2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


2014 World Cup Draw

Expect to see a lot of this next June and July

Expect to see a lot of this next June and July

Let the speculation and build-up commence. On Friday afternoon, after another FIFA circus, the groups for next year’s World Cup in Brazil were drawn. The draw as usual has thrown up some groups which are likely to be meaningless with one or two teams clearly going through; others look rather more interesting.

The other factor, which Tim Vickery has been right to point out, which will impact the sides going through is where and when matches take place. Matches taking place in venues like Fortaleza and Recife (in the tropical north east), particularly games there which kick off in the afternoon, are likely to be very tough for the European sides, no matter the opposition. This has affected my thinking a little, as you will soon see.

The draw came out as follows:

Group A

Brazil, Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon

Group B

Spain, Chile, Australia and the Netherlands

Group C

Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan

Group D

Uruguay, England, Costa Rica, Italy

Group E

Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

Group F

Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria

Group G

Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA

Group H

Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea

Starting at the beginning, the winners of Group A will no doubt be Brazil. They are the hosts and the favourites, with Luis Felipe Scolari already doing an Alf Ramsey and proclaiming his side as champions come next July. Going through to the last 16 with them I’d take a stab at Mexico, given they will be in a climate similar to their own, playing 3 games in the furnace of the Brazilian north-east.

Group B is one of three that is very difficult to call. The Netherlands had a very tricky draw for Euro 2012 and I have the feeling this group will go the same way for the Dutch, with Spain and their current side embarking on their last hurrah likely to top the group. I fancy Chile to come second, largely due to their exciting style and their continental experience.

In Group C, again Colombia should benefit from playing in South America, while having in Falcao, Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez some genuinely exciting attacking players, if a slightly elderly defence. Something of the football hipster/romantic about me thinks that Japan have a good chance of getting out of the group in second. Again they have a fine collection of attacking talent, Keisuke Honda being the obvious candidate, though again their defence is not the greatest with Southampton reserve Maya Yoshida being among their first choice centre-backs.

Group D is another tricky one to call, with three sides capable of reaching the last eight stuck together with Costa Rica. Of the three, I have a feeling England and Uruguay will progress. Costa Rica are clearly the weak link of the four, and I’m basing my views on Italy largely on their slightly ageing set of stars (Buffon in particular) and their tendency to start tournaments slowly or poorly (see the last World Cup). A lot is being made of England’s game in the heat and humidity of Manaus but Italy will struggle to cope with that too – the Italians will find things equally tricky in the searing heat of Natal against Uruguay.

Group E is probably collectively the weakest of the 8. Despite Switzerland’s bizarre presence as top seeds, I can see France and Ecuador qualifying. Ecuador’s one weakness is up front where they have still to replace the tragically departed Christian Benitez, but I think, again with the familiarity they will have with their surroundings that should be enough to see them finish runners-up to the French. I would love to see the Hondurans going through having become a huge fan of that side during the 2012 Olympics but they are probably there to make up the numbers.

Group F is another which has two qualifiers which jump out. Patently Argentina are destined to go a long way in this competition, particularly if Lionel Messi can find his way back to fitness and form by June. I really fancy Bosnia to finish as runners-up provided they can cope with the pressure of their first appearance on the big stage – players like Dzeko, Begovic and Pjanic and their experience of huge games will be vital. Iran and Nigeria, despite the latter’s Africa Cup of Nations success, will be going home.

Group G is probably the Group of Death with the Most Death In It. One would expect Germany to gain maximum points and make their way through. Portugal, Ghana and the USA will provide both the Germans and one another with a stiff test. Just to be a bit different, I’ll stick my neck out and go for Ghana to build on their successes in South Africa and Germany in qualifying from the group.

Group H will likely see the already overhyped Belgium through to the second round – I’d like to see a little shock in this group and maybe go for South Korea progressing to the last 16, ahead of the stereotypically underperforming Russians.

As for the winners? I’ll let that one slide until the summer. In the meantime, I cannot wait for the World Cup to come round, and frankly am already getting excited at the prospect at a whole month of football to come. People might say that international football is no longer the pinnacle of the game; nonetheless, for me and millions of other people, it continues to excite us all. We’re due a good tournament too.

World Cup Reminiscing – USA 1994, part 2

Gheorghe Hagi, probably the most talented Romanian to play the game (dan_avraham2000, Wikipedia)

Having begun my World Cup reminiscy-package a couple of months ago, I thought it was time to round off my memories of the 1994 World Cup with a few more quality moments and players.

Gheorghe Hagi

Where Bulgaria had Hristo Stoichkov, their near-neighbours Romania had midfield genius Gheorghe Hagi to turn their side from workmanlike into one of the top teams on the planet. His finest performance arguably came in Romania’s 3-2 win the second round against Argentina. However, the goal he scored (one of three in the tournament) which will over stick in my memory is the one he bagged in the Romanians’ 3-1 win over the unfortunate Colombians.

The slightly grainy video speaks for itself but it has to be one of the greatest World Cup goals of the last 20 years. Hagi spots the Colombian keeper off his line and from a seemingly impossible angle on the left wing, floats one beautifully into the opposite corner. A goal from another solar system, from a player who in 1994 was at the absolute height of his powers.

Romania v Argentina

While Gheorghe Hagi contributed his own little bit of magic to this match, the game itself overshadowed even the brilliant little Romanian. In what was, along with Brazil v the Netherlands, the best match of USA `94, Romania blustered their way past a side which had been to the last two World Cup finals. Argentina were of course weakened at this point after Diego Maradona’s positive drugs test, but that didn’t make the match any less compelling.

The goal which always sticks in my mind from this game is the first, scored by Romanian midfielder Ilie Dumitrescu. A free kick on the far side of the penalty area in the first 10 minutes, he almost  went one better than Hagi’s goal and lashed it in to the far top corner. Never mind that he did nothing at Spurs or West Ham, he can dine out on that goal for life. A Batistuta penalty levelled things up soon after, before Dumitrescu scored again after a masterful exchange of passes with Hagi. Hagi then scored his goal on 58 minutes with a rapid counter-attack, and while Abel Balbo got the Argentineans back into the game, the side from Eastern Europe made their way to the quarter finals and what is so far, and will no doubt remain as such for some time to come, Romania’s best World Cup performance to date.

An Embarrassment of Playing Riches

I think, despite my relatively tender years, one of the reasons this World Cup has stuck in my head is some of the ridiculous playing talent on show.  Of course the World Cup is supposed to be the best players in the world, all in the same place for four weeks. What I think provides that additional nostalgia factor is that `94 was when so many great players of that era shone and never did again at a World Cup.

Despite his penalty miss in the final, Roberto Baggio was incredible, particularly in the semi-final against the Bulgarians. In that Italian side there was a passing of the baton from Franco Baresi to Paolo Maldini; little did we or Maldini know but `94 would also prove to be his best tournament.

Romario hit heights he never would again for Brazil, his combinations with Bebeto being a particular highlight. As I’ve already said, both Hagi and Stoichkov were incredible for their respective Eastern Bloc nations. Thomas Brolin would be about 40 pounds heavier by the time the next World Cup came round; in `94 he and Martin Dahlin were fantastic. In all, 1994 was a fantastic tournament, the first one I really remember, and one that, for a number of reasons, remains one of my favourite World Cups despite me being a mere pup at 10 years old.

Up next is a review of tomorrow’s World Cup groups draw. In this series, it’ll soon be time to reminisce about France `98.