Last time we wrote about Group A, this time we’re writing about Group B, next time it’ll be Group C. Get used to that ‘say what you see’ approach – that’s all you’ll be getting from the pundits next month.
You get all excited when the World Cup comes around, even though there hasn’t been a particularly good or memorable one since they expanded the format to 32 teams. And then you remember that you’re supposed to write about Australia.
To be fair, it’s not a common problem. But then neither is casting Maria in The Sound of Music or whatever it was, and the BBC made a TV show about that. Using my licence fee money.
Such talk of things from years ago that remain sources of irritation to, well, me, leads us back to the subject at hand. In 2006, Australia looked to be gearing up for some dark horse action until they ran into Italy in the round of 16. Or, more precisely, until Italy’s Fabio Grosso ran into Lucas Neill and fell over, earning one of the softer penalties you’ll ever see on Youtube if you type ‘Fabio Grosso gets penalty against Australia in Germany 2006 World Cup’ into the search function.
And that was that for Guus Hiddink’s boys; in 2010 Australia qualified for the third time in their history, going out meekly in the group stages.
Much like the USA, Australia doesn’t appear to give much of a damn for the considerable charms of football (the sporting world’s Scarlett O’Hara, clearly). But that’s slowly changing.
Australia took a leaf from the USA playbook of how to make people like soccer and enticed their own superstar European, albeit while MLS got David Beckham and his amazing ability to be photographed in his underpants, the A-League got Alessandro Del Piero and his amazing ability to be good at football despite being 87. Ish.
Both boosted the media profile of the sport in their respective nations to the extent that the national managers don’t automatically look to Europe for the same players who underperformed in the last tournament.
In fact, Australia manager Ange Postecoglou got the job on the understanding that he’d regenerate the team and focus on youth, so you can probably ignore all the above. Sorry for wasting your time.
Fact remains that the largely inexperienced squad is light on quality and particularly weak at the back; injuries mean that Preston North End’s Bailey Wright has been called up. PNE play in England’s third division, and Wright was 1 of 6 PNE players arrested for alleged match-fixing earlier this year. Wright denies all wrong-doing and we must stress no one’s proved anything to the contrary, but it’s a controversial choice that one suspects would’ve been avoided if Australia had a few more options.
Anyway, you’re stuck on the idea that Australia’s national team consists of those guys you vaguely remember from about 7 years ago – Kewell, Neill, Bresciano, Viduka – and accordingly you’re drinking one of those ‘Aussie’ lagers that’s brewed in the UK. They’re pretty vile, but to be fair so is Australia’s kit.
Juventus steamroller Arturo Vidal faces a race to be fit in time, Gary Medel just got relegated with Cardiff and there’s no place for David Pizzaro, only recently coaxed back in after years of international exile.
But spicy Chile can cause an upset to delicate (continental) European stomachs (Australia ain’t getting out of the group).
Alexis Sanchez in particular will go right through you given half a chance. And while you’re locked in the bathroom wondering where all the toilet paper’s got to, Jorge Sampaoli’s chaps have qualified at your expense.
Or that’s what they’ll be hoping, cruel providence having seen fit to land Chile in a group against the two teams who contested the final of the 2010 World Cup one of which is arguably the finest national team in the history of the game (fuck you Spain).
But then again the Andeans have been in superb form. Since becoming manager a couple of years back, Sampaoli’s team have only lost 3 times (against Peru, Germany and Brazil) in about 15 games, winning most of them. And with their pace and attacking style, Chile is likely to be popular with the neutrals.
Also popular with the neutrals are Chilean red wines (mainly cabernet sauvignon) – consistently good if not top of the table (fitting considering Chile has never won an international tournament but usually gives a good account of itself).
Which is a result for you because it was that or pisco, which probably tastes like it sounds.
The Oranje are the team of choice for the connoisseur, as they have been since Cruyff invented being good at football back in the 1970s.
But don’t let that fool you; the Netherlands is like a small, unruly, but quite charming pet ocelot. She can be skittish but is perfectly friendly if you don’t make any sudden moves or loud noises. I can’t leave her alone you see; poor dear has a habit of pooing in my plimsolls.
I believe it’s some sort of passive-aggressive grief response.
At the last World Cup the Oranje made the final, where they abandoned playing football in favour of kicking Spaniards. They followed that up with a Euro 2012 campaign dogged by rumours that all of the players hated each other even more than is usual for a Dutch team. They fell out, first with each other and then the competition, in the first round, securing a grand total of nul points for their (lack of) efforts.
And they’re not just mentally fragile, with this generation’s more notable players (Sneijder, Van Persie, Robben, Van Der Vaart – accused by former Dutch players of not being good enough to play the Dutch 4-3-3 at Germany in 2006) spending almost as much time on the treatment table as earning their quite astonishing salaries.
As per usual, the Netherlands qualified for this tournament with ease, RSVP-ing the hosts in the resoundingly affirmative.
So there’s the risk of them defecating in one’s brogues and the ever-present suggestion that it’s all just about to collapse like an underbaked soufflé, but like an Alfa Romeo just before its engine falls out they’re a genuine wonder to behold. I’d apologise for mixing so many metaphors (?) but like the average Dutch player I refuse to compromise my beliefs to accommodate other people.
Fans of Nathan Barley might wish to opt for a nice glass of Dutch wine, but for anyone too cool to admit to recognising topical references from the middle of the last decade there are a variety of easily obtainable Dutch lagers. You’ll be wanting something frothy but lightweight and prone to sudden sulky outbursts, possibly involving accusations of racism at Euro 96.
Chocolate aficionados might wish to consider a Cadbury’s flake, even though that’s not Dutch.
Spain Barcelona Spain have one weakness other than having no convincing strikers (apart from possibly the recently naturalised Diego Costa), a goalkeeper/captain (Casillas) who has barely featured for his club in 2014 and a centre back in Sergio Ramos who apparently holds the distinction of having received more red cards by the age of 24 than any other player in the history of Real Madrid.
Yes, yes, best in the world, possibly the best national team in the world ever, triangles, living proof that you can actually field a team that consists entirely of creative attacking midfielders, possession stats, aesthete’s footie; tika-bloody-taka.
You’re morally obligated to like Spain, which is why you’ll say you don’t to encourage a conversation about the relative merits of high (a thousand passes the last of which is into a now empty goal) and low (Cristiano Ronaldo) culture.
During which time you can neck as much rioja as you like. Or if you’re more of a beer person, Estrella, on the basis that it’s Catalan and therefore reflective of the team’s major personnel and tactics.
To be fair, when provoked they have a tendency to prove they’re not boring by decimating Italy in the Euro 2012 final. Also, there’s nothing to dislike about Iniesta.
This one will go the distance, so maybe try some tapas to soak up some of the booze. And try not to get irritated when they get all sanctimonious about virtue and how they play the game the way it’s meant to be played even if half the team isn’t above diving and feigning injury after mythical tackles somewhere in the vicinity of the stadium.
There’s a good soldier.
Next time, as promised, we look at Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan.