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Consider the Gaffer

"I'm thinking of a player between 1 and 10..."

The half-truths, the innuendo, the egos… I can’t wait.

Mad Men’s season premiere is tonight.

But there is also this nebulous time in the football world — after the World Cup, but before the league seasons start — where players, agents, managers and the media all say the most outrageous things in the hopes that they’ll come true. It’s very Geppetto-esque… like wishing that Cristiano Ronaldo will someday become a real boy.

'Arry orders another drink before speaking to the press

First of all, managers are scrambling to strengthen their squads, while hoping to outsmart their opponents. Witness ‘Arry’s backhanded compliment towards Manchester City.

The gaffers also have the task of trying to keep their stars happy and at home. Arsene Wenger has had to beat off Barcelona with a stick for Cesc Fabregas.  West Ham has had to put a ridiculous price tag on Scott Parker.  And sadly, some clubs are willing to pay absurd amounts just to pry a player away, with Manchester City assuming the role of Cheslea, circa 2004 — or Real Madrid, years 2000 to the present. More on them in a second.

Of course, some managers get by on good old-fashioned wits and salesmenship. Just ask Joe Cole.  But even though Roy Hodgson has done a little bit of transfer magic, it still might not be enough to keep Fernando Torres on Merseyside. And before you can sweet-talk a player, you have to be able to actually talk to him first.

The Special One starts his freshman season at Real Madrid, with pockets as deep as he had when he was in London’s West End.   So of course, the media has linked Jose Mourinho to everyone in the football world, on every team, ever.

Meanwhile, the man who wanted Mourinho’s new job — but got his old one instead — will have to show that he can build on last year’s treble success, and basically not f#ck things up.  Good luck, Rafa, you’ll need it.  And you thought the English press was bad… look for more rants this season.

The one manager who has remained suprisingly quiet in all of this is Sir Alex Ferguson.  True, he had to offer Dolph Lundgren-look-alike Nemanja Vidic a new contract to keep the other vultures away.  But SAF has only bought two players — Javier Hernandez and Fulham’s Chris Smalling.  Maybe Sir Alex is revelling in the fact that Manchester United only had five players away at the World Cup — six, if you count Hernandez — and none of them made it out of the second round.  Get yer rest boys, yer going to need it.

Speaking of Sir Alex, At The Rails’ own Ian Harrison wrote a lovely piece on the man for Toro Magazine on Fergie’s ties to our home and native land.

But until the leagues begin, I’ve got a bit of Mad Men to watch. And now for a gratuitous picture of Christina Hendricks.  Because I can…

Football? What football?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brent Lanthier

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Holy spit! Spain beats Portugal

David Villa

They started the World Cup with a shock loss to Swizterland. But Spain, the reigning champions of Europe, have won all three matches since, and booked their berth in the quarterfinals today with a 1-0 victory over Iberian rivals Portugal, who barely got anything of merit out of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive footballer. David Villa, recently signed by Barcelona, struck the only goal of the match, firing his own rebound over Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo, who had gone more than 330 minutes at this tournament without conceding before he was beaten.

Spain had controlled most of the possession in this entertaining encounter in Cape Town, the final World Cup match for our correspondent, but it was Portugal who stretched play and created the clear-cut chances in most of the first hour, save for a pair of early Spanish shots against Eduardo. But after Fernando Llorente came on for Fernando Torres and immediately created a headed chance, Spain were in the ascendancy. In the end, Iniesta found Xavi, whose clever backheel freed Villa for the shot and follow-up effort into the roof of the net that sent Portugal packing.

Cristiano Ronaldo

While he’s clearly one of the most special talents in the game today, I’m no fan of Ronaldo and was pleased to see Argentinian referee Hector Baldassi refusing to buy into the foul-seeking floppiness he’s become infamous for. The supremely talented but too-often petulant winger struggled to get touches, whined when the calls didn’t go his way and spat in the direction of a cameraman trailing him off the field at the final whistle. Good riddance.

Having said that, I’ve watched the replays of Ricardo Costa’s late elbow on Joan Capdevilla that resulted in a 88th minute red card from Baldassi, and can’t see why it was a direct red. A bit of dirty play acting from the Spaniard perhaps? I hope not.

Paraguay fan

Elsewhere, it was a day for cheering with two hands, which meant finding a new place to stash your Blackberry, if you were a fan of Paraguay, who became the fourth South American team to book their spot in the last eight by beating Japan 5-3 on penalties, the first game to be decided in that fashion at this World Cup. After a pretty dire 120 minutes, during which penalties always looked the most likely outcome, La Albirroja converted all five from the spot, with substitute Oscar Cardoza sliding home the clincher to put his team in the last eight for the first time, while Japan’s Yuichi Komano banged his effort off the crossbar, sending the Blue Samurai home in shameful defeat.

So, the quarters are set and we all get a couple of days to catch our breath before the Netherlands face Brazil in Port Elizabeth on Friday morning, with Ghana and Uruguay squaring off at Soccer City in Soweto later that day. Saturday morning brings Argentina vs. Germany in Cape Town, with Spain meeting Paraguay at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium in the late game. I’m going with Ghana and Brazil to emerge on one side of the draw, with Spain and Argentina getting through on the other side, even though by picking against Germany I’m ignoring the choice of Paul the Octopus. He knows his football – that match should be a cracker.

Ian Harrison

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Sweet 16 set in South Africa

Here’s the problem boys: You can’t score with your eyes closed

It was South American Colonies vs Former European Colonial Masters on the final day of group stage play at World Cup 2010, with Brazil facing Portugal to decide the top spot in Group G in one of the early games and Chile taking on Spain for first place in Group H in the late games.

As captivating as it looked on paper, the Brazil-Portugal clash didn’t really live up to the hype, finishing in a 0-0 draw that saw both teams go through, with Brazil securing first place. A shame, really, that this game didn’t come up earlier when both sides had more to play for…a draw was always on the cards given that it was enough to put the two teams into the knockout round.

Portugal have yet to concede at this tournament, but just as tellingly they haven’t put a goal past anyone other than North Korea. Good for them that they put seven past Kim Jong-Il’s boys, who may never be seen again after they bowed out with a 3-0 loss to Ivory Coast. Afterwards, Sven said goodbye to the Elephants, who were always going to need a big scoreline to keep going, but couldn’t pull it off . Sadly, the team many felt was Africa’s best but one that was consigned to a Group of Death for the second straight World Cup, finished one point behind Portugal, leaving Ghana as Africa’s lone representative in the second round.

David Villa’s cheeky goal pointed Spain into the second round

Later, while I was out covering a G20 protest march through downtown Toronto, Chile became the first South American team to taste defeat at this tournament, falling to Spain 2-1 thanks to an audacious first-half strike by David Villa and a well-struck shot by Andres Iniesta, and aided by an harsh sending off by Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez (the same guy who chased Australia’s Tim Cahill) after Marco Estrada clipped the heel of Fernando Torres, who disappointed again and was substituted early in the second half. Despite La Roja’s defeat, all five South American teams have reached the next stage, with a combined record to date of nine wins, one loss and five draws.

Finally, Switzerland’s bank-vault defence didn’t concede against Honduras in a 0-0 draw that gave the Central Americans their first and only point of the tournament, but did nothing to send the Swiss through.

So, it’s Brazil vs. Chile in an all-South American clash at Ellis Park Stadium in Jo’burg on the 28th, and Spain vs. Portugal in Cape Town on the 29th, our correspondent’s final match of his World Cup tour.

Ian Harrison

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Portugal win laugher, Spain & Chile also victorious

There were goals aplenty for Portugal in its match against North Korea, a 7-0 whitewash that eliminated Kim Jong-Il’s crew (probably only the second-biggest story in that country today) and all-but guaranteed that Ronaldo and company will be joining Brazil in the next round.  Even Didier Drogba’s firepower isn’t likely to be enough for Ivory Coast to overcome its goal difference woes and escape this Group of Death, another African casualty ready to be wheeled in to the World Cup morgue.

Wacky refereeing was the story in Chile’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Switzerland in the second match of the day as South American teams remained unbeaten. You might have thought, given the history of this Chile team and it’s appearance at the U-20 World Cup in Canada a few years back, that it would have been them who lost their cool when the cards started flying thick and fast, but it was Switzerland’s Volan Behrami who was sent packing, and Steve Von Bergen resorting to handbag tactics in the second half. The Swiss held their ground long enough to establish a World Cup record for minutes played without conceding, but couldn’t keep the hard-charging Chileans at bay. Even with six points, Marcelo Bielsa’s team is not guaranteed a berth in the knockout round, and will have to be more clinical in its finishing to survive Spain and, should it advance, the cream of Group G.

Finally, the aforementioned Spaniards turned on the style against Honduras in the late game, posting a 2-0 victory thanks to a brace from David Villa, who also missed a penalty. Fernando Torres failed to impress but this was more like it from the reigning European champions, who can still top their group by beating Chile in Pretoria on Friday, a game that could be an cracker. Coach Vincente Del Bosque sees room for improvement, with Villa’s behaviour one area that could be brushed up, but this should keep the critics at bay, which is more than can be said for Nigeria’s Sani Kaita. Really people, it’s only football.

Ian Harrison

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Dirty shirts, little men… and Sven

Brent Lanthier

No one’s having more fun than this guy…

England players are used to talk of their millionaire lifestyles and misbehaving WAGs, so this next tidbit begs a “dirty laundry” joke about a sewage leak soiling their kits .  Look at me! I’m punny just like the British press!

And just when you couldn’t watch it anymore, I thought I’d post the Guardian’s Lego recreation of Robert Green’s Hand of Clod.

OK, back to the real matches. New Zealand and Slovakia opened up the day with a 1-1 draw. Last week, I publicly called the All Whites “filler” but they played well enough today. Both goals were headers… although Robert Vittek was offside when he put his in the net.  Winston Reid’s goal off a Shane Smeltz cross (deflected by a Slovakian player) was New Zealand’s first World Cup goal since scoring against Scotland in 1982 (Ed: Thanks Adam).

Next up in the so-called Group of Death: Ivory Coast vs. Portugal. The hope was that superstars Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba, who is pulling a Gary Lineker, would light up the pitch. But neither looked very Group of Death-y. Ronaldo did manage a cracker that went off the post, and then got a yellow after he was taken down a few minutes later. Tee hee.  Final was 0-0.

Sven-Goran says he’s having more fun as manager of Ivory Coast than he ever did as England boss. So are England fans.  But he also says he wants to return to England to coach Liverpool.  Make up your mind, Sven….  Oh, and he also wants a summit to discuss the ball.

Final match was Brazil vs. North Korea and everyone was expecting a blood bath in Jo-burg. But on a cold night, the Koreans held firm, playing not to lose. The “defensive-minded” Brazilians still managed 10 shots on net, with Inter Milan’s Maicon scoring first, on a goal that almost came from the touchline. Then Elano made a nifty little run, scoring again.  Not so fast! The North Koreans managed to pull one back in the 89th minute. However, I have no idea who scored because Kim Jong-Il is a power-mad dictator who rules with an iron fist, controlling all information in and out of his impoverished nation. So there.

Torres: New ‘do, new team?

Tomorrow, European Champions Spain start their campaign against Switzerland. Both Iniesta and Fernando Torres have been declared fit to play. That news comes amid reports that Chelsea offered Liverpool 50 million pounds for Torres.  And so it begins…

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group G

Dentist by day, football prognosticator by night, our own Dr. Hadi Zogheib is scouting out each group at World Cup 2010 and predicting first round scores and standings. The good doctor handles teeth, not broken arms, but he’d love to see Didier Drogba take on some tough opponents in Group G:

Brazil:  Along with Spain, the favourites to win the whole enchilada, and for many good reasons.  Coach Dunga has assembled a well-oiled machine that breezed through South American qualifying.  The team played so well, in fact, that there was no room for Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Pato in the final squad.  Aesthetically, however, this may not be the Brazil most fans are used to.  Anchored by underrated center backs Lucio and Juan, this version of the Selecao is happy to concede much of the possession and torch the opposition with the most blistering counterattack in history.  Get caught in possession upfield and Kaka, Robinho, Maicon, and co. will may you pay dearly.

Portugal:  Squeaked into the tournament by earning 13 out of a possible 15 points in their final five qualifiers, then narrowly edging Bosnia-Herzegovina in a playoff.  The Portuguese will definitely be relying on the towering Bruno Alves in defence, especially with Jose Bosingwa injured and Pepe short of match fitness after a six month layoff.  They were dealt another injury setback with news that Nani will miss out due to shoulder problems. Even more now, Portugal will be pegging all its hopes on twinkle toes Ronaldo.  They’ll go as far as he takes them.

Cote d’Ivoire: The Elephants are, in this writer’s opinion, the most talented team in Africa. They can consider themselves extremely unlucky to be drawn in the Group of Death for the second consecutive World Cup. Their luck has not improved this week with news that Didier Drogba may miss some or all of the tournament after breaking a bone in his arm. Still, this team is no one-man show and with the likes of Emmanuel Eboue, the Toure brothers, and the underrated Gervinho they are more than capable of an upset. If Drogba does win his fitness race, then look out.

North Korea:  The most reclusive and lowest-ranked team in the finals (yes, even lower than New Zealand), the North Koreans will rely heavily on their star striker, Jong Tae-Se, who operates out of Japan’s J-league, where he’s known as the Asian Wayne Rooney. He’ll need to play like the real Roooney for North Korea to be able to beat teams likely to start the real Didier Drogba, the real Christiano Ronaldo, and the real Kaka.

Predicted Results:

Cote d’Ivoire 1-1 Portugal

Brazil 4- 0 North Korea

Brazil 2-1 Cote d’Ivoire

North Korea 1-3 Portugal

Portugal 0- 2 Brazil

Cote d’Ivoire 3-0 North Korea

Standings:

Brazil 9 pts

Cote d’Ivoire 4 pts

Portugal 4 pts

North Korea 0 pts

Related: Dr. Z doubts the host’s chances in Group A, expects Greece’s defence-first philsophy will pay off in Group B, and predicts an opening-round sweep for England in Group C. The good doctor expects a three-way dogfight in Group D and is happy to see the Netherlands healthy in Group E, and isn’t counting out the aging Azzurri in Group F.

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England’s Pain: Germany ’06

Kevin Hoggard

My married friends relish telling me that having a child is the best thing that can ever happen to you. My reply is that the World Cup is the best thing that ever happens to you. Unfortunately for England fans, the World Cup is like having a child, except when you cradle it in your arms for the first time and you brush back the blanket… and catch your first glimpse of ginger hair. You’ll still love it… but there’s always that tinge of regret. I can imagine it’s how my parents felt.

The more the years progress, the more I have used alcohol to dull the pain of misspent patriotism. During Germany 2006, I would reach new levels of debauchery. There would be professions of love, incidents with a lamp shade, people locked out of pubs, and friends waking up in boxers in their driveway. I’m waiting for maturity to kick in but it’s taking its sweet time.

In 2006, I was back in England, staying at a friend’s place. My wife (at the time) was in Costa Rica, staying at her aunt’s house and acquiring my crazy Latina cat. They are both still biting and scratching me to this day.

Steve and I developed a routine for England games. Dressing smartly was the first order of the day: always look good. Then we would convene in the living room, open the windows and put the Killers on the stereo. The song would build slowly as we stood side by side, nervously shifting our weight from one foot to the other. “I’ve got Soul but I’m not a soldier” would be softly spoken at the start but as the song progressed it would grow in intensity and so did we. By the end, primal screams of “COME ON ENGLAND!” would echo around the lazy suburban neighbourhood. The song would end, the stereo would be switched off, the windows were closed, and the march down to the pub would begin. It was our day, we were pumped, and nobody could defeat us. But The Killers are false prophets.

We chose our first pub badly. We thought a cool chic place would be good for the opener against Paraguay. It was not. I stood out like a sore thumb. My swearing and general abuse of alcohol was so out of place that my friends started to become embarrassed by me. A third-minute own goal won us the game. England was comfortable, unlike the rest of the bar’s patrons.

After the game, I drank until The Men in Black zapped me and erased 4 hours of my life that has forever remained a mystery. I awoke the next day and gingerly made my way down to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

“Enjoy yourself last night?”

Leaning against the doorjamb behind me, Steve posed a question. A look of puzzlement crossed my face.

“The lamp?”

“I have no clue what you are talking about fella. After 10pm, everything is a blank.”

“You don’t remember the lamp?”

“What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“Last night I get in and find my lampshade sitting in the middle of my bedroom door.”

“Strange,” I replied.

“Indeed. In your inebriated state you must have found it amusing to go into my room,” — I had never, so much as once, been in Steve’s bedroom during my stay — “Then you teetered on the edge of my bed, unscrewed the light bulb, unscrewed the plastic casing, removed the lampshade, screwed the plastic casing back, screwed the light bulb back in, and then carefully placed the lampshade in my doorway.”

Apparently I’m a comedy genius, even in unconsciousness!

We moved locations for our second game. The Phantom and Firkin was our destination and it was jammed with degenerates who made our behaviour look positively upper class. We were home. England eased past Trinidad and Tobago 2-0. With six points and no pressure, we were unsure what to do. Drink was the answer.

Our final game mattered. Lose to Sweden and we would most likely face Germany in the next round. Win or draw and our game would be easier. Michael Owen twisted his knee in the first minute and his tournament was done. Joe Cole scored a 35-yard volley that screamed into the top corner. Beer flew everywhere. We were soaked but happy.

Sweden equalized but Stevie G put us ahead… only for Henrik Larsson to grab a last minute goal. It didn’t matter. We smelt of lager and we were ready to take on the world.

Steve drank himself into a state where his legs betrayed the relay signals sent by his brain, meaning I had to carry him home. We tumbled several times as his weight dragged me down into bushes and grassy knolls. Up we got and onwards we travelled. Steve told me several times I had saved his life and that he loved me – like a man loves a man after a case of beer. I did save his life because I literally turned down several offers to pimp him out into prostitution. He’s a good-looking boy.

We finished the night by sitting out on his back patio downing a final beer. It was still toasty. The effort to get him upstairs was too much, so I left him muttering quietly to himself, entrusting his fate to God and Stella Artois. He awoke at 5a.m., lying in his driveway in just his boxers, his neighbour tipping his cap to him as he left for work. The Men in Black had done their job again.

Our first place finish had earned us a match against Ecuador. The pub was heaving again. Intimidating bouncers lined the entrance, their knuckles creating sparks as their rings scraped the ground while they paced. There was always violence waiting to erupt. A wrong word, a spilt pint and you’d find yourself eating pavement, thanks to our evolutionary-challenged guardians.

England played poorly but they did the job. We survived an early scare when Ecuador hit the bar but Beckham became the only Englishman to score in three different World Cup Finals. It was a trademark free kick. What else could it have been?

So it was the last eight again. All the classic teams were there; Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal –our opponents – plus the surprise package of Ukraine.

As we had progressed, our entourage grew. We were joined by wives and girlfriends and friends who didn’t even like football. The World Cup had brought us all together. Texts pinged back and forth as people asked us to reserve spots and order pints. One of our party was locked out when the pub closed its doors: it was over maximum capacity by a couple of hundred people. The distraught face of our stranded friend was pushed up against the window, pleading for entry. He would later sneak in the back way, to much rejoicing. The bar was about eight deep and getting a pint was longer and more hazardous than Frodo’s quest to Mordor.

What can you say about the Portuguese? I personally find their team despicable. During their exit from Euro 2000, their players assaulted the linesman and referee. Three players received bans of five months or more. Their previous match against the U.S.A. had resulted in four red cards. And of course, they have the most punchable man in football – Cristiano Ronaldo. With the tension already palpable in the pub, losing to them just didn’t seem like an option.

The game was so familiar to England fans. We lost Beckham to an injury just before half time and, on 62 minutes, we lost Rooney. Two Portuguese players harangued him, hacking at him as he tried to break free. His frustration boiled over and he stamped on Carvalho’s nuts. Ronaldo – Rooney’s teammate at United – led the rest of his team in calling for Rooney to be sent off. How they played together at United the next season, I’ll never quite fathom. But our hearts sank with the dismissal. Here we go again. The inglorious bastards were about to beat us.

But the sending-off galvanized us and we fought with the ferocity of the three English lions on our chests. There were so many English fans at the match, it felt like a home game and they roared our players on. Owen Hargreaves was magnificent. He was England’s MVP for the tournament and he led by example that day.

Like a prisoner on death row, we delayed our execution. But our exit, like theirs, was inevitable. Penalties!

We all watched with bile rising in our throats. Portugal scored. Lampard had his penalty saved… but Viana hit the post and Hargreaves cemented his place in our hearts by bringing us level. Petit then missed and Gerrard had a chance to put us ahead. Ricardo saved. Postiga scored and Carragher levelled it, but then the referee ordered him to retake it. We knew he’d miss the second time. Ricardo saved again. So it all came down to the most hated man in football. Steve just couldn’t watch. He turned away, shaking his head, hands on his knees, looking ready to throw up if we were defeated by this arrogant son of a bitch. I held his hair back as Ronaldo knocked us out.

The pub cleared out quicker than if a bomb threat had been called in. We retreated to the outdoor picnic tables. All the lads were silent. All the girls chatted about non-football related matters as if nothing had just happened. We all had a case of Football Tourettes. Every so often one of us would blurt out “Fucking Portuguese” or “FUCK RONALDO!” Our group slowly broke up and silently we returned to our lives.

The final was famous for Zidane’s head-butt. But what was better for me was the bet my friend Steve had with our Italian friend, Ronnie. Before the tournament, Italy was in complete disarray and Ronnie told us they would win the tournament. Steve sprayed his pint out onto the lawn as he laughed. He took a beat and then said, “If Italy wins the World Cup I will run naked down the high street”.

Steve, we’re still waiting for you to pay up.

Kev remains ever-hopeful that his beloved Three Lions will end their 44-year drought.  England’s campaign kicks off Saturday against the USA in Rustenburg.

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