Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Such Such are the joys

It makes for a strange experience this viewing of FIFA World Cup 2010 in India. India, because of the shambolic state of its football infrastructure, administration and development, has never been able to send a team to the World Cup. Football fans here have always had to make do with borrowed devotions ( the absence of any recognizably good footballing nation in the neighbourhood hasn't helped either). Hence, instead of debating the squad structure, agonizing over formations and fretting over tactics of the Indian National Team, we are forced to first choose whom to ally our allegiance with. It usually is Argentina, Brazil or England. Spain, by virtue of sizzling in Euro'08 has also staked a claim in recent times but come World Cup, the streets of Kolkata, Mallapuram and Marmagoa are usually bedecked with Argentine or Brazilian flags and jerseys (a cliche it is that passion for football overflows only in Bengal, Kerala and Goa but it is important to note that the recent exposure to EPL, UCL and La Liga has resulted only in more jersey sales and spawned good FIFA10 players in the rest of the country than footballers; it is deemed perfectly alright to soak up footballing knowledge and facts and play it all out on a PC).

So when a friend asked me yesterday as to who it is I am going to support this time, I could only offer a shrug in reply. Last time, my team of choice had been Italy ( the neutral's favourite - their off-field problems had made them underdogs and who would the neutral support but an underdog? Throw in the siege mentality as well - is it any surprise that they won?). This time around, nobody is enthusiastic about them for the team is almost the same with replacements coming in only for those who have retired over the past four years.

While Italy seems content to let the media and armchair pundits overlook them and downplay their chances, among the rest of the teams, quite a few should feel confident. The draw for this year's group stage coupled with untimely injuries to some of the stars has thrown open this year's tournament. There is Brazil with its relatively dour game play, their tactics built upon solid defensive work and excellent counterattacking skill instead of their legendary Joga BonitoTM oomph. Then there is Spain so supremely blessed with talent that anything less than an appearance in the final will be taken a failure; there is Argentina with Lionel Messi (ah! what pleasure it would give the wise old enganche Veron to choose any one from Messi, Tevez, de Maria and Higuan/Milito to pass the ball to) ; then there are the usual suspects - Germany with a talented yet slightly inexperienced squad, France with their noxious manager Raymond Domenech and a squad still mired in schoolyard like squabbling, Portugal for whom Cristiano Ronaldo (yes, Him) has so far been utterly uninspiring, Holland with Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder (yes, Them who led their respective clubs to the UCL final with this, this and this). Since this is the first World Cup to be held in Africa, there is renewed hope for an African nation to emerge victorious for the first time. Ivory Coast (with their petulant Messiah Didier Drogba), Ghana and Cameroon are the favourites among the African participants.

And then there is England.

To the English media, the World Cup is the Holy Grail, the conquest of which, they appear convinced, has always been, and will remain, beyond their team. This is much evident from their incessant rambling about everything related to their team - the deficiencies of the current squad, their perceived inability to hold the ball and engage in any kind of tactical buildup play, their positional indiscipline on the field and behavioural failings off it. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to think of the English players as Big Brother house occupants for such is the level of media scrutiny there. A win still comes with its attendant hyperbole, but this time around, everyone is seeking to mute it or deflate their own expectations. Sometimes it seems they would have been gladder had their team never made it to the World Cup finals at all.

Despite the air of fatalism that pervades the English camp, other countries are still wary of England for they are coached by Fabio Capello, a man whom everyone loves to imagine to be as strict as Eric Blair's schoolmaster.

It was presumed after the ignominy of failing to qualify for Euro 08 that discipline, hard work and selflessness were the attributes sorely lacking in the English setup and Capello was drafted specifically to inculcate these values in the players. They breezed past their opponents during qualification but their form since then has been wobbly and their recent performances suggest a regression to pre-Capello days. The media, who had slowly began to envisage that the steady if unspectacular performances might result in a run beyond the quarters, lost no time in performing a volte face and declaring that their team had as much chance as doing anything of note in the World Cup 2010 as discovering a nutritious meal in the local McDonalds' menu.

So it was with crackling nerves that the English players lined up against USA last Saturday to kick off their first match. Just around the fourth minute, their captain Steven Gerrard took a beautiful first touch and poked in the ball into the goal beyond the flailing hands of the American goalkeeper. England it seemed were intent on changing history. But not for long. Soon, they became complacent, their midfield slowly disintegrating under the relentless yet largely feeble pressure of the American attack. Around the 40th minute, from just outside the English penalty area, the American midfielder Clint Dempsey drove a weak shot towards the English goal. What should have been a regulation collect and throw resulted in this.

The howler seemed predestined to happen. At the half time whistle, Robert Green trudged back alone to the dressing room, utterly despondent at having conceded such a soft goal- yet another addition to the annals of infamy to which recent English goalkeepers seem intent on contributing. The game ended in a tame draw and their performance did everything to suggest that England had rediscovered its ability to contrive to lose from winning positions out of sheer complacency, overconfidence and lack of skill.

The England-USA game was preceded by a cracking game between South Africa and Mexico, the game provided the much needed initial momentum to the tournament. Other memorable matches in the first week include the 4-0 drubbing that Australia received at the hands of Germany, Argentina's 1-0 victory over Nigeria featuring the heroics of Vincent Enyeama, the Nigerian goalkeeper who did everything humanly possible to keep a fiery Lionel Messi from scoring a goal, South Korea's efficient dismantling of the famed Greek defence resulting in a comfortable 2-0 win and DPR of Korea's defiant display against Brazil, almost holding the Selcaos to a draw before losing out 2-1.

The matches so far seem curiously lacking in the spectacular with teams adopting cagey tactics and generally being unadventurous in approach. Hopefully, this will change once the final round of group matches take place for a few favourites might get knocked out, thus providing the drama and action, a tournament of this stature, richly deserves.


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