Depending on how crucial you think the tactical genius of a soccer coach really is, you can make a good case that the most important managerial decisions of the World Cup have already been made. This week, in 32 countries, the 23-man squads were announced; and even managers who are sure about their first 11 players on to the field when the tournament starts next weekend had to make some hard decisions about who to bring to South Africa.
So in 32 countries the debate is on, about the veterans dropped (e.g. South Africa’s Benni McCarthy), the young geniuses discarded (e.g. England’s Theo Walcott), the stars of Europe’s top club team who can’t even make their country’s squad (that’d be Argentina’s Zanetti and Cambiaso). Depending on how the games progress, that debate in each country could run through the World Cup finals and beyond. History has shown that a month of tournament soccer goes well beyond the first 11, as injuries and suspensions take their toll, and squad players can turn into superstars in the space of days.
The manager most predictable in his madness is Argentina’s Diego Maradona, who these days has been sporting a fetching Fidel-Castro beard. Not only has he left two Inter Milan greats off the plane, but he’s thrown Barcelona’s defender Gabriel Milito on the scrapheap with them. (Barcelona will have, nonetheless, more than a full team at the World Cup, as 13 of the Catalan club’s players have been named in various squads, the most of any club.) Maradona has chosen in their place several home-based players.
“I have 23 wildcats prepared to leave their skins on the pitch,” he said this week. How will Maradona pick his team with so many exciting forwards to choose from? “With each training session it gets harder to decide.We’re going to reach a level that the Argentina shirt deserves. Argentines should relax because to beat this team, rivals will have to put all their beef on the grill.”
Okay, beef…. But anyone who watched Bayern Munich in this season’s European Champions League knows that you can beat Argentine defender Martin Demichelis with simple, quick football, not grilled beef. Luckily for Maradona, the man who made Demichelis look like a fool in the final also plays for Argentina, striker Diego Milito.
If Milito is upset about his brother Gabriel being left out of the Argentina squad, he’s not saying. That makes them different from the moaning Mexicans, Giovani and Jonathan Dos Santos. They turned the Mexican World Cup selection into a virtual telenovela this week, with Giovani ready to quit the squad after his kid brother was left out. The happy ending: selfless Jona put his own heartbreak aside to talk his brother into pursuing on his own the dream they once shared.
Further south, any controversy in Brazil had been taken care of in the preliminary squad selection, when the top young player Pato was left out — despite featuring scantily clad in the Vanity Fair pre-World Cup photo-shoot by Annie Leibovitz. But Uruguay’s manager sparked debate when he dropped one of the country’s Italian-based players, Jorge Martinez. They’ll be counting on striker Diego Forlan.
In fact, despite Forlan having spent a largely arid two seasons at Manchester United several years ago, Uruguay enjoy a rare distinction in this World Cup: they are one of only five squads out of the entire 32 with no players currently pursuing their club careers in England. (If they do well in South Africa — a strong possibility — that is likely to change as players are snapped up by rich English clubs.) It is an intriguing marker of England’s financial pre-eminence in global soccer at present. The only other squads with no players based in England are either weak: North Korea and Japan; or have their own rich leagues: Italy and Germany — and the latter achieve this distinction only because Michael Ballack, their captain and a player at Chelsea, got a vicious kick in the ankle in the English FA Cup final from Ghanaian Kevin-Prince Boateng, so he’s out of the squad.
It so happens that Ghana will be playing Germany in the first round, and they now need all the help they can get. The saddest news of squad week is that Ghana’s majestic midfielder Michael Essien will not be fit for the tournament. I backed Ghana (with an increasingly modest five euro) to win the World Cup at 80 to 1 a few weeks ago; with Essien out, the price with my bookie is now 100 to 1, and not attractive even at that. Reports from Ghana this week that midfielder Sully Muntari is in a disciplinary dispute with management don’t make Ghana any more back-able — especially since, like the other top African team, Ivory Coast, they find themselves in a opening group that leaves no room for error.
Nigeria, meanwhile, is the only country at the World Cup with no players who actually ply their trade at home. The Nigerian squad is drawn from clubs in nine different countries.
Maybe, after all, it will have to be the South Africans themselves, with just seven foreign-based players among their 23, who fly the flag for the continent past the first round. In an English FA Cup final in May that featured no fewer than seven African footballers, the pick of the bunch was probably South African central-defender Aaron Mokoena, the Portsmouth player who has just celebrated playing his 100th game for his country. He could help make South Africa hard to beat.
By the way, that Portsmouth team was coached by a respected Israeli, Avram Grant. Israel is quite possibly the best footballing country in the Middle East — and generally includes some Arab Israelis in its team — but since geopolitics rather than geography landed Israel in the thorny soccer terrain of Europe for qualification, the Jewish state has stood little chance of qualifying for the World Cup. Indeed, there is a vast swathe of the earth’s landmass, between Greece in the west and Korea in the east, where no countries have qualified for this World Cup.
And Europe’s suspiciously colonial adoption of Israel as one of its own, in place consistently for nearly two decades now, encouraged Australia to apply to leave its home region of Oceania and take part in the Asian qualifying tournament instead. Not only did the Aussies, once admitted, make easy work of that Asian qualifying tournament, but they also left the way clear for New Zealand to qualify by an absurdly easy route, holding off New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu in the Oceania group, then squeezing past Bahrain in a playoff. (Imagine how this makes fans feel in Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Turkey, the Czech Republic and any number of other reputable European footballing countries who are out of the World Cup.)
Is there any chance we will have to take New Zealand seriously? Probably not. They are travelling to South Africa with two players in their squad who don’t have any club at all: Simon Elliot has been dropped by MSL club San Jose Earthquakes, and David Mulligan is out of contract at the still-mightier home-based Wellington Phoenix. That didn’t stop New Zealand from beating fancied dark-horse Serbia in a friendly (i.e. exhibition game) last week. Friendlies are meaningless. But you have been warned: it is just possible, though unlikely, that New Zealand, a country renowned for its rugby-playing ‘All-Blacks’, will not be a complete embarrassment with its soccer-playing ‘All-Whites’.
The distinction for worst team in the World Cup is more likely to go to North Korea. Two of its players are with clubs in Japan, but that’s probably because they were born there and have claimed North Korean citizenship for footballing purposes. More intriguingly, the North Koreans have tried to finesse an extra attacking option into their squad, as Ben Johnston of the website Bleacher Report explains: “The rules for the World Cup state that you must select a minimum of three goalkeepers in your squad. North Korea, as recent events have shown, are not given to respecting the rules, whatever they may be. So, they have gone right ahead and selected Kim Myong-Won as their third goalkeeper. He played three qualifiers up front, but not according to Korea DPR. No. He’s a goalie. If it works on their own people, maybe it can work on FIFA too?”
The breaking news on Thursday was, however, that the trick hasn’t worked on FIFA (the game’s international governing body). Since Kim was registered as a goalkeeper, he will only be able to play as a goalkeeper, or not at all. For his team’s sake, we’d better hope it’s the latter: a group featuring Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast will be no place for a novice keeper.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. His previous articles in this World Cup series have looked at Argentina, Spain, Africa, England, Holland and Germany, France and Italy and Brazil and the U.S.A. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org