Archive for June, 2010

French Farce,Terrygate and Arresting Dutch Babes

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

I love the world cup because it invariably produces more drama, nay soap opera, off the field than most of the mundane group matches where minnows of the football world believe they can live with the big boys. Thanks to the French, this tournament proves to be no exception. The Frogs entered the tournament with senior players at odds with their coach. They drew their first match and then lost 2-0 to Mexico effectively eliminating them from the tournament.

 The situation deteoriated over the weekend when the players, led by Captain Patrice Evra refused to train when informed that Nicolas Anelka was to be sent home. Anelka’s expulsion from the squad came after details of his verbal attack on Domench- in which he called the national coach “a dirty son of a whore” at halftime in his side’s 2-0 defeat to Mexico- were leaked to L’Equipe, forcing the French Football Federation to act.

In bizarre scenes, Domenech read out a statement from the squad in which they expressed their solidarity with Anelka and explained the strike was an attempt to “mark the opposition to those at the highest level of French football”. Domenech now admits he should have distanced himself from the statement.

 Following two weeks of mixed entertainment and intrigue, the group stage of the world cup is over and now the real battles commence with the knockout stage comprising the final sixteen. In terms of continents, who are the winners and losers so far? Six African teams began the tournament and only Ghana survived the group stage and play little USA. South Africa is the only host nation in world cup history to fail to make it to the knockout round.

  England improved on their opening two games and achieved a long overdue win over Slovenia. They missed several chances to increase their lead and have to be content with the runners-up spot which pitches them against the auld enemy Germany. I only hope it doesn’t require a penalty shoot-out to determine the winner, because England can’t convert penalties under pressure.

 Ironically, the French farce helped minimize the John Terry saga. Basically this self-serving, two-timing reprobate attempted to instigate the biggest mutiny since Fletcher Christian crossed swords with Captain Bligh. Apparently, John Terry is not very popular with the rest of the England squad and he was forced to eat humble pie and retreated to the ranks with his I-Pad between his legs.

 Back to winners and losers; two finalists from the last world cup were eliminated at the group stage: our friends the French, and the cup holders Italy. The Italians are notorious slow starters, but you cannot survive if you leak goals like a proverbial colander. France and Italy couldn’t muster a win between them. Europe still has some big guns in the fight: Germany, England, Holland, Spain and Portugal. The pre-tournament favorites, Spain recovered from a potentially disastrous loss against Switzerland and won their next two games to top the group; setting up an intriguing match with their Iberian neighbors, Portugal.

 I have to give credit to USA. They were on the brink of elimination until they scored in the 91st minute to win the match and finish top of their group. Their reward is a knockout game with the last surviving nation from Africa, Ghana. Little old USA will be taking on a continent, but if 127 Welshmen could hold off 4000 marauding Zulus at Rorke’s Drift back in 1879, then Team USA’s task is a walk in the park.

 The second round draw featuring the final sixteen is shown below:

  • Uruguay v South Korea
  • USA v Ghana
  • Holland v Slovakia
  • Brazil v Chile
  • Argentina v Mexico
  • Germany v England
  • Paraguay v Japan
  • Spain v Portugal

 Some interesting sound bites to conjure with, while sipping your beer and chewing on your nails; Argentina are the only team with a 100% record, Portugal and Uruguay are the only teams not to concede a goal,  and South America’s five representatives all survived the group stage.

 I haven’t watched every game, but my particular favorite in terms of entertainment was Denmark v Cameroon, both of whom were eliminated. Each team threw caution to the wind and went for goal, which may explain why neither features in the last sixteen.

 My favorite story of the world cup relates to the 30 young women (models actually) who showed up at the Netherlands-Denmark match wearing orange mini-dresses emblazoned with the name of a Dutch brewery — earning them a few hours in jail and a red card from World Cup officials who acted to quash what they called an ambush marketing scam. I wish I could have been the arresting officer.  

Final footnote: my brother had an amusing line in his facebook yesterday which is very appropriate for one of the games featured to-morrow.  “This world cup is like WWII: The French surrendered early, the Americans turned up late, leaving England to fight the Germans”

Motorcycle Diaries Too

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

My friend Tom has just returned from his motorcycle trip and he generously agreed to keep a diary of his experience which is posted below:

This motorcycle trip was with my friend Bob, the best m/c rider I have traveled with. Our objective was to ride the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and continue thru the Shenandoah National Park, on the Skyline Drive. The parkway begins in Cherokee, NC, and travels 469 miles north thru Virginia. The Skyline Drive begins near Waynesboro, VA, and goes thru the Shenandoah National Park, another 110 miles, ending in Front Royal, VA. This scenic road closely follows the highest ridges of the Appalachian mountain range, and connects the Great Smoky Mountains NP and the Shenandoah NP.

 The highest altitudes are in excess of 6,000ft, with averages between 3,000 and 4,000ft. It was constructed during the economic depression beginning in 1935, creating jobs for many unemployed, linking the two national parks, and resulting in an ongoing economic boost to the region. The designers and construction crews took great care in minimizing scaring of the mountain slopes and attempted to “blend” the road as much as possible with its natural surroundings. This year marks the 75th anniversary of this national treasure. It has been called, “Americas Favorite Drive“. 

 Friday, June 11th: Sunny skies: we are loaded up on our motorcycles and leave Bob’s cabin in Blue Ridge, GA. We travel thru Andrews, Murphy, Bryson City, arriving at Cherokee, NC in time for lunch at Peter’s Pancakes. The entrance to the parkway is just outside Cherokee, and just before entering the Great Smoky Mountains NP. Cherokee, as well as the first 20 or so miles of the PKY., pass thru the Cherokee Indian Reservation. This is the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

 (As a point of history, in 1838, after the US government had broken all past treaties, the military was ordered to round up as many Indians remaining as possible. Their removal from their ancestral home, to a new “reservation” in Oklahoma, was to enable the government to develop the areas of Tennessee, Georgia, Carolinas, and Alabama, for the advancing “white man”. This forced removal, known as “The Trail of Tears“, left many of the 15,000 in the tribe dead from starvation and the winter elements. Some of the Cherokee’s were able to flee the military round up into the mountains. Later on, they were given a small portion of land to exist, which remains today as their reservation.) 

 We begin our journey north climbing steadily. The warm air begins to cool. We travel thru many tunnels in this section of the parkway. This is quite rugged with many steep cliffs. Skies turn grey with the higher elevation, and we are caught in the rain. We stop and don our rain suits, and continue to the highest point on the parkway, Richland Balsam, 6,047ft. In late afternoon, we arrive at Wagon Road Gap, and take route 276 west 15 miles to Cruso, NC, and the Blue Ridge Motorcycle Camp. It is still raining, so we take a “sleeping cabin” for the night. As the evening goes on, more motorcyclists arrive, and the skies begin to clear.

 After relaxing a bit and having dinner, we walk the campground to visit other motorcyclists. It is always interesting to see other bikes, camping equipment, etc. We spend the evening at the campfire swapping stories with 2 guys from South Africa, 4 from North Bay, Ontario, Canada, and some young riders who are engineers with the Penske Racing Team from Charlotte, NC. This is one of the neat things about motorcycle travel. You get the opportunity to meet men and women from all over the world, who enjoy the sport. Mileage, 153

 Saturday, June 12th; Sunny skies: we pack up and continue on 276 West, as a section of the parkway is closed due to a rock slide last fall. Skies quickly become grey. We travel thru Canton, and just south of Asheville, take route 191 back onto the parkway. The parkway skirts the east side of Asheville, climbing as we go. This area has a rough road, but is in the middle of repair to be completed by the end of summer. We visit the southern Parkway Headquarters. It is full of exhibits, history, gift shop/bookstore, and short film describing what lies ahead. We pass Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi river, 6,684ft. It is VERY cool, and I put on another layer. We pass Crabtree Meadows and stop at Little Switzerland for lunch. This area was developed in the early 1900’s by the Switzerland Company, and so named for it’s resemblance to that country. Switzerland Inn and restaurant is in a beautiful setting offering lodging and dining. The food was excellent.

After lunch, we continue north. A light rain begins to fall and continues for the next 5 hours. We pass the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, Linville Falls, Linn Cove Viaduct, Moses Cone Memorial Park, EB Jeffress Park, Doughton Park, Blue Ridge Music Center, and arrive at Meadows of Dan for the evening. We find the Blue Ridge Motel, a mom & pop place just off the parkway, and begin to dry out. Dinner is just up the street offering eastern North Carolina BBQ. It is known for its ketchup and vinegar based sauce. Mileage, 269

 Sunday, June 13th: Sunny skies: just a mile north of our overnight stay, is Mabry Mill. We are now in an area of high plateaus and much fewer tunnels. This rural landscape is dotted with some businesses, and much farmland and livestock. Mabry Mill is a 100 year old gristmill and is said to be the most photographed spot on the parkway. A truly beautiful setting, also incorporating a wheelwright shop, sawmills, blacksmith shop, and restaurant. We pass Puckets Cabin. Orelena Pucket became a midwife in her 50’s. She helped deliver over 1,000 babies and her last delivery was the year she died at age 102!  She had 24 children of her own, but unfortunately none lived past infancy.  We pass the city of Roanoke to the east. This is the 3rd largest city in Virginia and the largest along the parkway. It has a long history associated with the railroad, and much of it has been preserved.

 We stop for lunch at Peaks of Otter visitor center. There is a hotel, lake, and a living history farm. There is much discussion on how these 3 peaks received their name, but they are distinctive and beautiful. This area is also open year around. We soon pass the lowest point of the parkway, 649ft, and cross the James River. We then begin to climb to higher elevations and cooler temps. Near Rockfish Gap, the parkway ends, and we enter Shendendoah National Park, and it’s Skyline Drive. This is a seamless transition, with the exception of the $10 entrance fee, good for 7 days. We exit Route 33 to the east, and descend into the town of Ruckersville. It is HOT, low 90’s, and the Best Western hotel never felt better. Mileage, 252

 Monday, June 14th: Sunny skies: back up to the Skyline Drive and pleasing cooler temps. While the BRP is a 45mph limit, the Skyline Drive is 35. The vegetation comes much closer to the road, and the highway a bit narrower, hence the slower speed. Even with this difference, it is a most pleasing drive, with plenty of good views and overlooks. To our left and the west, is Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which is rich in history. During the Civil War, it was the bread basket of the Confederacy, and many battles were fought for its control. Near the city of Luray, we stop at Little Stony Man overlook. We look east and I point out the small lake and the many farms in the valley. Somewhere down there, lies my grandfathers farm. I remember going there as a child, after my uncle purchased and kept it as a working farm for many years. My father would take me there on weekends, with a lot of fun times making hay, gathering walnuts, chasing cows, chickens, pigs, and going to the spring house for cold water. Family reunions were held at the farmhouse, and they still continue at a park near the lake. We finally arrive at the end of the drive, in Front Royal, VA. Some of the wildlife we saw included wild turkey, beaver, 1 snake, and lots, and lots of deer. Mileage, 119.

 A short ride to Winchester, the town where I grew up, and a short visit with my 2 sisters, their husbands, and 3 nieces. We are treated royally, and an opportunity to do laundry and visit. We have some rain in the evening, and are glad to be off the bikes for awhile.

 Tuesday, June 15th: Cloudy skies: we head out and I show Bob the highlights of my hometown. We meet a college friend, Tad, for lunch. Even though rain is threatening, we have a long lunch outside and swap stories. Our return route south is down Route 11. This is the old wagon road and today is dotted with farms, light industry, small picturesque towns, and plenty of history. One town, New Market, is the site of the New Market Battlefield. It is well known for the VMI cadets, only 16 years old, who fought bravely for their cause during the Civil War. About 30 miles from Lexington, VA, skies open up with thunder and lighting. We take a short break, and spend the night just outside of town. Mileage, 129.

 Wednesday, June 16th. Mixed skies: we continue south to Buchanan, and head east back to the BRP. As the day moves on, we have plenty of sun. We stop again for lunch at the Meadows of Dan. About 30 miles south, we take a diversion off the parkway on Route 21 at Roaring Gap.  Riding thru the town of Sparta, Jefferson, Boone, and Blowing Rock, NC, this 50 mile loop is a nice change, as neither Bob nor I had been here before. This has to be the Christmas tree capital of the US, as I have never seen more planted in every hillside, valley, and front yard. A nice sight. We arrive late at the Switzerland Inn and restaurant, and check in to relax, walk the grounds, and a fine dinner on the patio looking into the valley. We find a lot of motorcyclists are here tonight, all taking advantage of the good riding roads nearby. We meet a pair of “bicyclists” at dinner, who routinely ride 75 miles a day. In the morning, we meet a motorcycling couple from Wisconsin, and a fellow from France. Mileage, 285.

 Thursday, June 17th: Beautiful blue skies: we head down the parkway, and within 20 minutes, near Mount Mitchell, are surrounded by fog, which I believe are actually low clouds. At 6,000 ft, it is difficult to distinguish. 15 miles an hour for about 20 minutes, and we are in the blue again. We pass Asheville, and must exit the parkway at Route 91 for the detour. This time we ahead south east, thru Brevard, then Route 64 thru Cashiers, and Highlands. Bob and I split here and say goodbye. He heads back to Blue Ridge, GA, and I head down to Dillard and Route 441 south to Duluth, GA. Mileage, 248.

 All told, we traveled 1540 miles in 7 days. It was good to be back home and out of the saddle. This trip had many fold experiences for me: It was a journey to the place I was born 58 years ago, a visit with family and friends, a journey with a good and trusted friend, and the love of the outdoors, experienced on a motorcycle. I hope to visit some of these areas along the BRP and Skyline drive many more times with my wife and others over the coming years. 

 Tom Miller

Delusions of Grandeur

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

England provided an abject performance before their once adoring fans who rightly booed them from the field of play at the end of ninety forgettable minutes against Algeria. They were totally disjointed, no cohesion  tactically inept, and much of the blame has to be placed at the feet of their Italian coach, Capello. How can a team that strode majestically through the qualifiers play like duffers against inferior opposition?

 Players that strut the competitive stage in the Premiership look like pale shadows of their alto egos at club level. Wayne Rooney was dreadful against Algeria. Prior to the world cup he was compared to Kaka, Messi, and Ronaldo as the players who would impose their skills and personality on this tournament. Unfortunately he has reverted to his neanderthal status and his outburst against the much maligned English supporters reintroduced his “yobo” mentality.  

 The England players gave the impression of playing in a cloud of uncertainty which regrettably emanates from their overpaid Italian coach. David James opened a can of worms when he confessed to reporters that he was only informed he would be in goal when he boarded the team bus on its way to the stadium. This uncertainty over the goalkeeper position reverberates throughout the team. Players quite rightly want to know way in advance if they are playing in the match which enables them to properly prepare for the task at hand. Clearly that is not the Italian way, and attempting to mix two diverse cultures as Latin and Anglo Saxon is a recipe for disaster.

 It is obvious that England lacks a natural leader on the field. Gerrard who currently has the captain’s armband attempts to lead by example but is not in very good form to prove effective. It is apparent to everyone who follows English soccer that Gerrard and Lampard cannot play together. However there is no excuse for top class premiership players who are unable to string a series of passes together. Capello’s perseverance with Emile Heskey is a complete joke to the neutral observer. Heskey is not even first choice for his club side, and seven goals in nearly 60 matches for his country is a travesty. Furthermore, I don’t understand Capello’s bias towards Shaun Wright-Phillips. He has played a part in two of the matches and quite simply has produced nothing!

 Capello has to change the tactics for the last game against Slovenia if England is to have any chance of qualifying for the second round. Regrettably, his body language on the sidelines would suggest he has no clue on how to stop the slide into oblivion. Okay, there are 23 players in the squad of whom 18 have made an appearance in the tournament. Consequently there are not a lot of options available to Capello. However Joe Cole could make a difference if the Italian would select him. He has quick feet and an acute football brain which have been sadly lacking the previous two games. England needs to embrace their former qualities of power, determination and stiff upper lip to succeed against Slovenia. However It could be a case of too little too late.

I Hate it When I’m Right

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I think I know why the hapless Robert Green conceded the softest goal in World Cup history. He was mesmerized by Clint Dempsey’s double pirouette  before he unleashed his little dribbler toward the clearly dazed Mr. Green. Wasn’t Mr. Green last seen in “The Usual Suspects? I’m sorry, I digress.

The goal tender, sorry the goal keeper, has to accept the blame for committing one of the biggest howlers in world soccer history, but he cannot be saddled with England’s failure to defeat the USA. There were 55 minutes remaining for England to regain the lead, but they were clearly bereft of ideas or any kind of imagination.

England’s overpaid and overrated Italian Coach, Fabio Capello, had obviously taken a leaf out of the Diego Maradona coaching manual and behaved like a tormented chimpanzee gesticulating manically along the sideline during practically the whole game. He was obviously demented by the obnoxious sound of the hundreds of vuvezelas (African horn) constantly buzzing and droning in his ears. Initially I assumed there was interference on the TV Channel, but I was quickly informed by the help desk to get a life and switch over to a daily soap.

Following a very successful qualifying session, England arrived at the tournament as one of the favorites alongside the venerable giants Brazil, Spain and Argentina. Somehow, Capello has developed a bad case of the jitters in his selection policy which was pretty obvious on Saturday. I’ve said enough about Robert Green who was embroiled in a relegation battle with West Ham last season. James Milner had been laid low by a   stomach virus and had not trained for several days. He was clearly not up to the task and substituted after only 30 minutes. To my astonishment, he was replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips who never plays on the left and unsurprisingly looked like a fish out of water.

I love Lesley King who captains my favorite team, Tottenham Hotspur. However he has a history of knee problems, and it’s well documented that he is unable to train between matches in the premiership. So it was no surprise that he didn’t emerge for the second half. It is now reported that he suffered a groin injury and will take no further part in the World Cup. His replacement, Jamie Carragher, retired from international football almost 3 years ago, but was persuaded by Capello to come back for the World Cup. He was never the quickest of defenders, but at 32 years old his lack of pace was quickly exposed by the USA.

Emile Heskey is a supporters’ enigma. He is not even first choice for his club, but his fellow players love having him in the team for his unselfish attitude and support to team mates around him. Nevertheless 7 goals from 53 games is not an acceptable return from one of your strikers. Admittedly, he did provide the final touch for Gerrard to open the scoring and later left an indelible imprint on Tim Howard’s chest, but it’s just not enough at this level. He was later replaced by a stick insect, Peter Crouch, who at 6 foot 7 inches attracts route one football but surprisingly is not very dominant in the air.

What happened to the much vaunted Chelsea trio? Well, Lampard was almost anonymous having to play the holding role in midfield which is completely alien to his attacking genes. Some observers believe Ashley Cole to be the best left back in the world. He gave a competent performance in defense but did not provide any attacking options down the left flank while one paced John Terry looked bewildered most of the time. Steven Gerrard played extremely well for 25 minutes until he fell back into the general medioricity of Team England. Wayne Rooney was obviously sedated to limit his foul mouth, but as a result his general play was ineffective and he needs to step it up if England are to progress in this competition.

Slovenia’s 1-0 victory over Algeria places a lot of pressure on USA to earn a win against them in the next match. Slovenia will be content with a draw which will not be enough for USA to progress to the next round. Appearances can be deceptive but Landon Donovan was made to look world class by England’s inept performance. Donovan provides USA with its best scoring option which will not unlock the best defenses, and I don’t believe USA has the ability to beat Slovenia. England, however,  has the potential to improve and should have enough in the tank to overcome Algeria in their next fixture.

Germany looked ominous in their 4-0 thrashing of Australia, while Ghana achieved the first victory for an African nation in the tournament. Argentina did enough against Nigeria to send a message to their opponents that they are ready to play. Italy are notoriously slow starters and will be content with a draw against Paraguay. Holland brushed away Denmark’s challenge and are capable of beating anybody on any given Sunday.  Brazil, Spain and Portugal have yet to make appearances, so the tournament is just beginning to warm up. I am very keen to see what magic Ronaldo can weave with this new ball from free kick situations.

1950 Revisited (World Cup: England v USA)

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

In the 1950 World Cup, USA beat England 1-0 in what is generally considered one of the greatest upsets in football history; England having recently beaten a Rest of Europe 6-1 in an exhibition match. Apparently the England goalkeeper, Bert Williams, has recurring nightmares of conceding the goal and he is 90 years old. Ironically, the coach of England’s world cup winning side in 1966, the late Sir Alf Ramsey, also played for England that day. Sixty years later, England and USA face each other in the opening group fixture of the 2010 World Cup.

 Contrary to some misgivings from American sports writers, this is far from a David and Goliath event. Yes, England are ranked 8th in the FIFA world rankings, but USA are not too shabby lining up at 14th in the rankings. USA has appeared in the last 5 World Cups, reaching the quarter-finals in 2002. England lost in the semi-finals in 1990 which was intended to herald a new dawn for English football, but inexplicably failed to qualify for the tournament held in the USA in 1994.

 Now that we have got the history lesson out of our system, let’s take a look at the two teams for Saturday’s fixture. Dare I say it, but USA reminds me of a poor man’s Germany; methodical, well organized but generally boring to watch. The Achilles heel for the Americans is their inability to score sufficient goals against quality teams. The main striker, Altidore, is a twenty year old kid who plays in the Spanish League for Villarreal. He has 9 goals from 25 appearances. Their top player is undoubtedly, Landon Donovan, an attacking midfielder with 42 goals from 123 appearances for his country. One goal every 3 appearances is not a bad return until you take into account the opposition. USA qualified for this year’s World Cup from a group that included Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Trinidad & Tobago; not exactly the power houses in the football world.

 Inevitably England always arrives at the World Cup (when they qualify) with great expectations, but invariably saddled with the weight of the whole nation on their shoulders. The injury jinx has struck once again and England lost its captain, Rio Ferdinand, to a seemingly innocuous injury in training. There are other niggling issues which concern me about this team. England comfortably qualified for this tournament, but their Italian coach, Capello, has not made a decision on who is the number one goalkeeper. This may sound a little trivial, but great teams build from the back. George Cohen, who played in England’s world cup winning side, claimed the other day that their goalkeeper and  back four played together for nine months prior to the 1966 World Cup.

 Capello has never solved the conundrum of successfully accommodating Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the same line up. They are both great attacking midfielders who play a very similar style. How does the old saying go: opposite poles attract and like poles repel? The great Real Madrid club team in the 1950s and early 60s had a similar problem with the French artisan Raymond Kopa and the mercurial Alfredo DeStefano. They were both proven playmakers intent on pulling the strings. Regrettably, there was only room for one captain on the bridge and DeStefano won the battle with Kopa unceremoniously dumped over the side.

 England has not been very convincing in their warm-up matches, and players were complaining about the new match ball having the quality of one picked off a shelf at Wal-Mart. Some of the squad has expressed reservations on playing at altitude in South Africa and apparently are experiencing difficulties adjusting to the conditions. Hello! Did they not know that the World Cup was being staged in South Africa four or five years ago and they had ample time to acclimatize to the unusual conditions?

 I also believe that Capello has tinkered with the formation too often. Mindful of the fact that Gerrard and Lampard will attempt to play together, I would select the following team in a 4-5-1 formation to play USA on Saturday: Hart; Johnson, Terry, King, Ashley Cole; Lennon, Lampard, Carrick, Gerrard, Joe Cole; Rooney.

 Joe Hart would provide a big presence between the sticks, Glen Johnson has defensive limitations at this level which can be compensated in this formation, and I have reservations with my central defensive partnership. Terry is too slow to catch a cold and Ledley’s dodgy knees could let him down over the long haul. Rooney is the key to the success of the team providing he doesn’t receive a red card for foul mouthing the referees. He is very effective as the lone striker which enables him to inflict maximum damage further up the field. Nevertheless, it is imperative that Gerrard and Lampard motor forward to support him. Lennon provides width, speed and acceleration to get round the back of most defenses and Joe Cole provides guile and quickness of feet on the left. Carrick is not my favorite player but can provide the holding role to make this system work.

 Unfortunately, Capello will not select this team or formation as he tends to err on the side of caution. Consequently, both teams will be content with a draw to kick off the tournament and 1-1 appears to be a common score in World Cups. Let battle commence.

World Cup Preview

Monday, June 7th, 2010

 Once again we’re on the eve of one of the greatest tournaments in the sporting calendar: football’s World Cup. Contrary to baseball’s World Series this is genuinely a world tournament and following two years of qualification we are now down to the last 32 teams.

 One word of warning before you slip down the bookies to place your bet on who is going to win the tournament;18 world cups have been staged since its inception in 1930 and only 7 nations have won the damn thing. Brazil has won 5 times (runners-up twice,) Italy 4 times (runners-up twice) Germany 3 times (runners-up 4 times), Argentina (runners-up twice) and Uruguay twice a piece, France (runners-up once) and England once each. Four nations have appeared in the final but have never won the trophy: Czechoslovakia (1934 & 1962), Hungary (1938 & 1954), and Sweden (1958) and Holland (1974 & 1978).

 Three countries from South America have won the trophy and four European teams have won the golden chalice. However, only one nation has won the tournament outside its hemisphere: Brazil in 1958 (Sweden), 1994 (USA), and 2002 (Japan). So does that exclude any of the European teams from winning in South Africa? The talking heads have predicted for years that an African team is going to break the stranglehold of Europe and South America dominance and claim the trophy. There are a record six African teams competing in the finals: South Africa (the host nation), Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. Cameroon holds the distinction of achieving the best finish of the African countries by losing in the quarter final to England in 1990. Six host nations have won the cup but South Africa could suffer the ignominy of being the first host nation not to reach the second round knockout stage. Ivory Coast appeared to be the connoisseur’s choice from Africa but the potential loss of their star striker, Drogba, to a broken arm eliminates them to my mind from contention. Quite honestly I only expect Nigeria to make the second round from the African nations.

 Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe all seven winners of the world cup are appearing in the same tournament for the first time. The only nation I can realistically foresee joining the elite group is Spain. They are the current European champions and have an excellent pedigree. However, the bookies have made them favorites which may place undue pressure on their Latin temperament. France is engaged in its usual pre-tournament theatricals, with rumors circulating about squad unrest and general lack of confidence. This has the hallmark of France blowing smoking up their proverbial arse. Argentina has some magnificent players in their squad including the mercurial Lionel Messi, but they do have a loose cannon in the generous shape of Maradona as coach. Uruguay is twice winners of the tournament back in 1930 and 1950. Diego Forlan is a very good striker playing in Europe, but they don’t have the strength in depth to sustain a challenge.

 I am a US citizen but I’m originally from the UK and therefore have a vested interest in England and USA. America’s main threat emanates from Landon Donovan who is a major star in the MLS. Nevertheless his three month loan to Everton in the English Premiership confirmed that he is a good squad player; nothing more. England has just lost its captain, Rio Ferdinand, to a knee injury, but it is not a catastrophe. They have adequate replacements which could not have been said with any optimism if they had lost Wayne Rooney to injury. Rooney is the key to England making any kind of progress in the tournament, but I would be more optimistic about their chances if their Italian coach, Capello, had settled on a consistent formation. Holland has a rich vein of talent in their squad which unfortunately has a habit of imploding at major tournaments. Portugal has the magnificent ego of Ronaldo at its disposal but the supporting cast may not be enough to sustain a challenge.

 Finally we are left with the three powerhouses of world cups: Brazil, Germany and Italy. They have appeared in twenty finals between them  winning the cup twelve times. Germany was forced to revamp their squad when the captain Michael Ballack was ruled out of the tournament following an injury in the FA Cup Final. Typically, the Germans play methodical,  arguably mechanical, football which is not pretty to watch but very effective. Italy love to play on the counter-attack but are predictably vulnerable during the early stages of a tournament when they are liable to underestimate inferior opponents. Brazil has a winning record second to none and play with arrogance and flair you would expect from five-time winners.

 My sixteen to reach the second round knock-out stage are: France, Mexico, Argentina, Nigeria, England, Slovenia, Serbia, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Slovakia, Brazil, Portugal, Spain and Chile.

 My finalists are Brazil and Germany with Brazil using the unorthodox to overcome mechanics. My golden boot winner will be Lionel Messi. Watch this space for more comments as the tournament unfolds.