Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sterlings, Trippiers overshadow Beckham, Rooney era

SOCHI, Russia: Despite the defeat against Croatia, England has surprised everyone at the World Cup with a very young side who almost made their second final after 1966.
The past English sides have been mocked and jeered not by their fans but by the experts, who felt that the Three Lions were simply over-rated.

It has been true at all the World Cups barring the 1990 edition (in Italy) where they had reached the last four.

“Don’t look back in anger,” the fans sang to heartbroken players who stood drained and defeated in front of them on Wednesday night.

Whether it’s their set-piece innovations or tenacity, Gareth Southgate inculcated a self-belief which was so crucial to their survival in the tournament.

A country which boasts of the best and richest leagues in the world has never been able to garner respect and awe from their opponents and football-lovers.

The David Beckham or Wayne Rooney era was a hyped one, with the former was more of a glamourous model than a player who could turn a match.

Yes, Beckham was good in free-kicks, but that’s not how a player should be judged. He was popular among his legion of women fans, but never been an outstanding player like Luca Modric.

There was a definitive lack of cohesion in those English sides which had one Beckham, one Rooney and Steven Gerrard.

But Russia 2018 may have changed all that and with a positive road map and the Sterlings, Rashfords, Allis and Trippiers stand to gain a lot.

They’re the cream of English football including their inspirational captain Harry Kane, who tops the scoring chart with six goals.

But the Tottenham Hotspur forward was not in his elements and missed a couple of chances including one header which went wide in stoppage time against Croatia.

“With experiences, they’re going to become only better in next two years. There’s a lot of positives to take from this tournament,” said Southgate, who was associated with his country’s junior development programmes.

If his side wins against Belgium in the third-match play-off in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, it will be a consolation prize but good enough to bolster English football.

Trippier scored a gem of a goal from a free-kick fifth minute after start. The shot, which curled over the Crotian wall and landed into the net, was all about confidence laced in it.

England chugged along, but lost the plot once Modric re-energised the team with his great piece of work, culminating in goals from Ivan Perisic (61st) and Mario Mandzukic (extra-time).

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Akinfeev's hand-feet combination knocks out Spain

MOSCOW: Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev used his hand and feet in the penalties to help Russia overcome Spain in a Round of 16 match here on Sunday.

On a rain-drenched evening at the Luzhinki Stadium, the 32-year-old showed excellent athleticism by using the heel to deny Aspas in the last shot as the hosts overcame the 2010 winners 4-3 on penalties after match ended 1-1 in extra time.

The Russian victory against a top side could be a turning point for sport’s future in the country as it’s still not one of their favourite games.

Basketball, volleyball and ice hockey continue to attract the Russians. Lack of international results may have had a deep impact on football not becoming a main sport.

Russia has reached the quarterfinals for the first time after 1966 as the erstwhile USSR.

Akinfeev was in great form after he made couple of excellent saves in the match including the one from substitute Rodrigo’s fiercely-driven shot while the defenders cleared Carvajal’s second effort from the rebound.

“I’m not the man of the match, the man of the match is our team and our fans,” said the Russian captain.

The beginning wasn’t good for Russia as Sergey Ignashevich own-goal opened scoring in the 12th minute, but Artem Dzyuba equalised from the spot in 41st following a handball by Pique.

But the Russians fought tooth and nail despite not enjoying the best of possession. They were a shade better in the second half, with a flurry of attacks had put the Spanish backline under pressure.

The early own-goal made things easier for the former champions despite Russian defenders worked hard to stop Asensio, Isco and Aspas.

The Spanish worked hard, but little results on the counter attacks as the hosts played their hearts out.


Messi, you're just a Barca brand

MOSCOW: By the time the next World Cup takes place in Qatar, Lionel Messi would be 35.

Logically, the Argentinian has played his last World Cup at the Kazan Arena on Saturday.

But why did the entire world rooted for the Barcelona star at all these World Cups, knowing that he is only good in his club shirt?

Comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo over these years have fuelled the expectations of fans across the globe, but Messi had deprived them of further celebrations in Moscow and elsewhere.

He may have ignited hopes for his countrymen in the last group match against Nigeria in Saint Petersburg last week, but that wasn’t enough.

World Cup is a big tournament and that’s where a player like him should’ve dazzled.

In the last one decade since his debut with Barcelona in 2005, Messi enjoyed a near demi-God status across the various continents and also drew comparisons with compatriot Diego Maradona following that epic goal against Villa Real in La Liga.

From journalists-turned-Barca fans to a tea-seller on a Kolkata street, everybody hailed him as the next star who resembles Maradona.
Achievements speak volumes for a player. That’s why we still recollect Maradona’s goal of the century against England.

However, Messi had flattered to deceive in last three editions and remained success-starved at all the World Cups he had played for his country.
You don’t have to be a great football expert to understand Messi’s shortcomings.

He is an out-an-out Barca player. I don’t doubt his nationalistic feelings, but he never shown that Maradona-like intensity in the World Cups.

In fact, the world media played a key role in making Messi a brand. From comparisons with Ronaldo to mouth-watering duels between Real Madrid and Barca, fans were made to regale Messi’s brilliance in La Liga.

But his brilliant piece of work wasn’t reflected in him at the sport’s grand stage, where a 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe grabbed all the attention.

The Messi-Ronaldo battle has divided a generation of youth, who carry them from drawing rooms to college campuses.

Even most pro-Messi journos often argued that he failed because he didn’t quite the support from his team-mates. A player’s class is determined not by what he does on the field, but also how he leads the team. Maradona inspired a generation of young players like Jorge Burruchaga and others to World Cup glory 32 years ago.

Well, Maradona was a rare talent and leader, who played for his country and club with the same intensity. He’s an icon at Napoli, but when he turned out for the blue stripes, he was simply outstanding.

Finally, I can heave a sigh of relief. Those Maradona-Messi comparisons has come to an end, and Argentina will have to wait for another genius before they revive their lost glory.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Spasibo, Russia: World Cup merge sports with history

MOSCOW: Red Square is steeped in history, but these days it has become the centre of the world, at least, for the FIFA World Cup.

The street, which had witnessed a plethora of activities during the WWII, is now dotted with shops, sidewalk cafes and hotels.

Just opposite the Kremlin, you’ll come across some finest brand stores and even an ice-cream parlour.

The Fan Zone, which has been put up on the middle of the street, remains the point of attraction for the kids and young fans, but the older generation prefer a sombre walk towards Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum or gaze at some of the statues.

The tournament, in fact, has helped merge sports with history. But if one has some interest in Russia’s role in the WWII, then find some cozy space on the street and rewind the clock back to the biting cold in 1941 when Joseph Stalin delivered his famous speech to the erstwhile Soviet army just before they left for the war on November 7.

Fans from every nook and corner of the world converge here on every afternoon to exchange pleasantries, hug each and sing ‘ole ole.’

The competition has united the world, which nowadays often involves into heated arguments and engage in proxy wars.

So, it’s great to see a Mexican fan hug two beautiful Russian ladies right across the majestic Kremlin or Tunisians pose for a memorable picture with their Spanish counterparts under the monument of Georgy Zhukov -- Russia and erstwhile Soviet Union’s most decorated general, who played a key role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Close to the city’s iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral, a German veteran was engaged in ball-control skills with his grandchildren. In fact, he too wanted to be a part of this beautiful moment.

So were the two Spanish young girls, who cooled themselves on a sunny afternoon with ice-cream cones while marvelled the Kremlin’s red wall.

The tournament is significant in many ways as the FIFA competition has brought the entire world to a place, which can claim the best advert for peace. (

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

England’s ‘Summer of 66’ and a thought...

MOSCOW: Englishmen born in the 70s must have watched Geoff Hurst’s celebration video clips perhaps more than the Hollywood classic The Godfather.

The English striker’s controversial goal against West Germany in the 1966 FIFA World Cup final at Wembley still gives them kick, but sadly doesn’t inspire their footballers anymore to emulate their team's only World Cup triumph.

England’s 1966 World Cup victory is just a piece of memory which the Englishmen flip through the pages after every four years, and they still hope their football teams will emulate Bobby Moore and company.

But those who understand the game and have followed English football post 70, would agree the ‘Summer of 66’ was a ‘fluke’ as all their past teams had struggled at the successive World Cups.

Even the Indians, who are so much influenced by ‘Made in England’, have never been a die-hard fan of their past colonial masters, who had taught them football.

Not just the Indians, everybody who even possess the slightest knowledge on their sport had never put their money on them at any of the quadrennial competition, not even when Gary Linekar and David Beckham played.

England remain a gross underachiever at the sport’s biggest stage -- like the South African cricket team.

Though Gareth Southgate’s young side showed promise against Tunisia last Monday, still there’s a long way to go in Russia.

Southgate adopted a modern formation with a three-man backline, quick-witted wingbacks and more flair in midfield. But the win against Tunisia was underlined by a set-piece model.

The Three Lions will have it easy against Panama unless there’s any shocker waiting for them.

However, the real test would be against Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard’s Belgium on June 28.

The entire world watches their league, but not their national team -- the likes of Kane, Lingard, Alli are good players, but definitely not the best.

Most coaches always felt that none of the clubs does enough grass root work as they would travel to Latin America or Africa to buy talent.

Can anyone give a count of their players in any of the European leagues? The likes of Beckham or Wayne Rooney travelled to the US post their prime, and MLS is one of the best competitions.

So, you’re left with the Kanes and Lingards who win accolades at home but the day English footballers leave their comfort zone and play in other parts of Europe, they will become better.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Post 1986, Brazil’s football philosophy is in a confused state

MOSCOW: As the most popular football side in the world, Brazil always excite us.

Even the media admire them -- more than 200 newspaper journalists and 100 photographers are registered for tomorrow’s Brazil versus Switzerland game.

At the Rostov Arena, children have welcomed the Brazilians to the city, with their paintings spread around the city. Such is the love and affection that they’ve been enjoying since ages.

Everybody loves the Selecao, but off late Brazil doesn’t resemble the teams of 70s and 80s. The attacking flair, which won them millions of hearts across the globe, is now a thing of the past.

The team’s current style is not even a sequel of what Tele Santana had produced at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and as school children, we were thrilled to watch Socrates-Zico-Elder-Falcao indulge their love of feints, tricks and back heels.

The free-flowing approach has been replaced by a more cautious one ever since their players started playing in the gruelling European leagues.

No wonder their football philosophy is in a confused state. Just like any Hollywood classics, those golden days of Samba can’t be re-created but, at least, Brazilian coaches can draw inspiration from Santana.

The drubbing against Germany at home four years back is still fresh in our mind. Yet, everybody expect them to bounce back in the World Cup and impress their fans with subtle skills added with searing pace.

“The work we have done elevates the expectations, but also brings us peace. I’m very happy about the level of performance we have showed so far. I hope we can now reproduce this under pressure,” said Brazil coach Tite on Saturday.

Sounds all fine, but as we’ve seen, Brazil is now a shadow of their own glorious past.

The team’s talismanic forward Neymar recently underwent a surgery and returned to action couple of days ago in a pre-tournament friendly.

The Paris-Saint Germain star also scored a goal, but still we aren’t convinced till he strikes the ball hard against the Swiss.

“Neymar is still not 100 per cent, but he is very privileged physically. The level he has displayed in his sprints in high velocity has been impressive. But still he has something to gain. It should happen sooner rather than later, hopefully,” added Tite.

Back in 2013, Switzerland won 1-0 in Basel. Only four Brazilian starters from that friendly match are here in Rostov: Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Paulinho and Neymar.

We’ll have to wait till tomorrow to see if Neymar unleashes his power to avenge their five-year-old defeat.

But, good luck Selecao!

Why African teams couldn’t become a Croatia or Iceland

MOSCOW: There’s something about the African football teams. Hugely talented, but still remain success-starved at the sports biggest platform.

During an informal chat with Moustapha Hadji in Doha few years back, the Morocco legend and 1998 World Cup hero said that ‘it’s always difficult to handle a bundle of talents’.

Quite rightly so. When you’ve an entire team of excellent footballers, there’ll bound to have ego clashes in the locker room so much so that it becomes difficult for the coaches to handle each of them.

Nigeria’s Super Eagles has always been a fantastic squad since the days we’ve started watching Nwanku Kanu, Finidi George and others at the 1994 World Cup.

All five of Nigeria’s World Cup finals victories out of their 18 matches have been against European opposition.

The Super Eagles beat Bulgaria 3-0 and Greece 2-0 in 1994, Spain 3-2 and Bulgaria 1-0 in 1998, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 in 2014.

At this year’s edition, Nigeria has come with one of the youngest teams, with 18 players set to take part in a FIFA World Cup match for the first time.

Only skipper John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses, Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo have previously played in the World Cup.

But one of the debutants, William Troost-Ekong, is relishing the chance for them to prove themselves on the world stage.

“Many of us will be playing at the World Cup for the first time, but this may work in our favour as we might surprise others. We will play without fear,” he said.

At the most, the Gernot Rohr-coached side will qualify to the next round, which they had in the last two editions. But Nigeria, like Senegal or Cameroon, have always failed to live up to our expectations.

The African players are the top exports to the world’s glamourous leagues. Even an average player earn good salary in the Middle-East, south-east and south Asian countries.
But their football setup is like any other third-world nations, where the growth is slow due to the faction rivalries, corruption and lack of professionalism. That may be some of the other reasons why they couldn’t become another Croatia or Iceland.

Africa is a relatively poor continent. There’s lack of facilities and kids do not get proper nutrition which can help in their development.

Moreover, they are not exposed to the High Performance Facilities though there are exceptions like Didier Drogba and Samuel Etoo but players like them are few in numbers who went to France early in their careers and made an impact.

In the end, all the good brains leave Africa due to wars, dictators and football is managed by people, who’re favoured by dictators and warlords.

Sterlings, Trippiers overshadow Beckham, Rooney era

SOCHI, Russia: Despite the defeat against Croatia, England has surprised everyone at the World Cup with a very young side who almost made t...