Is It All A Big Lie?

The controversy surrounding the allegations of match-fixing (well, not actually match fixing, more like no-ball fixing) in the test match between England and Pakistan strikes me as potentially more hypocritical and deceitful towards the sports spectating public than the alleged offences themselves.

The partisan nature of sport makes it ripe for corruption. Supporters are so desperate to will on their teams that they will celebrate the most unlikely and implausible of circumstances as elements of drama — the missed penalties, the ‘inexplicable’ refereeing decisions (which are very explicable if looked at from a more cynical perspective), peculiar substitutions and so on.

Commentators and pundits almost make their living by walking the line between applying the language and analysis of fiction to events and emphasising that these events are opposite of fiction — where you must NOT suspend your disbelief. For watching sport to make any sense you must believe it is true. How often do they say ‘That’s unbelievable’ or ‘I can’t believe he did that’ or ‘miraculous recovery’.

This is why the indignant self-righteousness of the sporting establishment towards any suspicion of lack of integrity in sport — match fixing, positive drugs tests and so on — is so nauseating in that it primarily serves to protect the sporting establishment’s self-interest. As I wrote in a piece after a diabolical refereeing display in the last world cup: ‘almost all football journalists [could be viewed as] part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.’

Their reaction is hysterically two-fold: firstly demand the most draconian treatment for those suddenly-discovered rotten apples who besmirch the reputation of the great game; secondly, deny that the corruption goes any deeper than the individuals whose misdeeds the newspapers are confident enough to report publicly. Basically it’s a case of hang those out to dry who got caught and pretend nothing else has happened.

A scenario that suggested that certain sports were riddled with corruption and cheating would not be welcomed by anyone who makes their living from sport and their reactions to such allegations need to be judged in this context.

In this case, it’s quite curious that it was the News of the World that broke the Pakistan cricketing story — as Sky Sports have paid a lot of money to broadcast the test that the NOTW brought into question. In a world where people cast aside their bigoted prejudices and self-interests one might expect journalists from the BBC or Guardian to be praising this piece of investigative journalism. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

World Cup Predictions

Two and a half months after the end of the most forgettable football World Cup — only memorable points for me were really the Dutch violence in the final and Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t — I looked up Charlie’s prediction for the draw against the final results.

I think I did as well as most pundits. I got Spain as finalists and I got five of the eight quarter finalists — and two exact matches. Bear in mind this was probably the most unusual World Cup to predict with not only England playing calamitously but also France and Italy and the performances of Uraguay, Germany and Paraguay also were unexpected.

I expected both Brazil are Argentina to progress to the semis (but not the finals) so I think that gives me one over on many of the pundits who, Spain apart, always bowed to the big two Latin American sides. So that explains why I had Holland and Germany falling at the quarters.

I still think that had the Lampard goal gone in then England would have won that game and the Argentinian side were poor (even with the much over-hyped Messi) so I think England would have gone out at the semis against Spain. So one adjust for my hopeful bias towards an England win then I effectively picked the winners. I reckon I did as well as most of the ex-pros and anticipated more of the shock results than they did.

Know-Nothing Idiots

This could be applied to the England players as well but is more appropriate to all the idiotic pundits whose collective self-loathing of themselves and the country immediately emerges after the sort of disaster that England suffered yesterday.

People are queuing up on phone-ins and message boards to come out with garbage along the lines of England produces inherently technically poor players who are only motivated by money. Total bollocks. Admittedly, Capello committed professional suicide by selecting some poor (Johnson, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Milner, Upson), underconfident (Green, Carrick, Heskey) and unfit (Rooney, King) players — and in the case of Barry a combination of all of those. Capello also made some idiotic team selections and substitutions.

Nevertheless, players like Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Cashley Cole, Lennon and Terry (and perhaps some others) are the among the best players in teams that include players who have shone in the World Cup. Brazil and Argentina contain players who are good but not head and shoulders above those they have played with in the Premier League — Heinze, Tevez, Gilberto Silva — and some who weren’t even good enough for Man City — Elano, Ronaldinho.

To say England as a whole lack technical ability is rubbish. Everything about the performance was psychological. The players were mentally weak — capitulating easily because, for some reason, they lacked any confidence. The defence was nervous and panicky, sat way too deep and the midfield dropped back accordingly — leaving the two up front isolated. There was no organisation or leadership on the field and certain players have to be held personally responsible — Gerrard’s performance looked like panic personified — he hit about three shots from long range in total alarm at having the ball anywhere near the goal.

And anyone who thinks the appointment of that referee — who has past form for exactly the same ‘errors’ — was just unfortunate chance is either totally naive or, like almost all football journalists, part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.

Rabbits in the Headlights

Even the day afterwards, I’m stunned by the level of incompetence shown by England against Algeria. I’d watched the USA comeback against Slovenia and was encouraged that a win against Algeria and just a draw with Slovenia would ensure qualification provided Algeria could be beaten by two clear goals (more than they’d lost by to Slovenia).

I’d also thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the Hop Pole on Thursday night and watching the imploding France side being dismantled by Mexico. But England were even worse…

It’s difficult to think of a worse performance that I’ve seen by any team ever — even when non-league teams play Premiership teams in cup games or the champions of Andorra or Lichtenstein play in the qualifying stages of the Champions League.

For most of the match England could neither pass the ball nor retain it — countless times the Algerian players stepped in and dispossessed the likes of Heskey, Lennon, Lampard, Johnson and, worst of all, Rooney. There were also staggering displays of cowardice and loss of nerve — most particularly from Gerrard who a few times had the sort of opportunity that he regularly buries for Liverpool. Three of the team came from Liverpool — who’ve had their worst season in many years and lost a shocking number of matches. Surprisingly the right hand side of the defence was from Liverpool who conceded the third lowest number of goals last season and the left was from Chelsea, who shipped second least — Man Utd let in the lowest number which makes one wonder why Wes Brown was left behind. He couldn’t have been any worse than Carragher. Neither Carragher or Terry have any pace so they committed the classic England mistake of defending too deep and stretching the team. (How many offsides were there? Not many.) This leads to all sorts of sins, particularly defenders aimlessly hoofing the ball forward.

Barry played so deep as to be a sweeper so with Gerrard supposedly out left and Lennon isolated on the right we were left to Fat Frank to be the midfield — something that would be a challenge for him even in his Chelsea form. As it was, the game totally passed him by. He’s got to be dropped for the next match — accommodating this perpetual international level underachieved totally disrupts the team.

Rooney even said on television that he’d rather play as the only true forward and here was the proof he was right — Heskey was clueless — even popping up on the right wing at one point. Why? It’s typical of the media to try and build up Rooney as the villain of the piece for mouthing off about the fans. I tend to think fans should boo more, especially at England. They’re paying (a lot) to be entertained and the players should be reminded who pays for their over-lavish lifestyles — but at least Rooney was showing some frustration and anger. The likes of Fat Frank were just rabbits in the headlights. At least Gerrard admitted that England were crap.

Most Irritating World Cup?

The World Cup is slowly building up after what everyone who’s not involved in commercially hyping it must admit was a pretty dire start. Mexico’s demolition of a totally useless French side was a joy to behold…and that number 14 for Mexico looked like a pretty nifty player — I wouldn’t mind having him in my team’s squad! £7m is beginning to look like a bargain.

However, two reasons for intense irritation remain even now the football has picked up. One is the famous vuvuzelas — it seems like some bright capitalist factory owner in South Africa has convinced FIFA and the media that these oversized plastic kazoos are some sort of traditional African heirloom that’s an indelible part of the culture there — and to criticise the terrible noise they make would clearly be culturally imperialist (no matter that they’re irritating the hell out of the billions of people who are watching this showcase for South Africa). I would suspect that going back a few years they were probably about as commonly played as bagpipes are in Scotland. Wikipedia suggests they weren’t in common use in South Africa until 2001.

But even worse is that on ITV we have the human equivalent of the vuvuzela drone in Adrian Chiles. What possessed them to poach him from the BBC for such a huge salary? For about the last 5 years it’s been almost impossible to turn on the television without seeing his pug-like features. I thought he was ok when he was doing business programmes and The Apprentice, You’re Fired and even on Match of the Day 2 — his downbeat, matter-of-factness didn’t seem to detract from the subject. But I  started to loathe his appearances on The One Show — a more blatantly incompetent autocue reader one would be hard pushed to find. When he wasn’t grimacing at the screen trying to read what to say next he was screwing his face up looking down at his notes. He gave the impression he was utterly incapable of having anything interesting to say whatsoever and, acknowledging this, avoided all eye contact with the viewer. He was also nauseatingly politically correct — playing the down-trodden, idiotic, simple, football obsessed modern bloke while genuflecting before every right-on cause.

Now we have to have him spoiling the football coverage. It’s the World Cup, yet you’d think he was still mumbling about the NASDAQ moving down 0.1% as he used to on ‘Working Lunch’. While ITV are often guilty of way too much hyperbole in their sports coverage, he’s so totally the other way it’s a joke. With a bit of luck he might fall asleep during the England match — him snoring his way through the analysis would probably be a marginal improvement. Or maybe ITV can repeat their monumental blunder of putting an advert on their HD transmission feed just as Gerrard scored England’s goal and we can all watch Hyundai ads instead of more interminable droning.

Useless England Needed a Ginger Prince Not A Cauliflower King

So much for Capello instilling some purpose into England. After a qualifying campaign that saw them largely confident and purposeful they regressed into massive underachievement and paranoid nervousness last night.

I still can’t believe how bad some players were. The midfield was dreadful — Henry Winter has written in The Telegraph singing Gerrard’s praises but he must have filed his report after four minutes. Perhaps Gerrard was the best of a bad bunch and scored a good goal but hardly a hero. We also found again that Fat Frank Lampard seems to shrink to a point of insignificance when he put on an England shirt. It seemed like he was kicking that cauliflower around from the Tesco advert — or just maybe thinking he was in Tesco’s choosing a menu for Christine Bleakley. With two attacking wingers we needed two central midfield players who were both interested in the match and could be bothered to try and play together.

If there’s one sight that seems to suggest we’ll be lucky to even get to the quarter finals, it’s Jamie Carragher coming on to play in central defence, particularly as Johnson (the toilet seat hero) had such a brainless match — hoofing the ball aimlessly upfield in the second half. Seeing as Carragher was mainly cover for Johnson, we have the prospect of being stuck with both these lumps from a club whose defence was so poor they finished seventh in the league. Why didn’t Dawson or Upson come on instead? And Gary Neville or Wes Brown should have been in the squad. And Milner was a poor choice — you can’t haul every player off after they get booked so Capello must have realised he made a mistake. At least SWP had a go but if your midfield can’t supply the ball to the two wingers then it’s like playing with nine men.

At least Capello realised before the tournament that his midfield was lacking and it’s a shame he didn’t turn earlier to the best English midfield player of the last twenty five years — the Ginger Prince himself. At least he can pass the ball better than a cauliflower.

Official National Drinking Day?

If the police had been involved in scheduling the World Cup draw there’s no way they would have allowed England’s game on a Saturday to kick off at 7.30pm. They would have preferred it to be 7.30am (as would be the case with a World Cup in the Far East).

The next game is a Friday evening so most people won’t have been able to drink all day and the next one is 3pm on a Wednesday.

Should England win the group, we’ll have another all day drinking marathon as it will be 7.30pm on a Saturday again. Should they come second then it’s a 3pm Sunday kick off.

If we get to the quarter finals then drinking opportunities are lowered with either Friday evening or Saturday afternoon the options. The semis are mid-week evening kick offs so not much chance there.

Of course, should we get to the final — at 7.30pm on Sunday 11th July — that would be the cue for an Official National Drinking Weekend — the like of which has never been seen before.

Even if we don’t win the football World Cup this country is a world-beater in the drinking one.

Charlie’s World Cup Predictions

I was looking for a World Cup interactive fixture diagram (one that calculates the tables and predicts the next round) but couldn’t find one on the BBC or a newspaper website. I eventually found this one on a betting website. It downloads a template into Word.

I hope it works ok up to the quarter finals then I think it goes wrong. I’ve had to modify my draw below. I’ve entered some predictive scores based on my best guesses with a bit of randomness thrown in. These are the teams I had going through from the groups.

Winners: France, Argentina, England, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, Spain (no real surprises there)

Runners Up: South Africa, Nigeria, USA, Serbia, Denmark, Slovakia, Portugal, Switzerland

This leads to the following second round matches: France v Nigeria; England v Serbia; Germany v USA; Argentina v South Africa; Netherlands v Slovakia; Brazil v Switzerland; Italy v Denmark; Spain v Portugal.

I then predicted the quarter finals: Argentina v Germany; Netherlands v Brazil; England v France; Italy v Spain. Some corkers there.

Being patriotic I backed England all the way so ended up with semis of : Brazil v Spain; Argentina v England.

This led to a final of England v Spain.

So before a goal has been scored that’s the way I’m calling it. I predicted the opening match 0-0 by the way.

23 to Think About…

Foster, James, Green

Brown, Ferdinand, Terry, Lescott, (with reluctance) Cashley Cole, Phil Neville

Beckham, Carrick, Phil Collins’ greatest fan, Frankie, Lennon, Cole (J), Milner, Barry, Hargreaves (assuming fit)

Rooney, Owen, Heskey, Defoe, Crouch

A bit light of the defence but Carrick should be able to cover and Crouch might do a job in an emergency.

Carrick and Owen Do Their South Africa Chances No Harm

For the next six months or so we can all play the game of second guessing Fabio Capello’s choice of his 22 or 23 for South Africa. Probably using up more column inches than anything else will be the fate of two players — Beckham and Owen. Interestingly, Owen’s rejuvenated career at Man Utd seems to be suiting him as his reduced involvement in matches seems to mean he’s got less chance of succumbing to the sorts of injuries that have plagued him between international tournaments. He showed tonight against Wolfsburg that he’s still incredibly predatory in and around the six yard box. He’s never likely to start for England but in a big match I think it’s worth having a fit Owen on the bench.

Man Utd’s incredible lack of defenders (only Evra is fit) shows the squad aspect of international selection. In the 22 or 23 there should be a few players who are flexible and Carrick did himself no harm by his unlikely pairing with Fletcher. He wasn’t brilliant against Wolfsburg and you’d never want to start him for England there but at least there’s a midfield player available who’s played centre back in the Champions League (and looks likely to play there against Villa on Saturday). I wonder whether some colossuses of the England midfield, like Stevie G, would be quite so happy to play there.