Monday, August 18, 2014

The Fault in Our "Stars"

Below is a series of my thoughts after our latest debacle in England. (It contains mostly links to my previous posts, don't click on them if you don't want to read them).
  1. When India won the world cup in 2011, I knew that it was going to be all downhill from here. I just didn't know how steep the incline would be. 
  2. I thought that two consecutive 4-0 losses to England in 2011 and Austraila in 2011-12 were the real low points. I went through the five stages of grief then
  3. The home defeat to England rankled somewhat too, but India were bang in the middle of the transition - the writing was on the wall for Gambhir, Sehwag and Tendulkar. And India got out bowled by England in India - which was troubling. 
  4. The home 4-0 win against Australia was pleasantly surprising but this was an Australian quite in turmoil and I was in a celebratory mood
  5. However, just around that time, "Enthu-gate" was happening and all hell was breaking loose. We got to know a little bit about ourselves then too. 
  6. India had rarely played great cricket since the world cup win. The Champions Trophy win however was a pleasant and happy moment in between. 
  7. The short two test tours to South Africa and New Zealand were the start of a new, post Sachin era and the team created opportunities to win 3 out of the 4 matches, but ending up losing 1 and drawing 2 of those matches. Eventually both series were lost 1-0, leading me to ask lots of questions
  8. Then this England tour happened, we found ourselves 1-0 up after the 2nd test, and then put up three incredibly poor performances, each one worse than the previous. It was incredible, but sadly after a while absolutely predictable. 
  9. Maybe 3-4 years ago, I had penned a tongue in cheek post and kept it in my drafts. Then just for fun I went ahead and put it up in Aug 2012. After the promising displays of batting in South Africa and New Zealand, I had thought that the answers to the letter and the challenge in it had come, but this England tour has however changed the answers. It does not feel good.
I am not one of those that likes judging the character of players based on their performances. Fighting spirit and all that are good to read, but I am not really sure - one can say that for example Kohli lacked application or fighting spirit or courage during his horror series. Similarly I don't like to think that lack of hunger is a valid point. Sure, these cricketers are rich, and don't have to worry about earning a livelihood like the players 20-30 years ago, but that can't be the reason why they would be casual or not care - right ?

 I can't make sense of many things. For example: when we used to play shorter test series, typically we would lose the first match and then sometimes gradually improve and often lamented saying if only the series would have been longer than 2/3 tests, we would have won a match(es) . And yet this time, we started off all right and progressively got worse and worse each day literally after the 2nd test.
  • Are India selecting the best XI every time they play tests ?
  • Do we know our best team and combination ? Do we know who are our best 6 batsmen and best 5 bowlers ? 
  • I understand fast bowling will never be our strong suit, but why have we stopped producing good spinners ? Actually since when has India producing high quality spinners in the domestic game ? The 2000s, the 90s or even before that ?
  • How much longer should Duncan Fletcher and this coaching staff be persisted with ?
  • Is MSD going to improve his test captaincy ? Can anyone else do a better job than him, given the poor bowling strength of India. Is there an alternative available ? Do we not make changes because there is no obvious alternative ?
  • Is IPL adversely impacting the Indian test team ? Is it adversely impacting the test team but benefiting the ODI and T20 teams ?
  • Do enough fans care about test success ? If we had to choose between being a great test team and an average ODI team or vice-versa - which one would we choose ?
  • Given the state of cricket and the quality of our players, should India just concentrate on ODIs/ T20s and all of accept that playing good test cricket is beyond this current bunch ?
I don't know really. I suspect we have a lot more pain in store for us, before things get better. 
Harvey Dent said: The night is darkest before the dawn. It's a dark night all right. but MSD has probably lived long enough to be the villain now. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Final Whistle

The 2014 World Cup ended last Sunday (Monday early morning actually IST) and what a tournament it was. My concluding thoughts in random order:
1) Germany was probably the best "team" of the tournament and while they had their luck in the final, their victory was the culmination of superb planning and execution of a long-term strategy of developing technically sound, talented footballers who play cohesive football. Barney Ronay called this German triumph a victory of "intelligent design".
2) The final itself, despite just yielding a single goal in 120 minutes was rather good. Certainly it was a far better match than the Spain - Netherlands clash in 2010. Argentina and Messi had 3 great opportunities to score, but Higuain, Messi himself and later Palacio all missed their moments. Mario Gotze however took his chance in extra time with great aplomb to score a superb winner for Germany. Germany themselves suffered due to injuries - Khedira got injured during the warm-ups while his replacement in the line-up Kramer also got injured very early on. But they adapted as they went along. Bastian Schweinsteiger was brilliant anchoring the midfield. Argentina perhaps were just marginally better on the day, but it was Germany who took their chance and won the cup.
3) Lionel Messi, rather unfortunately for him, was adjudged the best player of the tournament, unfortunate because it gave his detractors another opportunity to take potshots at him. He may, or may not have been the best player of the tournament, but he was certainly not far from the top. And this article captures quite beautifully perhaps why we are not fully appreciating his genius here and now.
4) There were 171 goals this world cup, here's all of them ranked ! Great memories all. It may or may not have been the best world cup ever, but it certainly had the best/ most fun group stage ever. The world cup was thrilling before the knock-out stages started.
5) I really enjoyed the quality of writing throughout the World Cup. The likes of Jonathan Wilson, Barney Ronay, Raphael Honigstein, Gabriel Marcotti and perhaps most of all Bryan Phillips made it absolutely memorably. This by Bryan Phillips on the World Cup coming to an end - perhaps just summed it up the best.
6) Brazil's spectacular capitulation in the semi-final certainly left lot of people distraught in the host nation and their supporters world wide. But fans certainly had a great time and of all the things out there - I found nothing more spectacular than this video of Argentine fans, taking over a food court in Brazil, singing "that song" !



7) And finally, I had a great time following the world cup with friends - in person, office and of course online. Cannot wait for the next one.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It takes two to tango ! Semi finals review and Final preview

We are down to the last match now. What a tournament it has been ! Difficult to remember another World Cup which has thrown up so many incredible stories. But before a brief preview of the finals, here's a look back at what happened in the two epoch defining semi-finals.

Brazil 1 - Germany 7.  It was quite clearly the most shocking scoreline in the history of football. It left so many of us, and not just Brazilians, dazed for a very long time. During the match, I felt this was the worst collapse by a home team in a semi-final, since India's collapse vs Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in 1996. I had expected Germany to win, but not like this. A lot of post-mortems have been written, but perhaps this is the most erudite one of them all was this by David Goldbratt. The myth of Brazil, Joga Bonito and the beautiful game had been well and truly busted. Before the World Cup began, I had done some research on Brazil & Argentina, their football culture, tradition and the rivalry here, and the thing about Brazil is the conflict between Futeball Arte vs Futebal Force - the beautiful game vs the football of force and power. Clearly, since 1982 (2002 notwithstanding), Brazil has clearly moved towards physical, pragmatic, functional football, but then they have reached a new nadir now. This is the sad summary. 
Intolerably Cruelty
Kolkata refuses to identify this Brazil
And what about Ze Germans ? Magnificent in their ruthlessness on the night, and more on them later.

Argentina 0 - Netherlands 0 (Arg win on penalties).  After the events of Belo Horizonte, there was no way that either of the two teams would take any risks and so it proved. The game was dominated by the defenses and the defensive midfielders. Messi, for once was completely marked out and Robben too had minimal impact. Javier Mascherano (and Ron Vlaar too) was the outstanding player of the game and it was this epic tackle very, very late into the game, which prevented a Robben shot on goal and saved Argentina's world cup campaign.
Putting the ditch in Last Ditch
The match went to penalties. Louis van Gaal couldn't bring on Tim Krul this time and Sergio Romero's heroics in goal brought Argentina into their first final since 1990. The Dutch have had a good tournament this time, Arjen Robben has been superb (and after defeating Brazil 3-0 in the playoff, they deserve the 3rd place in the tournament).

Germany - Argentina : The Final Preview

Germany: German football has been on the up ever since Klinsmann and Joachim Loew took charge of the national team before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. They have reached the S/F in 2006, losing to Italy; Finals of the 2008 Euro losing to Spain; S/ F in 2010 World Cup, losing to Spain; and the S/F of Euro 2010 - this time losing to Italy again. This can be looked at in two ways - great consistency or lacking the killer instinct to actually win the whole thing. For a generation of fabulous footballers, who play a very nice, attractive brand of football - history beckons. In Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Neuer, Muller, Klose, Ozil, Kroos, Hummels and co, this is a fabulous group of footballers - clearly the best overall squad among all the teams. Here Honigstein writes about this group finding the right balance, while Marcotti here on what is needed for one last push.

Argentina: This really is the nightmare scenario of all Brazilians. Having to witness an Argentina - Germany final after getting thrashed by Germany in the semis is like having a cricket world cup in India with India thrashed by Australia in the semis and seeing Pakistan reach the final too. This is that bad. In any case, a team which started off as a one man team, has now grown in stature and confidence and is playing with incredible belief. Messi took them through to the quarter finals but from then on, the rest of the team has stepped up. Javier Mascherano has been immense, Higuain has played well in patches and should Angel di Maria get fit to play - this would be an even more equal contest. Their defense has also held steady and they have turned themselves into a very hard team to beat. But really, it is all about Messi. As Jonathan Wilson writes, even when he doesn't play well - he occupies two to three players of the opposition thereby giving breathing space for this team-mates to play.

Clearly Alexando Sabella's Argentina lack the fluency and overall control that the Germans have demonstrated, but their grim resolve and fighting spirit to win close matches makes them worthy contenders. It is easy to make the narrative of the final as a match-up between "The Best Team in the World" vs "The Team with the Best Player in the World", but Germany vs Argentina is a little more than that. Germany would like to finally, go out and win the cup, that has eluded this "golden generation" of uber-talented players. There really is no great fun in being the nearly men of world football for five straight major tournaments running. And Lionel Messi and Argentina await them - waiting for the right moments to seize in a winner take-all contest. I suspect the match could be decided on fine margins. Will the Germans decide to man-mark Messi ? Probably not - and not out of their ego, but rather their belief in their overall team game. And if they don't do that, perhaps that will provide Messi and his team, that window of opportunity - to make the difference.

This has been a fabulous tournament in general. The knock-out stages, barring the blow-out at Belo Horizonte, has been extremely tight though. A memorable final, with goals scored by both teams, would be a fitting end to this edition of the World Cup. May the best team win !
It's Up For Grabs Now !
PS: Bonus Reading 1) This wonderful post by an Argentine journalist on why she is going back home to watch the final ; 2) The Best Preview of the final by Brian Phillips: Man vs Machine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

And then there were four

Last time, when we took a break, after the group stages, so many of us were saying what a fun World Cup it was. Well, the knock out stages so far have been a lot more dark and grim. The World Cup just become very, very serious indeed. Here's a quick recap:

The Round of Sixteen

Brazil v Chile: Rarely, if ever, have I seen a more frenzied atmosphere at the start of a match...... Watch this clip to see how the players and more amazingly the little kids who are the mascots - belt out the Brazilian national anthem at the start of the match. The match was tough, physical and demanding with Chile pressing as hell, and Brazil responding in kind. It went down the penalties and a tearful Julio Cesar emerged winner for Brazil sending the host nation into immense relief. And while Chile lost, I think I saw the best penalty ever from one of their players.
Colombia v Uruguay: James (called HAMEZ) Rodriguez starred for the Colombians including scoring probably the goal of the tournament, to overcome a lackluster Uruguay missing the bite of Suarez in attack.
Netherlands vs Mexico: Mexico played the better, and led the match for a large part, but Robben inspired Netherlands to a terrific comeback to sneak through. While the debate rages on, Robben's diving, the match which saw the first official water break in a world cup match, also showcased once more the tactical acumen of Louis van Gaal - who as Jonathan Wilson points out here, is compromising on idealism to win matches.
Costa Rica v Greece: Probably the most low key clash in the Round of Sixteen, but this developed into a classic as both played out an interesting draw 1-1 after FT and ET, with the Costa Ricans led by their brilliant keeper Keylor Navas - one of the heroes of the world cup - winning the penalty shoot out.
France v Nigeria: Both teams played quite well, in this reasonably entertaining game, but the French class eventually proved too much for the Nigerians as they ran out 2-0 winners within regulation time.
Germany v Algeria: The Germans, still struggling on their best combination and where to play Phillip Lahm, struggled against an impressive Algerian team. Both teams failed to score in 90, but the Germans eventually prevailed 2-1 in Extra Time.
Argentina v Switzerland: A still dysfunctional Argentina, rode their luck, especially in the first half to edge out a dramatic late, late winner into injury time, then rode some more luck before the final whistle to win against the gallant Swiss team. Messi once more though, played .... rather well.
 Belgium v USA: Tim Howard was magnificent in goal for the USA, but still could not prevent Belgium as another match went into extra time,

And so, the round of sixteen saw, 2 matches going into penalties and a further three into extra time. One other was settled deep into stoppage time of regulation time. The matches were tight, and the free goal-scoring of the group stages became a distant memory. But wait, the world cup was about the get a lot more darker now.

Quarter Finals: And so we arrived at the last eight, in a World Cup where you could not make sense

France v Germany: It never materialized into the classic that so many of us expected it to be. The French midfield, so effective till now, got smothered by the Germans completely. While the Germans could not translate their dominance into more goals - this was a rather comfortable 1-0. Best part about this match-up ? This cartoon ...
Brazil v Colombia: Compared to the rather tepid previous match, this match was a sight to behold in terms of its physicality, and sheer violence as it appeared to me - watching way past midnight. In the end, Brazil got through, but after paying a huge cost - in terms of losing their talisman Neymar to injury for the rest of the World Cup. While one view says, they reaped what they had sown, in terms of their physical approach and constant fouling, there is also an alternate view - which says that the allegations against them might not be factually accurate. It was the end of the road for both Neymar and HAMEZ Rodriguez as the star of the world cup so far bid goodbye but not before giving another superb performance and goal.
Massive Respect
Argentina v Belgium: Argentina played rather well, with Gonzalo Higuain hitting some form and scoring the winning goal against Belgium - a team that did not quite add up to be the sum of their parts. Messi was quietly understated in his brilliance - but this pass to Angel Di Maria will remain in memory for a long time.  The sad part is that it appears Di Maria might have got injured after attempting a shot post that pass, and Argentina will miss him badly if he does not recover on time. And this pic of mascots wishing Messi good luck before the match is quite some sight.
Embedded image permalink
When you meet your idol !
Netherlands vs Costa Rica: This wasn't expected to be that difficult for the Dutch, but the phenomenal spirit and organization of Los Ticos made them worthy opponents as they prevented the Dutch from scoring for 120 minutes. Louis van Gaal's substitution to bring in Tim Krul just before the penalty shoot-out however proved to be inspirational as the Dutch saw off the brave Costa Ricans - just about - in the penalties. The last of the underdogs - thus departed - undefeated during regulation and extra time having played against - Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece and the Netherlands - a phenomenal achievement.

The Semi-Finals: The Sign of Four
And so we are down to the final four. As big names go, this is one of the most blockbuster semi-final line-ups of all time. My friend Suhel nicely summed up the history of the two semi-finals and the possible final match-up in this tweet.


It is quite clear that with four big names - history will be repeated and made when the semi-finals and the final take place. And curiously enough, this is the first time ever that both Brazil and Argentina have qualified for the semi-final.

Brazil v Germany: The question really is will a Neymar (& a suspended Thiago Silva) less Brazil be able to rely on a passionate crowd and a super-charged atmosphere to see off a German team - which is beginning to control matches. For all the talk of Samba football and Joga Bonito, the Brazillians have played AND won ugly before, and they are prepared to do it once again as they take on this German side filled with players of a golden generation who must also prepare to win at all cost, or else be remembered as eternal runners-ups.  The stakes have rarely been higher. In a world cup, which has gone dark and bloody - like a George R R Martin book, this one will be A Song of Ice and Fire.

Argentina v Netherlands: If the Brazil-Germany match is a battle of the ice cool Germans vs the Fiery Brazilians - this one in GoT terms is A Clash of Kings. Messi v Robben - two of the best players in the tournament and indeed in the world have largely carried their teams through till here. There is enough and more fire-power in both teams, but stop their two main players and the task will be a lot easier. Messi has played a lot deeper this tournament - more like a classical Argentine no 10, than the false 9 position that he often plays at Barca, and the focus will be squarely on him as he leads Argentina into the unfamiliar place of a World Cup Semi-final - their first in, believe it or not, 24 years. And what about the Dutch, we really don't know what to make of them. While I had earlier linked a piece of Louis van Gaal, compromising ideology for success, there are some who are saying that this is the most Dutch team of the last 40 years. The key being their improvisation.

What do I predict ? Nothing. A Brazil - Argentina final is the most scary thought ever... but somehow I don't think it will happen.... We are still missing a truly great team to emerge from this World Cup, but we can continue to hope for at least a truly great performance, or at least a truly great match.

And so to summarize the tournament, with once again some of the best pieces that I came across. Firstly, more than ever, this world cup has become a tournament for individuals and individual brilliance. But for all the brilliant men, there are unsung heroes too who must be celebrated, here are four of them. This has been a world cup of keepers' too, here is a Top 10 list of super custodians. And finally, this World Cup started off brilliantly, but it may be in danger of petering out, unless the last 3 matches give us some classics.

PS: If you like numbers and stuff and/ or if you like Messi, this will blow your mind.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Review of the Group Stages and a Preview of the Round of 16

So, it has been rather good no ? With goals flying in from all parts and generally attacking play from most of the teams, World Cup 2014 has been as good as any that I can remember seeing. Adding teeth to the attacking play, has been Suarez's bite and all in all - it has been one unforgettable tournament so far. Here's a quick look back at each Group.
Group A: Neymar inspired his team to top of the group, but only just, as Mexico have been formidable too and came a close second. Croatia disappointed mildly, but they were unlucky in terms of refereeing vs Brazil. Cameroon far more disappointing.
Star of the show: Overshadowing the singular genius of Neymar and the outstanding Mexcian keeper Ochoa, is the The Mexican coach: Miguel Herrera - who is now an internet sensation (seen photobombing here)
Group B: The golden era of Spain, finally came to an end, as the Louis van Gaal coached Netherland thrashed them with stunning pace and precision on the counter, while Chile (still inspired from their time under Biesla) pressed them into submission. Australia, too were worthy participants as Tim Cahill probably scored the goal of the tournament so far.
Counter Strike: The Dutch mean business this time
Star of the show: Robin van Persie, Tim Cahill and Alexis Sanchez all impressed, but Arjen Robben has been an absolute sensation as he looks frighteningly unstoppable at the moment.

Group C: James Rodriquez has been probably the player of the tournament so far as the Falcao-less Colombia beat all comers playing superb football. Greece managed to sneak through in the nick of time. Drogba and his golden generation of players from Ivory Coast did not perform once again when it mattered most, while Japan too were disappointing.
A Dance with Dragons: Colombia on song
Star of the show: Yes, James Rodriquez - sublime talent.

Group D: The so called Group of Death. Had 3 big teams and one was supposed to miss out, but minnows Costa Rica had other plans. Both England and Italy lost to them and Costa Rica topped the group. And Uruguay qualified - thanks to Suarez, but also despite Suarez as Italy were bitten by him and then chewed off by Diego Godin, adding insult to injury.
JAWS
Star of the show: Young Joel Campbell of Costa Rica (and Arsenal :) ) has been a revelation.
Bonus Reading: 1) Although this came out earlier, this by Wright Thompson on Suarez is an incredible read. 2) Musa Okwonga on Suarez.

Group E: A surprisingly united and cohesive France under Didier Deschamps easily topped the group, while the Swiss played well enough in 2 out of their 3 games to finish second. Ecuador and Honduras played their part, but ultimately the two big European teams were too good for them.
Strikeforce: Karim Benzema

Star of the show: Ecuador's Enner Valencia played well as a striker, Shaqiri got a hat-trick that put the Swiss through, Valbuena and Matuidi have been superb for France in midfield, but Karim Benzema has been the real star for France so far.

Group F: All about that man, that man. Three matches played, four goals scored - three man of the match awards..... Lionel Messi - to be fair to him, has only played as well is expected of him and no more. The rest of Argentina has been largely disappointing but Messi has carried them through as group winners while Nigeria have been good at times and qualified as the second team. Iran were somewhat poor, while Edin Dzeko's Bosnia & Herzegovina got unlucky.
Messi: One man vs the world

Star of the show. Lionel Messi.

Group G: The Germans won the group, but they have not been as good as they should be - Thomas Mueller has continued from where he left off in 2010. The Portuguese and Cristiano Ronaldo could not recover from their disastrous first half vs Germany. The Ghanians played well in parts but did not win the moments that mattered, got into payment related disputes with their association and there was in-fighting in the camp, but it was plucky United States, coached by Klinsmann - that did just enough to qualify in second spot.
Star of the show: Asamoah Gyan scored goals for Ghana, but this time - it has all been about the prolific Thomas Mueller for Germany.

Group H: The Belgians were fancied to do well, and they  got the results - but 3 wins out of 3 - perhaps hides the fact that they haven't played at their best yet. Algeria kept the African flag flying high by qualifying at the expense of Capello's Russia and Korea. All in all, a low key group, so much so that a distraction by a laser pen has been causing headlines.
Algeria use their head
Star of the show: Divock Origi has been a surprising hit for Belgium, but Dries Mertens has probably been the best player on show here.

The Round of 16: So, what to expect now ? Here are my quick predictions which are bound to be wrong, mostly. In terms of logic - I am backing all eight group winners to make it to the quarter finals.
Brazil vs Chile: Brazil to go through, despite being outplayed by Chile for large parts of the game. A refereeing error could be prove to be crucial.
Columbia vs Uruguay: Suarez less Uruguay could just turn out to be a wounded tiger, but expect Colombia - the team in form to go through.
Netherlands vs Mexico: Very tough match, but expect van Gaal to come up with the tactics to open up Mexico and go through.
Costa Rica vs Greece: Who would have predicted this match up, but backing Costa Rica to continue their good form and send the Greeks back home.
France vs Nigeria: Nigeria are good going forward at times, but backing the French midfield to dominate and get the job done.
Germany vs Algeria: Now is the time for the German machine to get going, and expect Algeria to bear the brunt.
Argentina vs Switzerland: Surely, now is not the time for Argentina to go out and hence backing them (him) to beat the Swiss somehow.
Belgium vs USA: The USA will display great spirit and discipline once again, but the Belgians are a better team and expect that quality to come through.

Recommended reading: Apart from the links that I have planted in the post above at various places, I came across some great pieces during the course of the world cup so far. Here are some of my favourites - bookmarked here.This extraordinarily, brilliant piece on why Suarez is just another crazy kid, but not a bad person;  a tribute to the era of Spain by Michael Cox; a great piece by Bryan Phillips on the World Cup - Five Burning Questions for the Knock Out Rounds; a superb piece on the commentary behind Diego Maradona's goal vs England in 1986; a nice piece about the football culture in Southern Brazil; a brilliant bio of that man Socrates; and finally The American Ending: a post by Teju Cole about fairness, logic and the lack of it in football.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Angels and Demons

"Argentina or Brazil" OR "Argentina and Brazil" ? "Brazil vs Argentina" OR "Brazil and Argentina" ? Do you call the Seleção your team ?  Or is your team's name La Albiceleste ? Do you think of Brazil and Argentina automatically when you hear the words "World Cup" ? Do your thoughts instinctively turn to Argentina and Brazil when someone talks about football ? Do you support one or the other when it comes to football ? When you support one, do you automatically start hating or ridiculing the other ? Do you support Brazil because you think Pele is the greatest of them all ? Or do you believe with all your heart that Maradona is the one true God and he is the best there ever was ? What do you think about Romario ? Or Ronaldo or Ronaldinho ? Do you think Messi could be the greatest ever when it all ends ? Did your heart stop when Veron and Riquelme had the ball at their feet and looked for the pass ? Did you get up on your feet when Roberto Carlos or Rivaldo stood waiting to take a freekick ? Are you the type that gets nostalgic about Garrincha even though you never saw him play live ? Do you remember Kempes and Passarrella  or even Crespo and Batistuta ? 

Why do so many of us, from a land far, far away from the continent of South America, get so involved, so emotionally invested, in the World Cup in general and these two teams in particular ? Do Brazil and Argentina come together for us as a collective ? Do the two teams represent something together that is unique ? When we look at Argentina and Brazil do we look at these two together - versus the rest of the world ? Do we look at them as The Angels of football - playing the beautiful game vs the methodical, efficient, result oriented European football ? Or do those of us from a distance: think of Argentina vs Brazil - the contest itself - about being better than other and winning at all costs ?

What is it that comes to our mind, when we think of Brazilian football ? Chris Mann writes this in Soccerlens
Brazilian football, unlike any other cultural interpretation of a particular sport, has the ability to conjure up in one’s mind an essence of mystery, of carnival, of rhythm, of unadulterated joy and freedom.Futebol is so deeply, so passionately interwoven into the fabric of Brazilian culture that the two entities are inextricably linked, they define each other and share an intrinsic identity, an instantly recognisable global image....... The philosophy which underpins Brazilian football is, as has been demonstrated since football’s genesis in the country, based around exuberance, enjoyment and individual brilliance within the team collective. As Gilberto Freyre wrote in 1959, “The Brazilians play football as if it were a dance…for [they] tend to reduce everything to dance, work and play alike"
And what about Argentina, how do they like to play the game ? Simon Kuper (describing the logic of the mistake behind appointing Maradona as coach in 2010) explains on FT.com:
Almost every country has its own nationalist view of how its national team should play. The Argentine view was explained to me one morning in Buenos Aires in 2002 by the late, great Argentine football cartoonist and novelist Roberto Fontanarrosa. Sitting in a smoky café, in a city that was then pretty much ruined, drinking coffee at US$0.40 a cup, Fontanarrosa said that the only bit of Argentina that had consistently been first-world was its football team. It had won prizes, and played with a certain style that was somehow inherently Argentine. “Maradona could never have come from Belgium,” said Fontanarrosa.
Other things had gone wrong in Argentina – “it’s the only undeveloping country on earth,” says Jorge Valdano, Maradona’s old Argentine teammate turned writer – but the Selección almost always stood proud. Those 11 young millionaires in blue and white shirts embodied the nation, more tangible than the flag, not ridiculous like the president.
Argentines wanted the Argentine team to play Argentine football: an attacking game featuring the undersized pibes, or boys, who epitomise the national style. The pibes would play with ganas, desire, and not be mere professionals. They would love Argentina.
So there we have it, both countries want to play with great passion, imagination, to play the game which reflects their national identity. And since, this joyful Latin American style was such a contrast to how (most of ) the rest of the world  played the game, it is quite obvious that it became so popular. Add to that perhaps, a common identity of these countries being from the developing world, fighting against imperialist powers and going on to win, and it is no wonder that the popularity of these two teams is what it is.

But have they always been Angels of Beautiful Football vs the Demons of physical, functional football ? Of course not. For the debate of Futeball Arte vs Futebal Force is a long running one. And the flowing, artistic styles of football have often been curtailed for a much more pragmatic approach from time to time. 

While in 1958, the whole world celebrated Brazil and Pele winning their first ever world cup, Argentine football also changed for ever. Argentina lost a match which had far reaching consequences.  Jonathan Wilson writes here:
There they were hammered 6-1 by Czechoslovakia, and the shock changed the mentality. Through the 60s, Argentinian football became increasingly negative, culminating in Osvaldo Zubeldia's thuggish Estudiantes side, who won three straight Copas Libertadores, and beat Manchester United in a famously brutal Intercontinental Cup final.
Up until then, Argentina enjoyed great success on the pitch (in non World Cup events) playing a brand of thrilling attacking football best exemplefied by the legendary story of The Angels with Dirty Faces. Since, then, they have oscillated between the sides of darkness and light. César Luis Menotti, the coach of the 1978 world cup winning side is remembered for his side which played entertaining football, while Carlos Bilardo coached his side pragmatically to victory in 1986 and up to the finals of 1990. The team had one Diego Maradona of course to win them the games, but they were also coached by someone who was a Master of the Dark Arts - perhaps it was the pragmatism of the rest of the team which kept the opposition at bay, while allowing Maradona to flourish and win.

The story is somewhat similar too in the case of Brazil. The won three world cups  and the 1970 team is know perhaps for producing probably the greatest football the world had ever seen. And then in 1982 - they had a team which played perhaps the most beautiful football of them all - led by Zico and Socrates - a team talked about in glowing nostalgic terms - even today. But then - they came up short against Italy losing 3-2 when only a draw would have been enough to take them to the next round. As Jonathan Wilson writes here :Italy 3-2 Brazil, 1982: the day naivety, not football itself, died
It was a game, moreover, that lay on a fault-line of history. It may not have been the day that football died, but it was the day that a certain naivety in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for. 
So, Brazil and Argentina - both have had to temper their flair based, individual styles, compromise with their ideals of the beautiful game to try and achieve success. Argentina's win in 1986 (despite Maradona's individual genius) and Brazil's ugly win in 1994 are illustrations of this pragmatic approach, having worked to some extent. And the functional midfields of both the teams on display even in 2014 demonstrate the same. 

But what about the rivalry itself ? I tried to think of it in terms of how we view the India - Pakistan rivalry in cricket - and how the contest boils down to Indian batting vs Pakistani bowling. That is what defines an Indo-Pak contest. Perhaps the attack vs defense narrative doesn't quite work historically in a Brazil v Argentina contest - for both countries are supposed to play attacking football. It would perhaps get down to individual players and formations on the given day - perhaps a Messi vs Thiago Silva could decide the world cup final this time. What about style then,  even within their flair based games,  are their differences to be observed ? Very difficult for me to answer as I am no football tactics expert, but there are two distinct positions to be highlighted. And who else, but football guru Jonathan Wilson (yet again) to write about it. For Brazil it is the position of the full back and its attacking use while for Argentina it is the position of the enganche: the hook, the playmaker (Read this incredible story of Maradona's idol: Ricardo Bochini  a true master). And finally, my little reading seems to suggest that perhaps there is just that bit extra focus on individual skill and brilliance in the case of Argentina, while there is more emphasis on collective team work when it comes to Brazil.

Angels and Demons
So how do we end this ? Will Brazil play Argentina in the final this time ? Can Brazil and their fans survive a defeat at the hands of Argentina in the finals on their home turf at the Maracana ?  They certainly have struggled to get over their 1950 defeat to Uruguay, as beautifully illustrated in this brilliant NY Times feature. On the other hand, time ticks away for perhaps the greatest player of this generation - Lionel Messi, (a man Argentines are strangely ambivalent towards). Does he need to win the world cup to ascend to the highest pedestal of footballing greats, currently occupied only by Pele and Maradona ? As this blog asks: What does this World Cup mean for the legacy of Lionel Messi ?

They may have played over 150 games against each other in internationals, but to me the defining game for this rivalry is still to come. Brazil and Argentina have reached the semi finals together only once in a world cup ( in 1978). It appears that both rarely, if ever, play well together in the same tournament.  A Brazil - Argentina match in a World Cup Semi Final or Final, which lights up the footballing world and goes down as one for the ages, is still awaited. Here's hoping it happens this time.

PS: 1) For bonus reading, download this superb pdf made on the occassion of a Brazil v Argentina friendly match in New Jersey, 2012.
2) Most of the links for this blog take us to articles by Jonathan Wilson.  Reading him write about football has been an absolute pleasure.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A completely unnecessary, irrelevant and useless guide to the 2014 Football World Cup

It is FIFA World Cup time and whether you are a regular football fanatic or a once in 2 or a once in 4 year football enthusiast, it is time to get ready for the greatest show on earth.

Here is a very brief guide to the 32 teams playing the world cup and how the group phase is expected to pan out.
Group A:
Brazil:
Who are they: Basically Gods of Football. Hosts and major favourites. Land of Pele, Romario, Zico and Ronaldo (The Original Fat One) et al. Or more importantly Samba, Gisele Bundchen and Adriana Lima. Popular from Brasilia to Bhawanipur.
Star Players: Banking on a bloke named Neymar (which means Take & Hit - in Bangla) this time. Have superstar defenders in Thiago Silva and David Luiz.
Take: Can win it all, but can they handle the pressure of playing in front of their home crowd ?
World Ranking: 3

Croatia:
Who are they: Some East European country where the surnames of most people end with "ic". Disproportionately good at sports. Country of Goran Ivanisevic.
Star Players: Two of the best midfielders in the world: Luka Modric of Real Madrid, and Ivan Rakitic of Sevilla (on way to Barcelona apparently).
Take: One paper is calling them the most in-form team going into the world cup. Should go deep into the tournament.
World Ranking: 18

Mexico:
Who are they: Before Modi Wave came, we all knew of  The Mexican Wave. A country who's food has apparently inspired Taco Bell. Salma Hayek.
Star Players: No one really, other than Chicharito (cause he plays for Man Utd). However, if you are really hipsterish: try Oribe Peralta.
Take: Will give a tough fight to Croatia for the second spot in the group.
World Ranking: 20

Cameroon:
Who are they: Know nothing about them apart from the fact that they produce good footballers. And capital is Yaounde (helps in stupid GK quizzes). Roger Milla and the 1990 World Cup - remain their most famous moment.
Star Players: Samuel Eto'o.
Take: Will have to play out of their skins to qualify beyond the 1st round.
World Ranking: 56

Summary: Expect Brazil and Croatia to qualify, but Mexico and Cameroon have enough flair and quality to provide good competition, good matches and some fine goals.

Group B:
Spain:
Who are they:  Defending World Champions. Two time defending European Champions. Land of  Tiki-fucking-taka, Barca-Real Madrid, but more importantly Penelope Cruz.
Star Players: All of them. Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Ramos.............
Take: Whisper it softly, but they are probably the most successful team in history if not the best and they will not surprise anyone if they win it again.
World Ranking: 1

The Netherlands:
Who are they: The Colour Orange. Tulips, Total Football ((! ? ). Land of Cryuff, Gullit, Van Basten, Bergkamp et al. Three time losing finalists, never champions.
Star Players: The ageing trio of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are still the key for this side.
Take: They got to the final last time, by sacrificing their style for solidity, but unlikely to be similar this time. Will struggle to get past the group phase.
(Key Point: Most importantly, they are not to be called Holland - Holland is a region in the Netherlands. Do you call India - just Bengal ?)
World Ranking: 15

Chile:
Who are they: Random South American country who's name sounds like a vegetable. Gave the world Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas in 1990s. Pablo Neruda.
Star Players: Arturo Vidal who is possibly the best box to box midfielder in the world and Alexis Sanchez.
Take: Could survive this really tough group at the expense of Netherlands, only to bump into Brazil next. Fascinating team to watch.
World Ranking: 14

Australia:
Who are they: Famous sporting nation, who are awesome at Cricket, Rugby, Swimming, Tennis (once upon a time)..... err. pretty much everything other than football.
Star Players: The only real stars are on their flags. Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer if you want to stretch it.
Take: Will do well to not lose all their three group matches.
World Ranking: 62

Summary: Group B is one of the three Groups of Death. For me, Spain and Chile are most likely to qualify, but then who can rule out the Dutch. As bonus reading - this was the preview of the 2010 World Cup Final by me: Spain vs The Netherlands

Group C:
Colombia:
Who are they: Drug Mafias. The Escobars. Gave the footballing world Rene Higuata  and Carlos Valderama. Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Star Players: Their best player and striker extraordinaire Radamel Falcao is unfit and not playing the world cup which is a massive shame. Hipsters can get behind Guillermo Cuadrado and Jackson Martinez.
Take:With home continent advantage should help them progress. and good form as shown by their FIFA ranking, they are the most likely team to qualify from this group.
World Ranking: 8

Greece:
Who are they: Mythology. History. Once the peak of human civilization, now an economic joke. Once fluked their way to winning the Euro 2004.
Star Players: No obvious superstars but Giorgios Karagounis is still key. Kostas Mitroglou for his beard and goals. Mainly his beard.
Take: Solid defensively, but could really cause problems if they start scoring some goals.
World Ranking: 12

Ivory Coast:
Who are they: Didier Drogba. Yaya Toure. Some other fine players.
Star Players Didier Drogba. Yaya Toure. Some other fine players.
Take: Star studded team, that has often failed to click on the big stage. Could be the last chance for some of their stars to leave a mark.
World Ranking: 23

Japan:
Who are they: Land of the Rising Sun. Sushi. Anime. Manga. Toyota, Honda and Nissan. SONY.
Star Players: Shinji Kagawa, who is still very good despite being a Manchester Utd player. Keisuke Honda.
Take: Dangerous outsiders, who should be competitive in every game.
World Ranking: 46
Summary: A group that doesn't contain a team who is expected to make the semis, but expect good competition and tough matches here. Tipping Colombia and Ivory Coast to qualify.

Group D:
Uruguay:
Who are they: Famous for having won the world cup twice, before any of us where born. Folks out there eat beef like anything (Internet Hindus please note).
Star Players: They have two of the best forwards in the world Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Diego Godin is an absolutely brilliant defender.
Take: Excellent team with lots of star players, should expect to qualify from this group at the expense of England.
World Ranking: 7

Costa Rica:
Who are they: Exactly, who are they ? Movie buffs will remember the Jurassic Park islands - Isla Nubar and Isla Sorna being close to this place.
Star Players: Bryan Ruiz is a handsome bloke and a decent footballer.
Take: Basically making up the numbers in this group, but even if they win a single point - will cause trouble for others.
World Ranking: 28

England:
Who are they: #GodSaveTheQueen. Once greatestest nation. Incidental home to the English Premier League. Now famous for importing cricketers from South Africa. And losing football matches on penalties.
Star Players Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are the obvious big names but watch out for Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.
Take: Surprisingly low expectations this time and that will quite possibly be helpful as they navigate this group of death.
World Ranking: 10

Italy:
Who are they: Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo. Half of history and literature that people read. Pasta and Pizza. Catenaccio (DEFENSIVE FOOTBALL) - basically the anti Gods of football, or the Gods of anti football - who have somehow managed to win the World Cup four times already.
Star Players: Andrea Pirlo. Mario Balotelli could be key upfront, while the defense is, as always filled with quality players like Chiellini and Bonucci.
Take: Have been in good form of late, and despite some issues with their striker choices - should qualify.
World Ranking: 9

Summary: The second group of death and with England in it, probably will be the most followed group too. Expect Uruguay and Italy to make out if, but should England decide to throw caution to the wind - it could get exciting.

Group E:
Switzerland:
Who are they: Famous for Swiss watches, Swiss Cheese, Swiss Banks (aka questionable banking practices), mountains, Yash Raj movies...... all round awesomeness really. But most importantly Roger Federer.
Star Players: No obvious superstars but Xedran Shaqiri, Josep Drnic etc are some exciting young talents.
Take: Are lucky to have got into a relatively easy group and should qualify into the final 16. Their incredible world ranking of six shows that they are in top form of late.
World Ranking: 6

Ecauador:
Who are they: Random South American country through which the Equator passes.
Star Players: Antonio Valencia of Man Utd is world famous already..
Take: Massive interest in the game vs Honduras, but unlikely to go into the next round.
World Ranking: 26

France:
Who are they: Land of Napolean and Eiffel Tower. Wine, champagne and other alcoholic beverages. Clay court tennis and Cycling. Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini.
Star Players Paul Pogba is one of the best young midfielders in the world. Benzema, Cabaye and goal-keeper Lloris are also pretty good. Will miss Frank Ribery.
Take: Lucky to have got such an easy group and therefore unless they do a 2002 level cock-up, should qualify easily, but not expected to go too far into the tournament.
World Ranking: 17

Honduras:
Who are they: Yeah - who are they ?
Star Players: Err. Maybe Wilson Palacios.
Take: Massive interest in the game vs Ecuador, but unlikely to go into the next round.
World Ranking: 22

Summary: France to go through with the Swiss unless some massive upsets happen.

Group F:
Argentina:
Who are they: The other footballing Gods. Maradona, Messi. Also the land of Che Guevara and Tango.
Star Players: Lionel Messi - the best player in the world over the past five - six years. Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria are also key.
Take: Are lucky to have got into a relatively easy group and should qualify into the final 16. But this really is about whether Messi can win the World Cup for Argentina. Can he ?
World Ranking: 5

Bosnia-Herzegobina:
Who are they: Part of the former Yugoslavia. Wars and stuff.
Star Players: Edin Dzeko is a top striker and in Miralem Pjanic - they have a superb midfielder.
Take: Attacking team who will fancy their chances of making the next round.
World Ranking: 21

Iran:
Who are they: Once upon a time - Persia. Pharsi language. They are like the Greeks of Asia. Now part of the so-called Axis of Evil.
Star Players:  Ashqan Dejagah of Fulham will be known to Premier League fans.
Take: One of Asia's best teams, have an outside chance to qualify.
World Ranking: 43

Nigeria:
Who are they: Nicknamed The Super Eagles, land of Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu. Now in the news of Boko Haram.
Star Players: No massive superstars currently, but plenty who play at the highest levels. Jon Obi Mikel in midfield, Victor Moses and Peter Odemwingie up front are familiar names.
Take: Difficult to predict, but can qualify in an open group.
World Ranking: 44

Summary: Argentina are the certainty to qualify. Any of the other three could possibly take the second place. Tipping Bosnia to make it through.

Group G:
Germany:
Who are they: Efficiency. Superpowers economically and footbalistically. The greatest beer and  cars in the world. Three time winners in the past.
Star Players: Lots of players, but perhaps missing their best young talent in Marco Reus to injury. Manuel Neuer is perhaps the best goal keeper in the world. Philip Lahm never plays badly. Plenty of midfiled and attacking talent such as Ozil, Goetze, Schweinsteiger and Muller etc..
Take: Will qualify for the next round, but time is ticking away for this amazingly talented generation as Spain have been hoarding all the trophies of late. Will look to go deep and then finally win the whole thing.
World Ranking: 2

Portugal:
Who are they: Ex-rulers of Goa and Brazil. Land of Columbus, Eusebio and Luis Figo.
Star Players: CRISTIANO RONALDO. The best player in the world over the last two years. Watch out for William Carvalho.
Take: Not quite a one man team, but definitely rely on Ronaldo massively. Should qualify, but not certain.
World Ranking: 4

Ghana:
Who are they: Famous for having got Suarezed in 2010. Apparently Bourneville chocolates are made from Ghanian cocoa.
Star Players:  Plenty of ageing stars such as Michael Essein and Asamoah Gyan, but Kevin Prince Boateng might just be their most important player.
Take: Great expectations from home, but difficult to see them go through. Match vs Portugal is massive.
World Ranking: 37

USA:
Who are they: Uncle Sam. They don't call football as football. Once won a match 1-1.
Star Players: Clint Dempsey ?
Take: Unlucky to be drawn in a group with Germany and Portugal and hence difficult to go through.
World Ranking: 13

Summary: Tough group but expect the two European teams to go through. Ghana and USA to give real tough competition though.

Group H:
Belgium:
Who are they: Land of Herge and Tintin. Hercule Poirot was a Belgian too. As were Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. And Belgian Breakfasts.
Star Players: Lots of super talented players lighting up the top European leagues but Eden Hazard - goal scoring midfielder/ forward and Vincent Kompany - erudite defender and leader are the best of this lot. Thibbat Courtois is a damn good goal keeper.
Take: The Belgium football team is easily the most interesting and exciting story to emerge in international football over the past years. They are the the hipsters' team to watch this year. Should qualify and try to reach the semi -finals.
(Bonus reading on Belgium team in Grantland. And here is a feature in The Guardian)
World Ranking: 11

Algeria:
Who are they: Former French colony. Major African power with oil money.
Star Players: Watch out for Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani.
Take: Rankings notwithstanding, they are probably the weakest team in what appears to be an open group.
World Ranking: 22

Russia:
Who are they: Vodka. Stalin. Lenin. Once Communists. #InSovietRussia Jokes. Now Putinists. Tolstoy. Chekov. Maria Sharapova.
Star Players:  Igor Akinfeev is a very fine goalkeeper. Alan Dzagoev in midfield could be key.
Take: Will fancy their chances to qualify for the next round under Capello.
World Ranking: 19

Korean Repblic:
Who are they: Makers of household brands: Samsung. LG. Hyundai etc. But most importantly GANGNAM STYLE.
Star Players: Despite his Arsenal misadventure Park Chu Young is a top striker for his national team.
Take: Historically the best Asian team, they are in with a chance to qualify.
World Ranking: 57

Summary: Very open group, but expect Belgium to certainly qualify. Tipping Korea to pip Russia for the second spot. Algeria are dangerous outsiders.

From the experts: Now that my amateurish preview is out of the way, let me link up some of the best / most interesting articles, features, analysis that I have come across. I may keep updating this section as I go along.

Firstly, this New York Times article tells us which teams got lucky and which teams got really unlucky with the draw. As expected, Australia (facing Spain, Netherlands and Chile are the most unlucky team from the draw).

Next up this scholarly research by Goldman Sachs is quite interesting and detailed. Well worth your time if you can afford it.

Fandom is one of my most favourite topics, and here Simon Kuper, one of the co-authors of Soccernomics writes about this topic. Apart from the collective sharing of winning and losing, he says: Being a fan also connects you to your own past and I have felt exactly the same often about these events such as the World Cup and the Euros.

But no preview of the World Cup would be complete without a look back at the history.  Read this epic essay by Supriya Nair, which covers so many different facets of the world cup experience. Here's a list on the Top 20 goals in World Cup History in The Washington Post. The Guardian has come up with another list - Top 25 Stunning Moments from the Football World Cups.

And if you find all this very serious, read Andy Zaltzman's Neutral's guide to picking a team., while this by Futfanatico gives a linguistic guide to the World Cup, which is hilarious.

So which are the best places to follow the World Cup online ? I recommend Four Four Two and The Guardian.

I hope to be back with more as the tournament progresses. Here's to a few more magical moments as this one.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Needed to be said

I have been an observer of Indian politics for a long time. I do not subscribe to one particular ideology or belief. My political preferences - change - I like to believe, that I think and then take sides after considering the options. (My political preference was for the BJP and Narendra Modi - for this general election. and I was quite delighted with the results.)
One of the worst things about Indian politics according to me is the lack of civility and respect that is on display between politicians of different sides. And no one is more guilty of this than the self-proclaimed guardians of secularism and socialism - The Congress (I). Here's what I think of them (Them: meaning the representatives of this party in the electronic and print media).
I find their snobbery, their self-perceived superiority complex, their haughtiness : appalling, repugnant and reprehensible. Consider the behavior of some of their members, post their massive, embarrassing electoral defeat after they ran - what I consider, a pathetic and inept electoral campaign:

1) One party member writes this piece on a national newspaper, the day after the election results. Consider the audacity, consider the sheer arrogance at display for someone to be able to write these first 3 lines, after the elections in which over 540 Million people have voted. A election in which the said member finished fourth from his seat and lost his deposit.
Darkness descends. The idea of India gutters. The light that lit our freedom struggle and so defined the nature of our nationhood is going out.
The next day, this gentleman outdid himself and spoke this on television.

2) Consider the behavior of the leaders of the party: the mother and son duo when they came out  to speak after the poll results. Not only did the party Vice-President give a vibe of  "My ignorance amuses me" and had a shameless smirk on his face, but more importantly neither mother and son - had the class, the bare minimum amount of respect and dignity to acknowledge Narendra Modi by his name, while mouthing their formalities of conceding defeat.

3) Take the case of the former sports minister, who was considered to be a one of the better ministers of the previous government. He mocks through twitter the lack of education qualification of the newly appointed HRD minister - Smriti Irani, displaying once again the arrogance and a snobbishness, which is not justified - especially for a party in which the educational qualifications of the top 2 people are dubious to say the least.

These are just three examples from the past month, but Mani Shankar Aiyyar, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Ajay Maken are not alone in this kind of public behavior. Watch their spokespersons like Sanjay Jha or even their former Foreign minister - Salman Kurshid speak. They speak the language of the past, their discourse is disconnected to the present and their thoughts lack a vision for the future. That they regard their political opponents, and therefore large sections of the Indian population in general, with contempt and disdain is plainly visible to me. The country, in my opinion, is better off without them. And this needed to be said.

PS: Nothing better than to find a case from 2011, where the great Ajay Maken meets his match in the greater Mani Shankar Aiyar. A wonderful illustration.. Enjoy.

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