Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 21st June 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

The Football World Cup, by far the oldest established of the quadrennial sporting tournaments (the Olympics aside), has never produced a surprise winner, which is curious given the nature of the game. Soccer, with its low scoring, is a game in which upsets often do occur with underdogs winning against the odds. The last European tournament was won by Greece who were rank outsiders at the start - could this be a precedent for a similarly unfancied team to win in Germany? After the first ten days of the Group stages this looks unlikely - although a number of the lesser teams have performed creditably at times. The Ivory Coast, Paraguay, Trinidad, Angola and (especially) Ecuador and Australia have worried the more fancied teams. There are few really poor teams amongst the 32 and it could well be that two more of the "minnows" (Australia and perhaps Angola) will join Ecuador in the second round. My record as a tipster is not one to follow too closely - but if I was to choose a dark horse candidate to go even further it would be Australia, not only because they have some very good players but because we all know that the Aussies are tough competitors in every sport in which the take part. The "Socceroos" have a few points to prove, as their breed of football is well behind the other codes (Rugby Union, Rugby League and Aussie rules) in Australian esteem.

The Football World Cup is a magnificent event - a month packed full of football with hardly an irrelevant match in prospect. Compare that with the 16 nation Cricket World Cup which lasts two weeks longer and which incorporates a plethora of unnecessary games just to keep the sponsors and the broadcasters happy. But then Football is truly a world game (the only one) whereas cricket, despite the efforts of the ICC, has still to spread out significantly from its base in the old Test cricket nations.

In England there is huge interest and a palpable feeling that the national team might just be able to repeat their 1966 success. Having made the second round they certainly have a chance despite bad luck (the injuries to Owen and Neville) and the eccentric squad and team selections made by manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Forty years ago the late Alf Ramsey revolutionised football by eliminating wings and concentrating on midfield domination as the key to success. Alf's "wingless wonders" (as they were called at the time) did however have some formidable goal scorers in Hurst, Hunt and Charlton. Eriksson seems to have taken Ramsey's model a stage further by only fielding two strikers and then (in the game against Paraguay) taking one of them off in the 55th minute! If this is all part of some predetermined cunning plan on the part of the enigmatic Swede most commentators say that they can't see one. You don't win tournaments without scoring goals and you don't score goals by leaving many of your best strikers back home in England. The folly of this decision has been brought into sharp relief by the Owen injury and by the fact that Wayne Rooney is clearly not match fit. At his best Rooney is up there with Ronaldhino, Ronaldo and Henry as a finisher - a footballer of quite exceptional talent. But he is unlikely to be able to keep going for 90 minutes and is (understandably) not yet at his sharpest. This leaves Eriksson with the rather weird Peter Crouch (who has yet to convince) and the untried teenage Theo Walcott as a potential strike force. If Sven has a plan to cope with this problem then that it is probably to rely on goals from his excellent midfield unit of Gerrard, Terry, Lampard and Beckham. It might just work.

I have a feeling about the 2006 Football World Cup that it will be an attacking and bold team that wins it - and in that respect Germany, Argentina and (especially) Spain look the pick of the bunch. Never write off the Germans - you would expect a team managed by the great Jurgen Klinsmann to attack, and so it is proving with eight goals in their first three games. Germany v Argentina and Spain v Brazil (two of the likely Quarter-Finals) will be games not to miss!