Thursday, 26 June 2014

Four months, 9 internationals, 12 Liverpool games: the Suarez ban will bite hard

Fangs for the memories: Suarez is banned for 4 months
FOUR MONTHS. Luis Suarez is not even allowed to WATCH football until the end of October after FIFA acted on his THIRD biting incident with welcome speed and weight.

Officially, Suarez’s teeth-marks in Italian Gogio Chiellini’s shoulder will also result in him missing Uruguay’ last 16 clash against Colombia in the World Cup on Saturday – he is also banned for NINE internationals and fined $65,000 (about R1m).

The expected appeal from Uruguay (who are apparently threatening to boycott their last 16 tie as a result of the ban) WON’T open a backdoor for Suarez to play at the Maracana.

Beyond reasonable doubt: Suarez bits Chiellini
Both his club Liverpool and sponsors adidas will hold talks to discuss their future with Suarez, who will miss 9 games at the start of the next Barclays Premier League season PLUS their first THREE Champions League matches. Liverpool may be able to sue their star striker – top scorer in England with 31 goals last season and joint winner of the UEFA Golden Boot with Cristiano Ronaldo – for breach of contract.

Claudio Sulser, chairman of the independent disciplinary committee, announced: “We took all factors of the case into account. Such behaviour cannot be tolerated on any football pitch, and in particularly not at a World Cup with the eyes of millions on the stars.”

He added: "A stadium ban is pronounced against the player in accordance with article 21 of the FDC as follows: the player Luis Suárez is prohibited from entering the confines of any stadium during the period of the ban.”


Aug 16: Liverpool v Southampton
Aug 23: Manchester City v Liverpool
Aug 30: Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool
Sep 13: Liverpool v Aston Villa
Sep 16: Champions League 1
Sep 20: West Ham United v Liverpool
Sep 27: Liverpool v Everton
Sep 30: Champions League 2
Oct 4: Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion
Oct 18: Queens Park Rangers v Liverpool
Oct 21: Champions League 3
Oct 25: Liverpool v Hull City

FIFA’s reaction comes in stark contrast to arguments in mitigation from Suarez’s lawyer Alejandro Balbi, who is also a member of the Uruguayan Football Assocation. Before the ban was announced said: “We don’t have any doubts that this has happened because it’s Suarez and secondly because Italy was eliminated.

How the referee missed it: the incident against Italy
“There’s a lot of pressure from England and Italy. We’re polishing off a defence argument. There is a possibility that they ban him, because there are precedents, but we’re convinced that it was an absolutely casual play, because if Chiellini can show a scratch on one shoulder, Suarez can show a bruised and almost shut eye.

“If every player starts showing the injuries he suffers and they open inquiries for them, everything will be way too complicated in the future. We’re going to use all the arguments possible so that Luis gets out in the best possible way.”

“You shouldn’t forget that we’re rivals of many and we can be for the organiser in the future. This does not go against what might have happened, but there’s no doubt that Suarez is a rock in the shoe for many.”

That rock has now been reduced to rubble. Until the end of October…

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Three bites and you're OUT: Why Luis Suarez CANNOT be allowed to continue in this World Cup

All bite on the night: Chiellini and Suarez
THE WORLD CUP faces perhaps the greatest test in its history this week when they address the problem of Luis Suarez and his prominent teeth.

Uruguay's enormously talented striker - scorer of both goals in their epic 2-1 win over England - stands accused of a THIRD incident of biting an opponent during his nation's 1-0 win over Italy last night.

When I say "accused" the pictures are damning – and hugely damaging to the game. As I said last night after the incident, Italy weren't just beaten, they were well bitten. Afterwards the "victim" Giorgio Chiellini was rightly aggrieved, exhibiting clear tooth-marks in his left shoulder.

The whole tooth: Suarez reacts after biting incident
The 29-year-old Juventus defender said: “Suarez is a sneak and he gets away with it because FIFA want their stars to play in the World Cup. I’d love to see if
they have the courage to use video evidence against him.

“The referee saw the bite mark, too, but he did nothing about it.”

Though Uruguay are through to the knock-out stages after a result which saw Italian boss Cesare Prandelli resign, FIFA surely CANNOT allow Suarez to play any further part in the tournament.

The 27-year-old, top scorer with 31 goals in the Premier League last season and joint winner of the European golden boot with Cristiano Ronado, bravely fought back from knee surgery to play in Brazil after his deliberate hand-ball put Ghana out of the tournament in the 2010 quarter-finals.

Muzzled: a possible solution for Suarez
This was supposed to be an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, the emerge as a rival to global superstars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazilian four-goal hero Neymar.

Instead, Suarez poses the toughest disciplinary conundrum in the history of the game – any game. While controversial boxer Mike Tyson chewed Evander Holyfield's ear in 1997 and South African rugby Springbok Johan Le Roux bit New Zealand's Sean Fitzpatrick in 1994, Suarez is the first sportsman to stand accused of multiple episodes of, well, let’s call it “attempted cannibalism”.

The first came on 20 November 2010,  when Suárez – playing for Ajax Amsterdam - bit PSV's Otman Bakkal on the shoulder during a 0–0 draw.

Ajax suspended him for two games and fined him an undisclosed amount which the club said they would donate to a "good cause". The Dutch FA later increased the ban to seven games and Suarez was sold to Liverpool without playing another game.

The second bite occurred on 21 April 2013, in a 2–2 draw with Chelsea in a Premier League game at Anfield. Again, he clearly bit Branislav Ivanović on the shoulder. Despite Chelsea protests, Suarez stayed on the pitch and scored the injury-time equaliser.

He was banned for 10 matches with the FA – having already slapped an 8-match ban for racism on the Uruguayan in 2011 – insisting they wanted to send: "a strong message that such deplorable behaviours do not have a place in football".  

Evidence: teeth marks
Then, unbelievably, the THIRD incident last night saw Chiellini bitten in very similar circumstances. The bite marks were quite clear as the Italian ran to the ref to protest, but again, no action was taken and Uruguay went on to win 1-0 and qualify for the last 16.

The football-speaking world remains in shock this morning. The Suarez bite quite simply over-shadowed England’s worst-ever World Cup showing – their 0-0 draw with Costa Rica left them with one point to take home on their flight of shame – and a controversial injury-time penalty which saw Greece win 2-1 and oust the Ivory Coast.

Chiellini added: “The disparity in judgment has been evident. Claudio Marchisio’s sending-off (Italy were already down to 10 men) was ridiculous but more so the fact that Suarez wasn’t sent off.

“There’s the will to protect champions but the referee should have shown him a red card.”

FIFA have announced they will be looking in to the incident and have given Uruguay today to provide mitigation against Suarez’s impending punishment.

In theory, the World Cup disciplinary panel have the power to suspend Suarez for up to two years.

Worryingly, Uruguay are in denial. Their captain Diego Lugano said: "You couldn't have seen it because nothing happened. The worst of everything is the attitude of Chiellini. As a man, he disappointed me totally."

And team-mate Diego Forlan insisted: “I didn’t see anything,” while many fans in the stadium actually missed the incident, it happened so quickly.

But the pictures can leave no question. Uruguay will complain and claim persecution of their best player, one of the finest strikers in Europe over the past 12 months.

Judgement: How twitter views Suarez
To listen to them would be WRONG. Kids will be watching the images today and wondering: “Is it okay to bite an opposing player?” while admiring a man found guilty of racism and cheating.

Media pundit and former Wales international Robbie Savage said: "It is a disgrace. Suarez should never play international football again."

Former USA goalkeeper Brad Friedel agreed: "Still can't believe what I've seen again from Suarez...needs an ENORMOUS ban from football. THIRD time now!"

Suarez must be taught a lasting lesson this time. No football in the spotlight for a year at least. Anything less than ending the World Cup for one of its most talented strikers would be seen as cowardly. Let’s see what FIFA do.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Monday, 23 June 2014

World Cup watching just got a whole lot easier: But now it's time to find out who will make the cut

World Cup fever: this from the US, where viewing figures are huge
THE World Cup in Brazil is about to get a lot easier. For the hard-pressed non-football-loving spouses, abandoned kids, dogs… and sleep-deprived fans. But not for the players, of course.

With all 32 sides now two games in to their Group phase, we begin that four-eyed segment of the greatest footballing event on earth, with the third and final games played SIMULTANEOUSLY over four days.

And we even get a day off on Friday, a 24-hour breathing space before the remaining 16 nations begin the knock-out phase on Saturday, June 28.

For South Africans, deprived of Bafana Bafana thanks to a memorable own goal in Adis Ababa (and a whole lot of other stuff, but reports in Nigeria today suggest Steve Keshi is on his way, walking across the ocean), this tournament is about AFRICA.

After a first round which saw just one win (for Ivory Coast over Japan) and a draw (for Nigeria against lowly Iran) with three gut-wrenching defeats, things are looking up for the BIG FIVE who qualified through CAF’s tough-as-teak system.

As the only federation where group winners are forced to play-off, our five survivors have in some ways the toughest path to each World Cup, with 55 nations cut down to a mere handful.

And that toughness showed in the second round, with Ghana leading the way. Their 2-2 draw with FIFA’s No2 ranked team Germany is now regarded as the best game of Brazil 2014 so far. Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan did the scoring, but former Free State Stars defender Jonathan Mensah played a vital role too, as did Ghana’s goalkeeper Fatau Dauda, thrown in to the fray despite playing just twice for Orlando Pirates last season.

Never a truer world: earliest ever exit for England

With South Africans finally finding somebody to cheer for (even our referee Daniel Bennett dropped out after getting injured in Brazil) the African nations bounced back strongly. Nigeria saw off Bosnia 1-0 before Algeria crushed South Korea 4-2, sparking huge celebrations across the continent (and, no doubt, in North Korea).

The second round saw African nations win 2, draw 1 and lose 2. We shall not talk about the Cameroon too much. Shipping four goals, having Alex Song sent off and two players fighting on the pitch can be in NO WAY considered a critique of long-serving CAF president Issa Hayatou. Of course not.

Anyway, the upshot of it all is this: Nigeria have FOUR points; the Ivory Coast and Algeria have THREE points,  Ghana have ONE point. They are all still alive. The first three go in to their final games in SECOND position in their groups, Ghana look unlikely to qualify after the epic USA 2-2 Portugal. Cameroon are out of it, but then so too are great nations like defending champions Spain, England, debutants Bosnia and erm… Australia.

But from a situation where it looked possible Africa would suffer their worst-ever World Cup, we now have a chance of seeing FOUR through to the last 16, where France are emerging as the form side, Netherlands and Germany look strong and ALL the South Americans are looking safe.

Oh, and there’s Costa Rica, with wins over former winners Italy and England. They could yet prove to be THE surprise package in a World Cup already full of shocks, comebacks (eight at the last count) goals and supersubs (15 replacements had scored at the last count).

We should, of course, consider the death of Ibrahim Toure in Manchester after losing his battle against cancer. The loss of the 28-year-old younger brother of Yaya, 31, and Kolo, 33, has put the Ivory Coast under a unique set of pressures. We can only wish the family well.

Africa now has a record of Played 10, won three, drawn two and lost five. Asia can offer only Played 8, won 0, drawn 3 and lost 5, their worst display since 1998. One more win and the CAF nations will have enjoyed their most successful World Cup in history. That in itself should give us SOMETHING to smile about.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The collapse of an empire: sorry Spain the first major casualties of the 2014 World Cup

Spainful: Casillas concedes against Chile
THE reign of Spain falls mainly on the plane home. That incredible wave of Spanish conquest dating back to 2008 is OVER. Vicente del Bosque’s World Cup winners broke all records in their bid to return home rapidly from Brazil.

Walloped 5-1 by Hup Hup Holland in their opening Group B game and convincingly ousted 2-0 by a super hot Chile in their second, the football-speaking world had a field day with the kings of tika-taka, ignoring those 2008 and 2012 European Championships wins either side of their dour 2010 World Cup triumph.

It’s unfair. We all love to see the giants fall. But this was a Jack and the Beanstalk return to earth for a Spanish side which conceded just two goals in South Africa four years ago (and scored a record low of seven to conquer the world). In just thee halves of football – 135 minutes – they conceded SEVEN, Iker Casillas was exposed and without Carles Puyol, they seemed incapable of stopping the rot.

Seven-goal champs: Spain in 2010
Diego Costa, the Brazilian striker who opted for Spain after two friendlies for his homeland last year, turned out to be about as popular as Kingston Nkatha at Kaizer Chiefs, as effective as Ndumiso Mabena at Orlando Pirates. In short, a huge boo-boo.

Ironically, it was soon-to-depart South African head coach Gordon Igesund who said in Australia last month: “Spain have become too predictable” as he explained Bafana’s surprise 1-0 friendly win over Espana at Soccer City, venue of their greatest triumph.

Even more ironically, it would not surprise this writer if Del Bosque now becomes a target to succeed Igesund, given his CV. But there is a rarely-mentioned detail in the 63-year-old Spaniard’s career: he took over Spain in 2008 only after Luis Aragones had led them to their first European Championship success.

Ultimately Del Bosque was undone by his reluctance to change a winning set-up: he stuck with the old guard and it worked for the years – until their record-breaking demise in Brazil. No champions have ever lost their first two games in defending the World Cup.

It’s one thing to see World Cup winners fall at the first hurdle (as France and Italy did before them) it’s quite another to see such a great side, filled with Barcelona and Real Madrid all-conquering giants, slip out of the tournament without a fight.

Though they managed a couple of shots late on, it was Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla, on the periphery of the great Spanish successes, who produced most of the late urgency after coming on as a substitute.

I said before this tournament that South American sides would dominate, pointing out that Europeans have never won on the continent. I said too that Chile (and Colombia) could spring a surprise or two.

A crest-fallen Del Bosque, 63, said: "We were inferior to both Netherlands and Chile. It is a sad day for all of us. We are sorry we didn't succeed, now is too early to analyse where we go from here.
"The first goal really buoyed them and they really got into our faces. They got the goals and gave us a mountain to climb. We were too timid in the first half and did not react sufficiently in the second."

But as we glory in the fall of the giants, joined at the early exit door by brave Australia (beaten 3-2 in a cracker by the Netherlands) it’s worth remembering other big guns could soon join them – notably England, who cannot accept anything less than a win over Uruguay.

Ouch: last look at that Spanish defence
As the smoke clears, it would be hard to say that the South American big guns – Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – are in scintillating form on their home continent. Holland and Germany look the form sides with Aarjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Thomas Muller leading the race for the Golden Boot with three goals each so far.

But I suspect Argentina will get stronger and stronger. Brazil, with Neymar isolated up front thanks to the incompetence of Fred, Hulk and Jo, have a lot of work to do after their 0-0 draw with Mexico.

But this World Cup remains a fascinating journey. Scoring at a rate of nearly four goals a game, this is a tournament marked by attacking exuberance and super substitutions. Long may it continue.

And I leave you with this thought: were Spain single-handedly responsible for lowering the tone of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? Tika-taka may be great for the purists, but the lack of direct, exciting, thrusting football can be blamed on those pesky Spaniards four years ago. Germany were a far more attractive proposition and I said so at the time as they scored 21 goals and crashed out in the semi-finals.

Giants are not always attractive. They can even be mistaken for ogres. I for one am not sorry to see this particular Espana thrown in the works.

Disgrace: Assou-Ekotto and Moukanjo square up

Later last night, we had the unedifying spectacle of Cameroon crashing out and joining Spain and Australia in the queue at the Brazil exit door. Going down to Croatia 4-0 is one thing. But the unedifying spectacle of Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Benjamin Moukanjo squaring up to each other before the Spurs man (currently on loan at QPR) threw in a head-butt was too much.

Earlier former Arsenal man Alex Song, now at Barcelona, had been sent off for a ridiculous off-the-ball swing which left Cameroon coach Volker Finke summing up his night thus: "It's clear we have to find the reasons what's going on because such behaviour is really disgusting, it won't do, it's impossible. There will be repercussions."

All this of course, happening on television screens around the world to Cameroon, the nation which gave us the infamous son-of-a-sultan Issa Hayatou, who has run CAF, the African Football Federation, since 1987. Little wonder Africa is going backwards internationally if the dictator can't even keep his own nation in order. The current CAF situation in Brazil: Played 6, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 4. That's relegation form.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The World Cup that refuses to conform: an enthralling first round leaves a football-speaking globe breathless

SUPER SUB: Belgium's Marouane Fellaini scored against Algeria

There’s something wrong with this World Cup. We’re supposed to be in the tentative early stages of the greatest footballing show on earth – and nobody’s paying ANY attention to history.

Traditionally, even in the old days of 16 teams in the finals, the first game of the group phase is a cautious event. Neither side wants to lose for fear of being ruled out of contention after 90 minutes. The first round ended with Russia v South Korea the 16th and final game – and we are confounded.

This has been a World Cup of supersubs coming on to save their nation, come-from-behind triumphs and attack-at-all-costs. It’s NORMAL for side who have gone behind to be content with a point when they snatch an equaliser.

But not in Brazil this time.  Those awful 0-0 draws are few and far between. The 1-0 stale-mate has become a fascinating temptation for the chasing team. The stand-out examples of this exciting footballing revolution were the shocking triumphs registered by the Netherlands and Costa Rica – and even Africa's top-ranked Algeria against fashionable Belgium.

A dodgy penalty saw the Dutch go behind against World Cup holders Spain… and when Robin van Persie produced a stunning lobbed dive-header over Iker Casillas to equalise, you might have thought that was that when we got to half-time at 1-1.

Goal of the tournament? Van Persie's header v Spain
But not this time. The Netherlands, beaten 1-0 by Spain’s tika-taka troops in the 2010 final in Soccer City four years ago, were having none of that “what we have we hold” nonsense.

Van Persie and Aarjen Robben simply continued to torment the Spainful champions. A team that had conceded just three goals in winning their last two major tournaments found themselves 2-1 down. Then three, four, five… and it might have been six.

Casillas took a lot of the blame, he blundered on one cross for the third, came out too early on the fourth. But to blame one man – a goalkeeper accustomed to the bench at Real Madrid too often over the last two seasons – would be churlish.

We had barely got over the shock of that epic 5-1 defeat at Costa Rica were at it. Ranked lower than Bafana Bafana just a year ago, we knew they weren’t a pushover for Uruguay, who required a play-off against Jordan to reach the finals.

But when the former two-time World Cup winners, playing on their own continent, went ahead, everyone assumed Uruguay would be at of the Latin American Samba to the knock-out stages.

But no. With Arsenal’s loan ranger Joel Campbell scoring one and making another, Costa Rica levelled and then stuck it to their highly-rated rivals, seventh in the FIFA world rankings before the tournament.

Their 3-1 win was nearly as surprising as Holland’s triumph over Spain. And it blew the toughest group of the tournament wide open. Italy went on to beat England 2-1 with a typical Mario Balotelli winner – but who is to say who will qualify from Group D?

It’s been breathless. It’s been far too exciting. Far too many goals, especially compared to Spain’s seven-goal bore war in South Africa four years ago.

To add to the drama, Africa’s great hopefuls the Ivory Coast came back from a goal down to beat Japan in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Since then, we’re seen African champions Nigeria held to a disappointing 0-0 draw by Iran (the first of the tournament) while Germany crushed Portugal 4-0 to leave Ghana, beaten 2-1 thanks to a lapse of concentration against the USA, in a very tight spot. It could be worse. Both Nigeria and Iran have a point more than England, beaten 2-1 by Italian Mario Balotelli's towering header.

Not this time: Italy overcame
England 2-1 in Manaus
Barring miracles, Africa could find themselves with only Cote D'Ivoire of the Big Five surviving to the knock-out stages. But there’s still a long way to go, with Brazil and Mexico the only sides to have played twice so far – their 0-0 draw means Cameroon could go out of the tournament if they lose their second game to Croatia.

Gripping stuff. But we cannot ignore the opening game. On the face of it, Brazil 3, Croatia 1 looks like another example of the revolutionary gender: a come-from-behind win which saw Filipe Scolari refusing to accept a point, gunning for all three after the equaliser.

But of course it wasn’t. With protests and stun grenades in the streets, there was a feeling a poor opening result would spark further trouble for FIFA and the host nation. Marcelo’s own goal had given Croatia the lead, Neymar’s low shot levelled just before the break.

But as I had predicted on twitter several times in the build-up, it needed a dodgy Neymar penalty to win it. Fred, who touched the ball just five times on the night, did what he was told. He fell over when he felt a hand on his should. The lightest brush of contact. Dive, dive, dive.

The feckless Japanese referee blew without hesitation. Neymar penalty. 2-1. Croatia went for the equaliser and got it, only for their goal to be disallowed for a questionable foul on Julio Cesar in the Brazilian goal. Okay, the impressive Oscar added a third, but by then the damage was done. And a sour taste was left in the mouth.

I leave it to Croatia coach Niko Kovac to sum it up: "If that's how we start the World Cup, we'd better give it up now and go home. We talk about respect, that wasn't respect, Croatia didn't get any. If that's a penalty, we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball instead, it's a shame."

There was an opportunity for a repeat of that in the late stages of the 0-0 draw against Mexico, fortunately the spot kick wasn’t given. But a point means Brazil will probably not to stumble out early. That would make things far too exciting.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

My second round Kick Off Predictor selections: 
Belgium 2
Algeria 0
Brazil 2
Mexico 1
Russia 2
Korea Republic 0
Australia 0
Netherlands 2
Spain 2
Chile 1
Cameroon 0
Croatia 2
Colombia 1
Ivory Coast 1
Uruguay 0
England 1
Japan 1
Greece 1
Italy 2
Costa Rica 0
Switzerland 1
France 2
Honduras 0
Ecuador 1
Argentina 4
Iran 0
Germany 3
Ghana 1
Nigeria 0
Bosnia and Herzegovina 1

Thursday, 12 June 2014

AND SO THE WORLD CUP BEGINS: Brazil 3-1 Croatia with a helping hand from the referee (as predicted)

Neymaaaaaaaaar: Brazil open their account
And so it begins. The careful manipulation of the greatest footballing event on earth. With protests and stun grenades in the streets, FIFA couldn’t afford to see hosts Brazil get off to a bad start.

But they did. Right from that early Marcelo own goal, Filip Scolari’s fired-up side found themselves frustrated and flustered against a determined Croatia, who were never markedly outplayed by the Samba nation.

Neymar, as expected, produced the equaliser… but after Stipe Pletikosa’s early bravery his long range, poorly hit shot looked gettable for an international stopper.

IF YOU DON'T ACCEPT MY VIEW, TRY THIS FROM CROATIA COACH NIKO KOVAC: "If that's how we start the World Cup, we'd better give it up now and go home. We talk about respect, that wasn't respect, Croatia didn't get any. If that's a penalty, we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball instead, it's a shame."

The second half just never unfolded like Brazil hoped it would. With the crowd getting increasingly agitated, the Neymar penalty winner I’d been predicting all day on twitter (feel free to check my timeline at was almost inevitable.

Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura watched Fred control the ball poorly and lean in to the defender before tumbling dramatically backwards. And without hesitation, he pointed to the spot. It was Fred’s most important – possibly his only – meaningful contribution in Sao Paulo. And as Ryan Giggs confirmed afterwards, it was NEVER a penalty.

Robbed: Croatia reaction
Neymar stuck the penalty away – though Pletikosa got both hands to it – and my twitter timeline was immediately swamped by those shocked that I had so accurately predicted the “Brazil must win” scenario.

The white sangoma had struck again, they said. I had thrown the bones. A dodgy Neymar penalty, just as I predicted. But in truth, it was always going to happen. There is no sorcery here. As I told Bloemfontein Celtic-bound Bevan Fransman as events unfolded, when you’ve watched as many World Cups as I have, you expect the dodgy decisions and obedient referees.

Croatia then pummeled the Brazil goal at 1-2 down and could have levelled twice before they put the ball in the net, only for Nishimura to call a foul on Julio Cesar in the Brazil goal. He didn’t even have the ball in his hands. A second glaring mistake.

Oscar – sparkling throughout – toe-punted a third past the hapless Pletikosa to seal the win and leave “experts” grovelling about an “emphatic” Brazilian victory on televisions globally in numerous different languages.

Oscar thanked God for the win, he should
have thanked Japanese ref Nishimura

Of course, it’s their job to “sell” the tournament when corporations pay millions to screen the World Cup. Around the world, analysts will talk of a bright, lively opening game. Four goals is a lot better than usual for the World Cup kick-off. Great start for the hosts.

At least the former Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, guesting in South Africa, had the gumption to admit: "Fred went down easily. It wasn't a penalty. The referee made a clear mistake." But then: “We’re off to a flying start, an emphatic win for Brazil,” said Premier League presenter John Dykes at the end of SuperSport’s analysis which goes the length of Africa. Bollockz.

In truth, particularly if you’re Croatian, there was only injustice to speak of. The penalty, the disallowed goal. Obvious and calculated. FIFA know where their bread is buttered.

They can put up with a shoddy Opening Ceremony with a terrible sound system. They can accept unfinished stadia. But they can’t risk further angering the Brazilian people after their $11 BILLION spend on this World Cup.

AND HOW ABOUT THIS FROM South American football expert Tim Vickery on the BBC: "Protests are planned outside the stadiums for every game. How this pans out I don't think anyone knows for sure. Two situations could make things worse - police reaction, or the nightmare scenario for Brazilian authorities which is Brazil exiting the tournament early.
"Disappointing performances on the field could fuel the fire of anger. You do wonder if Brazil get hometown decisions more often because it was would be a disaster if Brazil exited this tournament early."

Any rational governing body would have a look at both Nishimura’s whistling and Pletikosa’s keeping. But they won’t. It’s done. We move on.

On day two, we see Mexico v Cameroon at 6pm CAT (a real chance for Africa to get off to a flying start, Mexico needed a play-off against New Zealand to get to Brazil); the momentous rerun of the 2010 World Cup final between holder Spain and Holland at 9pm and Chile against lowest ranked Australia at midnight.

Great games in prospect. But for me, the opening night leaves a sour taste. Not many will say that, but I’m afraid it’s the truth.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

WORLD CUP OPENING CEREMONY INJURY UPDATE: they're going for two up front as J-Lo breaks down in training but recovers to join Pitbull

Yes she is, no she isn't: Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull WILL join forces tonight after "technical" issues

It's tense. The big kick-off is approaching and the striking fulcrum's availability was in question. Yes, it's the traditional Opening Ceremony crisis for Brazil 2014. Jennifer Lopez went down in training but has apparently recovered (or so would suggest) and Brazil will be going with two (or three) up front at their much-anticipated Opening Ceremony.

8pm: SABC and SuperSport faces waffle a bit
8.15: Over to Sao Paulo. Lots of noise and flags, loud music.
8.20: Sepp Blatter says something insincere, possibly suffering from flatulence.
8.25: Brazil gives Sepp's people lots of money, nobody's sure how much
8.30: The World Cup anthem "Ola Ola" (In English "Ono Ono") debuts
8.35: J-Lo goes down heavily, Pitbull gives her his famous "bite of life"
8.45: More noise. Bright lights. No fireworks apparently.
8.50: Ceremony ends. Brazilian workers hastily finish building the stadium.
8.55: Pitch laid.
9pm: Brazil and Croatia emerge with expensive World Cup balls
9.15: Carnival atmosphere on the streets sees police in riot gear called out.
9.30: SABC and SuperSport faces waffle a bit
9.50: Teams emerge for anthems. Tears.
10pm: Neymar falls over.
10.20: Fred misses.
11.10: Neymar falls over. Scores.
Midnight: A slightly flustered Brazil register an unimpressive win over Croatia.

Seriously, back at USA 94, Oprah Winfrey actually fell off the stage while introducing Diana Ross at Chicago's Soldier Field before the first North American World Cup. Then dead-shot Di actually mis-kicked her penalty - the ball was supposed to split in two when punted it in to the net but she missed, Stuart Pearce style. Even the greatest stars can get it wrong, ask Bernard Parker.

Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez is doing a bit of a Cristiano Ronaldo on the anxious Brazilians before the New Corinthians Stadium opens with a blast at 8.15pm CAT (7.15pm in UK).

A crowd of 68,000 will assemble for the 25-minute Opening Ceremony, and with Lopez officially withdrawing ("technical difficulties") and then deciding she was fit, it looks like Pitbull, the bloke who opened the 2013 IPL, will have two partners, along with Brazilian Claudia Leitte.

The three of them will sing the 2014 official anthem "Ola Ola" ("We Are One") before turning the stage over the over 600 gymnasts, trampolinists and dancers. The official English version: "Ono Ono" ("We Haven't Won") will officially be sung for the first time after Roy Hodgson's troops play Italy on Saturday.

I jest. In truth, given their tradition of music, dancing and the slightly risqué Rio Carnival, we expect great things from Brazil before the tournament and during it, despite the protests, graffiti and late arriving stadia which have marked the World Cup build-up so far.

This bloke Pitbull (real name Armando Christian Pérez) appears to be the key player. Born in Miami to Cuban parents about 33 years ago, he made his name by going to number one in most countries around the world with Timber in 2011.

According to most biographies, Pitbull is a bit of a precocious Messi in rap terms amid claims he could juggle the poems of Cuba's national hero Jose Marti from the tender age of three. Apparently the self-confessed former drug dealer chose the stage name Pitbull because: "The Pitbull is too stupid to lose. They bite to lock. They're basically everything that I am. It's been a constant fight."

Wayne Rooney is allegedly changing his name to Dalmation sometime soon after his spotty performance for England, while Roy Hodgson will appear as Cocker Spaniel in Christmas pantomimes.

But seriously, with hosts Brazil kicking off their World Cup campaign at 10pm against Croatia, the nation needs a lift. There will be no fireworks at 7.15pm, so how it can possibly compete with South Africa's 2010 extravaganza is beyond me.

I have attended four World Cup opening and three Olympic opening ceremony. Sydney 2000 was the best I've seen. Fireworks are a must. Back in 1966, England paved the way with a bunch of schoolboys wearing waving flags. We've come a long way.

The bloke behind tonight's extravaganza is, as surprisingly as their current football team, a Belgian. Daphne Cornez insists (with an alarming lack of awareness of his own nation's rampant colonialism): "Tonight will be a tribute to Brazil and it's treasures: Nature, people, football."

Real treasures like gold and diamonds were, of  course, taken from Brazil by European "explorers" a few centuries years ago.

In good old imperialist fashion, Cornez adds: "All the participants at the opening ceremony are motivated. It doesn't matter whether they're tired or hot, if they have to go through their routines again and again, they just keep on smiling. Amazing people."

And on that note: have a great World Cup. Mark Fish, Comfort Khezwa and I will be previewing the World Cup (and opening ceremony) at 9am on...

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The World Cup preview: predictions, graphic, how the groups unfold, first round results

Stuck at the intersection: Babb's hopeful graphic
What I love about this World Cup graphic is the simplicity of it. It takes us right back to 10-year-old mathematics and the intersection of groups.

And yes, it's accurate (even prophetic), based on the analysis and predictions of many football experts from around the world and compiled by a graphic artist called Babb somewhere in the heart of London at the Daily Telegraph (I think, judging by the twitter feed).

It shows quite clearly what I believe. That this World Cup, which kicks off on Thursday night with hosts Brazil v Croatia, will be dominated by the home continent, Latin America.

Still a hotbed for the beautiful game, Brazil will be sweating over the fitness of their iconic Neymar: his first season in Europe with Barcelona fell a little short of perfection but he remains the key figure... along with misfiring Fred, the striker with the world on his shoulders right now.

And there, in the "high hopes" area lie Argentina too, with a plethora of striking options which could see the little flea Lionel Messi using a cushion at times in the tournament, as the Argentine bench shuffles through the goal-scoring options.

Uruguay, with Luis Suarez struggling for fitness and Diego Forlan reaching pipe-and-slippers age, may also feature, though I'd look at Chile or Colombia as the third force at this world cup, the dark horses who could stretch in to a gallop if they survive the group stages.

Holders Spain, who have also won the last two European Championships, have to be among the contenders, along with 2010 beaten finalists the Netherlands and Germany, the best side in South Africa. But as I never tire of repeating: a European side has NEVER won the World Cup in the Americas.

England? They sit happily in the dead centre of our graphic. High hopes abound (as they have since 1966), but in truth, if they do well, they'll be considered dark horses in Brazil - and really they have to be considered no-hopers if the truth be told.

My assessment of the World Cup groups, showing the England/Italy/Uruguay/Costa Rica conflagration in Group D as the Group of Death and that Germany/Portugal/USA/Ghana showdown as second toughest in Group G (based ont he latest FIFA rankings) is HERE

Argentina have the easiest group. Brazil's is not as tricky as it might appear. A modest start is all that's required, plus the usual dose of good fortune, dodgy refereeing decisions and scorching goals in the knock-out stages.

We go in to every World Cup expecting shocks, but in truth, the big nations and the major names generally carry the day. I fear for Ghana, Africa's 2010 flag-bearers, only because the qualifying group is so irredeemably difficult. I pray for Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria but really the Ivory Coast are the dark continent's only hope of a place in the last four, something Africa has NEVER achieved.

We will discuss the injuries endlessly, even with two days to go, the actually physical state of Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar has been called in to question... but there are always replacements. For me, Brazil should hold sway with Argentina pushing them close.

If the Germans score as freely as they did four years ago, if Thomas Muller can show us his full range of skills, they could outshine the fading Spanish. But none of the European giants - nor the African and Asian hopefuls - will match the Latin Americans.

My group-by-group analysis of the qualifiers is HERE:

Oh, and here are my first round World Cup predictions made on


Thanks for making your predictions for Round 1 of KICK OFF Predictor.
These predictions were made on 6/4/2014 2:03:55 PM
Your predictions are: 
Brazil 2
Croatia 0
Mexico 1
Cameroon 1
Spain 0
Netherlands 0
Chile 3
Australia 0
Colombia 2
Greece 0
Uruguay 2
Costa Rica 1
England 0
Italy 0
Ivory Coast 1
Japan 0
Switzerland 2
Ecuador 2
France 1
Honduras 0
Argentina 4
Bosnia and Herzegovina 0
Germany 2
Portugal 1
Iran 0
Nigeria 1
Ghana 1