Tag Archive | "world cup"

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World Cup 2018: Remembering My Russian

Posted on 03 December 2010 by JamesHamilton

When I heard the news that the Russian Federation would host the 2018 World Cup despite a near-perfect bid from England, I remembered my Russian.

My Russian was one of the very few great men I consider myself to have met. You won’t have heard of him, and I won’t give you his name.

Our paths crossed when I was working in a public library in an impoverished area of north London. A huge, bearded man with a voice deeper than a Volga boatman’s sat down in front of me at my enquiry desk, and we got to talking. He had been a university professor in the Soviet Union, but had abandoned his home and career so that his teenaged son could have the chance to grow up in the West. His son was now tearing through his comprehensive school whilst the father kept their council flat clean and did what scraps of work he could find.

Like so many new immigrants, he did not consider what he saw around him as economic poverty. His ramshackle pad was worlds better than what his old status in the USSR had afforded him, and the Golborne Road market stalls kept him in what he considered to be the style of kings and presidents.

What did shock him were the drugs. Now, it’s not as though my colleagues and I were unexposed to this: it was around about this time that the mother-daughter prostitute team would come screaming into our building provoked by their failure to score, and we had our share of poor souls with ravaged arms amongst our regular clientele. But for my Russian, all this was new.

So it started to happen that, one by one, local street junkies would find themselves being swept up by a great Russian bear, emerging some weeks later clean, happily bewildered, full of soup and stew, the colour back in their cheeks, their clothes washed and their appetite for life mysteriously restored.

I don’t know how he did it: something about not having been told he shouldn’t, I imagine. Perhaps he felt the strength of his own new freedom in London, and wanted to share it with those who had lost theirs to a different kind of unelected power. Or just force of personality. At any rate,  he sat in front of me one day months into our acquaintance and said,

James – in my country we have beautiful laws. In your country – not so beautiful. But in your country, people obey the laws. And that is the difference.

Aye, aye, that is indeed the difference, which is why even mild displays of corruption in the UK lead usually to extended or indeed permanent banishment from public life.

So it really couldn’t have been other for me, that when FIFA handed 2018 to Russia, a decision as demanding of Kremlinology as any from Kosygin or Brezhnev,  I remembered my Russian.

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An Enduring Football Myth: The Weight of the Ball

Posted on 26 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

The dry weight of this 1893 ball might actually be less than the dry weight of the new 2010 World Cup ball

The argument over the ball at the 2010 World Cup has brought to the fore, once again, the fact that even otherwise well-informed fans don’t always know the laws of the game.

It is a myth that the modern ball is lighter than the balls used in the past.

Since 1937, the dry weight of the ball has been specified by Law 2: 14-16oz. Prior to that, the rules governing the ball’s dry weight specified something lighter - 13-15oz.

This goes for the new ball used in 2010 just as much as it did for the 1966 ball. Whenever you read a comment along the lines of “I’d like to see modern players heading the leather pudding the ’66 boys had to put up with” you can assume that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

What has changed are (1) the material from which the ball is made, and thus the ability of the ball to avoid weight gain during the game through water absorption, and (2) the aerodynamics of the ball i.e. the smoothness of the surface.

The new ball isn’t lighter in of itself - which is what people seem to be assuming: but the new ball won’t get so wet in play. So in the broad sunshine of the ’66 World Cup Final, the famous orange balls were the same weight as the ones we see today. And so it has been on every dry day, on every dry pitch, since the balls were first standardized in the early 1870s.

Lecture inspired by a comment on Alex Massie’s TNT piece here – because I wasn’t able to comment there. As usual with the sort of places Alex posts at, onerous signing-up procedures loom..

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England v Algeria: Not Fear, But F*** Off

Posted on 19 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Four years ago, the press wanted an English manager who understood English players and the English culture. They got one. It didn’t work.  Then they wanted the players’ backsides (so arrogant! so wealthy! so.. what that bloke just said!) given a kicking. A disciplinarian – all Capello will now be remembered as – was duly imported, at great expense.

It seemed to “work” for a while. And the sadistic wing of English football journalism thrilled to tales of enforced mealtimes, restricted conjugality and millionaires scrambling for the approval of “Mr Capello.” All that’s forgotten now.

Truth to tell, the press were already tiring of Capello, and the tide had turned against him before the match against the USA. Such was the atmosphere amongst the splendid gentlemen of our broadsheets and redtops that only a series of Croatia-like results could have kept them at bay. I think this difficult start to the World Cup, combined with British reporters’ bleating, churlish desire for more “access” to the manager (and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them) has most likely ended his tenure.

I have no sympathy with press turnabouts, nor with “fans” who complain about the money they’ve spent to go to South Africa. The latter at least still have the money to spend – they are English, not Icelandic, Greek or Irish or Spanish – and they are, after all, still on holiday. But there is something happening here, with England, and if I’m right, it’s something we’ve not seen with the international team for a decade. I think the players are on psychological strike.

There are three separate but interlinked components to this.

The first is the very discipline and distance that brought England to South Africa in such good style. For Capello, the players-as-pawns strategy is a given. It’s what he’s always done. The principal advantage to the players is its simplicity: as a player,you are to focus on getting your game right, you are responsible for that, and, by and large, your shirt depends on it. During qualifying, English players always had something to play for: it was quite clear what they had to achieve. But I suspect that, unlike the manager, the players saw all this work and discipline as something with a natural end-point. The prize on offer to them was qualification and a recovery of pride after the McClaren debacle, then, that achieved, a place in the squad. And, with a place in the squad achieved, the proper work could begin. The real business of the World Cup would get underway with a squad secure in the knowledge that they had won their coach’s esteem and trust.

It didn’t work that way. The squad arrived in South Africa to find nothing had changed between themselves and their coach. In a sense, the prize wasn’t the World Cup, not at first: what they wanted was the trust of Fabio Capello. But it wasn’t granted them, nor will it be, that trust: the players understand this at an intuitive level. Despite qualifying so well, what they felt was meant to be punishment for the sins of the McClaren era grinds on, with no sign of an end.

The second is best summed up as “Robert Green.” My heart sank when I heard that he’d been dropped. Dropped, indeed, after a week of what amounted to psychological torture from the management team, made worse by gruesome press coverage. Reflect on the patient years Green has spent, never complaining, in working his way up to the no. 1 spot, reflect on the moral courage with which he faced up to what happened last week, reflect on the betrayal of one of the genuinely good guys of an England squad not overloaded with them. (Do all top managers have a goalkeeping blind spot? Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do, and so it would seem does Capello). I suspect that, to the England squad, Green isn’t a pawn or a keeper needing to prove himself all over again at this climax of his career, but a mate and a colleague, and one who is being ripped apart in public to no purpose, abandoned and humiliated. It could be them next. After Green, what safety and solidarity can there be for this England squad?

The third point relates to the press. When it comes to the hacks, Capello is not Mourinho, or Ferguson, or Wenger, or Clough: he does not seem to see the need to shield his players from the worst of the criticism. The sudden, press-driven intimacy of a World Cup, with every player the subject of remorseless speculation and destabilising criticism, changes the nature of what Capello calls “the group.” It’s no longer something you fight to get into: it’s where you are, inescapably, wagons circled. The dropped – Green, Milner – can’t escape back to their clubs. The underperforming – Rooney – find themselves trapped in the searchlights, ripped by offensive fire. This morning, had Mourinho taken the job, the Special One would be in the most almightly contrived battle with FIFA or the FA, and those searchlights, that fire, would be his and his alone. I say this with reluctance, but I think Capello is using the players as human shields for himself, and David James’ interview, in which England’s fair-minded, intelligent and articulate veteran could scarcely keep the note of contempt out of his voice, shows the result.

All of a sudden, England’s an unhappy camp, and last night’s body language said it as loudly as did the performance. As had some of the comments made by players in the run-up: Terry and Gerrard have lapsed back into McClaren-era declarations that the team can play better than this, into promises that the team know what they have to do, into flat predictions that the next game will put it all right. That tells me that something has fractured: that the trust and belief are gone.

It’s as if only by downing tools as a team, without actually sacrificing the game altogether, could the England squad communicate the depth of their unhappiness to the manager. That’s how I read Rooney’s parting comments:

“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is … for fuck’s sake.”

There’s been no loyal support, not since arriving, not from the fans, from whom it is no longer expected, and not from the manager. Rooney’s come in for criticism for this, but he’s absolutely right. The time for punishment for the past has been over since the squad was announced. Yet it’s gone on regardless, and fan narcissism doesn’t help.

Cast your minds back to the qualification games for the 2000 European Championships. Glenn Hoddle had made an excellent start as England manager. A side built around Adams, Ince and Shearer had come home early from the World Cup, but on the back of the best all-round set of performances since 1970.  The young Manchester United midfield were bedding in, Michael Owen had arrived, and the future looked bright. But, a couple of lacklustre games into Euro 200o qualifying, Hoddle rowed with Alan Shearer, saying “Tell me why you are producing performances like this.”

Shearer replied: “Have you ever thought the problem might be you?”

It’s not pressure. It’s not nerves. It’s not fear. It’s a message to Capello, and it reads f*** off.

Postscript:

All of the above is speculative to a large degree, and were England to go in at half-time 2-0 up over Slovakia, my guess is that a great deal will be forgiven and forgotten. What I mean is: we’ll know by then.

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Slapstick

Posted on 17 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

THAT Pires/Henry penalty

Athletics, cricket and swimming have their blooper reels and ice hockey its fights. But only football has cock-up at its core. Only in football is savage and ridiculous public error key to so many significant moments and germaine to so many results.

That’s down to the random element, of course, and (let’s get it over with) the ball is round. But the slapstick element at the top of the game is in decline. Increased fitness, tactical sophistication and technical ability conspire and the outcome is Portugal v Ivory Coast.

Nevertheless, even this World Cup has had its moments, and can I just say that subsequent first round matches have made England’s performance and result look better and better?

But it’s not England who have impressed me the most. They’re in the second rank, alongside buccaneering Chile, the US (those boxers’ names: Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson..) and Germany.

No, it’s Brazil I’m admiring – that mix of strong, capable defence, patient midfield and two wild talents up front. So that’s what Robinho is really about.. and it’s good to see a country developing from backwoodsmen into a major sporting power. This Brazil is a mature, rounded squad, tactically and technically capable of taking on the Italys and Spains. Compare the 2010 team’s skill and efficiency with the hapless, ill-disciplined, panic-ridden and gallumphing Brazil of 40 years ago:

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Christmas 2009: Scotland v Brazil 1974

Posted on 21 December 2009 by JamesHamilton

Scotland drew the World Champions – and such World Champions! in their first round at their first World Cup. And played them off the park. Only Rivelino would have deserved a place in Willie Ormond’s side that day.

Scotland could, if they wished, remember 1974 for this. Only the Netherlands, against the same opponents, would put on a better display in the entire tournament. It might be the best Scottish performance of all time, but if you’d rather have Baxter in ’67, a much ropier display all round, then suit yourself.

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Histrionics, Hair Gel.. and a Quarter Final From Hell

Posted on 27 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

You’d have asked for anyone save Portugal.

It’s one for the remaining band who believe that the lesser the opposition, the better our chances. For the rest of us, we can only hope that England stir themselves, and trust in something more interesting for the semi-final.

Brace yourselves for a week of the following stories on the back page, none of which are likely to do anything other than sour your day:

  • “Big Phil” would have dropped Beckham
  • “Big Phil” has “outthought” Eriksson twice: will he do it again?
  • “Big Phil” could teach Eriksson a thing or two about substitutions and inspiring his players (we’ll forget about Portugal’s lack of penetration against a weak Dutch side, and the way Scolari’s players lost their discipline completely in the second half..
  • Various comparisons between Scolari and Steve McClaren, all of which will run in Scolari’s favour
  • Eriksson should drop Beckham/Hargreaves/Robinson!!/Terry/anyone else, but won’t because he lacks the football knowledge and nous of the sweating tabloid hack in question.

It’s going to be a horribly ugly game, in what has suddenly become an ugly World Cup – Wimbledon can’t come soon enough.

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World Cup 2006: First Round Review

Posted on 25 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

A little late, perhaps, as I’ve already seen German gamesmanship sneak them past Sweden in their second-round tie, and I’ve already watched (yet another) epic Argentine victory, this time over an excellent Mexico. That match, at any rate, lived up to the extraordinary standards that the tournament’s set so far, and my worries that things would now settle down into a kind of football we’re all too accustomed to have been temporarily assuaged.

I no longer see England as potential winners of the tournament, but that’s not really their fault: they haven’t played badly. Indeed, finding out how they have played requires detective work: there have been no match reports in the press, and in their place we’ve been given a series of tired re-rehearsals of each writer’s individual gripes, whether those be over Beckham or over the Swedish coach or over the non-selection of any number of what you might consider worthies…

No, my doubts about England are less reasons than celebrations: for once, everyone has turned up at the World Cup. The last to check in were France. As I gloried in the M40 sunshine on Friday evening, over my blowtorching sunroof the radio gave me Henry and Viera, finally, being there; I’d almost given up. For the French, this is very much their last hurrah. Really, their matches should be senior tour exercises, full of the skills men still have in old age, careless, tension-free and with all that mugging to camera. You almost expect to see Jack Charlton there, feigning annoyance at yet another yellow card. And then you do… Yet, they are here, and not in the sense that the Rolling Stones are here, or the Eagles.. Most tournaments have perhaps two teams who show the kind of limitless, exultant promise that we’ve seen pouring off at least seven sides this time. England aren’t going to fail because they don’t produce what we expect of them – they’ll lose simply because everyone else is absolutely turning it on: we didn’t expect it, and it’s marvellous.

I’ve already said that my team of the first round was the Ivory Coast, and that remains the case, but Ghana have shown the same intent, the determination to be a proper team at a proper World Cup with proper ambition. There was a decision to be made by the subSaharan African sides – were they going to be the energetic, naive, skilful sides that cameo every four years, patronised by Pele and wearisome English commentators, or.. and they’ve taken the second option. And the psychological effect on the viewer – on this viewer – is considerable: if Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, contain more of these intelligent, committed people, if they have millions of the kind who have played with such pride and discipline in Germany, then – if it’s not too much of a change of subject – certain negative opinions about the future of their continent can be revised. I’ll say it again, it’s been a magnificent tournament.

The most interesting writing on the tournament hasn’t come from the press, but the Independent‘s having a good 2006. Isn’t that just extraordinary? The closest modern equivalent would be a discovery of cutting-edge investigative reporting in Weekly World News. Liberal intelligence survives in the Independent, in their own little Brigadoon in the back pages. I fear that mentioning it may cause it to blink out of existence and become as if it never were. The best football blogs haven’t been in the expected places, either; the first of my choices would recoil at the very idea of having provided excellent coverage, but that’s the beauty of it; the second has done his best work away from his normal base, but both are worth chasing up. Some existing football blogs have produced joint efforts – see what you think of this one.

But this is all very well: England are playing Ecuador this afternoon, and what of it? And it’s another rejigged side, and what of that? Well…. I’d rather it had been Germany: England don’t need yet another “relatively easy path” through a tournament, as the team responds best to the kind of stimulation famous opposition provides. But Ecuador are a better side than Germany, and their best players have had a week’s rest. England are up against a real challenge, and one camouflaged by an unfashionable flag and the inability of our slow, slow media to outrun the guinea pig stories. Erickson won’t be fooled: some of his players will be, and the commentators certainly will be.

The rejigged team is not a new formation – don’t believe the papers there: something very similar was used in the warm-ups immediately before the tournament. Without Owen, this is very much the side I’d play, but I’d wish to God I could pick Neville.

It’s going to be terribly hard to win today. It’s going to be terribly hard listening to England – listening to the English – undergoing the experience. Time for a stroll up Port Meadow, where there are no radios or televisions, and just enough riverside path and ruined Nunnery to last me the 140 minutes plus penalties.

If you want me, I’ll be in the Perch.

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