Thursday, 30 June 2011

Argentina demands of the only one capable of succeeding Maradona

In the hours immediately following Barcelona’s Champions League triumph at Wembley last month, their main man had already looked beyond the celebrations to his next challenge.

Today is a very special day! Now I want to do the same with the National Team!”, he told his 18 million facebook followers.

The message not only highlights Messi’s insatiable appetite for success, he had just lifted his third Champions League title and scored his 53rd goal of the season in the process, but also an underlying feeling of unfulfilment.

For all that the 23-year-old has already won more than his weight in gold in club and personal honours, the Olympic title in 2008 apart, he has not won a senior international tournament with Argentina. A barren run that stretches back beyond Messi’s time some 18 years since La Albiceleste won a major international tournament. Now, with the continents finest arriving on their home soil, the Argentine public does not expect that run to end, they demand it.

In their eyes the onus is on one man to deliver it. Messi may now be widely regarded in Europe as one of the all-time greats, but his image in his homeland suffers somewhat from having performed all his best work across the Atlantic.

Comparisons with Diego Maradona have been so rife that even El Diego himself has had to admit that the Rosario born star has come closer than any of the hundreds of ‘next Maradona’s’ to come out of Argentina in the past 20 years. Messi, by his own admission, will never match Maradona’s popularity as a cult figure in Argentina; he doesn’t have the arrogance or indeed the dark side that have made Maradona’s life the best soap opera Argentina ever had.

However, on the pitch Messi is determined to ensure he can go some way towards replicating his former national team manager’s achievements.

To that end, Maradona’s successor on the bench, Sergio Batista, has tried to replicate Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system and style as much as possible to give his star the best platform to shine.

The difference from last summer’s team in South Africa is the addition of two other central midfielders, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega, alongside Messi’s Barcelona teammate and captain Javier Mascherano. The ex-Liverpool man’s attempt to plug a dam with a dish towel as the lone barrier in front of the back four during his side’s 4-0 defeat to Germany last summer was Maradona’s major tactical downfall.

Batista has also attempted to add balance to the front three with Messi dropping into his favoured false nine position, flanked by Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Germany coach Jogi Löw described the deployment of a front four of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain alongside Messi and Di Maria last summer as splitting the team in two. Once Argentina surrendered possession these four were completely by-passed, allowing the midfield area to be swamped by counter-attacking opponents.

The presence of Tevez, however, creates an extra dilemma for Batista. It won’t come as a surprise to any fans in Manchester to know that a public spat between the two had seen Tevez dropped for a series of friendlies earlier in the year. A reconciliation, backed by a vociferous pro-Tevez media campaign has seen the Manchester City striker included in the 23-man squad. Yet, his recall does raise some questions: how long will he tolerate being sat on the bench? Will his apparently testy relationship with Messi cause a problem? And, moreover, are the two even compatible on the field given they both prefer to play between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence?

Those are questions that Batista will have to find an answer to over the next three weeks. But, one thing is for sure, despite the public affection for Tevez, the Argentine public is backing on one man to deliver the Copa America. And the World’s best player and his 18 million facebook friends know it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Winning: Spain's happiest addiction

Winning, like many things in life, becomes a habit. It is one of life's more favourable addictions, but one that once engrained is as hard for opponents to shirk than any other destructive tendency.

Never was the evidence of a winning mentality so clearly displayed on the football pitch than when Adrián López stole in at the near post to equalise for the Spanish U-21s against Belarus in their European Championship semi-final on Wednesday. As the ball struck the back of the net the entire bench of substitutes, coaches and backroom staff galloped down the touchline to celebrate with the goalscorer. This side of established stars and promising youngsters had once again shown that the nation that used to promise much and deliver little now has an obsession with winning that would put Charlie Sheen to shame (well, one of many things).

Three years ago the Spanish national team won its first international trophy for 44 years. In that time since 2008 they have won a World Cup, the U-17 European Championships, reached the final of the U-19 Euros and are one of the favourites for the U-20 World Cup in Colombia this summer. On the club front, Barcelona have won two Champions League titles and Atlético Madrid won the 2010 Europa League and Super Cup.

Many of the players who have experienced that success have continued to shine in Denmark. Captain Javier Martínez and Juan Mata played in the World Cup last summer in South Africa. Martín Montoya, Thiago Alcântara, Jeffrén Suárez and Bojan Krkić have all played to varying degrees in Barcelona's first team this season and David De Gea and Álvaro Domínguez were part of the Atleti side to win their first European trophies in 38 years.

The lesson for those looking to follow in the Spanish footsteps is as easy to explain as it is hard to implement. Patience is a virtue. In many regions in a footballing context, it is obsolete.

The patience exemplified by the Spanish comes in two forms. Firstly within the game in the way they move the ball from side to side, constantly probing and looking for space. Adrián's equaliser on Wednesday came after a move of over 10 passes when in the dying moments of the game most sides would have opted for the hump it long strategy. Secondly, in the past decade Spanish sides have stuck to their tiki-taka style even when it hasn't been successful. In 2006 Spain lost to France in the last-16 of the World Cup but kept the same system, coach and players and two years later were European champions. In 2008 a Barcelona side containing Xavi, Iniesta and Messi lost the league to Real Madrid by 18 points. With some subtle changes implemented by Pep Guardiola in how they pressed the ball when they didn't have it, in 2009 they won six trophies. Tiki-taka was never questioned.

So what hope for the smaller nations such as ourselves who do not appear to have the attitude or ability to replicate the Spanish model?

Well, look no further than the Spaniard's opponents on Saturday evening in Aarhus. Switzerland have themselves over the past decade implemented a successful youth system that has produced a conveyor belt of talent for the senior national side. In 2009 they won the U-17 World Cup, with four of that side graduating to the squad that has played in Denmark. Of this squad, the wonderfully named, Innocent Emeghara, Admir Mehmedi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka all played in the senior side's 2-2 draw with England at Wembley earlier this month.

The emergence of these four players also highlights another interesting aspect of the Swiss youth system, the integration of the immigrant population into a symbol of national identity. All four were born outside Switzerland but have chosen to play for the country of their upbringing rather than their birthplace.

The Swiss may not provide the footballing lesson of the Spanish. But they do display a more realistic and socially positive action plan that should be noted in this country from Hampden to Holyrood.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Is there any point to the Gold Cup?

United States v Mexico and Mexico v United States. Those have been the hardly surprising participants in the last two Gold Cup finals.

Looking further back to its formation 20 years ago there has been a bit more variety in the names on the finals board; Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Canada have all made appearances. However, these names hide the sad reality of the uncompetitive nature of football in North America. Those finalists were generally only able to make it that far thanks to favours from invited nations who had knocked out the dual powers of the continent in earlier rounds.* In the nine tournaments to be completed since 1991, Mexico and the US have won eight and on only one occasion (Canada’s victory over Mexico in 2000) has a CONCACAF member outside the big two knocked one of them out.

This year there has been the tiniest of twists in the tale. The States’ 2-1 defeat to Panama on Saturday evening has been the highlight of the competition and a great result for the CONCACAF region as a whole. It silenced critics who had begun to wonder why Mexico and the US didn’t just plat a Confederations Cup playoff every four years and save themselves the hassle of torching minnows in a relatively meaningless competition every two years.

But, as great as it was for Panamese football, did that result make any difference? Whilst it allowed Panama to top the group, the bizarre system that allows 8 teams from 12 to progress from the group stages meant the hosts were never in any danger of not qualifying. The organisers build in insurance clause in the draw, so that even in the unforeseen event of either of the big two not topping their group they would still be kept apart till the final, means that in all likelihood the two will meet again come next Saturday in Los Angeles.

Away from the questions over competitiveness there are other issues that the federation must consider. The most pressing is why there is a need for the competition every two years? Major championships in other regions such as the Copa America, European Championships and Asian Cup all operate under an every four-year format.

The repetition and general uncompetitive nature of the Gold Cup can be draining enough for many international fans and players, that they have to experience it every two years (one without the added incentive of qualification for the pre-World Cup warm up in the Confederations Cup) can make it even more of an non-event.

The only advantage of an every two-year format is to give the smaller nations such as El Salvador, Guadeloupe, Cuba, etc more competitive international experience. However, that brings up another issue regarding CONCACAF’s premier competition.

The past 10 competitions have been hosted or co-hosted (in 2003 and 1993 Mexico co-hosted) by the United States.

I understand the States has the best and biggest stadia, large immigrant populations from many of the competing nations and provides the best advertising and corporate opportunities to cash in on (and we all know how the CONCACAF big wigs like to hear the till bell ring more than most). But if football is to grow in the region, what is the harm in moving the tournament to Canada? Not a big enough fan base? Then Mexico, it certainly has the stadia and numbers to fill them. And what about those smaller countries that a two-year format is supposed to favour? What would be better to boost their participation than hosting the tournament in Honduras or Jamaica, Panama or Costa Rica?

Logistics would obviously be an issue but with only 12 teams and a maximum of 25 games (if the 12 into eight format is continued), four stadia would suffice.

It may sound like madness to many but something radical is needed to shine up the image of the Gold Cup, both on its own continent and further afield, if it is to be a successful and interesting tournament in the coming years.

*In previous years nations such as Brazil, Colombia and South Korea were invited to create a balance in the number of teams competing.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Nearly men no more

The waiting is over. Well, for some at least. The year-long referendum on LeBron James’ decision to team up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami has returned a negative verdict; there will be no establishing of a dynasty this year. But for Dirk Nowitzki, the 7ft German power forward widely regarded as the best ever non-American basketball player, and the Dallas Mavericks the elusive hunt for a championship is finally over.

For many on the Mavs roster the journey to this point has been a long one. A team of veterans who have been there, done it and now finally have the t-shirt. This championship was a first for Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, at the end of his 17th season in the league, Jason Terry, the only other survivor along with Dirk from the side that lost to the Heat in the 2006 finals, and Shawn Marion, the 33-year-old four-time All-Star.

As Terry said afterwards: "All those unique individual stories is what propelled us to this victory."

"Tonight," he said, "we got vindication."

An interesting choice of word because for all the criticism, abuse and vitriol aimed at the Heat and James in particular since his decision to move to Florida last July, vindication is what he sought. Miami was the place, he said, where he could win championships. In his own words, “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven”, a declaration that riled the rest of the league and lacked substance, not least because he signed a six-year contract.

Now it is one he cannot escape from. James has been pilloried in the media for his performances all series, in particular his production in the fourth quarter which has been almost non-existent. He was marginally better in Sunday night’s 105-95 defeat, scoring 21 points to finish as the Heat’s top-scorer, a role occupied by Wade for the previous four games, but LeBron was as culpable as anyone for the shocking free-throw shooting that ultimately cost them the game.

The Heat missed 13 of their 33 foul shots, James failing on three occasions. To put that in perspective, Nowitzki has hit 175 of his 186 free throws during this year’s playoffs – proof that no matter the sport you can always trust a German from the penalty spot.

The most joyful part of Dallas’ success however has been that it hasn’t all been about the man from Würzburg. Nowitzki may be the lone star but the Dallas story is a collective one, built around a team ethic rather than individual brilliance. Terry top-scored last night with 27 points, Tyson Chandler has dominated the rebounding game, the unheralded J.J. Barea tore the Heat defence apart like he had the Los Angeles Lakers earlier in the playoffs.

In a league that has become so obsessed with constructing teams around multiple stars, the Mavericks collection of old fellas provided a heartening lesson to LeBron and Co that you need not one, not two, not three, but a team full of winners to claim the biggest prize.

"This is a true team," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "This is an old bunch, we don't run fast or jump high. These guys had each other's backs. We played the right way. We trusted the pass. This is a phenomenal thing for the city of Dallas."

Saturday, 11 June 2011

LeBron on the brink of proving America right

“This is a big game, probably the biggest game of my life… not probably, it is.”

That was LeBron James’ own declaration on Thursday ahead of Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately for James a 112-103 defeat to the Dallas Mavericks saw his Miami Heat fall 3-2 behind in the best-of-seven game series. The year-long referendum on his decision to swap Cleveland for South Beach just one game away from a definitive result.

Over the past week every aspect of LeBron’s game and psyche has been broken down, analysed, dissected and torn apart by the feeding pack of American sports radio hacks. On the one hand it has been the epitome of media overreaction, on the other it has been an entirely predictable reaction of James’ own making.

When the 25-year-old organised a prime-time TV show to tell the world he would be “taking his talents to South Beach” to team up with fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh last July, he instantly made himself a target to be shot at. And he has been, most notably in Cleveland, but all over the country in visiting arenas, on radio shows, blogs and twitter, it has become a national obsession to have a go at the man who was once the most loved player in the league.

Yet, when he and his teammates defied all the venom to make it to the finals, redemption was within touching distance. LeBron had always defended his move to Miami on the grounds that it was the best way for him to win championships and this was it. Or so it seemed.

The only remaining obstacle was a 7ft tall German who despite being a 10 time All-Star had always had to fight the choker tag. Dirk Nowitzki had managed to quieten those doubters just by dragging his Dallas side to the finals, but as the lone star on a veteran team it was assumed that Dallas wouldn’t be able to live with the athletic triumvirate of James, Wade and Bosh.

For the first 90 minutes of the series they couldn’t. With seven minutes to go in Game 2 Miami were cruising to a 2-0 lead until a Nowitzki inspired comeback sent Dallas home for the next three games on level terms.

When the Heat, led by Wade, responded in Game 3, LeBron laughed off suggestions by one journalist that he was “shrinking” when it really mattered. There was no such humour after Game 4 when James’ astonishing performance got the whole country talking.

However, it wasn’t the kind of wonderment they had been expecting. James disappeared. Hiding in corners, disengaged and ineffective, he had confirmed all his critics’ greatest suspicion that when it came to the crunch this was still Wade’s team and that LeBron, the supposed best player in the world, would defer.

It was an ironic turn of events given that only a few weeks ago James had claimed another principal reason for his need to leave Cleveland had been “to team up with some guys that would never die down in the moment”. Now he was the corpse on court.

Dallas’ DeShawn Stevenson claimed that LeBron had “checked out”, ESPN’s Bill Simmons declared it as “LeBrowndon Part II” – after an equally inept performance had seen his Cavaliers beaten by the Boston Celtics in last year’s playoffs.

Roll on the biggest game of his life on Thursday night and James was beaten again. On a personal level he was fractionally better – his 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists not the embarrassment of his playoff career low eight points in Game 4 – but he was still not the dominant force that saw him become a national obsession and subsequent villain.

Game 5 was the biggest of his career, Game 6 and its one last shot at redemption now dwarves that by comparison. If LeBron doesn’t become LeBron on Sunday, America will rejoice in a collective shower of schadenfreude and salute the German with his maiden championship.