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12 June 2014

World Cup Will’e? (2)

Tag(s): Sport
The 20th FIFA World Cup begins today with media coverage equally split between anticipation of the football and controversy about the governance of the game. The Economist pitched it well with their headline “Beautiful Game- Ugly Business.” But even the game may not be as beautiful as when the incomparable Pele coined that phrase. In my blog World Cup Will’e? 12th June 2010 I related the decline in scoring with a corresponding increase in red cards. Then in my subsequent blog World Cup Fever: the Last 16 26th June 2010 I deplored the poor quality of the football blaming the design of the ball, the dreadful pitches, the noise of the vuvuzelas, the abominable refereeing, the obvious tiredness of the Europeans, and the disappointing performance of the African teams given that this was the first World Cup to be played in Africa.

Noone could argue that Brazil does not deserve to host the World Cup this time. It is clearly the leading football nation, the only one to compete at every World Cup finals, winner five times and runner-up twice. It hosted it once before in the first post-war finals in 1950 and lost to Uruguay in the deciding match although technically it was not a final. It has emerged as one of the BRIC countries to be a major economy, now just behind the UK. It also has the most marvellous culture. I remember the strength of patriotism of the Brazilians when at the end of my exchange year in the USA we were taken on a bus tour through seven communities across the country finishing in Washington DC where all 3,000 AFS students assembled. On my bus there were 40 students from 23 countries but the Brazilians were the most effervescent. From time to time we would meet another bus at a service station. The Brazilians would immediately jump off the bus to see if there were any compatriots on the other bus. My English colleague Jim and I were not so enthusiastic. Once we assembled in the Armoury in searing heat and high humidity the Brazilians, of which there were nearly 200, would form a giant conga and dance and sing their wonderful Brazilian songs.

But we should not forget that Brazil was the last country in the Western World to abolish slavery in 1888 and by that date had imported 4 million slaves from Africa, ten times the number that the USA did and 40% of the total. We should neither forget that before African slaves were imported the Portuguese Jesuit colonies enslaved indigenous peoples to do their work.  The consequence is that racism was rife until modern times and the Brazilian team excluded black players in the pre-war competitions. It was only the success of Pelé and Garrincha in 1958 and 1962 that started to turn this round.

The economy has stalled, there remains huge inequality, and millions of Brazilians think that the money spent on swanky new stadia, some of which are unlikely to be filled ever again, should have been better spent on social housing, better schools and hospitals. There have been frequent strikes, serious accidents and some of the infrastructure is still not ready or at least has not been properly tested. It is to be hoped that it goes off well and that the Brazilians and their visitors enjoy themselves for the next month.  But as I write this blog the BBC reports that the groundsman in Manaus for Saturday’s match between England and Italy admits that his pitch is poor despite the colossal spending.

The controversy is not confined to this World Cup but stretches out as far as the eye can see. The selection process has been controversial since the beginning. The first World Cup was held in 1930 in Uruguay. In those days travel by sea would take three weeks each way between Europe and South America so only four European countries took part. The next two World Cups were held in Europe and when the second of these was held in France that too was disputed and Uruguay and Argentina, who had contested the first final, boycotted the 1938 finals as they had understood that the host nations would alternate between Europe and South America as the two strongholds of the game. That process was then reintroduced after again it was held consecutively in 1954 in Switzerland and 1958 in Sweden. So it was alternated between Europe and the Americas until 2002 when for the first time it went to Asia with joint-hosting by Japan and South Korea. Even so there was still controversy as for example when the 1986 finals were awarded to Columbia, a poor nation with massive drug crime. Sure enough Columbia withdrew and, lo and behold, Mexico, which had hosted the 1970 finals, stepped in to save the day. This meant that from 1970 to 1998 the Finals were only once played in a country, West Germany, without a strong Latin presence. I include the USA in this list because of their strong Hispanic influence, particularly among soccer supporters. During this period one of the key people in FIFA was the Mexican owner of a TV station that gained the broadcast rights in 1970, 1986 and 1994.

So I provide that as background to the latest scandal. When the dreadful President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter announced in December 2010 that the 2022 Finals were awarded to Qatar everyone knew there was something amiss. Leading football nations like the Netherlands, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland and Croatia have still not had a chance to host them. Admittedly all of these are European but to that list we can add Peru and Paraguay who have performed well in World Cup Finals in the past and if we want to go to another part of the world what about Australia which has qualified for each of the last three World Cup finals? Qatar has no football tradition, has never qualified for the World Cup and is by every known measure totally inappropriate to host a football contest. Nearly 1,000 immigrant workers have already died in the massive building programme in preparation for the World Cup. In summer the temperature reaches 50°C and if the competition is moved to the slightly cooler Qatari winter that will cause massive disruption to normal European fixture schedules and may lead to many legal disputes.

The Sunday Times has now obtained evidence that an individual who used to represent Qatar as a Vice-President of FIFA has bribed key FIFA officials to vote for Qatar.[i] They claim to have hundreds of millions of documents including emails, bank transfers and so on. My wife and I were away when this news came out and our hotel incorrectly delivered the Sunday Times to our room. It’s not a newspaper I normally read but I read all 12 pages of coverage and it seemed pretty damning. My one nagging doubt comes from the reference to the quantity of data. I quote “The files, complied by analysing an electronic database of hundreds of millions of emails, accounts and other documents, unlock the mystery of how a tiny desert state with no football infrastructure won the right to host the world’s biggest sporting tournament.” I find it difficult to imagine such a quantity of data. I assume the analysis was electronic, i.e. a search by computer for key words etc. For if it had been a search by humans it is inconceivable. Let’s assume the expression "hundreds of millions" means the minimum i.e. 200 million when it is likely to be much more. Let’s assume that one minute is spent on each document. That equates to 416,666 eight-hour man-days.

But let’s assume that no such evidence exists. Let’s say that no bribery took place. It is still a ridiculous decision to award the finals to Qatar. In the immortal words of the incomparable Eric Cantona, former captain of my beloved Manchester United: “In giving the World Cup to Qatar they [FIFA] show the world that they don’t really care about the sport.” Corruption is not just about who did or did not pay bribes to influence the selection decision. The whole system is corrupt from top to bottom because Sepp Blatter uses the money brought in by the World Cup, some $5 bn over the four year cycle, to spend in the poorer developing countries on football infrastructure and so gain their support for his re-election.

His principal rival for the job, the great French midfielder Michel Platini also seems to sail close to the wind. According to the Economist:

“In November 2010, ten days before Qatar was chosen, Mr Platini, Qatar’s prime minister and its crown prince attended a lunch at the Elysée Palace with Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president at the time. The following year major trade deals were concluded between Qatar and France, and Qatar Sports Investments, a state-owned firm, bought Paris Saint-Germain, the team Mr Sarkozy supports, which has since spent a fortune on some of the world’s best players. Shortly afterwards Mr Platini’s son became the boss of Burdda, a Qatari-owned sports kit company. Mr Platini denies none of this, but insists it did not influence his vote.”[ii] It could have added that Paris Saint-Germain has already fallen foul of the Financial Fair Play rules brought in by Mr Platini!

So for those of us who do care about the sport who is going to win? All eight previous winners are at this year’s finals and are in the bookies’ top ten in the betting. The two others in that list are Portugal, 3rd in 2006 and Belgium, 4th in 1986. The next in the betting is the Netherlands, runners-up three times including in the last World Cup. I can’t see the winner coming from outside this group so what are their chances? In reverse order:

Netherlands 28-1 Often the neutral’s favourite but had no answer to the class of Spain in 2010. The new Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal, guided them to the best qualification of any European nation with nine wins and a draw scoring 34 goals and only conceding five. Robin van Persie might just be the player of the tournament.

Uruguay 28-1. 4th in South Africa and with Cavani and Suarez up front will cause problems. Their coach, Oscar Tabarez likes to switch formations and may well do so again to cover up an aging defence though Godin of Atletico Madrid had a great season.

Italy 25-1. In 2012 Italy had an impressive run to the final with coach Prandelli frequently switching formations. He seems to make a virtue of that but it also looks like he doesn’t know his best shape. Whatever it is it will major on the great Andrea Pirlo still pulling strings in midfield at the age of 35 and the unpredictable Mario Balotelli leading the attack. The oddly named Immobile was leading scorer in serie A and, if he strikes a partnership with Balotelli, Italy could go a long way.

England 25-1. As I explained in my previous blogs the common view that England under-perform is wrong. They usually perform to their potential which is last eight. They will do very well to get that far this time. Much has been made of England’s speed on the break but this may be nullified by the heat and humidity.  I can see them drawing most of their games which won’t augur well if they reach the knock-out stage, given their appalling penalty shoot-out record. As for Rooney, while his goal scoring record is good, his positional play is poor and Hodgson might be better with Allana in the number 10 role behind Sturridge with Sterling and Welbeck on the flanks.

France 22-1. They go between extremes. At the past five tournaments their record is DNQ (1994), champions (as hosts) (1998), R1 (2002), runner-up (2006), R1 (2010). So which France will turn up? As usual they look good on paper but football is played on grass and the winner is usually one with good team spirit, often missing from the French dressing room.

Portugal 22-1. Portugal may not be a one-man team but they certainly have a one-man attack. Cristiano Ronaldo single-handedly got them through with a hat-trick in the decider with Sweden. In a tough group with Germany, Ghana who were within a penalty of a semi-final place in South Africa and a competitive USA.

Belgium 20-1. Possibly the best group of Belgian players ever with two top goal keepers, a clutch of top centre halves, several solid mid fielders and some exciting attacking talent in Eden Hazard and company. But all this talent does not necessarily make a great team and the absence of any top full backs could be crucial. Only one has been selected, the other backs are all central defenders, and in the modern game full backs are often decisive.

Germany 6-1. Have reached at least the semi-finals of the last four major international tournaments without winning any. It’s about time that changed. Some of their stars in 2010 were relatively unknown then – now Mehmet Ozil and company are established stars. If anything they have too many attacking midfielders and have not really found equally able forwards to complement 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, playing in his fourth World Cup and likely to become the competition’s all-time top goal scorer.

Spain 4-1. Their defensive record is astonishing with ten clean sheets in ten knockout matches across Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, all of which they won. If they win again they lay claim to being the greatest ever national side, ahead even of Brazil 1958-70, even if they do not have a player of the stature of Pelé. Their style is based on dominating possession through constant interpassing led by Xavi and Iniesta. These two may be a little past their best but they are well supported and overall their squad is the most talented by some distance and they must be good for at least the semi-finals.

Argentina 4-1. Always among the favourites but their recent record is poor. Since coming second in 1990, they’ve reached the last eight three times, the second round once, and were eliminated at the group stage in 2002. Sweden, Bulgaria, Uruguay, Turkey, South Korea and Croatia have all reached the semi-finals more recently than Argentina. But all of those finals were held outside South America and Argentina may do well closer to home. They have an outstanding attack led by Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero supported by players like Angel de Maria who had a great season for Real Madrid.

Brazil 11-4. The coach Luis Felipe Scolari was in charge when they last won in 2002. He always picks a team that is solid through the middle with flair on the wings. While Neymar and company will catch the eye it’s the strong players in central defence and midfield who tend to grind out results. Unbeaten at home for eleven years they will have massive support until it starts to go wrong when the pressure may be too much. I hope Fred or Hulk does not have to take a penalty kick to win a semi-final against Germany.

So my last eight: Brazil, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, Argentina and Portugal. As ever I am looking forward to this year’s World Cup and do hope that hope does not triumph over experience.  

Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved

[i] ‘Plot to buy the World Cup.’ Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake. The Sunday Times. 1st June, 2014
[ii] ‘The case for a replay.’ The Economist. 7th June 2014

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