England's reputation takes a dive
England's recent record of World Cup disappointment is one punctuated by tales of deceitful and sneaky foreign players - Maradona's 'Hand of God' in 1986, Diego Simeone's goading of David Beckham in 1998 and Cristiano Ronaldo's wink in 2006 - but it appears that the country's forcible occupation of football's moral high ground is looking shakier than ever ahead of the 2010 finals.
Back-to-back Premier League weekends have provided ample evidence that, contrary to what you may have read in the partisan press, England's leading lights are accomplished in the dark arts. Steven Gerrard threw himself to ground theatrically in a 0-0 draw with Blackburn Rovers on December 5 while Wayne Rooney, top scorer in qualifying for the World Cup, was rightly booked for simulation in Manchester United's defeat at the hands of Aston Villa last weekend.
This is not to lead a witch-hunt against these two particular players, but to highlight the fact that little was made of either incident in the media, a few pointed articles aside. In contrast, Liverpool's David Ngog and, in particular, Arsenal's Eduardo have both been the subject of intense and widespread media scrutiny for similar, if more blatant, incidents already this season.
Both Rooney ("Everyone who watches me play knows I am an honest player") and Gerrard ("If I ever saw one of my team-mates diving, I'd definitely have a word") are guilty of the same failings that affect their continental, and indeed global, cousins, whatever they may say or the media may not say. It is time to end the hypocrisy. So the next time a player clutches his face after being struck on the knee in the manner of Rivaldo in 2002 or emulates Thierry Henry by so blatantly using his hand, let's drop the pretence of moral outrage that infers, explicitly or not, that cheating is a foreign disease.
ON THE TICKET
In the midst of a self-congratulatory press release from FIFA regarding the 500,000 new applications for World Cup finals match tickets, one nugget of information leapt off the page. Traditionally perceived as a country that has little interest in the game, the USA was actually the source of the second most applications (22,942) behind host nation South Africa (386,300) and beating the United Kingdom (20,232) into third. No doubt the statistic reflects the USA's huge population and high levels of disposable income but it will still be an encouraging sign for fans of the world's most popular sport in a country where it struggles for exposure. Perhaps the David Beckham effect should not be underestimated after all.
It is one of the most iconic images in World Cup history. After scoring against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals of the 1994 tournament, Bebeto is flanked by Romario and Mazinho as the trio conceive a classic celebration in honour of the striker's newborn son. Well, nearly 16 years on from that fine piece of improvisation it is clear that a bit of Bebeto's magic has rubbed off on said son, Mattheus, as the fruit of the legend's loins has been called up for Brazil's Under-16 side for a tournament in Mexico. He has quite an act to follow, both in matching his dad's tally of 39 goals in 75 caps and his trailblazing innovation in the history of goal celebrations. Good luck with that.
PLAYER IN FOCUS: WESLEY SNEIJDER
It was an interesting weekend for the Netherlands midfielder as he rattled the bar with a free-kick before being dismissed in Inter Milan's 1-1 draw at Atalanta. Sneijder has quickly proved a pivotal player for Jose Mourinho's side since making his debut in a 4-0 derby win over rivals AC Milan and is putting behind him a two-year stay at Real Madrid which came to such a disappointing conclusion as he made way for a new group of galacticos in the summer. A tally of three goals and six assists in 12 games for Inter suggests he is beginning to recapture his best form once more and the player who lit up Euro 2008 should be a force to be reckoned with in South Africa.
WORLD CUP QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Michael Ballack makes a brave attempt to play down Germany's chances ahead of the finals next summer, despite the country always seeming to make it to at least the semis no matter how average some of their players may be. "We do not have the consistency or strength in depth in the squad," Ballack told Kicker magazine. "We have been too weak, particularly in friendlies, to be able to say that we have the class to beat everybody else." Never write off the Germans Michael, it's the first rule of World Cup football.