A Colombia victory to cement their achievements?

With all the furore over Luis Suarez and the attention that inevitably circulates around Lionel Messi and Neymar, it is all to easy to overlook the achievements of the South and Central American sides in this tournament. Of the ten nations from the two American federations that qualified for these finals, eight have made it through to the last sixteen. Only Honduras and Ecuador have fallen at the first hurdle. Whilst we would all have expected Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to qualify, the feats of Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Colombia and Chile have provided us with some of the highlights of this already spectacular world cup.

When the draw was made it appeared that lady luck had deserted the USA. Drawn in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, they were seen as the whipping boys in the one genuine group of death. However, they took advantage of being drawn to play Ghana (on paper their easiest game) in their first match and stunned the African side with an aggressive brand of football that yielded an early three points that proved so vital in a tight group. Their performance against Portugal merited a victory and it was fitting in the end that they qualified at the expense of Cristiano Ronaldo and his team. The USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann has achieved a minor miracle in whipping up public support for ‘soccer.’ The game against Portugal was the most viewed televised match in the country’s history with an estimated audience of 24.7 million. The squad is united under Klinsmann’s passionate approach to management and a second round tie with Belgium is not an insurmountable task.

Chile’s performance in group B was viewed as a surprise by some. However, given the events of the last year it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Their performance last November in beating England 2-0 at Wembley in distinctly un-South American conditions was highly impressive and marked them down as potential dark horses. They were equally adept in disposing of world champions Spain in their second group match in one of the most committed team displays of the tournament so far. Their squad is young and the players are able to pound every blade of grass relentlessly. Spain and Australia simply could not cope with the energy of the Chilean players. However, a defeat to an under strength Dutch side in the final group game shows that genuinely quality sides can get themselves one step ahead. Brazil in the second round may be too much for Chile.

With a population of just under 4 million, Costa Rica were by far the smallest and lowest ranked nation in Group B. However, they belied their lowly status by catching Uruguay cold in the first match. They followed that up in the second match by completely outhinking the Italians in one of the great tactical displays of the group stages. This was no plucky, lucky underdog story Instead the Ticos were superior to Italy in every area of the pitch. A nil-nil draw with England secured top spot in the group and provided us with one of the great world cup stories of recent times. Can you remember the last time that the fourth seeded team won their group? A last sixteen tie with Greece provides Costa Rica with a great chance of making the quarter finals.

Mexico have been a joy to watch from the word go. in the first match against Cameroon they were denied two first half goals in controversial circumstances yet they maintained their discipline and eventually earned a 1-0 victory. Against Brazil, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa produced one of the finest displays by a stopper in a world cup finals match. One particular save from a Neymar header drew comparisons with Gordon Banks’ block to deny Pele in 1970 and is undoubtedly the save of the tournament so far. Mexico were far too good for Croatia in the winner takes all final group match and the joy of manager Miguel Herrera as his team scored three second half goals was one of the most priceless images of the tournament. Mexico have been solid in all three of their games, Ivan Perisic’s late consolation goal for Croatia was the only goal Ochoa conceded in the group stages. They have the joint best defensive record in the tournament with Costa Rica thought they will be severely tested by the firepower of the Netherlands in the second round.

Finally, Colombia have been the most impressive of the American outfits so far. Shorn of their best player Radamel Falcao on the eve of the tournament, they have still managed to blow aside all three of their Group C opponents. James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez have struck up an impressive partnership up front that has seen the pair score five of their team’s nine goals between them. Rodriguez’s goal against Japan in Colombia’s final match was one of the goals of the tournament so far however, the 4-1 victory will be remembered for the wonderful moment when 43 year old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was brought on as a substitute and subsequently broke Roger Milla’s record as the oldest player to appear in a world cup match. It was a gesture that epitomised the spirit of the Colombian team at this moment in time. They play Uruguay in the second round. The Uruguayans will be without Luis Suarez who has rightly been hit with a four month worldwide ban for his bite on Giorgio Chiellini. The reaction of the Uruguayan camp in the aftermath of Suarez’s latest indiscretion has been unsavoury at best. The circus surrounding Suarez has unfairly distracted from the achievements of all the South American sides, including Brazil and Argentina. To a man they have shown a commitment to entertaining and virtuoso football (Uruguay excepted) and they have each embodied the spirit of this sensational competition.

It would therefore, be a fitting and poetic moment if Colombia were to dispatch Uruguay in the second round not just for the American teams but for the tournament itself.


In the name of decency, can someone please sanction Gaston Ramirez?

In the Walt Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast, the character Gaston is everything a cartoon villain should be; boorish, arrogant, conceited, cowardly and above all else, a small minded bully. It is therefore an unsettling coincidence that Gaston’s Uruguayan namesake Ramirez should display those exact same qualities whilst in action for his country during a crucial world cup match.

The major controversy from Tuesday night’s clash between Italy and Uruguay was not the suspected bite by Luiz Suarez on Giorgio Chiellini but rather the reaction of Ramirez towards Chiellini afterwards. The Italian defender was rightly incensed by Suarez’s conduct and made an attempt to show the referee the teeth marks adorning his shoulder. That Ramirez took umbrage with Chiellini speaks volumes about his character. He even went as far as to attempt to force Chiellini’s shirt back over his shoulder. There is only one word for this kind of behaviour, contempt; contempt for the victim of a crime and an astounding level of arrogance to believe that the victim should remain silent.

Make no mistake about it, Suarez has committed a crime here. If you and I were to approach someone in the street tomorrow and sink our gnashers into their shoulder we would be hauled in for questioning by police and referred for psychiatric examination. However, Suarez does not live in the real world. He lives in the cosseted world of the wealthy individual where indiscretion can be made to disappear like a magician’s handkerchief.

This is the third such incident where Suarez has bitten an opponent. In 2010 whilst playing for Ajax he received a seven game ban for biting PSV’s Otman Bakkal. His transfer to Liverpool occurred during this suspension so were he to return to the Eredivisie later in his career he would start with a ban. In April last year the FA handed down a ten match suspension for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. As this latest nibbling incident occurred during a match organised by FIFA it is in the hands of the world governing body to sanction Suarez. In a statement released last night, FIFA declared that the maximum ban permissible under their regulations is 24 international matches. If Suarez is found guilty (and I use the word if in the name of democracy) then FIFA should not hesitate to issue a 24 match ban and thus effectively end the Uruguayan’s international career. His behaviour is clearly not unprecedented and the punishment should reflect this.

And yet despite all the recrimination (there was also an eight game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra) Suarez continues to transgress and, infuriatingly, play the victim. You could be forgiven for asking how one player can have such a lengthy charge sheet without appearing to show any remorse?

The answer lies in the conduct of Ramirez. His outrageous behaviour in protecting his teammate was typical of the indulgence Suarez has received throughout his career. Strong willed managers will, naturally seek to protect their prize assets when the chips are down. One only has to think of the way Alex Ferguson refused to sack Eric Cantona in 1995 following his assault of a Crystal Palace fan as an example of a manager creating a siege mentality to strengthen his club in a desperate situation. However, the indulgences bestowed on Suarez go beyond the realms of siege mentality. Whereas Cantona was punished judicially, and Ferguson made no attempt to resist this process, the reaction of then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish during Suarez’s racism ban was little more than posturing. The Liverpool players and Dalglish himself wore t-shirts protesting Suarez’s innocence after an independent panel had found him guilty. As a show of defiance, it was lacking in dignity and class.

Ramirez however, has gone above and beyond the previous ways in which Suarez’s teammates have attempted to shield him from blame. In reacting angrily towards Chiellini, Ramirez showed that he is little more than a coward, a coward who felt the need to bully an opponent into concealing the truth. If and when Suarez is suspended, similar punishment should also be handed down to Ramirez though it is unlikely that this will happen as retrospective action against indecency is unprecedented in football. Ramirez the coward will, unfortunately, be able to wriggle his way out from under the microscope.

5 reasons for Englands losses this WC.

England’s defeat makes them the first ever Three Lions side to lose their third consecutive World Cup match.

Luis Suarez

You got the impression in the run up to the game that Uruguay were so confident that the Liverpool striker’s mere presence would befuddle England – that they would have fielded him in a mobility scooter if necessary. And sure enough, a month after undergoing keyhole surgery on his knee and almost six weeks since he last played, Suarez needed only two telling contributions to prove them right.

He took his chances superbly in a manner which underlined the fact that England have not, for a very long time, had a player capable of influencing a match single-handedly at an international tournament.

That is the true barometer of the over used phrase “world class” and frankly, none of our players fit that bill.

Dodgy defending

The one nagging doubt which refused to go away during England’s largely successful qualifying campaign was whether the central defenders would be good enough when it came to facing the likes of Suarez at the World Cup.

Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, both decent, honest and hard working lads, always felt more like the best of a bad bunch than the cream of the crop and neither covered himself in glory last night. Jagielka was unable to match the anticipation by Suarez of Edinson Cavani’s fine cross for the first goal, and Cahill was caught in no man’s land as Steve Gerrard inadvertently flicked on Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera’s route one clearance for the second.

Both former England manager Glenn Hoddle and ex international defender Rio Ferdinand described it as “schoolboy defending” from their respective TV sofas and one can imagine John Terry, wherever he is on holiday, kicking his sun lounger in disgust and pondering what might have been.

Lack of adventure

After the opening game against Italy there were encouraging signs that, although beaten, England had at least shown a spirit of adventure both in the team selection and their willingness to get forward. Having been humiliated by Costa Rica, Uruguay appeared jaded and lacking in pace, with a goalkeeper who looked like a man trying to catch a bar of soap fired from a howitzer every time the ball came anywhere near him above waist height.

Even with Suarez and Cavani back in harness in a team which showed five changes, the 2010 semi finalists approached last night’s game with little more than a narrow 8-2 formation which invited England to attack down the flanks.

Unfortunately it was 75 minutes before the penny dropped. Glenn Johnson’s dart down the right after good work by Daniel Sturridge set up Wayne Rooney to finally tap in his first ever World Cup goal after 760 barren minutes on the biggest stage of all. But it was to be a largely isolated incident as the likes of Egidio Arevalo Rios and Alvaro Gonzalez cut off the supply at source.

The enemy within

Uruguay’s goalscoring hero, of course, has recently been voted by his peers and the press as the top performer in the self proclaimed “best league in the world”. All 14 players who represented England in Sao Paulo are also Premier League stars and yet the maxim “the better the devil you know” does not seem to apply to them, while the foreign imports certainly seem to subscribe to the notion that familiarity breeds contempt.

This is the sixth World Cup match in which an English based player has scored against his adopted country (there are no prizes but try to guess the others) and England have never won a single one of those ties. FA Chairman Greg Dyke’s belief that the premier league’s cosmopolitan nature is stifling the national side will strengthen after this latest capitulation.

But does anyone genuinely believe that country will ever again come before club in English football?

Time to say goodbye?

Just about everyone who attended Fabio Capello’s final media conference of the last World Cup campaign came away with the feeling that an era had ended and that this was the time to take risks and look ahead into the future.

The coach had to go, as did many of his senior players, in order for England’s national team to evolve as other nations already had. None of which happened of course.

This time I detect a genuine feeling that the nation believes Hodgson deserves to survive (as do I) – but only as the custodian of a new generation. We must say farewell and thank you to Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Phil Jagielka, James Milner, Rickie Lambert, Ben Foster and possibly even Wayne Rooney.

The time has come for a team built around Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, aided and abetted by Luke Shaw, John Stones, Jon Flanagan and Saido Berahino. With the expansion of Euro 2016 into a 24-team tournament you would expect even a new breed of England players to qualify and even if they failed it would be a price worth paying if it meant they came back stronger for the 2018 World cup.

How many more nights like the one in Sao Paulo can we really take?

Uruguay Preview

The Players

Fernando Muslera goalkeeper, Galatasaray

Diego Lugano (captain) defender, West Bromwich Albion

Diego Godín defender, Atlético Madrid

Jorge Fucile defender, Porto

Walter Gargano midfielder, Parma

Álvaro Pereira midfielder, São Paulo

Cristian Rodríguez midfielder, Atlético Madrid

Abel Hernández forward, Palermo

Luis Suárez forward, Liverpool

10 Diego Forlán forward, Cerezo Osaka

11 Christian Stuani forward, Espanyol

12 Rodrigo Muñoz goalkeeper, Libertad

13 José María Giménez defender, Atlético Madrid

14 Nicolás Lodeiro midfielder, Botafogo

15 Diego Pérez midfielder, Bologna

16 Maxi Pereira defender, Benfica

17 Egidio Arévalo Ríos midfielder, Morelia

18 Gastón Ramírez midfielder, Southampton

19 Sebastián Coates defender, Liverpool

20 Álvaro González midfielder, Lazio

21 Edinson Cavani forward, Paris Saint-Germain

22 Martín Cáceres defender, Juventus

23 Martín Silva goalkeeper, Vasco da Gama

Star man

Edinson Cavani celebrates scoring for Uruguay against Venezuela

One is tempted to say Edinson Cavani and save you know who for the bad boy category below but the truth is Suárez may be a horrible person but he is a magnificently skilful, artful and clever player, with 39 goals from 76 caps. Cavani is however likely to take on greater prominence as Luis Suárez fights for fitness, Edinson Cavani is a card-carrying A-lister anyway. Quick and physically strong, he is a potent finisher, who exists to score goals, according to his team-mates. His numbers at Paris Saint-Germain after his £55m mega-move from Napoli were impressive – 22 goals in 34 starts in all competitions – even if there was the suspicion that he was not always entirely happy at the club.

Most likely to be sent home in disgrace
Racially abusing an opponent, twice biting an opponent, agitating behind the scenes and with opportune leaks to newspapers for transfers away from clubs who have done nothing but stand up for him. Guess who?

The Coach

Óscar Wáshington Tabárez, ‘El Maestro’, loved by pragmatists and pseuds alike, is seven years into his second spell with the national team and has been successful with his rejuvenation, reviving the gritty spirit of Uruguayan football for a generation of stellar products of the youth system, reaching the semi-finals in 2010 and winning the Copa America a year later.

Grudge match

Uruguayans look on Argentina as one might do a bullying older brother and any opportunity to bloody their knees is eagerly taken. There is a rich history to the rivalry. Behind England v Scotland, it is the oldest international on the calendar and, until Brazil won the 1958 World Cup, it was Uruguay and Argentina who dominated South American football. They share borders, a language and plenty of cultural stuff and, when they collide, the intensity burns. They do, however, tend to root for each other on the global stage, particularly when one of them plays a big European nation. So exactly like England and Scotland, then …

Holed up

The JN Resort in Sete Lagoas, Belo Horizonte is heavy on luxuries and corporate mod-cons. It even boasts party spaces for that special event, including The Paradise Room, The Privilege Room and The Hairy-Arsed Defenders’ Room.

How they qualified
Fifth in their regional group, missing out on an automatic spot to Ecuador on goal difference, losing five times in 16 games despite Luis Suárez’s 11 goals. They rallied superbly to marmalise Jordan 5-0 in Amman in the intercontinental play-off and lit their cigars for a 0-0 stroll in the second leg.

World Cup high
Won the first tournament in 1930, though only needed four games to do so, then memorably pooped Brazil’s party in 1950 by winning again. There was no final that year only a four team group which Brazil needed a point to win and Uruguay a victory, which they duly achieved, winning 2-1 from 1-0 down with 25 minutes to play in front of 199,000 home fans in the Maracana.

World Cup low
Given their history of rugged play it would not seem like a low to them but their bone-shuddering assault on Scotland in 1986 was disgraceful.

Familiar faces
Diego Lugano (West Bromwich Albion), Gastón Ramirez (Southampton), Suárez (Liverpool).

Title odds: 28/1

The stereotype is … 
Grim-faced assassins with skill who will do anything to win. If you want to fight, they’ll fight you. If you want to play, they’ll fight you, then play you.

The reality is … 
With a front three of Cavani, Suárez and Diego Forlan they possess formidable attacking power but lack midfield ingenuity and the pace at the back to cope with serious flyers.

What they’re known for?
Fray Bentos 41 per cent
Birds 26 per cent
Graff Spree 18 per cent
Blueberries 15 per cent

How Google translates the national anthem
Liberty, East Liberty! This cry to the Homeland saved. That their braves in fierce battles from sublime enthusiasm inflamed.

The longest in the world, swooping and soaring operatically for 4 min 55 sec. The music is so perfectly Italian the words being in Spanish come as a surprise.

How to dress like their fans

Sky blue shirts, the usual faces daubed up as flags, comedy top hats with proudly, beaming sun emblems, the kind you would see on T-shirts at 5am in a Hampshire field during a Sunrise rave in 1989.

Commentator’s go-to stat
In 2010 Uruguay overtook bitter rivals Argentina after a 40-year reign as the highest per capita global beef consumers at 58.2kg per person each year.