Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Football and Freedom in Durban

Well if anyone wanted to demonstrate the grace and beauty of the world game an excellent game to showcase would be the one I last wrote about between Brazil and Chile. On the other hand, if someone else wanted to demonstrate that soccer is a stupid, boring sport they could do worse than exhibiting yesterday afternoon's game between Japan and Paraguay. What an extraordinary contrast.

So thank the gods for the Iberian derby last night between Spain and Portugal. But really, this Round of 16 was so imbalanced, leaving mediocre teams like Ghana and Paraguay in the mix whilst we watched the brave and skilled Portuguese and Chileans eliminated.

In the end I guess, there is as much justice in soccer as there is in life - a bit, but not a lot, and not consistently.

I woke up this morning without a cough. The air is clean. At 8.30 we were served creamy porridge with brown sugar and a splash of whiskey (this is something I am going to try at home), fresh juice, proper coffee and French toast with bacon and mushrooms. There is no games on today so we're just gonna chill, read and breathe this air. Unlike Total Sports Travel, which I highly recommend that people avoid like the plague, Somerset Guest House in Durban is simple, tasteful, civilised and pleasant. Believe it or not - and this is the really criminal part - the price is not much different.

We were warned in Australia about the possibility of being robbed in South Africa, but we were robbed before we left by Australians. Sue me Total Sports: I dare you! Everything you promised is documented and the horror that you delivered is witnessed by over 200 people. The fact that I could have stayed at the place that was in your promotion photographs, the place whose address was listed, for one third the price, is just a little irksome. For my readers the important thing is that my complaints on this front are nothing to do with South Africa. South Africa has its problems, which provided the ultimate scapegoat for everything wrong with our accommodations, but I can love South Africa for its problems. Total Sports Travel are criminals from Australia.

Another important note is that I hold no ill-will whatsoever toward Dee and Keith, who were the employees alternately on the coalface at the camp dealing with us and our constant, reasonable complaints, whilst living in the same conditions. I'm sure you're hating it as much as I was, and you really tried to help us and make us more comfortable. To the two of you, thankyou sincerely, and I truly hope you find yourself another employer. I'll write you a glowing reference on request.

Anyway, I feel free to bitch freely now for the very reason that I am free. But at the same time, it's time to enjoy.

Jesus I hope they don't read this yet as we're back there in eight days for the final couple of days of the Cup.

The next live game we're looking forward to is in one week, Match 62, the last semi-final, and the possibilities are all mouth-watering. My guess is that it will be Spain v Argentina. If Paraguay beat Spain in the Quarters I will vomit into my own scorn (to use my favourite Bernard Black line), but the Germany v Argentina clash will be a genuine blockbuster between different cultures and styles, and I would keep my money away from the bookies. I guess I'm backing Argentina due to the general South American dominating theme, and my new love for the freak Maradona, but the Germans are so organised it's disgusting. Spain v Germany would be just fine, if that's how the gods would have it.

But today and tomorrow, in this first break between games, I am going to relax and enjoy this fine city in this beautiful country.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brazil v Chile 3:0

Chile has impressed me greatly in this World Cup. They came second in qualifying in the South American Confederation, an impressive achievement in itself, especially when you consider that, until tonight, not one of the five South American countries had been knocked out of the World Cup.

There's ten left. There remains one of five from Africa (Ghana), one of five from Asia/Oceania (Japan), none from North America and four from thirteen Europeans (Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands). This is all interesting enough, and finally it took a South American team to knock out the first South American team. Now so many of my predictions have been wrong that I have no right to self-congratulate, but I take some pleasure in noting that my broad prediction that this World Cup would be mad and that it's the South Americans that would best deal with the madness, has borne itself out.

Tonight's game between Brazil and Chile was, for my joyful sense of football wonder, the best yet. And a great team - in my opinion a really great team - came up against something more. Brazil's team are composed of gods, no less, and even the greatest of mortals cannot test the gods and survive.

Over the past couple of weeks a few people have pointed out that Brazil have looked a bit out of sorts, a bit "pedestrian" (to quote one), in general a bit ordinary. Meanwhile of course they have not lost a game and the thing is, they are so good that they can afford to play only as well as they need to. They have no need whatsoever to give their all against North Korea, Ivory Coast and (especially, as there were no stakes) Portugal. The latter Group game was, despite great hype and expectation, a boring 0:0 draw in which neither team saw the need to bring it.

If you did not watch the Brazil v Chile game I urge you with all the emphatic vehemence that I can contrive to find out when there's a replay or figure out how to download it, and watch the thing. This is the stuff that led me to sacrifice so much of my life to this sport in the first place, the stuff that turned watching a bit of sport for me into an act of worship. You'd be right to point out how rare a game like this is, but I would only reply that it is the rarity of such a spectacle that makes soccer the most sublime pursuit in the world. Millions try, and occasionally - very occasionally - 11 succeed.

Personal digression... Jacob and I arrived in Durban today and booked into a B&B. The air, as soon as we got off the plane, was noticeably easier to breathe, due to the warmth, lack of smog and lack of altitude. We had proper hot showers. We have our own bathroom, and the capacity to make tea. We lay on beds that are not thin waifs of foam laid over iron cleats. Our room is sealed, tasteful and warm. There are birds here. I wore shorts and bare feet in my first sojourn into the neighbourhood. We are indulging in 10 days of relative luxury compared to the frankly disgusting conditions of Total Sports Travel Football Village in Johannesburg. I already love Durban, and eff knows why the centre of the World Cup is not here, as it could have been so much better for South African tourism if it was.

We watched the Netherlands' convincing and predictable defeat of Slovakia on the TV downstairs. Then this evening we head out to find a pub, where we ate steaks and watched the above game in a very cosy and cool atmosphere. So life is on the up. We're gonna like this town.

But enough digression. Why are the South American teams doing so well? I have the beginnings of a theory. Spain and Germany have been the most impressive of the European teams in the sense of virtuosic football, the sort of football that Fozzie describes so well in his book and that SBS does its best to teach us to appreciate. It's a very sophisticated, developed football of short passing from the back along the ground, and highly disciplined tactical shape. According to many this is what we're all aiming for. Any of the lesser football countries are also in the process of pursuing this sort of football, including Australia, with its Dutch emphasis.

But both Spain, Italy and Germany have been shown up by gutsy, spirited but less sophisticated methods from Switzerland, New Zealand and Serbia respectively, and we all rue that Australia didn't at least have a go at the same against the Germans. It seems to me that 'champagne football', with all the time and effort required to develop, can become limited by its own orthodoxy.

The South Americans have highly educated coaches as well, and no shortage of sophistication, but they have something more. They dance, and I refer especially to the Brazilians and Argentinians. The long ball into the corner, the chip, the long switch and the completely unexpected are all part of their game as well as the short passing along the ground within a disciplined tactical shape. That is, their options are not limited by orthodoxy. All of these great teams from Europe and South America also have individuals capable of great flair, which has been a distinctive key to this tournament. My feeling is that however powerful a team of brilliant technicians within a highly considered system can become, if it becomes the whole objective the improvised dance and individual flair are somewhat sacrificed. At this tournament in particular, in an unfamiliar setting and with new distractions (like the bloody vuvuzela which stops anyone from even being able to hear themselves think, let alone be able to communicate adequately among one another), these more random factors come to the fore.

The sort of technical orthodoxy I'm talking about, which has become very popular globally as importing successful European coaches becomes widespread throughout the world, should not be undermined. I'm convinced for example that Australia should continue to pursue this sort of virtuosity. North Korea, for another example, had developed enough to hold out (mostly) against even Brazil, but they cannot keep it up against what is, for lack of a better description, a divine dance. And they have trained so much to achieve their desired tactical approach that their options against different teams are limited.

Like a great martial artist (and anyone familiar with the writings of Bruce Lee will best know what I mean), you need all the technique you can get, but then you must be willing to dance. A single style is not enough.

As this tournament goes on I'm thinking more and more that the Final will be a showdown between Brazil and Argentina. If that is the case don't miss it even for your own wedding.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Beyond Nelspruit

Well the consensus around here is that changing the Prime Minister was an overreaction to the Socceroos failing to get through the group stage. Craig Foster and Jesse Fink are both convinced, for somewhat different reasons, that Australia 'failed' at this World Cup, and I think they do us a disservice with this view.

Firstly it is worth reiterating that on paper Australia's team is pretty crap. Our best outfield player, Timmy Cahill, plays for Everton. We have not one player that has played Champions League football. Not one. [Ed: Thanks to Jesse Fink (below in comments) for the correction - Brett Holman has played Champions League football.] Some teams, like Italy (oh dear), are stacked with them. Timmy and Mark Schwarzer are probably the only players in our team that would make the English team. So coaching them to a World Cup is a serious professional challenge for a coach, and anything they achieve is impressive.

There is no adequate apology for the game against Germany. Coach Pim took a large risk in essentially throwing the game and hoping to keep Germany's goal count down (ouch), and it was a stuff up. But Germany played sublimely and we lost our star to an unreasonable red card, making a bad situation worse.

As the group games unfolded it became clear that the African teams were not going to do well overall, and Ghana began to be called the continent's 'last hope'. This narrative went on with great consternation, even a sort of fear. Germany would clearly win our group but there was actual concern that Australia might pip Ghana. In itself this is pretty disgusting anyway, as I always thought we were to have a fair competition and that the idea was that the best team would win.

And Ghana really didn't show any class against Australia, even though we again went down early to another red card, and hence had neither of our best players on the field. We should give our 10 men credit for the point they held in that game, but really, Ghana did not look up to it at all. The media we get here (we don't get SBS or any Australian media) looked frankly uncomfortable.

I am not saying that there was any deliberate, conscious bias from referees, but the pressure was certainly on. Errors were going to go in favour of the 'desired outcome'. In that last game against Serbia, where Australia, still unable to field its best team, showed its spirit and quality, virtually every decision for the first four fifths of the match (before it was too late) went against us. Now I am a patriot and I am familiar with the bias of patriots, so to be sure about this I will have to study the game some time and do a careful count of incidents and decisions. But this was truly my impression, over and over and over again.

There was five minutes of hope, when we were 2:0 up and we heard that Germany was beating Ghana 1:0. Another goal for Australia and Germany respectively, and we were through. That's how close we were. But Germany had set up camp, content, in their half of the field, and our ref, as far as I'm concerned, did everything in his power to make sure we did not get any more goals.

And the Socceroos were brilliant in spirit, even as their journey ended. After the match they spent a long time tributing the fans, kicking balls into the crowd, signing things etc, even as they were clearly emotionally finished. Lucas Neils' tears said everything. Congratulations lads. That was no failure. That was a victory of a team who nobody in the World believed in except for Australian fans (the Australian media didn't). My love for you has only increased, and I am proud to be associated with you.

If anyone wants to read an excellent, informed post-mortem of the Socceroos campaign, I honestly suggest you bypass the mainstream media altogether and read Tony Tannous's. There's no big anti-media agenda in this recommendation, and he doesn't really even reflect my own views - it's just the best article I've found, and he's much more likely to be right than me.

Quite aside from the game, it was a brilliant day in Nelspruit. For once, more by good fortune than design I'm afraid, we got to the game with plenty of time to occupy a pub. It is a great pub in Nelspruit, and we packed every corner and spilled onto the street. Note to Total Sports Travel, and any other tour company: Soccer fans don't just want to get to the game on time for
kickoff; we actually want to have a good time - ie. It is absolutely essential to occupy a pub before a game.

Oh yes, let me tell you about transport to the Nelspruit stadium. Our bus parks near the pub, which is fine because we had heaps of time, but it can't go to the stadium. To get to the stadium, we have to catch a mini-bus which goes to a park n' ride area, where we get on a big bus to the stadium. It's hard to imagine, perhaps, how inefficient this is in practice. After the game, to get the 40,000 odd people back into town, the reverse occurred. We stood in a mass, coralled by fences, as about 60 people at a time were taken off in busses, to then again find mini-busses. There was no coordination of this and it seemed a minor miracle that we all managed to get back to our original bus. Mind you it took hours.

Anyway, for anyone who has been frequenting this site, I'm really sorry I haven't blogged for days. The day in Nelspruit I could feel myself holding back a flu, and the next day it hit me with full force. I also got a bit homesick and miserable, missing my shop and my beautiful fiance, and the conditions at the Total Sports Soccer Village didn't help. Alongside unreliable internet and the worst conditions for writing possible, these are my excuses. Truly I apologise.

I guess a new phase of this trip had started too. The patriotic part of the trip has finished, with the knocking out of Australia, and now it's just about enjoying beautiful football. I've bought an Argentina scarf as Maradona, tool that he is, has completely won me over with his cool and class. He operates completely out of the box and, for my money, the box sucks. Jacob and I are seeing Argentina play Mexico tonight at Soccer City.

Then tomorrow we are off to Durban for 10 days in a decent B&B. There I hope to relax a bit, get some writing done, and see the semi-final on the 7th (maybe Argentina v Spain). I can't wait for a good bed, hot showers and internet access.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Morning before Nelspruit

There was dread as much as excitement in the camp yesterday about going to see Australia play Serbia today. The dread has little to do with the fate of our beloved team, who we will be happy to see play well, hopefully with a victory to ensure that Australia has not embarassed itself. The prospect of us getting to the Round of 16 is pretty slim after all. The dread is six hours on a bus, without much faith in the driver or the organisation. I'll be buying a half bottle of whiskey for the trip. Beer just makes you need to piss. You really don't want to know how people deal with this problem on long trips. We've also stocked up on sports drinks and lollies.

And it's crunch week for so many teams. Yesterday Groups A and B got sorted out. Proud Bafana Bafana have ended their competition, and I guess I hope that Australia can today finish with as much dignity (and four points). France of course has fallen hard, still mired in the curse of the Irish. Nigeria and Greece have also gone. Greece in particular, the way they played, was an embarassment to Western Civilisation.

The general theme remains of the South Americans doing well and the Europeans falling. But truly I see Portugal's 7:0 demolishing of North Korea the other day as a bit of a turning point in the Cup, and I don't think we'll see many surprises this week. Many teams can play like champions sometimes (like South Africa for the first half last night). Virtually no team can do it every time. But when the pressure's on, the great teams tend to get it together.

For that reason I don't think Ghana has a goose's chance of defeating Germany today, for example. England will beat Slovenia and the USA will beat Algeria - I consider these results fairly certain. But for the Serbia vs Australia game there's no clear favourite, and I honestly think the boys can do it.

And the glimmer of hope is that Germany will do a Portugal on Ghana, whilst Timmy Cahill goes crazy on Serbia's goal. If both of those things happen, we'll be booked for a game in Rustenburg against either England or the USA on Saturday June 26th at 8.30pm. I wouldn't put a lot of money on this, but while there is hope we will relish our dreams.

Last night we went to a sort-of mall called Monte Casino. It is bling city. In fact I don't imagine there's a place like it in my city of Brisbane. Maybe on the Gold Coast somewhere, but it would be for the very wealthy. Here it is, as far as I can see, for Westerners like myself to be made to feel very wealthy.

On entry you have to pass security and get scanned for metal. What you get into is an indoor medieval village. The roof is lit like clouds on a blue sky and there is a very good impression of being outdoors. It's weird realising that you can't smoke for example. You go inside individual buildings which are shops, restaurants, clubs and the like, then go 'outside' again, though you're still inside.

Then of course you buy, very inexpensively, five star meals (amazing steak, about $17), cocktails (about $2.50 each) and whatever the hell else you want. Of course you've got to get in there first, but 'World Cup fan' seemed to be the magic words.

I would hate to imagine how people are screened from places like this, but when I went outside (properly outside) for a smoke I saw a sign, a red line through a pistol, with the words, "This is a no gun zone. Gun lockers located on level 2."

Oh good.

Go the Socceroos!


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Dialogue with Hundreds of Years of Oppression

I mention Mark a bit. He's white and sort of the boss of the infrastructure around here. He has long hair and a whispy beard, a little overweight and clothed like he hasn't had a girlfriend to sort out his wardrobe for far too long, but his face is handsome, and suits his prescription John Lennon sunglasses. I don't know if I like him, mainly due to the way he speaks to the black workers, but he's been a great source of local information and very enthusiastic to help us. He had advised us, for example, that the black guys won't join in playing soccer unless they're asked. Actually he was mostly worried about the prospect of his employees playing while they should be working, but the information was useful.

When Jacob came in from the afternoon kickabout yesterday, halfway through the Chile game, he looked excited. He reads my blog and knows my interest in racial reconciliation through football, and shares it I think. It had happened. A group of locals had been passing and the guys invited them to play. I wish I was there to watch, but apparently they were bloody good, including a couple of around Jacob's age, and a small kid. Small joys I suppose. I just think it's cool, and I'm guessing these guys will be back with their mates.

Owen is very black. He lives in a space that makes Harry Potter's cupboard look pretty roomy, at the front gate. He is security, and is there to let us in and out of the place day and night.

The whole place, about 150 metres square, is surrounded by fences topped by barbed wire and (in some places) electric fences. I've checked it out from the outside and it looks pretty breachable to me, which is not helped by some of the blokes' habit of burning parts of the fence on the fire.

There is no organised firewood really, though every day one of the workers brings a pile of all sorts of scrap timber from wherever on the place - there are corners of the compound that are full of all sorts of junk. It always runs out, and drunk boys burn things when it's cold. There are some boys that should not drink at all, as we all know.

I want to get back to Owen though. He is about 5'10, with a round likeable face. He's from Zimbabwe, and his English is poor, but he likes to communicate, and has a great smile. As with many encounters here, it took a while for his body language to start saying he was not inferior to me. This morning around the fire it was just him and I and for the first time he had no humble hunch. He was looking me in the eye and had his shoulders squared like a proud man. This was particularly important to me because I had never tipped him. Of course when there's money involved people get friendly very quickly, but the friendliness is cheapened by it.

But I still wanted to tip him. All the Australians (I think) are in the habit of tipping well and constantly - the amounts are not really that much, after all, and I think we're very conscious of how privileged we are here and the reactions make it clear how much a little bit can help. But although the bar workers get tipped, our security doesn't because there's no money changing hands to start with. Anyway this morning I gave him a hundred rand (about $15) with a short speech thanking him for watching out for us.

It was a mistake. He immediately regained his humble hunch and said, "God bless you" far too many times for a man's comfort. How can I regret giving it to him though?

I don't know who I am in this situation.

I'll talk more about the compound (I could use 'ghetto' but 'compound' is reasonably accurate) and the people from now on I think. I've wanted to from the moment I got here but needed some time to watch and collect impressions and think about them. This is a unique experience for me and my son and all of us.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Notes from Rustenburg

Australia's bid for the greatest trophy in the world pretty much ended yesterday, but our pride was restored at the same time.

For myself, the shambolic five hour bus trip home (only about 150kms) was one of the most miserable experiences of my life, but Holman's goal was the height of the tournament.

The goal, and the 10 minutes or so that Australia led the game against Ghana, who were frankly playing like shit, was likely the greatest actual patriotic joy we'll get. After Kewell's red card we were devastated of course, and although the decision was correct, the succession of bad decisions against us had the crowd bristling with murderous hatred toward the ref. And we felt terrible, robbed, humiliated, violated.

And then we got to witness the real mettle of our great national team, as in the second half, in which at first I was simply waiting for us to be defeated, we first held the Ghanians out, then slowly began to dominate them. The players and the coach can both be proud, and today we fans do not feel as deflated as we did after defeat by the Germans. The Socceroos showed their quality. Love them.

The Ghanian fans celebrating after the game afterwards were colourful, spirited and so joyous that you might have thought they'd just beaten Brazil in the finals. It was kind of weird, and I just felt like saying to each of them (I did to a couple), "You do know you played like shit, apparently can't score a goal from open play, and barely managed to hold your luck against 10 men for over an hour, don't you?" Truly, if I was a Ghanian fan, I would be depressed after that game, and that probably reflects a general higher expectation we have of our team.

Was the referee one-sided? Is there an effort from FIFA to make sure at least one African team gets through the group stage, as it is percieved happened with Korea in 2002? Around here, if I suggested otherwise I would be called naive. There is a very, very strong perception that that's how things work and that, as one fan put it, "FIFA won't do small countries any favours."

Whether this is true or not, it looks like it. The resistance by FIFA to video technology for important decisions butresses this perception, and to many simply screams the existence of institutional corruption. So long as a ref's decision on the field has no accountability to anything, even if the entire world can see that it's wrong, then the ref can have any concievable motivation to make a decision. This stinks, and I hope one day our great sport gets up to date, even so that it can appear clean.

Of course it ain't over 'till it's over, and Australia still has two slender chances to become second in the group. That's the only time I've seen Ghana play (we were in transit when they defeated Serbia by a soft penalty), but from what I've heard what I saw is what to expect, and there is pretty much no way a determined Germany who have to win won't defeat them. But if Ghana do prevail, and we defeat Serbia, we're through.

The other way is for the Socceroos, through an inspired Timmy Cahill perhaps, to defeat Serbia by six goals minus the number of goals that Germany beats Ghana by. So if Germany beat Ghana 3:0 (certainly possible enough for an outside punt) and we do the same to Serbia (less possible, but not beyond hope if Timmy is in form), we'll be through on goal difference.

Pray to the soccer gods. Make a home shrine to Johnny Warren and sacrifice a pig or something. The gods are at work at this cup. I don't know if we're in their plans beyond the group stages but I am sure that they haven't had the last laugh yet.

For an analyst's view of the game, see Mike Salter's The Strength of Ten.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Morning Before Rustenburg

Well I'm up early today to try to get some media-surfing and blogging done before the bus trip to Rustenburg for Australia's do-or-die against Ghana. There's no solid confidence in the camp, but more of a determined patriotism.

We're leaving at 10.30am for a 1.30pm game. That sounds fine because it supposedly takes about two hours. However, our experience is that 10.30 means 11.00 at the earliest, that bus drivers get lost as often as not, and that with only one road in and out of Rustenburg, the traffic may be crap. So there was an attempted organised effort to insist on a 9.30am departure. Total Sports Travel said no. If we are late for this game there will be a revolt. There is already pretty broad discontentment with the travel company, for all sorts of reasons, some of them reasonable.

But last night they did pretty well with the official function. Ok, Kevin Muscat is not the greatest of drawcards but even he came across ok, happily vocalising his discontent with the way Pim is running our national team. We did properly get wined and dined, and there was entertainment. Bad (but still kind of cool) African music, dancing (though pathetically, only one girl of all of us got up and danced) and we had our hands washed and our faces painted by pretty black girls. The food was really good, diverse and abundant - heaps of meats and fish and pretty much everything else you could easily name. There would have been more entertainment but we had to watch England destroy Algeria, which they completely failed to do.

All three games yesterday were surprises actually. Weird shit is happening at this Cup, which can only give us a bit of hope for Australia today.

But there's so much happening, and so much in my head that I think might be good things to write down, that I better tell a story at least before I hit "Publish."

A couple nights ago I had been surfing the net for World Cup news, with the rare treat of a late night with internet access, when I began to realise what was missing around the camp. Because the big screen is on pretty much 24/7, with games, replays, analysis and news, there's no stereo and hence pretty much no music. It was about 1.00 in the morning I guess, when thinking this I wandered outside for a cup of tea and a smoke by the smouldering fire. The only party left were the bar workers, very drunk, but playing music - not very loudly - with a phone.

So there was music, and it was really wonderful. Basically the guy put on Bob Marley's "Lets Get Together" over and over again, and it was good to sit with these guys, the colour of the night, smoking and chatting, alternately listening to them speak together in their own language.

I asked them if they felt all us white guys felt like brothers, and they were adamant that they did, that the past was behind, and that we were all just f***ing people on the same planet. They also feel strongly that the World Cup is very good for their country. Their faces lit up and their slurred accent became understandable when they spoke of it, even though their team had just been flogged.

Much earlier, before the day's games, I was sitting watching Jacob and others (about 10 a side) playing The Game in the park across the road from our compound (it does feel a bit compound-like). Jacob had come over to join just myself and another Ozzie, Matthew, who looks strikingly like a young Nicholas Cage. As we took refuge from the cold air in the sun, a very businesslike bloke, a 'coloured', came over to chat. His name was Peter and he was beaming with joy.

Peter explained that he had never seen a group of white people playing in the park before, nor 'coloureds' like himself. He thought it was wonderful. He thought that if people just started doing it, others would join - that there was still a barrier of fear. I glanced around at the barbed wire and electric fences on every property in sight, and wondered what the barrier was made of. But the point is he thought it was football that could help break down the barriers between the people in his own community.

Well, duh!

Like the black barworkers, Peter also felt that the World Cup was excellent for South Africa. It was warming that a group of Australian soccer fans might have played its own, small role in the process of reconciliation in this country. I kept watching the game and felt I could see the incongruency - the sense, from a certain point of view, that they shouldn't be there. The powerful thing perhaps is that the crew had no idea at all that they shouldn't be there. It's a park.

Then Peter started talking about God a bit and soon after I politely, with proper candour, mentioned that there was no point preaching to me he made his polite farewells and left.

Go the Socceroos! I will love you no matter what.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Bits n Pieces

Jacob handed me the packet and said, "You can have the rest." I could feel that there were three M&Ms left. I'd just managed to aquire tickets for us to the Final, so I thought of who might be in it when I revealed the three M&Ms. Two red and and Orange. The M&Ms say it will be Spain vs the Netherlands, with Spain to win. You read it here first.

For any of the new readers, I did have a bold and foolish attempt to predict the whole cup. So far on my system of 1 point for a correct result and 3 points for a correct score, Jacob's beating me 11:10, from a top possible score of 60. So I wouldn't trust either of us there.

Now some teams will start to be knocked out of the competition and others, like South Africa last night, will be put on wood.

France v Mexico 0:2

As I have previously discussed, the French are cursed by the entire Irish population of the World. When I saw the Mexicans in their green, I could only see the shamrock, and France's humiliation was inevitable.

The game itself was a little tedious in the first half, but you could already see that the Mexicans had their group mind working and the French, with their superior team sheet, did not. This was the collective defeating individual flair.

Not good for South Africa of course, who were hoping for a draw.

One odd thing about my experience here is that I'm actually not getting much media about the World Cup at all, due to access and time. But I have no doubt that there's an enormous variety of game analysis in the mainstream press. Of amateur Australian bloggers, it's the same old that I'll recommend highly: Mike Salter and Tony Tannous.


Bafana Bafana

Bafana Bafana, the official, very catchy name of the South African Soccer team, more-or-less means, "Go Lads!!" I think much of the World wanted Bafana Bafana to do well against Uruguay last night and get through their group. But sort of like supporting Australia against Germany, anyone who knows football also knew they had little chance. Unless they can perform a miracle against France (and it would be a brilliant time for a miracle) South Africa will be the first nation ever to host a World Cup and lose the Group stage. That's embarassing for a nation who the whole World was hoping would be lifted by this event. It's embarassing for Africa, which is unfortunate.

Off the field on the fan front, the Vuvuzela is South Africa's equivelent of Australia's, "Oi, Oi, Oi!!" Clumsy, loud and drowning. It is a vile thing. Jacob couldn't hear properly for two days after the opening ceremony and we have bought ear plugs. Worse than that when people go to games partly to experience the sounds and songs of the famous English, German and Brazilian fans, they are dissappointed, as all you can hear are horns. It has a very cool name but the fact is the Vuvuzela, which FIFA endorsed as a 2010 thing and fans from many countries have gotten into, is the lowest form of fan culture ever devised. It is more than embarassing - it is a health hazard, a disturbance of the peace (we're talking up to 140 decibels), and a clearfell of any other fan expression; a monoculture of sound. The Nations' anthems, thankfully, provide a very brief respite before the games.

I wonder if there is a parallel with the whole event being in South Africa. Everyone knew it was ambitious, some doubted that it was properly feasible, but everyone of good will hoped that South Africa would show that it had entered the modern world, boding well for the continent as a whole. Like the South African team, it has half-impressed, and to say, "Fantastic job," would be a little patronising, because it has not been a fantastic job.

Planning is the precise thing missing in South Africa. As we travel around we notice excellent roads, a variety of really interesting architecture and all the shops, cars and advertising that you would expect in a modern city. But it seems to be, like the Greek football team, randomly scattered across the landscape. There is apparently no town planning. When you get beer at the stadiums, there's beer, people to serve, fridges and the like, but to get a beer the worker has to travel five metres, negotiating obstacles and other workers, to get the beer, which is pretty much the only thing they're selling. Even a layperson could manage a better industrial design.

The World Cup has taken South Africa's infrastructure by surprise. The internet in particular simply cannot handle the influx of wealthy people skyping, exchanging photos and watching endless video on their computers. It's not just our bodgy little Soccer Village, whole areas go off line at once. Australia take note for its World Cup bid. Are we sure our broadband system will handle it?

So when South Africa were roundly put in their place last night, I had some worries apart from the fact that my chosen team in the game had failed. I worry for the mood in the country, which is stretched and tired as it is. And I worried for the overall message that seems to be being reinforced by the loss - that Africa is almost ready for the world stage. Now we get to see if the country has the professionalism to maintain the work and energy required without Bafana Bafana. Jacob has pointed out that if you want people to be instantly friendly you just have to say enthusiastically, "Bafana Bafana." What for when this becomes a very insensitive thing to do?

This World Cup has had plenty of problems already and anyone who doesn't think there will be many more needs to quarry their head. But there are good signs everywhere of development, a developing middle class, a real cross-racial patriotism and a bright future for a modern nation. Africa will get there, especially South Africa. You just have to wonder if it is a bird pushed from its nest a day too early; if by showcasing Africa's unfolding modernity prematurely it has merely been exposed as an upstart.

Please don't get me wrong. Africa is wonderful and this World Cup is a hoot. Perhaps it's even too early for me to express some of these things, but I think lots of people are already thinking them.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No Title


But the Training Runs on Time

I'm up after the Brazil v N Korea game, and I'm writing fresh. That is, I have seen no media whatsoever beyond the showing of the game itself. Regardless of whether I turn out to have unique and wondrous insight or be entirely full of shit, I think this is a valuable form of writing for the reader.

Unfortunately however I won't be publishing this in about half an hour as I should, but in the next day or so, because the internet here is inconsistent at best, despite the fact that wireless internet was the headline feature of the advertisements of the travel company. Who do I blame? The company, who is also frustrated and certainly trying? South Africa, where there have been five star hotels without hot water? It is easier sometimes, and less stressful, to blame the gods. Anyway I'm going to adopt a habit of writing off-line as much as possible and then just publishing the lot when I get on the net.

One result of this new procedure is that I'm abandoning pictures for now. I'll still take them and collect them, and will publish a selection eventually, but I did hope to use a lot of pictures in my World Cup blogging and have promised it, so I apologise. Blame me, Total Sports Travel, South Africa or all three.

Brazil v North Korea 2:1

Well that was quite something. Brazil, the king of the World, defeats the lowest ranked nation at the World Cup by just one goal.

What has North Korea done? Most of its players, unlike any of the great soccer nations, don't play in the big European leagues. In fact most of them play only within North Korea.

It's like this totalitarian state read the textbooks on how to train players in their technique and in their tactics, then with the precise military discipline that only a totalitarian state can bring to a sporting team, just did it. The result is a lesson for everyone, and in a sense backs up Craig Foster's thesis about football development, and about how to go about playing football.

Fozzie might have even advised the team, and if he had he would have been proven right to insist on open, attacking football, even if your opponent is superior. Fozz may be naive to think that it's possible in the Australian environment (I hope not), and we don't have a totalitarian system to enforce this stuff, but there it is.

The North Korean players lost the ball too much. That's the main mistake they made really. It's a mistake you make when your opposition is technically superior and vastly more experienced at high pressure games. It's because they lost the ball so much that they had less possession and were so often on the defensive. It doesn't mean they played defensively.

Every time DPR got the ball they played from the back and attempted to attack by dribbling and passing. They did so in a system which they had clearly drilled and drilled. Apparently it was a 4-5-1 system, as is Australia's, but as Fozzie says, the shape isn't the indicator of attacking or defending, but what the players are doing. If they didn't give away so much possession by mistake, they would actually look like a very direct, attacking team, because that was what they were trying to do. It's not easy to be tactically virtuosic, but they stuck at it. A few times in the first half they even nearly got there, but they lacked the individual flair to make the final punch.

I'm just assuming here what was absolutely apparent. Brazil are brilliant. Their touch and their game is so silky it's disgusting. Their defense is experienced and brilliant, and even the best team in the World would find it challenging. Their attack is sublime, and indeed it was pure individual acts of genius - something the totalitarian regime may have more difficulty producing - that won the day for them. It's hard to say that either one was due to defensive mistakes.

The thing about defending is you don't have a ball to lose, and therefore it is in defense that DPR really impressed, since losing the ball was the only thing they did wrong. They were, quite frankly, a bloody tough nut for Brazil to crack.

DPR switched from attack to defense in an instant when they did lose the ball. They did not run around like madmen the way Paraguay looked good against Italy for a half, until they were stuffed. DPR were efficient in movement, not lunging around, not tackling madly, but maintaining a disciplined, tactically polished system of three lines, defending from the front line and accomplishing overlaps forward or back on either wing when necessary.

Their defense was beautiful, but that did not mean they wanted to just defend. If they wanted to defend they would have just booted the ball forward each time. They did boot the ball forward - about twice - and one resulted in their goal. If you think that means that if you just boot the ball forward you will score more goals I reckon you're wrong. If that's all you do the main result is to allow the opposition to swamp your target man and overwhelm him each time. No, DPR played textbook football at an extremely high standard except that, to Brazil, they lost the ball too often.

What I suspect Fozzie might also say is that this demonstrates that you don't have to have a huge population to play excellent football, you don't need to be big (the Koreans looked half the Brazilian's size), and you don't have to have super fitness and stamina. You just need to teach the people who do play really well, and use the most modern tactical training as well.

I reviewed half of Fozzie's book, Fozz on Football in Reading (I hadn't finished it). I will review it fully some time but I will reiterate here that although Fozz is a nutjob, he is also right about the key things - which turn out to be the football things rather than his nonsense about politics, linguistics and morality. I recommend the book with the qualification that you'll have to choke on your own scorn a fair bit in between being extremely well educated.

Anyway, if North Korea can continue playing like this they could scare Portugal and Ivory Coast, and that was not expected.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Catching Up

The infrastructure in South Africa is frankly pretty crappy, and stories abound. My own main frustration has been a lack of consistent internet, and once again I apologise. The following is dated, but still something I'd like to communicate.

It was a pretty subdued atmosphere in Total Sports Soccer Village the day after Australia's loss, partly deflation but also sheer exhaustion. It was a bloody long day.

This first photo is the fans gathering before departure in the morning. There's often a kick about going on, as in the foreground, and the only topic of conversation is soccer. Um... heaven really.
As I indicated the other day, the travel was always going to be arduous, with two busses and a plane each way, but the journey there at least was really fun, buoyed by the whole fan atmosphere thing. That first game between South Africa and Mexico was wonderful, as I've said, but in retrospect the only thing missing was the Socceroos and their fans.
Basically the journey was a party, despite quite a bit of chaos, including Jacob and I nearly missing the plane in Jo'burg (we had lunch and a couple hours free time at the airport for some reason). The party atmosphere waxed as the journey progressed, until the bus dropped us about 4 or 5 miles from the stadium in Durban, when it really started.

There was a confluence of fans on that walk - German and Australian (and sundry), and it was effing brilliant. We stirred the Germans as best we could. "We must respect our opponents; so don't mention the holocaust thing!!!" They were good humoured enough, but the convict comeback was a bit lame.

But I want to talk a bit about us Australian fans. In a sense I think we are as undeveloped as a soccer nation off the field as on it. I've talked before about the need to sing, and we did, in the final march, put up a prett damn fine rendition of Walzing Matilda, but really, we're pretty short of material. When we got on the plane someone got the, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!" going, to which the much smaller number of Germans replied with their national anthem (which unlike ours has a good melody and is really quite moving). I felt we were upstaged.

It occurs to me that this is a bit of a fan parallel to our deficiencies on the field. "Oi, Oi" and "Ole, Ole, Ole" seem to be desperation tactics, for want of a well developed tradition of play, parallel to the physicality and long-balls on the field. We just have so far to go.

Anyway, with the internet up I wanted to post something now, but Ivory Coast is now playing Portugal, so I must go watch. Hopefully I will be back soon and frequently!


Monday, June 14, 2010


Well what a magnificent display of football. 'Football' isn't a good word for it, especially in Australia when it puts the game on a par with Rugby and AFL as an artform, because football at its most virtuosic is so far superior to any other ball game that it should be considered alongside ballet or jazz rather than alongside these games.

I know I overuse hyperbole and um... bullshit, but I'm very serious here. You can't be a professional soccer player without having played all your life with very good coaching. The latter is still rare in Australia but steps have been taken to begin to rectify this - needless to say you wouldn't let a volunteer parent teach your child ballet or piano. In the great football countries, where the game is understood by the media and the public, it's virtually against the law.

To merely lambast the Socceroos for losing that match so convincingly, as much of Australian media is doing, essentially demonstrates ignorance. That German team is extraordinary (and yes, I must retract all my desperate attempts at optimism and say I was being ridiculous). It's hard to explain what I mean, especially because I'm a novice myself at this, but I'll have a go.

When you watch a team like Germany (and coming up I'd guess, Brazil, Italy and Spain), I encourage people to have a look around at what's happening off the ball. Try to see the 'group mind' I tried to describe a little while ago. When the ball is passed, try, just for a change, to watch what the passer does next rather than the person who receives the ball. Further, try to see what the third person in a triangle does at the same time. Watch the shape move, then (this is much easier with a live game) take a wider view still and watch the other shapes on the field respond in kind. Quite aside from the obscenely difficult skills of accurate passing, trapping a speeding ball and controlling a ball at speed, for a team to reach a high level tactically, as the Germans have, is a truly high art, to the extent that in a World of millions of soccer teams, it is extremely rare for it to be really there.

Of course it is depressing for a patriot to watch their team get so fully outclassed, but by half time I had moved from disappointment to a growing, awe-struck admiration of what the German team could do. They are no longer athletes. They are poets. More accurately perhaps, they are jazz musicians jamming. They were beautiful and I loved them for their beauty. I know not everyone gets into this - football for its own sake, for beauty, but I put it out there as a suggestion. When you see it, you will never regret it again any more than someone who's acquired a taste for opera will ever regret it.

The greatest regret for us from that game is not the scoreline of course, but the loss of Timmy Cahill through a red card (probably not deserved). Ghana and Serbia are much more realistic opposition for the Socceroos, but Timmy's loss will make it damn hard.

Anyway, our mighty Socceroos were roundly outclassed. We may talk about the 'dream generation' of 2006, but Australia has never played close to that standard. We may get there one day, but only if we want to make the effort as a nation. I hope we do.

I'll write more later. Still struggling with internet and photos.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Off to Durban

Well today is a big one, which will seriously test the organisation around here. Bus to airport, plane to Durban, bus to stadium, game, then the reverse to get us back here by about 2.30am (all going to plan).

Australia vs Germany. Can we beat the Krauts?

Life around the Total Sports Soccer Village is pretty cool and relaxed. Games on the big screen are watched by a packed, engaged room.

The complex is surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences. A big guy hangs around at the front and lets us in and out. Actually pretty much everywhere you go there is a black guy sort of mooching around the front. No uniform or anything, but that's security.

Yesterday Jacob and I went for a 15 minute walk to the local shopping complex and market. These people are really wonderful - colourful and friendly. I could spend the whole day looking at (black) women's hair. From fairy floss silk to ropes, plaits, elaborate braids, every possibility. Clearly their hair is very important to them, and it's very cool.

Anyway, then we walked back, and at a crossing stopped next to a lady. She looked very uncomfortable, and I thought maybe it was us, so I just sort of tried to keep a little distance and act happy and cool. She told us she'd just that morning had her phone stolen at gunpoint. She was very upset, visibly distressed. Hmm. One of the workers around here who I've become mates with reckons, "It's really not that bad. I've lived here all my life and only been mugged eight times." Oh good.

Anyways, blah blah. I'm still working on my photo publishing technique. My notebook is not loaded with software (it can't handle Photoshop), so I'm uploading straight from camera to Picasa, and can't figure out how to save the pics at lower resolution. Any advice welcome.

I'll have more after the day's exciting ordeal.


Some Pictures

Posted by PicasaThe Journeymen

End of a long journey

Off to the Opening

South African's are mad. I love them.

Soccer City. Wow!

Just in case our ears hadn't already gone...

The ceremony was only about an hour, but it was very cool.

High as kites on love and soccer.

Happy cops.

Sepp Blatter blatting

The first kick of the Cup

Wow, eh?

A happy lad

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Soccer City

My sincere apologies for not posting for three days. I've already written about four posts in my head, but I have to catch up quickly, so I've discarded most of the material. The Total Sports Village, where I'm staying, is still being constructed around me really, but finally we have a wireless connection.

Whenever anything goes wrong here, it occurs with a grin and a, "welcome to South Africa."

There is no security at the airport - none. They looked at passports and waved us through. Many people have remarked on this.

But skipping a lot until yesterday morning, when we checked the place out a bit, kicked a ball around (though I retired when a few blokes who were bloody good started; Jacob later referred to it as 'like a jam') and generally dagged around. A number of people were off to the opening ceremony and the following game between South Africa and Mexico.

Two minutes before the bus was to leave Mike, the manager here, came outside and asked, "Anyone want two tickets to the opening?"
I glanced at Jacob and saw the excitement in his eyes. "Bloody oath, but how much?" I retorted.
"Well they cost US$750 each, but the guy just needs to get rid of them."
"I'll give you $500 Australian."
"No, I can't afford it. I'll offer $500 for both. But it's cool. I really can't afford it."
"Hang on... Look can you go a bit higher?"
"$600 Ozzie for both, but no worries otherwise."

The short of it is that Jacob and I were off to the Opening at Soccer City. F**k!!!!!!!!!!!

The drive there was all part of the show, and I took many pictures, but am so far struggling to publish them. I'm on to it.

Johannesburg is a party. Much colour and madness. But it also showed how not ready the country was for this event. For a trip of about 10kms, we had given ourselves three hours. It was not enough, and the 12 of us piled out of the bus, armed with the driver's mobile number, and walked the last one or two miles, along with the teeming, dancing thousands.

But the colour, and excitement and noise was already intoxicating. It didn't ebb, but only got more intense. [As I write, sitting here in the common room with the scren, Argentina just scored their first goal against Nigeria].

Going into Soccer City, where again there was virtually no security check, was entering a new space. New to me and Jacob. The colour and noise and dancing was apparently endless. 85,000 in attendance.

I simply cannot succeed in describing the experience. Some people said the opening ceremony was a bit crappy, and I can in retrospect see their point, but I simply didn't notice. In fact I was constantly distracted by the show which was us. Banter with the Mexicans, South Africans and a few Americans, around us, was easy and free and laughing. We took photos for each other and joked like old family.

Someone asked me a few years ago what the highest moment of my life was. At the time I thought about it and answered, "Australia's goal against Uruguay in front of 50,000 at Suncorp Stadium. That feeling of collective unleash of tension into absolute joy is unbeatable."

South Africa's goal against Mexico killed that experience, and relegated it to about a 4.5 on a brand new scale for me.

Quite simply, and Jacob said the same (over and over, as did I) that was the most extraordinary experience of my life bar none. In the way that Peter Brook's Mahabarata fulfilled my quest for perfect theatre way back in the 80s (I saw the 9 hour epic in Adelaide), my soccer passion feels fulfilled. If I die tomorrow, I haven't got any unfinished business on that front anyway.

As I say I can't explain it. I simply can't. It's the 85,000 people, it's a brilliant game (it really was very open and creative from both sides, and I'm sure this crowd lifted the locals), it's the stadium design I think, and it's the two particular cultures involved. But I can't do it. Everything vibrated with rhythm. My plastic beer bottle in my hand felt like a vibrator, but pulsing with the movements of noise. The air itself seemed to resonate. The crowds danced and sang and hooted those horrible plastic horns (in rhythmic unison, as they synchronised a movement of them from in front of them to up above their heads). The seething masses around us moved in waves and pulses.

There was an organism (which the stadium design suggests as well), and I was a cellular component of its life. The object - stadium, players and fans - was one and it was alive.

No I'm not on drugs. This was much, much better than that.

Back with more soon.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Final Day in Brisbane Town

Last night I went out to watch the last football game I'll see before the World Cup. The Ligers, a mixed futsal team I played for for a little while (pictured), who had made their semi-finals. The game was spirited as usual, but my friends were soundly defeated.

It seemed appropriate, since I am about to be absorbed in the most elite football competition there is, that I touch base with this grass roots, such a large part of my soccer passion, one last time. Thanks guys. You rock.

Driving and walking around Brisbane this last week has been a bit of an existential la la land. I love my city, and I'll even miss it. And I know I'll be back, but not as the same person. So the little things have been attracting my attention. Just shops and creatures and the blue of the sky - that sort of thing.

I've been planning this trip for almost two years. From the beginning it was proposterous and if anyone had asked, "Can you afford it?" I would reply, "I don't know but I will." But, you see, soccer sort of saved my life, and has quite tangibly filled a big spiritual space for me. Think of that what you will, but now I stand on the precipice of my journey with a type of awe, a feeling like I am about to take my dance to a new level. Forget it. It's not really explainable.

It's not just Brisbane I'm leaving for a month. Since beginning the planning for the trip I've fallen in love and gotten engaged. From the beginning of the relationship I had to explain that there was this big thing I was doing and that it wasn't necessarilly conducive to new romantic bonding. So here and now I want to thank Dawn for her love and understanding in this. I love ya baby an' I'll be back in more ways than one.

Needless to say I've been writing plenty of crap for the past few weeks, but from this point on I will be exposed to actual content, so expect the blogging to get a bit more diary like, with more pictures and more action. We'll see where it goes.

Thanks to my readers so far, and I hope I can provide an interesting and entertaining supplement to your World Cup reading. I'm pleased to say Football Down Under's readership is higher than it has ever been (about 30 of you a day), for obvious enough reasons I suppose, but there's also less comments than ever. Now if you don't feel like commenting, don't, of course. But don't hold back anyway. I'm friendly and attempt to maintain courtesy in reply even if I think you're a twat.

Anyway, before I am overwhelmed with fresh content, here's some silly things that are fun:

Timed alongside the FIFA World Cup is, in Singapore, the Robocup 2010. This is where geeks pit robots against one another in soccer. Their objective is to one day defeat a human team, but they've um... got a way to go.

And while we're on the futurism theme, doesn't Beckham look at home on Tatooine? (Thanks Josh for this one.)

With a prayer to the gods of travel and pilgrimage for safe passage there and back again of myself and my dear son Jacob, I'll see you in South Africa.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Doing the Dumb Thing

Well for months I have trawled media and read long-winded comment threads about coaches, teams and players. I've tried to see through the natural inclination of sensation in the professional media, and to decipher the mind games of the coaches. I've tried to see the wisdom in conflicting arguments of people who clearly know much more than me. I've watched Australia's friendlies and carefully read hundreds of reports of other teams' friendlies.

I still have no idea what's going to happen, and gain solace only that much better educated and informed football minds than mine clearly have little better idea.

The teams, however, are chosen. The friendlies have been had. In about 33 hours my son and I will be on a Qantas Aeroplane, leaving our beautiful city on... a holiday? My brother in law Michael struggled to find a word to give for what he wanted to wish well. An adventure? "A pilgrimage," I said, and thought that was as good as any. As every Muslim at some time in their life is obliged to make the journey to Mecca, I guess the soccer fan eventually is drawn to the World Cup.

Anyway it's time for me to do the stupid thing. On the right, near the top of the side bar is a link, "The World Cup Tipped." There you will find listed every game, from the groups through to the Final, with my predicted score. I will be giving myself (and Jacob if he plays) a point for a correct result and three points for a correct score. Same system as for the Bloggers' Cup, if anyone remembers.

If anyone wants to join in feel free. Just give tips in comments. You don't have to give them all at once, and I reserve the right to change my latter tips as the group stages unfold.

Now I'm not going to rationalise every choice I made. As I've said before I think there will be an extra element of randomness at this Cup, with some new and curious conditions. In general I think this will be hard on the Europeans, especially in the Group stages. This will be a Cup for the South Americans I believe, with a decent sub-staring role for the Africans.

Brazil will win as it did in Korea/Japan in 2002. I think this not merely because Brazil is obscenely talented with an international record second to none, but because it is travel-wise at the same time. If the players can make the transition from Brazil to Europe, as most have, they're going to be hard to surprise. Actually I think that's one of Australia's strengths as well.

I guess apart from Australia's remarkable success the most controversial thing I've predicted is that Germany and France will both bomb completely. For the former, despite a suicide, five injuries (including the Captain) and an arrest, despite showing some inconsistent form even before that, despite their team being relatively inexperienced, especially at the front, I just keep hearing the historical argument: they are a machine that always does well. It's not enough to convince me, especially given the destabilising conditions. Experience will mean everything at this World Cup.

The French, I insist, are cursed by the Irish, and I reckon the South Africans have come into form and into pride at just the right time to be lifted by their home crowd to a good group result.

Australia? Yes I've been rather optimistic there. Can I just add to the prediction that when Brazil beats Australia 4:1 in the Final, the Australian sports media will declare that the whole thing up to then was luck and that the game revealed once and for all that Pim was crap.

But I have chosen for Australia the path of unfinished business. By winning the group we shall go on to play the USA, second behind England in Group C. That I consider unfinished business - it's been far too long since Australia and the USA have had a good competitive match, and that last friendly just didn't satisfy. Winning that will have us up against Argentina in the Quarter Final, with the opportunity to fulfil Maradona's prophesy that we would have the tears of joy one day. By scraping through that (on penalties) we get to Italy. Now there we have real unfinished business. Once again, we just have to hold them and beat them in the penalty box. Crude, but I'm trying to envision the most likely scenario for success.

Anyway, there it is.

For a fantastically designed single-page guide to the World Cup, bookmark this.

For a brilliant, extremely professional tactical analysis of Australia's team, we are in debt to Zonal Marking. I've been hoping (I thought vainly) for this blog to do a feature on Australia and it came through. It includes pictures and fairly elaborate descriptions of what we might expect the different players to do.


Monday, June 07, 2010

Can the World Cup Save the World?

Anyone who frequents this blog will be accustomed to the ravings of a lunatic so I must emphasise to begin with that I didn't make the above question up. Part of FIFA's explicit agenda is to save the World.

In terms of the history of institutions, FIFA is a doozie. It's mind-bogglingly big, federating more nations than any multinational and indeed more than the United Nations. It turns over multi-billions of dollars, allegedly as a non-profit organisation, from its headquarters in Switzerland, where it pays bugger-all tax. FIFA is utterly corrupt and, given its lack of accountability, quite possibly so from top to bottom. Its obstinate rejection of any video technology to aid in referee decisions only reinforces this impression. Its corporate, non-national structure means it does not answer to any constituency, even indirectly.

The political power of FIFA should not be underestimated, and if any international political scientist is not accounting for it they're missing a biggie. One of the first steps a new state will make (with the Balkanisation of Eastern Europe for example) is apply for membership of FIFA. This application has actually been prioritised over an application to join the United Nations in cases.

The main thing long-time President Sepp Blatter insists upon is that the government does not interfere with the national soccer. From time to time national federations are suspended from FIFA, when they will flurry to adjust to Blatter's demands. It's quite a lot like insisting upon the seperation of church and state, and I invite readers to think about how powerful that makes this bloke Sepp Blatter. Bloody powerful.

I am a big supporter of Australia's World Cup bid, but we should not be naive. Australia would not be running it. South Africa had to agree to forego a lot of sovereignty to FIFA, whose perks included tax free status and an unlimited and unimpeded license to move money in and out of the country in any form.

Now as I suggested in the beginning, FIFA has an explicitly progressive agenda. A few years ago it insisted that all national federations raise the minimum percentage of their funding for women's soccer from 10% to 20%. 220 odd countries, just like that. It doesn't even sound much to a Western mind (the USA had a constitutional decision that government sports funding must be 50% for women - and it shows in their women's sport), but note that this requirement is insisted upon from Kenya to Iran, from The Solomon Islands to Ecuador. It's very proactive stuff, and the governments move to comply.

I can feel a digression coming on when it comes to FIFA's major campaigns against racism in soccer. Australians who have been exposed to not much more than popular press might even find them ironic, because soccer is still often associated with hooliganism and racism. A football game can not produce racism of course, it just provides a jolly opportunity for racism to come to the surface in an ugly way, and we've seen it often enough.

FIFA and the European football federations tackled racism head on with advertising, stadium redesigns, modern crowd management and heavy policing, including with lifetime bans, utilising continental blacklists of hooligans, and the rest. They've had enormous success in combating the racism and the hooliganism, but from what I've read the cycle has gotten going as strong as ever in Eastern Europe and the potential remains everywhere.

The problem is, as many governments have discovered over the past century, soccer is too big and too popular to ban. So the only solution is to confront the problem directly. The effect, in my view, is that racism in society is actually tackled.

In Australia we failed to utilise football as an opportunity to tackle racism in our society. Ethnic rivalries between clubs is the standard scapegoat of all the problems of the old Australian National Soccer League, even though the Crawford Report mostly pointed to corruption and an archaic voting system as the problems. The solution was to lock all of these old clubs, with their decades of tradition and community connection, out of the A-League. It was a monumental mistake in my opinion, but I've digressed too far...

The 1Goal Campaign

The flagship progressive feature of World Cup 2010, apart from the fact that it is in Africa, is the 1Goal campaign. For my own part I am almost shocked at how perfect the goal of this is, which is to eliminate illiteracy, insisting that every child on the planet be schooled. This is an achievable goal and a basic milestone in the stabilisation and development of World Civilisation. I would argue that it is about the single greatest World priority actually, quite independently of my obvious neurotic passion for soccer, and have done so. Clearly it goes with the whole Africa thing, as that's where most of the work will need to be.

As I write 8,154,180 people have signed up to 1Goal. I am one, and I heartilly recommend you add your name. Just go to the site and do what you're told.

So how does 1Goal propose to address this problem? Well explicitly it doesn't want our money, and as far as I can see it is pure lobby, a global petition to, "the governments of the World." Fair enough, but I do question how wholehearted FIFA is, given there is no link to 1Goal from the FIFA World Cup front page.

The thing is I see a real potential for this campaign, and do in general believe that what I call 'the globalising middle classes' do have a real political role to play now, but it doesn't seem to me that the campaign is really being pushed, beyond its stylish, star-studded launch and then automated internet collection.

What I would love to see, and what could actually make an impact, is the campaign featured, maybe for 90 seconds, before the World Cup Final in front of a billion people. This billion people would include, for the overwhelming part, all the leaders, corporate and political, all the journalists, judges, generals and pop icons. In short, every player is watching, aware that a billion others are watching. That is the moment of maximum opportunity, but I doubt that it will be taken.

But sign up I reckon. It would be great to get to 10,000,000 anyway. I think it is a unique lobby, without borders, without particular cultural biases, or even a common language. Despite my cynicism about the 1Goal campaign, I think the goal itself is actually achievable, so I think it's worth humouring FIFA en masse, to see what might be pushed.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Humbled by Uncle Sam

United States v Australia 3:1
Pre-World Cup Friendly

Well, Australia may have been exhausted from fitness training, and I will still maintain my optimism the best I can for the World Cup, but according to my own declaration yesterday, I won't be putting my money on them. For not only was the Socceroos' run of very close victories ended, but they were ended decisively, with any reputation for a rock-solid defense of multiple clean sheets shattered by the 3:1 scoreline.

Now once again I think we do have a very effective attack. I don't know how many times I saw the ball come down our left followed by a beautiful cross from Chipperfield into the box. Again and again. That's called a successfully executed attack. But Josh Kennedy looked buggered and wasn't getting to them. We know Josh can get these because he does it for his Japanese Club regularly, but he wasn't doing it last night.

But there's not much comfort to be drawn from the possibilities of missed opportunities because the USA missed a basket of opportunities as well whilst our defense was cruelly exposed.

And I guess that's one of the trade-offs for the 'old, experienced' defense, where after a tough day's fitness training (Friday was their peak fitness session) they simply didn't have legs for it. As Jason Cullina said, it's no excuse in itself, but we can at least be comforted that before the German game these old soldiers will be fit and rested. Fingers crossed, wallets closed.

I had to laugh at my own overplaying yesterday of the difference between the FIFA and ELO tables with regard to Australia's and the USA's rankings. If you were following that narrative, note that that game placed the United States one place above Australia on the ELO table, from four places behind. Seems a reasonable correction to me.

Here's a final positive I can find from this game. Australia's best chance of anything, in my view, is the first game against Germany. I'm not understimating them, but they are relatively inexperienced and will be viewing the game as the first of a long campaign. It is our only chance for surprise. If Australia had flogged the USA, after its long, successful qualifier and then victories over New Zealand and Denmark, successively tougher opponents, the other teams in Group D would have been put on high alert. To be beaten, especially comprehensively, at this stage, is to duck under the radar once again, at the best possible time. No I don't think it was the plan, just a way in which fate may yet be working for us.

Once again, I am still hoping, though the evidence is getting shaky, that the Socceroos overall preparation is on track and that the team which runs on the field on the 13th will be at their peak of fitness and tactical understanding, and will have topped off this brilliantly concieved plan with a day of light training then a full day's rest. And thence, things will be glorious.

I'm a patriot ok? I will try to be honest in my observations, whilst doing everything I can to keep the faith. If it comes to it, I will wear the ignomy of my optimism being utterly wrong as a war wound, a badge of honour in our country's battle for the ultimate glory. But at the same time I'm serious. The Socceroos have every chance to go a long way at this World Cup.

Just a thankyou to the Pig n Whistle (left), a rare dedicated soccer pub where I've enjoyed the last two friendlies. My impression was of an established culture of Pig n Whistle goers, brought to my attention by the rousing participation in the National Anthem, which, apart from the fact that it is a crap song in every way (hardly their fault), was impressive. There were screens everywhere, including in the courtyard, and you could even see the screen from the smoking area. Keep it in mind, I reckon, as a good spot to watch a game with the public.

For analysis of the game itself the best blog I've found so far is by Dom on the World Cup Blog. [Later Ed: Mike Salter, always worth a read, has published a blog about the game too.]


Saturday, June 05, 2010

Australia v USA and Betting

It is just a little bit tempting to be distracted by tonight's tennis game. I gaped in awe at the news that Sam Stosur actually beat Serena Williams, as I thought that could only ever be done by a Serena Williams clone. Note to any future genetic engineers: if you're going to make a sporting superhero, make sure you make two, so the competition can stay interesting. The Williams sisters definitely give the impression that a genetic engineer has got my memo already, along with another more technical memo about a time machine. Anyway, of course it took a Queenslander and tonight Stosur has a shot at winning the French Open. The game competes with the football, and I will not be any further distracted, but from Football Down Under, Go You Queensland Woman!!!!!!!

Australia vs United States
10.30pm tonight. Australia v United States. Third and last warm up friendly before the World Cup games. Live on Fox 3.

A training run or a rare opportunity to bloody Uncle Sam's nose? It's within the question that we could play the United States in the Round of 16 incidentally, but can we let a chance go by?

As a fan I am presented with these two potentially contradictory pathways, which I'm sure is a tension in the team itself, although our Dutch coach wouldn't be having such problems. In a way it would be better to have these friendlies against teams we'd never heard of, as then they could be unambiguously for training. For when Australia plays the United States (and New Zealand for that matter), it is hard not to feel obliged to concentrate purely on the slaughter.

Australia, I can't help thinking, has a patriotic duty to defeat the yanks, regardless of any other circumstances. The fact is that doing so would bring enormous national joy regardless of any other World Cup results. However it's also hard not to be aware that that's exactly how the Kiwis felt about playing us a week ago, and it didn't work out for them (they lost and picked up an injury).

Winning is more fun for David than it is for Goliath, after all, but riskier.

Without bringing too many factors into play the only real inequality between the USA and Australia as nations is that the former has 51 states in their federation and we have six and a half. The similarities in language, culture, income, institutions and the soccer environment are clear enough. Soccer of course, as it is played between countries with equal rules and equal personel with an impartial referee, is the equalising competition, unlike war, that ugly, dangerous, archaic, environmentally destructive approach to international conflict. In the case of these two countries, with no home ground benefit for either, we might expect the USA and Australia to look equal on the football pitch. And so it is the case.

Just a brief word on international ranking. On the official FIFA ranking table Australia are currently at 20th and the United States is at 14th - a significant difference, though within a pretty tight part of the table. That table is updated monthly, so this 26th May calculation will be the one referred to for the whole World Cup period, regardless of any of the friendly warm up games occurring now, or any WC games to come. Quite aside from the fact that it isn't updated game by game, FIFA's ranking system is inordinately complicated, calculating factors from up to five years old and, frankly, doesn't always reflect what's going on.

No system can really see everything of course, but there is a better system. The ELO Rankings are based on the ranking system for international chess, annotated with soccercentric factors. That they're updated game by game, and you can see on the page the calculator's impact from each game, is helpful in itself. I often use this page just to get a quick list of the latest international games.

When Australia was about 38th in 2006 on the FIFA table and that was clearly too low, ELO reflected that. Then when we hit the lofty heights of 14th on the FIFA table, with which most commentators were openly uncomfortable, ELO reflected that as well. A lot of the table looks about the same of course, but the differences are distinctive (Portugal ranking 11th rather than 3rd for example) and, in my own engagement, better reflect an attentive observer's intuitions.

This might be useful information, but the reason I bring it to attention now is very superficial. On the ELO table Australia is currently 18th and the USA is at 22nd. There's still not a lot of space between us but Australia has the edge. Once again, this edge in Australia's direction better reflects my own intuition, though the betting totalisers support the FIFA model. No doubt the FIFA table has a real bearing on the totalising as well.

There is no other possible conclusion from these two sets of data except that Australia and the USA are about equal.

As usual I have not the slightest idea who, if anyone, will win tonight. Craig Foster, in that book that I am still excrutiating my way through, claims that, a) he has powers of observing a football game parallel with the powers of Keanu Reeves character in The Matrix to read the matrix, and, b) that after about 10 minutes of a given game he basically knows what's going to happen. If this was the case, even to a degree of 5%, people like Craig Foster would not be reading the sports news (watch his face very carefully when he reports on AFL and rugby - he cannot conceal the grimace) but would be the wealthiest men in our society.

Just to reinforce the observation that noone really has a clue, some readers will remember the tipping competition I conducted on this blog for an A-League season and a half, The Blogger's Cup. As a set of data, the main conclusion you can draw from these soccer bloggers' attempts to predict the games (they range from experienced analysts to rank amateurs like myself) is that none of them did much better than they would have if we had of had a sweep from a hat, and the mean was about the same. The leaders tended to be those whose teams were winning. (No taking away from Mike Salter, who won so strongly in the end that perhaps he should consider devloping a betting system to retire with. Hope you enjoyed the single malt trophy mate. :))

I'm going to raise a challenge to the universe. I'm going to bet $50 on Australia to win by one goal. If Australia wins by one goal I am going to place another $50 bet on Australia to win each of its World Cup games by one goal. As far as I can see the most I can lose is $50, and the emotional journey of winning or losing will smother any impact of the outcome of the bet anyway. And if Australia doesn't win tonight, my betting at this World Cup is over.

Now betting with totalisers is a fool's game, since they are carefully constructed to win and for you, statistically, to lose. I actually love gambling, but only when I sense the odds are in my favour - I guess that's the basic instinct of a businessman. To bet with a betting agency is so transparently a poor investment vis-a-vis risk that it is remarkable that anyone does it at all. So I'm not investing $50 at all. I'm spending $50, that I reckon I can afford, for what I reckon is about $50 worth of fun.

Beyond the moralising, if you must have a bet, consider this blog's one and only sponsor, linked to the right, PartyBets. I am under no obligation to plug them but it seemed a juncture where it would almost be odd not to mention them.

I couldn't find any good blogs reviewing the game properly, but News Limited's David Hall gives a little bit of insight. If I find good stuff during the day I'll link to it here.

I'll be watching the game at the Pig n Whistle.


Thursday, June 03, 2010


With six sleeps to go before Jacob and I leave on our historic and sacerdotal witness, I thought I may not be the only one wondering what to read on the plane. Each of these three books is Australian. Each is aimed at an extremely different audience. Each has as a common theme the most beautiful game yet devised, a game that has become the most universal language and religion, the crowning cultural artifact of human civilisation to this date. Three new soccer books.

Paul Connolly, The Mighty Bras: A Suburban Football Story with Balls/Intestinal Fortitude, Affirm Press, Victoria, 2010.

For a plane trip to Johannesburg, straight up, this is my highest recommendation. If reading is how you pass the hours, you'll probably finish it (190 pages), and it will only have done lovely things to your state of mind for your arrival.

The Mighty Bras is a biography of an amateur women's soccer team in Melbourne written by its coach. Sound indulgent? Gloriously so. The characters are brought alive with great humour and empathy, and everything about the read is fun. I laughed out loud frequently. It might have helped that the team reminded me often of Dawn's team, The West End Partisans, although the Bras do eventually win some games. (Dawn is my long-suffering fiance.)

Adrian Deans, Mr Cleansheets, Vulgar Press, Victoria, 2010.

My fantasy: a 40 year old goal keeper from Australia gets a trial with Manchester United. How the author keeps this believeable (just) is the real mystery. This is a read for a popular audience, but at 525 pages will take a few plane trips and you might want to start it before you head off. I couldn't put the bloody thing down and it kept me up for a few nights. Football, sex, violence, crime, intrigue, juicy characters and an underlying comedy of plot without any of it being a comedy. It's like the author dares you to drop your suspension of disbelief, deftly maintaining your interest as you repress, page after page, the urge to laugh at what must be his ultra-dry absurdist sense of humour. I can say no more without spoiling the journey. For me it was a hoot.

Craig Foster, Fozz on Football, Hardie Grant Books, Victoria, 2010.

Now Craig Foster is a freak. I mean it, and I am an authority. The man has a unique mental condition, a cross between Anthony Green (replacing political data with soccer data), Billy Graham (replacing black n white religious evangelism with black n white soccer evangelism) and Timothy Leary (replacing drug euphoria with soccer euphoria).

I must immediately point out that Craig would never use the word 'soccer' as loosely as I am doing so for it is the wrong word. AFL for him is not 'football' at all, despite the fact, easily verifiable, that everyone calls it that. I've written about this absurdity elsewhere (ok, twice) so I won't go on about that. Suffice to say that I couldn't care less what you call the game and that 'soccer' seems a useful term in a media environment with multiple football codes.

Anyway the first four or five chapters were hilarious for their relentless polemical passion, replete with exageration, hyperbole, the rampant overuse of superlatives, blind contradiction and a happy smattering of fascinating football anecdotes that you would be better off picking up from Simon Kuper's excellent books. The chapters are really short essays of five or six pages each, which made it an excellent bedside book, but honestly, I nearly put it down and reviewed it as crap without continuing.

I'm very glad I didn't do that.

To get the unique gift that Craig Foster has to offer you have to see past Timothy Leary and Billy Graham and get to Anthony Green. It's when Foster got to his detailed raves about what good football is that I started concentrating because I realised I was learning a lot very quickly. His essays on the system, on space, on speed, on the touch each show us things we can watch for, ways we can watch the game. It's no secret that the intricacies of the soccer game fascinate the eff out of me, and Fozzie describes each aspect with the deeply considered understanding that only an obsessive nutjob can truly attain.

Anyway the book is still by my bed and I'm only half way through it. I do need something for the plane you know?

All of these books seem to be available in regular bookshops, but I don't have them in my own bookshop, because it's second hand. There's not many soccer books in my bookshop unfortunately (Archives Fine Books, 40 Charlotte St, Brisbane), because I've hoarded them all.

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