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The South Africa Angle

Big Sam's big problem

January 5, 2010

With players of the calibre of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and John Terry in their ranks, England are naturally one of the favourites for the tournament in South Africa, but that has not prevented a bout of soul-searching this week in the country that gave the world football.

Sam Allardyce
GettyImagesSam Allardyce: A close second in 2006

Arsenal's recent win over Portsmouth at Fratton Park was the first Premier League game that failed to feature a single Englishman in either starting line-up and the soothsayers of doom have been out in force, lead by Sam Allardyce who fears an influx of foreigners has jeopardised the future of the national side.

"As an Englishman, my thought is that the Premier League and the FA really need to get together and start immediately, regarding how they are going to address this situation," said the Blackburn manager. "For the national team in the future, it is looking very, very, very bleak indeed." Just to clarify, that is the same Sam Allardyce who founded his transfer policy at Bolton on recruiting experienced and highly-paid foreigners and who, in Blackburn's last league game against Sunderland, had only two English players in his squad of 18, neither of which were under 30. In fact, the only English player he has signed for Rovers, Nick Blackman, is no longer at the club.

If Allardyce feels there is a moral imperative for the FA and Premier League to act, and speaking "as an Englishman", then why does he not feel similarly compelled to promote English talent at his own club? No doubt the answer is that the players emerging are not of sufficient quality, and to crowbar them into perhaps the most competitive and demanding league in the world would not be a wise move. Allardyce is right in that a cultural change is required, but instead of asking for unworkable restrictions on foreign players, perhaps the focus should be on improving the academy system and its coaches, who are supposed to be delivering the new generation of international stars. Cream will always rise to the top, provided it is being produced in the first place.

DOING IT FOR THE KIDS

In a similar vein, there are also fears in host country South Africa that the national team will continue to be bereft of talent in the future, having slipped steadily down the world rankings in recent years. With the very real prospect looming that Bafana Bafana will be the first host side not to make it into the second round, former international striker Shaun Bartlett is taking a pro-active stance and, along with some of his former colleagues, has established three training camps, with a view to the best young South African players being sent to Brazil to continue their education. "We have gone backwards since 1996," said Bartlett. "That is a fact borne out by our current world ranking of 85. In 1996 Bafana were in the top 20 in the world. It is a sad state of affairs. If the powers that be (Safa) are not prepared to do something, then we as former Bafana players are going to."

HE GOT GAME

Spike Lee
GettyImagesSpike Lee is an Arsenal supporter

As the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups gathers pace, it appears that a Hollywood seal of approval is currently in vogue for the countries jostling for FIFA's backing. After the Football Association recruited L.A's most famous English import, David Beckham, and Australia announced Nicole Kidman was backing their bid, the U.S. have also attempted to add some showbiz glamour to their campaign by announcing the support of director Spike Lee. "The sport of soccer has a global unifying aspect that allows it to break down social barriers and sets it among other universal languages such as music and the visual arts," said Lee, in typically dramatic fashion. "This unique quality is embedding the sport in the diverse American cultural landscape. I'm honoured to be part of the USA bid committee and its efforts to bring the World Cup back to our country as we see the second half of our soccer history develop in front of our eyes."

PLAYER IN FOCUS: Mesut Ozil

The Werder Bremen playmaker was this week named by his Bundesliga contemporaries as the best player in the first half of the German season, claiming 38.1% of the vote in a poll held by kicker magazine. Such an accolade comes as no surprise given that Ozil, 21, has bagged eight goals and 16 assists in 23 games in all competitions. A European Under-21 champion in the summer of 2009, Ozil graduated to the senior German side with flying colours and has won seven caps to date, scoring once for Die Mannschaft. Big things are expected of the visionary midfielder and Joachim Löw is in no doubt as to his potential, stating: "He is already important for us and he is going to get even more important."

WORLD CUP QUOTE OF THE WEEK

A diplomatic Sir Alex Ferguson explains why Michael Owen, scorer of one of the most iconic World Cup goals when slicing his way through the Argentina team in 1998, is likely to miss out on a fourth appearance at the greatest competition in football. "We'll try and get him to the World Cup as best we can. But it is difficult when you have a squad of our size," said Ferguson. "It is difficult to leave Rooney out of your team. That's the thing, I think he's identical to Wayne in the position he plays." Given Rooney is enjoying the most prolific season of his career, Owen may as well power up the chopper and book up another holiday in Dubai in June.