Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Narrative vs. Reality

Every World Cup a certain narrative emerges about a team that is not always in line with the reality on the pitch. So it is, I feel, about Spain going into the semifinals against Germany. They were obviously heavy favorites going into the tournament. Then they lose against Switzerland and everyone starts seeing chinks in the armor. But look at that game again. I've rarely seen such domination. Spain had 20-something shots and should have won it by 5-6 goals. Switzerland was numbingly defensive, but it paid off. And suddenly Spain was not the Spain of two years ago. Nevermind that they went on to beat both Honduras and media favorites Chile comfortably, with the games won inside the half hour. The way they then toyed with Portugal in the last 20 minutes after taking the lead was masterful. They did look off their game against the Paraguayans, who put a lot of pressure on Spain when it had possession, but could that not have been an off game?

Germany, on the other hand, has benefited strongly from taking early leads against England and Argentina. But Spain's defense is a lot more disciplined and, frankly, skillful and I think we'll see a completely different game if there is no early German goal against Spain. Yes, the Germans were outstanding against Argentina. But, again, look at the game (and I have, as they show every game at least 20 times on South African TV) -- Argentina created a dozen chances in the game from which it really should have scored. That they didn't was as much down to bad finishing as strong German defense. Messi's shooting was atrocious. Look instead at the German game against Ghana, where the defense looked very shaky and the Germans were lucky to get away with a win thanks to an Özil wonder volley. I'm not writing Germany off, but I'm picking Spain.

Will Soccer Change Africa?

Here is my NBC Sports story about the future of African football and the impact of the game on the continent. Please comment!

Friday, July 2, 2010

WC of Surprises

Holland knocks out Brazil. I think it's good. Now Brazil has to win it next time, at home -- and in style. The Brazilians won't stand for this Dunga crap anymore. All the Brazilians I've talked to here have downplayed Brazil's chances and said they don't like the team. Gotta love it when they start talking about the 1982 side. It's still the greatest and it didn't even make the semis.

Although Brazil was entertaining in first half and completely in control. They just imploded in second, inviting Holland in. This continues to be a World Cup of surprises. Who knows -- maybe what seemed to be South America's WC will turn out not to have any South Americans in the semis. One of these teams will be in the final: Holland, Ghana, Uruguay. Holland-Germany would be a classic. But come on Black Stars of Africa!!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Valiant U.S. Run Ends

The U.S. is out of the World Cup, but its run has to be considered a success. Here's my NBC Sports column.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Black Stars Make History

A thoroughly deserved win for Ghana over the U.S. Great game. This team can go far. Already it has matched the best-ever performance by an African team in the World Cup (Cameroon, 1994, Senegal, 2002). This is a side more than capable of beating Uruguay in the quarters. Come on, give us a Ghana-Brazil semifinal.

The African Coaching Problem

Here's Bill Rhoden's story in today's New York Times about what went wrong for Africa at this year's World Cup (where only Ghana advanced to the second round). So much has been made of the hiring of white coaches as one cause of Africa's footballing problem. While I agree that African football can only develop if indigenous coaching develops alongside it, I don't buy the argument that European coaches can't succeed because they don't understand the tribal mindsets that permeate multiethnic African teams. It is precisely because a European coach is not part of a particular ethnic group that a country like Nigeria hired a Swede, Lars Lagerbäck, as coach. He is seen as above the favoritism and nepotism that has influenced the selection of players for so long in Nigeria. The real problem is African coaches are not given the training or the resources to do the job properly in Africa, and they are left to work with a shrinking talent pool as the best African players continue to move abroad. The top players who are found in the African national teams are also all used to playing under white coaches in Europe.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nothing But Fear Mongers

About 300,000 people are visiting South Africa for the World Cup, way down from an initial forecast of 450,000. The smaller number of fans has been blamed on everything from the global recession to South Africa's cold weather. But surely all the media fear-mongering ahead of the WC about South Africa's terrible crime rate and the numerous terror threats apparently aimed at the tournament played a major part in dissuading people from coming.

As I just walked through Pretoria downtown after midnight, chatting with a stranger about Bafana Bafana's Cup exit, I remembered reading this preposterous article by Louise Taylor in The Guardian last year.

Bring on the second round

OK, so the last day of the opening round was a dud. But now we move on to the knock-out stages. Some tasty match-ups in store. Here are my predictions.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Super Eagles Deserved Better

So, only Ghana left after Nigeria crashes out. That Yakubu miss with the goal gaping from three yards out is the worst I can recall...in recent World Cup history. To think Nigeria would have made it had he scored. Awful. The Super Eagles certainly had other chances and probably deserved to win, but the truth is they were disorganized in the back and, no surprise, both Korea goals came off set pieces.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blow It!

Still people are complaining about the vuvuzela. Of course, only people sitting on the couch at home. Here in South Africa everyone's into it. Most of all foreign fans, who blow it with greater abandon than the locals (though not as well). It brings a great sense of "other" to the games. And gives the tournament a unique feel that is sorely needed in the increasingly watered down World Cup. There was nothing particularly German or Japanese about the last couple of World Cups. Sounds like people better get used to it too, according to the AP.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ivory Coast Next to Fall

I'm getting really tired of writing about Africa's despair. It almost couldn't get worse, until it did. Ivory Coast was easily swept aside by an annoyingly efficient Brazilian side. 3-1. It could have been more. I'm sitting here in the press tribune at Soccer City as the stadium clears. There's no disguising the fact that this is turning into a horror show for Africa. One win out of 12. Only Cameroon is out, but Ivory Coast now has to hope that Brazil beats Portugal and the Elephants can sneak through on goal difference. South Africa is as good as out, though who knows maybe the French won't show up for the game (like they didn't do at training today). Ghana has to draw Germany. Ironically, it's Nigeria, with two losses, that may have the best chance of going through. Very disappointing.

I was on Swedish television before the game talking about African soccer and was naturally asked why Africa hasn't done better yet. It was Pele who famously said that an African team would win the World Cup before 2000. There are so many factors, but a lack of resources obviously is a big reason. In Sierra Leone, where I've visited a couple of times in recent months, there is ONE grass pitch and that's the national stadium. The talent is abundant, but the opportunities for players to develop aren't there. Everyone's desperate to leave to go abroad to make money, even if it means Asia or the Middle East, where often their footballing development stops.

So much to talk about...

Can I just say how hard I find it to like this Brazilian team. It just doesn't have the personalities to root for, like in the past, with some exceptions (Maicon, Lucio).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

From Bad to Worse for Africa

Cameroon became the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup, losing 1-2 to Denmark. How on earth they were not able to score more than a single goal in this game will forever remain a mystery. They had 23 shots in total and squandered numerous chances, including several one-on-ones. For sure, Denmark also missed several clear opportunities to add to the scoreline. But the Danish defending was a horrow show, and Cameroon really has only itself to blame for not winning the game.

It reminds me of the conversations I've had with people in Africa about the African teams' lack of finishing, and how perhaps it can be traced back to the way many kids play when they're little. You'll see kids play in small, narrow alleys, putting down two rocks for goal posts. All the play goes through the middle and the kids love to dribble and play little triangles and walk the ball into the goal. No one plays on the wing because no one wants to pick up the ball from the gutter when it goes out. So there are no balls into the middle for strikers to finish, so why bother with strikers at all?

Cameroon, of course, has Samuel Eto'o, one of the finest strikers in the world. He scored the Lions' opener and also hit the post in the first half. But the man can't do everything himself.

There can be no complaining about the entertainment value of this game. In the end, however, a very disappointing result for Africa. The vast majority of the Loftus stadium crowd here in Pretoria was rooting for Cameroon. As I left the stadium (during perhaps the coldest night yet here), one really distraught guy draped in a Cameroon flag cried out, "Why Africa? We play all the good soccer! Why don't we win?"

Ghana Disappoints

That Ghana dropped two points against Australia, despite playing almost an hour with a numerical advantage, is disappointing. It may not have changed the situation much for the Black Stars. They probably would have had to get a point from their last game against Germany if they had beaten the Aussies. What's more worrying is the poor performance. This was a shoddy game in which Ghana looked nothing like the composed side that methodically picked Serbia apart. The Black Stars had 22 shots, but a large chunk of them were potshots from 35 yards out. It was Australia that crated the more dangerous chances. Again and again the first touch eluded the Ghanaian players, and the defending was panicky at times. It showed that they had two 20-year-olds starting in central defense. That will be a major worry against a German side that will look to get back to winning ways after the upset loss to Serbia. It's looking increasingly bleak for African teams.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nigerian Despair

What a debacle for the Super Eagles. For the opening half hour they looked in complete control against Greece, having scored early on a fortuitous free kick. Then, a moment of madness for Sani Kaita. The Nigeria right winger kicks out in frustration against a Greek defender and is shown the straight red. He can have no complaints. It all goes downhill from there. Greece scores before half time. In the second it's mostly one-way traffic as both (!) Nigerian left backs get injured. Greece's 2-1 winner comes off a bad spill by keeper Enyeama, otherwise frontrunner for keeper of the tournament so far. You could feel the agony of 150 million Nigerians. It had all looked so promising after the entertaining game against Argentina. In all truth, the defense doesn't look strong enough. There was a lot of desperate defending. But it's not over yet. If Argentina beats Greece, Nigeria may still go through if it beats South Korea.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Black Stars Score First African WC Win!!

Ghana's opener against Serbia was a must-not-lose game for the Black Stars, so to come away with a much-deserved 1-0 win is HUGE. They've given Africa its first win at the World Cup and I have a lot of belief in this team. It may not have been the prettiest of games - the first half could be described as cagey at best - but I continue to be impressed with the composure shown by this young side. Anthony Annan in the holding midfield role is one smooth operator. He was the man of the match for me. The Ghanaian midfield -- average age 22! -- was just so much more mature than their Serbian counterparts. I'm hoping match winner Asamoah Gyan will get his big break in this WC. He was tireless.

Great scenes of jubilation here at the end. The stands were overwhelmingly yellow and draped in Ghana flags. It helps that the South Africans wore their Bafana Bafana shirts. Nice touch by Pantsil -- who had his name misspelled on his shirt! -- to run around the pitch with the Ghana flag after the win.

I got some great video from Ghana fans celebrating penalty winner here.

Super Eagles Confident

Nigeria's 0-1 loss to Argentina must be World Cup's most entertaining game so far. I thought Nigeria created enough chances to earn a draw, though a scoreline of 4-4 would have more accurately reflected proceedings. Worrying lack of organization in Nigerian defense at the corner from which Argentina scored the early lead, however. But Nigerian players were confident after the game that the Super Eagles would go through and I believe they will. In Enyeama they obviously have a keeper in top form.

US No Underdogs

Taking a temporary break from Africa's Game, I covered the US opener against England last night. NBC Sports story here

Friday, June 11, 2010

We're Off!

Oh, so close to a glorious win for Bafana and Africa. Still, a point from the opening game is a great start for South Africa.

You always want the host country to do well -- especially this time with the WC being held in Africa for the first time -- and it would have been a real blow had South Africa lost the opener.

Great atmosphere during the game, I thought. My personal favorite was walking the ramps zig-zagging their way up to the media tribune before the match and listening to the deafening noise from inside the stadium. Goose bumps. (Apparently Bafana keeper Itumeleng Khune disagreed. He said he was disappointed with the home support, and even complained that the vuvuzelas were not loud enough!)

Happy President Zuma called it an AFRICAN world cup in his introductory speech.

Not sure if TV pictures picked up the empty seats inside the stadium. Attendance was only about 84,000 in a stadium that holds over 90,000. The shortfall may be due to the horrendous traffic in the city before the game. It was completely stuck for hours. I only made it after joining a police motorcade driving 80 mph on the shoulder of the freeway. Some journalists I spoke to were stuck in traffic for almost 4 hours.

Off to Rustenburg tomorrow for England-USA. Bummed to miss Argentina-Nigeria.

Looks like Drogba may be fit for Portugal.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

on the eve of the kick-off...

Just picked up my press pass. 24 hours to kick-off. South Africa-Mexico. So much excitement. 250,000 people showed up to celebrate BAFANA BAFANA in Sandton. The team is staying next door to us. I've been coming and going to SA for the past 15 years. To think that a country that was ostracized by the world just two decades ago is now hosting the greatest event on earth.......amazing.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Africa's Game

View the trailer for AFRICA'S GAME, the documentary about the power of soccer to transform Africa.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ghana Beats Nigeria; Reaches ACN Final for First Time

Wow! Great to see Ghana make the African Cup final. And very unexpected. This is a mish-mash of a team. They're missing all their stars! It wasn't pretty, and Nigeria definitely had enough chances to put this game away, but kudos to the young Ghanaian side for some tenacious defending. I'll be in Ghana on Monday morning, so hope to celebrate a Black Stars ACN victory then.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

28 Years Later...

Algeria and Angola's 0-0 draw resulted in Mali's elimination from the ACN, despite "Les Aigles" beating Malawi 3-1 in their final match and having a superior goal difference to both Algeria and Angola, as head-to-head results prevailed.

Algeria and Angola knew that a draw would put both teams through, and clearly played for that result. Algeria coach Rabah Saadane admitted he told his team to "take it easy" during the game. "We had the rules and knew that if Mali won, we would go through. So we said to our players: 'Now stop. Either score or draw - absolutely minimum,'" he said.

Mali lodged a protest with the CAF, complaining that the sides purposely played out a goalless draw to ensure progress.

It's been 28 years since Algeria was similarly eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in one of the World Cup's most disgraceful incidents ever.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Memories of Cabinda

Few people have heard of Cabinda, the oil-rich Angolan enclave where gunmen allegedly belonging to the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) attacked the bus carrying Togo's national football team, killing three people and seriously injuring several others.

I've not reported on the conflict, but I did visit Cabinda about 10 years ago. Chevron flew me on a private jet from Luanda, the Angolan capital, to its base in Cabinda, from where the company took me by helicopter to one of the many oil rigs stationed offshore. I remember getting the PR spiel from the Chevron spokesman, who said the company was heavily investing in education, health and social services in Cabinda. Turns out that "heavy investment" amounted to about $60,000 a year. At the same time Chevron had just announced a new, multi-billion dollar oil exploration project in the region.

From the little I saw of Cabinda out of the helicopter window -- Chevron wouldn't let me visit outside the base because it said it couldn't guarantee my security -- the place looked just like much of the rest of Angola: desperately poor. I do remember the Houston-based, American supervisor of the oil rig bragging about having the best frozen yoghurt in Africa on board the rig. Not sure how he could know that since he also said he'd never been off the Chevron base, but I have to admit it was pretty tasty.

Don't Buy Into the Africa Pessimism

The Togo bus attack is obviously a complete disaster for Angola, whose government had hoped its successful hosting of the African Cup of Nations would help polish the country's war-shattered image.

Predictably, the Africa doomsayers are also pointing to the tragic event as evidence that Africa is not ready to host the world's largest sporting event, the World Cup, this year, never mind that it's being held in a country a thousand miles away from Angola that is not battling any separatist insurgency or has been specifically targeted by terrorists. Africa is Africa.

Danny Jordaan, head of South Africa's 2010 World Cup organizing committee, moved quickly to quell fears about his country's ability to provide adequate security for the event. "Why are people suddenly applying double standards? When there are ­terrorist attacks in Europe, do we hear about the 2012 Olympics being under threat? No. Angola and South Africa are two separate geographical areas, two separate countries. Besides, the African Nations Cup is not the World Cup. We cannot be called to account for the security arrangements of Angola, which is far removed from South Africa," he said.

Sadly, his and other voices of reason will probably fall on deaf ears. Now, any negative incident related to the security of the tournament, no matter how minor, will be viewed as proof that South Africa is not up to the task. I'm not suggesting that the Togo bus attack was a minor incident. What I'm saying is that we'll have a couple of drunken Englishmen robbed on the wrong side of the tracks during the Cup and immediately South African security has failed. The narrative has been set.