Monday, June 30, 2008

All hail the reign of the beautiful Spain

All hail the reign of the beautiful Spain.
So dreams can come true. Even Spanish footballing ones. And they can even come true in a wondrous way.

The Cava is still flowing and rightly so. In winning Euro 2008, Spain ended a quest for silverware that at 44 years' length, two more than England's, had defied all sense of fairness or logic.

But that they laid their hoodoo to rest in such style makes them the toast of the soccer world. Not since the Netherlands in the World Cup of 1974, or the Hungarians in 1954, has a nation playing such dazzling football reached the final of a major tournament. Unlike Cruyff's and Puskas' teams however, the Spanish vaulted the Germans at the last hurdle. The heart has beaten the head at last and the Beautiful Game is new again.

Their 1-0 win was not as delightful as their earlier victories in the Alps, but there was still enough of their mesmerizing passing and movement to leave nobody in any doubt that in more ways than one, the best team of the tournament had triumphed.

Germany suffered from Michael Ballack's woes; having missed Saturday training, he took a bloody wound to the eye and got himself booked in a frustrating first 45. Then Philipp Lahm, another key player, fatally hesitated to let Fernando Torres score before leaving the side at half time. In the second half, the Germans looked oddly jaded and unable to test Iker Casillas in Spain's goal, but even had fortune been on their side, you suspect the Spanish would still have been too strong for them.

This was indeed a victory for football, if we believe the game at its best is about aesthetics and not just winning. The soccer world had believed for so long that strength, hard work and organisation were the keys to victory, that we had forgotten about the entertaining by-product the fans so adore.

Flair players are have been considered liabilities in the quest for results, so set against this background, Spain’s win comes as an refreshing counterblast to the prevailing consensus.

Watching them labour to a 1-0 win over the USA in Santander on the eve of the competition, I saw enough of a midfield loaded with attacking talent to know they would be a force at the finals, and I tipped a team from the Iberian Peninsula to win, though I still felt a fit and on-song Germany could edge them thanks to their superior big-game mentality.

I was wrong – Spain had that inner steel to balance their twinkle toes. Confidence, that most powerful yet elusive weapon a team can posess, stayed with them until the end. Where the Netherlands, the other truly impressive team from the first round failed, the Spanish succeeded. Their self-belief saw off the challenge of the impressive Russians, devastatingly so (3-0) in the semi-final, before their prowess prevailed once more when Vienna called.

A final is like a second home to a German Mannschaft, while for Spain it has remained terra incognita since General Franco was in power. But last night in the Prater, the conquistadors of fútbol sailed crossed their ocean of doubt to plant their flag in the winners' enclosure. It is, one hopes, a new era for European football, a lasting challenge to the German-Italian axis which has scooped so many trophies, and an encouragement to coaches worldwide to teach a beautiful style of play to win.

Not that Spain set out to entertain, but their end-product was both victorious and dramatic. Dancing to a flamenco rhythm, their ball-to-feet midfield quickly became a joy to behold. Elvish little terriers like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva mastered the ball like virtuoso musicians, whipping it around with flair and a panache not seen in an international team for years.

That the country which contains club giants Barcelona and Real Madrid could apparently not produce a winning national team in almost half a century remains hard to explain.

Repeated exits from World Cups and European Championships left us so hoarse from repeating the old maxim that sooner or later it had to be Spain's year, most of us had given up tipping a nation which seemed immune from success.

The return of silverware to their FA leaves England, with its last trophy in 1966 as Europe's most under-achieving soccer nation, a depressing albatross of a boast for the game's motherland.

In his masterful book 'Morbo', the first English-language dissection of the game in Spain, Phil Ball suggests the historic dominance of foreigners in La Liga and the cultural divisions of the nation could have rubbed off invisibly on La Selección.

Journalist Guillem Balague told me this week he thought Spain had never had a winners' mentality because of repeated failure, so just needed a rub o' the green to have a chance to prove they could be victors at last.

While England persist with blind optimism and a fighting spirit despite their poor record, Spain's collective mentality has tended to wither more quickly. Take their 1994 World Cup quarter-final exit to Italy for instance. The Spaniards spurned several chances to win the game before Roberto Baggio finished them off. Valencia winger Vicente summed it up when he replied to a question about Spain's Euro 2004 failure - "What do you expect? We're Spain." By 2006, most of us had given up tipping the Iberians for good.

Only two years ago, eight of the Euro 2008 winners took the field in the second round of the World Cup finals, facing an ageing French eleven. Spain took the lead through David Villa and had 62% of the ball, but France ran out 3-1 winners.

But then along came a saviour. More prosaically perhaps, we can ascribe the torn page in the record book to Luis Aragones.

The 69 year-old might hail from Madrid but his Spanish team have played more 'Catalan' than previous incarnations. Three Blau-grana players featured in the team - Iniesta, Carlos Puyol and Xavi; four if you count former Barça man Cesc Fabregas, while Real Madrid had only two - goalkeeper Iker Casillas and right-back Sergio Ramos.

The short-passing 'tiki-taka' style of Spanish play looked a lot like Barcelona to me, while the speed of midfield exchanges and player rotation called to mind the best of Valencia's Champions League endeavours in recent years. David Silva and Euro 2008 top gunner David Villa play for that club.

Silva was one of Spain's unsung heroes, as mobile and skilful an attacker as any in the team, while the excellent Brazilian-born holding midfielder Marcos Senna was for me one of the players of the tournament, an award which went in the end to Xavi.

The team was short by modern standards, which makes their triumph over the tall and muscular Germans even more pleasing.

Their goalkeeper was not perhaps the best in the tournament but was no slouch. And while centre backs Puyol and Carlos Marchena lacked a little speed, and full backs Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila weren't the best positionally, they defended stoutly enough to repel the best Italy, Russia and Germany could throw at them and kept clean sheets in the knock-out stages.

The statistics are staggering: Across the tournament, Spain had more than twice as many shots on target than Germany and made 900 more passes than them with an 81% completion rate, the highest in Euro 2008, just eclipsing the Dutch. They were No.1 for shots on target and with 12 goals, hit the net more than anyone else: End of story.

What a great time to be Spanish. Even die-hard Catalans, Galicians and the odd Basque have had to swallow their pride and join the fiesta. If the frail-looking 69 year-old Aragones can get the bumps, so can they enjoy the special moment, too.

All in all, a magnificent victory for Spain and a beautiful day for football. Olé!

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Adios and Aus Widersehen EURO 2008

FINAL SNOWDROPS FROM THE ALPS -
FOREIGNER FLARES
Too much was made of Germany’s Lukas Podolski gunning down Adios and Aus Widersehen EURO 2008.his country of birth, Poland.

This is a globalised world, where people emigrate and every country is to blame for not enforcing racial purity tests in their national teams. Why, here’s an eleven of perfectly acceptable turncoats from the Euro 2008 squads:

Ramazan Özcan - Austria
Mario Gomez – Germany
Ibrahim Affellay – Netherlands
Ricardo Cabanas – Switzerland
Ümit Korkmaz – Austria
Hakan Yakin – Switzerland
Piotr Trochowski – Germany
Gelson Fernandes – Switzerland
Samir Nasri – France
Karim Benzema – France
Zlatan Ibrahmovic – Sweden

BEER TODAY, GONE TOMORROWVienna’s Heute newspaper led on Monday with the claim that fans were revolting against the
Sub-standard ale on offer in the official Fan Zones. At €4.50 a glass, apparently there are few takers for Carlsberg, the Danish brew which bagged exclusivity rights for the tournament. It quoted one Conrad Seidl, ‘The Pope of Beer’ (I wonder how you get that title), dismissing Carlsberg, but also a fan from Italy, a country hardly renowned for its knowledge of amber nectar.

SO THAT’S WHYScrambling for an explanation for Italy’s penalty exit to Spain, Gazzetta dello Sport delved into departing coach Roberto Donadoni’s psychology and wondered if a visit Donadoni made to the Amish country in Pennsylvania while he played for the New York Metrostars had instilled him with too much serenity for the national team job…

GAME, SET & SNATCH
UEFA's Media Services helpfully provided hacks with the most indispensable release for the final: A potted biography of closing ceremony performer Enrique Iglesias. Shame on them though for omitting surely the two most salient points of Enrique's life story - that his dad is the legendary singer Julio Iglesias, once a goalkeeper on Real Madrid's books, and that Enrique fulfilled many an adolescent male's fantasy by getting Anna Kournikova in the sack.

DIMWITS ÜBER ALLES
Youth is wasted on the young. Two nubile female researchers for Switzerland's SF2 were the laughing stock of the thinking world last week for putting the Nazi-era 'Deutschland über alles' lyrics on screen for the Germany v Austria match, blissfully unaware of their political faux pas. While one can only wonder aghast how much the Swiss nation mentions the war and its questionable record therein these days, but for me, the Aryan airheads at SF2 were trumped by a Brit.

BBC online's senior football editor Phil Gordos admitted, in an article, that he “never knew Austria were once quite good at football”. Choking on my Sachertorte and Apfelstrüdel, I read how at the Wien Museum Gordos learnt for the first time about the Wunderteam, Hugo Meisl, 'The Whirl' and the iconic Mattias Sindelar. Given that Austria were the pioneers of total football, one of the world's top teams in the '20s, and that they reached the World Cup semi-final in 1954, Gordos' job description as a senior football editor defies belief. Or is the BBC merely now subscribing to Sky's 'Year Zero' view of football, (i.e. Premier League) statistics?

FOURTOY THE FALL GUY
Spare a thought for Alexandre Fourtoy, the poor sap who had to face the press to explain why a thunderstorm over Vienna made millions of TV viewers twice lose pictures of Germany v Turkey and miss the third goal. As the CEO of UEFA Media Technologies (sic), Fourtoy explained in layman's terms that "three micro (power) cuts of less than one millisecond" were to blame, "enough to cause our Master Control Room to reboot." UEFA are particularly red in the face having taken over the televising of the finals themselves for the first time, only to see their own International Broadcast Centre fail with its in-built protection system.

Despite the official blame being placed on Austria's electricity grid, "nothing to do with transmission or our partners Telekom Austria and Swisscom", according to Fourtoy, the millions who missed the goal and had an exciting second half interrupted, will blame those in charge of the pictures.

FREELOADERS 'R' USCould not get tickets for Euro 2008? You're just not hot enough. It seems tits will get you in, given the cameramen's almost pervy obsession with focusing on pretty Fräuleins at every match, but there are other means of bypassing the hordes of oiks they call fans to bag your seat at the big event.

For each match at the finals, UEFA has helpfully provided hacks with a list of VIP guests who have gained entry to the stadia. Composed of mostly politicians from the countries involved as well as local dignitaries, the official guest lists omit certain faces we have spotted on TV, such as Boris Becker, but do mention the likes of Ludomir Jahnatek, the Slovakian Minister of Economics, who got a freebie for Russia v Spain.

Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and tennis legend Roger Federer enjoyed comps to France v Italy in Zurich, but you would be hard-pressed to identify any other of the recipients of UEFA’s largesse:

EURO 2008 FREELOADERS BEST XI:

Tor Lian - President of the European Handball Association (Croatia v Turkey)
Milan Zver - Slovenian Minister of Education (Poland v Croatia)
Gabi Burgstaller - Wife of Salzburg regional governor (Greece v Russia)
Gerhard Loesch - Director, Hugo Boss France (Austria v Germany)
Marcio Braga - President of Flamengo FC (Holland v Russia)
Erwin Buchinger - Austrian minister for social security (Spain v Italy)
Marius Vizer - President of the European Judo Association (Holland v Romania)
HRH The Crown Princess of Brunei (Czech Rep. v Portugal)
Martin Kusej - Austrian Artist (Germany v Poland)
Luc Frieden - Luxembourg Interior Minister (Spain v Sweden)
Sintayehu Woldemichael - Ethiopian Education Minister (Croatia v Turkey)

Subs Bench: Faruk Özak - Turkish minister of construction (Germany v Turkey),
Amr Moussa - General Secretary of the League of Arab States (Spain v Italy)
HRH Prince Carl Philip - The Duke of Värmland (Russia v Sweden)
Adolf Ogi - Former Swiss Federal Councillor (Switzerland v Portugal)
Herwig Van Staa - Landhauptsmann of Tirol (Russia v Sweden)

But how wonderful to see that 78 year-old Viennese screen legend Maximilian Schell, star of Topkapi, The Odessa File and Krakatoa, East of Java, was at Austria v Poland.

HE'S MAD I TELL YOU"Everywhere on the streets and on the squares of the beautiful Austrian and Swiss cities, I've seen colourful supporters of the different teams strolling arm in arm discussing football and enjoying themselves no end. There are plenty of women in these crowds, which refutes once and for all the sexist reputation of our game." Thus spake UEFA President Michel Platini after the first round of Euro 2008.

Can't say fans of different teams have been "strolling arm in arm" everywhere, but there has not been any major issues of misbehaviour, it is true.
As for football's "sexist reputation", how could anyone think that were the case, as we have a FIFA President who called for women to wear tighter shorts and a Euro 2008 TV feed which zooms in on a sultry female fan every few minutes, and then a beery lard-ass male?



Incidentally, Platini's introduction to the official programme has a whiff of the white coats about it:



"Walking through town, you see the flags of different nations, and posters...television screens keep showing scenes that seem the same to the uninitiated...You hear snatches of conversation in which the same words keep cropping up...You can smell the aroma of grilled meat...Your mouth goes dry, all your senses react, you can feel the emotion...The drinks refreshing, there is music and singing; some people are even dancing in the corner...A football match is what all these people have come to see!" (c) UEFA President Michel Platini
FUSSBALL'S COMING HOMEProof positive at last that Austria caught the Fussball-Fieber (football fever). The country's clash with Germany was the tenth most-watched broadcast in Austrian TV history, with 2,190,000 viewers. Mind you, at No.2 is the first interview with ‘girl in the cellar’ Natascha Kampusch, No.3 Loveboat and No.4 Crocodile Dundee. The most watched programme of all time in Austria was the farewell edition of ‘The Peter Alexander Show’ in 1991. Herr Alexander, now 81, is a former WW2 P.O.W. who went on to become a popular singer, host and mimic of the Queen of England.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Ballack fitness the key in battle of playing styles


EURO 2008 FINAL, VIENNA

The destination of the Henri Delaunay trophy could hinge on the fitness of Germany captain Michael Ballack, who has a calf strain and missed Saturday training.

Tournament hot-shot David Villa is of course also missing for Spain, but the absence of the Chelsea midfielder for Germany looks the more crucial.

Cesc Fabregas slotted in against Russia and pulled the strings, while Daniel Guiza has shown his prowess in the box already.

My hunch yesterday was that Germany's big match mentality would keep them a nose ahead of Spain, but news of Ballack's fitness has coloured that prediction. He leads by example and his goals have made the difference for Germany so many times, that you wonder if Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger can carry it off without him.

Spain will be boosted by the news. They are already euphoric to have after reaching the final and are brimming with confidence having zapped the Russians' much-fancied challenge so convincingly in the semi-final.

Luis Aragones' men are unbeaten in 21 games since November 2006 and the country's first final for 44 years has enchanted the nation that more than any other are stamped underachievers on the football field.

Yet that over-enthusiasm could be their weakness, and the Germans know it. A florid opening and an early Spanish goal could be just what the Germans, often gentle starters, would relish to push themselves to grab control of the 90.

The German game-plan is as mental as physical: They will try to outmuscle the Spanish at key phases of the game to win the mental battle and disrupt their opponents' flow. Spain might take the lead but a German equalizer would be a heavier punch. With the psychological flow in their direction, Germany will then hit back with set pieces from Ballack or rapier counter-strikes through Lahm, Podolski and Schweinsteiger.

Spain's best weapon is to stay confident in their own abilities.

Their fantastic passing skills and technique have so far prevailed over all challengers at Euro 2008, but the biggest test is now, a contest which looks too close to call if both teams are fit.

It is hard to remember a team playing such beautiful football making a final, which makes Spain the romantic choice of the heart.

Yet first the Tiki-Taka game must overcome the most physically imposing and mentally tough eleven of the tournament.

Let the style trial commence.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Germany's lion sniffs Vienna victory

Euro 2008.
All eyes seem to be on Spain for tomorrow's Euro 2008 final.

Neutral fans are mostly dreaming of a beautiful team who play the Beautiful Game slaying a 44-year old jinx in a red and yellow climax. But if big-match history counts for anything, the winners' enclosure will be black and white instead.

Joachim Löw has touched upon the German secret of success in the run-up to the Euro 2008 final, but the reason for them reaching 13 finals still remains somewhat elusive.

“We believe we can win such games - we have a winner's mentality,” he explained. "We know we can do it and our morale is high, that's what matters."

Like all successful teams, the Germans do not seem mired in complex Howard Wilkinson-style tactics talks, or go to bed reading Don Revie-style dossiers.

“As for the gameplan, we'll just go back to basics," Löw added.

"You have to move and pass the ball around. I don't think it would make much sense for us to sit down and analyse the semi-final; it is of no use now. Any coach's task before the final is to re-energise his players and motivate them. We won't train very hard between now and the final, recuperation is the key."

The latter sentiment sounds a bit like Brian Clough’s insistence on rest for his players when playing in Europe, part of a philosophy which bagged two European Cups for a provincial team like Nottingham Forest. Whatever the reason, the continued success of Germany always bears repeating. 13 finals must mean they have got the basics right, and success breeds a confidence dyed in the lederhosen.

With the groundwork of a winning formula established, their natural Teutonic practicality and level-headedness ensures the Germans do not get carried away with their astonishing record.
“They do arrogance, but not complacency,” opined the BBC’s Alan Hansen, although their calm first half against Turkey risked letting the game run away from them.

Löw is still approaching only his second year in the big job, but despite a record, insists the much-cited German footballing values are exaggerated.

“We must not go back to those days of overreliance on our traditional values,” said Löw. “Players from San Marino can run around and fight, too.” Arsene Wenger cites their mental strength as the reason for their permanent class: "Germany are one of the few countries I know of who can have a go at each other in the newspapers one day and then go into the match united and mentally strong," said the Arsenal coach.

A look back over the years shows that rather than always being the best every tournament, Germany tend to begin among the top five teams in the hunt, yet often end up in the final.
In the World Cups of 1982, 1986 and 2002 no one rated them favourites at the start, but each time they made it to the final game, while the common consensus was that an ordinary Deutscher Fussball Bund eleven won Euro ’96.

In Belgium at Euro ’72, Sweden at Euro ’92 and at Italia ’90, the Germans were the bookies’ favourites at the start and duly reached the finals, but they have reached so many finals when apparently not being one of the top teams, that there must be a secret formula at work.

They have been the team to beat as long as I have been alive, their only lean period spanning their elimination by Croatia in the quarter-final of the 1998 World Cup until their third place finish at the 2006 edition.

Taking up the baton, the current coach of the Mannschaft, who landed in the job with a international reputation of just having been Jürgen Klinsmann’s bench buddy at the 2006 World Cup, has certainly now made a name for himself.

Löw, whose name means lion in his native language, has guided his team to the final of his first tournament, cut a dash in his tight-fighting touchline apparel, and put smiles on the faces of watching millions by sneaking a cheeky fag in the stands after being sent off against Austria.

Löw’s much-travelled playing career as an attacking midfielder was followed by solid if usually unspectacular spells in charge of six different teams, including Fenerbahçe in Turkey and Stuttgart, whom he guided to the 1998 Cup Winners Cup final, won by Chelsea.

Löw’s career was hauled up from the shallows when Klinsmann made him his surprise choice as national team assistant in 2004, having earned his coaching badges alongside him a few years before.

Assistant manager has never been the most glamorous of football jobs. Seconds-in-command often seem lacking in charisma compared to the ‘special ones’ in the hot seat, and for good reason. Coaches are personalities beyond mere instructors. Their egos need space, but also thrive on having a tempering, disciplining safety-valve to their genius sat beside them to rely on.
A meeting of two powerful egos rarely lasts for long, and too often the assistant fails to replace them adequately after they leave. Think Roy Evans at Liverpool or Steve McClaren at England.
Appointing the assistant is often seen as a risk by big clubs or countries, which is why Chelsea’s No.2 Steve Clarke was never in the running to succeed Jose Mourinho. They are considered personal assistants rather than deputies, it often seems.

Löw is no Mourinho. He makes friends rather than enemies and appears to have no desire to forge a personality cult. Already in Euro 2008, he has changed tactics on the insistence of senior players but has maintained their respect as the results have followed, an echo of Bobby Robson in Italia ’90.

Michael Ballack, Germany’s talisman, was instrumental in urging him to switch from 442 to 451 against Portugal, which finished 3-2.

"Of course,” confirmed Löw . “I would not be a good coach if I didn't listen to them. But my players listen to me too. One cannot pass from one system to another by just doing it. It has to be an agreement, a discussion, even if it is me who takes the final decision."

Win or lose in the final, Löw is now making a name for himself out of Klinsmann’s shadow, should lead Germany into the World Cup of 2010 and at only 48 years old, can be expected to coach big club sides in the future.

A victory in Vienna on Sunday will complete a remarkable coaching debut for the man from the Black Forest. The Austrian capital will be familiar turf for ‘Yogi’, as Löw is nicknamed, where he coached Austria Vienna for a season in 2002.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

History repeats as Japan draws Australia

History repeats as Japan draws Australia.
If there was a sense of inevitability ahead of the draw for the final round of World Cup qualifying in Asia, neither Japan coach Takeshi Okada, nor Australia coach Pim Verbeek let it show.

Both reacted casually when Japan and Australia were drawn together in Group A, along with Middle-Eastern sides Qatar and Bahrain and potential dark horses Uzbekistan. The two teams met in a classic 2006 FIFA World Cup encounter, in which the Socceroos came from behind to register a thrilling 3-1 group-stage win courtesy of a late Tim Cahill brace and an emphatic John Aloisi strike.

In a statement released by the JFA, Japan coach Okada claimed that "(w)hen you think about the destinations and travel involved, it probably could have been worse."

He is right.

While Japan and Australia will both feel confident of booking one of the two qualification places available in their group, Group B of qualifying will cause nightmares for fans of Korea Republic, Iran, DPR Korea, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - all of whom have at one time qualified for the finals of the World Cup.

Nevertheless Japan and Australia will no doubt eye each other warily in the build-up to their two clashes, set down for February 2 in Japan and June 17 in Australia.

While most Japanese fans were gracious in defeat following their team's catastrophic collapse in Kaiserlautern two years ago, scratch the surface of the average Blue Samurai supporter and a sense of injustice still lingers.

Japan were just six minutes away from beating the Socceroos, with Zico's side wilting under the brutal summer sun at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion.

History repeats as Japan draws Australia.
Both Zico and Guus Hiddink are long gone from their adopted national teams, and an Australian outfit that has often been accused of technical deficiencies can no longer rely solely on their superior fitness levels to get them over the line.

That was made abundantly clear when Japan beat Australia on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the quarter-finals of the 2007 Asian Cup.

Looming large as a potential obstacle for both teams is Uzbekistan; a team studded with European-based players who also turned in an admirable performance at the 2007 Asian Cup.

The Uzbekis will be looking to spring some upsets along the way in a 10-match qualification campaign, with the two third-placed finishers in each group squaring off against each other for the right to face the champions of Oceania in a winner-takes-all playoff.

Both Japan and Australia will feel confident of avoiding that scenario, but with both sides itching for revenge and Australia looking to flex their muscle in their first ever Asian qualification campaign, the fledgling rivalry between the two countries could be set to boil over once again.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

J.League News

Friday, June 27, 2008

Korea Ready For Next Stage?

Korea Ready For Next Stage?
Another weekend gone and one more match closer to the 2010 World Cup. June is almost over and a place in the final round of world cup qualification is assured. It is time to take stock of a busy period that has raised a number of questions.

The main issue is how the Taeguk Warriors will fare against stronger opposition when the action resumes in September.

On Friday, the ten Asian teams that survived the just-finished third round will be split into two groups of five. The top two from each group will automatically book their places in South Africa. The two third-placed teams play-off for the right to face Oceania’s representative –the winner of that match goes to the World Cup.

Confused? Well, then you know how the Korean defence has felt on a regular basis in the past few weeks. At times the backline has struggled against the attacks of Turkmenistan and Jordan, so it is worrying to consider what may happen against the craft of the Japanese, the speed of the Saudis or the skill of the Iranians.

On the face of it six games in Group Three and a record of three wins and three draws is perfectly acceptable but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

February

It all started well with a 4-0 thrashing of Turkmenistan in Seoul. English-based stars Park Ji-sung and Seol Ki-hyeon starred. It was the perfect start though the media was concerned at how much better the overseas stars were than the K-Leagues.

March

The press was singing, along with the coach, a different tune at the end of March after a dull goalless draw against North Korea in Shanghai. This time Seol, as well as fellow London resident, Lee Young-pyo were partly blamed by the press and the boss for the unimaginative display.

May


The low point of the six games was the last 20 minutes against Jordan in Seoul on May 31. Cruising 2-0 against the West Asians, Jordan took advantage of some poor goalkeeping and defending to pull a goal back. Then everything went wrong and the team fell to pieces. In the end, it was almost a relief to tie 2-2 against a team then ranked 104 in the world by FIFA.

The next day, coach Huh Jung-moo irresponsibly placed part of the blame on goalkeeper Kim Yong-dae. He also suggested that the Korean Football Association (KFA) should lift the ban on veteran shotstopper Lee Woon-jae. Lee’s late-night drinking exploits during the 2007 Asian Cup earned himself a 12-month enforced absence from the national team which ends in November. The KFA said it was too early. Huh said he never made the request anyway and it was all the media’s work.

June

It hadn’t been a good 48 hours for Korean football but to the team’s credit, it bounced back and won 1-0 in Jordan a week later. The performance wasn’t great, the defense again looked shaky but it was a good win in a tough environment. The same could be said of the 3-1 victory against Turkmenistan a week later. The team scored its only goal of the group against the Koreans and caused the visitors more trouble than it really should have been allowed to, but the hat-trick from Park Ji-sung replacement Kim Do-heon picked up another three points.

Then came a second goalless draw at home against the North Koreans in Seoul, a dull game against a defensive-minded team.

Next…

There is work to do, starting on Friday when the identities of South Korea’s four opponents in the final stage will be revealed. The last time that South Korea failed to reach the World Cup was back in 1982, and hard work and a little imagination is needed to ensure that unwanted history is not made.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

World Soccer News June 27 2008

News.
World Soccer news for the week of June 26th

The Germans defend Luca Toni: It's the Italians' fault!

Luca Toni spent the whole European Championship without netting a goal, but his German fans know that it was down to the Italian's negative tactics.
"What did the Italians do to Toni? He doesn't score, he suffers and complains. Luckily, he shaved that dreadful moustache," wrote Bild Zeitung in defence of the Bundesliga's top scorer. "Here at Bayern he receives accurate passes from Ribery and Klose, while for his country he has to retreat in order to receive the ball, which come to him high and wide," added the top-selling daily.
Munich Abendzeitung laid the blame on coach Roberto Donadoni. "Teams like Italy that sit and wait for penalties are few and far between."
Frankfurter Allgemeine revealed an exchange of text messages between Toni and Klose. The Italian complained to his pal about his "best friend" having betrayed him. Klose asked if he could be of any help. Toni replied, "I mean the ball. It's my best friend and now we are not at the best of terms."

Spain and Portugal agree on joint bid for the 2018 WC

It is common knowledge that the 2014 World Cup will be played in Brazil, but where will it go next? The bids for the following tournament are being prepared and an irresistible bid is being made by neighbours Spain and Portugal. "If Spain hands its bid for the 2018 World Cup, it will be in alliance with Portugal," said the Spanish FA president, Ángel María Villar.
Speaking for Antena 1, the Spanish soccer leader called the idea on the joint bid "brilliant," praising Portugal as a "excellent partner, who fulfils all the conditions for a joint act."
The elaboration of the "brilliant" idea is to follow, because it will have to be approved by both countries' governments.

Joao Havelange clams two World Cups were fixed

Former FIFA president, Brazilian Joao Havelange, sensationally told the Brazilian media that the 1966 and 1974 World Cups, won by hosts England and West Germany, were fixed. Havelange, who took up office only in 1974, said the referees directly influenced the outcomes of the two tournaments. "In three games Brazil played in 1966, seven out of nine referees and linesmen were British, and two Germans, all part of the effort to help England and Germany reach the finals, as the English Sir Stanley Rous (then FIFA's president) wanted. "The same thing happened 1974 in Germany. Our game against Holland was refereed by a German (Tschentscher) and we lost, while Germany won the Cup (against Holland). Although we had the best team in the world, the same that won the 1970 Cup in Mexico, it was planned beforehand that the home countries should win the titles.

Rummenigge furious at Real Madrid: Let United tell them 'no'!

Bayern's Executive Committee chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge rose against Real Madrid for their unlawful interference with Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo.
Rummenigge, who is also the chairman of the European Clubs Association, an organization that replaced the infamous elitist G-14, wholeheartedly supports Manchester United in their conflict with Real, who brainwashed Ronaldo into pushing for a transfer to Santiago Bernabeu.
"The regulations are clear and Manchester United have a clear contract with the player for the next four years. Apart from this, I know Alex Ferguson very well and I know that his refusal is to be taken seriously," said the German.
"The player and Real Madrid can reach any sort of agreement, but it's United who have the last word and if they refuse the offer, there is nothing left to discuss."
Madrid's president Ramón Calderón indicated that he would be ready to play 85-90 million euros for the Portuguese wizard, while Real's coach Bernd Schuster said that even one hundred million euros would not be too much for such a classy footballer.

Marcello Lippi: I am very, very happy

The new-old Italian national team coach, Marcello Lippi, has declared himself overjoyed with his return to the position he abandoned in July 2006.
"I am very, very, very happy. And very motivated. See you next week," said Lippi to Gazzetta dello Sport.
These were his first words after being re-named coach two years after winning the ultimate prize in soccer - the World Cup. Ever since, he has been unemployed. The Italian football federation (FIGC) announced they would make an official presentation next week.

Beckenbauer slams Podolski: Why don't you play so well at Bayern?

Lukas Podolski, the in-form German striker, has continued to baffle his employers at Bayern, where the international delivers only occasionally. One of those who would like to see the brighter side of Podolski a bit more often is Bayern Munich's president, Franz Beckenbauer.
"Whenever I hear Podolski complaining about the lack of opportunities and trust by the coaching staff, say that nobody is stopping him from doing just as well here as he does for the national team. With such a form he would certainly be in the starting eleven," wrote Beckenbauer in his column in Bild.
"When playing for Bayern, he is frequently inert, while at the Euros his body language says 'pass me the ball, here I am.' Podolski and Schweinsteiger have played so well as we have not seen them play at club level since 2006," concluded the Kaiser.
"Poldi", a naturalized Pole, came to Bayern two years ago and has yet to win a starting place, unlike in the national team, where he has been a regular since 2004.

Copyright Ozren Podnar $ Soccerphile

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Who cares about offside? - Women rule at the Euros

Euro 2008.
The women are coming (no pun intended):

The EURO 2008 organisers might have breathed a sigh of relief when the expected English invasion was cancelled by Croatia's third goal at Wembley last autumn, but they did not bank on an even greater influx to the finals, largely unexpected, and female.

Hail, hail, the skirts are here. The British Isles might be cast adrift from the goings-on at the European Championship, but most European watchers have by now picked up on the fact that females are in on the footy act in big numbers.

The big-match experience in the city centre fan zones, where the majority of fans have congregated for games, have been universally punctuated by shrill feminine screams, girls decked out head-to-toe in the colours of the country of their choice that evening*, and over-zealous female cheering of events of which most (male) remain the wiser.

Even Turkey, the only Muslim nation in the finals and thus notoriously a second-class country for women, has been cheered by huge numbers of veiled female fans.

It's not the first time that women en masse have got a taste for football, but it is the largest occurrence of this recent phenomenon yet. Are they just bandwagon-jumpers and excuse for a party-seekers, and if they are, does it matter as long as everyone is happy?

The ticketed fans still appear to be 90% male in composition in Austria and Switzerland, though you would not know that for the TV editors' sleazily repetitive homing-in on whatever half-decent totty they can locate in the stands.

Undeniably, football following has changed over the past few years. Now you are more likely to travel to an overseas tournament without any hope of gaining stadium entry than you are to travel to see the games in person.100,000 English were estimated to have been in Cologne in 2006, 150,000 Dutch in Basle in 2008.

While the Swiss and Austrian media had picked up the trend as soon as the fan zones had opened, the latest TV ratings from Germany are astonishing: 14.2 million females watched Germany defeat Turkey as opposed to 13.5 million males. The World Cup effect in Germany has also translated into Vfl Wolfsburg having a 30% female fan make-up, and Hanover 96 selling a quarter of its season-tickets to women.

The most prominent of the EU leaders at EURO 2008 has been female. German Chancellor Angela Merkerl was seen chatting to Bastian Schweinsteiger in the stands and made it her business to be the first person to speak to coach Joachim Löw after the referee sent him to the stands during the Germany v Austria clash in Vienna.

The old command issued to English fans to not travel if you don't have tickets was overturned by sheer numbers of football-holidaymakers, of whom women formed a large part.

The increased interest in football as a pastime and entertainment has inevitably entailed an increase in female fandom. After the countrywide party atmosphere of Germany 2006, EURO 2008 has seen girls and women quite happy to face-paint and wear country colours to watch games quite independently of any male contact.

Football has suddenly become more sexually egalitarian, and I welcome that. While it is fair to say the average male fan possesses a deeper knowledge of the game than the average female fan, all, irrespective of origin, must be made welcome.

The ugliness of hooliganism withers faster than ever the more women are around football, which can only be a good thing. Only boneheads and misogynist dinosaurs argue for sexism in football in 2008, inspired by a fear of change and a rage at the passing of time, but their position is one they would not dare transfer to other arenas of public life. Racism was once the norm in society, so let us hope sexism in soccer becomes as wholly unnacceptable, too.

At the end of the day, the world's number one game has to be there for everybody to partake of without exception, and unreconstructed males will have to evolve to stop using football as a private cell of frustration release, or die out.

When there are pretty and fun-loving females only a stone-throw away, apparently mad about football, what sort of man would turn a blind eye anyway?

* 'Fan tourism' has been more visible than ever before at this edition of the Euros. You would have been hard pressed to find a Portuguese amongst those wearing red and green against Germany, ditto a bona-fide tulip from the orange-clad hordes in Vienna against Russia, etc
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Verbeek keeps looking … and looking

Australia.
Pim Verbeek's Australia have made it through to their toughest qualifying campaign since joining the Asian confederation - and with a match to spare at that. But a flattering points total wasn’t enough to paper over the cracks of some suspect selections by the new national coach.

It's perhaps not so much Verbeek's first choice side which is suspect. When the canny Dutchman has Australia's full armoury at his disposal you would tip the Socceroos to be among the World Cup qualifying places at the end of a marathon AFC campaign.

It's more the ongoing and lingering doubts over the identity of the country's best backup XI.

Mind you, Verbeek's defensive tactics have taken a bit of a bashing too in Australia (he tended to use a pair of holding midfielders in the away games against Iraq and Qatar with just a lone striker upfront), a ploy which stifled any creativity fostered from Harry Kewell's busy performances.

But considering the Socceroos booked their passage into the final 10 with a 3-1 win in Doha - albeit from a Brett Emerton brace from right wing-back - few are bothering to overly quibble.

Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill were also standout absentees from Verbeek's strongest side while Josh Kennedy was also missing. It would be grossly unfair for any debate on the merits of Verbeek's management to skate over those high profile losses.

They should all return for when the qualifiers restart in September - but as always there aren’t any guarantees, particularly in the case of Viduka.

It's not, however, in attack where Verbeek's biggest headache thumps.

Consider that after an inglorious defensive display in the first of four June qualifiers, Verbeek dragged virtual unknown Chris Coyne into the team and you start to get a snapshot of the coach's concerns.

Neill was missing, certainly, and his absence internationally, despite not even being the best centre-half at club side West Ham United, causes a degree of havoc at the back.

But the backup partnership of Michael Beauchamp and Jade North was so all at sea against Iraq in Brisbane, Mark Schwarzer spent the entire game bailing them out of trouble.

Coyne, from England League One side Colchester United, received deserved plaudits for his stabilising influence when he debuted in the Middle East and could make a name for himself if he kicks on with similar performances later in the year.

Meanwhile, teenager Matthew Spiranovic is generally accepted to be the next in line for a regular call-up after making his Socceroos bow in the dead rubber against the Chinese. But there's not a great deal of depth below him.

Question marks have also been raised about the full-backs. Emerton and David Carney are politely termed attack-minded. They basically cannot defend. Recent Derby County signing Ruben Zadkovich replaced Emerton against China and froze.

Nikolai Topor-Stanley looks to have a Socceroos future on the left and is surely the next A-League star to follow Adelaide pair Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite to Europe. Topor-Stanley - nicknamed Hyphen by the Perth Glory faithful - looks to have all the makings of a long-term national team player.

But again - considering Zadkovich and Topor-Stanley are Graham Arnold's full-backs at the under-23s level - who else is coming through?

Melbourne's Rodrigo Vargas is overrated while new team-mate Michael Thwaite will this season attempt to reawaken his own Socceroos aspirations after floating around the third tier of European leagues without success.

Patrick Kisnorbo, like Coyne, will play League One football in the forthcoming English season after suffering relegation with Leicester City.

Scott Chipperfield's international days look numbered while World Cup 2006 defender Mark Milligan is still on the lookout for a club after thumbing his nose at the offer of an extension with Sydney FC. Trials with Arsenal and Manchester City have so far yielded no permanent deal.

Verbeek accepted after Super June he rode his luck and knew it would come to an end soon. Friday he will discover if a top heavy squad are talented enough to squeeze past the cream of the AFC.

South Korea, Japan, Bahrain, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates will all join Australia in Friday's draw in Kuala Lumpur.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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Summer holidays? Not in Japan

Summer holidays? Not in Japan.
While the rest of the world has at least one eye on the European Championships, the domestic season resumed in Japan on June 25 when Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka hosted rescheduled Round 11 fixtures.

In a season punctuated by World Cup qualifiers and the Beijing Olympics, Kashima and Gamba were forced to reschedule their Round 11 fixtures against Oita Trinita and Kyoto Sanga FC respectively, as the original match date clashed with AFC Champions League fixtures.

Neither side was disadvantaged by the rescheduling, with both coming out 1-0 winners.

Kashima were slightly fortunate to do so, winning courtesy of a solitary strike from substitute Danilo in front of a crowd of just 8,286 at Kashima Stadium. His stooping header cannoned in off the underside of the crossbar, after Oita had twice hit the woodwork through Roberto and Mu Kanazaki.

In Osaka hosts Gamba triumphed in front of a healthy midweek crowd of 15,840 fans in a Kansai derby, with star midfielder Yasuhito Endo bursting on to an intelligent knock-down from striker Lucas Severino before stroking a pinpoint left-foot finish beyond Kyoto keeper Yuichi Mizutani.

There is a full round of J1 fixtures on June 28/29, with the pick of the games featuring a clash between Shimizu S-Pulse and Kyoto Sanga FC - for whom ex-Shimizu midfielder Fernandinho is likely to feature just weeks after his loan move to Kyoto, Kashiwa Reysol host Urawa Reds in the unusual surrounds of the National Stadium in Tokyo, high-flying Nagoya Grampus host defending champions Kashima Antlers at Mizuho Stadium, while the pick of the Sunday fixtures sees FC Tokyo welcome regional rivals JEF United to Ajinomoto Stadium.

While the First Division enjoyed a recent domestic break, J2 continues to grind on unabated. Relegated Sanfrecce Hiroshima look odds on to win the division; the Mazda-backed southern club are already ten points in front of nearest rivals Montedio Yamagata and Cerezo Osaka following the latest round of fixtures.

In the pick of the June 28/29 action Hiroshima travel to surprise package Montedio Yamagata, bottom club Roasso Kumamoto host fallen giants Cerezo Osaka, Ventforet Kofu welcome in-form Shonan Bellmare to Kose Sports Park and Shikoku outfit Ehime FC welcome Kyushu strugglers Avispa Fukuoka to Ningineer Stadium.

Japan National Teams

Takeshi Okada's Japan ended the first round of World Cup qualification with a sluggish 1-0 win over Bahrain on June 22.

Watched by 51,180 fans who braved incessant rain at Saitama Stadium, Okada's team failed to impress, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato and Nagoya Grampus front-man Keiji Tamada cutting forlorn figures up front for the Blue Samurai. They were starting in place of the suspended Yoshito Okubo and the dropped Naohiro Takahara, but it was left to teenage defender Atsuto Uchida to score a fortuitous last-minute winner for Japan to take all three points.

Japan had already qualified for the second round of World Cup qualifiers, and they will learn their opponents when the draw for the next round of qualifying is made at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur on June 27.

Meanwhile the Japan under-23 team drew 0-0 with Cameroon at the National Stadium in Tokyo on June 12 as coach Yasuharu Sorimachi's side continues their preparations for the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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Plus ça change, plus c'est la même Allemagne; Dempsey dies

Euro 2008.
EURO 2008 SF: Germany 3-2 Turkey, Basel
Boral 22', Schweinsteiger 27', Klose 79', Semturk 86', Lahm 90'

"They can play games like this, when maybe they are not the best team, and still win. That is why they are so good."

Fatih Terim, Turkey's coach, could have uttered these words tonight, but in fact it was Bruce Arena after Germany had edged the States 1-0 in Ulsan in the 2002 World Cup quarter-final.

Only two years ago, we were talking about how long, or rather short, Germany would last at home in the World Cup. Jurgen Klinsmann's team had been the most inept German 'elftal' (eleven) in living memory in the run-up to the 2006 tournament, but then surprised the doubters by reaching the semi-final.

Now the Mannschaft have reached the EURO 2008 final with a 3-2 win over an arguably better team, nodding heads are attributing their triumph to simply being German, a synonym for depressingly successful.

A Protestant work ethic (Colombia's Achilles Heel), physical force and endeavour (Portugal's downfall), mental toughness (the Dutch weakness), self-belief (count out the Spaniards), efficient organisation (bye-bye England) and a resolve to keep fighting until the end (Au revoir Les Bleus) in an 'all for one, one for all' spirit of teamwork have been in the German genes for so long, their roll of honour comes as no surprise:

SEVEN World Cup finals (won three of them) and SIX European championship finals (won three of them so far) is an amazing record confirmed by Euro 2008.

England have, in comparison, reached one final ever...

In 1994 and 1998, Germany exited the World Cup before the semi-final stage. A colourless performance at Euro 2000 had everyone expecting them to collapse in the 2002 World Cup; instead they reached the final.

Then another weak German eleven in Euro 2004 boded ill for the following World Cup, yet Germany finished third. Even in eras of weakness, they bounce back strongly.

But wait a minute, didn't Croatia beat them 2-1 in this tournament? Did not the Germans look clearly second best that night, their status as early favourites following their victory over the Poles suddenly diluted?

A week is a long time in football; Croatia have now been eliminated, Germany have beaten their conquerors, Turkey, and have reached yet another final, prolonging an extraordinary record.

"They always put up a good show," a drunken Finn opined to me about the Germans, slumped on a Swedish park bench in Norrköpping at Euro '92. He was not wrong.

Despite all the close scrapes and near misses of outrageous fortune, 'Germany are always there' is the shrugged conclusion we must draw once more, however short memories are in football.

Incidentally, thank God tonight's game was in Basel and not Vienna.

The Austrian capital witnessed a thunderstorm so strong it forced the evacuation of the central FanZone fifteen minutes before the end of the game.

Two people were trampled in the rush to escape the tempest, requiring hospital treatment, while those who did make it to nearby bars would not have seen Miroslav Klose's strike, as the Austrian TV channel showing the game, ORF1, lost its signal for eight minutes due to the inclement weather.

German TV suffered a similar break in transmission, thanks to a thunderstorm near Basel knocking out the picture relay.

Vienna's central FanZone, the largest at EURO 2008, has played host to crowds of up to 100,000 people on match nights.

* * *

Charlie Dempsey, the Scots-born New Zealander who was President of the Oceania Football Confederation for an amazing 36 years, has died aged 87.

Dempsey famously hit the world's headlines when he abstained in 2000 from voting for the destination of the 2006 World Cup, thereby handing the tournament to Germany instead of its expected hosts, South Africa.

The world's cameras were suddenly focused on a rather doddery old Scot who had decided not to vote as a member of FIFA's 24-strong executive committee on the most important sporting tournament in the world. Dempsey claimed others had attempted to bribe him and that he had no wish to make enemies by voting.

As it happened, Germany ran a hugely successful World Cup in 2006 and South Africa got four more years to prepare to host it, winning the vote for 2010 unopposed.

Dempsey rather should be remembered for promoting football in a country obsessed with another sport (rugby union) and getting Oceania to join FIFA as a full member confederation in 1996.

Soon after the World Cup vote in 2000, Dempsey quit as President, dismayed at the media assault on him and his family on account of his perceived cowardice.

Oceania is still fighting for a permanent place in the World Cup Finals, after New Zealand's poor performance at the 2005 Confederations Cup persuaded FIFA President Sepp Blatter to change his mind about awarding it an automatic qualification slot, precipitating Australia's unprecedented move to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.

Dempsey's proudest achievement was seeing his beloved New Zealand compete in the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Friendly But Dull Korean Derby In Seoul



North Korean striker Jong Tae-se was battling with a throng of reporters in the bowels of Seoul World Cup Stadium after the 0-0 2010 World Cup qualification draw. He was obviously not enjoying himself. No sooner had he been presented with a bunch of CDs from South Korea’s finest bands, he then had to field questions such as “Have you been to Lotte World?”

Jong Tae-se wishes he were somewhere else

The Kawasaki Frontale goalgetter grimaced, closed his eyes, and replied that he had not, in fact, seen the theme park in south-east of Seoul. “The People’s Rooney” is a star in the south and obviously unused to the attention of the press. The same could be same about defenders. Watched more carefully than before, Jong battled hard but got little change out of Lee Jung-soo and Kang Min-soo in the centre of the home backline.

It was a friendly occasion. The home fans applauded the northern anthem, one of the very few times it has been heard in public south of the 38th Parallel. The match was played in good spirits though at the end it was noticeable that, unlike at Shanghai on March 26, the DPRK players applauded their fans only and not the Red Devils. The Taeguk Warriors paid respects to both sets of fans.

shaking hands after another 0-0

The game was dull. North Korea preserved their impressive record of not conceding a goal in the group. The closest that came to being ruined was in the second half when Park Chu-young missed a glorious chance near the penalty spot. The visitors threatened little. Jung was quiet as was Hong Yong-jo. Ri Kwang Chon went the closest with a second half header.

Hong Yong-jo gets ready for a free-kick

That was about as exciting as it got the 48,000 fans in the stadium. 40,000 tickets had been sold relatively quickly but once it became apparent that both teams had already qualified for the next stage, not many more people thought that traveling to the north-west edge of Seoul for a game that would finish around 10 pm on a Sunday was something they wanted to do.

Lee Jung-soo (left) and Kim Do-heon

North Koreans can be surly visitors. At the airport, just a few ‘nice to meet yous’ and ‘we will do our bests’ and that is it as far as talking to the media is concerned until after the match itself. If you have a chance to chat to the DPRK’s overseas players individually, not possible while they are on national team duty in the south, they are friendly and full of questions but as a team, they give as much away off the pitch as the defence does on it.

Due to the unique political situation between the two nations, arranging such games is a headache, especially for officials south of the border. Multiple meetings take place in Kaesong to thrash things out but even just four days before kick-off, a KFA official told me that he thought the North Koreans would ‘probably’ come.

So, the thought of doing it all again would probably not be well-received in Seoul or Pyongyang. Maybe Jong will have to wait a little longer to sample the delights of ‘Lotte World.’

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Agnew & Balague speak to Soccerphile

Euro 2008.
Following Spain's dramatic penalty victory over Italy yesterday, Soccerphile spoke to two of Europe's most respected football writers, respective experts on the countries in the Vienna quarter-final clash.

GUILLEM BALAGUE is a familiar face in the UK media. London correspondent for Spanish football daily AS and Sky Sports' regular Spanish football expert, Balague has written for a variety of publications and pens a weekly European football column in London's Metro. His own footballing thoughts can be found at www.guillembalague.com.

What was your immediate reaction to Fabregas' penalty?It was like a final to us. We have always stumbled in the quarter-finals so we were trying to beat our history as well as Italy, and we beat them both.
We played wonderful football as well. The key was to be patient, pass the ball and control Luca Toni. Marchena and Puyol did reall well and everything worked fine against a very mediocre side to be honest. Italy were very disappointing.

They seemed to miss Pirlo badlyI thought Italy's attitude was wrong from the beginning. Their tempo was too slow and they just pumped balls to Toni, very disappointing from a side which has better players than what they showed.

Spain must be overflowing with confidence nowIt feels like a new tournament has just started because we were talking about reaching the quarter finals before it started.

So is all Spain on fire now?
Even in Barcelona! (Guillem's home town)

Has the perennial jinx on Spain now at last been lifted?There is something called winning culture which I believe in. If we weren't winning it was because we didn't have it. It's more than anything to do with nationality. On nights like this it gets created so it is a historical night for us.

Next up are the Russians again
But we know how to play them. We can play them. They are fantastic and it will be much better to watch than the first game.

* * *

PADDY AGNEW is World Soccer magazine's Italian football expert, Rome correspondent for the Irish Times and author of the book "Forza Italia", a journey into Italy's football culture.

Did Italy deserve to lose?
It was the worst game I have seen in the tournament so far, and you could argue that neither team deserved to advance. Spain tried to create more but Italy gave a very solid defensive performance.
Italy did not do a lot going forward. At times the game was so hidebound technically it was about as interesting as watching two shy porcupines make love.

Could Italy have approached it with a different mentality then?I don't think they could have done a lot more because they were missing Pirlo, their creative midfielder and because they came to this tournament with two possibilities of scoring goals, via the midfield of Pirlo, De Rossi and Camoranesi and via Luca Toni in attack.
But Toni did not look the player he was and since he had a bad tournament, Italy were a blunt instrument up front. Since they did not have Pirlo, the whole responsibility for creating chances was on the shoulders of De Rossi and I don't think he did much with it.
Casillas certainly did not have a lot of work to do.

So was the squad lacking depth, or could the coach have done things differently?
The squad, minus Cannavaro, was the one which won the World Cup. I don't think you can argue there was a player who did not play who should have played.
He tried all the options available to him. But if Luca Toni was off form there were not too many alternatives, no plan B. Donadoni has based their game more around one man than Lippi ever did. They were very cagey. It almost looked as if they were playing for penalties.

And Spain?
Spain were not a lot better. It was not a great game at all. They had more options, but it will be an interesting game against Russia. It won't be as negative because Russia will not be as tightly organised as Italy and they have a lot more firepower going forward. They could really embarass Spain.

What now for Donadoni?You would need about three psychologists to work out what it was he was saying in his press conference. He does not know what he wants to do and my reading is that the FIGC does not know whether they want to sack him or confirm him.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

A well-oiled and greasy guide to EURO 2008

Euro 2008.
While the smell of corporate jollies is far less obvious than at the World Cup, that still has not stopped ten brands from trying their best to muscle in on the Beautiful Game again.

A credit card company, villains of the 2006 World Cup, when they managed to persuade FIFA to deny bearers of any rival cards from using them to buy tickets, are one of the terrible ten at EURO 2008, as are an American fast food giant, purveyors of the sort of diet that will never make you a footballer.

The most visible around town have been a German tire manufacturer, decking out their female staff in black and gold livery from dawn to susk, while their all-black coaches with tinted windows cruise sinisterly around Vienna.

Castrol have been given an inordinate amount of publicity in FIFA literature around EURO 2008, allegedly because of their revolutionary ‘Index’, which is the latest electronically-generated performance analyst tool.

Personally, I can’t see much of interest in the CastrolIndex which is not already available in ProZone or similar existing programs.

Like an cyborg Wing Commander Reep (the progenitor of the English long-ball fixation), the Index furnishes the fan with such indispensable minutiae such as:

The Netherlands and Russia’s attacks ran at an exactly average speed of 28.72kmh in their quarter-final....Portugal hit the woodwork five times in the tournament, more than any other team, and were also first for being offside....Five nations have had more shots on goal than semi-finalists Turkey....Luca Toni has shot wide more times (12) than anyone else in EURO 2008
What do they know? Their stats rate the best goalkeeper in numbers of saves as Petr Cech, the same chap whose blunders let the Turks overturn a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 and eliminate his country.
Likewise, Castrol’s best midfielder is Spain’s Xavi, but the criteria are only completed passes. Why then did Aragones sub him for Cesc Fabregas yesterday? Because there is more to being a midfielder than horizontal passing.

To confuse matters further, another page is called ‘Top Midfielders’, where the prize goes to….Tranquillo Barnetta of Switzerland, who is streets ahead of his nearest challengers Michael Ballack and Wesley Sneijder, according to Castrol.

The closer to goal the higher a player scores with a pass, shot or tackle, while a long pass is worth more than a short one (Reep’s ghost lives).

No computer analysis seems that satisfying at the end of the day, as it views data cumulatively and not empirically. Or, in other words, it has no feel for the game, and leads to the drawing of erroneous conclusions.

For instance, Russia beat Holland 3-1 because they made 124 fewer completed passes, which could be interpreted as direct football beats possession football. But the stats also show the four semi-finalists rank in the top seven nations at the finals for keeping the ball – Spain (1st), Turkey (4th), Germany (5th) and Russia (7th).

The only smiles I drew wading through the figures were from learning that the tournament’s biggest fouler has been none other than Ballack and the most offside player was Poland’s Euzebiusz Smolarek, or ‘Offski’ to his mates.

Incidentally, who would you think Castrol deems the top striker so far? - David Villa with his four goals, Lukas Podolski with his three, or maybe Russian bear Andrey Arshavin? None of the above. Arshavin is a poor eighth in the Index, far behind shooting star Ivica Olic of Croatia. Podolski came 35th while Villa was 44th. Right....

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Monday, June 23, 2008

From thrills and spills to bore and snore

Euro 2008.
After three exciting quarter finals we were last night presented with possibly the most boring spectacle of the tournament so far. Even France against Romania was probably more thrilling that what we witnessed on Sunday evening. I have lost all respect for the Italians after they refused to come out and play football, deciding to revert to a style you would normally associate with lower league football in England. Before the match had begun I had tried to remain open minded about who I wanted to win, both sides had given us some exciting games in the group stages and I thought that we could have a classic contest on our hands. Instead we were put through the rigger of a stalemate with only the inevitable excitement of penalties keeping me awake.

I have made sure to watch every quarter final all the way through and the closest I had come before last night to channel surfing had been during the Turkey against Croatia game but even then I hung on to see the most dramatic of finishes between those two sides. Looking back now I would rather watch that game all over again rather than be put through Spain V Italy. One of my pet peeves in football has to be sides that sit back and defend for the majority of the game whilst hoping to knick a goal to win it from a dead ball situation. Head this way for another pet peeve of mind.
That’s exactly what Italy tried to do yesterday evening leading me to draw a comparison between them and Bolton Wanderers. Italy are known for their defensive strengths but what Roberto Donadoni did on Sunday night was apply the shackles to his side in the hope they could prevent Spain getting anywhere near Gianluigu Buffon’s goal and it worked very well. What he also did was tell his players to send long balls up to Luca Toni in the hope he would hold them up and knock them down for the Italian midfield. Only problem was this failed to work and as Toni became isolated a pattern emerged of a red Spanish waves crashing against a white Italian wall.

Watching the game on the BBC it was interesting to note Alan Shearer’s utter distain for Italy’s tactics when a lot of clubs from his home nation have started to employ them and he usually doesn’t make such harsh comments as he did yesterday. The phrase ‘the end justifies the means’ seems to have become a firm favourite with some managers these days, hence the Bolton comparison. The comment I did agree with the most from Shearer were his words after Spain had won the penalty shoot-out which were ‘a victory for football’ because Luis Aragones’ side had tried to play football. They were the on trying to wok neat one-twos through the Italian back line or trying to get around the defence. That’s not to say Spain were brilliant last night because they weren’t in any shape or form, I believe that if they had been on form they would have broken the Italian’s resolve and there would have been no need for extra time or penalties.

I was disappointed with both sides because if Italy would have pressed Spain a little more there would have been a good chance they could have broken what looked a very shaky Spanish defence. Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena couldn’t deal with the physical presence of Toni and with a second striker alongside the powerful forward Italy may well have enjoyed some success. As it was though they decided to rely on set pieces for their chances which were few and far between despite the large amount of fouls given by the German referee. I’m not saying Donadoni’s tactics are wrong because if they had worked then no Italian fan would be complaining and in an age where winning is everything you can see why he went so defensive. At the end of the day I think there was a collective sigh of relief from most neutrals when Cesc Fabregas slide that penalty in because now we won’t have to go through the same thing over again with Italy against Russia and can instead look forward to a cracking semi-final.

As for who will win it well that is a tough call, Russia are playing football which is out of this world at the minute but Spain will have the psychological edge after beating them 4-1 in the group stages. I will stick my neck out though and go for Russia, they just look so good with Andrei Arshavin. If you think Spain will win or believe I’m right get the football odds here

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Spanish edge closer to Eldorado

The Spanish EURO 2008 cavalcade rides on after Luis Aragones' team hurdled world champions Italy 4-2 on penalties in Vienna.

With no score after extra-time, Italians Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale fluffed their spot-kicks, handing coach Roberto Donadoni an uncomfortable reminder of his own miss in the Italia '90 semi-final, as well as Azzurri exits on PKs in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.

Like a hero embarked upon a mythical quest some say is foretold in the stars, La Selección proved itself once more invincible as it overcame its latest test on its road to glory. This year could be their year at long last, goes the general consensus.

This was a top-drawer clash of two titans, 22 technically proficient and tactically sound footballers who slugged it out for two hours with neither side declared the winner.

Scoreless but more engaging 0-0 than the Croatia v Turkey stalemate, this game looked too close to call from before kick-off, and in the end there was nothing to separate them bar the 11 metre scoring test.

The neutral might have channel-surfed in the hope of finding something more exciting, but such are the scraps thrown from the high table of European nations' soccer.

The opening sparring was much as expected – the elegant Spain wove pretty patterns while the muscular Italy stood tall and strong, soaking up the attacks while they sized up their enemy.

The first shot on goal came from Daniel Silva in the ninth minute, looping off Daniele de Rossi into Gianluigi Buffon's arms.
After passing the quarter hour without real danger, Italy began to force their way upfield, working the left flank in particular.
From there in the 19th minute, Massino Ambrosini found Simone Perrotta running into space but his free header was straight at Iker Casillas.

The clash of footballing cultures was evident. The Spanish as flamboyant as Picasso, the Italians as functional yet austere as the buildings in the EUR district of Rome.

Italy had their plan A all right- Frustrate the opposition and then quickly get the ball to Luca Toni, but no second outlet, while the Spanish danced tiki-taca towards their opponents, hoping to release their meandering front two of Fernando Torres and David Villa in on goal.

While the Liverpool volcano called Torres was once again lying dormant, Silva proved a wandering nuisance from the start for Italy, and dirtied Buffon's gloves twice in the space of eight minutes; first with a grasscutter of a set piece in the 24th and then a 20-yard drive from the left.

David Silva almost broke the deadlock in the 38th minute by darting between Ambrosini and Fabrio Grosso before rifling narrowly wide of the far post.
The Valencia star was the centre of attention three minutes before the break when the referee failed to call a foul as Gianluca Zambrotta impeded his progress, inciting cacophonous whistles from the Spanish support.

By half time, Spain had played the prettier football as expected, but Italy had held them at bay and still looked well able to score themselves.
Four minutes after the break, Silva almost bagged a wonder goal when he scooped up Christian Panucci's mis-clearance in the box and whirled through 360 degrees to avoid tackles, before Giorgio Chiellini thrust his leg into the way to stop him pulling the trigger.

Luis Aragones could not bear to watch - the Spanish coach had taken up a position behind the side of his dug-out, before a nosey UEFA official told him to retake his seat.
Roberto Donadoni was in the mood for change too, subbing the inexistant Simone Perrotta for Mauro Camoranesi in the 58th minute.

The incoming Juve midfielder almost scored within seconds of arriving following a Toni-induced melée in the area, but Casillas' left leg prevented his snapshot from handing Italy the lead.

The German referee had seen enough of David Villa going to ground at the first brush of an Italian shoe to book the Valencia marksman in the 71st minute.
With a quarter of an hour to go little had changed and the game seemed destined to end 0-0.
Spain flamencoed their way around the field but Italy's assured back line were giving no quarter, while still optimistic of launching a quick counter for Toni to pounce on at the other end.

With Spain's forwards firing blanks, midfield anchor Marcos Senna, one of La Selección's unsung stars, almost scored with a right foot curler, and a minute later Senna hit a dipping long-range shot which Buffon spilt and scrambled to gather after the ball came back off the post.

That double-play ended up the last Spanish chance to steal a 90-minute win, although Italy might yet have nicked it had Toni not stretched and miscontrolled a teasing Di Natale cross with six minutes to play, instead of leaving a clear run for his steaming-in colleague Gianluca Zambrotta.

Spain started extra-time still the aggressor. Two minutes in, Silva fired a long-range effort which whistled inches wide of the diving Buffon and his left hand post.
Then the Italians took their turn to threaten. Di Natale flicked a header from Zambrotta's right-wing cross and an alert Casillas tipped over.

'No parar hasta conquistar' (Don't stop til you've won it) proclaimed a long banner in the Spanish fans' curva, the prevailing Iberian leitmotif.
The long-awaited Alessandro Del Piero entered the frey in gladiatorial fashion in the 108th minute, the stage set for him to bag a famous winner, or at least in Donadoni's mind, convert a penalty successfully.

The shootout was hammering at the game's door, waiting to be let in, and it was indeed down to the 12-yard lottery once Santi Cazorla flashed his diagonal drive just wide of the goal in the game's last play.

Fortune smiled on the Spanish again as the shootout took place in front of their fans while they also got to take the first kick. Spain were 2-1 up when Casillas saved from De Rossi, before Senna made it 3-1.

Buffon saved from Daniel Guïza to keep Italy in touch at 2-3, before Casillas saved Italy's fourth kick, from Di Natale, leaving Cesc Fabregas to net and send Spain through to play Russia in the semi-final.

Both sides had spurned chances to win it over 120 minutes, and Italy had put up an impressive fight, after being deprived of their creative hub Andrea Pirlo, but if games were awarded for artistic impression, then the more creative team rightly triumphed in the end.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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