No more Mr Nice Guys

Photo by: Bradford Timeline www.flickr.com

Photo by: Bradford Timeline
http://www.flickr.com

Almost five months on from England’s dismal elimination from the World Cup and the squad have reached a conclusion on what went wrong: apparently they were “too nice.”

Ahead of their match against Slovenia on Saturday, Gary Cahill has said the side has been working on being more aggressive and less naïve. Much of the new emphasis is being credited to Gary Neville, a man that I don’t ever recall being referred to as “too nice” during his playing career.

Cahill describes the required defensive approach as “being aggressive and getting tight – when players are trying to hold the ball up and you’re behind them and they are thinking: ‘What is this guy doing?’”

I must admit it’s a thought that crossed my mind quite often when I played as a centre forward. Some defenders need very little encouragement to ‘get tight.’

I once had a friendly opponent, a practitioner of the not-too-nice school of defending, who suggested that he might be inclined to break my legs (that wasn’t the exact phrase he used). In reply I pointed out that he might first show some inclination to keep up with me (again the phrasing may have been slightly different).

Back in the day I was noted for having a ‘turn of pace’ as they say. I still do; I’m now quite adept at turning from slow to leisurely via dawdling before coming to complete rest. At school though, I was so quick that I briefly caught the eye of the rugby coach. He offered me the chance to play on the wing. I declined on the basis that however quick I was, eventually someone would catch me and thereafter it (and I) would not be pretty.

It’s that sort of fear that Cahill seems to want to inspire in opponents. He argues that since the World Cup, England have become “a lot harder to play against.” That may be true and they have kept clean sheets in their last 5 games but the opposition has got a lot easier. Clean sheets against San Marino and Estonia are nothing to get overly excited about.

Remarkably, Cahill also says that England are learning to play the ball longer when necessary. “Everybody has this philosophy of playing from the back but there are times to think, ‘Hold on, let’s kick up the front for five or 10 minutes.’”

Any time I’ve watched England recently, I can’t honestly say that I’ve been struck by the thought: ‘there they go again with that playing from the back philosophy of theirs.’

Long ball or short, tight or loose, nasty or nice, for this qualifying campaign it doesn’t matter too much for England. By the time they arrive in France though, they are likely to discover that their World Cup failure was not really a question of being too nice.

Platini remains cool on the question of the heat in Qatar

Photo by: Klearchos Kapoutsis, www.flickr.com

Photo by: Klearchos Kapoutsis, http://www.flickr.com

The subject of the timing of the Qatar World Cup in 2022 is back in the news today. Uefa president Michel Platini has insisted that the tournament “will be in winter” as “it’s not possible to play in May when it’s 40 degrees.”

Europe’s big leagues would prefer May if the tournament is moved from its traditional June/July slot as this would cause them the least disruption. Fifa’s preference is apparently for a switch to November/December and they have set up a task force to investigate the possibility, due to report in March.

I’m no meteorologist but I could have forecast that a summer World Cup in Qatar might be a little on the warm side. In fact, since moving to Malaysia I’ve been amazed to discover that many people from the Middle East visit here during their summer in a bid to escape the heat. Trust me, it’s not exactly cool here.

Platini rarely broke sweat as an elegant midfielder in the 70’s and 80’s and he seems very relaxed about the prospect of the World Cup dates being changed: “I have no problem whether it’s in November, December, January or February” he said.

I suspect some others might though: other nations that bid on the basis of it being a summer tournament, other leagues, competitions and even other sports. Fifa president Blatter has already pledged that the World Cup will not clash with the Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, Theo van Seggelen, the secretary-general of Fifpro (the global players’ union) has warned that players could boycott the tournament if it’s played in the searing heat of summer in Qatar and they feel it poses a risk to their health.

Van Seggelen believes that finals must be played in November for the sake of the players and to avoid a clash with the Winter Olympics. In my favourite quote of the entire episode he said: “you cannot blame the International Olympic Committee for having their tournament in the winter.” Indeed Theo, hosting the Winter Olympics in winter does seem entirely reasonable on the part of the IOC.

However this ends there’s likely to be a lot of red faces; the number of which will multiply if Scotland manage to qualify for a World Cup in Qatar.

Yellow, green and very blue

 

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Brazil fans. Photo by Ben Tavener, http://www.flickr.com

The yellow and green jerseys are iconic. The national team of Brazil seems to carry something of the essence of football. The stadiums at the World Cup resembled beaches, packed with those famous yellow shirts, most of which carried the name of the man who carried the nation’s hopes.

Brazilian football was riding on the back of young Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior until that back broke. Neymar is recovering well; it may well take a lot longer however for his team mates to recover. For much of the tournament Neymar was a virtual Lone Ranger, but without even the assistance of Tonto.

The origins of the game of football remain disputed but few argue that the beautiful game was born and raised in Brazil. It now appears to have grown up and left home – gone to study in Spain before taking up an apprenticeship in Germany. The beautiful game returned home in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t wearing yellow and green.

Growing up watching football, the rare occasions I got to see Brazil play on TV were invariably thrilling. Tricks, excitement, and the ‘samba’ version of the game were almost always delivered. The vintage of 2014 offered something different – Neymar aside – with their defence considered better than their attack. That defence turned out to be utterly calamitous when really tested but it appeared sound enough in the build up to the tournament.

Still, practically the whole of Brazil expected their team to win the World Cup.

One can only assume that this was based on the excitement of being hosts, nostalgia for more glorious eras, and the lessons of history which pointed to the advantage of South American sides on South American soil.

The last time Brazil won the World Cup, in 2002, they boasted a front three of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. In the semi final with Germany they lined up with Hulk, Fred and Bernard in the most advanced positions. No Neymar, no danger.

Fred was repeatedly and resoundingly praised by Scolari throughout the tournament but it felt like an attempt to shore up a fragile confidence. The backup option was Jo, a £19m flop. He came to the Premiership with a decent record in the Russian league but managed an embarrassing 6 goals in 48 games for City and Everton, only 1 of which was for the Manchester club. Here too, confidence was in short supply.

The events of the 8th of July in Belo Horizonte are still hard to comprehend. 7-1; four goals scored in just six incredible minutes; Germany overtaking Brazil as the all time leading scorers in the World Cup; Klose doing the same to Ronaldo; and the end of Brazil’s 62-match home unbeaten streak in competitive matches going back to 1975.

The scale of the defeat was absolutely shocking but the manner of the defeat was even more so. They were 11 players who looked as though they’d never met each other before. Once they lost the early goal you could see them begin to panic. It was extraordinary. Scolari needed to be a calm and reassuring presence but he had become increasingly hysterical as the tournament progressed. He waved his hands frantically before finally just resting his head in them.

At the end, there were tears and prayers and utter dejection, and that was just David Luiz. Made captain for the evening, he lost Muller for the first goal, then he lost his composure, and finally he seemed to lose his head completely and just ran around as if in some vain search for an exit.

The Brazilian players left the field looking dazed and confused, like a boxer staggering back to the dressing room after a brain shaking knockout blow. Not fully conscious of what had just hit them, there was still recognition on their faces of the enormity of it all – that this would be career defining.

In the stands, those that remained were similarly shaken. They had been witnesses to history in a scarcely believable way. They looked numb rather than angry. Anger could come later after the subsidence of shock.

The Germans looked rather bemused. “Were we really that good?” “Were they really that bad?” Nobody seemed to know. It was such a hard game to assess. Germany were certainly clinically professional and beautifully so on occasion. Class and confidence radiated from every one of their players. They knew each other, their strengths and weaknesses, their plans A,B, and C, and how to avoid overcomplicating a game that is in essence a simple one.

The smart money suggests that Germany can look forward to a new era of dominance, but what of Brazil? The country can still produce supremely gifted individuals such as Neymar but its footballing identity has been eroded. The domestic league is a bit of a mess.

Germany of course suffered their own humiliation some 14 years earlier, finishing bottom of their group in the European Championships of 2000 without winning a game.  It prompted the German FA to re-examine and rebuild the game in their country.

Will the Brazilians now do the same?