Let me tell you a story. It’s about that photo up there. I took it just a few minutes ago. That cat has been hanging around the station for a couple of weeks. Today it got bold enough to wander inside and sit on my till. I gave him some milk, and he likes the attention he gets from customers. I reckon he’s going to become a regular fixture in here. Which is a good thing. Every station should have a cat. But the story isn’t about the cat. It’s about the photo in a more general sense.
Last month, shortly before the election for the FIFA presidency, the FBI declared to the world that FIFA are a corrupt organisation. Rotten to the core. A criminal racketeering organisation. Sheesh. Tell us something we didn’t already know. I can almost hear you say, “Ah, but now we’ve got the evidence!”. Sheesh, because awarding Qatar the rights to host a world cup wasn’t cast iron evidence? That the two most corrupt nations in the bidding process, Russia and Qatar, won the rights to both upcoming world cups? They are different types of evidence to that presented by the FBI, I know.
There’s a lot of optimism that the criminal investigations by US and Swiss authorities will prevail in bringing the criminal element within FIFA to justice, and force the organisation to reform into a transparent body, with integrity and fairness embedded within all processes. Alas, I am not so optimistic. I wrote a post back in 2012 after the awarding of the next two world cups. I had this to say…
FIFA has long been known to be a corrupt little club of tin pot dictators. This morning they added further evidence of that. The organisation doesn’t simply need to be cleansed, but closed and replaced with a more open, transparent and representative body.
Here’s the problem as I see it. Within days of the arrests, 133 of 209 football associations from around the world ignored common sense and voted to re-elect Sepp Blatter as president. That’s 133 associations who chose to re-elect a man who has been running the organisation as a personal fiefdom for nearly two decades, sanctioning corrupt practices, actively protecting the guilty and lining the pockets of his supporters. I knew he was corrupt. They knew he was corrupt. The world knows he’s corrupt. Yet they voted for him. What future is there for a body with a membership with that is so openly accepting of such a president?
Russia and Qatar bought their world cups. I feel confident enough to state that as fact. If the direct evidence doesn’t surface, it’s because it’s been destroyed, and destroyed well. Russia have already disclosed that every email ever sent regarding their bid has been destroyed. But it’s quite clear how one wins the rights to a world cup. So we have a situation. If either Russia or Qatar are allowed to host the 2018 and 2022 cups, then it is clear that continuing corruption is being tolerated. If there is any sort of evidence, there will almost certainly be law suits brought to the courts by the losing bidders. With the amount of money at stake, a loss in the court room could, should, bankrupt FIFA.
If evidence arises showing the tournaments were bought, and Russia and Qatar are stripped, then they will no doubt also fight their case through the courts, in a bid to have their status as hosts reinstated. Again, potential bankruptcy for FIFA beckons. And in either event, I predict a bitter and destructive civil war within FIFA. In my opinion, FIFA is done for. It’s position at the top of the football family is untenable. I still believe it needs to be shut down and replaced. Let Qatar and Russia pursue a defunct organisation through the courts for money that isn’t there and for the rights to host tournaments that don’t exist.
Replaced with what? Isn’t that the ten million dollar question. A new home is an obvious starter as Switzerland is a land too comfortable with keeping secrets. It should remain in Europe though. Whether in a sporting powerhouse such as England or Germany, or a more neutral nation, such as Belgium, Denmark or Switzerland. It doesn’t matter much. The rest is basic stuff. A charter that clearly defines its role with regulations that ensure transparency.
But still, a problem remains. The membership of the organisation probably won’t change much. And the membership, and its dubious voting habits, are as big a part of the problem as Sepp Blatter and his cronies are. The rest of the world doesn’t want European dominance. However, Europe (or most of it) doesn’t want to be part of the status quo. The danger, some might suggest, is a fracturing of the sport into numerous different bodies. I don’t think it is a danger. Because whether the rest of the world likes it or not, Europe does dominate football. European money, trophies and the domestic leagues are world football. Any body not including Europe is doomed from day one.
Does any one come out of this with any credit whatsoever? I’m happy to say that the UK does, to a certain degree. The FA have been outspoken. But most importantly, the British press, tawdry as it can often be, has for many years exposed FIFA corruption and kept the pressure on. The USA too can claim the moral high ground. Sure, their own FIFA rep was one of the most corrupt of the bunch. But at least the authorities got their man, and took the rest out with him. But it’s hard to find much in the way of good guys beyond those two countries. Oh. Except for me. Because I told you so. Years ago. I know, I wasn’t the only one, but why would I pass up the opportunity to gloat?
Who comes out of this with egg on their faces, besides the Executive Committee? Michel Platini would like to position himself to take over the presidency, I’m sure. But he voted for Qatar. His reasons for doing so scarcely matter. He’s tainted. The whole world of football currently has egg on its face. And as for Blatter. Well, as I write this, he is still actually president, and is planning to remain in the role till nearly Christmas. I sincerely hope his plan to hang around for so long are interrupted. One of his allies was fired from FIFA today for telling a joke. “The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, the director of communications and the general secretary are all sitting in a car – who is driving? The police.” That’s a joke just waiting to happen.
In my younger years, when I still lived in the nation’s capital, I’d often go to see Liverpool when they came to town. There’s quite a few London teams who are, or at least were, regulars in the English top flight. QPR, Watford, Crystal Palace, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Charlton, Millwall, West Ham, Clapham Rover and Wanderers. I can sense a few raised eyebrows from seasoned English football fans. Clapham Rovers and Wanderers? They are both now defunct. Have been for years. But both have FA Cup wins to their names, Wanderers with five of them. Indeed, Wanderers share the record with Blackburn Rovers for the most consecutive FA Cup wins (3) and another record shared with three others teams for winning consecutive cup finals on two occasions. Bet you didn’t know that, eh? Bet you don’t much care, either…
When I went to see games on a Saturday in the 80s and 90s, things were much different from today. You could turn up on the day and buy a cheap ticket for a few pounds and stand up to watch the match. The stadiums were all a bit worse for wear, the pitches often turned into a mud bath after the first heavy rain of the season and the burgers were a sure fire way to ruin your Sunday. If you needed a wee, you could go in the trough. Or just pee on the floor next to the trough. Or even pee in the corridor outside the toilets. It really was all much the same thing.
These days, you need to start your efforts to get a ticket weeks in advance, and your efforts will often fail to deliver. It’s tough to get a ticket, and if you’re successful, you’ll part with a sizeable chunk of your weekly salary. But the stadiums are all now world class, and peeing on the floor will almost certainly get you ejected from the stadium. Do it in the corridor, and you’ll probably end up on a sex offender register. Times have indeed changed. Apart from the availability and pricing, for the better.
Back in the day I watched some of the greatest players even to pull on the red jersey of Liverpool. Dalglish, Rush, Whelan, Hansen, Lawrensen, Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge, Nicol, Grobbelaar to name a few. Then I left London, and I stopped going to matches. I became an armchair fan. That’s ok. I’ve always had a comfy armchair and a half decent telly. The view is always the best, too. But I miss the atmosphere. I miss seeing the game in the flesh. So now and again, I try to get a ticket. And fail.
Until this season. Back in December, Liverpool came to Bournemouth to play the local team in a cup tie on a bleak, dark and positively chilly Wednesday night. Bournemouth are a lower league team, so this was a big deal for the town. The tickets were all gone in a flash, of course. But Mrs P delivered. She has a friend who happens to be a season ticket holder at Bournemouth, and he kindly gave his ticket up for me. What a sacrifice. What a great guy! But karma can be a blessing, not just a bitch. Bournemouth were recently promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their 100+ year history. He’ll get to see a ton of top games next season.
In the days leading up to the game, I thought back to the last time I went to a match. It was twenty years ago. Steven Gerrard was still a schoolboy last time I went. It’s since turned out that this is Gerrard’s final season at Liverpool after 17 years in the first team. He’s heading out to Los Angeles to wind down his career. He played that Wednesday night, so I can add his name to the list of Liverpool legends that I’ve seen play. I have a photo too, to prove it.
Is Gerrard the greatest? There are many who say he is. But how do you define great? Luis Suarez is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most talented player to pull on the red jersey. But his stay was too short for him to be the greatest. For me, as with most people my age who grew up watching the all conquering teams of the late 70s and 80s, Kenny Dalglish will always be numero uno. But Steven Gerrard is most definitely a close number two.
Without him, the last couple of decades would have a been a miserable time for us Liverpool supporters. He’s raised some pretty mediocre Liverpool teams to greatness over the years. He’s scored some of the finest goals seen in the game, in some of the most memorable games, often right at the death. And whatever some of his detractors might say, he will always have that Wednesday night in Istanbul, 25th May 2005.
Liverpool will miss the guy. English football will miss him. I will miss seeing him take to the field. But I will always have that Wednesday night in Bournemouth, 12th December 2015.
Latin America is not a happy hunting ground for Germany. The last grand battle they faced in these waters finished when the sailors aboard the Graf Spee scuttled their own ship, rather than face defeat. But this time round, they came out all guns blazing, and it was their opponents who self destructed. Not since the French in 1940 has the world seen such a complete capitulation in the face of a German attack. And like the French, the humiliation was complete when the Brazilians decided to collaborate, providing standing ovations and oles as the Germans scored, teased and tormented their hapless opponents.
The totally unnecessary war references are there purely because, as a Brit, I am culturally obliged to relate any German success, or failure for that matter, to World War Two. And to mock the French. It’s what we do. On Tuesday we watched something special. Something for the ages. The Germans lived up to their stereotype in 90 minutes of slick, ruthless, even brutal efficiency. They truly blitzed the enemy, leaving them dazed and confused. And thoroughly beaten. To their credit, and unlike the French, the Brazilians didn’t surrender.
I am, of course, referring to the Germans 7 to 1 trouncing of Brazil in the first World Cup 2014 semi final. How does this game rank in the history of the sport? Football is a game with many facets, and for each facet that is game that is held as the prime example. A game that embodies a virtue, for good or bad, and that is remembered forever. A game that sets the standard by which all other games of that nature will be compared to. A game that is embedded into the global consciousness of the sport. Never to be forgotten. There are ten games which have shaped this sport. Here they are…
The Battle of Santiago
Sport is a competitive cauldron of testosterone fuelled men, determined to emerge triumphant. Sometimes competitors snap and lash out. Swing an elbow. A discreet headbutt. Or have a little nibble of someone’s shoulder. But the finest example of on-field physical combat came in Santiago during a game between Chile an Italy. Neither side left the field with their dignity intact. But the Italians departed with their reputation in tatters. The first foul occured after just twelve seconds. The first sending off, for a punch, after 12 minutes. Technically he was sent off. In reality he was dragged off the pitch by police, having refused to go for an early shower. The police were forced to intervene several more times as fists continued to fly. The referee, an Englishman, did little to intervene. He did go on to invent the yellow and red card though.
The Russian Linesman
Dodgy offside calls, missed fouls, wrongly given or ruled out goals – the poor referee and his linesmen have long been getting it in the neck for getting things wrong. But the grand daddy of dubious decision belongs to a Russian. Actually, he wasn’t Russian. He was from Azerbaijan. But everyone thinks he was Russian. In 1966 at Wembley, in extra time of a thrilling final between England and Germany, Geoff Hurst thundered a shot against the underside of the bar and over the line. Or not over the line. No one really knows. It will never be settled one way or the other. The referee wasn’t sure. But the Russian linesman, he was sure. He waved his flag, had a chat to the ref and the goal was given. England went on to score another, Geoff Hurst netting his third, the only hat-trick ever scored in a final.
A David versus Goliath battle always catches the imagination. When David wins…well, you’d write a chapter for a book about it, wouldn’t you. At the very least. There are plenty of candidates for shock results. England’s defeat by the USA in Brazil 1950 sent shock waves through the world of football. But perhaps the honour of the greatest shocks belongs to North Korea. The communists out east played a starring role in the World Cup in England. But before the Russian linesman got to take to the stage, a team of North Korean no-hopers took on the might of Italy. A beat them.
The Match of the Century
The 1970 tournament in Mexico was the the tournament that just kept on giving. Early on, the two giants of the game at the time played a fabulous match. England were the reigning champions, taking on the favourites Brazil. The game is famous for the greatest save ever made, one of the finest tackles and an iconic photo of two true champions embracing in an era when sport was still sport.
But this was not the Match of the Century. That came in the semi final. To be fair, the first 90 minutes were very ordinary. Dull, even. But with extra time under way, the two giants of European football slugged it out, trading blow for blow. Video fails to catch the drama, tension and fear that enveloped the game as it headed towards a goal fest climax. Italy triumphed over the Germans and went through to the final.
Perhaps in hindsight they’d wish they hadn’t. Because…
The Beautiful Game
It is said that the English invented the game. And Brazil made it beautiful. Both statements are correct. The latter sentiment was etched into history in the final of the 1970 World Cup. A magnificent Brazil played the game how it should be played. The way you’d play in your dreams. With flair, daring, genius. The defensive fortress of Italy was put to the test by the finest attacking team in history. An immoveable object against an irresistible force. One had to give, and it was the Italians, swept aside by a relentless tide of green and yellow sporting gods. The fourth goal trascended normal sport. It was poetry in motion. Moving art. Pele, the conductor of a footballing orchestra of unsurpassed quality defined what football is, was and forever should be.
In American football, a blitz is a defined as an attack on a player as soon as the ball is snapped. He is charged and taken out of the game. This isn’t a move that is technically permitted in normal football. Not within the rules. Normally. How apt that it was a German who imported the move. There have been many moments of brutality on the football field, but no single incident springs so readily to mind that that inflicted on the French player Patrick Battiston by the German keeper Harald Schumacher.
Astonishingly, the referee failed to even so much as award a foul. How he felt that Battiston ended up on the floor unconscious with smashed up teeth and vertebrae – well, only he knows. The game itself was also a classic, decided on penalties after the sides had drawn 3-3 after the end of extra time.
Death of Football
Brazil made football beautiful. Their great teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970 have gone down in footballing folklore. They played with a sense of flair, panache and imagination that every other team in the world aspires to. They set the bar for footballing excellence. But it’s been a while since the Brazilians themselves have managed to field a team that comes close to reaching that bar.
The last time? That would be Spain in 1982. Zico, Socrates, Junior, Eder and Falcao provided an attacking force that lived up to all expectations. True, their defence was known to be a little suspect. But that shouldn’t have mattered. They sent ten goals flying past their three opponents in the first group stage. In the second round group of three the comfortably despatched fierce rivals and reigning champions Argentina 3 to 1. Which left them needing just a single point from their second game in order to proceed to the semi finals.
It was to be another battle of traditional flair, wrapped in a Brazilian flag, against a functional, defensive Italian team spearheaded by Paolo Rossi – a player who should have been serving the final year of a three year ban for match fixing. What transpired was a game for the ages, but a horror show for the purist. And the death of football as it should be played. At least from a Brazilian perspective.
Hand of God
There is a fine line between madness and genius. And plenty of examples to prove the point. Diego Maradona being football’s prime example. When he wasn’t shooting up drugs or shooting at journalists, he was scoring the most sublime goals the game has seen. He was famed for single handedly dragging inferior teams to ultimate glory. Yet, he could also express the darker side of his nature of the pitch too.
In less that five minutes of mayhem and magic in the Estadio Azteca in 1986, he demonstrated both facets of his character. In a quarter final against England, fuelled into a fervently hostile clash thanks to the recent Falklands War, Maradona first cheated his way to a goal – the infamous Hand of God – and then scored the finest individual goal the tournament has ever seen. The rest, as they say, is history. And the World Cup was won a week or so later, and on a plane back to Buenos Airies.
Every game so far has been a World Cup games, featuring national teams. Not this one. But this one is special. It captured the imagination of football fans across the world. It is the very definition of a comeback. Sure, there have been games where a team has pulled back a greater deficit. But never on a stage this big. Never against a team of the likes of AC Milan. Never in the style of this Liverpool team.
What do you want from your game of football? Forty thousand screaming red fans? A giant and the underdog? A first half crushing that would demoralise your opponents and cast them into despair? A rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone as the teams return to the field for the second half. Seven minutes of insanity as the scores are brought level? Two ridiculously improbable saves? And to finish, the drama of a penalty shoot out. Check, check, check, check, check, check and check.
The Crying Game
And we come full circle, ending the post where I started it. With Brazil’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany. Yes, most other teams have suffered a humiliation from time to time. The Germans are still trying to forget being thumped 5-1 by England in their own Olympic stadium in 2002. In turn England are trying to forget about their German thumping four years ago. Or at least, we will remind you of the scandalously disallowed Lampard goal.
But this was a World Cup semi final. In Brazil’s own World Cup. With so much Brazilian hype prior to this game. To be fair, many people saw it coming. More than a month ago, when Brazil manager picked Jo and Fred over Ronaldinho, Kaka or Coutinho, the signs were there. Tactically they’ve been off. Going forward they were toothless. They were fortunate to get a result against Croatia, were held easily by Mexico, and were lucky to get past Chile. They played better against Colombia but also showed their nasty side and were fortunate to get past them as well.
But still. No matter how you word it. No matter what excuses you make. From this point forward, any team can suffer any result and still say, ‘well things could be worse – we could be Brazil’.
The photo below is something of a rarity. It’s of a British football team. I’ve searched the internet high and low for video footage and photos of Great Britain football teams with almost zero success. So that’s the best I can come up, that photo below. It’s the British football team from the 1908 Olympic Games. They won gold, bless them.
The mish mash of kingdoms, principalities and provinces that form the UK is a complicated affair. Things should be simplified for sports. After all, it’s about the coming together and the taking part. Alas, this is not so. With sports, the UK becomes even more complicated. Most of the time there is a single Great Britain team. Which is a bit of an iffy definition, seeing as Northern Ireland is often included in that team, but is not part of Great Britain.
There’s already been a bit of contoversy for the 2012 Olympics in that a decision was made to style the team Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Which upset the Irish, who consider their team to represent the island of Ireland. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. As I said, it’s complicated.
With football things are different again. There is no Great Britain team. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have national teams. And national domestic football leagues. Although the top Welsh teams, Swansea and Cardiff, both play in the English league. Wales is technically a principality and Northern Ireland arguably a province anyway – should they have national teams? Regardless – consistency is clearly not a priority.
The have been Great Britain football teams in the past. Professionally, twice. In 1947 a Great Britain team took on the Rest of Europe, and handed out a 6-1 drubbing to the Continentalists. A rematch in 1955 saw our cousins from across the channel get a measure of revenge – the score finished 4-1 in their favour.
There has also been a Great Britain team in the Olympics too. In fact, we won three of the first four tournaments. Nothing since though. After the decision to allow professionals to play in the Olympics after the ’72 games, no Great Britain team has competed. Even though national teams have played in qualifiers and earned the right to play at the tournament.
The fear, for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular, is that if they compete in the Olympics as a Great Britain team, FIFA may decide that their individual identity no longer exists and force them to play as Great Britain at World Cups. I’ve always thought this was a poor excuse. It wouldn’t happen, for two reasons. Firstly, FIFA has long agreed to continue recognising them as individual states if they do play as GB. Secondly, because England also wants to continue playing as England and wouldn’t accept such a edict.
Whatever FIFA may think of us English, and as daft and corrupt as they are, they’re not so daft as to want the English out of world football. We bring far too much money into the game. UEFA would also simply refuse to accept the decision as well. The cost of losing the English teams from the Champions League would be too much.
But good news! There will be a Great Britain team in the London Olympics this summer! Sure, there’s been a lot of fuss and bitching, but it’s going to happen. The only question is, will any Welsh players take part? Some might also ask whether any Scottish players will take part, but few will really care. Scottish football is in an absolute state. A harsh comment, but true nonetheless.
But the Welsh have a trio of players who would have a massive impact on the chances of Team GB winning gold. And if we do win gold we will have four golds to our name, pulling one ahead of Hungary who are currently level with GB on three gold medals. What Welsh fan wouldn’t want to see Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsay and Ryan Giggs win a major international football tournament? There are, sadly, quite a few. One hopes their negatively nationalist voices are drowned out by common sense and sporting goodwill.
If ever I’ve had a ‘hunch’, it was back in late 2004. Liverpool scraped through the group stage of the European Cup – and I do mean scraped. They needed to win the final game of the six game stage by two clear goals. At the end of the first half, they were losing 1-0, and needed three. It was a thrilling second half though.
My hunch got stronger come the game at Anfield against Juventus, but even by then I’d decided that I wouldn’t be booking my ticket to come live in Mexico till after the European Cup final in mid May. Just in case…
It was a good decision. Liverpool got through to the final. The greatest final, it transpired, in European football history. I never get tired of watching it. The video below is a mash up I found today. It’s hard to believe it was more than five years ago.
There have been some glorious moments since then. Thrashing Real Madrid in the quarter finals 4-0. The 2006 F.A. Cup Final. Putting four past Manchester Utd. And a half dozen classics against Chelsea. If you only click on one of the links though, click on this one.
But how it’s all gone wrong. We started last season favourites to win the English Premier League, and one of the favourites to win the European Cup. We finished a shocking 7th in the former, and didn’t make it past the group stage in the latter. Manager Benitez got the bullet, and the search for a new manager began.
The search shouldn’t have included Roy Hodgson. Experienced, yes. At mediocrity and failure. As he is capably demonstrating this season, having gotten the job. The sooner he’s fired the better. Bring back King Kenny. But there are bigger problems. The American owners, who have done a fine job of destroying the club, are about to have it taken off of them by the banks. Which may mean administration, a 9 point deduction in the league….is relegation really so far fetched?
When I first arrived in Mexico in 2005, a Mexican was just about to make the opposite journey. Jared Borgetti, Mexico’s all time top scorer at international level, signed for Bolton Wanderers and played one season for them, becoming the first ever Mexican to play in the English Premier League. He scored seven goals in all competitions. Not good enough, so Bolton said adios.
That pretty much set the standard for Mexicans in the Premier League*. It is a tough league, arguably the toughest. Not only according to skill and speed that is required, but the game tends to be a little more physical in England. Which doesn’t tend to suit Mexican footballers.
Giovanni Dos Santos signed for Spurs a couple of years ago, flopped and was sent to Turkey on loan. Although he is back at Spurs this year and did play the other day, so many it’s too early to write him off as a failure. Unlike Guillermo Franco who played last season for West Ham and scored even fewer goals from more games than Borgetti. Needless to say, he’s not with them anymore.
Carlos Vela was a hot talent who was signed by Arsenal a couple of years ago. And has in two seasons scored just two league goals. He’s running out of time to prove himself. I have little faith in him doing that, I’m afraid. Like Franco, his partner for Mexico in the World Cup in South Africa, he’s so far proven to be consistent only at missing the target.
In the summer two more Mexicans went to England. Barrera went to West Ham, who frankly look terrible so far. Which doesn’t bode well for the former Pumas star. The biggest signing though was Javier Hernandez for Manchester United. He’s made a bright start for them, although he did earn a certain amount of ridicule for his centre circle prayer ritual last weekend. The English ‘don’t do god’.
Have I missed anyone out? There’s just one more that I can think of. And he signed today. Carlos Salcido has had a lot of success over the last few years in the Dutch League with PSV Eindhoven, but he’s now signed for Fulham. The London club are a small outfit, but have a half decent manager and a pretty decent squad. They got to the Europa League final last season.
I think Salcido is a fabulous player. There were rumours my own team, Liverpool, were going to sign him, and I’d have been happy if they had. He’s very much a complete player, and was in my opinion, Mexico’s best player at the World Cup. He has pace, strength, the skill to beat players, the ability to tackle and a great shot. He’ll run up and down the wing all day, and he definitely has a pair of cojones. If a Fulham fan should wander across this post, be rest assured you have a quality player.
*The criticism is fair, but the videos I’ve linked to shows they have had their moments of glory!
Less than two months to go, and my preparations are in place. My students have been informed – any big games during their classes, and they don’t get a class. I’ve forked out 15 pesos for a Panini sticker album. I know, I’m a bit old for that, but I’m always convinced that this time will be England’s glorious moment, and I want all the souvenirs going. I’ll not be buying an England top this time round, but will invest in a green Mexican short of some (not too costly) nature. I also have Sky Sports, but I’ll be heading into the centre of the city for Mexico’s games. Armed with my camera, and ready to record the mad procession to and then around, and around, and around the Angel of Independence. As is the tradition.
Most importantly of all, I have bought four tickets to see Mexico play Chile at the Estadio Azteca in May, their last game in the country before they head off to play a few friendlies in Europe (including England at Wembley) prior to their first game in the World Cup in South Africa. Which will actually be the first game of the tournament. They open the event against the hosts, South Africa. What are their chances? They have a really tough group. It’s hard to see how they could have got a tougher group. Hosts South Africa, France and a slightly resurgent Uruguay. I personally fancy them to go through with France. A host nation has never gone out in the opening group phase before, but there’s always a first time. This could well be it.
From there, in the knock out stages, it is anyones game. Most Mexicans are pretty pessimistic. The general consensus is that they’ll put up a mighty battle against the first decent team they play, make everyone proud, and then get back on the plane to come home having lost. Their pessimism has historical support – that is normally exactly what happens. But at almost every tournement you’ll get one unfancied nation, one minor dark horse, get through to the semi finals. I’d like to think Mexico could be that team. They’ve played some great football since Hugo Sanchez left, having left them teetering on the brink of failure to qualify at all. Javier Aguierre has turned their fortunes around dramatically, with some thumping wins – it’ll be a long time before Mexicans forget the 5-0 thrashing they gave their northern neighbours in the final of the Gold Cup.
Mexico has a nice blend of experience and youth too. Rafael Marquez and Cuahuatemoc Blanco have been there, done that, got the T-shirt. The former is Mexico’s most successful footballer ever, with two European Champions League medals to his credit. The latter is, in my opinion, the greatest player to have ever pulled on a Mexico shirt. They have a number of other players who have plyed their trade in Europe, including a couple of youngsters who have Premier League experience in England. There’s also the new sensation Javier ‘Little Pea’ Hernandez who has just signed to play for Manchester United next season. Add in a few professional stalwarts like Cruz Azul’s Gerrado Torrado, and you have a pretty balanced team, high on talent, confidence and ability.
I’m looking forward to that game at the Azteca though. There are still tickets available at the time of writing, but don’t hang around – it’s likely to sell out before too long. I’ve been to see plenty of games in Mexico City, but all of them at Estadio Azul, home of Cruz Azul, my adopted team. I have actually been to the Azteca, a year or so ago. You can turn up most afternoons, slip the guy at the gate a few pesos (about 25 if I remember rightly) and you’ll get let inside to have a good wander round. If you’re quick, you can step on the grass and pretend to be Pele at the 1970 World Cup. But be quick, because you’ll get shouted at for trespassing on such hallowed turf…
I’ve been waiting for this to happen since I arrived. I wasn’t sure it would. But in May it will. Mexico are travelling to Wembley to play England in a friendly match as part of both teams preparations for the World Cup in South Africa. I am a huge football fan, and have quite a few friends and students who are as equally enthralled by the beautiful game. Bragging rights are up for grabs. I’m sure they will be mine!
England have played Mexico 8 times, winning five of them, drawing once and losing twice. England have won the last three, with Mexico’s last win coming in 1985, a 1-0 victory in the Estadio Azteca. Less than a year later they played again, in the US, which England won 3-0. Mexico’s other win was also on Mexican soil, way back in 1959 in the first game they played against each other, at the Estadio Olimpico. The result was 2-1. The sole draw between the two teams was also in Mexico, at the Azteca.
When playing in England Mexico have fared less well. England have won all four games, scoring a total of 16 goals, including an 8-0 win back in 1961. In fact Mexico have never even managed to score a goal against England outside of Mexico. History is on my country’s side. So is current form. I’m going to make a prediction for the May match – England 4 Mexico 0. Of course, it is just a friendly. The real business starts a month later. Mexico could theoretically play England in the Quarter Finals. They have played each other once before in a World Cup match. Back in 1966….such a glorious year!
I joined in a forum conversation last week about Mexican football, and how crazy they are about the game. Or not, as my argument went. Although to be fair, it’s not that I was arguing that Mexicans aren’t entirely football crazy. My point was more about my expectations and perceptions of football in Mexico specifically, and in Latin American countries in general, when I first arrived in the country.
In England, we are football crazy. Especially compared to other European nations. We have 40,000 registered football clubs in the UK. Brazil, in second place, has 10,000 registered football clubs. We have a four division league system with 92 professional clubs. The big Premier League teams sell out virtually every Saturday, regardless of how potentially poor their opposition. Even most small clubs in the Premier League pull in 20,000 each week. In fact only two clubs this season have averaged less than that. Twelve teams average attendance that are more than 90% their stadium capacity, with only three averaging less than 80%. The lowest averages 72%.
I went to Estadio Azul on Saturday to see Cruz Azul play Estudiantes. It’s not one of the big games, but then there are only a few big games at all. That being when Chivas, America or Pumas pay a visit. If I described the stadium as being half full, I’d be being generous. And lying. There were probably fewer than 10,000 fans in the stadium. A small lower division London club such as Crystal Palace or QPR will almost always get in more than 15,000.
So Mexicans aren’t crazy about their footy? Well, they are. But I expected them to be at least as crazy about the beautiful game as we are in England. And they’re not. Not even close. In England, second or third tier sports such as rugby will attract larger crowds.