France’s humiliating World Cup finally came to an end yesterday afternoon, following an embarrassing defeat against the host nation, South Africa – a team ranked 74 places below them in the FIFA World Rankings. However, it was not simply the results that caused such outrage back home in France – it was the antics of the squad, and the almost soap-opera nature of the news emanating from the French camp.
France’s place in the tournament came about through the controversial Thierry Henry handball against the Republic of Ireland back in November, but having scraped into the tournament, France hoped for a strong showing. However, despite having a number of top quality players, public expectation was low, mainly due to a complete lack of faith in the coach, Raymond Domenech. It had been announced before the tournament even began that his record reign as national coach would end after the tournament, and that Laurent Blanc would be replacing him. Whether announcing this before the tournament was a smart move is questionable though, as it seriously undermined his authority in the squad.
Even before the tournament, France’s hopes suffered a blow as their warm-up was punctuated by underachievement and poor performances. A narrow 2-1 victory over Costa Rica was followed by a 1-1 draw with Tunisia and an abject 1-0 defeat to what was in reality, a second-string China side.
The tournament began with a dull 0-0 draw against a strong Uruguay side, which, despite the poor performance, wasn’t a hugely disappointing result. However, a 2-0 defeat against Mexico followed, which started the farce. Domenech was called a “son of a whore” by Nicholas Anelka during the Mexico game, and following Anelka’s refusal to apologise for the remark, he was sent home.
This action caused chaos, with the players making a stand and refusing to train. Domenech was forced to read out a statement from the players, criticising the decision to expel Anelka from the squad. However, Domenech stood firm on his position. When they finally restarted training, a fight between fitness coach, Robert Duverne, and captain Patrice Evra threw the squad back into chaos.
The President of the French Football Federation, Jean-Louis Valentin, resigned over the fiasco, whilst the national team have been dropped from a number of advertising campaigns back in France. Furthermore, they appear to have lost public support, with 81% of the population believing that they were incorrect in going on strike. A number of prominent sporting figures in France have also criticised the side – “It’s intolerable. It’s not at all professional,” said former midfielder Emmanuel Petit; “Nobody has any authority over the French team any longer, and that’s serious,” said Bixente Lizarazu. Most importantly, Zinedine Zidane slammed the decision of the side not to train. Zidane is still seen as an almost God-like figure in French football, so his verdict is damning for the side.
Defeat to South Africa followed, and the team fly home now, relegated to economy class, and facing an investigation back home, started by Sport Minister, Roselyne Bachelot. Patrice Evra has announced that the squad has no intention of accepting their bonuses from the tournament, in an attempt to help stem the public discontent. Raymond Domenech concludes his reign as coach under a cloud.
However, the French downfall has been brewing for many years. They reached the World Cup final back in 2006, but this has predominantly been attributed to the influence of Zinedine Zidane and other senior players, who supposedly called the shots. Since then, things have gone steadily downhill. They exited Euro 2008 at the group stages, and Domenech made a huge public relations error in proposing to his girlfriend live on national TV moments after France had been eliminated.
The qualifying campaign for 2010 was hardly an improvement. Finishing in 2nd behind Serbia in their group led to a playoff with the Republic of Ireland, where Thierry Henry’s controversial handball caused uproar. The rest is history.
However, there is a potentially bright future for French football. The appointment of Laurent Blanc is a good move – a young coach with a glittering CV. He has got the best out of his players at Bordeaux, breaking the Lyon domination of the French Ligue 1. His early performance as a manager has had people tipping him as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United. However, he has a difficult job ahead of him. In the words of French World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu, he comes in to pick up the pieces of a “four-year chainsaw massacre.”
However, he does have plenty of quality at his disposal. Despite his mistake against South Africa, Hugo Lloris is an exciting young keeper with a bright future. In Patrice Evra and Bakary Sagna, he has two of the best full-backs in the Premiership. However, the centre of his defence needs work. Eric Abidal is not a central defender, whilst William Gallas is arguably past his best. The forgotten Philippe Mexes should be brought back, whilst Julien Escudé and Sebastien Squillaci are decent squad members. The promising young defender, Michael Ciani, who Blanc has developed at Bordeaux, should be brought into the squad as part of the process of building for the future.
He has an abundance of talented holding midfielders – Lassana and Alou Diarra, as well as Jeremy Toulalan – whilst Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff provide plenty of creativity. However, he needs to find a way to resolve the rift between the two. The respect that he should command from his players will help – a respect that Domenech never gained. Florent Malouda has refound his form this season for Chelsea, and scored France’s only goal in the competition.
The strikers are a problem for France, having failed to score in any of their 3 games. As magnificent a career as he has had, Thierry Henry is clearly past his best and should be jettisoned by Laurent Blanc as part of a fresh start. Nicholas Anelka should be forgiven and brought back into the fold, where the supremely talented, but unpredictable, Karim Benzema is likely to join him. Despite being unimpressive in the tournament, André-Pierre Gignac and Djibril Cissé have a decent case for retaining their spots, whilst young pair, Loic Remy and Kevin Gameiro, have impressed recently and will be pushing for call-ups.
With plenty of talent at their disposal, and a more reliable manager, who does not use astrology as a part of his selection process, France will be hopeful that they can put the fiasco of South Africa behind them, and look forward to a more successful tournament in 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
However, the fallout from South Africa is not over yet. In the coming week, Patrice Evra intends to hold a press conference where he is expected to put his side of the argument across. He has already apologised to the French people, and his recent comments suggest that his relationship with Domenech is irreparably broken – “What hurts even more is that this apology should have been made yesterday, but my coach stopped me doing it as a captain, and that hurts even more. But it won’t change anything, now is not the time to settle scores.”
Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Saturday, 12 June 2010
As we sit at home watching the World Cup with a sense of excitement, one man is watching the tournament from Buenos Aires with an air of disappointment, but also happy merely to have the chance to watch. Salvador Cabañas was Paraguay’s top scorer in qualification for the tournament in South Africa and was expected to make a big impact on the tournament. However, that all changed in the early hours of January 25th.
In his own words, he is lucky to be alive. At around 5.30am on the 25th January, Cabañas went into the bathroom just before leaving ‘Bar Bar’, a popular nightclub in Mexico City. He was followed by two men, Jose Jorge Balderas and his bodyguard. Following a brief argument, Salvador Cabañas was shot in the head, the bullet lodging in the Occipital Lobe. He was found bleeding on the floor of the bathroom by his wife and brother-in-law.
He was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent 7 hours of surgery to save his life. He still has the bullet fragment lodged in his skull, after the doctors ruled that it would be too risky to try and remove it. A long scar running across the side of his head remains as testament to his ordeal.
While he retains hope of playing football again, for the moment, he is simply happy to be alive. The statistics show that he is lucky – generally the type of injury that he suffered would result in instant death in 80% of cases. Indeed, of the 20% that survive, only 3% tend to have an acceptable level of recovery. So for him to recover to the point where he could restart his career would be virtually a miracle.
However, his doctors remain hopefully, claiming that his recovery thus far has been nothing short of a miracle. Indeed, there was even a faint hope that he may have been able to join the squad for South Africa. However, he was not able to, and was released from a Buenos Aires clinic in late May, where he had been recovering. He has been playing football at the clinic, but his motor skills still require further work. However, even this simple fact is impressive.
The incident brings back tragic memories of the murder of Colombian player, Andres Escobar back in 1994. Following an own goal against the USA, where he deflected a cross into his own net, Colombia were eliminated from the tournament. It was a disappointment for a side that were expected to challenge deep into the competition.
Less than two weeks later, Escobar was shot 12 times outside a Medellín bar. The killing was widely assumed to be a punishment for the goal, with rumours spreading that he was killed by a gambling syndicate who had lost a large sum of money due to Colombia’s failure to qualify for the second round.
Fortunately, Salvador Cabañas survived the shooting, and remains optimistic for the future. The 2007 South American Player of the Year spoke for the first time back in March, claiming ‘I still want to play, really, and I am happy to be alive and to have recovered. Football gives you a lot of things. Right now, I’d love to leave (the clinic); I’d go home, see my two kids and play with them for a while.” While he won’t be in South Africa, Paraguay will be, and their players will be playing for Cabañas.
Monday, 7 June 2010
As Woody Harrelson rolled his penalty into the net in the Socceraid match last night, once again, England had lost on penalties. The most unsuccessful major international side in history in shootouts, England have a 17% winning record, winning only 1 against Spain in 1996, whilst losing 5 since the heartbreaking defeat in Turin in 1990. So why are England so bad at penalties, and can they improve?
Critics often claim that the penalty shootout is a terrible method of determining matches – a complete lottery. However, can it really be a complete lottery? If it is, why do England seemingly lose every time, whilst the Germans seem to be masters at it. The reality is that it is anything but a random lottery. Research and game theory can be used to provide that all-important edge in the shootout, and whilst the pressure can affect even the best-laid plans, any advantage, no matter how small, could be vital.
The obvious first step would simply be to practice penalties in training before the tournament. However, as blindingly clear as this may be, Glenn Hoddle admitted following England’s defeat to Argentina on penalties in 1998, that they had not practised penalties at all beforehand. Frankly, this seems quite bizarre. Although you clearly cannot replicate the pressure in training sessions, it would surely provide the experience that may help. Following England U21 losing to Holland on penalties in 2007, Stuart Pearce had the team practising penalties in every training session for the two years ahead of the 2009 tournament. Not only did this provide the practise for the players, it meant that he knew exactly who the best penalty-takers were. Hence, Joe Hart stepped up to take the second penalty against Sweden in the semi-finals. England went on to win the shootout.
Next, it always seems to be the case that managers leave it up to the players to decide who is confident of taking a penalty kick. Whilst confidence in yourself is an admirable trait, it seems ridiculous that you may have players taking their first ever penalty as a professional in such a high-pressure, high-stakes environment. Both in 1998 and 2006, David Batty and Jamie Carragher respectively were taking their first ever penalties as a professional. They both missed. Come South Africa, England will have plenty of players that are regular penalty-takers for their clubs – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Barry all take penalties on a regular basis. If we reach a shootout, the majority of those should be on the pitch, and you would expect them to be the first-choice takers. If we add Ashley Cole and, potentially Joe Hart, there are plenty of quality takers there to avoid the situation of inexperienced players taking penalties.
However, there is plenty of research has been done on penalties by academics and people involved in the sport alike. Two recent examples suggest how effective prior research can be in influencing the outcome of shootouts. Firstly, there was Jens Lehmann for the Germans against Argentina in 2006. Ahead of each penalty, Lehmann would take a scrap of paper out of his sock, study it, then prepare to face the penalty. At the time, commentators suggested it was a poem or a prayer – instead, it was actually a list of instructions of where the Argentineans were going to put their penalty kicks. He had notes on 7 different Argentinean players’ penalty techniques. Whilst only 2 ended up taking the kicks, his notes were correct on each. Before the tournament, the Germans had built up a database of over 13,000 penalty kicks, providing invaluable information on each player.
His notes on Maxi Rodriguez suggested that the penalty would be hit to the left. He went that way, but unfortunately the penalty was hit too well. However, the notes on Ayala said ‘waits long time, long run-up, right’. After a long wait and run-up, Ayala hit the penalty right, and Lehmann saved it. Despite not having notes on Cambiasso, simply studying the scrap of paper intently gave him the psychological edge, and he saved it to send the Germans through.
The other example was the 2008 Champions League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea. Ahead of the game, Chelsea were provided with information about the United penalty tactics. Edwin Van der Sar favoured diving toward the taker’s natural side. Therefore, right-footed Chelsea players would have a better chance of scoring if they shot to their unnatural side, i.e. to VDS’s left. Furthermore, they should either hit it low along the floor, or high, since the majority of VDS’s saves were at a height of between 1m and 1.5m. Finally, against Cristiano Ronaldo, it was crucial for Petr Cech not to move early, since Ronaldo would change his direction, and that if he pauses, he almost always goes to the keeper’s right.
Armed with this information, Chelsea went into the shootout. Michael Ballack’s penalty went high to VDS’s left, Juliano Belletti went low to VDS’s left. Both scored. Petr Cech remained dead-still during Ronaldo’s run-up, Ronaldo paused, then put his penalty to the right. Cech saved it. The next four penalties – Lampard, Cole, Terry and Kalou – all went to VDS’s left. Ashley Cole being left-footed, disregarded the advice, and his penalty was almost saved.
Then, ahead of Nicholas Anelka’s crucial penalty, Van der Sar seemed to have cottoned onto the tactic. However, he believed that they were all going left, rather than just the right-footed players. He pointed to his left-hand corner, trying to psyche-out Anelka. It succeeded. Anelka changed his mind, hitting the penalty at a mid-height to VDS’s right. It was saved and Manchester United had won the shootout. Clearly, the research cannot guarantee a victory, but it provides the extra tiny edge that can be the difference.
Various other statistics are interesting regarding penalty shootouts. If you have the option, going first is beneficial. The team going first wins around 60% of penalty shootouts, presumably due to the fact that there is less pressure on them. Attackers score the highest percentage of their penalties, followed by midfielders, then defenders. This makes sense, and although there are always going to be exceptions, the more attacking the player, the more likely they are to score their penalty. Thus, a team should avoid letting defenders take crucial penalties. Memories of key penalty misses in recent times, include the likes of Gareth Southgate, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, David Batty, etc.
Players that have been on the pitch for less than 30 minutes score on average 86.7% of successful penalties, compared with 81.9% for those who have played between 31 and 90 minutes, and 80% for those who have played more than 90 minutes. The fresher the player is, the more likely he is to score. Finally, the younger players tend to score more often. Players under 22 score 85.2% of penalties, compared with 77.6% for 23-28 year olds, and 78.1% of over 29 year olds. Whether the pressure gets to younger players less is debatable, but they do seem to score more regularly.
So, preparation is key when it comes to giving the side the best chance of winning a penalty shootout. So let us hope that Fabio Capello has had the team practising regularly, and they have done their research on potential opposition. However, a final statistic to give us hope – in the last 5 years, the keeper with the lowest percentage of penalties scored against him is Rob Green. Only 53% of penalties in that period have been scored against him.
Friday, 4 June 2010
Often people that do not understand the passion for football question why so many people care about 22 players running around after a ball for 90 minutes. Even some passionate fans feel that it is simply a game, and nothing more important than that. However, try telling that to football fans in Honduras. Football has caused both tragedy and healing in the Central American country over the past 40 years. Both war and peace; both preceding and preventing violence; football is more than just a game there.
In 1969, the so-called ‘Soccer War’ broke out between Honduras and El Salvador. Whilst the war was not solely as a result of the football, the match between the two nations was widely seen as the catalyst for the outbreak of violence. Honduras travelled to El Salvador in a playoff for a place in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but went down to a 3-0 defeat. A bad tempered game, where the Hondurans were subjected to abuse, xenophobia and outright hatred, just as the Salvadorans had been in the reverse fixture back in Honduras. Indeed, the Honduran coach, Mario Griffin, commented that “we are awfully lucky that we lost.”
Honduran fans were attacked in San Salvador, both before and after the match, the Honduran flag and national anthem were insulted, leading to relations between the two sets of fans and populations becoming extremely strained. Salvadorans residents in Honduras were killed or attacked, including several vice consuls, and thousands began fleeing the country. Less than a month after the match, the Salvadoran army and air force launched a full-scale attack on Honduras. The war lasted only four days until a cease-fire agreement was reached, but a final peace settlement would not come for over a decade. Over 3,000 people were dead – the majority being Honduran civilians – whilst thousands more were left homeless. The economic situation in Honduras was affected by the expulsion of almost 100,000 Salvadorans.
Whilst there were far more complex reasons behind the war, hinging mainly around economic disparities between the countries, the events surrounding the football match are often viewed as the catalyst for the outbreak of violence. It gives a whole new importance to football beyond merely a game for 22 people.
However, football can also act as a major healer. Fast-forward to October 2009, and once again, the Honduran national side travelled to El Salvador in the final qualifying match for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. They knew that they had to win, and needed the USA to beat Costa Rica, to ensure qualification. However, the game took place amid a situation of political turmoil in Honduras. Democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya, had been forced into exile last July following a power struggle concerning his plans for constitutional change.
The scenes inside the stadium in San Salvador were confused for the Hondurans. They wrapped up a comfortable 1-0 victory, after top-scorer Carlos Pavon had headed the ball home just after the hour mark. However, Costa Rica had gone 2-0 up against the USA, and when the final whistle had gone in San Salvador, the Americans had pulled one goal back, but the Hondurans thought they had missed out. However, a 95th minute equaliser confirmed Honduras’ place in South Africa.
Honduran FA President and former Honduran President, Rafael Callejas, said that “if we had not qualified for the World Cup, the differences in Honduras would have become enhanced and probably we would have had high levels of violence. People were tranquilised by the game; it gave them hope and happiness.” Now, the political crisis in the country seems to have resolved itself and is nearly over. Whether this would have happened without the success of the national side is a different question.
It is not the only example of football, and sport in general, having far more extensive effects that people would expect. The qualification of the Cote d’Ivoire in 2006 helped to distract attention from the civil war raging in the country. The mix of different ethnic and religious groups in the national team helped the country to bond, and a cease-fire was declared and observed during the tournament. As one Ivorian said, “everyone is thinking about soccer and the World Cup, and we have forgotten about the war. Thanks to soccer, the country is going to reconcile its differences.”
Iran’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup led to massive celebrations, alcohol-fuelled parties and women throwing off their veils. Some thought that the qualification that may have been the spark that overthrew the government. It was not to be, but the impact that football can have on the population of a country is clear.
Other sports can have a similar effect as well. The Filipino boxer, Manny Pacquiao, is a true hero back in the Philippines. Virtually the entire country stops during his fights, and crime rates fall to zero during the period of the bout.
Football has often been described as an international language. The influence of football in Honduras over the years has shown that anyone that views football solely as a game severely underestimates the impact that the sport can have on emotions in a country, and even the political future of the nation.
Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Portugal v Cameroon
Portugal’s preparations for the World Cup suffered a set-back after they were held to a goalless draw with Cape Verde last week. Despite the creativity of the likes of Ronaldo, Deco and Simão, they were unable to find the breakthrough, which will be a concern for Carlos Quieroz.
This game will be different, since Cameroon will not simply defend with 11 men behind the ball for the entire 90 minutes. There will be more space for the Portuguese front-men to work in. They are very solid in defence these days, having kept 7 consecutive clean sheets in international games now.
Cameroon have their own problems following a dispute between star striker, Samuel Eto’o, and former player, Roger Milla. This led to reports that Eto’o was going to pull out of the World Cup, although he has now been named in the final 23 man squad. Recent results have been a little disappointing – consecutive draws with Georgia and Slovakia, and they have been struggling for goals lately.
Bet: Portugal to win @ 1.64
Bet: Portugal to keep a clean sheet @ 1.91
Final Result: Portugal 3 - 1 Cameroon
Holland v Ghana
Holland have been impressed recently, and are becoming many people’s outside tip for success in South Africa. They are unbeaten since losing to Australia in a friendly shortly after Euro 2008, and have only lost twice since the beginning of that year. A solid performance against Mexico last week confirmed their ambitions for the tournament, and they are expected to name a strong line-up for this friendly, with the likes of Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder all starting.
Ghana have been hit hard by the news that Michael Essien will miss the tournament. They are also without their first choice keeper for this match, and face an uphill battle to get anything out of this game.
Bet: Holland -1.5AH @ 1.92
Final Result: Holland 4 - 1 Ghana
Slovenia v New Zealand
Slovenia are a relatively strong defensive team, although they do not regularly score a large number of goals. They shocked the Russians to reach the World Cup, and will fancy their chances to follow England through from the group stages.
New Zealand have surprised people recently, with a victory against Serbia following on from an impressive performance against the Australians. Whilst not being the strongest side going forwards, they have become a difficult team to break down, and will make things very difficult for any opposition team.
Bet: Under 2.5 goals @ 1.85
Norway v Ukraine
Norway beat Montenegro recently, although they looked relatively unimpressed in the process. They missed a number of decent chances, and needed a late winner to clinch victory.
Ukraine have beaten Lithuania 4-0 and Romania 3-2 in the past week, but travel to Norway with none of their regular strikers, and without their recognised free-kick expert.
There are unlikely to be many goals in this game, and Ukraine, whilst traditionally strong at home, are not the best travellers.
Bet: Norway to keep a clean sheet @ 2.75
Final Result: Norway 0 - 1 Ukraine