Tuesday, July 31, 2007

When is a Dive Not a Dive?

It is universally recognised that falling over when no contact has been made in the game of football is a despicable act. It can wrongly get the challenger sent off and change the course of a match. It can even decide titles. But why is it that so called “tactical fouling” does not produce the same level of ire from certain quarters? Could tactical fouling be fuelling the acceptance and proliferation of diving?

I grew up in a slightly different football culture than most as a child. I remember my uncle’s frustration when watching me play at an inter school round robin. I desperately wanted to impress him, but with my slight stature I was struggling to gain any foothold in the match. It was in my nature to keep my feet and fight for control of the ball, but I found myself increasingly bumped and tapped out of the match. At half time my uncle approached me and said “A foul is a foul. The referee won’t protect you if you keep running when they have chopped your ankles off.”

Far away from suburban football grounds and schoolboy competition, modern professional players who spend longer periods of the match on the ball might go down easier because of the litany of tactical fouling employed to minimise their effect. Whilst staying on their feet might produce short term gains, the risk of serious injury and the effectiveness of the modern free-kick have convinced many that going down and seeking the protection of the referee is the better option. It could even be said that Greece used this tactic to great effect winning the Euro’s in 2004. They knew full well that their strength was at set pieces and playmaker Giorgos Karagounis did a fanastic job of milking and exploiting tactical fouls around the midfield. The South Americans have employed these tactics for as long as anyone can remember, and a culture of exaggerating contact has taken root in the east as the Asian Cup clearly demonstrated.

All those years ago, short of asking me to dive, my uncle awakened me to the reality that in order to be able to play my game, I would have to enlist the help of the referee. Was it diving to exaggerate contact? According to FIFA, “Simulation” is a cardable offence. So any motion not consistent with the contact (or lack of contact) made is not in step with FIFA’s fair play mantra. I was cheating.

This brings me to the subject of the tactical foul. For those not familiar with the term, a tactical foul is a “soft” foul that whilst not incurring a card, will force the referee to stop play and is employed to disrupt the rhythm or impede the progress of the opposite team. Whilst in many parts of the world this tactic is as despised as the dive there have been no efforts to wipe this equally cynical element of the game out by authorities.

The reality is, that tactical fouling, and the practice of exaggerating contact are co-dependant and for the most part, wiping one out, will see the demise of the other. It’s useless to enter in to a chicken or the egg argument. Whether diving is encouraged by the increasingly used tactic of soft fouling or that diving allows the use of the tactical foul to be effective is a never ending argument.

The solutions to the problems are a lot more difficult than making an observation in a blog. The first big issue to deal with these problems is the cultural divide across the football world. Whilst simulation is not viewed with the same level of disgust in Latin America and Asia as it is in Europe, tactical fouling is considered a necessary part of the game on the continent. I note than in response to Brazils somewhat pragmatic approach to the Copa America final, one email published in Tim Vickery’s column summed up what many in Latin America feel about the disparity in outrage over the two practices. Sandra N said "I've seen a lot of football since I was a kid. And I take no pleasure in seeing my beloved Brazil becoming the new Italy. I despair at the hypocrisy of Americans and Brits who feel such moral outrage about [diving] yet have nothing to say about their acceptance of tactical fouling..”

What do bloggers think? Are these two footballing crimes an equal blight on the game? Is diving a necessary protection in some cases? Is tactical fouling a justifiable stategy?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Technically and Tactically: A Tale Of Two Nations

Watching Australia bow out of the Asian Cup against Japan, and Argentina win it’s 6th Under 20 World Cup, some interesting questions are raised about both country’s approaches to player development.

If you follow football in Australia you know that the topic of youth development has become one of the ugliest and probably most divisive issues in Australia’s recent football history. As fellow blogger, Mikey Salter describes it, our very own “culture war”, complete with racial stereotypes, slander and self preservation has muddied this topic for a few years now. So it is important to approach any discussion on the subject with sensitivity and honesty.

It would be easy to point to the unprecedented success that Argentina has had at under 20 level as endorsement for a more technical approach to youth development. Dig a little deeper however and it can be easily argued that none of this success, save for the 1979 under 20 triumph, has translated to tournament trophies at full senior level. Argentine’s Javier Saviola, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero have been the recipients of three, of the last four Golden Boot awards at the Under 20’s and it is here some conclusions can be drawn.

Neither of the three players mentioned are very big. All three rely on solid technique and quick feet to compete. In fact Argentina’s line-ups at the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Copa America could hardly be described as tall, aggressive or workman-like. Both tournaments saw them rated as the most attractive team in the competition and both tournaments saw them go out against Germany and the newly solidified and increasingly athletic Brasil respectively. It’s fair to say, that for all of Argentina’s aesthetic and technical ability, its lack of physical presence gets found out at senior level.

On the other hand, I watched with dismay as Australia crashed out of the Asian Cup against Japan on Saturday night. Much will be made of a generally poor tournament, a not so dubious red card for Vince Grella and two of Australia’s so called “super-stars” taking abysmal penalty kicks, but in the end, Australia drew once, and lost twice to teams that were probably more technical astute on an individual level. Whilst all three teams suffered from a size disadvantage, and in some cases looked far more fragile physically they managed to get a result against the tournament favourites.

In stifling heat and humidity Australia’s inability to slow down the pace of the game, a technically difficult thing to do, ultimately resulted in the Socceroos downfall. For all our power and size, we proved that we will not always be able to dominate our opponents physically in Asia.

From personal experience I believe it is true that a well coached, imaginative and technically proficient team junior team will be able to dominate games against physically stronger, bigger and even quicker opposition. But as the examples of both Argentina and Australia show, neither approach is the definitive answer to our junior development questions. Whilst the accusations of a “British Mafia” dominating the youth system and teaching an outmoded kick and rush game is completely exaggerated, we see precious few examples of junior coaches teaching a balanced game that values both competitive, aggressive play and creativity, technique and style. If the dogmatic and often reactionary mentality of polar and warring philosophies continues at youth level, even while the international examples clearly point to the need for a balanced approach, we can expect a few more disappointments at international level.

If you have your own views on this topic or any others in this blog, feel free to comment!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Japan Turn Up The Heat In Hanoi

And so the hand-wringing tension continues as the Socceroos prepare to take on the might of Japan in the Asian Cup quarter final.

Reading the press throughout the widespread panic and hysteria that followed Australia’s dismal first two group games of the Asian cup against Oman and Iraq, one thing has been made patently obvious. The Socceroos cope a lot better with the pressure Japan are currently trying to heap on them than they do when the pressure comes from their own press and fans.

A relaxed Harry Kewell gave his post match interview after a relieving 4-0 win against Thailand taking Australia past the group stage. He would have us believe that the squad knew they would pull out of their funk, harmony within the squad was never an issue and media rumours of the team’s demise were greatly exaggerated. This may well be true, but they were putting on a mighty good act. Make no mistake, the team and its coaching staff were feeling the heat, no pun intended. No professional group of footballers wants to be part of a humiliating early exit, especially not one that readily accepted its “favourite” tag before the tournament.

The Thai game was by no means as dominant a performance by the Socceroos as the score suggests, but goals, plus a few solid individual performances will have done the teams self belief a world of good, and more importantly, helped them overcome their first hurdle. Themselves. Now it is time to take on one of the true Asian superpowers in Japan and put the demons of the group stage behind them.

The Blue Samurai are doing their very best to unnerve Australia. The stealthy and cultured playmaker Nakamura famously making the point that “"Australia are not Asian. They are similar to Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia, […] We can demonstrate our finesse against such opponents and I'm looking forward to it.". Read between the lines and the insinuations are obvious. Kawaguchi forces home the point, "Their individual skills remain very high. They shoot the ball off the feet of goalkeepers. They often make final assaults with long balls,".

Japan clearly feel that they were the better side in Kaiserslautern last year and it seems that their adherence to a pseudo Brasilian game has also brought a pride in their short passing, technical style. Whilst the comments made by Nakamura and Kawaguchi regarding the Australian long ball game are at best exaggerated and at worst a lazy stereotype, they may not be too far from pinpointing what will define Saturdays game.

Japan will want to pass the ball and force Australia to chase in the Hanoi heat. If they can maintain extended periods of possession early on in the match it will be an uphill struggle for the Socceroos. Serious doubts have to be raised about Japan’s ability to do this against a physically dominant side. Giving Vietnam a footballing lesson in the 4-1 group stage win is an entirely different proposition to facing an aggressive and physical Socceroos side, particularly one spurred on by their early tournament scare and the jibes emanating from the Japanese camp. The key to Australia’s game is whether or not our central midfield will finally show its mettle. Jason Culina and Vince Grella have been disappointing thus far but will be the key to this match if Graham Arnold, the Australian coach, persists with the duo. If they can minimise the influence of Nakamura and to a lesser extent, deep midfielder Suzuki, it’s likely that Australia will be in the running.

We wait with baited breath.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Goodbye Riquelme.

It might be a bit early for obituaries but one has to think that Riquelme has reached the end of the road.

It’s almost a cliché, so often has it been said, but Riquelme divides opinion. The believers such as myself, are of the opinion that he harks back to a more romantic era, an era when the game was played to be beautiful. An old fashioned schemer in the mould of the great Argentine “10’s” or “enganche”, a languid, almost wistful technician impossible to knock off the ball and unique in his ability to absolutely dominate and command play in the midfield at a snail like pace……and sometimes not. This brings me to the Copa America final against Brasil.

As he did so kindly for his detractors against Arsenal in the Champions League semi final in 2006, Riquelme conspired to save his worst performance for the most important of matches against Brasil in the Copa America final. With five goals, a host of assists and an outstanding tournament behind him Riquelme should have take to the stage with confidence, ready to put the proverbial sock in the mouths of his detractors. But history will show that when it really mattered, he couldn’t take the step from unfulfilled mercurial genius, to one of the genuine greats of his generation.

It’s a shame really. In fact, I am completely devastated. Riquelme was a counterweight to the overwhelming trend in football today of power and pace over elegance and style. A unique luminary, who, with some intestinal fortitude, might have shifted the mindset of the football world’s tacticians and thinkers. Like the Argentina side he played in under Jose Pekerman and Alfio Basile, he was the template for creative, intelligent football. But like Argentina in Germany and a few days ago in Venezuela, the pragmatists have proved yet again, that they play football that wins. In the end, no amount of aesthetic, attacking endeavour or delicate football will stain the pages of almanacs and history books like a cup trophy. Riquelme and the aestheticists have to write this tournament off as yet another failure.

And so, in an alternate universe, Riquelme, at age 29, would finally live up to his potential and lead Argentina to the Cop America astounding pundits along the way and closing the mouths of the unbelievers. Soon after the heavy weights of Europe would come calling and build sides around him that would win European honours and prepare him for his one last shot at international glory in South Africa.

But it is not to be. As we approach the European season I have heard that Wolfsburg and Schalke are interested in the playmakers services, a move that would surely not suite him as a player. Whilst I am currently mourning his failures as a player, a move to England or Germany would be like watching his cremation.. With little else on the horizon, and despite his career success in South America, nobody will be offering Riquelme a platform to reach greatness this European summer.

His 30th year is fast approaching and I fear that Riquelme will be remembered as the great that never was. RIP and thanks for the memories.