Tavis: Andy Gray is a former European soccer star who earned player of the year honors during the height of his career in England. He now covers soccer for the Fox Soccer Channel where you can see him daily during this World Cup on their wrap-up show, Ticket to South Africa. Andy, good to have you on the program.
Andy Gray: Nice to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious (laughter), this ball. There has been more conversation and more controversy about this ball. I’ve been reading front page stories, magazine stories, Internet stories. Everybody’s talking about the ball and, as best I can tell, the players seem not to like the ball. What’s the big deal?
Gray: Well, particularly the goalkeepers, Tavis. But a little story about goalkeepers that I never worry about too much. Prior to getting into a big tournament like this, the World Cup, the European championships, there is always a new ball manufactured, put out on the market. It’s what UEFA and FIFA, the governing bodies, do.
Every tournament, Tavis, you will find the goalkeepers complaining about it. They moan about it. It’s not right. It moves through the air. Of course, it moves through the air. People shoot it at them (laughter), so it’s going to move through the air.
Tavis: It’s designed to do that, huh? Yeah (laughter).
Gray: It’s designed to do that. And if it’s giving the goalkeepers a problem, I don’t want it because we’re in this sport and we love this sport to see one thing, excitement and goals scored. The more goals that are scored, the better the World Cup will be.
My one worry about it over and above that, and I have to say we will have to wait and see when the tournament goes into its full length, if the outfield players who have to control it with the chest, the thigh, the feet, can’t use their hands, if they have a problem with it. Because I think, if they have a problem with it, then maybe the governing body has gone too far in the manufacture of this ball.
Tavis: Gone too far in what way? What specifically about the ball are people complaining about?
Gray: They’re complaining it’s too light. It’s very light. You have it there. You know, there’s hardly anything there.
Gray: They’re complaining that there’s little ridges all over it. You can feel them, can’t you?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Gray: The ridges are all over the ball.
Tavis: The texture of the ball – you have a basketball and it’s got the same texture all the way around, baseball same texture all the way around. This ball, when you touch it, because of the design, the texture of the ball changes depending on where you touch it.
Gray: And I think that’s what the players are saying. Because some of it is smoother than others, when the air goes across it, I mean, aerodynamically. I’m not a scientist, but aerodynamically that would mean parts of this ball are going to react to the air going across it more than others and the goalkeepers are saying that’s why it’s doing this. It’s moving through the air in unusual ways.
But I think we’ll wait and see. I’m not too disappointed about that. If it means we’re going to see 30 or 40 more goals, bring her on.
Tavis: And this ball is called the “Jabulani?”
Gray: Jabulani, “celebration,” which is what it’s all about.
Tavis: Cool. So when you start hearing that term “Jabulani,” you’ll know they’re referring to the ball that’s being used. Speaking of some basics, soccer as you know is huge around the world and, as you also know here in America, we’re a little slow catching up to the excitement that the world has.
Gray: We’re getting there.
Tavis: We’re getting there, but slow catching up to the excitement the world has about the World Cup. So let me just ask you as simple question. For those who do not understand the sport, how it’s played, how goals are scored, how they’re counted, just give me a basic lesson on this game, soccer.
Gray: This game is a game that I think is one of the hardest games to master in the world because all the players can use every part of their body apart from what we were given to control things like that, what you’re controlling it with -
Tavis: - everything except your hands.
Gray: Everything except your hands, so you have to control it with your chest, your thighs, your feet, everywhere. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult. Then when you put it in a team game and you compete against each other, there is so much. It has given me over 35 years the biggest cross-section of emotion I have ever felt in my life outside of what you feel with your family. The amazing, the spectrum you feel from joy and happiness.
These nations that you’re about to watch competing in this, particularly the host nation of South Africa, you just have to look at the newsreels coming out of South Africa pre-tournament and today with the opening ceremony happening today just how much joy is around the African nations at the moment, particularly South Africa, about what is happening with the sport. It’s competitive. It’s almost gladiatorial, I would say.
And I think it embraces what I always think the American society embraces better than anyone, winners. It loves a winner, this tournament, and it will provide us, I think, in football and soccer with a genuine quality World Cup winner.
Tavis: How do these guys learn this fancy? I mean, do they practice this? Are they gifted with it? I mean, Pele and Maradona. There are a number of names that stand out above all other players in history, but how do guys become proficient at this game?
Gray: Well, those two had a natural gift. You know, it’s like your great basketball players or great NFL players. You know, the really great ones have a natural gift. But it’s practice, honestly, Tavis. You start as a kid.
I started to play kicking a ball about when I was probably three or four. You see pictures there of these guys. That’s exactly what I did in Glasgow in Scotland. I was on grounds much like that we’re seeing there and kicking a ball about with my mates. It’s amazing then how you learn to control that. You’re always taught make it your friend. Make that thing your friend and never be embarrassed with it. I think it’s like everything. It’s what you’re brought up with and I was brought up to play that sport.
Even in the short time I’ve been in the states and I was here two years ago when I covered the European championships over here as well, it’s amazing how many young American kids, male and female, love this sport and are playing this sport because it’s easy to do. You can take a couple of jackets off, throw them down to make goals and then you only need a ball and you can go and have hours of hours of fun when you’re a young kid.
Tavis: To your point now, is it your sense – I think it is because I thought you intimated this earlier – that the U.S. is slowly catching up to the excitement that other countries have about the sport?
Gray: I genuinely believe that. I remember two years ago in New York in the European championships, I think there was one establishing showing coverage of the championships. I was reading a piece in the, I think, New York Times or something like that about coming up World Cup. There must be now 68 establishments in New York City two years later who are showing coverage of the World Cup. Agreed, primarily, because the U.S. are in it themselves.
But I do think that, if the U.S. keeps going, if you can see out the next five or ten years, Tavis, I do then think that U.S. soccer will be stronger. It has a foundation now that I think it didn’t have in the 70s.
I don’t know if you remember in the 70s when Pele was over here playing for the New York Cosmos. It didn’t have a foundation, I felt, in the states to move on from when the great players sort of left the league. I think it has now. I think it has its own identity.
It’s going to be difficult, I believe, Tavis, to compete with the NFL and baseball. We know that. I don’t think soccer in this country wants to do that. It just wants its own niche and I think that you will get better and better kids playing this game.
Tavis: I guess the best analogy – I could be wrong. If I am, I’m sure I’ll get mail about this. To my mind at least, the best analogy we have to the size of the field competing to be nation would be the NCAA Tournament. They just voted to increase the number of teams, but for years now, 64 teams. So give me a sense of how the brackets are set up, how many teams there are and how we get from 64 to the winner.
Gray: Well, when we get to the final – prior to this, starting immediately after this tournament is over on July 11, in three months time in September, we will start the qualification for the next World Cup.
Gray: Two years prior. Pretty much every country in the world will have entered the World Cup. That’s how big it is. When we get to the stage right now, we’re down to 32 teams.
Tavis: 32 teams, okay.
Gray: 32 teams, eight sections, four in the section. The top two qualify for the last 16 which then becomes knockouts, which is what I love the best. That’s what this tournament is, Tavis. If you feel a little uninspired for the first couple of weeks because maybe the games aren’t exciting, hold on in there is what I’d say. Because when you get to the last 16 and it’s knockout and it’s right on the line, you’re either in or you’re going home.
That’s when this tournament really kicks off, really begins, and then it’s simple knockout from then on. You win your game; you’re in the last state. You win that game, you’re in the semi-finals. You win that game, you’re in the final and you have a chance of being a World Cup winner.
Tavis: So give me some sense of who the teams are. You knew that question was coming, huh (laughter)? I know that it would be a miracle for the U.S. to be in that final 16.
Gray: No, I don’t agree.
Tavis: Okay, tell me.
Gray: Well, I’ll tell you why. I mean, the U.S. play England. That’s the toughest group, the toughest game they will have in the section. But I watched the U.S. last year in the Confederations Cup in the same country in South Africa. So the U.S. has had the advantage of being there and, you know, there’s going to be altitude. Two of the other stadiums are high altitude which makes life difficult. The U.S. has sampled that. We knows this happens.
They beat Spain. Now Spain has lost one game in about 50 internationals. The U.S. beat them. Spain is the favorite to win the World Cup and the U.S. beat them. Brazil beat them in the final, 3-2, of the Confederations Cup. But the U.S. were winning in half time and could easily have won it. So that will give, I think, your guys an amazing amount of confidence and belief that they can get there.
I think you’re right. I don’t think they can win it. I think teams like Brazil, five wins already, are very strong. The Spanish who I’ve mentioned are very strong. I think those are the two teams to beat. Like underneath that, you’ve got teams like England who I think has a genuine chance. Argentina, if Maradona doesn’t mess up. You know, he’s kind of – we know what Diego is like.
Tavis: (Laughter) Yes, yes.
Gray: We’re not quite sure what we’re going to get from him. But if he sorts his team out and gets his right team there with the players he has, Higuain, Messi, Tevez, Diego Molito, unbelievably great attacking footballers, they must have a chance.
But the team who I think that people may be looking at are the Dutch. I think the Dutch have had a good run. They’ve won all of their eight qualifying matches. Didn’t drop a point. They have some fantastic footballers. We know Robin Van Persie who plays for Arsenal, Arjen Robben who plays at Buyern Munich and was in the Champions League final. They have some fabulous footballers that can all play.
So I think if they get some luck with decisions, with not having any injuries because there have been a lot of injuries in the buildup to this World Cup that teams are struggling with. But if they stay clear of all that, then the Dutch have got a decent chance.
Tavis: You mentioned the elevation earlier, right quick, how big a factor is that going to be? The conditions?
Gray: Oh, it will be big. I mean, I know that the players are particularly worried about – the ones that have to go and play at high altitude are concerned that it’s much more difficult. In the rarified atmosphere, you can’t get the oxygen into your system to create the energy that you need.
I think that we’re going to find out that when those teams play at high altitudes, Tavis, the use of substitutions will be paramount to success. You have to be able to gauge when a player is really on his last legs and it will probably be a lot sooner than at sea level. I think that goes without saying. So the teams that play at high altitude will have a big disadvantage.
Tavis: This is going to be big. It is big and we’re, even in the states, getting pulled in to this now. I’m actually going to South Africa this summer and I’m gonna see my very first World Cup match. I’ve never experienced it before.
Gray: It should hook you. Football hooks people.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing it while I’m there. Andy Gray, with the Fox Soccer Channel. You can catch him every day throughout this entire World Cup competition live from South Africa. Andy, good to have you on the program.
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