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Hello, Africa; goodbye, Baggio

Hoping for the best in 2010; measuring Arsenal's 'immortality' claim

Posted: Tuesday May 25, 2004 9:41PM; Updated: Tuesday May 25, 2004 9:41PM
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By Brian Glanville, World Soccer magazine

IT should not have been South Africa. It should not be Africa at all. But having so narrowly avoided this mistaken choice four years earlier, it became almost inevitable that the World Cup would be assigned there the second time around.

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This because under the Buggins' Turn formula imposed by Sepp Blatter, an African country, willy-nilly, had to be the choice. Objective considerations went out of the window. But of course, African football, with its outstretched hands -- I exempt South Africa here -- and greedy apparatchiks, is a power base for Blatter, as indeed it was for his predecessor Joao Havelange.

Read David Yallop's devastating book How They Sold the Game to know how in 1974 Havelange grabbed enough African votes by fair means or foul to topple Sir Stanley Rous as president of FIFA.

I yield to nobody in my huge admiration of sub-Saharan African footballers, who have long been among the best in the world. For many years, in the remote past, I was urging English clubs to look to Africa for their talent, but it took a very long time for the penny to drop, while France and Portugal prospered.

South Africa's two opponents, Egypt and Morocco, were clearly nonstarters, if only on the grounds of terrorism; there have been appalling outrages in both countries, and Morocco is a center of terrorist activity.

But South Africa? The alleged rate of murder or attempted murder is one every 12 minutes.

Putting on a more compact, less extensive, world tournament for rugby or cricket as South Africa has (tests, like rugby, went well) is very different from catering to such a bloated and over-populated affair as the soccer World Cup, with its myriad of following fans.

It is perhaps irrelevant that the South African government under president Thabo Mbeki -- who never has a word to say against Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe -- looks so increasingly oppressive that even the famous liberal opponent of apartheid Helen Suzman deplores it now.

After all, the far more notorious, ruthless, even murderous Argentine junta was in power when the 1978 World Cup was played there, and it passed without trouble -- off the pitch at least.

The fact that 20 percent of the South African population is reportedly infected with AIDS need also be irrelevant providing visiting fans are suitably chaste.

But there have been alarming riots at South African matches, notably that at Ellis Park in 1999. Will security now be sufficient?

South Africa commendably apart, sub-Saharan football has for years been plagued by the corruption and ineptitude of those who run it, at the expense of its gifted players. North African football is better served; but in this instance, it could hardly have been awarded a World Cup.

Let us hope and pray that in six years' time, things in South Africa will have improved. It seems much more likely they'll deteriorate.

WELL, "immortal" Arsenal -- to quote Arsene Wenger -- got through the Premiership unbeaten. Flags have waved, drums have rolled, there is ecstasy in the air. But I make no apology for being the specter at the feast.

For a start, look at the way the Gunners limped through their last five league matches. Three dull draws, failure even to make a decent chance against modest Birmingham -- and a couple of single-goal, unconvincing wins.

If there be any kind of immortality in football, which I doubt, how can this Arsenal team, winner of a championship that featured only two other clubs of any substance, be compared with the Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano? The team that won the first five European Cups in a row, culminating with the crescendo at Hampden, when Eintracht Frankfurt were beaten 7-3, and more than 130,000 Scottish fans stayed on to give Real an ovation.

Then came the Santos team, so superbly inspired and galvanized by Pele -- world champions, like Real themselves.

Ajax, under the aegis of Johan Cruyff, surely have claims to consideration, winning three European Cups in a row with rather more style than Bayern Munich, which followed them -- they, too, were world champions. Which Celtic surely would have been had Ronnie Simpson, their veteran keeper, not been scandalously knocked out by a missile from a catapult, just before the return Intercontinental leg took place in 1967 against Racing Club in Buenos Aires.

"Jock, you're immortal!" Liverpool's Bill Shankly had eulogized Jock Stein immediately after Celtic, in Lisbon, a few months earlier, had beaten Inter to become the first British team to win the European title.

And what of the pre-war Arsenal team that won three titles in a row against, arguably, far greater opposition, and even won 4-2 at Highbury against Austria's so called Wunderteam?

GOODBYE, Roberto Baggio! At San Siro last Sunday, where his Brescia team lost 4-2 to champions AC Milan, the 37-year-old Divine Ponytail played his last game.

It has been a remarkable career, not only for Baggio's sustained brilliance, his sophisticated skills, his deadly free kicks, his capacity, in the Italian phrase, "to invent the game," but also for the cavalier way he was so often treated.

Who, were he there or watching on television, could forget the moment at Giants Stadium in New Jersey in the '94 World Cup when Baggio, pulled off by Arrigo Sacchi to make room for a substitute goalkeeper, cried, "Ma quello e matto!" -- "That man is mad."

Baggio returned to inspire Italy's path to the final with his goals -- against Nigeria, against Spain, against Bulgaria -- slipping past opponents as though they were not there, making light of the sporadic brutal foul.

Of course, he should not even have been playing in the final, when he missed that vital penalty in the shootout; his pulled hamstring made him a limping casualty. But without him, Italy would never have been in Pasadena.

Come the '98 World Cup, Italy manager Cesare Maldini consistently and illogically preferred an out of form Alex Del Piero to Baggio.

The Divine had to overcome two agonizing seasons of absences as a teenager just after he had joined Fiorentina from Lanerossi Vicenza but, training hard down in Formia with the Italian athletics trainer Carlo Vittori, he fought his way back.

When he decided to leave the viola for Juventus, heartbroken Fiorentina fans serenaded him under his windows. He caused a small scandal when, returning to Florence to play for Juve, he picked up a Fiorentina scarf and tied it to the fencing.

Arguably he was never really happy after leaving Florence. Sacchi caught up with him to his alarm at Milan. But he achieved an Indian summer with a glorious season and raft of goals at Bologna. Though even there, he and his manager fell out, and there was an ultimately resolved stand off.

Brescia wasn't the ideal place for this gifted player to end his career, but in his last seasons there, even without the kind of support to which he was accustomed, he could still delight the crowd, could still score and make the goals.

Addio, Divino!

WHAT'S happening, indeed what is going to happen, at Chelsea? They seem to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

The 82,000 a week to Juan Sebastian Veron, who's been little better than a liability and cannot wait to leave. Colossal salaries to the likes of Hernan Crespo -- another disappointment -- and Claude Makelele.

Yet implacable -- so far at least -- refusal to give financial parity to Frank Lampard, who's done more for the club this season than most of those overpaid imports have done together.

I assume some sort of compromise will be reached; it would be crazy for Chelsea not to.

Meanwhile Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Russian audit chamber, recently said, commenting on the dealings of Chelsea's billionaire patron Roman Abramovich, in his roles of governor of Siberian Chukotka and leading executive of the Sibneft oil company, that it was "difficult to apply the word ethics to certain people."

The so-called oligarchs, of whom Abramovich is one, are still bitterly unpopular in Russia. You wonder where it will all end.

FOR Portugal, Sven-Goran Eriksson has more or less rounded up the usual suspects. Not a very imaginative choice.

I'd certainly have taken a punt on Jermain Defoe; all these big tournaments tend to throw up at least one happy surprise, but you won't find one in this England squad.

Why Nicky Butt? He doesn't play for Manchester United, is utterly short of match practice and though he had a good 2002 World Cup is hardly an inspiring player at the best of times.

His club mate Phil Neville can perfectly well fill his limited role. Shaun Wright Phillips might have been worth a chance, but Eriksson having failed to use him in Gothenburg even when Alan Thompson was so plainly not up to snuff, it had to be a risk too far.

I'm glad Joe Cole is picked. It might have made sense to choose Scott Parker, too.

David Beckham? In the 2002 World Cup he wasn't fully fit. In 2004 you wonder if he will be psychologically up to it. That stupid sending off against Murcia last Sunday when he crazily insulted the linesman with an obvious Spanish obscenity -- how many other words of Spanish does he know? -- surely testified to his present condition.

Making no moral judgments, one still must say that these are plainly very turbulent times in the Beckham menage, Relatively Posh Spice is plainly slow to forgive; whether Beckham stays in Madrid next year or comes home remains uncertain.

And the left-sided midfield problem stays unsolved. Playing Stephen Gerrard there is to waste him.

Brian Glanville is Britain's most celebrated football writer. He also writes a monthly column in World Soccer magazine. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.

His latest book, a fully updated edition of THE STORY OF THE WORLD CUP is available in all good bookshops. Readers of worldsoccer.com can buy this highly acclaimed history of the World Cup and enjoy a 10% discount by clicking here.

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