Monday, May 31, 2010

Congratulations to the Champions of Asia

Women's Asia Cup 2010 Final
Matildas v North Korea 1:1
Matildas win 5:4 on penalties after extra time

Oh it was wet and it was muddy,
so both sides were playing cruddy,
but the stakes were high and the Ozzies were game
and the Matildas laughed at the rain.

Sam Kerr popped one at fifteen minutes!
No one yet knows this young girl's limits.
But the brave Stalinists came back near the end
to force the time into extend.

But the mud and the crud meant no more goal
could be scored in extra time, although
it was bloody close once or twice
for the bad guys, so the gods were nice.

Sally, Kyles, Kate, Heather and Kyah
scored penalties to finish North Korea.
Australians all doff hats and bow
to the Champions of Asia, right about now.

A drink to el captain, Melissa Barbieri,
And to the good coach Tom Sermanni.
There are leaders aplenty in this group of women
and no shortage of spirit (whether runnin' or swimmin').

And we wish the wounded all the best:
De Vanna and Sarah Walsh, and all the rest
with bruises, cramps, scrapes and weariness.
You have earned your glory, defeated your nemesis.

Girls of the Matildas, we drink to you all!
You have done Australians proud, one and all,
and when you are next year in Germany to take on the World
we know that you'll give it a damn good burl.

Cheers Matildas
I'm sorry it's the best I could do.

For good raves about the game, it's the same four good bloggers, Fiona Crawford, Merryn Sherwood, Mike Salter and Eamonn Flanagan.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Matildas, Right Now, You Are Australia

Well it's 12 sleeps 'till the lad and I head on our merry adventure, but just hold the whole World Cup thought for a bit.

Tomorrow evening in Chengdu, China, the Matildas, Australia's most important women's sporting team, will be playing to be the Champions of Asia, against North Korea. It's a grand final. We're there.

In getting there we lost our best striker, Lisa De Vanna, to a broken leg, and she will not be playing for some months. But the semi-final against favourites Japan was won without her, and the team seems to be bursting with talent. All the best Lisa for some rest and a quick recovery.

I won't go on too much about the almost comic book contrast between the two teams, Australia and North Korea, except to just bring it to this brief attention. It is the United States' most loyal ally against the same's most foul foe. I daresay it is the most free country in Asia versus the most oppressive. It is a long-haired, feminine team of joy and friendship versus a Stalinist machine of military-cut girls who look like boys. It is Athens vs Sparta. I guess I couldn't have laid more prejudices into those few lines if I tried, and of course my caracatures are generalised and limited, but if you don't believe my description describes something that every observer is forced to make some sense of, do look for yourselves.

Live tomorrow (Sunday) night from 9.30pm on ABC2.

The Women's Asia Cup is real silverware, the stuff that glistens in the light. It should be glistening in the bright stadia lights held aloft by Melissa Barbieri, the Matildas' captain, brilliant goalkeeper and (arguably) hottest babe (unfortunately married), about this time tomorrow night. May the gods have it be so.

May it not become an icon of the great Leader, the propaganda accessory of a Stalinist State.

The Matildas have had a fair bit of turnover in their squad in the last 12 months and at the same time coach Tom Sermanni has discovered remarkable depth available to him. So it is perfect timing to hit a stride, twelve months away from the Women's World Cup in Germany 2011 (for which they also qualified in making these finals). The 2007 Women's World Cup was one of the highlights of my soccer watching career, and the Matildas exceeded all expectations there, making the semi-finals (I wrote about it here). In 2011, unlike the Socceroos in South Africa 2010, The Matildas will be shooting to win, without any obvious denial of reality. They are true stars for our country, and I love them.

For good articles on the Matildas Asia Cup progress so far, including much better analysis than this, see Fiona Crawford, Merryn Sherwood, Mike Salter and Eamonn Flannagan.

I adore you Matildas. May the good guys win. ;)


Friday, May 28, 2010

Getting into the Zone

As the 32 World Cup squads are finalised, the weight of neurotic speculation from fans and media pundits has shifted from which players will go to which teams will win. I'm not above such speculation, and will cast more specific oracles of my own closer to the games, but right now, as in The Gods are Feeling Cheeky, I'm interested more in the question than the answer. What factors will decide?

My general thesis (well, it's hardly mine, but I've adopted it) is that different conditions make for different winners, and that furthermore South Africa will present us with new conditions that will throw the order of things in ways we can't yet see.

The factor of fate, 'the gods', or in the vernacular, luck, is a constant in every competition, and nobody can tell us what it will decree or why. So far the gods are working for Australia. The latest is that Essien is officially out of Ghana's squad, which makes Ghana a much less formidable proposition. Think of the Greek army against the Trojans when Achilles stayed in his tent and you get the idea. We cannot trust the gods of course, and should almost expect a counter-attack in our own camp. Pray that Athena is personally guarding and tending Harry Kewell.

One condition I haven't mentioned is that Australia was the first outside team in South Africa, nearly three weeks before the game with Germany. Germany arrives five days before the game. Acclimatisation is always an important factor, and with the rarity of a winter (Southern Hemisphere) competition, Australia doesn't have as much of it to do anyway. We come from approximately the same latitude. Another thing in our favour is the Socceroos are probably the most experienced at working in varying conditions in between travel than any team in the World. The Socceroos do away games in utterly different environments throughout Asia, as a matter of routine. Even the A-League, I should add, has our local teams routinely engaged in long distance travel between a variety of climates. Travel and hacking difference should continue to be a strength of our team.

But that's all just catch up. I want to get to the real point here. The coalface of the actual outcome (who gets goals and points) happens in the stadiums between whistle blows, with no other than the 2x11 blokes on the field. And once the whistle blows, and all the training, luck and conditions have come together in a single constellation that we shall call a moment, the game will be won or lost in the minds of those players on the field. In short it will all be about to what extent those players, every one of whom are capable of brilliance some of the time, can "be in the zone," right then, in exactly those (90 minutes of changing) conditions.

As individuals they need to find the zone and, even more mysteriously, they need to find a collective zone, where the team approximates a single mind. But I'll make a feeble attempt only to explain what I mean about the individual.

What is 'the zone'? I'm assuming a bit that readers kind of 'know what I mean', especially those who've played sport or maintained motorcycles, but I'll have a go at elaborating for the exercise.

Brains are plastic things and the zone is constructed in years of training. There was a study done on London taxi drivers (distinctive in that they are required to know the streets of London before they can get a cab license) which showed that their brains physically grew, and that what grew about them was the neurological database of London streets and the ability to know which was the best way from one of them to another. When you think about it it's an enormous task, but I think it's fair to say all of us develop software packages according to what we do. For myself, since dealing with books, I think my bibliographical brain has increased in capacity, sort of a recallable, efficient, store of authors, titles, publishers and other details that would give the impression that I actually have a good memory, which generally I don't.

A language is clearly a distinct package of software in our brains which can be developed to varying degrees and accessed at will. Musicians, dancers and soccer players, who dedicate a large portion of their childhood to practice, must, I think, develop a formidable neorological equipment dedicated to nothing but their craft. They also develop a capacity to access that software, even when they don't feel great or when things are distracting.

But as with language or playing the ukelele, the trick is to have the software working with no conscious interference. Most of us who have been driving a long time know the moment of arrival when you simply can't remember the journey because you were thinking about something else. It's like with enough practice you can put your body on automatic with just a watching brief for your conscious mind. Call it the sound of one hand clapping if you like. Every striker just like every golfer and archer knows that at the moment you strike, your brain cannot be interfering at all. Your body knows best, just as it knows best when to next make a beat of the heart.

But the soccer player cannot rehearse everything like a musician or dancer, and neither does he have the luxury of pause and poise that the archer and golfer has. Maybe he's a bit more like the driver in traffic, though in a far more challenging and difficult environment, and with the grossly difficult factor of an opposition.

I've heard soccer players say they can't remember anything about a goal except the ball hitting the net. In my forays into amateur sport I know that my own neorological and physical equipment, even barely trained, can, if I can find 'the zone', work brilliantly. A pro is someone so well trained that he can find it most of the time. Meanwhile, the greater mystery of the collective zone of a team, however non-understood, will then be the decisive factor.

In a way, when Pim says he's happy with his system but there's more work to do, he's saying that the team hasn't yet developed the personal and team software for the system to really work. With three weeks he's confident he can achieve that with them, and we must wish him luck.

There's no question that everyone on the Australian team can play football very well. When the whistle blows on the 13th June they will either enter a zone better than the German team or not. If they don't, as they didn't really on Monday night against New Zealand, they will lose. If they do, and the relative German inexperience (at international level, together) fails to do so, we will win. An important point behind all this raving is that when the game is on, all the history and statistics are playing zero part. What's happening is only what's happening right now, under these conditions.

That 90 minutes between Australia and Germany, like many 90 minute periods in South Africa, is going to be a very interesting 'right now'. Inherently, there's nothing predictable about it at all.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Gods Must be Cheeky

Trying to intuit what will happen at the World Cup does my head in. There are so many variables that the situation does approach chaos. But it's not quite chaos, because some teams are better, right? Yeah, a bit.

The World Cup in our age is a contest of Homeric proportions, and for this one there are already signs that the football gods are engaged in their own parallel battles. Meanwhile, past the statistics and history, which is, well... in the past, picking which teams are better than others is not as easy as it looks. 'Better' here, as in Darwinian evolution, merely means, "the most suited for the conditions," whatever they are on the day. "The conditions," of course, means approximately an infinity of things, from the nature of the opposition to the intestinal bacteria of your holding midfielder, from the ref to the weather.

The advantage of home crowd and the disadvantages of playing away are well documented. Apparently Kuper's Soccernomics (which I haven't managed to purchase yet) gives the home side, statistically, one goal on average. These statistics ring true with a peruse of World Cup history, with host countries always doing well and particularly with European countries doing better in Europe and South American countries doing better in their own continent.

There's a strong suggestion that some of the upset, including the strong success of the South Koreans, at the 2002 Cup was because it was outside any of the traditional territories. If this factor has anything to it at all, and if many of the teams are really not much more than one goal apart on average all things being equal, then this factor alone could give rise to all sorts of surprises, statistically.

Remember that home teams have an extra goal on average, over the studied games. Personally I think the home advantage for all the African teams, with a huge fan presence drumming and blowing those horrible horns, and easilly out-chanting, out-dancing and out-partying the rest of us, will be at least two goals. I haven't ruled South Africa out for getting through Group A, and Ghana, especially if Essien is on, could do anything.

Meanwhile the gods are keeping many of the heroes at home. Ronaldinho, of all people, has been left at home. Ballack is out (and prepares German fans for humiliation in parting). Even if Essien plays, he won't be the great we know. Our main opponent Germany is being attacked in camp by the gods apparently, with one player after another sucumbing to injury, but they're not leaving us alone either. "The gods" may be merely a cute metaphor, but they express the factor at play here well: fate, completely out of anyone's control.

Russia, after a run of great form, was knocked out (by our own foe Germany, incidentally), under no other coach but Australia's saint Guus. That's a bit like King Odysseus sitting out the Trojan War.

France enters this competition with an open curse upon it from the entire Irish population of the World. I for one would not take that lightly.

Meanwhile the recent friendlies have been weird. A full strength Portugal can't score against Cape Verde at home? Australia very nearly embarassed by New Zealand at home? Ireland, who really should be in rather than France, beats Paraguay? I think we might have already left the script behind.

The English population are whinging anyway of course even though their team just beat Mexico, but then that is what English fans do. I'm digressing here but I sometimes think that Australian fans are a bit too desperate to emulate the great English football tradition, because there's been a lot of whinging at our coach who has done everything asked of him to date.

Here's something I will predict with a certain confidence: There will be upsets at this World Cup. There will be heavyweights knocked out in the group stage and there will be surprises from the ranks. There always is a bit of that of course, but I think there will be a lot. Brazil, Italy and Spain are the only ones I would bet upon getting through the group stages. Of Germany, France, Portugal, England and Argentina, I reckon two or three won't make it, but I wouldn't dare guess which ones.

Star players who are there - I can't guess who but I have my eye on Rooney and Ronaldo - could flop (in the context of their teams), and names we've never heard of will be being spoken of all over the World.

Pim Verbeek will either be deified or damned for all time.

This World Cup is exciting. It's on new territory which will challenge every team in new ways. There's chaos in the atmosphere, the chaos of drumming, dancing, poverty and race; the chaos of injury and best-laid plans. There's a backdrop of dramatic politics, the coolest and wildest animals on the planet and the usual seething, unpredictable national tribes, including about 30 travelling away (I doubt North Korea will have much of one).

I'd say stay away from the betting shop.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Goods

Monday, May 24, 2010

Socceroos vs Kiwis 2:1

That did not inspire confidence. I know pretty much everyone is going on and on about how shocking Australia played tonight, especially in the first half, and, well, I know I've vowed to be positive but it was pretty bad. This is going to be tough to put a positive spin on, but here goes.

In fairness to begin with, this was not our first team. Hopefully Adam Federici's and Brad Jones' debuts in goal will not be crucial to prepare them for World Cup games, because Schwarzer really is a key part of our game. I'm not saying either were too bad, or that Schwarzer could have made the save necessarilly, but I think our whole defensive line reflected the lack of Schwarzer's usual direction, which as a rule is constant and reflects enormous experience. So to start with, we need Mark at the back, and with him there we are a better team.

But as was much publicised our leading strikers were being rested too. Now obviously Pim intended from the beginning to play Timmy for only a half, in which we were supposed to go one up at least. But note that Pim took Timmy and other experience off, and put even more new blood on, with no apparent strategic purpose (I for one don't credit the improvement in the second half upon the subs), probably according to his original plan. That is, it was more important to see his players than to win the game, and rightly so.

And of course there's hubris, and we can be safe in the knowledge that Australia will go into none of its World Cup games thinking that we will certainly win. I fear that was the case tonight against New Zealand, and when I saw the utter determination on the Kiwi faces during their national anthem, I did see the danger. The Kiwis had much more need to beat us than the other way, and they played their first team and gave it their soul like there was no other game to be played again. It was their opportunity and they damn well nearly pipped us from our perch. But they didn't, did they?

And at half time it was quite clear to me that they weren't going to. If New Zealand were two goals up I would have been worried. But although there are other commentators saying the Kiwis played us off the park (Fox), I didn't see that. I saw glimpses of passages of play that, although too infrequent to make the difference, were of a higher technical and organisational standard to the best New Zealand offered. I also imagined the appalling scene in the dressing room at half time, and the grilling they would get from Pim and one another. We do know that Australians don't quit, and they were only going to come out firing a lot better. New Zealand had no extra to offer - they were already giving their all.

I have two witnesses: "2:1 to Australia," I declared at half time to Dawn and Jacob, and I wasn't joking. That's what it looked like to me, for all of the above reasons. And I didn't give up, for which I am personally proud. A little while after Dario's goal Dawn declared her prediction of a draw. At extra time I explained to her how so many goals statistically happen in extra time. After two minutes and forty-five seconds of extra time she was looking pretty smug, and I calmly spoke that I had not given up. My cheering is generally pretty insane, but 30 seconds later I'm not sure if I was cheering for the goal or for the fact that my confidence in the team had not flinched once and they had delivered in the final second. Only a sports fan knows that feeling.

Congratulations to Dario for his game and his goal. I'll be looking forward to watching him in South Africa. Holman really didn't convince, but I think Pim wants him so good luck to him scoring again in better competition.

Look, I'll call a spade a spade. The Socceroos played like shit in the first half, and although they got it together a bit weren't that great in the second either. I don't say that with the kind of self-righteous, pseudo-expert mockery that I hate from too many soccer (oooh sorry, football) fans. I say it with the knowledge that Pim and the blokes would probably nod in agreement, knowing they can do much better. I say it with respect.

My confidence is not rocked. These lads perform best when the stage is at its largest and the stakes are highest. We will be kept on the edge of our seats, but the Socceroos can get through their group. I actually think they will, but I'll get to my reasoning on that soon.

Post-script: It's the next morning and I found out that Australia was not the only one to be embarrassed in a home friendly yesterday. Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the failure, could only manage 0:0 against... wait for it... Cape Verde. Don't effing ask me; look at an atlas.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Singing, Matildas, the WC Team

Ok, the song was too ambitious. And, especially without a high profile campaign, Australian fan singing culture will take some time. Thankyou to those here on on facebook that came up with other excellent suggestions for songs Australians could sing.

But I remain unapologetic for my advocacy. Here's one of my favourite You Tubes to give you the idea of what the sporting community can aspire to. Note that these are pretty everyday folk, most of which would not sing much, and they are singing a song. They are not singing it feebly, like they might dutifully back up a Happy Birthday. They are using their lungs and their bodies to make full sound. It is an ancient form of worship, and there is good evidence that it is good for you and that it is one secret to a long life. Singing is good, but try saying that to the great unwashed with their stereos and Ipads. The football game can teach the World to sing, and the football experience is better for it. Magic, but yes, it will take some time.

Just a couple of pointers, for those interested in what's going on. The first Matildas Asian Cup game, vs Vietnam, will be televised this afternoon on the ABC at 5pm. If you want to know what's going on with the team, Merryn Sherwood provides the best blogging (amidst a virtual silence of media incidentally).

Anyway, this Asian Cup campaign, which is also a qualifier for the Women's World Cup, could have been tailored as a curtain opener for the World Cup South Africa. And I do love it that I've seen most of the team play live watching W-League games down at Ballymore.

Calling for a national campaign to promote a football song is only one example of my naivety. I also called for fans to close ranks at this time, because there is simply no good outcome available for criticism of the coach or players. We might be God's answer to soccer genius, but if we support the Socceroos campaign, the only way to help them now is by support. We can tear them apart like dogs afterwards.

Anyway it was naive. The bloggers are at it. 'Pim's hopeless', 'his selections have doomed the campaign' etc. Pim's the guy I know is an expert, so I choose to trust him. Les Murray wrote pretty intelligently on this theme, and I think now that a week has gone by since the naming of the 30, there's the odd 'Hey, let's support the team now' type comment here and there, and fans are calming down. In retrospect it would have been more realistic of me to expect a week of undisciplined sledging and expression of anx, and suggested that then we calm down and support the team. Then again I could just face that advocacy is a waste of time.

But if you want an excellent technical account of the team, why Pim selected them and what we might expect Pim to do with each of them, I humbly refer the reader to Tony Tannous. He's a highly informed technical writer who writes well, and he doesn't seem to bother with grinding axes. In fact if you're a Socceroo fan who wants good football-educated journalism about the World Cup as it unfolds, bookmark him now.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this post. I've got a lot on before I fly.

Go the Matildas.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We Must Sing Australia

Thirty Effing Days.

And I thought the activist had had the stuffing knocked out of me. Well here goes…

Australian fans at this World Cup shoulder an enormous responsibility, and I'm being more serious than usual. Certainly we have to provide a stout twelfth man for a team fighting uphill, and that is important enough. But we also have to show the World that we deserve to have the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Business as usual, however distinctive and cool - I refer to the travelling Socceroos fans - won't be good enough. I think we need to make sure we impress anew. I think we have a direct opportunity to influence the World Cup Bid, and if we don't take it it would be shameful.

It's very pleasing to see around the blogs and media comments a sentiment against "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie… Oi, Oi, Oi!" It's a gross chant, and it makes us look like the bunch of yobs that we are. But at this stage, if we want to show the World we're more sophisticated, not screaming, "Oi, Oi, Oi!" would not do that - it would just show us cringing at ourselves. The Paul Hogan side of us is real and, let's face it, it's fun, so when it inevitably comes up (some dickhead will inevitably shout the "Aussie Aussie" bit (please don't), our "Oi, Oi, Oi!!" must be loud, distinct and tight - we have no choice but to try to improve our military precision for this one as there is no melody or complexity to work with. But the trick for us is to add something much, much better to our repertoire.

For a few years a friend and I have come back to a conversation occasionally about fan songs. He's an AFL fan but clearly this is good common territory, especially between those two codes. For a large crowd to sing a song, not just a chant or a ditty but to actually hold a melody and a learned section of lyrics, is glorious, perhaps one of the most powerful collective acts 20,000 people or so can pull off.

It's impossible not to admire, wishing the word 'awesome' had never lost its meaning, the massive crowds singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." This song stands king of the football songs. However unoriginal, even if the Australian fans could pull a damn good rendition of this, it would look good. But clearly that's not what we're after.

My friend likes "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions", both of which have been used well in Rugby League matches. They're rough, but they're songs the crowd can get behind, and lots of people know the words. Clearly, they also lack in originality, and they're not Australian.

I have the song we need. It's going to take a lot more than my effort, but it starts here. We can do something very sophisticated, very Australian and very, very beautiful. It is a bit of effort, but we are asking a lot of our team after all. This is something that we, the fans, can do, that really will make a difference, and show the World that Australia really is an extraordinary, richly cultured place, who love their soccer team like Romeo loves Juliet, no matter what.

I have changed the words just slightly to the last half of Hunters and Collectors' You Will Throw Your Arms Around Me. I think the whole thing is too cumbersome and ambitious, but it is a song of two halves, and the second half works well. The alterations are emboldened. They are there to direct the love song at our football team, but are subtle enough that it wouldn't matter if people sung the real words if they know them.

I dreamed of you at nighttime
And I watched you in my sleep
I saw you in high places
I watched your heads and watched your feet
So if you disappear out of view
You know that I will never say goodbye
And though I try to forget it
You will make me call your name
And I'll shout it to the blue summer sky...
And we may never meet again...
So spread your wings and let's get started
And you will throw your arms around me
Yeah, you will throw your arms around me

Now this is a love song with a strong melody. That is, it is ambitious. But it is not only possible - it is right there in front of us. All we have to do is disseminate the idea and learn the words. All of us. This is the football song - a deep love song to our team - which can challenge You Will Never Walk Alone. But I think it says much more. Fans of the Socceroos, check yourselves. We can make the Socceroos more brilliant with our own efforts.

Now my general point, which I think every thinking fan should agree with, is that we need to sing. So as well as the above we need a bit of a repertoire and we need to know it. So if you're going to the Cup (even if you're not you can help) learn the following as well, and practice them all, belt them out in the shower or in front of the mirror. Practice with your mates (have some guts you wimp!) Breathe deep and own the songs from your soul. We are going to war and preparation is everything.

These songs are all real parts of ourselves, and together say a lot. And it is our patriotic obligation to rock them out of their seats in Durban. We must.

Waltzing Matilda (This alone, if we could sing it together loudly and proudly, could almost do the trick, and we must use it, but it's not new).
Advance Australia Fair (Only before the game thanks, but it too says something of us that is real, and we must belt it out proudly rather than be ashamed of it.)
Land Down Under (Even if we save this for moments of victory - fingers crossed - we should be belting this out as a mass. Know the words!)
Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree (Belting this out would be wonderful irony, and would sound, with thousands singing it, deeply, powerfully Australian)

But Throw Your Arms Around Me is the song. This is the one with which we could bring the house down.

I warned you about the activist thing. But I'm serious. I may fail, but it is my endeavour, from this 30 day mark (a beautiful day incidentally) to promote this repertoire and this song to fans from now until the Cup. Please, please, if you get what I mean about the beauty of mass collective song, help me out.

On You Tube:

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Call Up

32 Days.

Tomorrow is the official FIFA date that a preliminary list of 30 players must be officially named by each World Cup squad. Some of these have been named, including that of our group rivals Germany and Ghana, but Pim Verbeek is to make his list known tomorrow, probably of 27 players. Closer to the date this must be made 23, basically two teams plus an extra keeper.

Those chosen, for the next two months, will become very important people indeed, the players of the Glass Bead Game of our world civilisation, competing on behalf of our national house for the symbolic military domination of the World.

No wonder Kevin Rudd chose this day to release the Budget.

There hasn't been much World Cup media since the draw, and most of that has been speculation, criticism and advocacy about who will be called up, as well as reports of injuries and form, to the same end. Tomorrow attention will begin to focus, as the national volunteers are selected.

Completely lost, incidentally, has been the Women's Asian Cup beginning on the 19th of this month in Qatar with the Matildas playing Vietnam. It's less than two weeks away and not a peep about it from anyone. Sure it's being shadowed by the biggest event in the World, but the Matildas actually have a hope to win it. It is the ultimate curtain raiser for the Australian football audience. Will it be televised? You tell me.

As the severals of readers of this blog know, women's football is one of my passions. One of the good things about it is also its main flaw for many, that it is slower. It's possible that I'm a bit slow myself, but being a recent appreciator of the tactical dimension of the game, I actually like the slower speed. I also note that referees are more likely to get decisions right, which I suspect is because they can actually follow it.

What I'm getting at is that for anyone getting excited about the World Cup who knows jack-shit about football, the Women's World Cup would be a great way to get a bit of education about positioning, tactics, the offside rule etcetera so that you have at least a preliminary grasp for the full-throttle version. The spectacle of football can be a lot of spirit and grunt, and indeed most football codes get away mostly with the same, but soccer is also a very fine art, which takes most of a dedicated childhood to learn well enough to play professionally, and which is never perfected, and soccer tactics are complex even if you assume every player has identical skills. In other words, soccer tactics are, like chess, virtually infinite and, also like chess, there is no stage when a coach can't get better at it.

My apologies for this little rant, dear reader. Of course millions of people enjoy a good sporting contest without giving a shit about tactics. And I really don't mind if people enjoy the World Cup just for the spectacle, for the feeling or for the sexy boys. I myself (and I'd put my expertise quotient at about 2.2) am enthralled by soccer tactics, and find them, at any speed, one of the most fascinating and satisfying worlds of mental engagement I've ever encountered. A Glass Bead Game of sorts indeed.

So Pim Verbeek earns a lot of his money when he, an effing foreigner himself, chooses the 23 Australians who will represent our country. Now I haven't done a whole lot of speculating about the team. Many others have but it's too late now, and I'm frankly not qualified and if I had a go by googling around and making choices on instinct I'd be being mightilly pretentious. But I've thought a bit about what it is to choose a team, and I think it's an extraordinary mustering of technical knowledge, experience, informed instinct, and a plan.

To old hands I think this might be boring, so by all means move on. But I'm trying to articulate my understanding of what Pim is doing when he chooses these players.

Pim has a formation that he likes to use. There's a lot of argument about it, but essentially it is a defensive formation (most critically, there's only one player based up front), designed to work well and maximise the possibilities against stronger teams. He might have other options up his sleeve as well, but he wouldn't intend to use them. In my view we may well have qualified through Asia with a much more attacking formation, as some argue we should have, but Pim was trying to build a team that would face, well, Germany, Ghana and Serbia. In short he did the right thing in my view. It's our best chance, and that's what Pim's paid to provide.

So clearly it's not just the best 23 players, it is the 23 most appropriate players for 11 specific tasks, now. The Socceroos are not like a big Club where you can shop around the thousands of top international for the player you want in a position. It is a pool of merely dozens of players around the World. They are largely sorted out just by which League they've managed to get a job in, and then by how much they've been playing and what their recent form is like. As Pim rightly says, reputation should not have anything to do with it. Pim, theoretically, should choose the players who have best demonstrated that they can deliver in the respective positions, now. If none have, he must choose the next best, the least inadequate, and the most coachable.

Then of course Pim has to coach them, to make the formation work. Once again, given his limited time, the more Pim can select players already actively in game-habit of doing exactly what he is going to ask of them, the better. He's utilising the coaching of other highly-paid professionals in fact. Then, depending what compromises he is forced to make - and Australia has no great wealth of talent - he must finish them with coaching and the three friendly games, and all of us must hope and pray for the best.

Whatever he chooses, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth among the fans. With my small voice I'd like to declare that this is not the time. There is a time to throw stones, but now is the time for us to gather our stones together.

Pim is doing a job of enormous qualification. He is the General now and from the time those players are officially named until the time we are dismissed from the World Cup, I think it is incumbent upon Australian people to support the man and whichever personel he chooses.

Besides, I wouldn't have a clue whether Nicky Carle would be better than Brett Holman, and I'd have even less of a clue as to which observers I should trust. I just don't know. I can tell you Mark Schwarzer will be the first keeper, or that Lucas Neil will be a centre back, that we rely like hell on Timmy Cahill, and that Grella, Kewell and Breciano will all be there if they're fit enough, but anyone can tell you that.

I bow now to the wisdom of the gaffer. May the spirit of Johnnie Warren guide your choices mate. I wait with baited breath.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Dear Craig Moore

Hi Craig. I haven't communicated for a while. Hope the family is well and the home is happy.

I feel a bit responsible for your current predicament. You see, when you announced your retirement from the Socceroos, I plead with you for you to change your mind, and you did. Thankyou, but although I didn't say you should not be in the 2010 World Cup squad, I left it open. What I said is that we really need you for the qualifiers, which I believe we did. You were in Australia, you see, and we needed you (like really needed you) to play the role for the second string team that you had played so brilliantly in the Roar. You have experience, and the professionalism and communication skills to be an excellent leader. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping us through.

This is what I said:

"Only other thing is about the announcement by Moore that this was his last game for Australia. I say, "Nooooooooo!!!!"

Now mate... maaaaate, your country needs ya buddy. You're good - up there with the best in central defense. It's an important position mate. Goals get conceded there and games get lost. If you're not getting enough games, go do a bit of marquee work in Europe or somewhere in the off-season. I'm sure something could be organised. But you are also one of the very few who have this wonderful advantage of actually living in Asia. Ok, close to Asia. I don't want to argue about geography. We're gonna need ya.

But sleep on it. Help the Roar trash Sydney on Friday, then play the A-League Grand Final. Have a rest for a couple of weeks, then get back to us. Please mate?"

And later:

"... we actually need Craig Moore to make himself available if needed. Like really, World Cups are the real written history of our country's game, it is warfare between nations for the greatest sporting prize there is. 'Retiring on a high point' is all very well, but if the country actually needs you, there's a certain moral pressure I reckon. Craig, we need you, even if just to help Australia get there. My hardly technical or emperical observations tonight were that our defenders have fine skills but require experienced leadership in the middle - someone who can play and position himself well and scream instructions to the younger blokes at the same time. It's Moore's experience that the Socceroos need back there, especially if Neil is out. And it wouldn't hurt his game with the Roar to get a few extra good games either."

Clearly I did not intend for you to actually be in the squad for the World Cup. Essentially, you had seen the writing on the wall clearly, and had stepped down from international duties. I called you up again for a specific duty, which you did patriotically and competently as expected. With the greatest of respect, it's time to revisit that original decision. You are past this level of football, and in Australia's first squad your leadership is not as indispensible.

Passing the prime of your skill is hard for any sportsman or any professional for that matter. I think it would be discourteous to not show some appreciation for what that skill actually was, and what it will always be in precious memory. If I had the skills, the time and the patience I would love to put together a YouTube of your moments on the field. There would be a series where a forward would be about to score a certain goal, only the keeper to beat, when into the frame would come Moore's foot, at a time and place of such exactness that a computer animator could not have improved on the timing. I haven't thought of a soundtrack but I'm looking for a military "They shall not pass" theme.

When you took a penalty it was a 100% professional act, you were a tradesman hitting a nail with a hammer for the millionth time, with simple, predictable efficiency.

Then there's a regular trickle of cracker goals from open play. Even they could make up a YouTube worth a watch.

As you got older you were an active and effective inspiration and guide for the rest of the team, on the field and off. You lifted the game of everyone around you. I think Ognenovsky learned a lot of his trade from you, as did many others to different extents.

There's an inglorious moment I cannot leave out because it left an impression on me and also because I have been reminded of it several times from my son, who was clearly inspired by it. You scored an own goal in a crucial match, and didn't flinch. We could all feel your moment of heartbreak, but we didn't see it. You carried on your game as professionally, competently and energetically as ever. That is mental strength, and that is why you were a truly great defender and leader. I wonder if this moment could be captured properly on YouTube, with the right soundtrack.

Thankyou Craig, and good luck with whatever you decide to do. I have no doubt you could continue to play a critical winning role in many leagues around the World. But with the highest military honours you are dismissed from national service.

Yours Sincerely,
Football Down Under.

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