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Those Who Can’t… Kick

wils

Goals are coming fast and furious in this World Cup, which is a refreshing change from the cautious approach of the last couple of tournaments.  However, some teams can’t defend so they resort to grimier tactics.

Seferovic scores in WC debut

Seferovic scores in WC debut

Switzerland‘s reputation as a tournament dark horse was tested right away, as Ecuador pushed them high up and got the first goal (off a free kick, mind you).   However, the Swiss substitutions made the difference.  Admir Mehmedi came on for Valentin Stocker after the break, and three minutes later, he headed in the first Swiss goal off a Ricardo Rodríguez corner.  Rodríguez had a super game, especially during the free-for-all at the end when he sent the cross across the net for substitute Haris Seferovic to send the ball into the net, breaking the deadlock in extra-time and sending Swiss supporters into delirium.  Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador

Benzema was involved with all three goals

Benzema was involved with all three goals

Honduras didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory yesterday.  Besides sitting back while France came at them, they forgot to aim for the ball.  Consequently many of their kicks finished on the shins and hamstrings of French players.   The height of stupidity was achieved by Stoke City’s Wilson Palacios, who drove Paul Pogba in the back while the French player went for the ball.  A second yellow for the Honduran meant his team was down to 10 men for the entire second half.   Karim Benzema easily put home the penalty and France were on the board.   Benzema actually had a hand in all three goals: the second was a shot off the post that the goalkeeper bobbled into the net (requiring the use of goal-line technology), and the third was a cracker.   France 3-0 Honduras

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups E & F

Argentina v Mexico: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Round of SixteenThese two groups offer one sure thing — Argentina will go through on top — and then a bunch of questions.  Are Switzerland really sixth in the world? Have France overcome their attitude problems*?  Can Ecuador/Honduras/Iran/Nigeria push away the perception biases against their continents and actually challenge the European/South American powers?

Albanian blood, Swiss heats

Albanian blood, Swiss hearts

GROUP E
Switzerland’s football team is a reflection of the country itself: a multicultural nation whose style is cold and boring. That is, of course, unkind (the bit about being cold and boring) but you can’t argue that Switzerland is a very defensive team. That’s because the Swiss play to their strengths.  Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and LB Ricardo Rodríguez both had decent seasons with Wolfsburg, likewise RB Stephan Lichtsteiner with Juventus.   Napoli midfielders Gökhan Inler, Velon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili join Bundesliga wunderkinds Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.  This is a team marshaled by the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man whose club pedigree is as great as any manager in the tournament.   This team made it into the World Cup because they won a weak group.  That doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers.  ROUND OF 16

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot in the French team

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot

Over the last six years, France‘s national side has been the very opposite of disciplined.  The side revolted against its manager, Raymond Domenech in South Africa, and the team failed to get out of the group stage.  Then in Euro 2012, a dressing room bust-up after losing 2-0 to Sweden in the final group game resulted in the firing of French legend Laurent Blanc.  That era appears to be over.  Didier Deschamps has put together a very competent team that is short on star power, but no less flashy.  The biggest name here is Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, after Franck Ribery was ruled out through injury.   From that infamous Sweden match, only four players remain: captain Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Debuchy, Benzema, and Olivier Giroud.   This year’s World Cup Squad only features five other players who even travelled to Ukraine.   The problems are gone, the pedigree remains.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

Ecuador has Valencia... and not much else

Ecuador has Valencia… and not much else

When Ecuador played England, many outlets wrote about how the South Americans gave England a good run, and how the heat makes a difference, and blah blah blah blah.  Here are the facts: 1) Ecuador won seven of their eight home qualifying matches (plus they drew Argentina) because they play in Quito, a city sitting at almost 2900m.  But away from home, they managed only an 0-3-5 record.  That’s basically saying they advanced because their opponents couldn’t breathe.  2) They perpetuate old stereotypes about South American teams that don’t score, but kick the hell out of their opponents.  3) They only have one player who regularly started in a major European league, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. This side snuck in because they had a better defensive record than Uruguay. That won’t help them here. THREE AND OUT

This is his face when it's just a friendly...

This is his face when it’s just a friendly…

More of the same from Honduras.  Only Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have any big league experience (and let’s please not muddy the waters by countering that MLS or the Scottish Premier is big league).  They will be strong on the ball (why physicality is so prized in the Western Hemisphere, I’ll never know) but their fate will be the same as fellow CONCACAF qualifiers, Costa Rica.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP F

Could this be King Leo's year?

Could this be King Leo’s year?

Argentina will perform well at this World Cup for many of the same reasons as the hosts: a well-rounded squad (though not as good as Brazil), a tournament based in South America, and a fairly easy progression into the knockout stage.  One thing that Alejandro Sabella’s men won’t have to contend with is pressure… not on the scale of Brazil’s pressure anyway.  But Argentina haven’t won a trophy in almost 30 years, and they must think they can pull an Uruguay, circa 1950 against their old foes.  La Albiceleste boasts the scariest offence in this tournament: Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero… and of course, Lionel Messi.  The three share an understanding… and just behind them is Ángel Di María looping in and out from the right wing.   A dream final between Brazil and Argentina is possible in a tournament promising several tasty end-scenarios.  SEMI-FINALISTS

"Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?"

“Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?”

The  build-up to Bosnia-Herzegovina‘s maiden World Cup appearance was fun to watch, as Safet Sušić built a team to attack.  The Bosnians tore through a relatively weak group, scoring at least three goals in six of their 10 qualifiers.  But this is not qualifying and now it appears the coach has had a rethink in World Cup warm-ups, adding an extra defensive midfielder and playing with a solitary striker.  In fact, he’s only bringing two out-and-out strikers: Eden Džeko and Stuttgart’s leading scorer, Vedad Ibišević.   Roma’s Miralem Pjanic will likely play just behind Džeko, but what about the rest of the side? This is a team that should be proud of its accomplishments, 20 years after a devastating war.   But the party is over.  THREE AND OUT

Hey it's... that guy... and... yeah...

Hey it’s… that guy… and… yeah…

It’s not a good sign when the biggest name on the team is the manager.  Former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, Carlos Queiroz has taken Iran to Brazil.   This is a side that is reportedly ill-prepared for the tournament (the government is a police state and the team doesn’t have a lot of resources).  The assumption is that Queiroz will make them very defensive… and no one wants to see that.  They won’t make it to the 60-minute mark, let alone the knockout round.  THREE AND OUT

Moses, Emenike, Mikel... get used to hearing that combination.

Moses, Emenike, Mikel: get used to hearing that combination.

Pride has been restored to the one of Africa’s biggest footballing nations.  Nigeria took the 2013 African Cup of Nations, winning it for the first time since 1994.  That was the same year the Super Eagles won the group at USA ’94, where they took Italy to extra-time in the Round of 16.  In France ’98, the same thing: winning the group by beating Raúl’s Spain and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria.  Since then, they have qualified for two more World Cups and finished dead last in their groups.  This tournament’s squad features a quality mix of young forwards: Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa are both only 21, while Emmanuel Eminike is the veteran at the ripe old age of 27.   Stephen Keshi is bringing six strikers to Brazil.  What does that tell you? They came to play.  ROUND OF 16

 Brent P. Lanthier

*The team, not the nation;  changes, not miracles.

Up Next: Groups G & H

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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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