The Everyman’s Guide To The FIFA World Cup 2018 – Part 1

Hello you football fanatics! And by those I mean, of course, those extreme loyalist football fans who wait with bated breath for the World Cup to roll in every few years so that those FIFA almanacs can be dusted off, the cobwebs of memory cleaned (or, well, since modern times and all that, `OK Google` be uttered) and the pursuit of football trivia (such as did you know that the world cup trophy was actually stolen and recovered by a dog called pickles) rekindled. Yes, you, who morph into football maniacs on sight of that famous yellow jersey or that other blue and white striped one (of course, with the advent of the Premier League and the exposure to English football thereof, the white of England is equally cheered).

Welcome to the FIFA World Cup 2018. Your time is imminent. Soon, you shall know names of cities in Russia that you neither knew, nor cared to know beforehand but when the World Cup rolls into town, so does the general general knowledge that goes with it (Fun fact: there is a World Cup venue called `Sochi`. Readers familiar with the Hindi vernacular will appreciate the thought behind that; surely a sure-fire question on some future quiz show because, think general knowledge; think different. Or something).

In addition to you, dear reader, who might well be one of those genuine non-football fans (mostly cricket or whatever other sport you might watch — or indeed non-sports fans altogether) who are just mildly amused by this once-in-four-years hoopla that lends itself to a whole lot of column inches (that might otherwise have been dedicated to some riveting Ranji trophy action or indeed stories of how your favourite kabaddi players learn to “focus”, whatever that may mean) being dedicated to these “National teams” slugging it out. I mean, what sort of a World Cup is it without a high-voltage India-Pakistan clash, eh? Hogwash!

In any case, like it or not, the football circus is rolling into town, and, well, as the Romans say, might as well be prepared for it, what? I am not entirely certain of the Romans saying such a thing but it does seem like something that they might well have. The point, as they say, is moot, right now. Without further ado, I give to you a quick primer (in multiple parts, perhaps) in bite-sized easily digestible morsels that will have you becoming no less experts than the “pundits” discussing the World Cup on the television screens.

The Format
There are 64 matches in all that feature 32 teams. No, each team does not play two matches. How much simpler the world would be if that was the case, what? Unfortunately, such are the intricacies of tournament football that this is not so. The tournament begins with 8 groups of 4 teams each who play each other once. Yes, that is 3 games per team (so, while all teams don’t play two games, they actually play 3! Miracle!). The two top teams from each group advance to what is the Round of 16, because, you guessed it, there are now 16 teams remaining. From here on in, it is a knockout with the 16 tricking down to 8, 8 becoming 4, 4 being cut down in size to 2, and 2, er, no, never mind. Two play the final and, in the end, football is the real winner. Or so Mr. Shastri would like you to believe.

The time frame
The first game, between the hosts, Russia, and relative lightweights Saudi Arabia will be played on June the 14th. The final, hopefully between the two best teams of the tournament, will happen on the 15th of July at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Yes, you need to know the name because, you know, “that Moscow stadium” will not work because, unfortunately, there are two stadia in Moscow (damn it!). In all, the world cup spans a month and a day. That is, well, a fair length of time, though not as long as the 2007 Cricket World Cup (which, by some accounts, is still going on — one long party, maan, as the West Indians say). Whether you tune in to the opening or not, make sure to mark your calendars for the fifteenth of June. It is almost certain to be fun. There may even be headbutts, you know; after all, Zidane is not employed any more.

In subsequent parts, some other riveting parts. Kindly check back soon.

El Beatle – A tribute

May 22nd, the day of the Champions league final, was what would’ve been the 64th birthday of one of the greatest of all time, the first real “superstar” of the game – George Best. When I saw a few videos of El Beatle on Youtube, I simply couldn’t believe the amount of skill that he had, the brilliant body balance, the fantastic technique and most of all, just that bit of specialness that made him ‘El Beatle’!

 

I watched a documentary called ‘George Best – footballing genius’ and was floored, to say the least. The amount of skill he possessed was out of the world. Back in the day, the hair was longer, the shorts shorter. The ball was made of leather and the pitch was no manicured carpet but was rather a not-so-healthy combination of grass and slush. Amongst these conditions, one stood above the rest. His name was George Best.

 

Now I’ve seen Messi play and a lot of Maradona clips. Both absolutely great footballers but having seen George Best, I can safely say that he is right up there amongst them. Sir Matt Busby once said, ‘He’s got the greatest natural talent in a footballer I have ever seen.’ Now that has to count for something.

 

The amount of abuse he was subjected to in terms of hard tackles, potentially career ending, and the appallingly miniscule amount of protection the referees offered him make his brilliance all the more, well, brilliant! If even half of those tackles went in today’s game, there’d be an avalanche of red cards and sending offs.

 

He did have his problems with the bottle but on the pitch, it was pure magic. He did things the only way he knew how – magically! He was a prima donna and left people wanting more; much more. He held together a crumbling team and left his legacy on the world of football.

 

Sir Matt Busby once said, ‘We’ve had our problems with the wee fellar but I prefer to remember his genius.’ In what turned out to be one of his final interviews before his death in 2005, Best said, ‘When I’m gone, forget all the rubbish. Remember the football. If one person in the world thinks that I am the best, that’d do for me.’

 

In the argument of who was the greatest footballer ever, there are 2 names that are oft repeated; an amazing Argentine and a brilliant Brazilian. Yet the ultimate truth lies engraved on a signboard somewhere in Northern Ireland. It reads thus:

Pele – Good.
Maradona – Better.
George – BEST !!!

May your Legend live on for all eternity!
May you rest in peace among your real equals – the stars in the sky !

 

 

Links : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nplemK3Y4ns
             http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3pwFgr8mPI

 

 

Cheers

The riddle of the Berbatov enigma

Manchester United had just won the League and Champions League double the previous season. Rooney and Tevez were forming a formidable strike partnership. Yet, the complaint was that they were too similar and that there had to be a different approach too. Enter Manchester United’s new Number Nine. Dimitar Berbatov. When he was signed on deadline day of 2008 from Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of close to 30.75 million pounds, there was little doubt that he would become a success story at Old Trafford. He would be the skill and panache to all of Tevez’s grit and graft. He would be the focus of attack. He would provide that piece of magic and that flash of brilliance at will. Fans were heard singing ‘Ooh! Aah! Cantona!’
What has transpired in the following two years at Old Trafford has been a story that is different from the ideal one in many counts. What was supposed to be a match made in heaven has turned into a series of nights of lull interspersed with brilliant one night stands. To say that Berbatov has set Old Trafford on fire would be a lie but to say that he has been an utter flop would be an even bigger one. Here I attempt to understand the complex riddle of what has gone wrong, where it has and why it has; the riddle of the enigma that is Dimitar Berbatov.
Berbatov first arrived on the scene with a fantastic piece of skill at the edge of the box, a small dribble and a cut back to Tevez to score against the old enemy. Things couldn’t have looked brighter but somehow, things did not materialize as expected. Berbatov’s early season performances were encouraging with good performances and great combination with both Rooney and Tevez. It was in mid-October that something happened. El Ron was back.
Having missed the early part of the season with ankle surgery, Ronaldo returned to the United fold and straight away, was thrust into the limelight. Sir Alex increasingly started using the 4-5-1 with Rooney up top but as the games wore on, Ronaldo ended up top and Rooney relegated to the wing. Berbatov was tried in the system but out of his natural habitat and playing in a new team, Berbatov didn’t quite flourish.
There were of course the brilliant flashes, tricks, flicks and backheels but these were few and far in between. When they did come off though, they were a thing to behold. The one moment that really stands out in my memory is that piece of skill in the league game against West Ham where he did a 360 on the by line and passed it to Ronaldo to score. Pure genius.
As the season wore on, he was being in rotation with Rooney and Tevez and many a time, it was a case of one among the three to partner Ronaldo up front with Rooney out wide.  The season ended with a poor penalty taken in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton which drew flak from all directions. 14 goals from 43 appearances was not a bad return but not one that was expected from a 30 million pound man. There were more than 15 assists too but the overall return was disappointing.
The next season came with the departure of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester City and Real respectively. Michael Owen was signed but he was always going to be the third striker. The stage was set for Berbatov. His time was now. Yet, the season did not go according to the script.
If Ronaldo was ‘it’ in the previous season, Rooney was ’it’ this term. Quickly stepping out of the shadows of Ronaldo, Rooney was given the central role that he always craved and the effects showed. He ended the season with a phenomenal return of 34 goals. Again, it was Berbatov who made headway. Sir Alex again preferred the 4-5-1 in the big games with Rooney being the lone striker. In a 4-4-2, Berbatov did play but with him playing only every other game at best, the continuous run of games that is necessary for any partnership to flourish never materialized. Added to this, there was the lingering knee problem that just would not go away. Berbatov’s contribution was sporadic and although he did finish as joint second top scorer (along with ‘own-goal’) his performances have left fans polarized.
Why has Berbatov not worked? One, he has been playing a different role to the one at Tottenham. In his first season, he played ‘in the hole’ essentially when he was paired with Ronaldo, which his natural position. The one game where United absolutely wreaked havoc was the second half performance against Tottenham, ironically. United scored 5 goals in a 20 minute blitz in the second half, with ‘the fab 4’, Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov playing together. With Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo playing in a fluid system, Berbatov was free to drop deep, collect the ball, play one-twos and show his entire repertoire of tricks and flicks. It was a sight to behold.
Berbatov’s is not an all-action style; it’s one of style, panache, finesse and skill. He will not chase lost causes. His economy of movement is something that not everyone will understand or appreciate. When he has been severely criticized for his lack of goals and his contribution but that argument has come in from quarters that do not really look at his other contribution to the way United play when he’s in the squad.
When he drops deep, invariably, he draws 2 defenders towards him. This opens up space for the others to exploit. He seems to hold on to the ball for a lot longer than necessary but all that while, he draws more defenders onto himself, thereby opening up more spaces and hence making the opposition lose their shape. Berbatov thrives on the ‘give-n-go’ system where he gives it and expects it back immediately.  The game against Tottenham is case in point. At United, this has not been the case most of the time. Admittedly, he has not got himself into goal scoring situations, or ‘at the end of the cross’ enough but that must not be the sole criterion to judge the man.
At Tottenham, he was the pivot around which the team operated. He was the lynchpin in attack and all moves went through him. His style is usually to drop deep, keep the ball, make a quick pass and get the ball back. At United, he has been doing the first three parts but seldom does he get the ball back immediately. Usually, Fletcher or Carrick or Scholes receive the ball and look to the wings to expand play rather than giving it back to Berbatov and build play more centrally. Now, I’m not in the least suggesting that this system is wrong and detrimental but merely stating the difference in the styles between United and Tottenham.
Another factor that influences Berbatov is confidence. He’s a form player who, when high on confidence, will pull off some of the most outrageous pieces of skill but when low on confidence, will look like a sorry man ambling on the pitch without any sense of direction. Sadly, this was the case on many an occasion this term. This can partly be attributed to his being in and out of the team and partly to the hefty price tag that has clearly weighed him down. 
At Tottenham, he was the pivot around which the team operated. He was the lynchpin in attack and all moves went through him. His style is usually to drop deep, keep the ball, make a quick pass and get the ball back. At United, he has been doing the first three parts but seldom does he get the ball back immediately. Usually, Fletcher or Carrick or Scholes receive the ball and look to the wings to expand play rather than giving it back to Berbatov and build play more centrally. Now, I’m not in the least suggesting that this system is wrong and detremential but merely stating the difference in the styles between United and Tottenham.
There are talks of him being let go but I believe that he needs one more season to really prove himself. Next season, if given a fair and steady run in the team, it is very likely that Manchester United will see the best of Dimitar Berbatov. There was a video on Youtube with the title ‘Is Fergie looking for a new Cantona’ just after Berbatov was signed. As is quite evident, I am a huge fan of United’s number nine and I’m sure that given time, he can reach the charismatic heights. There can be only one king but he could well have an heir.
Cheers

The season so far: Part 4 – The Manchester blues

‘Welcome to Manchester’ read a blue poster with the image of Carlos Tevez on it. A clear indication to their cross-town rivals and indeed the rest of the premier league that Manchester City had arrived; and not just to make up the numbers. Manchester was well and truly divided. The battle lines were drawn, the swords unsheathed; it was time to play.

 

As expected, with the backing of their phenomenally rich owners, Mark Hughes brought in massive names: Tevez, Adebayor, Santa Cruz in attack, and Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott in defence. With an expenditure of more than a hundred million pounds, City were making their intentions clear. A top-4 place was expected and many even tipped them to be challenging for the title.

 

They started off in fine form with 5 straight wins that included a win over Arsenal. They went on to win 7 of their first 8 games with the only defeat coming in the controversial Manchester derby at Old Trafford.  Then came the run of 7 successive draws that ultimately signaled the end of Mark Hughes as manager of Man City. Results did improve in December with back to back wins over Arsenal in the Carling Cup and Chelsea in the league but Sparky’s days were quite clearly numbers.  His replacement was the suave Italian former Inter manager, Roberto Mancini.

 

Hughes’ unceremonious dumping and the appointment of Mancini was met with a mixed reception with  many players publically coming out in support of the ex-boss. Clearly loyalties were divided in the dressing room but Mancini was adamant that he could make them a success story. His reign started off with 3 wins on the bounce. Then came the ill-tempered 2 legged semi-final affair against their Mancunian rivals which they ultimately lost.

 

February and March were mixed with draws and losses interspersed by good wins. Stoke dumped City out of the FA Cup and come the end of March, the only focus was now on the elusive 4th champions league spot. January was a relatively quiet month in the transfer window with only the arrivals of former Arsenal skipper, Patrick Viera and the relatively low-key Adam Johnson. January also saw the departure of the club’s most expensive player Robinho; no he wasn’t sold, merely sent out on loan to former club Santos.

 

With the race for the 4th spot heating up, Man City went all out. There were good wins against Burnley, Birmingham and Villa but were either side of a loss in the Manchester derby and a draw at the Emirates. It all came down to the showdown at Eastlands and the Lily whites came up trumps. Manchester City are consigned to the Europa League next season.

 

The story of the season is merely a sub plot to the revolution at City. For the first time in recent memory, a team has actually emerged that is a genuine threat to the established big guns. A club with the financial muscle to genuinely give the big boys a run for their money. The spending power and the utter nonchalance towards the very concept of money is a frightening thought. The loaning out of the club’s most expensive player is case in point. Any other team, possibly even Real Madrid would think twice on a decision like that but to Man City, it seems like just another day at work.

 

With Roberto Mancini seemingly with the owners’ backing, in spite of not delivering the Champions league spot, and backed by the near endless cash reserves, a top 4 place is most certainly on the cards next season and possibly a strong challenge for the title as well. The biggest problem with City this year has been that on many an occasion, they’ve played as a bunch of 11 individuals rather than a team. Mancini has an entire summer to think about that particular problem, and we may well see a different Man City next term.

 

There is talk of dressing room unrest and the likes of Carlos Tevez leaving but the club will ensure that if indeed they do leave, able replacements will be recruited, at any cost. As the close season nears, City are inevitably linked to most of the big names of world football. Insane amounts of money are mentioned but it wouldn’t in the least bit be surprising if these massive-money deals did indeed materialize.

 

People will question the appointment of Roberto Mancini. After all, Mark Hughes won a total of 32 points in his 16 games in charge while Mancini has won 34 in his 21 in charge. Since Mancini took over though, City have looked a lot more organized and that instilled discipline is evident. With Mancini at the reins, and given time to build a team, there is every chance that Man City will be a force to be reckoned in the very near future.

 

 

 

 

Cheers

The season so far: Part 3 – The kid conundrum

Arsene Wenger told the world “Watch out for us this season”, and so the world watched. Being his usual astute self, Wenger forayed into the transfer market and bought only Thomas Vermaelen, the Belgian defender from Ajax. Naturally eyebrows were raised on the lack of “big name signings” but Wenger, in his  normal manner, brushed aside the thought, instead, reiterating his faith in the young guns.

 

Arsenal started off in the most brilliant fashion, disposing of Everton and Portsmouth 6-1 and 4-1 respectively, an in the meanwhile eliminating Celtic from the Champions League with the minimum of fuss. With 15 goals in the first 4 games, it looked as if Wenger had been vindicated. Then came back to back defeats at the two Manchester clubs but these were followed by a remarkable run of 11 wins and 2 draws in the next 13 games. Arsene’s men were well and truly on their way to something special; or it would seem.

 

December rolled onto January and defeat in the Carling cup was one of the series of mixed results that saw Arsenal keep pace with the leaders and even top the table on occasion. February came and Arsenal’s good run continued with progression to the next stage of the Champions League, after an utter demolition of Porto. Next in wait – the champions. March was again mixed with good wins marred by the draw against Birmingham and the remarkable come-from-behind draw against Barcelona. This game though, would turn out to be one of the most significant of the season, not so much for the result as for the injury to Cesc Fabregas, their talisman.

 

Come April, and Arsenal were very much in with a shot at the title in what has become perhaps the closest title race in recent memory. April, was where it tailed off. After a scrappy 1-0 against Wolves, they were handed something of a lesson by Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The diminutive Argentinian scoring all four goals in what was a virtuoso performance by the European and World champs. With just the Premier League to play for, Arsene Wenger knew that if his side put in a decent string of performances, the title could well be back at North London. What transpired though was a string of poor results with reverses at Tottenham and Wigan and  draw at Man City. Arsenal are no longer in the title race going into the last day of the season, and by the looks of it, even third place is not guaranteed.

 

What happened then? It was all going so well and then … implosion! To start off, the summer signing of Vermaelen was an inspired one with the Belgian becoming one of the signings of the season. Eduardo, Bendtner and Vela were touted to be the main support cast to the main man, Van Persie but somehow they failed to deliver. The midfield was overflowing with options and Song has been the absolute unsung hero this season (no pun intended). The problem then, as it has been for a few seasons now, was injuries. Far too many players played far too less to really maintain that coherency and chemistry. Wenger was forced to play players out of position and this had a telling effect. The defence was also hampered by injuries and the only replacement Wenger brought in the transfer window was an ageing Sol Campbell, who though, has been one of the stand-out performers in the run in. Ramsey’s breakthrough season was also cut short by a horrific injury that will see him miss the first half of next season too. Add to this the fact that Van Persie was out for a major part of the season and the lack of firepower  becomes evident.

 

Another problem, and an even bigger one has been the attitude. As has been the case over the past few seasons, when faced with crunch situations and high pressure, they’ve often bucked under it. Much as they are the best “footballing team” in the land, they too lack that all important Plan-B when things don’t go according to plan. Often, they’ve been outmuscled and roughed up by physical teams.

 

With Chamakh confirming that he will be joining the Gunners at the end of the season, their striking options should be bolstered. Arsenal’s midfield certainly has a lot of options but many are too similar. Most of them tend to play the same game. Song, for all his defensive qualities, is still a touch player. What is definitely needed is steel in the middle of that midfield. Someone like ex-captain fantastic, Viera. Also, with Gallas’ contract running out at the end of the season and there still ebing question marks about his temperament, another quality center back to partner Vermaelen is most definitely needed. All said and done, one of the most pieces of business that Wenger has to do is to tie down his captain and shield him from the Catalan advances.

 

“In Arsene we trust” reads many a banner at the Emirates and it’s a sentiment echoed by many Gooners. It’s been FIVE seasons now without a trophy now and even the most ardent fans are beginning to raise a question or two. Arsene Wenger is no longer just the manager; he’s much more. He is building not just a squad but a football club. Arsene must realize that his footballing philosophy is great but he definitely need that extra bit of quality, grit and determination. Now rid of all debt and armed with a transfer chest of more than 50 million, there will be no question of a lack of funds next season. It’s time for the professor to go forth; to splash the cash and bring glory once again.

 

 

Cheers