I can’t fix the World Cup draw, but if I could: England’s dream would be a nightmare

I’ve tried to read the runes on the draws for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 – with an almost freakish level of success.

For 2010, I tipped England for Group C and suggested they’d be only too happy to be joined there by North Korea, Algeria and Slovenia. Swap North Korea for the United States and that’s exactly what happened. The idea was that England would stroll to top spot and take on the runner-up from South Africa’s group, rather than getting battered by an in-form Germany.

For 2012 I tipped England to go into Group D with Ukraine, Sweden and Denmark. Again, right place with two out of three opponents correct – only France, instead of Denmark.

This time it’s different. For one thing, groups will be played across Brazil – a decision that is rightly worrying Roy Hodgson. And as an unseeded team, they could be handed any on of 24 sets of fixtures, rather than the seven possibilities the top tier teams have on their plate.

And as for making it ‘easy’ – well that’s where it gets hard.

Clearly, among the seeds England would want to avoid Spain, Argentina, Germany and the hosts. What’s more, if England were drawn against the other South American teams, Uruguay or Colombia, they would not only be facing teams close to home territory but would also face an increased prospect of playing another team from the same European pot England sit in – a group that in its own way is as menacing as the seeds.

That leaves Belgium and Switzerland. Belgium have tapped a rich stream of talent – would you prefer Vincent Kompany or Gary Cahill? Eden Hazard or Theo Walcott? Romelu Lukaku or Danny Welbeck? The Belgians are a team on the cusp of greatness, and a good bet to at least match the 1986 Enzo Scifo generation that made the semi-finals.

Pretty much by default, that leaves the Swiss, the only seeds England would have any reason to be confident in facing.

Such a turn of events greatly increases the possibility that England would face a South American team from Pot 2. Chile or Ecuador can’t be drawn against the four South American seeds. It’s probably too much to hope that England draw the weakest African qualifier, Algeria, again. And a fat lot of good it did them last time anyway. So let’s take Ecuador from that group – certainly not a bad side, but one England would back themselves against.

Pot 3 is the weakest, but still contains plenty of teams you’d rather avoid. The USA and Australia are no mugs. Mexico struggled in qualifying, but may fancy the conditions, especially in northern Brazil. Japan and South Korea have been constantly improving. Iran and Costa Rica have solid tournament experience, Honduras less so, so we’ll take them.

For the sake of argument, let’s stick England in the second slot in B2 – which gives them games largely in the more temperate south.

One basic principle for the draw: Fifa will not want Brazil to struggle early on on home turf, so expect a fairly easy Group A as well. So the draw, largely random, could go something like this.

Group A: Brazil, Greece, Costa Rica, Algeria

Group B: Switzerland, England, Honduras, Ecuador

Group C: Colombia, Japan, France, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Group D: Belgium, Netherlands, South Korea, Ghana

Group E: Spain, Chile, Russia, United States

Group F: Uruguay, Iran, Ivory Coast, Italy

Group G: Germany, Cameroon, Australia, Portugal

Group H: Argentina, Nigeria, Mexico, Croatia

So there you have it – if England were to win the group they would play the second team in Brazil’s group – and would Greece, Algeria or (more likely) Costa Rica really stop England getting to a quarter final, where they’d most likely to be playing the winner of Group D. Could England, on a good day, beat Belgium or the Netherlands? Probably, setting up a most unlikely semi-final.

Which is, potentially, the worst possible outcome.

England have fallen behind in player development. Not just behind Italy, Spain and Germany and other nations we fancifully compare ourselves to, but even the Belgiums of this world: smaller countries putting out substantially better teams. What might be better is a draw that sends England crashing out early with their tails between their legs. A draw that focuses the minds of our FA, clubs and leagues on developing quality English players.

What’s more, there must be no excuses – it must look like a draw that England should at least have a chance of getting through; so for example putting England in slot four in Group G, sending them to the tropical heat of Manaus, Fortaleza and Recife while pairing them (say) with Argentina, the Netherlands and Mexico would be overkill – it would just fuel conspiracy theories and hard-luck stories.

So, for the sake of argument we’ll give them the same group and the same set of fixture dates. And we’ll pair them with a European seed: Belgium. Then we’ll give them an African second seed, say Ivory Coast. And an English-speaking team from the third group: Australia.

Three draws and out? Stranger things have happened.



Thatcher – how the British papers see it

So, the best of them; The Mail and The Mirror both, in their very different ways, strike just the right tone for their readerships. Interestingly the Telegraph goes for the same pic as The Mail, but goes with the stark, word-free cover – clean, crisp and reflective of a world where newspapers set the tone rather than breaking the news. The Indy does likewise, with a starkly different front reflecting its starkly different readership. The Guardian‘s is similarly neat, with a smaller head, striking greyscale front and white-on-grey text.

The Times has the best header tucked behind an eyecatching wraparound, but an underwhelming and low-key design on its ‘real’ front. The Socialist Worker? Ok, someone had to do it, but the Morning Star manages to put the boot in without being quite so crass. The Star and Express do a decent job, although the former could probably have done without those two massive plugs down the side of the splash?

The worst? By a long way, The Sun. This was the paper Maggie’s working class supporters lived off yet all they can manage is a week, desperately alliterative head focusing on a deeply unimportant, boring and irrelevant part of the story, with a touch of tastelessness?

With thanks to colleague George Chen on Twitter for forwarding the pics.

How to improve the Olympics

These Olympics have been brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Even as a long-term sceptic on London as a choice of venue (largely a result of the metropolitan elite’s disdain for the Manchester 2000 bid) I can’t help but be impressed. But the Olympics are all about going one step better and striving for constant impression. And the fact that three of the five channels showing the Games in Hong Kong are broadcasting synchronised swimming at the moment certainly offers food for thought.

Sort out the coverage:

Garish tracksuits and falling asleep on screen are de rigeur on HK TV. The map behind them was produced by Hilton hotels, but whether this is a sponsorship thing or just the first London map that came up on Google images when they were putting together the set remains unclear

NBCfail? Hong Kong should be so lucky. The telly here has been awful, probably because the deal to decide which free-to-air channel would broadcast the action was only decided a week or so before the opening ceremony. The bulk of the action is being shown on Cable TV, the broadcaster having bought the rights a few years ago in the misguided belief that it would have its own free channel by now. It’s got four channels showing the Games, but there’s no co-ordination with the two terrestrial channels sharing 200 hours of Games footage. So when ATV switched away from the women’s road race to show a Chinese gymnast, ATV continued to show the gymnastics – on both its Cantonese and English language stations. Even with one channel needlessly devoted to socccerball, that left a spare channel for the road race, one of the blue riband events of the early part of cycling. But no, Cable TV stuck with whatever it had on and the tense finish was only shown some time later on ATV.
Seeing double care of Cable TV. Worse, it’s gymnastics
Speaking of the English channel, it seems some smarty at Cable has discovered the joys of the split screen – but hasn’t worked out that you’re actually supposed to show two different bits of footage in the two parts of the screen. Thus the price of a mediocre English-language commentary from the Olympic Broadcast Service feed is watching Usain Bolt squeezed into an upright envelope as he runs the 100m. Time to learn Canto, I guess…

Improve the sports:

A few modest suggestions to make the events go with a little more zip.
Synchronised swimming: 1) Sharks – this is pretty straightforward stuff, why hasn’t it happened yet? 2) Dropping a live toaster into the swimming pool – let’s see ’em keep smiling after that. 3) Piranhas – a variation on point one. 4) Slowly increase the temperature in the pool to boiling point. Let’s see if that old theory about frogs and boiling water really does apply to people too

Equestrian: Obviously the horses should get the medals – they do all the work. Also the dressage really does have to go. Charlie Brooker bluntly sums it up in the Grauniad as teaching a horse to mince like a 1970s sitcom homosexual. Am I the only one who is happier with the idea of horses risking life and limb doing what they do naturally over the Grand National course than doing something as obviously and humiliatingly alien to them as prancing about for our entertainment? I did consider national hunt racing as an alternative, or indeed flat racing, if only to give Hong Kong a chance of a medal, but they seemed a bit close to the cross country in the three-day eventing. Instead, in the interests of diversity, let’s replace dressage with buzkashi.

Diving: Let’s get this straight. Anything that involves judges giving points for artistic merit is not a sport. See also – anything that involves wearing sequins. But diving is undoubtedly spectacular, so what it needs is a way of marking all that twisting and turning in a fair and quantitative way. Fortunately popular culture, in the form of the old video game Sonic the Hedgehog gives us a way. It may take a bit of jiggery pokery, but surely we could get afew gold rings flying, with points for every one they manage to touch? The same could work for the trampoline. But sorry gymnastics, there’s no hope for you.

The future for Tom Daley & Co?

Cycling: OK, it’s pretty perfect. And perfectly pretty too (Victoria Pendleton? The lovely Laura Trott). But you’ve got a velodrome there – what’s the excuse for not including Rollerball. You could even borrow the motorbike from that guy who sets the pace in the keirin. And it could hardly be more confusing than the points race.

Hold the darned thing in Hong Kong!
Surely an idea that’s time has come. Hong Kong has a record of messing about in hosting major events. It was offered a grand prix before Singapore, seems to have screwed up its chances of hosting games in the 2019 rugby union world cup and is prevaricating on the idea of bidding for the Asian Games. But the truth is Hong Kong is Asia’s world city. It doesn’t belong on a list with the likes of Incheon, Guangzhou and Doha, it belongs with London, Rio and, dare I say it, Beijing. Hong Kong people will get behind a big idea if it’s big enough and good enough. This is a city that built an airport in six years – it can surely put on an Olympics in seven. Hong Kong 2024? It might just be time for a campaign …

IOC’s choice poses questions for Fifa

It comes to something when the International Olympic Committee, long the watchword for corruption in international sport, shows more sense than Fifa.

While football was happy to pocket the oil money and give Qatar the 2022 World Cup, the IOC has taken the city out of the running for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Now, by any sensible measure, hosting the Olympics is a far more straightforward than a World Cup. Venues can be concentrated within a relatively small area, many sports take place inside, there are, as a rule, fewer fans to accommodate. Most importantly, that timing is flexible – the Sydney games took place in late September, rather than the usual July/August dates.

So why the snub? Apparently, it’s down to … exactly that reason. The IOC doesn’t want the October games that Doha preferred.

But haven’t the Qataris been telling us all along that they can air condition a World Cup? If they can’t keep Olympians cool at the end of September, how are they going to manage it for footballers in June and July? Fifa – and indeed – the Qataris owe us an explanation.

As an aside, the other city rejected by the IOC is Baku, host to this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest. While that particular campfest will never rank alongside the Olympics or the World Cup, and the selection procedure is simpler – give it to last year’s winner – wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that the focus on forced evictions and other human rights violations might focus the minds of those taking part in Saturday’s telephone vote?

Nice, but probably unrealistic…

I can’t fix the Euro 2012 draw (and it wouldn’t help England much anyway)

So, flushed by the success of a not-too-far-from perfect guess at the World Cup draw (and let’s … erm … draw a veil over how it actually turned out). Here’s a look at what tomorrow night’s Euro 2012 draw might throw up.

I said about 10 minutes after Poland/Ukraine got the event that England would end up in the deepest coal mine in the eastern Ukraine. Looking at the event map, that would seem to mean Donetsk and Group D alongside Ukraine, probably in slot D3.

Let’s assume also that Uefa don’t like the idea of the Germans going to Poland or Russia going to Ukraine or playing Poland, so Germany take the second seeded place in Group B and Russia go to Group C. That leaves Italy in Group A. They’re not going to fancy a Germany/Holland clash, at least so early in the competition, so Spain go into Group B as top seeds and Holland in Group C.

The bottom half of the draw is less obviously tempting for the fix-minded. But let’s assume that the Uefa wallahs don’t fancy both of the host nations going out early, so fast-emerging France go into one of the other pools – for the sake of argument, Group B. They’ll want to avoid an England-Ireland game so let’s have Ireland in Group A. If the rest of the draw is random, the final pools might look something like this:

  • Group A: Poland, Italy, Croatia, IRELAND
  • Group B: Spain, Germany, Greece, France
  • Group C: Netherlands, Russia, Portugal, Czech Republic
  • Group D: Ukraine, ENGLAND, Sweden Denmark

So, assuming it goes according to Fifa rankings (as it surely won’t), that would give us these quarter finals:

Croatia vs Germany

Netherland vs Denmark

Spain vs Italy

England vs Portugal

So another defeat to Ronaldo’s lot, realistically, or a stuffing by Spain in the semi-finals. Either way, we’ll have fun hopefully in Gdansk, where I’m planning to be for the early part of the finals!

Fracking hell – the PR machine is rolling

A flood of PR pieces in the ‘serious’ press this morning about Blackpool’s prospect of becoming the Dallas of the North care of fracking – the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock by injecting chemicals and fracturing it (fracking). You can find them in the Torygraph (probably the worst example), the Indy, the Guardian (probably the most balanced effort) and even the WSJ.

While there’s much talk of prosperity and the Aberdeen effect – and God knows the town needs it – what Blackpool doesn’t need is drinking water that goes up in flames, or another round of earthquakes. While jobs are welcome – invaluable, indeed – they can’t come ay any price. This kind of high-profile PR offensive shouldn’t be allowed to gloss over the risks of fracking. Until some of the questions are answered, Blackpool needs to keep the door ajar – if not quite closed – on fracking.

One final point; the gas fields in Morecambe Bay have been pumping out their produce since the mid-80s. Just when does Morecambe get its Aberdeen effect?

The Screws: Screwed

Still trying to take in tonight’s shocking news the the News of the World is to close after 168 years.

So what to make of it? There’s no way it can work.

For a start, the NI management have put the backs of 200+ journalists up. Speaking as a journalist, I can say that we’re generally a bitter, vindictive, cunning and creative bunch who bear grudges. An old cliche about the kind of people you want urinating out of the tent rather than in it springs to mind. Rumour has it the NI newsrooms are already in revolt.

Secondly, it’s stopped people thinking about the phone-hacking scandal and turned minds to what people liked about the Screws – its big book, salacious stories, unrivalled sports coverage etc. And it’s put the names of Coulson, Brooks and the various Murdochs starkly into the spotlight. ‘Cause it’s not the Screws brand that’s been tainted, it’s the Murdoch brand.

And it’s become perfectly clear that NI won’t be yielding its space in the Sunday market for long. In fact, it’s looking more and more like a cheap and cynical ploy to create a cheaper and ‘detoxified’ Sun on Sunday.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s a feeble strategy. Now, Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have a flawless record (see MySpace) but he’s been right (from the point of view of the success of his business, rather than morality) much more often than he’s been wrong. So what’s got into the sly old fox? Perhaps he’s told his son James that it’s his mess and he has to clean it up.

But you have to wonder if there’s something deeper or more personal going on …