Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Sorry, I still think Africa has no chance



    Last week, I wrote a piece about why I believe no African side will qualify for the Second Round of the upcoming World Cup. I stand by this prediction. This appears to have generated a little bit of debate, with Peter Goldstein publishing an excellent partial rebuttal on site already. As well as this I have received several emails, all disagreeing with what I say, but none of which have made me change my mind.

    One of the points Peter made was that the past two World Cup's have seen Bulgaria and Croatia reach the semi-finals, proving that nation's with limited financial resources can find success at the World Cup. Peter goes on to argue that he thinks this will continue to be the case in the future - in particular he believes the likes of Cameroon and Nigeria will reach the latter stages very soon. Peter and an email correspondent, Martin Awuro, have also both said that Winfried Schaefer possesses enough coaching know-how to see Cameroon through, and have pointed to his experience at Karlsruhe as an example of this. I think these points are wrong!

    First I will deal with Winfried Schaefer because it is the argument that probably holds the most weight. Cameroon appointed Schaefer to bring some German defensive 'discipline' to the team, and as the African Nations Cup has certainly shown, they can certainly defend now. Whether they can score against any decent team is another matter. For goals, Cameroon will still be looking to Patrick Mboma, who couldn't get a game for Parma and is now on loan at struggling English side Sunderland. This tells us something about Cameroon. Winning the Olympic title and the African Nations Cup is one thing, but getting success at World Cup level is going to need a bit more. If Mboma was a truly talented player he would not be playing for Sunderland, or even Parma - neither of which are in the top thirty European clubs. Instead he would be lining up for Barcelona, Liverpool, Bayern Munchen or Arsenal. And as Schaefer is such a respected defensive (and not attacking) coach, what chance is going to have of getting goals out of his strike force?

    Scoring more goals than Germany and Ireland is the only thing that is going to get Cameroon into the Second Round - they could defend all night and get three nil-nil draws, but will still be going home thanks to three points for a win (which by the way is the best innovation the World Cup has seen for a long time). Even if we accept that Cameroon are going to stop Miroslav Klose, Carsten Jancker, Didi Hamman, Ian Harte, Roy Keane and Robbie Keane from scoring, they will still go out without scoring goals. And playing for penalties the way they did against Senegal in the African Nations Cup is not going to work either - there are no penalty shoot-outs in the group stage. So unless they get lucky, there is little chance the likes of Mboma and Etoo will be getting any scoring awards in Korea and Japan. And Cameroon will go out.

    This of course all depends on a coach from Karlsruhe (hardly Real Madrid or Juventus) working wonders on the leaky defence from Italia 90, USA 94 and France 98. I am not overly impressed with the curriculum vitae of Mr Schaefer. Glenn Hoddle (England's coach in France) was well respected in 1998, and could organise a defence as well as most coaches. However he still couldn't see the need to play Michael Owen from the start. Look at Azeglio Vicini, coach of Italy in 1990 and taught everything he knew by Enzo Bearzot. Again he was a defensive maestro, and his team duly defended well. However only the once-in-a-lifetime performances of Toto Schillaci got Italy through to the semi-finals, so little did Vicini understand about attacking.

    All of which does not bode well for Schaefer - if coaches who have proven track records at the highest level fail at the World Cup, what chance does someone from Karlsruhe have? I mean, I haven't noticed Karlsruhe playing at Anfield, Old Trafford, the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu in the past five years, have you? If we look for an equivalent type of appointment in England, it wouldn't have been Sven Goran Eriksson replacing Kevin Keegan, it would have been Sam Allardyce or Peter Reid! Never heard of them? Don't worry, they are managers of struggling English league sides - exactly the same as Karlsruhe are; a struggling team where success is measured in stealing a nil-nil draw against the big teams instead of challenging for honours.

    And before I finish destroying poor Mr Schaefer (who probably doesn't deserve it)and the chances of his team this summer, lets just think about the quality of defensive player he has at his disposal. The captain and chief defender is Rigobert Song. He used to play for Liverpool, the team I watch each week. He simply was not good enough to play at Anfield, and probably wasn't even good enough for a place in the squad. He worked as hard as any player we had at the time, and always tackled strongly and with passion. He was also not an undisciplined player, as his record of being sent off at the last two World Cups would suggest. He couldn't have been undisciplined, otherwise he wouldn't have been bought by Liverpool. And he wasn't sold to West Ham because he was undisciplined; he was sold to make way for Markus Babbel - a better player. In a way I felt sorry for Song - he was plucked from Salernitana by Liverpool, who obviously saw some talent in him. However it was only a matter of time before his limitations shone through, and he went back to a small team, where he has struggled to keep his place. He was not good enough to play in the Champions League, or the Uefa Cup - but is still expected to keep out players like Jancker who won the Champions League last year, and Robbie Keane who is still very much involved in this seasons Uefa Cup.

    This brings me round to the other point Peter made that intrigued me - the performances of Croatia and Bulgaria in 1994 and 1998 showing that smaller teams have every chance of doing well this summer. Peter argues that this is because these teams had players at the biggest and best European clubs is valid up to a point, but I would argue that Bulgaria's success had much more to do with sheer luck! Looking back at that 1994 team, it is interesting to see how few of them were 'stars' before the tournament. Stoichkov was undoubtedly a superstar at Barcelona, as were Kostadinov and Balakov, both of Sporting Lisbon. But that was that. Letchkov was playing for Hamburger SV, but only became a 'star' for the fleeting moment of that World Cup. The rest of the team was either still at home, or were playing for Swiss, Greek and even English Second Division teams.

    So instead of reaching the final four because their players had developed in the best European teams, Bulgaria got there through absolute, unadulterated luck! First they qualified at France's expense thanks to David Ginola - he passed to Kostadinov in the 89th minute to give Bulgaria a shock victory. Even luckier than this though was France's inability to beat Israel. This was one of those one-off losses that occasionally happen in the World Cup, and so Bulgaria somehow sneaked into the USA. Their next piece of luck was to meet Argentina straight after the talismanic Diego Maradona had tested positive for drugs. Up to this point Bulgaria had been poor - thrashed by Nigeria and woeful against Greece (allowing myself to get side-tracked, Peter said Zaire's performance in 1974 was the worst ever; I disagree, it has to be the atrocious Greeks in 1994!). Now they met Argentina who had looked like world champions, but who minus Maradona, fell apart and lost 2:0. So Bulgaria met Mexico, and Argentina had to play Hagi's Romania. If this had been the other way around Bulgaria would have gone home, beaten comfortably. Instead they stumbled through a poor game against Mexico (and a referee who had no idea) and still only scraped through on penalties.

    With luck holding they met Germany, and again their Royal Flush continued. They came across a German team that was so off form it hardly deserved to be called German. This was not the Germany of 1998 and 2000 that was truly poor, in 1994 Germany was officially the second best team in Europe (so narrowly beaten in Euro 92) and would go on to win Euro 96. They just had an off day against the Bulgarians. And even then there was a final piece of luck. What odds would you have got on Thomas Hassler (the smallest German) being given a defensive markers job against Iordan Letchkov for that fateful free kick?

    So given all these circumstances, any team could have made it to the semi-finals - even an African one! But as I said earlier, I take Peter's overall point about experience at the top European clubs being something that could see a team make the letter stages of the World Cup. But I think that this will count against the African teams in Japan and Korea, and means that I am more likely to be right.

    Today it is no longer good enough to simply play in Germany, Spain, England, Italy or France. There is a massive difference between playing for West Ham United and Manchester United, between Real Mallorca and Real Madrid, and between Karlsruhe and Bayern Munchen. Playing for a European team that is in the Uefa Cup is not really good enough anymore. Club football now only has one test, and sorry Herr Blatter it is not the 'World Club Championship'.

    Football has changed since 1998. Then the Champions League was still in development - it was still seen by the big teams as a cup competition to complement their league programmes. Very famously Bill Shankly, the greatest man-motivator football has ever seen (if not necessarily the greatest coach) once said that European competition is good for the fans, and good indeed for the standing of each country. But to the clubs only one thing mattered, and that was the League Championship. Shankly was the man who created the legend at my team Liverpool, and his doctrine held all the way through the subsequent years of success under Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish. As a Liverpool fan I first and foremost wanted the league championship. It proved you were the best in your country, and that was what we wanted to be. Perhaps only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Benfica fans ever thought differently, and wanted European success first. But then they were coming from weak leagues, where the league championship was not competitive and went to the same three or four teams every year. As I say though, since 1998 this has all changed.

    To Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Leeds, Chelsea and all the other big English sides the league title is still important, but just as important is the Champions League. Consider the scenario and tell me what would happen today. Liverpool have a Merseyside derby match against Everton on a Saturday at Anfield. If they win, they stay right at the top of the league, if they lose or draw they fall further behind Arsenal and Manchester United. However, on Wednesday night they have to play Galatasaray in the second group stage of the Champions League. So what does coach Phil Thompson do? Does he play his strongest team in the league, regardless of any injury risk? Or does he leave one of his main strikers on the bench, resting him for the Champions League group game? This happened today. Phil Thompson left Emile Heskey out of the Merseyside derby so he will be fit for a European game, that is not even a knockout contest. Success in the Champions League is much more important today for Liverpool. It is our main source of funds and sponsorship, and more importantly provides millions of pounds in television money. It has become a whole new level of football, requiring faster, fitter, more talented players. Liverpool buy players simply to play them in the Champions League, as do Real Madrid and Juventus.

    Two weekends ago I went to watch Real Madrid against Las Palmas, and saw Zidane, Figo et al. However, in the final thirty minutes Real took off Zidane, Figo and Guti (all star players) and put squad players like Steve McManaman on. Why? Because they were preparing for a Champions League clash with Porto - the league match was only of secondary importance. Real pay McManaman well over $2 million per year, yet he is only considered good enough for the league, and rarely plays in the important competition, the Champions League.

    All well and good you say, we agree, the Champions League is important, but what has all this to do with African chances at this summer's World Cup? As I said last week there is no serious presence by African players in the Champions League, with the exception of Sammy Kuffour at Bayern, and he is not even going to be in Japan and Korea. But think who will have Champions League players in their team. England's whole squad is drawn almost exclusively from Champions League teams. Indeed, McManaman (once a first choice of England) has no chance of even getting a squad place until he starts playing for Real in the Champions League. An even better example is France, the dominant force in world football. Every single player in the French team that opens the World Cup against Senegal will have played in the Champions League this season, unless they recall LeBoeuf or Anelka (and he is only not playing in the Champions League because he is cup-tied). And that is why their players are so good, so competitive, and of a different class to any African player. No Cameroon player would even get in the French squad, let alone the starting eleven. As I said before, the captain and arguably best player Rigobert Song was sold by Liverpool because he was not of the quality to play in the Champions League, so what hope will he have of competing with Henry, Viera or Zidane.

    OK, you say, but Cameroon only have to beat the likes of Germany or Portugal to get to the semi-finals, not France. They can do that surely? Look again. First, Germany are beginning to score goals again. Miroslav Klose (another Champions League player) was inspired against Israel, and the Germans scored seven. Israel are not the Faroe Islands or San Marino. If they qualified against African teams, they would reach every World Cup, and they regularly come close in Europe. But Germany aren't even one of Europe's better teams at the moment. Who is? Well apart from France, I think Portugal are. And yet again they are packed full of Champions League veterans like Paulo Sousa, Fernando Couto, and Luis Figo - the world's very best footballer. So now tell me how Cameroon are going to make the last four? Who are they going to knockout? France? England? Italy? Portugal? Argentina? No, they will lose to Germany (albeit closely), beat Saudi Arabia, but fail to qualify against an Irish team high as kites after beating Holland, the Czech Republic and Russia recently, and who pushed Portugal (my tip for the whole tournament) so close in qualifying.

    I may be wrong, and perhaps my 'prediction' of no African World cup winner for fifty years is silly, being dependent on so many unknown factors, but I maintain what I said last week. I do believe, and the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel, that no African team will make the quarterfinals. And forget about Cameroon. Unless old Henri Michel gets Tunisia through the weakest World Cup group ever, no African team will even reach the Second Round.

    For the good of the worldwide game, I do hope I am wrong, but I doubt I will be.


 

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