World Cup Reminiscing – USA 1994, part 1

The instantly recognisable Carlos Valderrama, midfield star of Colombia’s 1994 side (taty2007 via Wikipedia)

With the 2014 World Cup approaching, I thought it might be a good time to start getting nostalgic. In my lifetime there have been 7 World Cup tournaments. The first in 1986 I remember nothing of; the second in 1990 I remember odd snippets but took no great interest in it other than getting a full Scotland kit for my sixth birthday.

USA 94 is a different story though, and it’s here where I begin my World Cup nostalgia trip. It’s the first World Cup I really properly remember, where I had that wonderful experience of watching players I’d never heard of from countries of which I had a vague awareness. This isn’t intended to be a scientific blow by blow account of the 1994 tournament; rather, it’s me remembering the bits that stick in my head. My intention is to make this a regularly irregular series up to the start of the 2014 tournament next June.

Colombia

Because my birthday tends to fall around the start date of a World Cup, I tend to buy a football shirt with some of my birthday money. In 2010 it was the Brazil away shirt; in 2006 it was the fantastic Mod-esque Netherlands away shirt.

In 1994, having devoured the Shoot! preview of the tournament and noted Pele’s prediction that they were potential champions, I plumped for a Colombia home shirt. Edson’s view was based, not entirely wrongly, on their 5-0 away win against Argentina in qualifying. That Colombia side on paper was excellent, with Andres Escobar, Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla providing a quality spine through the team.

In the end, of course, the hype and the pressure proved too much for the South Americans. Defeats to Romania and the USA were followed by a meaningless win against Switzerland. This was of course rendered all the more meaningless by the senseless murder of Escobar a week after Colombia’s final match, the star centre-half seemingly paying the ultimate price for his own goal against the Americans and its impact on the gambling income of the cartels.

Despite the awful and tragic end to their campaign, I’ll always remember 1994 for the three weeks I became an honorary Colombian. That their current side is the best since that ’94 vintage will add a further dimension to next year’s tournament. And may influence another shirt purchase.

Bulgaria

While Colombia failed to live up to their pre-tournament hype (never trust Pele’s predictions), Bulgaria did quite the opposite and punched a long way above their weight. Their side revolved around and was dictated by one man – Hristo Stoichkov. He was the one truly world class player in their side, and along with the be-hair-transplanted Borislav Mihailov was absolutely vital in ensuring Bulgaria’s unprecedented passage to the semi-finals. That a number of their side went onto play badly for Aberdeen perhaps shows how important the unit and its ability to make the most out of Stoickov was.

Having never won a World Cup match before (or indeed since), that Bulgarian side was an absolute joy to watch in ’94. Their win against Argentina in the group stages, the bizarre second round game against Mexico (more on that later), followed by Stoichkov’s magnificent free kick and Lechkov’s exemplary diving header in victory against the Germans, Bulgaria gave the footballing neutral one hell of a tournament in being able to follow a classy underdog, almost all the way to the final.

Ireland

The Irish qualified for their second successive finals tournament in 1994, and were given the gargantuan task of an opening match against the Italy of Baresi, Maldini and Roberto Baggio. Ray Houghton’s chip over Gianluca Pagliuca will live long in my memory, as will Paul McGrath’s imperious performance at the back, ensuring Ireland kept a clean sheet.

From that 1-0 win in front of tens of thousands of Irishmen in New York, the Republic’s tournament foundered somewhat. A 2-1 defeat to Mexico was followed by a treacherously boring 0-0 draw against Norway. The chaps in green advanced to the last 16 on goals scored, where they faced the Dutch.

An early goal from Dennis Bergkamp was added to by a tame shot from Wim Jonk which somehow squirmed its way past Packie Bonner, much to the chagrin of the Irish. The adventure was over but as ever Ireland made many friends through that tournament, myself included.

Mexico v Bulgaria

In probably the most bizarre game of the tournament, the second round match between Mexico and Bulgaria eventually saw the Eastern Europeans go through on penalties. But what that result doesn’t show is the entirely tiresome and comically inept display of the Syrian referee Jamal al Sharif. In a game that was largely bereft of rough play, Mr al Sharif firstly gave Mexico an extremely soft penalty for a foul on striker Zague, which brought the Mexicans level after Stoichkov’s spectacular opener. This was followed by inexplicable red cards firstly for Bulgaria’s Emil Kremenliev, then Mexico’s Luis Garcia. The match was also notable for a 7-minute break while a goal was repaired, the crossbar having broken in half. In the end, the two sides played the game out to the shoot-out, while I was introduced to a new and unfortunately to be repeated concept – that of the referee looking to be the centre of attention. That Al Sharif never refereed another World Cup match perhaps tells its own story.

There’s more World Cup `94 to follow in a week or two.

Predictions for 2013 – the Results

Back on the 5th of January, I made some predictions, most of which were based on various hunches rather than particularly robust data. I fared as follows:

Manchester United will win the Premier League; QPR will stay up while Reading, Southampton and Newcastle will go down. Chelsea will retain the FA Cup and win the League Cup too.

This was mostly wrong. Manchester United won the league, Reading now play in the Championship. Meanwhile, so do QPR, Southampton and Newcastle United survived, while Chelsea didn’t win either domestic cup competition.

Celtic will win the SPL; Dundee will get relegated. Celtic will also win the Scottish Cup, while Inverness Caley will win a first major trophy in the League Cup.

I got all of these (unsurprisingly) correct, apart from St Mirren’s rather unlikely League Cup win.

The Champions League will go back to Barcelona, and I think Dortmund will get a long way in the tournament too. Napoli will win the Europa League, ending Atletico Madrid’s domination of the competition which subsequently will lead to Falcao departing for either Real Madrid or Chelsea.

Barcelona got annihilated by Bayern in the semi-finals of the Champions League, while Napoli didn’t get anywhere near the final of the Europa League, being knocked out in the last 32 by Viktoria Plzen, 5-0 on aggregate. And Falcao, in a bizarre turn of affairs, went to Monaco to further his career.

Rangers will win the Third Division, and the proposed league reorganisation will result in them jumping to a new second tier. East Fife will stay in the Second Division.

Rangers did win the Third Division but are in the third tier for this season. The Fife did stay in the Second Division (now League 1, in an exciting renaming move), via the play-offs.

Brazil will win the Confederations Cup on home soil, raising hopes to be subsequently dashed in 2014. Tahiti will get absolutely blitzed in their three matches and the entire concept of the tournament will be called into question.

Brazil won the Confederations Cup, annihilating Spain in the final. Tahiti did get blitzed but did manage to score one goal, that accolade belonging to Jonathan Tehau. Given how good the tournament was as a whole, and its usefulness in testing infrastructure and political stability in the run-up to a World Cup, its concept is definitely not being called into question.

Nigeria will win the Africa Cup of Nations, with Cote d’Ivoire again not living up to the hype. Dider Drogba will retire from international football after the tournament.

I’ve already given myself credit for this prediction, although Didier still runs out in an orange jersey and is likely to fancy one last, final international tournament hurrah in Brazil next year.

In tennis, Andy Murray will win another Grand Slam in 2013, with Federer and Djokovic sharing the others.

The first part of this I got spot on, with Murray’s historic Wimbledon victory ending 77 years of British male mediocrity at SW19. Djokovic won in Australia, while Rafael Nadal defied various naysayers (myself included) to pick up the US and French Opens.

As far as the big cricket this year is concerned, England will win the Ashes  at home in the summer; the Australian series will end in a 2-2 tie with England therefore retaining the urn.

Again, part 1 of this was bang on with England not being entirely convincing other than in short spells but still managing to skittle the Aussies 3-0. The 2013-14 series will be very tight indeed, particularly if England’s batsmen other than Ian Bell continue to play as badly, and Ryan Harris continues to bowl as well for Australia at home.

Mo Farah will win one gold at the World Athletics Championships; Jess Ennis will come second. Team GB will win two golds in total.

Farah won two golds; Ennis was injured and became Ennis-Hill by the time she had to pull out of the Championships; and the never knowingly beaten Christine Ohuruogu made it three for Team GB in another strangely encouraging yet underwhelming championships for the Brits.

Rory McIlroy will win two Majors in the golf, with a first-time winner for one of the others.

Two majors? What was I thinking? At that point in early January I didn’t know he was about to sign with Nike, giving him a whole new 14 clubs to get used to. It’s been a frustratingly difficult year for boyfriend-of-Wozniacki. In the end there were three new major champions this year in Adam Scott (Masters), Justin Rose (US Open) and Jason Dufner (US PGA), while Phil Mickelson completed the set for 2013 at Muirfield.

In the rugby union world. Scotland will have yet another awful Six Nations, with England running out Grand Slam and tournament winners.

Scotland didn’t have a hugely encouraging Six Nations but did somehow win 2 games and finished above Ireland and France. England looked set for a first Grand Slam since 2003 before they were hammered 30-3 in the Millennium Stadium, with Wales keeping the trophy in Cardiff.

Chris Froome will win the Tour de France, with Bradley Wiggins helping him to do so.

Right, but also then wrong. Froome winning the Tour this year was almost routine after last year’s successes for Sir Wiggo, who sat out for 2013 through injury.

The sporting year of 2013 is almost over, then. I will attempt another set of largely incorrect predictions come January 2014.

 

Insert Transfer Window Closure Cliche Here

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Mr Bale has this kind of history to contend with along with his gargantuan transfer fee

The transfer window has closed, slammed shut and done other window related things for another calendar year. Sides across Europe will, largely, have to make do with their current squads until 2014 rears its head in around 4 months time. It was a funny old window, with several sagas generally taking up far too much of everyone’s time, and one where Arsenal went from club in crisis to strategically forward thinking in one transfer. Here are some of my highlights.

Özil to Arsenal

Since seeing Mesut Özil play in the 2010 World Cup for that effervescent Germany side, he has been a player I’ve admired. Skilful, with a wonderful football brain and an unerring ability to find a way to provide goals for his team mates, for me he is behind only Xavi and Iniesta in terms of creative midfielders in world football.

And now he plays in England. And at Arsenal. Not only have Arsenal destroyed their own transfer record, which sat at £15m (on Andrey Arshavin) prior to last Monday, they’ve also paid the highest ever transfer fee for a German footballer. It may seem a funny thing to say for a player costing £42m in a position in which Arsenal do not lack in terms of quantity, but this is an outstanding purchase. If he stays fit, and so does Olivier Giroud, my punt on the Gunners finishing third doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous.

Bale to Real Madrid

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this Welsh bloke has signed for Real Madrid for an absurd sum of money. Madrid broke their own world transfer record in purchasing the sleek-haired Mr Bale, expending £86m for his services.

This has of course been the transfer story of the summer. And how intensely annoying it has been. Brinkmanship, rumour-swirling and exorbitant sums of money being quoted and thrown around finally culminated in the Welshman appearing, somewhat bemused, in front of 20,000 people in the Bernabeu on Monday. A few keepie ups for the crowd and he was off to Macedonia with Chris Coleman. What a comedown.

The great difficulty for Bale will, of course, be living up to that fee. Eighty-six million pounds (Sterling) is clearly an enormous sum of money, and even in today’s football world where enormous sums are chucked about as if the money doesn’t actually exist, it is a huge fee. Bale will very quickly have to fit into a Madrid side that is tailored to Cristiano Ronaldo’s style of play, while also satisfying 80,000 Madridistas every fortnight that he is worth the money. Add to that the tricky dressing room politics on the Paseo de la Castellana, and Bale may find that if he doesn’t hit the ground running (both literally and metaphorically), he may find that fee brought into sharp focus very quickly indeed.

Fellaini to Manchester United

Of course, this isn’t so much a story about one transfer as it is about United’s rather sorry excuse for a transfer window. First it was Fabregas. Then Rooney was “angry and confused”. Rumours continued to circulate regarding Mata and Bale. There was a last minute farce surrounding Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera. And then, there was David Moyes going shopping at his old club.

In late July, Marouane Fellaini was available for around £24m due to a release clause. This lapsed into August, hence Manchester United paying £27.5 for him on deadline day. United had earlier in the month bid £28m for both Fellaini and Leighton Baines. In the end, they managed to secure the floppy-haired Belgian, who as a versatile attacking threat will bring something fresh and different to a creaking Manchester United midfield.

No doubt David Moyes and new chief executive Ed Woodward will have learned a lot from their mistakes during this transfer window. Moyes has learned that the position at his new club is far removed from that in the blue half of Merseyside; other clubs will always try to extract an extra few million out of Manchester United before letting a player leave for Old Trafford. As for Mr Woodward, it will have been a bit of a wake-up call. Damien Comolli coming out with the notion that Manchester United need a Director of Football probably isn’t far wrong; the fact he will have said as much so Manchester United will consider him should be treated with far more caution. I expect Moyes and his backroom team to operate with a little more nous come January.

Spurs and Liverpool

Finally, two clubs who have done rather good business in this transfer window. Firstly Spurs, who in getting rid of Bale have replaced him with quality all over the park, and particularly in midfield. Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen add creativity and pace to the Spurs midfield in spades. If Andre Villas-Boas can make those players gel together, and this will be his biggest challenge, I’m particularly excited to see Eriksen – how and why Manchester United couldn’t and didn’t pick him up, even for a little more than the £11.5m Spurs paid for him, is a mystery to me.

Meanwhile Liverpool, having added a reliable goalkeeper and some additional Spanish flair, have now added some quality steel at the back. Tiago Ilori is largely one for the future but Sporting Lisbon is famous for bringing through fantastic young players (some Ronaldo chap being at the top of that list). Meanwhile, the capture of PSG centre-half Mamadou Sakho, albeit for a rather hefty £17m, will bring added steel and diversity to a back line that too often relies on Daniel Agger to get them out of various scrapes.

In, all, an intriguing set of transfers all round. It only adds to the uncertainty in what should be one of the most exciting Premier League title races in years.