39. Bad Santi

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Remembering Dani Jarque – One Year On

On August 8, 2009, the  footballing world was in shock after the death of Espanyol captain Dani Jarque.

Dani Jarque: Gone but not forgotten

The 26-year-old had been given the captaincy of his hometown club – with whom he had spent his entire career – just one month before suffering a heart attack while in Italy on Espanyol’s pre-season tour.

The news came with the death of Spanish international left-back Antonio Puerta still fresh in the mind of the nation’s football community, the Sevilla defender having died in hospital on August 2007, days after collapsing during a Primera Liga match against Getafe.

And Ruben de la Red, who like Jarque and Puerta before him has represented Inaki Saez’s under-21 squad, suffered a heart scare in October 2008. The Real Madrid midfielder has been out of the game since, with no date scheduled for his return.

Antonio Puerta: Sorely missed

It is good to know that neither Jarque nor Puerta has been forgotten, and fitting tributes have been paid to the former on the pitch. Last season Cesc Fabregas marked a goal for Arsenal against Everton by holding aloft an shirt bearing the name Jarque and the number 21, while Andres Iniesta celebrated his World Cup winning goal by removing his shirt to reveal the message “Dani Jarque:  Siempre con Nosotros” (“Dani Jarque: Always with Us”). It is worth also noting that Puerta’s former Sevilla team-mates Jesus Navas and Sergio Ramos were prepared to display similar messages in memory of the former Spanish international.

Considering the overriding hostility of the World Cup final, it seems almost insulting for the rules to have demanded Howard Webb show Iniesta a yellow card for his actions. There was a former fierce opponent at club level (Iniesta of course plays for Espanyol’s local rivals Barcelona) demonstrating that some things are more important than football.

Last week I asked you to take a minute to remember Adam Stansfield, the Exeter City striker who lost his battle with cancer. This week I want to emphasise that a year or more after their death, football players are still remembered for their contribution to the game.

I leave you with this moving tribute, recalling the impact Jarque had not just on Espanyol, but on football as a whole.

A world cup to forget?

I hope you haven’t forgotten about the World Cup just yet – I know I haven’t. Last week I presented my team of the tournament, and now I will bring you a team of players who disappointed during the tournament.

While my team of the tournament used the much-lauded 4-2-3-1 formation, the nature of this team leads me to use the 4-4-2 which many(perhaps prematurely) now feel has had its day.

Goalkeeper – Robert Green (England)

Club: West Ham United. 11 caps (0 goals)

It may seem unduly harsh to select a goalkeeper who only made one mistake, but Green’s error is thought by many to have set the tone for England’s poor World Cup performance.

In a tournament where many ‘keepers were remembered for their impressive stops, individual mistakes stand out more than ever. This is especially true when – as was the case with Green – the individual in question is not given time to atone for his mistake.

With David James moving ever closer to retirement, both England and West Ham will hope the former Norwich shot-stopper recovers from the media scapegoating to reassert himself as first choice for club and country.

Right-back – Jonas Gutierrez (Argentina)

Club: Newcastle United. 19 caps (1 goal)

Just as fans of West Ham United gasped in shock when their right-back Lionel Scaloni kept former Argentina captain Javier Zanetti out of his country’s World Cup squad in 2006, Newcastle fans will have been surprised to see Gutierrez take Zanetti’s place this time around.

This is not merely because Newcastle had played the previous season in English football’s second tier – Gutierrez was signed with the club in the Premier League and was clearly too good for the division below. Rather the surprised glances came because the player known as ‘Spiderman’ had made his name as a winger, not a right-back.

The supposedly versatile 27-year-old was found out in the opener against Nigeria, and by the time his country’s final group game came around he had been replaced by the lumbering and one-dimensional Nicolas Otamendi. Given the way in which Otamendi himself was destroyed by a fluid German attack, Diego Maradona will surely be ruing the decision not to include a natural right-back in his squad.

Left-back – Patrice Evra (France)

Club: Manchester United. 32 caps (0 goals)

While France may have made hard work of qualifying for the tournament, they were still expected to cruise through a relatively easy group.

It is common knowledge that a lack of leadership – rather than a paucity of talent – is often responsible for Les Bleus struggles, but the quiet and understated Evra was supposed to provide a calming influence as captain.

Few could have predicted what would follow. Two games and one much-publicised clash with a fitness coach later, and Evra was stripped of both the captaincy and his place in the team. There have since been suggestions that the defeat against Mexico will prove to be Evra’s last game for his country, with former stars including 1998 World Cup Winner Lilian Thuram calling for him to be dropped indefinitely.

Centre-back – Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

Club: Al-Ahli. 136 caps (2 goals)

Yes, the clues were there before the tournament began. Cannavaro’s decision to move to the United Arab Emirates suggested – at the age of 36 – the former Juventus captain felt he was no longer up to playing in Europe’s top leagues.

But few could have predicted the ignominy of his, and Italy’s campaign. Despite being more than matched in the opener against Paraguay, fans still expected the Azzurri to bounce back, as they have done many times before.

An embarrassing draw with New Zealand, during which Cannavaro was hopelessly exposed for Shane Smeltz’s goal, was the antipasti. What followed put to shame the defensive solidity on which the country’s success has been founded. The 3-2 defeat against an uninspiring Slovakian outfit may well go down as the moment at which Cannavaro – and the class of ’06 in general – were forced to give way to a younger and hungrier breed.

Centre-back – Simon Kjær (Denmark)

Club: Wolfsburg. 11 caps (0 goals)

How do you go from being one of the hottest defensive properties in world football to making an uninspiring move to a Europa League side? Well, why don’t you ask Simon Kjær – he should have the answer.

Just months after being sweet-talked by Sir Alex Ferguson in advance of a potential move to Manchester, the Danish defender is packing his bags for Wolfsburg.

The former Palermo man was hardly helped by an error-prone Danish defence, but he did nothing to suggest he had the solidity or leadership qualities required to succeed at the highest level, although – as you and I well know – one tournament rarely tells the whole story.

Right-midfield – Franck Ribéry (France)

Club: Bayern Munich. 48 caps (7 goals)

At this World Cup, the stage was set for Franck Ribéry to finish a disappointing season on the highest of high notes. Not disappointing on the pitch, although Bayern’s domestic double was achieved largely in spite of the French winger, but disappointing in a personal sense.

His achievements at club and international level were first blighted by a knee injury, and then by a prostitution scandal which rocked the French football scene.

International team-mate Karim Benzema had a similarly frustrating 12 months, but while the Real Madrid striker was left out of the World Cup squad – allowing him to take time out to confront his troubles – Ribéry had no escape. His abject performances in South Africa suggested one or more of these issues were still playing on his mind, and questions still remain as to whether he will ever be able to recapture his previous form on the pitch.

Left-midfield – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Club: Barcelona. 49 caps (13 goals)

All things considered, Messi didn’t play that badly in the World Cup. He lit up proceedings against South Korea as Diego Maradona’s side destroyed their Asian opponents, and showed some good touches against Mexico in the last 16.

But fans and pundits have come to expect more of the enigmatic Argentine. He netted 47 goals in 53 games for Barcelona this season, including splendid hat-tricks against Arsenal and Valencia.

Yet when the world was watching, he failed to reproduce the same goalscoring form, culminating in his nation’s 4-0 loss at the hands of Germany – a loss which he could do nothing about.

Central midfield – Frank Lampard (England)

Club: Chelsea. 82 caps (20 goals)

Frank Lampard should count himself lucky referee Jorge Larrionda failed to notice his shot crossing the line in England’s loss to Germany. Why? Because now fans will remember his campaign in a more positive light.

Now when asked about Lampard’s performance in years to come, people will mention his disallowed ‘goal’ and not his complete absence in his country’s first three games.

This is not the first time the midfielder – almost untouchable at club level – has failed to perform on the world stage. It seems he is so used to being the focal point of the side at Chelsea that he has forgotten how to work for his team-mates.

No doubt he will become a world-beater again when he returns to Chelsea for the new season, free from the shackles of significant responsibility.

Central midfield – Steven Pienaar (South Africa)

Club: Everton. 51 caps (2 goals)

If the host nation South Africa had any hope of reaching the last 16, they would need their most famous footballing expert to pull the strings right from the get-go.

Sadly for them, Pienaar never really got out of first gear, and as a result South Africa lacked the creative spark needed to separate them from the other teams in group A.

While the opening draw with Mexico and the narrow victory against a French side in total disarray gave fans of the Bafana Bafana something to shout about, hard graft and enthusiasm will only get you so far. With Pienaar unable to impose his nous and footballing intelligence on the game, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side got about as far as they could.

Striker – Wayne Rooney (England)

Club: Manchester United. 64 caps (25 goals)

Those making excuses for England’s poor performance at the World Cup have blamed the arduous Premier League season. However that is only part of the story as far as Wayne Rooney is concerned.

Rooney’s injury problems have been well documented, and many England supporters were relieved when he picked up a knock a few months before the start of the tournament.

Unfortunately, far from getting the much-needed rest enjoyed by the likes of Arjen Robben, Rooney was forced back into action far sooner than Fabio Capello would have liked. Still, with his team-mates offering little in the way of service, there is no guarantee that a fully-fit Rooney could have done any better.

Striker – Fernando Torres (Spain)

Club: Liverpool. 80 caps (24 goals)

Never before can I remember a striker featuring in every game for a World Cup winning country and having less of an impact.

Torres looked out of his depth, failing to score and failing to complete a full 90 minutes at any stage of the tournament. While his team-mates brushed aside their opposition en route to winning the World Cup, the Liverpool man was barely an afterthought in discussions of their success.

And just to cap it all, he picked up an injury in the closing stages of the final which will put a dent in his preparations for the new campaign.

Substitutes:

Fawzi Chaouchi (Algeria, goalkeeper) – Gaffe in opener against Slovenia effectively sealed his country’s fate

Glen Johnson (England, right-back) – Horribly exposed in defeat against Germany, ordinary going forward and absent at the back

Nemanja Vidic (Serbia, centre-back) – Far from his normal imposing self, gifted Germany a penalty in Serbia’s only win

Jean Makoun (Cameroon, central midfield) – Failed to impose himself after an impressive season for Lyon

Kaka (Brazil, attacking midfield) – Allowed himself to be bullied by opponents too easily, although his red card against Cote d’Ivoire was harsh

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, winger) – Victim of an overly-defensive set-up from manager Carlos Queiroz

Vincenzo Iaquinta (Italy, striker) – Static and lumbering, should have been replaced by Fabio Quagliarella far sooner.

World Cup 2010 – Team of the Tournament

It has been a tough task picking a team of the tournament for this World Cup. For all the talk of defensive tactics ruling the day, I was strangely spoilt for choice when it came to attacking players.

In keeping with the spirit of the tournament, I have decided to go with the 4-2-3-1 formation which has served many countries so well. I am sure you will disagree with some of my choices, so please let me know who would make your XI.

Goalkeeper – Diego Benaglio (Switzerland)

Club: Wolfsburg. 30 caps (0 goals)

Yes, before you point it out to me, I know Switzerland didn’t make it past the group stage. That was not for want of trying though, and Benaglio did everything in his power to see his side escape a tricky group.

He was the only goalkeeper to stop champions Spain from scoring, while he was comfortable against Honduras and gave his country every chance of pulling off an impressive draw with 10 men against a Chile side who recorded 19 shots on goal.

While he only played three games, Benaglio undoubtedly made his mark on this year’s World Cup.

Right-back – Sergio Ramos (Spain)

Club: Real Madrid. 67 caps (5 goals)

In a tournament where many right-backs have flourished, Ramos still managed to stand out.

While Philipp Lahm caught the eye with his leadership and defensive strength, and Maicon thrilled fans with his attacking exploits, the Real Madrid man showed he has the complete package.

Getting forward well without neglecting his defensive duties, Ramos was an integral part of a side which cruised to four successive one-nil victories in the knockout stages. He has certainly come a long way from the naive teenager who starred intermittently for Sevilla in the early 2000s.

Left-back – Fabio Coentrão (Portugal)

Club: Benfica. 8 caps (0 goals)

In a Portuguese team full of stars like Ronaldo, Carvalho and Simão, little was expected of the young Benfica left-back.

A converted winger, Coentrão emerged as one of the stars of the tournament in a strangely defensive Selecção side.

He never once looked overawed, even in the face of some of the best right-sided players in world football. Maicon, Gervinho and Iniesta all pitted their wits against the 22-year-old, but their efforts reaped little reward.

Centre-back – Antolin Alcaraz (Paraguay)

Club: Wigan Athletic. 10 caps (1 goal)

Managers Europe-wide may feel they have missed a trick in allowing Alcaraz to join Wigan on the cheap just before the World Cup.

A late-bloomer, the former Club Brugge man only made his international debut at the age of 26. Nevertheless, he looked imperious alongside captain Paulo da Silva as Paraguay cruised through a potentially-tricky group.

Latics boss Roberto Martinez must be looking forward to seeing how Alcaraz adapts to the Premier League. If this tournament is anything to go by, he should go some way to shoring up a defence which shipped 79 goals last season.

Centre-back – Diego Lugano (Uruguay)

Club: Fenerbahçe. 47 caps (4 goals)

Known in Turkey for his uncompromising style, the Uruguayan captain showed in this tournament that there is a lot more to his game than merely kicking opponents.

Dealing excellently with dangerous strikers Nicolas Anelka and Guille Franco, in the group stage, the Fenerbahçe man was sorely missed after suffering a knee injury against Ghana.

The stats speak for themselves: Before Lugano’s injury, Uruguay conceded only one goal in nearly 400 minutes of football. In his absence, they let in four in less than two games.

Central midfield – Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)

Club: Bayern München. 81 caps (21 goals)

When Michael Ballack pulled out of the Germany squad on the eve of the tournament, few would have predicted them to make the semi-finals. Even less would have expected them to do so in the style they did.

Much of this is down to the new midfield combination in Jogi Löw’s youthful side. In Ballack’s absence some felt the burden would be too much for ‘Schweini’ to handle, but he has stepped up to the plate…and then some.

Anchoring the midfield to perfection, the Bayern man showed wonderful patience and restraint, affording team-mates Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira the opportunity to play higher up the field. Commentators have often said attack is the best form of defence, but – in Schweinsteiger’s case – defence proved to be the best form of attack.

Central midfield – Xavi (Spain)

Club: Barcelona. 94 caps (8 goals)

While Villa and Iniesta gained the plaudits, Spain would not have been able to win the World Cup without the contribution of the Barça maestro.

Barely putting a foot wrong over the course of the champions’ seven games (no mean feat considering the demanding season he had faced in La Liga), Xavi quietly went about his business, stretching the opposition so his team-mates had space to work their magic.

While Iniesta may have been earmarked as the creative influence in the team, it might be noted that Xavi completed nearly twice as many passes as his club and international team-mate.

Attacking midfield – Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands)

Club: Internazionale. 67 caps (19 goals)

The creative spark in an at-times rustic Dutch side, Sneijder can consider himself unfortunate to have missed out on the Ballon d’Or award.

Picking up where he left off with Inter, the playmaker went into the final with the chance of becoming the first player to win domestic league and cup trophies, the Champions League, World Cup, Ballon d’Or and Golden Boot all within the space of one season.

While team-mates Mark van Bommel, Nigel de Jong (and Demy de Zeeuw, when he was called upon) acted as destroyers, Sneijder was the man who Bert van Marwijk’s side turned to when a breakthrough was needed.

If his first goal against Brazil was fortunate, the same cannot be said of his marvellous through-ball for Arjen Robben’s opener against Slovakia in the second round, and for numerous other passes throughout the tournament. After a poor domestic season for Kaká, Real Madrid must be regretting their decision to let Sneijder leave last summer.

Right-wing – Thomas Müller (Germany)

Club: Bayern München. 8 caps (5 goals)

Of all the coming-of-age stories to emerge at this World Cup, Müller’s is perhaps both the most impressive and the most surprising.

Little over a year ago he was plying his trade in Bayern’s reserve team, and his displays in last season’s Champions League – though full of honesty and hard graft – were largely unremarkable.

Yet now he will return home with the World Cup Golden Boot, after netting his first five goals for Germany in the space of a month, as well as the award for best young player of the tournament.

The secret to his success has been a change in position. At club level he has often ploughed a lone furrow up front, frozen out of the wide positions by star names such as Ribery and Robben. But Germany coach Jogi Löw has sensibly – whether by choice or necessity – deployed the 20-year-old on the right wing.

Müller’s striking instinct and great movement have allowed him to get into goalscoring positions, time after time finding an extra yard of space, and his performance at this World Cup was matched by team-mates Mesut Özil and Miroslav Klose as Löw’s team narrowly missed out on a place in the final.

Left wing – Diego Forlán (Uruguay)

Club: Atlético Madrid. 69 caps (29 goals)

It was a difficult task fitting Forlán into this team, given the free role he has been granted by Uruguay boss Óscar Tabárez. But there was no way I could leave him out.

Another player to have enjoyed a fruitful season before the World Cup, Forlán starred in a Uruguayan side which exceeded all expectations in reaching the semi-finals.

As is often the case with a country’s most high-profile player, the Atlético frontman acted as a real talisman for his country. Doing almost everything, Forlán drifted between the right and left wings, sometimes joining team-mate Luis Suárez in the middle, replicating the role played by Diego Maradona in 1986.

Had his team-mates matched his skill and incisiveness, rather than merely (on the whole) providing effort and commitment, semi-final defeat need not have been the extent of Uruguay’s achievement.

Striker – David Villa (Spain)

Club: Barcelona. 65 caps (43 goals)

In a tournament where many world-class strikers struggled to reach the heights expected of them, Villa showed once again why he is one of the hottest properties in world football.

The striker signed for Barcelona shortly before the tournament started, and on the evidence of this tournament he should have no trouble fitting in with new team-mates Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pedro, Pique and Busquets.

In stark contrast to strike-partner Fernando Torres, Villa got into his stride almost as soon as the tournament began, netting five of his country’s eight goals. In a low-scoring tournament, Villa’s consistency saw Spain through a number of challenging ties on the way to their final triumph.

Substitutes:

Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria, goalkeeper) – pulled off a number of stunning saves, although tournament may be remembered for error against Greece

Philipp Lahm (Germany, right-back) – great leader in the absence of Ballack, gave an inexperienced team the confidence to perform

Gerard Pique (Spain, centre-back) – calm and assured throughout, outshone club team-mate Puyol

Diego Pérez (Uruguay, midfield) – performed the ‘Makelele role’ admirably, seemed never to run out of energy

Mesut Özil (Germany, attacking midfield) – a real bright spark in an underwhelming group stage, goal against Ghana was a real highlight

Arjen Robben (Netherlands, left wing) – appearances were limited by injury, but worried defences whenever he received the ball

Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon, striker) – perhaps a surprising choice, but carried an abysmal Cameroon side. Surely frustrated by team-mates’ lack of industry.

Coentrão

That’s what I’m talking about

I know it is risky to write an article on World Cup talking points ahead of the final, particularly considering Zinedine Zidane’s moment of madness four years ago.

However, in a vain hope that the final will be remembered for footballing reasons alone, I feel now is the time to run through three of the key issues to have arisen over the last month in South Africa.

I just want to add one rider to this article – I shall not be mentioning Vuvuzelas. The debate has been done to death, and I have no reason to bore you any further on the matter. So, without further ado, here are three talking points which have been doing the rounds during the 2010 World Cup.

1. The Jabulani

Don’t get me wrong, I realise in advance of every World Cup we get the inevitable debate about the ball.

Normally we see goalkeepers from all countries getting their excuses in, joined by the occasional manager being disproportionately critical, using hyperbole to express mild dissatisfaction.

But this year I think people may have been within their rights to complain.

I’m not talking about the swerve on the ball, which has become part and parcel of the modern game, particularly now with the regular exploits of players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Keisuke Honda.

Few have tamed the Jabulani as well as Honda

A bigger issue this year has been the overhit passes which have plagued the tournament. It seems as though the shape of the Jabulani is causing it to skid across the turf much quicker than players are accustomed to, taking the sliderule through-ball – often an important weapon – out of many sides’ arsenals.

This has contributed to altogether scrappier play, and has allowed well-organised defenced (such as Algeria’s against England and Switzerland’s against Spain) to flourish.

At the same time, pacy strikers, whose game revolves around such through balls, have struggled to carve out chances. You need look no further than the disappointing campaigns from Torres, Anelka and co for evidence of this.

2. The French débâcle

One of the more embarrassing stories of this World Cup surrounds the very public falling-out between players and staff in the France squad.

Perhaps the whole spectacle was used as a tool to draw attention away from a dismal campaign, beginning with a draw against 10-man Uruguay in arguably the worst game of the tournament (and it had a decent amount of competition) and going downhill from there.

We all know what came next – Nicolas Anelka left the squad in a Keane-esque display of dissatisfaction, while captain Patrice Evra betrayed his calm image by getting into a fight with fitness coach Robert Duverne.

While there is obviously no excusing the behaviour of senior French players, particularly given the example they were expected to set to the millions of fans watching at home, there is a feeling all of this might have been avoided had the French FA parted company with Raymond Domenech sooner.

Many French fans will be happy to see the back of manager Raymond Domenech

Just as Rafa Benitez dined on his 2005 Champions League victory while at Liverpool, Domenech has remained in a job longer than many feel he deserved to, simply on the basis of his country’s performance in the 2006 World Cup.

Even then he was living something of a charmed life, with a strong French side struggling to escape a weak group, before Zidane essentially carried the team through the knockout phases.

Now, I won’t get into the debate over whether Domenech – whose only previous top-flight managerial experience ended in 1993 – is qualified for the job.

Rather I will raise the point that the man once in charge of the France under-21 squad (from which many of his current charges graduated) has been unable to gain the support of his players for the most part. If a team containing Ribery, Evra, Anelka, Malouda and others can go two major competitions without winning a game, it doesn’t take a psychic octopus to work out that something is wrong.

French fans will now hope the appointment of Laurent Blanc as Domenech’s successor marks the beginning of a new, less controversial era. If Blanc can get the best out of the likes of Yoann Gourcuff – as he did when manager at Bordeaux – a French footballing renaissance should not be far away.

3. The new ‘Hand of God’

In the 120th minute of Ghana’s quarter-final against Uruguay, Luis Suarez stuck out a hand to block Dominic Adiyiah’s goalbound effort.

As I’m sure you know, Suarez was sent off, Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty, and Uruguay went through to the semi-finals after a penalty shootout (incidentally, Adiyiah missed the decisive kick).

The furore surrounding Suarez’s actions was immense and well-publicised, yet when Harry Kewell was guilty of the same offence in Ghana’s group game against Australia, not a single word of ill-will was uttered. Could it be that the only reason for the differing reactions is that Gyan scored one of the penalties and missed the other?

The short answer is no.

The long answer? While some will argue Suarez’s actions were no less instinctive than those of Kewell, it is the response of the Ajax striker to which many have taken exception.

Suarez's name will surely go down forever in World Cup folklore

Not only did he irk Ghanaian supporters (not to mention those in other countries) with talk of the hand of God, but he then had the temerity to hound referee Benito Archundia in the third/fourth-place play-off after his free-kick was blocked by a German hand.

It is at least partly a matter of grace, although don’t try telling that to Adiyiah. Had Suarez the humility to admit his act was borne out of instinct, and then show remorse, he would surely have been looked upon with a little more respect. After all, he was punished for the offence, and it is not his fault that Gyan missed from the spot (or that Uruguay won the shootout).

However by revelling in the handball – essentially admitting to cheating to gain an advantage – Suarez has ensured his World Cup will be remembered not for his three goals, but for his one less-than-honourable decision.

Hopefully all gamesmanship will be put to one side tonight, when Holland and Spain run out at the Soccer City stadium. With the world watching, everyone will be hoping the two teams let their football do the talking.

World Cup top 5

Every World Cup, punters make their predictions about which team will win, who will finish top scorer, which teams will be the ‘dark horses’ (has there ever been a more backhanded compliment?) and which young players are the ‘ones to watch.’ In lieu of this, I decided to make some more obvious predictions about the goings-on in South Africa this summer:

1. An unfancied (probably African) team will perform admirably and then get knocked out in unfortunate fashion.

From Gary Lineker ‘earning’ two penalties against Cameroon in 1990, through Ilhan Mansiz’s golden goal to knock out Senegal in 2002, up to Dida’s fortuitous save from John Mensah four years ago, the story always seems to be the same for African sides in the World Cup.

Hoffenheim striker Chinedu Obasi

Commentators too lazy to watch the Africa Cup of Nations (well it is only every two years) will marvel at and patronise the ‘natural athleticism’ of players they have never seen before – players who have been household names in France or Germany for years but unknown quantities in England because Arsenal are yet to express an interest.

My prediction: Nigeria will qualify for the second round, with Chinedu Obasi starring as they give Argentina a run for their money, before a Thierry Henry handball denies them against France.

2. A young Eastern European player will have one good game, be hailed as a star, join Tottenham and see his career take a dive.

The World Cup is renowned as a shop window for Premier League clubs, with Premier League clubs rarely afraid to take a punt on someone on the basis of one or two good games. West Ham famously forgot about Gary Breen’s years of mediocrity when they signed him after his performance against Germany in 2002, while Daniel Amokachi’s form for Everton did not quite match the high standards he set for himself in 1994.

Gary Breen: Master of mediocrity

Of course, of all the managers in England’s top flight, no one likes taking a punt on an unknown quantity more than Harry Redknapp. While perhaps not as frivolous as when he was at West Ham or even at Portsmouth, ‘Arry still isn’t afraid to pay over the odds, shelling out £14million on hit-and-miss striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and £3million on past-his-best right-back Pascal Chimbonda to name but two.

My prediction: Redknapp will plump for Slovenia’s Mišo Brečko after he puts in a couple of good crosses against England and nutmegs Landon Donovan in the game against the USA. After all, you can never have too many right-backs.

3. Holland will look unbeatable in the early rounds before being found out by a wily older manager in the knockout stages

Two years ago, at Euro 2008, Marco van Basten’s Dutch side were unplayable in the group stages, destroying France and Italy without breaking sweat. But then they came undone in the semi-final, outwitted by Guus Hiddink’s Russia.

Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder

Fans of the Oranje will hope new coach Bert van Marwijk has instilled a greater sense of belief and solidity in his troops, and it is certainly true that a number of them – including Internazionale midfielder Wesley Sneijder and Arsenal’s Robin van Persie – have developed as players since that defeat to Russia in Basel two years ago.

My prediction: Holland will win all three group games, before Spain edge past them in the quarter-finals. Pundits will say how much they miss the presence of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

4. A foreign player will become ‘public enemy number one’ in England, probably for something innocuous.

The mild-mannered Diego Simeone, destroyer of hopes and dreams in 1998

Ever since Antonio Rattin threw a wobbly in 1966, England fans have found a foreigner to despise in the aftermath of any World Cup. However, rather than sensibly using Rattin as a benchmark and deciding – actually – some of the more recent offences pale in comparison, many decide the cheek of irking a nation with a minor foul or a wink is worse than murder.

Now don’t get me wrong, Maradona’s handball in 1986 was despicable, and Ronaldo’s wink in 2006 was deplorable, but we don’t half hold a grudge. Such an attitude unfairly draws attention away from the often abysmal performances of our own players, turning us into victims when we should really be blaming ourselves for not doing the job asked of us.

My prediction: The lovable scamp Tim Cahill will nudge Ledley King as a corner is coming over before scoring the goal to knock England out in the second round. Bricks through windows and mildly-racist newspaper headlines will follow.

5. An average player will score a brilliant goal, and proceed to live off it for the rest of his career

This is the one World Cup certainty which I have no problem with. Everyone loves to see a cracking goal, and even an average one is enough if it is the difference between your country making it through their group and them falling at the first hurdle.

Salif Diao has struggled to live up to his early promise

And it is ever so often a journeyman pro or a player who has come out of nowhere who steals the plaudits. Go to any pub in Stoke and you will probably find Salif Diao talking about his goal against Denmark in 2002, while Eder no doubt still roams the beaches of Brazil telling anyone who will listen about the high-point of his uneventful career.

My prediction: New Zealand’s Simon Elliott will score a 35-yard screamer against Paraguay, putting his 12 games for Fulham in the shade.

So, all that is left for me to say is I hope you enjoy the World Cup. It will truly be a tournament like no other. Or maybe a tournament like every other, but with a number of differences so subtle you barely notice them.

And in keeping with my final prediction, I leave you with the 50 best goals ever scored on world football’s grandest stage.