Some thoughts on the World Cup

Something unusual is happening today. No football. The World Cup is taking a one day break between the end of the group stage and the start of the last 16. This gives time to take stock – which I’ve decided to use to share some thoughts on the World Cup so far.
An interesting article by Scott McDermott appeared in the Daily Record last week in which he claimed that nine of the thirty two teams in Brazil were “glorified pub teams” and they shouldn’t be there. Thee nine countries in question are Honduras, South Korea, Ghana, Nigeria,Japan, Cameroon, Iran, Australia and Costa Rica. He also claimed that the nine automatic qualifying places for Europe are “too few” and that even though four play off places mean 13 out of 32 countries in Brazil are European “I’m still not having it”. But the facts prove him wrong. Of the nine countries he says are not good enough two of them are still in the competition (Costa Rica and Nigeria) one drew with Germany (Ghana) one was only beaten by Argentina because of the genius of Lionel Messi (Iran) and one gave the Dutch a fight in one of the best matches of the competition (Australia). That only leaves four that looked out of their depth – and three of them (Cameroon Japan and South Korea) have reached the knockout round – or better – at past World Cups. Only Honduras were both poor and had no past World Cup pedigree.
Let’s look at the European teams then. For the second World Cup in a row the majority of the european teams (seven out of thirteen) haven’t even got out of the group stage. Some big nations – England, Italy Spain and Portugal – have flopped horribly. Russia were even worse than Capello’s England were in 2010. Croatia were poor and only Bosnia – robbed against Nigeria – can claim to be unlucky. in fact europe are lucky to have six teams still in Brazil. But for two late goals Greece and Switzerland would be out as well. And frankly, no one would have missed them – especially boring Greece (only useful as a cure for insomnia).
Yet incredibly McDermott claims that european nations not good enough to qualify – Scotland, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland – would have contributed more to the World Cup than the likes of Costa Rica and Australia. He is talking nonsense. If more than half of the european teams that are in Brazil are not good enough what on earth would the non qualifiers be like? McDermott’s views are typical of a UK/eurocentric superiority mentality. A habit the UK and europe must kick. Some people might argue that Europe doesn’t deserve thirteen qualifying slots for Russia 2018 on the evidence of this year’s World Cup (to say nothing of the last one). While it is true that one of Holland Germany or France – the three impressive european teams so far – could well win the World Cup as Spain did in 2010 – the truth is most european teams aren’t as good as they think they are.
Finally a brief word on Luis Suarez. Why haven’t FIFA insisted he is not allowed to play until he has counselling? He has now bitten three players. It is highly likely that if he is not given help he will just offend again. After his last ban the English players’ union the PFA offered him help but he turned it down. He must accept this time or he should not be allowed to play again. And Uruguay’s attitude is a disgrace. Why can’t they accept that Suarez is “bang to rights” as they say in UK criminal slang. Apologise accept the punishment and move on. But that never happens in football does it?

Is Murray’s new coach on a hiding to nothing?

The fact that the England football team will now be “home before the postcards” in the World Cup is not just bad news for them. It might also be bad news for Britain’s reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray as he begins the defence of his title on Monday (since the UK press will put the spotlight on him now that England are out). He’ll become the first Briton to defend a Wimbledon title since Virginia Wade in 1978 (as a sideline it will be interesting if the UK press acknowledge this fact. Last year when Murray won the title – as Chloe Angyal pointed out on Twitter – the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail called him the first British Wimbledon champion since 1937 when in fact there were four British female champions since 1937.)
This would seem like nit picking but for an event that has occurred since last year’s Wimbledon. A couple of weeks ago Murray appointed a new coach. She is female – the 2006 Wimbledon Champion Amelie Mauresmo. Needless to say this has made headlines. At first I was shocked but one must remember Murray was coached by his mother in the early stages of his career and so a female coach is not the novelty it would be for the vast majority of ATP players. So far his record under Mauresmo in baseball parlance is .500 (one win one defeat) and to no one’s surprise Mauresmo is taking a lot of stick on social media (none of it will be reproduced here).
People are praising Murray for his bravery but in truth he isn’t the brave one here. Ever since July 7th last year – when he won the Wimbledon title – Murray is a British hero. He always will be. The man who ended 77 years of humiliation for British men at Wimbledon won’t be attacked by the press now. Mauresmo is the brave one. She is the one that is stepping out of her comfort zone. Knowing the British press as I do Mauresmo is on a hiding to nothing. If Murray plays well he’ll get the credit. if he plays badly she’ll get the blame. Not fair? Of course it’s not. If Mauresmo was coaching Britain’s number 1 female Heather Watson it would have got some publicity – ex Wimbledon champion to coach British youngster could be one headline – but it would cause nowhere near as much fuss and if Watson did well Mauresmo would get credit for it. An example from the 2012 Olympics shows this. In the women’s football Final German (female) referee Bibiana Steinhaus missed a US handball so obvious even the US’s two goal heroine Carli Lloyd admitted “it was a clear handball. It hit her (Tobin Heath’s) arm”. It got mentioned a bit in the UK press but if she had refereed the men’s Final and made the same mistake the poor woman would have been hung drawn and quartered for it.
In fact today’s Daily Telegraph backs me up. The headline in Simon Briggs’s article on Wimbledon is “Mauresmo blameless if I lose, says Murray.” It goes without saying that the last time Murray went into a Grand Slam with a new coach – the 2012 Australian Open – he did not say that Ivan Lendl would be blameless if he lost. Mauresmo will not be allowed a honeymoon period like most new appointments get. Just because she’s a woman.
An example from the UK’s past confirms this. The three toughest most high profile jobs in the UK in my opinion are the England (male) football team manager, the England (male) cricket captain and the Prime Minister of the UK. But a new appointment to all three of these jobs gets a honeymoon period where they do not get attacked by the UK’s press and public. Only one of those jobs – Prime Minister – has been done by a woman, namely Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps it is just a coincidence but as David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh wrote about her first government ” The new government’s honeymoon was much shorter than usual.The 7% lead in the general election evaporated within six weeks and by October Labour were 5% ahead in the polls” (The British General Election of 1983 page 14). It might have nothing to do with her gender but it is amazing Thatcher’s honeymoon was far shorter than any other UK Prime Minister.
I really do fear for Mauresmo that Murray will get the credit if it goes well – and that she’ll get the blame if it does not. She could be on a hiding to nothing. Let’s hope the UK press – some of whom still have naked women on Page 3 – prove me wrong. An interesting footnote. Melanie Harvey in the Daily Record wrote that a friend of hers said that all men with half a brain should consider themselves a feminist. Ah so that explains the behaviour of Sepp Blatter and the UK press then!

Sepp Blatter in good idea shocker!

An excellent World Cup so far full of shocks. Who’d have thought we would have had to wait for the thirteenth match for the first 0-0 draw, or that Spain and Portugal would be bottom of their groups and Costa Rica top of theirs? But the most important incident was France’s second goal against Honduras which saw the first use of goal line technology thus confirming that football has finally caught up with the 21st century.
But the biggest surprise happened at the FIFA congress where Sepp Blatter had a good idea. Yes the guy who as British football writer Brian Glanville put it “has 50 ideas before breakfast and 51 are bad” actually had a good one. While it wasn’t “I resign” or “I’m moving the 2022 World Cup to a more suitable venue”(anywhere else in the world would be more suitable) one must be thankful for small mercies. His idea was that managers should be allowed to challenge referee’s decisions twice a game. While he was vague about it – deliberately so? – and it still has to get past the International Football Association Board – an organisation that makes FIFA look progressive – a look at other sports shows the potential impact of Blatter’s plan.
Three sports I’m interested in – baseball cricket and tennis – have all adopted something similar. And despite teething problems the benefits are clear. The tennis system is the easiest to understand as it applies to wither the ball is in or out in close plays. Hawkeye is accurate the system is quick and the McEnroe style tantrums tennis used to be renowned for are history.
The cricket system is more interesting since although it is a team game it is up to the individual player wither or not to challenge the umpire’s call. If a challenge is wrong the team loses a review and it was interesting during last summer’s Ashes to see certain players reviewing all the time mostly being proved wrong and costing their team a review (I’m talking about you Shane Watson and Stuart Broad!). Yet only yesterday – at the end of a thrilling Test between England and Sri Lanka – we saw the system working. Sri Lanka’s last man Nuwan Pradeep was given out. It was obviously an incorrect call he challenged it and TV confirmed the umpire’s mistake. It cost England a win but justice was seen to be done and had the system not been there it would have caused A LOT of controversy.
Baseball is the newest convert to this system having adopted it just this year. Here it is the manager that can challenge a call – one a game (two if his first challenge is proved right). Although it is still early days it has calmed down a game in which according to Mike Marquesse “dissent is commonplace;abusing the umpire is a cherished national tradition” (Mike Marquesse “Anyone but England” page 199). Manager ejections are way down this year as they can now challenge bad calls instead of going on to the field to shout at the umpire and get ejected as a result. That has to be a good thing.
So the evidence from other sports is that a video challenge system can cut down on bad decisions (I’m sure Croatia and Mexico to name but two teams at this World Cup would welcome this) and it would also cut down on dissent and diving as cheats would know that TV would catch them out and they would not gain an advantage (which everybody would agree with). If football has any sense at all – and the struggle to get goal line technology introduced makes one unsure of this – it is not a case of if it is introduced but when
So the unthinkable has happened. Sepp Blatter has had a good idea. Miracles can happen. Now if the BBC can get Phil Neville to say something interesting that would be another miracle…

It is time for arrogant FIFA to face up to the real world

As you know the World Cup starts in Brazil on Thursday. But unless you’ve ben holidaying on the moon these past two weeks you’ll know that FIFA is facing serious corruption allegations about the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. But this is just part of a major problem FIFA – and football – faces. It is out of touch with the real world. it lives in a fantasy world where racism sexism and homophobia don’t exist and for that matter neither do laws that the rest of the world have to obey. A few quotes will back me up.
“Blatter’s arrogance typifies a game that has grown too big for its boots”( Paul Gardner, World Soccer, August 2013, page 15)
“I had come out as hating the World Cup because it’s a completely corrupt boondoggle” (Jennifer Doyle, the Sport Spectacle “On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics, May 2014)
“FIFA is an Orwellian global super state” (Paul Hayward, Daily Telegraph, June 10 2014)
“They should refrain from sexual activities” (Sepp Blatter, December 2010, talking about gay people after anti gay Qatar won the 2022 World Cup)
“They could for example wear tighter shorts” (Blatter, January 2004, talking about female footballers)
“”Football needs to free itself from the shackles of European law” (Jerome Champagne, would be FIFA president)
I could go on but you’ve got the point. This is an organisation – and a sport – that lives in its own fantasy world. No wonder Richard Scudamore said the things he did in that infamous e-mail – and got away with it. And Blatter is at it again. After two weeks of corruption allegations about the 2022 World Cup what is his response? Here it is:
“Sadly there is a great deal of discrimination and racism and that hurts me”. That’s a bit rich coming from a guy who has made sexist and homophobic remarks.
So what needs to be done? Quite simply FIFA and football need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the real world. FIFA’s sponsors and the big countries in the world need to say “move them or lose us”. They don’t have to wait for corruption allegations to move the 2018 World Cup from Putin’s Russia or 2022 from Qatar. Both countries have anti gay policies. If FIFA believes in equality (and believe it or not they claim to do) that is all the excuse they need.Sport was a prime factor in ending apartheid in South Africa since the rest of the world boycotted the country. By boycotting homophobic countries like Russia ad Qatar football can set an example. If the sponsors and the big FAs asked FIFA to do this FIFA would have no choice but to comply. If they lost their sponsors and most important members FIFA would lose money. And the one thing FIFA fears is losing money. Hit their weak spot and they will give in.
But more than that is needed. Every law in a country has to apply to football too. One example. In the UK sex discrimination law does not apply in football. That has been the case since 1975 on the pretext that the average woman is at a strength disadvantage to the average man. Now this might have made sense in the political and sporting context of 1975. The UK government at the time had a majority of just 3 seats so probably the Sex Discrimination Bill would have been amended to include this clause anyway. And women’s football had only been unbanned in the UK 1971. But this is 2014 not 1975. The clause is out of date. And even if it isn’t it sets a terrible example. If an industry can get out of one law it doesn’t like it tries to get out of other laws. for example FIFA hates the EU’s freedom of movement laws that mean european workers – including footballers – can play anywhere in europe that they want. this law has applied to football since 1995. Incredibly UEFA and FIFA still don’t accept it and want to be exempt. How arrogant.They must be told. Football is part of society. It must live by the rules of society.
FIFA itself needs reform. The FIFA president must be restricted to two four year terms. Blatter has been there since 1998 and wants to be there till 2019. Too long. The longer someone stays in office the more power they gain. And power corrupts. Also they should be forced to reitre at 70. Blatter is 76 and if he lasts to 2019 he will be 81. How can someone that age be in touch with the modern world?
And finally the World Cup bidding process. . Why do we need a World Cup bidding process at all? We all know in the real world few countries can host the World Cup. I’d say England, France Italy Spain Germany Brazil Argentina the US Mexico Japan South Korea Australia China and South Africa are the only ones. Why not rotate the World Cup between them? Each country would know when it is its turn to host it and would not have to go through an expensive bidding process It could work like this. the 2006 World Cup was in Germany. it then went to south Africa and this year’s is in Brazil. In 2018 it would go to England (the european country among the five above that hasn’t hosted it) then in 2022 it could go to Australia (which has never hosted it) then in 2026 it could go to Argentina (which hasn’t hosted it since 1978) then in 2030 it could go to Spain (last hosts in 1982) and so on.
I can understand the likes of Jennifer Doyle when they say they hate the World Cup. But the World Cup is not the problem. FIFA is. To quote Hugh Gaitskell the former leader of the UK Labour party “we must fight, fight and fight again” to save the sport we love. We must aim for a world where football is in touch with society. We must aim for a world where the only qualification to play for a club is talent – not nationality race or gender. We must aim for a world where FIFA is not corrupt. It might never happen. but we have to aim for it.
PS – despite all FIFA’s faults I’ll still be watching the World Cup. For what it is worth my tip to win is Brazil.

After the winter of discontent what now for England?

As any fan of the England cricket team knows to say 2013-14 was a winter of discontent would be an understatement. Whitewashed 5-0 in the Ashes by an Australian team we’d beaten 3-0 only the previous summer, then beaten 4-1 in the one day games and 3-0 in the 20 20 games. We then went off to the World 20 20 championship in Bangladesh where we won only one match – albeit against the eventual champions Sri Lanka – and then put the tin lid on the shambles by losing to Holland. Oh and one player retired mid tour (Graeme Swann) one went home with a nervous breakdown (Jonathan Trott) and another was dropped for good (Kevin Pietersen). Add to that the loss of two coaches (Andy Flower and Ashley Giles). All in all a shambles that made its political equivalent (1978-79 under James Callaghan where ironically the cricket did go well – England beat Australia 5-1 – just in a winter of non stop strikes and non stop snow everything else went wrong – look like a teddy bear’s picnic by comparison).
But the winter is over now. It is summer. England have a new coach in Peter Moores and a week tomorrow they play their first Test since that awful winter against Sri Lanka at Lord’s. The selectors meet today to pick the team and will announce it tomorrow. So who should they pick? Every cricket
fan in the UK has his/her opinion so I reckon I should reveal mine. So here it is. My England team to play Sri Lanka at Lord’s a week tomorrow:
1.Alastair Cook (Captain)
2.Sam Robson
3.Joe Root
4.Ian Bell
5.Gary Ballance
6.Ben Stokes
7.Matt Prior (wicket-keeper)
8.Stuart Broad
9.Chris Jordan
10.James Anderson
11.Monty Panesar
Plus two more bowlers to make up a 13 man squad: Liam Plunkett and Steve Finn.
Now this comes with a caveat. They might not all be fit. Matt Prior and Ben Stokes might not be. In that case James Foster would replace Prior and Moeen Ali would replace Stokes. In that case Liam Plunkett would replace monty Panesar for team balance.
So the reasons? There are five certain picks in my opinion – Cook, Bell Root Broad and Anderson. As for the rest for Cook’s opening partner I’ve looked to the future. Michael Carberry and Nick Compton have failed and Robson has been in good form for the England Lions (England’s second XI) although Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth was close. Root bats no 3. it is high time this young man was given a regular role. He has been moved all over the shop. He has opened, batted at 3,5 and 6 – give the kid a break! Bell our best player wants to bat at 4 so let him. Ballance has started well at yorkshire and Stokes was the only good piece of news in an awful winter. Jordan was the star – with bat and ball – of the recently completed one day series with Sri Lanka and Panesar is in because we should always pick a spinner and he is the beat we have in a very bare cupboard.
I also think we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We’ve lost three experienced players already. My team contains six experienced players (Cook Bell Prior Broad Anderson and Panesar) two new caps (Robson and Jordan) two others who first appeared during the winter (Ballance and Stokes) and one 23-year-old who first played in 2012 (Root). A blend of youth and experience. Just what is needed after the winter of discontent.