Hockeyroos to face Dutch in WC final

For the first time in nearly a decade the Hockeyroos will compete for a major title, after a nail-biting shootout victory over the United States on Thursday set up a World Cup final with the Netherlands.

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In a physical, and at times controversial, clash Australia’s women were forced to dig deep for the win, with American star Kelsey Kolojejchick twice levelling the scores in the 2-2 (3-1) game.

Australia appeared to have secured victory following goals to Kellie White and the tournament’s leading sharp-shooter Anna Flanagan, only for Kolojejchick to send the match to a shootout by equalising with just two minutes left in regular time in the Hague.

But Australia could not be denied, with goalkeeper Rachael Lynch standing tall to make three stunning saves and send them into Saturday’s final – their first World Cup or Olympic Games final since 2006.

“To do it now is off the back of some hard work over a number of years,” said coach Adam Commens, who took over in 2011.

With Lynch’s defensive brilliance, Australia cruised through the shootout care of goals to White, Georgie Parker and Jodie Kenny.

“That’s why we pick (Lynch),” Hockeyroos captain Madonna Blyth beamed afterwards.

“For Rachael today to save as many as she did and come so close on that other one, I think it just shows that she’s a really good, class player back there. And we rely heavily on it.”

The match was not without controversy, with the Americans complaining to officials about Australia’s physical approach and aggressive tackling – while there were question marks surrounding the legitimacy of Kolojejchick’s second goal.

Her shot was deflected in by Blyth, who immediately complained to officials that it was high and had been sailing wide before ricocheting in off her shoulder – which would be cause for a penalty.

Despite replays appearing to indicate the ball was indeed going wide, the goal stood.

The Australians understand they will face an ever sterner test against world No.1 Holland, who thumped Argentina 4-0 in the later semi-final in front of a raucous home crowd.

The Dutch downed Australia 2-0 in the group stages, but Commens saw enough in that contest to suggest an upset is on the cards.

“They’ve gone from a team that probably fought hard and was a tough side and was reasonably physically, to a side that is now capable of taking the game to the top nations in the world,” he said.

“I think we saw that against the Netherlands in the round match.

“There’s not many teams in the world that have been able to do that against the Netherlands in the last two years.

“I thought we were better than them for that (first half). I think that shows how far we’ve come.”

Commens wasn’t entirely satisfied with the performance against the US, but would’ve been pleased to see White notch her first goal of the tournament, a speculative swipe into the goal mouth which deflected in off the goalkeeper.

Likewise, the continuation of Anna Flanagan’s set piece dominance should have raised a smile – she netted a sixth goal of the tournament with another trademark drag-flick to restore Australia’s one-goal advantage.

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Japan to make a splash in World Cup Group C

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Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, come into the World Cup off the back of a strong qualifying campaign and its key players are undoubtedly amongst the brightest talent Africa has to offer.

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This includes forwards Salomon Kalou of Lille and Didier Drogba of Galatasaray, and midfield duo Didier Zokora of Trabzonspor and Manchester City’s Yaya Toure.

 

Cote d’Ivoire’s wing will be serviced by Roma flier Gervinho, whilst its defensive stocks are reinforced by Kolo Toure of Liverpool.

 

The national team’s French manager Sabri Lamouchi told Fifa TV it’s now or never for many of his team’s aging stars.

 

“Cote d’Ivoire has a generation of players coming to the end of their careers. For some this will be their last World Cup,” he said.

“They have an opportunity, not to cause an upset, but to play at the high level that the world expects.”

“Obviously with Didier Drogba at 100 per cent, Yaya Toure at 100 per cent, Gervinho at 100 per cent, and with everyone working together, Cote d’Ivoire can cause problems for the top teams at the World Cup.”

 

Japan meanwhile will be looking to make a splash at its fifth consecutive World Cup finals.

 

Coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad features 12 overseas-based players including AC Milan playmaker Keisuke Honda, Inter Milan fullback Yuto Nagatomo and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa.

 

Captain Makoto Hasebe was named in the 23 after returning to action for FC Nuremberg, as was Kawasaki Frontale forward Yoshito Okubo.

 

Zaccheroni says above all, he’s looked for versatility in his squad.

 

“I’ve tried as hard as I could to pick players who can play in different roles.”

 

Turning to Colombia, and coach Jose Nestor Pekerman has been sweating on the fitness of star attacker Radamel Falcao.

 

the Colombians can rely on defensive duo Mario Yepes and Luis Perea, as well as creative attacking midfielder James Rodriguez and Teo Gutierrez who plays with Argentine giants River Plate.

 

Now for the Greeks, who are perhaps least favoured to escape Group C.

 

The country has found little success in its two previous World Cup outings in 2010 and 1994, having failed to escape the group stages on both occasions.

 

The team will likely be led by seasoned 37-year-old Fulham midfielder Giorgos Karagounis, who helped steer Greece to the European Championship in 2004.

 

His Fulham teammate, striker Kostas Mitroglou, has also made Greece’s final 23-man World Cup squad despite a roller coaster season.

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World Cup 2014 predictions: who will take the title?

By Keith Lyons, University of Canberra

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hard-core football nut, a once-every-four-years fan or even a psychic animal – most of us speculate on the winner of the World Cup.

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The 2014 competition is held in Brazil (which, incidentally, has had the most national team success in football World Cups, winning five of seven finals appearances). Will the home team have an advantage too large to overcome? Will a neighbouring nation steal Brazil’s thunder? Or will a non-South American country take the coveted cup overseas?

Let’s take a look at two types of rankings and four predictions.

First up, we have the FIFA World Ranking tables which calculate points over a four-year period by adding:

the average number of points gained from matches during the past 12 monthsthe average number of points gained from matches older than 12 months (and this depreciates yearly).

 

Spain’s Andres Iniesta celebrates at the final whistle of the World Cup 2010 final match. EPA/Gerry Penn

The FIFA top ten (as of May 8, 2014) comprises:

    SpainGermanyPortugalBrazilColombiaUruguayArgentinaSwitzerlandItalyGreece

England is just outside the top ten at 11, and Australia sits at 59.

Then we have the Elo rating system. Elo ratings were developed by Hungarian-American physics professor Arpad Elo and were originally used to rank chess players (Elo was a chess master).

Ratings are determined by calculating the relative skill levels of players (or teams, in the case of football).

The system was adapted for football in 1997 to take football-specific variables into account, such as the competition in which the game was played – World Cup matches are weighted more heavily than friendlies – and home ground advantage.

A Brazil fan at the 2010 World Cup. EPA/Daniel Dal Zennaro

The Elo top ten (as of June 2, 2014) is:

    BrazilSpainGermanyArgentinaNetherlandsEnglandPortugalColombiaUruguayChile

Australia comes in last at 33 (even though there are 32 teams in the World Cup, Serbia – ranked 26 – isn’t competing).

1. Just the stats

Goldman Sachs last month published their thoughts on the winning team – their fifth such book of World Cup predictions. Their approach includes:

a stochastic model of the outcomes for each of the 64 World Cup gamesa regression analysis of all full international games from 1960 (using goals scored)difference in Elo rankings between both teams (a figure they consider “the most powerful variable in the model”)a country-specific dummy variable relating to World Cup playhome advantage (country and continent)a Monte Carlo simulation with 100,000 draws.

Note that the Goldman Sachs model “does not use any information on the quality of teams or individual players that is not reflected in a team’s track record” and the approach is “purely statistical” – in other words, injuries have no bearing on their predicted outcomes.

They predict that Brazil will be victorious over Argentina in the final, 3-1.

 

Goldman Sachs’ predictions have, though, been subject to criticism. James Grayson, for example, outlines on a blog post that Goldman Sachs’ assumptions are too biased towards Brazil.

2. Based on strength

Sports media company Infostrada, which is “developing various methodologies to forecast major sporting tournaments by implementing various techniques”, used the Elo rating system to forecast the results of the World Cup. This approach:

is based on all historical match results from all teamsupdates the rating after each match to show current strengthhas teams gain points when winning and lose points when losinghas teams gain more points for beating stronger opponents.

They predict Brazil, Germany, Spain and Argentina will reach the semi-finals, with Brazil beating Argentina in the final.

3. A visualisation project

Brazilian software engineer Andrew Yuan shared his World Cup predictions earlier last week. He investigated factors “that are measurable, available and can be good indicators of a match outcome” and provided a detailed account of his methodology on github.

Andrew looked at the outcomes of 13.337 FIFA official matches since 1994 involving the 2014 World Cup teams. He looked at each team’s relation in FIFA ranking tables, the location where the match took place (home, away or neutral venue) and the proportion of matches won.

He used logistic regression, which models the relationship between a dependent variable and one or more independent variables, and allows him to look at the fit of the model and the significance of relationships.

In an interactive, you can see he has Brazil as his probable winner.

 

4. Top four prediction

David Dormagen from Freien Universität Berlin presented a very clear account last month of a simulation model he developed to predict the outcome of the 2014 World Cup.

His approach allows for the “integration of rating systems and rules where either no clear formula for a probability other than a win or loss exists or where the historical data is not enough to derive such a formula”.

In addition, he was “also able to combine the results from different rating methods with user-given weights without influencing other calculations, such as the calculation of the draw-probability, the adjustment of the win expectancy for home teams, or the calculation of the expected goals”.

After 100,000 iterations of his simulator, David identified four favourites for 2014 World Cup champions: Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany.

Final thoughts

Of course, there are loads of predictions out there – these are just a few. But four different models described here have identified Brazil as probable winners of the 2014 World Cup, and three agree on the four semi-finalists – Andrew Yuan has Portugal in his four ahead of Argentina.

What will be fascinating is whether any team can outperform their “destiny”.

My own analysis of the World Cup will be triggered by a very basic question: did the higher Elo ranked team score the first goal in the game?

The answer to that question will enable a closer look at what happened if the higher ranked team loses. My expectation is that a higher ranked team that scores first will not lose (it will win or draw). I hope to explore any negative evidence and critical incidents that lead to a counter-predictive outcome.

 

In 2010 I used FIFA Rankings to ascribe status to teams. Some 51 of the 64 games in the 2010 World Cup were won by the higher FIFA ranked team. The exceptions were:

Serbia (v Ghana and v Australia)Cameroon (v Japan and v Denmark)France (v Mexico and v South Africa)Greece (v Korea)Spain (v Switzerland)Germany (v Serbia)Italy (v Slovakia)Denmark (v Japan)USA (v Ghana)Brazil (v Netherlands).

Nine of these 11 defeats were in group games. USA lost to Ghana in the Round of 16 and Brazil lost to the Netherlands in the Quarter Final.

For many years, performance analysts have engaged with a process that makes a permanent record of performance that enables description, analysis, modelling and prediction. The final part of this process for me is the transformation of performance by coaches and athletes.

We have an increasing amount of insight into performance. The 2014 World Cup is a great focus for analytical effort and elegance.

A version of this article was originally published on Clyde Street.

Keith Lyons does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Bush senior marks birthday with a skydive

Former president George H.

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W. Bush has marked his 90th birthday with nothing less than a skydive.

The 41st commander-in-chief parachuted out of a helicopter near his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine at about 10.45am local time (0045 AEST Friday).

The elder Bush, who these days is mostly pictured in a wheelchair, tweeted before the skydive that the weather conditions were perfect for such an activity.

It’s a wonderful day in Maine — in fact, nice enough for a parachute jump.

— George Bush (@GeorgeHWBush) June 12, 2014

The tandem jump is Bush’s eighth jump since his first on September 2, 1944, when he was shot down over the Pacific island Chi Chi Jima as a pilot in World War II.

He recalled that experience in an NBC interview with his granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager aired on Thursday, acknowledging it actually made him want to jump again – and do it right.

“I pulled the rip cord too early, hit the tail of the plane with my head, just a glancing blow,” he said.

“And that, I decided that later on, well I want to do it right. And so that did spark my interest in making another jump. This time getting it correct.”

The Republican, who was in the White House from 1989 to 1993, also jumped to mark his 80th and 85th birthdays.

Washington wished Bush well, with President Barack Obama leading the way and telling NBC the 90-year-old was a “fine man”.

“And I just want him to know that from the whole Obama family, we wish him all the best,” he said.

The Senate, meanwhile, passed a resolution in honour of Bush late on Wednesday extending best wishes to him and his wife Barbara.

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World Cup Group D could become a clash of the titans

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Incredible to think that one of these powerful footballing nations won’t make it past the group stages this year.

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Group D’s fourth team Costa Rica, aren’t to be discounted either.

 

Uruguay captain Diego Lugano – a 92-times capped stalwart of the national team – says it’s integral Uruguay gets a good result in its first group game against Costa Rica.

 

“It is the first game which is obviously always the most difficult for us and for them also because it is the game where we should obtain the three points,” he said.

“Surely our opponents are probably super motivated for this first game against Uruguay. No doubt it will be the most difficult and the most important game, that is what we have been thinking about for some time now.”

 

England go to the World Cup this year with a new wave of youth supporting the likes of old hands Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Stephen Gerrard.

 

The country’s talented pool of debutantes includes Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge.

 

England manager Roy Hodgson insists the pressure in Group D won’t be on his men, but rather on Italy, who failed to make it past the group stages at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

 

“They will be under a lot of scrutiny and pressure. Everyone in Italy will expect them to not only to beat us but everyone in the group,” he said.

“They will be expected to beat us and the other teams in our group and they will be expected to be up there amongst the favourites. That’s a lot of pressure to accept.”

“But I don’t honestly think there are many teams or coaches who go into a World Cup without feeling the pressure to perform well. You don’t work as hard and suffer the things we do to qualify, to then not expect not to have pressure to continue the good work.”

 

Italy go to the World Cup finals looking to equal the record of hosts Brazil and lift the trophy for a fifth time.

 

Coach Cesare Prandelli  insists his starting XI will be decided on a game-by-game basis.

 

“The idea is to have a changeable formula, like we had at the Confederations (Cup), we will not have a rigid formula, one that cannot be changed, we want the ability to change but also to be determined and precise because there are the first two phases to get through. We will work on this with the team as even during matches there can be changes.”

 

And lastly, Costa Rica: Having landed themselves a nightmare group, Costa Rica hope a blend of tactical stability and technical energy will help them to pull off a shock in Brazil.

 

Bryan Ruiz, the elegant Fulham forward currently on loan at PSV Eindhoven, captains the side, while Arsenal wide player Joel Campbell supplies pace and invention from wide areas.

 

Add to that Cristian Bolanos and outstanding goalkeeper Keilor Navas.

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From violent peasants to megastars, the history of football

If you love football, you’re probably only aware of its history from recent times.

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But football has a long, gruesomely violent, and hugely interesting past. And so begins a tale of how a violent peasant pastime became a multi-million pound industry.

Athens FC had a clear height advantage. Gun Powder Ma, CC BY-SA

Traces of football’s history go way, way back. The Greeks had a game called phaininda, which seems to have involved athletes hurling and catching a ball (there is a marble relief of this in the National Museum in Athens). This game may have been a precursor of the Roman game harpastum, where a small, hard ball was thrown among a throng of players divided into teams.

In the ninth century in Britain, a monk recorded how every year on Shrove Tuesday the youth of London “would go into the fields to play at the famous game of ball”.

The first recorded ‘hand of God’ controversy in Ancient Rome. Unlike expensive courtly pursuits such as jousting, these games required no specialised equipment and were thus open to all social classes. The innovation of a goal (usually a prominent local landmark) may have derived from the chivalric “passage of arms”, a military exercise in which a group of knights attempted to defend the gate of a castle or town from attack.

Mob football

The first unambiguous reference to football in England is a writ for preserving the peace in London (dated 13 April 1314), which notes the “great uproar in the City, through certain tumults arising from the striking of large footballs in the public fields”. That football could lead to serious injury or death is borne out by the records. In 1321, for example, one player died from wound sustained after accidentally running onto a sheathed knife.

Yet despite a succession of royal proclamations promoting archery and a statute of 1409-10 forbidding labourers and servants from “playing at the Balls”, this “common, undignified, and worthless” game remained ever popular.

Football was also entertaining; a spectator sport in the making. The dangers of the game though, remained. Civic authorities in 17th-century London, Manchester, Grimsby and Clitheroe banned football playing in the streets, fearing broken windows and tumults.

 

Ah, the beautiful game.

They were not being alarmist, as a riot instigated by football players in the fens only a few months before the outbreak of the First English Civil War demonstrated. Another disturbance became a prelude to the Second Civil War: unhappy that Christmas had been abolished, rioters at Canterbury used a football match to attract an unruly crowd to their cause.

In the 18th century, the rules we now recognise on the pitch today, began to emerge. At one match it was determined that “two men will not be allowed to engage one only”. Similarly, at a game played at Ditchingham in 1741, there were judges whose job was to settle “all differences that may arise.” By the late 18th century, members of the aristocracy, keen to have a healthy work force, began organising matches – often in concert with local publicans. Prizes in the form of hats were provided for the winners (losers tended to receive stockings).

Public school rules

From the late 18th century and through into the 19th century, increased concern for public order, tighter labour discipline, the enclosure of land and migration to the cities led to an erosion of popular customs. Football was not immune from these changes.

Though the game continued to be played in highly publicised contests, traditional football was in decline. At the same time the public schools, where hitherto football had been regarded as ungentlemanly and “fit only for butcher boys”, began to codify the rules of their ball games.

 

Hands on at Rugby. Lordprice Collection, CC BY-SA

At Rugby, written rules that permitted players to carry ball were set down in 1845. Eton followed suit in 1849 with rules that, in deliberate contrast to Rugby, forbade Etonians from handling the ball. At the universities, undergraduates brought with them the rules favoured by their public schools.

After some attempts to reconcile the various codes Cambridge produced a revised code in 1863 which made no mention of handling the ball. These Cambridge rules were to form the basis of the code eventually adopted by the Football Association established later that year.

Passion and professionalism

The growth of Association Football in the late 19th century was remarkable. Amateur clubs sometimes linked to firms or churches, but more often reflecting neighbourhood loyalties, mushroomed in the industrial towns and cities of the north (in the 1880s Liverpool alone had more than one hundred).

Many teams built their grounds among factories and the worker’s houses, cementing the support of their local communities. By the early 20th century many of the largest cities had two major teams and the often intense local rivalry between these clubs was regularly played out before hordes of excited, partisan spectators that represented the largest regular gatherings in peace-time.

The sectarian-fuelled passions of the 50,000 or more who regularly witnessed the New Year’s Day clashes between Celtic and Rangers found an outlet in 1909 when 6,000 fans rioted following a draw between the two teams; 54 policemen were injured, the ground damaged and virtually every street-lamp in the vicinity of the stadium destroyed.

The last time Tottenham were any good … FA Cup final, 1901.

The fierce competitiveness that drove teams towards league and cup glory accelerated the professionalisation of football. Hungry for success on the pitch, teams began to recruit players from far and wide to realise their ambitions. Victorious teams, like the side that won the cup for Tottenham Hotspur in 1901, often contained no local players. Yet supporters continued to identify with the individuals that wore their team colours.

Professional football players were perceived as working-class heroes and were paid accordingly: in 1931 the maximum annual salary of a professional footballer (including unofficial bonuses) was probably nearly £400, a figure far higher than the average industrial wage. Transfer fees were also forever on the increase.

In the 1930s football was still seen as cheap entertainment, but it was also big business, providing growing employment opportunities. Demand for news had created sports papers like the Saturday afternoon Pink ‘Un and Green’Un. Demand for food and drink benefited the catering trade. Demand for cigarettes led to the cult of the cigarette card made famous by John Player and Son. And the demand for gambling spawned pools companies like Littlewoods and Vernons.

There was also advertising; the FA Cup finalists of 1934 promoted flannel trousers, Shredded Wheat and shoe-polish. By the eve of the World War II, The Times could describe football as “something like a national industry”.

The golden age?

In the post-war era we have witnessed an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor clubs, where success for the elite is no longer measured by performance on the pitch but by performance on the stock exchange.

£85 million man, Gareth Bale. Pablo Morquecho, CC BY

Clubs now recruit managers from outside the UK and buy players of every nationality. In their wake have come team doctors, dieticians, sports psychologists and publicists. Players are now celebrities with agents and personal assistants. The best earn more in a week than the prime minister does in a year – and more in six weeks than a nurse will make in a lifetime of service with the NHS.

The spectacle we watch and read about daily is sold to us with an ever-increasing sophistication that maximises a brand loyalty unparallelled on the high street.

Football has never had it so good, but questions remain as to the game’s future direction. Will, as some predict, the industry bubble burst? Will fans tire of a handful of clubs cleaning up domestically and sharing the European prizes between them? Financial Fair Play has proved to be toothless. Hardly a surprise, perhaps, given the high-stakes nature of the game.

So what now? No salary caps and unlimited transfer fees mean that in England there’s nothing to prevent the richest clubs from buying not only the best established players but also many unproven kids – stars in the making who aren’t yet old enough to vote. And if the best indicator of where a team will finish is its annual wage bill – occasional managerial brilliance and incompetence excepted – things might get a little too predictable for fans already forced to shell out more to watch a game than they ever have before.

 

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France’s young side clear favourite in World Cup Group E

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Head coach Didier Deschamps has selected eight players aged under 25 for the World Cup.

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Paris Saint-Germain left-back Lucas Digne and Newcastle United’s Loic Remy were also included in the final squad – as were talented keeper Hugo Lloris, Manchester United veteran Patrice Evra, and Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud of Arsenal.

 

Despite the hype back home, Didier Deschamps is trying to keep his squad grounded.

 

“You know, we always have the tendency in France, to talk about things that are easy on paper, to start talking about our opponents in the quarter finals, and our match with Ukraine which should have been easy,” he said.

“Nothing was easy, it was complicated, and so we have to calm down this euphoria a little bit, the first thing, the most important thing for me in this world Cup is to win the match against Honduras and that won’t be easy.”

 

The French will likely be most troubled by fellow Europeans Switzerland, who topped their UEFA qualifying group, without losing a game.

 

The Swiss national side is a feisty outfit with a surprising amount of flair.

 

Stephan Lichtsteiner and hard-tackling captain Gokhan Inler never shy away from a battle, while the impish skills of Xherdan Shaqiri could make him one of the finals’ most exciting players.

 

For Ecuador, meanwhile, a quick look at “La Tri’s” World Cup qualifying campaign would lead one to believe their biggest strength was playing home matches at high altitude in Quito.

 

Ecuador’s greatest strength is on the wings with Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia marauding down the right and the electric Jefferson Montero on the left.

 

Coach Reinaldo Rueda admits Ecuador lacks big match experience, but he insists it can make up for that in discipline.

 

“All teams come with the same motivation [but] with different styles. Switzerland has a style. Honduras has a style. France has another style. And I think everyone starts at zero,” he said.

“Now, the past history, the qualification process and all of that matters a little. We don’t have World Cup experience, but we have a good group that is very motivated that might have to overcome the lack of World Cup experience with a lot of order, obedience, with a lot of tactical discipline and all the same, I think that for us, our three opponents are very good.”

 

For Honduras, there were no surprises when coach Luis Fernando Suarez announced his 23-man World Cup squad.

 

All eyes will be on the team’s left-footed defender, Maynor Figueroa, whose leadership and ability to marshal Honduras’s defence could determine how long the country’s World Cup adventure lasts.

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US mulls strikes as Iraq militants advance

Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad after capturing a town just hours to the north, as the US mulls air strikes to bolster Iraq’s collapsing security forces.

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With militants threatening the capital, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on Thursday took control of the disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it from jihadist attack.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meanwhile has warned that Tehran would combat “terrorism” in neighbouring Iraq.

Fighters from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have spearheaded a major offensive, overrunning the northern province of Nineveh and parts of Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces, and also moving into Diyala.

On Thursday they were advancing on Baghdad, after seizing the town of Dhuluiyah just 90km away.

Militants also seized three villages in Diyala province, which abuts Baghdad to the east, expanding the offensive, officers said.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised the group would drive on to Baghdad and Karbala, a city southwest of the capital that is one of the holiest sites for Shi’ite Muslims, in a statement carried by jihadist websites.

Washington is considering several options for offering military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Resorting to such aircraft would mark a dramatic shift in the US engagement in Iraq, after the last American troops pulled out in late 2011.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was committed to “working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL’s continued aggression.”

But there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4500 American soldiers died in the bitter conflict.

And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was “no question” of British troops being sent back to Iraq.

The UN Security Council has called crisis talks for Thursday.

In Tehran, President Rouhani went live on television to denounce the “extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely” in Iraq and warned that Iran would not tolerate “this violence and terror.”

He said he would later meet the Supreme National Security Council, which would have to approve any military support Tehran might want to provide to Baghdad.

The militants overran Iraq’s second city Mosul on Tuesday before taking control of its surrounding province Nineveh and sweeping into Kirkuk, Salaheddin and Diyala provinces.

They encountered little effective resistance from security forces, some of whom discarded their uniforms and joined tens of thousands of fleeing civilians.

The gunmen did not enter Kirkuk city, but the army withdrew from positions in the surrounding province and their places have been taken by members of the Kurdish peshmerga security forces, according to Kirkuk Governor Najm al-Din Karim.

The first sign of effective resistance to the militants came Wednesday when they were repulsed in heavy fighting as they tried to enter Samarra, a mainly Sunni Arab city that is home to a shrine revered by the country’s Shi’ite majority.

The International Organisation for Migration has estimated that over 500,000 people have been displaced in and around Mosul alone.

Known for its ruthless tactics and suicide bombers, ISIL is arguably the most capable force fighting President Bashar al-Assad inside Syria as well as the most powerful militant group in Iraq.

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Little known Iran team to take on powerhouse Argentina in World Cup Group F

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Indeed, Alejandro Sabella’s squad contains several stars who would walk into most other starting XIs at the World Cup.

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This includes Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain, Manchester City duo Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta, Barcelona defender-cum-midfielder Javier Mascherano and Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria.

 

With a World Cup being played in South Amercia for the first time since 1978, Messi insists Argentina will be among the favourites.

 

“No, there is no pressure. Argentina is always obliged to fight for the championship,” he said.

“It’s always among the favourites because of the relevance of Argentinean football. I think we are in a good place now. We have a good opportunity of doing something big. We are calm and excited to achieve our goal.”

 

For Bosnia and Herzegovina it will be their first ever World Cup finals.

 

Led at the front by the free scoring Edin Dzeko of Manchester City and Vedad Ibisevic of Stuttgart in the German Bundesliga, Bosnia Herzegovina has set the Round of 16 as a minumum requirement.

 

The Balkan nation will likely have to battle it out for second spot in Group F with Nigeria.

 

The team going to Brazil boasts some serious talent in Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi, Victor Moses on loan at Liverpool, and Fenerbahçe striker Emmanuel Emenike.

 

The Super Eagles’ coach Stephen Keshi, says his charges are relishing the chance to come up against countries like Argentina.

 

“Argentina and Nigeria – we keep playing Argentina every time in the World Cup. It’s good. We’ll see how we go this time. Not know Bosnia, they’re a difficult team, but they’re a good team. I think I’ve seen them once or twice on TV. Iran, I’ve never seen them. But for them to be here, it means they’re a good team.”

 

That leaves the minnows of Group F and one of the tournament’s least-known teams: Iran.

 

The Persian Stars team boasts Belgium-based striker Reza Ghoochannejhad and Ashkan Dejagah – who’s played in the Bundesliga and is now with Fulham in England.

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Time for calm in Vic Parliament: experts

After a tumultuous two years it’s finally time to play nice in Victoria’s parliament, political experts say.

南宁桑拿

The suspension of Liberal-turned-independent MP Geoff Shaw for misusing his parliamentary car and entitlements has left the Legislative Assembly tied at 43 members on each side.

Any legislation without bipartisan support would mean deadlock, leaving Speaker Christine Fyffe with the casting vote.

Monash University politics expert Nick Economou said she should vote with the government.

“The government has a mandate from the Victorian electors to govern,” Dr Economou told AAP on Thursday.

“That’s the convention that I think she should be respecting – the respect of what the Victorian electors chose.”

Premier Denis Napthine challenged Labor on Thursday to back the government in the parliament, with tougher sentencing laws for drug traffickers and pedophiles up for debate in two weeks.

But that tough talk might not be necessary, with the government likely to hold back on any divisive bills.

Deputy Premier Peter Ryan said on Wednesday night that the majority of parliamentary legislation usually went through with the support of both parties.

Swinburne University political expert Brian Costar said he had checked the pending parliamentary bills, with nothing “terribly controversial” due before the November election.

“I don’t think there’ll be much contentious legislation. Victorian governments don’t tend to bring forward contentious legislation this late in the session,” Professor Costar said.

Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said Labor would hold the government to account and scrutinise every bill.

“There’ll be no blank cheques. There’ll be no free ride,” Mr Andrews said.

Mr Shaw sparked two years of controversy in May 2012 when he was investigated over using his parliamentary car for his hardware business.

Dr Economou said Labor had come away with a win from Mr Shaw’s suspension, despite pushing for him to be expelled.

“The worst thing that could have happened for Daniel Andrews was a) Geoff Shaw was expelled, which would have removed him from the debate entirely,” Dr Economou said.

“And b) if there had been a by-election, and Labor had lost it, Andrews would have been in severe political trouble.”

Instead Mr Shaw is due back on September 2 – if he repays more than $6800 and apologises to the parliament.

“(Labor’s) reward is the return of Mr Shaw at a critical moment as we go to the last few weeks before the dissolution of the parliament before the election,” Dr Economou said.

Professor Costar said Mr Shaw’s determination to make changes to Victoria’s abortion legislation would fail.

“The government’s not going to go anywhere near that this close to an election. Labor’s not going to support it either,” he said.

Victoria’s fixed-term elections have come under fire while Mr Shaw has held the balance of power.

Professor Costar said there was no easy fix if the November election came back 44-all.

He said Victoria’s constitution had been rewritten a decade ago and made it too hard for a premier to end an “unworkable” parliament.

“The government stuffed that legislation in 2003,” Professor Costar said.

Dr Economou said the government would want to stop talking about Mr Shaw and constitutional issues, and instead focus on its infrastructure programs.

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