World Cup 2014 Preview: Group H

Funny how people refer to ‘Groups Of Death’ to groups packed full of the best talent in the world. Group H consists of four teams that are not considered major threats to the World Cup but any of the two can move to the Round of 16. Also don’t count any of them out as possible challengers for the cup. So for my final group rundown, here’s my take on Group H:

Belgium-Belgium (12)- If you thought it was a surprise to see Switzerland among the seded team in FIFA’s World Cup draw, it should have been just a surprising to see Belgium. Even though Belgium was in the FIFA Top 8 at the time, Belgium is a country one would not normally expect to see as a seded team. Their best World Cup finish ever of the eleven previous World Cups they’ve played in was fourth in 1986. The last World Cup they played in was 2002 and they didn’t even qualify for Euro 2012. However that all changed in 2012 when they hired Marc Wilmots as head coach after being assistant coach for three years. Wilmots himself had played for Belgium in four World Cups and even scored five goals in World Cup play. Belgium was placed in possibly the most difficult European qualifying group for 2014 but they played like magic. They won eight games and tied the other two en route to coming first in their group and automatically qualifying with just one game to go. The spirit of the Red Devils was felt again in their homeland as the country greeted them upon their return in big fanfare. Their success helped put them in FIFA’s Top 8 around the time of the draw which led to them classed as one of the seded teams. Their performance in qualifying was so impressive, Wilmots was signed on to be coach for another four more years. However Belgium’s play in friendlies have not been so spectacular as they’ve lost to Romania, Colombia and Japan. They do have impressive wins against the U.S.A. and Sweden and even tied France. Nevertheless their lackluster friendly play has dropped them from the Top 8 and now stand 12th. Nevertheless this is a big boost for country as this will be their first World Cup in 12 years. Half the team play for top European teams like Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Whatever the situation, no doubt they’ll send the message that Belgium is back.

Algeria-Algeria (25)- Algeria is another team coming to this year’s World Cup hoping for a breakthrough moment. They’ve competed in three World Cups before: in 1982, 1986 and 2010. They have had better luck defining themselves at the Africa Cup of Nations where they’ve made it as far as the semifinals five times and even won back in 1990. However they’re hoping this World Cup to finally progress past the Group Stage. Their squadron is coached by Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic who coached the Ivory Coast at the 2010 World Cup. Top players include Madjid Bougherra, Islam Slimani and Sofianne Feghouli who’s already being called ‘the New Zidane.’ Algeria won their opening group in qualifying for the World Cup. They would then face Burkina Faso for the berth. The first game ended with a 3-2 loss but Algeria came back 1-0 to clinch their trip to Brazil. They’ve also not lost a friendly in the past two years and would include wins against Slovenia and Romania and ties to South Africa and the Ivory Coast. If they play consistently, Algeria could have their best ever World Cup here.

Russia Fixed-Russian Federation (18)- Russia is a team that has struggled to prove itself since the breakup of the USSR back in 1991. Back during the days when the USSR did well by advancing past the Group Stage in all but one of their seven World Cup appearances and even finishing fourth in 1966, the majority of Soviet players were Russian. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia has continued to shell out remarkable talents in the years since. However the national team has always fallen short of making a statement of their prowess. They’ve only qualified for two World Cups–1994 and 2002– and only went as far as the Group Stage in both cases, even though Ukrainian-born Oleg Salenko set a World Cup record in 1994 with the most goals in a single World Cup game: five. They did however have a moment of glory by finishing third at Euro 2008. However they come to Brazil looking for more as they will have the task of hosting the next World Cup in 2018. No doubt they want to create an impression here. Although all the players play for Russian League teams with many playing for Dynamo Moscow, their coaching staff is almost all Italians and the head coach is Fabio Capello who has coached AC Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus and England up to 2012. Russia performed well enough in qualifying to win their qualifying group over heavily-favored Portugal. They’ve showed their abilities by scoring wins against Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea and Morocco. They’ve also tied countries like the U.S.A. 2-2, Serbia 1-1 and Brazil 1-1. It’s make or break for the Russian team here in Brazil. They come to play well and learn.

Korea-South Korea (55)- Isn’t it interesting that Group H has two teams named The Red Devils? There’s Belgium, where the Belgians call them les Diables Rouges or de Rode Duivels, and there South Korea who also go by the name the Taegeuk Warriors. South Korea has traditionally been the best team in Asia. None of the other Asian countries here in Brazil have as much of a track record as South Korea who will be playing in their eighth straight World Cup. Their best finish ever was a fourth-place finish in 2002 when they co-hosted with Japan. Much of their prowess has to be with the K-League that was started in 1983 and has really taken off since. However South Korea appears they don’t have the prowess they’re used to showing. They’ve had wins against Greece and Switzerland in the past two years. However they’ve had to endure losses to Brazil, Croatia, the U.S.A., Russia and Mexico. Since qualifying for the World Cup, they’ve changed coaches to Hong Myung-Bo who’s had experience coaching in the MLS. They’re hoping he can make an improvement for the team and he’s already helped Korea move up to 55th from 59th a month ago. It’s quite possible they might prove in Brazil those low FIFA rankings are just bad estimates.

And now my prediction for the two advancers: I predict Belgium and Russia with Algeria the one most likely to upset.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Okay, I’m done reviewing the last World Cup group. Now time to focus on the last two World Cup stadiums. My final Stadium Spotlight focuses on the two stadiums in two of Brazil’s biggest cities. One is a new stadium, the other is old and legendary. On will be hosting the opening ceremonies and opening match. The other will be the stage for deciding the winner of the Cup, just like it did 64 years ago.

-SAO PAULO : Arena de Sao PauloSao Paulo

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 61,606

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, D, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (F1 vs. E2) & a semifinal

Sao Paulo’s new stadium came about as Estadio Pacaembu was too small to host World Cup games and was getting too old. Also the much bigger Estadio de Morumbi was judged by FIFA as unsuitable to hold World Cup games. Thus the creation of the Arena de Sao Paulo. However creating the stadium came with difficulties. First, national funding for the stadium was delayed for two years. Secondly, the Arena originally planned to hold 72,000 for World Cup games. Relocation of TV Equipment and VIP seating reduced the capacity to 61,606. Even though the stadium has officially been opened on May 10th, it was noted modifications were still underway two weeks ago and people are still unsure if the stadium has been finished. They better be ready June 12th because they’re hosting the opening ceremonies and first match: Brazil vs. Croatia. After the World Cup, the seating will be reduced to 48,234 and will be managed by the Corinthians football team who will have the stadium renamed Arena Corinthians. The stadium is also a venue for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

-RIO DE JANEIRO : Estadio do Maracanamaracana 1

Year Opened: 1950

World Cup Capacity: 78,838

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, E, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (C1 vs. D2), a quarterfinal & final for the Cup

If many people view football as a religion, then the Maracana has to be one of its prize temples, especially for Brazilians. This stadium was opened in 1950 to host the World Cup. The final game of that World Cup set a world record that stands today of the largest attendance of a soccer game: official count at 199,854 but actual attendance is estimated around 210,000. Since the World Cup, the Maracana has continued to attract large crowds to games for clubs like Vasco da Gama, Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminese. The latter two still have the Maracana as their home stadium. However the capacity was greatly reduced in 1992 when an upper stand collapsed, killing three and injuring 50. Remember there was a time when stadiums allowed for both seats and standing area which allowed for such big totals I talked about. The Maracana was converted into an all-seater stadium since the accident. A bit of trivia: The Maracana can never be demolished as it was classified as a national landmark in 1998. Maracana 2

For the 2014 World Cup, major preparations and changes had to take place. The irony being the stadium had already underwent major renovations starting in 2000 just after it celebrated its 50th anniversary and completed in 2007. The original seating bowl that had a two-tier configuration was demolished and made way for the construction of a one-tier seating bowl. New seats in colors of yellow, blue and white form among the green match of the field to create the national colors of Brazil. The renovated Maracana played host to the Confederations Cup last year. After the World Cup, the stadium will return to being the host venue for Flamengo and Fluminese, continue to host major concert and will be the stage during the 2016 Summer Olympics for football games and the opening and closing ceremonies.

And that wraps it up. I’m done predicting World Cup groups and I’m done reviewing World Cup stadiums. All that needs to be done is let the show begin. I’m sure it will be a memorable one.

Movie Review: Of Gods And Men

The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.

This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.

The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men. 

 The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.

As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.

Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.

There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.

This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.

For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington: 

I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.

She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.

If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.