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Two Losses

Many declarations have been made of the influence The Everly Brothers had on the development of popular music in the second half of the twentieth century. Their harmonies were certainly distinct. I was sad to hear of Phil’s death.

Also a bit of blow was the news about Eusébio; not only a great footballer who almost single-handedly and with what seemed like force of will brought Portugal through to the semi-final of the 1966 World Cup after being 3-0 down in the quarters, but also a gentleman.

The world feels a smaller place now.

The Everly Brothers: When Will I Be Loved (from 1959)

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira: 25/1/1942 – 5/1/2014.

Phillip ‘Phil’ Everly: 9/1/1939-3/1/2014.

So it goes.

Serial Delusion South of the Border

In Thursday’s Guardian, Owen Gibson (in an article titled “Dyke sees remedy for Hodgson’s headaches” on page 42 of the print edition) said, “With the odd exception (1990, 1996, 2004) the [England] national side has consistently underperformed since 1966.”

Oh dear. Not again.

Would a more realistic way to look at this statistic not be to suggest that actually in those four years cited (out of a total of 24 opportunities) that the England team actually surpassed itself and otherwise played for the most part as might be expected?

It would only be on those occasions that England failed to qualify for a major championship finals that the team could be said to have “underperformed.”

(On this note it can now be seen that Scotland consistently overperformed on all those occasions between 1970 and 1998 when reaching the finals competition was achieved.)

Scotland 0-2 Belgium

FIFA World Cup Qualifier: Europe, Group A, Hampden Park, 6/9/13.

Nobody really expected Scotland to get a result out of this and so it transpired.

I only saw the highlights and it looked as if Belgium did not have to reach top gear. Even so, Scotland did well to restrict them to as few attempts on goal as they got.

Belgium are an impressive side. Whether they are impressive enough to go all the way in Brazil next year is another matter.

Bottom of the group again. With only two games left we really need a win on Tuesday in Macedonia to have any hope of avoiding that spot at the end of the qualifiers.

England 3-2 Scotland Versus Writers’ Bloc

International Friendly, Wembley Stadium, 14/8/13

I didn’t see this as I was attending Sterne und Autobahnen* last night (see last post but one.)

By all accounts there were signs of promise.

I’d like to think, though, that in a European Championship or World Cup qualifier away from home we would not twice lose a lead. This is Scotland however: it will most certainly happen.

*The Writers’ Bloc gig went well, John Lemke’s and Poppy Ackroyd’s music – thoroughly modern for the most part, not my usual listening – was good and expertly performed, the story to accompany it entertained and was well read. The good lady and I may even have got a taste for tripping to Edinburgh for an evening.

The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper by Jonathan Wilson

Orion, 2012, 351 p

If football is symbolic, if the ball is a substitute sun requiring to be buried (in the goal) to ensure fertility, what then are we to make of the one player in the team whose primary object is to prevent that desirable consummation? Such is the question with which Wilson starts his history of the goalkeeper, who in this context can be seen as the outsider, an anti-footballer.

While not denying the goalkeeper’s essential difference I immediately started thinking, what about the stopper centre half, the holding midfielder, the midfield destroyer? Aren’t their roles equally anti-football in that sense? Of course these players may advance into the opponents’ half, even score the odd goal or two, but the goalkeeper generally isn’t expected/permitted even to do that. Except what, then, to make of the Paraguayan great, Jose Luis Chilavert, who took penalties and free-kicks and scored 62 goals, 8 of them for Paraguay and all while playing as a goalkeeper? (Brazil’s Rogério Ceni has since overtaken Chilavert as the highest scoring keeper.) The South American attitude to goalkeepers has tended to be less restrictive, though. In Europe keepers generally only charge upfield in desperate circumstances.

In any case Wilson’s title partly goes against the thrust of the history. When football was first codified it started with all players able to handle the ball in certain circumstances. That dispensation quickly became restricted to the designated one, who was detached from the team – and made to stand out by virtue of wearing a different coloured jersey/shirt. A gradual process of goalkeepers playing beyond the penalty area – the change of rules in 1912 which forbade handling outside the box (up till then they had been allowed to anywhere in their own half) delayed this process – by intervening with their feet or initiating attacks has reduced this difference. Arguably the keeper’s reintegration into the team was finally more or less institutionalised by the back pass rule. (Even before that, though, the custodian was not totally estranged, was a vital component of retaining possession. I remember reading elsewhere that Liverpool’s long domination of the European Cup was predicated on passing the ball back to Bruce Grobbelaar as much as possible during away legs. The sweeper-keeper had evolved even prior to this, though.) In Jose Luis Chilavert’s case the reintegration of keeper with team was surely at its most complete.

Wilson mentions that the first ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’ was Dumbarton’s James McAulay. Another Sons keeper to be mentioned in the text is Joshua Wilkinson, whose father was convinced his death from peritonitis in 1921 was due to a blow he’d received in a game against Rangers the previous Saturday.

In the very early days it had been almost open season on goalkeepers. The famous William ‘Fatty’ Foulke – reputedly 28st (179 kilograms) when he played for Chelsea – often took his revenge on physical forwards, turning them upside down and depositing them on their heads. Despite the obvious dangers – Celtic’s John Thomson (to whom a section of Kirkcaldy’s newly refurbished museum is dedicated – he came from nearby Cardenden – there was also a tribute to him there before the modernisation) received an accidental but fatal knee to the head in 1931 also against Rangers; Sunderland’s Jim Thorpe died in 1936 after several blows in a physical game in 1936 prompted a reccurence of a diabetic condition – it was not until after Bert Trautman’s broken neck and several other injuries to keepers in FA Cup finals in the 1950s, though, that British goalkeepers began to receive extended protection from referees.

Goalkeeping is not, in the end, a simple business. He/she is not necessarily only a shot stopper; there is a difference between the reactive keeper and the proactive. The former expects to make saves (spectacular or mundane) the latter’s best game is the one in which she/he has no saves to make at all, because the way he/she has organised the defence ensures, in an ideal world, that no danger occurs.

There are even national differences in approach. Both Brazilian and Italian defences tend to play deeply and so breed reactive keepers. In other countries a higher line is adopted, a goalkeeper’s play has to be more attuned to that. In Russia, Soviet Russia in particular, goalkeepers have been the subject of a reverence that borders on love.

Africa is represented here by the Cameroonians Tommy Nkono (who inspired Gianluigi Buffon) and Joseph-Antoine Bell, the Spanish, German, Italian, English, Brazilian, Scottish and US traditions are covered in detail. From Asia only Ali Al-Habsi gets a mention and that in passing. Oceanian custodians escape Wilson’s purview completely. Maybe no notable keepers have as yet been bred there.

So many great goalkeepers seem to have had unfortunate debuts, on the end of drubbings of various sorts. What distinguishes them all is that they are liable to be remembered, their careers defined, not for their great performances but for one, or – in the case of David Seaman – two mistakes. (My abiding memory of Ray Clemence is of him allowing a soft one from Kenny Dalglish to evade him in a Scotland-England game at Hampden. Proof if any were needed that there is no national tendency to persistently outstanding goalkeeping.) Poor Moacyr Barbosa of Bazil was forever blighted by conceding the winning goal in the 1950 World Cup final. In 1970 a woman in a shop said to her young son, “Look! There’s the man who made all Brazil cry.” Barbosa himself later complained that in Brazil, “the maximum sentence is 30 years. My imprisonment has been for 50.” That loss to Uruguay was perhaps, though, the single most traumatic moment in Brazil’s history as a nation. It was only founded in 1889 and has never fought a war. Brazilians apparently are not really football fans. It is winning they like.

Wilson makes the point that the existence of a highly proficient one or two goalkeepers from one country at one time is not evidence of strength in depth, nor any guarantee of continued excellence. The apparent decline of English goalkeeping is a case in point.

The author certainly knows his football history – there is even a digression into the treatments of the sport in literature and film, most of which lean heavily on the goalkeeper; a further nice touch is that the book’s back cover is decorated with a “1” – and he thinks deeply about the game. Having read the book I’ll observe goalkeeping in a different light.

One final note. Even if a book is about football it might be thought a touch insensitive to describe the Spanish Civil War as “perhaps the clásico to end them all” – even more insensitive when Wilson observes that Real Madrid didn’t become Franco’s team till the 1940s.

Brazil 3-0 Spain

FIFA Confederations Cup, Final, Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, 30/6/13

Seemingly Brazil don’t do competitive defeats at home. Their last was 38 years ago, and that was the only one in the past 50 years. They have only ever lost twice in a competitive game at the Maracana (whose official name I’ve now learned is the Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho.)

As in the semi-final Spain were most unSpain like. This could be due to the fact that both Italy and Brazil got at them. I note here that even if Big Phil did not send Brazil out deliberately to play the early ball over the top David Luiz had certainly noticed the Spanish vulnerability. It was his crossfield pass that led to Brazil’s first goal.

It was strange to see Spain out-hustled for two games in a row. Hustling is one of their strengths. But Italy and Brazil didn’t allow them time on the ball nor space to pass it.

Spain had their chances but the combination of a David Luiz goal line clearance and a Julio Cesar in great form frustrated them.

Fred’s second early in the second half killed the game. Iker Casillas showed here why Jose Mourinho may have preferred Diego López latterly.

Talking about goalkeepers falling from their absolute best Gianluigi Buffon in the semi seemed to have recovered from Italy’s defensive horrors in the group games but looked a bit iffy again in the third place match.

Brazil don’t lose competitive matches at home?

Well, they’re still haunted by the loss to Uruguay at the Maracanã in the last game of the 1950 World Cup. They still will be when next year’s tournament comes round.

Confederations Cup 2013

This year’s tournament has been very watchable stuff, even if the games involving Tahiti were total mismatches.

Italy have been strange; leaking goals in the group games was very unlike them. They reverted to defensive type in the semi-final against Spain, though, except they seemed to adopt that most un-Azzurri tactic, the ball over the top. An un-Italian inability to convert chances scuppered them in the end. I wonder if Brazil will try the ball over the top in the final. It caught Spain out a few times, confirming the sense that the Spanish are get-at-able at the back.

Nigeria look to have the nucleus of a side for the future; get themselves a clinical finisher and they’ll be there.

I was surprised that Japan ended up with no points. They were excellent but allowed themselves to be caught out. Given a good draw in next year’s World Cup they could go deep into that competition.

Brazil aren’t the full article yet either but Neymar is a player (even if he falls over too easily.)

And what a transformation for Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani from the group games – when he looked lost – to the semi-final, where he was influential all over the pitch.

(The final will probably be a let down now.)

Croatia 0-1 Scotland

FIFA World Cup Qualifier: Europe, Group A. Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, 7/6/13

This just shows how unpredictable football can be. Most people (including apparently Croatia’€™s manager and at least one of his players) gave Scotland not a hope. I wasn’€™t too hopeful myself. Then again Scotland quite often do this sort of thing in this sort of situation. But this was more of a triumph for organisation, determination and application. And, despite a couple of scares, a surprising absence of shooting ourself in the foot.

We had one chance and took it. Croatia had a couple of chances – one glaring miss when the guy only had to chip into an almost open goal. That’s football.

True, Croatia didn’€™t play well but perhaps we didn’€™t let them. Keep it up, lads.

Scotland 1-2 Wales

FIFA World Cup Qualifier: Europe, Group A. Hampden Park, 22/3/13.

Wretched. That’s the only way to describe Scotland’s opening to this game. Misplaced passes galore – and in the worst area of the field to commit that footballing crime.

And yet we went in one up. From a set piece obviously. (Nicely taken by Grant Hanley as it was.)

Then it was suicide in the second half as Robert Snodgrass over-committed in the penalty box and the side couldn’t reorganise quickly enough after his sending off and the loss of the first goal.

No new manager bounce.

It is becoming increasingly obvious we just no longer have the players to compete for qualification places in World Cup and European Championship groups.

Belgium 2-0 Scotland

FIFA World Cup Qualifier: Europe, Group A. King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels. 16/10/12.

So. No miracle in Belgium then.

Given the calibre of their players it was always unlikely.

Given the calibre of ours I doubt a change of manager will make much difference.

Bottom of the group is pretty poor stuff though.

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