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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