Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Germany favored over Argentina

Germany’s national soccer team has done a tremendous job in front of its home fans at the 2006 World Cup. The Germans won each of their three Group A matches, outscoring the opposition 8-2. Then they blanked Sweden 2-0 in the knockout stage to reach the quarterfinals.

Their next opponents: Argentina. Arguably the second-best team in the world behind Brazil, the Argentines cruised through the “Group of Death” known as Group C, winning their first two games by a combined score of 8-1 before easing off the throttle and settling for a scoreless draw against the Netherlands. But their knockout stage encounter with Mexico was a surprising nailbiter. It took a beautiful goal by midfielder Maxi Rodriguez in the 98th minute to put away the plucky Mexicans 2-1.

That close shave seems to have been enough to tip the wagering scales in Germany’s favor. Die Nationalelf are actually slight favorites against the spread, –120 in a pick ‘em. Argentina is +100. The betting line including the draw result (after regulation and stoppage time) is dead even: +160 for either side winning, with the draw priced at +200.

Let’s repeat this: Germany is favored over Argentina. This would have been considered preposterous heading into the World Cup. The Germans are in a rebuilding phase; Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeness referred to the team as a “catastrophe” before the tournament. But Germany had the benefit of playing in a relatively weak Group A, then had the good fortune of playing a Swedish side that looked like a pale version of the team that made the quarterfinals at Euro 2004. The Albicelestes, meanwhile, scored six times against Serbia and Montenegro alone. They are playing exquisite soccer for the most part; Mexico truly was magnificent in defeat.

What, then, makes Germany the favorites in Friday’s quarterfinals? The Germans have played much better than advertised heading into the World Cup. Germany didn’t have to survive any qualification matches as the host nation. They held a number of friendlies, beating the likes of Luxembourg, Colombia (currently one of the weaker sisters in South America) and the United States, but drawing Japan and losing handily to Italy and Brazil. The team we’re seeing now, on the other hand, is performing much better on the biggest soccer stage in the world. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to remake the young club into an attacking force has paid off in spades.

But let’s put on our solemn handicapping caps and think this one through. Argentina is an amazingly talented soccer team. They won the Olympic gold medal in 2004, and they beat their archrivals from Brazil 3-1 last year on the path to qualifying for the World Cup. You don’t have to be a soccer fanatic to know that there is something wrong with this odds picture. Are there any red flags coming from the Argentine side? There are no injuries of note stemming from their match with Mexico. Perhaps it can be chalked up to demographics. Don’t forget that it’s the public’s betting habits that shape the lines, not the bookmaker. It would be telling to see who is betting on Germany – there may be a rush of hometown money involved as fans get caught up in the excitement and throw their support behind the German eleven. If so, that’s what poker players call “dead money.”
Friday’s fixture is in Berlin at the Olympic Stadium. The action gets underway at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Beautiful Opening Ceremonny for Germany 2006

Many were surprised by the ceremony. It started with a german customs dance, and then Pele and sensual Claudia Schiffer astonished the crowd.

The World Cup winner squad walked into the field: England, France, Argentina, Italym Germany and Brazil. Each team with their representative stars.

Surprisingly, the Uruguayian Champions of 1930 and 1950 only had two survivors.

After this parade, the Cup song was performed by Herbert Gronemeyer,pleasing millions of fans and begining the football party.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cisse Injury Forces Transfer Rethink

Rafa has admitted that Djibril Cisse's broken leg has forced him to rethink his summer transfer strategy.

He admitted the club had held talks with Marseille and Lyon about the purchase of Cisse, but the injury will put an end to their interest for the time being.

There are two issues here, said the Liverpool boss.

Firstly, from the players point of view I'm really sorry for Djibril. That's important. It's really unfortunate for him, but it's true it's now impossible for him to be sold.

We were expecting to sell him to Marseille or Lyon and planned using the money for other players. We were talking to both clubs. Now we won't have this money. We won't expect him to play again until November or December.

Even though they wer about to sell the player, Benitez insists there will be no problems working with Cisse again.

It was a professional decision and we were honest with Djibril, added Benitez. There will be no problem when he comes back.

Monday, June 05, 2006

World Cup fans set for kickoff

If you just cannot wait anymore for all the color, pageantry, rabid fans and wild scenes of college football season, watch the upcoming World Cup.

It always amuses me when someone says they don't like soccer, or don't understand the big deal, and then they go out every autumn and act exactly like soccer fans at the college football game of their choice.

Look in the mirror, college football fans. You ARE soccer fans.

No two sports share as much passion, blind faith and often times irrational love for their favorite team than international soccer and American college football.

I couldn't tell you how many times I could simply substitute "Longhorns" or "Aggies" in emails I receive from soccer fans griping or talking about their team and the notes would be virtually identical to those I get from college football fans.

Prediction: Millions of U.S. fans already are sold, but this World Cup will flick the switch for many more U.S. fans. They'll start to get it.

For one reason, it will be because the American team is consistently good now. Two, if the Americans can get past a grueling Group, they will captivate many non-believers. And three, there is much more name recognition and star power -- Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride -- on this team.

And check this out. If the U.S. team finishes second in its pool, its Round of 16 game most likely will be against Brazil.

That would be captivating. Only about a billion people will watch that one.

This will be the fifth World Cup I get to cover and maybe never has there been a tournament so evenly matched. Everyone says Brazil, Brazil, Brazil. I don't think it will be that easy.

I'm picking one absolute shocker to come out of Group play (Trinidad & Tobago) and then Argentina to surprise and take the whole thing. Keep in mind, as much as South American teams traditionally have not done well on European soil, that was back in the day when South American players did not play professionally in Europe.

Times have changed. The Argentines are accustomed to everything about playing in Europe, they have experience and an explosive attacking front.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Malaysians make World Cup mark, behind the scene

Malaysia, welcome to the winter FIFA World Cup Germany 2006. It’s so cold in some host cities here, that the prospect of a “White World Cup” may not be all that outlandish as it would seem.

And that won’t be much fun, as apart from having to cope with the cold and the rain, all the gorgeous women – particularly the samba queens – who will be arriving from 31 countries around the world will be covered from head to toe.

Like it or not, they make every World Cup more attractive than it is, and this one won’t be looking too good if the sun doesn’t come up and the warm clothes don’t come off.

Ask the 3,000-odd Malaysian fans who had recently arrived at the little idyllic German spa town of Wangen, Allgau – the base training camp for the Malaysian team preparing for their opening Group G match against Switzerland on June 19 at Dortmund.

Embedded in the foothills of the Alps, 565m above sea level, you would think it would be cold. The Malaysian team who are not used to the cold – temperatures that went down to 6°C – were restricted to training on an artificial pitch in ski masks and gloves, to avoid ruining the natural surface after showers of hail and snow.

The Malaysians, some of whom have not seen snow, mistook it for sugar.

No, that wasn’t really a typo error. What it actually is, it is one part reality and one part fantasy. The reality is, in the words of the English here, is that it’s bloody cold for a summer, and the team that is in the base camp in Wangen is actually undergoing those conditions.

The fantasy is, Malaysia in the FIFA World Cup 2006. It seems like a natural thing to fantasise this each time you are in World Cup territory. My buddies Fauzi Omar, and Johnson Fernandez felt like that when we were in California for the World Cup USA 1994, and in Paris four years later.

I am alone here now as FIFA media officer with special duties operating from the FIFA headquarters in Berlin, and the fantasy still rages, even more now than ever.

It’s also an ego or rather a pride thing. I mean here you are in Berlin, and at least 95% of the FIFA delegates have their respective national teams represented in the World Cup here.

Not that I am paranoid, but sometimes I wonder if these delegates are wondering what am I doing here in a territory that’s totally alien to Malaysians. That, shouldn’t my slot as media officer be given to someone from a World Cup country?

Well I know I am not here because of our football or my good looks. But I can understand why a Malaysian was accorded this slot, and I guess I owe it to – apart from AFC president Mohamed Hammam who recommended me – other Malaysians who had impressed FIFA, as administrators.

Before me George Das, a former sportswriter first with The Star and then later with The New Straits Times, had done a great job as media officer in Paris.

And on other fronts, we have had Malaysians like Datuk Peter Velappan, Datuk Paul Mony Samuel, and the younger Windsor John Paul, being honoured as general co-ordinators of venues.

Here in Germany, while Paul is handling the venue at Nuremberg, Windsor has been accorded the rare honour of handling the main venue, the venue for the final – the historic Olympiastadion in Berlin.

They call him “The Boss” here, just about everyone from every continent, even from countries that have won the Jules Rimet trophy, actually make it a point to pay their respects to him.

That’s rather uncharacteristic because back home he slips into the shadow in football activities and you hardly know he is there. But here, he is a very important person, they all seek him out, they want to know him, and never fail to greet him when he is around.

As a fellow Malaysian, I feel a glow of pride each time that happens because in the FIFA football fraternity, it looks like this is the only way we Malaysians are ever going to get noticed, honoured, and respected.

Unless of course, the powers that be in Malaysian football do something about gaining some respect from our football as well.

Speaking of which, the clock is ticking, the kick-off for Germany 2006 is drawing ever nearer and the 32 participants are arriving at their training camps to prepare for the impending global showdown. At least that is the theory.

Every day, the crowds of enthusiastic fans flocking to the training grounds of the world’s elite teams grow larger. The euphoria knows no bounds. Simple shooting drills, tactical sessions and ‘five-against-two’ games are being watched by bigger crowds than some top-flight matches.

For several days, Brazilian fans in the picturesque Swiss town of Weggis have contributed to an extraordinary series of events. Against the backdrop of the Alps, about 10,000 fans have turned out to transform the world champions’ training sessions into Samba parties.

Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka and Co seem to appreciate the support, showing their gratitude by stopping to sign countless autographs before returning to the changing rooms.

Things are equally crazy in Wangen, a small German town of 21,000 that Togo have taken by storm. Since May 15, the place has been decorated with as many red, yellow and green flags as it has German ones. The daily training sessions of the Togolese team, conducted by their German coach, Otto Pfister, have become almost municipal festivals.

However, once again, it was the German national team who led the way. The hosts’ training session in Dusseldorf on Wednesday afternoon was watched by 40,000 fans, who had packed into the stadium just to see Jurgen Klinsmann put his team through their paces. Never before have Germany attracted such a big crowd just to see them train.

With crowds to watch training sessions, live broadcasts of Brazil plotting their route to the final and African folk festivals in Wangen – the World Cup has arrived in Germany.