World Cup 2014: Round of 16 Predictions

After an exciting group stage drenched in goals, even a single day off between World Cup matches seems like a lot. Thankfully, the knockout stage starts tomorrow afternoon, and it promises even more drama, heroics and surprises. Here are my predictions:

Brazil v. Chile

Brazil didn’t dazzle in the group stage despite finishing on top and the road only gets tougher from here. The first step is Chile, a team that often draws acclaim for its attacking style but that does equally well against sides that want to attack. The Chileans work hard, press and strangle the opposition, as they did to Spain in their victory over the former world champions. Their only loss was against a Dutch team that made the game ugly. Unfortunately for Brazil, they can’t play ugly in front of their home crowd, so I expect a hesitatingly open match and a handful of goals. Brazil will pull it out because they’re more dynamic than the aging Spain that Chile beat so handily, but it won’t be easy. I hope Chile scores the first goal early and forces Brazil to come forward. Brazil will play their best match of the tournament so far.

Prediction: Brazil

Colombia v. Uruguay

Uruguay without Luis Suarez is a less scary Uruguay, but Suarez wasn’t one hundred percent fit anyway and it’s not Suarez who scored the vital goal against Italy. It was Diego Godín. Colombia may have breezed through the group stage, winning big against Japan even with a reserve squad, but their group was relatively weak. They’re untested. Their World Cup ends here. Expect to hear more about their Number 10, James Rodríguez, in the future—but not a future this immediate. Uruguay are an experienced, cohesive and talented squad. They underperformed in qualifying and lost to Costa Rica, but when their backs got up against the wall, they won. They’ll win again. Rather than be a distraction, the Suarez situation will steel them with the belief they’re being unfairly targeted by the powers-that-be.

Prediction: Uruguay

France v. Nigeria

France blasted their first two opponents, then peppered Ecuador with shots but couldn’t score. Uncharacteristically, their team spirit seems high. But they meet a Nigeria that beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 and just went toe-to-toe with Argentina in a 2-3 loss. Nigeria are team that has been overachieving lately, including in winning the African Cup of Nations in 2013, but perhaps that’s not surprising given how disappointing they’ve been in the last decade. What’s impressed me most about Nigeria is their adaptability. They can jab and move and they can stand in the pocket, trading power punches. I don’t smell an upset, but I do feel it will be a competitive match. I think France will falter eventually by firing another round of blanks, but it won’t be here. They’ll start strong, they’ll doze and Nigeria will punch them awake. I hope it’s an exciting tilt.

Prediction: France

Germany v. Algeria

Algeria qualified second from the worst group of this World Cup. Germany finished first in the best group. There are potential issues with Germany playing four central defenders across the back and Philipp Lahm in midfield—Ghana’s directness and speed posed them plenty of problems—but Algeria just doesn’t have the quality to pick at those issues. They’ll most likely sit back, watch the Germans pass the ball around and hope to counter, but that won’t work. Germany’s weakness isn’t facing an organized an defence; they’ll break those down. It’s facing quickness. The moment Algeria decides to try to soak the Germans up is the moment the match is over. I expect Klose to come on and break Ronaldo’s record of World Cup goals. Algeria’s best chance is to attack as they did against South Korea.

Prediction: Germany

Holland v. Mexico

The Mexicans have surprised me with their resilience and play on the wings. They held Brazil and beat a Croatian side that boasted two excellent midfielders and a top level striker. But whereas Mexico is fatigued, the Dutch are rested; and whereas Croatia’s excellent midfielders were creative types, the Dutch have Arjen Robben, who’s more like Sonic the Hedgehog. Mexico will play bravely and at times may push the Dutch back, but it’s the Dutch more than any other squad at the World Cup who have cracked, with confidence, the armour of possession football. The Dutch won’t care how much of the ball Mexico have. It’s what you do with it that counts. Passing the ball twenty times in your own half is merely a form of passive defence. The Dutch play a more traditional defence (although there are certainly questions about their defenders, who play in a Dutch league not known for its defensive abilities) and a more ruthless, efficient offence. They won’t care how much of the ball Mexico has if Mexico isn’t doing anything with it. Their own possession will be precise and effective.

Prediction: Holland

Costa Rica v. Greece

This is going to be a stinker. Costa Rica did wonderfully to conquer a group that included Uruguay, Italy and England, and in Greece they have a winnable match, but the Greeks are the Greeks: they’ll snuff out Costa Rica’s attempts and squeeze out a win in extra-time from a corner or other set-piece. My heart says the Ticos can continue their run. My head says that the Greeks, who play boring football for neutrals and who cheated their way past the Ivory Coast (Georgios Samaras should have been banned just like Luis Suarez), have lucked out in meeting the only opponent in the round of sixteen against whom they can grind out a win. The day the Greeks won Euro 2004 was a great day for Greek football, but it left a horrible legacy: the idea that a packed, organized defence and efficient dead ball offence can be successful. Although Greece now lacks the talent and discipline to make that style work, they cling to it. I want them to lose. I predict they’ll win.

Prediction: Greece

Argentina v. Switzerland

One of the key lessons this World Cup has taught us is that when Lionel Messi truly wants to win, no team can stop him—not even Argentina. The Argentines did well to top a weak group but they’ve been misfiring up front and their back line is porous. How wonderful, then, that they’re meeting a team with similar defensive problems! The Swiss have been cheese, especially against the best team in their group, France. So it’s a case of who improves the most, with the caveat that Argentina’s potential is much higher than Switzerland’s. Having said that, unless Messi disappears, he should have another excellent day of football…

Prediction: Argentina

Belgium v. USA

Belgium has been worse than expected. The Americans have been better than advertised. It’s an even match-up. Before the tournament started, the Belgians were many people’s pick for dark horse of the tournament. I picked the Americans to cause a surprise or two. I’m going to stick by my pick for this match, but I have to say that despite not really impressing with their play, the Belgians have quietly shown an impressive amount of resolve. They were down in a match; they came back to win it. They were a man down in a match; they came back to win it. The Americans have traditionally shown a lot of resolve. I expect this to be a match that simmers rather than boils but that we would all do well to to watch to the very, very end.

Prediction: USA

Costa Rica Slays Death

I bet no one predicted that!

When Italy, Uruguay and England came out of the pots everyone dubbed Group D the group of death. I disagreed, leaning toward the more evenly-matched group of Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the USA. But Costa Rica, my word: six points from two games against two teams in the top ten of the FIFA rankings! And no one gave them a shot. They were to be the group’s whipping boys, important only in how many goals the other teams put past them, and now they’re on the verge of topping the group and playing the runner-up in Group C for a place in the quarter-finals. Talk of winnable and impossible games has no bearing on Costa Rica, but whoever they meet won’t be as strong as Italy or Uruguay. In group C, the Ivory Coast was unfortunate to lose their game against Colombia, giving the Colombia’s first place, but if Costa Rica’s luck continues then Greece will triumph over the Ivory Coast and set up a meeting between Costa Rica and Greece in the round of sixteen. No one can deny that Greece have looked awful. But, surely, the Costa Ricans cannot make it farther…

CONCACAF teams in general have performed admirably. Mexico is on four points after beating Cameroon and holding Brazil to 0-0, although a competitive fixture against Croatia looms, and the USA went ahead twice to edge Ghana 2-1. There are still many twists to come I’m sure, but could World Cup 2014 be one with three teams from CONCACAF making it out of the group stage at the expense of more-lauded Europeans Croatia, Portugal and Italy?

We shall see.

P.S. Check out some Costa Rican literature!

Book Review: Lagoon

LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aliens invade the Gulf of Guinea, to the south of Lagos, Nigeria, and the city responds. That’s the nutshell description of this light science fiction novel about “first contact” made exotic to most of us by virtue of its setting, which is a continent away from New York, Tokyo and the other non-African cities that aliens choose to inhabit or destroy in most science fiction novels. And as a story about Lagos the book is a success. The chapters are short and the narrative points of view many, and sometimes a character narrates for only one chapter, creating a pleasing tapestry effect. In one particularly wonderful section, the narrator is a spider trying to cross a highway. In other, an orphan boy. A scam artist. A cross-dresser. A bat that’s sprouted an extra eye. We get a glimpse of Nigeria’s languages, its two main religions (Christianity and Islam), and its many urban problems and delights. Lagos becomes a city of simmering energy. But I wish the novel had either diluted its viewpoints even more or picked different characters to follow, because the ones we end up sticking with are kind of a bore compared to where they live. The city overwhelms them. I understand they serve the story, but I kept wishing they’d disappear, eaten perhaps by a stretch of highway that consumes people (!), or fade away like the novel’s villainous Christian preacher (the characterizations follow very “progressive” tendencies). That said, the last quarter of the book, which does focus on the main characters, is wonderful, imaginative, vividly described and at times beautiful—and then the novel ends! They say that you should leave them wanting more, but I almost would have preferred the story to start where it ended and leave the beginning to my imagination. Then again, Lagoon is firmly a novel about Lagos and it ends just as the action begins to trickle beyond the city’s borders, so the author’s decision makes sense. It’s urban-scale science fiction. I loved the setting, enjoyed the fantasy and wished I’d gotten both with a different set of characters, i.e. more spiders and bats.

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A Dwarf Stood At The Door

adwarf-teaser I’m a nervous person. I took up smoking to stop biting my nails. It didn’t work, and now I have two bad habits. Usually I don’t even have a reason for the biting, I just get anxious and chewing off bits of myself calms me down. It’s vaguely cannibalistic. My wife hates it. She used to check my hands before bed and then refuse to have sex with me if I didn’t pass the inspection. I can live without sex, but not without biting my nails or smoking. She thinks I cheated on her. She also thinks I’m a coward, but in her defence she has no idea that I saved her life. Right now she’s asleep because it’s three in the morning, and I’m out on the balcony having a cigarette and trying to figure out the best way to confess to a crime. The thing that keeps distracting me is the moon. It’s as yellow as my dentist says my teeth are going to be if I don’t stop with the cigarettes. Frankly I think drinking coffee is worse for discolourations than smoking, but whatever. My thesis sponsor says I pepper my casual writing with slang to balance the rigidity of my academic prose. She calls it my “learned” prose. I call it my thecal style. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. I was describing the yellowness of the moon. Tom Waits has a good line about it being the colour of a coffee stain, and that’s about right. The night’s bright as far as nights go but that moon keeps staring at me like a jaundiced eyeball. I should have had a drink before coming out here. I’d go in and get one but I’m afraid I’ll wake my wife, and she’ll blink and her hair will look like a leafless winter tree surrounding a Grumpy Cat face. That’s a proper noun, Grumpy Cat. It has its own Wikipedia page, like Napoleon and Georg Hegel. The articles starts: “Grumpy Cat (born April 4, 2012), real name Tardar Sauce, is a cat and Internet celebrity known for her grumpy facial expression.” Keep that in mind when you read my confession because it’s a crazy fucking world we live in. My thesis sponsor says I never make sufficiently elegant segues. She says my paragraphs are too long and that my conclusions come at the reader out of nowhere like argumental hyenas. I’m surrounded by difficult women. I’m reconsidering my confession, but that moon keeps reflecting its piss coloured light at me and I’m sick of just writing my thesis, sentence by footnoted sentence. Theses. It even sounds vile. If any of my neighbours are watching they probably think I’m ridiculous sitting out here in my boxers and bathrobe, smoking cigarette after cigarette and typing on a laptop, but in my defence it’s the twenty-first century and this is how twenty-first century murderers let it all out. I used to think it ridiculous that anyone could say the moon is made of cheese, but now I kind of get it. I’m hungry and I have a heavy heart. Two days ago I overpowered a level twenty-six dwarf, stabbed it in the neck, beat it with a shovel and sliced open its throat before transferring what remained of its body to a 3.5″ diskette that Wayne and I secretly uploaded to a computer in the library.

It was just a game, one of those quaint text adventures from the 1980s: quests, dwarves and silly fun…

Until the dwarf showed up at your door.

He’s got a big axe.

AVAILABLE @ AMAZON US | AMAZON UK

Book Review: A History of Narrative Film

A History of Narrative FilmA History of Narrative Film by David A. Cook
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you want to explore the world of cinema, this is as good an atlas as you can have. Like any atlas, it’s an overview—you’ll have to look elsewhere for topographic maps and street-level views of the Czech New Wave, Cinema Novo, French Poetic Realism or whatever happens to catch your eye—but it grounds every movement in the history of both its national cinema and the historical and technological development of film as a whole, giving you a practical sense of awareness in the great filmic scheme of things. Although it’s a thick book and does contain paragraphs that are just lists of film titles, Cook’s narrative proceeds smoothly and you can certainly read it cover to cover, skipping those paragraphs if you’re uninterested. Speaking of lists: yes, the internet is a better place for them than a printed book and you can find plenty of good film lists online (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1000 Essential Films is a great one), but Cook digs up titles you usually won’t see elsewhere and he does it objectively, on a global scale and for over one hundred years of film production. He also never leaves you questioning why a particular film is important, even if his explanation is just a single densely-packed sentence. Sometimes he does spend a page or two on a film, but these close-ups aren’t the book’s strength. Uncontroversial, they mostly illustrate that film, which is often approached very personally or dogmatically in theory books, can be studied analytically: there truly is a visual language. A History of Narrative Film is enthusiastically recommended to anyone with a burgeoning interest in cinema.

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Mani Kaul on Cinema

Mani Kaul (1944-2011) was an Indian film director of whom I’d never heard until Sachin Gandhi (@film_story) mentioned him on Twitter. Sachin’s comment was directed at the under-representation of Indian films at the Cannes film festival but the net can be cast much wider. When we think of Indian cinema today, we think of Bollywood and dancing. When we think of Indian art cinema—the “serious” side of cinema—we peer automatically to a past dominated by Satyajit Ray (director of the Apu films: Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar) and Ritwik Ghatak (The Cloud-Capped Star), a past that ended when those filmmakers died and whose tradition, we tend to believe, flickered out with them.

mani-kaul-computer

Mani Kaul came after Ghatak, and in fact was his student at the Film and Television Institute of India. He made both documentaries and narrative films. I’ve no idea which of his films are his most famous, but I do know that some of them are available on YouTube. For example:

YouTube user Haridas B has also uploaded several videos of Mani Kaul speaking about cinema. They’re absolutely worth watching and listening to:

Accidents happen when you shoot, and accidents are always better than what is planned.

—Mani Kaul

Tarkovsky’s Polaroids

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most well-known and admired Russian filmmakers, especially in the west. Three of his films—Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev and Solaris—are part of the Criterion Collection, and another, Stalker, is considered a masterpiece of art house science fiction. Tarkovsky’s films have a reputation for spirituality and slowness, a difficulty that rewards careful viewing.

tarkovsky-polaroid-17

The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni reportedly gave his friend and colleague Andrei Tarkovsky a Polaroid camera in 1977.

That’s the first sentence of an article by Gawan Fagard about Tarkovsky’s subsequent use of polaroids between 1979 and 1983, three years before his death.

Since 1986, the polaroids have been put on display and edited into a book called Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids. However, as Fagard points out:

…it should be noted that Tarkovsky never seemed to have had the intention to include his Polaroid snapshots in his work as an artist and filmmaker—even though the repeated artbook publications and exhibitions (which all happened posthumously) might suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, regardless of their purpose, they were crafted cautiously by their author. As the the framing and lighting reflect the eye of an experienced cinematographer, so the composition was staged with an obvious painterly flamboyance. Thus they reveal a lot about Tarkovsky’s aesthetic sensibility beyond documentary meaning.

You can see the polaroids here.