Vuvuzela buzzing for jabulani goals | George Micallef

To many, George Micallef is the Maltese voice of international football, but being a professional commentator doesn’t mean you can’t also have your own preferences for the World Cup.

As far as football is concerned, I am quite an ignoramus, even if I enjoy the World Cup spectacle: especially those matches involving unlikely underdogs like North Korea – the sole representative of the ‘axis of evil’ in the competition – and upcoming teams from Africa and Asia.

But by Thursday morning, when I meet George Micallef for the first sports interview of my life, I have seen few goals and little to comment on except for the constant buzzing of the vuvuzela.

Micallef attributes this to the teams’ fear of losing their first game, going so far as to forecast an increase in goals as teams play their second match. As if divine proof were needed for Micallef’s prediction, I cannot but notice, while writing this interview, that the scoreboard on the mute TV in the office reads ‘Argentina 4, South Korea 1’ – five goals in one match.

“The first match of a World Cup requires football coaches to be very cautious. Losing the first of the three group matches could well spell the end of your progress in the competition. Their main objective is not to lose the first game and they would be even satisfied with a draw.”

But the second game is a completely difficult story.

“Teams have to go for a win, especially if they had lost or drawn in the first game. You cannot go to the next stage without winning at least one game. Therefore, teams tend to be less defensive, more spaces are opened up and more goals pour in. I predict more offensive matches in the coming days.”

But he also attributes the lack of offensive football to the infamous ‘jabulani’ ball, which is being used for the first time.

“This ball has something weird about it. It swerves, and you cannot predict where it is going to go as it changes direction.”
The ball has been criticised by all teams except the South African organisers and Germany.

But according to Micallef, there is a reason for Germany being happy with the jabulani, as the ball has been used in the Bundesliga for the past six months – apart from the fact that Germany are sponsored by Adidas, who manufactured the ball.

Teams like England, which is sponsored by Nike, were less lucky, as they could not even use the jabulani in training sessions or international friendly matches.

Not surprisingly, Germany was the only team to score four goals in their opening game, which was against Australia.
Was the jabulani to blame for England keeper Green’s inability to hold the ball, which slipped from his hand in to the net?

Micallef does not absolve Green by putting the blame entirely on the ball.

“It was partially the effect of the ball, but Green is to blame because of the position he took. His position was slightly off centre, and he took his position too early…”

Was the choice of ball a mistake on the part of Fifa?

“Well, the ball is slightly lighter but it is within the weight standards of Fifa, which set a maximum and minimum weight… but I think Fifa is aware of the negative reaction from nearly all goalkeepers. There is something wrong…”

One constant irritant during the World Cup is the constant buzz generated by the vuvuzela; a huge blowing horn used by fans in South Africa.

“It causes a huge headache,” Micallef admits. But in his second match commentary Micallef was spared the headache thanks to a pair of headphones supplying British commentary instead.

“It does not help me and it interferes with my flow… but at least I do not hear the vuvuzela ambience in my ears.”
Micallef also claims that the instrument is affecting players on the pitch.

“It is very frustrating for coaches who cannot really communicate with players. It is the consistency of the sound which is terrible.”
But despite his irritation, Micallef wouldn’t ban the vuvuzela.

“I wouldn’t ban it because I respect African culture. If you ban the vuvuzela, you are taking away part of the culture of the country. Unfortunately the sound is irritating.”

Vuvuzela and jabulani apart: what was the greatest World Cup upset so far?

Definitely the Swiss victory against Spain, Micallef replies. But does losing the first match preclude a comeback, which could see Spain still fulfilling its role as world cup winner favourite?

“It’s not the end of the world for a resourceful team like Spain, but it could mean that Spain would not finish first in their group. If Spain finishes in second place and Brazil wins their group we could end up with the two World Cup favourites meeting in the next round.”

For Micallef, Germany was the team which delivered more than expected. (Note: this interview was written before Friday’s encounter with Serbia).

“Many critics did not rate Germany too much. But you can never trust the Germans. They have some very interesting youngsters, especially Mesut Ozil – a player of Turkish origins who I daresay will be the next big thing in European football.”
North Korea was the other team which performed well beyond expectations.

And what was the most amazing goal? Micallef’s choice falls on the World Cup opening goal by South Africa’s Tshabalala and Brazil’s second goal against North Korea by Elano after he received a magical pass from Robinho.

What about Maicon’s cross/shot? “If he really meant it as a shot on goal it was a brilliant goal, but I have a feeling that the jabulani ball had a role in swerving into the net.”

Another highlight was the case of 32 sexy Dutch girls in skimpy orange miniskirts who were arrested after Fifa accused them of ambush marketing for Bavaria beer.

For Micallef, this was an overreaction on Fifa’s part. But he sees the incident as a symptom of the commercialisation of the event in which Fifa finds itself defending major sponsors.

For the first time Fifa (which does not pay tax due to its charity status in Switzerland) will rake over a billion dollars in revenue this year. “I hope that South Africa will benefit from all this income. It will be a massive failure for South Africa if some of this money is not invested in the grass-roots to assist youngsters.”

He acknowledges that Fifa has a number of programmes to this end “but definitely not all the money ends up there.”

When I ask Micallef about Fifa’s transparency, which does not even reveal its President Sepp Blatter’s salary, he invites me to read

Andrew Jennings: an investigative journalist who is considered as a persona non grata by the football establishment. “You should read his book Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals which says it all about Blatter.”

What is Micallef’s assessment of Blatter? “He has done some good things but is not the perfect Fifa President… He is not very transparent, he is a bit biased and he tends to favour African countries, which is not a good thing when this is done at the expense of other countries.”

Commenting on a football game from a studio rather than from the stadium is no easy task, not even for a veteran like George Micallef.

“You have to be very well prepared… I collate brief profiles on each player and coach.”

To give the audience a good commentary one has to dedicate time to collate sufficient information on each team and player.

“It is important to understand the tactical shape of the teams. If you know the tactical position of each player, it will help you to recognise the players more immediately.”

What about pronouncing the names of the players correctly? As an assistant head of a school, Micallef has an advantage. “What I do is that I call a few foreign language teachers and I go through the pronunciation with them.”

At least this helps him in pronouncing the names of French, German Spanish and Latin American teams. But sometimes people tend to react negatively when he pronounces a name correctly.

For example, when commenting the South Africa vs Uruguay match he correctly pronounced the ‘Z’ as ‘th’ in English, some people could not understand why he was referring to Uruguayan coach Tabarez as ‘Tabareth’. But this is the correct pronunciation in Spanish.

Visual cues such as their hairstyle, facial features the boots they normally wear, and whether they have long sleeves, are also important in recognising players instantly.

Ultimately, a good commentary must be sleek and fast. “A commentary should be in a high tempo and very fast and fluid.” Another difficulty is setting aside personal biases. He admits that commenting a game involving his favourite team; England poses a difficulty.

“You have to restrain your feelings… mostly I end up being over cautious and end up being more critical of the English team than they deserve to avoid being called biased, but sometimes emotions do slip up.”

And does he manage to contain himself when England scores? “I am euphoric in any case whenever a team scores as this makes a commentary lively. But obviously when England scores people tend to think I am euphoric because I side with this team.”

I end up with the question which is on everybody’s mind: who will win the World Cup? “I do not know why but I have the sneaky suspicion that Argentina might go all the way… having said that, although I have a big soft spot for Maradona, I don’t think he is good coach.”

Why? “The fact that he left out two very good players like Cambioso and Zanetti – who are experienced players but not his friends – in the first game says it all… You either go all the way with Maradona or you don’t have much of chance at playing.”

But he also recognises that Maradona – an icon in Argentina – can be a formidable motivator.

“If he gets some good advice from his technical assistants, Argentina can make it.”

What about England? “I rate Cappello a lot but than there are Germany and Italy which cannot be trusted… I never trust Italy and Lippi is especially astute when it comes to World Cups… they do not have a particularly strong team but with a coach like Lippi you never know.”

What about Brazil? “I do not really rate Brazil so much…”

Ultimately, if he had to pick someone as a potential finalist, Argentina are Micallef’s best bet.