David Beckham, dressed in a track suit he apparently designed himself had a major part in opening the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. As Britain's favourite sports person, the organisers needed someone like him there, but his presence served to remind us that the main course of sporting fare this summer has already been served.
It all seems to go so quickly
once the final stages begin.
World Cup 2002 began with a surprise and perhaps ended with one too. For perhaps the first time since 1974, when bad fortune and age had decimated the personnel of the magical 1970 side, Brazil came to the 2002 tournament with few pundits forecasting them as the likely winners. A relatively poor qualifying campaign (though not as bad as some would claim) gave Brazil, under the leadership of the pragmatic 'Big Phil' Scolari the luxury of arriving at a tournament without the kind of heavy expectation which was falling on the shoulders of France and Argentina.
The predicament of the French was similar to that of the Republic of Ireland as the tournament began. Both teams were faced with the loss of their talismanic leaders, Roy Keane and Zinedine Zidane.
Every now and again, the tournament has a clear villain, such as Harald Schumacher in 1982, but never has a player gained notoriety without even kicking a ball.
Sent home for swearing at his manager Mick McCarthy & complaining about organisation and facilities, it was made clear by many in the Irish squad that an apology from Keane would have solved everything. This was not forthcoming, and Keane will spend the rest of his life regretting he was not part of perhaps the best game of the tournament.
Keane apologists, such as his biographer Eamonn Dunphy attempted to excuse this unforgivable prima donna behaviour by claiming that Keane is so used to the 'professionalism' of Manchester United, he found the haphazard FAI approach unbearable. Personally,the actions of Keane remind me of a story a much liked teacher at primary school told about an extremely unpleasant pupil who spent the bulk of time in school stealing, sexually molesting girls and beating up weaker boys. She said she was dumbstruck when she spied this boy, who was all but uncontrollable in class meekly carrying bags of shopping with his parents - a stern looking pair who obviously stood no nonsense from their son. She came to the conclusion that his bad behaviour in school was a reaction against the extreme discipline he obviously had to endure at home.
Roy Keane, away from the Führer like grip of Alex Ferguson probably exploded in a similar fashion. Those who attempted to excuse his outbursts must bear in mind how Ferguson would have reacted to being sworn at by a player!. The Irish, who could have been demoralised were one of the teams of the tournament, perhaps even matching South Korea for sheer spirit. They played as if the loss of Keane was an advantage rather than a hindrance, and players such as Damien Duff & Robbie Keane took full advantage of their captains' absence. I have felt that the Republic of Ireland have been the strongest side in the British Isles for years & it is they, not England that Wales should look to for inspiration.
France however responded to the loss of Zidane in the opposite manner. Some have claimed that they were casual and overconfident against Senegal, but I feel their demise was due to a deep held belief within the French squad that Zidane was irreplaceable. Unlike Ireland, the French seemed to have gathered around a table and decided this was not to be their tournament. Their lack of drive was evident in the defeat against Denmark, surely the worst French performance in years, where though he was obviously half-fit, Zidane still managed to shame his teammates by being the best French player on the park.
Argentina simply imploded under the pressure of being the single force that could raise the spirit of their nation, currently beset by financial turmoil. Against England, Argentina looked to lack the class required to be World champions - their midfield didn't have the muscle to resist the crude aggression of Scholes and Butt, and the continued presence of the ageing Gabriel Batistuta indicated the pool of available talent was not as abundant as imagined.
Argentina's conquerors England should have been grateful simply to be in the tournament after a turbulent qualification. Anything after emerging second from the so called 'group of death' should have been treated as welcome bonus, but the English media are incapable of anything other than swinging between over-lavish praise and brutal criticism of their team. Hammered by the press after the dull premiership style draw with Sweden, then elevated to being world beaters after the win against Argentina, the TV pundits all tipped England to beat Brazil in the quarter finals.
Their logic was that the Brazilian
defence was poor: 'they'll always give you chances' they repeated
endlessly in the build up to the big game. They ignored the horrific
performance by Sorensen in the Danish goal which gifted England
victory in their second round game despite having less possession.
England would only win if they were handed the same level of good fortune. They got the required luck - Luzio's mistake which gave Michael Owen his opening goal, and the harsh sending off of Ronaldinho, but they didn't have the guile to beat the Brazilian defence - which of course was so heavily ridiculed on both ITV & BBC.
The 'best defence in the tournament' was stretched for most of the first half, and David Seaman could not be blamed for the winning goal - if he had been standing in the right place to get that shot, a multitude of far easier goalscoring opportunities would have been open to the ball striker. David Beckham, whose broken bones had hogged the headlines for weeks before the tournament was largely ineffective. I feel he is far more impressive when he leaves harrying and ball winning to his midfield cohorts, as he did against Argentina due to his injury. England will get the best out of Beckham when everyone stops expecting him to play in the style of Bryan Robson!.
Faced with the superior technique of the Brazilians, which allowed them to hold onto the ball and frustrate a tired England, the English challenge simply faded away. To say England gave up, or lacked heart as some claimed was unfair,as they were outplayed and outthought. Perhaps the disappointment was also due to the low key manner of the exit, as there was no dramatic penalty shootout or refereeing blunder. Brazil's next victims Turkey boasted a couple of the stars of the tournament, the bald forward Sass and the impressive keeper Rustu. However, like the usually reliable Seaman, he too in the semi-final was undone by a wonderfully deceptive piece of Brazilian creativity, this time by Ronaldo.
The co-hosts Japan & South Korea were tremendous fun to watch, Both nations should be proud of their respective campaigns, though the South Koreans came in for criticism following a series of dubious refereeing decisions in their games.
As always happens, the demands for instant replay to be made available were aired - probably by Sony & Panasonic. But Football which is a game of fluid motion will not lend itself to the constant stop start scrutiny of the video booth as well as Cricket, Rugby & American Football, games which are naturally punctuated with stoppages anyway.
Also, as grim as it may be when you are on the receiving end of harsh refereeing justice, mistakes are part of the game & add to it's colour. How many legendary incidents, which still cause bar room arguments were due to actual or supposed refereeing errors?. There's Geoff Hurst's winning goal, Maradona's hand of god & of course Joe Jordan's arm of Satan!. Everyone makes mistakes, and bear in mind that the players themselves aren't perfect - you wouldn't expect your centre forward to face a tribunal ever time he fluffed a chance?.
Despite their tears, both Spain and Italy can only blame themselves for their exit. Italy especially sat back on a single goal lead, and anyway had not been particularly impressive beforehand. The only reason they had reached the second round was Croatia's surprise defeat by Ecuador. Mexico had dominated the 1-1 draw with Italy, and their elimination at the hands of the USA was yet another surprise. Apart from their defeat against Poland, the USA impressed everyone with their energy & organisation. An interesting point about them is how laid-back they are compared to other American sportsmen. Even after beating a very disappointing Portugal, there was none of the over the top showboating one usually associates with American sportsmen.
As Brazil faced Turkey & South
Korea faced Germany in the semi finals, the omens were pointing
towards a Brazil vs South Korea final. I state this because by
this stage Brazil were clearly the strongest side in the tournament,
and they were poised to emulate the 1958 side by winning the World
Cup on a different continent. In 1958, Brazil beat Sweden - the
host nation. Also in 1958, the Swedes beat West Germany in the
Of course it didn't happen, but an interesting coincidence all the same!
The Brazil - Turkey game was thankfully free of bad feeling, which could have arisen after their first meeting, which featured the hilarious play acting of Rivaldo. In the build up to the other semi final, Oliver Kahn when asked if he was worried about dodgy refereeing stated that if Germany had a goal disallowed, they'd just try harder to score another. As it turned out the only goal was scored by the impressive Michael Ballack, who like Klose & Schneider has come to the fore after that dreadful defeat against England in the qualifiers. Booked for a foul & sure to miss the final, he scored the winner, unlike Paul Gascoigne, who in 1990 when facing an identical predicament started crying.
Gascoigne's presence in the ITV studio was one of the factors which saw the BBC win the ratings war yet again. Everything about the BBC's presentation was more polished, with an imaginative studio set & impressive opening titles. I particularly liked the anime style cartoon promo which featured several of the big names who underperformed at the tournament. ITV on the other hand had a boring studio introduced by an awful & pretentious cod-opera theme tune trilled by a group calling themselves the Operababes!. As for the pundits themselves, Gascoigne made very little sense, while on the BBC, Hansen, Lawrenson & Reid were outdone by the ever enthusiastic Ian Wright & the taciturn Peter Schmeichel.
The final itself did not disappoint, with Germany playing some excellent football in the first half, with Schneider outstanding. Brazil however were just too strong & though the 2-0 scoreline was marginally generous, at least we had seen the best & most entertaining side of the tournament come out on top. The re-emergence of Germany, albeit by an easier route than Brazil was something of a surprise, but they beat South Korea who had deservedly seen off Italy & Spain & gave Ireland arguably their toughest game of the tournament. Time will tell whether they will match the achievements of the German sides of earlier years.
Of the Brazilians, Ronaldo must be mentioned. He seems to have lost a little pace compared to 1998, but he will be remembered as the player of the tournament - he even managed to outdo the other players in the ridiculous haircut competition!. Taking into account his still unexplained collapse of form in the 1998 final, and the years of injuries he has endured, there can seldom have been a more worthy cup winner.
Wales must look with optimism to the next round of qualification games for Portugal and Germany, as they have improved beyond measure in recent games, and are gaining strength from improved teamwork rather than relying on occasional spells of magical play from a small group of 'star' players. Despite the absence of many opposition star names, Wales must take a great deal of credit for the draws with Argentina & Czechoslovakia & the win against 2002 finalists Germany. If only they had played that well against much weaker sides during the qualification tournament.
The first round elimination of the Poles, who dominated the Welsh group confirmed what most of us who had watched the qualification games suspected - that they were a beatable side Wales should have done better against. However, it's all in the past, and Mark Hughes can only hope the fates stave off injury and loss of form from his squad who have recently performed so well.
Robert Earnshaw seemed to take an eternity to become a fixture in the Cardiff City side. Hopefully, after scoring one of the most memorable goals in years against Germany at the Millennium, a regular place in the full Welsh squad will not take so long. Though missing the German game through injury, Danny Gabbidon played with true international class in the game against Czechoslovakia, while City old boy Mark Delaney with never seems to put a foot wrong in defence.
Wales must take heart from the performances of Turkey, Japan, South Korea & the USA who also not long ago were regarded as easy meat for the 'larger' nations. One would hope the survivors of the 1958 Welsh squad will be able to to watch the current Welsh side emulate their heroics in 2006.