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Japan depart with big wins but quarterfinal dream unfulfilled

Japan exited the Qatar World Cup with historic victories over former world champions Germany and Spain under their belt. Ultimately though, after a 3-1 penalty loss to Croatia, the dream of reaching uncharted territory in the global spectacle was erased.
Japan will have much to remember from the World Cup, not least stunning upsets of Germany and Spain in the group stage. But they ultimately fell short of their cherished goal of making the quarterfinals for the first time.
The heartbreaking loss on penalties to Croatia on Monday will not entirely erase the memory of beating two former world champions for the first time, but another loss in the round of 16 will hurt a team who had been looking to make history.
The Samurai Blue had been to the first knockout round three times in six trips to the World Cup finals but had never gone any further, a state of affairs coach Hajime Moriyasu had committed his players to rectifying despite a tough draw.
It looked like a distant goal for the first hour of their Group E opener against Germany as the four-time champions took the lead and dominated a Japan side who barely made it out of their own half.
Moriyasu transformed the game with five substitutions and was rewarded with late goals from Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano, in what was probably Japan’s greatest victory on a football pitch.
The enigmatic coach, the subject of much criticism back home during his tenure, was applauded in and out of his post-match press conference and promised that this was just the start for Japan in Qatar.
There was some consternation then when Moriyasu named a much-changed team for the next match which was clearly set up not to concede a goal to a Costa Rica side that had been pummelled 7-0 by Spain in their opener.
Ultimately, Moriyasu was denied even the point he set out to get as a defensive lapse allowed the Costa Ricans to score the only goal of the game with their first shot on target of the tournament.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Elated England set sights on fearsome France at Qatar World Cup”
Moriyasu was unapologetic as Japan went from the brink of going through to the last 16 with a match to spare and were plunged back into the morass of goal difference and fair play points for the final round of group matches.
His confidence in his players was rewarded as ...

Coaches lay the foundations for Bok glory in 2023 — and beyond

Dozens of new players have moved into the training system, creating depth that should pay off.
The Springboks’ 27-13 victory at Twickenham marked a terrific end to an indifferent run of results in the 2022 season. Jacques Nienaber’s charges struck the perfect balance between defence and attack to dismantle England in London for the first time since 2014.
And they produced one of their most potent and polished performances under Nienaber in the absence of 15 regular squad members — 13 of whom had contributed to their successful 2019 World Cup campaign. The win against England — and indeed the six-game tour to Europe — should be viewed as a triumph for squad development ahead of the 2023 World Cup, and beyond.
Beyond inconsistent results
Few teams managed to win consistently in 2022 while bolstering their squads for the all-important global tournament. Ireland and France impressed with their overall results, but failed to answer pressing questions about their depth.
Will Ireland continue to be a force at the World Cup if their talisman Johnny Sexton is unavailable? Will France deliver on the big stage if someone other than Antoine Dupont is pulling the strings at No 9?
South Africa were less successful than Ireland and France in the 2022 season. Their success at the 2023 World Cup, however, will not hinge on the availability of one or two individuals. Thanks to some smart and bold selections this season, the Boks look set to travel to France with one of the deepest squads.
The Boks have moved forward with plans to cast the net wide and explore options across all positions. Injuries to key players certainly forced Nienaber’s hand — particularly at flyhalf, where Handré Pollard and Frans Steyn were ruled out, and Elton Jantjies was released to address off-field issues. In the end, Nienaber exposed a large group of players to international rugby a year out from the World Cup in France.
The Boks played 13 Tests in 2022, and South Africa A played two midweek games against Munster and Bristol Bears in November. A total of 69 players featured across the various training camps, and 66 of them received some form of game time over the course of 15 matches.
A total of 48 players were used across the 13 Tests, as Nienaber assessed various individuals and combinations with a view to the 2023 World Cup. Ten players made their Test debuts, and a further 19 newcomers were ...

Family tragedy helped to shape Aliou Cissé, Senegal’s ‘lion’ of a leader

Charismatic coach Aliou Cissé has taken his side through to the knockout stages of the World Cup in Qatar, commanding respect and inspiring a sense of togetherness.
They still remember the day in 2002 the news started to circulate around the training ground and, bit by bit, it became apparent something terrible had happened.
Aliou Cissé was new to English football at the time and, in the days before social media, it took a while before the full horrors started to emerge.
He turned up for training as usual. He went through his usual routines for almost a week, hiding whatever inner turmoil he was suffering. He fixed a smile because, as he explained later, he wanted “to protect the group from my state of mind”.
He boarded the bus taking the players of Birmingham City to a Premier League fixture at West Ham. They won 2-1 and, despite everything, Cissé played the full match.
“What he did that day tells us so much about the man,” says Michael Johnson, one of his former teammates. “The majority of people, me included, would have been looking to go back home and take time out. But Aliou wanted to play. That shows the strength and character of the individual.”
Africa’s Titanic
The previous week, Cissé had been watching television in his flat on the outskirts of Birmingham when the first reports came through that a ferry, MV Le Joola, had gone down off the coast of The Gambia.
The next day his phone rang and he learnt that 12 members of his family, including a sister, aunts, uncles, nephews and cousins, had been on board. All were missing.
Cissé put the phone down and, as he later acknowledged, started to panic. “The waiting was the hardest part,” he said. “Trying to find someone who had the right information. At one point, people were saying it wasn’t true. They were saying the boat had arrived . you catch your breath only to be told 30 minutes later, ‘No, no, no, it’s not true, the boat still hasn’t arrived’.”
Le Joola, a government-owned ferry with capacity for 580 passengers, was dangerously overcrowded on its journey from Ziguinchor in south Senegal to Dakar, the capital.
The boat hit high winds and rough seas. In minutes it overturned, then slowly started to sink. Of all the people on board – children, women sleeping on wooden floors, men with a life’s possessions on their backs – only 64 ...

Blitzboks turn the tide with their fourth consecutive Dubai World Series win

The Springbok Sevens were near flawless in the Dubai Sevens cup final on Saturday evening against a gritty Ireland side, thumping them 21-5.
The Blitzboks produced a stunning weekend comeback after their opening match 14-5 defeat to Great Britain on Friday to win the Dubai leg of the Sevens World Series on Saturday.
The desert of Dubai has become a fortress for the Blitzboks as they secured their fourth title on the trot in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their sixth of the past seven in the desert.
The excellent defence of the SA Sevens team was most impressive, keeping the Irish scoreless in the first half as they took a 21-0 lead. The Blitzboks’ defence moved like a stretched shoestring, with each player working closely in tandem with the next, cutting out the space for the dangerous Irish backs.
They converted the defensive pressure into points as Shilton van Wyk crossed for two tries and skipper Siviwe Soyizwapi crossed for another.
Ricardo Duarttee — who made his Blitzbok debut in Dubai — fitted in like a veteran all weekend and was exceptional in the final, producing a flawless display in front of the posts.
“I can’t find the perfect words to express how I feel and what this means for our system. I just know it’s an incredible effort from the boys,” said Sandile Ngcobo, who tasted cup glory for the first time as head coach this weekend.
“I’m hard on them and they really hung in there and they showed fight in the camp that we had.”
Ireland’s Jack Kelly dotted down in the corner in the second half, but it was too little, too late for the Irish.
Tough few months
The Blitzboks opening 14-5 loss to Great Britain could have signalled danger for the South Africans as they also had reigning World Series champions Australia to contend with in their group.
However, after their 27-12 pounding of Kenya, the Blitzboks played some of their best rugby in recent times to claim a 19-12 win over the Aussies to top their group.
“We had a serious discussion amongst ourselves after the loss [to Great Britain],” said assistant coach Philip Snyman.
“The standard delivered was not the standard expected. We agreed there and then that it was not what this jersey was about. Credit to everyone who stepped up afterwards and gave us something to be proud of.”
“Beating Australia, the number one team in the world, in the way we ...

Bok wing Sbu Nkosi missing for three weeks — police case opened

In a worrying turn of events, Bulls and Springbok wing Sbu Nkosi has been missing for three weeks.
The Bulls confirmed on Sunday that 2019 Rugby World Cup winner Sbu Nkosi had been absent without leave for the past three weeks and that a missing person case has been opened.
Nkosi was last seen and spoken to by members of the Bulls management on 11 November, but since then, has been uncontactable. The Bulls opened a missing person case on 17 November.
“The Blue Bulls Company can confirm that Bulls contracted player, Sbu Nkosi has been absent without leave for the past three weeks,” a statement from the club read.
“Nkosi’s last known contact with any executive, management or playing squad member is Friday 11 November 2022.
“After numerous failed attempts, which include but are not limited to phone calls, texts messages, calls to relatives, partner and close friends as well as four house visits to his known place of residence, the company took the decision to open a missing person case with the Brooklyn Police Station (which was subsequently transferred to Sunnyside Police Station), in Pretoria on Thursday 17 November 2022.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
“This resulted from the grave worry and concern of everyone at Loftus as well as the need for the expert assistance of the South African Police Service.
“We appreciate both the public and media interest in the matter, as we all share the same concerns about the player’s safety. However, we ask that you understand that we cannot make any further comments on the matter as it now sits with the South African Police Service.
“Anyone with further information about the whereabouts or information that may assist the police in discharging their responsibility, please contact the Sunnyside Police Station on +27 12 422 3600 or contact Crime Stop on +27 8600 10111.
“You may also email with any information that may assist.”
Move north
Nkosi moved to the Bulls from the Sharks at the conclusion of the 2021/22 United Rugby Championship (URC) season in May. It was a homecoming of sorts for Nkosi, who grew up in Barberton (which gives its name to the daisy which appears on the Blue Bulls badge) and was schooled at Joburg’s Jeppe Boys High.
In November 2021, he failed to make the Boks’ end-of-year tour to the Northern Hemisphere because his passport had expired and was not renewed. He played the last of ...

The World Cup’s much nicer cousin

Founder Jules Rimet had two big ideas – a global football tournament and a Paris club called Red Star, which still tries to do good in the world.
Somewhere at the Stade Bauer, they have a painting of Jules Rimet.
Nobody is really sure where it is at the moment. The stadium, which is home to third-tier side Red Star in north Paris, is being almost entirely rebuilt and the stand where the painting used to be housed was recently knocked down. Storage of items during the process is a little chaotic.
It feels appropriate to visit Red Star, the “other” club in Paris, on the way to the latest edition of Rimet’s other big invention.
Rimet was one of the founders of Red Star back in 1897, some 73 years before Paris Saint-Germain, the club that now hoovers up all the footballing oxygen in the French capital. He and some like-minded contemporaries met in a café to found a club that would “work the body and feed the mind”.
He would later become the president of the French Football Federation before becoming president of the relatively new Fifa in 1921.
It was there that the second of his great brainwaves came to be, a global football tournament designed to pit the best teams against each other; a worldwide jamboree that would theoretically represent the best of the game and conform, on a bigger scale, to ideals similar to those of Red Star.
Diverging visions
More than a century on, it’s fascinating and jarring to see how far his two visions have diverged.
In Qatar, the 22nd edition of the World Cup is a bloated version of what he initially intended. Tainted by corruption, built by workers held in a state of what some consider slavery, driven by money.
In Saint-Ouen, a suburb to the north of the Paris city centre, Red Star – officially Red Star FC and not, crucially, Red Star Paris – have stuck a little closer to Rimet’s ideals.
They’re a genuine community club, one that has not achieved huge amounts of success by the traditional measures of trophies and medals. However, you could argue they have achieved a different sort of success.
‘PSG are the blockbuster. Red Star are the art-house film’
“Our ambition is to never change,” David Bellion, the former Manchester United player who is now Red Star’s creative director, said earlier this year. “We want to be where nobody expects us.”
They know they’re never going ...

Pele ‘stable’ in Brazilian hospital for cancer treatment ‘re-evaluation’

Pele, widely considered the greatest soccer player ever, has been admitted to hospital in São Paulo, but his daughter says there is ‘no emergency or new dire prediction’.
Brazilian soccer legend Pele is in a stable condition after he was admitted to hospital on Tuesday to re-evaluate his cancer treatment, the hospital said on Wednesday.
“After medical evaluation, the patient was taken to a common room, with no need for admission in a semi-intensive care unit,” the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo said.
Pele’s daughter, Kely Nascimento, had said on Instagram that there was “no surprise or emergency” regarding Pele’s condition.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
“Lots of alarm in the media today concerning my dad’s health,” Nascimento wrote. “There is no emergency or new dire prediction. I will be there for New Years and promise to post some pictures.”
Read in Daily Maverick: “Pele transferred out of intensive care, says hospital”
Nascimento’s remarks on Instagram followed an ESPN Brasil report that Pele had been admitted to the Albert Einstein Hospital with “general swelling” and was undergoing several tests for a more in-depth assessment of his health issues.
The 82-year-old had a tumour removed from his colon in September 2021 and has since been in and out of the hospital regularly for treatment.
ESPN Brasil reported that Pele was having cardiac problems and his medical staff were concerned that his chemotherapy treatment was not having the expected results.
Pele’s manager did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Reuters/DM

Rassie Erasmus’ explanation for use of social media does not exonerate him from content responsibility

In the fashion of a man who wants to shape the world to his view, South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, took to social media this week to explain some of his previous posts.
In recent weeks, Rassie Erasmus has tweeted about refereeing inconsistencies that resulted in negative outcomes for the Springboks. Those tweets landed him in the headmaster’s office at World Rugby and he was subsequently banned from touchline and media engagements for two matches.
That followed his 10-month ban handed down on 18 November 2021, when Erasmus was suspended from all matchday activities. He was also banned from all rugby activities for two months after six misconduct charges were brought against him, stemming from a 62-minute video that “leaked” into the public domain in July 2021 after the first Test between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions.
No sooner had the 10-month ban ended, and he was back on social media harpooning officials. And within hours of the latest two-match suspension coming to an end, Erasmus hosted a “lekka chat” on media platform Vimeo to explain why he goes on social media to criticise refs.
It’s all a bit odd.
No coach has done more for the good of South African rugby than Erasmus. Besides presiding over a World Cup-winning team, he has overseen the most racially transformed Boks squad; appointed the first black captain in Siya Kolisi and presented the most human side of the sport to the public. He is immensely likeable and approachable.
But he is also mysterious and complex, and despite the “aww shucks” blue-collar persona, in a rugby context he is a ruthless operator with a maniacal winning mentality.
Outside of rugby, he is a flawed human, as he has freely admitted before. But, as Bono sang, “throw a rock in the air and you’ll hit someone guilty.” We are all flawed.
So, despite the latest video, we are really no closer to really finding out why Erasmus is so committed to using social media to drive his point home, other than the obvious desire to give his team an edge. And it’s debatable whether the strategy is helping.
What’s not in question is that when the Boks play well, like they did against England, they are almost unstoppable. They take the refs out of the equation with performances like that. Perhaps more focus is needed on what produced that level of excellence and less on public dissections of officials.
“Why ...

Tunisia remain also-rans after early World Cup exit, but can leave with their heads held high

Despite a scintillating victory over defending world champions France, Tunisia failed in its quest to make it out of the World Cup group stages for the first time in its history.
Tunisia had arguably one of their finest footballing nights on Wednesday, but it was not enough to save them from yet another early exit at the World Cup, and they remain one of the tournament’s also-rans.
The North Africans beat champions France 1-0 in their last Group D match in Al Rayyan but the celebrations were muted by the fact it was not enough for them to advance to the last 16.
It meant they kept up their unwanted record of not getting out of the group stage, now extended to a sixth World Cup finals appearance. But they won for a third time in 18 games, registering a rare victory that was celebrated vociferously by their supporters.
A win over the former colonial power in a competitive international game ranks with their triumph in the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) and their 1978 World Cup win over Mexico, when they became the first African country to record a victory at the tournament.
Plus, Tunisia’s four points and third place in the 2022 standings far exceeded expectations, especially after they were drawn in a tough group which included Denmark and France.
“It’s a historic win for us over the defending champions, but we wanted to qualify for the next round; this was our main aim,” Tunisia coach Jalel Kadri told journalists after the match.
“Unfortunately, we exited the tournament, but we also left the game with a lot of honour and pride.”
Read in Daily Maverick: “Argentina and Messi begin to flex muscles for World Cup playoffs”
Holding the Danes to a goalless draw in their opening game in Qatar and finishing ahead of the 1992 Euro champions in the standings will somewhat console the Tunisians.
When they look back, they will need to admit the passionate support of the large Tunisian migrant community in Qatar proved inspirational but also contributed to their undoing.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
The red-clad army of supporters, who dominated the terraces in their three group matches, created a fever-pitched atmosphere in their opening game against Denmark, lifting the Tunisian players and helping them to play out of their skins.
Rarely has a north African side competed in a match at such a high tempo. But with many players ...

Argentina and Messi begin to flex muscles for World Cup playoffs

After a stuttering start, South American champions Argentina are starting to find form at the World Cup. Their timing is perfect as they head into the knockout stages.
When they needed it most, Argentina found their best performance of the World Cup so far as they defeated Poland 2-0 in their final pool match, a result that sealed them top spot in Group C and a last-16 meeting with Australia.
It has already been a roller-coaster ride in Qatar for the South Americans, who came into the tournament on the back of a 36-match unbeaten run under coach Lionel Scaloni, but looked rusty in their stunning opening 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia.
It immediately put them on the back foot in the pool, but they did enough to see off Mexico 2-0 in another unconvincing display in their second match, before a much-improved showing against the Polish at Stadium 974, where they were roared on by the vast majority of the 44,089 crowd.
“We wanted to compensate for the defeat (against Saudi Arabia). Today it was a great game, we played very well collectively,” Argentina goal-scorer Alexis Mac Allister said, adding the team did not let their heads drop after Lionel Messi missed a first-half penalty.
“We tried to stay positive, to stay calm. We did not feel down. We tried to be optimistic and go for the match. Fortunately, we managed to win and go through.”
There was more zip, better combination play and an altogether more polished Argentina on Wednesday, when they had 24 shots at goal, which suggests a theory put forward by Belgium coach Roberto Martinez last week may well be true.
Martinez said most teams will only be ready to compete in Qatar by their third pool game, given they had such little time to train ahead of the World Cup and some went into the finals without a friendly behind them.
“This tournament is going to make you develop and grow as it goes on. If you do that by winning games, it’s an incredible advantage,” he said.
Certainly, the evidence when it comes to Argentina is compelling. They have improved steadily and saved their best performance for arguably their toughest pool opponent.
‘Messi will always be decisive’
That should sound a warning to the other title hopefuls that Lionel Messi and co are starting to click into gear. And they may have some more to go through yet.
Messi trundled around the pitch, only bursting ...

Spain’s youngsters to draw on Olympics experience for Japan clash, and beyond

Tokyo 2020 Olympics silver medallists Spain have incorporated a few players involved in that run to second place in Japan a year ago. Each of those players is eyeing a run to the final in Qatar World Cup – with hopes that they can walk away with gold this time.
Spain may look to their younger players to seal their round-of-16 spot at the Qatar World Cup when they meet Japan on Thursday night. Some of those players, including Villarreal defender Pau Torres, will be drawing on their 2020 Tokyo Olympics experience to help them prepare.
A number of Spain’s under-23 squad from Tokyo are now in Qatar, and remember their semifinal clash with Japan all too well. Spain won 1-0 and eventually took the silver medal, while Japan lost in the bronze-medal match to Mexico.
“In the semifinal we needed to go all the way to extra time to win,” Torres, who played all six of Spain’s games in Tokyo, told Reuters on the eve of his country’s clash with Japan.
The two sides also drew in a friendly before the Games.
“Japan is a very organised team, very consistent in what they do. I always think they have the game under control, they don’t get out of the game until the final minutes,” Torres said.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Ghana’s Black Stars shine in Qatar – against all odds”
“And they are comfortable defending without the ball, they don’t need to feel that they have possession to be comfortable. It’s going to be a tough game.”
Other Spanish players in Qatar who played at the Olympics are striker Marco Asensio, midfielders Pedri and Dani Olmo, as well as goalkeeper Unai Simon.
After Japan stunned Germany 2-1 in their opening match, they made numerous changes to their side and ended up losing 1-0 to Costa Rica, who had been trashed by Spain 7-0 in their opener.
Torres suggested the Asian side may have let their opening win go to their heads.
“Maybe it was overconfidence, having won the first game, as well as having seen our result against Costa Rica,” the defender said. “We made that match look easy, and then we could see that, after all, it wasn’t easy at all.”
Spain could have booked their last-16 spot already but drew their second match against Germany, meaning it all comes down to match number three.
“Against Germany we knew that they could challenge us a bit for possession. We played a ...

SA men’s Nations Cup hockey side fly high to seal semifinal spot

With one pool game to spare, the SA men’s hockey team have qualified for the semifinals of the FIH Nations Cup after two impressive performances.
The FIH Men’s Hockey Nations Cup kicked off on 28 November in Potchefstroom. Determined to make the most of their home advantage, the SA men’s team delivered solid performances in their opening two fixtures to seal a spot in the tournament’s semifinals with one pool game to spare.
The team ran through Pakistan in their opening match on Monday. An impressive attacking performance saw the South Africans secure a 6-2 win by the final whistle.
Their winning ways continued into their second match against France, which the host nation won 2-1 in a tight affair.
The rundown
In the match against Pakistan, Jacques van Tonder opened the scoring after eight minutes, only for Pakistan’s Rooman to equalise five minutes later.
However, a penalty flick from Mustaphaa Cassiem (25th minute) and an aerial tap-in by Samkelo Mvimbi (27th minute) would see the hosts go into the halftime break 3-1 up.
The goals kept coming as the experienced Tevin Kok pulled out a clever finish to score in the 40th minute.
SA started the final quarter strongly, with captain Dayaan Cassiem extending the lead in the 45th minute of playing time. Arshad Liaqat pulled one back for Pakistan in the 50th minute.
However, Keenan Horne would hammer in the final nail and score South Africa’s sixth goal after 56 minutes.
Against France, SA went down 1-0 after 11 minutes, due to a well-worked goal by Corentin Sellier. However, the French lead was short-lived as Kok, celebrating his 50th cap, restored parity just a minute later.
The low-scoring affair was sealed in the 46th minute when Horne slotted a field goal, which would prove to be enough for the South Africans to win the game.
Preparation is key
A major positive for the South African side is their defensive structure and stability — a focus area for the squad in the training camp leading up to the tournament, according to assistant coach Ashlin Freddy.
“We’re showing a lot of defensive resilience,” Freddy told Daily Maverick.
“It’s allowing our attacking players to have more freedom going forward because we have got a good defensive base.”
The defensive improvements were evident in the opening match against Pakistan, where several threats to the South African goal were denied by outstanding tackles and blocks.
The preparations for the tournament not only helped Team SA iron out on-field issues, but ...

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