By Paul Gardner
So much for any thoughts of an intriguing afternoon watching World Cup teams play warm-up friendly games. Very quickly I’m watching an appalling challenge from Ireland's Alex Pearce on Italy's Riccardo Montolivo. After a delay for treatment, Montolivo departs on a stretcher. The Italian press is saying he has a fractured tibia. No World Cup for him.
On switching channels I get to watch Mexico’s Luis Montes score a terrific goal. Minutes later, he is involved in a frightening collision with Ecuador’s Segundo Castillo. The replays show Montes with his lower leg bent at an impossible angle. Another leg break. No World Cup for Montes. Castillo looks like he must have been injured, too. No word on him. I’m quite relieved to have missed the Netherlands-Ghana game that saw Ghana’s defender Jerry Akaminko stretchered off -- though this injury resulted from an awkward fall.
I cannot say that the way Ireland was playing against Italy had much to recommend it. Overly physical -- but, then, isn’t that the way it always plays? Isn’t that the way the physical teams are proudto play? Maybe, in which case World Cup-bound teams would be well advised to leave Ireland off their warm-up opponents list.
The risks of the game, then? You can make that argument, but I would have thought that -- between fellow professionals -- some sort of intelligent restraint would be at work in these games.
That seemed to be the case in the Spain-Bolivia game. Not very much hard tackling to be seen there. But we did see the sort of game that Spain had to struggle through -- repeatedly -- in South Africa, four years ago, against an opponent determined to defend en blocand little else. It does not make for a great game.
I also noted another friendly scoreline, this one with future World Cup implications: Qatar 0 Macedonia 0. Not being a devotee of Qatari soccer, I’ve no idea whether that is a good result for them or not. But some days earlier I had watched an under-21 international game of surpassing embarrassment. The final score was Brazil 7, Qatar 0. Believe me, had Brazil not seriously taken its foot way off the pedal in the second half, this would have much, much worse for Qatar.
Of course I felt sorry for the young Qataris, who were hopelessly outclassed. So these are the future national team players for Qatar – under-21s, who will be mature enough by 2022, when Qatar stages the World Cup. Except that not one of these guys will be good enough. We’ve already suffered through one World Cup in which the host’s team was totally inadequate -- that was four years ago, when South Africa became the first host ever eliminated in the first round.
Whatever may be the political advantages of awarding the World Cup to countries with slight soccer pedigrees, such maneuvering does nothing for the tournament itself. A feeble host team is a turn off, for sure.
So where will Qatar get its players from if it’s to have a competitive team by 2022? Will they be naturalized Brazilians? Qatar tried this expedient back in 2004, selecting three Brazilian players -- with no previous links to Qatar -- and offering them lucrative contracts provided they agreed to become Qatari citizens. FIFA President Sepp Blatter called it “against the spirit of the game” and the move was eventually nixed.
But, from the legal point of view, Blatter’s argument seems a weak one in the absence of any specific rules against naturalizing foreigners.
Anyway, the USA might ponder the situation. Jurgen Klinsmann has chosen to include seven (right, seven) players who have had little or no contact with the USA. Nothing legally wrong here -- all hold, legitimately, U.S. passports. Though Blatter (and others, I think) might consider this to also be “against the spirit of the game.”
The players are very definitely not products of the USA. Klinsmann is telling us that they are all better than any one we can produce here. Including, it would appear, Landon Donovan.
Klinsmann, I think, would have a point if here were bringing in mature, experienced players. Only one of these seven comes under that heading -- Jermaine Jones (who, anyway, as a notoriously undisciplined player should not even be considered for the US national team). The average age of the other six passport-holders is 23.
Compare that with the average age of past World Cup-winning teams: France 1998 (28 years 4 months), Italy 2006 (29 years 6 months), Spain 2010 (27 years 3 months). This is not a tournament for youngsters.
The reasons for Klinsmann’s preference for foreign-trained talent over domestic-bred players is unclear to me. Maybe the fact that five of his seven passport-holders are German-Americans should tell me something. But as none of them, that I can see, is demonstrably, unarguably better than American candidates for the World Cup spots, I find their inclusion difficult to justify.