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Michael Carrick: The Atypical English Regista

April 29th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Last Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford, one Manchester United player was instrumental to the creation of three of United’s four goals against Everton.[1] Without him,[2] United would surely have lost a game they ended up drawing 4-4, and allowed second-placed Manchester City to cut the points gap to two, instead of three, ahead of their meeting at Eastlands this Monday night. However, that same player was singled out for criticism for his performance against Everton — for example, The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson posited that “one verdict is that [he] did not do enough to shape this afternoon for his team.

The player’s name is Michael Carrick and he will no doubt be used to such criticisms by now. Indeed, when, in March 2011, United announced that the Geordie had signed a new three-year deal keeping him at the club until the end of the 2013–14 season, the response from a significant segment of United fans was underwhelming to say the least.[3]

*****

Football, as we are so often told, is a team sport and the success of a professional career is measured primarily by reference to the number of championship medals won, not individual awards accrued. By this criterion, Carrick ought to be regarded as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best ever acquisitions.

Before Carrick arrived at Old Trafford from White Hart Lane in the summer of 2006 for a seemingly exorbitant fee in the region of £18.6m[4] as Sir Alex Ferguson’s solitary summer purchase, United had not won the Premier League for three seasons — their longest title drought of the Premier League era.[5]

In Europe, their performances had been even worse — United had not made a Champions League semi-final in four seasons; had not made a Champions League final in seven seasons; and crashed out in the group stages of the Champions League in the 2005–06 season, finishing bottom of their group with six points from six games. Even more alarming was the steady downward trend in their Champions League performances — from the 2001–02 season to the 2005–06 season United’s Champions League record read: semi-final; quarter-final; round of 16; round of 16; and group stage.

Meanwhile, in the preceding two seasons, Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho’s tactical guile and Roman Abramovich’s riches, had won two consecutive Premier League titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. They looked set to dominate English and European football for the foreseeable future.

Since Carrick’s arrival at Old Trafford, United have won four of the last five Premier League titles and made three out of the last six Champions League finals (winning one). This sustained European success is particularly notable because it is something which both Sir Alex Ferguson’s first and second great United sides, for all their domestic dominance, conspicuously failed to achieve — in the first two decades of Ferguson’s reign, United reached one paltry Champions League final.[6]

Carrick has played an integral role in each and every one of United’s four Premier League title-winning seasons since his arrival. In each of those seasons, Carrick started at least 23 of United’s 38 Premier League games — the most of any United central midfielder in the 2006–07 and 2007–08 seasons and the second-most (by just one game behind Darren Fletcher) in the 2008–09 and 2010–11 seasons.[7] Indeed, in the only completed season since Carrick’s arrival in which United did not win the Premier League, Carrick notched up his lowest number of Premier League starts as a United player: 22 in the 2009–10 season.

In Europe, Carrick’s influence at United since his arrival has been even more pronounced. In each of the four seasons in which United made it at least as far as the semi-finals of the Champions League, Carrick started the most Champions League games of any of United’s central midfielders.[8]

*****

Why, then, has Carrick still not been fully embraced by United’s fans?

I suspect that the answer revolves around his style of play and tactical function.

Carrick isn’t the quickest, doesn’t rack up many assists and is a thinnishly-built, awkward-looking tackler. To top it all off, he displays roughly the same level of commitment to goal-scoring that the Lannister twins demonstrate to obeying society’s legal and moral prohibition of incest.[9]

As for his on-field demeanour, Carrick is quiet and undemonstrative — so, no red-faced shouting of directions at his teammates.[10] In this respect, as in his aforementioned relative lack of speed, thinnish build and ungainly-looking tackling, Carrick is the antithesis of the United legend whose number 16 shirt he inherited — Roy Keane, a combative, energetic, box-to-box midfield general famed for his forceful tackling and equally forceful on-field direction of his teammates. To some observers, it appeared, at first glance, that Sir Alex Ferguson had replaced a fearsome warrior with a lanky university student who’d gotten lost on his way to his cultural geography class.

However, Carrick’s playing style complements, and is arguably a product of, his very peculiar tactical function as a deep-lying playmaker. His job is to play between the lines of United’s defence and midfield, sweeping up in front of the back four whenever United lose the ball and starting plays when United have the ball. It is a role which he not only excels at, but one which no other British central midfielder of his generation is capable of performing to the same level.

It is because Carrick functions as a deep-lying playmaker stationed between United’s midfield and defensive lines that he doesn’t rack up many direct assists — he rarely makes the final pass for a goal because he is typically busy making the second-last, third-last or first pass in the move which led to the goal, as he did for three of United’s four goals against Everton last Sunday.[11]

His agile football brain more than compensates for his relative lack of straight line speed by enabling him to languidly position himself in the right place at the right time to break up opposition attacks, as well as know when to play a simple lateral five yard pass to his midfield partner, when to play a quick, low 20 yard pass into the feet of a deep-lying forward and when to attempt a 50 yard cross-field diagonal ball. This high football IQ, combined with his technical proficiency, allows him to find the space and time to calmly keep the ball and elegantly execute such passes.

*****

Over 200 years ago, Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson famously signalled the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. The men of the Royal Navy did not let their country down, winning a famous victory which secured Britannia’s rule of the waves and laid the foundation for the largest empire the world has ever seen.

On the football pitch, England has been expecting, in vain, for close to half a century now.[12] At a broad level, it is reasonably clear what English fans expect — consistent international team success at European Championships and World Cups. However, English fans’ expectations with respect to individual positions within their club and international sides are a bit more culturally complicated than that.

As Scott Murray eloquently explained in issue zero of The Blizzard,[13] Roy of the Rovers, the enduringly popular English football comic first published in September 1976, embedded the most pernicious of stereotypes deep in the English psyche, namely, that of the all-action, goal-scoring superhero “thundering home one of his trademark Racey’s Rockets in the last minute to save the day.”[14] Consequently,

[w]hile little schemers from Italy dreamt of becoming fantasistas, conducting their team-mates to victory from the centre of the park, while South American youths honed their skills and picked up a few street-smarts in the dusty favelas, hoping to put it all together in a gambeta; thanks to Roy Race, English children spent their formative years sat on their arses being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn’t really matter what you do for 89 minutes, because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.

Although Roy Race himself was a striker, Murray explains that the stereotype he unleashed applies equally to dynamic, box-to-box, goal-scoring central midfielders such as Steven Gerrard and Bryan Robson.[15] Indeed, Robson’s nickname, “Captain Marvel”, is that of a comic book superhero.[16]

So there we have the answer to the question posed earlier: Michael Carrick, a central midfielder whose value is defined by his specialised role within a tactical system, will invariably be undervalued and unloved by a generation of English fans instilled with “a disdain for tactics and organisation” and “a fear of progressive thought” by their upbringing in the comic book universe of Roverland.[17]

Carrick’s curse is that he is atypical for an English central midfielder — an understated orchestra conductor, rather than the all-action comic book hero English fans have been culturally conditioned to expect. Nonetheless, Carrick is typically English in one important respect — he belongs to a long and illustrious line of Geordie technicians, such as Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley; but even they were predominantly final third of the pitch attackers, not centre-circle playmakers.

*****

Perhaps Carrick’s greatest misfortune as a footballer was to be born in England, rather than, say, Spain or Italy where the particular tactical position he occupies is not only recognised with special terminology (regista in Italy and pivote in Spain), but highly and widely prized.

In Spain, the pivote position has been filled with distinction by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, whereas in Italy, over the past two decades, one player has towered above all others in the regista position — Andrea Pirlo. The diminutive Brescian spent the last decade guiding AC Milan to Champions League and Serie A titles and Italy to a World Cup; now 32 years of age, Pirlo is currently enjoying an Indian summer at Juventus, having led the Bianconeri to the brink of their first Serie A title since 2002–03.[18]

It should come as little surprise then that Spain’s World Cup- and European Championship-winning midfielders, such as Xavi and Xabi Alonso, frequently praise Carrick. In February 2011, Xavi described Carrick as a “player[] who treat[s] the ball well” and “tr[ies] to play.”

Similarly, in November 2011, Xabi Alonso explained that: “Michael Carrick … makes those around him better, regardless of the fact that he’s not the one who scores the most goals, or a great tackler.” Indeed, Alonso’s praise of Carrick echoed what Alonso’s first coach said of him as a 10 year old playing for his local club side Antiguoko in San Sebastián: “He makes others play”.

This subtle but indispensable virtue was certainly recognised by Carrick’s Dutch manager at Tottenham, Martin Jol: “Michael’s biggest quality is to move play from defence to attack and win the ball. Because of him, other players play better.[19]

*****

In the summer of 2010, as I stood in a north London pub with some English mates watching England struggle to a turgid 1-1 draw with the United States in the opening game of their 2010 World Cup campaign, I received the following four-word text message from an English mate watching the game in another pub: “Why can’t England pass?”

My very learned and well-travelled English friend — a Cambridge Classics graduate, polyglot, lifelong Spurs fan and true football connoisseur — correctly identified the problem which has plagued England sides for generations.

International football, with its slower pace and lower tempo, places much greater emphasis on ball possession and circulation in the middle third of the pitch than the English Premier League which, with its high-tempo and physicality, underlines the primacy of the two penalty boxes.

However, England struggle to adapt their tactics, playing style and team selection to the different demands of international football. Instead of picking the right team to play a different style of football, England typically staff their central midfield with their best individual players (namely, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of whom are box-to-box goal-scorers) and attempt to practise an English Premier League style and tactical system in major international tournaments. This is what Xabi Alonso alluded to when he observed: “Sometimes it seems the English don’t rate those who make the team work rather than standing out themselves. You shouldn’t necessarily pick the best players; you have to have a collective identity.”

So the answer to my English friend’s question — as he well knew when he sent me his flippant, semi-rhetorical text — is quite simple: England can’t pass because they don’t play with a deep-lying playmaker tasked with winning, retaining and circulating the ball; instead, they pack their central midfield with box-to-box goal-scorers. Meanwhile, Spain, the reigning World and European Champions, currently play with not one but two pivotes: Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets.

Carrick — the only Englishman of his generation to excel as a regista in the Champions League — would seem to offer the solution to England’s international woes. But, curiously, Carrick has never nailed down a spot in England’s starting XI — he was in the England squad for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups but only made one appearance in Germany and never got off the bench in South Africa. He has not played for England since May 2010 and has only managed a total of 22 senior England caps over the course of an international career which started back in May 2001.

The Roy of the Rovers warping of Englishmen’s cultural expectations as to what central midfielders ought to be goes some way to explaining Carrick’s strangely stop-start England career. However, even when England have had an Italian manager in Fabio Capello, Carrick has barely got a look in — he was only capped seven times during Capello’s four year reign.

In current interim England manager[20] Stuart Pearce’s one match in charge thus far, a 3-2 defeat to Holland in a friendly at Wembley in February 2012, England switched from the 4-4-1-1 favoured by Capello to a 4-2-3-1 with newly-appointed England captain Scott Parker and Gareth Barry occupying the two holding central midfield berths.

A 4-2-3-1 system is well-suited to accommodating Carrick’s talents as a regista (being the same system in which Alonso has thrived at club level for Liverpool and Real Madrid and at international level for Spain at the 2010 World Cup) and Parker, with his speed, running and strong tackling, makes for a complementary partner in midfield. But, Carrick was not even selected in the squad for the February friendly against Holland.

Perhaps, an additional explanation for Carrick’s status as an international semi-exile is that he was born in the same year as Xabi Alonso — the finest regista in the world — and, as such, is frequently compared to the Basque maestro. Such comparisons are inevitable but utterly irrelevant — surely, the salient point is that Carrick is the best Englishman in the regista position and that should be sufficient to get him in England’s starting XI. If Alonso is the Rolls-Royce of registas and Carrick a mere Jaguar, then that still makes Carrick England’s best option in that position when the alternative is a souped-up Ford Focus.

*****

Whilst Carrick’s talents may go unappreciated by some United and England fans, they are certainly recognised by Sir Alex Ferguson who, last month, praised Carrick for his “absolutely superb” form and mental strength.

One thing which is certain is that if, indeed, United clinch a record 20th English league title on Monday night and move two clear of Liverpool on 18, then Carrick will play an important role, sitting in front of United’s back four and managing the tempo of the game with a minimum of fuss.


[1] For United’s first goal: Tony Hibbert’s headed clearance fell to Marouane Fellaini outside Everton’s box, but just as Fellaini was about to receive the ball, the United player in question nipped in and with one exquisite touch of his right boot, passed the ball to Patrice Evra who took a couple of touches before giving the ball to Nani on the left wing; Nani delivered a perfect in-swinging cross with his right foot which Wayne Rooney duly headed in. For United’s second goal: an Antonio Valencia cross from the right wing was only half-cleared by Leon Osman; the ball fell to the United player in question, positioned outside Everton’s box, who, with one touch of his left boot passed the ball to Nani on the left edge of Everton’s box; Nani attempted a pass into Everton’s box which Darron Gibson only managed to clear straight up in the air; Nani won the header against Phil Neville; the ball dropped to Danny Welbeck who sold John Heitinga the dummy and curled the ball into the top corner of Tim Howard’s goal with his right boot. For United’s third goal, the United player in question received a throw-in from Valencia on United’s right wing and exchanged passes with Rafael and Nani before playing a one-touch right-foot pass into the feet of Welbeck who, with his back to goal, played a one-touch right foot pass around the corner for Nani to run onto, take one touch and dink the ball over Tim Howard.

[2] He was not culpable for any of Everton’s four goals.

[3] See, eg, manutd.com message boards; Chris Wright, “Man Utd Hand Michael Carrick New Three-Year Contract”, Who Ate All The Pies, 3 March 2011 (see also the comments at the bottom of the article).

[4] The fact that Tottenham had purchased Carrick from West Ham at the Upton Park everything-must-go relegation fire sale in the summer of 2004 for the bargain basement price of £2.75m only exacerbated the perception that the £18.6m fee United paid two years later was inflated. Within days of Carrick completing his move to Old Trafford, United’s Chief Executive David Gill publicly defended the price United paid for him.

[5] It is easy to forget just how pessimistic many United fans were feeling at this point. Learned football writers, such as Rob Smyth, presented well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments that United’s dominance of English football had reached an end and that the Ferguson era would end with a whimper. To the dismay of many United fans (who continued to chant his name), Ferguson had just flogged Ruud van Nistelrooy, scorer of 150 goals in just 219 appearances and United’s all-time top scorer in European competition, to Real Madrid for the meagre sum of £10.3m. Daniel Taylor’s This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius (2008) brilliantly captures just how negative the mood around Old Trafford was during the 2005–06 season and the attendant enormity of Ferguson’s achievement in recapturing the Premier League title the very next season.

[6] United’s relative lack of European Cup/Champions League success both before and during Ferguson’s reign (at least until the maturation of Ferguson’s third great United side in the 2006–07 season) is the one blot on Ferguson’s otherwise impeccable copybook and still rankles the perfectionist Scot. As recently as April 2011, in the lead-up to the first leg of United’s Champions League semi-final against Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Ferguson admitted: “we do get envious of the records of other clubs in Europe. We look at other teams’ records and we are trying to get parity with that. We look at clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and we really need to progress quickly to get to that level.”

[7] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. Even if Giggs is included in the comparison, his Premier League games started only exceeded those of Carrick in one of United’s Premier League title-winning seasons since Carrick’s arrival: the 2007–08 season in which Giggs started 26 Premier League games to Carrick’s 24.

[8] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. In any event, the statement remains true even if Giggs is included in the comparison.

[9] His meagre goal tally of 19 in 270 appearances for United means that he averages a goal every 14.21 games. He has never scored more than six goals in a single season for United and he managed to go the entire victorious 2010–11 campaign without scoring, despite making 44 appearances for United across all competitions. His sweet strike for United’s second goal in their 2-0 league win over QPR at Loftus Road in December 2011 was his first goal in 70 games for United and his first in the Premier League in almost two years.

[10] Hence, the accusation that: “He has no passion”. His demeanour off-the-pitch is similarly unassuming — Ferguson describes him as a “a quiet lad” who is “not the type to trumpet his achievements”; his assistant manager at West Ham, Frank Lampard Senior, described him as “a nice, easy-going lad”; and he spent one summer working as a roadie for his brother-in-law’s rock band, Sound Ex.

[11] See above n 1.

[12] See, eg, James Corbett, England Expects: A History of the England Football Team (2010).

[13] The Blizzard is a quarterly football publication put together by a cooperative of journalists and authors, which features articles by the heavy-hitters of English language football writing (for example, Jonathan Wilson, Andy Brassell, Tim Vickery and Uli Hesse) about the stories that matter to them. The Blizzard contains, quite simply, the best English language football writing in the world and it is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. I urge you to check it out.

[14] Scott Murray, “How Roy Race Ruined English Football” (2011) 0 The Blizzard 43, 44.

[15] Ibid 45.

[16] A recent tribute in the Daily Mail described Bryan Robson as a player “who ranged from box to box as tough-tackling defender and deadly goalscorer”.

[17] Murray, above n 13, 45.

[18] At the time of writing, Juventus are three points clear of AC Milan with four games to play. Juventus were officially stripped of their 2004–05 and 2005–6 Series A titles by the Italian Football Federation as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal. The official Juventus website still includes these two officially revoked Serie A titles in their total count of 29 Serie A titles on the front page of their online Trophy Room; however, their individual web pages for their 2004–05 and 2005–06 Serie A titles each include asterisked one-word footnotes which state: “Revoked”.

[19] (Emphasis added).

[20] The FA released a statement on Sunday 29 April 2012 stating that they have approached West Bromwich Albion’s manager Roy Hodgson regarding the position of England Manager.

D-Day

December 2nd, 2010 SB Tang No comments

Minutes until FIFA announces the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

If such decisions were based on reason and merit, there would be two clear winners – England for 2018 and Australia for 2022.

I’m hardly one to be biased towards England, particularly in the middle of a home Ashes series, but there can be no doubting the merit of their bid.

England offers:

  • The world’s best football stadiums: atmospheric, purpose-built, all-seater and ready-to-go-right-now (yes, I’m staring at you Russia).
  • Perfect geographical location: in between the US and western Europe.
  • Excellent international transport links: Heathrow’s the world’s third busiest international airport.
  • Solid domestic transport links: the Tube does a solid job for a city of 7.75 million people (well, when its employees aren’t striking at any rate) and, although not as good as metros in say Germany or Japan, it is better than anything in Australia or North America. The rail links aren’t world-beating but they get the job done and ditto for the motorways.
  • An internationalist outlook represented by, amongst other things, a cosmopolitan population, the most popular domestic football league in the universe and a service-based, internationally-focused economy embodied in the City of London which, for all its flaws (which are substantial) has been the engine of Britain’s economic growth over the past two decades.
  • A local population which is, broadly, immigrant friendly — ride a London bus or check out the welcome given to foreign players like Torres, Kanchelskis and Juninho.
  • Some of the most passionate and knowledgeable football fans in the world who, when the mood takes them, are capable of turning a football ground into a citadel — one of the many reasons why, despite often being far from the best domestic football league in the world, the English Premier League is by far and away the most popular domestic football league in the universe.
  • Commercial TV revenues: England’s located in the perfect time zone for the major European and American markets and the World Cup will have access to the same producers, editors and marketers who have made the English Premier League the commercial envy of the rest of Europe.

Spain hosted a World Cup as recently as 1982 and Portugal hosted the Euros in 2004.

Netherlands/Belgium is a bit small and they hosted Euro 2000.

Russia, with its vast untapped commercial potential and FIFA’s zeal for expanding the World Cup into virgin territory, would have to be England’s main rival. But, based on merit, this shouldn’t even be a serious contest:

  • Infrastructure and White Elephant stadiums: this is a nation whose national stadium (Luzhniki) still has a plastic pitch, where the club hosting the biggest club derby in Russian football (CSKA Moscow vs Spartak Moscow) has to play the game in a tiny stadium in a suburb outside Moscow just so they can play on a real pitch (it’d be like Arsenal having to move the North London derby to Kenilworth Road) and where, according to ESPN, the unofficial average attendance for a domestic top flight match in 2010 was 12,322 — less than the 18,006 unofficial average attendance boasted by even the worst supported team in last season’s English top flight, Wigan Athletic. The net result of this would be billions wasted on shiny FIFA-compliant stadiums which will then spend the next 20 years icing-up and falling into disrepair — a bit like the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet. Money which could surely be better spent elsewhere in a nation where 50,000 people still die annually from alcohol poisoning.
  • Russia is vast. It covers nine time zones and the better part of the Eurasian continent. All non-Moscow airports (and frankly, even the Moscow airports) would require a serious upgrade. The Moscow Metro is awesome though. Rail links between the major cities are solid but could be too slow for most of the teams and spectators to use during the World Cup given the distances that they’ll be required to cover.
  • Racism. Unfortunately, Russia has some issues with black people. Ask the Nigerian-Russian footballer Peter Odemwingie.

As an Australian who’s spent the last two years living in England and Russia, I could only come up with one reason why the Russian bid is better than the English bid — the Moscow Metro. That is all. Don’t get me wrong. I love Russia and I love living in Moscow. But there is no way that Russia would be a better host for the World Cup than England.

Australia for 2022. It’s simple really:

  • Like England, we already have most of the infrastructure in place and an excellent track record for hosting international sporting events: see, eg, Olympics, Commonwealth Games and cricket and rugby World Cups. Admittedly, our metros are non-existent but air travel between the major cities is excellent.
  • Sports-mad and knowledgeable fans who would truly appreciate the event — take a walk around the heart of Melbourne.
  • A competent international football team (*ahem* … Qatar).
  • A bridgehead into the vital Asia-Pacific growth markets. C’mon FIFA. We know you want to take over the world and the world surely includes its two most populous nations and burgeoning superpowers right?
  • A multi-cultural, immigrant-friendly and tourist-friendly population.

Team USA would do a brilliant job and commercially, it’d be a boon for FIFA. But they hosted it as recently as 1994 and there’s no real prospect of the US ever truly becoming a football nation — American football, basketball and baseball are just too well-entrenched for that to ever happen. It’s time for FIFA to share the love with a nation and a region whose hearts and minds they truly do have a prospect of winning.

However, there’s no doubt that our time zone will be a problem for the FIFA bean-counters. No-one in the US or Europe wants to be watching matches in the middle of the night.

Qatar. A nation of 840,926 people full of migrant workers. All stadiums in one soulless major city. Temperatures in excess of 50 degrees. A national team which relies on speed-naturalizing journeyman South Americans to maintain its exalted world ranking of 113. And a lot of money. Sorry, I meant oil. Correction: oil money.

What next? G20 Summits in the Sultan of Brunei’s backyard for the right price?

I’m OK with USA but giving it to Qatar would make the Dreyfus trial look like a paragon of justice.

It should be England 2018 and Australia 2022.

But since money (especially of the TV revenue kind) is what makes the football world go round, I reckon it’ll be Russia 2018 and USA 2022.

Or, looking at it another way, for 2022, it’s come down to Zidane vs Wolverine vs Henry Kissinger. It’s a tough one. But hey — adamantium claws are adamantium claws man.

C’mon God. Prove to me that you exist. I dare you.

Categories: Australia, Oceania, World Cup Tags:

Luke Wilkshire Interview, Khimki, Russia, 23 November 2010

November 25th, 2010 SB Tang No comments

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to catch up with Luke Wilkshire of Dynamo Moscow and the Socceroos on Tuesday near Dynamo’s training base in Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow. Luke was kind enough to wait for me as Google Maps uncharacteristically led me in the wrong direction on my trek out there and, upon my arrival, I proceeded to make an arse of myself as I struggled to operate the hi-tech dictaphone I borrowed from my law firm. Many thanks to Luke and his agent, Darren Jackson of Inspire Sports Management, for agreeing to the interview and for being so generous with their time and to my current employers, Linklaters, for allowing me to use their dictaphone and to take the afternoon off to go meet Luke.

The full transcript of the interview is set out below:

SB Tang (“SBT”): World Cup 2010. First, congratulations on a great performance. We finished level on points with Ghana in a group also containing Germany and Serbia. Just going back to that opening match against Germany. How did the players feel about the way that we were tactically set up — was there any frustration after the result?

Luke Wilkshire (“LW”): No, of course, there was frustration and disappointment — we lost 4-0 in the opening game. We thought that we can do a lot better than that and we can. Had we played at our full potential, I’m sure we would have gotten a better result. But, you know, it is what it is. That’s football. It doesn’t always go to plan. And it was a bad night for the Socceroos that night.

SBT: But to us at home, it actually seemed that the lads played pretty well, but the tactics …

LW: I think I’d say that a lot of people back home can sit on their sofas and see things and make their own judgments and opinions on things. The players were comfortable knowing that we played the system that we played. We knew our jobs, but we didn’t stick to it. The early goal rattled us a little bit. I think that did shake us because we had started the game reasonably well — we had a couple of good chances. But, I mean, I wouldn’t talk tactically. Pim did a great job with us. Everyone knew our roles. We qualified for the World Cup with an amazing record so I don’t think that [ie tactics] is any kind of excuse at all.

SBT: In the second phase of Asian qualification we didn’t concede a goal in a live match so …

LW: Yeah, you know, we learnt a lot under Pim. How to perform, not just in one-off games, but over the course of many games and that’s what it’s about. Going away to difficult places in Asia and to be able to get a result like we did. It took a lot of tactics. Very smart play. And, I think, Pim guided us very well through that.

SBT: Second game against Ghana. Going a goal up early, then went down to 10 men later in the first half courtesy of some strange referring. But full credit to you guys, you bossed the game with 10 men and the score at 1-1, particularly in the second half, and you played a big, big part in that. You swung in a great cross for Scott Chipperfield who headed over seconds after coming on as a sub. And you had that shot saved when you were one-on-one with the keeper. I have to ask — do you still think about that shot?

LW: Nah, only when someone mentions it — obviously I try not to!

SBT: Yeah, sorry!

LW: That’s alright, there goes my confidence for the weekend’s game. I’ll boot it up next month!

SBT: But I think The Australian, The Age and The World Game said that you were the man of the match so …

LW: Yeah, we played well — the response from the players was brilliant as you’d expect from our team and as we expect from each other. It was disappointing, the result, obviously. We didn’t have a great deal of luck throughout the whole World Cup in regard to decisions. Sometimes, you need a little of luck, especially at the top level, you need a break every now and then. And we didn’t get it. Again, that’s football, you gotta get on with it.

SBT: I was in London at the time and I think the word used by all the London papers after that match was “brave”.

LW: Yeah, you’re playing for your country and it’s about making Australia proud. You want to make Australia proud — you’re there to represent your country. And I think all the Australian people I know, the people in the stadium were very proud and felt good about it — as did we, and that’s the main thing for us.

SBT: Well, you definitely did [do us proud], because the third game against Serbia, I was in a pub with a bunch of Australians at Wimbledon. We’d just stopped watching that marathon Mahut-Eisner match and we went out to a pub to watch you guys. We were going mental after you swung in a great cross from the right for Timmy Cahill to head home then Brett Holman put us 2-0 up with a screamer from 30 yards. At that stage, did you guys believe?

LW: Yeah, of course, we went into the game believing. There’s no point going on the pitch if you don’t believe that you can get a good result — of course we did. We knew it was going to be tough. We knew we were up against it but of course we believed. There’s just no point playing the game if you don’t believe.

SBT: It was a brilliant cross for that first goal by Timmy Cahill by … yourself …

LW: Yeah … I regularly make him look good!

SBT: Yeah, surely by this stage, that’s a rehearsed training ground move for us isn’t it — the cross to Timmy Cahill?

LW: Yeah, you gotta play to your strengths don’t ya — Timmy can’t kick a ball so put it on his head! Haha, you know, jokes aside, he’s great in the air. That’s our strength. Same with Joshua Kennedy when he’s there playing up front. You want to be getting crosses in because that’s gonna cause problems and there’s where we’re going to get goals.

SBT: I seem to remember that Timmy was being marked by Vidic in that match who’s meant to be one of the best aerial defenders in the world …

LW: Ah well, he can’t quite jump like Timmy!

SBT: Following the World Cup, Holger Osieck’s taken over from Pim Verbeek as Socceroos manager. Are you enjoying his slightly different, perhaps more attacking style of play?

LW: Ah, you know, look it’s still early stages since the new boss has come in. The players are starting to understand and get to grips with what he’s after. We’ve had some decent results in the beginning, aside from that Egypt game which was reasonably poor but that’s something for us to learn from. I must say that it was sad to see Pim go. I think everybody really enjoyed their time playing under him. But it’s a new era, it’s a new time and we hope for positive times under the new boss.

SBT: You mentioned the Egypt game. Firstly, nice block — you can’t do much about rebounds! But as it was just a friendly, was Osieck’s focus maybe more on the performance rather than the result in the lead-up to a big tournament in the Asian Cup?

LW: It’s a habit of winning. You want to be in the habit of winning. You always wanna win. Of course, performance is also important. But it was a good game for us to have — they’re a very good team. Difficult circumstances with players coming in 24 hours, 48 hours before a game. It’s always difficult, but like I say, it’s a disappointing result and it’s one that we put behind us now and we try to learn from it. I’m sure we’ll be evaluating it when we meet up before the Asian Cup. And then we move on because we got a big month of football coming up in January.

SBT: You mentioned the Asian Cup coming up in January — what’s the target for the boys?

LW: Look, we’re ranked number 1 in Asia and for a reason, you know, so expectations are going to be there again with the team. Rightly so but, ultimately, it’s down to us to go and make sure we perform to our level and if we do that then I think we can have a very successful tournament.

SBT: We’ve been grouped with India, Bahrain and Korea — so I’m presuming that Holger Osieck’s already given Carl Valeri a poster of Ji-Sung Park with a giant target sign painted over his head?

LW: Aaah, I don’t know about that!

SBT: Looking even further ahead to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. By then, most of the Golden Generation who formed the core of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup squads will be in their mid-30s. Timmy Cahill will be 34. Harry Kewell will be 35. You, on the other hand, will be a relatively sprightly 32. Looking at the XI who started against Japan in 2006, you may be the only one left — does that worry you at all?

LW: No, not really, of course, you know, that’s football — players retire and move on. Hopefully, between now and then, there’s going to be a lot of football played. There’s hopefully going to be a few more of the young up-and-coming players to really come and put a foothold in and try and challenge for spots in the team because it’s important. We’ve got a few at the moment, that have the talent, that are promising but there’s a big difference between a bit of talent and promising to being able to hold down a spot in the national team and to be able to perform at the top level.

SBT: You mentioned promising young players — the name on everyone’s lips right now is Tommy Oar. Have you had the chance to train and play much alongside him?

LW: Yeah, I’ve seen a bit of Tommy. He’s been in camp a few times. He’s definitely one — he’s definitely got a lot of talent and potential there. It’s up to him to take that talent and potential and to be able to develop into a real top player who can perform not only at international level but at club level first of all, to hold down a spot at his club, Utrecht, to be playing before you can expect him to step up into the national team and start performing on the world stage.

SBT: You mentioned those younger guys coming through, will you be looking to take on more of a leadership role with them both on and off the pitch as one of the senior guys?

LW: Nothing really changes for me — I’ve been around a long time now. It feels longer than it actually is! The team’s always good together and everyone helps everyone along, especially us older players with some of the young boys. It’s up to them as well, they’ve gotta be wanting to learn and to see and to take on things from the older boys.

SBT: Growing up in Wollongong, did you ever think that you’d be sitting in Moscow discussing representing Australia in a third successive World Cup?

LW: Nah, definitely not. I didn’t expect half the things that have happened in my life — you dream about it, but you don’t necessarily believe that they’re going to come true. But fortunately enough for me, it came true, and through a lot of hard work and determination and sacrifice, I can now say that I’ve been and done quite a bit of it. Hopefully, the journey’s still got a few more years left in it!

SBT: You mentioned hard work and sacrifice. When you first went to Europe, you went to Boro and then you moved to Bristol City in search of first-team action. They were then in the third-tier of English football. That’s maybe not the most obvious place to discover an international class footballer. So how did Guus discover you for the 2006 World Cup? Did he send out Johan Neeskens to watch you at Bristol City?  

LW: Nah, I mean obviously when he took over the national team I’d been around the national team already, not playing so much but I’d been in a lot of camps under Frank Farina and Graham Arnold. And then when Guus took over, in the first games, he wanted everybody, he wanted about 30 players — anyone who’d been involved in the national team he wanted to see for himself. He made his opinions based on what he saw with his own eyes in training camps and things, and that’s where I got my opportunity because he thought that I adapted and that I fitted well into the team structure.

SBT: And you really built on that, after the 2006 World Cup you moved to FC Twente in the Dutch Eredivisie. You had a brilliant 2 year stint with them — you helped them qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. How did that come about — moving to a club like Twente?

LW: Yeah, that was through Guus as well. He had a contact, a coach who was at Twente at the time, Fred Rutten — that made a good opening for me. It was ideal for me at the time. I had a great two years there. I still have many good friends there. It’s a great club. I really enjoyed my football there, there’s no doubt about it.

SBT: You must’ve been stoked for them when they won the Dutch title?

LW: Yeah, I was delighted for them. Like I said, I’ve got really good friends there who I still keep in touch with and see regularly. So I was really happy for them. I’ve often been asked if I wanna go back there, they’d like to bring me back. You know, maybe one day I’ll go and say hello to them again!

SBT: Yeah, they’re doing very well for themselves. They’re in the Champions League again this season. Just going back to Wollongong, did you and Scott Chipperfield know each other growing up in Wollongong?

LW: Nah, not until meeting up in the Socceroos.

SBT: Arsene Wenger has said that technical ability can only be acquired before a player hits their mid-teens. How and where did you and Scott Chipperfield, two of our most successful players, acquire your technical ability — are there secret underground futsal pitches in Wollongong?

LW: Ah, nah, I guess, the little bit of technique that I do have I got from my backyard with my brother. Haha, that shows how I little I got — nah, you know, I did a lot of work in the backyard with my brother!

SBT: I heard you being interviewed a few weeks ago by Russia Today about our chances of hosting the 2022 World Cup. How do you rate our chances given that we’ll be up against USA?

LW: Yeah, I think we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. We’ve got everything that anyone could want to host the World Cup. Our nation — the facilities, the people, the climate, everything’s there with the structure. I think it’d be fantastic for Australian football, for the Australian people to be able to host it. I think it’d be fantastic for the world of football for everyone to be able to come Down Under and experience a World Cup in Australia. Fingers crossed we get a good decision.

SBT: Yeah, shame about the time zone though.

LW: Yeah, compared to Europe the time zone’s not great, but to Asia it’s good. You can look at it in many different ways. I’m sure the FFA’s done everything they possibly can. Mr Lowy’s put his heart and soul into it and I really, really pray that we get a good decision.  

SBT: Yeah, I think the preliminary reports came back and we got graded really highly so touch wood.

LW: Yeah, like I say, it’d be a massive thing.

SBT: Final question — any plans to head home to the A-league in the distant, distant future, maybe even to a new Wollongong-based A-league team?

LW: Ah, who knows, at the moment, I’m here at Dynamo. I’ve still got a contract here at Dynamo for a few more years and I’m not really looking beyond that. I’m very happy here. And what comes after that, time will tell.

SBT: Thanks very much for your time.

LW: No worries. 

Brazil, Dunga, Self-Destruction: The Keys to the Unlikely (and Fortunate) Dutch Win, or “Whatever Happened to Samba-Futebol?”

July 2nd, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Dunga handed in his resignation immediately following the 2-1 loss to the Netherlands, citing that the blame was “his and everybody else’s”

To some extent, he was right. If, by “everybody else,” he meant Felipe Melo. And to a lesser extent, Julio César, trumped as one of the best keepers in the World Cup despite not having to do anything in the whole tournament, and failing the one time it mattered.

1. Melo’s case is more clear-cut as a reason for this shocking loss: his pass created the 1-0 as the Dutch defense failed to show up; his incisive pass, which a good defense would never have allowed, gave Robinho a cakewalk for the opening goal.

However, a long ball into the box in the second half showed a tactically unaware Melo, who impeded his own keeper (who probably should have called him off anyways) and headed into his own net. The worst was yet to come. When Brazil were down 2-1, his stupid and deplorable stomp on Arjen Robben deprived Brazil of an even handed contest.

Obviously frustrated, Melo had been the victim of numerous fouls, which brings me to a second point:

2. The Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, was inconsistent in controlling the match. Moments before being sent off, Melo received a particularly brutal hack from behind from Mark Van Bommel. Amazingly, Van Bommel was fouling with virtual impunity throughout the second half, and in my neutral eyes could have gotten at least 3 clear-cut yellow cards.

It was a mystery to those watching that, for example, Michel Bastos would receive a yellow for persistent fouling, yet Van Bommel, fouling even more flagrantly and frequently, escaped booking.

Of course, none of these are excuses for Felipe Melo’s temper-tantrum and dirty kick. This side of Melo was obvious against Portugal, though in that case Dunga subbed him off before he could do himself (or an unfortunate Portuguese player) more damage.

3. This brings us to the third key in this self-destruction of the Brazilian team: Dunga. It is simple to see that in this specific match, he was all wrong in his changes; he really should have seen Felipe Melo, already visibly frustrated, off when they were drawing 1-1. Taking off Michel Bastos gave the Dutch loads of space to exploit on that side of the field, freeing them from his incursions down their own right channel.

Secondly, taking off Luis Fabiano and introducing Nilmar did not make much sense when they were 2-1 down. A forward-for-forward swap only makes sense when you are winning or drawing a very tight game in which a forward is seriously not functioning.

This last swap demonstrates one of Dunga’s biggest mistakes in the end: a lack of attacking and creative depth in the squad.

With the 1-0, Brazil did not dominate as they should have; their team was set up to play against a team that would attack them in the manner of Chile. In contrast with Spain, who held a masterclass of how to play with a 1-0 against Portugal, they were unable to keep meaningful possession. Unlike Argentina, who when winning 1-0 against Mexico went for the jugular, they lacked ideas and incisiveness when leading.

When tied 1-1, even more when they were losing, there was no go-to player that could come in and make an impact. This lack of an impact sub drastically limited the tactical options of the Brazilians. The conservative double-holding formation anchored by Melo and Gilberto Silva makes sense in a tight match in which limiting the opponents options takes precedence over creating chances.  Counterattacking is essential in such a system.

But when Brazil were desperately needing a goal, they had to take more risks, and simply did not have the resources to create them. Robinho and Kaká were exposed in a poor performance from both of them; by the time Holland scored, their defense showed itself to be more than apt in 1-on-1 situations, man marking tightly and pressuring the creators every time they had a touch. As a result, there were no options for either of them, and Luis Fabiano received no supply whatsoever all game.

At this point, Dunga’s great flaw of not calling up more attacking players is glaringly obvious. There was much controversy in Brazil at the repeated omission of players such as Juventus’s Diego, a brilliant midfield orchestrator; Alexandre Pato, who was injured until late April, yet still is a brilliant and irrepresible forward; and the old dog Ronaldinho, whose experience and vision might have changed things for Brazil.

And this is still overlooking attackers such as Hulk, who has been absolutely outstanding for Porto in the last couple edition of the Champions’ League.

For a time, these failings on Dunga’s part were overlooked. The world, and Brazilian fans, seemed ready to overlook the increasingly distant ideals of jogo bonito (which the British press, no doubt swayed by Nike, have perverted to Joga Bonito) in favor of a physical, low-risk battling squad.

In the end, the abandonment of jogo bonito was more than risky: it was disastrous. Dunga, and Brazil’s, negation of their stereotypically skillfull and swashbuckling game was a practical and tactical error too large to overcome against a rather fortunate Dutch side.

What a Pair of Jabulanis™: World Cup Diary Penultimate Group Matchday

June 25th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Japanese Sun Rising

Though the viral video of Japanese footballers smashing pots with Jabulanis™ might have been a put-on, having seen the Japanese performance against Denmark, one might be led to think that some similarly bizarre and obsessive training had been done with the Nippon Daihyō.

One could imagine them waking with the ball, taking it to the bathroom with them, perhaps balancing it on their nape while seated upon porcelain; later, breakfast beckons, and the ball is cradled gently upon their bellies, moving with every breath, and to accomodate the most subtle lump of food entering the stomach.

Such was the touch they had on the Jabulani™ this Thursday, that the world could not but bow in deference to their mastery. The first free kick, executed by the otherworldy Keisuke Honda, was a marvel of commanding flawed technology; a tricksy, unpredictable missile weaving its way through the air Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, finding its way into the corner of a hapless Danish keeper’s net.

The young Japanese star, not unknown to watchers of the UEFA Champions’ League, is surely the Next Big Thing. The lad has an air about him of being of another class of football: the truly world-class. Talk about a special one. The goal he set up a few minutes from time was sublimely done; a deft touch and sublime pirouette. The fact that he passed it to his number 9 Shinji Okazaki speaks volumes of a player for whom grace and spectacle are but the icing on the cake for a footballer who can play with the best of them, anywhere.

And finally, the second goal, a stunning free kick by Yasuhito Endō, will go down not only as the first time there have been two goals from free kicks in forever in the World Cup, but as the first time anyone has struck the Jabulani™ with an effective inwards/inside of the foot curve. Poor Thomas Sorenson, victim of the unpredictable.

And predictably, another horrific refereeing farce, with the South African official booking arbitrarily for time-wasting in the first 15 minutes of the game when nobody else noticed. Not to mention an absurd yellow card for jumping to Bendtner. And a ridiculous penalty dive that almost-almost–put Denmark back into things. This latter one was only overshadowed by the Tomasson futility penalty, blocked, and its injury-plagued follow-up.

Role Reversal

Stunning change of roles in Ellis Park.

To begin with, a referee and his team actually did a good job in the WWF. I mean World Cup. For the most part unobtrusive–increasingly rare in World Cup referees–the team led by Englishman Howard Web was spot on and did not take the attention away from the stunning match before our eyes.

Only for a few moments did attention fall upon them. Firstly, when Martin Skrtel controversially cleared an Italian shot off the line that would have been the Italian equalizer. No call, no goal. It happened in a split millisecond, at so difficult an angle for any refs to see. Not even multiple, slow motion instant replays could reveal whether the ball actually crossed or didn’t cross the line. So quick that not even the Italians had the time (or the certainty) to protest.

A second moment was the offsides call on a Quagliarella disallowed goal in the 2nd half. The players did not protest but for the obligatory raising their arms in protest. TV replays were initially inconclusive, but eventually showed that the call was an accurate one, close though it was.

Finally, a couple of incidents involving Mucha, the Slovakian keeper, in which he was harangued by Italians trying to get the ball out of the net from him, very nearly sparking a brawl were it not for the unyielding firmness of Webb, who managed to deflate the incident and refused to reward both the time-wasting of the keeper and the play-actiing of the Italian in the incident.

And in the end, the other great reversal, which was Slovakia playing like the stereotypical Italian side. Ugly, but efficient. Few chances, but deadly finishing. Physicality combined with a healthy dose of play-acting and time-wasting. A spectacle whose morbid attraction was the possibility of the reigning champion going out in the first round. This fixture did not disappoint.

The image: a true captain, Cannavaro escorts a sobbing Quagliarella off the field. A touching moment of true dignity on a night that will be tainted with ignonimity for Italian fans.

MARCA's cover image of Italy's captain Cannavaro consoling Quagliarella

World Cup backlog, June 17th

June 18th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

A pre-dated update, after two days on the road with only marginal footballing action. All the better after Spain’s defeat against Switzerland, their first ever.

Rain on Spain’s Parade

Defeat was bitterly disappointing, considering that Spain showed up to play football and found before itself a rival committed to nothing more than making life hell for them. Unfortunately, it worked, which asks some questions of the team.

Firstly, why do Spanish coaches become so conservative at tournaments? Shouldn’t fidelity to a team’s identity be a fluid concept? Especially considering the fact that nobody on Earth expected the Swiss to try and win a midfield battle (they have not allowed a World Cup goal against them since 1994, when they lost to Spain). Del Bosque clogged up the midfield with Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Busquets, thus frustrating Spain’s attacking momentum. Of course, the bigger your team, the more reluctant you are to tinker as you fear that you will be criticized for not using your “brand name” solutions. Should this have been a game to throw in some big attacking players like Llorente (1.95m tall) or Javi Martínez (1.90m)? Pedro, while having a great year at Barça, came to this team too late and looked well out of his element.

In all, Spain’s chances are still very good, unless Switzerland suddenly decide to start playing like Argentina. British and Americans love to pull out facts such as “no team has ever won after losing the opener,” though Argentina (‘90) and Italy (‘94) came pretty damned close. It is, after all, for a reason that we bother to hold the World Cup instead of just handing it out to the Brazilians or Italians.

African Letdown

South Africa got thumped by a somewhat shallow Uruguay side. Nigeria knocked down by the Greeks, for their first ever win in the World Cup since Socrates and Plato took on Aristophanes’s theatre crew in a kickabout. Cameroon and Algeria have started dreadfully as well–will they better the prospects of African football as a whole?

All eyes on Ivory Coast this weekend–their match with Brazil should be the decider as to the progress of the African game. Robo-Drogba set to start–I am no longer taking bets on which side of himself he’ll dive to!

Mexico’s New Cinco de Mayo

A slightly controversial offside no-call marked the opening goal, which led to increased appeals to introduce the Adidas Offside Blast Ball™, which would automatically produce a powerful explosion when touched by a player in an offside position.

Domenech. Enough said. For him, making it this far was a triumph in and of itself. Anywhere else, he would have been fired six times by now, and replaced by his archrivals (aka, any player who has every played for him and done well in spite of him).

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From Underacheivers to Overwhelming Favorites: What Could a World Cup Win Do for Spain?

June 16th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

As Spain prepares to take on Switzerland on Wednesday, the world is abuzz with anticipation.

Not only are Spain joint favorites with Brazil, but the tournament needs the Spanish team like a fish needs water. After one of the drabbest opening rounds in memory, fans everywhere are looking for reasons as to why things are so awful this time round. The long European season, the austral winter, the security concerns and the stress it creates, the ultra-defensive attitudes, and the worst ball in history that was still round: the Jabulani. Thanks, adidas, for a World Cup with no shots on goal.

The prospect of the Spanish team being true to its image, thus, serves as a necessary riposte from the otherwise disappointing level of play seen so far. The Spaniards seem to be on the rise, even considering their incredible record winning and unbeaten streaks, as well as their scintillating win at Euro 2008.

Having seen the Brazilians struggle to beat North Korea 2-1, the Spanish side brings a promise of a real jogo bonito. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, seems more than likely to be faithful to their image of artful prodigies of world football. Despite coming off the success of 2008, the 2010 squad is one that is still tremendously youthful and not bound to the stereotypical cynicism associated with defending champs who refuse to sacrifice anything in their bid to retain. With enough talent to build two squads, it is easy to forget that Spanish football itself is defined by its strict divisions, often with its bitter political roots.

In the case of this current squad, there is a strong base along the Real Madrid-Barcelona line, with as many as 9 starters featuring from these two banner teams. At the same time, there is also a significant infusion from other Spanish teams such as Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, not to mention the small but brilliant British contingent in Torres and Fabregas. It is a team filled with Catalans and madrileños, with Basques from Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya, with stars from La Mancha and the Canary Islands.

This diversity of linguistic-ethnic groups has long been associated with an underperformance of the Spanish national team at big tournaments. However, Euro 2008 showcased a side that seemed to be driven much more by professional, global ambition, than by regional differentiation. The team was able to assembe around a single footballing language that made sense not only to them, but to the world.

Laurent Dubois, an avid football fan and historian at Duke University, speaks about the idea of football and the French empire in the 20th century, his study Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France culminating with a discussion of the impact of the World Cup triumph of 1998 on society and politics. Among other things, the triumph (and the run) of the epic ‘98 French team generated a maelstrom of political and social debate that went down to the bone of French identity.

The fact that the team was composed of an unprecedented mix of ethnic backgrounds, mostly descending from the French colonies, was a source of contention during their famous run. At the same time, the French victory created a platform for unification, in which the idea of France gloriously embraced post-colonial realities. A once homogeneous identity became multicolored, and under its figurehead Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, realized the possibilities of a truly race-less society.

And yet, Soccer Empire also brings up the question of how long such a feelgood moment lasts before society reverts to its previous patterns, moving on to other, perhaps more immediate concerns.

In the Spanish case, it would be fascinating to see how the politics of autonomous communites play out alongside the progress of the national team. What would happen to the vociferously separatist contingents from the Basque Country and Catalonia? More importantly, what would happen in terms of the public opinion of the masses who follow football, whose opinions are not always represented by their most vocal politicians even in areas with anti-Spanish nationalist ambitions?

Unification seems like a naïve ideal, especially in the context of what many will consider merely a sport, a diversion. Nonetheless, one cannot negate the reality that this sport is a phenomenon resulting from innumberable cultural conditions, and is an important part of the social fabric, occupying not just stadiums, but imaginations and everything that derives from that. Ideas about masculinty, sex, discipline, beauty, violence, and so forth, pass through and are perpetuated by the global game.

For the Spanish team, while we cannot predict the impact they will have on politics and society in general in Spain should they do well, we can certainly know for sure that a deep Spanish run will certainly bring the footballing public a great deal of joy.

Twelve Ways to Improve the World Cup, Part II

June 13th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

7.  (rejected by the editors) Group of [Literal] Death. Much like the traditional group of death, only actual death is the feature. The teams in this group will compete for the Ultimate Prize: human life.

8. Star Ball. Much like the famous “star” token in Super Mario Brothers, this addition to the game would grant superpowers to the attacking player with the ball, via an instant injection of sugar, caffeine, and fast-action steroids. In addition to additional power, endurance, and speed, the player receiving the Star Ball would also be granted absolute impunity for 35 seconds.

9. Pro Wrestling-Style Pitch Invasions. Taking a cue from WWF, this update to the legendary FIFA rulebook would open up a multitude of possibilities, including but not limited to: players from one team invading a match in which other rivals are playing, and scoring against their principal enemies; masked player wearing the number “0″ suddenly joining in the action to sabatoge a boring deadlock; players’ wives doing things such as tripping their enemies during counterattacks. Could also lead to other wrestling-style innovations, such as getting FIFA administrators involved in the story line (for example, Maradona bitch-slapping Sepp Blatter after gate-crashing the opening ceremony).

10. Opening Kick–for Keeps. In an attempt to pander to the American market, FIFA introduces an opening penalty kick taken by a head of state or other celebrity or dignitary. Each half begins with a penalty kick from a randomly chosen world leader or reality television star, with the resulting goal counting.

11. BabyCup. Since their are little kids out on the pitch lining up with the teams anyways, why not let them play against each other as well? This mini-Cup would attract sponsors as well as finally attract the elusive soccer-Mom market in the United States.

12. GreenCup. For World Cups played in wealthy Western nations, the GreenCup rule will allow players from less wealthy nations to earn GreenCards or other forms of permanent residency depending on how well they perform. This update to the format would ensure that this small-team attitude of “for us, making it this far is like winning” is abolished.

Twelve Ways to Improve the World Cup, Part I

June 13th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Given the drabness of the opening weekend of World Cup matches, we offer the following suggestions on improving the Big Tournament.


1. The Predator Drone Ball. Taking technological advancement and the Jabulani to next level, this new and literally world-conquering ball from Adidas would be lighter, faster, rounder, and equipped with an iPhone GPS, piloting itself using the shake-to-shuffle feature, as well as high-powered explosives. A normal shot would be converted not only into perhaps a thunderous goal, but also into a potential international incident and declaration of war.

2. Phone-A-Legend. During crucial free kicks or penalties, teams are given the option to phone one of their nation’s all-time greats to come and take the kick for them. Only usable once per match, this new feature would open up the proverbial can of worms regarding drug tests for such Legends, especially during Argentina matches (obligatory Maradona joke fulfilled).

3. South African Lion. All World Cup stadiums in South Africa to be equipped with a free-ranging, real lion. Not clear as of yet whether this will actually make for a better match, but it would give the issue of the man-beast struggle more attention.

4. Non-Lethal Mines. These devices could have various functions, ranging from your basic explosion of tar and feathers (should improve the ratings amongst 1-4 year olds) to a trap door into a digital virtual reality dimension in which the trapped player will have to use a Nintendo Wii controller to fight Bowser in order to return to the match (should increase the ratings for 12-16 year olds.

5. The BP Butterfingers Halftime Ball. This ball would be introduced at halftime, and greased with industrial, petroleum-based lubricants to encourage more shots on goal as well as consciousness about green energy.

6. The Slanted Field. Much like in miniature golf, the slanted field would add a special advantage to the downhill team, and encourage spectacular skill shots. Optionally, the field could be slanted as much as 45 degrees and incorporate a windmill at the top of the penalty area.

Categories: World Cup Tags: ,

World Cup Diary : Day 2, Part II

June 12th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Argentina 1- Nigeria 0

Earlier I predicted Maradona’s second coming: “Maradona comes on, taking advantage of an archaic and little-known FIFA loophole, smoking a cigar that Fidel gave him, and scores a hat-trick: one with his left pinky, and the other two from free kicks deep in his own half.”

Sadly, this did not happen, though, as Amy Lawrence at the Guardian points out, he was, to a great extent the center of attention (the fashionistas amongst us would have noted his spiffy suit, interestingly buttoned only at the bottom button, in a nod to Southeast Asian style [?]).

The match itself was a slight improvement over the South Korea- Greece from earlier, which tasted even more bitter given my early rising for the occasion. Nonetheless, Argentina looked more than sloppy, and while Nigeria were shambolic, they could have even nabbed a goal or two had they not been so dreadful anywhere near the opposing area. The Argentines will have to solidify things before the second round to stand a chance.

Anthem Ratings

Another disappointment, as the two national anthems sounded like they were from some early 90’s Nintendo sports game, though the positive angle was that it certainly brought back fond memories of playing “Ice Hockey” with my little brother. Call it another Draw.

Politically Correct Pick

This win would have to go to Argentina, who, though far from being 100% perfect in the eyes of GooHLs (Good Honest Liberals), have at the very least elected a woman president despite their history of repressive dictatorship (and winning the ‘78 World Cup under those circumstances). Nigeria might have a way to go, not least because of the steady stream of ridiculously stupid scam emails that I receive daily from within their borders.

Ewe Ess A 1 — Perfidious Albion 1

At last, an interesting tie in this World Cup, not only for its political background but also for the fact that it was a reasonably attractive fixture.

Now for more important things…

Vuvuezala Watch

The maddening drone must slowly become integrated into my consciousness, as when I left the house to pick up a twelve pack, my subconscious felt like it was being pursued by a metaphorical horde of devil-wasps from Hell.

Anthem Ratings

“God Save the Queen” is as hard an act as there is to follow. However, several factors unbeknowst to me sucked out some of the oomph normally provided by the Ingerland supporters. The Star Spangled Banner was a firm response, though possibly because it was transmitted with more volume by the American broadcast.