The Battle of Seconds

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 12th 2014)

Victory

Fazio

Tottenham Hotspurʼs Federico Fazio was happy with the win if his Argentina team beaten a second string Croatia 2-1 at the Boleyn Ground – home of West Ham United. Croatiaʼs second-string – the regulars remained at home to prepare for this weekendʼs vital Euro2016 qualifier against Italy – took a shock and against the run of play 11th minute lead, courtesy of Anas Sharbiniʼs first goal for his country in only his second match. Interʼs Mateo Kovačić provided the assist.

Despite dominating the first half Argentina, captained by Lionel Messi, back to his mesmerising best, trailed to Sharbiniʼs strike. The move began on the right flank before working it inside to Kovačić, who beat Christian Ansaldi and found Sharbini on the left of the area. The mixed-race – Croatian and Palestinian – midfielder finished with aplomb across Sampdoriaʼs Sergio Romero from 10 yard out.

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Astonishing

Argentina created chance after chance. Sevillaʼs Ever Banega wasted a glorious opportunity created by the first of many mazy runs by Messi from the right wing into the left of the area. Banega missed after 5 minutes. The normally clinical Sergio Agüero had one shot well saved by Croatian goalkeeper for the night Lovre Kalinić, another volleyed straight at the keeper, failed to collect a Messi pass and prodded two shots wide from Messi passes after mazy runs all in the space of ten minutes without scoring.

Premier League defences had best savour the moment. Rarely has the in-form Kun proved so profligate. Messi was also denied. Another mazy run treading the same path as before, a one-two with Ansaldi, resulted in Messi shooting into the side-netting. He also hit the post in the second half with the keeper well beaten. However both Messi and Agüero would not be denied, albeit in controversial fashion for Kun.

Reward

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When Agüero got his goal only the eagle-eyed noticed it – well them and the replays. 3 minutes into the second half Ansaldiʼs fierce shot from just outside the area was deflected in past Kalinić by Agüero taking protective action. It went in off his arm with Kalinić stranded.

12 minutes into the second half Messi found Agüero on the left of the six yard box. Kalinić brought him down, conceding a penalty. Messi converted it. 

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Returning Idols

The Hammersʼ fans got to see the great Lionel Messi in the flesh, but by far the biggest cheers of the night greeted the return of 2007 West Ham hero Carlos Tévez. Will you please welcome Argentina and West Ham legend, Carlos Tévez”, as , the announcer said after 62 minutes as Agüero was replaced. Tévez received a standing and loud ovation despite the sparse crowd.

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But West Hamʼs former idol could not provide the fairytale goal despite a glorious chance made for him by Manchester Unitedʼs Ángel di María, which Tévez pulled just wide of the post. He also spurned another chance by heading Pablo Zabaletaʼs cross straight at Kalinić.

Midway through the second half the other Argentinian returning Hammer from the 2007 season Javier Mascherano, unleashed a pile-driver, which Kalinić saved. Five minutes earlier Barçelonaʼs defensive midfield enforcer inflicted a crunching shin high tackle on Tin Jedvaj. Not only did Mascherano not receive a card – friendly or not – but referee Lee Probert didnʼt even award the Roma defender currently on loan to Bayer Levekusen a free kick.

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Argentina got the win and Croatiaʼs second team showed spirit that pleased the President of Croatian Football Federation Davor Šuker. “[They] need to give back to Croatian national team and I think we have great performance”, Šuker said, “and we have great future in the Croatian football federation”. Croatia face Italy at the weekend and Argentina will face Cristiano Ronaldoʼs Portugal at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

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Friendlies

by Satish Sekar

Meaningless?

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Argentina and Croatia meet tonight at West Hamʼs Boleyn Ground in a hastily arranged fixture. Croatia clearly have their eyes on the Euro2016 qualifier against Italy at the weekend. This squad reads like a Whoʼs Who of those who wonʼt be involved at the weekend. Argentina, meanwhile, showed their intent by bringing a squad with talent enough to field two teams, led by Lionel Messi. The in-form Sergio Agüero will lead the line. Former West Ham players Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano provide able assistance along with English footballʼs most expensive player Ángel di María!

Croatiaʼs manager Niko Kovač didnʼt want such a tough fixture ahead of the important Euro2016. He had wanted to play the USA, but a ʻbetter offerʼ meant that Argentina it was. He left his stars behind in Croatia to be trained by his assistant. Hardly the best preparation, but at least the Croatians, led by Šime Vrsalijko have a point to prove against top opposition and perhaps the opportunity to force their way into Kovačʼs long-term plans Argentina will expect a confidence-boosting win before the big one at Old Trafford when la Albiceleste take on Portugal. The mouthwatering prospect of Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo v di María takes place next Tuesday.

Cometh the Hour?

 

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 12th 2014)

Wilderness Years Begin

Germanyʼs recent record in major finals is – well – unGerman. Renowned for ruthless efficiency they could be relied on to always be in the mix for major trophies, but the last time Germany lifted a trophy was in 1996. Remember who the successful coach was – a certain Berti Vogts. Argentinaʼs record is even worse. Their last appearance in the final was a losing effort in 1990 – an awful final. 

He inherited Franz Beckenbauerʼs World Cup winning team in 1990 and led then to defeat to Denmark in 1992. He left after eight years in charge after falling in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1994 and again in 1998 to Bulgaria and Croatia respectively.

Erich Ribeck led der Mannschaft (the national team) to a shameful exit in Euro2000 – bottom of their qualifying group. Rudi Völler managed one place better in Euro2004. Latvia finished below them, but two years earlier Völler led Germany to defeat in the final to Brasil. Luiz Felipe Scolari was Brasilʼs manager then.

Overdue

After the failure at Euro2004 Jürgen Klinsmann replaced Völler. Germany reached the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup on home soil as Klinsmann blooded a young team and left the team to his assistant Joachim Löw, but despite the studious approach of Löw trophies continued to elude der Mannschaft. Löwʼs team matched Klinsmannʼs achievement finishing third. On both occasions Germany lost to the eventual winners.

Spainʼs rise to dominance began in 2008 in Austria. The late Luis Aragonés Suárez ushered in six years of unparalleled success by beating Germany 1-0 in the final. They knocked Löwʼs charges out in the semi-final in Durban in South Africaʼs World Cup. And in the Ukraine and Poland, Spain retained their European title, beating Italy 4-0 in the final. Germany had been beaten 2-1 by Italy in the semi-final.

Opportunity Knocks

Spainʼs defence of their world title was one of the worst ever. Sated by their three titles Spain returned home at the first opportunity. Germany continued growing into the competition with every passing match, culminating in a humiliating mauling of hosts Brasil 7-1 in Belo Horizonte – the worst thrashing ever in the semi-final of a World Cup.

The previous worst was 84 years ago in the inaugural World Cup when eventual winners Uruguay beat Yugoslavia 6-1 and the USA lost 6-1 to Argentina. Austria lost 6-1 to West Germany in 1954 as well. It had three times and at least one of them had a very good reason for losing so badly – they played a large portion of the match effectively with eight players. One of the wounded was the goal-keeper.

The USA never had a chance. The rules permitted no substitutions and Argentina had taken no prisoners on their way through to Belo Horizonte. Their goal-keeper was injured after 4 minutes. Another player played on injured and a third played with a broken leg until half time. This was before substitutions were allowed.

Best Chance

Surely Germany will never have a better chance to end almost two decades of trophylessness. They topped their group – one of the most difficult, dismantling Portugal, drawing with Ghana and just beating the USA before Algeria gave them a fright, but fell just short. They deservedly beat France and completely humiliated Brasil.

Nobody can say Germany has not reached the final on merit. They have reached finals and semi-finals, but ultimately this tournament will be viewed a failure if they fail to match Italyʼs achievement and win the World Cup for the fourth time. Germany have done well; theyʼve got close before. Is it Germanyʼs time to win the World Cup?

Arsenalʼs Lukas Podolski thinks so. “Of course”, he said before Arsenal ended their own trophy drought. “Of course we want to win the World Cup, but other teams want that as well and it was not easy. The pressure is big because we would say Germany are the favourites – the people in Germany, the newspapers say we already win the World Cup, but itʼs not easy”.

 

 U-S-A! – Their Greatest Achievement

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 4th 2014)

Achievements

Despite a sensational performance in qualifying second to Germany, but ahead of an ordinary Portugal with one exceptional, but injured player and a disputes riven Ghana in a difficult group and a glorious defeat to Belgium in the last sixteen, Americans may at last have warmed to football. Not even hosting the World Cup in 1994, their league Major League Soccer (MLS) and reaching the quarter-final in 2002 could help the worldʼs most popular sport break the American market.

This time Americans got behind their team and believed in them, largely due to the efforts of their coach Jürgen Klinsmann, but the US failed to match their greatest achievement, which is not the quarter-final in 2002 as several commentators have wrongly said. The USAʼs greatest performance came at the first attempt – the semi-finals in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, which they managed on merit by topping their group.

84 years before they would meet again in the World Cup Finals the USA beat Belgium 3-0 on July 13th 1930. Bart McGhee got the first goal the American ever scored. Just over 20 minutes later with half-time looming Tom Florie got the second and Bertrand Patenaude got the third with just over 20 minutes remaining.

The First Hat-trick

Four days later an important piece of World Cup history was made. The USA beat Paraguay 3-0 – Patenaude had scored all three, but it took 76 years for FIFA to acknowledge what the Americans knew. Patenaude had scored the first hat-trick in the history of the World Cup.

But for 76 years – over 40 of which Patenaude had been deceased – his second goal against Paraguay was wrongly attributed as an own goal by Paraguayan great Aurelio González Benítez or by US team-mate Florie. Both Patenaude and the man wrongly attributed with having scored the first hat-trick, Argentinaʼs Guillermo Stábille, never lived to see the error put right.

Stábille scored a hat-trick on his début in the 6-3 victory over México. It came two days after the USA had beaten Paraguay 3-0. The US federation believed – rightly as it turned out – that their second goal against Paraguay had in fact been scored by Patenaude and that consequently he had scored the first hat-trick in the history of the World Cup.

On November 10th – a day after the anniversary of his birth and death – 2006 FIFA finally acknowledged that Patenaude had scored a hat-trick on July 17th 1930 at Nacionalʼs Estadio Parque Central in Montevideo. It had taken just over three quarters of a century to acknowledge the feat of the American.

 

USA Qualify despite losing to Germany

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 26th 2014)

Müller downs Klinsmannʼs USA

There was no question of an easy and convenient draw that would have suited both teams. Joachim Löwʼs team defeated his former bossʼ USA 1-0. Thomas Müller scored the only goal of the match after 54 minutes. He joins Brasilʼs Neymar and Argentinaʼs Lionel Messi as the tournamentʼs top scorer to date on four goals.

With Portugal beating Ghana 2-1 in the other match the result was enough for both Germany and the USA to go through to the last sixteen. Arsenalʼs record signing Mesut Özilʼs corner was returned to him before he crossed from the right. Club colleague Per Mertesackerʼs header was parried by American goal-keeper Tim Howard. Müller curled his shot into the opposite corner to Howardʼs left. There was nothing that the 35 year-old Everton keeper could do about it.

Chances?

In 2006 Jürgen Klinsmann took a young German team to the semi-final of Germanyʼs World Cup playing entertaining attacking football. Klinsmann resigned – he lived in the USA and commuted. The future for German football looked bright. Klinsmannʼs assistant at that tournament took over. Löw has yet to deliver the big prize – Spain proved a formidable barrier, but both Löw and Klinsmann remain true to their principles and football philosophy.

Nevertheless clear cut chances were at a premium prior to the goal. Müller was thwarted by a couple of last ditch blocks by the LA Galaxyʼs Omar Gonzalez, but the better chances fell to the Americans. Michael Bradley released Graham Zusi on the left just outside the area. Zusiʼs shot curled just over Manuel Neuerʼs goal. Ten minutes later Bradleyʼs through-ball just eluded Jermaine Jones – an integral part of Klinsmannʼs influx of German-American talent.

At half time the false 9 tactic gave way to a record-equalling centre forward Miroslav Klose. It almost bore fruits immediately. Bayern Münchenʼs Jérôme Boateng crossed for Klose shortly after the second half began, but the impressive Gonzalez intercepted again. Minutes later Philipp Lahmʼs cross was just too high for Klose.

Collisions

A nasty collision between Jones and substitute Alejandro Bedoya left both Americans needing treatment. Bedoya had been rightly booked seconds after coming on for a foul on Bastian Schweinsteiger. During injury time the USA pressed for an equaliser they only needed for pride.

DeAndré Yedlinʼs ball into centre was laid off by Jones for Bedoya to shoot, but a superb block by Lahm averted the danger. Moments later US skipper Clint Dempseyʼs header from Jonesʼ nod-on cleared Neuerʼs bar. Germany held on to top the group while the USA reached the last sixteen – a huge achievement in such a tough group for a country where football is a minority interest sport. They would almost certainly face Marc Wilmotsʼ young Belgium side while Germany could face Algeria – victims of an infamous fix 32 years ago between West Germany and Austria which changed the format of the group stage of the World Cup.

 

Lost Boys

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 26th 2014)

Disarray

Where did it all go wrong? The Black Stars have crashed out of the World Cup after an acrimonious campaign that turned them from quarter-finalists four years ago to propping up an admittedly tough group today. Many feel that Ghana got exactly what they deserved this time. Players demanded and got £1.76m for appearances. John Boye was later captured in a crass photograph kissing his money.

Hours before the vital match against Portugal two players were sent home in disgrace by the Ghana Football Association (GFA). Sulley Muntari had assaulted GFA member Moses Armah and Kevin-Prince Boateng had verbally abused coach James Kwesi Appiah. Ghana were beaten 2-1 by Portugal, leaving the Black Stars with the wooden spoon. Difficult group or not it was a spectacular descent from four years ago when they lost in the final of the African Cup of Nations and the quarter-finals of the World Cup. And in 2006 they were the only African team to reach the knock-out stages – the last sixteen.

Adopted

The Black Stars were adopted as Africaʼs team just four years ago when they were the last African team standing in Africaʼs World Cup. Victimised by a player many love to hate, Luis Suárez Díaz, Ghana had most of the worldʼs sympathy vote too. Suárezʼ handball denied Dominic Adiyah a certain goal and a first appearance of an African team in a semi-final of the World Cup, but Asamoah Gyanʼs penalty struck the bar and Uruguay went through on penalties.

Suárezʼ ban for that semi-final was scant consolation for Ghana, whose World Cup hopes were in tatters. The Black Stars were inconsolable and Africa cried with and for them too. Suárezʼ cheating – many others would have done the same – earned him hero status in his country, but it was cheating and it cost Ghana and Africa dear.

FIFA did nothing to prevent repetition of Suárezʼ offence. Ghana got nothing but sympathy and even that wasnʼt unanimous. Awarding a penalty and sending off was seen by many as punishment enough. But an unseemly row over money and two players being ejected from their squad wrecked their preparation for the crucial match against Cristiano Ronaldoʼs Portugal, which they lost. It has also cost them support.

Team of the Decade

Six years ago we interviewed an African legend Charles Kumi Gyamfi, arguably the greatest coach in African history – only the Egyptian Hassan Shehata has won as many African Cup of Nations trophies. Gyamfi was an integral part of Africaʼs Football Revolution – a time when Ghanaʼs first President Dr Kwame Nkrumah developed a plan implemented by Gyamfi and Ohene Djan1 to use football and its power to demonstrate African achievement.

Half a century ago it was all so different. Ghana had just won the African Cup of Nations under Gyamfi in 1963. He had learned to coach in Germany and brought those newly acquired skills back to Ghana. He not only became the coach – inheriting József Emberʼs team – but shared his knowledge with other former players and those reaching the end of their careers.

Two years later Gyamfi replaced ageing players and set the foundations for future success as the Black Stars retained their title. The coup that toppled Nkrumah in 1966 forced Djan out and Gyamfi was demoted to assist a fitness trainer who had just passed his coaching qualifications. Ghana lost the 1968 final unexpectedly to Congo-Kinshasa and to hosts Sudan in 1970.

Ghana was the African team of the 1960s and Gyamfi played a huge part in achieving that honour. His views on football in his heyday as a coach bear a striking resonance today.

Success

“In football it is not a question of succeeding all the time”, Gyamfi says. “You can’t get that. It all depends on the unity and unifying the people together and the understanding. If the understanding comes in within the people, then you go ahead. When we started moving everybody was happy, everywhere happy that we were winning championships. When we talk about Africa we are number one and everybody was happy about it, but how to get there”?

Nkrumahʼs vision and Djanʼs delivery of that dream played a very large part in turning Ghana into the team to emulate. Gyamfi was aware of what was needed. “You know, to get there politically, you have to get people who would understand what was going on”, he said. “You see if you send somebody who is not interested in the game – not interested in football – and came in from outside then he can’t deliver. He cannot deliver, but when you send somebody who understands it, he will be more useful, then it can work and you can move forward and he will deliver”.

The Demise of Ghanaian Football

Gyamfi has a simple explanation of where and why things began to go so wrong. “Football became money”, he said. “Motivation was not for the team – infrastructure and all sorts of things. You see it became very difficult in handling the national structure and you know this is the country where the cake must be shared – even not equally, but it must be shared for everybody to get it, because we have football: we have athletics, we have boxing and hockey and other sports you see”.

But now it is even worse. Obscene money is available in football and a threatened strike was averted by paying players £1.76m. Gyamfi foresaw these problems. “If the cake is going to be shared it must be shared equally among them, but the money that comes in is not sufficient and to be all in football if the money is not there, then you don’t have the culture there”, he says. “This is how things started to go wrong”.

It could and should have been so different even then. “To hear my boss, who was then Dr Kwame Nkrumah, tell us what we were capable of inspired us” Gyamfi told us. “He talked to us about what we could do totally. He believed in us and in football. He helped me greatly”. But then disaster struck for Ghana, its football and for Africa – the coup that overthrew Nkrumah. According to the great Zambian leader Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Africa never recovered from it.

“A lot of things went wrong after he [Nkrumah] was overthrown”, Gyamfi said. “At that time they said they would call me back, but they never call me back. I went away. They wanted to play for money and things went wrong. Later they said sorry and called me back”. It wasnʼt just Africa that never recovered from the 1966 coup.

 

Black Stars in Crisis

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 26th 2014)

Pyrrhic Win for Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo scored his solitary goal in the World Cup Finals to beat Ghana 2-1 after a dreadful error by Ghanaʼs goal-keeper Fatau Dauda gifted the World Player of the Year the winner. Earlier John Boye sliced Miguel Velosoʼs cross into his own net to give Portugal a fortuitous lead – fortuitous as the Bahranian referee Nawaf Shukralla broke up a Ghanaian attack.

The referee intercepted André Ayewʼs pass to Christian Atsu with the Chelsea winger – he spent the last season on loan to Vitesse Arnhem. Ayew was incensed, but Shukralla allowed play to continue. Eventually it reached Veloso on the left flank and his cross was sliced horribly into his own net by Boye.

Shorn of the talents of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari – sent home in disgrace – Ghana faced an uphill struggle, but The remaining players seemed up for the fight. Just over ten minutes into the second half Ayew broke forward before finding Juventusʼ Kwadmo Asamoah on the left wing. Asamoahʼs cross, delivered with the outside of his left foot was a sumptuous one that begged a finish and Asamoah Gyan did not disappoint.

Gyan broke another of Roger Millaʼs records. Earlier this week Colombian goal-keeper Faryd Mondragón Ali became the oldest man to play in the World Cup, breaking Roger Millaʼs 24 year-old record. And today, Gyan eased past Milla in the scoring stakes, becoming the most prolific African marksman in World Cup history with 6.

Ronaldo opened his account to get the winner as Mensah and Dauda got in each otherʼs way. Dauda patted it out straight to Ronaldo who scored easily, but the win was hollow. The thrashing that Portugal took at the hands of Germany in their first match cost them dear as despite losing to Germany the USA went through on goal difference.

The Cult Hero

Ronaldo signalled his intent in 5 minutes. Out on the right wing Ronaldo shot from 40 yards out. It beat Dauda convincingly, but rebounded off the crossbar. Over ten minutes later João Pereira crossed from the left and Ronaldo headed powerfully at goal. Dauda produced a fantastic reflex save and celebrated wildly.

At the other end Gyan turned and shot, producing an instinctive save with his feet from Portuguese goal-keeper Beto. Gyan had a header saved too before turning provider on the left after an hour. His cross should have been headed in by Majeed Waris, but Spartak Moscowʼs on loan striker headed wide.

Failure

Ronaldo failed to add to his tally twice more in injury time. He flicked Naniʼs cross over and shortly after was denied by Daudaʼs feet. Portugal clung on for the win, but not even Ronaldo could drag Portugal through to the next round. Germany and the USA reached the last sixteen.

Portugal were eliminated by the eventual winners Spain in the last 16 four years ago and Ghana were a handball away from the semi-finals. But both have regressed badly. The Black Stars prop the group up. Can James Kwesi Appiah hold on to his job?