Friday, 30 April 2010

Fergie puts Carlo on the couch at United and Chelsea head for Super Sunday MCMXXVIII

JUST in case you thought Sir Alex Ferguson, at 68, is considering the pipe and bright red slippers of retirement, here’s the Manchester United manager’s verbal volley before the vital Liverpool v Chelsea showdown on Sunday.

Desperately needing the ailing Reds to deny the blistering Blues, the greatest living Scotsman reminded the once-mighty Merseysiders of their responsibilities: "Great clubs don't throw traditions away for one game. They've been in 11 European finals and won 18 titles.

"Liverpool fans know that. Do you think they want to go home saying their players capitulated and they didn't try?"

Nothing quite like the psychologically scintillating Fergie in full flow is there? They kick off at Anfield at 1.30pm on what Sky are calling Super Sunday MCMXVIII, and United – with Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand both back in training today - get underway against Sunderland at 4pm.

As favourites Chelsea are a point ahead, Fergie needs his arch-rivals Liverpool to get over their gut-wrenching Europa League semi-final defeat against Atletico Madrid on Thursday. And quick.

Liverpool fans may feel slightly queasy about all this. If their side does nick a point against the leaders on Sunday, it will give United every chance of overhauling Liverpool’s record of 18 League titles, which they currently hold jointly with the Red Devils.

United end their season next week against visiting sacrificial lambs Stoke, Chelsea havegot Wigan to wallop at the Bridge. Neither are expected to slip up on the final day. Whoever tops the table on Sunday night will surely go on to snaffle the Premier League trophy.

But Rafa Benitez, under huge pressure from trophy-seeking fans and coach-seekingJuventus, knows Champions League qualification is still faintly possible. They are two points behind fourth-placed Spurs, who have a game in hand.

In case anybody had missed this point, Sir Alex added: “It is Rafa’s job to prepare his players. It was difficult for me after we lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League but you have to do it. It’s your job. You can't wallow in pit.”

Pure footballing prose of the highest order isn’t it? Wallow it pit? Never! You can just see the Liverpool players bristling at Fergie’s flippancy, leaping out of their beds on Sunday, shouting: "For God! For Liverpool! For Fergie!"

This weekend's Soccer Sabbath bears remarkable similarities to one of Sky’s early Super Sundays (XXVII?) way back in 1995. Then, Liverpool did United a favour – in front of near-silent fans – by beating Blackburn. But United, needing to beat West Ham to snatch the title, didn’t quite live up to their end of the bargain and slipped up too. Rovers won it on a defeat, I can still see Kenny Dalglish’s misery turn to joy when the news filtered through.

The ageless Fergie recalls: "We were depending on Liverpool producing that day - and they did. But there were a lot of English players in their team that day and they understood the history of Liverpool FC.

"But I don't think there has been such a swing that the current players do not understand the history of Liverpool."

What are Chelsea to make of all this? Fergie exhorting Liverpool to tear Chelsea apart while his old mate Steve Bruce, an Old Trafford legend, will be all smiles when hisSunderland trot out against United at the Stadium of Light on Sunday with only mid-table placement to worry about.

Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti, who saw his side hammer Stoke 7-0 last week, was simply not entering into the spirit of Fergie’s psychological warfare. The Italian has lost a SerieA title from a much better position. He has also clinched them from worse. He said: "I think that Sunderland will do their best to beat United and Liverpool will do the same against us.”

Ho-hum. Yawn. Thanks Carlo. How about: “Steve Bruce won’t be able to sleep at night if he doesn’t send Sunderland out with bazookas and body armour”? Do you need a spin doctor or what?

There’s more from careless Carlo, try to stay awake: "We have to pay attention because Liverpool it's very difficult to win at Anfield, but we have to try. With two victories we can be champions, so we have to focus on our game and not think about Sunderland's result."

Talk about the blindingly obvious. If the title was awarded on managerial manipulation,Fergie would win it hands down. But then he normally does.

All of which leaves Liverpool and their fans in something of a quandary. Their goalkeeper Jose Reina grumbled: “I don't play for United, I play for my team and my supporters.

"I don't care what Manchester do. I will play to win so we still have a chance of fourth place. We will try to deliver a last home win of the season."

Personally, I’d be amazed if Chelsea slip up against Liverpool or Wigan. I’d be even more surprised if United don’t take six points from Sunderland and Stoke. Stranger things have happened – and they did back in 1995.

Sit back and enjoy Super Sunday - but if Liverpool score, you might be in for the quietest goal celebration Anfield has witnessed in 15 years.

Woy Hodgson, Fulham Miracle Worker, Future England Boss, My Hero

THE Roy Hodgson story is a simple one. One of those tales which make football the uplifting, addictive substance which grips millions, which brings us here, which sends us out with a lump of leather in the frost, which sends us off to a World Cup in darkest Africa.

At 62, after a lifetime of wandering from England to South Africa, Sweden to Italy, Roy has finally reached a point where he can turn around and say: "I think we've made a major piece of history here today."

This statement was uttered after last night's come-from-behind 2-1 win over Hamburg had put the quaint Cottagers into the Europa League final against Atletico Madrid.

While mighty Liverpool stumbled against the Spaniards at once-impregnable Anfield, Woy's boys came back at creaking Craven Cottage with goals from Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera to cap a campaign which has seen them play 18 games and travel 25,876 miles.

Along the way they have disposed of Italian giants Juventus, the holders Shakhtar Donetsk, German champions Wolfsburg and, semi-finally, Hamburg, who must host the final at their Nordbank Arena on May 12.

While his nation endures a particularly irritating General Election campaign, there can be no doubt that "Woy" (he tends to pronounce his Rs as Ws) would garner more votes than the three bland, public school party leaders between them if he were to stand for Prime Minister on May 5. Tomorrow I'm on Sky News at 11.30am, where I will try to tell a little of the Hodgson story - if the election doesn't intervene as it did last week.

I will tell how this modest left-back from Croydon, born in 1947, has inspired generations in dozens of countries. His full history in management is listed as:

1976–1980 Halmstads (Sweden)

1982 Bristol City (England)

1983–1985 Örebro (Sweden)

1985–1990 Malmö (Sweden)

1990–1992 Neuchâtel Xamax (Switzerland)

1992–1995 Switzerland

1995–1997 Inter Milan (Italy)

1997–1998 Blackburn Rovers (England)

1999 Inter Milan (Italy)

1999–2000 Grasshopper (Switzerland)

2000–2001 Copenhagen (Denmark)

2001 Udinese (Italy)

2002–2004 United Arab Emirates

2004–2005 Viking (Denmark)

2006–2007 Finland

2007–present Fulham

But that doesn't tell the whole story. This helps: Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson this morning revealed Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand are fit for the weekend but had time to add of Hodgson: "It's probably one of the best British performances of all time. I hope they win it now. It's fantastic. I don't know how you place it... one of the best."

And at Wolves, boss Mick McCarthy says simply: "Roy gets my vote as manager of the season. Without any shadow of a doubt."

Then we have former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, now boss of World Cup-bound Ivory Coast, saying: "Will Roy be England manager in the future? Why not? He has done well this season and the last. I think he could be manager of England, but first I hope they win the final!"

What Sven didn't mention is that, as a young Swedish coach in the 70s, he would go down to Malmo to learn from a British duo who miraculously lifted an anonymous club to the European Cup final in 1979, where they lost to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1-0 in Munich. Their names? Manager Bobby Houghton and assistant Roy Hodgson. And they managed it within a year of coaching my first club, Berea Park in Pretoria, South Africa.

And that was where Roy took his first steps on the coaching trail. Signed as a youngster at Crystal Palace, Hodgson never quite made it as a professional and after a journey that included non-league Tonbridge, Gravestone and Maidstone, he turned up to play in the old National Football League in South Africa with his old pal Houghton, who is currently manager of India's national football team.

There, amongst Hodgon's duties as a diligent full-back and sports teacher at Hillview High School, he coached me. Though bullied by the football mums as a quiet, unassuming Englishman, he produced a Northern Transvaal Under 13 side that boxed well above their weight. In a rugby-dominated city, he quietly handed out the skills that make top footballers.

He didn't just teach you to pass, he taught you to bend the ball, both ways. He didn't just teach you to head, he taught you where and when to head. He took a small band of boys out of the hum-drum and made us dream of playing at the top level.

And among their number? Winger Roy Wegerle, who went on to play for Chelsea, QPR, Blackburn, Coventry and the USA. And centre-back Gavin Nebbeling, who turned out for Crystal Palace, Fulham and Preston. And striker Noel Cousins, who went on to become South Africa's most expensive signing when he moved from Arcadia to Moroka Swallows a decade later.

All this means little now, as Hodgson heads for a final knowing the pressure is off, his reputation is finally secure. But even now, he remains modest, refusing to bow to the hype.

As the season ticket holders scramble for one of the 12,650 allocated tickets, he says: "The atmosphere here at Craven Cottage last night was something I think we'll remember for a long time.

"This is what memories are about. When your team produces better football and a better result than we are entitled to ask for. They constantly surprise me.

"To reach a European final is an amazing achievement. We have played 59 games this season, we will end up playing 63 and it would have been easy to lose our heads when they scored.

"It has been a wonderful journey. When I look back on my career, and I hope that won't be soon, I know I will remember my time at Fulham, this night, and many more like it."

So will we Roy. So will we. Now about the Prime Minister's job...

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Victory over Jamaica, but do South Africa have a host of a chance?

WHISPER it, but the World Cup hosts may not be the pushover everybody's expecting in South Africa this summer. Last night, on neutral soil in Germany, the South Africans beat Jamaica 2-0 at Offenbach's Bieberer Berg Stadion—a much-needed triumph over a side 11 places above them in the latest FIFA rankings.

The Rainbow Nation's favourite whipping boys Bafana Bafana (Zulu for "The Boys, The Boys") went ahead after 52 minutes through a goal by the veteran striker Mohlomolleng Surprise Moriri, 30, and the even more experienced Siyabonga Nomvete, 32, added the second goal five minutes from the end.

Neither can expect to start South Africa's first World Cup clash against Mexico at Soccer City on June 11 if controversial West Ham striker Benni McCarthy, also 32 (above), gets the call from his homeland after weeks of speculation.

But last night's performance—without their overseas stars—was certainly an improvement from the lowest-ranked side ever to host a World Cup. Though they have qualified for two World Cups since resuming their FIFA membership in 1992 and won the African Nations Cup in 1995, the South Africans have declined rapidly in recent years.

Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter was expressing his fears earlier in the week after a drab 0-0 draw against fellow qualifiers North Korea over the weekend. He said, "If South Africa go on to play like they did against North Korea they won't qualify for the knock-out stages. No goals, no going forward."

But their fourth win in 16 attempts, and two goals after a considerable drought, raised hope of qualification from Group A, which also includes formidable France and unsung Uruguay.

Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, whose side dropped from 88th to 90th in the FIFA rankings announced this week, purred: "That was much better. I enjoyed the game.

“They never gave us any time to rest throughout the match. I must say that perhaps in the last 12 matches we have played—including Paraguay—this was the most difficult and I appreciate it."

A weakened Jamaica were drafted in at the last moment when China pulled out as friendly opponents for the South Africans, who have been struggling to find worthy opposition on their pre-World Cup tour.

Parreira, who has yet to add overseas stars like Everton's Steven Pienaar, Maccabi Haifa's Tsepo Masilela, Portsmouth's FA Cup finalist Aaron Mokoena, and Fulham's Kagisho Dikgacoi to his squad, added: “My boys were ready for the challenge that was posed by Jamaica and we dealt properly with them, especially in the high balls and dead ball situations in which they are good.

“The game was very tough, but all in all I am happy with the performance of the team. It was much better than the one we put out against North Korea."

The one problem? Midfielder Teko Modise—the popular Orlando Pirates midfielder often linked with a major move to Europe—picked up a wrist injury. As he left the stadium with the limb heavily bandaged, he said, "I think I have a fracture but it still needs to be checked. It is very sore."

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Inter Milan see off Barcelona, and it's a triumph for football over dramatics. Finally.

BARCELONA plunged out of the Champions League last night in a dramatic, frantic clash at the Nou Camp, which saw Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho celebrate like a man possessed.

And little wonder. His side, 3-1 up after the first leg, had held Barcelona to a single goal despite going down to 10 men after less than half an hour. What a night. What an incredible night.

Inter's Wesley Sneijder said: "Yeah, Jose was screaming at the end, it was an emotional moment. We defended so well with 10 men for so long so a big compliment to the team.

"We were compact, we fought for every metre and gave everything and that's what we said to each other before the game. So we go to Madrid. The manager always has a tactic to destroy the opponent."

Inter's Thiago Motta was right all along. What was it he said in the build-up? "I am not worried about the referee, I am worried about the players who complicate the life of the referee. We're used to seeing Barcelona players diving a lot, so we want to help him."

Sadly, the Brazilian's fears proved founded. After 28 minutes of Barca domination Motta, who spent five years with the Catalan giants, was sent off by fussy Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere for pushing a hand into the face of Sergio Busquets (see picture above).

True to form, the Barca man went down like a sack of spuds. He'd fall over if a mouse sneezed, that one.

Motta, already booked, was shown a straight red and looked stunned. Rightly. Then he grabbed Busquets by the neck before being dragged away. Rightly. And Barca coach Jose Mourinho, loudly abused by the Catalan hordes on his arrival at the stadium yesterday, applauded the Barca fans, suggesting they might have had something to do with it. Rightly.

On twitter, Derby County's former Wales international Robbie Savage—who knows a thing or two about red cards—raged, "Shocking decision by the ref, come on Inter!" and even Britain's No. 1 tennis player Andy Murray described it as "maybe the worst decision I have seen in sport this year."

Sadly, incidents like that reduced this clash of the titans to a battle of the divers in typical over-fussy European style, with plenty of handbags being thrown. But fortunately, football triumphed over dramatics and Inter got the result they needed to make it to the final.

At halftime, when Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola was having a word with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho came up and let his feelings be known—with some gusto. In some parts of the world, we'd call that a pep talk. In East London, it would be labelled a right telling off.

But somehow, Inter, 3-1 up after the first-leg, had got to the break at 0-0 with 10 men. Oh, and they also suffered two yellow cards. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar—who made a great first-half save from Lionel Messi—was cautioned for time-wasting after just 34 minutes. Then Christian Chivu joined him in the book for a tackle on Messi—though he clearly got the ball with his sliding challenge.

Mourinho took off striker Gabriel Millito for full-back Maxwell, making his intentions clear as he attempted to end what he called the "obsession" Barca have about reaching the final against Bayern Munich on May 22 at the Bernebeu, home of their arch-rivals, Real Madrid.

But in the BBC commentary box, prophetic former England international Chris Waddle observed: "There's no zip about Barca. Messi looks tired, Xavi hasn't got that bit extra, Ibrahimovic hasn't given anything so far. They've got to go and have a go, get the ball wide, raise the tempo - because they're comfortably going out as it stands."

With two goals needed in the final half-hour, Guardiola did as Waddle had suggested and took off the 6'6" Ibrahimovic, the Inter striker swapped with Samuel Eto'o last season, and brought on Jeffren. Left on the bench? A certain Thierry Henry.

There goes his World Cup then. And deservedly so after "that" handball in the play-off for France against the Irish in Paris.

With Barca's players—Messi prominent among them—diving in the box like it was an 18-yard swimming pool, Inter held on grimly.

And a note for Arsenal fans. Yaya Toure, brother of Kolo, the man who should have signed for the Gunners four years ago, was having a stinker. Every touch was elephantine, and two of his shots hit the corner flag.

But still, Barca had the upper hand, as they had all game. Referee De Bleeckere needed a chat with Mourinho, who responded by taking off Wesley Sneijder—the Dutchman twisted a knee in the first half—and bringing on the temperamental Sulley Muntari, who got out of Portsmouth before it all went belly-up.

Not since AC Milan 20 years ago has a side successfully defended the European Cup. And holders Barcelona could see their chances going up in smoke as the clock hit 70 minutes with no sign of a breakthrough.

They resorted to throwing the ball in for Messi, 5'5", to win the headers. Never going to happen. The side that dismantled Arsenal looked clueless, even when confronted with 10 men. How does Mourinho do it? Psychology? Presence? A little black magic?

There was still time for teenager Bojan Krkic to miss a glorious chance with his head after a delightful cross from the otherwise formless Messi.

Then, with seven minutes to play, centre-back Gerard Piquet produced the moment of the match. Narrowly onside from Xavi's pass, he took the ball down and delayed his shot, preferring to turn like a giant-sized Messi. He coolly beat the veteran Colombian Ivan Cordoba and planted the ball into the net. Not bad for a big defender.

With 100,00 Catalans roaring, we finally had an atmosphere. And still the Barca stars dived. Daniel Alves tried a full-length effort with half-pike after 88 minutes. The ref, mercifully, waved his pleas for a penalty away.

Then, with 90 minutes played, a dubious corner. Defended. Four minutes of injury time. Bojan, in a desperate attempt to make up for his earlier miss, latched on to a chance and slammed in what looked like the winner. Deafening noise. But referee De Bleeckere had spotted a hand from Toure—a slightly unfortunate ball-to-hand, but a hand nevertheless. No goal. Phew.

Seconds left, the referee gives a bizarre bounce-ball to Barca. One final corner. Fluffed. Full-time. Oh how Mourinho loved it! A special triumph for the Special One.

Victor Valdez tried to spoil his finest moment, but Jose was gone. A nutter in the Nou Camp. Incredible. Screaming, hugging, finger-pointing. And then somebody turned the sprinklers on in an effort to spoil the celebration. But it couldn't dampen Jose's joy. He said: "We were a team of heroes. We sweated blood. That defeat was the best result of my life. This was even better than winning the Champions Leagues."

Come back Jose, we miss you.

Who the hell is Neal Collins (nealcol on twitter)? See

Jonjo Shelvey signs for Liverpool... does this mean Steven Gerrard is off in the summer?

Just in: Charlton's 18-year-old Jonjo Shelvey is off to Liverpool for £1.7m. Pretty straightforward on the face of it. Shelvey passed his medical this morning and will officially join the Reds on May 10.

He's played for England U17s and he's a top youngster. The interesting thing is hearing his former captain Matt Holland on TalkSport. He's just said: "Jonjo is a tremendous player. He idolises Stevie Gerrard. He plays like him too, he has all his attributes. He can get up there with the strikers and work back."

Given the rumours about Gerrard at the moment (I would never repeat such nonsense, just hit Google) does this suggest the greatest living Liverpudlian is off in the summer?

Certainly that's gossip. On Saturday the Daily Mail pictured his wife Alex Curran out and about without her wedding ring, though she has denied there are any problems in their marriage.

Still, if Shelvey is the new Gerrard, and with Rafa Benitez linked to Juventus and Real Madrid, it could be all change at Anfield - where Atletico Madrid will fight for their lives in the Europa League semi-final tomorrow.

Of course the owners, American comedy duo Gillett and Hicks, are trying to wriggle out of their Liverpool investment with a profit, but still - curiously - the Shelvey deal has been whisked through.

Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow appears to be the major player in this transfer. He said: "Jonjo is an exciting young England international. His signing is part of our long-term strategic recruitment plan and we all look forward to welcoming him to our training ground at Melwood."

Shelvey, who scored eight goals in his 48 appearances for Charlton, is the youngest player to ever play for their first team, making his debut in 2008 at the tender age of 16 years and 59 days.

The lad from Romford first came to prominence at the Valley in 2007 when he scored 14 goals in 23 appearances for Charlton's Under 18s – including 9 goals during Charlton's FA Youth Cup run.

On 3 January last year, Shelvey became Charlton's youngest-ever goal-scorer, with a strike against Norwich City in the FA Cup, 55 days before his 17th birthday. He also captained England's Under 16s to the Victory Shield in 2008, scoring three goals in three games.

Charlton chairman Richard Murray grieved: "It is with the greatest reluctance that we have accepted an offer for Jonjo from Liverpool. No club likes to lose such a talented prospect, but the overall package is one we couldn't refuse, and one which was very attractive to Jonjo.

"Liverpool are going to develop him over the next few years to be a top player, and I can't think of a better place for him to go to."

Liverpool and Charlton are also in talks about a possible joint development initiative that would see players move in both directions in future.

Aaron Mokoena: Under Presidential Orders to Lift the World Cup (but it would be nice to win the FA Cup too!)

AARON MOKOENA faces the two greatest challenges of his life over the next 44 days – under orders from the President himself to lift the World Cup in Johannesburg on July 11.

Relegated Portsmouth face Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 15 then his beloved South Africa prepare for the World Cup kick-off on home soil on June 11. Only a madman would back the man known as “The Axe” to escape the chop from President Jacob Zuma.

But then this is a man who lived through the downfall of Apartheid, who had to dress as a girl to escape a massacre and perhaps most remarkably of all, inspired Pompey to victory over in-form Spurs in a dramatic FA Cup semi-final upset last month.

Mokoena, raised with a tennis ball at his feet in the dusty streets of the Boipatong township near Johannesburg, is spending any spare time during the most exciting weeks of his life promoting charities and leading campaigns against gun crime. “Mbazo” (literally “The Axe”), is “giving something back”.

Last month, when his amiable, outspoken President Jacob Zuma came over on a state visit, Mokoena (above, left, at Downing Street with his President) cracked an invite with him to Buckingham Palace. He recalls: "The president called me over to the Queen and he said to her: 'You've got to know this man - he is the one who will make sure that South Africa wins the World Cup. He is the captain of the country.'

Was Elizabeth II fazed? Mokoena grins: “Well, the thing is she is well-informed. She obviously knew that the finals were in South Africa and she also knew who I was!”

Perhaps more intimidating than telling England’s sovereign how he intends to tame her Three Lions, is the message from The President himself. Mokoena adds: "President Zuma and I had a discussion. He just got straight to the point and he said to me ‘You have to make sure we win’. He loves football so much. I didn't know but he's a Liverpool fan and he used to play football himself.

“He used to be a captain of a team in the prison with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. But that's exactly what he said to me: 'You've got to make sure that the country wins.'"

Such pressure means little to Mokoena after his formative experiences as a boy in the Boipatong township near Vanderbijlpark, about 50 miles from downtown Johannesburg.

In June 1992, before democracy dawned in the Rainbow Nation, 40 people were massacred in a political attack – backed by police - which saw pregnant women and children murdered on the streets.

Mokoena told The Guardian: "The people were murdered at night. It was awful. We were crying. But then we were told they would come back to kill all the young boys.

“So my mum had to protect me. She dressed me as a girl and we went to the community hall where there was enough protection for people from the township, especially the boys.

"It wasn't an easy upbringing. It was a township and in townships anything is possible. My brothers and sisters really experienced Apartheid while crime-wise it was absolutely bad but I always had the support and protection of my family."

Mokoena also had his studies. "I was an academic boy. I was into mathematics and I loved science. I wanted to study further but, because of football, I couldn't do what I wanted to do."

For that reason he backs the 1GOAL initiative, which aims to get all children into school. He makes the point: "We are talking about 72 million kids worldwide who don't get the chance. Apartheid jeopardised the opportunity for kids in South Africa to be educated. The President and I are trying to change that. It is one thing he wants to leave as his legacy."

Mokoena learnt his trade under the great Jomo Sono with Cosmos in Johannesburg before travelling 5,000 miles to join Bayer Leverkusen and then Ajax in 1999.

After a couple of seasons on loan with Belgian club Germinal Beerschot in Antwerp, he moved to Genk. He played seven games in Holland and around 70 in Belgian before his big break in 2005. A £500,000 move saw the Axe land at Ewood Park, where he joined compatriot Benni McCarthy under Mark Hughes.

After 101 games as something of a cult figure in Lancashire, Mokoena headed for the deep south and Portsmouth last year, where he has earned similar devotion with 29 games in a difficult season at Fratton Park.

The youngest ever South African international – he was capped against Botswana in February 2009 at the tender age of 18 years and 87 days – he has succeeded former Leeds great Lucas Radebe as the Bafana Bafana skipper and at 28, he is South Africa’s most capped player with 99 so far.

Forced to miss Carlos Alberto Parreira’s pre-World Cup tours to Brazil and Germany this month by the demands of Portsmouth’s doomed Premier League campaign, the 100th cap remains on the horizon.

South Africa’s task in June is nearly as daunting as Portsmouth’s this month. The lowest ranked World Cup hosts in history – they are currently 88th in the FIFA list – South Africa kick off the first African World Cup at Soccer City on June 11 againt Mexico, with France and Uruguay to follow.

Unlikely or not, success at the World Cup after the big Wembley day out remains Mokoena’s amibition. Remember, his late, late extra-time winner in the third-round replay at Coventry kicked off the fairy-tale cup run for the Premier League’s bottom club. And his was inspired in the semi-final shocker against Tottenham.

He said: "It's been a fantastic run for us and especially lately, because we know that it's the only thing we had after our points deduction and relegation.

"We need the FA Cup more than anything and there's absolutely a parallel between Portsmouth and South Africa. It's exactly the same. We need the FA Cup more than anything and South Africa need this World Cup more than anything. Hopefully, we can do as well in the World Cup as we have done at Portsmouth in the FA Cup.”

Speaking yesterday to launch a campaign against gun crime, he added: “The debt at Portsmouth? It’s embarrassing. It shows how bad it was. Up and coming players have been involved in this. It’s not good for the game.

“But the Pompey fans kept on going. They are passionate supporters. Every game we played, we were aware of them, the money they pay to watch us play. We rose to that.

“At the moment, we have to sell players to make money. I have a meeting before I can talk about my future at the club.

"I must say it's been tough. But in the semi-final against Tottenham, we showed what character we have. I'm sure a lot of people elsewhere wouldn't have coped with the situation that we've had. The important thing is that there is nothing impossible in life. Do you want to take the easy way out or do you really want to fight it through?"

But of course, as his President might say, the FA Cup final is just a warm up for the real thing. The big thing. Mokoena insists: "We saw what happened at the 2002 finals with South Korea and it can definitely be the same story with us.

"We experienced it last summer when we had the Confederations Cup in South Africa (they reached the semi-finals while Spain and Italy went home early) and I am sure that the atmosphere will be even hotter at the World Cup. People are so over the moon to have the World Cup and we are going to show how much it means to us. The Confederations Cup was a good rehearsal and it's absolutely possible that we can do well at the World Cup.

"I think it's good to be underdogs. I said before the Confederations Cup not to write South Africa off and we surprised people then. I'm going to say exactly the same thing again. Don't write off Bafana Bafana before we've even kicked a ball."

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

So you think England have got World Cup problems... have a look at this little lot!

SO YOU thought England had problems in the build-up to the World Cup. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Cole, a half-built training base, no room at the inn for the wives and girlfriends. Believe it or not, our rivals in South Africa have problems too, and their football writers aren't letting them forget it. With the provisional 30-man squads due to be named by May 11, the rumblings are being felt across the world. Have a look at this little lot with 44 days to go before the big kick-off...


For once the old mantra: “How come the Germans always do well at the World Cup?” is looking dodgy. Anybody who saw their awful 1-0 defeat at Munich against Argentina in March will know they’re not looking their normal efficient selves in the build-up – and they’ve got Australia, Serbia and Ghana to see off in Group D.

Let’s start at the back. Problem No1 – the goalkeeper. With Oliver Kahn retired and Stuttgart's former Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann soon to join him, Arsenal target Rene Adler is their first choice – but he broke a rib this month. The Bayer Leverkusen stopper has returned to training but Schalke's Manuel Neuer and Tim Wiese of Werder Bremen remain on standby.

At centre-back Robert Huth is a contender – but he can hardly be brimming with confidence after recent experiences at Stoke, where he saw seven goals fly past him against his former club Chelsea on Sunday.

In the midfield, Michael Ballack is hardly lighting up Stamford Bridge and his dislike of Germany assistant boss Oliver Bierhoff is public knowledge.

It’s up front they have real problems. Miroslav Klose is struggling for game time at Bayern, while LukasPodolski and Mario Gomez are struggling for goals.

Their form goal-getter, Kevin Kuranyi at Schalke 04, hasn’t played for Joachim Loew since since October 2008, when he walked out at half-time during the German clash with Russia.

Loew is under pressure to forgive Kuranyi, but he may be more concerned about the fact his contract expires on June 30, just before the quarter-finals in South Africa. And the German Federation are showing precious little enthusiasm over a new deal.

Loew says: "The situation is serious. As I have said before, our task must now be to get the players back to top form as quickly as possible. A lot can change in the coming weeks."


Ah, the defending champions. Drawn in Group F alongside Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia, they’ll have no problems getting to the qualifying stages – or will they?

The football-mad Italian press are writing their side off as “Italy’s weakest ever”. Jose Mourinho’s assault on the Champions League with Inter Milan doesn’t count – he fields precious few Italians in his sizzling San Siro line-ups. Roma captain Francesco Totti finds himself being begged to go back on his international retirement at 33 – but coach Marcello Lippi has not joined the chorus.

Lippi, who announced today he will allow families in their camp at unspectacular Leriba Lodge near the Centurion cricket ground, is also reluctant to pick Sampdoria’s in-form but temperamental Antonio Cassano.

And then there’s striker Luca Toni, frozen out at Bayern and on loan at Roma, who pleads in true Peter Crouch style: "There's many of us in contention for the Italy shirt, Lippi already has his ideas on his squad. I hope to go, he knows me well.”

Way back in 1966, when North Korea sent them home early from England, the Italians were pelted with fruit when they arrived in Rome. Surely we aren’t in for a repeat?


Diego Maradona, who eased his side through South American qualification by the skin of their teeth, admits: "It's going to hurt to leave out players who have given it their all, or who are having a great season. But when you have to make a choice, someone has to be eliminated."

True. But experts in Buenos Aires fear the little man with the big hand (and the tiny dog who bites his face) will mess it up in Group B against Nigeria, Korea and Greece, choosing his elderly favourites rather than the trio of in-form Argentines show casing their talent for Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the Champions League.

Inter full-back Javier Zanetti looks likely to stand aside for former Manchester United defender Gabriel Heinze, now at Marseille. And Esteban Cambiasso, responsible for keeping compatriot Lionel Messi quiet in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, appears to be behind another Manchester United veteran, Juan Sebastian Veron, now 35.

San Siro striker Diego Milito fears for his ticket to Johannesburg too - 36-year-old Martin Palermo has just become Boca Juniors' all-time top scorer and Maradona refers to the older man as a living legend.

The press in Buenos Aires dread Maradona making the same mistakes as he made in qualifying... too much chopping and changing, no clear tactical plan – and the world’s form player Messi will find himself lost in the chaos. Maradona’s response: "We're going to have a team that knows how to wear the Argentine colors."


England may worry about the state of Wayne Rooney’s knee and gluteus maximus, but in Brazil, it’s all about Kaka’s chronic groin hernia.

Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, signed by Real Madrid from Milan for a then-record £57m, was already under incredible pressure in March when Lyon came to town and put them out of the Champions League.

Florentino Perez hinted he may have made a mistake buying Kaka while his coach Manuel Pellegrini – labelled a coward by Kaka’s representative Diogo Kotschko – then announced Kaka was injured.

We saw little of the world’s greatest Brazilian until he resumed training on April 22 – his 28th birthday – but the whole of the Samba nation heaved a huge sigh of relief when he returned to action against Real Zaragoza on Sunday.

And what did he do? He scored the winner to keep the pressure on Barcelona – with a little help from Christiano Ronaldo, who laid the ball through for him to score.

But that doesn’t end the problems. Kaka is still reported to be likely to leave the Bernebeu at the end of the season, the Spanish press accuse him of saving himself for the World Cup and he has been told by doctors he will require treatment on that groin for the rest of his life.

With Ronaldinho’s powers on the wane Brazil boss Dunga is also under pressure to bring in the Brazilian-based young guns – Neymar, 17, and Paulo Henrique Ganso, 20. Both play for Santos, with Neymar scoring five goals in an 8-1 win earlier this month. But will they play ahead of experienced performers like Inter striker Adriano and Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga-winning Grafite?

Still, they’ve always got Chelsea’s man mountain Alex at the back. Tottenham's reborn Heurelho Gomes is only third in line on the goalkeeper front, behind Inter Milan No1 Julio Cesar and Roma's Doni.


Raymond Domenech famously told Arsene Wenger he was “pissed off” when William Gallas’s calf went one game into his comeback against Barcelona a month ago.

Perhaps that’s just a sign of the pressure the French boss is under. Two of his big names, Lassana Diarra at Real Madrid and Barcelona’s aging former Gunner Thierry Henry, are struggling for time on the pitch in La Liga, while world-weary Patrick Vieira is hardly setting the world alight since his move to Manchester City.

Nicolas Anelka is struggling for goals in the shadow of Didier Drogba at Chelsea, though Florent Malouda was looking good until his awful miss in the 7-0 win over against Stoke on Sunday. The French press talk of André-Pierre Gignac, the Toulouse forward, but he has been struggling with injury.

And Domenech’s mood wasn’t helped by last week’s problems which saw Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou caught up in a row involving courts and under-age prostitutes. That one could run and run.


On the face of it, the Dutch should be happy. The normal divisions in the camp appear to have eased and Arsenal striker Robin van Persie has returned to full fitness at just the right time for his World Cup crusade in orange.

Arjen Robben is looking imperious at Bayern while Wesley Sneijder has been magnificent for Inter, the pair of them are dominating the Champions League.

Blimey, there’s even the old warhorse Rutgerus Johannes Martinus van Nistelrooy - Ruud for short - looking fit again and banging them in for Hamburg.

But Dutch boss Bert van Marwijk fears his defence will creak in Group E against Denmark, Japan and Cameroon.

Former Arsenal man Giovanni van Bronckhorst, now at Feyenoord, is 35. So too is former Blackburn centre-half Andre Ooijer at PSV. In goal, Edwin van der Sar did what all loyal Manchester United players do and retired from international football and is resisting calls for a return at 39.

Ryan Babel, supposedly the future of Dutch football after his starring role for their Under 21 European Championship-winning side all those years ago, has not impressed again at Liverpool this season.

Oh, and that traditional Dutch split? Van Persie and Sneijder don’t get on. Fact.


Former Manchester United assistant boss Carlos Queiros has already lost three key plays in the build-up to South Africa. Chelsea right-back Jose Bosingwe and Porto pair Ruben Micael and Silvestre Varela are all crocked. Real Madrid’s Pepe is struggling and Chelsea’s Deco is getting no younger.

To complicate matters further, the Portuguese press have never forgiven Queiros for replacing their beloved Luiz Felipe Scolari at the helm. Which is probably why Queiros has situated his side in the remote Magaliesburg mountain range for the World Cup, where the Portuguese share Group G with Brazil, Korea and the Ivory Coast. No prisoners will be taken there.

Sporting Lisbon's Brazilian striker Liedson now has a Portuguese passport and is likely to team up with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, the £90m man who has scored another glut of goals this season at new club Real Madrid.


It’s hard to create a crisis around the World Cup favourites with the depth the Euro 2008 champions boast. But Vicente del Bosque does have season ending injuries to Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Liverpool’s Fernando Torres to deal with.

Andres Iniesta has similar problems as they head to South Africa and an easy Group H, featuring Chile, Honduras and Switzerland.

Del Bosque must also decide on his goalkeeper. Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas has been around for years and carries the captain’s armband – but the Spanish press are clamouring for Barcelona’s in-form Victor Valdes, who rarely features in the Spanish squad.

The midfield throws up similar problems, with the age-old Castillian/Catalan split likely to merit a mention as he attempts to perm four from these six: Real’s Xabi Alonso, former Barca boy Fabregas, Nou Camp’s three musketeers Xavi, Sergi Busquets and Iniesta plus Valencia's David Silva.

Truth is, the Spanish have no real weaknesses, but I thought I’d throw them in as a last-ditch attempt to upset the side most likely to lift the World Cup at Soccer City on July 11. Oh, they’re staying Potchefstroom. Last time I visited that little university town, it was as dead as a doornail. But I don’t think it will hinder them!


In truth, you can pick holes in the preparations of most of the footballing superpowers. My verdict? Germany, Portugal and Italy may well disappoint, Argentina will surprise despite the deadweight of Diego Maradona while Brazil and Spain, as expected, will be the major contenders. Holland? You just never know. They’ve got the firepower. I think I'll trot down the village bookies and have a punt on them at 12-1.


4/1 Spain, 5/1 Brazil, 11/2 England, 8/1 Argentina, 12/1 Italy, 12/1 Germany, 12/1 Holland, 18/1 France, 25/1 Portugal, 25/1 Ivory Coast, 66/1 Ghana, 66/1 Paraguay, 66/1 Chile, 66/1 Serbia, 66/1 Mexico, 80/1 USA, 80/1 Cameroon, 100/1 Uruguay, 100/1 Greece, 100/1 Denmark, 125/1 Nigeria, 125/1 Australia, 125/1 South Africa, 150/1 Switzerland, 200/1 Slovenia, 200/1 Slovakia, 250/1 Japan, 250/1 South Korea, 350/1 Algeria, 1000/1 Honduras, 1500/1 North Korea, 2000/1 New Zealand.