Eriksson in at the deep end
Better late than never? Less than 75 days before the start of the World Cup and Ivory Coast finally have a brand new coach in Sven-Goran Eriksson. But with just two friendlies in which to prepare for the tournament, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Swede's latest liaison is doomed to failure.
Whatever his detractors in England might say, Eriksson is a vastly experienced coach (even if his most recent role saw him visit such football citadels as Morecambe's Christie Park with Notts County) and a good appointment for the Elephants. A tricky spell with Mexico aside, his international pedigree is impressive, having twice reached the quarter-finals with England. Defeats to Brazil and Portugal - coincidentally two of the teams he will face in June - ended his participation in 2002 and 2006, and that could be construed as a bad omen for Eriksson. Leaving such superstition aside, though, it is cold, hard, brutal logic that must be a concern.
Two friendlies is nowhere near enough time to impress his philosophy on a team, gain an understanding of how to successfully man-manage each individual or impart tactical instructions in a language he is unfamiliar with. For this, the Ivorian football federation is culpable. Dismissing Vahid Halilhodzic a full month after the unsuccessful conclusion of the country's African Nations Cup campaign, despite his record reading a solitary defeat in 24 outings, was a risky manoeuvre. Subsequent promises to appoint a replacement inside ten days were not met, and now Eriksson has to forge a winning side in little to no time. Even for a man with league titles in Sweden, Portugal and Italy to his name, that is some task.
Didier Drogba has welcomed the appointment, but the nation's icon could not help but betray a sense of concern when saying: "This is like a wish come true for me and most of my colleagues. For weeks and months, we have been pondering over going to the World Cup without a coach, but what we feared most has taken a different twist. Now I don't have to wake up every morning and think about the future of my team without a coach."
Drogba's nightmare scenario has come to an end, and if Eriksson can find order in chaos and somehow exceed expectations, it could be the finest achievement of a storied and diverse career. But that looks to be nothing but a dream given the obstacles in his path and his lack of time in which to overcome them.
GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM
After sustained speculation about the suitability of South Africa as a host nation and suspicion regarding infrastructure issues, FIFA finally produced a telling riposte to the sceptics this week when announcing that all ten World Cup stadiums had been completed. Rightly allowing himself to bask in the warm glow of a favourable headline, organising committee chief executive Danny Jordaan said: "It is a special moment for the country and we want the world to see our country through different eyes. We have certainly travelled a long road since the first stadium inspection tour in 2005." FIFA should not rest on its laurels - there are outstanding transport and accomodation issues to be resolved, not to mention concering reports regarding some of the country's impoverished citizens - but Jordaan's announcement represents a clear victory over those who felt the tournament should never have been awarded to South Africa.
LIVE AND LET TIE
It appears Japan have developed a covert strategy to ensure their opponents are left shaken and not stirred in South Africa this summer. Seeking inspiration from none other than James Bond, the Blue Samurai have ordered in a rack of British-made suits in time for the tournament. Presumably having shunned the tailor who designed the aberration that was Liverpool's suit for the 1996 FA Cup final, Japan have instead opted for a more suave and sophisticated look. "The players will arrive in very cool travel suits," press officer Ichirota Fukushi said. "They will travel to and from games in the official suit. They are a bit like the sort in the '007' movies. They even have cufflinks." It remains uncertain whether the team have also been issued with dagger-tipped shoes and exploding pens.
PLAYER IN FOCUS: KEVIN KURANYI
The striker is at the centre of a raging debate in Germany after his two goals ensured Schalke defeated Bayer Leverkusen to move top of the Bundesliga at the weekend. Kuranyi is the league's top scorer with 17 goals but remains in exile from die Mannschaft having stormed out of a World Cup qualifier against Russia in October 2008 after being left out of the matchday squad by Jogi Low. Pressure is growing on the national coach to bring Kuranyi's ban to an end, though, with a certain Franz Beckenbauer one of the leading advocates for forgiveness.
"The 'life' punishment always seemed excessive," Der Kaiser wrote in Bild, "and now it is a problem for the national team. If Joachim Low does a U-turn, he deserves respect, not criticism." With Mario Gomez remaining an international enigma, and Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski scoring just two goals each in the league this season, the clamour for Kuranyi's inclusion could grow defeaning, and quickly. The striker said at the weekend: "I still have hope. I'm in the form of my career but I can't decide. Only one man can - and I will continue to fight until he does."
WORLD CUP QUOTE OF THE WEEK
As long-running debates go, the question of whether Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can play together is almost on a par with whether Geoff Hurst's goal crossed the line in 1966. Disappointingly for all of those bored senseless by the whole argument (that's everyone except Gareth Barry, then), Fabio Capello has been mulling over the issue once more, despite utilising Gerrard out wide to good effect in qualifying. "I think that good players can always play together," Capello said, giving the English nation a collective sense of deja vu. "They are important players, they are very good, and for that reason I think they can play together because a lot of the time they can decide a game." Please, make it stop.