Monday, May 31, 2010

World Cup Moments: Magical Magyars usurped by the ‘Miracle of Berne’

Think brilliant Brazil of 1982. The revolutionary Dutch total-footballers of ’74. Or the stereotype-defying Azzurri of Antognoni, Tardelli and Bettega in ’78. Even the swashbuckling Riquelme-inspired Argentines of four years ago, in Germany. History’s catalogue of failure by the most luminescent team of a World Cup finals is a long and often inglorious one.

One such case – perhaps even more notorious than those above – arose during the Swiss-hosted finals of 1954. As Brian Glanville puts it in his comprehensive tome The Story of the World Cup:

“Never had there been so hot, so inevitable, a favourite as Hungary; the team which had brought new dimensions and horizons to the game.”

The magical (or magnificent; masterful; mighty...) Magyars went on a 36-game unbeaten run between 1950 and the World Cup final of ’54, en route winning the 1952 Olympic gold, and ruthlessly crushing England both home and away. Ferenc Puskás, known as the Galloping Major due to his military background and powerful running style, was the nominal leader of a fearsome band of troops including the heavenly talents of Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti – the original exponent of the deep-lying centre forward position (to devastating effect, as a bewildered England found when he netted a hat-trick at the previously impregnable Wembley). It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the Hungarians’ tactical innovations influenced the future of the game; their radical adoption of out-and-out wingers; Hidegkuti’s no.10 role; and a ‘sweeping’ goalkeeper still resonate in today’s more tactically conservative times.

Coached by the pioneering Hungarian Deputy Minister for Sport, Gusztáv Sebes, the white-hot favourites opened with seventeen goals in their first two games. Eight came against Germany – only just returning to the FIFA fold after missing the 1950 finals in Brazil in the bitter aftermath of the War. It was a game remarkable for not only the number of goals scored against a perceived challenger for the title (8-3 was the final score) but also for an incident which saw the all-conquering Puskás limp from the field, having taken a kick on the ankle from the towering German defender Werner Liebrich.

Brazil and defending champions Uruguay were subsequently put to the sword (their dramatic extra-time semi-final triumph was, in fact, Uruguay’s first-ever defeat in a World Cup game). Final opponents Germany’s apparently Lazarus-like resurrection from their group stage mauling raised many eyebrows and later drew accusations that they’d effectively ‘conceded’ the game as a ruse to lull the Hungarians into believing their own hype. This perception has been long-disputed by either side, but what is certain is that the side crafted by legendary coach Sepp Herberger and led out by captain and chief-goalgetter Fritz Walter at Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium was a team transformed – and more than a match for their more illustrious opponents.

Puskás returned to his preferred inside-left role and seemed to have shaken off any doubts about his fitness when he scored a trademark left-foot thunderbolt after just six minutes. Three minutes later, winger Zoltán Czibor put Hungary 2-0 ahead and all was going to script. Incredibly, however, the Germans fought back to equalise within ten minutes. Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn drew the underdogs level, and that’s how it stayed until half-time.

The second half was a rainy, muddy battle of attrition, with the Magyars mounting attack after attack on the German goal. But, as time ticked by, a number of unique factors began to hold sway on the destiny of the world title. Germany’s innovative screw-in studs were particularly beneficial on a pitch increasingly resembling a mudbath; their oft-struck woodwork remained resilient and Horst Eckel's man-to-man marking assignment on Hidegkuti gradually eroded the playmaker’s iridescent influence. Hungary were also physically spent: Puskás had never fully recovered from Liebrich’s group-stage ankle-hack, while the entire squad had been embroiled in a post-match brawl with Brazil, in which Puskás allegedly attacked the Seleção’s Pinheiro with a broken bottle.

With six minutes left and the Germans still holding out at 2–2, Rahn, known as ‘The Boss’, received the ball 20 yards from goal. Unexpectedly shooting with his weaker left foot, he netted his second and Germany's third goal with an accurate drive to the bottom-left corner, leaving Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics helpless. Bowed but not beaten, Hungary launched themselves forward in desperate search of extending the game into extra-time.

Two minutes before the end, Puskás raced through the opposition defence to crash home what looked like the perfect winning goal – something which the admittedly grainy TV footage appears to bear out. But the Welsh linesman, Mervyn Griffiths, waved his flag, and English referee Bill Ling gave Puskás offside. The Galloping Major remained convinced, to the end of his long and varied life, that he was not. A further penalty claim for a clear penalty-box foul on Kocsis was also rejected a minute later: the match and Hungary’s magnificent unbeaten run then ended in one of the biggest upsets in the history of football.

The ‘Miracle of Berne’, as the final was soon christened by the Germans, was perceived in Hungary as a wrong the Magyars would never get the chance to right, as their international careers were soon to be over. They’d never again grace a World Cup together as, within two years, Puskás and several others had defected to the West to escape a Russian invasion in reaction to the Hungarian revolution.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Can traumatised Germany cope with the “brutal” loss of Michael Ballack?

The short answer to the title question is this: they can’t. At least that’s the opinion of Rudi Völler, star of Italia ’90 and Nationalmannschaft coach between 2000 and 2004.

“This is absolutely brutal, terrible for Michael,” Völler told the German tabloid Bild. “He was full of optimism and wanted to play a good World Cup. There are players who can't be replaced and Michael Ballack is certainly one of them.”

From his blistering, decisive double in the 2002 World Cup playoff with Ukraine; through his peerless displays in Japan/Korea – where he inspired his team to the final, only to miss out through suspension following a ‘professional’ foul which helped defeat South Korea in the semi; to the blistering free-kick against Austria at Euro 2008 – where he again played a talismanic role in reaching the final; Ballack has proved himself a man above all others, where the national side is concerned, for the best part of a decade.

Following the Chelsea man’s FA Cup final injury at the hands, or rather feet, of Kevin-Prince Boateng who, conspiracy theorists (including a devastated Ballack: “It looked pretty intentional to me”) were quick to point out, will represent Germany’s group stages foes Ghana this summer; there is a gaping void in the centre of Jogi Löw’s first eleven.

Everyone who’s anyone in German footballing circles – from Dieter Hoeneβ, to Löw, to his assistant Oliver Bierhoff – has been quick to bemoan the luck of their Captain Fantastic. Berti Vogts followed his commiserations by putting forward versatile Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger as the main man to shoulder the extra responsibility in Ballack’s absence. Once consigned to the flanks at international level, ‘Schweini’ has benefitted immeasurably from Löw’s controversial decision to ditch outspoken stalwart Torsten Frings. The maturity of his game at club level has gone up another notch this season under the exacting aegis of Louis Van Gaal and the 25-year-old, set to participate in his fourth major tournament this summer, will undoubtedly be a key piece in the German jigsaw.

It is the slot, however, alongside Schweinsteiger – at the heart of the engine room – which now lies vacant. There are a number of potential suitors, but, as befitting a team going through something of a generational transition, few, if any, have the requisite top-level experience to command absolute confidence.

Löw prefers a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with the two central-midfielders lying deep, protecting the back four and distributing the ball quickly and efficiently to the lone front-man (usually Miroslav Klose) and those occupying the flanks. Of course, his thinking may change in the light of such a debilitating development as Ballack’s unavailability, but the stylish Bundestrainer will consider the likely candidates’ defensive attributes a priority. That could be bad news for Bayern Munich’s creative wunderkind Toni Kroos.

Having spent the best part of the last two years on loan with high-flying Bayer Leverkusen, the 20-year-old has impressed all observers with his cool-headed approach, precise passing and eye for goal. A set-piece specialist, Kroos made his full debut as recently as the surprise home defeat to Argentina in March. It would be a bold move to place the hopes of a nation upon his relatively slender frame, but on such gambles World Cup campaigns are often won and lost.

Other, more conservative, options include moving adaptable Schalke defender Heiko Westermann into a holding role – young full-back Christian Träsch can also fill-in here, but is less well established in the squad. Sami Khedira, a contemporary of Träsch at resurgent Stuttgart, is similarly inexperienced at the top level and has only just returned from knee injury.

Attention must then surely turn to the men initially rejected by Löw. 51-cap midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, out of favour with both Stuttgart, then new club Lazio this season, was omitted from the provisional 27-man squad. So, too, was Wolfsburg’s Christian Gentner – soon to join Stuttgart.

Neither man, alas, can offer the stature of a man ostensibly discarded to make way for super-talented young guns such as Kroos, Marko Marin, Mesut Özil, and Bayern’s latest prodigy Thomas Müller – all of whom are most effective at the other end of the pitch. It is Werder Bremen warhorse Frings whose wealth of experience and dogged style would so well complement the more refined talents of Schweinsteiger, Özil, et al.

It would take a substantial swallowing of pride from both men, but it’s surely not too late for both Löw and Frings to overcome their manifest differences ‘in the national interest’. Frings finished the Bundesliga season in uncharacteristically free-scoring form (with a run of five goals in seven games) and generally turning in a series of vintage performances which had the likes of erstwhile national team team-mate Per Mertesacker backing his claims for a recall. If parachuted straight back into the starting line-up, it is less likely that the headstrong veteran would cause any trouble in the camp. Necessarily, Löw will need to think long and hard before he discards this compelling option.

The one-time deputy of Jürgen Klinsmann has at his disposal a more innately talented squad of players than any Germany coach for a long while. The new tranche of attacking-midfield talents will be complemented by Manchester City new-boy Jerome Boateng and the implacable Serdar Tasci in defence, while blonde beanpole Stefan Kieβling joins the attack.

Losing their first-choice goalkeeper, René Adler, and their inimitable skipper during the run-in to the tournament, however, may be a fatal blow to their title hopes. Nevertheless, the belief that the Germans always produce eine Turniermannschaft (a ‘tournament team’) holds firm among German fans and media. It’s safe to conclude that whichever combination takes to the field in South Africa, they’ll be a fearless, formidable outfit.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

World Cup Moments: Quinn & Keane keep Irish eyes smiling in Ibaraki


Ireland’s World Cup campaign of 2002 hardly got off to the most auspicious of starts – the implosion of captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy’s malfunctioning relationship at their pre-tournament training base in Saipan saw to that.

A simmering row between the Manchester United legend and all things FAI was brought to a white-hot conclusion when Keane launched into a long-suppressed tirade against preparations for the event, which apparently concluded with an ‘invitation’ for McCarthy to “stick it up his bollocks.” It was an incident of such notoriety that the Irish Taioseach, Bertie Ahern, was moved to intervene and Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews later wrote a sell-out stage play – I, Keano – satirising the incident.

It could so easily have been the definitive moment of Ireland’s tournament – one they had qualified for in dramatic fashion, at the expense of the Netherlands and then Iran, in a heated playoff. A disunited and disenfranchised side, without their one true star, could easily have slumped quietly out of the competition at the first stage.

Their opening game against Cameroon, however, offered compelling evidence that the Irish camp had ultimately been united by the pre-tournament dramatics which had threatened to jeopardise their hopes. Matt Holland’s stunning equaliser in Niigata earned a merited point for McCarthy’s men and set up an intriguing second-game encounter with eventual finalists Germany; ruthless 8-0 slayers of Saudi Arabia in their opening match.

It was Ireland's first competitive fixture against the Germans. Rudi Völler’s side may have been humbled by their capitulation to England during qualifying, but, given Ireland’s relatively meagre resources and absent skipper, it was a clear case of snappy underdogs against established World Cup heavyweights.

Oliver Kahn, ultimate winner of the tournament’s Golden Ball, was the larger-than-life captain of a squad incorporating the talents of Michael Ballack, Christoph Metzelder, and an unknown Polish-born forward named Miroslav Klose. To mitigate these talents, lumbering Bayern Munich striker Carsten Jancker was included at the expense of veteran star Oliver Bierhoff. Nonetheless, few expected the Boys in Green to take anything from the game.

There was, therefore, little surprise when Germany took early control thanks to Klose’s fourth goal in two games, following a headed hat-trick against the feeble Saudis. The Kaiserslautern youngster got between Steve Staunton (winning his 100th cap) and Ian Harte to beat the hopelessly exposed Shay Given with another header in the 19th minute, and all was going to script.

But Ireland produced several reminders that the German defence could be breached. A Damien Duff run, a Matt Holland shot and an attempted overhead kick by Robbie Keane were reminders that Germany's defence could yet be breached. Duff – so impressive throughout – ran onto Gary Breen's knock-down and seemed certain to score, but the seemingly unbreachable Kahn threw himself in the way of his shot and the ball slipped wide.

Jancker could then have extended Germany's lead and effectively killed Irish interest in the tournament when put clear by Michael Ballack - but put his shot wide of the far post. Klose put a header over the bar when unchallenged.

With only quarter-of-an-hour remaining ageing Sunderland striker Niall Quinn, who’d been deeply embroiled in the media storm surrounding Roy Keane’s departure, was lumped onto the field in place of full-back Gary Kelly. It was a desperate bid to revive Irish fortunes, with dreams of a second round place fading fast. Quinn takes up the story from here in his own words:

“Time is galloping past. You can feel the anxiety. The bench is screaming at us, the crowd are on edge. Tick, tick, tick...

“We’re into injury time. Please let something fall for us. Please. Steve Finnan comes out with the ball, composed and cool. He sends an angled ball towards me. I’ve been through this with Robbie a thousand times on training grounds. He knows where I’m going to put it and he gets there on time. My part is done. It’s all down to the kid now.

“Robbie controls my headed pass exquisitely and the ball is his...he sticks it past Kahn. The net bulges and the response in the ground is electric, deafening. Above us there’s a wild noise, an endless cheer.”

Pubs, clubs, and bars from Dublin to Dubai, from Naas to New York, resonated with a symbiotic uproar and were left stout-spattered by riotously happy Irish folk and their sympathisers. With 91 minutes and 44 seconds on the clock, Leeds United starlet Robbie Keane has become the ice-cool author of one of Irish football’s greatest moments. His ensuing gambol of delight by the corner flag captured a glorious youthful exuberance to be replayed time and time again in TV highlights packages across the globe.

Two weeks and an unfortunate penalty shoot-out exit later, an estimated 100,000 fans welcomed the squad back to Dublin as World Cup heroes.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

McCarthy, Shelvey and Henderson: Young Guns (go for it!)

‘Change’ has been a popular word in political circles these past few weeks. According to the all-powerful party machines and egomaniacal spin doctors, nobody, it seems, is at all keen on staying the same. Sure as night follows day (or blue follows red) the industrial quantities of hot-air spent espousing political change is all too rarely realised, however.

Genuine change, though, is in the rarefied air surrounding the ever-popular Barclays Premier League. Aside from essential regulatory reforms on issues such as club ownership and levels of debt, there will soon be a new dynamic in how the playing staff of each club is composed.

A “home-grown player rule” will take effect at the start of next season. All Premier League clubs will be required to name a squad of up to 25 players, of which no more than 17 can be over the age of 21 and not ‘home grown’ (i.e. trained for three years under the age of 21 by any club in the English and Welsh professional system). This long overdue imposition of a quota system – the first baby-step towards Sepp Blatter’s beloved ‘6 plus 5’ rule? – is designed to restrict the hoarding of talented youngsters at the biggest clubs and, primarily, to force clubs to invest in and carefully nurture their own British talent (or at least buy it in from closer to Leeds than Lagos).

Liverpool’s recent signing of follicularly-challenged Charlton youngster Jonjo Shelvey is surely a harbinger of things to come, given the incoming statute. Particularly when considering the club’s recent reluctance to invest in youngsters from these isles. Yet Shelvey is not exactly a trend-setter, as all top-flight clubs, from title chasers down to rank-and-file members, have already been concentrating their efforts on compliance with the new ruling, which they were formally made aware of earlier this season.

Since the turn of the year, a growing band of teenagers have been offered a taste of Premier League action. What’s more, a number of these new kids on the block have taken to life in the self-styled ‘greatest league on earth’ with impressive ease. One or two have even rapidly established themselves as irreplaceable first-team fixtures, with top clubs’ scouts already admiring their every move.

Wigan Athletic is perhaps an unlikely home of future International-standard talent, given the club’s previous preference for a mixture of battle-hardened journeymen and athletically able exotic imports. The startling emergence of Scotland-born Republic of Ireland international James McCarthy this year indicates a change of direction in recruitment at the DW Stadium, as confirmed by the cut-price January signing of exciting winger Victor Moses from Crystal Palace.

Though baby-faced McCarthy had long been tipped for stardom – and has been the subject of much controversy over his ‘defection’ to Ireland despite having been born and raised in Glasgow – few would have necessarily predicted the sudden and explosive impact the 19-year-old has made in his debut season at the top level of English football.

Perhaps his finest hour in a Wigan shirt to date came during the March win over Liverpool in which the callow youth clearly outshone a struggling Steven Gerrard (who would have been McCarthy’s skipper, had the Scottish Young Player of the Year’s proposed move to Anfield reached fruition. It was a performance which came only a week after McCarthy survived a crazy ‘tackle’ from Birmingham City’s Liam Ridgewell, which could easily have had season-ending consequences. Instead of being cowed by such an act of ruthless brutality, McCarthy instead went on to end the season on a high, comprehensively bearing out the words of his manager, Roberto Martinez: “I was delighted when he made that rather strange decision not to go to a top, top club like Liverpool. I think that decision is being proved right now.”

England under-19 international Moses – who, like McCarthy before him, has designs on representing a country other than that of his birth (Nigeria) – has had a more sporadic impact since his winter arrival. The same can certainly be said of the much-hyped Fabian Delph, of Aston Villa. The £6m midfielder showed glimpses of his undoubted talent during his rare opportunities at first-team level this year, but the well-established Stillian Petrov/James Milner axis has proven to be impenetrable. Delph’s season ended in ignominy, with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament suffered during training last month potentially keeping the ex-Leeds star out until Christmas.

Of course, buying in young, unproven talent is an expensive and risky process. In an ideal world, each club would produce a clutch of first-team-ready youngsters each year. It’s relatively inexpensive; and the fans all love to see a local-boy-made-good wearing the shirt they’ve dreamed of donning since they hoofed their first fluorescent fly-away football over the garden fence.

This year in the Premier League, there have been several shining examples of showing faith in youth being spectacularly rewarded. Phil Jones, of Blackburn Rovers (born in Preston), has garnered an array of praise from all quarters since his late-season emergence as the heir apparent to John Terry (if Sam Allardyce is to be believed.) Certainly, the 18-year-old’s authoritative and assertive displays since a sparkling debut against champions-elect Chelsea have marked the centre-half out as one to watch in the near future.

Sunderland’s home-grown starlet Jordan Henderson started the season out on the right flank; as is so often the case, marginalised by more senior stars at the centre of the Black Cats’ engine room. Since Lee Cattermole’s injury, however, the 6ft teenager has made a central midfield spot his own. Some optimistic pundits even tipped Henderson to make an unlikely surge for World Cup inclusion. Clearly, though, he’ll have to bide his time before making such a breakthrough.

Henderson’s success has been rewarded with a fresh five-year contract, with a similar deal also being agreed with his recent midfield partner, 20-year-old David Meyler (a product of the recently-defunct Cork City, who, like Delph, recently suffered a serious knee injury).

Elsewhere, well-regarded young guns at the top clubs have started to make serious breakthroughs this term. Everton’s giant midfielder Jack Rodwell has established himself in the Toffees’ first team squad and has scored some vital goals. Jack Wilshere’s loan at Bolton has been a tremendous success for the 18-year-old who was much-hyped but largely untested before his temporary move north in the January transfer window and Owen Coyle is naturally keen to extend the Arsenal prodigy’s spell at the Reebok into next season. Back at Ashburton Grove, 19-year-old deep-lying midfielder Craig Eastmond has had more playing time in Wilshere’s (and Aaron Ramsey’s) absence.

Nathan Delfouneso, born just up the road from his senior Aston Villa colleague and fellow Brummie striker Gabby Agbonlahor, is slowly establishing himself as a viable alternative to Emile Heskey as Villa’s primary centre-forward back-up. Indeed, the majority of Villa fans bay for the pacy teenager to be given the nod ahead of out-of-form Heskey when first-choice John Carew begins to tire. In March he notched his first goal for England under-21s; then scored the Villans’ winner at Fratton Park in mid-April.

With the new ‘homegrown’ edict coming into effect in a just a few short months, we should expect an increasing number of teenage squad members to join the likes of Delfouneso, Henderson and Jones; and, incrementally, a greater number of youthful first-team stars born and bred on these shores. So it’s a case of; ‘British jobs for British workers’. Perhaps one of those nice political parties could borrow that line.