Global village gets the first touch

The past will be whispering loudly in the ears of Dutch coach Marco van Basten and Portugal coach Luis Felipe Scolari.

N. U. ABILASH

ADMINISTRATORS, luminaries and managers of the 32 participating countries of World Cup 2006 gathered on the night of December 9, in Leipzig, Germany, in the world's first attempt to give, in the memorable words of poet Percy Shelley, "airy nothing a local habitation and a form." The second attempt will come in Munich on the night of June 9, when the tournament kicks off with hosts Germany up against Costa Rica in a Group A encounter. There is, of course, some way to go before the kick-off. But, the hazy outline of the trajectory of the world's most-watched sporting event has already emerged at the end of the wintry Alpine night. And, while it has assumed angelic dimensions for some big powers of world football — England, France and Germany — for some others — Argentina, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Mexico and Spain — it might have appeared a bit too spooky.

The managers of the big powers, even those who were not under the benevolent gaze of the draw, may openly state that it is futile to make anything out of the first round draw other than using it to sketch a first draft of the route map to possible triumph. The super managers, most of whom are former players or World Cup winning managers, always have their eyes and ears open to history though they may publicly only say that June 9 is a fresh beginning.

The past certainly will be whispering loudly in the ears of Dutch coach Marco van Basten, Italian coach Marcelo Lippi, Portugal coach Luis Felipe Scolari, who managed Brazil to success in 2002, and Argentine coach Jose Pekerman that a tough first-round draw or a Group of Death has had its victims, the most recent being in 2002 when Group F consisting of England, Nigeria and Sweden gobbled up Argentina in the first round.

Similarly, the past will be singing a different tune — though not less cacophonic in nature — in the ears of France manager Raymond Domenech, England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and German manager Jurgen Klinsmann, all of whom admitted their teams `felt good' after drawing less dangerous groups in Germany. Last time around, in Korea and Japan, France and Portugal got what everybody thought were easy groups. But, the then reigning world and European champions were bundled out of Group A consisting of Denmark, Uruguay and Senegal. Euro 2000 semifinalist Portugal was dumped out of Group D comprising South Korea, Poland and the USA. Domenech, Eriksson and Klinsmann will also be well aware of the travails of the 1998 Dutch team in Group E. Holland, replete with brilliance in the form of Denis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Jaap Stam, huffed and puffed to secure draws against Belgium and Mexico though it easily defeated South Korea.

But, private fears will most certainly not be divulged in front of the media. They all have to appear unworried for the sake of team spirit. The only person who did not sound quite excited about the easy draw his team got was Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Perreira, who managed his nation to success in World Cup 1994. That may not be due to the logistics of which three teams figure in his team's group but because of the realisation that time has now come to get down to the basics — decide his strategies and squads, which will mean sacrificing at least one of the three ethereal strikers, Ronaldo, Adriano or Robinho, to the bench considering the attacking back-up that Ronaldinho and Kaka give as midfielders. "Never mind the draw," said Perreira. "What is important is to play well throughout the tournament, to peak at the right time."

The two superpowers, two-time winners Argentina and three-time winners Italy, may not entirely endorse the views of the manager of five-time winner Brazil. Both have been drawn in tough groups, the two `Group of Deaths' this time around indicating how fast the gulf between the superpowers and the other teams is being bridged. Marcello Lippi, the Italian coach, gave something away despite his routine exercise in politicalspeak. "Our group is tough but fascinating," he said. "Both USA and Czech Republic are above us in the FIFA rankings. That does not mean that they are superior to us." Argentina's assistant coach Hugo Tocalli endorsed manager Pekerman's views thus: "We are in a really hard group for the second time running and we are confident of doing well unlike in 2002. As Jose has said, the key to our World Cup lies in these three games. We'll think about the knock-out phase only after we qualify from the group." Marco van Basten, the Dutch manager who has the task of holding off Pekerman's challenge for group supremacy, is not as ebullient as the player he was. "We are in a really tough group," he said. "Argentina has a long history of football. Serbia and Montenegro and Ivory Coast have brilliant players who are technically sound. I don't mind playing strong teams in the beginning. It helps us know what we are up against. It helps to be playing Argentina in Germany because it will be like home in all German venues."

The month that follows the announcement of the World Cup draw is not just an intense one for the managers of the 32 nations, who have to plan friendlies before June and think of their squads, tactics and formations. There is also a hustle and bustle in the global village — whether it is in the First World European nations or Asian Superpower Japan or in Third World African and Latin American countries or former Eastern Bloc European countries, fans get busy applying for leave from work, travel agents work round the clock and airline companies come up with special offers. Government departments, the media, academics and security agencies go into overdrive — the World Cup is so much intertwined with all the major social, economic and political systems, the conflicts of the world and historical events. Capitalism, communism, immigration, colonisation, World Wars, you name it and the influences of each of these processes are being anticipated in Germany as in previous World Cups. Believe it or not, World Cup 1998 in France even had a group match — Iran against the USA — labelled as the "clash of civilizations" encounter.

This time around, the big news from beyond the football field is that England has to play a Group B match in Nuremberg, a city which has become a symbol of German neo-Nazi pride after the War and Holocaust trials beginning from 1945 in the city. England's travelling supporters, whose notoriety is yet to die down despite being a peaceful and fun-loving bunch in World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004, will descend in Nuremberg for the match and they will not be averse to singing that old song of theirs, "Two World Wars and one World Cup", enumerating the nature of their one-upmanship over the Germans. The fixture, therefore, has everything to raise the hackles of the neo-Nazis in Germany and hence will be pencilled down as a key date not just by players and managers of the competing teams.

There is also a story within a story in the aforementioned match, post-colonial sentiments within the `bigger' story of the Great War. Trinidadians and people from the English-speaking Caribbean countries all over the world are wildly optimistic that football will be added to cricket in the list of major team games in which the `Mother Country' has been shown its place.

The Group `A' tie between hosts Germany and Poland, which scored a lot of goals and finished second in England's group in the European World Cup Qualifiers, is another one that carries the leit motif of the Second World War. Poland, which was attacked in 1939 by Hitler to begin a chain of events that became the War, has always been thirsty for German blood on the football field. And, the former Eastern Bloc country has not forgotten the day in Frankfurt 1974 when they lost to hosts West Germany in the World Cup semifinal, a match which Poland dominated till the end but in which they could not score as opposed to Gerd Muller's 80th minute strike to finish off one of the very few dangerous moves orchestrated by the hosts, led by Franz Beckenbauer.

If post-colonial sentiments will also be found in the Group D tie between Portugal and Angola and in the possible match-ups in the knock-out stages if Spain and Portugal get to play against their former Latin American colonies, immigration, which is an index of economic differentials between countries, comes into play in the Group F clash between Australia and Croatia. The match will be important in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney not just because it is likely to decide the second spot in the group behind Brazil. Nothing illustrates better the extent of Croatian immigration in Australia's two major cities than the fact that the national team comprises no fewer than six players of Croatian descent, including captain Mark Viduka.

Nick Hornby wrote that in a football World Cup lies hidden the key that can unlock patterns of `national' masculinities and political cultures all over the world. The endeavour of the World Cup 2006 Organizing Committee, headed by Beckenbauer, is to stage the tournament with the same degree of organisational efficiency that marked the great German World Cup teams of 1990 and 1974. `The Kaiser' coached one team and was captain of the other and now wants to script the organisational efficiency of the 2006 tournament in his own image almost as if in tribute to his countryman Ludwig Feurbach, the 19th century philosopher who memorably wrote, "Man created God in his own image unlike what the Bible says."

Early fizz Group A Date and venue: June 14, Dortmund Match: Germany v Poland

At stake: Battle to top the group to avoid England in the round of 16.

Direction: Attacking Poland — strikers Maciej Zurawski and Tomas Frankowski shared 14 goals in the Qualifiers — also has 2005 Champions League final goalkeeping hero, Jerzy Dudek of Liverpool.

The German defence, barring Dudek's club mate Dietmar Hamman, is not experienced and hosts will concede. German midfield, led by captain Michael Ballack, is strong and the team has a fairly decent young striker in Kevin Kuranyi.

Possible result: A scoring draw, topper decided by goal difference.

Group B Date and venue: June 20, Cologne Match: England v Sweden

At stake: Struggle to top and avoid Germany. England has not beaten Sweden since Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup winning team beat the Scandinavian team in 1968. However, most of the matches have resulted in draws, including the clash in the corresponding stage of the 2002 World Cup.

Direction: Both teams have brilliant forwards, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney for England and Henrik Larsson and Juventus's Zlatan Ibramovich for Sweden. England's defenders will just about hang in. The Swedish defence has a tougher role because Owen will be kept busy by the brilliance of Rooney, the all-round footballer, and the midfield partnership of Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard.

Possible result: A 2-1 or 3-2 win for England.

Group C Date and venue: June 21, Frankfurt Match: Argentina v Holland

At stake: Battle for survival in the World Cup because the other two teams in the group, Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro, have the capability to draw against the top guns if not cause an upset.

Direction: The all-out attacking Dutch up against the slick passing and organised midfield unit that the Latin Americans are. The key to this clash could well be in whether Marco van Basten can persuade AC Milan central defender Jaap Stam to come out of international retirement. Without Stam, the Dutch defence looks inexperienced and capable of conceding one more than what their brilliant attackers can score.

Possible results: 3-2 for Argentina; scoring draw if Stam leads the Dutch central defence.

Group D Date and venue: June 21, Gelsenkirchen Match: Portugal v Mexico

At stake: Group supremacy will not mean much as the qualifiers will play those from Group C, which could most possibly be Italy and Holland.

Direction: Portugal, tipped by Pele as number one challengers to Brazil, has amazing all-round talent. Striker Pauleta was the European top scorer in the World Cup Qualifiers and he is supported by Cristiano Ronaldo and Figo in attacking wide positions and Maniche and Deco in the central midfield. But this will not prevent a Mexican upset — remember Jared Borgetti's lone strike that upset Brazil in the preliminary round of the Confederations Cup. That the Portuguese, along with Italy, have the best defensive line-up in Europe to match their midfield and attacking riches will see them through.

Possible result: 1-0 for Portugal Group E Date and Venue: June 22, Hamburg Match: Italy v Czech Republic

At stake: Battle for World Cup survival because the other two teams in the group, USA and Ghana, are adequately equipped to either defeat or take a draw out of the top dogs.

Direction: Ruthless midfield struggle with the rock-solid Italian defence mopping up all midfield spills caused by Czech strikers Milan Baros and Jan Koller and playmaker Pavel Nedved. Though the Czech goalkeeper, Chelsea's Peter Cech, is one of the best in the world, the defence may let the odd one slip against the quick Italian counterattacks started by Andrea Pirlo.

Possible result: 1-0 to Italy. Group H Date and venue: June 14, Leipzig Match: Spain v Ukraine

At stake: Group supremacy because the runner-up will, in all probability, have to face France in the next stage.

Direction: Spanish defence will be given a torrid time by Andriy Shevchenko and his two strike partners, Andrey Voronin and Andriy Vorobey. The Ukrainians were the first European team to qualify. Spain, perennial underachievers, came via the play-offs. Spain has exciting young forward Fernando Torres, captain Raul Gonzalez and Liverpool's Fernando Morientes upfront and Iker Casillas in the goal. The Liverpool trio will help Spain to offset the greater motivation of the Ukraininans — Xabi Alonso as defensive midfielder, Luis Garcia as attacking midfielder and Morientes upfront.

Possible result: Scoring draw, topper decided on goal difference.