Friday, August 13, 2010

Mind your manners

When we lived in Tokyo one of my favourite things was looking for the new public information posters on the Tokyo Metro.  Every month there would be a new poster reminding passengers not to do something or other.  Here is my album of photos of 11 months of posters.

A friend* recently pointed me in the direction of this site showing the long history and fantastic design of Tokyo Metro manner reminders.  See one below...
From October 1982
Now if anyone knows where there are any more of these, send them my way!

*Mark Birtles - you should check his single speed adventure from Tokyo to Osaka...

Monday, August 9, 2010

From the Rockies to the Pacific

In the grand tradition of Jack Kerouac, Huckleberry Finn and Easy Rider, Steph and I just took a road trip through America.
We drove from Denver to San Diego, roughly a third of the distance across the country in two days.  The directions were pretty easy, turn left onto I-70 and drive for 500 miles and then turn left onto I-15 for 500 miles, starting in Colorado and passing through Utah, Arizona and Nevada before finishing in California.

The trip gave me an opportunity to drive on the right (wrong) side of the road for the first time.  Although I only really drove on the freeway and Steph did the busiest sections of the drive.  But still after a few attempts to find a gear stick in the door pocket, there were no accidents and we made it here on time.  We wanted to take longer over the trip and make a few detours but the prohibitive rental car costs meant we could only afford to do it in 2 days.  

The star of the show was the American landscape.  Out of our car windows we saw high mountains and tree-lined valleys, rocky canyons and arid desert, in the middle of which was the weird mirage of Las Vegas, until we arrived at the gleaming Pacific, descending from a high of over 6000 feet to sea level.

Rocky spent most of the time curled in the passenger side footwell, it got pretty hot for her when we got to Death Valley, the lowest, driest and hottest place in the US (the temperature that day was forecast to get to 118˚F).  Even with the air-conditioning on our poor dog was panting, I filled her water bowl and held it between my feet so she could drink and we were all glad when we reached the cooler temperatures of Southern California.
Death Valley

The smell of pines in Colorado and Utah will stick with me a long time, particularly after the mould of Costa Rica, as will the intense heat around Las Vegas and the impression that inland California is just an irrigated, inhabited desert.

It is great to be back in Southern California, I love the smells here, the beach, the hummingbirds, the sushi, the sound of the trains in the distance and the Padres still top of the National League West...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Transnational companies and an international hegemony

My essay about transnational companies forming part of an international hegemony on
Here and here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

DR-CAFTA & Costa Rica

DR-CAFTA Countries
In 2005 what is now known as DR-CAFTA was ratified in the US by a narrow majority.  The Central American Free Trade Agreement would in 2006 include in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala & the Dominican Republic.  Costa Rica was the only member to put this trade agreement to a public referendum, which narrowly passed in 2007, and was signed into law in 2009.
Free trade agreements from a liberal economic perspective create employment opportunities, improve efficiency and productivity, reduce costs and are generally good for everyone.  From a more radical or nationalistic perspective they negatively effect the domestic economy, give power, money and resources to foreign investors, create uneven development and contribute to under-development of countries as the power stays with the traditional centres.  As such the DR-CAFTA agreement was hotly debated and generated conflicting viewpoints.
Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s referendum is particularly interesting.  The "Yes" vote narrowly won on October 7th 2007.  51.6% of voters said they approved of the CAFTA agreement for their country.  The referendum was preceded by significant pressure from the US to ratify CAFTA.  Republican leaders had threatened to withdraw the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) that had eliminated tariffs on many of Costa Rica’s exports to the US if the terms of CAFTA were not agreed to.  Other US companies such as Sardimar also threatened to leave Costa Rica.  Even the US ambassador to Costa Rica, Mark Langdale, had warned of future economic difficulties for Costa Rica if CAFTA was not ratified.  The CBI already ensured low tariffs on Costa Rican goods so there was little to be gained for Costa Rican exporters as a result of CAFTA.  
Evidence seems to show that support for CAFTA was strongest in the more heavily populated, urban areas, where the industry and development is concentrated, and least strong in rural areas.  This matches with a critical theory view of free trade policies.  Small hold farmers and other small business owners stand to lose the most when economies are opened up to foreign investment.  Particularly when a free trade agreement such as CAFTA liberalizes trade between such mismatched countries as those in Central America with the biggest economy in the world.  Of particular worry for Costa Rican farmers is the experience of their Mexican counterparts following the ratification of NAFTA.  US growers are furnished with lavish subsidies from the government that means US farmers can sell their produce for lower prices.  This makes it impossible for suppliers from other countries to compete.  This forced many Mexicans out of work in the farms, and contributed to the flow of illegal immigration into the US from Mexico.  
Anti-CAFTA Protest
The fact that Costa Rica held a referendum pays tribute to the education system and a well-informed population.  The 95.9% literacy rate has been achieved by a succession of governments that have prioritised education above military service.  The army was abolished in 1949 and the money saved was spent on the education system.  Even before the approval for CAFTA the Costa Rican economy was strong, showing healthy growth for many years, in fact posting a 5.3% compound growth rate since 1991.  Indeed much of the opposition to CAFTA came from supporters of a bi-lateral agreement with the US, instead of being included with the other Central American nations (see Otton Solis).  A common criticism of neo-liberal economic policies is that they often focus on inappropriate and non-specific regulations instead of country specific regulations.
It is difficult to say what effects joining DR-CAFTA has had on Costa Rica’s economy as every economy suffered after the global crisis in 2007.  Costa Rica’s suffered along with everyone else but now looks to be climbing again
Sí o No?
The problem with using the growth of GDP as a measure of the economic health of a country is that it only tells part of the story.  When a developing country opens up markets to foreign firms a number of things happen.  If the country has unused raw materials the foreign companies are normally adept at getting the most efficient use out of them.  Costa Rica’s main exports for a long time were coffee, bananas and pineapples.  These are still a big part of the economy but arguably now the most important raw material are Costa Ricans themselves.  As mentioned earlier Costa Rica has an educated workforce that operates in the same time zone as much of the US and still comes cheap.  For a while I was teaching English to Costa Rican students who had their course fees paid for by a government scheme.  In order to make Costa Rica more attractive to outside investors the government made a promise to pay for huge numbers of Costa Ricans to get to an upper-intermediate standard in English, making them more useful to foreign firms.  This is great for many Ticos who now have the opportunity to work in firms who have the ability to train them and pay them more than local firms.  They get experience of working in more efficient business cultures at the same time as improving their own and their family’s lives.
All around Costa Rica there are numerous Zona Francas, these operate in much the same way as the special export processing zones in Asia.  Companies are encouraged to move parts of their operation to these zones by tax incentives. What often happens though as a result of the introduction of foreign firms into developing countries is that the opportunities for progression to the top are limited.  Real development for Costa Rica should show lots of Costa Rican business rising to compete with foreign firms.  When the market is controlled by 3 or 4 huge multinational companies this becomes very difficult.  Multinationals can utilise their economies of scale that are unavailable by any smaller, local firms.  The local firms can neither pay the same wages nor offer the same opportunities as the foreign companies.  Currently the top two private employers in CR are Wal-Mart and Hewlett-Packard, with HP expecting to add another 2000 jobs in the next year.  It is hard to describe this as bad news.  Many of my students and friends work for HP and they certainly believe that the investment in Costa Rica by foreign companies has been good for them.  Not least a decent wage, training, opportunities and the prestige that comes with working for an internationally recognised firm.  HP moved a small part of their operation here in 2003 initially with only 123 employees, this has now risen to 6500.  Costa Rica has to continue to encourage foreign companies to invest here to give its citizens more opportunities.  If HP were to find a better offer in another country, they would move there leaving 6500 Ticos looking for work.

As the referendum result shows many people are not pleased about CAFTA, a friend who works for the Costa Rican operation of a US investment and loan company told that she voted “no” in the CAFTA referendum as she was concerned about foreign companies gaining access to Costa Rica’s resources.  This highlights the contradictions of Free Trade Areas.  Once a market has been opened and barriers reduced to foreign firms, they move parts of their operation to take advantage of lower costs than in their home country.  Workers in developing countries are given opportunities to get better jobs and earn more money when working for foreign firms.  The best employees find their way to these companies, who can then use their size and power to control the economic environment.  My friend is herself a Costa Rican resource that has been appropriated by a US company, of course at the same time she benefits from this arrangement.  Another employee of the same company told me that he used to do a similar job for a smaller Costa Rican-owned firm but changed to the bigger US company as they could offer better benefits and wages.  The advantage of reduced tariffs to Costa Rican goods entering the US will not apply if there are no Costa Rican firms.
G8 leaders planning something
This neo-liberal model of development has always been used by the most powerful economies simply because they have the most to gain.  Free trade was encouraged by the British Empire over 200 years ago in order to reduce tariffs on their substantial exports.  The smaller countries often have little choice but to submit to the system.  The US has continued this tactic.  After the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the economy and infrastructure of post-war Europe and Japan, the US recognised these as potentially huge new markets for the efficient factory production systems that had been developed in the US.  Prosperous capitalist economies were also believed to be a strong barrier against the infiltration of communism.  The more people had to gain from being a part of the global capitalist system the less likely they would be to succumb to the “Red Menace”.  Thus the US has fostered and persuaded other countries to join the capitalist system.  Certainly development does occur under the capitalist system, however the rush to industrialise and liberalise is environmentally unsustainable and ensures that the power remains with the large countries.  By agreeing to become a part of CAFTA, Costa Rica ensured better opportunities for many of its citizens while at the same time ensuring the under-development of Costa Rica for generations to come.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I was going to write about how much I like baseball, and how I am looking forward to seeing a couple of Padres games when we visit the US next month.  Mainly I was going to write about pointless the Home Run Derby and All Star Game are...  But instead I am going to write about a man I met, and mainly by his far out ideas.
He is not from Costa Rica and has an interesting job but that is not the remarkable thing.  He told me about how he used to be a member of a group who had regular contact with aliens.  The aliens would only speak to a female member of the group and she would pass the information on, but the other members could ask questions about whatever they wanted.  Sometimes they would answer, sometimes they wouldn't.
The aliens normally communicated via voices in the woman's head, it began with a ringing sound in one ear and then the voices started.  She did meet the aliens on a number of times, the first time they took her on to their space ship via a large bubble that floated her up to it.
The aliens gave her lots of information such as the theory of evolution isn't true.  We are not descended from animals, rather 4 races of humans were transplanted onto earth from other planets.  They also were giving her information about geography and long numbers that she couldn't understand as she wasn't very well educated.  I don't know why they didn't begin to give the information to someone who could understand them.  I hope this information wasn't important.  Luckily the aliens agreed not to give her any more information that was difficult to understand.  This began in the 1980's and finished at the end of the 1990's, which was because the aliens stopped contact, something they do so as to prevent the humans developing a dependency on them.  There are apparently around 80 groups in the world these aliens are in touch with, although the groups are forbidden from contacting each other and from giving any details to the media.
The man I met had other experience with aliens, he witnessed a UFO sighting once.  I think this one, as his description was exactly the same.  He was also interested in crop circles.  He had returned to his home country in 2003 and there were 3 instances of crop circles near his house.  He had plotted their locations on a map and found that they made a triangle with his house at the centre and if you followed the direction the triangle pointed to, it led directly to the Sphinx in Egypt.  He believes that there are some underground installations deep under the Sphinx.  Also that there is a time capsule hidden in the neck of the structure, and one day an earthquake would cause the head to fall off and reveal the capsule which contains information to be used at that time.
He also told me what was going to happen in 2012, the end of the Mayan Calendar.  It is not going to be the end of the world thankfully, although the Earth is going to shift on its axis.  Currently the earth's axis is at a tilt of around 23.4 degreed, in 2012 the Earth will tilt to 90.0 degrees.  Minus 23.4 from 90.0 and what do you get?  66.6, the real meaning of this number apparently.  It will also be the number of the population on the planet at this time, 6.66 billion.  Many people will die, particularly those living in coastal regions, but many will also be evacuated by those helpful aliens.
In meeting with him he told me that he believes he was helped by aliens with a problem he had with his leg.  He had excruciating pain in his left femur, and awoke one day to find an oval-shaped bruise on his left thigh with a small puncture mark in the middle and no pain.  He still doesn't have a sore left femur.
He also gave me over 100 pages to read of what is supposedly an interview with a scientist who worked for a shadowy US government organisation.  This organisation's main job was to copy alien technology for use on Earth.  The scientist was translating alien documents (from Sumerian to English for some reason...) when he discovered he empathised with the aliens.  The scientist then defected and told his story to a reporter.  Two of the interviews appeared on the internet and then 6 months later were changed and the scientist and the reporter disappeared.
My friend told me that the original copy of the interviews didn't exist on the internet.  I think this is it here and here, it seems to match what he gave me.  If you can't be bothered reading it, and there is no reason why you should, basically the story is this:

There are many different alien races in touch with humans.
One is coming to get us.
They make hybrids from humans and robots.
A mysterious agency has been copying alien technology to defend us.
The US government knows about some of this but not all.
The US government has been in collusion with other races of alien for many years.
We may be in danger or we may be saved by this amazing technology if it can be developed in time.
It is all going to happen after 2011.
God is real and you should believe in him.
People can turn objects into other things.
Be nice to other people.
Listen to New Age music.

Just for the record I don't believe a word of this.
More news as this breaking story develops....

My life as an EFL teacher....

I am about 2 weeks away from the end of over 2.5 years of teaching English as a foreign language overseas.  After I finish this current job and make the next move it looks unlikely that I will be teaching English again, for a while at least.  Never say never but I feel like I am done for the time being.  
As such I thought it would be a good opportunity to write about some of my experiences of teaching in 3 different countries.  I have met some incredible people, other teachers and students.  Teaching English provided me with an opportunity to work in Japan and Costa Rica and see different cultures up close.  In Japan I taught a lot of private adult classes which provided a window into many peoples lives that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Often it did feel like counselling as some students used it as an opportunity to talk about problems when it seemed like there was no-one else to listen.  There are many rumours in the EFL world, one of them being that learning a language is prescribed by psychiatrists as a method of overcoming depression.  Depressed people can go and talk to someone they don’t know in another language and be someone else for an hour a week.  Add in the extra confidence and opportunities that having a second language can bring and I can see why this may be of use to those with depression.  A minority of my students matched this description though and I don’t feel I have had that experience at all in Costa Rica.
Teachers and students
There are many ways to become an EFL teacher overseas but this is how I did it.  I began by getting a CELTA in Chiang Mai at ECC.  This was a four-week intense course combining grammar, lesson planning and teaching practice.  I taught classes to Thai university students, they were getting the classes for free and were keen to learn and really fun.  Thailand was one of the cheapest places to get a CELTA qualification and the living costs are much less than other places.  On top of that you get to eat Thai food for every meal!  I really enjoyed this course, I learnt a lot and met some great people.  I would totally recommend getting a CELTA before beginning any kind of teaching job.  For sure it made me a better teacher than I would have been if I hadn’t done the course.
Me and a normal student
After Thailand I went to Japan.  I arrived in Japan with no job arranged but a place to stay.  After a few weeks of searching and a few interviews I took a job with Shane.  You can read good and bad things about every EFL company in Japan.  You can spend all your time reading about problems with schools and never do anything.  Shane were not perfect but neither were they as bad as has been made out elsewhere.  On the whole I enjoyed my time there.  They sponsored my work visa and I worked for one year, in 3 different locations in Tokyo.  I worked 4 days a week and found some private classes to teach on the other days.  I mostly taught adult classes but also had 4 regular children’s classes.  For adult classes Shane mostly use their own books, plus Headway and Clockwise for more advanced students and Market Leader for business students.  For children they used their own books almost exclusively.  I taught a mixture of general English and business English, and group classes and privates.  Shane teachers can only teach for 6 hours a day, and the school managers have to get their teachers to teach as close to that as possible.  In reality I mostly taught around 4 hours on weekdays, and between 5 and 6 on the weekends.  For the first few months I spent lots of time preparing for lessons and prepping classes but after maybe 4 months this was greatly reduced and the job became significantly easier.  
It was around this time that I had my first realisation about teaching English.  That was that many students didn’t really seem to show interest in getting any better.  Many people came to a class once a week and then did nothing during the week.  Almost like they want you to pour the knowledge into their heads.  Or in a parallel that can be found in many other aspects of life in modern capitalist states, we see what we want and buy it.  However learning anything requires some kind of personal commitment, this can’t just be bought.  This is how it is with learning a language, you have to commit to it.  Unless you live in the country where the language is spoken, it cannot just be absorbed, especially if you are only having 1 class a week and nothing else.
Spring in Japan
One of the main issues with Shane was that they require every teacher to work cover days, which they say you already receive the pay for in the terms of your contract so you have to do them.  This is to cover the company for any absences or holidays of other teachers.  As I was on a 4 day contract I did 15 cover days, which I managed to do in the first 8 months meaning that the final 4 months I didn’t have to do any.  There was also a stand-by system were different teachers had to be prepared to go into work if anyone rang in sick.  i was lucky enough to not have to go in when it was my turn on stand-by.
Aside from this living and working in Tokyo was a great experience, and I really miss being in Japan.  Not so much the hot, sweaty summers, drunk old people and the crowded trains but definitely the food, my students, the care and attention that is giving to everything, the chance of finding something new and different around every corner, and for sure the beautiful springs and autumns and the enigmatic winters.  I was sad to leave and hope to go back to visit one day.
Students in Costa Rica
After leaving Japan, I ended up in teaching in Costa Rica.  I have taught for 2 schools here, one large and one small.  Firstly I worked for around 9 months for a school in Santa Ana, about twenty minutes drive from San Jose.  At the beginning I was mostly teaching large groups of students who were getting their English lessons paid for by a government scheme.  This arrangement provided 6 months of language tuition in order to get as many people as possible to an upper-intermediate standard of English.  It was an intensive course that most people did alongside their regular job or study, meaning that the classes were in the morning from 7-9 or in the evening, 4 or 5 days a week.  I also taught some corporate classes in company offices, this required me to travel at my own expense and to teach often in environments that were not very conducive to learning.  This school exclusively use their own materials and their own teaching “method”.  As with most methods there was little difference from any other school.  In fact I believe they do not utilise their materials fully and could do a lot more.  In Costa Rica there is also an obsession with constant testing.  After every 5 units there would be a test, plus bigger tests at halfway through and the end of book.  This often breeds a situation of learning only to pass the test, and in some cases didn’t lead to any real fluency in English.  For many students it worked though and they were often able to progress quickly.  
The visa situation was interesting, but that story is for another day. 
I left this school when it became clear that the government contract was not going to be renewed any time soon and all that was left were the corporate classes.  For a couple of months I was only working 6 or 8 hours a week and travelling to different locations to do it.  Costa Rica is relatively advanced compared to other Central American countries but the public transport leaves a lot to be desired.  The buses are noisy, dirty and unreliable.  The bus stops are often on the side of main highways, and are open to the elements.  The elements in Costa Rica can be pretty wild, I would often get burnt and boiled from the sun in the mornings and drenched by rain in the afternoons while waiting for buses.

Not what working in Costa Rica is like
Many people come to teach in CR lured by the images of beautiful beaches and Pura Vida, in reality working in the Central Valley means long days of frustrating travel experiences and poor pay.  Plus teaching is not a job you can just turn up and do, it requires planning, preparation and organisation.  The turn-over of teachers was fairly high as people realised this and left. If you can deal with all this teaching in CR is great.  The students are fun and they need the language.

The second school I worked for was in the small town where we lived, meaning I could walk to work.  Travel problems didn’t enter the equation, there were other minor organisational problems but nothing serious.  The classes were smaller, occasionally only one student.  One of the most interesting students I met was at this school, I wrote about him here.
The students in both these schools were great.   Often very keen to learn and motivated.  There is a large exposure to English in CR due to tourism and the US.  Many students worked for North American companies, often in call centres and help desks.  Speaking English is a ticket to a better job and more money.  This is one of the reasons for the constant testing and certificates.  They need this to show potential employers that they can speak English and helps to get recruited.  Most students were out-going and the classes were livelier than in Japan.  Many of the students came from other Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia and speaking English is a great opportunity for them.  As opposed to Japan where many adults are learning for a hobby or because they think it is cool or simply for the opportunity to talk to a foreigner, here people genuinely need the language to improve their life chances.
Two different countries, two different cultures and two different experiences of teaching English.  In both situation there were frustrations and annoyances and problems with employers, but the majority of my co-workers and students were great people.  English teaching attracts its share of odd-balls.  People come to teach English overseas for a number of reasons.  The reasons I have seen were an interest in the country or language, a desire for an “experience”, a need to get away from home, actually wanting to be a teacher, a way to avoid returning home and being a misfit in their own country.  Many just do it for a year and move on, others do it for a lifetime.  It is certainly a job that doesn’t suit everyone and has the potential to send people a little weird if they do it for too long.  It is also a job that has rarely been boring and like most things, the more you put into it the more you get out.  The annoyances for me mostly came outside of the classroom but inside with the students is when the job was at its most rewarding.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fin de partido...

Like all summer romances, this one too has come to an end.  Spain are now the reigning European and World Champions.  By virtue of four 1-0 victories in the knock-out stages and scoring only 8 goals in total they become the lowest scoring side ever to win a World Cup.  The real story lies in how they dominated possession and controlled the play.  They completed more passes than any other team in a World Cup since 1966, and Xavi Hernandez himself made 599 successful passes, again the most by any player since 1966.
In the semi-finals Joachim Löw's admirable German team tried to play football against Spain, and were beaten at the same game by the best footballing side in the world.  In the final the Dutch tried another tactic, by attempting to disrupt the rhythm of the Spanish by fouling, pressing and harrying.  When Spain's attacks broke down the Netherlands were quick to launch their own.  Arjen Robben on the right flank made life difficult for Joan Capdevilla, as he has for every left back he has faced in this tournament.  Robben is one of the finest attacking players in the modern game but he can be equally frustrating.  After beating Puyol to the ball and then beating him for pace despite Puyol's attempt to drag him down he was one-on-one with Iker Casillas, he sent the keeper the wrong way but hit his outstretched leg.  Spain lost their opening game, conceding to the Swiss and finding themselves unable prise open a stubborn defence.  If Robben had scored it is likely that again Spain wouldn't have found a way back into the game and Bert van Marwijk would have been praised for finding a way to counter Spain's possession-based football.  As it was Robben didn't score and Iniesta did, and this should be seen as a victory for the beautiful game.

This final had 14 yellow cards and 1 red, far more than any other final, and the overwhelming majority went to the Dutch.  Jonny Heitinga was sent off extra time and Nigel de Jong would probably have gone in the first half if this game wasn't the World Cup Final.  His studs-up challange into the chest of Xabi Alonso was brutal, referee Howard Webb should have sent him off.  If he had it would have changed the game no doubt but maybe it would have calmed the Dutch down and led to less violent play and a more open game.  Spain were worthy of the win as they at least tried to play a game based on their own strengths and not one based on nullifying the opposition.  Spain didn't set this tournament alight but they deserve this win for simply being the best team in world football over the last 3 years.  They become only the second team to be the European Champions and World Champions at the same time.
Much will be made of how the Spain team that started the final contained 6 Barcelona players (7 if you include David Villa who has signed but not yet played and 8 with Cesc Fabregas who came on later and was a Barca youth player and will probably also re-sign with them this close season).  Spain's football is Barcelona's football.  Barcelona owe much of their footballing style to their Dutch connections.  9 of their 20 league titles were won under Dutch managers, and the father of "Total Football" Rinus Michels was the first of these.  His innovative ideas of players switching position and how to create and control space on the field transformed Ajax and after winning the European Cup in 1971 he brought Total Football to Barcelona.  Though football has changed since the 1970's and neither Barcelona nor Spain play Michel's total football in exactly the same way, the club side and the national side owe a great debt to Dutch football and are probably the closest modern examples of this kind of play.
In winning this game Spain became the first European side to win the cup outside of Europe, the Netherlands will need to wait for 4 more years to try to win their first when the World Cup will be held in Brazil.

The Golden Ball award for player of the tournament was given to Diego Forlán, I would go along with this.  He has been excellent, and one of the only players to be able to control the Jabulani from long range.  By my reckoning he was marginally better than Xavi, Iniesta and Thomas Müller, the winner of the Golden Boot.

My picks for the goals of the tournament are:
1st: Giovanni van Bronckhorst v Uruguay
2nd: David Villa v Honduras
3rd: Fabio Quagliarella v Slovakia

Even though the final wasn't great I have enjoyed the World Cup immensely and much praise has to be given to South Africa for organising the first tournament on the African continent.  There are now 34 days until the beginning of the English Premier League, time to concentrate on another great sporting event, Le Tour and the National League West leading San Diego Padres.
Mainly it will be time to see what will become of my first sporting love, Liverpool FC, after the exoticism of this World Cup summer romance has faded Liverpool will be there and in much need of support.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Perros de la calle...

OK, this is a different topic but something that is very personal to me and something that I have wanted to write about for some time.  After a year in Central America we are leaving Costa Rica in one month so I wanted to do this before we left.

As most of you know, Steph and I adopted Rocky who turned up outside our house in January this year.  She was around 2 years old and didn't look like she had spent much time on the street and she had recently had a litter of puppies.  One of them was still with her, probably around 6 weeks old.  Rocky is coming with us to the US next month, she is a lucky dog!  Her pup was taken in by our neighbours but unfortunately she disappeared a few weeks later.

Rocky's story is not unusual here in Costa Rica, she was not born on the street, she probably had a home and an "owner" but for whatever reason (probably because she was pregnant) Rocky's owner decided they didn't want her anymore and so she was abandoned near our house, with her pups.  God knows what happened to the rest of her litter.

I am well aware that animal cruelty exists in every country and I am also fully aware that I may sound like a well-off Westerner lecturing people who have far worse problems to worry about than the welfare of animals.  The issue is not about money, particularly in the Central Valley area of Costa Rica, and particularly where we live.  In the San Jose/Escazú/Santa Ana/Ciudad Colón area most people live a relatively comfortable life.  Costa Rica ranks 54th in the UN Human Development Index, with a status of "High Human Development" above countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, China, South Africa.  For a developing country Costa Rica boasts an incredible adult literacy rate of 95.9%.  The government has long invested money in education here.  The military was abolished in 1949 and much of the money saved was spent on free education and health care.  Costa Rica is also one of the largest recipients of Foreign Direct Investment per capita in Latin America.  For sure there are areas of extreme poverty here but not where we live.  It is not about money, or education, or development but about attitudes.  I do not want to tar everyone with the same brush, there are many responsible dog owners here in Costa Rica, but the number of abandoned dogs near our house is heart-breaking.  Seriously last week there was a different dog every day in the street outside.

The photo on the left was taken about a 5 minute walk from our house (the sign says, "Don't be cruel, don't abandon your best friend").  The fact someone felt there was a need for this sign tells you something.

As well as abandoning animals, there is another problem here.  Many people think it is ok to have a dog and let it out of the gate in the morning and leave it to run around the neighbourhood unattended all day.  If the dog comes back at night, then good.  If it doesn't then you can get another cute little puppy from the shop and try again.  As this article (in Spanish) says many people think they are dog owners but really all they do is give their dog some food and a name and leave the dog to fend for itself.  Many of these dogs roaming free haven't been castrated or spayed, meaning the street dog problem continues.  The above article quotes the director of ANPA (Asociación Nacional Protectora de Animales) in Costa Rica as saying that many street dogs have owners but they let them run loose.  Animals need more than just some food scraps and somewhere to sleep.

As far as I know there is one animal refuge in this area, the Refugio de Animales in San Rafael de Heredia, who take in dogs and cats that have been abandoned and they also run outreach programs encouraging people to castrate or spay their animals.  Changing attitudes is a slow process.  They need all the help they can get.

World Cup Final

So we will have a first World Cup trophy for either Spain or Holland.  Past winners Uruguay and Germany were well beaten in each semi-final.
Uruguay put up a good fight but in reality the Netherlands could have scored 5 (and probably should have).  Wesley Sneijder was as excellent as he has been the whole tournament, Van Bronckhurst's thunderbolt in the first half was probably the goal of the tournament and Arjen Robben caused problem after problem for the left side of Uruguay's midfield and defence.
Spain v Germany was a closer game, with Spain on top for most of the game and they were so assured in possession and pressed and harried the German's to make mistakes whenever they had the ball.  Germany looked nervous early on and for the first time in this tournament they looked short of attacking ideas.  The tournaments top scorers missed the unpredictability of Thomas Müller when going forward but for most of the game they were unflappable in defence, until the 72nd minute and Carles Puyol gave us the dictionary definition of a bullet header.  It was beautiful to watch as he started his run from outside the box and made sure that ball was his.  Great goal.
It is a shame that Germany will have to contest the game no-one wants to play in instead of the final.  I honestly don't understand the point of a 3rd place play-off, this isn't the Olympics.  No matter, the German team showed great potential and will be some team in future competitions, here's looking forward to Euro 2012.  Spain were the best team tonight and deserve to be in the final, not least because of their incredible performances over the last 3 years.  This is a national side that has defined a way to play football and given hope to all purists of the game.  Away from the negative or route one to a vibrant game of passing and movement.  It helps when you have the magic dwarfs Xavi and Iniesta, who are blessed with perfect touch, timing and vision.
So there is only one more (real) game to go in the World Cup, which is a little sad.  What is positive though is that teams who played great football prospered and if both the finalists play to their top ability the final will live long in the memory.  What is also important is that we should place a bet on whatever Paul the psychic octopus tells us, also maybe after the World Cup has finished he should be allowed to have his say on issues other than football.  Some of the world's biggest problems could be solved by his clear view of yes or no.  If we ever need to send a representative to meet aliens on behalf of the planet Earth, I am voting for Paul.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Why I am supporting Germany

This has been a World Cup of firsts.  The first to be held in Africa, the first time a European team has won outside of Europe, in fact only Brazil have won the World Cup outside their own continent and they are out, for Spain and Holland it is a chance to win their first World Cup and if Spain win it will be the first time a team who lost their opening game has gone on to win the tournament.
Each of the final four teams in the World Cup have reasons to believe they can and should win on July 11th.  Uruguay had on paper the easiest run to the semis and have the fantastic Diego Forlán in great form. Luis Suárez may not have the "second Hand of God" but he certainly has a eye for goal and will be missed in the semi.
Holland just defeated favourites Brazil and the excellent Arjen Robben seems to have returned to fitness and, after the exit of Argentina and Lionel Messi, Wesley Sneijder has the opportunity to win the Ballon d'Or award for the best footballer on the planet.  He was instrumental in Internazionale's Serie A, Italian Cup and Champions League winning season, and is currently the Netherlands's top scorer and if they go on the lift the trophy a large part will be down to him.
Spain feel that this time they really can go further than have ever been before and win their first World Cup, they have an incredibly talented team that hasn't yet played the outstanding football we know they can.  They had to fight against Portugal and Paraguay, two teams that had the intention of nullifying the Spanish "tika-taka".
Germany's game plan will not be to negate Spain rather to cause enough problems for the Spanish defence that they won't have to.  This is not a defensive, negative German team but one confident in their own ability to play better than any opposing team.  Thomas Müller has been one of the sensations for Germany and unfortunately will miss the semi-final due to two poor decisions to give him yellow cards.  A new FIFA rule of wiping the yellow card slate clean after the quarter-finals will help the six other Germans who were holding yellows after the earlier rounds.  Germany may not win the title of World Champions but there are many reasons why they should.
One of the main reasons why I want Germany to win the World Cup is the way the whole German football system is organised.  This is thrown into sharp relief when compared with the bankrupt, unsustainable English system.  There is the "50+1" rule stating that 51% of each club has to be owned by club members.  This prevents the Premier League style takeovers that have brought pleasure and pain in equal measures (compare Abramovich with Hicks & Gillett).  The German system allows the remaining 49% to be sold to private investors.  This has been criticised for leaving German sides unable to compete with their more profligate neighbours from Spain, Italy and England.  A German side may not have won the Champions League since Bayern München in 2001 but they were the beaten finalists this season.  In the Europa League Hamburg came close this year and Werder Bremen even closer the year before.  There are reasons to believe that the German model may not be as immediately successful as the method of spending money you don't have but in the long run it may pay dividends.  Indeed the need to rely on youth development seems to be paying off right now in the World Cup as Germany's team of talented youngsters have scored 13 and conceded 2 on their way to the semi final against Spain.
German football was not always like this.  During the 1990's Borussia Dortmund in particular overspent to achieve their Champions League success of 1997 and continued overspending in an attempt to keep the success going.  The club was saddled with unmanageable debts and they are still feeling the pain of now.  Schalke 04 and FC Hollywood (Bayern München) themselves are other teams that have spent excessively in the past.  One event that, perhaps more than any other, caused a significant re-think in German football was the collapse of Kirch TV deal. Kirch had enabled significant investments to be made and substantial sums to be spent in the Bundesliga.  The sudden withdrawal of this cash cow in 2002 forced German clubs to try other methods of improving their squads.  The cheapest method was youth development and the enforced sales of expensive names cleared a path into the first teams for many young players.
In England the constant demands for more money to buy more players seems to be more and more ridiculous in these penny-pinching times.  If the money isn't there or can't be provided in a sustainable manner then other ways to improve the teams needs to be found.  Many Premier League teams seem unable to grasp this, leading to a dearth in young talent getting a chance at top clubs.  Which further contributed to the England national team's poor showing at this World Cup.  This poor showing is nothing new, they failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and performed poorly at World Cups since 1990, they even didn't qualify in 1994.  Germany's early exit from the World Cup of 1998 prompted a major re-think of training and development and begs the question of when England are going to learn the same lesson.

I am not for one minute suggesting that Spain, Holland and Uruguay manage their football incorrectly and are undeserving of being winners.  In fact Spain and Holland have long shown the value of nurturing young players and teaching them to play the right way from an early age.  This is almost certainly due to financial constraints as outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona there isn't much big spending in La Liga.  Dutch teams have never spent big, Ajax in particular are famous for their ability to train young players to play the right way.  I am also not suggesting German football is perfect but it certainly represents a more sustainable model than the one currently prevalent in England.   For that reason and the fact that they have played the best football in this tournament they have my support for the rest of the World Cup.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Quarter finals preview - day 2

Game 1:
Germany v Argentina
I am really looking forward to this game.  Both of these teams have tried to play football in what I believe is the "right" way.  With an emphasis on passing, movement and fluid attacking play.  Germany were too good for England and Argentina were too good for Mexico in their last 16 games.  It will be a shame that one of these nations will have to leave after this game.  Looked at objectively Argentina are the favourites.  Messi has not yet managed to set the tournament alight but he has played well nonetheless.  This game is be made for him to show the world what he can do.  Germany's young side should not be overawed by the famous names facing them, they have earned their place in the quarter-finals on merit.  Messi may not have shined but Mesut Özil certainly has.  The German playmaker has been one of the top five players of this tournament and even though he missed training on Thursday he has a big part to play in this game.  This World Cup has certainly provided plenty of shocks so far (Brazil, France, Italy...) and has shown how difficult it is to make any predictions about games.  With that in mind I think Argentina should win but I hope they don't and Germany do.

Game 2:
Paraguay v Spain
Paraguay's last game against Japan has been labelled as the worst of the tournament so far.  This is a little harsh on the Paraguayan side as at least they were trying to play.  Their reward is a game against their former colonial masters and the first time Paraguay has played in a World Cup quarter final.  They are here by virtue of 2 draws, a victory over Slovakia and a penalty shoot-out against Japan.  Spain are playing against the third of their former colonies and should expect to lord it over Paraguay.  David Villa has been in outstanding form, and I for one am very excited to see how he will fit into an already impressive Barcelona side next season.  The success of David Villa has diverted attention away from the poor performances of his strike partner Fernando Torres, coach Vicente del Bosque has said he will stick with Torres for this game.  Torres is a great player and has not suddenly forgotten how to score, he will come good eventually and this may be the game when he does just that.  Spain deservedly beat Portugal in their last 16 game.  I believe they will be too good for Paraguay.  After Brazil's defeat to Holland today Spain have to be confident they can be World Champions.  I am tempted to make them my new favourites to win the whole thing but after tipping Brazil yesterday I am reluctant to jinx Spain in the same way.  Let's just say it would be great if they did win...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Who will win the World Cup?" poll results

My hotly debated "Who will win the World Cup?" poll has now ended, sorry to everyone who tried to vote but couldn't get through.  Demand was unprecedented and I think the servers at Google crashed due to the extra traffic the 6 votes generated.  Anyway the results are in and a little inconclusive:
Brazil & Argentina are tied for first place with 2 votes each.
Spain suffer the ignominy of being tied with England for second place, each garnering 1 vote each.  If I was Spanish I would be disappointed to be lumped in the same category as that over-rated shower of s**** from England.
For what it's worth I think Brazil will go on to win it.  Simply because they are the most complete football team in the competition.  Unlike other teams they have everything.  Spain and Argentina may be more talented in certain areas but for sheer quality and self-belief it is hard to look past Brazil.  But wouldn't it be great if Ghana won it?!  Yes, yes it would.

Latin American nickname competition...

Watching the games here in Costa Rica has meant I have heard some great nicknames for players that people have in this part of the world.  So I thought I would keep a list of the nicknames of some players who have appeared in this World Cup and see if anyone can guess who is who...
There may be a prize for the first person to get the most correct...

El Niño
El Niño Maravilla

Sounds like a gang of ne'er-do-wells if ever I heard one...

Good luck and no cheating mind....

Quarter finals preview - day 1

First game:
Brazil - Holland

Brazil, while not quite setting the tournament alight, have nonetheless been impressive.   Out of all the favourites, Brazil are the team that seem to be able to change their style of play depending on the situation of the game.  They can play beautiful, passing football that can open up tight defences (i.e Elano v North Korea; Fabiano v Chile - not that Chile have a tight defence but this was an excellently worked goal...) and they can score simple, set piece goals (i.e. Juan v Chile).  This variety of play combined with the ability of Robinho and Luis Fabiano to score goals and the excellent Lucio in defence, plus the attacking from the wings of Maicon and Michel Bastos, for me this makes them my favourites to win the whole tournament.  Holland depend greatly on the fitness of Arjen Robben, he would greatly improve any side he played for and for the sake of a good game I hope he is on top form for this quarter-final.  Michel Bastos does like to get forward down Brazil's left wing and could leave room for Robben to exploit, at the very least the presence of Robben will inhibit the forward runs of Bastos.  This will be an interesting battle.  The rest of Holland's players have failed to really play well so far, yet they find themselves 2 games away from the World Cup final.  I think Brazil will be too strong for the Dutch.

Second game:
Uruguay - Ghana

I am looking forward to this game very much...  Both sides have been great to watch and fully deserve a place in the semi-final.  For periods of the game against the US, Ghana played excellent football.  Very quick, direct and they scored two great goals.  They will have the whole of the African continent supporting them as they try to make their way into the semi-finals.  While playing for Portsmouth, Kevin Prince-Boateng looks average and accident prone but playing for this Ghana side he has been a revelation and his strong midfield play propelled them to victory against the US.  Another significant factor has been their exciting midfielder Andre Ayew, who unfortunately is suspended for this crunch game.  How they deal with his absence will be crucial.  How they deal with Diego Forlán will also be crucial.  The Atletico Madrid striker is having a great tournament, scoring and providing goals for Uruguay.  His strike partner Luis Suárez has also been in great form propelling Uruguay past South Korea in the last 16 game.  This will be a real test for Uruguay, but they have shown that they can deal with such tests after beating hosts South Africa 3-0 in the group stage.  This is destined to be a great game and I think Uruguay will just nick it.