Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro- A review

The Remains of the Day is the third novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and was a winner of the Man Booker Prize. It was the first of Ishiguro’s novels that has no relation to Japan. It is set entirely in England and told from a first person perspective, the narrator being an English butler named Stevens.

The book takes us into post-war England where Stevens finds himself in a world that does not seem to need him. The days of large house parties are gone and with it the household full of servants. Even his old employer, Lord Darlington, has died and Stevens now works for an American, who seems to have a completely different idea of the expected decorum of servants.

Stevens recounts anecdotes of past times during a trip to see Miss Kenton, a former employee at Darlington hall. These reminisces portray Stevens as cold and single-minded but he sees this lack of emotions as professionalism and correct behavior. The extent to which Stevens takes his obsession with duty is shown when we realize that Stevens will not spend time with his dying father because he instead tends to daily chores and that Stevens will not give his opinion on anything which would offend his employer, regardless of the clearness of morality.

The faith Stevens has in Lord Darlington also is obvious from these reminisces. In Stevens view Lord Darlington ‘helped further the cause of humanity”. Only when the story fully unfolds do we realize that Lord Darlington is anti-Semitic, sympathetic to the Germans and Hitler and a believer in appeasement. Stevens believes that the criticisms of Lord Darlington are unwarranted and malicious, even in hindsight, and refuses to see any wrong in his ideas.

As in all of Ishiguro’s novels, memory plays a key role. The recollections of the past are given by Stevens himself and so he edits them, possibly without intending to. The realization that Stevens is an unreliable narrator becomes apparent. This causes the reader to have blind faith in Stevens statements and so attempt to find the real story hidden in Stevens anecdotes.

The emotional blankness of Stevens becomes clearest when he recollects on his relationship with Miss Kenton. The complex feelings he has for Miss Kenton remain a mystery to him and he is never able to realize that they had anything other than ‘an excellent professional relationship’. Stevens is never able to realize any feelings while they worked together due to his skewed understanding of the dignity. It is only in the finale of the book that Stevens begins to realize what could have been.

The book has many characters, all of whom impact, but the portrait of Stevens is what makes the book excellent. The passage of time gives us realization that Stevens is less sure about his life than he used to be, doubts are setting in. The way Ishiguro subtly changes the tone of Stevens as well as the nostalgia in his memories allows into the mind of a conflicted man. Stevens has the values and morals of a past era and they are clashing with life in the current era.

The Remains of the Day is outstanding because of its realism. The portrayal of life in a country house between the wars and the gradual elimination of the grandeur of such houses after the war is accurate enough to draw the reader into this world. The depictions of the characters and of their defining values and emotions which must be set a time of social constraints are deep and complex. This novel draws you into an intricately created world. It is a book that you will want to read more than once.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

the best of a simple life

It doesn't take too much to find contentment. Usually food works. And I have favorites for all the things I like, as does everyone. So, here's a list of everything that's the best (to me) that you can get in a store/restaurant.

Coffee: Blue Mountain Coffee

Choclate : Belgian, specifically Leonidas or Valrhona

Crackers: Carr's Table wafer's

Cheese: very variable, but probably fresh Gouda

Ice Cream: Gelato from Ciao Cafe, Tobago

Pizza: mushrooms and onions, Half&half cafe, Prague

Initial London Dialogue

I've had a conversation recently that went something along these lines. It was equally hilarious and annoying.

Person: "Where are you from?"

Me: "Toronto"

Person: "You don't look Canadian. Say 'about'. " (Pronounced as "aboot")

Me: "About"

Person: "You don't sound Canadian either."

Me: "Yeah, well, it isn't always like you see on TV. Plus I grew up in the Caribbean."

Person: " Oh, you don't look Caribbean either."

Me: "No one looks Caribbean. Mixed up place, the West Indies."

Person; " I guess you could be Brazilian. That's close to Caribbean, right?"

Me: " Kinda? Not really. I'm of Indian descent."

Person: "So why are you in the Caribbean?"

Me: " Colonialism. Everyone's everywhere."

Person: "You've reached England from the colonies."

Me:" I guess that could said."

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Stranger by Albert Camus - A Review

Book title: The Stranger
Book Author: Albert Camus
Publication Date:  1942
ISBN: 9782070360024

The term ‘modern classic’ is used far too frequently but The Stranger is a novel for which such a description holds true. It is a major book of twentieth century philosophy and encompasses several schools of thought, most prominently absurdism and existentialism.

The book is about a man called Meursault who lives a bland daily existence and seems bored with everything in life. His daily routine is thrown out of order when he commits a senseless murder of an Arab on a beach in Algiers.  The story is told in first person from Meursault’s point of view, with part one leading up to the murder and part two dealing with the aftermath and trial.

The book is written in a very distinctive style. One that is not French at all but ironically, for one of the most popular French books of the last century, an American style. Camus writes in the way Hemingway would write. He makes use of short sentences and minimal descriptions to give the reader the feel that there is a lot happening beyond what they are being told.

This style works especially well to describe Meursault’s life. The short sentences manage to give the impression of the narrator’s malaise and disinterest. The fact that he barely manages to describe his mother’s funeral or any emotions about it in the opening chapter immediately sets the tone of Meursault as a somewhat emotionless person.

The book is not entirely about the boredom of daily life. Meursault goes to the beach with his new friend Raymond and his new girlfriend Marie. The passages which lead up to the killing of the Arab at the beach are some of the most descriptive and intriguing in the entire book. The author manages to convey the fact the sun is affecting the narrator strangely and completely shows that he is suffering from the effects of heatstroke without ever coming out and saying it. The author only uses the sun and its effects as the reason for the killing, yet it does not seem as an impossible leap by the way it is described.

The second part of the book which deals with after the murder is much more specifically philosophical than the first. The trial deals almost exclusively with the narrator and his apparent emotionless state and unconventional behavior at his mother’s funeral. It is this more than anything which will seal his fate.

The narrator is unable to understand the link between his mother’s funeral and the murder. As a consequence he is unable to show remorse. He tells the reader that he is unable to feel remorse or strong emotions about any of his actions in life. This statement shows the extent of the influence of absurdism in the book since the narrator can see no inherent meaning in life, it just happens.

Meursault meets with a priest in the final chapter of the book, who has come to prepare him for his execution. In a climactic scene, the narrator refuses to be absolved of his atheism and tries to convince the priest that the universe is indifferent to his execution. This again is a reference to absurdism and its theory of finding meaning in life to be a waste of time.

The Stranger is one of the most original works of the last century. While the style and ideas may not originate with Camus, the tessellation to form the complete work brings about a book like no other. This book is one of the most thought provoking ever written. It manages to work as both a novel and a philosophical text and that alone makes it special.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga- A Review

Book title: The White Tiger
Book Author: Aravind Adiga
Publication Date: April 22, 2008
ISBN: 1-416-56259-1

The White Tiger is the debut novel of Indian writer Aravind Adiga. It won him the Man Booker prize in 2008. The novel is written as a series of letters to the Chinese premier from the main character of the story, Balram Halwai. Balram’s story is set in modern India, amid the backdrop of globalization, and tells of his climb out of poverty to become a successful entrepreneur.

The contrast between the new India, a global economic power, and the life of rural poverty which is reality for the majority of Indians, is a major theme in this book. The book successfully portrays the India of reality and as such encompasses such themes as religious tension, familial loyalty and the difficult of returning to India after living abroad.

The story is of a climb out of poverty but it is no conventional rags-to-riches story. This is not the success story for which Balram will be invited to lecture on how he found his way out of poverty. Balram is not the hero who took only the good out of rural poverty and came out shining. He is witty and endearing but ultimately ruthless and willing to use any method to find financial independence.
Balram describes the poor in India as roosters in a cage. The roosters know that they will soon be killed but do not rebel. They make no attempt to escape. To him the poor in India are like the roosters, they have no fight left in them and they accept their fate. Balram decides that he will escape the cage renouncing established morals and values along the way.

The narrator finds himself out of rural India, when luck and his ability to take chances land him a chauffeur job in New Delhi. He works for the New York educated son of a landlord from his old village. This son at first seems to be the only character who cares about Balram but the progression of the story shows that he is just simpler weaker than the rest of his family.

Adiga’s plot may be slightly predictable and the final act which set Balram up to become a successful entrepreneur is one the reader may see coming. But it doesn’t really matter because this is one of the books where the setting and style overpowers the plot. There’s such a draw with the sarcastic and witty style of the narrator that the book is difficult to put down.

Arvind Adiga has managed to write a novel that is extremely funny but apparently without trying to be. Comparisons have been made to Richard Wright’s Native Son, another novel about living in poverty, and those comparisons have been made because they are true. While the two novels are nothing alike in writing style, they evoke a sense of familiarity between them. And when a novel can be continuously compared to a classic such as Native Son, there can be no higher praise.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Youth : scenes from a provincial life by J.M. Coetzee- A book review

Youth is a short novel, less than 200 pages. Yet the ability to convey in a few sentences what would take other writers paragraphs continues to be evident in J.M. Coetzee’s writing.

Youth tells a familiar story for people who live in the Commonwealth and what was even more widespread during the 1950’s and 1960’s when the story is set. It deals with migration and immigration. The narrator dreams of going to London to get away from his home country; when he gets there he will be able to live fully and truly be an artist.

The opening portion of the book is set in the University of Cape Town. The Sharpeville massacre, civil unrest and the possibility of a military draft finally give the narrator enough excuses to leave for London.

Just like the immigrant tales we are accustomed to, the gap between real London and fantasy London was too large to be bridged. The narrator takes a job as a computer programmer, which is monotonous but still he knows that must strive to become a poet. The alienation of the London populace keeps weighing him down after time. He cannot pass as an Englishman but deems it necessary to eliminate all ties with his homeland.

Youth has parts of the immigrant experience we are accustomed to reading about. The experience we find in books such as Selvon’s The Lonely Londoner’s and Naipaul’s The Mimic Men. The alienation and displacement are familiar themes of the immigrant experience but Coetzee’s narrator attempts to pass as an Englishman. This is an option that is impossible for the ethnic minority characters we are accustomed to. The different view of the immigrant experience is refreshing by the very familiarity it brings.

The narrator has ideas about poetry and love that rule his life. He expects that one must suffer for art and the ability to be able to create things of beauty. But there is one consolation: “''Because they are creators, artists possess the secret of love,'' and women, wanting to be brushed by ''the sacred fire,'' instinctively recognize this.”

Unfortunately for the narrator, absolutely nothing in his life happens according to his ideas. Youth speaks about that part of life when one has several dreams, all of them seemingly just out of reach. The period of life where frustration is all too regular.

While Youth is supposedly a story about a young man attempting to become a writer, the narrator never writes much. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of this novel, it seems that the narrator of the story and J.M. Coetzee have nothing in common as writers. Perhaps when J.M. Coetzee publishes a book about his life after 23 we will find out what made him such a great writer.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith - A book review

White teeth

White Teeth is a novel that, like London (the city it describes), has very many different aspects and stories to it which make up the whole. The book tells the story of multiple generations of two families, the families of Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones who met as soldiers during the Second World War. There is more to White Teeth than just a story of family though. It addresses racial issues such as the relevance of race and the idea of identity and being English. The book also touches on the topics of religious fundamentalism and scientific progress; dealing with the eventual clash between them.

Immigrant life in London is a familiar topic detailed in such diverse books as Brick Lane by Monica Ali, The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi and Youth by J.M. Coetzee. The general trend in these books has all been their serious portrayal. Smith gives us a humorous take on immigrant life which is a fresh perspective.

The first family who focused on in the book is that of Archie Jones. Having narrowly escaped a suicide attempt in 1975 he celebrates his continuation of life by crashing a party. There he meets Clara, a teenaged Jamaican immigrant who is anxious to get away from her extremely religious Jehovah’s Witness mother. Their daughter Irie grows up intelligent but lacks confidence because of her appearance.

Samad’s twin sons, Magid and Millat are English, having been born and raised in London. In a critical scene in the book Samad decides that it would be better for Magid to return to Bangladesh and so be away from negative Western influences and be educated in Islamic ways properly. All of this is done without informing Alsana, his wife, who retaliates by giving him no direct answers until her son is returned. Samad’s romanticized views of Bangladesh as well as his fear of assimilation into English culture by his children are in direct conflict with the fact that he has left Bangladesh for England.

Magid, ironically, becomes an atheist who is committed to science. Millat ,on the other hand, abandons his earlier lifestyle of womanizing and delinquency and becomes a fundamentalist and joins an Islamic ground (with  the humorous acronym KEVIN).

About halfway through the book a third family is introduced- the intellectual Chalfens. The family is headed by Marcus, a biologist working on a genetically engineering mouse called FutureMouse. Millat and Irie become involved with the Chalfens through their son Josh. Magid also contacts Marcus and works as his research assistant on return from Bangladesh. The Chalfens somehow become a second family for Millat and Irie and to some extent a haven.

FutureMouse is a plot motivator in White Teeth but its introduction signals when the book starts to get away from Smith. The lure of the novel is in the depiction of its characters. Smith has the ability of describe realistic characters, down to their mannerisms which represent their different cultures and their speech patterns. In the final part of the book, the focus is on FutureMouse or at least the idea of FutureMouse. Smith moves away from the characters which have made the book so enjoyable and focuses on organizations instead. The plotlines become a bit overdone and the clarity disappears a bit.
Still, the novel is an exceedingly ambitious one and different from most novels around today. Such ambition cannot be perfect and the novel remains an excellent one despite a below-par ending.

White Teeth is foremost a comic novel. For all its serious themes of societal struggle, acceptance of immigrants and cultural displacement it is a happy book. One which the reader feels hopeful after reading and not disillusioned. That alone should be the measure of the success of the humorous novel.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Yiddish policemen’s union - A book Review

Michael Chabon somehow manages to write a novel which both science fiction and a hardboiled detective story, set in an alternative universe. If that wasn't complex enough and a seemingly sure recipe for disaster, somehow it actually turns out to be a good book.

The alternative world shows that Sitka, Alaska was created as a refugee haven for the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. It has become a Jewish metropolis populated by the European Jews who were being persecuted in the 1940’s. The story takes place sixty years after the initial land grant, when America is due to reclaim Sitka so, leaving the two million people who inhabit it with an uncertain fate. The rest of the alternative world is not described in detail but a major point is that the state of Israel does not exist, having been destroyed in the Arab-Israeli war. Never for a moment do you question the creation of this world as anything but real, which is a testament to Chabon’s creative and descriptive powers.

The hero is Meyer Landsman, who has several of the hardboiled detective trademarks. He is an alcoholic, with a failed marriage. He is, of course, a pessimist who lacks faith in God and people. And in the classic noir style the books opens with the murder and the lead character on the first page.

Meyer’s investigation into the death of Emanuel Lasker, who lived in the same rundown hotel he did, will lead him into a complex mystery involving several of the different sects of Sitka. It will cause him to examine his relationship with his ex-wife, now ironically his supervisor as work. Other existential issues arise out of the detective work and threaten to envelop him in despair.  

Despite being a detective novel there are several moments of comic relief. They don’t always come off but there are some excellent jokes thrown in.

 The book is steeped in Jewish culture and makes several plays on the Yiddish language, which are thankfully explained in a glossary for non-Yiddish speaker. The extent of which the book deals with life in the Jewish metropolis of Sitka means that some aspects will be lost on those who do not have anything more than a passing understanding of Jewish culture. This does not take away from the actual plot of the novel itself though, although it does make the settings or motives occasionally difficult to comprehend.

The actual conclusion to the mystery involves a large and complex denouement which seems more suited for a conspiracy theorist than a detective novel. Somehow the United States government, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and Evangelists are involved. It is quickly concluded and seems in no way plausible. The lead up to this point however is excellent. The entire description of the detective process and Landsman’s work to figure out the case is suspenseful and enthrallingly described.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a good book but there are flaws. The book may be a tribute to the hardboiled detective novel but it occasionally overdoes it with the clich├ęs. The rapid closure of the story seems rushed instead of natural and the state of Landsman’s relationships at the end is somewhat predictable. But these are minor flaws in the greater context of the book. The immersion into alternative reality is subdued and gradual, a refreshing contrast from the shock effect that usually happens. The detective work is well written and Meyer Landsman is a character comparable with the private eyes of Dashiell Hamett and Raymond Chandler. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read although perhaps not destined to be a classic.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Travel Writings - Suriname

I had been intending to visit Suriname for several years before I finally managed to go there, ostensibly for my cousin’s wedding, but really I was more excited about finally going to a place I’d been hearing about all of my life from my family. Almost every Trinidadian I know that visited the country has said it reminds them of how Trinidad used to be. I was curious to find out if my impression of the place would be the same. Despite having been hearing about Suriname sporadically for much of my life, only when I was actually on the flight did I realize how little I knew about the place.

I knew that Suriname is the smallest country on the South American continent and the only independent Dutch speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere.  With a population of only 600,000; more Surinamese live outside the country than in it. These facts led me to believe that the country would have more of a smaller, even island-like, culture. They are, after all, part of Caricom.

My assumption was completely wrong because Suriname is quite a large country, made up of such disparate regions and people of hugely varying backgrounds that it can feel like several countries at once. The country is easily as diverse as Trinidad and what makes the diversity even more apparent is that most migrant groups have retained their language. I sat on the waterfront, looking at the Suriname River which was the largest I’d ever seen at the time. In an hour I’d heard Dutch, French, Hindi, Bahasa, Portuguese, Chinese and the local language, Surinaams, being spoken.

The waterfront is an excellent spot to get the feel of Paramaribo, the capital and largest city, as well as to sample some of the amazing Surinamese food, which has a culinary fusion of all the cultures that comprise the nation. The bustle of activity can make the city of 250,000 feel much larger than it actually is. Really, it was the only place in all of Suriname that didn’t feel entirely laidback. Right in the heart of the city, next to the National Assembly (parliament), is the one calm spot in the capital, The Botanical Gardens. While the array of plants was impressive, the tranquility was what really made the place memorable to me. The garden itself is quite small and can be completely viewed in under an hour. Most of the visitors I saw seemed to be locals relaxing and I think I was the only tourist there.

The Historical Inner City of Paramaribo is a World Heritage site, notable for its gorgeous buildings which are a fusion of Dutch architecture and local materials, mostly wood. The Roman Catholic cathedral is built entirely of wood, quite a rarity for neo-Gothic architecture. When it comes to houses of worship, Suriname has one of the rarest sights in the world. On Keizerstraat, the Neveh Shalom Synagogue stands next to the National Mosque. The two buildings even shared a car park until recent renovation caused the car park to have to be moved. Considering all the tension that, unfortunately, can arise from differences in belief, seeing such an example of cooperation is uplifting.

Despite having a long shoreline on the Caribbean Sea, there are no sandy beaches in Suriname as the tremendous discharge from the giant South American rivers leave the coastline very muddy and the sea itself seems to be freshwater until further away from shore. These large rivers fill in for the beaches, with several places filled with sand and makeshift, freshwater beaches created. One of those places is called Cola Creek, so named because the water looks as dark as Coca Cola from the shore. In reality, the water is perfectly clear but the soil underneath is so dark that the whole creek seems to be dark as well. An amusing detail is that these river-beaches have been completely netted off from the rest of the river to prevent piranhas from entering where the bathers are.  Just another reminder of how much nature is ever-present in life in South America.

Another stunning body of water lies a few hours south of Paramaribo, only accessible by car along the newly built highways leading into the interior. The Brokopondo Reservoir is one of the largest in the world at 1560km2 and floods one percent of the country. The reservoir, with its expanse of water broken only by the trunks of now-dead trees which preceded its construction, feels very tranquil. It is a popular spot for fishing from the shores and there are even a few small boats which go out to fish.

 I was told that the reservoir isn’t popular with swimmers as they prefer the Anani river beach. The town of Brokopondo itself is very small and has a long history, as it has been primarily populated by the Maroons and examples of the Maroon craftwork such as calabash bowls and ornate pangi (a type of cloth) wraps can be obtained here. Wild meat is also popular in the interior and though I didn’t try any, just the sight of animals I’d never seen before being displayed for sale was an experience in itself.

The size of the country meant that there still is much more that I have to see. I’m glad my cousin got married so that I got to visit and I’m eagerly awaiting any news of more familial events so I can visit again and see even more of the place. Getting to observe and learn more about the various people and the diverse landscapes of the country was truly a great opportunity. I was able to find out so much about a country that I knew little about though I’d heard lots. Even before I left, I was already thinking about when next I could visit.

Friday, May 30, 2014

(Short) Analysis of the (length of stay for) teams at World Cup 2014 - Groups E and F

I like World Cup, quite a lot, and think it's the best of all the tournaments that exist in football and very possibly in all of sport (at least for any tournament focused on one sport since the Olympics is amazing because of the variety). So I'll be trying to figure out how likely each team is to get out of the group stages and how far they'll probably go if they do. All the odds are from which is the site I use most for trend spotting in sport (it's like my sport-Bloomberg).

Group E

  • Switzerland - The fact that Fifa rankings have somehow allowed Switzerland to be a seeded team and really that in itself should say how much the Fifa rankings formula needs to be adjusted, though the Elo system is also far from flawless. The Swiss are a team no one would mind facing at all and though strong do not have the intimidation factor of other top (and not top) ranked teams. 

They did finish strongly in their group and qualified automatically and their top ranking has given them a very good chance of making it out of the group stage. They did start the last World Cup on a high, beating eventual champions Spain 1-0 but failed to progress to the knockout rounds with indifferent performances in their next two games. They were even more unlucky in 2006 to be knocked out in the Round of 16 without even conceding a goal, but could not progress on penalty kicks against Ukraine. 
The Swiss during their final World Cup 2006 match

Hard to identify and outright star, Switzerland are probably the best example of a good team full of good players but no exceptional ones (maybe a case for Xhaka and Shaqiri). This might be a team of consistency and very little deviation from a 7/10 performance every time they play but unlikely to every play good enough to win highly motivated teams. They do, however, defend exceptionally and any team that concedes early to them will struggle to score twice.

Former Basel and current Swiss stars, Shaqiri and Xhaka

Given odds of 4/6 to qualify for the knockout rounds, the Swiss are third favourites to progress and odds of 11/4 to top the group making them the only seeded team to not be at least joint favourites to finish top. At 100/1 odds, the Swiss chances seem to be correctly evaluated by the bookmakers.

  • Ecuador -  Like, Switzerland, Ecuador are a team that are tough to break down and play very well on the counterattack. While Antonio Valencia of Manchester United could be considered to be the star, the team really is more of a unit that play well together and really rely very little on individual brilliance as opposed to the collective progress, with the team banding even closer after the death of National player Chucho Benitez last year.
Antonio Valencia, with his tattoo tribute to Chucho

They do have have extensive tournament experience and this is only the third time they have qualified for the World Cup, though COMNEBOL is probably the hardest region of any to gain a World Cup place via. However, their Copa America performances have usually been quite poor and they have not made it further than the first round in that tournament since 1997.

Last time they were at the World Cup, however, they performed well and made it to the Round of Sixteen where there were knocked out by England, in Stuttgart. That and perhaps the fact that they're playing on their own continent have La Tri at 4/1 odds to win  the group and 10/11 odds to qualify. At 125/1 to win the entire thing, they probably won't make that but if they top the group (which is far from impossible) then they have quite a good chance of making it to the quarter finals against the runners up of Group F, provided Argentina wins their group. 

Antonio Valencia with the ball against England in the Round of 16 during WC2006

  • France -  Showed tremendous team spirit to qualify for the World Cup and come back from 2-0 down again Ukraine by winning 3-0 in the second leg. Not just the win but the manner of the win made the French look like an awesome prospect, as that match was probably the best I'd seen a team play during all of 2013. 
France after beating Ukraine 3-0 in a stunning comeback

The fact that France are showing team spirit is an excellent sign as in-fighting and squad discontent has marred the last two tournaments the team has played in, with the split between staff and players resulting in a strike during World Cup 2010. Teamwork will be important for the French to go far in the World Cup because there is no outright star to take them through games as Zidane did in 2006 but the team that did win the trophy in France in 1998 was one that relied very much on teamwork, to their successful end.

The French national team after winning the World Cup at home in 1998

The team is filled with good players and in Franck Ribery, one of the best in the world, though he is suffering a drop in form after surreal highs of 2013. Karim Benzema has also been in excellent goalscoring form for Real Madrid and France is probably hoping for more of the same while wearing blue.
Benzema and Ribery

France are firm favourites to qualify according to the odds-makers at 5/1 to be playing in the Round of 16 and 4/6 to win the entire group. At 22/1 to win it all, France are somewhat surprisingly rated very highly to go all the way but this might be one of the more optimistic bets to make. Though if they top the group their route into the quarter finals might be easy, but once there, it's very unlikely to be an easy match that deep into the World Cup.

  • Honduras - Los Catrachos followed their second appearance at a World Cup in 2010  by their third in 2014. Once again they'll have to play to Swiss and will hope to not be meeting them at the airport on the way home after the group stage, again.

The reality is that Honduras will have to do extremely well and hope for other teams to play badly to make it out of the group stage, since every win for them will probably be seen as a bonus. They have a mostly home-based squad with the foreign based players mostly participating in MLS and Scotland. The biggest name in the team is Wilson Palacios of Stoke City in the English Premier League, but he isn't the player to carry them to wins. Especially since he plays defensive midfield. 
Wilson Palacios on the ball

The Hondurans are given 13/2 odds to qualify from the group and their odds to finish bottom of the group are 2/7 which gives a clear indication of how well they're expected to do. Their chances of winning the group, at 33/1 puts them on the same standing as other "happy to be here" nations, Iran and Australia .

Group F

  • Argentina - A team with frightening attacking talent comprising one of the best players (recently undisputed best) in the world, Lionel Messi, who despite a drop in form is still very much a game changer single-handedly. He has a lot to prove at the World Cup, since his performances in an Argentina shirt have been (usually justly) criticized. The man Diego Maradona deemed his successor will have a lot to do to drive the team like D10S did in 1986 . It is most likely an impossible hurdle for one man to drive a team as well as Maradona did, as it is impossible to speak about Argentine football without mentioning Diego. But Messi is not the sole elite attacker in this squad, which contains Manchester City star Sergio Aguero and Lavezzi of PSG.

Maradona in WC1986. Hard act to emulate

Aguero, Messi, Lavezzi

La Albicelestes have been knocked out at the quarter final stage in the last two World Cups, this time they will be hoping to progress further than that, as they always expect since the two-time winners are usually considered favourites and have to deal with tremendous pressure from the home fans. The last time Argentina topped the qualification group they were knocked out in the first round (in 2002) and it seems extremely unlikely history will repeat itself, especially looking at the group they're placed in. 

Argentina with the trophy in 1978, the last time the tournament was held in South America (till now)

If the team tops the group, as they should, then they will probably have a difficult match against the group E runners-up but it will be one that they are expected to win. They are expected to win the group, with odds of 2/9 . Not qualifying is almost unforeseeable as they have the best odds in the entire tournament to do so at 1/25. As in the last tournament, the major flaw Argentina have is their defence being less than world class (except perhaps Zabaleta, but the centre is still soft) but taking into account that they're playing on home continent in familiar conditions (the squad has a mix of experience and youth) they are considered second favourites to win outright at 9/2
Some of Argentina's defenders: Zabaleta, Rojo, Fernandez, Garay, Romero

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina -  Making it to the World Cup for the first time since the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Bosnians have an excellent chance to progress to the knockout round and even the quarter finals, given the group they are in. 

They are lacking in any kind of tournament experience, having never qualified for the European Championships either but have several players who play in the biggest leagues in European, so at least are familiar with high level football. Though, of course, the World Cup is a level above everything else. They have experienced players such as Misomivic (most capped for the Bosnian team) and a quality front line of Edin Dzeko of Manchester City and Vedad Ibisevic of Stuttgart, who will be hopeful that Miralem Pjanic continues his good club form and creates goalscoring opportunities for them.
Dzeko and Pjanic

Only England, Germany and The Netherlands scored more than the 30 goals Bosnia did while topping their group in qualifying, which they did on goal difference. With a +24 goal difference, they were among the top five teams in Europe on that measure as well (the three teams named before plus Ukraine) and the team does have a good balance of defence and attack as well as excellent team chemistry, though how well they will manage in unfamiliar conditions, both of tropical Brazil and international tournaments, remains to be seen. 

Bosnian players celebrate qualifying for WC2014

At 5/6, to qualify from the group they are firm second favourites by the bookmakers. Given odds of 150/1 to win the tournament outright, coincidentally the same as other former Yugoslavian entity Croatia and the same as Japan and Mexico.  

  • Iran -  Iran tends to qualify every other World Cup or so, as they did this time (but not last time). Somewhat defied expectations to finish ahead of South Korea in their group and while the 49th ranked team in the world will probably not be expecting to top Group F, the teams they've been placed with might leave them tentatively hopeful of making it to the knockout stages for the first time.
Iran celebrate qualifying for World Cup 2014

Coach Carlos Quieroz has assembled a strong team (at least, compared to the recent past) in part due to his willingness and enthusiasm for contacting players throughout the Iranian diaspora, a fact he has been widely commended for. That being said, the majority of players are home-based with a few scattered around several European leagues. The team's strength, at least based on qualifying, comes from their strength as a unit. They only conceded 2 goals during all 8 qualifying matches (though they only scored 8).

Given 5/1 odds to qualify from the group, they are the least expected to make it to the Round of 16, and while it is likely that they would indeed be returning early, these are probably odds than Iran may have expected. They are 4/7 to finish bottom of the group, but despite these seemingly solid odds for such an occurrence,  that is no sure thing. At 1500/1 to win the entire thing, those odds seem, if anything, too good as there is very little chance of that happening. 

  • Nigeria -  After easily disposing of an Ethiopian team that surprised many to even be in the final playoffs, Nigeria have found themselves in an ideal group to make it to the first knockout stage for the first time since 1998. It would not be harsh to say the Super Eagles have underachieved at the World Cup stage given the considerable talent they possess. They have had an excellent 2013, winning the African Cup of Nations where the team really took their performances into high gear into the knockout phase and played some top quality football.
Nigeria after winning Cup of Nations 2013

During the last World Cup, Nigeria disappointingly fell at the first hurdle, managing only one point. That time, they were also placed in a group with Argentina and teams they would have fancied overcoming and they will be hoping the events of the past four years will not repeat. The only Nigerian player in South Africa who came out with a heightened reputation was goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who made several crucial saves, though sadly his efforts were in vain. Since that time he has established himself as the best shot-stopper in Africa and one of the best in the French Ligue 1. Nigeria has several players across Europe's bigger leagues, including Chelsea's John Obi Mikel , who despite finding playing time less regular in London was a star player during last year's Cup of Nations. Premier League attackers Peter Odemwingie, Victor Moses and Shola Ameobi are also included in the preliminary list for Nigeria.
Enyeama makes a save

While not expected to win the group, with odds of  9/1 for that happening, 11/8 for qualification does not seem to be a bad analysis at all. Whoever tops Group E are unlikely to be too scared at the prospect of facing Nigeria but they are more than capable of causing an early knockout of France or Switzerland.  At 250/1 to win it all, the odds are surprisingly (and too high) on them. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

(Short) Analysis of the (length of stay for) teams at World Cup 2014 - Groups C and D

I like World Cup, quite a lot, and think it's the best of all the tournaments that exist in football and very possibly in all of sport (at least for any tournament focused on one sport since the Olympics is amazing because of the variety). So I'll be trying to figure out how likely each team is to get out of the group stages and how far they'll probably go if they do. All the odds are from which is the site I use most for trend spotting in sport (it's like my sport-Bloomberg).

Group C

  • Colombia - The injury of Falcao has reduced Colombia from being able to potentially match any team in the world (by outscoring them while conceding a lot of goals probably. The defence isn't the best) to being another team teams would rather avoid but no longer fear. Even though he's expected to go to the World Cup, he's not fully fit and well short of any match experience. Many of Colombia's players are playing in Europe and should have experience at the higher levels of club football, but Colombia hasn't been to a World Cup since 1998 (a tournament Faryd Mondragon, who is in the expanded squad of thirty, played in) so they may be a bit short of experience at the highest level. But they did reach the quarter finals of the last Copa America and perhaps that experience may be useful. 
Falcao, after surgery

Ranked 4th in the world at the time of the draw, they have since retained that ranking but it has always looked likely to be an overstatement of the team to believe they are the fourth best of any nation currently. Group C, however, looks very favourable and Colombia's seeding due to that high ranking has given them an opportunity not just to make it to the Round of 16 ( excellent odds of 1/5) but also win the entire group, which bookmakers have odds of 4/5 to occur. 

Winning the group won't mean an easy passage into the quarter finals as Group D runner's up will most likely be 2012 Euro finalists Italy, current Copa America champions Uruguay or England. They are given odds of 33/1 to win the entire tournament, which seems much too high for a speculative bet.

  • Greece - Managed to easily come through the UEFA playoffs, somewhat surprisingly, since Romania are a tough side to break down. They have a side with a mix of experience and youth and many players from World Cup 2010 are likely to be going to Brazil already. The captain Giorgos Karagounis was a part of Greece's Euro triumph 10 years ago and will probably be filling the team with stories and inspiration from that tournament.
Karagounis holding the Euro trophy in 2004

Greece have gotten lucky to be placed in a group which gives them a decent, though not simple, chance at qualification for the second round. They have the outside bet of the group at 9/4 and will face tough games but the kind of tough games between two teams on fairly even strengths not matches where they are outright underdogs. At 300/1 to win the whole thing, Greece have the same odds as South Korea.

Greek players celebrate scoring against Romania

  • Ivory Coast -  Les Elephants will have let out a huge sigh of relief after the draw. In their third appearance ever at the World Cup (and third in a row), the Ivory Coast finally have a realistic chance of exiting the group stages. They gave a good account of themselves in 2006, in a group containing Netherlands and Argentina and finished with 3 points. In 2010 they managed 4 points, in a group containing Portugal and Brazil, managing a commendable 0-0 draw against Portugal. This time they'll probably be hoping to continue increasing their points total. 

Highest ranked of all the African nations at 21st in the world, the Ivory Coast have a squad of veterans and youth, which is usually thought to be the best mix. Several players have World Cup experience and most of the players who are likely to be called up play in Europe. While the star player is Yaya Toure, who possesses a mix of power, speed and skill currently unmatched in football, ably supported by an older but still lethal Didier Drobga, this Ivory Coast team seems more about the team than focused on any individual players needing to take them through.

Ivory Coast players Drogba and Yaya Toure

Qualified rather easily by beating Senegal 4-2 and shouldn't be unduly worried by any team in the group, though they won't be extremely confident of a win either. At 10/11  to make it to the knockout phases, they just fractionally make the second best odds ahead of Japan but the fact that both teams are 9/4 to finish bottom of the group should indicate how close the group is. At 125/1 to win the World Cup, it might not be the best bet considering also at 125/1 are Ecuador. But should be a more sensible bet than 100/1 on Mexico. If they make it out of the group, Ivory Coast probably have the firepower to take out England in the Round of Sixteen and possibly even match up against Italy.
Ivory Coast players celebrate their first leg win against Senegal in the WC qualifiers

  • Japan-  The first nation to qualify for the World Cup, all the way back in June 2013. Having never made it to the World Cup before 1998, Samurai Blue have been to every World Cup since. Knocked out on penalty kicks at the last edition, they'll be hoping to at least make it that far and possibly cause an upset or two. 
Japan celebrating their qualification for the World Cup  

Japan has always had very good, very technically gifted players but have been accused (usually correctly) of not having the imagination or "genius spark" necessary to really change a game. In Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, they could claim to now have those players, but recent club form of them both is a cause for concern on their impact. A host of players in the squad play in Germany with the rest playing in Italy, England and Japan but there isn't a lot of players with South American experience and perhaps the conditions might be tough going, though usually Japanese players are known for their high work rate (re: Nagatomo, Uchida, Hasebe).
Kagawa and Honda for Japan

 Given 1/1 odds to progress from the group stages, Japan have about a good chance as anyone in this group of playing in the knockout phases. Their 150/1 chances of winning the entire tournament seem accurate though since they, unlike Ivory Coast, do not have the firepower to take out England and don't have the creativity to beat Italy. 

Group D 

  • Uruguay- Seeded team Uruguay had to struggle to get to the World Cup, coming fifth in COMNEBOL qualifying (albeit on goal difference) and had to go through the playoffs where they're thrashed Jordan 5-0.
Uruguay players celebrating their win over Jordan

Despite the slips during qualification, the Copa America holders are seen as one of the strongest teams in the tournament and a repeat of last time where they went to the semi-final (and really gave Holland a fight) would not be surprising. A squad of mostly the same players that went to South Africa with a front trio of Diego Forlan  (Golden Ball winner at the World Cup  ), Luis Suarez (English Premier League Player of the Season) and Edinson Cavani (record signing in French football at 64 million Euros) will not be easy to beat, especially to stop them from scoring.

Attacking trio- Cavani, Suarez, Forlan

Seen by the bookmakers as second favourite to qualify at 4/9 , somewhat surprisingly behind Italy but both teams are given the same odds of 13/8 to top the group meaning it's not a straightforward thing to even predict who seem to be favourites in this tough group. Tellingly, Uruguay are given lowest odds of finishing bottom of the group at 14/1.  At 25/1 to win the whole thing, behind Belgium and France, this is probably one of the best undervalued odds to speculate on.

  • Italy - A lot to prove after the horrible showing four years ago where, as defending champions, they failed to win a single game and finished bottom of a group containing New Zealand and Slovakia. If that group seemed straightforward, this one is anything but. 

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 after winning the tournament

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro in World Cup 2010 after group stage elimination

This Italy team has been extensively rebuilt from the last World Cup and during that time managed to reach the final of Euro 2012 where they lost (comprehensively) to Spain. The four-time World Cup winners are known for their strong defence termed the catenaccio, named after the Italian word for door-bolt, since they "locked up" the entire back line. This team follows in that tradition with Juventus trio (another Italian tradition of being Juventus-heavy) of Bonnuci, Barzagli and Chiellini all in dominant defensive form. In Mario Balotelli and Marco Verratti, the Azzurri have real game changers though coaxing the best out of them and getting them to behave is another matter altogether.

Bonnuci, Barzagli and Chiellini for Juventus

They are, somewhat surprisingly given the best odds in the group to qualify at 2/5 but as mentioned before they're given the same odds as Uruguay to top the group. Should have an easy team to face in the Round of 16, in theory, whether they top the group or not and 25/1 to win the tournament, they are probably a wiser bet than the Belgians who are 14/1. 

Balotelli and Verratti training for Italy

  • England - The English media are so far not hyping the team as much as they usually do before large tournaments and perhaps for once the team isn't carrying far more overbearing expectations than they should. The team won their UEFA group easily to secure automatic qualification while only conceding four goals through the entire thing. However the 1966 World Cup winners are far from sure of making it to the knockout phases of the tournament and that's not even taking into account the notoriously bad form of England in tournaments over the last two decades or so, since they have not reached a semi-final of a major tournament since Euro 1996.

At the last World Cup, England played quite poorly and unfortunately for them this squad seems, on paper anyway, a worse one defensively than the one they carried to South Africa. Gary Cahill is perhaps the only defender who can claim to be in good form (though Luke Shaw and Glen Johnson are playing well at fullback, their contributions tend to be offensive). The English attack gives more to be optimistic about with Liverpool duo Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge coming off the back of excellent seasons as do Southampton pair Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana.
Sturridge and Sterling for Liverpool

Given odds of 8/13 to qualify and 9/4 to win the entire group, England are seen as less likely than both Uruguay and Italy to be playing any football after the 24th of June in Brazil and probably with good reason as this English team is no more than a decent team on paper and will need very strong leadership (which can perhaps be provided by Gerrard, or more likely, not provided) to be more than the sum of their parts. At 30/1, The Three Lions are probably a bit overpriced for a casual bet.

  • Costa Rica - Finished second in CONCACAF, to everyone's surprise, since anyone but Mexico and USA being top two is rarely considered (even though for World Cup 2002 Costa Rice topped qualifying, but football memory around here forgot that exception). Their reward for qualifying so well was this group, which all but seals a short trip to Brazil for them. Costa Rica are not really able to claim to be among the better half of the teams of the tournament and to make it to further stages would have required to be lucky in the draw as well as on the field. They'll have to hope for some major upsets to be playing knockout football

At 50/1 they easily have the lowest odds of any team to win their group, even lower than the 33/1 given to Australia, Iran and Honduras. Given 9/1 odds to make it out of the group and 2500/1 odds to win the tournament outright, which are the lowest of the entire tournament, this bet is perhaps only for those who have money to waste.