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FIFTH OFFICIAL

Brain Drain in Ukraine

October 12, 2009

With World Cup qualification in the bag, England defenders Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole sunk into a deep depression at the realisation their regular, rowdy jaunt to Ayia Napa with a collection of other exorbitantly paid footballing egos was now in jeopardy. This can be the only explanation for the shutdown of their, admittedly tiny, mental faculties in Ukraine. Rob Green has no such excuse.

Robert Green, England
GettyImagesRobert Green: Given his marching orders

Ferdinand is having a nightmare of a season. He's already gifted goals to Craig Bellamy in the Manchester derby and Dirk Kuyt in England's friendly with Holland in August before his 'not my responsibility' attitude to long balls allowed Artem Milevskiy to happily skip towards goal. Rob Green brought the striker down and, though the referee initially showed Rio red, presumably for such criminal defending, he soon gave in and sent Green off instead.

David James galloped onto the field trying to suppress a smirk given that Green's error surely handed him back the number one jersey, despite being nearly 80. He wasn't smiling after Cole's brain freeze, mind. First the defender gave possession away on the edge of his area under no pressure at all before his needless intervention tore a new line of flight for Serhiy Nazarenko's shot away from James' chest and into the top corner. An internet nasty if ever there was one.

Back to the Future

And of course, we all made a little bit of history by watching the game on our ZX Spectrum 28's (technological advancements are slow in TFO's household). It was dressed up as an exciting and dynamic way of watching the match; a voyage of discovery we could all be part of together, until you realise how hard it is to get ten lager-swilling chums huddled round a tiny screen so they can squint at indistinguishable yellow and white blobs merging into one another.

To say the coverage was budget would be an understatement. The set looked like it was borrowed from a budget 70s slasher flick while the choice of Sven as a talking head was inspired. Not only was he caught on camera canoodling with his mobile phone (he was probably sending Sol Campbell yet another snide text), but he delivered a torrent of dazzling insights on the game. According to Svennis, Shevchenko's penalty was 'not good,' and Wayne Rooney is 'a good player.' Notts County can only grow stronger from such knowledge.

But the finest sub-plot came from our commentary team who did their best to maintain the illusion they were in the Dnipro Stadium when they were clearly in a tiny broom cupboard somewhere in Middlesex. Not only did they miss the referee's blunder in red carding Rio instead of Green but they only became aware of a half-time England substitution when James Milner got the ball. 'Lampard, out to, oh, err, James Milner, who has come on for... (cue long, drawn out pause).. err, Gerrard?'

The Italian Trap

A reminder of how narrow the margins are in football came in a two minute burst at Croke Park on Saturday night. No-one need have told Giovanni Trapattoni though, who seemed to sniff what was coming long before it did.

As Sean St Ledger stooped low to put Ireland in front against the World Champions with just two minutes of the game left, the stadium went potty, the players went potty and those collected on the bench went potty. Not the Trap though, he shook off those who were ready to give him the bumps with a withering look of disgust. It's not over until it's over, he probably opined.

And sure enough, with the final whistle just seconds away the Italians broke down field and rescued a point with practically the last kick of the game. As their bench went nuts the Trap wandered back towards his, wagged his finger in that sublime way only Italians can and said something along the lines of 'I told you so,' but with added expletives for emphasis.

Any Port in a storm

Denmark's victory over Sweden offered Portugal and their sneaky snake-charmer of a boss, Carlos Queiroz, the rare chance to delight the nation's football mad fans and resurrect their World Cup dreams albeit it via the play-offs.

Despite Carlos insisting Ronaldo was fit, and despite Ronaldo insisting he was 'almost 100%' it soon became apparent he was anything but. The gaffer's maniacal grin upon the final whistle may have been tempered somewhat by an angry phone call from Real Madrid, who will now have to do without the howling banshee for up to a month. Queiroz's explanantion, that it was merely 25 minutes of "effort" that prompted Ron's removal will not have helped.

Still, Ronny was on the field long enough to have a hand in the all-important first goal, the one that helped settle everybody's nerves, and despite a host of chances going begging, two late strikes from Liedson and Simao ensured a win in Wednesday's clash with Malta will see the Portu-geezers into the play-offs. Despite their patchy form, no-one will fancy drawing them.

The Gutty Sark

 	Martin Palermo
GettyImagesMartin Palermo scored a late winner in driving rain

Just when it seemed Argentina's worst fears about Diego Maradona were about to be realised, salvation came in the form of an injury time tap-in from a 35-year-old striker most known outside his own continent for a recent 40-yard goalscoring header that became an internet sensation. Maradona called him the 'saint' and referred to his match-winning antics as 'the miracle of Martin Palermo.'

In a bizarre game in Buenos Aires, Argentina totally dominated Peru for an hour but managed to look thoroughly ordinary in the process. After an early second half goal, Maradona spent the rest of the game removing attacking players and furiously backtracking from Peru's half. Then a biblical storm arrived, one so bad it was hard to even make out any players let alone who had the ball (just like watching Ukraine v England then), and Peru equalised in the final minute.

But just as Maradona braced himself for arrest by the P45 police, Palermo struck to spark wild scenes of celebration in the stands, on the pitch and especially on the bench, where the boss staggered deliriously onto the pitch before launching himself belly first to the sodden turf, siding half way to Peru, no doubt ripping out the stitches from his stomach-stapling operation in the process. He lives to fight another day, or should I say he lives to fight until Wednesday, when Uruguay knock them out.