Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Road to 2010 Update

So we're 409 days away from the opening game of the 2010 World Cup, about 440 days until the Final game that will crown a world champion and the game I want to be at.

How am I doing on the Road to the 2010 Final?

Good and bad.

The good?

- I've learned a great deal about Africa, the World Cup and football in general.
- I've met some amazing people.
- I've made some money!
- I've received some good press and honed my writing skills (I think).

The bad?

- It's a lot harder than I thought!

I hope to get to South Africa without spending a cent of my own money.

I'm not sure this is possible. I've received exciting proposals from readers in Africa that I'm still following up on.

When and if something pans out, I'll let you know.

At the bottom of it all, I want this blog to be:

- Educational. Africa's a varied continent and not just the doom and gloom the Western media would like us to believe. Football is but one way of showing this.
- Fun! Why do this if it isn't fun? The people I've met, the games I've watched ... ALL worth it, so far!
- A source of information for anyone wanting to go to South Africa for the matches. More on that in the next few weeks and months.
- A way to raise money for a charity or two in Africa that deals with children and soccer. More on this, as well.

I have a LONG way to go.

I need to step up my game.

To put it in footballing terms, I'm still in the qualifying round, but I need to get my act together and rally the troops.

ANY and ALL suggestions would be much appreciated. Any HELP would me much appreciated.

Thanks for reading and for accompanying me on the Road to South Africa.

South Africa's Neighbors to Help With Power

408 days until the start of the 2010 World Cup ...

Today, South Africa's bordering neighbors said they will help make sure there will be enough electricity for next year's World Cup.

The Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) met in Mozambique to discuss how the region can ensure South Africa does not suffer power cuts during the event.

The World Cup hosts were crippled by power cuts in January last year.

Eleven countries agreed to reduce pressure on the regional grid during the 2010 tournament.

They will encourage manufacturers to slow production during peak evening periods for the games. They also agreed to boost energy efficiency and maximize power plant production during the events.

"We are delighted with the level of co-operation we are receiving from our SAPP counterparts," Eskom Project 2010 unit managing director Johnny Dladla said.

"This initiative confirms that the 2010 FIFA World Cup is truly and indeed an African event."

In addition to South Africa, the power pool includes Angola, Botswana, DR Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

South Africa was hit early last year by rolling power cuts as Eskom failed to meet increasing demand for electricity.

In November last year, the company signed a US$500 million dollar loan with the African Development Bank to aid its expansion program.

A 4,800 megawatt coal-powered power plant, which would be the fourth-largest in the world, is already under construction but won't be operational until 2012.

MY POV: That's all nice and dandy. How about South Africa help out their northern neighbors Zimbabwe with their human rights struggle under dictator Robert Mugabe?

Now THAT would make this a truly African World Cup ...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Baseball Exec Blasts Soccer in the USA

Wow ... talk about blowing a statement out of proportion.

Yesterday, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber told the Associated Press Sports Editors that he'd noticed many unfilled seats at New York's two new baseball stadiums. The New York Yankees' premium seats were more than half-empty for the five games following their home opener.

"It's incomprehensible that you watch a game, and there will be front-row seats empty," Garber said.

Many of these empty seats are due to the fact that tickets cost more than $2,500 a game.

Today, New York Yankees president Randy Levine blasted back.

"Don Garber discussing Yankee attendance must be a joke," Levine said Friday. "We draw more people in a year than his entire league does in a year. If he ever gets Major League Soccer into the same time zone as the Yankees, we might take him seriously.

"Hey Don, worry about Beckham, not the Yankees. Even he wants out of your league," he said.


Told of Levine's comments, Garber explained his remark.

"When I mentioned the New York Yankees yesterday, my comments were part of a larger assertion that all businesses -- even the most successful sports entities -- are experiencing some impact from the economic downturn," Garber said through a league spokesman.

"The Yankees are one of the world's strongest sports brands and the context of my comments about a few empty seats at Yankee Stadium was to illustrate the economic challenges we are all facing," he said.

MLS averaged 16,460 for 210 regular-season games last year, a total of 3.46 million. The Yankees averaged 53,070 last year in the final season at the old Yankee Stadium, a total of 4.3 million.

MY POV: No wonder soccer's seen as a second-class sport in this country. It's these types of ignorant, vitriolic comments that place soccer in the background instead of at the forefront of the American sporting scene.

ESPN shows highlights of soccer goals on 'SportsCenter' and the commentators either get the player's names wrong or poke fun at the game.

Sports hosts like Jim Rome jump all over soccer every chance they get, for no other reason than they hate the sport. Why? Who knows?

Now, Randy Levine has to open his mouth about a statement meant to discuss the current economic climate, not the Yankees in particular.

Really silly.

I am a huge Yankees fan, but I can see why so many people hate them. Idiots like Levine should be hidden in the back - where they belong.

As for MLS, they're not the #1 sport or even the #5 sport in the United States. But they're surviving. People are going to the matches. And people don't need to spend $2,500 to watch a decent game.

Seems the people running baseball and the Yankees would do well to follow MLS and Don Garber's lead in that respect.

South Africa Elections Go Smoothly

A sense of relief brushed through the footballing world now that South Africa conducted their fourth straight democratic election. Another significant hurdle has been cleared en route to hosting the 2010 World Cup.

According to the New York Times, South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, is once again steamrolling to a big election victory, leading with 67 percent of the vote on Friday after the bulk of the ballots have been counted. The victory will easily propel Jacob Zuma, a populist often surrounded by controversy, into the presidency.

Project 2010 says that Zuma's corruption trial and his election have 'clearly impacted on the psyche of (South Africa) which now needs to regroup in order to ensure that the final preparations for the world’s biggest single-code sporting event go according to plan.'

But if history's an indicator of the future, South Africa will be just fine.

About a year before the 2006 World Cup, Germans were convinced that the tournament would be a failure.

There were serious divisions in that society and it took the launch of a major initiative to unite the country. Government, big business and citizens united behind a holistic brand campaign which improved the economy, attracted international investment and produced a spectacular tournament. It’s safe to say that South Africa is in a similar position to Germany was at this stage in its preparations, albeit for different reasons.

Nevertheless, after months of discord and uncertainty, it can now look forward to a period of stability. As the incoming president, one of the immediate challenges Zuma faces is resolving disputes over the 2010 Bus Rapid Transit system. The first phase of the system was due to kick off in Johannesburg ahead of the Confederations Cup, but the initiative has been rejected by many taxi drivers who believe their jobs and income are now threatened.

Nevertheless, Zuma has built a relationship with them and he says he is looking forward to resolving any outstanding issues. Thanks to years of hard work by numerous role-players, many of the other key 2010 challenges - particularly the stadium construction projects - are well on target. Nevertheless, the next few months will be crucial for this country’s 2010 preparations. The Confederations Cup - a key curtain raiser for 2010 - needs to provide the spark which will set the stage for a tsumami of patriotism that will once again see the rainbow nation uniting for a crucial cause.

MY POV: South Africa is placing a lot of importance on the Confederations Cup. Rightly so. It's an important barometer for the country and the footballing world.

And although I'm not too keen on South African politics, at least there's some stability in this arena. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks Zuma is the right man for the job, as this British journalist stationed in Johannesburg points out for the Telegraph.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No New Viewers for the World Cup?

So you'd think that with more people in the world (isn't the world population increasing?) and new avenues to watch football (cell phones, etc.), the audience for the 2010 World Cup would be the highest ever.

Not so, according to a report from Reuters.

FIFA claimed an audience of 26.3 billion for the 2006 event, broadcast in 214 countries and territories.

"It should be more or less similar for 2010," FIFA's television chief Niclas Ericson told a media briefing.

MY POV: 26.3 billion? How is that possible? Isn't the Earth's population only 6 billion or so?

"We do expect record figures in Africa, where there will be much more free TV coverage in general. But the problem with these figures is that many countries do not have audited numbers and it is therefore difficult to predict any significant increase or decrease.

"We do hope the audiences will grow a little bit in every country."

Ericson said only if countries like China, India and Indonesia, with massive populations, qualified could a major increase in audience be perfected. But all three countries have already been eliminated in the qualifiers.

"We will not give up trying to get everyone to watch the World Cup final," he added.

Ericson said FIFA would be offering live coverage specifically produced for mobile phones for the first time at the 2010 World Cup finals.

"We have rolled out an aggressive product because more and more people are using the phone now to watch clips, results and updates on their mobile phones. We will have dedicated feeds for mobile users."

MY POV: The audience will be huge, no matter what. In this day and age, there will probably be very few eyeballs that won't see snippets of the 2010 World Cup ...

Did You Get a World Cup Ticket?

So did you get a ticket to the 2010 World Cup?

Soccer fans are starting to find out if they'll get tickets for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

FIFA began informing hundreds of thousands of soccer fans Thursday. Fans from 205 countries had requested a total of 1.8 million tickets in the first sales phase, with limits of four tickets per match and a maximum of seven matches.

A total of 245,948 tickets, or 44%, will be sent to South African residents. More than 69,000 tickets will go to the United States and almost 40,000 to England.

Ticket holders will be informed by e-mail or text message by the end of the month. The second sales phase begins in May with more ticket offers in December and early next year.

The World Cup begins in June 2010 in Johannesburg.

MY POV: I have NOT received my notice as of yet ... bummer.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Safety Guaranteed at 2010 World Cup

Safety has long been an issue when talk turns to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Yesterday, organizers of the upcoming Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup assured the world that these events will be safe.

Recent crowd control issues in the Ivory Coast have sparked concern when it comes to the situation in South Africa. But organizers have moved swiftly to calm fears.

The Local Organising Committee (LOC) says that working with the relevant law enforcement agencies, it has put solid measures in place to ensure the safety of spectators, officials and teams both inside and outside the match venues during the two events.

“Their safety is guaranteed,” says LOC chair Danny Jordaan. He added that 41,000 police personnel will be deployed for the 2010 World Cup alone.

“To ensure safety for the fans, teams and officials coming to South Africa for the two FIFA tournaments, it’s important that we do not only focus on stadium safety, but general safety as well."

In addition to the promised 700 police officers at each game, a joint operation between law enforcement agencies will also be keeping a close eye on stadium security.

Jordaan says he is concerned about the tendency of local spectators to arrive late at stadiums.

“We can’t stress strongly enough the need for fans to give themselves enough time to enter the stadium, safely and securely,” he said.

In an effort to remedy late fans, the LOC is embarking on a major spectator education campaign to ensure that fans attending the Confederations Cup and World Cup matches get to the games early.

“The gates will open three hours before kick-off and this is when we want fans to start arriving for the match, so that they can go through the various security checks and get into the stadiums safely,” says Jordaan.

Jordaan says the LOC has briefed representatives of the competing Confederations Cup teams about the security measures.

“We call on all countries in the World Cup qualifiers to adopt the best safety practice to ensure that 2010 is safe and incident free,” he said.

MY POV: Now's the time to implement these measures. The Confederations Cup is a wonderful time to see how venues react to crowd control issues, rowdy fans and a host of other issues.

Cheers to the LOC and Danny Jordaan for taking the initiative and making sure they have a program in place ahead of the 2010 Cup.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chelsea-Liverpool: Football Heaven!

This is a blog about the 2010 World Cup but allow me to digress and focus on what was one of the most exciting matches I've ever seen in my life: Yesterday's Champions League quarter final between Chelsea and Liverpool.

For those who haven't seen, please check out the video below.

When the draw for this round of the Champions League was announced, most football fans let out a collective groan.

Liverpool-Chelsea again? They'd met in 2005, 2007, 2008 ... every season, no?

With all that familiarity, was this going to end up the insipid affair most have seen between the 2 clubs the past few seasons?

Former Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano has this to say about the English wars ahead of their 2007 semi-final clash.

"Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion - and, in that, Anfield is unbeatable. Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it's a work of art. It's not: it's a shit hanging from a stick.

"Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct," he added. "But, a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don't be ridiculous. None of that. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill.

"If Didier Drogba was the best player in the first match it was purely because he was the one who ran the fastest, jumped the highest and crashed into people the hardest. Such extreme intensity wipes away talent, even leaving a player of Joe Cole's class disoriented. If football is going the way Chelsea and Liverpool are taking it, we had better be ready to wave goodbye to any expression of the cleverness and talent we have enjoyed for a century."

Bold words from a passionate man.

Although I don't agree with all of Valdano's opinion, he had a point.
The games had become predictable and bland, defensive nightmares to watch.

Yesterday's match and their encounter last week at Anfield were anything but defensive nightmares. There were 12 goals scored overall, an avalanche compared to the one goal scored in their 2005 semi-final encounter.

But more than that, it was the passion and grace exhibited in the two ties.

Two of the biggest clubs in the world going toe-to-toe in a heavy weight battle. It's not often we watch two behemoths such as these slug it out in an encounter as free-flowing, as physical, as intense.

It was a true joy to watch. It's the kind of game that serves as an advert for the uninitiated. When someone asks me why I love football, this is a game I can point to.

'This ... this amazing match is why I'm so addicted to this game!'

Who didn't think Liverpool had another Istanbul 2005 in them after Xabi Alonso scored that penalty? Who gave them up for dead after Chelsea's second goal, only to see them fight back?

What about that Alex free kick? Or Frank Lampard's two goals at the end of the game to send Chelsea to the semi-finals once and for all?

Was this the greatest Champions League match of all-time? The Guardian ranks it up there but doesn't rate this number one.

So which is? And what did you think of yesterday's match?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Obama Wants the World Cup in the USA

Is U.S. President Barack Obama trying to get the World Cup to America?

According to the New York Times, he just might be.

Not the 2010 World Cup, of course. But how about the 2018 or 2022 Cup?

In a letter hand-delivered to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, (Blatter's so important that Obama has to have his letter hand-delivered) the US President said, “As a child, I played soccer on a dirt road in Jakarta (his youth in Indonesia), and the game brought the children of my neighborhood together. As a father, I saw that same spirit of unity alive on the fields and sidelines of my own daughters’ soccer games in Chicago,” the president added.

“Soccer is truly the world’s sport, and the World Cup promotes camaraderie and friendly competition across the globe,” Obama added in the letter, a part of which was released to The New York Times by the United States Soccer Federation with permission from the White House.

“That is why this bid is about much more than a game,” he added. “It is about the United States of America inviting the world to gather all across our great country in celebration of our common hopes and dreams.”

Obama is hoping to influence FIFA when the decision for 2018 and 2022 is made in December 2010, five months after the next World Cup in South Africa.

Does the President have any experience with football?

Sure does!

According to the article:

He has attended games involving his 10-year-old, Malia, in Chicago and in 2003 visited his half sister Auma in London and went to a match at West Ham, in the Premier League. After he was elected president in early November, West Ham invited him to return to Upton Park, but his publicists denied the basic tabloid speculation that he roots for the Hammers, or anybody.

A man that politically astute should know that the claret-and-blue Hammers are an ideal team for a community organizer. Long identified with shipbuilders and dockworkers, West Ham has seen many of its ticket holders move out of the area while local periwinkle shops gave way to halal butcher shops. The club has run clinics to draw neighborhood children from South Asia into their fan base.
So what do you think? I know I'd love to see the World Cup here in the States.

US Soccer is trying to use the popularity of the new President to sway FIFA's vote. With the vast infrastructure already in place and the generally positive reviews the 1994 US World Cup received from FIFA executives, why not?

The infrastructure isn't there in South Africa. But FIFA awarded Africa their first World Cup for a variety of reasons.

Brazil will host the 2014 Cup. They have a plethora of infrastructure issues.

Maybe FIFA will decide to go with the nation most ready for the World Cup?

England? The USA? What do you think?

South Africa Recession Looms Despite 2010 Cup

According to Project 2010, a 2010 World Cup business information site, the South African economy has entered a recession despite the major construction underway for the 2010 World Cup.

Statistics South Africa says the basic iron and steel, non-ferrous and metal products, metal products and machinery sector had experienced a 22.3% decline year-on-year.

Analysts expect the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to contract by 2.5% year-on-year in the first quarter of the year, following the 1.8% contraction which was recorded in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Finance Minister Trevor Manuel says government will allocate R19 billion ($2.1 billion) for the completion of 10 stadiums by the end of this year. It will also set up a grant to assist the host cities.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Interview With FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke

This, an interview by South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch with FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke.

I wish I could say I snagged this interview, but we're a few months away from that. (That's me being optimistic. Nice touch, eh?)

Check it out at the link above or read it here.

The highlights? Optimism abounds ahead of the 2010 World Cup and the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Have a go at the interview. It's enlightening.

Q: With less than 400 days to the 2010 opening match, do you feel South Africa is on course to host the greatest World Cup ever?

We are now really entering the final lap of this momentous journey, with the FIFA Confederations Cup a little more than 70 days ahead and the FIFA World Cup only 62 weeks away. But we have a clear plan of what must be accomplished in the days that remain. The reassurance and commitment by the authorities in charge make us confident with the way things are progressing in those areas. The staging of an event of the magnitude of the World Cup is challenging for any host nation.

Q: What are your impressions of the preparations for the Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup?

We are on track. I will not say that we are ready, definitely not, but there is no real red light where we have the feeling that we are facing a real challenge in some of the issues we have. But there is still a lot of work to do and the most important thing is we cannot lose any days; I mean we are ... in ... very, very tight timing, that’s why it’s important now to make sure we will deliver with the Local Organising Committee, or the LOC will deliver with Fifa on time.

Q: In your opinion, what needs to be done to make this World Cup a success?

We still have more than a year to go before the World Cup; right now, obviously, the focus is on the Confederations Cup which is a major yardstick on the way to 2010. We have to make the tournament a success. It’s the perfect time for us to rehearse ... and to make sure that we will be able to have a list of things still to be done by, let’s say, the end of June; so that’s why it’s so important to have the Confederations Cup. It’s also a way to start and to learn how to work together – between the South Africans, the LOC and Fifa.

Q: The last time you were in South Africa, you seemed unimpressed with the amount of advertising; what are your impressions now?

The reason I had raised the issue of lack of (street) branding, was because I thought with six months to go, the tournament was not visible enough on the streets. For example, in Germany, I think they ran lots of ticket promotional material for the Confederations. What we need to see is the passion from the streets; we need to see South Africans excited about this event. After all, it’s their tournament.

Q: From your experience, and with the time left to the World Cup, are the people of South Africa in a World Cup mood?

We were delighted to learn that according to a recent opinion poll by Sport & Marketing, three out of every four respondents are confident the country will be ready to host the biggest show on earth, and a staggering 88percent say that they are proud to be the host nation. This fervour is also already palpable and it is always a pleasure for me to come to South Africa as everybody is so proud and excited to host 2010, from the President of the country to the workers on the street.

Q: Is Fifa satisfied with ticket sales for both the World Cup and Confederations Cup?

The response on the World Cup tickets has been impressive; we have been overwhelmed by the applications that we have received. We have received more than one million ticket applications; by any standards, that is very good. That means in four weeks, more than one million people in 160 countries have already declared their interest in this event; that’s good. However, in terms of ticket sales for the Confederations Cup we need the buy-in of the South African public; people from this country must rally behind the event. We cannot have a situation in the Confederations Cup whereby the host nation plays in front of a half-empty stadium. This would be very bad for South Africa and its image on a global scale.

Q: Do you have any security concerns? What measures do you think still need to be put in place?

It’s true that security is number one on the list of such an event, but this is also true for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil or the upcoming events in Nigeria and Egypt. Our job is to make sure that every fan, every official, every journalist and every player that comes to SA in the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, will be safe. We want to deliver a safe World Cup. I must commend the SA government who have also devised a very strong security plan, which includes deploying more police during the 2010 World Cup. Fifa’s belief in these commitments is reinforced by the fact that in the past South Africa has successfully hosted major international sporting events such as the rugby and cricket World Cups including the successful African Cup of Nations.

Q: Does the country have enough accommodation to accommodate the influx of expected visitors?

Well, to be honest, accommodation is still a challenge. As of today, I think we have about 35000 secured rooms of the 55000 beds required during the event period. That means we need to secure another 20000 more beds before next year. So our service partner, Match, is working closely with the tourism industry to solve this situation.

Q: Do you think the transport system, including the Gautrain, will be up to scratch?

Minister Jeff Radebe has assured us that they have a very good transport plan in place for the tournament, to cater for the influx of visitors.

Q: In your opinion, do you think Bafana Bafana’s performances on the field have improved? Do you think they will be ready to put up a competitive performance come 2010?

The success of a home team is always important for any event, and that is no different for the South African national team. But one other thing that the people of South Africa must remember, is this – if another African side goes all the way, they must support that team. For us, it will be great if an African side goes to the semi-finals and beyond.

Q :What legacy do you hope will be left after 2010?

We have always said that this World Cup must have a lasting legacy not only for the people of South Africa, but for the rest of the African continent. You must remember, it is for the first time in the history of Fifa that ... (a) World Cup is hosted on African soil; that in itself is a legacy. What we want is that, 20 years from now, people in SA should have fond memories of this tournament. For a country that has achieved so much since 1994, I’m positive that SA will make the rest of Africa very proud.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Amr Zaki's in Trouble

Egyptian striker Amr Zaki was the revelation of the English Premier League a few months ago.

With 10 goals through October for club team Wigan Athletic, Zaki was the leading scorer in England and being hotly pursued by clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester United.

Now? He's in the dog house. And not likely to get out any time soon.

Wigan manager Steve Bruce is set to hold talks with Zaki about his future on Friday.

The on-loan striker, who flew back to England on Thursday, had been expected back at Wigan last Tuesday following international duty on March 29th.

"I find it very difficult to contemplate where his future is at the moment, bearing in mind how I feel on the situation," said an irate Bruce.

"It's probably the fifth time (it has happened) and that cannot be the case."

Zaki is on loan at Wigan from Egyptian side El Zamalek until the end of the season.

Speaking ahead of his side's Premier League game against Arsenal on Saturday, Bruce was still clearly angry when he spoke about Zaki's behavior.

"Whether he has a problem at home, or he is missing home, then we will have to wait and see what his view of the situation is," he said.

"But my job is to manage the team, the club, and if everybody took his stance then we would be in a sorry mess.

"To not show up and show a lack of respect is unacceptable and as I've said, it's not the first time. It has been a recurring thing. In my opinion it's totally shocking. If you have an employee who does what he wants to do, then of course you're going to be upset and disappointed.

"For me, it's been a ridiculous challenge, particularly when you consider it wasn't so long ago he was everybody's cup of tea and playing well."

The striker's agent, Nader Shawky, told BBC Sport he could "fully understand" Bruce's anger.

"Amr was wrong not to return to Wigan on time," he said. "Now he is keen to discuss everything with the manager and hopefully move on.

"We have to remember that without Zaki, Wigan wouldn't be in the position they are now. Similarly, without Wigan, Zaki wouldn't be as highly regarded as he is."

Shawky said Zaki was keen to continue playing in England next season and that "several" clubs had made inquiries about him.

MY POV: If you were a club like Chelsea or Man U, would you want this guy on your team?

He's a malcontent. He does what he wants, when he wants and doesn't seem to respect the team or his manager, according to his actions. Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye. If so, I'm sure we'll find out when Wigan manager Bruce does.

Still, talk about devaluing yourself. Zaki better shape up or he's not going to stick around for long. He may have set England ablaze his first few months, but defenses have figured him out. He hasn't scored in open play since October 18th.

Shape up, Mr. Zaki!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Top 10 African Youngsters at the 2010 World Cup

My friend Tom Legg has a keen eye for talent. He's often telling me about this new prodigy or that new wunderkind that I should be keeping my eye on. He knows more about the Beautiful Game than just about anyone I know!

With that in mind, I asked him if he'd share a post he recently started on the famous soccer forum BigSoccer.com about the Top 10 African Youngsters every one will be talking about come the 2010 World Cup.

I hope to share more of Tom's insights with you in the future.

With that in mind, take it away Tom!

I started a review of the top 10 African prospects back in 2005 and have only recently begun updating my initial reviews of them. For those of you interested in joining in on the discussions, please visit the forum post here.

The list below highlights some of the best under-23 African players and other young players I expect to be on your lips, and the lips of many European pundits come the end of the 2010 World Cup:

1. Taye Taiwo (Olympique de Marseille/Nigeria): Over the last three season Taye has made the left back berth at OM - and Nigeria - his own. Although his development into a 'battering ram' attacking full-back has drawn praise from some quarters, its his defensive limitations - positioning, lapses in concentration and slow in the transition - that have deterred English and Italian suitors. He is without doubt a fantastic left back on his day; a pocket rocket with a shot to match, strong in the tackle etc., I only hope he gets the opportunity to move to a Premiership club at the end of this season to aid his development further as I for one would love to see him blossom into a excellent - all-round - left back in time for the 2010 World Cup.

2. John Obi Mikel (Chelsea/Nigeria): Being a Man Utd fan I should resent John Obi for what he did to us prior to joining Chelsea, but I don't. Over the last two season John seems to have finally settled down in London, securing a place - in the absence of the excellent Michael Essien - in the heart of the Chelsea midfield. But for those of us who watched John in his earlier years at Lyn, there is a hint of disappointment when I see him sitting in front of that Chelsea defense, void of creative duties. Of course he is currently not a spot on Frank Lampard as an attacking option in the middle, but give the lad a chance at least. The Chelsea fans I know are still not keen on him, generally speaking, but that's mainly due to them never seeing him played consistently in a position that suits him best. Saying this, I do believe he could turn out to be a more than effective defensive midfielder, if Chelsea decide to settle on that role for him and coach in accordingly. But there will always be a hint of ‘what if’ in my mind when I see him play. Lets hope in the next two season he can settle into a position and begin to convince the doubters out there. He certainly has the potential.

3. Alex Song (Arsenal/Cameroon): The defensive midfielder is seen as the most utilitarian player in the Arsenal first team this season, playing right back, defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder, central defender and left winger. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to watch the young Cameroonian play, imagine a player with the squad standing of John O’Shea (Man Utd) but double the ability (Man Utd fans out there, don’t you dare even think of retorting to that statement).

Without a doubt, Alex’s best position is sitting in front of the back four doing all the dirty work. The 21 year old's determination and sheer power in the tackle has made him a fan's favorite at the Emirates; during Arsenal’s ‘purple patch’ at the end of 08, Alex was one of the few players void of criticism from all of my Gooner “friends”. Similar in some cases to John Obi, let us all hope that Alex can find his place at Arsenal in the next two seasons, in time to impress us all in South Africa.

4. Jonathan Quartey (Kaizer Chiefs/Ghana): Currently playing for Kaizer Chiefs; to be honest, I haven't seem Jon play for a while. But the move to Kaizer's in 2008 is a positive step for the 20 year old. The PSL will give the central defender a good development platform and chance of being scouted to play in Europe; most likely France or England. ‘Giant Jon’ as he’s know in Ghana is a product of the famous Liberty Football Academy and first caught my eye at the 2005 U17 World Cup in Peru. A player who from an early age resisted the chance to move to Europe, preferring to develop in an environment where he's guaranteed first team football, Jon is a player with a firm grasp on his present and future development. He recently made his debut for the national team in Ghana’s opening World Cup Qualifying game against Benin.

5. Isaac Promise (Nigeria/Trabzonspor): Captained the fabulous Nigeria side in the Beijing Olympics last year and impressed several European/Nigerian scouts/officials at the competition. Currently playing for Trabzonspor - one of the top five in Turkey - and doing very well indeed. He has blossomed into a typical number 9, good on the ball, fantastic positional awareness and good first touch. The one thing he lacks at the moment? A decent goal ratio. A move to Germany or France would aid the 21 year old's progression greatly.

6. Stephan Mbia (Rennes/Cameroon): Regarded as one of the best all round midfielders in France, Mbia and Song will be the foundation for Cameroon’s midfield for the next 10 years. Song’s power, combined with Mbia’s unbelievable engine is a combination most international sides would be more then happy to have.

The 22 year old is regularly linked with moves to the Premiership; Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Tottenham and Everton who have all been keeping tabs on the energetic midfielder over the past two seasons. If he doesn’t move this summer, I will eat my hat and scarf!

7. Gervinho (Le Mans/Ivory Coast): The 21 year old forward is on a fast-track to success; he has already made 3 appearances for the Ivory Coast and is continually linked with the big clubs in France and Premiership giants Arsenal. By no means a prolific striker the young Ivorian is usually deployed as a support striker/winger. The worry I have for him is that the Ivorians are blessed with options on the wings and upfront; Baki Kone, Drogba, Kalou, Sanogo, Sekou Cisse, Arouna Kone, Dindane, the list goes on. I really hope Vahid takes a chance with the speedy Gervinho and includes him in the squad.

8. Andre Ayew (OM/Ghana): Son of Ghana legend Abedi Pele, Andre has been causing waves for Ghanaian youth sides over the past season. Dede - as he’s know - captained the U20 side to victory in the African U20 championships in Rwanda earlier this year and impressed continental and international pundits with his performances. Like Gervinho, Dede is regularly used as a winger/second striker for both club and country.

A quick turn of pace, good eye for goal and a decent box of tricks, he should develop into a more than useful asset for the Ghanaian national side. My worry with Dede is his build; relatively short and slightly built there are times when simply disappears in more physical games. For me he has to address this as the foremost area of development in his game if he's to be a success in South Africa.

9. Clifford Mulenga (Zambia/Bidvest Wits): Voted CAF Best Young Player in 2008, Zambia’s Ryan Giggs is one of Zambian football's biggest superstars. The speedy winger was, in his youth, linked to such clubs are Real Madrid and Lyon but the player has suffered from an hugely inflated opinion of himself over the past few seasons. His ability to striker fear into the eyes of covering defenders with his direct style of play has won over some Zambian journalists, but his petulance and ego leads him to over do the basics and frustrate team mates at club and international level. He has undoubted potential, and at 21 has plenty of time to grow up and realize that talent. Let's hope a World Cup stage will allow him to do that.

10. Anthony Annan (Rosenborg/Ghana): You may all rave about Ghana’s midfield three of Appiah, Essien and Muntari; but the apple of my eye is 22 year old Anthony Annan. I have saved the best for last folks, he’s brilliant in the tackle, quick in the transition and he will be coming to a TV screen near you in 2010. Those who worry that the decline of Stephan Appiah will have a detrimental effect on the Ghanian side, worry no more! With Appiah sitting in front of the defense - unable to move those old legs of his, Annan and Essien will do all the running... and then some.

Annan could become everything that Michael Essien has developed into, and more; his range of passing is far superior to Essien, with the young Rosenborg defender as comfortable with a 40 yard pass then he is with a 5 yard one. I hope for Ghana’s sake they play five across the middle when defending, then allow two; Muntari and Essien/Annan to bomb forward and support a loan striker.

Besides the players above there are two other players that you will not be seeing in 2010, but should hear more about in the coming two seasons.

Mcdonald Mariga and Osmane Jallow.

Osmane (Brondby/Gambia) is one of Gambian football's best kept secrets. Jallow currently plays for the famous Brondby IF in Sweden. Netted 5 in 10 this season and one Brondby fan I know has said the tall and agile Gambian is already a fan favorite. After a spell in Qatar with Al Ain and then Raja Casablanca, he made the move to Sweden at the start of this season. Already a full international with Gambia - 3 games and 1 goal - Jallow is one African player who's stock is rising by the game. He hit 11 in 15 for Al Ain and 15 in 19 for Raja. This kid is going places people. I've seen one league game this season - Brondby against SønderjyskE - where Jallow scored a sublime over-head kick. Big, quick and with a goals ratio to write home about, the striker will no doubt be on the radars of some of Europe’s elite this coming summer.

McDonald Mariga (Parma/Kenya) has not only blossomed into one of Parma's best players this season, but one of Serie B's most consistent and impressive midfielders. The tall midfielder was already on the verge of a Premiership move in 2007, but his £2.7 million pound move to Pompey broke down due to work permit problems. He moved to Parma instead, initially on loan, but impressed so much that cash strapped Parma decided to splash the cash on Mariga and make his move permanent.

This season's performances have drawn speculation that the midfielder will move to new pastures in the summer, with AC Milan and Juventus the most likely destinations. I only hope that if he does move in the summer, he will not be warming benches in Turn and Milan next season.

Monday, April 6, 2009

If World Cup Qualifying Ended Today, Who Would Be In?

Interesting article over at the World Cup Blog today, asking the question, 'If 2010 World Cup qualifying ended today, who would make the trip to South Africa?'

32 nations will make the cut. Who would be in? Let's take a look ...


Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, Argentina

USA, Costa Rica, Honduras

Playoff: Uruguay (5th place CONMEBOL) vs Mexico (4th place CONCACAF)

Australia, Japan, S. Korea, N. Korea

Playoffs: Bahrain (3rd place Asia Group 1) vs Saudi Arabia (3rd place Asia Group 2 team)
Winner of that plays New Zealand (Oceania winner) for World Cup spot.

South Africa (hosts), Gabon, Tunisia, Egypt, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire

Denmark, Greece, N. Ireland, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, Netherlands

Playoffs: France, Bosnia, Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland, Scotland, Ireland

(Eight best second placed teams, who will be drawn into four two-legged playoffs. Winner of each playoff game goes to the World Cup).


Taking a look at African qualifying specifically, which is but one game old, what about Gabon making the tournament? And Nigeria and Cameroon would miss out?

I'd hate to see that. Let's give this more time ...

Over in Europe, France and Portugal might not make it. Talk about shocking!

There's still plenty of time. But it's an interesting look at the countries currently in good position and the other countries that still have some work to do!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

England eke out Ukraine win

Football at the highest level is often decided by fractions and luck - and England had both on their side as they survived an anxious night against Ukraine to extend their unbeaten 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign to five games.

John Terry came to the rescue just when it looked like Fabio Capello's men were about to blot their copybook and even the battle-hardened Italian coach forced a smile when the referee blew for full-time.

"That was my most anxious game, yes, and when the referee blew the whistle I was very happy," said Capello. "I said we need to 'win ugly' sometimes and we did."

This was not a game for the purists, nor will it live long in the memory, but the end result means England retain a five-point advantage over Croatia in Group Six and can, just maybe, start thinking about packing their bags for South Africa.

On another night, Wayne Rooney, whose aggressive streak remains a contentious issue, might too have seen red for a rash challenge on opponent Oleksandr Aliyev just after the hour-mark.

Capello argued: "What happened? Nothing. It was a normal tackle. We need strong tackles sometimes."

It could be that the emotion of the night had got to Capello but there is an argument that, for all his talent, Rooney risks becoming a liability in tournament football when the stakes are even higher.

England switched off in the second half and substitute Andriy Shevchenko was deserving of his equaliser, but tired legs can lead to tired minds.

Capello reasoned that the draining effect of an arduous domestic campaign was showing signs of taking its toll on his players and, certainly, England will need to raise the bar to prove they can again cope with the world's best.

Nick Walsh writes features and betting previews for Betfair.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tragdey in the Ivory Coast

For a moment, we turn away from World Cup qualifying and football to focus on real-world issues.

As many of you know, 22 football fans were killed in a match stampede in Abidjan, Ivory Coast this weekend.

More than 130 people were injured when a wall collapsed at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium shortly before a World Cup qualifier on Sunday.

It's a tremendous tragedy for the burgeoning African football power.

According to reports in The Daily Telegraph, part of a wall fell over. As collective anxiety grew into hysteria, policemen allegedly exacerbated the panic by firing tear gas into the crowd.

The tragedy occurred before the match kicked off, as supporters rushed to get into the arena. The long lines that caused the disaster are largely due to an inefficient ticketing system that means it is impossible for fans to reserve seats in advance, as numerical ordering systems are never adhered to, according to news sources.

Fans wait outside for hours in the hope of landing one of the best seats.

At least 22 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the accident. A further 134 individuals are reported as being injured.

The match was attended by over 50,000 fans, many of whom were eager to see the return of Didier Drogba, a hero in his native land, who netted two of the Ivorians' goals in a result that pales into insignificance alongside this tragedy.

On Tuesday, a member of the Malawi team that lost to the Ivory Coast 5-0 told the BBC his side had been aware of the deaths before playing the game.

"We thought that maybe the referee would ask us to pay one minute's silence, but nothing was said, so we just carried on," said defender Elvis Kafoteka.

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo declared the three days of mourning and said the cause of the accident needed to be known to prevent such a tragedy happening again.

Following a special cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said he had advised Mr Gbagbo to establish a committee to "study, analyze and take account of all the failings that can lead to such tragic events."

"The government will take an active part in caring for those wounded and in organising funerals," AFP news agency quoted Mr Soro as saying.

MY POV: Horrible tragedy in the Ivory Coast and my heart goes out to the people who perished. While Africa has become synonymous with these types of incidents in the last few years, there's no basis to some of the calls by journalists and pundits to move the World Cup from Africa.

For one, these events are isolated. They happen, but not often. It'd be unfair to point at Africa as the only continent where this happens.

Second, South Africa's infrastructure is much more 'advanced' than the Ivory Coast's or some of the other poorer countries' infrastructure. I hate to say it that way, but it's true. South Africa has a complex ticketing system, trained security, a solid system in place for crowd control, etc.

An incident like this wouldn't take place at the World Cup.

Here's a quote from the Guardian's Paul Doyle, who wrote an excellent article about this.

Africa is not just one big homogeneous blob. Anyone who cares to look will see it offers a continent's worth of diversity. So systematically suggesting, as some have done, that Sunday's stadium disaster in the Ivory Coast means the 2010 World Cup should not be held in South Africa is like demanding London be stripped of the 2012 Olympics following a tragedy in Moldova.

South Africa has plenty of experience of hosting major events and, indeed, the Indian Premier League will shortly get under way there having been shifted from Asia over security fears and the British and Irish Lions will tour there this summer. Neither of those entail as daunting a logistical operation as football's global jamboree but they do attest to a certain expertise in staging tournaments.

Match-day culture has changed in South Africa. For many major matches it is not possible to buy tickets from the turnstiles on the day of the game. For Saturday's inaugural match at the refurbished Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, for example, only fans who had bought their tickets well beforehand got to see the Bafana Bafana beat Norway 2–1. There was a capacity 42,000 crowd and no trouble. In Abidjan on Sunday, ticketless fans were also warned not to come to the ground but unlike in Rustenburg, where surrounding streets were sealed off, it seems there was no effective plan for preventing thousands from going right up to the gate in the hope of blagging their way in anyway.
Now's not the time to walk away from Africa and the World Cup, but to embrace and make sure everything's ready for the grand event. The continent deserves that reinforcement.