There's a World Cup coming up, apparently, so we invited three well-travelled journalists to make some rash predictions about what will happen. As a Swede based in London Marcus Christenson has ties to two of the countries in Group F. Gabriele Marcotti has lived in Japan and how tries to explain English football to Italians and vice-versa. Alan Duncan reports regularly on Nigeria and Cameroon, who face England and Ireland respectively, as well as the three other African qualifiers
Are playing styles and tactics are becoming more homogeneous throughout the world, because most of the top players are playing in the same leagues? If so, does that make the World Cup less interesting?
Gabriele Marcotti There’s a greater uniformity. Not just in the way teams play, but also in how they train. If you look at the size of the Italian or Spanish players, they are now as big as the northern Europeans are expected to be. Everybody’s an athlete. Some of the English players still get drunk and irresponsible but the impression I get with players like Beckham and Owen is that they train seriously and take care of their diet. In some ways it has become more uniform, but in a positive way – the level of fitness has definitely increased everywhere.
Alan Duncan The criteria are still very different in African and European eyes. What makes a good player isn’t the same. Rigobert Song, for example, was pretty much thrown out of West Ham, but went to the African Nations Cup and was about the best player there. When Cameroon got a 1-1 draw in France a year and a half ago he was one of the best players on the pitch. Players like Song will play well at the World Cup but will never be able to replicate that with European club sides, because they’re not encouraged to. Song’s team-mates in the national side give him the respect he feels he deserves, whereas when he moved to England he came with a reputation as the guy who’d had two red cards in successive World Cups. So he toned down his game – you got half a Song. The mindset was out of tune and he never really got going. There are very few African players really on top of their game with their European clubs. But having said all that, African teams at this World Cup will be in a much better position to deal with what you might call Champions League-style football, yet without losing that edge of surprise.
Marcus Christenson Does that have to do just with confidence in themselves, or with being part of a group where they enjoy themselves? Because that is surely not just an African thing. Slovenia, for example, have got probably only one world-class player in Zlatko Zahovic, but in every interview before an international match, the players will say “I’m going to the national squad and meeting up with my friends” and so on. If you look at their team player for player, they should never even be in the World Cup.
GM You see that with Croatia too – Davor Suker has been crap with every club for the past four years but when he goes back to the national team, he gives a whole lot more.
AD The effects of homogenisation don’t necessarily work against the smaller countries. The Senegalese team, for example, is in effect French. It might be unfair to some of the players to suggest this, but you could consider them as a sort of French B or C team. Most of the players have gone through French football academies and they play their club football there. They’ve got the capacity to play in the French style, with tactical discipline and so on, but they’ve still retained the “African-ness” which remains undefined even for African fans themselves – it’s the capacity to produce some magic out of nothing. They also have a burning desire to put their country on the map at the World Cup, which is possibly a feeling that some of the bigger nations have lost.
If there are going to be surprises, which countries or regions might provide them?
GM I think Uruguay could cause a surprise. It’s a country of only three and a half million people, but they are like the All Blacks of football – or at least they used to be. There’s some exceptional individual talent there and players who won’t be fazed by being in the World Cup, specifically Paolo Montero, who’s among the top defenders in the world, and Alvaro Recoba, who is the highest paid player in Italy for good reason. You add that to the fact that people don’t expect much of them and I think they could do very well. I’d say the US too, who have been flattering to deceive for so long, and have an absolute superstar in the making in Clint Mathis. Perhaps Nigeria too, in that Julius Agahowa is as good as Michael Owen.
AD He is good enough to be top scorer at the World Cup. He is an absolutely phenomenal player. The only reason people don’t talk so much about him is that he plays for Shakhtar Donetsk. Most people assume that if you go there you can’t be the real deal. But they paid a lot for him and from what I’ve heard his chairman doesn’t want to let go of him. He is absolutely fabulous.
MC I think of the African teams, from what I saw of the Nations Cup, I would pick Senegal, although they’ve got a really tough group – France, Uruguay and Denmark. The Danes themselves can play really good football if Jesper Gronkjaer and Dennis Rommedahl are fit – which admittedly is not very often. Apart from that, of the European teams I think Russia can do well. It’s so dependent on whether their top players are in good form and if they can get their team spirit together. If they don’t, they will go out, even though they’ve got quite an easy group. But they could conceivably win their group and get a decent second round game. I also think one of the hosts will do well, though I don’t know whether that’s a surprise or not. The US went through when they were at home – most teams do. Otherwise I think it’s going to be the same big six or seven in the end. I hope Portugal do well, but I can’t see any other unexpected team getting to the semi-finals. As for Sweden, everyone there would be delighted if they go through their group. We could draw with England if we have a good day. And with Nigeria you never know. And then perhaps Argentina might have qualified by the time we play them. I’m trying to think positively. But if you look at the teams player for player, even Nigeria should be much better.
AD I think the Nigerians have got an advantage in that group, inasmuch as there is no room for complacency. Whereas usually you get a Nigerian team walking into a group and being over-confident, they can’t afford that this time. Potentially, they can beat any of the other three teams, if they get it right. But nobody knows what’s going to happen in Nigerian football, even in the next six weeks. From an African perspective I think the team again is going to be Cameroon. This World Cup should be the fulfilment of many things that have been promised in the past, in 1990 and even in 1982. The Cameroon team that won the Nations Cup in 2002 was, but for one or two players, the same team that won in 2000. Patrick Mboma was injured for the final against Senegal and Njanka was also injured. If both of them were fit, they would have played. So you are arguably dealing with one of the most settled teams in world football. Eight or nine of those players also won Olympic gold. They’re not going out against Germany expecting to lose. They’re thinking they can win that game and the group is theirs for the taking. Senegal, I think, will play some of the most exciting football in their group. They can cause an upset and they’re going to run themselves into the ground against France. This is going to be the biggest game, obviously, in Senegalese football history. One Senegalese player said to me: “We’re more French than the French.” Because they all play in France, while the France players are overseas.
What about fancied teams who might do less well than expected?
GM I think Argentina and France are going to be the two huge disappointments. Argentina have a terrible coach, who is obsessed with playing this system with one striker and two wingers. I think it would be fine if he had the right players. His central strikers are going to be Crespo or Batistuta. Both are currently injured, Batistuta’s having the worst season of his career and Crespo’s not really tearing it up either. But that’s the good news. The bad news is that out wide on the left they’re going to have Kily Gonzalez, who’s been on the bench for half the year at Valencia, and Kily’s back-up is Claudio Lopez, who has been pisspoor for the past three years. Wide right his options are Ariel Ortega, who is extremely gifted, but one of the slowest professional footballers around and a little sick in the head. And his back-up is Claudio Caniggia! If you look at the back, take out Walter Samuel and Javier Zanetti, you’ve got Ayala, who’s even slower than Ortega and has the turning circle of a Mack truck. I’ve never seen a more mechanical central defender.
But do they not play better together for the national team?
GM They might do to a certain extent, but there’s still an issue of quality there. They’ve coasted for a long time. Bielsa is the kind of guy who’s loyal – he’s going to be loyal to Simeone, he’s going to be loyal to Verón. I don’t think that’s enough. You could get long odds on Argentina getting knocked out in the first round – it probably won’t happen, but it’s not crazy. As for France, their undoing is that it’s run as a little club. Even now, with Blanc and Deschamps gone, it just means there are different people running the club. But it’s still a little club and it’s an absolute scandal that people like Frank Leboeuf, Dugarry and Djorkaeff keep getting in the side. Thuram doesn’t want to play at right-back for Juventus, but when it comes to the national team he has to play right-back to make room for Leboeuf. You’ve got people like William Gallas, Olivier Dacourt, Sabri Lamouchi, who well deserve to be in the team. There’s a whole gaggle of French players who are better than the ones they have, but they’re going to stick with the same system, with Henry in the middle, Trezeguet on one side and either Djorkaeff or Dugarry on the other. And it’s going to be absolute pap. Petit will be in the side. And I think this is the World Cup when they will really get found out. It’s a gang, and you’re either in it or you’re not. Patrick Vieira’s lucky that he got in it a few years ago, otherwise he wouldn’t even be there.
MC I think you’re a bit harsh on the French. They didn’t have a decent striker in 1998 and they still won the World Cup. They must be doing something right. I don’t think France are good enough to win three major tournaments in a row – they probably shouldn’t have even won two – but they are clearly a damn good side with some exceptional players. Lemerre is trying to get a group together, rather than the best players. You need people to play as a team to make it work. In Sweden we’ve got a player called Per Zetterberg who, with Ljungberg, is probably the most talented player of his generation but has never really been a national team player. They looked at the team and they wanted certain players. It’s like Liverpool. They haven’t got a playmaker, but they keep playing certain midfield players rather than Litmanen. It’s the system that is more important and France have got it right on many occasions. I don’t rate Dugarry either, but at the moment Lemerre is making it work.
GM Italy obviously could do well if they win their group, but because we’re Italy we probably won’t win the group and so we’ll end up on the bad side of the draw with the good teams. I think people have written Brazil off a little too quickly. For although it has been an absolute zoo, let’s not forget the biggest star in world football is Ronaldo. Nobody in the world has two players like Ronaldo and Rivaldo. And once you get to the quarter-finals, a lot of times it’s about individual brilliance. I don’t like Brazil one bit, but I do have to concede that football likes its fairytales – Ronaldo coming back to win the World Cup?
What can we expect from England and Ireland?
AD I actually think the Irish will pose the biggest problems for Cameroon, because of their quicker, direct style. If Cameroon are going to regress into their football of old, it will be in the match against the Irish when they will make more mistakes. But I don’t see Ireland getting out of their group.
MC They have got some rather ordinary players, but they showed great teamwork in a tough qualifying group. I think the Republic, Germany or Cameroon can qualify. But not further than the second round. As for England, they’ll probably qualify, but the squad isn’t big enough to go all the way. If you look at Gerrard, he’s not the leader of the team, it’s Beckham. You saw when Hamman went off in Liverpool’s second leg against Leverkusen, Gerrard can’t control the game in the same way, not yet anyway. And who’s going to replace him if he’s injured? Butt, possibly. And you’re not going to win the World Cup with Nicky Butt.
GM Pray that David Seaman and Nigel Martyn will get injured so that David James can play. He’s not as bad as the other two. Pray that Sol Campbell’s hamstring never heals, so that you can play Keown or Wes Brown alongside Ferdinand. Footballers I speak to say Keown is one of the top few English defenders. Heskey is a big problem, who will be exposed later on. Michael Owen is great, but one-dimensional. Paul Scholes will fade in big games like he usually does. Eriksson does not have a good track record. He’s lost an awful lot of key games throughout his career. You wonder how much has he learned and how much help he is going to get. The tabloids, the Jeff Powells, are just sharpening their knives and praying for a fuck-up. I can’t fault Eriksson, he’s got to work the players he has. He needs a fit Dyer – fit in the head as well. Is Rio Ferdinand going to be on top of his game? He’ll need to be to make up for the mistakes the rest of the back four will make.
What kind of off-field problems do you anticipate?
AD It won’t be a football atmosphere that most fans can readily identify with. But I think the fact that it’s being played away from Europe is a positive thing, especially for the non-European teams. The African teams, for example, are going to arrive there thinking, OK, it’s a level playing field. They’re going to be a lot more confident than they have been at past tournaments. It’s a new experience for everyone, whereas having a World Cup in Italy or France for most European teams is no more exotic than a midweek Champions League match.
GM There have only been two World Cups held in countries where football is not the No 1 sport. USA 94 was tempered by the fact that there is a large immigrant base, and it’s not that difficult to get to the US from many places. When I was there I felt the crowds were made up largely of people who understood football. Then there was France 98, when most people didn’t know or care anything about football. But it still worked, obviously, because France is accessible. Korea and Japan will be interesting, because it’s so expensive, and because neither has a deeply ingrained footballing culture. When the World Club Championship was on in Japan it was good because they made the effort to get into it, but weird. There was a number you could call and you would be assigned one of the two teams to support. Then they’d have little clubs and meetings where you could talk about the players, past games and so on. It’s contrived, but it just feels right. It’s going to be very different from that perspective. For the players though, whether they’re in Japan or Scunthorpe makes no difference. From the inside of the hotel room it all looks the same.
After past tournaments, English clubs have sometimes signed players they had only seen at the World Cup – often with terrible results. Is that less likely to happen now?
GM The problem is more to do with what happens when they get here. The fact that football is become more homogeneous, as we’ve mentioned, is a positive thing, because it will help players from other countries settle in. But when it comes to Britain and maybe a few other countries, such as Germany, they still don’t help players from other parts of the world settle in. I know of one English club who paid £5 million for a player, who subsequently left because his kid had asthma and they couldn’t find a flat that didn’t have carpets. And the club wasn’t prepared to help out. Their attitude was, well, if you’re getting all this money, you’ll have to sort it out. It comes down to the club taking the trouble to find out about who they’re buying, and what they need to help them fit in.
AD For African players, England is something of a burial ground. In other countries, Holland or Belgium even, clubs send scouts out to Africa and they know what to expect. They know they’re taking a guy who is a big star in his country and you have to give him the same amount of respect. Amokachi wasn’t a bad player at Everton, but nobody quite put their arm around him and said: “You can do this, you’re good enough.” The restrictions on foreign players coming to England make it harder for clubs to buy young African players, so coaches are denied the opportunity to find out more about African football. A English team might see a player banging in the goals in Belgium, or at the World Cup, and assume he can do the same for them. But this player will have been nurtured for several years and will need the same sort of emotional back-up when he moves to England – which he won’t get.
Has the standing of the World Cup been diminished by the rise of the Champions League?
MC The Champions League is always on in Sweden, there is more Champions League football on TV there than there is here, and most people have favourite English or Italian teams. They are as much into European football because the Swedish league is not that interesting – most of the top players are abroad. But there is still massive interest in the World Cup in Sweden, and here of course too. However, I do think club football will have an influence on the World Cup in that there is going to be long line of injuries beforehand, as we’ve already seen with Pires and Beckham, and a lot of players are going to arrive tired.
GM There’s a direct correlation between the strength of a country’s domestic league, the amount of foreign players they import, and how the national team is followed – England is the one weird exception where you send lots of fans to follow the national team. I was in France for the Italy v Chile game in 1998 and it was like being in Chile. You’re about three hours from the Italian border, they’re about ten zillion miles away, but they’re outsinging us. We don’t really care about the national team. Most Italian fans, if God came to them and said “I’ll give the title to Inter, or whoever, but Italy won’t win the World Cup, would you sign for that?” – they’d do it in a heartbeat. Gianluca Vialli, in 1994, announced before the World Cup he was going to support Brazil not Italy, and watched the final wearing a Brazil hat. I cannot imagine that happening here, although I can imagine it happening in Spain. So it is a different mindset, but I don’t think it’s so different now – it’s always been that way.
AD In Africa I think there’s more interest than you’ve ever had. More people own TVs, more matches are being broadcast. You might drive up a potholed street somewhere in Africa, but there’ll be a little satellite dish up and the guy knows exactly how many degrees to turn it to get any given match from anywhere in the world. There’s a feeling in Africa that “something’s going to happen”, this could be the one. There has never been this much interest. When Senegal play France, the whole country will come to a standstill. Ditto when Nigeria and Cameroon play.
What difference will the election for FIFA president make to future tournaments, if any?
GM I don’t think Blatter’s going to lose [against Issa Hayatou]. I think he’s got it in the bag. While I’m sure Blatter’s not a particularly clean individual, we, Europe, are trying to run world football for our own advantage. Blatter’s too clever. I think also you have to look at results as well as the individual personalities: have they done good things for football? Personally, as a football fan I don’t care if Havelange was stealing money from everybody. I just look at where football was then and where it is now. He brought football to the US, he gave more spots in the World Cup to Africa, made it more inclusive. You remember the outcry when they made it 24 teams in 1982 and then 32 in 1994? Well, hey, they’re better than we are. I’d much rather have Senegal than Belgium, and even though the average punter in England may not know anything about the Senegalese players, I know who they’d rather watch on television.
AD People don’t really look to Hayatou as the big leader, the man of ideas. He’s a very good PR man, but there’s a feeling that he’s a pawn in a wider battle. The whole point is not to vote for Hayatou, but to vote against Blatter. But there’s not that much confidence in Hayatou. In Africa, Blatter is still perceived as having done much more for the continent than Hayatou has, in a much shorter space of time. Each federation can now claim up to $250,000 subsidy a year for four years, and Blatter’s introduced the GOAL project [for grassroots development] which is worth up to $750,000. I was in Freetown last week and the federation boss said: “This is a FIFA-run federation.” What it’s giving some African federations is more autonomy from their government. Usually what happens is, especially in smaller countries, you’ve got an international match to play, the federation doesn’t have enough money, so they go to the minister with the begging bowl and he says, OK, you’re off – or you’re not off, we’re not going to sanction $40,000 for you to play a return leg against Nigeria. And so the team doesn’t go. There is more money coming in now and there is some measure of accountability to FIFA in how it’s spent. In that respect, there are a lot of positive things that have come from Blatter’s initiatives.
This is the first World Cup in Asia and the first to be co-hosted. Do you expect FIFA to be equally adventurous with hosting decisions in the future?
MC It’s a bit of a risk, this year’s tournament. Which I think is worth taking – if it works, fine, it will open up a nation and maybe China even, and it’s a new big market for football. And even though it didn’t really work out with the US in 1994, I think it was still worth it. There are a lot of young people coming through there who are playing the game – that’s not going to make a difference now, but it might do in 20 years’ time if they’ve grown up knowing about it. It’s safe to give it to Germany for 2006, but it’s also a bit boring.
AD I think there will be a World Cup in Africa. At the CAF congress in January Blatter promised a World Cup would be held there as long as he wins the election, and he’ll never be forgiven if he doesn’t keep it. The only question mark is, Hayatou has said that if he wins, then he’s all for co-hosting.
GM Wouldn’t Morocco/Tunisia be viable because it’s so close to Europe, with a common language, reasonable infrastructure and so on?
AD South Africa has an infrastructure that surpasses both Morocco and Tunisia of course, but obviously they’ve got a major crime problem, that isn’t going to go away. The problem is it’s been promised to them and it would be a tragedy for South African football if it didn’t go there. Having said that, I’m often frustrated when I go to South Africa. Even the 1996 Nations Cup was a total disaster. You’re watching matches between the top 16 teams in Africa in front of 200-300 people. South African fans know more about the English Premiership than they do about other African teams and I would like it to go to a country with a healthier football culture. But of course you come back to the same questions again: infrastructure, money, marketing. It limits your choice. The only realistic candidates are South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and maybe Egypt. But it would help Africa, of course it would. Everyone worries about stadium security, is this up to it, is that up to it. But to be honest it would be better if the decision was made and they just had to get on with it.
Finally, do you think it will be a good tournament? And who’s going to win?
AD I think it will be an open World Cup, but I don’t think we’ll find too many 4-0 and 5-0 scores that we might have seen in the past. I think an African nation will go to the quarter-finals again, possibly even beyond, and I don’t see France defending their title. I don’t think Argentina are as bad as we’ve made out in this discussion, but after all that, I’ll go for Spain as an outside chance.
MC I fear that the group stages might be a bit defensive and negative. I wonder how tired the players are as well. But from the second round onwards I think we’ll see some great football. I’ll go for Portugal, though more in hope than expectation.
GM Yes, it will be a good World Cup and Brazil or Italy will win it. I look at Italy and think we have the best defence in the world and the best goalkeeper in the world. We have one of the top two or three front threes in the world, and the midfield just kicks people to bits. What else do you need?
The Panel ~
Alan Duncan is editor-at-large of African Soccer. Born in Sierra Leone, he travels throughout Africa and Europe covering the game.
Marcus Christenson is deputy editor of onefootball.com. He comes from Stockholm, supports Djurgaarden and has lived in England since 1996.
Gabriele Marcotti writes for Gazzetta dello Sport and Glasgow’s Sunday Herald, among others. He also presents a regular football programme on Talksport.
From WSC 184 June 2002. What was happening this month