Five things I’ve learnt in Brazil

Three weeks in Brazil and a conspicuous lack of writing.
Have no fear, I was neither robbed of my laptop or ability to write drivel. I’ve just been rather busy enjoying a World Cup in a frenetic, exciting and at times bizarre country. So I thought why not document a few things I’ve learnt along the way, as they will no doubt resonate with anyone who has
visited the country and also be potentially useful for those considering a trip in the future.

(1) If you’re not from Brazil, you’re most likely a Gringo. It was a term I thought was preserved exclusively for our rebellious american colonists who forayed south, but alas in Brazil it appears that Gringo encompasses everyone of a lighter skin tone, including fellow europeans. You have to get used to the term being shouted at you across the street, subtly used to put you down in conversation, and of course when paying the ‘gringo price’ if purchasing anything of significant value.

(2) If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you haven’t got it, flaunt harder. A trip to the beach is always an eye opening experience.The stereotype of bikini clad beauties strutting in the surf is absolutely true. What escapes most people’s mind is that there’s
also a beach full of women, equally as comfortable in their skin, that have a signifcantly larger surface area, particularly in the arse region, an area where an incomprehensible number of thongs have disappeared into. There’s a reason why there’s so many
beach vendors pedalling swimwear. And grilled cheese.

(3) That leads me nicely onto the myth that all Brazilians are toned, tanned and beautiful. I don’t want this to be all doom and gloom, but a trip to South Americas biggest water park confirmed that wealthy Brazilians, at least, are in terrible shape. Certainly
Those on holiday in Fortaleza last week were for the most part the doughiest selection of puddings I’ve ever seen. It gave me the confidence to christen a set of speedos on Ipanema when I arrive in Rio.

(4) Being English isn’t all that bad (football aside). While I may have been lucky enough to not experience swathes of sweaty knights in Manaus, Sao Paulo or Belo Horizonte, the majority of Brazilians have seemed genuinely interested in the fact that we’re British. In fact, it is entirely positive when trying to woo the opposite sex, in almost complete role reversal of any encounters with europeans. Presumably it’s due to the lack of any British enclaves on the Brazilian coast serving cut price lager and english breakfasts.

(5) Brazilians love a tackle. Before this tournament when you thought about Brazil, you thought free-flowing attacking football. Felipao has promptly put an end to that with his cagey, win-at-all-costs approach. Neymar aside, Brazil’s best players
in the tournament have been their two centre-back’s – David Luiz and Thiago Silva, and when watching beach football it’s surprising to see just how much Brazilians enjoy a good defensive show. Playing football bare-footed and on a surface where the
ball easily sticks at one’s feet means a full blooded lunge at an opponent, sometimes two-footed, is acceptable. You’re unlikely to break someone’s leg without boots on, and shielding the ball becomes an essential part of the game. If my touch, control and vision were at the same level as my beach adversaries, it’d be the game for me.

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The World Cup, from Salvador

More than a week into the World Cup and international football already feels like a different place. Spain? Gone. Favourites Brazil and Argentina? Disappointing. Potential winners? Germany, perhaps even Chile?

The tournament has thus far delivered goals and great performances, but quite often not from who we expected. The unpredictability of the cup is echoed by the Dutch, a side that only a few days before delivered a crushing blow to the reigning champions, but then came perilously close to losing to Australia, the lowest-ranked side in the tournament.

And from a sweaty, Caipirinha scented Salvador apartment, the anticipation is building. Myself and fellow travellers have been lucky enough to experience perhaps two of the best games of the tournament thus far. Spain vs Holland, and Germany vs Portugal. The latter, I have to confess, was done with the Sanduiche do Camarao brigade, having managed to get hold of a VIP ticket, free Budweiser and all, which was brilliant. The only downside was having to listen to an American interpretation of the unfolding action for ninety minutes.

There are a fair amount of travelling England fans in the city, so an appropriate bar will no doubt be located to watch the Uruguay tie, and another group where a big name will be saying goodbye. And on the topic of mourning, I feel it’s worth pausing to appreciate the gravity of saying adios to Spain.

A little under four years ago I wrote a homage to an all-conquering side after being in the country for their 2010 victory. The front of Marca today read ‘The End’, and it certainly feels like it. There cannot be a huge amount of optimism in Spain at the moment – things are changing: the king is gone, the midfield metronome surplus to requirements, and the very manor in which the country has achieved success, the fabled ‘tiki-taka’, has had it’s own obituaries written too.

Hazy 2010 memories...

Hazy 2010 memories…

They were always going to be ageing at this World Cup but still I thought, as many did, they would put up a valiant defence of their title. Even at half time in the Chile game I was tempted to go back in and back the reigning champions at their rapidly ascending price.

Sentiment aside, there was little on the pitch that suggested they would redeem that faith. Their calamitous show at the Arena Fonte Nova against Holland was played in front of a vociferous local crowd, all too keen to boo Diego Costa and even question his sexuality every time he touched the ball.

Then, Brazilians were firmly routing for the Oranje as Spain were seen as the biggest threat to the hosts, perhaps alongside Argentina. Sensing blood, the partisan crowd yesterday was firmly behind Chile as the weary holders went out with a whimper.

It is unfortunate that it will take a World Cup exit for change to be instilled in the Spain team. Yes the ‘golden’ generation is over, but there is already the beginnings of a new generation that should have blooded in this tournament. Costa has been poor, but we know it’s not easy for a striker to play in Spain’s system when they are so starved of the space they need to operate. He’ll be there for the next World Cup, as will Koke, Juan Mata, David De Gea, and many others. Alsonso, Xavi, Villa and the class of 2010 may not have had their swansong, but all is not lost.

Finally, despite a lacklustre showing so far from the hosts there is still a sense of expectation amongst Brazilians that their side will prevail. A rousing victory against an abysmal Cameroon may well just paper over the cracks, however. Both Croatia and Mexico have eroded much of the pre-tournament optimism centred on historic performance in South America/from the hosts and Brazil’s performance at the Confederations Cup. There are concerns rightly about the lack of a threatening striker, a surprising dearth in creativity in midfield, and little depth in the squad (Ex Manchester City striker Jo as back-up to Fred, for example). Brazil must find a way to combine their best attacking assets of Neymar and Oscar without being too predictable. They must also show they are capable of adapting their game – in particular whether they can reign in their attacking full-backs that leave their defence perilously exposed at times.

 

 

Carry on Carioca

Ever wondered how a place like Rio de Janeiro comes to be the frenetic, colourful and divided place it is? Well, it’s the subject of a fascinating BBC documentary called Rio 50 degrees: Carry on Carioca.

Have a look…

The documentary-cum-film asserts that to understand the Carioca, meaning inhabitant of the city, one has to investigate the history of the place, including slavery, the rather violent and warm climate, the evolution of the cities jazz music, and everything in between.

The programme charts the social history of the city in modern times which makes for particularly fascinating viewing – particularly delving into the divide between the two ‘zonas’ – sul and norte – largely a marker between the rich and poor inhabitants in the city. This divide is encapsulated perfectly when one Favela resident says she’s been waiting for any neighbour in a nearby high-rise apartment block to wave at her, and that when that day comes, she might just wave back.

Rio is certainly a divided city, and one with those divisions in very very close proximity. Where 50 degrees is perhaps most critical is of the government’s policy of Favela ‘pacification’ – currently in place leading up to the World Cup. This policy has led to increased police brutality and has been, according to the film-makers, merely an attempt to tidy up areas near tourist hotspots. Gang-related crime has simply migrated to other impoverished areas.

One month to go…

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It’s exactly one month until Brazil host Mexico in Sao Paulo, the curtain raiser for this summer’s World Cup.

International squads are being announced left right and centre, including England’s, and there is a general sense of anticipation building. The BBC have started ramping up their coverage, Pepsi, Nike et al are unveiling their latest ads on prime time slots, and there is the familiar sight of the Panini sticker album on the shelves, as collectors young (and old, ahem) pursue the seemingly impossible goal of completing theirs.

As someone who will be travelling to Brazil in less than 25 days, it’s finally dawning on me that the tournament is nearly here. The excitement is almost too much knowing that I’ll be in a country that has won the tournament five times, and influenced the game perhaps more than any other since the inception of international football. To borrow an English analogy, it genuinely does feel like football is coming home.

It’s bound to be a hell of a party too. In Salvador, my first destination, the opening game between Spain and Netherlands is preceded by a two day mini-carnival just to welcome the world to the coastal party city.

So how are the preparations of just another clichéd, Budweiser drinking, brothel inhabiting, football fan like me going? In a word, badly. My intended mastery of the Portuguese language amounts to only a few words, the in-depth research intended on each host city on the itinerary hasn’t happened, and most crucially, that sticker book is looking woefully empty.

There is still time, however. Time to finely tune and tan that beach body (speedos will be purchased), time to learn a smattering of important phrases, and time (including the four weeks of tournament football) to swap and buy my way to the kind of glory only enjoyed by a 10-year-old on the playground every four years.

I’ve made the mistake of buying the majority of my stickers from the same shop that has resulted, as many collectors often suspect, in an abnormal number of duplicates. If anyone is missing a Danielle de Rossi I’m certainly your man. Conversely if you have any members of the Algeria squad, and I mean any, they would be greatly appreciated. I’m hoping the transition across the Atlantic Ocean,  closer to the source of the stickers will mean a greater chance of completing my album on Brazilian soil. I’m sure it’ll get the girls on Ipanema beach very excited too, that is if the speedos don’t.

 

 

 

 

Searching for soccerman

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Flickr/manbeastextraordinaire

It’s not often you sit next to a celebrity in economy class of a plane, let alone a well lubricated, west african one.

After some seat jostling, so it was that on a flight from Addis-Ababa to London Heathrow I spent a few hours in the company of one Njomo Kevin, Cameroon’s number one broadcaster and football commentator.

I learnt about his interviews with all the big names, his pleasure at reporting on a Roger Milla inspired Cameroon reaching the quarter final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and what life is like in the English-speaking part of his country.

Attempts to contact the broadcaster since, who know runs a radio station somewhere near Mount Cameroon, have proved futile. He belongs to the previous generation and has only a fleeting online presence. Aside from corroborating his assertion that everyone in Cameroon will recognise his name (thanks to the only other person I’ve met from Cameroon in a Cape Town bar) I would still love to chat further with the man. So however futile, if you’re out there Kevin, please get in touch: robsroadtorio@gmail.com.

The meeting did however spark an interest in the Indomitable Lions, the Cameroon national football side. This summer, they face a tough group in Brazil – their first tie is against Mexico, then Croatia, before they face the hosts in Brasilia on June 23rd.

Clearly a tough challenge awaits for a side that has received little attention in the build-up, but Cameroon have the ability to trouble the big sides in hot conditions. Their players will no doubt benefit from having their first two ties in the warmth of Natal and Manaus and they have the services of notable big names Samuel Eto, Alex Song and Stephane Mbia.

Under the stewardship of German Volker Finke the side struggled in qualification, eventually getting through in a play-off against Tunisia. They will no doubt be a physical, well-organised side, but will excel if they make their way out of the group, let alone reach the ground breaking heights of 1990.

I hope however that Kevin, just like Roger Milla, is still going strong in his old age and his side bring some joy to him, Mount Cameroon and its surrounds.

Jones injury: a blessing in disguise?

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He’s a looker too.

Today, English football fans wait with baited breath.

They wonder. They agonise over it. Will the injury sustained by Manchester United defender Phil Jones last night will be serious enough to rule him out of this summer’s World Cup? They can only hope.

While the 22 year-old is still developing as a footballer, it seems during the three seasons he has spent at Manchester United he has failed to deliver on the promise shown at Blackburn that led to Alex Ferguson parting with a substantial £16.5m fee. Here’s some of his finest work in a red shirt.

And with Roy Hodgson due to announce his provisional England squad next week on May 12th, anyone with a vague appreciation for the beautiful game will hope that Jones, fit or not, is absolutely nowhere near the England side. It’s likely Jones was only ever going to serve as back-up to a first choice centre-back pairing, most probably Gary Cahill and the now fit Phil Jagielka, although fans may be equally concerned that his absence may push fellow United calamity Chris Smalling into contention.

Perhaps I’m doing Jones a disservice – certainly things haven’t reached Tom Cleverly proportions, but the centre-back-cum-holding-midefielder-cum-right-back is in danger of becoming a victim of his own versatility, whether actual or imagined.

He is added to the growing list of injury worries for England ahead of the tournament. Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott have already been ruled out, while Kyle walker could also be omitted while he struggles for fitness.

Jones sustained the shoulder injury from Hull’s Maynor Figueroa in United’s 3-1 victory against Hull. The Honduran defender, reported to have only three toes on his left foot, will be going to the tournament in Brazil after he was named in his national team’s squad today. With over 100 caps since his début in 2003 the powerful centre back would have no doubt been one of the first names on Luis Fernando Suarez’s squad list.

Their squad features six British-based players including Figueroa, Wilson Palacios, Roger Espinoza, Juan Carlos Garcia, Emilio Izaguirre, and Arnold Peralta.

Honduras face France in their opening fixture in Porto Alegre on June 15th before playing Ecuador and Switzerland.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Noel Valladares, Donis Escober (both Olimpia), Luis Lopez (Real Espana)

Defenders: Brayan Beckeles (Olimpia), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic/Scotland), Juan Carlos Garcia (Wigan/England), Maynor Figueroa (Hull City/England), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes/USA), Osman Chavez (Qingdao Janoon/China PR), Juan Pablo Montes (Motagua)

Midfielders: Arnold Peralta (Rangers/Scotland), Luis Garrido (Olimpia), Roger Espinoza (Wigan/England), Jorge Claros (Motagua), Wilson Palacios (Stoke/England), Oscar Garcia (Houston Dynamo/USA), Andy Najar (Anderlecht/Belgium), Mario Martinez (Real Espana), Marvin Chavez (Colorado Rapids/USA)

Strikers: Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution/USA), Jerry Palacios (Alajuelense/Costa Rica), Carlo Costly (Real Espana), Rony Martinez (Real Sociedad/Spain)

‘D’ is for death: England’s uphill task

Going Strong: Italy impressed at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil (Flickr@ SFSteve)

Going Strong: Italy impressed at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil (Flickr@ SFSteve)

Of all the groups that were drawn for the 2014 World Cup, perhaps the most intriguing is Group D: England’s.

There have  been only eight winners of the World Cup, so to see a single group featuring three former winners is somewhat unusual. Also bare in mind that among these sides there is a current continental champion and a European Championship runner-up, leaving England looking the weakest of the three on paper.

FIFA’s rankings suggest there will be little between Uruguay (5), Italy (9), and England (11), with Costa Rica the rank outsider in the group, coming in at 34th. However, the rankings belie a number of factors – namely the recent form of players for their club sides, the locations and ordering of the games within the group, and of course the pressure of competing at a World Cup finals – which can do strange things to fancied sides, as England fans will attest to.

And let’s not discount Costa Rica, who may also cause an upset. They finished second in their qualification group with the notable scalps of Mexico and the USA and will be most at home in the conditions – playing two of their games in the heat of Brazil’s Northeast: in Recife and Fortaleza. Former Fulham striker Bryan Luiz and winger Joel Campbell, so impressive on loan for Olympiacos against Manchester United, provide the attacking threat behind a solid defence that conceded the fewest goals in the final phase of qualification in the CONCACAF zone.

Uruguay

It would be tempting to enlist Uruguay as group favourites had they not made such a meal of qualifying for the tournament, securing passage after a fifth place group finish meaning a play-off against Jordan, who they promptly dispatched 5-0 over two legs. You could conversely argue that Oscar Tabarez’s side peaked at just the right time, but the early judders in qualification certainly came as a shock to a side accustomed to recent success after finishing fourth in South Africa and triumphing in the Copa America a year later.

La Celeste have recently named PFA Player of the year and arguably the best out-and-out striker in the world, Luis Suarez, as their main attacking threat. Alongside him will be a somewhat out of form Edinson Cavani, who has played second fiddle in a wide role to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at PSG. Nevertheless, the striker has 16 goals to his name in all competitions and may well see the competition as an opportunity to impress a manager seeking to build around him, as was the case at Palermo and Napoli.

Tabarez tends to favour the 4-4-2 formation, which means he may struggle to find room to accommodate the mature Diego Forlan, who will likely start on the bench. An ageing side will be a concern for Tabarez, especially in defence. Diego Godin and West Brom’s Diego Lugano aren’t the most mobile centre-backs and are shielded by the dogged 32-year-old Arevalo Rios. While they are not short on big tournament experience, his side have shipped goals fairly consistently of late – conceding 25 in qualification.

They play two of their games in the heat in Brazil’s warmer climes, likely to be a disadvantage to the majority of their European based players. Like Argentina, the Uruguayans are least likely to benefit from playing in heat among the South American sides, after all Montivideo is warm, but not tropical. They do have the advantage, however, of playing Costa Rica first, then England, before playing Italy in what will be a crucial final tie.

Italy

If the Italians have a fully-fit squad I see no reason why they won’t win Group D. They qualified with ease with two games remaining and have exposure to the hot and humid conditions in Brazil’s Northeast – coming third in the 2013 Confederations Cup after an exit on penalties to Spain in the Semi-finals. They played 120 minutes twice in the tournament – firstly in Salvador and then in Fortaleza and that experience has prompted many to suggest Prandelli will opt for a younger, more dynamic starting XI – something not often associated with the Italian national side.

The Juventus old guard will nevertheless form the core of the team. With Buffon in goal, centre-backs Chiellini and Barzagli will be shielded by Andrea Pirlo – who was so instrumental in knocking England out of the 2012 European Championships. If England stand a chance in this tournament they will need to find a way of stopping the midfield metronome from showing his full passing repertoire – something Roy Hodgson haphazardly attempted by deploying Wayne Rooney to stick the boot in ’12.

Prandelli has two main concerns heading into the tournament. The first is whether to deploy 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formation – the former being an attractive prospect given the embarrassment or riches in midfield. Not only does he have trusty steeds Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Danielle De Rossi, but Juventus’ Claudio Marchisio, PSG’s duo of Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta, could all be worthy of a starting XI berth.

If there are any weaknesses it’s in wide positions – there are currently no obvious choices at full-back, and any width going forward is likely to be provided by a striker operating wide in a front three, should Prandelli opt for the 4-3-3. That brings me nicely to the second concern: strikers. Do Italy gamble on Mario Balotelli turning up on the biggest stage? Will Guiseppe Rossi be fit and able to recapture the form he showed in the first half of the season? Will old-timers Francesco Totti or the slimline Antonio Cassano have a role to play in a front three? A front two of Balotelli and Rossi, or a three with the addition of Cassano has a very hit-or-miss feel about it. Nevertheless, with a resolute defence and a midfield so packed with world class centre midfielders its akin to Liverpool in 2007 the few goals mustered by their strikers will be enough to get them through the group.

Their fixtures are perhaps the toughest in terms of location, they have the pleasure of the Amazonian heat when they face England in Manaus, followed by Costa Rica in Recife and Uruguay in Natal – the latter games being played at the ‘inhumane’ local time of 13.00. 

England

Finally to England, a side that will likely fight for second place in the group against Uruguay. In all likelihood both sides will lose to Italy and beat Costa Rica therefore making their encounter in Sao Paulo on June 19th crucial to  progression. England may be fortuitous in playing Italy in the opening tie: hoping to spring a surprise at the sweltering Arena Amazonia while Italy decide on what their strongest attacking line-up is.

Nevertheless, the conditions will be the same for both sides – something England will be well prepared for with warm weather friendlies lined up against Honduras (June 4th) and Ecuador (June 7th) in Miami.

But is the emphasis on European sides not acclimatising to South American conditions a red herring? We know that all the World Cups played in South America have been won by South American sides, but things have changed since 1978 – when Argentina, the fifth South American winner on the continent won the title on their home patch. Advancements in fitness in the modern game, a number of South American players developing in and playing the majority of their careers in European conditions, and the ability of sides such as England to have ample time to train and play in similar conditions prior to the tournament means that this advantage is eroded significantly.

England can prepare however they want, but they will still remained little fancied amongst pundits and the media alike. And rightly so – a nervous qualifying campaign sealed with a 2-0 win over Poland was followed up by friendly losses to Chile and Germany at Wembley. These performances confirmed that little progress has been made under Roy Hodgson since early exits in major tournaments to Germany in 2010, and Italy in 2012.

But there is hope for England fans, and it comes predominantly from Liverpool. The side, rampant in the league until Chelsea checked their title charge last weekend, have an English core that have been instrumental to their success. Liverpool and England captain has relished a deeper role in midfield, Jordan Handerson has showed his dynamism on the outside of a midfield diamond, Raheem Sterling has displayed what a potent attacking threat he can be in both wide and central areas, and Daniel Sturridge has been scoring for fun. All four must play, along with right-back Glen Johnson if England are to have any chance of progressing. Hodgson tends to favour the 4-4-2 formation, and he should consider turning his midfield into a diamond to mimic the success of Brendan Rodgers – a system that would allow Rooney, often isolated in a lone role for country, to play alongside Sturridge.

While the media seem the most pre-occupied with deciding who will be England’s reserve left-back, they might be better deciding what England’s best centre-back pairing is. Jagielka and Cahill look a reluctant best bet and dare I say it, while we’re talking about club connections – a pairing of Terry and Cahill – who have marshalled a watertight Chelsea defence this season – wouldn’t go amiss.

Such a team would, however, be notably lacking in big tournament experience compared to England’s Uruguayan and Italian adversaries. Not only have many of their players experienced playing in major international tournaments, but crucially they have tasted a degree of success – something that counts for a lot when the pressure is on, in what will undoubtedly be a close group.

England are at a disadvantage in playing Costa Rica in their final group game as they would undoubtedly prefer to go into games against Italy and Uruguay with points under their belt. However, after their initial exertions in the Amazon, they play their two second games in the relative cool of Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo.

The Verdict

Costa Rica have the potential to throw a real spanner in the works for England and more likely, Uruguay, in their first encounter. While a Uruguay win is expected in Fortaleza on June 14th, a draw or loss at this early stage would be disastrous for la Celeste – while a loss for England against Italy is to be expected in their first game. The battle for second place will be the most intriguing element in the group. and while Uruguay are not what they were in 2011, and show some defensive frailties, a Suarez inspired side may with a winning pedigree may just edge out England into second place.

 

Belgium, who knew?

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A casual evening in Bruges (Flickr/Bob Hall Photos).

Something strange has happened in the last couple of years: people outside of Belgium have actually started talking about Belgium.

Type the country into Google and the first suggestion you receive is ‘Belgium euthanasia’, hardly the lightest topic of conversation to kick things off at the dinner table.

No, we are talking about their increasingly successful national football team, not anything else going on in the country, because, let’s face it, nothing particularly noteworthy goes on there unless it involves two Irishmen, a midget, and a bell tower. 

While I may be guilty of overlooking frozen fog, chocolate, and the EU, there was very little that stood out in the country during a brief visit there a few years ago. Belgian football certainly wasn’t on my radar then, but things are changing.

The nation are surging up the international rankings – and not just the ‘bloodiest colonial history’ rankings I eagerly keep an eye on – but FIFA’s actual one. They find themselves 12th in the world after an impressive World Cup qualifying campaign which saw them top their group ahead of Croatia, Serbia and Scotland.

Impressive qualification aside, perhaps the main reason why people are talking so much about Belgium is because of the premier league invasion of players from the country. Although it took a while for people to put two and two together and realise that all of the players were in fact not Dutch, or from a far flung African nation (you can thank King Leopold and his bloody colonial legacy for that one).

The Premier League hosts no fewer than 11 sure fire selections for the World Cup squad, and that’s not including the injured Christian Benteke, former Chelsea player Kevin de Bruyne, and their current Atletico Madrid loanee Thibaut Courtois.

These 11 players are not just journeymen footballers either – they are often integral to the fortunes of their respective sides. Think of the impact Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku have had for their respective sides since arriving on British shores.

Defensively, Belgium look solid given the presence of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Daniel Van Buyten at the back. Behind them, they have arguably the choice of two of the best goalkeepers at the tournament: Courtois and another Premier League revelation, Simon Mignolet.

In midfield, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele will both be looking to justify the hefty price tags paid by their respective club sides after average showings in the Premier League this season. Perhaps the most difficult choice for Belgium coach Marc Wilmots  will be deciding on his strongest attacking four in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. Lukaku will almost certainly start in the strikers berth, and could well be supported by a trio of Nacer Chadli, Mirallas and Hazard.

There’s another reason why Belgium are fancied this summer. They find themselves in an eminently winnable group with Algeria Russia and South Korea. If they manage to come first will face the second placed team in Group G – most likely Portugal or Ghana.

History shows that they’ve always been there, lurking in the background with only flashes of excellence – appearing at 11 World Cup Finals. They got to the semi-finals in 1986 and the last 16 in 2002, and have been regular qualifiers between 1982 and 2002.

Could 2014 be the year Belgium shouts out from the top of the bell tower, so to speak, and announces it’s a true force in world football?

World Cup album released

It might not quite live up to Wavin’ Flag, the ’10 track still continually on a loop in Spanish nightclubs, but FIFA have today released their soundtrack to this summer’s World Cup – headlined by the song We Are One (Ole Ola).

And here is the song you’ll be hearing a lot more of, featuring Pitbull, J-Lo and Brazilian pop sensation Claudia Leitte. Woof.

Speaking of woof, the album also features the Baha Men, famous for their 2000 smash-hit Who let the dogs out? 

And it wouldn’t be a World Cup without the saltry tones and hip-shaking of Shakira, of ’10 Waka Waka fame. Probably not a track she’d hold up as a career highlight, but firmly a personal favourite.

Her ’14 offering continues the theme of word repetition, opting this time for La la la.

 

 

 

 

Sir, please get off the plane

One of Enger-land's finest in Germany during the 2010 World Cup. Image: Flickr/Ethan.K.

One of Enger-land’s finest in Germany during the 2010 World Cup. Image: Flickr/Ethan.K.

At home the people of England, an age old and gentile land and part of the multi-cultural progressive utopia of Britain, potter around their gardens, drink cups of tea and politely follow their local football team, clapping enthusiastically at grounds across the country.

Away from home, the people of ‘Enger-land’, an unrecognisably savage wasteland of pies, Carlsberg and taking your shirt off in winter, slur and bite their way onto EasyJet flights to wreak havoc across cultural landmarks in Europe and the Middle East whilst following football. That is when they are allowed to board planes, or leave SE16 at all. The potent combination of an England football shirt, Primark sunglasses and unzipped three-quarter length trousers seems to act as a buffer to their lives outside of football ‘fan-dom’, giving them the moral equivalent of a free pass to abuse, booze and philander their way across continents, all in the name of Roy Hodgson and the mythical nation of Enger-land.

I have waited patiently on flights while people are removed, I have seen the remnants of hostels in the wake of the nation’s fans, but I am convinced that these fans, like all addicts, want to reform and seek redemption from the footballing gods. In the vein of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have devised and trademarked (so hands off) an eight-step program to set Enger-land fans on the path to becoming proper ‘England’ fans at this year’s World Cup.

1) Admit that you have a problem

Help me to help you. I know how good that first tin of Special Brew is on a six o’clock flight out of Southend Airport, I do, but maybe just once you could forego the soporific effects for the morning of your trip. Get some sleep and mentally prepare yourself for what could be a once in a lifetime experience. Admitting that you cannot stop chanting obscenities about Emmanuel Adebayor’s nuclear family from noon until night is the first step in any recovery and, while it was not funny the first time, people, while patient, have the attention span that you apparently do not. You will not be young, willing and able to attend many World Cups in your life. Don’t think, just enjoy.

2) Be Nice to People

Look, I know he is wearing lederhosen and belting out the first lines of the ‘Deutschlandlied’, I don’t like him either; but his friends are probably already as embarrassed as you are angry. Throwing out the big salute (don’t do it), vociferously countering with the wrong verse from Rule Britannia or marching up and down like an under dressed John Cleese in Fawlty Towers will not get you anywhere. The World Cup, while forced, is actually a strong advertisement for unity and throws together people from all walks of life through a mutual love. Act accordingly

3) Don’t start drinking before two o’clock 

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a crime to watch sport sober.  If you do attend any games in the afternoon, though there will not be many due to scheduling and the heat, you could save that well-earned Brahma Beer until after the game, using it to aid reflection on how good Joseph Yobo really was marshalling that back line. Drinking and partying in the evenings in a country as colourful and exciting as Brazil is naturally a must. However, waking up in a Favela with no clothes, money or passport, having passed out on the walk back to your hostel and been bundled into the back of a 1984 Fiat Punto, is not.  Brazil is conspicuous by not being Budapest. It is a country akin to its national animal, the Jaguar, dangerous and to be treated with respect. There will be no nice but jaded policemen to take you back to your hostel when you lose your stag party.

4) Learn a bit of the local language

Speaking loudly in English and emulating the Bumble-bee man from the Simpsons is very 1990’s.  You are a citizen of the new world order where only the thinnest of membranes separates you from every other race, colour and creed, and a small amount of Portuguese will go a long way in a country like Brazil. It is not Luxembourg and you will not have the luxury of everyone speaking three languages, so if you want to have a good time, learn a few numbers, how to order a beer (after two o’clock), tell the time and maybe even tell a young ‘Senhora’ that you ‘gosto da cor de seus olhos’. This will not backfire. The people of the world expect precisely nothing from British people in terms of linguistic flair and so anything you can do to raise the bar will stand you in good stead. It should make you proud to spit in the face of a stereotype, not buy into one, and don’t forget Brazilians will be sympathetic, after all, they are not French.

5) Dress appropriately

England football shirts and vest tans are not rock and roll. That red tinge that adorns your shoulders and neck is commonly called sun-burn, not a sun tan. You look like a cock and everyone now knows you are of Celtic descent. Sure, you could be Welsh, Scottish or Irish, but that’s unlikely as they all failed to qualify for this World Cup. Way to stand out. Fly your England colours if you must, but there is nothing to stop you wearing normal clothes, sun cream and supporting England. Failing all else it will stop you standing out like a walking, talking cash machine to local ne’er-do-wells. It doesn’t matter where you are, socks and sandals are not appropriate and Flip flops, if startlingly comfortable, are a little impractical in a country with 50,000 heroin addicts. In my opinion you can never go wrong with a hat and a dress

6) Avoid sex-tourism

Sure, you are away from the wife, maybe the mistress, but is it really going to kill you to not buy into the sex trade in a poorer country than your own? It may seem like a victimless crime, but realistically that voice at the back of your head, no matter how quiet it may have become in recent months, is usually right. South Africa made a cynically efficient industry out of this trade at the last World Cup, and the fact that they knew to do so ahead of time was a sad reminder of how obvious the football following clientele for the tournament was. Surprise a few people and make this part of the tournament a failure. Or if you feel you might slip up, just borrow your room-mate’s extension cord and go out like a Tory politician.

7) Adopt a second (or even third) country to support

Let’s be honest, you can support your home nation as much as you want, but they are not going to feature in every game in the World Cup. Depending on who your adopted nation is, you will know whether, barring a huge shock, they are likely to progress to the latter stages of the tournament. Some animals are more equal than others and if you are a fan of football, you should attempt to watch as many games of varying standards as you can whilst in Brazil. The key to this, as well as properly planning your trip, is to adopt a second and third nation. You do not have to choose any teams that may clash with your adopted home nation, but different brands of football, different cultures in the stands, and the camaraderie borne in making new friends from lands-a-far through your near fluent Persian, can’t help but enhance your world cup ‘non-Engerland’ experience. I am hesitant to influence you in any way but, much like New Zealand in 2010, Iran and Costa Rica are worthy of your support and could produce some interesting results.

8) Immerse yourself

If you are one of the supposed 10,000 (unofficially 15,000) England fans travelling to the World Cup, firstly, be careful, and secondly go and see as much of the cities you are based in (around the football – obviously) as you can. If you get into trouble, do whatever you can to get out of it, including putting on accents, pretending you don’t speak English and changing your clothes frequently and drastically. But get out there – Brazil has a rich and interesting history and some of the most stunning scenery in the world. Do not be content to sit in an Irish bar catching up on what is going on at home, broadcasting only “Rooney 10”. You will have plenty of time to catch up on home affairs when you are at home and cursing yourself in the English Winter in your nine to five.