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Roy Keane’s 7.5 million fatal flaws

January 7, 2011

The image that marked the end was not especially becoming. Ipswich’s efforts hadn’t quite merited defeat to Nottingham Forest and, heckled by supporters whose patience had expired halfway through the Autumn, something small but significant snapped inside Roy Keane. Perfect hearing isn’t required as you trudge towards the Portman Road tunnel, hemmed into a tight corner between the south and west stands, but Keane’s antennae were on overdrive in any case. Singling out a particular barracker, he closed his right hand into a ‘chatterbox’ shape. “You’re all talk”, the motion said – and with that, the mime funnelled away one last time.

He was right to a degree, because there should have been little left for anybody to say. Keane’s soliloquies had done it all in the few weeks prior, intense mea culpas being interchanged with overly deliberate suggestions that he’d not been adequately supported in landing targets. The chair in Keane’s office that sat almost-signing Sean Derry during the summer can rightly claim a place in the club’s museum, so often did it get summoned to the defence – but for all his unquestionably fine intentions the fact was that, even back then, Keane had been undone by his own ambition.

“I’ve signed a two-year contract but I’d like to try and do it [get promotion] in one year,” Keane had told the media on April 23, 2009. What he didn’t mention then, but gradually became more eager to note, was that he’d originally been offered three – and that the 24-month deal was brokered by his high, but complex, set of standards.

Talk to any manager in the Championship’s middle reaches or below, and they’ll be “only two or three players away from the play-offs”. That felt like the Ipswich of 2009 – albeit their ninth-place finish felt slightly artificial, augmented as it had been by the late-season (and rather pointless) wiles of Giovani Dos Santos. Keane’s perception, not an entirely unfair one, was that the squad contained too many nearly men, too many Alex Bruces and Owen Garvans – decent enough Championship footballers who wouldn’t turn far from the middle of the road. Milling around these nearly men were too many familiar faces, too many old friends of the club popping in for a cup of tea, too many soft furnishings in a place that had never been ruled by decrees of steel. The noises were that to give Ipswich the hard edge required of a modern, promotion winning side, teeth might have to be pulled – but that, despite the pain, the perfect overbite that resulted would prove well worth it.

Which is why the 14 league matches that drifted by without a win in Keane’s first season passed to something more akin to bafflement than anger. There was still reason to expect jam tomorrow – money totalling roughly £7.5 million in transfer fees had, by the end of August, been spent on Tamas Priskin, Lee Martin, Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards, with little immediate sign that the coffers would run bare if the manager fancied a January trolley dash. Liam Rosenior, of credible Premier League pedigree at right-back, arrived on a pricey season-long loan from Reading. If these transfers felt slightly gung-ho, most fans were happy to go along with the ride. Nobody could have known then that Keane had, for all the other factors behind his troubled tenure, signed his own death warrant through these deals.

Leadbitter remains an above-par Championship midfielder, but £2.6m was far too much to spend on a player who could not turn games – especially in a squad crying out for such characters. Edwards’ star had been on the wane for two years and his signing, for £1.35m, never looked right. Priskin’s signing for £1.7 million felt badly researched. A talent, but a brittle one, he didn’t settle until a year later when countryman Marton Fulop pitched up. It was little surprise when, after some months of reasonable form, he became the final subject of a whimsical Keane ostracism after a lax cameo at Preston last month. Acquiring the lightweight Martin, a serial loanee whose confidence seemed oddly shot from the start, on a five-year contract for something around £1.5 million was hideous business even by modern standards.

All but Leadbitter floundered from the start. Keane never recovered from that 14-game spell; it had rattled and, in all likelihood, confused him. On a good day – and there were a number of false dawns as a solidified unit edged creditably clear of danger – you’d still encourage yourself to believe that the agony had indeed been part of the process. But for a muddled and directionless season and a half Keane would patch, mend, chop, change and firefight to nothing more than short-term avail. No combination, particularly in the attacking third, truly worked – players finding themselves in favour one week and, as Priskin would discover, out of the matchday squad the next. Only when loanee Daryl Murphy and 17 year-old Connor Wickham dovetailed nicely towards the end of the season did a pair of forwards approach the exacting, frustrating standards set by their manager, whose willingness to ditch nascent partnerships after a matter of minutes said plenty about the lack of time on his own side – as well as a lack of natural ease harnessing players of relatively moderate talent.

Analyses of Keane’s hamartia are many, varied and not always on the mark – although his time at Ipswich did tick plenty of presupposed behavioural boxes. To these eyes, though, everything kept coming back to that £7.5 million. In the 16 months after that ill-starred first transfer deadline, invisible owner Marcus Evans committed just £1.5 million in further transfer fees for permanent deals (spent on the competent Fulop, an injured Mark Kennedy and another declining Trinidadian, Jason Scotland). Sales yielded around £4m, primarily through the departures of captain Jon Walters – for a good fee in shoddy circumstances – and the never-quite-wanted Jon Stead. Garvan, Bruce and David Wright were among those to join them. The message was increasingly clear (“you’ve made your investment and we’d still like a return”), although whether it was ever expressly communicated to Keane seems moot.

A spiky, up-tempo start to 2010/11 could never be sustained – not after the last of the departures. Ipswich fell away, too many gaps plugged by young loanees and callow Academy products. How it had come to this was, and is, the most important question of all – followed closely by enquiries as to how a Championship club with designs on promotion could not have a specialist right-back on its books. As a telling by-product of a confused, woolly summer – in which Keane batted responsibility for player sales back and forth between himself and the board – the latter issue could not have been more piquant.

The ‘Ipswich Way’ – an overly valorised concept in some corners of Suffolk, but still to be held close – had long since departed in favour of a reactionary, scrapping, robust style with little coherency. Sides comprising four recognised centre-backs and four traditionally conservative central midfielders would take to the field, Keane still not being convinced that he had enough of a bedrock to try a more expansive front few. He began to speak of hoping for an extended stay, to sort out a mess that he and all manner of others had conspired to create, at around the time that fans turned suddenly and spectacularly.

This occurred on a dank November afternoon against Barnsley, who coursed through Keane’s defence three times with a lone reply. Early in the second half, the manager had replaced Andros Townsend and Priskin, the two sharpest players in a now typically drab performance. All hell broke loose. Barnsley players were cheered en masse after another lengthy spell of possession; Ipswich’s young side was jeered when it attempted the same. There’d be further insults to add to this considerable injury, notably at Carrow Road two weeks later, but there was no going back for Keane from the moment he made his substitutions against Barnsley.

From this angle, there is no pleasure at Keane’s departure; there’s simply disappointment, with a lurking acknowledgement that many of us invested more excitement and expectation in his two-year plan, and perhaps his very presence, than any of it had perhaps deserved. Roy Keane’s Ipswich is no longer, and the slightly defensive, touchy, proud attitude that his tenure had provoked in many supporters – something that probably contributed to their relative patience – can be dulled. The club has bigger problems than Keane, some of which can’t have helped him. The careful Evans has cost-cut dramatically, to the extent that barely any scouting network now exists. The matchday experience is little more than a husk, with few sincere attempts made to engage supporters and most trappings bearing the hallmarks of mere lip service.

In another time, at a club not readjusting to a new and aloof form of ownership, you wonder if a more vibrant and less cynical background dynamic might have helped Keane – who genuinely loves the area and quickly grew very fond of the club. You also wonder whether, with this breakneck experience of the Championship behind him, he might prove more receptive in future to operating within a longer-term plan. At the end, though, there are £7.5 million good reasons for why those of us who spoke loud and long of a glittering new epoch in April 2009 really were, in the end, all talk.


Tackling (not) the problem

August 17, 2010

I’d wanted to write something about how Andros Townsend runs like Glen Little on springs, or how Lee Martin gets pastier and less effective on the ball the lower down the divisions he drops, or how Marouane Chamakh confirmed at least three of my previously-formed conceptions about him. Three matches watched over the weekend, three (no, scrap the Martin one) essays in the offing.

Another time. In the event, two players remain seared in mind from the past week, neither bearing the slightest resemblance to the above. Emmanuel Frimpong and Luke Hyam are both 18, and both five foot ten. Neither crosses the halfway line very often, neither cares much for running the show. One is, as it goes, among the most sought-after players of dual eligibility in international football. Both appear to have been handed down copies of a key to a dying art.

I spent some time with Frimpong last Wednesday afternoon, for an interview that’s published this Thursday. He was snapped up with incredible speed by Arsenal’s Academy just a year or so after he’d moved to London from Accra at the age of nine. There he met Jack Wilshere, just nine days his senior; the two hit it off, they played together in midfield, they fair tore up most of youth football’s mere mortals. Eight years later they won the FA Youth Cup together; they then went their separate ways for a season or so as Wilshere, several records already broken, came into work through the first-team entrance every day before playing regularly at Bolton. This pre-season the axis returned, Wilshere playing slightly ahead of Frimpong in a deep midfield one-two. As Clarence Seedorf and friends would discover on the last day of July, it was like they’d never been apart.

Particularly singular about Frimpong, quite apart from a general candour that you hope experience won’t drum out of him, was the intensity and relish with which he outlined his role in this team, in any team. Tackling, he said, was what he loved doing the most – he lived for taking the ball off an opponent, it was what he craved more than anything, it was the one thing nagged at him if he hadn’t accomplished it enough during a game. For years he’d won the ball and swiftly passed it on for his mate Jack to, at times, light a game up single-handedly. Wilshere, always quick of tongue, would rib him afterwards; Frimpong doesn’t deny that this took some getting used to but would respond that own his talent, while understated, was mastered by all too few. The tackle, he told me with gaze fixed, was an art. Why would he want to play any other way?

Hyam is not yet being courted by two national associations, and in fact has disarmingly little of the footballer about him. He appears slight, cherubic, perhaps resembling a younger and marginally ruddier relative of Jon Stead, and went to a good school just 20 minutes’ walk from the house I grew up in. His task wasn’t an easy one against Burnley on Saturday. Ipswich used young, sometimes overenthusiastic full-backs in Jaime Peters and Shane O’Connor – and Hyam, sitting on his own behind breaking midfielders David Norris and Grant Leadbitter, resultantly covered most blades of grass in his half. The way he hurled himself into fair, accurate tackles proved as heartening as it was, to the naked eye, unexpected. Late on in the game, he lost out to Ross Wallace in one skirmish near his own corner flag but pursued the issue and, seconds later, recovered the situation with a challenge that was clean, perfect, crunching. He’d played 210 minutes’ football, his first ever of a competitive nature, in the previous week. If his tackling was crisp and frequent, his timing and positioning were also close to perfect, even if longer-range distribution sometimes went awry. But it was the image of that challenge on Wallace that lingered – it was the purity of the thing, and probably the rarity of it too.

The Ipswich kid might not be too much of a regular as the season develops and new players arrive. Frimpong almost certainly won’t be one either, although a loan move is not currently on the cards and he trains with the Gunners’ first-team squad. The holding position has become the plat du jour in recent times, whether carried out by one man or two, and is among the most tactically and physically demanding. It’s little wonder that youngsters are being tailored for it, but to me it still seems pretty noteworthy when they break through and appear to be mastering it – with significant exceptions it’s always seemed an older man’s position, one for the savvy, the positionally-circumspect and tactically astute, the Gilberto Silvas of our time. It’s a struggle to think of teenagers occupying this role to any effect in the Championship, let alone in rungs further up – in fact, I’d positively welcome recent examples that I’m missing.

And the tackling? Claude Makelele admitted to loving it too, while Gennaro Gattuso, Christian Poulsen and Javier Mascherano certainly aren’t shy, but genuine exponents at the highest level are few. Plenty of younger players, like Alex Song and Sergio Busquets, rely on anticipation and possession-keeping – along with a touch of upper body strength in the former’s case – ahead of sliding in to regain possession. As this position becomes mastered by the technicians, it’s easy to see why people fear for the humble ball-winning challenge. As Frimpong explained to me, many attempt it but few master it. It takes a certain character to be devoted towards doing so at such a young age, requires at least some form of genuine groundedness. Fortunately, the very beauty of this deep role might be that it can be approached in so many different ways.

If Frimpong and Hyam’s skills are, as the Arsenal player says, not the most media and fan-friendly, that’s no bad thing. Rather go about your job with efficiency, in a position that’s growing in kudos by the season, than be the unfortunate young attacker who’s blacklisted by impatient supporters after not scoring in his first five games.

Does Steve Claridge still do his scouting report in the Times, inbetween helping researchers feed Manish Bhasin names of lower-league wingers to toe-curlingly parrot in his links every Saturday witching hour? He’d do worse than check out Hyam before he’s taken out of sight for a while, as is inevitable. As for Frimpong, you’ll see soon enough – in a parallel universe, he almost certainly has a full international cap to his name right now. One kid from Accra, one from Ipswich: both doing things that you just don’t expect of the modern-day teenaged footballer, both reifying an art that may not quite be in its death throes.

Waving Hello

August 12, 2010

I suppose it’s like Stockholm Syndrome on a string. Usually summers are spent with at least a motion towards breaking free from things football for a few weeks; Last Seat on the Plane cannot profess to have been similarly refreshed in the hyphen between World Cup and 2010/11 season but it’s back, acquiescently immersed for the next nine months and, hell, pretty excited about it too.

No mission statements here, even if an opening salvo like this one smacks a little of OCD. Throughout the season, starting this very weekend, this site will veer in whatever direction it takes – simply providing a home for my non-Arsenal related articles and thoughts about football, both spur-of-the-moment and more carefully formulated. If this blog has nothing else, it has a thirst for knowledge and experiences, and that’ll be reflected in its travels and endeavours – around Europe and beyond, as well as closer to home. One thing I won’t be doing is hand-wringing over stuff like the England captaincy and David Beckham memorial matches, but there’s a good Telegraph journalist out there for those requirements. Hopefully you’ll see enough to want to return, and with any luck you’d like to join in the debate too.

For now, you can read a very brief biog in ‘About’. And if you’re new or have stumbled here, check out my posts from South Africa 2010 – usually early-morning attempts to blend “what I did on my holidays” with an attempt at football insight.

This WordPress arrangement, by the way, is not only evolving but also pretty temporary – I’ve a man on the case – so I’m open to suggestions about aesthetics etc. Hopefully, adequate writing will trump bells and whistles; if these pages add the tiniest amount to the growing stable of thought-provoking football blogs that are accessible to us all, it’ll have been a pleasure.

Leaving the Table

July 18, 2010

It’s Tuesday afternoon. I only have a few hours left in this country, of this experience, and have promised myself a final plate of the region’s almost peerless calamari at one of the V&A Waterfront’s establishments. The day is clear, impeccable, purest blue. Table Mountain seems more striking today than at any time in the last few weeks, and I’ve already spent three hours on Robben Island wondering how on earth such atrocities could have been carried out within view of a place like this. It’s time to gather breath and sit down in South Africa for one, final time.

But first, there’s somewhere I have to go. I walk through the Waterfront, past Somerset Hospital, veering left at the big sign that – above fast-receding scaffolding – still just about reads ‘Cape Town Welcomes You’. I’m retracing steps that I had made twice in more exuberant times than these. It’s nearly silent – save for a clinking, a grating of metal. As I turn into the road where I’d queued, with a vibrant din of Portuguese fans, for my first ticket check of the 2010 World Cup a little over three weeks previously, the only people around are workmen. Most of them are clearing away a few hundred yards of event fencing, although a higher version of the same stuff still prevents pedestrians from getting any nearer to Green Point Stadium than non-ticketholders had been able to on a matchday. Others are removing direction-giving signs, and posters. Fencing being scraped, dragged. Billboards, images, being taken down and piled. It’s as painstakingly pathos-inducing as a Pinter play, it’s the slow chipping away of a monolith that had meant so much more. You almost crave a sighting of the FIFA logo, it’s that eerie.

I walk round the perimeter, feeling the emptiness acutely. I’m nearly 90 degrees of the way round when I spot a gap in the tall fencing that remains and slip through, wanting to get nearer to the dismantling work that’s going on in the stadium itself. I trot on another 100 metres or so before the figures of two policemen, deployed to expel intruders such as this one, yell from a little further away. I motion to my camera, shout “one minute?” and they seem happy enough – so I snap further at the sparseness and the noiselessness, which now seem very grey indeed, before waving acknowledgment towards them and heading out. I head from where I came, weaving around the stacked-up bits of steel, and order the biggest seafood platter on the menu.

Later, my taxi driver is Jim. Rhodesia-born and probably in his late sixties, he mutters unrepeatable things about local black-owned minibus firms as we pass a devastating accident scene – and almost certainly two dead bodies – on the motorway to the airport. Is he sorry the party’s over? “No, the traffic in town was impossible and the amount of new business was nothing like we’d been promised.” But are the reverberations positive? “Look, I’m happy you all enjoyed yourselves. But we’re already hearing some of the guys here threaten violence against other Africans once everyone else has gone home. Nothing’s going to change.”

Eighteen hours after this, I’m back at my desk in London and there’s an email from Vuli (our Johannesburg host, see earlier blogs).  “I hope your visit left you with indelible memories,” he tells Dave, Andy and I. “We look up to you to spread a good word about South Africa in a world hungry for negativity.”

Vuli and Jim had effected the same passing-on of responsibility in very different ways. I felt strange upon that walk around Green Point, anxious for the South Africans who’d invested aspirations and positive energy in the month-long festival whose icons were being stripped and whose atmospheres had waned. I thought about one of FIFA’s biggest sins, the sterile zones every matchday between stadia and hopeful local traders – hyphenated spaces between abstract expectations of a brighter future and the cold, metallic reality of FIFA’s moveable feast, its travelling mini-state. That this gap wasn’t really filled, in any sense, during the competition – and that decent people were thus kept at arm’s length – was a black mark upon the summer. So perhaps the point indirectly made by host and taxi driver alike was the same – that it’s for us to occupy the space now.

Really? Like FIFA we marched in, swept out – a few grand out of pocket as opposed to the football federation’s multi-billion profit, admittedly. The World Cup was never going to be a magic wand for South Africa, everybody waking on July 12 to see a world resolved. This is no inexorable, triumphant march towards eradicating crime, poverty and HIV (the latter, incidentally, being the single major social problem that never, not once, came up in conversation with a local), but nor is it a hungover slump back into what has passed before. Vuli is right – the best we could do was to come, not just for the football but to watch, listen, learn, think and then disseminate. I assured numerous people that I’d return home and tell 50 people what a wonderful experience I’d had, and that if thousands of others did the same then the results could be more than valuable. In times packed with transient enthusiasm, I’ll stick to that – already have. If it informs people about places like KwaThema, tells them that it’s more than safe to visit and see for themselves, helps remove any stigma for just a handful of people, then it’ll be been worth it. Like anyone, South Africa wants to be loved, to be perceived well, to be communicated with – this fact stared me in the face, everywhere. If you’re confident in the knowledge of that, it becomes so much easier to achieve and to muster up the energy for positive work.

So the gap, this sterile zone between the hard fact of what the World Cup was and the slightly intangible warmth of what it meant, is that timeworn one of perception – which makes FIFA’s decision not to allow any genuine African influences around its stadia even more discomfiting and places the onus on the visitor yet further. It’s for those of us who were present to throng that zone now – not to have simply seen the football and returned, but to have oscillated between both sides and recognised exactly why it was so important for South Africa to host this event. Our understanding, you feel strongly, was one of the biggest reasons. As those fences were taken down in Cape Town, you only hope that the procedure was being mirrored, in far softer a way, by thousands of thought processes in those heading back to whence they came.

Ke Nako!!

July 11, 2010

It’s here, then. This clear-skied, still morning in Kyalami is thick with the promise of…well….the culmination of all this. Our day is entirely geared around the final, almost through necessity – the closing ceremony is at 18.30 and kick-off at 20.30, but major arterial roads are closing early in the afternoon and it’s suggested that fans should get to Soccer City by 14.30. 14.30!! So, as we’ve various admin to go out and complete before heading to the biggest match of our lives, I have only ten minutes to speak about what lies in store.

Holland’s strength today lies, for me, in the fact that they’ll always have a goal in them. They showed it against Brazil, however fortunately, and I think they’ll show it today. It’s not ‘total football’, but one or two of the articles I’ve skimmed have I think hammed this fact up a bit; they’re not exactly Greece either. Van Marwijk has created an attractive enough version of what I call the ‘coiled spring’ 4-3-3 (with significant variants thereof , depending on where Sneijder ends up) setup that’s been widespread this summer – and with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie around to stretch it out, this one has more explosive potential than most. Spain’s full-backs have been particularly important to their attacking impetus in their last two games and you’d expect Robben and Kuyt (who you naggingly feel is exactly cut out for this kind of occasion) to stay pretty high up the pitch as much as possible.

Holland have won all six of their games but you can’t especially say they’ve looked World Champions at any stage. Sneijder’s goal return of five generally unconvincing strikes has been a kind of microcosm of this; but perhaps it’s all an argument for their being well-favoured to take the mantle. They’ve looked far solider at the back when the positionally-haywire Van der Wiel isn’t playing, but so much today will depend on how Van Bommel and De Zeeuw or De Jong fare deep in midfield against Spain’s almost numbing ability to control matters.

Spain played Germany, a momentum team if ever there’s been one, beautifully from the start – simply denying them possession without being ultra-ambitious themselves. Possession as the best form of defence has not been practised this well for a very long time. If they do it that well today – or are allowed to – then you can’t see them losing, because they don’t really commit enough men forwards to be badly caught out if they do squander the ball. Holland’s two deeper midfielders should have more bite than Schweinsteiger and Khedira (for all their other outstanding attributes) and can probably squeeze more effectively – so Spain might not see quite as much of the ball today.

It’ll be cagey, but you can’t see it being dull or without chances – the attacking players these sides have are too good, and the defences too uncertain when driven at. A deadlock-breaker for Holland would set up something absolutely intriguing. I don’t know if they’ll get it, but I do think they will score today – and that Spain will win 2-1, perhaps even after extra time.

Not the most satisfactory of previews at all, but we gotta bounce this second. I can’t wait. Let’s hope we get the game this tournament, I think, deserves – although if that’s the criterion then we’d better expect the unexpected. Enjoy.

“This is us. Not what they tell you.”

July 10, 2010

As Dave and I made to get into the car and leave KwaThema, farewells said and thanks given, a voice raised itself above the hubbub of our many new friends. “Remember, this is us. This is us, not what they tell you.” To my shame, I can’t remember the name of the lady I identified as the speaker – but these words, their simplicity and their power, oscillated within my head during our hour-long drive back to Kyalami.

KwaThema is a township, perhaps 50km from Johannesburg, that was built in the early 1950s as an intended model for subsequent developments – successfully so, on the whole, although it hasn’t been without its episodes of social unrest. We travelled there to visit the house of ‘Aunt’ Mercy, a close family friend of the Cubas and a prominent figure in our enjoyment of life and customs in this part of the world since our arrival. Her small property is one of the better-appointed in a tidy street; a couple of dozen friends and extended family – many of whom we’d come to know earlier in the trip – had congregated there for lunch in an event that, while seemingly complex, you suspect happens frequently. Other acquaintances and passers by drifted in and out from the bar across the road as the smell of cooking sausages, mince, pap and chicken legs gathered magnetism. As we have learned so well, when you open your home here it’s open to all.

Before the food, the football. No sooner had we pitched up than we were whisked a couple of blocks away, to a dusty football pitch on a wasteland that was, until we set into action, strewn with chunks of concrete. It’s ten a side – until a swarm of younger kids turns up about halfway through, that is, and things become pleasurably chaotic. My team includes Gift, a beanie-wearing midfielder with exceptional touch and movement, and the powerful, rapid Abou Diaby lookalike Siyabulela. I receive more of the ball than my ability should dictate, with South African hospitality extending from the dinner plate to the football pitch. This game probably takes place weekly, and the novelty factor of two tall British interlopers is clearly significant as Dave and I line up on opposite sides, frequently struggling to keep our footing in unsatisfactory trainers but – learning one or two Zulu football commands along the way – always staying involved as the sun beams down hotly. By the end, the players’ ages range from seven to 27 and nothing needs rationalising – it’s just good fun, with the sublime frequently being countered by the ridiculous. Chatting to our erstwhile team-mates about the World Cup and life in London (the two things everyone wants to know our views on), we head back to Mercy’s for lunch after what we’ll call an honourable draw.

The house is a noise of children and of cooking. We eat, and talk, well. Nobody lets us lift a finger; we’re wrestled, almost literally, away from the pile of washing-up. People see us from across the road and rush over to talk; one guy tells me, at great length, of his short-lived career as a professional pool player. Another laments the lack of football scouts passing through KwaThema to watch him and his friends. One more speaks with passion of how, at 25 and having been out of education – and significant work – for the past decade, he’s doing an introductory course in law with a view to getting into university. He proudly regales me with some of his favourite Latin terms. It’s not the first conversation of this type I’ve had with someone around my age in South Africa; a determination to make up for any lost time is prevalent and admirable. You wonder whether the World Cup bounce factor is helping this along, but hope it’s primarily down to a more general raising of aspirations and facilities.

How do you speak of warm welcomes, of humbling hospitality, of some quite mind-altering kindness and acceptance, of social dynamics that are strong yet so tender, without resorting to cliche? I don’t know whether you can – or, at least, whether I can right now. All I can conclude from the last few weeks is that the definite, proud words that followed us into the car spoke nothing but the truth – and I believe that with all my heart. I’ll craft a far longer, and more observational, piece on this note once I’m back in the UK, or perhaps just before, but all that we saw and heard today merely strengthened every positive impression we’ve gained of this country’s extraordinary people.

The recent lack of activity on this blog came of our trip to Zambia, where internet facilities were either sparse or slow. Our time was spent on safari in nearby Botswana, rafting in the Zambezi (being hurled through a grade-four rapid after our boat flipped was something I’ll remember), experiencing (and in Dave’s case bungeeing) Victoria Falls, and enjoying an Amarula sundowner or three among some excellent company. Livingstone was everything I’d remembered from a decade previously. Zambian people, not least the taxi driver who made the effort to track us down after I’d left my camera in his car, were too. I’m sure I will be back there again in some capacity or other, perhaps reasonably soon.

There’s some football among all this, too. We’re heading out now to catch the third place play-off over at Melrose Arch – before we wake up tomorrow morning in the knowledge that we’ll be at the World Cup Final a few hours later. Even saying it aloud to oneself doesn’t make it seem all that real. It’s going to be a special day – and, assuming I’m up at a decent hour, a post previewing the match itself will be up here before lunchtime. I’m nailing my colours to the mast – it’s Oranje all the way.

(NB – the photograph at the top of this piece is not from today – it’s one of an extraordinary….and gory in places….family of shots I took last week before, during and after the slaughtering of the sheep. Virtually all who helped cook the meat, as shown here, were present this afternoon)

Zam tomorrow

July 4, 2010

This time it’s Andy to whom I raise my voice after a moment of drama. “Do you think they’ll go and forget everything they’ve done in the last hour?” I ask in the wake of Cardozo’s disappointing, completely unexpected penalty. “Look! They already have!!” comes the response, and I turn my eyes back towards the pitch just in time to witness David Villa, streaking unattended through the inside-left channel for the first time that night, being illegally halted by Antolin Alcaraz. Two or three absurd minutes later and this match has become yet another in our World Cup to read like an Ian McEwan novel – painstaking, predictable pattern-building followed by a cataclysmic, barely believable passage of events that changes everything and gives little time for incredulity as the narrative’s accumulated power sweeps you along.

Paraguay v Japan had been deathly dull but, as I’d said ad nauseam before last night’s game, not a match of ineptitude – just one of interminable sparring involving two middleweights stiflingly unwilling to give anything away. Perhaps Gerardo Martino disagreed with me somewhat – he made six changes and altered his formation – but they lived up to the prediction that they’d come to the party for this one. They gave Spain more of a game than did Portugal, and this was pretty much expected. The gameplan worked perfectly for an hour – they stepped up the energy and also stepped up the field, pressing high up from the front as Uruguay had done the previous night but with far greater success, matching the Spaniards blow for blow. As Spain gradually earned more possession, Paraguay formed two notably narrow banks of four, barely a few yards from one another, and said “go wide”. When Spain did, the result was much as when Brazil stifled Chile, with crosses easily snuffed and success only likely to come from a dribble or piece of skill from Villa.

Something new was needed. I’m no fan of playing Alonso and Busquets together, especially against opposition set up as Paraguay were, but the upside of introducing Fabregas for Torres (strangely stationed on the right at the start, although the front three interchanged) was that his role would be far forward, essentially a free one, operating wherever he pleased between the margins of four. As we saw in the first half of the Premier League season, particularly, there are few more devastating in such circumstances. He brought better out of Iniesta, who grew into the game’s best player, dragged Paraguayan defenders and midfielders into areas they didn’t appreciate, added variation and depth to a setup that had looked uncharacteristically flat. He didn’t win the game alone for Spain but the change of structure itself – along with Cardozo’s miss, which was always going to be more defining than Alonso’s – certainly did.

It was hard on Paraguay, but at least I don’t have to make good my promise to pay someone to take my ticket to a Uruguay v Paraguay final. For Spain, next, comes the final this confusing tournament should probably have seen. Are we going to learn not to write off the Germans? Enough will be written about that match and I’m very short on time – but what a fine blend of the modern and a few traditional habits that side is. It’s not even that they’re the most clinical German side ever – but they’re by far and away the best in this tournament at turning defence into attack. In style, attitude and approach, Germany has learned its lessons in the same manner that England has refused to. Spain will need, for once, to start well in the semi-final because I think first goal wins in this one. Much as we pondered with the Brazilians, how would Germany react to going behind? And what will happen to the Spaniards if it, once again, takes than an hour to start playing? In a tournament that’s seen a number of sides promise much before fizzling startlingly, we hope these two can produce something special at the same time.

In other news, a whole week with no game to attend. This might start to feel like a holiday. From noon today is the 400-strong mega-party that seals the culmination of Julia and Vuli’s home blessing. Bouncy castles and inflatable table football for the kids mixed with the more traditional sights, smells and sounds brought by the sizeable representation from the Eastern Cape – the place extraordinary to behold already. Many of Vuli’s family have arrived from Umtata, two hours away by plane. A large number are of the Madiba clan, Nelson Mandela’s own, and we were invited to sit in a circle with them early yesterday afternoon as ‘Mqomboti’, the Xhosa beer that has the taste and consistency of a not-so-innocent smoothie, was passed around and stories told. We had to make our excuses early – but all that we do, see and hear today should more than compensate.

Then, early tomorrow morning, we leave for Livingstone in Zambia. That’s a little bit of a personal pilgrimmage for me, having spent a memorable summer there at the age of 17 a decade ago, and I cannot wait. We even met an old guy, now resident in Kitwe, on the bus last night who knows former Zambian MP and lodge-owner Rolf Shenton, whom I befriended back then. I’ll blog more about that once we’ve arrived, because the party is soon to begin. That’s also going to be true for one of Spain, Germany, Holland and Uruguay just one week from now.

(PS – I promise these articles will, for the next week at least, no longer be headed by hastily-taken Blackberry shots of players taking penalties. Variety is a USB lead from my camera…)