Monday, 28 June 2010

England's World Cup Exit and the Myth of "Quality"

In the wake of the 4-1 battering by Germany which brutally ended England's World Cup campaign, fans and the media alike are currently going through what might be termed the Five Stages of Football Grief.

First is the denial. This kicked in about 30 seconds after Frank Lampard's 'phantom goal' was missed by the match officials in Bloemfontein. "This can't be happening, we should be level!" we all shouted. This was surely denying the fact that had Germany taken all their chances, England would have been dead and buried and Lampard's shot would have been an irrelevance.

Second comes anger. Most of us are actually still there. Fingers are being pointed, voices are being raised. Former England midfielder Chris Waddle was magnificent on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday, practically foaming at the mouth at the final whistle.

The stages left to go are bargaining (probably concerning negotiating down Fabio Capello's inevitable £12m pay-off for the last two years of his contract), depression (for at least the next two years) and, eventually, acceptance - i.e. that England are not a team with a God-given right to reach the finals of major tournaments.

The thing about this World Cup exit is that it feels like a game-changer. In previous tournaments in my lifetime - France 1998, Euro 2004 spring to mind particularly - the England team have gone down in a blaze of glory, or at least have been able to blame others (match officials, winking Portuguese wingers) for defeat.

Now there is nowhere left to go. It has become obvious to all that systemic failings within the England team - perhaps even within English football - have contributed to the abject performances in South Africa. This is football grief at its most raw.

Everybody with a stake in English football is today pouring over the evidence in a bid to isolate the causes and suggest remedies. One of the most often-cited points is that England lack strength in depth, that going down to grass-roots level England does not have the coaching expertise to produce "quality" players.

It is a point that rankles (and not just because "quality" is a noun, not an adjective). 

England's youth squads have been on an upward curve - the Under-21s reached the European Championship final last year, and the Under-17s went one better earlier this year, winning the trophy. With all the money sloshing around the Premier League, more and more potential players are being taken into professional academies and provided with access to coaching of the highest standard.

No, it's not that England don't produce "quality" - it's that we fail to recognise the "qualities" that make a top-class footballer. Intelligence, technique and discipline - in my view the hallmark of a good footballer -  seem to have been thrown out of the window at the expense of pace, trickery (which are luxuries) and that truly nebulous term "spirit".

This last is epitomised by John Terry's performances in the last fortnight. If there is one thing Terry can't be criticised for it's his spirit, however grudgingly: one has to accept that the Chelsea captain wears his heart on his sleeve. He cares deeply. However, when England have had their backs to the wall, Terry has not provided the calming influence, nor the intelligence needed. 

His desire to put his body on the line for England's cause masks errors. The now infamous attempt to block a Slovenian shot with his head during England's final group game is a prime example. Preventing the opposition from having a shot is far more important than throwing yourself haphazardly in the way of them. And Terry has lacked positional discipline, exposed so cruelly when he meandered upfield for a Lampard free kick with Germany leading 2-1, only for the Germans to counter, taking advantage of Terry's absence, to put the game beyond England.

Picking Terry out is unfair though. Some players apart - Milner and Barry would probably qualify for this in my book, though this is open to debate - every England player has suffered from similar tendencies in South Africa: and this, despite their apparent "world class" status.

If we learn one thing from the World Cup so far, it is that teams with an apparently limited supply of "quality" in playing staff can achieve more than the sum of their parts through intelligence, technique and discipline. New Zealand, Slovenia, Japan, perhaps even Uruguay, do not boast the talent pool which their World Cup performances would suggest. Instead, they have relied on good preparation, appropriate squad selections, some fine coaching and a few fine individuals - many of whom would fly below the radar in England.

The England's Under-21 team which lost to their German counterparts last year included the likes of Mark Noble, Fabrice Muamba, Lee Cattermole and Michael Mancienne. Yet none of these players would get a look-in for the World Cup. I seriously doubt that's because they are not "quality" players - more, it's because they don't fit the current paradigm of what a successful international player supposedly constitutes. 

That needs to change. England have a wider talent pool than people give them credit for. Not only that, but as this tournament has proved, sometimes selecting the best individuals produces inferior performances than selecting the best "team" - by which I mean eleven players who co-operate and understand each other the best.

It's time for us to re-assess what makes a good England international. Is it purely about selecting the best eleven individuals and throwing them together? Or is it about finding players with the "qualities" to work together at international level? I think the evidence of Sunday's match against Germany suggests the latter route might be one worth taking in the next few years.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Boateng v Boateng - A sign of things to come

On Wednesday evening Germany play Ghana in World Cup Group D. It's quite possible that in this country the match will rather slip beneath the radar, dependant on the result of England's game against Slovenia earlier in the day. But there will be plenty of people around the world tuning in to watch the intriguing story of the Boateng brothers played out on the field.

Jerome Boateng of Germany may end up facing off against his half brother Kevin-Prince, who despite being born in Berlin has opted to play for Ghana in this World Cup. This is the first time that such close family members have appeared on opposite sides in a major international football tournament. The Cynical Challenge welcomes guest blogger Ewan Roberts, who argues that they will not be the last.

'The Germans are at it again', cried ITV commentator Peter Drury as Cacau added a fourth goal and Germany cruised past Australia in their World Cup opener last week. Funnily enough, Cacau is as German as Drury – although I have it on good authority that Drury looks rather dashing in lederhosen. Born and bred in Brazil, Cacau only became eligible for Germany last year through citizenship, at the age of 27.

Three of Germany’s four goals were scored by players who were eligible for other nations - Cacau (Brazil), Lucas Podolski (Poland) and Miroslav Klose (Poland) - while their star player, Mesut Özil, chose to represent Germany instead of Turkey. Additionally, Mario Gomez (Spain), Marko Marin (Bosnia), Andreas Beck (Russia), Sami Khedira (Tunisia), Piotr Trochowski (Poland), Serdar Tasci (Turkey), Jerome Boateng (Ghana) and Dennis Aogo (Nigeria) could have opted to play for a nation other than Germany. Nearly half Germany’s squad have foreign roots. In fact, Poland and Turkey are better represented than the former East Germany, whose sole flag bearer is Tony Kroos.

Welcome to the 21st Century of football – an age of cultural diversity and national mobility, or success hungry mercenaries?

Certainly the German squad is an accurate reflection of an increasingly diverse country. Cacau believes he represents the multicultural nature of German society – and with 1,278,424 foreigners taking German citizenship between 1995 and 2004, it is hard to argue with him. The legitimacy of Germany’s “foreign” talent is not in question, but the patriotism of some players is. Do players owe a duty of responsibility to the lesser nations from which they originate?

It is perhaps unsurprising that seven of Germany’s eleven foreign players would not be appearing at the World Cup had they elected to play for a different nation. Are players opting for personal glory over national pride?
The Germans are not the only team with players whose nationality is ambiguous. Over 100 players in South Africa this summer are eligible for another nation – approximately 1/6th of all players in the tournament. This includes players who: a) were born in a different country, b) qualify for another nation via parentage, and c) are naturalized citizens. Only seven counties have squads which include no players eligible for other nations.

75 players were born in a country other than the one they will represent in South Africa. In most instances, the players in question chose a football superpower rather than a minnow. Nations such DR Congo, Uzbekistan, Albania, Scotland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Suriname, Venezuela, Zaire and Cape Verde are being drained of talented footballers.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that in a world in which nationality is flexible we should see a World Cup in which the same is true. Even England, whose team include no players directly eligible for other nations, are benefitting from this mobility. Prior to Viv Anderson’s landmark debut in 1978, England were as white as the shirts they donned – but two weeks ago they travelled to South Africa with nine black players, mostly products of years of immigration, largely from the Caribbean. Several teams are still being propped up by their status as former empires – England, France, and Portugal. In fact, it could be argued that Portugal’s greatest ever player, Eusébio, is actually Africa’s greatest player, having been born in Mozambique. However, there would be another challenger for such a title: France’s Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane considers himself “first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman”. His decision to represent France would appear to contradict this affirmation of Algerian national identity, but Algeria’s civil unrest, and footballing inferiority (more so relative to France) would have been Zidane’s primary motivator. In order to compete at the highest level, and cement his credentials as one of the world’s best players, Zidane shunned an Algerian side that had not qualified for the World Cup since 1986. Many players, sadly, still take this view. Though there is a growing trend of Algerians “returning home”.

Today, Algeria find themselves in the curious position of having 17 French-born players, eight of whom have played for the French youth team. Are more Algerians picking their nationality with their heart rather than their head, or is it simply a case that most aren’t good enough to play for France? It is more likely to be the latter. There is more than a hint of irony regarding the surprise exclusion of Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema from the French side: both are Algerian.

Zidane and the Algerian side provide examples of two sides of a complicated coin. Zidane’s decision was influenced by a desire for personal glory, but also a state of national unrest. How many of the Algerian squad would have chosen to play for Algeria ahead of France if they had a realistic opportunity of representing Les Bleus? How many would have chosen to play for Algeria if the country was still in a state of extreme unrest? Probably very few, if any.

France’s procurement of non-French talent is not limited to Algeria. The World Cup winning “rainbow” French team of 1998 included Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff (of Armenia), Lilian Thuram (French Caribbean), Bixente Lizarazu (Basque), Patrick Vieira (Senegal) and others. Twelve years on and little has changed. France’s primary talent pool remains (though is not confined to) Africa, with ten foreign born or foreign descended players.

Increasingly, players are asked to choose between their heritage, ancestry and national pride, or trophies and personal glory. Some players “swap” nations in order to gain a second chance to play international football. While that is reasonable motivation, there is opportunity for exploitation.

In 2003, Equatorial Guinea were ranked 178th in the world. The appointment of Spanish coach Oscar Engonga began a process of nationality “scouting”, with Equatorial Guinea scouring the world, though predominantly Spain, for players with ties (however tenuous) to Equatorial Guinea. In Engonga’s first competitive game in charge, he named 10 Spanish-born players. This policy of importing success continued, and Equatorial Guinea thrived, reaching the dizzying heights of 64th in the world.

Many players are granted a second chance, but at what cost? We could end up with a structure in which players have a “first choice” nation and a “back-up” option. This would inevitably lead to a two-tiered structure of international football: Those who are good enough for their first choice, and those who aren’t (and play instead for a “consolation nation”), and the margin of supremacy between the bigger nations and minnows will only extend further.

Despite his Turkish roots, Özil opted for Germany because it was the nation that represented him best, and that he owed the most to. A mind-set not unlike that of French-born Mali international, Frederic Kanoute: “Though I am French, born in France, and I grew up there, I always took my holidays in Mali. And inside me, something always said, ‘You are of Malian origin’.”

Similarly, Didier Drogba was given the opportunity to play for France, but opted to represent the Ivory Coast (despite an unstable government – General Robert Guei imprisoned the team after several poor performances in the 2000 African Cup of Nations), and it’s a decision he does not regret: “The call-up brought me closer to my origins, my roots and my people. Like all those who have a double culture, I was looking at myself a bit....accepting that invitation to play for my country helped me find out who I really was”.

Drogba adds, “I’m sure that if I had been called up as a youngster [to play for France] then I would have opted for France”. The temptation to represent a more prestigious and bigger (in terms of past and potential future achievements) is often too alluring for younger players. We must not deny similar opportunities for self-discovery and fulfilment to the youth players of today.

The World Cup is as much a representation of the diverse new world we live in as it is one of confused nationality. Many players face a crisis of nationality, and their decisions have an incredible bearing on themselves and their country. Players have a responsibility to themselves (to their sense of identity) and to their fellow countrymen. When the Boateng brothers face each other, whose decision was made with the greater integrity? Whose decision carries greater responsibility? Or is it simply a case that Jerome was good enough for Germany, and Kevin-Prince was not?

Whatever the permutations of the manner in which players perceive their own notion of nationality, the World Cup will undoubtedly be a cauldron – a calabash even – of nationalities. 32 teams have qualified, but many more are represented. The Rainbow nation could not be a more apt setting to deliver a truly World Cup.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

World Cup Steward Strikes - Where Next?

Having sat through - and tried to enjoy, despite the lack of quality on show - the World Cup match between Italy and Paraguay on Monday night, I logged onto Twitter. I had hoped this might provide some respite from the relentlessly dreary match, in which one group of long-haired, swarthy types kicked lumps out of the other.

Instead I was shocked to read this tweet from Nigerian sportswriter Colin Udoh:
BIG TROUBLE at Durban Stadium!! Something just exploded. outside. Media being forced to stay inside the Media Centre
There was more to come - according to journalist Kris Fernandes inside the Moses Mabhida Stadium where the match had taken place,
a pungent scent of smoke is wafting in the media centre from the warning shots (Not actual bullets from what we're told) that were fired off
As it turned out, the commotion was caused by an attempt by the South African Police Services (SAPS) to break up a demonstration of match stewards outside the stadium. The stewards were angry at not being paid the wages they had anticipated, and have since complained about their working hours and conditions to numerous media sources.

Since Monday evening a further four of South Africa's World Cup stadiums have seen their stewards go on sympathy strikes, in solidarity with their co-workers in Durban. If newspaper reports on the issue are to be believed, the organisation contracting the stewards, Stallion Security, appear to have misled and/or mistreated their workers, and the strike appears to my eye (albeit here in the UK) justifiable. 10-12 hours work paid at something like £1.50 per hour, in an economy where GDP per capita is around £7000 per annum, with only partial regard for worker wellbeing, does not a happy workforce make.

In the absence of the striking stewards, the World Cup Organising Committee have charged SAPS with providing security services on matchdays in the five locations concerned.

It's worth stating the ostensibly banal point that, having feared the worst, we can all be relieved that this was not a terrorist attack. But - and I hate to sound alarmist - some of the implications of the steward strikes for this World Cup could be highly damaging to the successful organisation of the tournament.

First and foremost, few people seem to have noted the grim irony of handing over responsibility for crowd control inside stadiums to SAPS - an organisation that chose to deal with a potentially volatile crowd of striking workers at the Moses Mabhida Stadium by charging them with stun grenades and rubber bullets. One wonders if SAPS are briefed to deal with misbehaving football fans in a similar way - and what, if they do, might be the consequences.

Secondly, and arguably of even more concern, is the fillip that the stewards' strike might provide to organised labour across the rest of the South African economy. On the eve of the World Cup a number of South Africa's economic sectors are threatened with industrial action. Eskom, the state-owned utilities company, could be one of those hit by strikes. Some 1.3 million public sector workers had also threatened to take industrial action prior to the tournament, a threat that has only been postponed by the South African government's agreement to negotiate over wage increases.

South Africa's workforce may well have legitimate grievances; they equally may be using the World Cup, and the threat of chaos that a strike would cause during the tournament, as a gun to hold to their employers' heads. If settlements cannot be found to the pay disputes, the World Cup may be derailed; if employers give in to potentially costly demands, the South African economy could be harmed long-term.

Whatever the case, this is certainly not the last we will hear of the issue. Prior to the tournament so many stories circulated about the potential logistical problems of holding the World Cup in South Africa that there has been a kind of media backlash, as major broadcasters and newspapers have largely ignored or underplayed the trouble over striking stewards. We may all be in for a nasty shock - whether that be a major security incident involving football fans, or largescale industrial action.

I hope I'm wrong though.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Following the World Cup - an alternative guide

Less than 24 hours away and this is the first World Cup-related article on The Cynical Challenge. This is an oversight, much akin to Graham Poll's three yellow cards for Josip Simunic (though not as bad as Ali ben Nasser's failure to spot Maradona's Hand of God).

But I have an excuse. It's difficult to write anything new about the goings-on in South Africa when every media outlet from Al Jazeera to Der Zeit (A-Z: geddit?) is covering it.

So rather than give you my own opinions - and I have many - on what might happen throughout the next month, let me point you in the way of a few choice places where you can get the most out of your viewing and reading experience.

Readers in the UK - and indeed beyond - will probably use the BBC website as their 'one-stop-shop' for World Cup news and live match commentary. Which is fair enough, and the Beeb has justly earned a reputation for reliable, entertaining and sophisticated online coverage. But stick to them and you might be missing out on some really fantastic coverage of the tournament.

If you're still a bit behind on the runners and riders in South Africa, why not head over to Some People Are On The Pitch and check out their World Cup pull-out. They've provided details not just of the teams and players competing, but have put together a fantastic mélange of stats, trivia, downloads and useful links. In short, it's everything you wanted to know about the World Cup but were afraid to ask.

For views and opinions worth reading, check out When Saturday Comes. The monthly magazine has spent a lot more time in recent months getting more out of their website, but thankfully that hasn't come at the expense of good writing and alternative perspectives on the action.

If you want to follow matches online try the brand new ITV Live site. I ought to add a caveat at this stage that I'm working for ITV during the tournament, so I'm not entirely unbiased in this respect - but I'm also one of the few people to have seen ITV Live in action prior to the tournament. It provides live video coverage of ITV's televised matches, plus text commentary of every game of the World Cup. But the really unique feature of ITV Live is that it may be the only place to find in-game video replays online - without having to resort to illegal streaming. Throughout the game ITV will be feeding video replays onto the site in real time, so you won't miss a thing.

If I'm going to plug my own office then I might as well give a shout out to some friends - the team behind the twofootedtackle blog now have their own dedicated World Cup site, Kwaitoball. If it's intelligent, clued-up and slightly cynical opinion you're after, Kwaitoball is the place for you.

And if you're not listening to the Football Ramble podcasts - well, frankly, where have you been? Four guys, a microphone, and a serious amount of football knowledge, delivered with a wit sharper than John Fashanu's elbows. The Ramble are going to be out in Johannesburg for the week of the World Cup Final, and I'm already pinning my colours to the mast by saying they, not the national media, will be breaking the great stories that week.

Hopefully that'll keep you entertained throughout the next month - but don't forget to keep visiting The Cynical Challenge for plenty more.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Why do the English love football?

With the World Cup just a week away many people here in England are taking leave of their senses - most notably in the last couple of days, as millions of people attempt to read Fabio Capello's mind by staring for hours at England's squad numbers.

That's in addition to the idiotic (loosely) World Cup-related products which companies are hawking at the moment. Check out this blog from the good people at Some People are on the Pitch for an analysis of just how stupid Mars, Gillette and others think we are.

But in fairness we English are pretty football mad. We are a country which can support 92 professional football league clubs on a population of 60 million - by comparison, Russia, with a population of 140 million, has under 40 professional clubs.

The reasons why football brings out the obsessive in an Englishman could fill books, but I've offered one reason over at TM Lewin's blog: check it out here.