The Yorkshire Post sports writers have teamed up to bring you daily musings from Brazil as the World Cup unfolds.
Thursday, July 3
The indomitable spirit of Jermaine Jones, the heroic defending of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, the brilliance of Tim Howard, the commitment of DaMarcus Beasley and what about DeAndre Yedlin?
I can go on. And I will.
The star-spangled banner may no longer be flying in Brazil, but what cherished memories the USA have provided and what a legacy back home in the States for a game traditionally considered as a niche sport. Not anymore.
This World Cup is shaping up to be one of the best ever and it is thanks to the input of the equivalent of the ‘man in the street’.
Who could not have been won over by the passion play of the Iranians against Argentina and the Algerians versus the Germans. Or the Greeks against the Ivory Coast when Georgios Zaragounis ran around like an 18-year-old when he is 37.
He may have now retired from international duty, but can bow out safe in the knowledge he didn’t die wondering, embraced the occasion and had a real dig. As can the US. Memo to England.
Amid their total passion, there was polish. You don’t get to 13th in the FIFA ratings, at least you shouldn’t, being just workaholics. The boys can play, look at the free-kick co-ordinated by Michael Bradley against Belgium which was easily the best of the World Cup so far.
With a class act in Jurgen Klinsmann in the dug-out, one of the coaches of the tournament alongside Louis van Gaal, Jose Peckerman, Jorge Sampaoli, Vahid Halilhodzic and Jorge Luis Pinto and a magnificent travelling support, soccer has never been better placed to strike States-side.
The USA’s group game with Portugal was the most watched soccer match in the country’s history with 24.7m tuning in. Boston Red Sox’s World Series win over St. Louis in October averaged 14.9m viewers. Minority sport?
Crucially for the US, there’s an encore in 2016 in the shape of the Copa America Centenario when all teams of the Americas convene in the States on the 100th anniversary of the first tournament. It should be a cracker.
Wednesday, July 2
Rodriguez, Messi, Neymar, Robben, Muller, Benzema, Shaqiri, Valbuena, Cuadrado, Origi, Slimani. Spot the common link.
Players have have illuminated the World Cup at various intervals who don’t grace the self-styled ‘Best League in the World.’ The all-singin and dancin’ Premier League.
Sky Sports will launch a new channel dedicated to European football next month and those shrewdies are onto a winner.
It’s been a World Cup in which the Premier League creme de la creme have largely flattered to deceive, regardless of the odd goalscoring contribution as expressed by Andre Schurrle and Mesut Ozil on Monday evening, with the latter’s second goal against the Algerians glossing over a pretty poor display for Germany.
Among those to flounder in the group stages were Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Aguero. Edin Dzeko and David Silva didn’t have the best of times either – along with his Spanish team-mates – while it was also one to forget for the likes of Nani and most of the England team. Although that seems to be obligatory.
Perhaps the one big winner from the group stages was Arsenal’s Joel Campbell, deemed so good by Arsene Wenger that he was sent out on loan to Olympiakos last season. A mention in dispatches to for Newcastle and France full-back Mathieu Debuchy, Aston Villa’s Dutch defender Ron Vlaar too.
Not forgetting Chile’s Gary Medel. Relegated with Cardiff, but a class act at Chile. And then there’s Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz – farmed out by Fulham on loan to PSV Eindhoven in January, although lord knows why given his showings in the World Cup so far.
But not much to write home about out of a total of 110 players contracted to top-flight clubs in the final 23-man squads of the 32 competing nations, with the main men not coming to the party.
Included in that being the majority of the team with the biggest World Cup contingent at 17 of Chelsea, with two who didn’t play for them last season in Thibaut Courtois and Kenneth Omeruo having probably had the best of it so far. While David Luiz, Oscar, Ramires and Willian’s journey continued with Brazil, they have yet to truly excel indvidually.
It’s been those unheralded talents who largely hide their talents under a bushel in Europe leagues who are having their moment – and expect a fair few of them to grab their place in the big time.
Most probably in the Premier League, who are extremely proficient at cherry picking ‘flavour of the month’ players from World Cup and European Championships and then whining when the yield isn’t up to much after all. Karel Poborsky, Daniel Amokachi, El-Hadji Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop anyone?
But that’s another story.
Tuesday, July 1
Sticking out a leg to invite Arjen Robben to dive over it seconds before the end of a delicately-poised World Cup knockout match – is this the equivalent of footballing suicide?
It is tough bringing to mind any Dutch stars of the small screen – if you said Van Der Valk, that Seventies TV series was actually British. But they certainly have one in Robben.
The winger will turn 31 next January, but age has not diminished his many gifts including his penchant for the theatrical.
It was Robben who fell over in exaggerated fashion when clipped by the leg of Mexico captain Rafael Marquez deep in stoppage time. After two previous penalty refusals, he was not to be denied.
But the key word to remember in all this is contact. Replays suggested there was some and, in the heat of battle at critical junctures, you should play things safe and not give referees a decision to make – especially after two previous incidents. In games of fine margins, discipline is key.
Granted, Robben’s admission that he did dive in the first half for one incident will have added fuel to Mexico’s fire of indignation after their sixth successive knockout at the last 16 of the World Cup, as will the fact that FIFA will not be taking action against the Bayern Munich player.
FIFA head of media Delia Fischer said the disciplinary committee would only look retrospectively at “serious infringements” of fair play rules – diving only carries a yellow card sanction – and that Robben would face no action.
Mexico’s exit was harsh on Marquez, who, in a World Cup where not too many defenders have particularly passed muster, looked one of the more imposing, secure figures – even at 35.
That was what made his momentary and oh-so-costly indiscretion all the more surprising.
On a human level, it was hard not to feel sympathy for the Mexicans, who have lit up the World Cup, along with the Chileans.
On a human level, it was hard not to feel for Mexico coach Miguel Herrera at the final whistle in Fortaleza. In the end, it proved all too much with his post-match jostling with Robin van Persie borne out of sheer dismay.
All this after his side were denied two ‘goals’ against Cameroon and having had strong shouts for penalties rebuffed against Croatia. What have Mexico done to upset people?
But, in the final analysis, the Mexicans fell to a self-inflicted wound.
If one of Herrera’s players had not gone down at the other end if a Dutch rival had caught him late on, however slightly, questions would have been asked.
It is called professionalism. Robben was never going to look such a gift horse in the mouth at the end, was he?
Monday, June 30
IT was Napoleon who famously said: “I have plenty of clever generals, but just give me a lucky one.”
Football may not be quite be war - or shouldn’t be at any rate. But successful campaigns do take on a militaristic theme and the man commandeering host country Brazil’s World Cup mission already seems to possess that priceless commodity that the French emperor once alluded to.
In the theatre of combat in Belo Horzionte on Saturday, Brazil and more especially Luiz Felipe Scolari got lucky.
Three steps from heaven the Selecao may be, but they were a couple of inches away from hell when Chile’s Maurico Pinilla unleashed his thunderous strike in the 120th minute of their classic meeting with the hosts.
The likes of David Luiz may have been praying for divine intervention ahead of the penalty shoot-out not too long after, but they’d surely had their fill of it already when Pinilla’s shot hit the woodwork.
Cue a collective sigh of relief from close to 200million people and those hackneyed cliches from football summarisers everywhere following the penalty lottery. That it’s better that the host country stay in the competition. Why?
Try telling that to a tearful Gary Medel. The Pitbull who cried like a baby, with Chile not far behind following their national side’s intoxicating World Cup ride which had seduced footballing neutrals every bit as much as Brazil’s story. If not more.
For Brazil, it was perhaps the moment that can define champions, just when they were preparing to stare down the barrel as they did at the Maracana in 1950 at hands of Uruguay.
Luck comes in handy. Rewind the clock to Italy in 1982, when the Azzurri used up their fair bit of that irresistible quality.
History will show Enzo Bearzot’s side only went through the knock-out stages courtesy of scoring one more goal than Cameroon after they finished level on points and goal difference following their group.
Few of a certain age cannot also forget how they ironically sent home Brazil in the second group stage and while Paolo Rossi took the glory, it was dozy defending from Junior in playing him onside that had just as much to do with that famous 3-2 victory in Barcelona.
In 1986, we had Maradona’s Hand of God and just as the clock went around for him following a red-card disgrace four years earlier, so fortune favoured Brazil keeper Julio Cesar in Saturday’s penalty shoot-out after his high-profile mistake in his country’s loss to Holland in South Africa in 2010.
The last host nation to lift a World Cup? France in 1998 and who can forget how they enjoyed a fair bit of fortune in the knock-out phases to beat Paraguay courtesy of the first-ever golden goal and Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals despite clearly lacking a quality central striker.
A bit like, er, Brazil, whose over-reliance on Neymar is colossal.
Who can forget Stephane Guivarc’h - no wonder Laurent Blanc kissed Fabian Barthez’s head for luck.. Well, a Portugeuse speaker called Fred is doing a very passable impersonisation of Guivarc’h this time around in a Brazil shirt.
But Brazil stumble on and no-one will care in a nation where anything less than lifting the gleaming trophy in Rio in just under a fortnight will be represented as a failure.
They train under a pillar of rock known as God’s finger in the city of Teresopolis you know and that celestial impact has already come in handy once. Useful weapon to have that.
Wednesday, June 25
IT was Luis Suarez’s old youth team coach who has comfortably provided the most succinct analysis of the demonised striker’s mindset in recent days.
It actually came before the Uruguayan man-child dined out al fresco on an Italian dish called Giorgio Chiellini in Natal and proved somewhat fateful.
Ale Garay, who coached Suarez at Nacional, was right on the money in his view of the compatriot, stating: “I compare him to someone with a tiger at the bottom of their garden.
“You give him the best food, best care, but one day the tiger will open the door and eat you. Why? Because he is still a tiger.”
Whether it’s referring to tigers or the old scorpion and frog fable, the interpretation is clear. Individuals ultimately revert to type, behave in accordance with their true characters regardless of their education and despite knowing full well the right course of action.
As an incredulous world proceeded the events of another Suarezgate, it was Alan Shearer who stole the thunder of sub-editors everywhere when he spoke of the Liverpool striker’s deplorable – insert your own words here – actions when he said ‘Three bites and you’re out’, albeit without realising the irony of his statement.
After losing his mind in copping separate ten and seven match bans respectively for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal in club games in 2013 and 2010, La Pistolero’s attacking guns should remain in its holster for months, never mind games or weeks.
Afraid to say, it’s all part of the Suarez experience and ticket. For every moment to enrich the footballing canvas, we have witnessed wanton vandalism to thrash a reputation.
Sadly, most modern-day World Cups are always full value for a shocking World Cup moment or two; we had the Zinedine Zidane headbutt back in 2006. Four years ago, there was Nigel de Jong’s assault on Xavi Alonso, again in the blue-riband game.
Further back, we had the disgraceful Argentine performance in the 1990 showpiece, four years prior to the most hideous development of all, not even on the pitch. When Colombian captain Andrés Escobar was shot dead ten days after scoring an own goal which led to his country’s exit from the World Cup of 1994.
World Cup time may showcase the best of football and human nature – and this competition has. But also the worst and now Suarez must take his penance.
Back in 1986, Diego Maradona possessed majestic and irresistible timing to follow his Hand of God strike with arguably the best World Cup goal in history, beast before beauty.
For Suarez, the order was the other way around, from sumptuous in Sao Paulo with two sublime goals versus England to notorious in Natal.
If you had to reserve sympathy for anyone, it would be three people. Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez, Suarez’s wife Sofia and his club boss Brendan Rodgers.
Tabarez’s defence of Suarez, post match, was borne out of a desperate plea for clemency, given the striker’s standing as his country’s best player. The one player Uruguay can’t replace.
For Suarez’s other half and Rodgers, there’s the sense of dread, accompanied with a slightly sick and bereft feeling, which will be oh-so-familiar after another serious transgression. Here we go again. Gracias Luis.
Tuesday, June 24
A saying in days of yore suggested that if you needed to find a centre-half worth his weight in gold, all you had to do was whistle down a pit shaft and your call would be answered.
The mines may have long gone in the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley, but a young lad by the name of Stones has still managed to reach the international surface. But as for the rest of the country, the seam looks exhausted regarding future international-class centre-halves.
Where have they all gone? Defensive midfielders, too?
Any supporters caring to write down the line-up of the England side which will step out for their opening game of the Euro 2016 finals – whose bloated format seems to dictate that it is harder not to qualify than to qualify – are likely to have two vacant areas as difficult as The Times crossword to fill.
Namely, the centre of the back four and the area just in front of it screening the defence.
John Stones’s progress will hopefully be such that he will fill one of the central defensive slots.
As for other centre-back contenders and holding midfielders, send your answers on a postcard, please.
With the stars of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka dimmed somewhat and Chris Smalling and Phil Jones hardly in the ascendancy, what of the others?
Stephen Caulker has just been relegated at Cardiff, although he is likely to move on, and the likes of Ryan Shawcross and James Tomkins are decent centre-backs who play for average clubs.
But a step up from Cahill and Jagielka? No.
With the smart money on Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard both retiring, what of the enforcers in front of the back four, likely to play alongside Jack Wilshere, if he steers clear of injury and kicks on at Arsenal. Cue a collective scratching of heads.
The international careers of Leighton Baines and Glen Johnson are likely to have reached their apex, but there are full-back answers in Jon Flanagan, Kieron Gibbs, Luke Shaw and possibly Andre Wisdom, three of whom could be playing Champions League football next term.
Further up the pitch, the future is bright with Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge all claiming invaluable experience in Brazil.
Injury has prevented Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott from being afforded that chance this time around. But their time will come.
The shop window looks fine. Less so the goods at the back.
Monday, June 23
The demise of the European contingent in this most magical of World Cups has been alarming.
Only Holland, France and Germany have been able to match the energy, application and drive of the Latin American and Central American teams that have set this World Cup alight.
I wouldn’t even class Belgium in that exclusive club, despite their two wins from two games. They’ve hardly sparkled.
Is it exhaustion after a long domestic season? Possibly. Spain could certainly argue that, although the unravelling of their defence within two games owes as much to rival nations catching up and the champions not evolving, as anything else.
The demise of England has been much debated - and a definitive answer, other than simply not good enough - has yet to be found.
Is it the oppressive temperatures in places like Manuas, Natal and Salvador that have stifled the European challenge? Arguably. It’s not easy playing in those conditions but other nations have risen to the challenge.
Or is it merely that while Europe has the best leagues in the world, we no longer possess the greatest bulk of foremost nations?
I would say the latter. Nations like Colombia and Chile, in particular, have caught European teams off guard and are accelerating past them at an enlightening rate at this World Cup.
It is making Brazil 2014 all that more memorable. And long may that continue.
Thursday, June 19
I CAN remember those glorious words from Barry Davies as if it was yesterday.
That most erudite of commentators famously uttered ‘And Mlynarczyk’s lost it – and Lineker says thank you very much” to herald the England striker’s hat-trick clincher against Poland in the sweltering Monterrey heat in June 1986.
One or two of those vintage gold commentary moments wouldn’t go amiss against Uruguay in Sao Paulo this evening. Presuming the stage is set for Clive Tyldesley, that is...
Back to 86 and who of a certain age can forget the explosion of joy after goal poacher turned TV anchor Lineker fired England into an unassailable 3-0 lead and an ultimately safe passage into the knock-out stages of Mexico 86. Not qualifying through the group stages? Not on your nellie, what was all the fuss about...
In fact, there was quite a bit of brouhaha after an opening game loss to Carlos Manuel’s Portugal and a turgid goalless draw against Morocco which put England on the brink of elimination.
Similarly England now find themselves in a spot of bother early in group proceedings when in past history, the do-or-die stuff has usually been reserved for final group matches before we eke a way through.
A case in point being their progression back in 2010 which was hardly a thing of beauty against Slovenia – and the prelude to a brutal beating by Germany.
Eminently more inspired was France 1998 in Lens when David Beckham announced himself on the world stage with a picture-book free-kick in the qualification-clinching 2-0 win over Colombia.
A mixture of ecstasy and relief was manifest among fans that night as it was in 1990 when a nervy 1-0 victory over Egypt was achieved thanks to Mark Wright’s header – with the real fun reserved for the next three rounds when the nation fell in love with the national team and a cheeky chappie from Gateshead.
Struggling through the minefield of the group stages of major competitions is almost as English as a Ploughman’s lunch. Never mind the Germans who carve up qualification as easily as a combine harvester crops wheat, let’s make it interesting...
In mitigation, England’s group was always going to be a toughie. It looked a Group of death with a lower-case D before the finals, now it’s a capital D.
But on the positive side, Uruguay’s history in making a complete horlicks of the group stages is more spectacular than England’s, with La Celeste going out of the World Cup this way in 1962, 1986, 1990 and 2002.
England veterans have, alluded to losing their first game at Euro 2004 to France and still qualifying for the knock-out stages. Perfectly justifiably.
Given the way England conducted themselves going forward against the Italians, they are entitled to feel they possess momentum in their ranks, having already garnered more plaudits in ninety minutes in Manaus than they managed in four awful games in South Africa.
Back in Portugal in 2004, the new kid on the block was Wayne Rooney and now it’s Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.
The question remains can the comparative ‘old stager’ in Rooney rewind the clock to Coimbra and Lisbon 11 summers ago when he led the Swiss and Croats a merry dance.
Start doing that and we should be in business.
Wednesday, June 18
WHEN the German Football Association went the whole hog and sanctioned their own purpose-built resort for the World Cup finals, you sort of gathered they were not planning on leaving Brazil too soon.
It was a business-like statement strategically made and implemented with the minimum of fuss with the highest degree of professional planning. Not too dissimilar to Germany’s opening outings in World Cups of past and present for that matter.
The sight of Nationalmannschaft dismantling an indisciplined Portuguese side in Salvador with customary Teutonic efficiency in a 4-0 drubbing on Monday had a certain ring of inevitability about it. When it comes to group stages of finals, let alone qualification, Germany don’t mess about.
The last time the Germans reached the final in 2002, they demolished Saudi Arabia 8-0 in their curtain-raiser, while four years ago, it was Australia’s turn in a 4-0 victory. Back in 2006 when they last hosted the competition, Costa Ricawere dispatched 4-2, while who can forget their introduction of 1990, when they pulverised the old Yugoslavia 4-1, with Lothar Matthaus scoring one of the goals of the tournament in Milan.
Going back even further to their successful campaigns of 1954 and 1974, they accounted for Turkey and Chile. Job done.
You have to go back to 1986 for the last time Germany didn’t win their opening World Cup game, or top their group either.
For the record, that’s eight tournaments ago, even when they finished behind Denmark in Mexico ‘86, they had the ‘consolation’ of making the final.
Opening nights are all well and good.
But Germany do not even remotely consider the prospect of group elimination, let alone countenance it with realism.
Qualification at a canter is as German as sauerkraut and a stein, with their modus operandi being around for the sharp end of tournaments. Always has been, always will be.
Germany have not lifted the World Cup since 1990 or a major tournament in 18 years, in what represents a lifetime by their sky-high standards with anything up to the quarter-finals pretty much filed under the bracket of ‘taking care of business’ before the serious stuff commences.
The word is that the cost of building their vast Porto Seguro training base on the Atlantic coast in northern Brazil, relatively close to their group games at Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife will only be justified if Germany are around in the competition until well in July. Take that to mean the final.
Can they deliver? Don’t let it be said that Germany had no little panache with Monday’s win polished and not perfunctory. It had style and substance.
Neuer, 28, Hummels, 25, Khediera, 27, Schweinsteiger, 29, Ozil, 25, Muller, 24, Kroos, 24 and Boateng 25. Top players of the right ages with one consequence of Bayern Munich’s heavy Champions League exit to Real Madrid in late April being that many of Germany’s big-hitters had extra time to rest up.
Inwardly, you feel Joachim Low would have taken a modicum of satisfaction from Bayern’s crushing second-leg loss at the Allianz Arena.
Several home-based Bayern stars, – add Holland’s Arjen Robben too – may have cut a dejected bunch that night, but Madrid’s Iberian international contingent, Pepe, Ramos, Casillas et al, aren’t smiling so much now.
Tuesday, June 17
Wayne Rooney’s mood when he returned to Rio’s Royal Tulip Court hotel in the early hours of Sunday will have been glum as opposed to gleeful.
But if he required any World Cup inspiration to part the dark clouds, he should have found it later on in the day – courtesy of of Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi.
Benzema, like Rooney, has been hauled over the coals for a few indiscretions in his time. More crucially on the international stage, he has largely failed when it matters. That is until Sunday in Porto Alegre.
Dropped during the 2008 Euros for a bad attitude, left at home for the 2010 World Cup by Raymond Domenech despite playing eight of the ten qualifiers for Les Bleus and not delivering in three games in the 2012 Euros, Benzema’s CV at major championships was becoming one worthy of indictment.
Oh how he needed to make a statement of intent in Brazil’s deep south in France’s clash with Honduras. And boy did he deliver.
Benzema displayed the maturity and confidence that has rekindled his love with the French team on the grandest stage with a powerhouse display full of intent. And two goals.
A few hours later, another figure was searching for his ‘moment’ to start crystallising his place in the pantheon of true footballing greats. That man being Lionel Messi.
Ahead of Argentina’s Group F’s opener with Bosnia and Herzegovina in the most fabled stadium in world football alongside Wembley in Rio’s Maracana Stadium, a Brazilian newspaper fired a wounding arrow into the pysche of Messi.
It stated that in one World Cup game, Neymar had scored more World Cup goals than Lionel Messi had managed in two previous World Cup campaigns.
Messi may still be trailing his Barcelona team-mate by two goals to one, but his beguiling strike of beauty against the Bosnians in Rio – akin to countless efforts for Barca over many scintillating seasons – represented a cathartic moment, both for him and the Argentine nation.
Messi’s relationship with the Albiceleste fans has been an uneasy one at times. Back in 2010, respected football writer Claudio Mauri wrote in the Buenos Aires based La Nacion newspaper that “The world’s best footballer is an Argentinian who, in his own country, has less fans than a referee”.
Many supporters have previously handed Messi the unflattering moniker of ‘The Catalan’ with a young Messi moving from his family from the Argentinean city of Rosario to Barcelona for treatment to treat a growth hormone deficiency diagnosed at the age 11 with Argentinean footballing powerhouse River Plate unwilling to pay treatment for his condition.
Sunday’s majestic goal in enemy territory has re-established some fraying cords between Messi and some of his compatriots and it would have been natural for Rooney to possess a touch of envy when the Argentine talisman embraced and re-engaged with a nation.
Yet to score at a finals and facing a career-defining game on the international stage, if selected, against Uruguay on Thursday, Rooney is now desperately attempting to turn base metal into World Cup gold. Time will not wait any longer
Monday, June 16
England fans are already sick of the sight of Mario Balotelli after his winner on Saturday, so it is to be hoped none of them follow him on his official Facebook page.
The colourful striker has always been happy to play up to the camera and he did so, literally, on Monday.
He posted a picture on his page of the Panini sticker album that has been so well received before and during the tournament, with the book open on the Italian squad’s page.
However, rather than sticking in pictures of his team-mates, the former Manchester City striker had filled every gap with his own picture. To paraphrase, it was always him.
It is off into the jungle heat of Manaus next for Croatia to tackle Cameroon - but it remains to be seen whether relations with the press will have thawed by then.
Croatia’s players have refused to talk to the media after pictures of some of them naked at the hotel pool were published, with two photographers having hid in the nearby bushes.
“How would you feel if someone took naked pictures of you?” Croatia coach Niko Kovac said at a press conference in Praia do Forte.
“They are adamant that they won’t speak to you lot any more.
“I don’t know whether the silence will end tomorrow or last until the end of our World Cup campaign.”
Lose in the humidity of the Arena Amazonia on Wednesday, and that could come soon enough.
Friday, June 14
Hands up who was impressed with Brazil last night?
I’m guessing not that many of you.
Aside for the glaring that they were handed the initiative in a game that was delicately poised by a shocking decision by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura to penalise Dejan Lovren for breathing in the vicinity of Fred, there was not that much to get excited about.
Sao Paulo may have erupted every time they scored, but from where I was sitting some 6,000 miles away, Brazil looked nothing special.
Oscar was a little gem, his crosses on the money every time, and Neymar is a superstar in the making, but aside from that - meh!
There was nothing in the famous yellow shirts to stir echoes of Pele, Jairzinho, Zico, Socrates, Ronaldo or Rivaldo.
If anything, they looked more likely to be overwhelmed by the massive expectation of a nation divided on the merits of the World Cup, than they did potential winners.
They’ll get through the group - but they may need more helping hands if they are to progress much further.
Friday, June 14
The greatest show on earth is underway and for that, we should be exceedingly grateful.
Following an at times calamitous build-up which has dominated the news sections as opposed to the sports pages of respected publications the world over, the whole charabang is focusing on the football. At last.
Yet given the previous; Fifa, transport strikes, stadium problems, pitch problems, the weather, Fifa – again – anti-government protests and a fair bit more besides, the last thing we need is more wretched controversies where it matters.
Touch wood, the goalline technology issue has now been (belatedly) rectified and there should not be another Lampard moment a la Bloemfontein and inquests on that count.
Although in the greater sphere of things, that goal that never was mattered zilch given England’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot with a 12-bore at every turn in South Africa. We’d have still lost to Germany if that goal had stood, let’s face it.
The post-mortem into England’s demise in the Rainbow Nation was at least clean and concise. We were extremely poor and deserved nowt other than an early flight home and you could sort of live with that.
Four years on and safe to say never has a World Cup needed a more clear run focusing on positive football and the emergence of a few good news stories or three than this one.
After all the headlines on the front doorstep of Fifa following allegations of corruption surrounding the vote to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a few more would be beyond the pale for many who follow football on the periphery and tune in once every four years.
Within that players, coaching staff and referees have their own responsibilty, but will it filter throughout in the heat of battle when gamesmanship and even sheer brutality can have its place at a World Cup. And much more.
Collusion as well. The Anschluss of Gijon between Germany and Austria – at the expense of poor Algeria – left a bad taste in millions of fans’ mouths in 1982. Not forgetting the ‘Miracle of Rosario’ in 1978 when Argentina beat Peru 6-0 to book their final place, with stories of alleged bribery hogging the newsprint since.
The wretched stuff churned out by Argentina in reaching the 1990 final showed that football with a snarl and not a smile can have its place. What do most people remember about their contribution in ‘90 other than a swarm of players haranguing officials at regular intervals? A world away from the Maradona led joie de vivre in 1986.
Then we had Brazil winning a World Cup almost by attrition and against their pure footballing instincts in 1994.
Last time out in South Africa, we had the sad, awful descent of Dutch football whose mystique was built upon total football turn to rot in the shape of anti-football in their cowardly display against Spain in a blighted World Cup final when at least justice was served at the end.
Granted, an equilibrium between defence and attack should be equal pre-requisites in a World Cup winner, with the balance of the great Brazil line-up of 1982 totally one-sided.
But they were at least honest and true to their historical instincts and could sleep at nights and were loved by millions. Still are.
And which Brazil side is more talked about and revered? 82 or 94?
Wednesday, June 12
Radio Five Live’s ‘Monday Night Club’ is the best sports programme on the airwaves, enchanced whenever John Motson and Jimmy Armfield are on the show.
The evergreen duo were this week part of the panel given the uneviable yet enjoyable task of selecting the greatest World Cup XI of all time.
As soon as I tuned in and before the debate raged, I quickly jotted down my greatest XI – unsurprisingly it did not mirror what the panel, which also included football experts from South America and Europe, came to a consensus on.
I could only select from memory of the players I have seen in action so my XI did not include any of the ‘monochrome’ figures of the past.
Unlike the panel, I did not have restrictions on which players fitted into which categories.
So, in goal I had England’s Gordon Banks, protected by a back four of Brazil’s Cafu, Italy’s Franco Baresi, German Franz Beckenbauer and Italian Paolo Maldini.
Unlike the panel, who had to select a 4-4-2 formation, I chose a midfield trio of Spain’s Andres Iniesta, Germany’s Lothar Matthäus and Zinedine Zidane, of France.
They were followed by a not so shabby front three of Holland’s Johan Cruyff, Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele to you and me.
The panel, armed with statistics and, in former Leeds United manager Armfield’s case, memories of opponents he had faced in his days as England full-back, begged to differ in several positions.
Banks was replaced in goal by Italy’s Dino Zoff and, after much discussion, England’s 1966 captain Bobby Moore usurped Italian Baresi to play alongside ‘kaiser’ Beckenbauer.
Iniesta also had to make way for the Brazilian right-winger of the late 50s and early 60s, ‘little bird’ Garrincha, who, remarkably as David Coleman would say, had one leg six inches shorter than the other.
Zico also came into central midfield alongside Matthäus with Zidane out wide.
That left the panel with little leeway up front and Cruyff was the fall guy as they paired the two greatest players in the history of the game, Pele and Maradona.
Either side would take some beating but just look at some of the names who missed out...
In goal, for instance, what about Germany’s Sepp Maier or Spain’s Iker Casillas or Brazilian duo Castilho and Taffarel?
Full-backs in contention would surely include George Cohen, Paul Breitner, Roberto Carlos and Philipp Lahm.
Take you pick in midfield but those who would surely rate a mention would be Brazil captain Socrates – he of Garforth Town fame! –, French play-maker Michel Platini, Holland’s Johan Neeskens and Argentinian hard man Daniel Passarella.
Then let’s not forget renowed strikers such as Portugal’s Eusebio, Brazil’s Ronaldo, England’s hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst, France’s Just Fontaine and Germany’s Gerd Muller.
This time around, the stage is set for Argentina striker Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Ronaldo and Brazil’s Neymar to provide evidence they are ready to take their place among the pantheon of World Cup greats.
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