Sunday June 29 2014

Goal-laden World Cup holds purists captive

Muller was a joint top scorer with Neymar and Messi on four goals apiece.

Muller was a joint top scorer with Neymar and Messi on four goals apiece. PHOTO BY AFP 

By Robert Madoi

If, as a popular idiom reminds us, the devil is in the details, the ongoing Fifa World Cup in Brazil has done a good job proving otherwise. A close look at Brazil 2014’s statistics has not returned a frown of disapproval or unease for that matter. The numbers game has made for a refreshingly different reading. The numbers have been such a beauty to behold.

An impressive 136 goals were scored at the group stage. The average, which stands at nearly three goals per game, leaves the mind boggling at what is by all accounts a spectacle. It may be some way off the insane average of 5.38 goals per game registered in 1954, but is certainly no mean feat. The 1954 World Cup in Switzerland was a freak of footballing nature, if you will.

A still unprecedented eight hat-tricks were registered at the finals. Brazil 2014 had by the time of penning this piece only mustered two trebles thanks to Germany’s Thomas Muller and Swiss ace Xherdan Shaqiri. That should not take anything away.

If, for instance, the nearly three goals per game average is maintained in the remaining World Cup matches (possibly a big ask since goals always dry up at the knockout stage), Brazil 2014 will eclipse the record for most goals scored in football’s biggest showpiece. That record was set at France 1998 when 171 goals were scored.

Brazil 2014 has not only been about a goals glut though. The revival of a three-man back-line hasn’t escaped your columnist’s eye. Mexico have recently been the poster child for a back three. They fielded a 3-4-1-2 at Germany 2006 before going with a 3-4-3 four years later in South Africa. This time round they have caught the eye with a fluid 3-5-2.

Rafael Marquez, the skipper, has played as a sweeper, with Francisco Rodriquez and Hector Moreno executing the man-marking duties.

The Dutch (who play Mexico in Fortaleza today), Italians, and Chileans have also fielded a back three. Another eye catchy trend has been that of teams having to do without pure No.9s. The tournament was deprived a pure No.9 when Radamel Falcao, probably the purest of them all, was forced out with a knee injury. The other player remotely close to a pure No.9, Diego Costa, flopped spectacularly as Spain failed to play to his strengths.

With No.9s few and far between, we have seen Germany turn to a false 9 and Brazil wing forwards. Mario Goetze’s performance as a false 9 has been quietly effectively.
Goetze’s intelligent runs have drawn defenders to him, creating space in which the likes of Muller have thrived. Elsewhere, the hold-up play of Fred has been vital in ensuring that Neymar executes the role of a wing forward with such lethal effect.

While goals have come to define Brazil 2014, Africa has not covered itself in glory with grumbles over match bonuses. The whines date back to West Germany 1974 when Zairean players threw their toys out of the pram, Nigeria being the latest entry to this hall of shame.

The West Africans take on a free-scoring French side in Brasilia tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how they fare.

l Thomas Mueller (Germany)
l Lionel Messi (Argentina)
l Neymar (Brazil)
l James Rodriguez (Colombia)
l Karim Benzema (France)
l Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
l Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
l Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
l Enner Valencia (Ecuador)
l Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
l Islam Slimani (Algeria)
l Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
l Gervinho (Ivory Coast)
l Asamoah Gyan (Ghana)
l Jackson Martinez (Colombia)
l Tim Cahill (Australia)
l Wilfried Bony (Ivory Coast)
l Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
l Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)

What we now know....

We know that if the national football team, The Cranes, manages to jump the Equatorial Guinean hurdle before them, they will be placed in a 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualification group that has Ghana, Togo and Guinea.

We know that making it out of that group will pose such a frightening prospect for either Uganda or Equatorial Guinea.

They might have not made it out of a World Cup group that had Germany, USA and Portugal, but Ghana’s Black Stars showed that they are a decent side especially whilst sharing four goals with the German machine. We also know that Cameroon only made it to the World Cup after getting a boardroom win over Togo.

Had the Togolese not deemed to have used an ineligible player in their match against the Indomitable Lions, maybe they could have been the ones to board a plane to Brazil. The fact that Guinea are also anything but an unknown quantity means that this Afcon qualification group will be, well, as tough as nails. Only the top two sides from the group will secure tickets to Morocco.

The Cranes of course have to first beat an Equatorial Guinean side laden with naturalised players of South American descent before grappling with the frightening prospect your columnist has just described.

For once Fufa must opt not to cross-generate players

Uganda’s national under-17 football team, The Cubs, a fortnight ago did what continues to elude their senior counterparts - win on the road. The Cubs played Seychelles in the return leg of their 2015 African Youth Championship qualifier last evening.

By the time your columnist penned this column, the referee’s final whistle hadn’t been blown. Whatever the result - and the omens of it being greatly pleasing were good - you should say that lessons appear to have been learnt. It was back in 2010 that Uganda made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Deemed to have fielded an over-age player in the name of Ivan Ntege, Uganda was banned by Confederation of African Football (Caf) from featuring in its under-17 tournaments for three years.

The episode left Ugandan football with egg on face despite the brazen assurance of bigwigs at Mengo where Fufa is headquartered. The culture of fielding over-age players had been going unabated in Uganda. So often the unofficial response to the persistence of this ill was that it was as much societal as it was continental.

Everyone across the continent is doing it, a Fufa official once told me as he sought to hush up my concerns that bouts of age cheating were clogging the pipeline.
We stand no chance if we field genuinely under-age players, the Fufa official added barely hiding an evil beam of satisfaction.

Seychelles is of course no barometer of African football dominance; although you could say it’s cut from the same cloth with Madagascar, which the senior football team, The Cranes, recently made heavy weather of beating.

Certified credentials
The Cubs players, none of whom play topflight football and whose age credentials are certified by the annual Copa Coca-Cola Schools tournament, have made a fist of it at the continental level.

The key thing now is to keep this group of players together for a protracted period and ensure that it isn’t adulterated. One of the problems that have so afflicted Ugandan football is that of ‘cross-generating’ players. We tend to always mix up footballing generations, and this has always had fatal consequences.

Keeping players from the same generation intact and ushering them at once at the senior level has proven to be worth the while, certainly a best practice. Spain has previously thrived doing just that, and so is Germany.

For one, it ensures that players are on the same wavelength and also crucially doesn’t force a singular player who has been handpicked to recoil into their shell.
One time Ibrahim Sekagya and Owen Kasule were asked to share a room as The Cranes prepared for an international engagement. When I was picking Sekagya’s mind, he confided in me that Kasule was a bit distant. It’s as if he is fearing me, Sekagya added.

Oh, yes, Kasule was dreading Sekagya as the two are from markedly different footballing generations. If Kasule was with his peers, doubtless he would have opened up. The same effect holds sway on the pitch. This is why ‘cross-generating’ players cannot be roundly condemned more.

Thankfully, lessons have been learnt. Once bitten twice shy! Ugandan football is picking up the pieces and looking forward to what should be a bright future.