Friday, 30 April 2010
Thursday, 29 April 2010
Wednesday, 28 April 2010
Aaron Mokoena: Under Presidential Orders to Lift the World Cup (but it would be nice to win the FA Cup too!)
AARON MOKOENA faces the two greatest challenges of his life over the next 44 days – under orders from the President himself to lift the World Cup in Johannesburg on July 11.
Relegated Portsmouth face Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 15 then his beloved South Africa prepare for the World Cup kick-off on home soil on June 11. Only a madman would back the man known as “The Axe” to escape the chop from President Jacob Zuma.
But then this is a man who lived through the downfall of Apartheid, who had to dress as a girl to escape a massacre and perhaps most remarkably of all, inspired Pompey to victory over in-form Spurs in a dramatic FA Cup semi-final upset last month.
Mokoena, raised with a tennis ball at his feet in the dusty streets of the Boipatong township near Johannesburg, is spending any spare time during the most exciting weeks of his life promoting charities and leading campaigns against gun crime. “Mbazo” (literally “The Axe”), is “giving something back”.
Last month, when his amiable, outspoken President Jacob Zuma came over on a state visit, Mokoena (above, left, at Downing Street with his President) cracked an invite with him to Buckingham Palace. He recalls: "The president called me over to the Queen and he said to her: 'You've got to know this man - he is the one who will make sure that South Africa wins the World Cup. He is the captain of the country.'
Was Elizabeth II fazed? Mokoena grins: “Well, the thing is she is well-informed. She obviously knew that the finals were in South Africa and she also knew who I was!”
Perhaps more intimidating than telling England’s sovereign how he intends to tame her Three Lions, is the message from The President himself. Mokoena adds: "President Zuma and I had a discussion. He just got straight to the point and he said to me ‘You have to make sure we win’. He loves football so much. I didn't know but he's a Liverpool fan and he used to play football himself.
“He used to be a captain of a team in the prison with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. But that's exactly what he said to me: 'You've got to make sure that the country wins.'"
Such pressure means little to Mokoena after his formative experiences as a boy in the Boipatong township near Vanderbijlpark, about 50 miles from downtown Johannesburg.
In June 1992, before democracy dawned in the Rainbow Nation, 40 people were massacred in a political attack – backed by police - which saw pregnant women and children murdered on the streets.
Mokoena told The Guardian: "The people were murdered at night. It was awful. We were crying. But then we were told they would come back to kill all the young boys.
“So my mum had to protect me. She dressed me as a girl and we went to the community hall where there was enough protection for people from the township, especially the boys.
"It wasn't an easy upbringing. It was a township and in townships anything is possible. My brothers and sisters really experienced Apartheid while crime-wise it was absolutely bad but I always had the support and protection of my family."
Mokoena also had his studies. "I was an academic boy. I was into mathematics and I loved science. I wanted to study further but, because of football, I couldn't do what I wanted to do."
For that reason he backs the 1GOAL initiative, which aims to get all children into school. He makes the point: "We are talking about 72 million kids worldwide who don't get the chance. Apartheid jeopardised the opportunity for kids in South Africa to be educated. The President and I are trying to change that. It is one thing he wants to leave as his legacy."
Mokoena learnt his trade under the great Jomo Sono with Cosmos in Johannesburg before travelling 5,000 miles to join Bayer Leverkusen and then Ajax in 1999.
After a couple of seasons on loan with Belgian club Germinal Beerschot in Antwerp, he moved to Genk. He played seven games in Holland and around 70 in Belgian before his big break in 2005. A £500,000 move saw the Axe land at Ewood Park, where he joined compatriot Benni McCarthy under Mark Hughes.
After 101 games as something of a cult figure in Lancashire, Mokoena headed for the deep south and Portsmouth last year, where he has earned similar devotion with 29 games in a difficult season at Fratton Park.
The youngest ever South African international – he was capped against Botswana in February 2009 at the tender age of 18 years and 87 days – he has succeeded former Leeds great Lucas Radebe as the Bafana Bafana skipper and at 28, he is South Africa’s most capped player with 99 so far.
Forced to miss Carlos Alberto Parreira’s pre-World Cup tours to Brazil and Germany this month by the demands of Portsmouth’s doomed Premier League campaign, the 100th cap remains on the horizon.
South Africa’s task in June is nearly as daunting as Portsmouth’s this month. The lowest ranked World Cup hosts in history – they are currently 88th in the FIFA list – South Africa kick off the first African World Cup at Soccer City on June 11 againt Mexico, with France and Uruguay to follow.
Unlikely or not, success at the World Cup after the big Wembley day out remains Mokoena’s amibition. Remember, his late, late extra-time winner in the third-round replay at Coventry kicked off the fairy-tale cup run for the Premier League’s bottom club. And his was inspired in the semi-final shocker against Tottenham.
He said: "It's been a fantastic run for us and especially lately, because we know that it's the only thing we had after our points deduction and relegation.
"We need the FA Cup more than anything and there's absolutely a parallel between Portsmouth and South Africa. It's exactly the same. We need the FA Cup more than anything and South Africa need this World Cup more than anything. Hopefully, we can do as well in the World Cup as we have done at Portsmouth in the FA Cup.”
Speaking yesterday to launch a campaign against gun crime, he added: “The debt at Portsmouth? It’s embarrassing. It shows how bad it was. Up and coming players have been involved in this. It’s not good for the game.
“But the Pompey fans kept on going. They are passionate supporters. Every game we played, we were aware of them, the money they pay to watch us play. We rose to that.
“At the moment, we have to sell players to make money. I have a meeting before I can talk about my future at the club.
"I must say it's been tough. But in the semi-final against Tottenham, we showed what character we have. I'm sure a lot of people elsewhere wouldn't have coped with the situation that we've had. The important thing is that there is nothing impossible in life. Do you want to take the easy way out or do you really want to fight it through?"
But of course, as his President might say, the FA Cup final is just a warm up for the real thing. The big thing. Mokoena insists: "We saw what happened at the 2002 finals with South Korea and it can definitely be the same story with us.
"We experienced it last summer when we had the Confederations Cup in South Africa (they reached the semi-finals while Spain and Italy went home early) and I am sure that the atmosphere will be even hotter at the World Cup. People are so over the moon to have the World Cup and we are going to show how much it means to us. The Confederations Cup was a good rehearsal and it's absolutely possible that we can do well at the World Cup.
"I think it's good to be underdogs. I said before the Confederations Cup not to write South Africa off and we surprised people then. I'm going to say exactly the same thing again. Don't write off Bafana Bafana before we've even kicked a ball."
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
SO YOU thought England had problems in the build-up to the World Cup. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Cole, a half-built training base, no room at the inn for the wives and girlfriends. Believe it or not, our rivals in South Africa have problems too, and their football writers aren't letting them forget it. With the provisional 30-man squads due to be named by May 11, the rumblings are being felt across the world. Have a look at this little lot with 44 days to go before the big kick-off...
For once the old mantra: “How come the Germans always do well at the World Cup?” is looking dodgy. Anybody who saw their awful 1-0 defeat at Munich against Argentina in March will know they’re not looking their normal efficient selves in the build-up – and they’ve got Australia, Serbia and Ghana to see off in Group D.
Let’s start at the back. Problem No1 – the goalkeeper. With Oliver Kahn retired and Stuttgart's former Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann soon to join him, Arsenal target Rene Adler is their first choice – but he broke a rib this month. The Bayer Leverkusen stopper has returned to training but Schalke's Manuel Neuer and Tim Wiese of Werder Bremen remain on standby.
At centre-back Robert Huth is a contender – but he can hardly be brimming with confidence after recent experiences at Stoke, where he saw seven goals fly past him against his former club Chelsea on Sunday.
In the midfield, Michael Ballack is hardly lighting up Stamford Bridge and his dislike of Germany assistant boss Oliver Bierhoff is public knowledge.
It’s up front they have real problems. Miroslav Klose is struggling for game time at Bayern, while LukasPodolski and Mario Gomez are struggling for goals.
Their form goal-getter, Kevin Kuranyi at Schalke 04, hasn’t played for Joachim Loew since since October 2008, when he walked out at half-time during the German clash with Russia.
Loew is under pressure to forgive Kuranyi, but he may be more concerned about the fact his contract expires on June 30, just before the quarter-finals in South Africa. And the German Federation are showing precious little enthusiasm over a new deal.
Loew says: "The situation is serious. As I have said before, our task must now be to get the players back to top form as quickly as possible. A lot can change in the coming weeks."
Ah, the defending champions. Drawn in Group F alongside Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia, they’ll have no problems getting to the qualifying stages – or will they?
The football-mad Italian press are writing their side off as “Italy’s weakest ever”. Jose Mourinho’s assault on the Champions League with Inter Milan doesn’t count – he fields precious few Italians in his sizzling San Siro line-ups. Roma captain Francesco Totti finds himself being begged to go back on his international retirement at 33 – but coach Marcello Lippi has not joined the chorus.
Lippi, who announced today he will allow families in their camp at unspectacular Leriba Lodge near the Centurion cricket ground, is also reluctant to pick Sampdoria’s in-form but temperamental Antonio Cassano.
And then there’s striker Luca Toni, frozen out at Bayern and on loan at Roma, who pleads in true Peter Crouch style: "There's many of us in contention for the Italy shirt, Lippi already has his ideas on his squad. I hope to go, he knows me well.”
Way back in 1966, when North Korea sent them home early from England, the Italians were pelted with fruit when they arrived in Rome. Surely we aren’t in for a repeat?
Diego Maradona, who eased his side through South American qualification by the skin of their teeth, admits: "It's going to hurt to leave out players who have given it their all, or who are having a great season. But when you have to make a choice, someone has to be eliminated."
True. But experts in Buenos Aires fear the little man with the big hand (and the tiny dog who bites his face) will mess it up in Group B against Nigeria, Korea and Greece, choosing his elderly favourites rather than the trio of in-form Argentines show casing their talent for Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the Champions League.
Inter full-back Javier Zanetti looks likely to stand aside for former Manchester United defender Gabriel Heinze, now at Marseille. And Esteban Cambiasso, responsible for keeping compatriot Lionel Messi quiet in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, appears to be behind another Manchester United veteran, Juan Sebastian Veron, now 35.
San Siro striker Diego Milito fears for his ticket to Johannesburg too - 36-year-old Martin Palermo has just become Boca Juniors' all-time top scorer and Maradona refers to the older man as a living legend.
The press in Buenos Aires dread Maradona making the same mistakes as he made in qualifying... too much chopping and changing, no clear tactical plan – and the world’s form player Messi will find himself lost in the chaos. Maradona’s response: "We're going to have a team that knows how to wear the Argentine colors."
England may worry about the state of Wayne Rooney’s knee and gluteus maximus, but in Brazil, it’s all about Kaka’s chronic groin hernia.
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, signed by Real Madrid from Milan for a then-record £57m, was already under incredible pressure in March when Lyon came to town and put them out of the Champions League.
Florentino Perez hinted he may have made a mistake buying Kaka while his coach Manuel Pellegrini – labelled a coward by Kaka’s representative Diogo Kotschko – then announced Kaka was injured.
We saw little of the world’s greatest Brazilian until he resumed training on April 22 – his 28th birthday – but the whole of the Samba nation heaved a huge sigh of relief when he returned to action against Real Zaragoza on Sunday.
And what did he do? He scored the winner to keep the pressure on Barcelona – with a little help from Christiano Ronaldo, who laid the ball through for him to score.
But that doesn’t end the problems. Kaka is still reported to be likely to leave the Bernebeu at the end of the season, the Spanish press accuse him of saving himself for the World Cup and he has been told by doctors he will require treatment on that groin for the rest of his life.
With Ronaldinho’s powers on the wane Brazil boss Dunga is also under pressure to bring in the Brazilian-based young guns – Neymar, 17, and Paulo Henrique Ganso, 20. Both play for Santos, with Neymar scoring five goals in an 8-1 win earlier this month. But will they play ahead of experienced performers like Inter striker Adriano and Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga-winning Grafite?
Still, they’ve always got Chelsea’s man mountain Alex at the back. Tottenham's reborn Heurelho Gomes is only third in line on the goalkeeper front, behind Inter Milan No1 Julio Cesar and Roma's Doni.
Raymond Domenech famously told Arsene Wenger he was “pissed off” when William Gallas’s calf went one game into his comeback against Barcelona a month ago.
Perhaps that’s just a sign of the pressure the French boss is under. Two of his big names, Lassana Diarra at Real Madrid and Barcelona’s aging former Gunner Thierry Henry, are struggling for time on the pitch in La Liga, while world-weary Patrick Vieira is hardly setting the world alight since his move to Manchester City.
Nicolas Anelka is struggling for goals in the shadow of Didier Drogba at Chelsea, though Florent Malouda was looking good until his awful miss in the 7-0 win over against Stoke on Sunday. The French press talk of André-Pierre Gignac, the Toulouse forward, but he has been struggling with injury.
And Domenech’s mood wasn’t helped by last week’s problems which saw Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou caught up in a row involving courts and under-age prostitutes. That one could run and run.
On the face of it, the Dutch should be happy. The normal divisions in the camp appear to have eased and Arsenal striker Robin van Persie has returned to full fitness at just the right time for his World Cup crusade in orange.
Arjen Robben is looking imperious at Bayern while Wesley Sneijder has been magnificent for Inter, the pair of them are dominating the Champions League.
Blimey, there’s even the old warhorse Rutgerus Johannes Martinus van Nistelrooy - Ruud for short - looking fit again and banging them in for Hamburg.
But Dutch boss Bert van Marwijk fears his defence will creak in Group E against Denmark, Japan and Cameroon.
Former Arsenal man Giovanni van Bronckhorst, now at Feyenoord, is 35. So too is former Blackburn centre-half Andre Ooijer at PSV. In goal, Edwin van der Sar did what all loyal Manchester United players do and retired from international football and is resisting calls for a return at 39.
Ryan Babel, supposedly the future of Dutch football after his starring role for their Under 21 European Championship-winning side all those years ago, has not impressed again at Liverpool this season.
Oh, and that traditional Dutch split? Van Persie and Sneijder don’t get on. Fact.
Former Manchester United assistant boss Carlos Queiros has already lost three key plays in the build-up to South Africa. Chelsea right-back Jose Bosingwe and Porto pair Ruben Micael and Silvestre Varela are all crocked. Real Madrid’s Pepe is struggling and Chelsea’s Deco is getting no younger.
To complicate matters further, the Portuguese press have never forgiven Queiros for replacing their beloved Luiz Felipe Scolari at the helm. Which is probably why Queiros has situated his side in the remote Magaliesburg mountain range for the World Cup, where the Portuguese share Group G with Brazil, Korea and the Ivory Coast. No prisoners will be taken there.
Sporting Lisbon's Brazilian striker Liedson now has a Portuguese passport and is likely to team up with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, the £90m man who has scored another glut of goals this season at new club Real Madrid.
It’s hard to create a crisis around the World Cup favourites with the depth the Euro 2008 champions boast. But Vicente del Bosque does have season ending injuries to Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Liverpool’s Fernando Torres to deal with.
Andres Iniesta has similar problems as they head to South Africa and an easy Group H, featuring Chile, Honduras and Switzerland.
Del Bosque must also decide on his goalkeeper. Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas has been around for years and carries the captain’s armband – but the Spanish press are clamouring for Barcelona’s in-form Victor Valdes, who rarely features in the Spanish squad.
The midfield throws up similar problems, with the age-old Castillian/Catalan split likely to merit a mention as he attempts to perm four from these six: Real’s Xabi Alonso, former Barca boy Fabregas, Nou Camp’s three musketeers Xavi, Sergi Busquets and Iniesta plus Valencia's David Silva.
Truth is, the Spanish have no real weaknesses, but I thought I’d throw them in as a last-ditch attempt to upset the side most likely to lift the World Cup at Soccer City on July 11. Oh, they’re staying Potchefstroom. Last time I visited that little university town, it was as dead as a doornail. But I don’t think it will hinder them!
In truth, you can pick holes in the preparations of most of the footballing superpowers. My verdict? Germany, Portugal and Italy may well disappoint, Argentina will surprise despite the deadweight of Diego Maradona while Brazil and Spain, as expected, will be the major contenders. Holland? You just never know. They’ve got the firepower. I think I'll trot down the village bookies and have a punt on them at 12-1.
4/1 Spain, 5/1 Brazil, 11/2 England, 8/1 Argentina, 12/1 Italy, 12/1 Germany, 12/1 Holland, 18/1 France, 25/1 Portugal, 25/1 Ivory Coast, 66/1 Ghana, 66/1 Paraguay, 66/1 Chile, 66/1 Serbia, 66/1 Mexico, 80/1 USA, 80/1 Cameroon, 100/1 Uruguay, 100/1 Greece, 100/1 Denmark, 125/1 Nigeria, 125/1 Australia, 125/1 South Africa, 150/1 Switzerland, 200/1 Slovenia, 200/1 Slovakia, 250/1 Japan, 250/1 South Korea, 350/1 Algeria, 1000/1 Honduras, 1500/1 North Korea, 2000/1 New Zealand.