santiago (Chile’s most famous and successful club), where he proceeded to score 70 goals in 75 games, win the IFFHS award for being the world’s highest goalscorer in 2006, and generally impress with his national team in the 2007 Copa América. A move to Monterrey in Mexico the same summer has coincided with a particularly impressive World Cup qualification campaign – Suazo topped the goalscoring charts for CONMEBOL amongst such highly-rated company as Luis Fabiano and Messi. Now 28 years of age, Suazo has finally made the long-anticipated move to Europe, starring on loan for Spanish La Liga strugglers, Real Zaragoza. His goals have already lifted the team out of the relegation zone. All this would appear to suggest that Suazo is solely a potent goalscorer, yet his all-round approach play is superb. Most similar to Wayne Rooney in style, Suazo is comfortable on the ball and off, his movement, power, and shot technique making him a very very good player, if not truly world class. The move to Europe is one that many talented South American players cannot make work, yet Suazo has immediately adjusted to life at one of the weaker teams in Spain’s top division. The stage is all set for him to impress at the World Cup this summer. Chile are a genuine threat to many more established teams and a relatively gentle group should see them qualify alongside Spain. Their key match may appear to be that against Switzerland on 21 June, yet their final group game against Spain on 25 June may decide the group’s final standings and Chile should not be underestimated.

* witness here The Sun’s preposterous suggestion of Gerrard as the best player in the world!! He’s not even the best midfielder at a poor Liverpool team.

The demise of the ‘Big Four’

November 7, 2009 1 comment

The Big Four – a term as eponymous with lazy journalism as it is with the whole overblown (and shockingly insular) best-league-in-the-world nonsense that has saturated our mindset when we think of English club (and national) football. We appear to have lost all perspective and the demarcation of an elite, closed group of what are, admittedly, the most (currently) successful clubs in England, is symptomatic of a nation’s football culture that has been irrevocably changed by its overt-marketisation.

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Promoting the product

Yet this season’s apparent on-pitch frailties are not only exposing the footballing shortcomings of these teams, but also a British (and particularly English) tendency to overhype our own sporting representatives whilst simultaneously dismissing the hopes of unfavoured domestic and almost-all overseas rivals with an arrogance that befits a nation that has yet to fully accept its loss of grandeur.

It seems odd to highlight the fallacious categorisation of the Big Four at a time when only Liverpool appear to be suffering any serious decline, and the remaining triumvirate inhabit the top three positions of the current Premier League table. Yet, all four sides have over-documented problems that have been covered so tediously (Chelsea’s transfer embargo and loss of players to the 2010 African Cup of Nations, Manchester United’s loss of Christiano Ronaldo etc…zzz) that this post will make only the slightest of passing references to them. Basically, this is a somewhat-belated excuse for making predictions for the oncoming football season (and the 2010 World Cup).

British football has been in decline for years, though you really wouldn’t know this from even the most cursory of glances towards the UK media’s coverage. Never the most technically adept, British players are becoming hopelessly outclassed by their international rivals. This applies even to the most basic skills, where British players appear to struggle to complete simple passes and often fail to retain possession, regardless of the degree of pressure applied by the opposing team.

Much has been written regarding the discrepancies between British and European youth football training yet nonetheless these are mainly accurate. UK football culture is blighted with favouring physical strength over technical subtleties, rapid attacking over patient buildup, and, when all else fails, ‘kicking lumps’ out of more proficient players. Rather than learn from our continental cousins, we choose instead to attribute most of the failings of British football to the influx of overseas footballers over the past 15 years or so.

Thinly veiled xenophobia is an undoubted feature of British society, yet appears especially prevalent amongst the football fraternity. Cheating is a foreign disease, gamesmanship the British equivalent. Eduardo was vilified for what was clearly a false attempt to win a penalty, yet Steven Gerrard does little else these days other than clumsily trip himself up in order to gain the same unfair advantages.

The style of football in the Premier League is generally rough and fairly violent, with extensive periods of play where no-one has control over the ball. Should overseas players unfamiliar to this strange style of play fail to adapt fast enough, they are torn apart mercilessly by the UK media and fans for ‘not being good enough’ to grace the glorious games that make up our domestic leagues. Conversely, very few British players ever attempt to play in other countries. Even fewer prove anything other than an abject failure. The much-maligned David Beckham serves as an interesting exception to this rule.

Repeated talk of limiting the number of overseas players in British football teams is quite widely supported by the UK public, on account of the belief that cheap foreign imports are restricting opportunities for our talented youngsters. This is much the same argument as is made by those who wish to protect British industry and the same reality applies. It’s not simply about finances – there is simply less talent in the UK than in other nations. As a nation that once had an extensive empire, this reality has forced most of the UK populace into a state of denial. Unfortunately, we really are just that useless. We’re often unproductive, untalented, and yes, we are expensive too. Globalisation of course has not been a wholly negative force for the UK. We have found niches where we are particularly adept. It’s just that these don’t fit alongside those areas where most people wish we were talented, such as manufacturing and football.

The truth is there is a weak talent base in British football and, looking at the past without rose-tinted spectacles, it was never there. From the footballing lessons taught to England by Uruguay and Hungary, to the overhyped (and usually disastrous) World Cup campaigns of Scotland in 1978, and England…well pretty much anytime, but especially in 2006, British footballing success has been spectacularly thin on the ground. But what of the obvious elephant in the room that is 1966? It was a tournament fundamentally won by a particularly lucky England side playing with home support and some extraordinarily dubious officiating. An anomaly on a par with Denmark winning the European Championships in 1992 or Greece in 2004.

We don’t have the cultural sensibilities of much of Europe or South America. We can’t hope to have the level of facilities or potential capital thrown at the British game as the US could, and our persistent lack of egalitarianism continues to undermine success. However, we shouldn’t expect so much from British football. The Premier League is a fantastically marketed product of huge appeal all over the world. But so are Coca Cola and McDonald’s. Without the more talented overseas players, the Premier League would be little better than the SPL.

Although at a clearly more elevated level than Scottish football, the English game can look North of the border for an insight into what the future of the game will be like. Both nations have been on a persistent downward trajectory (albeit with small blips) over the past few decades, yet Scotland is further along this line than England as of present. They are, however, very similar footballing cultures. Indeed, there has long been a strong Scottish influence within English football and, although the English national team is brilliantly managed by Capello and the brighter talents are in the English game, the general standard of English and Scottish footballers is not too dissimilar and will tend to converge (downward) over the coming years.

So where does this leave us with the Big Four? In recent years the lack of British talent has barely affected these teams, given that they mainly comprise overseas talent, with a smattering of the top British players available. However, the global recession, and the concurrent shifting exchange rates, which have led to a relative devaluation of the Pound against the Euro in particular, have resulted in a UK football market which is of reduced financial appeal. It is noticeable that many of the greatest talents in football ply their trade in Italy and especially Spain. This movement of talented overseas players away from the Premier League has resulted (and will continue to result) in a far greater reliance on domestic players. So Carragher’s brainless thuggery and lack of pace are being brutally exposed, Rooney’s propensity to disappear in a game has become more apparent, and a general lack of diversity in play amongst many British players is increasingly evident. Arsenal and Chelsea remain relatively successful. The former due to Wenger’s foresighted approach in ignoring most British youth and looking all across the globe for his future players, whilst the latter arguably have the pick of the domestic bunch, albeit heavily assisted by some astonishingly gifted overseas players.

Just another example of Carragher's 'defending'

For a blog that tends to hold a degree of scepticism over the apparent importance of economics in explaining most things that matter in the world, the changing nature of British football is pretty much entirely due to the machinations of the global economy and with all that said and done, time for some predictions. The only thing this blog is confident of predicting is that most of these will be wrong, accepting the advantage that making such predictions part way into the season provides!

English Premier League:

1. Chelsea

2. Arsenal

3. Manchester City

4. Manchester United

5. Tottenham Hotspur

6. Aston Villa

7. Liverpool

8. Sunderland

9. West Ham

10. Everton

11. Fulham

12. Wigan

13. Portsmouth

14. Stoke

15. Bolton

16. Blackburn

17. Birmingham

18. Wolverhampton

19. Burnley

20. Hull

Various other European champions:

La Liga: Barcelona, though Real Madrid and Sevilla will be close.

Serie A: Inter Milan (albeit their performances are somewhat underwhelming), AC Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina the next three.

Bundesliga: Werder Bremen, followed by Hamburg, Leverkusen, and Bayern.

SPL: who gives a shit…

World Cup 2010 various predictions:

1. England will not make it out of their group (although this may be revised if they get an exceptionally easy group. Slovakia, Tunisia, and New Zealand for example.)

2. Brazil will make the quarter finals at best.

3. Paraguay, Chile, South Korea, Ukraine (assuming they make it), and the USA will be much better than people expect. All will get through the group stage. At least one of these teams will make the last eight.

4. Spain won’t win it.

5. But Russia might (assuming they qualify).

6. Italy have a real chance and are far better than people assume (as per usual).

7. An African side will make the semi-finals (most probably Ivory Coast).

8. Maradona might just lead Argentina to an incredibly improbable victory, and will most likely then tell the entire world to take it up our collective arse.