Wednesday 17 January 2018

Eamon Sweeney: Be prepared to shelter from flood of nonsense at World Cup

World Cup Man is right - that lad wouldn't last long in Semple Stadium. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
World Cup Man is right - that lad wouldn't last long in Semple Stadium. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

It's World Cup time again. That means it's time to celebrate but also to beware. It will be very difficult to go through the tournament without encountering World Cup Man, a creature with an opinion on every facet of the finals, most of them wrong and all of them hackneyed. In a civilised society World Cup Man would be made wear a hood, ring a bell and cry, "unclean, unclean," for the duration of the tournament.

Instead, whether working as a pundit, watching the game in the pub or merely striking up an apparently innocent conversation on the street, he is free to wreak havoc.

As a public service, here are the favourite clichés of World Cup Man (WCM) and the necessary retorts to scare him away, as he generally doesn't like being contradicted. Though, should anyone use three or more of these arguments in the one conversation or match analysis, it's probably best to call the guards.

1 There should be more Premier League referees at the World Cup finals. Early in the tournament some referee from a country WCM is unable to find on a map, Djamel Haimoudi of Algeria perhaps or Carlos Alfredo Vera of Ecuador, will make a minor mistake. WCM will be straight out of the blocks wondering why refs from little countries like these get to officiate in the tournament.

Isn't it nuts that FIFA only allow one referee from each country? And even though he's spent most of the season just gone complaining about the terrible standard of refereeing in the Premier League he'll suggest that it should have half a dozen or so men in black at this World Cup

The problem with this is that in the last three World Cups the worst performance of the tournament has come from a Premier League referee. Graham Poll's sequence of bizarre decisions which cost Italy victory against Croatia in 2002 was followed by his failure four years later to realise that the two yellow cards he'd shown to Croatia's Josip Simunic against Australia should have resulted in a red.

And then came Howard Webb's timelessly bad display in the 2010 final. Would the World Cup really be improved by the addition of Mark Clattenburg, Andre Marriner and Mike Dean? Because at recent tournaments had FIFA plumped for refs from some remote atoll where football had only recently been discovered they couldn't have done any worse than the English ones.

2 The African teams are defensively naïve. Defenders from every continent commit howlers in the World Cup but only mistakes by African defenders are regarded as evidence of a general naivete encompassing the continent.

This would seem to proceed from pundits making the lazy generalisation that African teams, in reality made up largely of players from top European leagues, consist of lads plucked from the kraal and the savannah to face the bewildering sophistication of Western football.

The same kind of generalisation usually afflicts coverage of the African Nations Cup where we are exhorted to watch out for happy go lucky, acrobatic, athletic feats unfamiliar to our jaded Western eyes. The competition then proceeds to give us a series of defensive struggles dour enough to have Helenio Herrera tangoing in his grave. It's usually a lack of attacking flair rather than defensive disorganisation which puts paid to African hopes. But the old 'naïve' line will get trotted out ad nauseam this time as well.

3 Nobody in the USA cares about the World Cup. World Cup Man is very fond of a statistic culled from an episode of World Wide Sport seen at 4.0 in the morning some time back in the '90s that in America soccer is actually less popular than woodchuck wrangling and swamp volleyball. It is an article of faith with him that nobody in America knows the tournament is on.

In fact soccer is the third most popular participation sport in the USA behind basketball and baseball. And even MLS, which World Cup Man regards as something Robbie Keane invented to get out of doing the decent thing and spending his final years at Scunthorpe United or Oldham Athletic, has the third highest average attendance of any American sports league and the seventh highest average attendance of any soccer league worldwide.

They know it's on. The last World Cup final was watched by 24.3 million of them on telly. And the national team has made it out of the group stages three times since 1994, which is one better than Ireland. So spare us with the hilarious 'Soccerball' routine.

4 We should all support England. Of all the bores in this country none is as irritating as the World Cup Man who thinks we should all support England. He is entitled, of course, to support who he likes but does he have to go on about it so much? The problem is that the proponent of supporting England doesn't think he's just making a decision to support a football team, he believes he is actually taking an historic step along the lines of Willy Brandt asking for forgiveness in Warsaw or Anwar Sadat visiting Jerusalem.

When he lashes into the rest of us for our tribal refusal to follow his lead, WCM visualises an Invisible Englishman who is nodding his head and saying, "Good man Pat. I can't stand the rest of them but you're my kind of Irishman." But the thing is that the English couldn't give a stuff who we support. They even have their own pet rivalry, wishing defeat on Germany every time the old enemy play. It's a harmless and light-hearted bit of fun, as is our own collective set on England. Lighten up son.

5 This new ball is very difficult for goalkeepers. Another World Cup finals, another new ball. This time it's the Brazuca. And as sure as eggs are eggs, any mistake made by a goalkeeper will be blamed on the new invention. It will "move around in the air," and "have a deceptive flight". It will "give free-kick experts a much better chance from distance".

This sends WCM into a frenzy of disgust. Why can't they stop fiddling with the game? They had four years to get this ball right and it's making a joke out of things? Then a couple of weeks in when the results actually start to matter and people have become interested in the actual football, everyone will forget about the Brazuca. Its aerodynamic inconsistencies and 'keeper-beguiling quirks will magically disappear and no one will give out about the official ball of the World Cup again till the first week of the 2018 World Cup finals.

6 RTE have the best World Cup panellists. I suppose, given that our national team is never going to win anything, we need something to boast about. If we're at the tournament, it's that we have the best supporters in the world. If we're not, it's that we have the best television pundits. WCM doesn't know why anyone would watch that rubbish on BBC or ITV when there's 'real analysis' on RTE.

Other stations fall for the hype but only Giles, Dunphy and Brady can cut through the bullshit and notice, for example, that Cristiano Ronaldo isn't much of a footballer. Dunphy's declaration at half-time in the 1986 quarter-final between Argentina and England that Diego Maradona was going nowhere with those long runs is the kind of thing which has made RTE essential finals viewing. Whether it's Bill O'Herlihy reciting a statistic from a spoof website or Dunphy not noticing that the Spanish national anthem has no words in it, RTE truly has no equal.

7 Miscellaneous. Ireland would have won the 2002 World Cup if Roy Keane wasn't sent home. . . That lad wouldn't last long in Semple Stadium . . . The Russians are very well drilled . . . The foreign teams don't like the high ball . . . there's discontent in the Dutch camp . . . the Germans don't have much flair . . . England will have more fighting spirit than the opposition . . . Isn't it fierce that the likes of Sweden had to stay at home when Honduras are in it . . . That guy wouldn't last long in Thomond Park . . . Whatever about the pre-tournament problems the host nation is united behind the team . . . What are you on about? He wasn't sent home, he deserted his country.

Be careful out there.


Cruyff stole my heart forever in summer of '74

Perhaps it was hearing that my little nephew Ferdia is assiduously filling a World Cup sticker album which made me think of how magical my first finals seemed. Because I had one of those albums too, with thicker paper than you get these days and a picture of the brand new trophy they'd be playing for in West Germany on the front. Not as nice looking as the Jules Rimet Trophy which Brazil got to keep after winning it for the third time in 1970, said my father.

The 1974 World Cup turned me into a football fan. I'd seen a couple of FA Cup finals on the telly and a few Sligo Rovers games in the Showgrounds, but I wasn't let stay up for Match of the Day so the sheer array of live matches and their dazzling quality was like being transported to some enchanted land.

It's funny to think of it now but the general consensus among the grown-ups was that 1974 had been a huge disappointment. They were spoiled by their memories of the previous tournament and blissfully unaware that there would never be another one as good.

Unfamiliar with Brazil 1970 and Pele, I was utterly beguiled by Holland and Johan Cruyff. When I first saw him do that famous turn, shaping to pass the ball across the field and then dragging it behind him with his instep to leave the defender bamboozled it had the force of a religious revelation. I must have fallen down hundreds of times in the back garden trying to repeat it. His volley against Brazil in the semi-final, leaping through the air with one leg outstretched to make contact in a kind of kung-fu manoeuvre which left Leao helpless was another suggestion of football's infinite plastic possibilities.

The other team which entranced me were Poland, whose 1974 campaign seems unjustly forgotten now. I remember their 2-1 win over Italy vividly, in particular the heroics of the powerful Andrzej Szarmach and the speedy Grzegorz Lato up front and a blonde colossus of a centre-back who went by the unforgettable name of Jerzy Gorgon. Then there were Ruben Ayala, a flying winger from Argentina and West Germany's Paul Breitner who buried a ferocious drive past the Chilean 'keeper in the very first World Cup game I ever saw, two swashbucklers whose prodigious hair would not have been out of place on one of the front men from the glam rock bands who dominated Top of the Pops at the time.

West Germany also had Gerd Muller who my father explained was "an opportunist". This meant that he didn't do very much except score goals which didn't look very good but came about because he was "in the right place at the right time". Muller seemed an ominous presence. Scotland were the choice of Irish fans but they went out early and I preferred Sweden, who for a brief glorious spell looked about to beat the West Germans in the knock-out stages thanks to a spectacular volley from a striker named Ralf Edstrom. Ralf also had an impressive barnet. Hair was a big thing in 1974.

The West Germans came back and beat Sweden and then set about showing me that while football had a lot do with fantasy it was ultimately rooted in reality. First they got rid of the Poles 1-0, the goal coming from Muller who was in the right place at the right time. As he was to score the winner in the final against Holland, turning and putting a scuffy shot past Dutch 'keeper Jan Jongbloed who seemed close enough to save it. So close that I immediately dashed out and replayed the game, giving Holland the victory they thoroughly deserved. But I knew it wouldn't do, and that was the first time I cried over a football match, weeping for the Johans, Cruyff and Neskeens.

Forty years on, I'll be looking at my 11th World Cup finals. The grown-up cynical part of me will note the negativity, the cheating and the fact that the tournament goes on way too long. But the kid who became converted by Cruyff and his turn is still here too. And there will be nights when I watch it through his eyes and think of all the children who are having their first World Cup.

Lucky kids. Lucky me. Lucky us.


The team that's been to hell and back

When Ireland don't make the World Cup finals, some of us cast around for a team to adopt, one in which we develop a special interest for reasons of our own.

I have a few candidates this time; Colombia because they've qualified for the first time since the 1990s when their great team was unnerved by the violence pervading the country and failed to do themselves justice; Cameroon because of Joseph Ndo and his contribution to Sligo Rovers; and Nigeria because I've had so many conversations with taxi drivers about their prospects I feel I know the team well.

But if there's one team who should strike a chord with neutrals it's Bosnia-Herzegovina. Irish fans will appreciate the achievement of a small nation which has managed to qualify with a population of just 3.8 million (only Uruguay is smaller). But supporters everywhere should be moved by the journey the team and its players have made to get to Brazil.

During the Siege of Sarajevo which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996 and cost over 10,000 lives, a kid from the city travelled around with coaches and friends to play futsal competitions. They would shelter behind the rubble of the bombed city and watch out for snipers. The threat was very real, UNICEF reckon that 40 per cent of Sarejevo's children had been subjected to sniper fire and around 1,500 of them were killed.

The kid kept going to his futsal games all the same. His family home had been destroyed so they lived with his grandparents. One day as he was about to go to a local playground his mother had a premonition and kept him indoors. Soon afterwards it was hit by a shell and many children were killed. It must have been an extraordinarily traumatic experience for the kid and nobody would have expected him to grow up to become one of the best known strikers in Europe, play a major part in the winning of two Premier League titles and provide the goals which brought the country that emerged from the Bosnian War into its first World Cup finals.

But he did. Because the kid was Edin Dzeko. The Manchester City player is not alone among the Bosnian squad in being affected by the conflict. Midfielder Haris Medunjanin fled to Holland at the age of seven with his mother. His father stayed behind and was killed. Asmir Begovic was four when his family left and sought asylum in Germany before being taken in by Canada where he grew up. Lazio's Senad Lulic grew up in Switzerland after his family fled the war while his midfield colleagues Miralim Pjanic and Senad Salihovic grew up in Luxembourg and Germany where their familes fetched up just before the fighting started.

In fact a majority of the Bosnian team grew up abroad, perhaps not surprisingly given that 2.2 million people were displaced during the conflict, the biggest movement of people in Europe since the end of World War 2. It seemed at the time an intractable conflict and the hatreds engendered appeared unlikely to disappear for many generations.

But, although it is easy to exaggerate the effect sport has on such situations, the 1-0 victory over Litihuania which saw Bosnia qualify for the World Cup saw Muslims, Serbs and Croats celebrate together and the likes of Begovic and manager Safet Susic have spoken of their desire to bring unity to the country by their performances. It can only be a good thing if the team qualifies from Group F where Bosnia is pitted against Nigeria, Argentina and Iran.

There is an awful lot at stake. And that's why we should all root for Edin, Asmir and the lads. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the team that really has been to hell and back.

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