Navigating through the choppy Hexagonal waters

A brief review of the T&T-Mexico clash

Last Friday when Kevin Molino lashed home from distance, and the “Soca Warriors” managed to hold out a late salvo from Panama, it seemed that new head coach Dennis Lawrence had steadied the rocking “Soca Warriors” ship. Then came the Mexico game and that disallowed goal, coupled with an imperious header from Diego Reyes which ultimately sealed our fate, careening the ship off course once again into the riptide.

This is the Hexagonal and it’s going to get worse before it gets better it seems, as the “Soca Warriors” travel to the US on June 8, then to Costa Rica on the June 13 – two teams we routinely capitulate against especially on the road.

I will interject in the doom-and-gloom pragmatism and say however, that considering the chaos that ensued late last year into the new year with the TTFA sending Stephen Hart packing and hiring the Belgian nomad who himself jumped ship at the earliest opportunity, the team doesn’t look too bad at all over the last two qualifiers.

There were a few things to be happy about from last night, which I will highlight further shortly. That being said though, it was disappointing that we failed to leave the Hasely Crawford Stadium with anything after what was a cagey contest where a win for either team would have pushed them up the table.

With the Joevin Jones rocket being wrongfully disallowed, T&T fans were left to chew a bitter pill (or take a swig of puncheon for that matter) and pontificate of what could have been if the goal stood in the 33rd minute. Which brings me to my first point.

Improved ball retention and movement

There were of course a couple scares in the early moments, but T&T managed to hold firm at the back, and moved the ball around with neat passes in the first half. Chances were being created, albeit on the counterattack – one of which led to Jones’ laser from just outside the penalty area. *Phweeet!* The ref’s whistle blew and pointed to for a free kick  for the offside, all while beer was still being rained down on fans in jubilation. T&T needed every advantage they may have gotten against the best team in CONCACAF – Mexico have yet to lose in qualifying – but had a legitimate goal stripped away which would come inevitably back to haunt them.

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ROBBED: The “Soca Warriors'” livewire wide forward Joevin Jones was denied the opener after his ferocious strike was wrongfully blown off for offside.

The Chicharito hack job

The tackles were flying in at blinding speed. It was pretty clear that Javier Hernandez was under the microscope during the match, and Daneil Cyrus in particular followed him like a loan shark on collection day. The “little pea” as he’s known in Mexico was chasing his 47th and record-setting goal for “El Tri” and may have gotten it if he could have kept his footing in a one-on-one during the second half. The T&T midfield and defence in particular made sure that that statistic stayed at 47 and it even boiled over when Chicharito had a spat with Molino near the centre circle, culminating in all 20 outfield players getting involved in the melee. It was clear that coach Lawrence gave instructions to keep the lethal forward in check, and his troops obliged. I hope to see more of this defensive discipline in the years to come.

Second-half lethargy

The downside to having a defensive bite is that legs will quickly get tired on a team whose fitness is not up to international standard. We saw it against the USA in November 2015, and again against Costa Rica at the start of the Hex. Against Honduras four days after the clash against “Los Ticos”, the players were knackered from the start! We don’t yet have the lungs for the pressing game. Add the instructions to “counter-attack at will” in the mix and now you have a serious problem in finding the balance between defensive cover and attacking guile. Lawrence has until June to figure out this particular conundrum as it limits the team, especially against formidable opposition (basically everyone in the Hex).

No contingency

And as we’re on the topic of approach play, it seems that the new head coach has inherited some of the problems that Stephen Hart did in the qualifiers last year, namely the lack of a contingency plan. Jones, Molino and Cordell Cato are devastating on their day, especially with the speed of Jones and Cato on the flanks. But when teams that do their home work come to town and neutralise their combined threat, and in the case of Mexico Tuesday; cut off the passing lanes to the lone striker, it’s game over T&T. I think that that is the biggest problem for the “Soca Warriors” to be honest. There needs to be an alternative to the “bomb-forward” football that in all fairness, produced the 4-4 and 3-3 thrillers against Mexico in 2015, and saw us qualify for  two back-to-back Gold Cup quarter-finals.

To be fair to Lawrence though, he has only had the team for six weeks.. and even less when you consider the arrival of the foreign-based pros. At that time he has managed to establish the playing style he wants – possession-based football which we saw against Mexico – and now he has more time to fine tune as the campaign continues. And with a support staff including Stern John, Stuart-Charles Fevrier, Ross Russell and Sol Campbell, improvements should be continued to be made as well. And will need those improvements to help steady the ship in time for our dates with USA and Costa Rica.

I just wish that we could have gotten more from the two games. Oh wait… we were good for a draw against Mexico. Shame on you, Valdin Legister. Shame.

 

 

 

Saintfiet’s football circus

I’d be the first to admit that when I settled down on Sunday to watch the Haiti-T&T match I really didn’t expect the roller coaster ride that ensued for the following two hours.

On the positive note, Shahdon Winchester netted a treble, while Radanfah Abu Bakr may have probably raised his profile as a utility player in the national set up: putting in a dogged and determined performance at CB, and then on coaches orders, doing commendably well as a CF.

An honourable mention to Tyrone Charles, who showed a lot of potential in the match against Suriname capping off a competent performance with a Beckham-esque free kick crunched in off the bar.

Haiti however, scored four times from dead ball situations, the goals ranging from the comical to the predatory.

Make no mistake however, the fortunes of the national team have taken a nosedive in the last three months.

Stephen Hart’s “Red Army” is looking like a pretty decent alternative right now, aye? It may have been useful to have had Kenwyne Jones in the mix to knock down some of those long balls, aye? Ladies and gents, put your hands together for coach Tom Saintfiet and the administration that hired him.

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A poor man’s Leo Beenhakker? The Saint is here y’all. And he’s determined to add to a forgettable international CV. Image courtesy: Kickoff

Okay, now that the pleasantries are over, I have to say that I didn’t think the wheel would come all the way around so quickly.

What wheel? I have a theory that Trinidad and Tobago football is like a broken wheel that keeps wobbling along in a giant dented circle.

Whenever we get to 359 degrees, we assume that progress is being made. Only to have the rug pulled from beneath us, and start right over from scratch.

In this case all the good work done by Hart since June 2013 certainly hasn’t been totally  undone, but it seems that in a 14-month span, we have regressed from being the most promising team in the Caribbean, to the growing laughing stock of the region.

If fans thought that the opening two defeats in the Hexagonal were poor, and that the team needed a shaking up, and that Hart deservedly needed to go, well I hope you guys are happy.

Belgian unknown Tom Saintfiet was literally no track record to speak of. None. Well, except for the McDonald’s Cup, an under-12 developmental competition, which he won in 2005.

I’ve recently won the Cup in Top Eleven for the first time ever, and I think that actually gives me more credentials to coach this team than the “Saint” based on the selection “criteria” the TTFA used.

At some point, the TTFA board sat down and decided that this was their man. This was the guy who could do what Hart couldn’t, and in ridiculous fashion, they have been right so far.

The “Saint” has become the first T&T coach to lose to Nicaragua, and has cost us a place in the Gold Cup thanks to some odd tactics to say the least in the CFU Play-offs over the last week or so. All the while antagonising and dropping players that some may argue formed the backbone of the squad.

Despite the FIFA international window not due to be open until March, Saintfiet could have had a few of Hart’s stars at his disposal. Yet the ringmaster went into the circus without his most celebrated jugglers.

After disputes with clubs as well as a direct conflict with some players, the Belgian opted to snub Jan-Michael Williams, Kevin Molino, Joevin Jones, Mekeil Williams, as well as Daneil Cyrus and Cordell Cato.

In some cases (Jones and Cato) the “Saint” went as far as to say they weren’t serious about playing for their country. Skipper Kenwyne Jones wasn’t even given a sniff as he was dropped altogether: the rationale being that the ex-St Anthony’s stopper didn’t fit into his tactical  set up.

When the action kicked off last week Wednesday at the Ato Boldon Stadium against Suriname, I was curious to see how the wily Belgian would handle the local and foreign-based players at his disposal, as well as bounce back from the not-so-flattering tour of Nicaragua.

Sigh. If the performance in the playoffs is what we have to look forward to in the “Hex”, then the two home assignments against Panama and Mexico on March 24th and 28th might be not just Sainfiet’s swansong, but the end of the Soca Warriors’ World Cup 2018 campaign.

The match against Suriname was bad enough, especially considering the Dutch-speaking nation’s lack of experience at this level, however the Haiti clash on Sunday was a comedy of epic proportions.

There was  a lot going on on the pitch as one would expect in a match that finished 4-3 with the score 2-2 at the half, however what was worrying to me was the lack of structure in the T&T camp.

In both games the Soca Warriors, Red Army, or whatever you want to call them, were pragmatic for long spells. Against Suriname there was no off-the-ball pressure, especially in the first half and then when all else failed, the ball was hoofed into the area from just about anywhere on the pitch.

Haiti were able to pass the ball in the second half, and remarkably score twice in extra-time from basic set-pieces.

And quick side note: I have to say that the CFU honestly needs to have their heads examined, because the rules of the tournament meant that Haiti could have avoided extra-time altogether had they scored an own goal in the dying seconds.

Also, because each match in the group was treated like a knockout fixture instead of a league match there was actually the possibility that if the match had gone to penalties, T&T’s players would have been required to kick with the knowledge that they were already eliminated (whut??).

Haiti were able to put us out of our misery in extra-time however, and without the cheat code of the own goal in regulation stoppage time, but the whole feeling of the match was bizarre to say the least.

Admittedly, I digress.

Long story short: the “Saint” who is infamous for his debacles in third-world FAs, doesn’t yet seem to have a handle on how to use the players at his disposal to their full potential.

Some may argue that he didn’t have enough time, but then why take the job? And why push away the players that may have made the sailing smoother in the play-offs?

Now with the Panama clash roughly two months away, Saintfiet will have to:

  • Find a tactical approach that doesn’t concede a criminal amount of goals
  • Try to mend some of the frayed relationships with players whose toes he has stepped on
  • Implement anything resembling a creative attacking approach

Until then, we’re going to have to cross our fingers and pray that either Panama or Mexico have a really bad day when they visit our shores in late March. Because it seems to me, we’re in for a bad year. A really, really, bad year.

 

What next, Soca Warriors?

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T&T defender Sheldon Bateau sits in disbelief after his header glanced wide during the first half of the “Soca Warriors” opening qualifier on Friday at the HCS. Image courtesy Nicholas Williams

It’s alarming how two boat rides, a couple suspensions and fines and a dip in form could bring down the profile of a team showing so much promise a year ago.

Welcome to the Hexagonal folks. The highest level of international football at the CONCACAF level.

Trinidad and Tobago however, have yet to step off the team bus after two matches into the “Hex”and on zero points. To put the “Soca Warriors” decline into further context, Stephen Hart’s men have only won thrice and drawn once in the last nine matches.

This run includes defeats to Haiti, which saw them miss out on the Copa America Centenario, as well as back-to-back friendly defeats to Uruguay and China. The “Soca Warriors'” competitive record of late is what has been raising the eyebrows the most however, and not in a good way.

T&T lost to the Haitains in the CONCACAF play-off in January, then after beating St Vincent twice in the semi-final round of World Cup qualifying, struggled against Guatemala, albeit getting the point needed to qualify for the “Hex”, then were comprehensively beaten by the United States.

So last Friday, with our dismal opening match record in the Hexagonal, Hart set his team up to sit deep and hold the line  against Costa Rica, despite playing at home. The plan backfired.

Costa Rica were never under any major pressure, and waited for their hosts to lose steam in the second half before bringing on Joel Campbell, whose presence changed their attack and stretched the T&T backline even further.

Against Honduras today, we were even more lethargic in the opening period with “Los Catracos” scoring two quickfire goals through Romell Quioto, and Emilio Izaguirre, giving Marvin Phillip in the T&T goal no chance after coming on for the injured Jan Michael  Williams moments before.

Carlyle Mitchell pulled one back with a fierce header in a positive spell in the second half, and the “Soca Warriors” looked to be making a case for salvaging a point before conceding another goal late on thanks to more lax defending.

As things stand, Honduras have moved up to second while we are still bottom of the table. Honduras’ place is tentative as Panama take on Mexico later, while “Los Ticos” host the US in what will be a cracker.

T&T are beginning to lose the plot, though, and it’s unsure as to if there is a specific root cause, as so much controversy has overshadowed the team behind the scenes in the last few months.

On the bright side, Hart will have four months before they host Panama who will be a different outfit to the team Leo Beenhakker’s men beat 2-0 in June 2005 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in his first competitive match in charge of the national team.

Barring any more incidents, Hart will have the services of Kevin Molino who was suspended for the last two matches, as well as John Bostock, whose debut has been put on hold once again.

T&T however, need to find the spirit that took them to two consecutive Gold Cup quarter-finals. The team based on their opening two matches in the “Hex” need to start their games with much more intensity especially at home.

While defence is our obvious Achilles heel as it has been since forever, our attack needs to be reworked as well. Kenwyne Jones still did not look match fit since his injury in last month’s Caribbean Cup qualifiers. Most would argue that he looks just as laboured when fully fit.

The T&T attack going forward in general is much too slow an indecisive. Kenwyne’s namesake Joevin Jones is much too isolated when he makes his marauding runs on the left wing, often closed down by two and sometimes three markers. Meanwhile on the right, as much as I rate Cordell Cato, he loses possession much too often, and doesn’t offer much defensive cover which is suicidal considering Daneil Cyrus is the fullback behind him.

The transition from midfield to attack is too predictable, which may have as much  to do with the players as the coach. Trevin Caesar’s presence made a big difference today, especially in the second period as his running alone gave us the options we didn’t seem to have on Friday.

And for once, we used our height to our advantage – scoring from a deadball situation. Against “Los Ticos” at the HCS, the service into the box wasn’t good enough.

Hart overall I think needs to gamble a bit more, because the pragmatic approach while reasonable, doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in his current crop, and points are being dropped. And despite his time-honoured justification of using Jones (K) for the entire ninety, with his last goal for T&T coming all the way back in March against the “Vincey Heat”, it’s time to try someone new: we aren’t threatening the opponents’ goal enough at this level.

Luckily for us, the Caribbean Cup play-offs (round-robin with Haiti and Suriname) in January could prove to be a blessing in disguise as I would hope Hart will reshuffle his team with preparation for the upcoming qualifiers in March in mind.

Even though things may look grim at the moment, “Soca Warriors” fans should try to remember we had only one point after three matches when Beenhakker sat in the dugout against Panama in June 2005 – including a 5-1 caning in Guatemala in the second match. And this is the same crop of players who drew 4-4 with Mexico last year at the Gold Cup, won the group in the process and were a spot-

kick away from qualifying for the Gold Cup semi-finals.

As the Hexagonal train rumbles on, I have to wonder however what is next for the “Soca Warriors”?

 

 

 

Can the Soca Warriors banish their opening match “hoodoo” in the Hex?

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Sheldon Bateau celebrates his opener against Guatemala at the CONCACAF Gold Cup last year.

Today is the big day. The Soca Warriors are back in the Hexagonal and are hopefully moving on to big things in the next 12 months.

If you’re a lover of history however, you’d know that the “Hex”, or for more specific terms, the CONCACAF Final Round of Qualifying has been less than kind to us over the years gone by in World Cup qualification.

For instance, apprehensive fans for today’s clash against Costa Rica may be considered fair-weather fans, however their doubts aren’t out of place considering our winless record in opening matches in the “Hex”.

Yeah, you got that right. T&T have never won an opening match in the modern format of Final Round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and the ceremonial dropping of points usually sets the tone for an arduous campaign.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

We can skip the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, as we never made it to the last six thanks to Jamal Shabazz’s Guyana. However, in the campaign before we opened against El Salvador in San Salvador at the Estadio Cuscatián, where T&T squandered a 2-0 lead to finish the match 2-2.

Carlos Edwards sent us into the lead in the seventh minute, then Dwight Yorke doubled up with a penalty in the 26th, however El Salvador responded after Stern John missed his chance from the spot, and Osael Romero scored two late goals (the latter from a free kick) to level.

Four years before in 2005, we opened at the Queen’s Park Oval on Ash Wednesday against the United States, where the two Eddies: Johnson (30th) and Lewis (54th) both scored to grab three points despite Angus Eve’s best efforts to salvage a result in the 89th minute.

Four years before that in 2001, we travelled to “The Office” in Kingston after a promising semi-final round, and went down 1-0 to Tyrone Marshall’s laser.

In the 1998 campaign, T&T did not make it to Hexagonal at all, and in 1994 we weren’t in the running in the final group of four (the “Hex” didn’t exist yet).

Then as if to add to the odds, our competitive record against “Los Ticos” is pretty abysmal. The “Soca Warriors” have only avoided defeat on three occasions – winning 2-1 at the 2000 Gold Cup quarter-finals, drawing 0-0 in the third match of the “Hex” in 2005 and beating them 2-0 at the Under-17 level at the World Cup qualifiers in 2013.

History however, has very often little to do with what happens on the pitch on the day.

Since head coach Stephen Hart has taken over the national squad in 2013, the profile of the team rose out of the post Jack Warner doldrums, but would the Hart alchemy be enough to steer Trinidad and Tobago through what is guaranteed to be an unpredictable Hexagonal campaign?

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The Soca Warriors jubilate during their 4-4 thriller against Mexico at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

I think that so far in the World Cup qualifiers, the “Soca Warriors” have earned a solid B+ grade. When you consider the results against Guatemala in the opener and against the US days later at home (2-1 and 0-0) respectively last November, then the roller-coaster win over St Vincent and the Grenadines 3-2 in the fires of Arnos Vale in March, it’s clear that Hart’s men are mentally tough and have what it takes to get the results.

With the return of Kevin Molino from injury, we battered the “Vincey Heat” the following week 6-0, and then eked the result necessary against Guatemala to make it to the final six.

So why the B grade one may ask? Well, the team has had their glitches which have unfortunately come at crunch times.

They failed to qualify for the last two editions of the Copa America. The Centenario which was last summer in the States, was a real heartbreak as we were edged 1-0 by Haiti in the play-off.

Add to that the recent Caribbean Cup debacle, as well as our second-half capitulation against the US in the last match of the semi-final round in the mix, and it’s clear there has to be some tightening up to do.

“The biggest danger is individual concentration. Individuals have made minor errors; it’s normal, but it has cost us dearly,” said Hart when he announced the 23-man squad last week. “We have to be in a situation where we are a little more clinical in the final third of the game. What I mean by that is the final pass and finishing.”

T&T’s defence isn’t the only conundrum unsolved so far in the campaign however. Our attack will still have to rely on a certain Kenwyne Jones, who has a few detractors among local fans.

Okay to be fair, Kenwyne has had a purple patch under Hart, hitting the back of the net 16 times since the coach came in three years ago. However, whenever Hart justifies sticking with his target man despite his profligacy because: “he draws more attention to himself, thus freeing up space”, doesn’t it feel like a polite euphemism for “well we’ve got no-one better at the moment, so he’ll do… ”?

Kenwyne has improved under the current setup make no mistake, but his conversion rate is pretty frustrating to say the least. That being said however, we have seen the rise of not only a decent midfield, but some mercurial wide forwards none more prolific than Joevin Jones.

Jones (J), Levi Garcia, Cordell Cato… the names do roll off the tongue now, and of course the midfield does have more than enough talent to operate at the level required to navigate through the Hexagonal.

And with the recall of an in-form Willis Plaza to the fold who knows, he could be the wild card needed off the bench against the Central Americans.

A lot of fans have mused that the suspension of Kevin Molino and the delayed debut of John Bostock are a big blows to our hopes. Maybe they are. However we’ve been more than functional without them so far, so their return will just make us stronger.

I think this is T&T’s best chance since 2006 to qualify for the World Cup and of course it won’t be easy, but it won’t be easy sailing for anyone involved. Mexico had to rely on a last-minute goal from the US against Panama to make it to the continental play-offs in 2013.

Hart shares my optimism.

“For a lot of players, this doesn’t come around all the time. This is their opportunity… I have no doubt that the players are going to come together, they’re going to come in the hotel and sit down with each other and say: ‘We worked very hard to get here and we should maximise this opportunity’.” He told the media.

“We want to maximise our performance at home and come away with three points, which will set the tone for when we go into a very hostile Honduras.”

I believe that we’re in with a shot. We just need to rid ourselves of our opening-day malady first, and set the tone for a good campaign.

 

 

Were Brazil THAT good in France ’98?

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Brazil’s Ronaldo, on ground, is consoled by teammate Bebeto after France defeated Brazil 3-0 during the final of the soccer World Cup 98 between Brazil and France at the Stade de France in Saint Denis, north of Paris, Sunday July 12, 1998. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) World Cup France98

The other day I was at the barber shop and a topic similar to this came up where my barber and his clientele (todos são brasileiros certamente) were propagating the time-honoured belief that had Ronaldo been fit, Brazil would have hammered France in the Final. Needless to say, I kinda found it a tad difficult to agree with such a gross assumption, after which the entire mob successfully snuffed out my blasphemy.

That final was 18 years ago and Brazil supporters anywhere still swear by this. Were Brazil that good though in 1998? Not really.

Now don’t get me wrong. I LOVE that ’98 team. The lasting image in my mind was Ronaldo blowing past a Manchester United-bound Jaap Stam during one of this tunnel vision runs toward a quaking Edwin Van der Sar in the Dutch goal during their semi-final in Marseilles.

Or how about Denilson’s trickery and adhesive left instep to fool the Norwegian defence to set up a Bebeto header at the same venue in Brazil’s final Group A match?

Brazil at France ’98 were sooo good in attack. They had Denilson off the bench, plus Bebeto of USA ’94 fame, as well as Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafú on both flanks and of course Ronaldo… who was coming off four magnificent years in Europe after he took home the World Cup in 1994. Imagine if Romário were fit (whelp).

Most fans however just don’t like to admit that that team had a tragic flaw – their defense were absolute rubbish!

Has anyone ever noticed that Junior Baiano was never capped again after the Final in ’98? That’s for a good reason I’m certain. The giant centre back was as bad as they come as far as Brazilian centre backs are concerned.

I remember at the barber shop that the argument was “since when does Brazil need a defence to win a f***ing World Cup??”. Erm, since forever holmes.

With the exception of the 1970 vintage team, every other World Cup-winning Seleção has had to rely to varying degrees on a competent backline.

Djalma Santos, Nílton Santos (no relation) and goalkeeper Gylmar (dos Santos) were all retained from 1958 in the Chile ’62 defence. And Brazil with the help of course from Garrincha, Didi and Vavá in attack, went on to retain the Jules Rimet trophy.

Take into consideration the 1982 team (my favourite of all time of course) and their lack of concern for solid defending, and how it cost them dearly against Paolo Rossi’s Italy and you get the picture. No? Well how about Brazil in 2014, led by David Luiz, Dante and Marcelo at the back?

The point is in France ’98 Brazil were suspect at the back all tournament. Norway went on to beat them in their final group match 2-1.

Never mind Brazil had already won the group. With Zagallo reinstating his usual starting lineup, he was surely looking for revenge for the 4-2 defeat in Olso the year before.

Brazil then caned Chile 4-1 in the second round and almost soiled their shorts trying to advance past Denmark at the quarter-final stage in Nantes. But let’s get back to that semi-final in Marseilles.

The Netherlands were on a high after the all-time classic at the Stade Vélodrome against Argentina, and after a cagey first half, and then going behind, (to a well-made goal scored by Ronaldo) went on to dominate possession for the rest of the second half, and extra-time after Kluivert put in one of his sexy headers in the 86th minute.

Yup, you heard me. Brazil resorted to passing the ball aimlessly at the back after they went ahead with R9, because Holland quite simply were too dangerous for their back line. I’d have loved to have seen Marc Overmars (who didn’t play due to injury) take on Roberto Carlos on the left flank.

1998 World Cup Finals. Marseille, France. Semi-Final. 7th July, 1998. Brazil 1 v Holland 1.  (Brazil won 4-2 on penalties). Brazil's Ronaldo races away as Holland's Wim Jonk (6) and Ronald De Boer try to intercept.

1998 World Cup Finals. Marseille, France. Semi-Final. 7th July, 1998. Brazil 1 v Holland 1. (Brazil won 4-2 on penalties). Brazil’s Ronaldo races away as Holland’s Wim Jonk (6) and Ronald De Boer try to intercept.

Ronaldo’s freakish talent I’ll admit, does distract a lot from the reality of that ’98 Brazilian team.

The lasting image in my mind of that tournament (well other than Bergkamp’s winner against Argentina) was Ronaldo’s individual performance in that semi-final, especially in extra-time.

It goes beyond a doubt that he was Brazil’s main threat as the legs all around him tired, and he even almost scored an overhead kick. One of the best performances from R9 that I can think of. But then came the convulsions mere hours before the Final.

Ronaldo played as we all know and was a shadow of himself, and the rest of the team (especially the defence) capitulated. Had Brazil defended those set-pieces properly from which Zidane scored his two headers, who knows? Brazil may have won it yet, because they did dominate the second half.

Instead we saw the worst defending in a World Cup Final ever, which always had the potential of happening if you consider the evidence earlier in the tournament.

Four years later a pragmatic Scolari got his zagueiros in order and with the return of R9, the rise of Ronaldinho and Rivaldo’s last hurrah, Brazil won the World Cup for a record fifth time.

Were Brazil as good in 1998 as fans always seem to remember? Nah not as much. Make no mistake: they were a team of incredible individuals however, playing O Jogo Lindo going forward. However they ultimately fell short in the end, and it’s as simple as that.

Surviving the Presser

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Back in the day, this was a daunting prospect. It gets easier with time though, I promise.

Five things newbie sports journalists should know to make the most out of a press conference story.

For the seasoned reporter, or one who knows what he’s doing anyway, the press conference is a dream of an assignment. Delicious finger foods and refreshments aside, press conferences are pretty straightforward; simply because the information is being handed out on a platter for everyone.

However, to the uninitiated or the rank amateur, this is the sort of assignment that could break you if you’re not sure how to go about it in the most effective way. That’s where I come in. I’ve compiled five of the best ways to handle a press conference like a pro, based on my experience.

Here’s to putting your best foot forward.

Step One: Arrive on time.

Sounds too straightforward to be true right? Wrong. A lot of sports writers (especially some of the more seasoned ones) waltz into a press conference after it’s already started.

Now, bearing in mind that public transportation in T&T is a headache all by itself, and you may have had a previous assignment that may have mucked up your timetable, try to arrive on time when the circumstances are ideal.

Why? The last thing that you want is to miss out on key points or what might have been a juicy quote. Most importantly though, is that you don’t want to have to depend on another reporter’s kindness to disseminate information. Some just aren’t willing to help you out, or they’re just too immersed in their hectic schedules to give a toss.

But seriously though, it’s always better to be there before the action starts, so you can help yourself to a press kit, find the best-possible seat for the “drama”, and even engage in some of the banter among your colleagues if that’s your cup of tea.

It’s better to be relaxed and ready when the cameras and  recorders start whirring. Which brings me to my next point.

Step Two: Efficient Note-taking.

Try and maintain some note-taking skills please. Get a notepad, or a tablet or whatever tickles your fancy, and  a recording device. If you ask me, “old skool” is best.

I currently have a mead mini-notepad, fave Pilot pens and a Sanyo voice recorder. I prefer to use a recorder than a cell phone any day because of the conference feature which allows you to record audio clearly from a distance.

Too much tech can complicate matters. Like a battery dying, or a phone restarting and other things like that.

My time-honoured method is to jot down notes on my notepad while the voice recorder is picking up every tasty detail. I usually take note of the time when something interesting or relevant is said. Trust me, that method cuts your work in half when you have to listen to the playback and write your masterpiece.

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This is all you need. The simpler the better.

Step Three: Look for a lead.

The best follow-up to taking bess notes is to find a bess lead. As I mentioned before, a press conference is the easiest possible story for a seasoned writer as the information is spoon-fed to them.

The problem with this is that nothing of real substance is usually given to the media, just a lot of PR and small talk. This is where you need to find your angle or lead. This is why it’s important to arrive early or plan ahead of time. Think about what readers may want to know or read about most in relation to the current press conference.

No need to panic though, your editor will usually give you these details beforehand. Still however, think outside of the box. Look for a second or third story. This will set you apart from the crowd in a good way.

Step Four: Get a word in! 

If you’re craving that unique story, you need to ask questions. There’s usually a Q/A session after the main course, that’s easy. Sometimes there’s a session after where a dignitary would be swarmed by journos. Try your utmost to get your word in. Seasoned writers tend to know this and end up dominating the session with their well-placed questions.

Elbow in (respectfully as possible) and ask away. No-one would feel like punching you in the mouth, I swear. But yes, assertive questions are the key to making a great story instead of an okay one. If the grand-charging is too overwhelming for you the newbie, then pull aside the person you desire to get a quote from the most, and make those fleeting seconds count!

Final Stage: Crafting the Masterpiece

You’re back in the office, you’ve endured more traffic coming back, now it’s time to work the keyboard and get your story out.

This is the easy part. If you’ve followed my previous four steps that is. Glance at your notes and skip forward to the relevant part in the recording.

Think about how you can grip your readers with a good lead. I usually use indirect quotes in my lead paragraph when I’m trying to be a bit fancy. Some of the top writers use actual quotes (not sure if I remember seeing them do that for a release however).

However the basic rules apply with news stories, even in sports. The reader must get a grasp of what was the point after reading the first paragraph or two.

After which, you can swing that writer arm once the formalities get out of the way!

Good luck, journos…

 

Brazilian football is in a mess, or is it?

This is a comment from a Brazilian called “Paulinho” who refuted the claim of doom and gloom within Brazilian football, and went on to explain from a Brazilian’s perspective where their football stands and has always stood in the pecking order.icons-memorabilia

Tim Vickery’s theory is wrong, or only partly right, let’s say. Brazilians love football for its own sake. They don’t play football just to win, they play it because the game suits their characteristics – they love to dance and express themselves physically, and it’s a game that can be played with skill, beauty and expression and to entertain and show off, a quintessentially Brazilian thing. The majority of Brazilians don’t have the money to engage in the kind of sports we do, so football is the perfect sport.

But, having tasted so much success with the national team, certainly in the World Cup, most Brazilians want to see the selecao playing to win, and with style. Brazilians aren’t interested in their team playing losing football, even less so poor losing football, a bit like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United fans, actually.

As for Brazil being “a decadent football culture in urgent need of radical reform” (says the Englishman), Brazil continues to produce and nurture talent at grassroots level and will continue to do so until football loses its lustre. Brazilian football has always been “in crisis”, yet they were always able to produce World Cup-winning teams. In many ways things are much better now, players are no longer virtual slaves of the clubs and even in Brazil can earn proper wages. The problems are too complex to nail down in an article or even a book, probably. The tendency for young Brazilians to go abroad at the first opportunity is creating a lot of lost talent, but in the end the real problem is finding and getting the best 11 onto the pitch ready to do themselves justice, and a coach that doesn’t automatically set up the team not to lose, as has been the trend in recent times.

By the way, for all Jonathan’s slavering about Argentina (I agree they produce oodles of playing and coaching talent) they’ve won diddly squat at senior international level for decades now. Lionel Messi does have two Olympic golds, though, so I imagine he’s pretty happy with them.