Serbia Controls Their Destiny

 

Tuesday evening I attended the Serbia versus Faroe Islands European Cup Qualifying Match. Serbia is in Group C and is trying to qualify for this summer’s European Cup hosted by Poland and Ukraine. With a 3-1 defeat of the Faroe Islands, they move into second place in the group.

Italy, the first place team in the group, are 8 points clear and guaranteed a spot. The second place team in the group earns a spot in a play-in round against another second place club in one of the nine groups, or if they have one of the best records for a second place team, they earn an automatic bid.

The second place spot in Serbia’s Group C is tightly contested. The good thing is Serbia controls their own fate. The other two teams behind Serbia (14 points) are Estonia (13 points) and Slovenia (11 points). Let’s break down Serbia’s chances of winning the second place position.

Serbia has two games left while the other two only have one game remaining. Serbia is hosting Italy and traveling to Slovenia next month. How they need to do depends on Estonia. Estonia travels to Northern Ireland. Let’s say Estonia wins the game in Belfast to finish the group with 16 points. That would mean that Serbia needs win at least one of the games to qualify. Both matches will be difficult. The Italians will be coming with a second-rate team because they have already qualified. It will be an emotionally-charged game. Last fall, Italy was granted a 3-0 forfeit over Serbia because the game could not be played due to a few hooligans in and out of the stadium. The match in Slovenia will not be easy either. All of the ex-Yugoslavian Derby matches are hard fought, and Slovenia has a decent team as evidenced by their qualification in the last World Cup.

We really enjoyed the game. Because no one expected the Faroe Islands to win, the stadium was only about half full and we had excellent, comfortable seats. It is a joke that the Faroe Islands can compete as an independent nation. They are located half-way between Scotland and Iceland and have a population of around 50,000. We were joking that the balding, slightly overweight striker, took a couple days off postal duties to play in the game.

I have to give the Faroe Islands team credit however. They gave a good effort, scored a goal, and they even had a cheering section behind us. Normally, young men in the Serbian crowd would look menacingly at the opposing cheering section, but because of the quirkiness and small size of the contingent, they were more laughing and staring as anything. The group has an odd chant as the their team approached the goal or had a corner kick. They even had one guy with a Viking helmet in Faroe Island colors. (see below) They even have earned 4 points in the group with a win over Estonia, which could ultimately determine Serbia’s fate.

It would be great for the “Orlovi” (Eagles as the Serbian team is nicknamed) to qualify. They had a tumultuous group stage with a coaching change, and a forfeit in Italy which also resulted in a home game against Northern Ireland in an empty stadium.

It is nice for once for Serbia to control their own destiny in trying to get into a European event. This is much different than their attempts to get into the EU. Go Serbia! Navije Srbija!

A Great Serbian Comeback in an Empty Stadium

It was a strange scene last night at the Red Star Stadium here in Belgrade. Northern Ireland came to town for a Group C Euro Cup Soccer Qualifying Match. No one except for 200 VIP Northern Ireland guest supporters were allowed in the stadium. The normal packed scene of lines of fans around the stadium was eerily empty. The only people we saw the press corp and plenty of police and military personnel to keep spectators and hooligans away. (photo below) The Serbian Football Federation was serving a 1-game penalty for fan behavior in October’s match in Italy. The match couldn’t start because of a group of hooligans and Italy was awarded a 3-0 forfeit victory. Last night’s game was the second part of the sanction.

 

It was an entertaining match. I was surprised because Northern Ireland plays a defensive style and after scoring a beautiful goal off a set play in the first half, (screen shot above from the Serbian television station RTS – Radio, Television of Serbia) I thought it would be more boring delay tactics with nine men in the box for the visitors. Fortunately, Serbia kept on pressing and in a dominant second half, scored two goals to win 2-1. It was odd to watch on TV and hear individual voices of players and coaches.

The first round of games in the group are complete. Despite the forfeit, closed stadium, losing their coach, and suffering many injuries, the “White Eagles” are tied for second place with Slovenija in their group behind Italy. The top two teams qualify for next summer’s European Cup hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. They have 5 more games with the next game being in Talin, Estonia on Tuesday. Hopefully the momentum of the victory will carry them through a probably cold and dreary game in the far north of the European continent.

Note that the “Gazprom” painting on the seats is the owner of the Red Star professional soccer club in Belgrade. Gazprom is the Russian National Petroleum company. Earlier in the week, Vladimir Putin was in Belgrade and the stadium. Red Star played an exhibition match in his honor with a Russian team.

I can’t wait to go to the next Serbian in September against the Faroe Islands. I think it is good that FIFA penalized the Serbian Soccer Federation. They need to invest in the stadium and clean up those disaffected youths that give the country a bad name. I also feel that the Serbian government is also to blame in that it does not have a good economy to provide opportunities for these young men to put their energy towards making Serbia better and establishing careers.

North Korea Defeats Bahrain 1-0

The VIP Section of the Bahrain National Stadium

It was certainly a different experience at the stadium last night as we watched North Korea defeat Bahrain 1-0 in an international friendly (exhibition) game in the National Stadium here in Riffa, Bahrain. The first strange thing about game was admission was free. They don’t have any tickets and do not charge spectators to enter. There were security guards at all the gates and inside the stadium, but a very relaxed atmosphere. The 10,000 seat capacity stadium was probably about 1/4 full. We had a difficult time finding four consecutive seats that were not broken. It is strange that the kingdom has such good infrastructure with roads, lights, etc, and such a poor stadium. The lights were good and the field in decent shape, but the seats, bathrooms, running track, etc. all need to be renovated. I only saw two women in the crowd, one British woman and one local in the black robes. Many fans were chewing sunflower seeds. The only items for sale were pumpkin, sunflower and other types of seeds, soda pop, and “sloppy joes” made with liver.

The game was quite boring with Bahrain trying to attack but with a lot of backwards passing and North Korea mostly playing a defensive, counter-attacking style. North Korea got the lone goal 14 minutes into the second half with a nice crossing pass to a cutting striker. The Korean goalkeeper made some nice stops, but he was annoyingly slow in retrieving the ball and kicking balls from the goal. I don’t see Bahrain getting out of their group and North Korea definitely has to step up their game to be successful in next week’s Asian Cup.

The Home Team Bahrain is in Red Uniforms

Below is the preview I wrote yesterday prior to going to the game.

Tonight I’m taking the boys to the North Korea versus Bahrain international friendly soccer game.

Both teams are getting ready for next week’s Asian Cup in neighbor Qatar. The cup features 16 teams from Asia with Australia, Japan, and South Korea as favorites. Bahrain will be grouped with Australia, India, and South Korea. North Korea will be matched up with UAE, Iraq, and Iran. It would be funny to substitute Cuba for UAE and add Venezuela to get an “axis of evil” tourney going.

Bahrain has never qualified for the World Cup. The past two cup qualifying competitions however, they lost in the final playoff leg, losing to New Zealand last year and to Trinidad & Tobago in 2006. They don’t have any players I recognize, most play in the Persian Gulf region. One guy plays on a first division Swiss team and another for a first division Turkish team.

North Korea is a more interesting team. They were in last summer’s World Cup, but lost three straight games, including a 0-7 drubbing by Portugal. The regime punished the coach by firing him and putting him on a construction job. In another article by Newsweek reporter Eve Fairbanks, she argues that the team should be banned from international competitions and discusses their star player, Jong Tae-se, a German second division player:

People who dismiss boycotts say they punish ordinary people rather than those in power, and furthermore, that cultural exchanges like orchestra tours and sports matches help dispel the sense of otherness that hangs over pariah peoples, allowing us to recognize our common humanity. Permit me to suggest that, in the case of North Korea and the World Cup, this is idiocy. Consider North Korea’s star player, the striker Jong Tae-se. A vocal and charismatic 20-something nicknamed “The People’s Wayne Rooney,” Jong has asserted that North Korea’s participation in the World Cup will do a great deal to demystify the country, win it respect and understanding abroad, and stoke pride at home. Indeed, Jong himself leads a totally normal and enjoyable-sounding life, by professional-athlete standards. He rolls in a silver Hummer, loves to snowboard, travels with an iPod and a Nintendo, and aspires to bed one of the Wondergirls—the Spice Girls of Seoul. He has also never lived in North Korea. He was born in Japan and continues to reside there, in the better-off Korean diaspora. He was the one who told the newspapers about his North Korean teammates’ quaint penchant for rock-paper-scissors. If Jong doesn’t represent the existence of Joe Ebrahim’s “dual life” in terms of North Korean society—in which a few nation-glorifying stars are allowed to pursue a capitalist lifestyle while most forage for food and dream about basic rights—I don’t know what does.

North Korea’s thrashing by Portugal means the team will not play on past their last group match, on Friday against the Ivory Coast. I suspect Jong Tae-se will manage. As for the regular North Korean fans, however, it’s not clear if they’ll be able to keep watching the Cup, thanks to a dispute between North and South Korea that affects the television signal. As for his rock-paper-scissors-playing comrades headed back to the Korean Peninsula, who knows—which is what makes North Korea’s participation in a sporting event like this one really scary. The team’s spokesman told South African journalists that the team’s one aim was to make the Dear Leader (he really said that) happy. A team whose purpose in winning is to bring honor to an inhumane regime—as South Africa’s apartheid rule was—should not be allowed a world platform to do so, particularly when its players face a dark reward for losing.

The team, except for the two diaspora Japanese ringers (Jong and another guy) were publicly shamed in a six-hour assembly. Weird! I wonder in tonight’s game if they will have any fans? I am looking forward to an interesting experience. I predict a Bahrain win, 2-1.  I’ll have photos and a match report tonight.

Serbia World Cup Draw

 

Last Friday the World Cup Soccer draw took place. There was a lot of hype and attention on the event, as everyone was hoping for an easy draw. I was most interested in Serbia’s group and this post is an analysis of their chances of winning the World Cup. 
I think people put too much emphasis on which group their team gets placed into. I look at it like it doesn’t matter when you face the tough opponents, whether in your group or in following rounds, eventually you are going to have to beat a quality opponent. For each group of 4, the top two qualify. Then the 16 teams in the 8 groups advance to the single elimination bracket. Qualifying from an easy group, a team will likely play a tough opponent in the knockout round of 16.
Serbia’s group is one of the tougher groups of the eight. Of course, the favorite is Germany. The Germans have been in the championship game 7 times in their history and have won three World Cups. The team cruised through its qualifying group, easily defeating Russia and Finland. The team once again is solid, with Chelsea star Michael Ballack leading the way. Germany’s discipline, physical play, and talent will be hard to beat.
Serbia is ranked second in the group on paper, but I would say that all three teams are just about even.  Ghana is a country of 23 million and are a traditional African power, winner several African Cups over the years. “The Black Stars” recently won the Under-20 World Cup and last World Cup, made it out of the first round, losing to Brazil 0-3 in the round of 16. The team features another Chelsea superstar, midfielder, Michael Essien, and also, former Vojvodina FK coach, and Serb, Milovan Rajevac is the coach. 
Australia qualified through Asia for the first time. Usually they compete in the Oceania group, but wanted tougher competition to prepare for the Cup. They beat Japan to get in, and their star is Tim Cahill, from Everton. 
Serbia has a good of chance as anyone. They won a tough qualifying group, finishing higher than France, Austria, and Romania. They have top league European based players, with the star being Nemanja Vidic for Manchester United. They looked out classed against France however, and I fear that both Germany and Ghana, may have a faster game than the Serbs. I do feel good with Vidic in the back, and the Serbs do play tough soccer. 
If they do get through, they will have to play either #1 or #2 of group C which features England, USA, Algeria, and Slovenia. Suppose they finish second, they could play England. The winner then plays either group 1 winner France or group 2 runner-up Argentina. That would put them in the semifinals. As you can see, it will be very tough odds for Serbia to win it all. 
There has only been a small number of teams that have won the World Cup in recent years. Realistically, the winner will be Brazil (192 million), Germany (82 million), Italy (60 million) England (50 million) France (62 million). The Netherlands, with 16.5 million, is the smallest country to consistently appear in the semifinals. Note that Croatia did make it to the 1998 semifinals which is an anomaly. My idea would be to have a large nation and a small nation World Cup. Set it at say 20 million, and nations with a population smaller than that would compete in one tourney and larger nations in the other. You could even have the winners meet. I know other factors come into play other than population, like coaching, financial support, youth programs, etc, but long-term, the chances of a very small nation winning it are remote. There are many smaller nations with excellent soccer, like Denmark, Paraguay, Portugal, etc. that would make for an interesting World Cup, small division. There is a nice article in the Wall Street Journal that has similar thoughts to my ideas. 
I would also modify the game of soccer to allow more goals. Because the extreme difficulty of scoring goals, too many games come down to a lucky bounce or an acting dive in the penalty box. I don’t like to watch a game where one team dominates play the entire game and then loses with one counter attack that results in a goal. The modifications I propose would be larger goals, more lenient offsides rule, stricter penalties for players faking a trip (automatic red card and forced to wear a pink tutu for the rest of the season or tourney), etc. I would rather see games finish 8-7 than 0-0 and a team wins with penalty kicks. 
Anyway, I’ll enjoy watching the games in June and there will be a lot of excitement here in Serbia. Living an expat global nomad lifestyle, I have several alligences to other teams including Australia and the USA. My South American teams did not qualify this time (Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela).