Reuters Soccer Blog
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The bloody attack on Togo’s team bus in Angola is a huge tragedy for African football and like it or not, has cast a shadow over the World Cup in South Africa in five months time — the biggest sports event ever staged on the continent.
It is highly debatable whether the attack, which killed two members of the Togolese delegation as they arrived for the African Nations Cup and forced the squad’s evacuation on Sunday, really increases the risk to teams and spectators in South Africa.
Without a doubt, however, it has struck a blow against Africa’s concerted efforts to improve its image and reverse decades of gloomy stereotypes painting the entire continent as racked by conflict, disease and despair. Both the Nations Cup, held in a country which only emerged from a 27-year civil war in 2002, and the World Cup were intended to help the process of rehabilitating the continent’s image.
South African organisers reacted with undisguised irritation to immediate suggestions that the Angolan attack should raise concerns over the globe’s most watched event. Over the weekend, Hull City Manager Phil Brown was quoted as saying the attack threw a question mark over the World Cup and other Premier League coaches were said to have called for their expensive African players to be called back from Angola. In contrast, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger said the players should stay, suggesting other managers were motivated more by club self interest than a genuine security concern.
The year 1964 was a highly significant one in the fight against Apartheid: Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and FIFA suspended South Africa from football because of the legalised racist policies of its Government.
If anyone had suggested then that one day FIFA’s Executive Committee would meet on the outcrop off the coast of Cape Town on the eve of the draw for South Africa’s World Cup, they would have been derided as a fantasist.
Around the world referees are forever criticised by fans, players, managers and the media but an Uzbekistan official has managed to buck the trend, receiving an unusually warm welcome after being named Asian Football Confederation (AFC) referee of the year.
Fans at Tashkent airport blew horns and trumpets to celebrate the return of Ravshan Irmatov, a candidate to referee at next year’s World Cup, after he won the award for a second successive year.
After a week of largely upbeat build-up and nationwide publicity for a sport that so often struggles to get space, the league’s title deciding game, MLS Cup, was played out in front of over 46,000 fans here in Seattle – the city that is staking a strong claim to be the de facto home of U.S soccer.
Spain’s 2-1 friendly victory over Argentina on Saturday was further evidence that the European champions are going to take some stopping if they are to be denied their first ever World Cup triumph.
Vicente del Bosque’s men will have the bruises to show that ‘friendly’ was perhaps not the best word to describe an exciting and competitive match that was lucky to finish with 22 men still on the pitch.
Carlos Alberto Parreira’s return as South Africa coach has been widely pilloried in the country’s media, a stark contrast to the almost universal approval he received when he took the job the first time round in late 2006.
Parreira has been enticed back in the wake of the firing of compatriot Joel Santana last week, as the World Cup hosts battle to drag their national side out of a spiral of long-term mediocrity.
Draw for the European World Cup playoffs:
Republic of Ireland v France
Portugal v Bosnia-Herzegovina
Greece v Ukraine
Russia v Slovenia
Two-legged ties to be played on Nov 14 and 18.
Is that the sound of a World Cup playoff shock I hear? France, 2006 runners-up, will have to beat Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland over two legs to reach South Africa next year and that is no easy feat.
South Africa coach Joel Santana has been given two more games to show progress with his side or face being fired just six months before the country hosts the 2010 World Cup finals.
A growing clamour for the departure of the 60-year-old, who came into the job 18 months ago after Carlos Alberto Parreira was forced to quit because of his wife’s illness, has been given momentum by two lethargic performances in Norway and Iceland.
This weekend soccer fans in the United States will, as usual, be able to take their pick from scores of games, from all over the world, broadcast on television. The country has two soccer-only television channels – Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV, as well as soccer providing sports networks such as ESPN and Setanta (still alive in North America) and of course Spanish language broadcasters keep the Hispanic communities well supplied with soccer from south of the border.So, from Saturday’s World Cup qualifying games, the U.S. based fan with cable or satellite could pick from Bahrain v New Zealand, Russia v Germany, Portugal v Hungary, Mexico v El Salvador, Greece v Latvia etc etc. Add in pay-per-view internet providers such as Omnisport and you can catch plenty more games from Europe and South America.There is one game you won’t be able to watch in America though — the United States’ penultimate World Cup qualifier away to Honduras on Saturday. If the U.S win they qualify for South Africa but amazingly the game is not available on television or (legally at least) on the internet.The bizarre situation has come about due to the decision of the holders of the rights to Honduras’ home games to sell the U.S rights to a provider of closed circuit television. The result is that if you want to watch the game you will have to find a bar or a club that has paid the rights fee and has the closed circuit feed. (A list of those venues is here)”We are certainly disappointed for our fans,” said U.S coach Bob Bradley, “We’re very fortunate that whenever we go anywhere there are passionate U.S. supporters wearing colors. Certainly the idea that this match is not on regular TV is disappointing for all of them, and we understand and feel badly about that.”The players at training camp this week have been careful not to speak out too strongly about the situation — rightly or wrongly the affair doesn’t look good for the U.S Soccer Federation even though they don’t have control of the rights to away games. But the players must be hugely disappointed to be battling for qualification against a talented Honduran team knowing that just a tiny fraction of their fan base is able to watch them.Some England fans have been up in arms about their team’s game in Ukraine only being available (for less than the price of two pints of flat London beer) on the internet. England have, of course, already qualified for the World Cup but can you imagine the outcry if that game was decisive and was not even viewable on the web?Of course, if soccer had a stronger standing in the U.S, the television networks would have fought for the rights to the game and outbid the closed circuit operator and the problem wouldn’t have arisen.While it is harsh to blame anyone in U.S soccer for an affair that is out of their control, the farcical situation is a reminder that for all the progress the sport has made in the country in the past decade there is still a long way to go before the game is truly mass market.But is there not a question for FIFA here? Should the sports’ global governing body not have a ruling that World Cup games at least be available on easily accessible television? The only winners in this situation are a little known closed circuit tv provider – it can’t be good for the game.In the meantime, for this reporter in Miami, a re-run of Burnley v Birmingham City is about to start on Setanta and I’ll have to find out if that Honduran social club, 30 minutes drive away, is definitely going to be showing the U.S game….
Europe’s 53 national teams have been split into nine groups with the winners of each qualifying directly for South Africa. The best eight runners-up will play off among themselves over two legs next month for the remaining four slots. The runner-up with the worst record will miss out on a playoff berth entirely.
Usually, deciding the worst runners-up would be a simple case of comparing the respective team records. But there is one small snag — namely Group Nine, which has only five teams while all the others have six sides.