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Sergio Ramos

<em>Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos</em>

Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Manchester, red or blue, had cause for celebration today. A point secured at Blackburn winning United the Premier League title, a goal at Wembley enough to give City their first FA Cup win since 1969. So all happy, then.

Well, not everyone. The last ten minutes at Ewood Park was a bit of a farce, as United settled for the point they needed and relegation-threatened Blackburn for the point they wanted. It was reminiscent of several years ago when Rangers won the title at Easter Road (or, more accurately, Celtic lost it at Fir Park) when Hibs didn’t want to concede another goal or they would have missed out on Europe and Rangers weren’t interested in adding to Nacho Novo’s strike.

City’s win over Stoke City gave them their first pot since the League Cup in 1976. Seems like yesterday!

Of course, if I’d spent £350 million assembling a team, and my goalscorer Yaya Touré was on £220,000 a week (mental arithmetic says that’s £10m a year, which is mental), I’d be expecting to not only win the FA Cup, but the Premier League, the Champions League, the Eurovision Song Contest, Horse of the Year Show, Crufts, a Grammy or two, an Oscar, the US presidential election and the National Lottery at least several times over.

Maybe that shows how easy pleased some people are…

Sunday
It was billed as “Helicopter Sunday”, a day when the ever-changing drama unfolding in Kilmarnock and the Parkhead area of Glasgow deemed air travel as the quickest form of transport.

But the reality was that the SPL could have saved themselves a small fortune in aviation fuel and delivered the silverware to Rugby Park on foot.

Those who had wondered all these years what was actually said in Celtic’s pre-match huddle will be keen to know that, on Sunday, the final words were “Rangers are one-up!”

Not true of course, as the games kicked off simultaneously just to add to the occasion, with the outcome also known simultaneously less than seven minutes later. The title was going back to Ibrox for a 54th time, making it three-in-a-row, and a fitting send-off for Walter Smith.

Kyle Lafferty, much maligned at times, grabbed the match ball with a hat-trick, taking his tally to seven goals in the last six games and maintaining his record of scoring on the last day of the season, just as he did at Tannadice and Easter Road.

Playing away on the final, title-deciding day of the season in three consecutive years? That might be considered cause for a conspiracy in some places.

Lafferty’s goals were important. But arguably no more vital than those from Kenny Miller who hit 21, a phenomenal contribution when compared to the SPL’s other goal machines, especially given that he only lasted half a term before bailing out of Ibrox for Turkey.

Celtic did pick up a trophy on Sunday evening, when Emilio Izaguirre – who already had the Scottish PFA and Premier League awards on his mantelpiece – was similarly honoured by the Scottish Football Writers’ Association. Better than Allan McGregor over a season?

I don’t think so. Not even by a point…

Monday
Honestly, you wait for one bus to run over a trophy, then two come along in the space of a few weeks.

Copying the example set by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who managed to get the Copa del Rey lodged under a double-decker, Ajax goalkeeper Marteen Stekelenburg fumbles the Eredivisie plate with similar consequences. Admittedly, it does look like a very ornate wheel trim, but there was no need to do this to it.

Stekelenburg is a target to replace Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, which could force his transfer fee up by a few million. Not because he’s worth it, but with the number of trophies United win, insurance cover could be astronomical…

Tuesday
An historic day. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, visits Dublin – which, by chance, would also host the Europa League final the next day.

Not the usual thronging crowds around for a royal visit, and what did go on was kept in check by the Garda. Of course, if you look at the bigger picture, their job was made a lot easier, not by a lack of interest, or detailed intelligence, or assistance from their British counterparts, but by PSV Eindhoven.

Elsewhere, there appears to be some consternation emanating out of Rugby Park over the number of Rangers fans who filled the stadium for Sunday’s game.

I assume they were Rangers supporters, based on the attendance being 16,173 against a season’s average of just 6,427 (figures courtesy of the SPL’s own website).

Kilmarnock expressed regret at the number of away fans present in home sections at Rugby Park, putting their unhappiness down to safety, segregation and security issues.

It should be noted this had nothing to do with Kilmarnock being unable to charge Rangers supporters, who had bought empty “Kilmarnock” seats, an extra fiver. Of course it didn’t…

And talking of Old Firm fans, Celtic manager Neil Lennon urged supporters to stop offensive songs, saying: “In recent times, there has been a re-emergence, from a small minority, of some of the singing and chanting which is simply not acceptable.”

These songs have at times been inaudible to the human ear and can usually only be picked up by TV and radio effects microphones around the pitch.

BBC Scotland’s Bigotry, Bombs and Football documentary, scheduled for the following evening, highlighted the measures being taken by Strathclyde Police, and both Rangers and Celtic, to curb sectarian behaviour.

Reporter Reevel Alderson revealed that in three years, across their entire area, Strathclyde Police have arrested 800 people for sectarian behaviour. In the past seven seasons, Rangers have banned 548 supporters for a similar offence, and in the past five seasons, Celtic have banned six season-ticket holders for sectarian or offensive behaviour.

Does this mean that (a) Rangers should police Strathclyde, (b) Neil Lennon has drawn attention to a problem that doesn’t exist, or (c) Mark Twain (or was it Disraeli?) was right about lies, damned lies and statistics?

Wednesday
Talking of Strathclyde’s finest, their long-running investigation into alleged match-fixing allegations against snooker players Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett is at an end.

Bookmakers alerted authorities to “irregular betting patterns” around the match, which took place during the UK Championship in Telford in November 2008. They had taken numerous bets on the outcome of the match being 9–3 in Maguire’s favour.

Maguire won by that margin. But suspicion was raised by a black missed by Burnett which would have made it 8–4.

And since then, both players have been subjected to scrutiny, rumour-mongering and innuendo.

But all of that should now be put to bed. A Crown Office spokeswoman said: “Following a full and comprehensive investigation the case was reported for the consideration of Crown Counsel who, after careful consideration of all facts and circumstances, decided there is insufficient evidence to justify a criminal prosecution.”

I spoke to both players ahead of the recent world championship, where it was plainly obvious that neither had anything to say, other than how sick they were, because they had nothing to say in the first instance.

I’m guessing here, but after two-and-a-half years, and regardless of the online accounts across Scotland opened on a particular day, you would have thought something would have come to light – if there was anything to come to light.

I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that this news comes just a week after Taggart was made redundant.

Even so, you have to wonder what the game’s governing body is scheming up when WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson said; “We are treating this case very seriously. We will now be given access to the evidence connected with the case, and our disciplinary committee will review that evidence thoroughly.”

And who do they have on that committee. Hercule Poirot, Jack Regan, Miss Marple?

Or do World Snooker want to bid against Rangers to police Strathclyde?

Thursday
And it’s congratulations to Gary Anderson for winning his first televised PDC title, landing the Premier League with a 10–4 final win over world champion Adrian Lewis at Wembley.

Given the venue, and given the reception Lewis got in Glasgow a few months back, I’m sure he glanced over his shoulder a few times to see if there were any advanced divisions of the Tartan Army making a pilgrimage back to their old haunts.

Brilliant as Anderson did in winning, and in finishing runner-up to Lewis in the world championship final, it’s sad he maybe isn’t getting the recognition he deserves.

If you asked most punters to name a Scots darts player, how many would answer “Jocky Wilson”? But then again, he did make it big.

Friday
London 2012 organisers reveal that they have received more than one million requests for seat tickets for the Olympic men’s 100 metres final – yet only 8,000 will get to carry the Olympic torch for a mile on its journey around the UK. So further enhancing our reputation of being a nation of armchair sportsmen and women…

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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The Copa del Rey – a bit bashed <em>Picture: Erik1980</em>

The Copa del Rey – a bit bashed Picture: Erik1980

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Semi-final weekend in the respective premier knockout cup competitions either side of the border, with one tie holding a slight advantage when it came to national interest. And you’ve guessed – it wasn’t Motherwell–St Johnstone.

On a day when Wembley was filled with the blue and red of Manchester, Hampden looked somewhat sorry only a quarter-filled – or, more noticeably, three-quarters empty – with the “hordes” from the shires of Lanark and Perth.

Motherwell deservedly won 3–0, with Saints ‘keeper Peter Enckelman the unfortunate recipient of the “Estate Agents Award”, presented to the man who did most to sell a semi.

But while Jamie Murphy and John Sutton scored crackers, you couldn’t help but notice the empty seats around Hampden, which raises the question – as ever – of why a match like this is ever taken to the National Stadium.

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Justification for building it appears to be the only answer. Because with just under 12,000 deciding the big day wasn’t that big in reality, Tynecastle or Easter Road would have made much better sense.

In the south, City shocked United. The next day, Aberdeen and Bolton were just shocking.

Sunday
From Steeltown to Steel City. I know it began yesterday, but given that it lasts a mere 17 days, there was always going to be time to catch up with the action from Sheffield and the Betfred.com World Snooker Championship.

Saturday brought two big stories. One came before a ball was potted in anger, and was so big it even made the front page of the Scottish Sun. It was the collapse, or near-collapse, of 110sport, snooker’s biggest management stable and a twice-former employer of mine. Indeed, in healthier times, I once was a board director there.

It is a sad state of affairs, which is about all I’m willing to say on the matter as I am restricted for space, something that won’t be a problem when my tale comes out in book form. Take that as the first plug.

Damned or doomed, 110sport’s demise was of their making, nothing to do with events conspiring against them, bad luck, chance or fate.

And certainly not a curse – although the second big snooker headline from the weekend could fall into the category.

No first-time winner of the world title had ever successfully defended the title in Sheffield, hence “the Crucible Curse”. And as if by magic, or other powers we cannot explain, title holder Neil Robertson crashed out, beaten 10–8 by Judd Trump, who this year looks to be fulfilling the potential everyone knew he had.

Speaking to Stephen Hendry last week, he believed Robertson could have been the one to break that trend. But he also conceded that few, other than the person who returned the cup from the previous year, could appreciate the enormity of the task and the expectation around being champion – because regardless of who you are, what you’ve done or how well you are playing, all anyone wants to mention is the dreaded curse.

So the next first-time champ, whoever you may be, be afraid… be very afraid!

Sunday also saw Mandy Fisher, who founded the World Ladies Billiards and Snooker Association 30 years ago, resign as chairman, chairwoman or chairperson (delete where applicable).

Fisher, 49, began the women’s circuit in 1981 and her commitment has been the main reasons it has survived this long. That said, it has always been the very poor relation in the snooker family. While the winner of the world title (an event open to men and women) pockets a quarter of a million, ladies winner Reanne Evans won just £1,000 for retaining her world title in 2010.

“Mandy’s heart was always in the right place,” said former WLBSA secretary and tournament director Jane O’Neill, “[but] there were always the knockers.”

Which many give as the reason why women can’t play…

Monday
And still in Sheffield, Barry Hearn, the Don King of snooker, unveils announcement after announcement for next season.

A ranking event staged in Australia in July (on the back of Robertson’s success), a World Cup in Bangkok, a biennial event where Scotland will be defending champions (and holders since 1996 when since the tournament has been absent never mind bi-anything), and a new format for the Premier League as it becomes a World Snooker event,

Sky Sports will broadcast an event for the next three years, prize money on the circuit will rise to over £6m (although it was once above that) and there will also be the Brazilian Masters, with traditional rules, namely unwaxed balls…

Hearn did however threaten that he wants players to come forward to record a new version of the Chas ‘n’ Dave “classic” Snooker Loopy, which reached number six in the chart 25 years ago.

Who will step up? Hopefully not some clown.

I can also exclusively reveal the song might be revamped to include an instrumental halfway through, just in case Ronnie O’Sullivan doesn’t turn up for his verse.

Tuesday
And the sale of Rangers takes another twist after the club’s chairman, Alastair Johnston, questioned the ability of would-be owner Craig Whyte to fund the reigning Scottish champions to the level required.

Whyte has been reportedly trying to purchase David Murray’s 85 per cent stake in Rangers since last November, thus wiping out their debt with Lloyds Bank.

However, Johnston and some of his fellow board members also want to see money spent on the team.

“Based on the documents we have only been able to review within the last week,” Johnston said, “we are disappointed that they ultimately did not reflect the investment in the club that we were led to believe for the last few months would be a commitment in the purchase agreement.

“Given the requirement to repay the bank in full under the proposed transaction, there appears to be only a relatively modest amount of money available that would positively impact the club’s operations, especially as it relates to an urgent requirement to replenish and upgrade the playing squad.”

As much as he is disappointed, there isn’t a queue outside Ibrox willing to part with £30-odd million to be then told what they should and shouldn’t be doing with their money.

Indeed, there is only one other offer on the table – this sees Rangers FC being exchanged for an apple, a kite (in good repair), a dead rat and a string to swing it with, 12 marbles, part of a Jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar (but no dog), the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel and a dilapidated old window sash.

That bid offer comes from a Mr T Sawyer, USA. Negotiations are ongoing, although they say there is nothing of significance in the last item listed.

On the field, Rangers ease past an equally dilapidated Dundee United 4–0. So easy was it that striker Nikica Jelavić had to amuse himself in other ways.

And this week’s competition is: from Paul Mitchell’s commentary, what would you pay good money for?

Wednesday
And as if nothing ever happened, Paul McBride QC will not now face legal action from the Scottish Football Association after expressing regret over recent criticism.

McBride had attacked the SFA after Rangers trio Ally McCoist, Madjid Bougherra and El-Hadji Diouf escaped further bans for their part the “Debacle of Parkhead XXVII” (as you can tell, there have been a few over the years).

McBride had represented Celtic boss Neil Lennon over his disciplinary charge and had accused the SFA of bias, publically stating they were “the laughing stock of world football” and “had been shown to be not merely dysfunctional and not merely dishonest but biased”.

Then he changed his mind, mentioning in his excuse note that he recognised “that offence has been taken to my remarks by the Scottish Football Association as an organisation, its council and its staff, and for that I express regret. I have a lot of respect for many individuals within the SFA…”.

What brought about that change of mind isn’t clear. Legal action, or of being reported to his bosses, who could say? Or did the threat of a parcel bomb just focus things a wee bit more?

I should say, I am not making light of what is a serious matter, and particularly dangerous series of events, least of all for the poor buggers collecting and delivering our post. But I’m surprised no one from the cry wolf brigade hasn’t commented on the potential of a conspiracy, given the Royal Mail have been entrusted with the safe passage of these unsafe parcels.

Terrorist officers from Strathclyde Police have conducted searches and enquiries into who is behind these threats, and have focused extensively on Ayrshire – where despite using ultra-modern and groundbreaking profiling techniques, they have been unable to track down the perpetrators as everyone in that area shares the same DNA…

Thursday
And in the wee small hours, Real Madrid return home from Valencia to triumphant scenes where the city celebrates their winning of the Copa del Rey after beating arch-rivals Barcelona 1–0.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s extra-time header gave Jose Mourinho his first trophy as Real Madrid coach. But it was more about what happened on the team coach – or, more accurately, what happened under it – that made this particularly memorable.

It brings back memories of other cup celebrations gone wrong, like the night in 1988 when Dean Richards and John Jeffrey took the Calcutta Cup for a walk down Rose Street.

Of course, Sergio Ramos will be reminded for evermore about dropping that cup off the bus.

But what is the best case of dropsy after a cup final? Steve Morrow, Arsenal’s League Cup goalscoring hero, takes some beating – or rather took a beating.

Friday
Two days to go to the final Old Firm game of the season and Strathclyde Police chief constable Stephen House believes everything from three league points, to the climate and a day off work could brew up mayhem in the west of Scotland.

“It’s a Bank Holiday,” House said, “it is the last meeting of the season – which is crucial for a result – and the weather forecast is hot. That means people will be drunk and they will get injured or raped, assaults go up and so does domestic violence.

“We do not see the clubs as the enemy. We do not blame Celtic or Rangers for the violence. The people who are responsible are those who use knives, fists or whatever other weapons on their fellow human beings.”

And I don’t disagree. I have seen the frightening aftermath of an Old Firm game first hand. But I’ve seen similar scenes throughout the country when there is not a Celtic or Rangers top to be seen.

Not meaning to trivialise in any way the concerns of some, but I do wonder on occasions whether all this reported serious crime is down to the factors the chief constable details, or the fact the same gentleman has vowed to put 1,000 extra officers on the streets.

More cops doing their job usually means more arrests and more frightening statistics. And more calls for more resources for more of the same and more overtime next time.

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by Hector Crawford

<em>Picture: ivalladt</em>

Picture: ivalladt

I remember reading in the newspaper last summer that Florentino Perez, chairman of engineering giants ACS, had returned to Real Madrid. His last tenure there, which began in 2000, brought with it the era of ‘Los Galacticos’; a team centring on the qualities of a number of star players, footballers of the celebrity of French maestro Zinedine Zidane, Portuguese winger Luis Figo and Brazilian striker Ronaldo. Plus, let’s not forget David Beckham. Overall, it cost the Spanish club £130 million for just those four players – eye watering to say the least.

And now he’s returned, Perez, with another glorious Galactico era set in his mind. But did the last epoch really give so much reason to be celebrated? Two league titles and one Champions League, whilst not without a certain level of success, suggests that not such a high level was achieved. Truth is, Madrid didn’t win a single trophy between the summer of 2003 and the title win of ’07. No doubt then that a side incorporating more famous names than a Celebrity Big Brother house isn’t everything in football.

And still Madrid goes at it again. They brought in Alonso from Liverpool, Benzema from Lyon, Kaka from Milan and a somewhat different Ronaldo from a distraught Manchester United in 2009. And for a greater tally in one summer than the previous set of Galacticos altogether. Success? Well, you can’t fault 96 points in the league (albeit they were still beaten to the title by Barcelona), but losing 4-0 to regional League II, Division B side Alcoron was fundamentally unacceptable, whilst they also failed to progress beyond the second round of the Champions League – a duck they haven’t broken for six seasons running.

Claude Makélélé then must give a smile of rueful satisfaction: the French midfielder, once an operator at the core of the midfield, was sold in the summer of 2003 upon the common consensus amongst the Real Madrid board that he was no Galactico. In his stead was brought David Beckham for £25 million. And yet without the Frenchman Madrid didn’t win a single trophy for four years; as the ultimate Galactico Zidane put it so brilliantly, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” And Makélélé? He travelled to England to play for Chelsea, with whom he won two league titles, two league cups, the FA Cup, and reached the final of the Champions League.

So, who else suffered the ‘fate’ of the Frenchman? What about Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroonian striker sold as a nineteen year old to Real Mallorca in 2000? Unwanted at Madrid, he returned to score in numerous matches against his former club, not just for Mallorca, but with loathed rivals Barcelona. And then there’s Clarence Seedorf, displaced from Real to make way for Luis Figo; he and Eto’o developed into the only players to triumph in the Champions League with three different clubs.

The list of now proven stars who failed at Madrid is embarrassingly extensive – and still profoundly talented footballers are overlooked. In fact, the most recent Champions League final was as opportune a fixture in which to scrutinize the first-rate talent once on the Spanish club’s books: five of the twenty-two players who took to the field had participated in matches for Madrid: Arjen Robben, Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Esteban Cambiasso and Walter Samuel. To rub further salt into Real’s wounds, the latter four triumphed in, of all places, Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium.

Whilst this, the most recent of Real Madrid revolutions still appears to have some way to progress, it’s difficult not to ask where the club’s future would have lain had the Galacticos – and Perez – never come to town. Perhaps Eto’o would have scored in the Champions League final for Real, and not Barcelona. Maybe Sneijder and Robben would have participated in the World Cup final contesting every ball against team mates Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos. And maybe David Beckham would still be turning out for Manchester United. Therefore, would the world have ever known about Cristiano Ronaldo? Who knows?

by Hector Crawford

<em>Picture: Ulf Dietrich</em>

Picture: Ulf Dietrich

On Sunday evening, Johannesburg, South Africa, hosts perhaps the singular, most greatly anticipated event in the sporting world: The World Cup Final: Spain vs. The Netherlands.

It’s a much less strenuous task trying to distinguish the faults the two sides collectively possess than their attributes. The Dutch suspect at the back? The Spanish unwilling to shoot? No doubt both sides will scrutinize their opponent’s weaknesses, combing over every last fine hair of detail.

However, it is the assets of these two footballing giants which the enthusiast so dearly covets; such assets of which are indeed bounteous. We, as the supporters, excitedly anticipate free-flowing, one- touch passing, lavish skills and outstanding reflex saves – and everybody likes a goal.

Spain, despite its pedigree, is a novice on this ultimate football stage. Until a little over two years ago in fact, the Spanish possessed just one major honour (a European Championship from 1964) from which to justifiably inflate their ego. Then along came a side which finally completely fitted the bill of Spanish sides, as it triumphed in the aforementioned competition in Austria, with wonderful, attacking football which had long before been the epitome of club sides Barcelona and Real Madrid.

In Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Spain possesses two of the world’s greatest central midfield players, virtual twins in their ability to anticipate each other’s play, and to dictate the sway of a match. Xavi’s pass completion rate is superior to that of any other player at South Africa 2010.

At the back is another Barcelona pairing of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol – the latter being the scourge of the Germans in the semi-final. The centre-backs represent a brick wall in defence, whilst either side of them Joan Capdevila and Sergio Ramos act as tireless full-backs-come-wingers. If any attack force does breach such a back-line, there still remains goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas to overcome – perhaps the finest in his trade in the world.

And ahead, at the helm of the side, is David Villa, possibly the perfect striker; strong, fast; blessed with abundant skill and a perfect finish, he’s scored five goals at these finals, and is one away from Raul’s all-time Spanish record of forty-four. In contrast to Villa’s performances, Liverpool’s Fernando Torres has struggled immensely at these finals, having returned to the side following a knee operation. Does manager Vicente Del Bosque allow him to start?

The Dutch are famous for their technical brilliance, ever since Cruyff’s Oranje walked onto the pitch for the first time in Mexico in 1974. However, despite being twice finalists at the World Cup, the Netherlands have never won, succumbing to West Germany and Argentina in 1974 and 1978 respectively. Winning the European Championship in 1988 remains their paramount achievement.

Surprisingly, the Dutch side this time around doesn’t appear to have truly ignited. Nevertheless, it still incorporates into it some genuinely fantastic players, none more so than Arjen Robben, who could well be the key to Dutch success. Spain’s Capdevila will certainly have his work cut out, but it’s an interesting prospect to anticipate whether the Spanish will double up on the winger – or will they, like the Barcelona side of whom they play so similarly, refuse to alter their game plan, regardless of the opposition?

Even with Robben neutralised, the Dutch still have a number of gifted players from whom to call upon. Midfielder Wesley Sneijder has arguably been Holland’s main perpetrator of the tournament, his goals (of which there have been five), perception and awareness of every game has been invaluable to Holland’s progress to the final. Dirk Kuyt too has poured his relentless energy into every endeavour of the side, for which he has received much warranted praise.

However, as with the European Championship side of 2008, the Netherland’s defence has been much criticized. Johnny Heitinga appears to drift too far forward from central defence, and there are many who bemoan captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s age and lack of pace. In goal, Maarten Stekelenburg has produced a number of excellent, vital saves, yet he appears to have a tendency to remain on his line, and was perhaps most at fault for conceding Forlan’s brilliant, but perhaps preventable goal in the semis. The Spanish posses more than enough skill and insight to exploit these weaknesses.

Conversely though, the mentality of the Dutch squad appears as sturdy as any other in South Africa, and Holland’s progression through the tournament may have been fuelled from such solid foundations.

As Sunday evening approaches, the world waits. It waits for that moment of iconic magic, or melancholy; the moment which defines the world cup. No doubt people will look to such luminaries as Villa or Robben – but who knows? Maybe another heroic Puyol header or an altogether different use of the head is on the cards: remember what happened in 2006?