Thursday, January 29, 2015
The Aurangabad Trip - Part 1

This holiday was not supposed to happen. Our plans for a weekend break were surely too late in the day to succeed. After all, it was an extra-long weekend with 15th August falling on a Friday and the following Monday being a bank holiday on account of Navroze. A quick trawl of the travel websites threw up dead end after dead end; hotels were booked out, trains were not available and airfares were threatening to shoot beyond the atmosphere altogether.

 

Then suddenly, things fell in place. We identified Aurangabad as the destination; a convenient base to explore Ajanta and Ellora. We discovered that the Jan Shatabdi express still had seats available. And finally, tucked away in a corner of TripAdvisor, we discovered a brand new hotel in town that still had a few rooms available!

 

Sometimes a holiday will find you and arm-twist fate into removing the obstacles it had peevishly placed in your way!

 

So we were set. After our Rajasthan sojourn, it would be another tryst with ancient and medieval India. On our itinerary were the storied caves of Ajanta and Ellora, the steadfast fort of Daulatabad and a glimpse of the Mughal Empire in the Deccan through the tomb of Auranzeb and the mausoleum of his wife, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara.

 

Our journey to Aurangabad was tiring but, as you would expect, eventful! It was one of the typical train journeys of India enjoyed in the original 'cattle class' - a grimy old compartment, narrow uncomfortable seats and a people crowding the aisle, which effectively resulted in us being under seat-arrest for the seven hour journey. The only solace came once the concrete jungle of Mumbai yielded to the lush green countryside and the first rush of the cool moist monsoon air came in through the windows. A source of considerable entertainment and sensory stimuli were the indomitable salesmen who forced their way through the crowd peddling hot sugary tea, chocolates, the ubiquitous 'vada-pav', roasted and fried groundnuts, colourful mobile phone accessories, magazines and toys.

 

As I look back, I regret not buying a set of earphones which were being offered for just forty rupees, they definitely looked sturdier than the ones I was using. On the return journey my wife got a scratch-guard installed on her phone for the princely sum of twenty rupees! And if you ever find yourself making this journey then do lookout for the groundnut sellers who board the train after Manmad station, their fried groundnuts are particularly spicy and tasty.

 

We reached Aurangabad a full fifteen minutes early. The large station was brightly illuminated, unusually clean and quite empty which made our arrival all the more dramatic; an important train pulling into a station and unleashing pandemonium! It took us a good quarter of an hour just to reach the exit and when I looked back the station had been restored to its former placid self. Outside, it was fairly easy to catch an auto-rickshaw, and on telling the driver that we were on a holiday, he offered to take us to Ellora, Daulatabad and the other spots around the city for an extremely reasonable price!

 

Out hotel was rather incongruously named 'Green Olive'. However it was just perfect, only ten minutes from the station, brand-new with extremely clean and well-appointed rooms. Their staff is courteous to the point of being obsequious and they serve some fine food in their restaurant. Their kathi rolls, mutton thali, butter chicken, mashed potato and grilled vegetables are highly recommended.


Posted at 06:13 pm by nitid
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Thursday, September 18, 2014
"NO" is the right answer....

Today, the fate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be changed forever. Scotland will hold a referendum on independence; and the momentum is firmly with the pro-independence 'Yes' camp led by Alex Salmond.

Sitting here in Mumbai, thousands of miles away, and having never even seen that country, I still hope that Scotland remains within the UK. For me, a half Tamil, half Bengali and full Indian, living in a land where a hundred nations coexist and a thousand cultures flourish, the Scottish demand for independence seems to be singularly selfish and short-sighted. Are the Scots trying to break free to protect their identity? Are they trying to unshackle themselves from economic slavery? The answer on both counts seems to be overwhelmingly negative.

Scotland has its own identity within the United Kingdom. That identity has, if anything, been flourishing over the past few decades. Any decently aware person knows that Scotland and England are not the same; Scotch Whiskey is never going to become Brit Whiskey and Scotland will always continue to battle England in the furious football and rugby fields.

On the economic side, there are genuine concerns. Yes, the North Sea Oil belongs to Scotland; but to claim that Scotland is being deprived of the financial benefits of its oil to the advantage of the English is incorrect. If Scotland is sharing its revenues it is also receiving its share of economic support from the rest of UK with NHS being just one of them. This arrangement is probably not the best; but is independence the solution?

In the utopian world which the 'Yes' camp is advertising, Scotland will be a thriving nation, fuelled by its oil revenues and a thriving manufacturing and knowledge economy. It will be a more equal nation where laissez-faire will not rule and bring in its wake concentration of wealth in the hands of the fortunate few. Sadly this vision is a mirage. An independent Scotland will be very rich today. A generation down the line the tourism industry will continue to thrive, the global demand for Scotch whiskey will continue to grow; but the burden of an ageing population and declining oil revenues will start to bite. And Scotland will be alone in facing the economic headwinds. It will not have the security of the UK, it will not benefit from London’s position as one of the centres of gravity of global finance.

The most important thing is that Scotland will be independent and insignificant. A beautiful country making the world’s best single malt and having that Loch Ness monster hiding somewhere.  And they won’t be alone. The rump UK will be joining them. Without Scotland, UK will survive but cease to be Great.

Nationalism is not the answer to Scotland’s problems. Scotland is already independent within the United Kingdom. And if they choose to stay, they will stay in a new UK; for UK will have to change and assume a new avatar. So the choice facing the Scots is this: do they stay independent, together and strong or independent, alone and weak.

  

Posted at 10:53 am by nitid
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Thursday, July 17, 2014
In the end the best team won.

A thoroughly entertaining and well-contested final was settled by the smallest of details. A burst of energy, a moment of composure and a superb piece of skill from two young gladiators was all that separated Germany and Argentina. That the moment arrived only in the 114th minute of the match was a tribute to both teams - the sheer strength and flair of the Germans; the grim determination and equally abundant skills of the Argentines. The match was probably the best final since 1986, and, until that moment of magic from Andre Schurrle and Mario Goetze, could have gone either way.

The match had been billed as the best team against the best player. However in reality it was Germany's all-round strength against Argentina's midfield and defence. The Albiceleste had come into the world cup as the team that would outscore their opponents, with a little magician named Messi excelling as a centre-forward. However, the Argentine attack proved to be one of the flop-shows of the tournament while their defenders emerged as heroes - the unknown Marcos Rojo excelling on the flank, Demichelis silencing his critics while Zabaleta and Garay enhanced their already-established reputations. In midfield it was Javier Mascherano who was the key man, and by the semi-final he head clearly surpassed Messi as the best player in blue and white. In fact, he was the best defensive midfielder in Brazil 2014.

Argentina surprised everyone and they actually played their best game in the tournament, with Mascherano and Biglia successfully containing the German attacks and launching quick counter-attacks down the flank where Ezequiel Lavezzi was proving particularly strong. Messi was troubling the German defence but the peerless Bastian Schweinsteiger was getting stronger as the match progressed and soon he would be in command in the middle of the park leading to Messi's eclipse.

They key moment, came as early as the 21st minute; courtesy a mistake from Toni Kroos, who headed the ball back to Higuain. However, in what would set the tone for the match, Higuain's composure deserted him and he shot tamely wide while one-on-one with Neuer. It was a costly miss and its real effect was visible a few minutes later when a swift counterattack saw Lavezzi send a perfect cross which Higuain would stab into the net. It was a brilliant goal but invalid due to off-side. In his eagerness to atone for his mistake, Higuain had not checked his run! A momentary pause would have enabled him to beat the off-side trap and score.

The German's grew stronger as the match went on.  Schurrle, on for the unfortunate Kramer, forced a fine save from Romero and then in the last minute of the first half, Howedes headed a corner against the post.             

The second half and most of the extra time was increasingly ragged as Germany pressed on while Argentina fought back; their cause not helped by the inexplicable substitution of Lavezzi with Aguero. Without Lavezzi the threat down the flank disappeared and Lahm was able to move forward and initiate attacks. Schweinsteiger was ruling the midfield but Mascherano was staying equal to the task of stopping the Germans. So the match went into extra time; with the peerless Klose bowing out to a standing ovation, making way for Mario Goetze - the old guard handing over the mantle to the new.

By this time Messi was completely out of the equation - he was too exhausted. Schweinsteiger was still as powerful as a locomotive, despite getting a nasty cut on his face while challenging Aguero. Argentina had one more chance to win; but Rodrigo Palacio panicked and lobbed the ball over Neuer, well wide of target.

Then in the 114th minute of an engaging battle, Andre Schurrle found the energy to sprint down the left flank and sent in a perfect cross. Just for a moment Argentina switched off; Romero failed to spot Goetze running in, as did Garay and Demichelis. The young German chested the ball, turning his body mid-air and then followed up with a neat placement past Romero. The winning goal had arrived; looked extremely simple, but was actually a goal worthy to win the World Cup.

A last moment of drama would come when Messi would win a direct free-kick; but you always knew that he would miss the target.

In football, it is usually the best team that wins a tournament, and the Germans were the best. In fact, it would take a brave person to bet against a Teutonic domination of world football. The Germans have succeeded in putting in place a brilliant framework of developing young players into world-class footballers. To this they have added a new playing style which takes a bit of the tiki-taka and fuses it with an attempt to play decisive attacking football, where the team presses their opponents high on the pitch and the goalkeeper actually plays like a fifth defender, venturing far afield to mop up loose balls and occasionally, the misfiring opposition striker.

  

Posted at 08:03 pm by nitid
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Thursday, July 10, 2014
The massacre at the Minierao

"Germany will edge out Brazil, winning by the odd goal or through penalties". 

I have already eaten my words, but I am still in a state of absolute shock. In fact this is also a "Brazil moment" as far as my football punditry goes; the correct result gives me 1 point, but for my score prediction I should face a deduction of at least 10 points.

The Germans were strong, efficient and skilful. They played 'O Jogo Bonito'. They got their tactics absolutely right and, man-for-man, were the better team. However this is Brazil we are talking about, not San Manrino. Losing 1 - 7 is not just down to the superior technical ability of Germany but to a complete loss of self-belief and mental strength by the Salecao. 

They started the match at a high tempo, after the usual adrenaline boosting rendition of the National Anthem. They even had Neymar’s shirt for extra motivation, and this time they looked steely and resolved - no teary eyes and visages overcome with emotion. They dominated the first five minutes but you somehow got the nagging feeling that this was a team playing with a fair amount of fear. They desperately needed to score an early goal to settle their nerves but that never happened. Instead we saw the first dangerous attack orchestrated by the Germans, with Thomas Muller breaking down the flank. That attack petered out, but Brazil's worst fears had been confirmed - Germany would not be bullied by the atmosphere and neither would they sit back and let themselves be dictated in the middle of the park.

In the end, it was not Neymar, but Thiago Silva who was missed. It is now evident that he was carrying the team on his shoulders - marshalling the troops, keeping up the morale and the belief. In his absence, David Luiz was all at sea. He completely failed to notice Thomas Muller for Germany's opener and that goal was the one which cracked Brazil. In the build up to the corner, Marcelo had been caught out in the German half and Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos had broken down the same flank and forced Brazil to concede the corner.

At 0 - 1 down Brazil still had a chance; a single goal deficit can be overcome and we were waiting for David Luiz, Julio Cesar and Maicon to rally the troops and push back the Germans. It never happened.

Marcelo, Luiz, Maicon and Dante in defence; Gutavo and Fernandinho in midfield; they all lost their heads and lost Brazil the game. Luiz and Dante never got close enough to commit a foul, let along tackle their opponents. Marcelo was regularly caught out high in the wings and the duo of Gustavo and Fernandinho were just outnumbered. It was embarrassing to see the Germans pour forward virtually unopposed, threatening to score every minute. The four goals in six minutes that followed was perhaps the most ruthless destruction of a team in modern football. After that it was only the last rites remaining to be concluded and that duly happened with a score line that can be mistaken for a tennis tie-break.

So while Germany celebrates their passage to Rio and relish a crack at another title, Brazil has a lot of introspection to do. They need to avoid falling into the trap of thinking this result as a freak event. They should not find excuses in the absence of Neymar and Silva. Even Senor Scolari should not be given the chance to say that he got the tactics wrong. (He should have strengthened the midfield by playing Paulinho and left out the inept Fred. The 4-3-2-1 formation would have made it a little more difficult for Germany to control the midfield).

They need to take their time, allow the dust to settle and then take a long and hard look at the way they play their 'futebol' and rediscover the way to play 'O jogo bonito'.

If you look at evolution of the Brazilian teams from the 1990 World Cup onwards you will notice that the emphasis has shifted from creativity to physical prowess. The creative midfielders in the mould of a Xavi, Iniesta, Pirlo or Scholes are no longer found in the Salecao. Instead we have holding midfielders - physically strong players who can outmuscle opponents in midfield and defence and then launch quick counter-attacks to kill off the opponents. Romario, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo have been replaced by Jo, Gutavo, Hulk and Fred. They are not in the same league. They form a strong unit which can deal with most teams but will be found out by teams of similar technical prowess, pace and skill – like Germany, Argentina, Holland and even by Colombia, had the referee clamped down on the fouling.

Now is a good time for Brazil to redefine their footballing philosophy. They should bring back their emphasis on playing creative, flowing football backed up by a strong set of defenders. An often overlooked fact about Brazil is that they have usually had a great defence every time they won the World Cup. Remember Aldair, Marcio Santos, Cafu? Or to go back further Mario Zagallo, Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos, Carlos Alberto. These guys complimented Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho,Tostao, Romario, Ronaldo and the other superstars.


Posted at 04:09 pm by nitid
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Monday, July 07, 2014
And now there are 4!

Brasil versus Germany and Argentina versus Holland.

This is the best possible semi-final line-up in terms of pedigree, from the teams that participated in this World Cup.  These 4 teams have 10 titles and 21 appearances in finals between them and you can expect the semi-finals to be tough uncompromising affairs with no quarter asked for and none given.

Brazil against Germany will pit the two most successful teams of all time. Brazil has 5 titles and this is the 11th time they will finish in the top four. Germany has 3, but it can be argued that they have a better record in terms of sheer consistency. They have participated in 18 tournaments; this is the 13th time they will finish among the top 4 and this is their fourth consecutive semi-final. In fact, except 1938, they have always finished in the top 8. Surprisingly, these two behemoths have met only once before - in the 2002 final, which Brazil won 2-0.

This match will definitely be a classic - maybe not in terms of the football on display, but for all the drama and tension which will accompany it. The sub-plots are already playing out; Senor Scolari has built up the siege mentality of "the world versus Brazil". Thiago Silva's suspension will add to it and they will want to win the match for Neymar. Germany will feel that their time has come; after all it has been twenty four years since their last triumph, in 1990.

In fact Brazil is slightly on the back foot, without Neymar and Thiago Silva. Silva formed a sold central-defensive partnership with David Luiz which was critical in containing Chile and Colombia. It is this partnership that will be missed, even though they have an able replacement in Dante. At the other end, Neymar is irreplaceable. Willian will come in if he can shrug off a minor injury, but playing against your strongest opponent without two of your best players is a major setback.

Germany is strong, both physically and mentally. They will not get overawed by the atmosphere or by the tactical fouling that Brazil employed so cynically against Colombia and will most definitely employ again. In fact, Germany will probably give it back through Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira; and they can definitely play a tough battle of attrition in the middle of the park.

In such a scenario it is the referee, Marco Rodriguez of Mexico, who will determine the way the match will be played. If he decides to be like Carlos Velasco and keeps his cards in his pocket, then we will see a new record for fouls committed with Brazil easily winning that contest. However, if Senor Rodriguez decided to be strict and clamps down on fouling, then Brazil will be at a distinct disadvantage and the Germans will dominate the midfield.

Brazil will be solidly backed by the spectators inside the historic Estadio Minierao; but the longer the match goes without Brazil getting the lead, the tension and the nervousness will build up. That could undermine the Salecao who have more to lose than the Germans. In the end the match will be decided on the small details - a mistake here, a piece of brilliance there. In 2002 it was an error by the outstanding Oliver Kahn which took the match beyond Germany; either team can suffer a similar fate on Tuesday.

The other semi-final will see Argentina try and translate their considerable reputation as a strong footballing nation into something more tangible. Since 1990 they have not managed to reach the semi-finals and their last triumph was in the Copa America in 1993. Time and again they have fallen short - to Holland in '98, to England and Sweden in the group stages in '02 and to Germany in the last two tournaments. 

They will feel that fate is conspiring to take them all the way, especially since they have come this far without playing well. They were average in their group games and relied too much on Messi. It was only in the second half against Switzerland and against Belgium that you noticed other players, namely di Maria and Higuaín. Their game plan will remain the same; firmly centred on Messi. He will roam about the midfield and try to draw two or three Dutch players towards him and then hope that his teammates can exploit the openings.  To win Argentina will need Higuaín can repeat his performance against Belgium; they will need someone to replace di Maria who is out with an injury; they will need Gago and Mascherano to impose themselves in midfield and they will need their defence to hold out against Robben, van Persie and Sneijder.

Holland, on the other hand, is the best team never to have won the World Cup. They were the best team in 1974 and 78 but ended up as the runner-up. In 2010 they decided to abandon football and kick the Spaniards and deserved to lose. This time they have played exceptionally well. The Spanish armada was dismantled, Australia was overcome, Chile and Mexico were overpowered and against Costa Rica they were denied a victory in open play by the goalposts. Arjen Robben is the main threat with his speedy runs down the flanks. Sneijder and Daley Blind will look to win the midfield while their 3-man defense of Ron Vlaar, Martins Indi and de Vrij is solid. What has been remarkable is the fact that the Dutch have displayed tremendous stamina, playing at pace even in the searing heat. That can make a big difference.

And then there is Luis van Gaal. That last minute goalkeeping substitution against Costa Rica was sheer audacity. Expect him to come up with an out-of-the box tactic again. What exactly it will be will be known only after the match starts, but it will be something brave.

My prediction: Germany will edge out Brazil, winning by the odd goal or through penalties. Argentina can pip the Dutch with a moment of brilliance from Messi but the loss of di Maria tilts the balance in Holland’s favour. So it looks like a Germany vs Holland final.


Posted at 05:56 pm by nitid
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Friday, July 04, 2014
And now there are 8!

I was afraid that the knock-out stages would see teams retreating into a shell of caution and try to avoid defeat. These fears proved misplaced as far as the round of 16 was concerned. We had some excellent games and all the favourites advanced. Those who bowed out, gave the winners a run for their money, and left the field defeated but not beaten. In fact it was some of the winners who were embarrassed, and they will be thanking their God's for scraping through.

Brazil had luck on their side against Chile; but deserved to advance. They are receiving a lot of flak for their less than impressive displays but then they are playing under tremendous pressure; anything short of winning the trophy will be counted as a total failure. They were lackadaisical in defence, which allowed Chile to equalise; and in the second half Julio Cesar had to make one of the saves of the tournament. Brazil had its moments as well. They were stronger in the first half and, although they disappeared as an attacking force in the second half, they were denied a legitimate goal scored by Hulk. Mauricio Pinilla was desperately unlucky to have hit the crossbar in the last moments of extra time; but then that is football.

Arjen Robben did dive to win the penalty that sent Mexico out. However, once Wesley Snijder had equalised, there was no doubt that the Dutch would win. They were the better team and were growing stronger as the match progressed. In fact, they should have had a penalty in the first half, when Robben was kicked by Rafael Marquez. So the decisions evened out.

Germany and France were given a tough fight by Algeria and Nigeria; but in the end their technical superiority allowed them to take control of the game and advance. Belgium dominated USA; but Tim Howard played the match of his life and in the end when all seemed lost, the Americans managed to find some last scrap of resolve and energy to virtually over-run Belgium. They fell short, but to the better and more deserving team.

Colombia actually outclassed Uruguay, who never looked like winning the game. James Rodriguez scored a superb goal and after that it was only the fighting spirit of Diego Godin and his team that kept them going. Edinson Cavani was expected to shine, but he was superbly contained by Mario Yepes and his defenders.

I was extremely happy that Costa Rica advanced and the Greeks went out. It was a tremdous display of character to hold out for more than an hour with 10 men and then take five perfect penalties. As far as the Greeks are concerned, I really do not like them. They are dogged and determined but all they do is defend deep and try to pick teams on the counter-attack. They do not possess any player of notable class and their play is all about organisation and opportunism. They are the purveyors of "O Jogo Chato" – the boring game.

Another team that seems to be embracing "Jogo Chato" is my favourite Argentina. They have the best attacking players in Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria; but a weak midfield has undermined them and it was most evident against a plucky and organised Swiss side. The Albiceleste dominated possession and the midfield, but their build-up was too slow and laboured, allowing the Swiss to quickly close them down and counter-attack. A stronger team like Belgium or Holland will not waste the scoring opportunities like the Swiss. In the end the Swiss were a heartbeat away from taking the game to penalties; Dzemaili hitting the post in the dying minutes and they will rue that momentary lapse in midfield which allowed Messi to go on a run and pass the ball for di Maria to score.

The match was also the swansong for Ottmar Hitzfeld and I certainly felt sorry for that champion coach. He probably deserved one last hurrah before walking away into the sunset.He leaves the game with dignity, his stature undiminished. He lost his brother just before the match, but showed no sign of personal grief as he stood on the touchline for the last time - strong and stoic.

And now there are eight. Come Sunday, there will be four. If you asked me, I will stick my neck out and here are my predictions for the quarter finals.

Brazil 2 - 1 Colombia.

Colombia has been on a roll; scoring 11 times and conceding just 2. However they have not really been tested by a top team so far. It was easy to dispatch Greece and Japan in the group stages. Uruguay, for all its exploits in beating England and Italy, and minus Luis Suarez, is just above-average. Ivory Coast was probably the strongest team they have faced and although they won that match, they were pinned back in the last quarter which saw Gervinho score a beautiful goal. I think that the Brazilian defence, for all its faults, will be able to cope with James Rodriguez, Quadrado and Jackson Martinez; and when they cannot, Julio Cesar will keep them alive. At the other end, I am not sure if Mario Yepes and his defenders can contain Neymar. In the midfield the creativity of Oscar and the energy of Fernandinho will be the key towards unlocking the Colombian defence and I think they will deliver.

Germany 2 - 1 France. (After Extra Time)

"Football is a simple game. 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win". As far as this match is concerned, I will not disagree with Gary Lineker. Die Mannschaft, as the Germans are known, know how to win matches that others lose. Manuel Neuer is immense in goal and also comes out to play as a sweeper.  Their defence is going to do just enough against Benzema, Giroud and company. In midfield Paul Pogba will excel for France but again the Germans will refuse to die. In front of goal they will have Thomas Muller to score one and then Miroslav Klose will come on and stick out a toe for the winner.

Holland 3 - 1 Costa Rica

Costa Rica has been immense in this tournament, but the Dutch will be too strong for them. It won’t be easy for them because the Costa Ricans will stand strong and refuse to be cowed down. However two late goals will send the Oranje army through. Will Robben dive again? I think he will, but it will not have any bearing on the outcome.

Argentina 1 - 2 Belgium.

Yes, you read that correctly. Argentina will be knocked out by Belgium.

Like Colombia, the Albiceleste have not been tested by a strong team. The Belgian midfield is physically and tactically stronger, while Argentina lacks a creative central midfielder who can support Messi.  Kompany, Vermaelen and Alderweireld are great defenders who will be able to restrict Messi and di Maria. When they fail, Thibaut Courtois can be trusted to make a sensational save or two.  At the other end, the Argentine defence will miss Marcos Rojo, suspended after picking up a yellow card against the Swiss, and they will struggle to contain Eden Hazard’s dribbles and Lukaku’s forceful runs.


Posted at 01:56 pm by nitid
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Friday, June 27, 2014
Brasil 2014 - After the group stages

First Spain, then Italy. One after another they fell, those giants. Those storied nations, with proud footballing histories. In their wake we had new champions in Costa Rica and Chile. Harbingers of the power shift in football. In the end only six European nations survived the group stages as against ten in 2006 and seven in 2010. One of Germany or Holland, and to a lesser extent France, can win the title, but they are the last redoubts in a continent whose footballing supremacy is being overwhelmed by Latin America.

In part it is due to pure technical ability; the average footballer in Latin America is more skilled than his European counterpart. However the bigger factor is the role played by European club football which has enriched Latin American countries more than their host nations. Players from Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and even those of Argentina and Brazil have immensely benefitted from playing in the top leagues of Europe. They have improved technically, have adapted better to tactical team formations and structures and in general, have improved their all-round ability. 

This has happily coincided with another development - top South American coaches getting exposed to European Club football; like Manuel Pellegrini, Diego Simeone, Marcelo Bielsa and Tata Martino to name a few. And before all of this, we had South American teams successfully using the U-17 and U-21 FIFA tournaments as the platform on which they developed their talent and more importantly made their players identify and bond with the national team. Thus we have the top Latin American players ever willing to take the trans-Atlantic flights to play for their countries in the Copa America and World Cup Qualifiers, while in Europe, especially in England, the tendency of the players is to prioritize their club careers. Somewhere this desire also makes a difference.

While Latin America is on the upswing, the same cannot be said of Asia. Japan and South Korea reached the round of 16 in South Africa, but could not manage to win a single game in Brazil. In fact the four nations from the AFC earned a total of 3 points combined and a negative goal difference of minus 12.

However African countries continue to impress, with Nigeria and Algeria reaching the knockout stages. Ivory Coast lost out due to blatant dishonesty by the Greeks, while Ghana was plain unlucky to lose to USA and then draw against Germany. Only Cameroon had a miserable time, entirely due to indiscipline, but they still played commendably against Brazil. In fact it is high time FIFA increases the allocation of slots to Africa. Asia and Oceania combined should get 3 places as should North America. South America should get 5 spots, Europe 12 and Africa should get 6 places. 2 teams from Europe, 2 from Africa, 2 from Asia and 1 each from North and South America should then compete for the 2 remaining slots.

So with 16 teams now left in place, it is time to get to the business end of the world cup. On the evidence of the group stages, there are just no favourites. Every team has shown its vulnerable side. The Brazilan midfield has been underwhelming, but Boss Scolari seems to have fixed it by replacing Paulinho with Fernandinho. The French and the Belgians are yet to be tested by a top-level side. Argentina has no defence worth its name and only relies on Messi. Germany looked shaky against Ghana while you can never be sure what the Dutch will do.

My picks for the teams in the quarter finals are Brazil, Holland, Germany, France, Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia and Belgium. However if someone were to ask me about potential upsets, I would pick Switzerland vs Argentina and Algeria vs Germany as the candidates.

And finally there is Luis Suarez - the black spot on an otherwise beautiful tournament. All you can say is that at least he is not racist when it comes to biting opponents.


Posted at 05:12 pm by nitid
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Estou amando esta copa do mundo!!

Brazil 2014 is my 7th World Cup and, after 2 rounds of the group stage, it is turning out to be the best of them all! The matches, with a few exceptions, have been excellent. It seems that most of the teams have again realized that football is a beautiful and simple game, where the most important thing is to score more goals than your opponents. They have displayed an admirable spirit to attack and outscore the opposition, while maintaining defensive discipline. The result has been what purists will call the "Jogo Bonito" or beautiful game. 

It is a far cry from Italia'90, when catenaccio destroyed the game and we saw teams sit back and defend deep, happy to escape with a 1-0 victory or through penalties. In fact Argentina went all the way to the final, winning just 2 matches and scoring only 5 goals! Then there was that dreary final in USA'94; 90 minutes of meaningless passing and penalties. The last one in South Africa saw Spain tiki-taka to the title, passing their opponents into submission but scoring just 8 goals. The common factor in all these tournaments was a footballing philosophy that either devalued the importance of scoring or over-complicated the game. In catenaccio teams tried to prevent the opposition from scoring while looking to nick a single goal on the counter-attack. It resulted in dour midfield battles, hard tackles and rare goal-scoring opportunities. Tiki-taka emphasized on passing the ball around in little triangles and then suddenly breaking forward to score. The most important thing in this philosophy was the pass and the goal was seen as the outcome of a series of perfectly executed passes. When implemented initially by a team overflowing with gifted players like FC Barcelona in 2009-11, it was good; subsequently as defending teams learnt to cope, it became boring; an endless series of passes in the middle of the park, something aptly described by Gary Neville as "possession without purpose". The best example was in this years Champions League, when Bayern Munich passed the ball around till the cows entered the Old Trafford pitch.

While the hope remains that we continue to see more of Jogo Bonito in this world cup, there is a fair bit of apprehension that teams will retreat into a shell of caution and cynicism once the knock-out stage begins. That will be a real tragedy for it will rob Brazil 2014 of its most tangible legacy - of rediscovering the innate beauty and simplicity of the game.  

Meanwhile, to look back at the games that have been played, it is clear that this has been an epochal tournament. Europe is struggling; its players, developed in the controlled regimes of club academies, finding it difficult to challenge the superior technical flair of their Latin American counterparts, flair that has been honed through a childhood of playing in the streets and in little courtyards, where individual ball skills count more than passing strategies. Of the European teams only Netherlands, France and Germany look strong. The Dutch have always been skilful and this time they are really playing like a team. Germany is Germany. You never underestimate them. Italy was demolished by Costa Rica and while I am backing them to beat, or at least draw with Uruguay, there is a big question mark on them. Belgium, highly rated, has been unspectacular so far - ponderous and slow in their passing; but they have serious talent in their ranks. 

Ironically the South American giants, Argentina and Brazil look the least impressive. However the hosts should improve and they showed a glimpse of it against Cameroon. They remain the best bet for the tile as they have the best defender in the world in Thiago Silva and Oscar and Neymar are there to provide the creative flair. As far as Argentina is concerned, everyone expects Messi to win the cup, like Maradona did in 1986. However in 1986 Maradona had an extremely competent supporting cast; Nery Pumpido in goal, Sergio Batista and Oscar Ruggeri in defence and a solid midfield. This time they have a wealth of attacking talent, though Aguero and Higuain look jaded; a decent midfield and a suspect defence and goalkeeper. Iran showed that Messi can be contained and stronger teams will look to exploit the vulnerable defence through fast counter-attacks. The key men will be Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano; the former has to maintain a supply line for Messi and the latter has to protect the defenders.   

So based on the evidence of the first two rounds, France is the best team, Costa Rica is the surprise package, Guillermo Ochoa is the best goalkeeper, Thiago Silva is the outstanding defender, Artuto Vidal leads the midfielders and although others have scored more, Miroslav Klosa is the pick of the strikers. His 15th goal in World Cups makes him immortal and he rightfully deserved to be called "Der Stealth Bomber".

And, finally, to ensure that at least some things remain constant, we have dear old England. Another tournament, another early exit and now we will have the bi-annual hand-wringing and search for solutions to make the team competitive. The soul searching will be on till the Premier League kicks off. Then normal service will resume.    


Posted at 04:44 pm by nitid
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Thursday, June 12, 2014
The Cup that cheers...

Brazil 2014 has started.

The World Cup returns to the spiritual home of football. The whole world seems to be excited, but the Brasilieros are a little low on the enthusiasm, with justifiable reasons. However as Brazil progress the atmosphere will lighten up and if the Salecao win the final, it will be carnival time in Rio!

Over the next couple of weeks, 32 teams will compete. Some will be eyeing the ultimate prize. Some will look for redemption, towards exceeding expectations or bettering a previous best performance. The rest will fight for self-respect - to prove that they belong in the biggest stage of national-team football.

64 games will be played. Some will be free-flowing, full of goals and entertainment. A few will be drab affairs with teams trying not to lose. And many will be intense tactical battles with teams trying to dominate possession or dominate space or defending deep and launching rapid counter-attacks down the flanks.

If you are a 'neutral', one who wants to see wave upon wave of attacks and lots of goals then you will probably be a bit disappointed. Brazil is the land that gave us 'Jogo Bonito'(the beautiful game), but that style of play died out many years back. This time expect most of the top guns to stick to a disciplined tactical approach designed to first avoid defeat, and then to get the victory. Brazil will be doing that, so will Holland, Italy, England and France. Spain will revert to tiki-taka, Germany and Belgium will more adventurous, while Argentina and Chile will try to play the 'Jogo Bonito'

However, if you are rooting for a team, then you will hardly be bored, for every minute will come with an emotion - joy, despair, frustration, anger and elation. And as the matches reach the climax it will be what Sir Alex Ferguson aptly described as ‘squeaky bum time’.

So who will be crowned World Champions? My prediction says that it will be Brazil.

Germany and Italy look to be likely semi-finalists while Belgium can emulate their heroics of 1986. If Spain clicks, they will go to the finals. Otherwise they finish second in their group and get dumped out in the round of 16 by Brazil. Argentina has the best attack but one of the most suspect defence and any match against disciplines opponents will be potential banana skins. If luck favours the 'albiceleste' they will play Brazil in the final. England will do well and emerge unscathed from their group but will be sent home in the quarter-final, most probably by Brazil.


Posted at 06:57 pm by nitid
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Saturday, May 17, 2014
The Rajasthan Diary - Epilogue

We had a lot of time in Jaisalmer, giving us ample scope to relax and, in my case, retire my sleep debt. Other than the havelis there are the small markets in the town which we explored. You get good quality camel and goat leather items – wallets, footwear and bags. At the roadside vegetable markets you will be surprised by the quality of fresh greens; quite out of place in the arid environment. Next to the Patwa Haveli there is a small market selling colourful wooden puppets and jewellery.

 

Close to our hotel was the Gadisar Lake, once the main source of water for the city. It’s a pleasant place with rows of temples on the bank and lots of migratory birds. Here you can opt for a paddle boat ride or dress in the traditional attire of the locals and get your photograph.

 

On the evening of 23rd we bid adieu to Jaisalmer. From the railway station we could see the fort standing high and mighty but looking dull as the sun was hidden behind the clouds. The train journey was uneventful. The compartment was crowded with tourists, some completing their holidays and returning home, while others were proceeding towards their next destination.

 

The next day was mostly spent in Jodhpur airport as all flights were delayed. Before we took off, I got a glimpse of some of the Sukhoi-30’s of the IAF taking off for reconnaissance sorties. They looked impressive, those lethal little birds, with their twin engines roaring belligerently.

 

A smooth takeoff; an aerial sweep of Jodhpur; a last glimpse of the fort and the palace; and that ended one of the best holidays I had ever had.


Posted at 10:05 am by nitid
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