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A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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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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