Saturday, 14 February 2015

Greed Has No Limit When We Reach For The Sky

Can you remember the exact moment when football began to lose its soul, dear blog reader? For yer actual Keith Telly Topping it occurred at some point in the mid-afternoon of 12 May 1990, the date of that year's FA Cup Final. For those who don't remember, the final itself was actually a terrific game between The Scum and Crystal Palace which ended in a 3-3 draw, but they day had already been soured by events from an hour or so earlier. (The Scum won the subsequent replay 1-0 a few days later.) In those days the Cup Final was still a jolly big deal and was covered extensively by both BBC1 and ITV. During the course of the BBC's six hour coverage, an interview took place between the late Tony Gubba and Crystal Palace's then owner the, now also late, Ron Noades. I dare say there will be quite a few younger dear blog readers who won't even know who Noades was so, for you, a brief history lesson. Noades was a millionaire had made his money in developing golf courses before getting involved in football and becoming owner, firstly, of Wimbledon and then of the Palace (and, later, Brentford). He was, in those days, something of a controversial figure, one of the first of a new breed of maverick, media-savvy, full-of-their-own-importance owner-chairman who seemed to relish the limelight in a way that the dull grey boardroom men of previous generations never had and were to be found getting their boat-races on telly as often, if not more often, than the managers they employed. Of course, these days, where our clubs are often owned by a series of shady figures - floggers of mucky books or dodgy sports gear, or Russian oligarchs who used to be in the KGB, Arab oil billionaires and American absentee landlords - a figure like Ron seems rather tame by comparison. But, nevertheless, in 1990, he was known for his outspoken pontificating on all manner of subjects in front of the cameras and, thus, the Beeb felt an interview with him during the course of Cup Final Grandstand would be value for money. During the interview, Gubba asked Noades a fairly straightforward question about how the Palace owner responded to criticism of the way in which he ran the club from the supporters who, after all, paid their money through the turnstiles. Didn't they deserve a say in the way in which their money was being spent? Noades's reply is etched onto this blogger's memory: 'Gone are the days,' he began, 'where supporters can makes those sort of demands of chairmen because they pay the players' wages.' He went on to explain that match day receipts now only accounted for less than half of the income which a football club depended upon (I believe the figure he actually quoted was forty five per cent, the rest being made up with external merchandising, sponsorship and other commercial activities). Now, remember, this is 1990, two full years before the first Sky TV deal was done which would make that situation a million times worse over the course of the next two decades. This blogger can remember being astounded by what Noades was saying; effectively suggesting that paying football supporters were perceived to be less important by those who ran their clubs than the number of replica shirts they could sell in the Far East. You might well be right, Ron, yer actual Keith Telly Topping thought, but I'll tell you what, I'll bet you and all of the other wideboys that run our clubs would, collectively, shite in your own pants and run an effing mile if, next Saturday, no one turned up at any football ground in this country. Of course, that will never happen, our fandom ultimately works against us in this regard. But, that was the first moment where the mask, momentarily, slipped and many football fans realised the true level of utter contempt with which they, as consumers, were held by those in charge of this game we all love.

This blogger mentions all of this because, as you may have read elsewhere, Sky Sports and BT Sport have won the latest batch of television rights for the Premier League from 2016 to 2019. The deal covers the rights to show one hundred and sixty eight games per season and is worth a total of £5.136 billion. Yes, dear blog reader, you read that figure correctly - over five billion smackers which, is the gross national debt of several third countries. Somebody's got their greed right on, good proper. The previous deal had fourteen fewer games, with Sky paying £2.3bn for one hundred and sixteen matches and BT paying seven hundred and thirty eight million knicker for thirty eight games per season. The new contract will see Sky paying £4.176bn, with BT paying nine hundred and sixty million notes. This equals three hundred and twenty million smackers per season for BT, compared to two hundred and forty six million at present. Sky's deal of £1.392bn per year is eighty three per cent up from what they paid for the current deal. 'This outcome provides a degree of certainty so clubs can continue to invest and run themselves in a sustainable manner; it also allows us to start planning how the Premier League can continue to support the rest of the football pyramid from the grassroots upwards,' claimed the Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, as greedy disgusting Capitalist slavver dripped from his lips. 'This structure also allows us to strike a balance between match-attending fans and those who choose to watch on television. Keeping grounds full is a priority for the Premier League and our clubs, and I am sure the flexible ticketing policies that have helped keep attendances so high will continue to develop. Although we have had a successful outcome for this process, following on from the highlights' award, there is still the ongoing Ofcom investigation to be concluded. We remain confident that the Premier League's live UK broadcasting rights are sold in a way that is compatible with both UK and EU competition law as well as being of great benefit to the whole of English football.' Scudamore added that the five billion quid deal is 'not obscene.' Although, some might argued if it isn't then what, exactly, is obscene? Scudamore told BBC Sport that the size of the deal was 'a consequence' of what the fans want. 'it's market forces,' he said like a good Thatcherite when asked how the deal was justifiable in an era of supposed austerity. 'There is a product that people want to watch. First of all, first priority, keep the stadia full. Then make sure people want to watch and people want to view - and you're seeing the product of that today.' But, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised in all this naked greed. After all, football didn't lose it soul just this last week, it's a process which has been ongoing for twenty five years.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Go Tell The Spartans

Jarrett Rivers became part of FA Cup folklore by scoring in the ninetieth minute to send non-league Blyth Spartans through to the third round at the expense of League Two side Hartlepool. Rivers - who works in his mother's newsagent - broke forward on the right, produced a lovely step-over in the box before firing in a low angled shot that beat the reach of Scott Flinders. It sparked jubilant scenes as the scorer was engulfed by his team-mates, while some of the eleven hundred Spartans fans that travelled the forty miles down the north East coast to the 'Pool ran on, overwhelmed with emotion in front of the BBC TV cameras. However, the goalmouth drama was far from over as Hartlepool, bottom of League Two, mounted one last foray forward and came within inches of keeping alive their Cup hopes when Matthew Bates's strike came off the crossbar. But the Northumberland club, three divisions and sixty five places below their opponents, survived the six minutes of stoppage time to add 2014-15 to 1972, 1978 and 2009 in the list of occasions when they have reached the third-round. And if they reproduce the heart and guts on display at Victoria Park then perhaps English football's seventh tier side could emulate their exploits of thirty six years ago when they famously reached the fifth round (and, came within a minute of making it to the quarter final). Blyth hero Rivers said afterwards: 'I'm living off that goal for the rest of my life', while his manager Tom Wade told BBC Sport the victory was 'written in the stars.' Jonathan Franks's header gave Hartlepool a deserved lead for their first-half domination, before Stephen Turnbull levelled after the break for a rejuvenated Blyth, with a quality free-kick that found the keeper's top right. 'I said to the lads if we can stay in this game, these lads are getting beat week in and week out, and we have a chance,' said Turnbull, who is doing an apprenticeship with a ferry company. 'They are expected to batter us but we hung in there, sneaked a goal and got the other. We have an honest bunch of lads, everyone grafts. We are just buzzing.' Blyth are ball number fifty two in the hat for Monday's draw, when all the Premier League teams enter the competition. The draw will be televised live on BBC2. Rivers' late, late strike was heartbreak for the League Two's basement side. They created several chances in the first forty five minutes. Aside from Franks' goal - converted from Neil Austin's cross - Sidney Schmeltz had a header brilliantly saved by Peter Jeffries, while Marvin Harewood found the side-netting and Austin had two shots blocked. 'Pool were also denied when Harewood's strike at 1-1 was ruled not to have fully crossed the line; TV replays proved inconclusive. 'In the first half we were pretty good but didn't take our opportunities,' said their manager Paul Murray. 'The second half was diabolical. There was no fight, no passion, we thought we had it won. That's been the story in the league as well. There were angry words exchanged in the dressing room.' His opposite number Tom Wade added: 'We tried to keep the players calm at half-time. We knew we would have a few chances and if we could stay in the game after sixty minutes we would turn them over. We have a very young side, they are a brilliant set of lads, their attitude is fantastic. It is a great night and I am so proud.' On Saturday morning, Hartlepool made manager Murray the scapegoat for the and sacked his ass. The thirty eight-year-old had only been in charge since October after the departure of Colin Cooper. The former Oldham coach was Hartlepool's sixth manager since Mick Wadsworth's departure in December 2011 with no boss since Danny Wilson from 2006 to 2008 lasting two years in the job.

Speaking of whinging whingers with a sick agenda, Jeff Stelling launched a scathing attack on the BBC over its coverage of the Hartlepool versus Blyth match on Saturday. The Sky Sports presenter - and, completely co-incidentally, highly vocal Hartlepool supporter - criticised the rival broadcaster for filming pundit Alan Shearer inside the Conference North side's dressing room before the game, spurring the players on to their stirring deeds. Instead of Stelling, perhaps, concentrating his considerable ire on the fact that his own team's players let their supporters down so very badly with their woeful, inept and cowardly display. Just a thought to slip into your toaster there, Jeff and see if it pops up brown. 'There will be heroes on that pitch, make sure it's one of you,' Shearer told the Spartans players ahead of the match, a statement which Monkey Hanger Stelling thought was an example of BBC bias. He said: 'It's unacceptable to have Alan Shearer in the Blyth Spartans dressing room before the game saying "there will be heroes, make sure it's one of you in green and white." There are licence payers in Hartlepool too. BBC, hang your head in shame.' However, Stelling - who, of course, always presents Soccer Saturday with a complete lack of loud, crass, crowing bias whenever Hartlepool's latest appalling performance is the subject of any discussion - went on to suggest that he does not hold Shearer personally responsible for the segment, oh no, very hot water, as the former Newcastle striker was likely 'doing what he's told by a producer.' The idea that Alan Shearer does anything when 'told' to, by anyone is, of course, the biggest joke of this entire comedy saga. Shearer himself was unavailable for comment. But, if this blogger was Stelling, he'd certainly watching out for his nose if he happens to be marking Shearer at a corner any time sooner. Those elbows have felled far better men than you, kidda.
Two days after Blyth's memorable victory, another grand old North East non-league club with a cup fighting tradition, Gateshead, progressed to the third round for the first time in sixty years with a victory over eighth-tier side Warrington. The Northern Premier League Division One North outfit had, of course, reached the second round after their shcok giant-killing 1-0 win over Exeter City which was featured live on the BBC last month. Warrington fell behind to an early Gateshead goal from the former Newcastle midfielder Matty Pattison, who swept home Rob Ramshaw's cutback from the byline. Pattison and Danny Wright both hit the woodwork for The Heed, for whom former Sunderland winger John Oster was outstanding in midfield, before Wright sealed the victory in the last minute. The substitute capitalised on an error by Warrington goalkeeper Karl Willis to slide the ball into an empty net. Lee Gaskell's acrobatic volley that went just wide was as close as the visitors came.

Premier League leaders Moscow Chelski FC suffered their first defeat of the season as they were beaten at yer actual Keith Telly Topping's beloved, though unsellable, Newcastle in their fifteenth top-flight game of the campaign. The Magpies took the lead when Papiss Demba Cissé his very self slotted home after Gary Cahill missed Sammy Ameobi's low cross. An Eden Hazard shot hit a Newcastle upright before Moussa Sissoko set up supersub Cissé for another tap-in, his seventh goal of the season. The hosts then had Steven Taylor sent off for a second yellow card but, despite Didier Drogba pulling one back for the Russians, United held on for the win. Moscow Chelski FC piled forward late on and Diego Costa had a shot tipped over by twenty one-year-old goalkeeper Jak Alnwick, who was making his first team début having come on as a half-time substitute for the injured Rob Elliot. Newcastle had beaten the Blues in their last two league games at St James' Park but a repeat appeared unlikely considering the marauding form of their visitors. However, a heroic defensive performance, marshalled by centre-back and captain Fabricio Coloccini, was the foundation of a victory which ended Moscow Chelski's hopes of setting a new club record of twenty four matches unbeaten in all competitions and, as a consequence, strutting around like they owned the gaff. The defeat will also end talk of the Torpedo Stamford Bridge side repeating The Arse's 'Invincibles' by going the whole league season without losing and gives the Moscow side's title rivals the chance to make up ground. Jose Mourinho had insisted that it was 'impossible' to remain unbeaten all season and he was proven dead right as his side were frustrated by a disciplined and organised Magpies side, much in the way they were in a goalless draw at Blunderland last weekend. Before the break, Moscow Chelski FC were limited to a couple of Willian strikes which went wide, a Cahill header over the bar and a well-struck Oscar overhead kick past the frame of the goal. The hosts gradually grew in confidence as they quelled the Blues' threat and might have taken a surprise lead. Ameobi found Ayoze Perez and his sliding pass released Jack Colback, but the midfielder was thwarted when Moscow Chelski's keeper, Thibaut Courtois, saved his close range shot with a foot. It was easy to see how Newcastle had lost just once in nine games but they suffered a setback when goalkeeper Elliot failed to emerge for the second half, having injured himself taking a goal-kick. With regular keeper Tim Krul already out injured, that meant a debut for young Alnwick, whose first piece of action was to punch away a Cesc Fabregas free-kick assuredly. Alnwick should have been tested again when another Fabregas free-kick found John Mikel Obi in space at the near post only for the midfielder to head wide, wastefully. The miss was immediately punished when, at the other end, Cahill missed a low Ameobi cross and Cissé who had just come on as a substitute slotted in from close range. Moscow Chelski exerted more pressure but, forty seconds after a Hazard shot came back off a post, Newcastle extended their lead when Cissé scored after a swift counter-attack involving the impressive Colback and Sissoko. A Steven Taylor foul on Andre Schurrle earned the defender his second yellow card left the Magpies a man down for the last ten minutes. And, in a dramatic finale, Drogba gave Moscow Chelski some hope when he nodded in a Fabregas free-kick. However, Newcastle stood firm as Mourinho was left still searching for his first win at St James' Park in five attempts as Moscow Chelski FC manager. After the game, Mourinho was his usual mixture of providing entertaining soundbites and, in equal number, providing sour-faced, graceless, undignified and whinging comments in which he blamed everyone - from the crowd to Newcastle's ball-boys - for his team's defeat. Blamed everyone, that is, except his own players' for their inability to score more goals than their opponents and to defend properly. Odd, that. Alan Pardew, meanwhile, celebrating his a fourth anniversary in charge at St James Park this weekend, will reflect on what a funny old game football can be.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Power, Corruption & Lies

The Football Association has been urged to lobby UEFA for a European boycott of the next World Cup - unless FFIA implements meaningful reform. Which, they're obviously not going to because they're run by thieves and criminals. Former FA chairman David Bernstein said it was time for 'drastic action' against football's world governing body. 'England on its own cannot influence this,' he said. 'If we tried something like that, we'd be laughed at.' He says that a World Cup would be weakened without Europe's top teams and that a boycott would have public backing. 'If I was at the FA now, I would do everything I could to encourage other nations within UEFA - and there are some who would definitely be on side, others may be not - to take this line,' he added. 'At some stage, you have to walk the walk, stop talking and do something.' Bernstein said that he also wanted FIFA's president, the odious Sepp Blatter, to step down but described him as 'formidable, very shrewd, very smart', conceding it would 'not be easy' to bring his reign to an end. In an interview, the seventy one-year-old also said: FIFA is 'a totalitarian set-up' which reminds him of 'the old Soviet empire' and is 'beyond ridicule'; that the credibility of football is 'suffering enormously' under the current FFIA regime and that choosing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup was 'one of the most ludicrous decisions in the history of sport.' Bernstein chose to speak out after a report into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups cleared Russia and Qatar of any wrongdoing but was critical of England, accusing the FA of 'flouting bid rules' in its failed attempt to win the right to stage the 2018 event. Yet less than four hours after the document's release, it was questioned by Michael Garcia, the man who conducted the two-year investigation into corruption claims. The furore surrounding the report is the latest controversy to hit football's world governing body, which has been riddled with allegations of corruption in recent times. Now Bernstein, who led the FA for three years from January 2011, wants FIFA to change its ways or face a challenge it finds impossible to ignore. When asked again if he was calling for the FA to unite with UEFA to boycott the World Cup, he replied: 'Unless [FIFA] could achieve the reforms that would bring FIFA back into the respectable world community, yes I would. It sounds drastic, but, frankly, this has gone on for years now. It's not improving, it's going from bad to worse to worse.' He said that there were fifty four countries within UEFA and described Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Holland as 'all powerful.' He added: 'You can't hold a serious World Cup without them. They have the power to influence if they have the will.' Similar views have been expressed over the weekend by German Football League president Reinhard Rauball, who suggested UEFA could leave FIFA if the findings of the two-year investigation into corruption claims are not published in full. As for criticism of England by the FIFA report, Bernstein accused football's world governing body of 'trying to deflect attention' from its own failings. 'I don't think much to these accusations,' he said. 'I don't think we should get away from the real issue. The real issue is FIFA governance and trying to achieve real change. But it won't happen easily. FIFA is sort of a totalitarian set-up. Bits of it remind me of the old Soviet empire. People don't speak out and if they do they get quashed.' Bernstein also described the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where blistering summer temperatures means the event could be switched to winter, 'as one of the most ludicrous decisions in the history of sport.' He added: 'You might as well have chosen Iceland in the winter. It was like an Alice in Wonderland sort of decision. The attempt to change the timing is also absolutely wrong.' He felt the decision to choose Qatar as 2022 hosts could come under further scrutiny. 'There's also a background of political, social and employment issues that keep emerging and I think there's a danger that FIFA and football might be embarrassed by what emerges in the coming years,' said the former Sheikh Yer Man City chairman. 'It's certainly not sour grapes. England didn't lose to Qatar, we lost to Russia. Qatar is clearly a totally unsuitable place to hold a World Cup.' Bernstein also revealed he has quit FIFA's anti-discrimination taskforce. He described it as 'ineffectual' and wishes to end his ties with FIFA. Explaining his decision to leave the taskforce, which was introduced in 2013, Bernstein said: 'I've resigned for two reasons. Firstly, the body has been pretty ineffectual. I've been on it for more than a year and we only had one meeting. Secondly, because frankly I don't wish to be personally associated with FIFA any further. FIFA sets up these things - and we've seen it with their regulation - that look good in theory but don't seem to do very much in practice.'

In calling for the organisation he used to lead to unite with UEFA and lead a boycott of the World Cup - as well as a breakaway from FIFA - Bernstein has dared say what many have no doubt been thinking. After all, if the FA are so outraged with the world governing body's handling of the investigation into the bidding for the next two World Cups - and, they damn-well should be - then why not take drastic action and salvage some dignity by voting with one's feet? Sadly for the FA, there are plenty of reasons and, most of them are financial. Firstly, with two hundred and sixty seven million smackers of debt still to pay off for the seven hundred and fifty seven million knicker Wembley Stadium, the FA simply could not afford to lose the revenue that comes with hosting World Cup qualifiers, not to mention the sponsorship that results from contesting one of the world's most fabled sports events. Breaking away from FIFA would have major ramifications, too. A place on the International Football Association Board - the game's law-making body - would be sacrificed, for instance, while England representative teams at every age group would be unable to compete in their respective world championships. As Bernstein himself suggests, the FA would never dare to go it alone. It would need the support of UEFA. But there are encouraging signs on this front. Over the past weekend, the president of the German Football League warned that UEFA's fifty four member nations could quit FIFA if Michael Garcia's full report into the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is not fully published. Certainly, at a time when European football is already furious with Sepp Blatter - for standing for a fifth term as FIFA president after promising not to and for being expected to entirely rearrange its calendar to accommodate a winter World Cup in Qatar - you may think a breakaway has never been more likely. After all, Europe has the Champions League and the European Championships, which attracts the best of the global talent pool. Then there is the Nations League, which, from 2018, will attempt to make international friendlies more significant. But it's unlikely that this new format will be extended to fill the vacuum left if European countries refused to take part in the World Cup. With Russia hosting the next World Cup, it is hard to see them feeling the need to join a European rebellion. As for Spain and Portugal, they have no problem with the report into allegations of World Cup corruption, not after they were cleared of any wrongdoing over their bid for the 2018 World Cup. Then there is UEFA president, oily little glake Michel Platini. Having voted for Qatar as 2022 World Cup hosts, it is not easy to see why he would back a boycott. And if UEFA is so upset with Blatter, why isn't it putting up a credible challenger to him? Why, for example, is Platini himself not standing? It's hard not to take the view that UEFA will try to use FIFA's current meltdown, not to turn its back on football's world governing body, but to strengthen its power and influence, especially when it comes to the presidential election next year and negotiations over 2022 scheduling. Which, in and of itself, isn't an entirely healthy option. The FA knows this and that is why its plan is to bring about change from within. Next year, it hopes to get its vice-chairman David Gill - already a member of UEFA's executive committee - on to the FIFA executive committee as the home nations representative. If the FA was to suddenly agree with its former chairman Bernstein and call for a boycott on moral grounds, it would stand accused of hypocrisy. After all, according to FIFA ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, Garcia found that England's own twenty one million quid bid for the 2018 World Cup was guilty of breaking a few bidding rules. And let us not forget that, as recently as 2010, the English FA's bid team ludicrously attacked the BBC as 'unpatriotic' over a Panorama programme which looked into allegations of FIFA corruption - more or less exactly the same allegations that the FA is now voicing itself - such was its grovelling desperation to land the game's show piece event. Would Bernstein and the man who replaced him as FA Chairman Greg Dyke be this outraged by FIFA if England had won the vote? And would there by quite so much current media scrutiny of the 2022 World Cup hosts if Australia or the USA had won, rather than Qatar? Almost certainly not. Given all this, how easily could the FA claim the moral high ground? One can understand why the FA feel hard done by following the FIFA report into World Cup corruption. Much of it is simply inexplicable. Why, for example, was the English 2018 bid criticised when it was so obviously more open and transparent about what it did than the 'highly uncooperative' Russians, for instance, whose computers were destroyed along with any potential e-mail chains? How can England be admonished for their thirty five thousand dollars sponsorship of a Caribbean Football Union gala dinner in the hope of gaining the support of the odious Jack Warner when Qatar got away with a $1.8m sponsorship of the CAF Congress in Angola shortly before the 2010 vote? Why did Eckert take it upon himself now - before Garcia has even had the chance to open proceedings against individuals suspected of wrongdoing - to recommend there was 'no need' for any kind of re-vote? Why was the evidence from alleged whistleblowers dismissed so readily? Why - short of crass and brown-tongued arse-licking was Blatter praised in Eckert's concluding sentences? And what exactly is it about Eckert's summary that Garcia has such a problem with? These questions have left FIFA in apparent meltdown, the credibility of its landmark investigation - something that was meant to restore faith and trust in a scandal-plagued organisation - in tatters. Its next move will be interesting, but football's world governing body will no doubt come under increasing pressure to publish the full Garcia report. Nevertheless, thanks to FIFA's 'Financial Assistance Programme' - the hundreds of millions of pounds that it hands out to regional confederations and national associations in the form of 'development' payments - Blatter knows he has solid support in Africa, Asia and South America. A European breakaway would simply be portrayed as a selfish (possibly racist or colonialist) move by the wealthiest region in the sport. Blatter will not lose any sleep over what his old adversary Bernstein says. Or about current FA chairman Greg Dyke calling the Eckert report 'a joke.' Rumours coming out of the United States that the FBI are keen to press ahead with their own investigation into senior FIFA officials, however, should concern him far more. So should the fact that Dubai-based airline Emirates recently ended its sponsorship deal with FIFA, with South Korean electronics giant Samsung expected to follow suit. The continuous loss of the sponsors which generate billions of pounds for FIFA, rather than the threats of former FA chairmen, are what would really rattle Blatter. It's a horrifying thought that one of the few things which would likely cause change at FIFA is if their major sponsor Coca-Cola decided to develop of conscience. And, of course, we all know that's very unlikely to happen. Three years ago, when he was FA chairman, Bernstein made a lone appeal to postpone the unopposed re-election of Blatter in the wake of serious bribery allegations involving FIFA executive committee members Mohamed bin Hammam and the odious Warner. The rebellion failed and left the FA more isolated than ever. Just like then, Bernstein may now win praise for his principles, but this latest stand will almost certainly meet the same fate.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Day Thirty One: Deutschland Sind Die Weltmeister

Germany were crowned world champions for the fourth time as Mario Götze's extra-time winner beat Argentina in the World Cup final in Brazil. The German substitute demonstrated perfect technique and commendable calm to chest down André Schürrle's cross before volleying in with seven minutes left. Both sides wasted chances in normal time, Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi both dragging wide. Benedikt Höwedes hit the Argentine post with a header late in the first half, but it was Götze's volley which was the queue for wild German celebrations. Argentina, with skipper Messi looking subdued despite flashes of talent, could not respond and Germany claimed their first World Cup since they beat the same opponents in Rome twenty four years ago. The success means Joachim Löw's side have become the first European team to win the trophy in the Americas. Germany had to regroup after losing key midfielder Sami Khedira to injury in the warm-up - and his replacement Christoph Kramer to a blow to the head before half-time - but they shrugged off these setbacks to write another triumphant chapter in their sporting history. Argentina's fans were in the vast majority of a crowd that created a vibrant atmosphere inside the Maracana - although Germany were also well represented and had the support of many yellow-clad Brazil supporters who still turned up despite seeing their hopes of watching the hosts in the final dashed by that stunning semi-final beating. German supporters stayed in their places more than an hour after the final whistle as the victorious side indulged in lengthy celebrations of a win which vindicated the rebuilding plan put in place a decade ago when they suffered the humiliation of going out of Euro 2004 at the group stage, which resulted in then coach Rudi Völler's resignation. It was a process which has also seen Bayern München become one of the most pre-eminent club sides in European (and world) football and it was not an insignificant factor that seven of the winning German side play their club football for Bayern. Germany had reached the semi-finals of the previous two World Cups but have now managed the crowning achievement for Löw, who not only brought the trophy back to Germany, but also ended Europe's grim record in this tournament on South American soil. Argentina failed to have a shot on target in the entire game and four-time world player of the year Messi looked an increasingly jaded figure as the game went on. The Barcelona midfielder never stopped striving to carry his team over the line in the manner achieved by his predecessor Diego Maradona, who inspired a not particularly good Argentina side to their last World Cup when they beat what was then west Germany in Mexico City in 1986. For Germany this completes the transition for a group of emerging players such as Golden Glove winner Manuel Neuer, midfielder Mesut Özil, defender Mats Hummels, captain Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and the injured Khedira. After destroying hosts Brazil seven-one in Tuesday's semi-final in Belo Horizonte, this was a game that required different qualities such as resilience and concentration - but Germany have those qualities in abundance and were never found wanting and their ecstatic celebrations at the end were in contrast to the bitter tears of the Argentines. And ominously, twenty two-year-old match-winner Götze symbolises the next generation of Germany players that coach Löw declared would dominate for ze whole vert for years to come when he addressed the media twenty four hours before this final. For now, though, they have another World Cup to celebrate and while it may not have been the extravaganza many hoped would crown this generally thrilling tournament, Germany were worthy winners. Argentina, with Messi's speed and sleight of foot posing problems for the previously untroubled Hummels in the early phases, had the game's first big opportunity courtesy of Toni Kroos' error. The Bayern München midfielder delivered a misplaced header which sent Higuain clear on goal but the striker did not live up to his elevated reputation with a horrible miscued finish that did not trouble Neuer. Higuain had the ball in the net soon after from Ezequiel Lavezzi's cross but he was clearly offside - although his prolonged celebration and then stroppy discombobulation when he finally spotted the flag suggested that he thought differently. As Argentina continued to trouble the German defence, it needed a crucial clearance from Jérôme Boateng on the goalline as Messi pulled the ball back for his in-rushing colleagues. It was not all Argentina though, and their keeper Sergio Romero was forced to make a fine save from substitute Schürrle - on for the concussed Kramer - a stop made even better as Özil ducked right in front of the unsighted keeper as the shot came in. The closest either side came to a goal was right on half-time, when Höwedes crashed Kroos' corner against the post with Romero well beaten. Messi had been threatening and he almost put Argentina ahead seconds after the break, only to pull a poor finish across goal with his normally lethal left foot. As the final entered the closing ten minutes, Kroos had Germany's clearest opening for some time but he sent a sidefoot finish off target after Özil had laid the ball invitingly into his path. So it was extra time - and while Rodrigo Palacio was off target when he lofted a finish over Neuer - Götze showed his class and composure to decide an increasingly attritional and tetchy game with the final flourish of quality this World Cup in Brazil fully deserved as its conclusion.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Day Thirty: Third Is The New Fourth

Brazil's World Cup campaign came to a miserable end as the hosts were convincingly beaten by the Netherlands in the single most pointless exercise in world sport, the World Cup third-place play-off. Goals from Robin van Persie, Daley Blind and Georginio Wijnaldum condemned Brazil to back-to-back defeats on home soil for the first time since 1940, following Tuesday's embarrassing seven-one loss to Germany in the semi-final. As an added insult, Brazil must now watch as their fiercest rivals, Argentina, take on the Germans for the chance to win the World Cup at Brazilian football's spiritual home, the Maracana, on Sunday. Having backed their side so vocally throughout, home supporters turned on Brazil on Tuesday, cheering opposition attacks and directing loud boos at their own players and their frustration continued in the capital, Brasilia. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari bore the brunt of their anger and his long-term future as national team boss must now be in doubt. Brazil's fans had packed homes, bars and fan parks to watch the action, leaving streets near empty, but the shock defeat by Germany left a question mark over how they would greet their team before Saturday's game. There was little indication in the build-up that their interest had wavered, as thousands descended on the Copacabana beach fan park in Rio, while the Estadio Nacional was close to capacity. When the teams emerged from the tunnel to go through their pre-match warm-ups, the players were greeted by loud cheers, which increased in volume when injured talisman Neymar appeared. The striker - who scored four goals before a back injury ruled him out of the Germany debacle - was wearing a full training kit, but watched from the bench as his team-mates went onto the pitch. It seemed the Brazilian fans were determined to support their team, but they also made it known they had not forgotten the spanking handed out to them by Germany as loud boos rang out when the names of Scolari and beleaguered striker Fred were read out. The hapless Fred was one of six starters against Germany who were relegated to the bench against the Netherlands and several players from Brazil's twenty three-man squad are likely to have played in their last World Cup. Whatever the future holds, it was briefly forgotten about before Saturday's game as players and fans once again sang the Brazil national anthem in unison. It was as rousing a rendition of the anthem as any throughout the tournament, but thoughts of redemption lasted barely three minutes, when Brazil captain Silva pulled back Robben and the referee awarded a penalty, which Van Persie expertly converted. Quite why Silva wasn't shown a straight red card was beyond the understanding of most observers since if that was the very definition of a goal-scoring opportunity, then what the hell is? The home fans were stunned into silence, but it was to get worse barely fifteen minutes later when they conceded a second. This time David Luiz - you know, the chap whom FIFA were bigging up as 'the player of the tournament' just a few days ago - committed one of the cardinal sins of defending when heading a tame clearance straight to Blind on the penalty spot. The Dutch midfielder steadied himself and found the top corner for his first international goal. Brazilian faces were sullen, perhaps fearful of similar capitulation that saw Brazil concede five goals in just fifteen minutes against Germany. They improved, slightly, as the half wore on, but it was not enough for the players to avoid being booed as they left the field at the break. The game slowed to a pedestrian pace in the second half, with Brazil fans continuing to boo Scolari every time the big screen in the stadium showed the sixty five-year-old's miserable face. Ramires flashed a shot wide before Oscar was booked for diving as Brazil strived for some way back into the game. Instead, though, Wijnaldum completed another sorry defeat for Scolari's side with a third goal in stoppage time. Echoing full-time in the defeat by Germany, the final whistle was greeted with a huge chorus of boos. It was a positive send-off for departing Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal - who had whinged before the game, rightly, about what an utterly pointless exercise the whole third-place play-off malarkey was and is - as he embarks on his next assignment, as manager of The Scum. But for Brazil, a tournament that started with optimism and promise for the five-time winners ended in frustration.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Day Twenty Nine: Shoot The Runner

Ray Whelan, head of FIFA partner Match Hospitality, has fled to escape arrest in Rio over alleged illegal World Cup ticket sales, Brazilian police say. Police chief Fabio Barucke said that Whelan was 'officially considered a fugitive from justice.' Earlier on Thursday, a judge accepted an indictment for Whelan - who is British - and eleven others. An 'international gang' is said to have earned some fifty million quid per tournament and may have acted at four World Cups. The gang is believed to have been making money by acquiring and illegally selling on VIP tickets and hospitality passes. Whelan was first detained on Monday at the exclusive Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio and released after questioning. The other eleven suspects were arrested last week. In a statement after his arrest, Match Hospitality denied any wrongdoing by Whelan, and said that he would co-operate with any investigation. However, police in Rio said that they went to Whelan's room in the Copacabana Palace but he was no longer there and they were told he had left an hour earlier. Barucke said outside the hotel: 'We have security camera images of him exiting the hotel through a service door.' Brazilian newspaper O Globo, quoting police 'sources', said Whelan had 'fled the hotel' with his lawyer, Fernando Fernandes, who was now 'negotiating with officials' over the terms on which his client would present himself to police. After his initial arrest, Whelan was reported to have surrendered his passport and returned his FIFA credentials for the World Cup. Switzerland-based Match Hospitality - part of UK sports event manager company Byrom based in Cheadle - said on Tuesday that it was 'assisting the police investigation.' FIFA also said it continued 'to fully collaborate with the local authorities and will provide any details requested.'

Ghana's government has said it is 'scandalised' after two hundred Ghanaian World Cup fans asked for asylum in Brazil, saying they were Muslims fleeing religious conflict. A government statement said there was no religious violence in the country. The group are believed to be part of a government-sponsored delegation, mainly comprising supporters of the governing party. Ghana is seen as one of West Africa's most peaceful and prosperous countries. 'The basis for this alleged request is completely false as no religious conflict is taking place in Ghana,' said a statement from Deputy Information Minister Felix Kwakye Ofosu. 'Ghana's mission in Brazil has been instructed to liaise with the Brazilian authorities to investigate the matter.'

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Day Twenty Eight: Orange, Squashed

Argentina will meet Germany in Sunday's World Cup final at the Maracana after winning a penalty shootout to eliminate the Netherlands. After one hundred and twenty somewhat tedious and wholly goalless minutes which were in stark contrast to the spectacular shock of the first semi-final between Brazil and the Germans, Argentina prevailed and a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 finals - when they played West Germany - will be played out in Rio. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was the hero with penalty saves from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder, while his opposite number, Jasper Cillessen, was unable to repeat the heroic feats of his deputy, Tim Krul, in the quarter-final win against Costa Rica. And for Brazil, a nation still coming to terms with their worst defeat after being crushed seven-one by Germany in Belo Horizonte, there is arguably the even more harrowing prospect of seeing their fierce rivals Argentina lift the World Cup in the iconic surroundings of the Maracana. Germany will be favourites given the manner in which they destroyed Brazil but there is a streak of steel running through Alejandro Sabella's side which offers resilience beyond the genius of Lionel Messi. Dutch coach Louis van Gaal - who will now complete the formalities by guiding his side in Saturday's third/fourth place play-off before taking over at The Scum - employed first the returning Nigel de Jong, then Jordy Clasie, to shadow and nullify the influence of Messi. The plan broadly succeeded but Van Gaal's problem was his side's failure to pose any attacking threat, with Robin van Persie peripheral and substituted and Arjen Robben only able to deliver their first shot on target after ninety nine minutes. That Argentina's chances were at a premium was down, in large part, to Aston Villain Vlaar, the game's outstanding performer at the heart of the Dutch defence. He did not deserve the cruel fate of being one of those to miss a penalty. So to Sunday's showpiece and the repeat of the 1986 final, which Argentina won three-two to record their last World Cup triumph and West Germany's one-nil victory in Rome four years later, which was their last win. Argentina will see the prospect of winning in Brazil's heartland as the perfect incentive. Earlier in this tournament, their supporters had flooded across the border in thousands in a show of support and they will do so again. This was not a spectacle of any sort, but as firecrackers went off among Argentina fans and their players celebrated in front of them in the Sao Paulo rain, they did not have a care. The pattern was set from the opening moments as De Jong's role - upon his surprise recovery from a groin injury which had been earlier reported to be likely to keep him out for the tournament - became clear. He was to stay in close proximity to Messi in an attempt to stifle Argentina's main creative force and, to a large extent, it worked. Messi, however, cannot be kept completely quiet and he produced the only serious test for either goalkeeper in a stale first half when his free-kick was held comfortably by Cillessen after Vlaar fouled Enzo Perez. Robben's lack of influence was reflected in the statistic that he only had four touches of the ball in the first forty five minutes, also an indication of how the Netherlands had failed to test Argentina's defence. As heavy rain poured down on the Arena de Sao Paulo's uncovered stands after the interval and some fans decided to seek shelter out of sight of the game, the stretching Gonzalo Higuain came closest to breaking the stalemate when he steered Perez's angled cross into the side-netting. Sabella made a double change with ten minutes remaining, sending on Aguero and Rodrigo Palacio for Higuain and Perez, but still there was no invention or ambition. Van Gaal even sacrificed the listless Van Persie in extra time - his third change, a move which deprived the coach of the opportunity to introduce Krul again - and the tedium was lifted when Robben produced the first Dutch shot on target after nine minutes of extra time. It was saved easily by Romero. In a rare spell of excitement, Cillessen saved from Palacio and Maxi Rodriguez but there was no escaping the almost inevitable conclusion of penalties. Vlaar had his opening penalty saved by Romero and, when Sneijder missed their third, the Netherlands' fate was effectively sealed. Robben and Dirk Kuyt scored but Argentina were unerring, with Messi, Ezequiel Garay and Aguero on target before Rodriguez's kick sent Sabella's side to Rio.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Day Twenty Seven: Müllered!

'This was a test of character for Brazil,' said the BBC commentator Steve Wilson about five minutes from the end of the first semi-final of the 2014 World Cup. 'And it was a one which they failed, miserably.' That wasn't hyperbole, incidentally, it was, if anything, a staggering understatement. Brazil's World Cup dreams ended shattered into fragments in rank, brutal humiliation as Germany inflicted their heaviest ever defeat in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday evening. A thunderous occasion which began with Brazil riding a tidal wave of emotion and national fervour was reduced to a complete and total post-apocalyptic nightmare as Germany were five-nil up inside twenty nine remarkable minutes in front of a disbelieving, tearful and, ultimately, rather angry Estadio Mineirao crowd. Brazil's players mourned the absence of the crippled Neymar before kick-off, but captain and defensive lynchpin Thiago Silva proved to be a far bigger loss in the ensuing fiasco. The result was Brazil's first competitive home defeat in thirty nine years and the end of their hopes of making it to the World Cup final at the Maracana on Sunday in emphatic fashion. Instead, Germany will meet either Argentina or Netherlands, who play on Wednesday in Sao Paulo. Thomas Müller gave the three-time winners an early lead before a period of utter chaos saw Miroslav Klose break the World Cup scoring record and then Toni Kroos add two more all in the space of one hundred and seventy nine seconds. The superb Sami Khedira added a fifth soon afterwards. Moscow Chelski FC striker André Schürrle, on as a second-half substitute, added two more after the break before Brazil's followers delivered what must be regarded as the defining insult to their own national team - cheering every German pass with an 'olé' and applauding their goals whilst roundly booing their own players; especially the hapless Fred. Many Brazil supporters, swamped with such anticipation as they gathered in their thousands around the ground hours before kick-off, were reduced to floods of bitter tears after less than thirty minutes and were reduced to such a state of shock that it was only at half-time they fully registered their first serious dissent. This calamity equalled Brazil's heaviest margin of defeat, a six-nil loss at the hands of Uruguay in the 1920 Copa America, but the impact of this reverse, not just on the world stage but in their homeland, will put this alongside the 1950 World Cup final defeat by the Uruguayans in Rio as, truly their darkest footballing day. Müller's early goal was a big enough setback in and of itself, but the manner in which Luiz Felipe Scolari's side then crumbled like a pile of damp cardboard in the space of just seven minutes is likely to be a matter of national debate - and national shame - in Brazil for years to come. This was Brazil's first defeat at home for twelve years. The loss for a country built on sporting pride - and at their own World Cup - will be bad enough to take. The scale of defeat, however, will take the inquests to whole a new level. The statistics stacked up like pieces of rubble around the feet of Big Phil and his players. This was the first time a team had scored seven in a World Cup semi-final and the biggest defeat in one of these games since the then West Germany beat Austria six-one in 1954. After the match the victorious coach, Joachim Löw, strutted around like he owned the gaff - and who, frankly, could blame him? - noting that 'scoring three in four minutes the hosts were in shock. We were extremely cool and realised they were cracking up, and we took advantage of that.' He wasn't wrong in the slightest. The five-time champions' team coach bears the phrase 'Brace Yourself - The Sixth Is Coming.' It did, indeed, arrive but only in the back of Julio Cesar's net. With all of David Luiz's defensive indiscipline offering rich pickings for Germany's speed and mobility, the game swiftly descended into a fiasco for Brazil. Luiz - to the ridicule of many in the game named earlier this week as FIFA's 'player of the tournament' - had the defensive frailties, which saw Moscow Chelski FC boss Jose Mourinho offload him to Paris St Germain tout sweet at the end of the recent season, cruelly exposed as he lost the ball in dangerous positions over and over again. The properly cowardly way in which he pulled out of a tackle with Khadira which, ultimately, led to the fifth German goal was the sort of thing one would criticise an eleven year old for doing in a school game and seemed to provide even more evidence that it wasn't just the Brazilian shirts which were yellow. Much has been made of the Brazil side's over-emotion during the national anthem - blubbing like big soft tarts and all that - and there was, in retrospect, an overblown public reaction to the absence of Neymar, injured in the quarter-final against Colombia, in the hour leading up to kick-off. Scolari led his players off the team coach wearing a white Forca Neymar baseball cap before captain Luiz and goalkeeper Cesar held up his number ten shirt during a stirring rendition of Brazil's national anthem. It was all downhill from there - and rapidly. From the moment Müller was the beneficiary of dreadful marking to steer in Kroos's corner after eleven minutes, Brazil simply fell apart and it was an invitation Germany were not going to refuse as Klose scored at the second attempt to set a new World Cup record of sixteen goals in twenty three games. What followed was one of the most remarkable passages of play in any World Cup game, let alone a semi-final, as Germany did not just look like scoring on every attack, for a while they actually did. Throughout this World Cup there has been a suspicion that a mediocre Brazil defence has been disguised and that, eventually, they were going to come up against a team as ruthlessly efficient as the Germans who would take advantage of this. With the shield of Silva - easily their best defender - removed, they were simply taken apart by Germany, wilting under pressure and abject in coping with their attacking variety. To put it brutally, their arse fell out and they, metaphorically, curled up into a little ball and whimpered for their mummy. Kroos side-footed home a finish which Cesar touched but could not save, then the midfielder quickly added another when set up by the unselfish Khedira who was probably the best player on the park. Khedira scored the fifth before half-time in an example of the complete disintegration of Brazil's organisation, discipline and basic defence. He took the ball from Luiz after the curly-haired defender decided that tackling wasn't for him and then strolled towards the penalty area untroubled before exchanging passes with Mesut Özil to score a deserved fifth. It was only then, perhaps as full recognition sunk in, that Brazil's supporters started to deliver a toxic reaction to their team, with striker Fred singled out for particularly vicious treatment. The subject of, again, much criticism outside of Brazil during the tournament but stubbornly stuck with by Scholari, Fred quickly became a symbol for his own supporters of everything that had gone wrong with Brazil. Early in the second half he found himself outside the German penalty area with the ball at his feet but his shot was 'tame and weak' according to Steve Wilson, a description which might have been used to describe his entirely tournament. The ball dribbled towards Manuel Neuer who simply had to kneel down to pick it up. A smattering of boos quickly turned into a crescendo. Soon it was happening every time Fred touched the ball and then, the ultimate humiliation, even after her was withdrawn and replaced by Willian in the sixty ninth minute, the abuse didn't end. Shortly before the final whistle, the stadium's cameras caught a picture of a dejected looking Fred sitting on the Brazilian bench looking for all the world like someone had just kicked him, hard, in the knackers. It was relayed onto the stadium's big screen. The outpouring a bile and anger from the Brazilian crowd to the hapless centre-forward at that moment when he wasn't even on the pitch almost made one feel sorry for the chap. Almost, but not quite. Despite a lively start to the second half which saw Neuer distinguish himself with a couple of superb saves to deny Ramirez (who replaces the lumbering, ineffectual Hulk at half-time), Bernard and Dante, normal service was resumed as Schürrle finished off a fine passing move before drilling a near-post finish past Cesar, who - like his team - should have done better. But didn't. It was at around this point that the home fans, collectively, began to throw their support behind Germany, cheering passing moves and even breaking into applause for Schürrle's second goal - a beauty rifled into the roof of the net from an acute angle. Oscar's late strike was nothing in the way of consolation to them and the crowd turned savagely on their players - many of whom left the pitch in tears - at the final whistle. Scolari described it as 'the worst day' of his life and said that he took full responsibility. 'I will be remembered as the coach to lose seven-one but I knew that risk when I took the job,' said Scolari after the game. 'The person who decided the line-up, the tactics, was me. It was my choice. My message for the Brazilian people is please excuse us for this performance.' Many in Brazil, in their heart of hearts knew that their World Cup dream might have to end without the win that they so wanted. But, no-one could possibly have suspected for a moment that it would end like this.

Steve Wilson might have had a moment of poetic brilliance towards the end of the match but, how disappointing it was to see him make such an elementary schoolboy-type error right at the start during the national anthems. For your information, Steve, the German national anthem is not called Deutschland über alles. It's never been called Deutschland über alles, not even when they used to sing the verse that includes the line 'Deutschland über alles' (which, incidentally, it has been illegal to sing in Germany since 1945). It doesn't actually, have a title - it's just The German National Anthem - although some people refer to it as Das Lied Der Deutschen (The Song of the Germans). Jeez, do some research for once, mate. Twenty seconds on Wikipedia would've told you all of that.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Day Twenty Five & Twenty Six: Alfredo The Great

Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, has died. The eighty eight-year-old suffered a heart attack on Saturday and had been in an induced coma in Madrid's Gregorio Maranon hospital. Real Madrid confirmed the news, saying Di Stefano, their honorary president, died on Monday. Sir Bobby Charlton, who played against him for The Scum, paid tribute. 'I think Alfredo Di Stefano was one of the best players I ever came across and an extremely intelligent footballer,' said the former England legend. 'He was somebody I really respected, having watched him from the stands at the Bernabeu and then played against him. I have many fond memories of my time with Alfredo and feel privileged to be able to call him a good friend. The footballing world has lost a great player and a great man.' After joining Real in 1953, Alfredo helped to turn them into one of the world's leading sides. They won five straight European Cups, with Di Stefano scoring in each final between 1956 and 1960. The Argentina-born forward also won eight Spanish league titles and was voted European player of the year in 1957 and 1959. He left Real in 1964 at the age of thirty eight having scored more than three hundred goals across eleven seasons. Di Stefano played at international level for three nations though he never appeared at a World Cup finals tournament. He won six caps for Argentina and played four times for Colombia during a spell when he played in the country's league. However his Colombia caps are not officially recognised by FIFA. Once he joined Real in 1953, FIFA said that he could not play for Spain, but reversed that decision in 1957 after he was awarded Spanish citizenship and he went on to win thirty one caps, scoring twenty three goals. Real's official website carried a picture of club president Florentino Perez visiting Di Stefano at the hospital on Saturday. Former Real striker Gonzalo Higuain, whose goal sent Argentina into the World Cup semi-finals in Brazil on Saturday, said: 'I was told when I got to the dressing room. It is not good news for football, for those who know him, for those who are close to him. Alfredo was always very close to me. I only have words of gratitude towards him.' Di Stefano also won four Colombian and two Argentine league titles as a player. As a manager he led Boca Juniors and River Plate to Argentine league titles and won La Liga and the Copa del Rey with Valencia. He also had spells at Sporting Lisbon, Rayo Vallecano and Castellon before taking over at Real in 1982, with the club runners-up in five competitions during his two years in charge. He managed the club again for five months from 1990, winning the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona. Di Stefano became honorary Real president in 2000.

Juan Zuniga has grovellingly apologised to Neymar after the Brazil striker was ruled out of the World Cup following the Colombia defender kneeing him in the back, really hard. Neymar broke a vertebra in his spine during his side's 2-1 quarter-final victory over Colombia on Friday. Zuniga insists that he did not mean to hurt Neymar in the incident - presumably, it was a 'friendly' knee in the spine - which FIFA's disciplinary committee is currently studying. 'I deeply regret the sad injury that Neymar suffered during the match between Brazil and Colombia,' he claimed. 'Although I feel that these situations are a normal part of the game, there was no intent to injure, malice nor negligence on my part. I want to reach out to Neymar, who I admire, respect and consider one of the best players in the world. I hope you recover quickly and return to the game soon, so we can all support a sport full of the virtues and qualities that I've tried to follow in my twelve years as a professional player.'

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Day Twenty Four: Dutch Courage, Belgian Waffle

Argentina reached their first World Cup semi-final since finishing as runners-up in 1990 with victory over Belgium in Brasilia. Gonzalo Higuain scored the only goal at Estadio Nacional, a thunderous early volley that ended his run of six international games without a goal. But Belgium's so-called 'golden generation' were undone by another quicksilver Lionel Messi performance, as Argentina set up a last-four encounter with the Netherlands in Sao Paulo on Wednesday. The two-time champions again failed to reach their fluid best, and it is significant that all five of their wins at this World Cup have been by a single goal. Belgium - every bit as disappointing as the French has been a day earlier in their quarter-final - went out with something of a whimper, lacking cohesion, creativity and precision and only threatening late on when they played one long ball after another towards Marouane Fellaini. But, on the day he equalled Diego Maradona's haul of ninety one caps for Argentina, Messi stood apart, with a performance of majesty that propelled his side into the last four. At times, he was balletic, at others he was bold. He played forty-yard passes with the precision of a master craftsman and pirouetted away from danger time and again. Sharper to the ball, more urgent in possession, Argentina started the quicker of the sides. With Brazil striker Neymar confined to a wheelchair for the rest of the tournament, there was a sense the tournament needed one of its superstars to produce a performance to remember. Messi did not disappoint. Belgium did not help themselves, however. Captain Vincent Kompany gave possession away carelessly inside his own half after eight minutes, the ball running to Messi. The Barcelona forward spun away from two defenders and clipped a pass to Angel Di Maria. His pass was deflected into the path of Higuain, who swivelled and volleyed unerringly beyond Thibaut Courtois to send the tens of thousands of Argentina fans in the stadium into raptures. There was more Messi magic to come. Argentina's talisman danced his way through a crowd of Belgium players before being clipped on the edge of the area. His resulting free-kick curled narrowly wide but Belgium were on the back foot. For much of the opening forty five minutes, the Red Devils were insipid, not inventive. Kevin de Bruyne stung Sergio Romero's palms from distance and Kevin Mirallas headed a Jan Vertonghen cross narrowly wide, but there was little pace or purpose. With Messi in the spotlight, Eden Hazard struggled to escape the shadow. Belgium were caught between wanting to throw caution to the wind and a fear of what Argentina might do on the counter attack. An example came ten minutes into the second half, when Mirallas lost the ball after a swift Belgium break. Higuain raced away, nutmegged Kompany and skimmed a curling shot onto the crossbar. The introduction of substitutes Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens was an attempt to change that dynamic. With time running out, Vertonghen found Fellaini, who headed over. Moments later, Ezequiel Garay almost deflected De Bruyne's cross into his own net. Hazard was replaced by Tottenham's Nacer Chadli as Marc Wilmots played his last card. Belgium poured forward in search of a goal that might take them to extra time, but failed to produce a moment that called Romero into serious action. Messi had a chance to cap his display with a late goal, only for Courtois to smother his shot when the pair faced each other one on one. With time running out, Belgium came again, Lukaku prodding a ball across goal before Axel Witsel fired the rebound over. But Argentina and Messi stood firm.

Goalkeeper Tim Krul came off the bench late in extra time and saved two penalties as the Netherlands beat Costa Rica in a shootout to set up a World Cup semi-final against Argentina. Newcastle's Krul saved from both Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana to send the Dutch through after the game finished 0-0. Wesley Sneijder had twice hit the woodwork for the Netherlands, while Robin van Persie also had a shot turned onto the bar. Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal, who will take charge at The Scum at the end of the tournament, brought Krul on for Jasper Cillessen in added time at the end of one hundred and twenty minutes. And Krul's two saves proved decisive as the Dutch - who had lost each of their previous four World Cup matches which went to extra time - coolly converted all four of their spot-kicks. Costa Rica had progressed as winners from a group containing Uruguay, Italy and England, and once again impressed with their organisation and energy. But just as they did against Mexico in the second round, Van Gaal's team found a way through despite being some way short of the fluency they showed in patches during the group phase. Twenty one minutes had passed before the Netherlands managed an effort on goal. A sweeping move down the right ended with Dirk Kuyt pulling a cross back and Memphis Depay laid the ball off for Van Persie, whose low drive was blocked by goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who also saved Sneijder's follow-up. Depay might have done better when he was slipped through by Van Persie, but the PSV Eindhoven forward's stab at the near post was turned away by Navas. Costa Rica's only threat came from Christian Bolanos free-kicks, with one flying just too high for midfielder Celso Borges to connect with, and another headed back across goal by Borges only for Johnny Acosta to fail to make contact. Navas showed his quality once again when he tipped a bending Sneijder free-kick away from the top corner, but the Netherlands offered little going forward as the second half developed. After forcing Giancarlo Gonzalez to head off target following a Bolanos set-piece, Ron Vlaar glanced a header high and wide from a whipped Sneijder free-kick at the other end. And when Navas was beaten, Sneijder's curling free-kick bounced away off a post. As the Netherlands exerted some late pressure, Navas turned away a low drive from Van Persie and The Scum's striker failed to make contact with a fine Sneijder cross. Yeltsin Tejeda then diverted a close-range Van Persie effort onto his own crossbar as a tiring Costa Rica took the game into extra time. The Dutch continued to push on, with Navas forced to palm away a Vlaar header, but they could not find a way through, and Costa Rica had a penalty appeal rejected when Vlaar challenged substitute Marcos Urena, who then forced a full-length save from Cillessen. There was still time for Sneijder's twenty-yard curling drive to strike the crossbar, but it went to a penalty shootout and after Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt all converted their penalties, Krul's save from Urena sent the 2010 beaten finalists through to the last four.

Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal says that Tim Krul's greater height and reach was the reason he sent the super-sub keeper on for the World Cup quarter-final penalty shootout win over Costa Rica. Krul, who is six feet four inches, replaced the six foot two inch Jasper Cillessen with seconds remaining in the 0-0 draw. And, as all the girls will tell you, two inches can make all the difference in a chap's worth. 'We all thought Tim was the best keeper to stop penalties,' said Van Gaal. 'He is taller and has a longer reach.' He added: 'It worked out. That was beautiful. I'm a bit proud of that.' Van Gaal, who will take over at The Scum after the World Cup, did not tell first-choice keeper Cillessen he might be taken off if the game went to a shootout after extra time. However, Krul was informed he might be called upon. Krul, whose saves from Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana were his only two touches of the ball, told the BBC Sport website: 'I psyched them out. You try to do everything you can without being too aggressive. I tried to get in their minds. It is something I have dreamed about since I was a little boy - to have that moment when you make the crucial save and then all the boys are running towards you.' Despite Krul's match-winning saves he will be back on the bench for the semi-final, with Ajax's Cillessen in goal. 'There is no question about who will start the next game, it will be Cillessen, but we felt Krul was the better choice here,' said Van Gaal. Costa Rica midfielder Celso Borges said of the goalkeeping change: 'I never saw something like that. But they were right, he did his job.'

BBC presenter Gary Lineker goaded two of his analystis - yer actual Ruud Gullit and Alan Shearer his very self - by bringing up a very touchy subject during Friday's Match Of The Day Live. As Germany led Didier Deschamps' France side 1-0 during half-time of their World Cup quarter-final, sitting opposite Lineker were Gullit and Shearer, who were part of the same Newcastle United set-up during the 1998-99 Premier League season – the Dutchman was in charge of the Magpies, with Shearer as their talismanic striker and captain. And it was during one particularly notorious fixture to which that naughty scamp Lineker alluded to. Complimenting Deschamps’s management skills in having the nerve to drop big-name players, Lineker asked whether Gullit had ever done such a thing during his managerial career. The presenter was, of course, alluding to the night when the Dutchman dropped Shearer for a huge derby against fierce rivals Blunderland - a decision which was, unsurprisingly, met with huge outrage and controversy on Tyneside (especially as the Mackems won the subsequent game 2-1 in a virtual monsoon, a result which, effectively, cost Gullit his job). As TV viewers across the country held their collective breath, unsure as to what the reaction would be from both men, an awkward pause was followed - thankfully for everyone - by raucous laughter. As it happens Rudi and Alan seem to get on quite well these days, which is probably more than can be said for Shearer - never a man to forget somebody taking a rise out of him without an elbow being involved - and Lineker. Expect further developments on this one!