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
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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
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
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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