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Amaroq

Sharpening a Rusty Blade

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Sunday, 30th April, 2006.

That gave us a final margin of 16 points over Carlisle and Northampton, both of whom had gone into tailslides at the season's end while we'd gone on a fine run of victories. I was particularly pleased with our ability to score goals over the final six games - I hadn't changed tactics, retaining the same core of tactics that I'd used all season.

In the penultimate game of the Under-18 season, Daryl Peters was captain, goalscorer, and Man of the Match in York's 2-0 victory of Boston United U-18's. He scored two in the first 17 minutes, but despite his teammate's attempts to get him a hat-trick, was unable to do so. That put them three points clear of second-placed Mansfield with only one match remaining.

In news from around the numerous leagues, Arsenal won a pulsating encounter against Manchester United to all but secure the Premiership. The Gunners led 1-0 at halftime, but saw the Red Devils knock in a pair. Trailing 1-2 with fifteen minutes to go, they relied on a magical brace from Thierry Henry, the winner coming just as the match entered stoppage time. 3-2, and the 38,000 on hand went absolutely mental!

Further down the pyramid, Crystal Palace had reached guaranteed promotion to the Premier League, while Rotherham were relegated from League One down to League Two, where we would be playing next season.

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Monday, 1st May, 2006.

I took my last monthly meeting of the season with the Board of Directors today. They remain delighted with our performance this season, and are full of excitement at the side's return to League play earlier than expected according to their long-range plan.

The board had congratulations for me as well. I'd been named Conference Manager of the Month for April by the Mirror, as we'd won all five of our league games for the month. Jon Paul McGovern was no surprise as Player of the Month, either, and was also selected to the final Team of the Week for the third time in the month of April. Graeme Law was also recognized, with a third-place vote in the Conference Young Player of the Month balloting. Neil Mellor's breakaway injury-time goal against Carlisle on April 22nd was named second-best Goal of the Month as well.

My meeting with CFO Sophie McGill was mixed, at best. It had been a brutal month on the financial front, the worst of the season to date, as we'd had very little revenue, and had lost £122,000 for the month alone, which tipped us from a positive flow for the season to a total £90,000 loss, with more accumulating this month without any ticket revenue from senior matches. She warned me that, over £200,000 in the red already, it didn't look likely that we'd get any transfer budget over the offseason, but we both hoped that the increased television revenues and attendances from a League Two schedule would be sufficient to tip us from this negative run rate over to profitabililty.

I was grilled, then, as to whether or not I felt I had a side which could stay up, and I answered that I did think so, especially once playmaker Tappa Whitmore returned. Obviously, having a bit of a transfer budget would help, I said, but I also reminded them that we'd had lots of success this season bringing in young Premiership players on loan.

With some of my next-season's transfers already arrived, we'd gone up to £75,000 p/a over the wage budget, a number which Sophie felt duty-bound to chide me for, but she said it half-jokingly, knowing how much better shape we'd kept that number in all season, and that it would be back within budget by mid-July.

Then it was time to meet with Viv Busby and review the training progress of my players for the year. However, most of my players had finished the season with a long drought for improvement, as though there were something wrong with my training regime, or my coaching staff.

We hadn't had this problem the previous season, and I reviewed what had changed since then. I had released two of my worst coaches, the player/coaches, without hiring replacements to bring the staff back up to strength. Also, my players had been on the training regime for a full season - perhaps it was just naturally less effective near the season's end, or perhaps they had learned what they were going to from it and needed a change, or perhaps the season had been too strenuous and they needed a training regime which would wear them out less. Or perhaps even the talented youngsters I had were merely reaching their potential, and had little room for further improvement.

I tried to talk these questions over with Viv, but he said he wasn't sure. He'd never done the sort of analytical work which I was trying to do, and hadn't thought about training regimes in such a rigorous way, so he couldn't give me advice on how to improve them. It was the first time I'd been really frustrated with his advice, or lack thereof. I couldn't see where I was going wrong, and wasn't getting the help I needed from my right-hand man.

Well, it was something to think about. I'd have plenty of time to tinker with training over summer.

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Wednesday, 3rd May, 2006.

Adam Corbett went in for surgery today. The operation - an experimental piece of work designed to help heal the torn hamstring - was reported to be a fair success, but it would take him a full six months to recover, and that only if he was diligent about his rehabilitation.

With my eye fixed on next season, I had made proposals to teams for four riendly matches in July. All had accepted - two because it was part of deals we'd made with them in the course of the season. Our friendly schedule, at least for now, would be:

Sat 15th July - Peterborough (League One, but in relegation zone with one match remaining)

Mon 17th July - at Harrogate Town (Conference North, playoff team)

Sat 22nd July - Tottenham Hotspurs (Premier League, bottom of table with two matches remaining)

Sun 30th July - Leeds United (Championship, but in relegation zone with one match remaining)

I hadn't meant to select a bunch of relegation candidates, it had just worked out that way. Peterborough and Tottenham had both been required to accept our proposals due to prior transfers.

On the pitch, a crowd of 386, one of the largest of the season, cheered the York Reserves as they clinched the title against Darlington at Bootham Crescent today. They needed only a point, and Man of the Match Neil Danns put them ahead with a spectacular free kick late in the first half. Watching from the bench, I told Viv that we had to find a way to bring him back next season, or permanently if we could manage it. Second-half substitute Neil Mellor made it 2-0, and that was how it would finish. Ryan Ashington, another substitute, would miss about a week of training with bruised ribs.

The Champions League Semi-Finals completed Wednesday evening as well. At Stamford Bridge, Bayern München finished the job they'd started in Munich, dominating the match with 18 shots. Roque Santa Cruz's goal early in the second half gave them an insurmountable 2-0 aggregate lead with a precious away goal, and Chelsea weren't able to find any answers.

At San Siro, the match started off the other way, as Arsenal built a 2-0 lead by the 60th minute on the strength of a Thierry Henry goal and Claudio Pizarro's penalty. That gave them a 2-1 aggregate lead with a huge edge in away goals that meant Inter Milan needed to score twice in the final 30 minutes. Edgar Davids made it close, getting one of the goals at the 65th minute, but at a 2-2 aggregate, Arsenal still held the advantage on away goals.

As injury time approached the hosts began desperately throwing everybody forward. Nearly four minutes into injury time, a free kick was given to Inter in a dangerous position. Recoba got into the box, then centered, and young Nigerian substitute Issah Eliakwu headed it past Jens Lehmann to give the Italians a dramatic 2-2 draw, putting them through to the Final on a 3-2 aggregate!

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Sunday, 7th May, 2006.

Kevin Donovan's career came to an inglorious end on Friday, as he broke his collarbone during a Reserve team training session. It would rule him out for 2 months, which would see him through the end of his contract, and with three serious injuries in the past 14 months, I couldn't see any other team picking him up.

The weekend action saw many things resolved around the English leagues. Chesterfield, Peterborough, and Port Vale were all relegated from League One to League Two, which meant we would have to face them next season.

Arsenal clinched the Premier League after a 3-0 win over Tottenham, after phenomenal fight with Chelsea that saw them both well clear of Liverpool, Charlton, and Middlesbrough. Five points clear would do, though there was still a match to play. More shockingly, the result left Spurs relegated, even should they win their final match.

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Wednesday, 10th May, 2006.

Chelsea's final match of the season completed their inglorious collapse, as they lost an F.A. Cup Semi-Final 2-1 against Aston Villa. They had gone from appearing poised for a treble in the Champions League, Premier League, and F.A. Cup to finishing as a runner-up or semi-finalist in each competition. There would be frustration on the part of a certain billionaire owner, I was sure!

The final Reserve match of our season didn't matter, and there was a key U-18 match coming up on the weekend, so I made sure to select the players for that side first - and wound up bringing nearly my entire senior side starting lineup for one final game at Bradford City Reserves. Lee Morris brought his York career to an inglorious close, picking up two yellow cards in seperate incidents during the first six minutes and getting sent off. Neil Danns scored a shorthanded goal, and that was all it took for the strong lineup to win 1-0. That left the final Reserve Group 6 standings as follows:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">1 York Reserves 83 24 11 7 +34

2 Plymouth Reserves 75 21 12 9 +18

3 Hartlepool Reserves 71 21 8 13 +17

4 Brighton Reserves 68 20 8 14 +13

5 Bournemouth Reserves 67 18 13 11 +12</pre>(I'm not going to list all 22 sides, as I doubt anybody cares particularly.)

In the Conference National playoffs, Carlisle had manhandled Burton 5-2 over two matches to reach the final, while the hot team of the second half, Aldershot, surprised Northampton with a dominant 3-0 aggregate.

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Saturday, 13th May, 2006.

Our last match of the season was the U-18's match against Macclesfield. The lads needed only one point at home to retain the title, and with a defense that featured Kevin Butler in goal and Michael Staley and Mark Wright in central defense, I was confident they could hold a 0-0 scoreline. One of the Macclesfield defenders made that an easier task with a red card in the 56th minute, and that was in fact how the match ended: nil-nil. It was enough to complete our odd "treble", as we'd now won the Conference National, our Reserve group, and our U-18 group.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">1 York U-18's 12 7 3 +24 43

2 Blackburn U-18's 11 6 5 +12 39

3 Mansfield U-18's 11 6 5 +11 39

4 Halifax U-18's 9 9 4 + 7 36

5 Wrexham U-18's 8 7 7 - 3 31</pre>

That brought our season to a close, and I congratulated the players as I bid them farewell for summer. We would have fully six weeks 'off', and reconvene on the 2nd of July.

It had been what I would call a very successful campaign, with success on the pitch at all levels, and success in our transfer dealings, plus what I hoped would be the foundation for long-term financial success as well.

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Tuesday, 16th May, 2006.

The weekend's action had, of course, wrapped up the Premiership, Arsenal celebrating their title in style with a victory for the fans at Emirates Stadium.

Chelsea, Liverpool, and Newcastle would round out the Champions League berths. Manchester City fans could take delight in the fact that they had finished above United, 7th versus a dismal 10th, though the Red Devils had at least guaranteed a Contintental place next year by winning the League Cup.

Of the newly promoted sides, Sunderland and West Ham had done well with solid mid-table finishes, but Reading would be joining West Bromwich Albion and London club Tottenham Hotspur in relegation. For Spurs, it was a travesty of a season which had started so brightly, fifth last season and UEFA Cup-bound: they'd failed to even make it out of their UEFA Cup group with a draw and three defeats.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Team Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 Arsenal 86 26 8 4 70 33 +37 Champions League

2 Chelsea 81 24 9 5 69 46 +23 Champions League

3 Liverpool 65 17 14 7 60 41 +19 Champions League

4 Newcastle United 57 15 12 11 55 50 + 5 Champions League

5 Charlton Athletic 56 15 11 12 47 46 + 1 UEFA Cup

6 Middlesbrough 55 14 13 11 54 44 +10 Inter-toto Cup

7 Manchester City 55 15 10 13 48 50 - 2 Inter-toto Cup

8 Aston Villa 54 14 12 12 52 46 + 6 ????

9 Southampton 54 13 15 10 47 45 + 2

10 Manchester United 51 12 15 11 55 49 + 6 UEFA Cup

11 Fulham 50 13 11 14 48 55 - 7

12 Sunderland 48 14 6 18 42 51 - 9 ????

13 Blackburn 47 12 11 15 50 57 - 7

14 West Ham United 46 12 10 16 45 56 -11

15 Portsmouth 42 10 12 16 41 47 - 6

16 Everton 42 10 12 16 47 57 -10

17 Bolton 38 10 8 20 44 55 -11

----------------------------------------------------

18 Reading 35 9 8 21 39 51 -12

19 Tottenham 34 7 13 18 39 58 -19

20 West Brom Albion 32 6 14 18 41 56 -15</pre>

Aston Villa and Sunderland still had the final UEFA Cup berth at stake in the forthcoming F.A. Cup Final.

Crystal Palace had won the Championship, with Birmingham runners-up, and a tremendous five-way battle for the final two playoff spots had captured the imagination of fans nationally. The big news in Yorkshire, however, was the morbid performances from the two local clubs.

Leeds United and Sheffield United had both been relegated at the last, finishing just a point shy of 21st and safety - the Blades especially could feel hard done by, as a goal differential of -2 was hardly anything to sneeze at, but a dire inability to buy a win had seen them done.

It seemed a shame, I'd liked Chairman Dooley.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Team Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 Crystal Palace 87 26 9 11 68 42 +26

2 Birmingham 85 25 10 11 70 38 +32

----------------------------------------------------

3 Norwich 83 24 11 11 73 50 +23

4 Derby County 81 24 9 13 66 56 +10

5 Cardiff 71 21 8 17 64 57 + 7

6 Bristol City 71 21 8 17 60 53 + 7

----------------------------------------------------

7 Preston North End 71 20 11 15 56 50 + 6

8 Wigan Athletic 70 20 10 16 62 51 +11

9 Millwall 70 21 7 18 59 56 + 3

<snip>

20 Doncaster 51 13 12 21 54 67 -13

21 Wolverhampton 50 14 8 24 46 67 -21

----------------------------------------------------

22 Sheffield United 49 10 19 17 47 49 - 2

23 Leeds United 49 14 7 25 56 75 -19

24 Crewe Alexandra 47 14 5 27 54 69 -15</pre>

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Sunday, 21st May, 2006.

<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-title">quote:</div><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-content">Sir Alex Sacked! </div></BLOCKQUOTE>

The biggest news of the close-season came Sunday morning: legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson was sacked by the Manchester United board. A 10th place finish and failure to qualify for the Champions League were significantly below what the Old Trafford fans had come to expect. After all of the joy occasioned when their Supporter's Trust had successfully fought off the Glazer takeover, such stunning failure on the pitch was unacceptable.

There were still a few matches left to be played, however:

In the UEFA Cup final, Real Madrid turned their early exit from the Champions League into silverware, defeating German side FC Shalke 04 by the score of 3-1 behind a pair of goals by Raul.

Our local rivals Harrogate Town won the Conference Regional playoffs to earn promotion to the Conference National for next season, while hard-hitting Carlisle beat Aldershot on penalties to join us in League Two, while the 'Shots remained in the Conference for another year. Northampton, after the disappointing end to their season, did get the satisfaction of winning the F.A. Trophy 1-0 over Crawley.

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Saturday, 27th May, 2006.

The Conference National awards banquet was Tuesday evening. Despite coming first in the Conference, we were fairly lightly represented, as we were fairly a team effort with few outstanding individual performers. Jon Paul McGovern was named the right wing for the English Conference National Select, our only representative on the squad.

The capstone of the evening, however, was the news that I was the Conference National Manager of the Year!

At the Stadion FK Partizan in Belgrade, Bayern München lifted the Champions League trophy. They defeated Inter Milan 1-0 on Ivan Klasnic's magnificent 30-yard strike, and a fine performance by captain Oliver Kahn to earn the shutout.

At Wembley Stadium, Aston Villa defeated Sunderland 2-0 to capture the F.A. Cup for the first time since 1957.

And with that, Stacy and I were on holiday: we had until July 1st to enjoy ourselves, and we'd decided to spend it touring Europe during World Cup season. For her, it was a chance to see all of the famous museums - she could spend three days in the Louvre alone - while I was looking forward to watching matches involving the different countries from different locations, and returning to Germany for the finals.

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Sunday, 28th May, 2006.

The year in review - Conference National table:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Team Pts W D L GF GA GD

C 1 York City 94 29 7 6 73 33 +40

-----------------------------------------------------

P 2 Carlisle United 78 22 12 8 63 37 +26

3 Northampton Town 77 23 8 11 68 50 +18

4 Aldershot Town 74 22 8 12 59 35 +24

5 Burton Albion 69 19 12 11 56 37 +19

---------------------------------------------------------

6 Barnet 66 18 12 12 50 37 +13

7 Tamworth 65 16 17 9 59 45 +14

8 Morecambe 61 17 10 15 68 58 +10

9 Crawley Town 60 14 18 10 62 52 +10

10 Dagenham & Redbridge 59 15 14 13 55 56 - 1

11 Halifax Town 57 14 15 13 42 44 - 2

12 Stevenage Borough 54 14 12 16 63 70 - 7

13 Accrington Stalney 52 13 13 16 54 60 - 6

14 Gravesend & Northfleet 49 11 16 15 55 61 - 6

15 Canvey Island 48 14 6 22 49 67 -18

16 Dorchester Town 46 10 16 16 41 54 -13

17 Forest Green 46 11 13 18 43 61 -18

18 Hinckley United 44 11 11 20 50 65 -15

19 Southend United 43 11 10 21 50 62 -12

---------------------------------------------------------

20 Scarborough 43 11 10 21 47 59 -12

21 Farnborough Town 38 9 11 22 37 69 -32

22 Hornchurch 34 9 7 26 52 84 -32</pre>

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Monday, 29th May, 2006.

The year in review: York City team statistics

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Strikers Pos Age GS App Goa Ass MoM Av R Notes

Neil Mellor SC 23 25 31 17 5 2 7.19 Loan

Levent Yalcin FLC 21 15 33 9 3 0 6.97

Mark Rawle SC 27 5 27 4 6 0 6.85 Expiring

Andy Bishop SC 23 5 9 1 0 0 7.11 Transferred £30,000

Robbie Haw SC 19 0 0 0 0 0 -.-- Transferred £ 5,000

Midfielders Pos Age GS App Goa Ass MoM Av R Notes

Ryan Ashington AMC 23 35 39 15 3 4 7.26

Tappa Whitmore AMC 33 22 28 6 10 5 7.71 Injured

Neil Danns AMRC 23 20 33 8 8 4 7.42 Loan

Stephen Cooke AMRLC 23 17 27 6 6 1 7.22 Loan

Darren Dunning MLC 25 10 28 2 4 1 7.07 Expiring

Lee Morris FLC 25 13 19 2 1 0 7.00 Loan

Joe Foote AMC 18 2 7 1 0 0 7.29

Daryl Peters AMLC 16 3 4 1 0 0 6.75

Paul Robinson FRC 27 0 4 0 0 0 6.25 Expiring

Wingers Pos Age GS App Goa Ass MoM Av R Notes

Jon P McGovern AMR 25 32 39 4 8 8 7.64

John McGrath AML 24 33 35 2 12 3 7.23

Adam Corbett ML 16 7 8 1 0 1 7.38 Injured

Kevin Donovan AMR 34 4 7 0 0 0 6.71 Expiring

Mark Goodwin MR 18 1 2 0 2 0 7.00

Adam Arthur AMR 20 0 3 0 0 0 7.00 Transferred £ 5,000

Marc Schofield AML 20 1 2 0 0 0 7.50 Transferred £ 3,000

Defensive Mids Pos Age GS App Goa Ass MoM Av R Notes

David Fox DMC 22 26 28 2 2 0 7.29 Loan

Gary Pearson DMC 28 10 11 1 0 0 7.18 Transferred £16,000

Malcolm Parker DMC 18 10 11 0 2 0 7.00

Alan Navarro DMC 24 5 5 0 0 0 7.60

Defenders Pos Age GS App Goa Ass MoM Av R Notes

Mark Wright DC 19 33 33 1 0 0 7.09

Michael Staley DC 18 24 27 1 0 0 6.96

Graeme Law DR 21 36 36 0 4 0 7.11

Paul Parkin DL 22 38 39 0 2 0 7.03 June transfer £14,000

Liam Fontaine DC 20 34 36 0 1 0 7.11

Phillip Bardlsey DR 20 8 9 0 1 0 7.22 Loan

Adam Eckersley DL 20 7 7 0 1 0 6.86

Nathan Kamara DR 18 2 2 0 1 0 8.00 Transferred £ 3,000

Jamie Cooper DC 17 2 2 0 1 0 7.50

Steve Hall DR 18 1 1 0 1 0 7.00

Franklin Simek DC 21 5 6 0 0 0 7.17 Loan

Kevin West DRLC 16 5 5 0 0 0 7.20

Craig Shaw DRC 23 2 2 0 0 0 8.00 Transferred £ 5,000

D. Hollingsworth DC 17 2 2 0 0 0 7.00 June transfer £ 4,000

Goalkeepers Pos Age GS App Con Cln MoM Av R

David Stockdale GK 20 40 40 28 21 2 6.88 June transfer £20,000

Mark Zawadski GK 26 4 5 5 3 0 6.80 Expiring

Kevin Butler GK 17 3 3 1 2 0 7.67

Craig Saunders GK 18 3 3 6 0 0 6.33 Transferred £60,000</pre>

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Thanks, Damien. It'll be about a week before we get to any of the summer action; I'm heading out on holiday and will be intentionally sans net access.

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Thursday, 1st June, 2006.

I settled back in the chair, looking out the window, and tried to relax.

Stacy and I were on the train to Newcastle, preparing for a crossing to Europe and a month of World Cup watching. Her finals were over - she got great marks - and my season was complete; she wanted to 'see the sights' whilst I was looking forward to obscurity, a few pints, and just being a fan.

I tried to put the monthly board meeting out of my mind as the train gathered speed out of London.

It had not gone well.

They're all delighted with my performance as manager, of course, returning to the League being a clubwide dream, but there was plenty of conflict.

Money, of course, was the root of it. They were unwilling to offer any transfer budget for the 2006-07 season. Without any senior matches for the month of May, the club had been outright hemorrhaging money. We'd lost over £200,000 for the season, and having started out in debt, well, we're now £350,000 in the red.

I argued vigorously, pointing out that our shortfall was entirely the debt service payments. The board were implacable. I cajoled and pleaded, pointing out that we would lose incoming left back Joe Keenan if they didn't at least free up the amount of that transfer.

Finally, after what seemed hours, they'd agreed to release the funds which I'd built up via transfers last season, plus 50% of the upcoming summer transfers. That would give us the £28,000 I needed to bring in Keenan on July 1st, plus a few other minor transfers, but I knew we would basically be fighting against relegation with the squad we have, not making any improvements to try and finish mid-table or above.

If there was one bright side, it was that that meant there was very little for me to do over summer. I was free to enjoy the World Cup.

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Friday, 2nd June, 2006.

We settled in to one of my favourite European cities, Amsterdam, after taking the Newcastle-Amsterdam ferry overnight.

The Oranje had, to my sadness, failed to qualify for the great competition, so we'd decided to start there.

Its such a beautiful city, though I must admit the first time I arrived was something like 2:00am, and the train station drops one off just about in the red light district. I was young, and looking for a hostel - I was quite shocked to find myself offered cocaine and a prostitute before I could find a bed!

Travelling with my wife, I'd made sure to book travel that arrived in daylight, and had booked a hotel near the Skinny Bridge.

Despite the national side missing the World Cup, the papers talked of nothing else. Its always impressive to an American how Europe appears to come to a complete halt for the month-long tournament!

England had drawn Nigeria again, after their joint presence in the "Group of Death" at 2002. Ireland had drawn France, South Korea, and Paraguay, while Wales had the bad luck to draw Portugal and Mexico. My national team, the U.S.A., would have a very tough job to get past Brazil and Russia, while Italy and Germany were paired in the same group!

Group A: Brazil, U.S.A., Russia, Ivory Coast

Group B: Spain, Sweden, China, Morocco

Group C: France, Ireland, South Korea, Paraguay

Group D: Italy, Germany, Chile, Saudi Arabia

Group E: Argentina, Turkey, Costa Rica, South Africa

Group F: England, Nigeria, Bulgaria, Bahrain

Group G: Portugal, Mexico, Wales, Senegal

Group H: Romania, Czech Republic, Colombia, Japan

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Tuesday, 6th June, 2006.

We spent several days enjoying the museums, the sights, the cafes, and the People's Park; the Rijskmuseum is of course fantastic, incredible, but it was the Van Gogh Museum that nearly claimed my wife. I swear she would have stayed forever, and forgotten to eat entirely.

For myself, the cafes and culture were more entertaining; it is people, not paintings, that I love, and the Dutch have always been great hosts. I hadn't realized how much my minor celebrity status had slain one of my favourite sports: people watching!

It took me the better part of the week to begin decompressing, leaving behind my frustrations at the short-sighted board behind.

Today, however, was a minor work day for me. I'd brought a laptop, and took advantage of a café which provided wireless access to check in on the status of our moves.

The loans of Neil Mellor, Neil Danns, Stephen Cook, Lee Morris, and David Fox had all expired: my midfield was absolutely gutted!

Neil Mellor, SC, 23: September 2005-May 2006: 1 season, 31 games, 17 goals, 5 assists, 2 MoM, 7.19

Neil Danns, AMRC, 23: October 2005-May 2006: 1 season, 33 games, 8 goals, 8 assists, 4 MoM, 7.42

Lee Morris, FLC, 25: November 2004-May 2006: 2 seasons, 44 games, 9 goals, 7 assists, 2 MoM, 7.02

Stephen Cooke, AMRLC, 23: October 2005-May 2006: 1 season, 27 games, 6 goals, 6 assists, 1 MoM, 7.22

David Fox, DMC, 22: October 2005-May 2006: 1 season, 28 games, 2 goals, 2 assists, 7.29

The arranged transfer of goalkeeper David Stockdale to Peterborough was completed for £20,000, left back Paul Parkin joined Radcliffe Borough for £14,000, and Darren Hollingsworth had moved to tiny Leek Town for £4,000.

David Stockdale, GK, 20: July 2002-May 2006: 3 seasons, 73 games, 66 goals conceded, 28 clean sheets, 2 MoM, 6.68

Paul Parkin, DL, 22: January 2005-May 2006: 2 seasons, 49 games, 1 goal, 2 assists, 7.04

Darren Hollingsworth, DC, 17: July 2004-May 2006: 1 season, 2 games, 0 goals, 7.00

On the positive side of the ledger, we'd brought in 17-year-old Torquay United goalkeeper Paul Carruthers on a three-year contract.

GK Paul Carruthers, 17, English: No appearances, 29 games with Torquay Reserves, 6.72: A hard-working youngster with great potential, his best attribute is his concentration, but I'm happiest that he has no notable weaknesses. He's brave, agile, and strong, with good teamwork, and he's signed through 2009.

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Wednesday, 7th June, 2006. World Cup 2006, Group A - first match.

We settled into Germany today with a quick train ride to Köln, arriving well in time to find a pub for the first World Cup match. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, as the Cup began with a match between defending champions Brazil and my home country, the U.S.A.

Everyone was predicting an absolute drumming by the cup holders, and when Adriano scored the quickest opening goal in World Cup history, netting after just 51 seconds, it seemed a forgone conclusion to everyone, even the most optimistic supporters. Mancini's work along the right dragged the American defense out of position, and the 26-year-old winger split Steven Cherundolo and Eddie Pope with a wicked ball that put Adriano to the eighteen. A burst of pace saw him in ahead of the defenders, and Brad Friedel could do nothing about it: Brazil led, 1-0.

Somebody forgot to tell the American side that it was all over; they battled as hard as though it were nil-nil. When Adriano fouled DaMarcus Beasley in the arc, that earned a free kick 21 yards from goal in the 33rd minute. Claudio Reyna's free kick - the only American shot of the day - was aimed to the keeper's right, but took a deflection off the six-man wall that wrong-footed Dida. It found the left-side netting to level the match at 1-1.

Despite constant pressure from Brazil, strikers Ronaldo and Adriano seemed woefully inaccurate, missing chance after chance. The South American side put just five shots on target for Brad Friedel to save, most of them range efforts from the midfield which he dealt with easily. Despite 20 shots to one, the champions were kept out the remainder of the match, and the Americans earned a 1-1 draw.

Though not as shocking as France's defeat to Senegal in 2002, perhaps, it did continue a tradition of surprise results in the opener!

A: U.S.A. 1, Brazil 1

Reyna 33; Adriano 1

MoM: Dédé (Brazil DML, Real Madrid)

Perhaps equally surprising, in its own way, was the evening game. The Ivory Coast defeated Russia 2-1 to take the lead of Group A. Chelsea striker Didier Drogba gave the Africans a 1-0 lead on the hour, only to see young Russian striker Alexandr Kerzhakov equalize 8 minutes later. It looked like an imminent draw, but in injury time attacking midfielder Gnegneri Yaya Touré scored to give the African nation the surprise win.

A: Ivory Coast 2, Russia 1

Drogba 60, Yaya 90; Kerzhakov 68

MoM: Drogba (Ivory Coast SC, Chelsea)

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Thursday, 8th June, 2006. World Cup Group B - first match.

With one of the day's matches actually at Cologne's RheinEnergieStadion, and me unable to procure a ticket, it was the perfect day to get in some serious tourist action. All the major draws were gloriously deserted during the match - a sneaky little trick I'd learned in the States. The best day of the year to go to Disneyland, or any American ski slopes?

Super Bowl Sunday.

Shhh, keep it secret.

I'm not sure its worth the climb to reach the viewing platform two thirds of the way up the towers of the Cologne Cathedral. I was breathing hard long before we reached it, but my Lord is it a beautiful sight! Absolutely breathtaking.

In the match we missed, Sweden's defense stifled a Chinese side which, according to reports, lacked any sort of creativity. Fredrik Ljungberg scored the only goal in the 43rd minute, a 22-yard blast from the top of the arc, and that was all the Swedish defense needed in a 1-0 win.

B: Sweden 1, China 0

Ljungberg 43; ----

MoM: Isaakson (Sweden GK, Stade Rennais)

The evening game was quite entertaining, as Morocco put up a fantastic fight against Spain, equalling the giant side for shots. Their finishing left much to be desired, and most of their shots went wide, but the heart and energy they brought turned me - and many another neutral! - into fans.

An early goal by Spanish winger Vicente had the Moroccans chasing most of the evening, and turned out to be the only goal of the match.

B: Spain 1, Morocco 0

Vicente 14; ----

MoM: Vicente (Spain AML, Valencia)

The expected results, and little drama in that group so far, I thought as we boarded the train south.

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Friday, 9th June, 2006. World Cup Groups C, D - first match

The big match of the day was the Group D headliner, Italy against hosts Germany, at the magnificent AllianzArena in Munich. We'd travelled south to München in the morning: despite not having a ticket, I wanted to soak up the atmosphere as nearly a million people gathered in the city just to be near the match! I found a great venue, giant screens set up in the Olympic Park, to watch surrounded by happy, drunk Germans.

In a superbly contested match with the intensity and drama of a Final, the sides played level, defensive football for fully 70 minutes. The deadlock was broken when Alessandro Del Piero found Italian substitute Marco Di Vaio with a long pass. Di Vaio entered the German area wide to the right, but slipped a shot from tight angle past Oliver Kahn, and it carombed in off the far post.

The groans from the German crowd surrounding me were heart-rending, and despite a valiant attempt to equalize, the hosts were unable to find a reply. Gianluigi Buffon in goal was unbeatable, and Italy won, 1-0.

D: Italy 1, Germany 0

Di Vaio 71 ; ----

MoM: Buffon (Italy GK, Juventus)

It was a matter of national pride for France to do well in Germany after their embarassing exit in 2002. It might have gone equally poorly for them were it not for the single-handed efforts of midfielder Ludovic Giuly, who scored a screaming right-footed shot from the top of the area at 40 minutes.

Paraguay midfielder Carlos Britez was sent off just at halftime, making the French task much easier, and the 29-year-old Giuly put the outcome beyond doubt with his second goal at 81 minutes.

The Barcelona attacker had missed big chunks of the La Liga season with multiple injuries, but had clearly shown his match fitness on the big stage!

C: France 2, Paraguay 0

Giuly 40, 81; ----

MoM: Giuly (France AM/F RC, Barcelona)

Matt Holland played the game of his life for Ireland against South Korea. Merely 12 minutes in, Robbie Keane's cross found the 32-year-old at the 6-yard box. With a flamboyant turn, he launched a left-footed half volley to the far post for a 1-0 lead.

Steven Reid's cross from the opposite side met the mirror-imaged finish from Holland's right foot, and it was 2-0 after 28 minutes.

Kwak Jin-Soo got one back for South Korea when he put a boot on the end of Lee San's laser pass, doing just enough to direct an uncontrolled ball into the back of the net, but the second half was scoreless and Ireland had secured three points with a 2-1 win.

C: Ireland 2, South Korea 1

Holland 12, 28; Jin Soo 30

MoM: Holland (Ireland MC, Charlton Athletic)

Neatly lost amongst the press storm surrounding the World Cup, Manchester United quietly announced their new manager. Former Besiktas man Vicente Del Bosque, a 55-year-old Spaniard, would be the heir to Sir Alex Ferguson's twenty-year reign.

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Saturday, 10th June, 2006. World Cup Groups D, E - first match.

Chile had been widely predicted to be the 'third' Group D side, the one which might conceivably steal a march on Germany or Italy in Group D. Everyone remembered, of course, the 8-0 drubbing which Germany had handed Saudi Arabia, and few counted the Arab nation as a threat.

It was, therefore, international news when Chile absolutely self-destructed against the Saudis, collecting 11 yellow cards. Despite taking 14 shots, they could put only one on target, and their defending let an equal number of shots the other direction. After Khalid Al-Qarni's first-half goal and Fahad Al-Dosari gave the Saudis a 2-0 lead at 70 minutes, Chile had two players sent off: Marcelo Salas and Jorge Acuna both received second yellow cards.

Their suspensions would have to be served against Germany, giving them almost no hope against the host nation.

D: Saudi Arabia 2, Chile 0

Al-Qarni 7, Al-Dosari 71; ----

MoM: Al-Dosari (Saudi Arabia SC, Al Riyadh)

Argentina thoroughly dominated South Africa in Berlin, securing a crushing 3-0 victory on the strength of two goals by Man of the Match Christian Alberto "Kily" González, the first a penalty and the second coming just before full time. Given his tremendous effort, it was somewhat hard to believe that Internazionale hadn't renewed his contract; he would be moving to Serie A rivals A.S. Roma on a free transfer July first.

22-year-old Fernando Cavenaghi had been the big summer addition last year for Newcastle United, costing £5.25M to secure from Spartak Moscow, but he had responded with an incredible campaign. 16 goals in the Premiership, led Newcastle, just three back of Mista's Premiership-leading tally, and he added four more in the F.A. Cup for a nice round 20. He'd played just two international matches, both as substitutes, prior to the World Cup, but had a goal in each, earning a start in the first group game. He made it three from three just after the intermission, giving Argentina a comfortable early group lead.

E: Argentina 3, South Africa 0

González pen 43, 89, Cavenaghi 50

MoM: González (Argentina AML, Inter Milan)

Despite a warm summer rain, Turkey took care of business against Costa Rica 2-0, with the goals coming from Hertha BSC Berlin midfielder Yildiray Bastürk and 26-year-old forward Nihat Kahveci.

E: Turkey 2, Costa Rica 0

Bastürk 57, Nihat 86; ----

MoM: Nihat (Turkey FRC, Real Sociedad)

Stacy and I missed that match, having bid "Auf Wiedersehen" to Germany and boarded a night train to Prague.

I was greatly looking forward to the first game tomorrow: England's opener. I may not have qualified for citizenship yet, but I'll be pulling for the Three Lions nonetheless!

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Sunday, 11th June, 2006. World Cup Groups F, H - first match.

England's World Cup campaign began in Stuttgart against Bahrain. Sven-Göran Ericksson had an uncomplicated 4-4-2 drawn up, with Owen and Rooney up front, and Beckham the right wing. The tiny nation wasn't able to put up much of a fight, but Salman Al-Haiki was fantastic in goal and the match stayed nil-nil through most of the first half. Michael Owen finally penetrated Al-Haiki's defense in the 41st minute, pouncing on Wayne Rooney's knock-on header in the area, and slotting a left-footed shot home from the spot.

Frustrations on the England side continued in the second half. Dominating the run of play, they didn't seem to have the creativity to take advantage of their advantages, either physical or technical. It took Bahrain being reduced to nine men, as they suffered two injuries after making all of their substitutions, before England could score again.

In injury time, with Bahrain pushing forward in search of a dream equalizer, Stephen Gerrard found substitute Darius Vassell with a pinpoint pass that split the tattered Bahrain defense. Vassell dribbled around Al-Haiki, and passed into the open net to put the outcome beyond doubt, 2-0.

The English pundits were concerned that the margin of victory could and should have been far greater, but three points is three points - and with the other match not until Monday, England could enjoy an evening at least in the Group F lead.

F: England 2, Bahrain 0

Owen 41, Vassell 90; ----

MoM: Owen (England SC, Real Madrid)

A big part of the reason we'd come to Prague - we could only stay for one day - was so that I could cheer the Czech Republic side from a local pub. Stacy was a bit frustrated with my intention to catch as many matches as I could, and camping out as I did for two matches back-to-back caused a bit of marital strife, which she resolved by going touring the town on her own.

Colombia and the Czech Republic played a close, tight game, with defense the clear watchword. It was great football, if you enjoy that sort of thing, and I certainly do!

Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel broke the stalemate in the 42nd minute, slipping past two defenders and lacing a brilliant shot past Czech keeper Peter Cech at the right side post. The entire Czech bar groaned in despair.

To their credit, they rallied in support of their side, but defense is the Czech strength and they were unable to break down the determined Colombian defense. Though both sides had chances in the dying minutes, Angel's effort turned out to be the only goal, and Colombia won 1-0 to take an early lead in Group H.

H: Colombia 1, Czech Republic 0

Angel 42; ----

MoM: Angel (Colombia SC, Aston Villa)

The night game was the highest scoring, and I put aside my slight worry that my wife hadn't come back when she said she would to enjoy the match. She knew where to find me, and where the hotel was.

For good periods of the game it looked like Japan might win. Though Romania had the better of it in midfield, their finishing was abysmal, well off target, and Yuya Saito's first half goal had put Japan ahead 1-0.

Catalin Munteanu's header at 58 minutes equalized for Romania, but in the 76th minute Tomohiro Koga took Hidetoshi Nakata's long ball, dribbled past one defender, and beat Romanian keeper Bogdan Lobont one-on-one to make it 2-1.

It looked like a shock win for the Japanese, but late in injury time, Cosmin Contra sent a desperate cross into Japan's box. There were no Romanian players anywhere close, and it didn't need to be dealt with, but fullback Yuki Yoshida opted to head it back to his keeper. Unfortunately, his keeper was already relaxing to set up for the goal kick, and Yuki's header went straight into an unprotected net! it was literally the last touch of the evening, and levelled the match at 2-2.

H: Japan 2, Romania 2

Yuya 39, Tomohiro 76; Munteanu 58, Yuki o.g. 90

MoM: Hideotoshi (Japan AMC, Fiorentina)

Hidetoshi Nakata had provided 18 assists in Fiorentina's Serie A campaign, and proved it no fluke with two well-played assists in the World Cup opener.

Stacy still hadn't come back yet, and I'd ordered food during the third match, so I headed back to the hotel room. It was dark and empty, which scared me for a minute, until I saw that her suitcase was still there.

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Monday, 12th June, 2006. World Cup Groups F, G - first match.

I woke around three in the morning; the bed was still empty! My heart started pounding as I sat up - but then I heard the door opening, as she let herself quietly into the room. I said her name, and she gave me a bit of a pouty "are you ready to pay attention to your wife yet?"

That led to a long conversation - why do long conversations always seem to happen when I'm half asleep, fighting to hold onto consciousness and understand what she's saying? Her being half-drunk didn't help matters, either.

I'm sure I've been neglecting her, but on the other hand I've been feeling the stress of my job sloughing off my shoulders as I relax and enjoy the matches on hand, so its been good for me.

Of course, marital discord is a different kind of stress; I promised to reign in my enthusiasm for the Mundial and took today away from the pubs to enjoy Vienna with her.

Somewhere between the Rathaus and Stephansdom, I missed the second match of England's Group F, between Bulgaria and Nigeria. Martin Petrov put Bulgaria ahead in the first half with an incredible curling shot from 32 yards out. It looked to be the only goal, and by the 80th minute, Bulgaria had 'parked the bus' with all of their players getting back to defend.

The patient perimeter passing game is not what the speedy athletic African nation likes to play, but they adapted to it. Nearly two minutes into injury time, Obafemi Martins pounced on a loose ball in the Bulgarian area, and drove it home from 12 yards out to equalize 1-1. The 21-year-old has scored a goal a match in his international career thus far!

F: Bulgaria 1, Nigeria 1

Petrov 40; Martins 90

MoM: Martins (Nigeria SC, Inter Milan)

Portugal and Mexico were the two favorites in Group G, and everyone was expecting a wide-open offensive match. What they got instead was a hard-tackling defensive encounter, as the Mexicans came out intending to stifle the creative Portugese midfield, and did a good job of that. Nuno Gomez nearly put Portugal ahead in the 42nd minute, slipping through the defense and taking a shot from close range, but he was denied by Mexican keeper Conejo Perez. The rebound fell right to Pauleta, who made it 1-0, Portugal.

Mexico fought back in the second half, and Man of the Match Alberto Medina was spectacular on the left wing. Finally, in the 70th minute, his cross found Jose Lopez in the area, and Lopez's header made it 1-1.

G: Portugal 1, Mexico 1

Pauleta 42; Lopez 70

MoM: Medina (Mexico AMRL, Chivas)

Wales met Senegal for their first match, and Senegal were hoping to build on their successful 2002 performance. Frankly, they looked the more experienced, calm side, and they outplayed the Welsh throughout the match. There was only one goal, which came when Amdy Moustapha Faye launched a long ball into the Welsh area. Diomansy Kamara had slipped past the Welsh defense, and slotted home.

Tight defending in the second half preserved Senegal's 1-0 victory, and moved them atop the group.

G: Senegal 1, Wales 0

Kamara 40; ----

MoM: Kamara (Senegal AM/F LC, Portsmouth)

Sitting in a café, sipping cappucino as the sun set across the Danube, I knew I'd found another sort of relaxation which I'd been sorely missing. Between the way I'd submerged myself in my career and her focus on her schoolwork, we'd been making that worst of marital mistakes: growing apart.

That's not to say I knew how to fix it - just that I knew I wanted to.

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Tuesday, 13th June, 2006. World Cup Group A - second match.

Today we were in Trieste, enjoying the beauty of the Castle of Miramare. If you're a photography buff at all, you have to visit Miramare: it is so stunningly situated, it can make anyone appear a world-class photographer. You can hardly go wrong!

Ivory Coast led Group A with three points, with Brazil and the U.S.A. on one, and Russia in trouble early, pointless and needing some sort of result against Brazil to keep themselves alive in the morning game.

They couldn't. Brazil dominated Russia, as expected. The pace and tempo of their attack was simply too much for the Russian defense to handle, and Ronaldo put on an absolute show. First, he earned an assist by finding Kaká absolutely unmarked in the Russian box just seven minutes in, a 1-0 lead which held up through halftime.

Then Ronaldo cracked open the Russian back line, scoring two goals in a four minute period in the second half. The first was a breakaway in which he dribbled around the Russian keeper, while the second was a candidate for the Goal of the Tournament award.

He received the ball at least fifteen yards on his own side of the half-way line, dribbled for forty yards, and then cranked a 25-yard left-footed effort as the Russian defense converged upon him. Magnificent stuff, and Brazil had an easy 3-0 victory.

Incredibly, Ronaldo was not Man of the Match; that honour went instead to left-side fullback Dédé, whose frequent runs up the left side had caused the stolid Russian defense all measure of problems, including the assist on Ronaldo's final goal.

A: Brazil 3, Russia 0

Kaká 7, Ronaldo 71, 75; ----

MoM: Dédé (Brazil D/DM L, Real Madrid)

There was no question of Stacy preventing me from watching the U.S.A. in the evening game.

I wish she had.

The Ivory Coast absolutely manhandled my countrymen. For the second match in a row, we conceded early: Salomon Kalou fed Didier Drogba, who dribbled beautifully into the American area and smashed a tight-angle shot past Brad Friedel for a sensational goal only 2 minutes in, and it just presaged an onslaught.

Fullback Olivier Tebily's cross from the right wing found Cedric Konan rising above Carlos Bocanegra, and it was 2-0 after 22 minutes.

Finally, Steven Cherundolo and Aruna were pursuing a loose ball in the American area; both fell, and the referee awarded the penalty against Cherundolo. Bonaventure Kalou made no mistake, and it was 3-0 after merely 31 minutes.

The Americans never looked like having any answers, and despite the accumulation of talent on their side, couldn't manage even a single reply, even when Ibrahmia Ouattara was injured in the final minutes forcing Ivory Coast to play an outfield player in goal.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, was hearing the reaction of the crowd: I remember the 1998 Cup, and there was certainly nowhere near as much anti-American sentiment eight years earlier. It was one thing to know intellectually that my country's foreign policy is unpopular abroad, but quite another to hear 50,000 people taking visceral satisfaction in seeing our team thoroughly pounded in that way.

A: Ivory Coast 3, U.S.A. 0

Drogba 2, Konan 22, B.Kalou pen 31; ----

MoM: S.Kalou (Ivory Coast AMR, Feyenoord)

The results meant that Ivory Coast were the first team to earn a berth in the Round of 16, and nearly guaranteed Brazil a spot there as well. The U.S.A. needed to beat Russia and have Brazil lose to the Ivory Coast - with a total goal differential of +6 in the two games - to overtake the defending champions.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Ivory Coast 6 2 0 0 5 1 + 4

2 Brazil 4 1 1 0 4 1 + 3

3 U.S.A. 1 0 1 1 1 4 - 3

- 4 Russia 0 0 0 2 1 5 - 4</pre>

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Wednesday, 14th June, 2006. World Cup Group B - second match.

I caught only highlights of Wednesday's matches: I was strolling through Venice with my beautiful wife. We love the city of canals, and this was the third time we had visited it together. Like Miramare, its a place that can turn anyone into a talented photographer!

Group B was led by Spain and Sweden, who had both won their opening match; China and Morocco would desperately need a win in their encounter to give the group any sembalance of a three-way fight.

Spain and Sweden were very well matched in the afternoon game, a game which the tough Swedish defense managed to keep away from the flowing game Spain might have preferred. Spanish fans were getting worried when it was still scoreless after 60 minutes.

The Spanish side, however, kept their cool and continued to work the perimeter game around the Swedish defense. Fredrik Ljungberg was perfectly positioned to intercept a pass 30 yards out from his goal, but tried an ill-advised back-pass to the Swedish keeper. Fernando Morientes was lurking in the box, and stepped between them. Though amazed at his good fortune, he wasn't surpsised enough to squander such an opportunity! An easy finish, and Spain held a 1-0 lead.

It remained that way into the dying minutes, when Rubén Baraja launched a fantastic curling strike from 30 yards despite tight coverage. It bent into the top left corner for a 2-0 Spain victory.

B: Spain 2, Sweden 0

Morientes 61, Baraja 88; ----

MoM: Puyol (Spain DRC, Barcelona)

China got off to a dream start against Morocco, as Li Lei forced a turnover in midfield, and then worked a one-two with Dong Fangzhuo that put Fangzhuo free in the area. He gave the Chinese a 1-0 lead after five minutes.

Morocco, the indomitable scrappers of the group, clawed the goal back in the 12th minute when Moha headed home Omar Borrouhou's cross to level the scores at 1-1.

From that point onward, Morocco dominated the match, but couldn't convert their domination into clean chances, and the one-one scoreline held for the remaining 78 minutes.

B: Morocco 1, China 1

Moha 12; Fangzhuo 5

MoM: Bourrouhou (Morocco AMR, Raja Casablanca)

With a pair of wins already, Spain were through to the elimination rounds, while the other three could each advance with a win in their last match. Sweden had the theoretical advantage, as draws all around would see them through.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Spain 6 2 0 0 3 0 + 3

2 Sweden 3 1 0 1 1 2 - 1

3 Morocco 1 0 1 1 1 2 - 1

4 China 1 0 1 1 1 2 - 1</pre>

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Thursday, 15th June, 2006. World Cup Group C - second match.

France and Ireland led Group C after opening-match victories, and each stood a chance of booking their berth in the next round with a win and a win or draw by the other.

I found a café to sit at. It made an odd backdrop to have the ancient city of Venice, a canal just outside the window, behind a modern high-definition flatscreen panel. Stacy seemed content enough to let me pick one of the day's match, and I chose Ireland-Paraguay.

Ireland had appeared full of confidence and verve after defeating South Korea, but they met a very determined South American side. Roque Santa Cruz would have given Paraguay a lead in the fourth minute were it not for a Shay Given save, and there was nothing Given could do in the 26th. Santa Cruz intercepted a Robbie Keane backpass in midfield, dribbled into the area, and worked his way around Given to make it 1-0.

It was a match fraught with emotion, which boiled over in the second half. Damien Duff hit a vicious 15-yard shot which ricocheted off of Jorge Amarilla and into the net to equalize in the 63rd minute. In the 65th, Paraguay's Dario Veron lost his temper, and pushed Clinton Morrison in the chest. Peter Okoye justly showed him a yellow, and he turned on the referee in a temper that earned him a red card with the score 1-1!

Ireland poured on the pressure, looking for the winner that would in all likelihood see them through, but they just couldn't seem to score, and in the 90th minute, disaster struck, as opening-match hero Matt Holland was shown a second yellow, both for tripping! The Irish leading scorer would have to sit out the crucial third match, as this one ended 1-1.

C: Ireland 1, Paraguay 1

Duff 63; Santa Cruz 26

MoM: Santa Cruz (Paraguay FC, Bayern München)

France completely dominated South Korea in the evening match, but the hard working South Korean side kept it close. Thierry Henry put the French ahead with a header from a corner kick in the 50th minute, but it remained 1-0 until injury time.

With the Koreans pushinmg forward searching for a vital point, Henry was able to score one of his trademark quick breaks, running on to Patrick Vieira's knock-on header, and sprinting fifty yards to slot it home past Lee Woon-Jae.

Unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon, France were through to the next round.

C: France 2, South Korea 0

Henry 50, 90; ----

MoM: Henry (France SC, Arsenal)

Ireland was left needing to secure a point from France in the final match to guarantee their advancement, and could only hope that France ran out a second-rate side with the Round of 16 already assured. A narrow loss might also work for Ireland, as they held a narrow goal difference advantage over Paraguay, and could also look for help from eliminated South Korea.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 France 6 2 0 0 4 0 + 4

2 Ireland 4 1 1 0 3 2 + 1

3 Paraguay 1 0 1 1 1 3 - 2

- 4 South Korea 0 0 0 2 1 4 - 3</pre>

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Saturday, 17th June, 2006. World Cup Groups D,E - second match.

It was odd scheduling for the World Cup, as Friday the 16th had no matches, and Saturday would see four. It worked for me, though - Friday was nearly consumed by travel, as we made the long haul from Venice to Rome on a slow, smoke-stinky Italian train so full we were lucky to grab what seemed the last two seats on the train, sharing a compartment with a shawled woman and her four kids, including the (mercifully silent) babe in her arms.

The boy, 12, seemed stunned to see me converse with my wife in English yet reading the unmistakable pink pages of the Gazzetto Dello Sport.

I'd wanted to leave the Eternal City off of the list; we've both been there, but never together, and Stacy was insistent. She finally convinced me by pointing out that we'd be in Rome for one of the Azzuri's matches, and even promised to watch it with me. She's always been partial to the Azzuri!

The trade-off, of course, was the long train ride and a promise to skip Saturday's early games while we visited the Roman Forum, which she'd never seen, and the Catacombs, which I had missed on my previous visits.

Hosts Germany needed to get a result against Chile to keep their hopes alive after their opening-match loss to Italy. In front of 49,464 screaming fans, they utterly outclassed the South American side, dominating the match by all reports.

Twenty-six minutes in, left back Philipp Lahm sent a ball into the box which Kevin Kuranyi outjumped two Chilean defenders, but could only barely graze with his head. Nelson Tapia, expecting the ball to change course, was unable to get over to the corner of his net, and it rolled in easily.

After that lucky goal, however, the hosts seemed unable to find the back of the net. By the end of the match, three German starters including Miroslav Klose were limping or had come out injured, Michael Ballack was obviously not playing his best, and in general the typically-organized German side looked anything but.

Still, a 1-0 win was three points, and revived their hopes after the opening-match loss.

D: Germany 1, Chile 0

Kuranyi 26; ----

MoM: Kahn (Germany GK, Bayern München)

In Group E, Argentina faced Costa Rica, who put up a tremendous fight, coming close several times, and maintaining a 0-0 scoreline through 80 minutes, leaving it anybody's game in the final moments.

Finally, Ariel Ortega, playing through pain on the right wing, sent a cross into the 6-yard box for Fernando Cavenaghi to head home, a textbook goal, and Argentina had dispatched the valiant Central American side 1-0.

E: Argentina 1, Costa Rica 0

Cavenaghi 87; ----

MoM: Ortega (Argentina FRC, Boca Juniors)

Saudia Arabia and Italy had both won their first matches, and the winner of the evening match might well be through to the next round. Stacy and I found a bar which had the game up on big-screen, but arriving fully an hour before kickoff, we'd failed to get there early enough to grab seats: it was standing room only.

Saudi Arabia put up a good fight through the first 40 minutes, but then things turned sour for them with lightning speed. First, Hassan Al-Qarni made a great save to stop Stephan Fiore's diving header, only to see Alessandro Del Piero pounce on a rebound and slot it home. The Roman bar erupted in joyous tumult!

Five minutes later, in first-half stoppage time, Ali Al-Shamrani slid in on Fiore at the halfway line, a reckless challenge as the Valencia midfielder was facing two men and waiting for support. Everyone in the bar raised their hands in the universal signal for "give him a card", but referee Abdulaziz Saleh went one further: a straight red.

With the Saudis a man down for the entire second half, things spun out of control quickly. Abdul Rahman Al-Dosari tripped Antonio Cassano in the area not four minutes after the restart, and Saleh awarded the penalty. There could be no question, and Andrea Pirlo - whose fine one-two had started the first goal - converted to make it 2-0.

Stefano Fiore put the final nail in the coffin with a spectacular left-footed volley from long range in the 53rd minute. In merely thirteen minutes, it had gone from a tight, scoreless draw to a 3-0 scoreline and a foregone conclusion.

The fact that Stacy was rooting for the Azzuri made her instantly popular, and I stifled a spurt of jealousy as several well-dressed Italian men paid her a bit overmuch attention. The game well in hand, they were all too pleased to chat up a pretty tourist, and I don't think she paid for a single drink.

She did wind up making some friends, however, and agreed to meet up with some of them tomorrow.

D: Italy 3, Saudi Arabia 0

Del Piero 40, Pirlo pen 49, Fiore 53; ----

MoM: Pirlo (Italy DMC, A.C. Milan)

Italy were through to the Round of 16. Second-placed Germany and Saudi Arabia would meet to determine the other side in, with the tie going to the home side on goal differential.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Italy 6 2 0 0 4 0 + 4

2 Germany 3 1 0 1 1 1 0

3 Saudi Arabia 3 1 0 1 2 3 - 1

- 4 Chile 0 0 0 2 0 3 - 3</pre>

Simultaneously, Turkey and South Africa finished out the day's matches. With a win, Turkey could finish off Group E without needing a result in their finale against Argentina, and they were clearly determined to do so.

After controlling the first half, the Turks might have been unlucky to lead just 1-0 at the break. Sanli Tuncay headed home Nihat's cross on 30 minutes to put them up, but they'd squandered a half-dozen chances as well.

In the first fifteen minutes of the second half, they rectified their accuracy in front of goal. First Nihat dribbled around South Africa keeper Hans Vonk to score, and then Akin Serhat, whose superb pass had set up Nihat's goal, made it a 3-0 final.

E: Turkey 3, South Africa 0

Tuncay 30, Nihat 50, Serhat 58; ----

MoM: Serhat (Turkey FRC, Fenerbahçe)

The results had left nothing to play for in the final match; Turkey and Argentina could rest their stars, while the other two sides would have to wait for 2010.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Turkey 6 2 0 0 5 0 + 5

Q 2 Argentina 6 2 0 0 4 0 + 4

- 3 Costa Rica 0 0 0 2 0 3 - 3

- 4 South Africa 0 0 0 2 0 6 - 6</pre>

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Sunday, 18th June, 2006. World Cup Groups F, H - second match.

My jealousy dissipated the following morning when we went out to breakfast with one Italian gentleman and the three cute Roman girls he'd invited along!

My Italian isn't quite good enough for flirting, and I was a married man in the company of his wife, but I was hardly going to disdain the male-to-female ratio. Our host seemed much less audacious and much more like a friend by the light of day.

We walked the city for most of the morning; it always catches me by surprise how close together the many monuments and sights are: ancient Rome, of course, was travelled by foot, but its still neat how you can go from Piazza to Colosseo to Fontana to Monumento in just minutes.

By early afternoon, I was looking for a bar, and with the heat of the day even Stacy was content to sit and have a drink as England squared off against Bulgaria.

The Three Lions had three points from their first match; three more against Bulgaria and the right result from the other match could see them through. They looked to have one foot in the second round already when Bulgarian central defender Predrag Pazin was sent off in the 22nd minute for arguing a yellow card.

Sven's 4-4-2 didn't seem to be generating much, though to be fair Bulgaria fell back into a defensive shell and hardly seemed to look forward at all, playing something that looked almost like a 4-5-0. That kept the scoreless draw well into the second half, and the frustration on English faces was clear to see.

Frank Lampard had the best chances, but couldn't seem to put them in the net. In the first thirty minutes of the second half alone, he saw two shots caromb back off the woodwork, missed an open net once, and had his fourth shot denied on a great save.

Finally, on the 77th minute, substitute Matthew Taylor broke the deadlock, taking a brilliant cross from David Beckham, and turning it into the Bulgarian net. His first-ever England goal, and on only his fourth cap! The 24-year-old Portsmouth attacking fullback was an instant national hero!

A man down, Bulgaria never showed signs of coming back, and in fact it looked more likely that Owen or Rooney would hit them on the counter, but the match finished out one-nil.

The result still left a lot to be desired for English fans: six points from two matches, but the side hardly looked like playing at the highest level.

F: England 1, Bulgaria 0

Taylor 77; ----

MoM: Beckham (England MRC, Real Madrid)

We were back on the streets, exploring the Vatican City by the time the early-evening match began.

Romania faced group leaders Colombia in the early match for Group H, and by all reports the first half was a tense, well-played, even affair. In the 40th minute, however, Jose Julian De la Cuesta was given a second yellow card for taking the legs away from Rosu, and Romania had a man advantage for the entire second half.

Dinamo Kiev midfielder Tiberiu Ghioane pounced on a rebound in the Colombian area just moments into the second half to make it 1-0, and when Luis Amaranto Perea upended Adrian Mutu in the box in the 80th minute, the match looked over for sure.

Miraculously, Oscar Cordoba saved the penalty from Illian Filipescu, giving the Colombians hope, but they were unable to find a goal with only ten men.

H: Romania 1, Colombia 0

Ghioane 46; ----

MoM: Ghioane (Romania AMRC, Dinamo Kiev)

Nigeria appeared the better side in their evening match against Bahrain. They had built a 1-0 lead on the strength of Obafemi Martins's powerful header in the 31st minute, and looked sure to add a second as the second half wore on. The plot took an unexpected twist in the 69th minute when Bartholomew Ogbeche was given a second yellow card.

Bahrain came storming back with the man advantage, peppering the Nigerian goal with shots, and more so when Victor Agbo was forced off due to injury in the 85th minute, leaving the African side with only nine men. Tenaciously, the Super Eagles held on, and a 1-0 victory was their just reward.

F: Nigeria 1, Bahrain 0

Martins 31; ----

MoM: Martins (Nigeria SC, Inter Milan)

A win or draw by Nigeria had been the result England needed to guarantee their position in the final sixteen. Nigeria needed only a draw against them to secure their own advancement, while Bulgaria needed an England victory and a two-goal win against Bahrain to be sure of moving on.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 England 6 2 0 0 3 0 + 3

2 Nigeria 4 1 1 0 2 1 + 1

3 Bulgaria 1 0 1 1 1 2 - 1

- 4 Bahrain 0 0 0 2 0 3 - 3</pre>

A rapid-fire opening sequence saw three goals in the first sixteen minutes as the Czech Republic faced Japan in Munich. First, Pavel Mares latched onto Marek Heinz's flick-on header in the box and beat Japanese keeper Koji Nakano for his first-ever international goal.

The Czechs seemed to relax, perhaps expecting an easy victory, and when Shunsuke Nakamura spotted a beautiful ball into the run of Yuya Saito, the latter was wide open. He dribbled into the box, and fired it in low and hard to equalize 1-1 after merely six minutes.

That seemed to wake up the central European side, and Heinz managed to score in the 16th minute despite having his first effort saved, poking the rebound past a despairing Japanese defender.

The Czechs went on to dominate the match, launching 20 more shots at the Japanese goal, but were unable to add another. Fortunately, the Japanese were too busy defending to seek out an equalizer, and 2-1 was how it finished.

H: Czech Republic 2, Japan 1

Mares 3, Heinz 16; Yuya 6

MoM: Heinz (Czech SC, Borussia Mönchengladbach)

In Group H, it was all still to play for, as even fourth-placed Japan could advance with a win and a victory by Romania. For the other three, it was "Win your match and advance", though the first-placed Romanian side had the luxury of advancing with another draw.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 Romania 4 1 1 0 3 2 + 1

2 Czech Rep. 3 1 0 1 2 2 + 0

3 Colombia 3 1 0 1 1 1 + 0

4 Japan 1 0 1 1 3 4 - 1</pre>

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Monday, 19th June, 2006. World Cup Group G - second match.

We arrived in Milan this morning, intending to stay but a single day. That gave me little time for football; it was all about the great Duomo and the art of the Castello Sforzesco. I did manage to arrange a trade, however: Stacy got two hours of shopping whilst I found a television to take in the Wales-Mexico tie Monday afternoon.

Juan Francisco Palencia put Mexico ahead in the 14th minute when a mistake by Carl Fletcher kept him onside with no marker. He had an easy time finishing past Norwich City 'keeper Jason Brown, who had been instrumental in lifting the Canaries back to the Premiership this season.

Wales came back in the second half, with Jason Koumas equalizing on a spectacular shot from outside the arc. Mexico goalkeeper Conejo Pérez, leaping at full stretch, could only feel it graze his fingers as it went by, and a well-placed photographer turned that image into a famous poster after.

With twenty-three minutes remaining, Robbie Savage and Gary Speed teamed up on a wall pass. The quick interchange with Speed played Savage past his defender and through the offsides trap: he wasted no time drilling one home from 18 yards, which caught Pérez rushing off his line, expecting a one-on-one.

The Welsh defense held the 2-1 lead into the final minutes, when Miguel Trejo tried a desperate shot into traffic. It took an unlucky bounce off of Damien Duffy and wound up in the back of the net, leaving the score 2-2 at full time.

G: Mexico 2, Wales 2

Palencia 14, Trejo 86; Koumas 48, Savage 67

MoM: Koumas (Wales AM RLC, Crystal Palace)

Senegal knew entering the day that they would get through with a win against Portugal, no matter what happened in the other match. Both sides had plenty of chances in a beautiful, flowing game, but neither could seem to find the back of the net.

At 70 minutes, the scores were still level, though 51,460 fans had been wonderfully entertained. Then Portugese fullback Paulo Ferreira was sent off for bringing down Souleymane Camara in the area. Camara converted the penalty, and Senegal led 1-0 with a man advantage.

Any celebration may have been pre-mature, as 10-man Portugal battled back in the 88th minute. They caught the inexperienced Senegalese side on an odd-man rush, and Hélder Postiga was the unmarked one who finished off the move from 18 yards out. The dismay across Senegal's faces was clear for anyone to see, as it had been a terrible error to let Portugal back into the match, and they were unable to break the 1-1 scoreline through injury time.

G: Portugal 1, Senegal 1

Postiga 88; Camara pen 73

MoM: Postiga (Portugal SC, F.C. do Porto)

A pair of draws meant Group G would be a group with all to play for in the final match as well. Wales would have the hardest task, as they would need a 2-goal win over Portugal to be assured advancement. The other three sides were in with a win, and Senegal would even advance with a draw against Mexico, or a draw from the other match.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 Senegal 4 1 1 0 2 1 + 1

2 Mexico 2 0 2 0 3 3 0

3 Portugal 2 0 2 0 2 2 0

4 Wales 1 0 1 1 2 3 - 1</pre>

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I do hope you all are enjoying the interlude of World Cup action! Thought it made a better tale than an imaginary vacation would icon_wink.gif

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Tuesday, 20th June, 2006. World Cup Groups A and B - third match.

That brought us to Marseille, and the exciting third-match phase of the group stages, with the matches held concurrently for maximum drama.

I found my favorite venue, a pub with multiple televisions and groups of supporters of each of the four nations, to better watch both matches simultaneously.

You learn really quickly which television to look at when each group makes noise, and of course if the ball goes out of play in one you can glance over to the other!

Stacy shook her head and left me there.

The first matches of the day were Group B's, where any of three teams could still take the second place in the group; Spain, already qualified, were facing China, while brave Morocco needed three points against Sweden.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Spain 6 2 0 0 3 0 + 3

2 Sweden 3 1 0 1 1 2 - 1

3 Morocco 1 0 1 1 1 2 - 1

4 China 1 0 1 1 1 2 - 1</pre>

Spain scored first, taking a 1-0 lead against China merely three minutes into the match, when Rubén Baraja rose to head home Raúl's cross. The noise had hardly dissipated when Morocco's goal in the 5th minute, Suidi's half-volley from within the area, put them ahead of Sweden 1-0! I was cheering as loudly as anyone. Every year some minnow captures my heart with their spirited play, and this year's had just nipped into second in their group!

It didn't last long. Sweden answered in the eighth minute, when Kim Källstrom's ball put Fredrik Ljungberg behind the Moroccon defense. The Arsenal winger easily tied it, and at 1-1 Sweden were back in the knockout rounds.

Surprisingly, China equalized their game in the 22nd minute, when Sun Wei scored an excellent goal. Just moments later, striker Marcus Allbäck slipped through the Morocco defense and put Sweden ahead 2-1.

Morocco equalized merely three minutes later, as Marouane Chamakh put a fierce shot into the back of the net, but Morocco would need one more to step ahead of the Swedes.

In the 35th minute, Baraja launched a vicious shot for the top-right corner, which all but eliminated China with powerful Spain ahead 2-1. Seven goals, and it was only halftime!

The Sweden-Morocco match remained a tight, hard-fought affair through the second half, but neither side could get an advantage. Seeing as the draw let them advance, Sweden were conent to defend, and Morocco were unable to find a way through the tight Nordic defense.

Spain's David Villa headed home another goal in the 58th minute to make the final from Berlin Spain 3, China 1, with two-goal hero Baraja easily the Man of the Match.

B: Spain 3, China 1

Baraja 3, 35, Villa 58; Wei 22

MoM: Baraja (Spain DMC, Valencia)

In Mönchengladbach, the score remained 2-2 through full time, putting Sweden through. Despite being outshot two to one by their Moroccon counterparts, a draw was sufficient.

Morocco had played fine, fine football in all three of their fixtures, but two points won't see you through to the knockout rounds.

B: Sweden 2, Morocco 2

Ljungberg 8, Allbäck 25; Souidi 5, Chamakh 28

MoM: Allbäck (Sweden SC, F.C. København)

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Spain 9 3 0 0 6 1 + 5

Q 2 Sweden 4 1 1 1 3 4 - 1

3 Morocco 2 0 2 1 3 4 - 1

4 China 1 0 1 2 2 5 - 3</pre>

There was time for a bit of sight-seeing in the late afternoon, but we returned to the same bar for dinner and the evening game. This time Stacy sat with me, to watch the U.S.A. chase a one-in-a-million chance.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Ivory Coast 6 2 0 0 5 1 + 4

2 Brazil 4 1 1 0 4 1 + 3

3 U.S.A. 1 0 1 1 1 4 - 3

- 4 Russia 0 0 0 2 1 5 - 4</pre>

Yes, the United States needed a miracle six goal swing to catch Brazil, who had the luxury of facing an Ivory Coast team who just might have a vested interest in losing: their pacey style of play should match up much better against Group B winners Spain than against the stodgy defense of Sweden.

I knew it was unlikely, but a man can always hope ... at least until the final whistle.

The Americans dodged a bullet in the first five minutes, when Russia's Andrey Karyaka sent a penalty wide of Brad Friedel's net.

The Stuttgart match went south in the 28th minute, however: Thiago Motta scored for Brazil, a goal well set up by Zé Roberto's work on the wings. A 1-0 result would put the Brazilians through regardless of what the U.S. did; in fact, even a goal by the Ivorians wouldn't be enough for the Red White and Blue at this point.

Veteran defender Eddie Pope gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead of their own just before halftime, with a header from Steven Cherundolo's cross, but there was little celebration at that point. Clearly, they knew the score from Stuttgart.

Even Dmitry Khokhlov being sent off in the 58th couldn't draw a spark of life from the Americans, as they knew Ivory Coast was playing their 'B' team, hoping to avoid injury, and unlikely to come back against mighty Brazil. A couple players were showing determination and work ethic - Bayern Leverkusen forward Landon Donovan most notably, and Pope, Claudio Reyna, and Ajax fullback John O'Brien - but for the most part, the side seemed dispirited and disinterested.

In the 73rd minute, Ronaldinho's fabulous blast from the corner of the eighteen put Brazil up 2-0, and the outcome was now beyond a doubt.

Adriano's injury time header made the final score three-nil, set up by Ronaldinho's cross in injury time. Brazil had won the group, and would face Sweden, leaving Ivory Cost the matchup they had wanted, against Spain.

A: Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 0

Motta 28, Ronaldinho 73, Adriano 90; ----

MoM: Zé Roberto (Brazil AMLC, Bayern München)

The U.S.-Russia game limped to a desultory conclusion, the outcome long since beyond any meaning.

A: U.S.A. 1, Russia 0

Pope 43; ----

MoM: O'Brien (U.S.A. D/DM L, Ajax)

It was yet another disappointing end for the U.S.A. Its like rooting for the Dutch, in some ways: always tantalizing with promise, but ending in tears. In 1998, I'd felt we had a much better side than we showed in that disastrous group stage. The 2002 run to the quarterfinals seemed to signal the start of a renaissance, but here we were, out at the group stage yet again.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Brazil 7 2 1 0 7 1 + 6

Q 2 Ivory Coast 6 2 0 1 5 4 + 1

3 U.S.A. 4 1 1 1 2 4 - 2

4 Russia 0 0 0 3 1 6 - 5</pre>

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Wednesday, 21st June, 2006. World Cup Groups C and D - third match.

In Group C, France had already advanced, which made watching from a French city much less exciting than it might have been. Still, I settled in to watch. Ireland needed merely a draw with France to get through, while Paraguay needed to beat up on last placed South Korea and get help.

Stacy left me at the bar, but she seemed in good spirits about it. She was going to spend the time at the beach, while I'd promised to skip the Group D finale to join her at the famous Opéra.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 France 6 2 0 0 4 0 + 4

2 Ireland 4 1 1 0 3 2 + 1

3 Paraguay 1 0 1 1 1 3 - 2

- 4 South Korea 0 0 0 2 1 4 - 3</pre>

Roque Santa Cruz was having a wonderful tournament, and he got the scoring started by sending a superb long ball ahead of strike partner Nelson Haedo Valdez in the 7th minute. Valdez dribbled around South Korea's keeper, and it was 1-0. Those two are just 24 and 22, respectively; the future of Paraguayan football is very bright!

Moments later, it was Santa Cruz again, dribbling into the box, and looking like he might shoot from a tight angle - but instead he put a cross to Hugo Duarte on the far post for an easy short-range header. Ten minutes in, and Paraguay led 2-0 - but Ireland remained the second-placed team as long as they could hold onto a draw.

In the 19th minute, South Korea clawed one back as Park Ji-Sung put a beautiful low pass into the box for Lee San, who made it 2-1.

In the 34th minute, France broke through, as Tierry Henry worked free of two markers to burst up the right wing. His cross appeared to be intended for a David Trezeguet header, and defenders rushed to mark the striker. Cleverly, Trezeguet let it carry over his head and to the left foot of unmarked Sidney Govou, whose in-step volley beat Shay Given to put France ahead 1-0.

Suddenly, the Irish safety was hanging by a slim thread: a single goal in either game could knock them out.. but they lasted to halftime.

Disaster struck for Ireland like lightning at the start of the second halves. First, Santa Cruz struck for Paraguay, again dribbling to the six-yard-box. This time he glanced over as though to an imaginary far-post-run, but instead crushed a shot past Lee Woon-Jae at the near post.

The bar had scarcely quieted when David Trezeguet slipped into the Irish box, and ripped a tight-angled shot to the far post. It was a complete reversal: with France up 2-0 and Paraguay leading 3-1, the Irish now needed two goals in either game to get back into it.

There was no help coming: in the 52nd minute, Duarte launched a long pass ahead of Santa Cruz, who dribbled into the arc. A flashing 20-yard blast was beyond Lee Woon-Jae's talents, and made it 4-1!

Ireland were right up against it, needing to come back against France or be eliminated. Diego Gavilán's 23-yard free kick made it 5-1 Paraguay in the 68th minute, and despite their dire need, Ireland remained unable to get any shots off against the stingy French defense.

Led by Fabien Barthez, William Gallas, Mikaël Silvestre, Philippe Mexès, and a midfield anchored by Patrick Viera, the French proved well up to the task of stifling the Irish attack, especially stripped as it was by the suspension of leading scorer Matt Holland.

C: France 2, Ireland 0

Govou 34, Trezeguet 50; ----

MoM: Trezeguet (France SC, Juventus)

South Korea's Kim Nam-Il did get one back for national pride in the closing minutes, but with the scores Paraguy 5, South Korea 2, and France 2, Ireland 0, it was all over for Ireland.

C: Paraguay 5, South Korea 2

Valdez 7, Duarte 9, Santa Cruz 46, 52, Gavilán 68; San 19, Nam-Il 87

MoM: Santa Cruz (Paraguay FC, Bayern München)

Roque Santa Cruz had two goals and two assists for an incredible Man of the Match performance in the most crucial of games: he's just become my favourite player!

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 France 9 3 0 0 6 0 + 6

Q 2 Paraguay 4 1 1 1 6 5 + 1

3 Ireland 4 1 1 1 3 4 - 1

4 South Korea 0 0 0 3 3 9 - 6</pre>

Given how many Bayern München players were getting named Man of the Match for their countries, it was easy to see how the German giants had won the Champions League!

In Group D, the only match that mattered was Germany-Saudi Arabia, in a "win and you're in" match, where a tie would go to the host nation. I was confident enough of German victory, especially considering the 8-0 slaughter in 2002, that I'd gone to the Opéra instead of watching.

Miroslav Klose put the hosts ahead early on with one of his trademark headers. Kevin Kuranyi made it 2-0 with a speedy breakaway just after the half-hour, and it looked like it was all over going to half-time.

Another breakaway, another Kuranyi goal, this in the 53rd, made it 3-0, and the Saudis had to be experiencing flashbacks to that dreadful eight goal defeat in 2002. Benjamin Lauth made it 4-0 with an injury-time goal, and that was the way it finished.

D: Germany 4, Saudi Arabia 0

Klose 16, Kuranyi 33, 53, Lauth 90; ----

MoM: Kuranyi (Germany SC, VfB Stuttgart)

In the other match, Italy had had no reason to play their biggest names against Chile, and many of them rested. Early goals by Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti were enough to secure victory, despite a fine individual effort from Marcelo Salas.

D: Italy 2, Chile 1

Pirlo 6, Totti 20; Salas 9

MoM: Totti (Italy AM/F C, A.S. Roma)

The Azzuri had come through with nine points from the group stage, and would pit their rock-solid defense against the talented Paraguay attack, while Germany would renew their neighborly rivalry against France.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Italy 9 3 0 0 6 1 + 5

Q 2 Germany 6 2 0 1 5 1 + 4

3 Saudi Arabia 3 1 0 2 2 7 - 5

4 Chile 0 0 0 3 1 5 - 4</pre>

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Thursday, 22nd June, 2006. World Cup Groups E and F - third match.

Stacy and I moved on to one of my favourite cities ever, Barcelona. The first time I was there, I stayed seven days, and I swear to you I saw seven different cities. I had this fantastic time with these two Canadian girls .. well, perhaps we should save that tale for a different day.

Today, Stacy and I were wandering the city, as I couldn't care much about the Group E matches - they were just for fun, with Turkey and Argentina already guaranteed their berths in the Round of 16 before facing each other. Instead, I was introducing her to the wonders of the Barceloneta beach and the Ciutat Vella, the Old City.

Despite resting their biggest names, Argentina had a starter injured, as fullback Fabricio Coloccini had his leg gashed open in the fifteenth minute. The Argentines nonetheless appeared in complete control, peppering the Turkish goal with shot after shot.

Reçber Rüstü was the Man of the Match for keeping the majority of them at bay, but under such intense pressure it was almost inevitable that he'd let one through.

It was Fernando Cavenaghi who scored his third in as many matches, providing the breakthrough in the 70th minute, for the only goal. He chested a ball down to himself at about the penalty spot, and put a clinical finish into the left side of the net, to give Argentina a 1-0 victory.

Cavenaghi, amazingly, has scored exactly one goal in all five of his international appearances - what a record for the 22-year-old Newcastle United starlet!

E: Argentina 1, Turkey 0

Cavenaghi 70; ----

MoM: Rüstü (Turkey GK, Fenerbahçe)

South Africa and Costa Rica met in Munich, and the attitudes of the two sides could hardly have been different. South Africa looked like they were ready to go home, while Costa Rica were clearly playing for pride. Mauricio Solís converted a penalty in the 11th minute to put the Costa Ricans ahead 1-0, and then Rónald Gómez took over. First, he capped a beautiful flowing move with a 12-yard shot, then he launched a curling 25-yarder into the net to make it 3-0 at halftime. Godfrey Sapula got one back for the 2010 hosts on a 25-yard free kick, but Gómez completed his hat-trick with a goal from 20 yards out to make the final score Costa Rica 4, South Africa 1.

E: Costa Rica 4, South Africa 1

Solís pen 11, Gómez 26, 43, 68; Sapula 59

MoM: Gómez (Costa Rica AM/F C, Deportivo Saprissa)

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Argentina 9 3 0 0 5 0 + 5

Q 2 Turkey 6 2 0 1 5 1 + 4

3 Costa Rica 3 1 0 2 4 4 0

4 South Africa 0 0 0 3 1 10 - 9</pre>

By the evening matches, however, I'd found a tremendous sports bar, some two stories tall and occupying a great square footage, in downtown Barcelona. English ex-patriots outnumbered the cheering section for the other three sides combined by a margin nearly two to one, and I of course numbered myself among them. I've got to get a replica kit or something to make that clear.

Nigeria were in the same boat Ireland had been in: needing a draw against the strongest team in the group to be sure of advancing. England were already through, but they would surely be looking to win or draw so as to avoid Argentina, given the World Cup history between those two!

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 England 6 2 0 0 3 0 + 3

2 Nigeria 4 1 1 0 2 1 + 1

3 Bulgaria 1 0 1 1 1 2 - 1

- 4 Bahrain 0 0 0 2 0 3 - 3</pre>

Matthew Taylor scored for England just two minutes and thirty seconds in, as his shot from about 25 yards took a deflection off of a Nigerian defender and wrong-footed Nigerian keeper Peter Sani. Two goals in as many matches for the young Portsmouth player, who was living a dream!

The Africans could still go through with a loss, so long as Bahrain held Bulgaria to a draw. In Hannover, however, Bulgaria took care of business against their overmatched opponents. In the 21st minute, Dimitar Berbatov's laser strike from out wide in the area gave them the early 1-0 lead.

That might have led to coin flips, but Bulgaria kept pursuing Bahrain with ruthless efficiency. Berbatov found the net a second time with a shot to the lower-left corner from the top of the area just after the half-hour, and it was 2-0: Nigeria needed to secure a draw or their Cup would be over.

By the break, Celtic attacking midfielder Stilian Petrov made it 3-0, Bulgaria, and there could be no doubt what the outcome was going to be. With goal difference no longer an issue, the Bulgarians sportingly reigned things in for the second half and simply ran out time.

F: Bulgaria 3, Bahrain 0

Berbatov 21, 31, Petrov 41; ----

MoM: Berbatov (Bulgaria SC, Bayern Leverkusen)

Nigeria needed a second-half goal to draw with England, as the halftime scores would see them eliminated. Sven had no intention of letting them back into the net, and brought the side out in a defensive outlook, but Taylor knew that the best defense is a good attack: the young fullback ranged well forward to join the attack in the 47th minute. Rather than carrying it to the corner, he played a cross from deep into the space between Wayne Rooney and Peter Sani. When Rooney beat the keeper to the ball and slotted it home, that had to put paid to Nigeria's hopes.

To their credit, the Super Eagles battled valiantly to the end, but there was no coming back against England, and the final score was England 2, Nigeria 0.

F: England 2, Nigeria 0

Taylor 3, Rooney 47; ----

MoM: Taylor (England D/AM L, Portsmouth)

England had avoided Argentina, but a match against hard-tackling Turkey was little reward for winning their group. Bulgaria's shutout win would see them through, and it would leave an embarassed Bahrain squad the only team in the tournament to be knocked out without scoring a single goal.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 England 9 3 0 0 5 0 + 5

Q 2 Bulgaria 4 1 1 1 4 2 + 2

3 Nigeria 4 1 1 1 2 3 - 1

4 Bahrain 0 0 0 3 0 6 - 6</pre>

There could be little complaint from the English punditry today: nine points and no goals conceded? It can't get much better than that!

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Friday, 23rd June, 2006. World Cup Groups G and H - third match.

Six groups were complete, but there were no major surprises yet. Oh, the U.S. failing to advance was a surprise - to the Americans - but seemed the expected result from the rest of the globe.

All eight teams playing in Friday's matches still had a real chance of advancing. Nonetheless, I missed the afternoon games in favour of touring the city with my wife. We spent the day in pursuit of the fabulous, almost mystical architecture of Gaudí; I loved the Sagrada Familia, while Stacy was more partial to the whimsical Casa Milà.

In Group H, Romania would advance with a win or a draw. The Czech Republic and Colombia would each advance if they won their match. Japan needed help from Romania in the form of a win or draw.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 Romania 4 1 1 0 3 2 + 1

2 Czech Rep. 3 1 0 1 2 2 + 0

3 Colombia 3 1 0 1 1 1 + 0

4 Japan 1 0 1 1 3 4 - 1</pre>

The first halves were scoreless affairs, with Colombia reportedly appearing the better side against Japan, but unable to put a shot on target, while Japan had drawn three fine saves from Óscar Córdoba. The Romania-Czech Republic game was played end-to-end, with plenty of chances for both teams, but none had troubled either keeper at halftime.

Six minutes into the second half, Czech defender Zdenek Grygera upended Romanian winger Nicolae Mitea in the area. He was given a yellow card, and Romania had a penalty. Adrian Mutu converted from the spot, and with a 1-0 lead Romania looked all but guaranteed advancement, while Colombia had moved up into second spot.

From the 70th minute, well aware of the joint scoreline, Colombia manager Reinaldo Rueda decided to completely shut down, and protect the 0-0 draw which would see the South American side through.

In the 86th minute, Czech defender Tomas Hübschman upended Florin Bratu in the box, and Jude Padmore pointed at the spot again! Again, Mutu converted, and the Czechs could feel hard done by, to have the match decided by the referee in that way. Though the first penalty had appeared just, the second looked to be a harsh decision.

H: Romania 2, Czech Republic 0

Mutu pen 51, pen 86; ----

MoM: Mutu (Romania FC, Bordeaux)

Colombia held on to the 0-0 draw, and they were through as the second-placed side. The 36-year-old Óscar Córdoba, who had announced his retirement from both international and club play immediately upon completion of the Cup, was the national hero for keeping the clean sheet.

H: Colombia 0, Japan 0

----; ----

MoM: Córdoba (Colombia GK, Besiktas)

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Q Romania 7 2 1 0 5 2 + 3

Q 2 Q Colombia 4 1 1 1 1 1 0

3 Czech Rep. 3 1 0 2 2 4 - 2

4 Japan 2 0 1 2 3 4 - 1</pre>

I'm very glad I'd arranged to find my way back to the bar for the Group G matches, as they provided the most entertaining finale the group stages could have asked for. All four teams wound up in position to advance at different points through the matches!

To recap what they needed, Senegal would advance with a win or a draw. Mexico and Portugal both needed to win their matches to be sure, though either could advance with a draw and the right result from the other match. Wales would need a 2-goal win over Portugal to be assured advancement, though they could also sneak through with any win and a draw in the other match.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 Senegal 4 1 1 0 2 1 + 1

2 Mexico 2 0 2 0 3 3 0

3 Portugal 2 0 2 0 2 2 0

4 Wales 1 0 1 1 2 3 - 1</pre>

At kickoff, the teams through were Senegal and Mexico; that arrangemenet lasted merely thirteen minutes. Damien Duffy walked a tightrope up the right sideline, then sent in a cross which Craig Bellamy headed home to put Wales ahead of Portugal, 1-0. The contingent of Welshman I was sitting with went absolutely mental: now Senegal and Wales would go through!

In the 18th minute, Benfica midfielder Nuno Gomes found a soft spot in the Welsh defense, and took a fine pass from Hélder Postiga. He'd slipped to the eighteen unmarked, and laced a powerful shot past Jason Brown to draw Portugal back level, 1-1. With both matches now tied, Senegal and Portugal would go through.

In the Senegal-Mexico match, hard tackling and tight marking had made shots few and far between; it stayed scoreless until injury time of the first half. Not seconds before the halftime whistle, El Tri took a 1-0 lead on Oribe Peralta's header. Alberto Medina did the hard work up the left wing, but the 23-year-old Villareal striker wheeled away to take all the credit!

In Berlin, simultaneously, Ryan Giggs had started a breakaway for Wales which saw Damien Duffy into the box. His shot from close range was saved by veteran F.C. do Porto goalkeeper Vítor Baía, but the rebound fell right to John Hartson. 17 Premiership goals for Fulham had shown that the 31-year-old still had the scoring touch, and he buried it into the back of the net. 2-1! Just that suddenly, who was through had reversed, and at halftime it was Mexico and Wales who looked set to advance!

Wales built on the momentum by taking the second-half kickoff and moving right up the pitch. Jason Koumas found Hartson unmarked at the 18-yard line, and he blazed a grass-cutter to the lower-left corner: 3-1! That could be a crucial goal, as it gave the Welsh momentary immunity from what might happen in the other match.

Portugal struck back immediately, however, taking the ensuing kickoff, and returning the favor, as veteran midfielder Costinha chipped Brown from 20 yards! It was 3-2, but Wales still held the advantage over Senegal on goals scored, so it would be Mexico and Wales still advancing.

Oblivious to the twists and turns in Berlin, Senegal knew that they had to get a goal back, and the Africans flooded forward at every opportunity. In the 49th minute, Senegal's Aliou Cissé sprung Portsmouth teammate Diomansy Kamara with a fine long ball. The prayers of the Mexican fans had as little bearing on Kamara as the Mexican defense, and when keeper Conejo Pérez came off his line, Kamara lifted a neat chip from 20 yards. It dropped in, levelling their match at 1-1, and now it was Senegal and Wales who would advance!

There were still forty minutes to go, but now Senegal and Wales settled into play defense, and Mexico and Portgual had to chase. Determined defending saw both the 'leaders' stave off further attack, and the final scores stood up through a dramatic, desperate injury time, some of the most fun football I've watched in several years.

Of course, it helped I'd found a big contingent of Welsh fans to drink with!

G: Wales 3, Portugal 2

Bellamy 13, Hartson 45, 46; Gomes 18, Costinha 47

MoM: Hartson (Wales SC, Fulham)

Blackburn fans would be over the moon to see John Hartson's Man of the Match performance, as the 13th-placed Rovers would be adding him to the lineup in a summer transfer.

For Senegal, the one-one draw was enough to see them top of the table, and manager Guy Stephan would go down as a legend!

G: Senegal 1, Mexico 1

Kamara 49; Peralta 45

MoM: Kamara (Senegal AM/F LC, Portsmouth)

What a pair of upsets! Senegal and Wales, over the famous footballing nations Mexico and Portugal?!

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Senegal 5 1 2 0 3 2 + 1

Q 2 Wales 4 1 1 1 5 5 0

3 Mexico 3 0 3 0 4 4 0

4 Portugal 2 0 2 1 4 5 - 1</pre>

With that, the matchips for the Second Round were set.

If England could get through Turkey, they faced what looked an easy run to a Semi-Final matchup against either Brazil or Italy, while on the other side of the bracket Argentina seemed set for a similar run to a Semi-Final where they would face either Germany, France, or Spain, exhausted by a tricky Quarter-Final.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Brazil - Sweden || Spain - Ivory Coast

Italy - Paraguay || France - Germany

---------------------------------------------------

England - Turkey || Argentina - Bulgaria

Senegal - Colombia || Romania - Wales.</pre>

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Saturday, 24th June, 2006. World Cup 2006 Second Round.

There was no rest for either players or fans: the matches follow hard upon each other at this stage of the grueling tournament; its always surprised me that there's not at least one off-day between the group stage and the knockout rounds.

Truth be told, I didn't mind so much that Stacy had asked me to choose one of the two matches to watch.

Being in Barcelona, of course I chose the evening match, Spain against the Ivory Coast, which meant I missed Sweden facing Group A winners Brazil in the first elimination match.

Right from the beginning the Cup holders poured the pressure on, and they were justly rewarded in the 21st minute when right wing Mancini controlled Zé Roberto's cross in the 6 yard box, and slipped it under keeper Robin Bergman for a 1-0 lead.

Despite the deficit, the Swedes stayed with their original game plan, playing defensive football and trying to slow the tempo, but Brazil continued to show flair and creativity every time they touched the ball. In the 57th minute, Adriano made it 2-0 with an incredible goal, a powerful shot from a narrow angle that barely eluded Bergman into the net.

Finally convinced of their danger, the Swedes began pushing forward, and rather than try to punsih them on the counter, Brazil demonstrated that they can play defense, limiting the Swedes to just two shots before injury time. When Juan's free kick cannoned back off the crossbar, it left the final score Brazil 2, Sweden 0

Brazil 2, Sweden 0

Mancini 21, Adriano 57; ----

MoM: Emerson (Brazil DMC, Juventus)

For the evening match, I settled in to a Barcelona pub to enjoy the game with a barful of Spain fans. I found myself a big fan for this one, not only because of the location, but because I couldn't help but think the U.S.A. should have beaten the Ivory Coast, 3-0 scoreline notwithstanding. Logic has no place in the football-mad mind!

I'd hardly taken my first sip when Bonaventure Kalou shocked the overconfident Spanish side. He left César for dead with a beautiful dribble into the right side of the area, and drove a laser shot past Iker Casillas to give the Ivory Coast an unexpected 1-0 lead!

The pub, so rambunctious before the match, was silenced. Spain appeared rattled for the next twenty minutes or so, but then began to mount ever more pressure, which culminated just before the break with some fantastic passing. Joaquín switched things up with a long cross from the right sideline to Vicente on the left, and with his first touch Vicente chipped it forward into the box. Raúl was there, and volleyed with his left foot, a stunning piece of flair for a 1-1 halftime score!

Both sides generated quality chances in the second half, most notable Didier Drogba and Arouna Koné for the Ivory Coast, with Raúl and Mista providing the danger for Spain. Both keepers proved up to the challenge, and each had several good saves before the full time whistle.

It went to extra time, still drawn 1-1. Ibrahmia Ouattara made another save in the the first half of extra time, and César came close to a dramatic redemption with his long-range shot deep in the second half, but after an epic battle it went to penalties.

Finally, the Ivory Coast's composure cracked, and when Iker Casillias saved two penalties, including Drogba's last chance, it was Spain that won it, 3-2.

Spain 1 (pen 3-2), Ivory Coast 1

Raúl 44; Kalou 3

MoM: Vicente (Spain AML, Valencia)

Stacy and I boarded a night train to France after the match, and I have to say I'm looking forward to sleeping in our own bed again.

I miss the cats!

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Sunday, 25th June, 2006. World Cup 2006 Second Round

We arrived in Bordeaux with sufficient time for a leisurely breakfast and some sight-seeing before finding a bar. I rather wish I'd known how beautiful I would find the port city; we'd only allocated a day, and what a day! It contained two of the biggest matches of the Second Round.

The indisputable heavyweight battle of the Second Round would come Sunday evening, but first flamboyant goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert and Paraguay would face mighty Italy.

Ten minutes into the match, it looked like the foregone conclusion everyone thought it was, as Stefano Fiore drove a low cross to the far post. Chilavert lunged for it, but missed, and Antonio Cassano tapped it in from close range to put Italy ahead 1-0.

However, Paraguay stiffened, and held that scoreline into the second half. Roque Santa Cruz was putting in another vintage performance, and it was he who curled a fabulous strike in from well wide of the goal to equalize. At 68 minutes, it was 1-1!

Paraguay pulled back to play defense, and killed off the final twenty minutes of regulation to send the game into extra time.

Both Chilavert and Gianluigi Buffon made key saves in the first half of extra time, Buffon denying Hugo Duarte from fifteen yards out, and the Paraguayan keeper denying Alessandro Del Piero a fabulous volley from a long ways out.

With each side increasingly exhausted, it was clear that both were content to take it to penalties, and the second half expired silently.

Marco Di Vaio scored the first for Italy, and then Buffon and Chilavert saved the next two. Duarte, Vieri, Gavilán, Oddo, Cardozo, and Nesta converted consecutive penalties, giving Italy a 4-3 lead as Darío Verón lined up for the final shot of the first ten.

He had to score to keep Paraguay in the game. Verón beat Buffon, but Del Piero kept the pressure on with a well-placed shot.

Santa Cruz converted his effort to keep Paraguay alive, and then Fiore put Italy back on top 6-5. Luis Benítez cooly converted, leaving it tied 6-6 with 11 consective shots hit!

Italy's Gianluca Zambrotta hit the crossbar, giving Jorge Amarilla the chance to win it, but Amarilla blazed it over.

It was down to little-used substitte Luciano Zauri, capped just 19 times and in off the bench today, and he put Italy's next shot wide. When Edgar Ferreira scored from the spot, Paraguay had won a thrilling encounter, eliminating the favored Italians 7-6 on penalties!

Paraguay 1 (pen 7-6) Italy 1

Santa Cruz 68; Cassano 10

MoM: Santa Cruz (Paraguay FC, Bayern München)

The heavyweight bout was the evening game. 2006 hosts and 2002 runners-up Germany faced 1998 winners France at Hamburg in the first must-see match of the tournament.

The German fans were loud and excited, but Thierry Henry silenced them in the 22nd minute, powering a header home on the end of Kapo's cross. Our bar in Bordeauz erupted in celebration of the world-famous Gunner, who had just completed a fine campaign, with 15 Premiership goals, 11 more in Continental play, and 2 in domestic cups for a tally of 28!

26-year-old midfielder Fabian Ernst got Germany back into the match in the 34th minute with a 30-yard strike that looked to have taken a deflection off Philippe Mexès. What a stage to score his first ever international goal!

Fabien Barthez made some fine saves in the early part of the second half, and then Oliver Kahn showed why he is rated one of the best in the world with a fabulous save of his own to deny Kapo what would have been a classic goal.

Both sides made all of their substitutions over the next twenty minutes, but it was still 1-1 in the 82nd minute when Henry struck the post. He couldn't have come any closer, and the agonized look on his face told just how much he'd wanted it! Kahn collected one more save, a deflected effort by Patrick Vieira, and then the match went to extra time.

In the first four minutes of extra time, France had two players carted off, Ludovic Giuly and Jérôme Rothen. With all their substitutes made - they'd seen Robert Pires and Sidney Govou injured in the first half - the French were reduced to nine men, and the German fans sensed blood in the water.

Les Blues pulled back into a defensive shell, conceding almost the full thirty minutes in posession, but managed to keep the Germans at bay and force injury time.

There, it was Fabien Barthez who shone, saving the penalties of Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings, and then, with France ahead 3-2, taking the final penalty himself to send the hosts tumbling out!

France 1, (pen 4-2), Germany 1

Henry 22; Ernst 34

MoM: Henry (France SC, Arsenal)

The injuries might prove costly indeed to the French: Sidney Govou had a shoulder injury, Ludovic Giuly a broken arm, and Jérôme Rothen had suffered bruised ribs. All would miss the remainder of the World Cup, while Pires, David Trezeguet and Bernard Mendy had all picked up lesser knocks as well.

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Monday, 26th June, 2006. World Cup 2006 Second Round.

We'd taken a morning train from Bordeaux to Paris, and arrived with little time to find a good Englishmen-abroad bar: instead I rushed into the first thing I could find with a television, which turned out to be a little café with a strong cappucino and a Turkish coffee specialty, which might explain why my viewing companions were six old Frenchmen with cigarettes and cigars, and two Turks in their early thirties.

England, of course, were renewing their rivalry with Turkey, which had produced so much tension in the terraces over the years. The nil-nil friendly earlier in the year had been bereft of off-field incidents, but indicated how close the sides are. And who can forget the unpleasantness of the two 2003 encounters in the buildup to Euro 2004? The 2-0 home win for England had been marred by abuse in the stands, pitch incursions, and a large fine from UEFA, and the buildup to the rematch saw inflammatory comments from both sides. Nil-nil, in the end, secured England's place in the finals despite Beckham's penalty miss, but there could be little love lost between the two sides.

Sven again utilized the 4-4-2, with Darius Vassell joining Rooney up front, Beckham on the right, and Lampard and Gerrard central and young Matthew Taylor on the left wing.

England got off to a dream start when Franck Lampard took the opening shot not two minutes into the match. It looked like it was headed wide of the goal, but defender Akyel Fatih, over-eager with the pressure of the big match, came flying in with his boot raised to try and block it. He couldn't have placed a better shot on goal had he been an England forward!! I kept my celebration muted - the Turks sounded like they were about to break their mugs, and my French companions had let out a burst of what could only be profanity.

Truth be told, I felt almost badly for Reçber Rüstü: he had played so manfully against Argentina, and to be undone by his own teammate just ninety seconds into the match must have been gutting.

If so, he didn't show it: Wayne Rooney and David Beckham both had chances to make it a two-goal lead before halftime, but the Turkish keeper denied them both with a grim determination that seemed to seethe from the television.

England had had the better of the first half, but I was still on the edge of my seat: the Turkish defense is notoriously rugged, and the counter had looked dangerous on several occasions. Sure enough,

Turkey came battling back in the second half, switching from defender to aggressor, and closing down across the pitch with an intensity the English just couldn't match.

Sanli Tuncay had two great chances, the first from the top of the arc when he was left a bit too much space, and the second taking a great through ball when he'd beaten Sol Campbell to a through ball in the box. I doubt Paul Robinson could have done anything about either, but the first curled away from the goal, and the second slashed just inches wide - to the vocal despair of my café comrades.

It was well against the run of play when young Matthew Taylor earned a free kick in the Turkish half in the 77th minute. Ashely Cole came forward to take it, and curled a low cross in between the Turkish defense and the goal. Wayne Rooney was first there, sliding in at the six to lift it in off the near post, past the despairing Rüstü.

With a 2-0 lead now, England fans could begin to relax, and the final minutes passed without incident, blessedly without injury as the Turks began taking their frustration out in a series of yellow-card tackles. Four minutes of injury time dragged on seemingly everlasting before the final whistle blew: England were through!

England 2, Turkey 0

Fatih o.g. 2, Rooney 77; ----

MoM: Rooney (England SC, Manchester United)

In the evening, Bulgaria faced Argentina.

The match was never close.

The Albicelestes, in their classic blue-and-white stripes, put on a tremendous clinic, demonstrating just how the sport ought to be played. From the opening touch, the match was played in the Bulgarian half, the Argentines mounting more and more pressure on the beleaguered defense.

The attentions proved to much for Predrag Pazin in the 21st minute, and he conceded an awful turnover, a loose pass from the left side of his eighteen towards #3 central. Javier Saviola nipped in, took one touch, and ripped a powerful shot. Zdravko Zdravkov did amazingly well to turn it away, but luck was not the 'keeper's friend. The rebound fell directly to Fernando Cavenaghi, whose first-time shot from twelve yards had an open net to receive it. His fourth goal in as many games, and a 1-0 lead!

Foul after foul indicated how overmatched the Bulgarians felt, and truth be told, looked. The tactic appeared to be working, as they made it just a minute shy of halftime without conceding another, but then Cavenaghi earned a push in the centre-circle. Walter Samuel lifted a long free kick straight down the middle of the park. Pazin went to head clear, but misjudged it: the ball carried just over his head at the top of the arc, dropping in at the eighteen for Javier Saviola. There was no wonder-save this time, and the 25-year-old Barcelona star finally had his first goal of the tournament! Argentina led 2-0 at the interval.

Not six minutes after the restart, Argentina added another, this time from a corner. Cavenaghi lined up at the point where the arc rejoins the eighteen, opposite the near post; despite having eleven men back and only seven attackers in the box, he was uncovered. Riquelme picked him out with a low ball to feet, and Cavenaghi hammered it into the crowded box. It took a deflection off of Iliyan Stoyanov, and still found the back of the net for Cavenaghi's Cup-leading fifth goal! At 3-0, the match was surely over.

In the 66th minute, Argentina shifted to a more defensive formation, with the recovering-from injury Fabricio Coloccini in defense and Carlos Tevez in for Saviola. Though most of the game was being played at a walking pace, Cavenaghi andn Tevez were still willing to run, and Coloccini's sizzling fifty-yard ball down the right wing in the 83rd minute outdistanced the exhausted Bulgarian defense. Cavenaghi ran it down, and picked out Tevez with an inch-perfect pass into the eighteen. The 23-year-old star-in-the-making - bought by Barcelona for an earth-shattering £26.5M in January - converted for his first World Cup goal, and that made the final score an embarassing 4-0.

Argentina 4; Bulgaria 0

Cavenaghi 21, 51, Saviola 45, Tevez 83; ----

MoM: Cavenaghi (Argentina SC, Newcastle United)

It had looked an altogether easy win for Argentina, who had to become clear favorites for the tournament with that result. In four matches so far, they'd scored nine without conceding, and their next opponents would be Romania or Wales!

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Tuesday, 27th June, 2006. World Cup 2006 Second Round.

Today was the last day of our trip, and I'd agreed to skip any football viewing in order to accompany my wife through Paris. She has a friend there, Christina, who lives near the Gare de Lyon.

Her apartment building shows why America may never rival the European powers in "soccer". The back 'yard' has a narrow strip of grass, and that narrow strip of grass has two goals set up in it. Small, child-sized goals, the sort which an eight-year-old might have trouble guarding, but adults would use without a goalkeeper.

The entire time we were there, I think, there were kids kicking a ball around on that field, and the barren dirt patches in front of the two goals indicated that they are both manned, and often. One child was obviously a fan of Zidane. I could have told that from the dribble-to-juggle-to-shoot move he kept trying, let alone the replica kit he wore.

Maybe it would see less action outside of the World Cup .. but that dirt patch looked as old as the apartment building itself, and no new development.

In the U.S., there would have been no goals: the youths play touch football (American rules) in the streets, or sandlot baseball, or pickup basketball - but never 'soccer'. Its the game Mom makes you play because American football is 'too dangerous'.

European fifteen-year-olds, therefore, have thousands of hours more football under their belts than Americans of the same age.

Wales had to face Group H winners Romania, the price for coming second in their group. The match was very uneven, with Romania dominating posession and shots, but the Welsh defense managed to limit them to long-range half-chances in the first forty-five minutes.

By the second half, however, conditioning was clearly beginning to tell, and it was the Romanian side which were more fit as well. Just when it started to look like Wales might stretch it to extra time, Tiberiu Ghioane scored on an incredible 40-yard free kick, and Romania held a 1-0 lead.

Throwing everybody forward seemed to make no change in the run of play, and Romania easily held on through the final twenty minutes to eliminate the Welsh side.

Romania 1, Wales 0

Ghioane 68; ----

MoM: Chivu (Romania DLC, A.S. Roma)

In the second match, Senegal and Colombia both looked very unimpressive, missing multiple shots through the first half despite good conditions in Köln.

Senegal's Khalilou Fadiga was sent off for arguing a yellow card in the 38th minute, and down to ten men Senegal fell into a defensive posture which would see them hold the 0-0 draw into the 84th minute despite Colombia's best efforts.

The match was growing ever more contentious, with both sides very displeased at the refereeing, and when a foul was called against Colombia, Avimileth Rivas blew up at the referee, and was sent off as well.

With the match down to 10 on 10, there was plenty of space in extra time, and both sides had their best chances of the match through 30 enthralling minutes.

Despite the beautiful football being played, neither could score, and the match went to penalties. Colombia scored three of their four, while Óscar Córdoba made two saves to send Senegal crashing out of the Cup.

Colombia 0 (pen 3-1), Senegal 0

----; ----

MoM: Córdoba (Colombia GK, Besiktas)

Óscar Córdoba has been quietly having a phenomenal Cup - he's my choice for the goalkeeper of the tournament thus far, with his penalty save against Romania, his shutout performance against Japan, and now this penalty-shootout performance.

The quarterfinal round was set, and would feature the following matchups:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Brazil vs Paraguay

England vs Colombia

-----------------------

France vs Spain

Argentina vs Romania</pre>

Though the Cup was heating up, I had to make my way back to England to ready the Minstermen for the coming League Two campaign.

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Wednesday, 28th June, 2006.

It feels so good to be home!

I returned to York today to take stock of the financial situation, catch up on the transfer news, and get everything sorted out in time for the players' arrival. The players were due to report on Sunday the 2nd of July.

Sorting through my e-mail, the first thing I learned was that Jon Paul McGovern had been voted York's Player of the Year by our supporters. The 25-year-old had played a fine season, with a 7.64 average rating, but I could have asked for a bit more production than 4 goals and 8 assists, to be honest. Still, he's one of the players I'll be counting on to form the backbone of my League Two side.

I figure McGovern, fellow winger John McGrath, defensive midfielder Alan Navarro, leading scorer Ryan Ashington, and fullback Graham Law are all League Two quality. With Joe Keenan joining the defense and Alan Blayney due to arrive in goal, and Tappa Whitmore back from injury by December or so, that's eight of eleven positions well-manned.

Still, we'll need a striker and I doubt my young central defenders will be up to standard. Depth would be helpful as well.

Realizing how bare that was going to leave the cupboard, I faxed a contract offer to the agent of striker Mark Rawle, asking if he'd be willing to re-sign on backup's wages.

Right wing Kevin Donovan declared his intent to retire as of June of '07, an announcement which it was hard to see affecting us: he didn't contribute to any goal last year and his contract expires in a few days.

The last piece of key information concerned Liverpool striker Neil Mellor. Our leading scorer last season, his contract with the Reds was due to expire at the end of June. I'd tried to arrange to bring him to York on a permanent basis, but he'd wanted (and fully deserved) more wages than I could offer. He instead accepted an offer to transfer to Preston North End, a deal which would earn £400,000 for Liverpool, and seemed to put paid to my hopes of bringing him back to Bootham Crescent on loan for the 06/07 season.

At home, the cats - far from taking the "we're going to punish you" attitude, took a "thank God you didn't lock us in Purgatory again!" stance. Stacy normally gives them a lot of attention, and the fact that she'd stayed in Paris to spend more time with Christina meant it was all on me to meet their needs.

Normally, they like their space from each other, but as I crawled into bed I had four furry forms within about a foot of me.

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Thursday, 29th June, 2006.

"Welcome back, boss."

"Tappa! How are you?!"

Though I was genuinely glad to see the Jamaican midfielder, my attenae quivered with warning signals when he dropped by my office for a chat in the middle of the off-season. Few of the players were in York yet, and I hadn't expected my injured midfielder to report with the players.

"Well enough," he answered. "Walking without crutches, as you see."

"That's good, that's good."

"I wanted to tell you first. I've decided to retire."

My heart leapt into my throat. "Now?"

"No, no. At the end of the season, next July. I'll honour my contract. I'm determined to recover sufficiently to play again, but .. boss, you can't know. Rehab has been going so slowly, its very frustrating."

"It always is, Tappa, it always is. My knee took nine months, I think."

"You know how it is, then."

"You just have to stick with it: cry if you have to, rage if you have to, just don't let yourself quit."

We sat in silence for a minute or so, and then the conversation turned - as between old friends - to the trip, and the summer. To my surprise, when I attempted to engage him in a conversation about the World Cup, he shrugged.

"I have not seen much of it. I've been so busy, and with no Jamaica..."

"I know, hours and hours of physical therapy."

"No, that's not all. In fact, that's one reason I stopped by.

"I've qualified for my coaching badge."

"What? Really?"

"Yes. I was so bored, on crutches, and I'd so enjoyed helping you with training.."

"Tappa, that's great!"

"I'd love to be able to move into a coaching role with the club this season. In fact, perhaps I could begin coaching before my injury will let him play?"

"I .. do have an opening for a coach, with Brian Neaves's contract expiring.. Look, the best I can do is promise to interview you when we bring in candidates for his replacement."

He smiled and nodded.

"That's all I could ask. Thanks, boss."

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Friday, 30th June, 2006. World Cup 2006 Quarterfinals.

It was yet another working day: I placed an advertisement for interview candidates for both our scouting and coaching positions, and gathered the existing staff to me to cover our pre-season training plans.

We'd been challenged to friendlies at Bootham Crescent by Championship sides Leicester and Hull. I accepted Leicester's offer. Hull's challenge conflicted with our existing friendly schedule, but they accepted an earlier date. Barrow of Conference North invited us to Holker Street, which I also accepted, leaving us with a fairly full slate: eight friendly matches before League play began.

That left our schedule was as follows:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Wed 12th July H Hull City (Champ)

Sat 15th July H Peterborough (Lg-2)

Mon 17th July A Harrogate Town (Conf)

Tue 18th July H Leicester (Champ)

Sat 22nd July H Tottenham (Champ)

Wed 26th July A Barrow (Conf N)

Sun 30th July H Leeds United (Lg-1)

Sat 5th Aug A ROCHDALE

Tue 8th Aug H PETERBOROUGH

Sat 12th Aug A HEREFORD UNITED</pre>

Six of the eight friendlies (league games in CAPS) were at our level of higher: revenue spinners rather than matches I expected us to win.

My last attempt to get striker Mark Rawle to re-sign with us on backup wages failed, and he, too, would be leaving on a free.

In the World Cup, France and Spain kicked off the Quarter-Finals in Mönchengladbach. It was a tense, close match, well contested by both defenses. Spain had three good chances in the first twenty minutes, but couldn't close any of them.

Then the match seemed to turn, and it was France ascendant. Thierry Henry nearly put them ahead in the 41st minute, sprinting clear of the defense on one of his trademark breakaways, but he put the ball wide of the net.

The two defenses were playing incredibly, and it looked like a one-goal game, or even extra time, when in the 73rd minute, second-half substitute Mista took Puyol's throw-in on the eighteen: the 28-year-old had slipped the defense's attention entirely, and took two touches to settle it perfectly before lashing it to the bottom left corner of the goal from 16 yards. It was a great strike, and more, his first ever international goal!

Les Blues inexplicably brought on Patrick Anelka in place of the tiring Henry - a decision that almost cost Raymond Domenech his job after the Cup. Anelka did create some pressure on the Spanish defense, but Iker Casillas made two fine saves to deny the Frenchman.

In the 88th minute, Mista received a pass in the French area. Back to goal, and surrounded by defenders, he lifted a pass back out of the area. It looked like it had a bit too much on it, but David Albelda unleashed a spectacular volley: it curled past Fabien Barthez to the top left corner, a 30-yard wondergoal, and Spain led 2-0 with only injury time to play!!

There was little the French could do in that span: Spain settled in defensively and advanced to the Semi-Finals for the first time since 1950!

Spain 2, France 0

Mista 73, Albelda 88; ----

MoM: Vicente (Spain AML, Valencia)

The second match wasn't anywhere near as close.

Paraguay keeper José Luis Chilavert had made some ill-advised comments about Brazil's strikers in the press over the previous days, and the Cup holders came out determined to prove him wrong.

It took just four minutes.

Adriano's flick-on header gave Maxwell space up the left side. As Chilavert's defense overreacted, the 25-year-old flighted a long cross-field ball for Kaká, thirty yards out. He volleyed - not a shot, but a chipped pass over the head of Edgar Ferreira and into the box. Ronaldo pounced on it, slotting it home past Chilavert for a quick 1-0 lead!

That might have been the assist of the tournament - I couldn't have played the ball so perfectly to Ronaldo's feet if you'd given me six months to practice it from a dead ball: Kaká had taken it on the volley! That's why he's a superstar, and I'm a manager, I suppose. Those that can't do, teach?

The onslaught wasn't over: in the 11th minute, Cáceres was forced to put a throw out deep in Paraguay territory. Left-side fullback Dédé, who is quietly having a phenomenal tournament, came up to take it, and lifted the throw to the near-corner of the six. Ronaldo used his phenomenal upper-body strength to hold off Ferriera, and flicked a header on into the box. Veteran central defender Lúcio was there to tap it past Chilavert at the back post, and it was a quick 2-0!

From there, it was just fun for the Brazilians, as they dominated the match, seeming to taunt Paraguay with their passing and limiting them to only two shots in the final 80 minutes. My man Roque Santa Cruz was almost completely shut out, limited to just a few touches and a single shot, which he put wide.

When Adriano took Dédé's pass into the left-hand corner in the 70th minute, he honestly had no space to work with. Ronaldo was triple-covered central, and the rest of the Brazilian attack was hanging back - disciplined defending, from Brazil? What's the world coming to? That left Adriano one-on-one with Cáceres right at the edge of the eighteen, two Paraguay defenders quickly closing the ground. He faked a move out, then faked towards the by-line, leaving Cáceres stumbling and out of position as Adriano accelerated through the space he'd just vacated. He launched a fantastic strike from the tight angle, and the aging, portly Chilavert couldn't reach it.

In 1998, he might have made that save, but now? 3-0, and the embarassment was complete for Paraguay.

Brazil 3, Paraguay 0

Ronaldo 4, Lucio 7, Adriano 70; ----

MoM: Dédé (Brazil DML, Real Madrid)

Today's lesson: taunting the Brazil attack?

Unwise.

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Saturday, 1st July, 2006.

Though the World Cup was heating up, it was time to cease being a fan, and return to work. The new season started with the monthly board meeting. Chairman of the Board Steve Beck had been an unfailing optimist since I joined the club, so his appraisal of our chances was slightly worrisome.

"While the board remain very pleased with your performance," he told me, "I think we should set realistic expectations for this season. Despite your optimism last month, not everybody on this Board is convinced we have the players to stay in the League, especially given how many of our key players last season were in on loan. We only have one striker on the roster! Consequently, we expect you to invest in new players and start rebuilding the team during the coming season."

"Does that mean you don't expect us to stay up?"

"Honestly? No. Not with the players we have."

"Does that mean we'll be making more transfer budget available?"

He had the grace to look embarassed. "Well, no."

"But.." I looked helplessly from him to Sophie McGill, my financial conspirator. "I thought, with the increased television revenue..." I trailed off helplessly.

"That's just the thing. The League isn't doing so well. Our share of television revenues for the year was only £230,000."

"Yes," Sophie added her say. "That was enough to bring us momentarily to a positive balance of £96 on the 20th of June - the first time we'd been positive in over a year, but only if you don't count the £2M debt. Of course, we're back under now, with the July debt payment."

I looked from her back to the Chairman. "So, the transfer budget?"

"We'll let you keep the annual budget we agreed upon last month, plus the income you've made from June transfers."

"What's that?"

Sophie answered. "We'd agreed £27,788, and your June transfers bring that up to £44,123."

"But there's one other thing," Steve added. From the tone of his voice, I wasn't sure I liked where this was headed. "We're also very concerned about the club's wage bill. It is currently very high, and we feel we need to restrict available wages until the situation is rectified."

All I can say is, after that gutting, I hardly needed the shortlist of 50 or so players whom I'd been considering for the July transfer window. However, there were some transfers we'd arranged, which went through:

GK Alan Blayney, 24, N.Ireland: The former Southampton youngster had spent the past two seasons on loan to a succession of sides in League One and League Two. He represented an incredible upgrade over our previous starter, David Stockdale, and I hoped that he would be our first choice for the next eight to ten seasons. He has amazing reflexes and physical ability, with fine technical skills, good decision making and handling. He has two weaknesses: first, his positioning leaves quite a bit to be desired, but that is something which we should be able to train. Second, he has a very meek personality, and will never be a leader of the squad.

D/DM LC Joe Keenan, 23, English: Bought from Chelsea for a mere £28,000, Keenan is a solid improvement at left back, with more pace than most of our defenders, and strength in all of the areas which I deem important for a defender: tackling, marking, stamina, teamwork. He's also determined, and can cover at least four positions solidly, as well as having the ability to contribute offensively in a desperation move if need be.

Keenan spoke out in relief at ending his nightmare at Stamford Bridge, indicating that he hopes the move will give him the chance to play again after spending his entire career with Chelsea and getting only two matches (though he spent three years on loan to Westerlo, scoring 15 goals, 8 assists, and an incredible 25 Man of the Match awards in only 93 appearances.)

It was also a day of official farewells: Darren Dunning's transfer to fellow League Two side Chesterfield was completed, a move beneficial to both parties as he was now drawing more salary than we could afford, and he hadn't been part of our first-team plans. I do wish somebody, somewhere, had gotten him one more match, though, so he could claim a century at Bootham Crescent.

Darren Dunning, MLC, 25: July 2003-June 2006: 3 seasons, 99 games, 6 goals, 7 assists, 1 MoM, 6.85

Mark Rawle, Kevin Donovan, Mark Zawadski, and (finally!) Paul Robinson were all officially no longer part of the team, though only Donovan came around to say good-byes. The others had left York when the season ended.

Mark Rawle, SC, 27: January 2005 - June 2006: 2 seasons, 40 games, 11 goals, 7 assists, 1 MoM, 6.95

Kevin Donovan, AMR, 34: January 2004-June 2006: 2 seasons, 26 games, 2 goals, 1 assist, 6.77

Paul Robinson, FRC, 27: July 2004-June 2006: 2 seasons, 25 games, 3 goals, 2 assists, 6.28

Mark Zawadski, GK, 26: July 2005-June 2006: 1 season, 5 games, 5 conceded, 3 clean sheets, 6.80

It was also the end of the line for coach Brian Neaves, whose contract had expired without renewal, as well as Gary Lloyd, whom I had had scouting upcoming opposition for the past two seasons. Both were happy to go, as they could tell there wasn't much of a future for them under my management. I had already spoken with both of them about it, and had started the interview process for replacements after that conversation with Tappa.

Elsewhere, our former attacking midfielders Lee Morris and Stephen Cook had left their clubs, and were now available on a free transfer, as had two strikers I'd been watching closely. Of course I made contract offers to all four, though I doubted any would accept.

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Saturday, 1st July, 2006. World Cup 2006 Quarterfinals.

In the afternoon, everybody settled in to the Burton Stone Pub, a short walk down Burton Stone Lane from Bootham Crescent, to watch England's quarterfinal. It was an odd mixture of people, as new signings Joe Keenan and Alan Blayney mixed with directors Ian McGill (Sophie's husband) and Steve Beck, released transfer Kevin Donovan, and some of our biggest fans.

It was raining in Gelsenkirchen as Colombia kicked off. Both sides played cautiously, keeping numbers back to defend, and looking to control the midfield game: preventing shots rather than taking an attacking risk. Sven's approach drew disgusted commentary throughout the Pub - though his pragmatic defense-first approach mirrors my own, its hardly satisfying to the observer.

Nontheless, there was a fantastic play in the 25th minute as Wayne Rooney played a fantastic ball for Michael Owen. The speedy forward had one man to beat, but Mario Yepes's tackle cleared it away. Frank Lampard was there to take control in the middle of the park, and he dribbled to about 25 yards from goal before bending a long range ball in off the right side post. It was a fabulous strike, which not even the on-form Óscar Córdoba could stop: England led 1-0!

The Burton Stone went absolutely mental!

It had been fun watching other matches in other countries, but here, surrounded by Englishmen at the local supporters' favourite pub .. well, nothing beats it!

The new England keeper, Paul Robinson, is a 26-year-old Liverpool keeper who made a £7M transfer from Tottenham at the start of last season. He looked very solid in goal: cool and composed every time the Colombians got anywhere near goal. He made a fine save from Aguilar in the 34th minute, and then again denied Aguilar with an acrobatic leap to tip his header over the bar at the 44th minute.

It remained 1-0 at halftime, but Colombia nearly equalized in the 52nd minute, as Edixon Perea came close, his shot just skimming the raindrops off the top of the bar. He was neatly set up by a youngster, 21-year-old midfielder Avimileth Rivas, who looks quite talented.

England came right back the other way, as Jonathan Woodgate played a fine ball for Beckham. The captain sent one of his famous crosses into the area, over the dummy run of Owen to the near post. It carried to the far side, where Wayne Rooney had time to settle for a picturesque volley. It was a low shot, far post, and hurried in beneath the diving Córdoba! Just five minutes from the hour-mark, and England led 2-0!

From there, Sven gave the order to shut it down, and England took only one more shot - but they kept the Colombians from taking any in a masterful defensive display that guaranteed Robinson his fifth consecutive shutout.

The final whistle blew: England were through to the Semi-Final!

England 2, Colombia 0

Lampard 25, Rooney 55; ----

MoM: Beckham (England MRC, Real Madrid)

For my money, any of the defenders - Cole, Terry, Woodgate, or Carragher - could have deserved Man of the Match for that, but it was given instead to the flamboyant captain Beckham, whose fine cross had created the second goal.

In the evening match, Romania were expected to give Argentina a bit more trouble than Bulgaria had, but the Albicelestes got off to a flying start.

Sixteen minutes in, Esteban Cambiasso drilled a vicious shot from all of 35 yards. It started out seeming destined to go high and wide, but, curling and dipping, it found the top right corner, hitting the crossbar and going almost straight down, just barely across the line. It was one of the greatest goals of the tournament, something to rival any goal I've ever seen!

That magical strike seemed to take all of the wind out of Romania's sails, and when Fernando Cavenaghi's beautiful run took him into the area, both keeper and defenders converged on him. After some fancy footwork left two defendes sprawling in his wake, he laid it left for the wide-open Javier Saviola! It was fabulous generosity, and Saviola calmly placed the ball into the open net. Though it was only 30 minutes in, the 2-0 lead seemed insurmountable.

To their credit, Romania didn't give up, and even took the game to the South Americans in the second half. They created several good chances, as Adrian Mutu's 22-yard free kick went narrowly over the bar, Alin Stoica blasted a shot from play over, and Ianis Alin Zicu's header narrowly missed.

It was all for naught, however, and when Ariel Ortega scorched a 20-yard free kick into the back of the net on 85 minutes, it was obvious that Argentina were through to the Semi-Finals.

Argentina 3, Romania 0

Cambiasso 16, Saviola 29, Ortega 85; ----

MoM: Franco (Argentina GK, Manchester United)

Goalkeeper Leo Franco had made just three saves, so I wasn't quite sure why he warranted Man of the Match: Cambiasso could have had it for his opening goal alone, and had followed that with a fine game from midfield.

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looking forward to the new season...tough luck on the transfer budget...

Maybe looking for loans to strength your team as previously...cheers..

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Thanks, Damien! Glad to know I haven't lost my readers with this summer sojourn! And.. yeah. I was pretty disappointed with the transfer budget.

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Monday, 3rd July, 2006.

The players reported for training Sunday amidst a scorching heat wave. The only place you could find comfort, even well into the evening, was inside an air conditioned building. I was quite surprised - last summer hadn't been this brutal.

Nonetheless, we began the backbreaking physical work which would pay off - so I promised the lads - "Come April, when squads who hadn't sweated as we're sweating will falter on weary legs."

The mood in camp seemed buoyant and upbeat: everyone from the fans (our owners, under the Supporter's Trust arrangement) to the water boy were excited at the prospect of a return to York's rightful place in League football.

On the contractual front, by Monday evening my youth players Adam Corbett, Daryl Peters, and Kevin West had renewed their contracts through June of 2007. We were also joined by a 15-year-old graduate from the youth setup, a right back named John Barker.

D R John Barker, 15, English: Although he works hard in practice and seems as determined as anyone, chasing after every ball as though he trailed by one in the 89th minute of the World Cup Final, he looks well shy of the calibre I'd expect, judging from two days of practice. Perhaps that was just nerves at training with the senior side, but he'll have to show me quite a bit of improvement to merit any consideration.

My biggest concern remained at striker, where I had not even a fifteen-year-old schoolboy to substitute for Levent Yalcin should the Turk become injured or need a rest. I was having no luck with my offers to purchase or loan any alternatives, either.

The transfer budget, such as it had been, was mostly eaten up in the one transfer, for Joe Keenan, whose potential is undeniable but he won't score goals for us. Just £16,000 remained available, which hardly seems enough to find a League-quality goalscorer with.

I foresee a lot of nil-nil draws this year.

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Tuesday, 4th July, 2006. World Cup 2006 Semi-Final.

Four teams remained in the Cup, all worthy champions, with no Cinderella story this time: Argentina, Brazil, England and Spain.

There were no easy draws for the semi-finals, but England drew one of the hardest: Cup holders Brazil[/b]. 82,641 turned out to watch at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, plus millions more around the world, including over a hundred at the Burton Stone Pub.

Brazil earned the first chance, a corner kick in the 8th minute, but John Terry headed clear for England.

As you might expect with Brazil involved, it was a back and forth flowing, attacking encounter, and Michael Owen and David Beckham teamed up on a quick exchange that saw Owen up the right win, then crossing with a ball low and hard, but Thiago Motta cleared it for a corner, and then headed the corner clear.

Frank Lampard's free kick in the 14th went wide of goal, and then Adriano tried a crashing drive from distance which just skimmed over the bar. English keeper Paul Robinson found himself facing the supreme test in the 34th as Ronaldo broke past the English defense, and tried to take it around him, but Robinson dove into his legs, and somehow wrapped himself around the ball.

Forty minutes had gone by, and it was still scoreless, but then Owen Hargreaves played the ball down the left wing. Matthew Taylor ran onto it, then sent in a near-post cross. Frank Lampard leaped above Motta to head it into the near corner, and England were ahead 1-0!

Joy and jubliation reigned in the Burton Stone through halftime, and we watched several dozen replays of the goal, and Robinson's save.

Brazil, however, came out fighting from the second half kickoff, and Robinson was tested multiple times. He caught Motta's long range effort in the 46th, and fisted a cross away in the 47th.

In the 49th, Brazil earned a corner. It came short to Adriano, who looked odds-on to score, but Terry tackled it away. Lúcio was first to the rebound, and played it right for Ronaldo, who had found a yard's worth of space on the other side, the perfect opportunity for the prolific striker, and he banged it home: 1-1!

That was the only goal England had conceded in the Cup thus far.

Both sides could have won it before extra time, but Wayne Rooney hit the woodwork in the 69th minute, while Robinson did well to tip Zé Roberto's long-range curler over the bar. James Beattie's header went over just before full time, and it was into extra time.

In regulation it had been an attacking match, but in extra-time, both sides played conservative, defensive football, seeking first not to concede the winner. There was only one shot, which came in the 104th minute. Beckham hit a spectacular half-volley which looked the winner, but Dida had read it perfectly all the way, and clutched it to his chest.

The second half of extra time expired silently, and the match went to penalties.

Lúcio struck first for Brazil, but the defender put it almost straight down the middle, and Robinson saved it!

James Beattie converted his effort, a strong low shot to Dida's left, and England led 1-0.

Ronaldinho was next for Brazil, and Robinson dove right as he played it to the left, to tie it at 1-1.

Lampard stepped up confidently for England, and drilled it to the top-right corner: no keeper in the world could have kept that out, and it was 2-1.

Kaká put his effort straight to Robinson, who made his second save.

Beckham was poised to give England an insurmountable lead, but Dida made a diving save!

França had the next turn for Brazil, and put it into the right-side netting to make it 2-2.

Rooney followed for England, and drilled it to the right for a 3-2 advantage.

Zé Roberto had to score to keep Brazil in it, which he did! Robinson guessed correctly, but couldn't catch up with the low scorcher, and it was 3-3.

Paul Konchesky had the chance to be the hero with England's fifth kick, but he blazed it over!! Sudden death ensued: as each side had had five chances, the next to score opposite a miss by the opposition would win!

Edmílson shot sixth for Brazil, and his slow looping shot might have been saveable, but Robinson dove the wrong way: Brail led 4-3!

Defender Jamie Carragher had to score to keep England in the game, and he nestled it into the net to Dida's left, 4-4.

Left back Dédé took the next spot kick for Brazil, but Robinson guessed correctly for his third save!

England would win if Gerrard could convert, but he put it wide! The agony on his face was matched only by the groans of despair from the Burton Stone.

Into the eighth penalty of the shootout, and Belletti lined it up for Brazil. He tried the left side, but didn't get enough power on it, and again Robinson made the save!

Another chance for England to win, this time in the hands of Jonathan Woodgate. Despair! He put it wide as well!

England never can seem to win a penalty shootout, and more than one man had walked out of the Burton Stone, unable to watch.

Juan Silveira dos Santos, the defender, took the ninth shot for Brazil, well-struck to the keeper's left, and miracle of miracles! Robinson made his fifth save, his third in a row!!

That brought up John Terry to win it for England, and he found the back of the net! Joy, dancing, air horns in the streets: England were through to their first final since 1966!

England 1 (pen 5-4), Brazil 1

Lampard 40; Ronaldo 49

MoM: Dédé (Brazil DML, Real Madrid)

Paul Robinson had been incredible, absolutely phenomenal: five saves against nine penalties! Not to mention his work in regulation! How he wasn't Man of the Match, I'll never know.

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Wednesday, 5th July, 2006. World Cup 2006 Semi-Finals.

The Wednesday morning papers were full of talk about the match, of course, bursting with praise for Paul Robinson, for John Terry, and Frank Lampard - nationalist pride overran reason, I think, building them into heroes of mythic proportions.

The tabloids were greatly looking forward to an England-Argentina final. It looked a sure thing, given how flawlessly Argentina had played thus far, with wins of 3-0, 1-0, 1-0, 4-0, and 3-0 propelling them to this point. Spain, it was noted often, always choke under pressure. The writers were keen to point out the poetic justice that would be served if England, with Beckham as captain, faced the side which had eliminated them on penalties in 1998 after Beckham's red card.

It was perfect, a Hollywood script come true.

But somebody forgot to tell Spain about the losing their match. Right from the beginning, they were the attacking side, taking it to the Albicelestes, and forcing two saves from keeper Leo Franco in the first 60 seconds. For fifteen minutes, the ball was entirely at their end, but then Argentina began to surge forward, and Cambiasso forced the first save from Iker Casillas.

As the game began to spread out, there were chances at both ends. In the 30th minute, Spain's Raúl sent Vicente forward with a pass to feet, and Vicente found David Albelda to his right. Albelda blasted a banana shot from outside of the area - it took a deflection off of Cambiasso and wound up in the back of the net! Spain were up 1-0!

Argentina began to pick up the pace, seeking to apply more pressure, but the Spanish midfield was up to the task, and the back four anchored by ageless veteran Puyol seemed up to any challenge. Halftime came and went, with no change, and the second half seemed to provide more of the same. I, like everyone the world over, thought a moment of magic was just seconds away, but it never seemed to come.

It stayed 1-0 through the hour mark, and Argentina manager José Pekerman went to his bench. Shockingly, he went like-for-like, replacing the prolific combination of Saviola and Cavenaghi with veterans Ariel Ortega and Claudio López. I'm sure he imagined that their experience (114 caps and 85, respectively) would prove a steadying influence, but it didn't work out that way.

As the match wore on, Argentina began to loose their composure, and started taking half-chances rather than setting up the sort of clinical finishing which had propelled them thus far. Missing the creativity of their two young strikers, they seemed unable to crack the Spanish defense, and Carlos Tevez was visibly frustrated, erupting into a tirade at Pekerman when the manager sent Inter defender Nicolás Burdisso in with his final substitution.

Amazingly, into the three minutes of stoppage time the Albicelestes seemed unable to even force a save from Iker Casillas. In the second minute of injury time, Argetnina's Kily Gonzalez took off down the left side, and sent a perfect cross curling to the far post. Claudio López rose above Mista to win the ball, and looked certain to score..

But his header cannoned back off the crossbar, and Mista cleared it to safety!

Thirty seconds left now, twenty, and Man of the Match Joaquín carried it into the right-hand corner, killing vital seconds .. there was the whistle!

Spain 1, Argentina 0

Albelda 30; ----

MoM: Joaquín (Spain AMR, Juventus)

Argentina were out! After winning every match thus far, their first goal conceded had proved lethal, and their dream was over!

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Very good read! I don't often venture into the mystical realms of the story tellers forum - but I have been thinking of starting one myself to try and get a bit of enthusiasm back into my FM games which are lacking a little in the fun department lately. It seems I picked a good first thread to read through for examples of writing style icon_smile.gif

By the way, congratulations on the promotion and come on England in the final! icon_biggrin.gif

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Saturday, 8th July, 2006. World Cup 2006 Third-Place Match.

Mercifully, the heat wave broke by late in the weak, and more seasonable temperatures - warm, but not broiling - were the order of the day into the weekend.

Still, just one week into our fitness regime, and our players were grumbling and cursing the name of Ian Richards. I had them alternating between merciless endurance runs and legbreaking wind sprints, and rarely brought a ball into action at all.

The fans were looking forward to the season, and had already bought tickets in great numbers for most of our preseason friendlies. Meanwhile, I kept my phone in constant operation, seeking one or two more players who could really make a difference for the Minstermen this season in our battle to stay up.

I was having no luck.

I didn't watch the Saturday evening third-place match between Brazil and Argentina - my focus was entirely on York City - though I'm not naive. I knew I'd need to give the lads tomorrow afternoon off, or risk having them all call in "sick".

By all accounts, it was a dull boring game between two teams who were far from thrilled to be playing in Dortmund on Saturday rather than in Berlin on Sunday. After 120 apathetic minutes finished nil-nil, Argentina defeated Brazil on penalties.

Argentina 0 (pen 3-2), Brazil 0

----; ----

MoM: Dédé (Brazil DML, Real Madrid)

It is worth noting that Dédé earning Man of the Match again: the 28-year-old left-sided attacking fullback had played a phenomenal season for Real Madrid after a stunning £29M transfer from Valencia, and had justified the decision with an 8.07 average rating as he helped guide Real to the La Liga championship.

He'd picked up five Man of the Match awards in Brazil's seven games: utterly incredible, considering he hadn't even scored a goal, and Brazil is known for its attackers rather than its defenders.

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Thanks, paulsgruff - kind words to hear! I started this one for much the same reason, and took my inspiration from flipsix's "Leaving the Past Behind", which remains my all-time favorite story.

Now, let's see about that final...

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