Ireland’s Wars: The Tory Struggle

Galway had fallen, and with it much of the conventional resistance of the Royalist side in the wars of the era had come to an end as well. The Royalist faction still held territory as a conventional government, mostly in Connacht and Kerry, along with scattered garrisons in different areas, but the last of the major urban centres that they had held was now in the hands of the Parliamentarians, which also happened to be their last port of consequence. The New Model Army moved forward with the cleanup, advancing into the rest of County Galway, taking forts and castles in places like Inishbofin, hopeful that the conflict could not be brought to a decisive close.

But the war would continue. In fact, it was about to become worse than ever.

Bands of Tory soldiers, the irregular fighters of these wars, had been active for several years, and we have already seen how they had affected the way that the campaigns of the last few years had been carried out, perhaps most notably in the delay they caused in regards the launching of Henry Ireton’s first great offensive, a delay that may well have wound up extending the entire war by over a year. But it was at this point in the war, as Limerick was captured and Galway underwent its last rites as a Royalist stronghold, that they really came to the fore. Now, tens of thousands of them were operating in Ireland, and now they were most of what was left of the Royalist war effort, fighting a conflict they had little hope of winning outright, but with more than enough ability to put a serious dent in any Parliamentarian plans to bring military affairs in Ireland to a swift conclusion.

The pattern was the same as it had been in Ireland for centuries, they perpetrators of this low-intensity guerrilla war were now just no longer called wood-kernes. They would operate in the countryside of Ireland, making bases in areas difficult access, such as woods, bogs, hills, valleys or particularly hard to reach forts. They would engender good intelligence gathering relationships with the local population, as to the location, size and disposition of enemy forces. They would strike at speed and only when it suited them, through ambush, raid, hit and run. They would inflict what casualties they could and then retreat rapidly, aiming to never allow the enemy the chance to hit them back in the same way. They would vanish back into their fastnesses, where the enemy could not easily pursue, and disband if they were able.

Convoys, messengers, isolated garrisons and the tail ends of moving armies were all targeted, and targeted for years. Throughout the course of what is dubbed today as the Cromwellian Conquest, and reaching a fever pitch in 1651 and 1652, the Tories proved themselves to be a problem of the utmost seriousness, that the Parliamentarians struggled to do anything to combat.

Part of the reason for this was that the New Model Army, in Ireland, had conquered more than it could reasonably expect to occupy effectively. The mortality rate of Parliamentarian soldiers in Ireland was abysmally high, maybe as many as one in three within their first year in the country, and the replacements sent from England in the latter stages of the conflict were of inferior quality to the ones that had gone before, the last dregs of a nation that had already seen most of its fit fighting men in armed service at some time in the previous decade.  Having won their conventional victory in Ireland, this army, now a mixture of the original soldiers, erstwhile replacements and even Irish volunteers, were faced with the prospect of actually controlling the country they had just conquered, and doing so in the face of famine and plague, two foes that could be as deadly as any Tory fighter.

With hundreds of new castles, forts and other garrisons to man, the New Model Army was stretched thin, with the most isolated places in a very vulnerable position, reliant on sketchy supply runs to keep going and frequently falling victim to the rapid attacks of the Tories, who could overwhelm and destroy long before reinforcements could arrive. Such was the extent of the lawlessness in parts, be it as a result of politically motivated insurgent Tories or the more self-serving bandits that also sprang up, that a Parliamentarian report in 1652 was forced to admit that they were receiving no tax revenue from large swaths of Ireland, areas they had only nominal control over. This included almost entire counties in Ulster and South Leinster, where the majority of Tory operations were now ongoing.

So numerous were the Tory attacks that it would be pointlessly lengthy to go into detail about even just the larger ones, but it is apropos to talk about a few of the more impressive examples. In Wicklow, O’Byrne forces under their leader Hugh MacPhelim were active all throughout the later part of the war, evading capture and threatening the southern parts of Dublin, much as their ancestors did, despite repeated Parliamentarian sallies into the county, which grew ever more destructive. A brief battle with Tory riders in Carlow cost the Parliament the lives of 60 desperately needed cavalrymen. A major supply convoy headed to the relief of Venables in Ulster was intercepted and largely wiped out at the Moyry Pass area, the same location of a famous battle in the last war fought in Ireland. Tipperary Tories launched a sudden surprise raid into the Meath area, taking and burning Castlejordan before retreating. A river convoy of supplies sailing down the Barrow was caught and mostly captured, the crew and passengers nearly all killed. Privateers based on the continent or the Isle of Man raided the Irish Sea and the eastern coast. Towns like Kildare, Birr and Portumna were all taken and heavily damaged in their brief occupations by Tory fighters. Nowhere could Parliamentarian soldiers leave their garrisons and feel completely safe.

Many notable names spring out of this period, men like John Fitzpatrick in Tipperary, Muskerry and Murrogh O’Brien in Kerry, O’Byrne in Wicklow, Richard Grace in the midlands, Charles Kavanagh in Wexford and Philip MacHugh O’Reilly in Cavan. These were the hardcore remnant, men who had been fighting their fight for nearly a decade or more, and who were still able to rely on the allegiance of thousands of troops, though they would only rarely have called upon such numbers at any one time: the Tory advantage was always in mobility and freedom of movement. They could not stand up to the conventional forces sent after them, nor capture major towns, nor hold the territory they did succeed in capturing for very long. But they could ambush, scorch the earth, disrupt communications, raid, burn and generally cause as much mayhem as possible.

I will go into slightly greater detail on a group of Tories who managed some notable feats, that of the officers Walter Dungun and Patrick Scurlock. Dungan (or “Dongan” sometimes) was  Kildare native, and a member of the Royalist faction since the beginning of the war. Scurlock was a Dubliner, and a long time Confederate. Despite the difference inherent in their backgrounds – Dungan had spent most of the war fighting Confederates – they were able to form an effective partnership in the province of Leinster, commanding several thousand men at one point, with a substantial amount of them being cavalry. Both men had been cavalry commanders during the conventional struggle, and this advantage in speed was one they would use to devastating effect.

The two were active in a major way by the beginning of 1651, when Scurlock was able to bring 2’500 troops together to raid, pillage and burn around the outskirts of Dublin, sending the capital into a panic. While Scurlock busied himself with the particular task of stealing horses, a force from Dublin was sent out to deter him, and hopefully even capture/kill him. But Scurlock not only managed to beat them back in a brief skirmish, inflicting nearly 50 casualties in the process, but also captured several of their own number to use as hostages. With the arrival of Dungan in the area as well, with even more men, Parliamentarian authority in the environs around Dublin temporarily collapsed.

Desperate to ward off a feared attack on the capital itself, the administration in Dublin arrested some key individuals for exchange/ransom purposes, most notably Dungan’s wife. Perhaps the action worked, because Dungan and Scurlock did not launch any attack on Dublin, but this was more likely because they lacked the sufficient means – especially in artillery – to do so. With forces under Colonel Hewson approaching Dublin, the Tories eventually retreated, but not before alarming the capital’s population so much that every capable man was called upon to bear arms in its possible defence.

Dungan and Scurlock were far from done. They continued their raiding ways throughout Leinster, sometimes retreating back into Connacht for relief and succour, before heading straight back into the heart of affairs. Their cavalry movements made them extremely difficult to stop, and they were effective fighters when it came to a clash of arms. Tories like them influenced Ireton when he detached cavalry units from his larger army to serve specifically as counterinsurgents, but there was little even they could do. Parliamentarians leaders might pursue them, but when things got to a desperate point, their Tory band could simply ride into difficult terrain, like the valleys and hills of County Wicklow, and then disperse, scattering in all directions.

Dungan and Scurlock’s biggest success was still to come. With Limerick besieged in September of 1651, the two men decided to launch a more audacious plan, both for their own enrichment and, perhaps, to offer what help to Limerick that they could, in the form of a large distraction to the Parliamentarians. On the night of the 29th, using the cover of darkness to hide their movements and their numbers, they attacked the town of New Ross in Wexford. Cromwell had captured New Ross a little less than two years previously, and it had taken three days and a short artillery bombardment to secure its surrender. Dungan and Scurlock, using ladders to scale the walls and taking advantage of a small and unsuspecting garrison, took it in a single night, killing twenty soldiers and securing most of the town – save its most fortified points, which were left isolated rather than tackled – before most people knew what was happening.

As a centre for Parliamentarian control in the area, this was a terrible embarrassment, and a dangerous one too. Dungan and Scurlock could have massacred the remaining garrison and burned the town, but accepted a substantial sum of £700 from the beleaguered inhabitants to avoid this possibility, a substantial bit of money for the day. With rumours of a relief force advancing towards the town, the Tories took their leave. They still could not hold ground for more than a few hours and melted away in the face of enemy troops, but their success in this operation was substantial.

Even after the fall of Limerick and the end of any real hopes of conventional resistance, Dungan and Scurlock continued to operate with relative impunity, in the Kildare, Wicklow and County Dublin regions, maintaining impressively large forces within a day’s march of the capital itself. That they were able to do so is indicative of the kind of ability the Tories had during this period, at their strongest even while the conventional movement was starting to fade away rapidly.

But with that conventional war coming to an end, and with the end of major combat operations in England and Scotland, the Parliamentarians were in a position to try and tackle the Tory problem to a greater extent. And they would do so, ushering in the bloodiest part of the conflict so far.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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In Detail: Iron Man – Preparing For Escape (22.56 – 31.34)

Last time, we saw the fall of Tony Stark, and the infancy of his rise back to the top. This time, we’ll see that rise begin to take off properly.

Having been buoyed up by Yinsen, Stark has found some purpose, as the opening scenes of this section shows. The previously dark, silent cave that he is a prisoner in is suddenly filled with people and voices. The men holding Stark and Yinsen are as busy as an anthill, dragging boxes and crates of material into the cave, the air abuzz with the noise of many voices. Some vaguely Afghan sounding percussion, mixed with some occasional twangs of an electric guitar, play in the background.

Stark has no eyes for them. He speaks to Abu Bakaar, but isn’t looking at him either. He’s surveying plans (making a few of his own I would imagine). Tony Stark might be in a cave, but the old arrogant man who was better than everyone else is starting to come back. He talks rapidly here, not even pausing at moments to aid Yinsen in his translation:

TONY:
lf this is going to be my work station, I want it well-lit. I want these up. I need welding gear. I don’t care if it’s acetylene or propane. I need a soldering station. I need helmets. I’m gonna need goggles. I would like a smelting cup. I need two sets of precision tools.

Tony clearly has some definite plans made already, and has a very long list of things that he needs. But does he really need all of these things to construct the Jericho missile, or is it all just misdirection? Yinsen babbles the translation as fast as he can, struggling to be heard over Tony and the crowd of people behind him. Stark, aside from being in the centre of frame, caught between the two polar opposite men, is once again the centre of the universe.

After a brief establishing shot showing the cave entrance as being guarded by several armed men, we’re back in Tony and Yinsen’s cell at a quieter moment. The camera pans across one of the missiles emblazoned with “Stark Industries”. Before, the glimpses of this was a moment of dread for Stark and the audience, but the way that this shot is framed makes the whole thing look a bit sleeker and cooler, a piece of engineering wonderment in the middle of a craggy and prehistoric cave structure.

As the following scene (and scenes) progress, Stark works away at the missile. A lot has changed in a few minutes. Stark already looks neater and more handsome: the grungy outer clothing has been ditched in favour of a looser white shirt, his hair has been set back so his face doesn’t look as grimy and overcast with untidiness. Stark, in fact, looks much as he did earlier on in the film when he was working on the hot rod in his garage, a grease monkey with style, matched by an intense look on his face as he works, focused almost entirely on the thing he is building – or in this case, pulling apart. He also talks to Yinsen in much the same way as he did with Pepper, not even looking at him directly, the conversation almost superfluous to the thing that he is working on. I suppose that is fair enough though, it is a shell containing highly explosive material. He carefully takes off the head of the missile as he talks, removing a long trail of electronics and, presumably, the parts that go boom, doing so carefully, but with an ease and familiarity that indicates Stark is well used to work like this.

As Tonty works, he and Yinsen have an important conversation, which opens with an important question:

TONY:
How many languages do you speak?

Remember, at this point Tony doesn’t even know Yinsen’s name. It’s an odd question to ask before knowing his identity. I think it signals that Stark is simply taking stock of the resources that are available to him for his inevitable escape attempt: what Yinsen can do and what he can speak is more important than his name at the present moment.

YINSEN:
A lot. But apparently, not enough for this place. They speak Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Mongolian, Farsi, Russian.

Interesting. Leaving aside another sign of Yinsen’s education and intelligence, it would seem that Tony has been abducted by a pan-national group of terrorists. But even allowing for that, this is a lot of nationalities and languages. Such groups are usually only successful when they combine a political goal with some sense of common identity. Who are these guys then, with a make-up that seems more in line with a mercenary group?

TONY:
Who are these people?

YINSEN:
They are your loyal customers, Sir.

A great exchange there. Tony asks the question almost flippantly, and Yinsen has a prepared response for him. There is rarely any sense in Yinsen’s language that he has a distaste for Stark and what he makes his money doing, but a little bit does show here, at least insofar as Yinsen is annoyed at how these men are arming themselves, though it only shows itself through a sad half smile. It’s a figurative smack in the face for Stark too, who stops what he’s doing for a moment to look at Yinsen. His course as a character is to turn against the arms dealing business, and moments like this will push him along that course. He doesn’t want to be the kind of businessman with “customers” like this.

A tidbit for the fans of the comic books follows:

YINSEN:
They call themselves the “Ten Rings”.

That will mean little to a general audience of course, but it’s the firmest nod so far towards “The Mandarin”, the closest thing that Iron Man has to an arch-nemesis in the world of the comic-books. The Mandarin is s sort of half-Chinese warlord/scientist/martial artist who traditionally gains power from ten magic rings he possesses. He is sort of mental as a character, and it’s hard to imagine him working as a bad guy on film if he was reproduced faithfully (one of the reasons Iron Man 3 would go in a different direction with him). Early treatments and drafts did have him as the films primary bad guy, but he was simply considered too dated in the end. Here, Favreau just wanted, apparently, to make a few good natured nods in his direction with this group to appease some of the more hardcore Iron Man fans in the audience.

Tony and Yinsen are observed by Bakaar and other Ten Rings members in a different part of the cave, the shots once again lingering on the camera set up where the two engineers are. Bakaar is keeping a close eye on the two, but we already knew he’s a little dim-witted. For now, Stark looks like he is messing around with missiles.

In the cave, Tony has moved on to another missile, using some power tools to get them open. A wider shot shows us Tony in greater scope than before and he is looking a hell of a lot better. Purpose will do that. Even the cave itself, better lit, is looking more homey, a bit more like Stark’s garage, just without smooth walls and the innate sense of neatness in its composition. Yinsen, as before, is a mere bystander to what Tony is doing.

YINSEN:
You know, we might be more productive if you include me in the planning process.

TONY:
Ya ha.

Again, Tony doesn’t even look at Yinsen for this exchange, and his reaction to an offer of help is a quick, uncaring, rebuke. He’s busy, and can’t let other things, or people, distract him from the task at hand. Before we saw him being careful and precise when unscrewing the heads off the missiles. Now he just casually bangs the head of this one off as if he’s breaking some wood apart. Yinsen winces as he does so, concerned, but Tony never loses any bit of the calm that has descended upon since a minute ago.

He removes a strange cylindrical component with lots of spokes, and a cut shows him cutting parts of it later. After removing something small, he casually flings the larger component over his shoulder to the ground, a brilliant moment. From starting out careful and focused, he’s know just throwing things around like they mean nothing to him.

TONY:
Don’t need this.

I bet you don’t Tony. He’s seeming more and more like his old self all the time. Even Yinsen is getting used to this kind of behaviour, judging by his reaction. He asks Tony what the tiny strip of material he’s holding in the pliers is.

The camera places that piece of material dead centre of the frame, Stark staring at it with a very real intensity. Much like Yinsen earlier when he started talking about the medical procedure, Tony actually gets serious when discussing things like this.

TONY:
That’s palladium, 0.15 grammes. We need at least 1 .6, so why don’t you go break down the other 11?

Palladium is a real element, a metal used in catalytic converters and various electronics. I have no idea what purpose palladium would have in a missile – I am no way knowledgeable in that field – but here it kind of just seems to serve as just a scientific term to describe the MacGuffin material Tony is going to place at the heart of his escape attempt.

Tony gives Yinsen some orders, finally getting him involved in the process. At this point, Tony overtakes Yinsen as the dominant one in their relationship. He’s making the plan, and figuring out how to get it all done correctly. Yinsen is going to tag along, and help him out with some of the labour. He’ll be the follower now, Stark no longer needs a nurse.

Their captors continue to watch through the camera feed, and remain casual about what they are seeing. I suppose it all still looks normal. I like these quick cuts to the guys watching the feed, just to give us an indication of time passing and the changing perception that the Ten Rings men have to what Tony and Yinsen are doing.

Also, in the background of this shot, Bakaar and a Ten Rings soldier seem to be playing backgammon. A minor detail, but one that will make for an interesting comparison later (as an aside, the game actually did originate in the Middle East, over 5’000 years ago).

There follows one of the most purely visual sequences of the film so far, as Stark goes about making the first part of his plan, with only some limited dialogue in the middle. Hard violin rhythms and soft percussion accompany his work, setting the tone of somebody tinkering with a project that is going to get bigger and more expansive with time (OST: “Trinkets To Kill A Prince“).

Stark, working with his hands, makes some basic moulding tools, in order to, apparently, melt down the palladium into a circular ring, something that has to be done the old fashioned way: with clay pots, red hot fires and pliers. Seeing Stark work in this fashion is important, as it is a necessary part of his recovery: actually doing something practical, without computers, or high tech garage equipment. Just the basic techniques, which have been used for a very long time.

While Stark is not taking the lead in their relationship, he’ll still need Yinsen for some of the work, especially since Stark is limited in his movements. The next shot makes that painfully clear, as he must let Yinsen carry the palladium mould across the room, fretting that Yinsen might mess it up:

TONY:
Careful. Careful, we only get one shot at this.

YINSEN:
Relax. I have steady hands. Why do you think you’re still alive?

So, Yinsen is having none of that. Tony still only has eyes for the project, but does throw Yinsen a bone when it comes to their own blossoming partnership:

TONY:
What do I call you?

YINSEN:
My name is Yinsen.

TONY:
Yinsen. Nice to meet you.

Yinsen, having already gone through some rather intense experiences with Stark, seems a little thrown by this for split second. After all, he’s operated on Stark to keep him alive and shared a very terrible captivity with him. He just smiles as he replies, an indication that maybe he’s happier than he lets on about finally having somebody else to talk to and work with – towards an escape:

YINSEN:
Nice to meet you, too.

The next few shots form a short montage, the music getting louder and more pronounced on its rhythm. Tony retrieves the circlet of palladium and merges in with another component, next he’s soldering the same piece with the aid of several tools and magnifying glasses. The feeling is of a very in-depth and intense working period, where immense concentration is needed with very small parts. What Tony is building is obviously not a Jericho missile: it’s more important than that, thus the need for such intense attentiveness to the task. With some of the films only use of fade-out visual techniques thus far, we also get the feeling of time passing without ever knowing how much exactly.

Finally, Tony is done. What he has created looks something akin to a fancy light bulb. Its round at the top but tapers slightly. Most importantly, it glows with a blue light when Tony pulls a few switches. It’s clearly drawing power from elsewhere in the room, as other lights start to flicker and darken, leaving Tony bathed in that blue aura. There is no look of triumph in his eyes, or even plain acknowledgement of success, just the same deadly serious gaze, mixed with some very slight trembling of the lip.

Yinsen, enthralled, comes to take a look at the thing that Stark has created.

YINSEN:
That doesn’t look like a Jericho Missile.

TONY:
That’s because it’s a miniaturised arc reactor. I got a big one powering my factory at home. It should keep the shrapnel out of my heart.

This is the second mention of the “Arc reactor” – it was briefly namedropped on one of the magazine covers shown in the awards presentation earlier. This is apparently some kind of powerful energy source, one that, on the right scale, can power Stark Industries.

But this is miniaturised, fitting in the palm of a hand. Making something like this – a reactor structure on such a small scale – is a very impressive achievement. Tony hasn’t made this for the Ten Rings, and one gets the feeling that he never even considered taking them up on their offer genuinely. This is for him, a method whereby he will no longer need to be hooked up to a car battery, the kind of weight that could easily foil an escape attempt. It’s also a possible long term solution for his heart problem:

YINSEN:
But what could it generate?

TONY:
lf my math is right, and it always is, three gigajoules per second.

As the two talk, their established dynamic continues. Tony is fixated on his pet project, and does not even look at the man he is addressing. Yinsen is firmly following in Tony’s footsteps now, the man asking the questions and being the audience surrogate.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a gigajoule is equal to a billion joules. To get an idea of a scale, one joule of energy is given off by your body in the form of heat every 0.017 seconds. Every two seconds of energy created by Stark’s toy is comparable to the chemical energy potential of a barrel of oil that combusts. The power output Stark just created is enormous. He treats it casually in his words, flippantly remarking that his math is “always” right – he’s still fully aware that he is a prodigy.

I’m going to get more into this at a later time, the strained suspension of disbelief that Stark could make something like this in these circumstances. It’s worth waiting for that discussion, because we ain’t seen nothing yet, not really.

YINSEN:
That could run your heart for 50 lifetimes.

TONY:
Yeah. Or something big for 15 minutes.

Tony Stark, what are you up to? Some nice foreshadowing with this line, notwithstanding the nonchalant way that Stark declares it.

Stark shows Yinsen some documents he has been working on. The initial shot is low and upwards looking, with Stark and Yinsen sharing the frame. It’s a nice way to put the focus on what they are looking at without showing it directly, and the light reflecting off Yinsen’s glasses is another neat touch, giving what they are looking at an instant mystical aura, even if the light is just a reflection from somewhere else.

It’s initially a bit underwhelming when we do see the greasy, almost transparent paper, just aimless doodles and make no sense without context. Tony is having none of that though, whispering his following dialogue with the tone of a man engaged deeply in a conspiracy:

TONY:
This is our ticket out of here.

YINSEN:
What is it?

TONY:
Flatten them out and look.

Tony does it himself, and the music gets suddenly loud and thumping as the images all come together. What we are looking at is a bipedal figure of metal, sketchy looking, but imposing. It’s big, it’s armed, it looks like it means business. It’s an enticing image, but that is all that it is right now, an image.

Tony looks to Yinsen, eager for adulation. Yinsen is smiling. He’s banked a lot on Tony’s genius, and it looks like it might just pay off.

YINSEN:
Impressive.

Another quick shot of the outside of the cave. Now it’s night, and now it is snowing. Time is passing, even if that passage is meaningless in the caves interior, or for the audience. Suddenly, we’re back on the grainy camera feed, an up close shot that distorts the image. Yinsen stands over a shirtless Tony. As the music swells to a height, he steps away and Tony stands up, a bright blue light visible in his chest. The musical accompaniment to this scene is made up of augmented tones, ones that do not promote positive feelings, but ones of tension, mystery, even villainy. Things are taking some interesting turns here.

Time passes and we move quickly to another scene. Now things are looking even more homey in the cave. The light is low, but not murky: candles offer some soft illumination. The two men sit and play backgammon, substituting mechanical parts for checkers. Tony has a change of clothes, looks less and less like the man who arrived here. The atmosphere is pleasant, amicable. Tony prepares tea as they play, and their tone is that of two satisfied men. It’s a far cry from the grime and the dirt that existed upon Tony’s awakening. There’s hope here. There’s a glimpse of civilisation. If not for the glowing object in Tony’s chest, little would appear amiss.

As an aside, I might posit that Favreau took some influence from the famous opening of The Seventh Seal for this scene, at least in framing. But does that make Yinsen Death, and Tony the Crusading Knight?

As yet another aside, what remains of this scene is cut from some much longer extended material, that features Tony and Yinsen playfully mocking each other over their alma maters, some comedy material for Abu Bakaar of all people and a much more pointed version of what constitutes the last two minutes of this entry. Iron Man actually has around ten minutes of deleted material, that I might make a separate entry of analysing at some point.

Back on track, the two share a personal conversation:

TONY:
You still haven’t told me where you’re from.

YINSEN:
I’m from a small town called Gulmira. It’s actually a nice place.

TONY:
Got a family?

YINSEN:
Yes, and I will see them when I leave here.

You can tell straight away, from the way that Yinsen formulates his words – and the fact that he does not meet Tony’s eyes as he says them – that he isn’t telling everything in his answer. “I will see them when I leave here” is probably as obvious a hint the writing staff could drop about Yinsen’s fate without simply spelling it out. He doesn’t say “When I escape” or “When I get out of here”. He’s also a bit quiet when he mentions his home town. “Actually a nice place” indicates it has its a share of problems – maybe like the shrapnel injuries he previously mentioned seeing there. He’s quick to flip the focus of the discussion:

YINSEN:
And you, Stark?

Tony is now the one to avoid Yinsen’s eyes. He shifts, uncomfortable with the question and the truth it demands. Tony has no romantic relationships beyond meaningless flings, his parents are both dead. He has friends, but no one very close. In this place, that reality must be a painful one to confront. Yinsen, as far as Stark knows, has a wife and children waiting for him. Who’s waiting for Tony? Again, we might think of Pepper, whose voice Tony imagined during a desperate moment. His eventual answer is hesitant and awkward.

TONY:
Nothing… no.

Yinsen is unequivocal in his reply to that, respectful in tone but lecturing in message.

YINSEN:
No? So you’re a man who has everything…and nothing.

Tony can only smile awkwardly at that. It’s the most cutting thing anybody has said to him in the course of the film. The jabs and annoyance of Rhodes, Everhart and Potts are nothing compared to this declaration, where Yinsen appears pitying. Tony, despite his recovery, has no comeback, and that is not something we are used to.

Bakaar approaches the cell, full of purpose, his face set with determination. It is a suddenly tense moment. He pulls back the shutter in the door and glances at Tony and Yinsen working with tools amid the rubble of technology they have been given. Seemingly satisfied, Bakaar closes the shutter and walks off. The ruse is working, for the time being.

Another brief montage follows, as the camera pans again across the equipment Stark has been given, various tools and motors, along with what look like very deliberately formed pieces of ironwork, that bear a passing resemblance to the blueprints we saw earlier. Tony is looking distinctive himself, with the wielding tools and goggles marking him out. The plan is coming together.

But as the next few shots make clear, things are also coming apart. Bakaar and his flunkies debate whether Stark and Yinsen really are putting together a Jericho Missile based on the picture they have of one. Soldiers huddle around a fire for warmth as they stand guard. And then the same bald individual we saw before, wreathed in shadow like Colonel Kurtz, again fiddling with the large ring on his finger, observes Stark and Yinsen working on what looks like some kind of elaborate, automated leg brace. Enough is, seemingly, enough. So closely watched, Tony and Yinsen could not have made their contraption without being noticed, I suppose.

A close up of this man’s eyes show his suspicions without the need to voice them. We’re coming to a head, clearly.

Again Bakaar appears behind the shutter barking orders. Tony and Yinsen, wary of this, grudgingly put down their tools and place their hands behind their heads.

This time though, when Bakaar enters, he immediately stands to the side, his men forming what looks like some sort of honour guard for the person coming down the middle. Aside from marking Bakaar as this persons subordinate, it also increases the tension of his approach. Look at the amount of men at his beck and call. Look at the subservience to him. Echoing percussion and tense violins accompany his eventual appearance. This is Raza.

He enters the cave. He looks to his two captives, their work, a stare of focused disdain on his face. He is quiet for a moment as the drums reverberate like heartbeats. Again, he fiddles with that large ring. The edge to the scene is intense. Then it is suddenly broken, to an extent:


RAZA:
Relax.

His tone is so casual it’s actually a surprise. He himself seems bemused that Tony has his hands up in his presence, as if it is ridiculous that his captives feel he might be threatened by the lack of such procedure.

More importantly, he’s speaking English, and as the scene unfolds, we realise he speaks it very well. Bakaar spoke Arabic in the earlier scene like this, perhaps in a bid to intimidate Stark. He was a fool who thought that he had pulled one over on Tony and Yinsen’s heads, but his ignorance of English belied that. Tony and Yinsen looked superior next to him because of this.

Not Raza. He won’t be fooled in the same manner. He’s Bakaar’s leader. He’s in control. And him speaking English is strangely unnerving in the circumstances.

Raza pulls Tony’s shirt down slightly to observe his palladium contraption. He is curious without being too inquisitive. He can probably guess just what this thing is, while still being ignorant as to its construction. But then he begins to speak of other things, as if gazing on the blue light is just an idle curiosity.

RAZA:
The bow and arrow, once was the pinnacle of weapons technology.

Interesting opening. Everything seems to come back to weaponry for these guys. Raza, having had enough of Tony for a moment, starts to wonder around the caves machinery and strewn materials.

RAZA:
It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific to the Ukraine. An empire twice the size of Alexander the Great and four times the size of the Roman Empire.

Namedropping Genghis Kahn seems to be an obvious allusion for the kind of person Raza wants to emulate. Someone with vast power, who gained it with the best tools at hand, and who was the superior of western parallels. Even if his description of Kahn’s success is very simplistic. It was more than bows and arrows that allowed the Mongolians to rule such an area. And for all of its greatness, it disintegrated relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things.

RAZA:
But today, whoever holds the latest Stark weapons rules these lands.

As he says these words, his eyes gaze upon the plains for the metal behemoth Stark and Yinsen are constructing, but without being placed together they are meaningless. Still, it is a very scary moment, as Stark looks to Yinsen, who signals with his hands for Stark to stay calm. That must be hard to do, especially after the next line:


RAZA:
And soon, it will be my turn.

As he says these words, the camera focuses up on just his head. He turns, sneering at Stark. We see, for the first time, the hook nose, the crazy look in the eye. Raza looks every inch the villain. And he wants the power that Stark can provide, so he can do whatever he can to live up to the legacy of Genghis Kahn.

He strides to stand before Tony once more, looking him dead in the eye, seeking for any hint of treachery or deception. What is this man capable of?

Suddenly, he’s speaking another language (apparently he’s speaking Urdu, the official language of Pakistan) and addressing Yinsen even as he keeps his gaze on Stark. The audience, through subtitles, knows what he is saying, but Tony does not, and his rising panic will help keep the tension of the scene on an upward slope.

RAZA:
(In Urdu) Why have you failed me?

Yinsen does his best to appear honest in his answer.

YINSEN:
(In Urdu) We’re working. Diligently.

Raza moves away from Tony and starts walking, with a calm menace, towards Yinsen.

RAZA:
(In Urdu) I let you live. This is how you repay me?

Tony hasn’t a clue what is being said and looks increasingly wary. Yinsen is desperate and scared.


YINSEN:
(In Urdu) It’s’ very complex. He’s trying very hard.

Even now, the focus of their conversation is still on Tony. Raza appears to have expected Yinsen to keep Tony on track, which he has failed to do. Yinsen’s worry here is infectious.

RAZA:
(In Urdu) On his knees.

Things take a turn for the worse as Yinsen is roughly grabbed from behind and thrust onto his knees. Tony can only watch, awkwardly powerless to even intercede verbally. Raza, who has complete control over the situation, pokes at the nearby fire while Yinsen tries frantically to placate him.

RAZA:
(In Urdu) You think I’m a fool? I’ll get the truth.

YINSEN:
(In Urdu) We’re both working.

And then everything gets even worse, as Raza takes pleasure in turning around lowly and revealing a red hot piece of coal in a tongs that he is holding. The bare beginnings of a wretched smile is on his face.

RAZA:
(In Urdu) Open your mouth.

Things move rapidly from there, as Yinsen head is forced down on an anvil and Raza begins a deliberately slow advance towards him. Tony can’t bear it anymore and tries to get involved.

TONY:
What does he want?

RAZA:
(In Urdu) You think I’m a fool?

TONY:
What’s going on?

RAZA:
(In Urdu) Tell me the truth.

The shriek of the violins ramp up, as we near a decision in this pivotal moment – the beginning of the next part of the soundtrack actually (OST: “Mark I“). Yinsen is struggling to remain calm, but he’s trying to reason with a madman.

YINSEN:
(In Urdu) He’s building your Jericho.

RAZA:
(In Urdu) Tell me the truth!

YINSEN:
(In Urdu) He’s building your Jericho!

Tony, having been motionless, takes a few steps forward.

TONY:
What do you want? A delivery date?

He’s cut off, as Bakaar and the host of armed men around him spring a few steps forward, guns raised, shouting for Tony to stop what he’s doing. This is a very important moment, for no other reason than it shows that these men, for all of the control they have over the situation, are still somewhat afraid of Stark, for whatever reason.

Stark stops, and events are poised on what happens next. Everyone, including Raza now, is staring at Stark.

Stark, a look of determination set on his face, takes charge of the situation. He sees the power that he has over these people, how they need him. And if they need him, then Stark has leverage.


TONY:
I need him. Good assistant.

Tony is careful to keep his voice low and subservient. Raza glares back. He drops the burning coal right next to Yinsen worried face, reinforcing the control he has. He could end them both on a whim, and that reality is crystal clear.


RAZA:
You have ’til tomorrow, to assemble my missile.

Eagle eyed viewers will note that there is something a little off with the shot that is used for this line. Raza is supposed to be standing next to Yinsen, with no one behind him. Instead the doors to the cell are clearly behind him, along with a goon. In the next shot, everything is back to the way it should be. That’s because this specific shot is one of the lone bits from the aforementioned deleted material to make it into the theatrical cut. It is one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” continuity errors.

With that declaration, and one last disdainful sneer, he throws the tongs away carelessly and stalks off.

It was a big week for Tony Stark. Now it is a big day.

For The Film

This section of the film is the continuation of the actual origin story, and the immediate set-up to the first full on action sequence of consequence. This is the moment when we are first presented with the plans for the titular “Iron Man” after all, and everything that follows from that. Tony is shown as clambering out of the metaphorical pit he was landed in, through both his appearance and his actions, putting together a plan with the resources that he has to hand. Yinsen is elaborated upon subtly, and we are introduced properly to one of the last of the films minor villains – who, as far as we know so far, is the films main antagonist at this point. His threat level has been firmly established by the end of this sequence, as has the tension for the actual escape attempt.

Characterisation

Tony Stark

Tony is coming back up in the world. He hit rock bottom but he dragging himself towards a higher purpose, finding friendship and hope in the midst of all the despair. Having encountered a scenario that seemed beyond any rectification, he’s realised that he has everything that he needs to try and escape from his predicament, not least his magnificent brain. But he also has sheer courage, and that’s coming to the fore more and more as we go on. There are also some deeper realisations at the heart of everything, about the emptiness of his life back home, compared to a man like Yinsen. And lastly, a growing distaste for the business of Stark Industries, something that will become important very soon.

Yinsen

We learn a little bit more about Yinsen here, but we have to read between a few lines. He has a family somewhere, but has little expectation of getting back to them, even if the coming escape attempt is successful. He pities Stark for his solitude, but accepts that he has now become the lesser man in their duo, following Tony’s lead in his plans, his really crucial involvement coming when he simply has to just keep his mouth shut in the face of Raza’s insanity. He has steadfastness and ingenuity, but he realises that Tony is going to be the real catalyst for everything.

Abu Bakaar

Little to do in this section of the film, beyond showing his deference to Raza in matters of major importance. He’s a subordinate, whose uses are limited to the man who is actually running the show.

Raza

The leader of the Ten Rings, Raza is a violent psychopath with delusions of grandeur. He believes that he can be a modern day Genghis Khan, and all that he will need is the weapons that Stark, his slave, will provide. He retains an angry disposition and some nervous traits, unpredictable in his actions to an extreme degree. He is very threatening, and we are left in no doubt as to the power of his convictions.

Next week, the escape is on.

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Review: The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie

Trailer

Lance Armstrong's life and obsession with success are put under the spotlight by Alex Gibney.

Lance Armstrong’s life and obsession with success are put under the spotlight by Alex Gibney.

Growing up, I never had much of an interest in professional cycling, so was only partially aware of the ever-growing furore over one Lance Armstrong. I was dimly conscious that he was an immensely successful cyclist constantly accused of cheating, which from the sources that seemed to talk about him most (Euroskeptic tabloids usually) seemed to stem from sour grapes and annoyed French people, grumbling that an American was constantly winning “their” race.

I did not give any part of the story that much attention. When the truth and confessions did come later in my life, I was thus as surprised and intrigued as many other people, with the added benefit that I was looking at the controversy with relatively fresh eyes. Here is one of the great sporting stories of our time, a man who rose from near-death to become one of the great legends of competitive achievement, now tarnished forever. I read more into it than I previously had, and was astounded by the potential depth of the conspiracy, the steadfastness of some journalists who refused to be cowed in their pursuit of Armstrong, and the crazy amount of control the cyclist was able to exert over so many people.

Documentarian Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Taxi To The Dark Side) followed Armstrong on what was supposed to be his glorious point proving comeback to the Tour de France in 2009, where the Texan hoped to win the race one more time just to really show his detractors that he was still capable of doing so. A few years later, when the sordid reality had been laid bare with the help of Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong allowed Gibney to place him under the spotlight once more. The questions are obvious. Why did Armstrong do it? Why did he never cease denying it for as long as he could? And, most importantly, why were so many willing to believe the Armstrong lie?

Spoilers, such as there are for a documentary, follow after this point. My shorter, spoiler-free, review, is available on The Write Club.

Gibney sets about his task with professionalism and candour, with a nice blend of archive footage, modern day interviews and his own basic narration, which guides us well through the tangled web of the titular falsehood. He admits some crucial aspects freely, so as not to be accused of a slant in either direction. Yes, he was one of the many who bought into the fabrication that Armstrong was selling. Yes, more than once he felt himself sliding from the neutral position a man like him most have during the 2009 Tour, wanting Armstrong to succeed so he could fashion an uplifting sports story. Yes, he feels betrayed by the cyclist. Who wouldn’t, after having that much direct contact with the man, to be front and centre for the cavalcade of lies?

But, to my delight, The Armstrong Lie is not about condemnation. The whole world knows what Armstrong did and that it was wrong, and the moral outrage does not need to be rehashed in great detail. Gibney’s original project was (happily for him) uncompleted when the suspicions became concrete fact, and from the wreckage of the first plan Gibney has constructed this captivating and savagely uncompromising portrait of Armstrong. Gibney has his three crucial questions to answer and, with a mix of contemporary footage of Armstrong, his own work in 2009 and subsequent interviews, he goes about answering them in this well paced and well edited production. The experience is not framed directly around those three questions, but might as well have been, so important are they to the journey that Gibney wants to take us on.

The first question is answered by as complete a profile of Armstrong as you can get in an hour and a half. Here is a man from a poor background, who grew up battling for everything he got, who broke into the emerging cycling scene, who survived a brush with death in the form of an extensive cancer battle and who then grew into a person who could never accept losing, to the extent that an obsession with gaining success – by any means necessary – seems to have been almost pathological in him. If winning (and winning and winning) meant breaking the set rules repeatedly, so be it. If it meant destroying the lives and livelihoods of people trying to stop him, even they had once been friends and teammates, so be it. If it meant consorting with shady characters with dubious medical practises, and then publically defending those people, so be it. If it meant playing the victim, adding to the original lie with a sense of faux-outrage, so be it.

In the world of Lance Armstrong, as Gibney expertly makes clear, nothing is off limits when it comes to gaining success. If he wasn’t going to let cancer beat him, he wasn’t going to let rules do the same. From his first experience of the Tour de France and the doping scene, to his comeback in 2009, Armstrong is a man obsessed with using everything at his disposal to get ahead of the competition, comparing losing with death.

It’s eerily compared with the way that Armstrong describes cycling when he was young. The man talks about cycling down the road in his bike as a child as a freeing experience, that captures essences of independence and wild possibilities. Cycling then felt like a joy, an activity to be savoured and to be enjoyed for its own merits. Making a career out of it was almost done unintentionally by Armstrong, who just seems to have stumbled into something he was quite good at.

But whether it was the pain of his fractured home life or the grim fight with cancer, something pushed Armstrong over the edge when it came to his competitive nature. The difference between the pre-cancer attitude of Armstrong and the same after his successful treatment seems stark, at least until we realise that the modern day Armstrong is the man dictating both. Did his victory over cancer propel him to be this man who accepted nothing short of total victory, or is he just picking the most traumatic part of his life as an excuse? Gibney leaves us to form our own conclusion on that score, just as he does with the figure of Michele Ferrari, the doping specialist who assisted Armstrong throughout his Tour victories. It would be easy to frame the story as that of an eager young sportsman falling under the sway of a Machiavellian doctor looking for guinea pig, but it’s made clear that this is not what it was: Armstrong and Ferrari had a mutual admiration for their respective work, the kind of attitude that speaks volumes about the moral integrity – or lack of it – for both men.

David Walsh, a contributor, was one of many victims of Armstrong's immense power in the industry.

David Walsh, a contributor, was one of many victims of Armstrong’s immense power in the industry.

So why lie about it all the way up to when the lies became impossible to maintain? This is when Gibney deals with the defences and excuses Armstrong and others have employed to try and deflect away from his falsehoods, or even justify them. Gibney allows Armstrong the time and space to tell his “true story” even if he is as slippery in the telling as a greased pig.

Armstrong’s insistence of a “greater good” to his lies does manage to permeate a bit – the children involved with his “Livestrong” charity are probably more worried about funding to fight their own cancers than Armstrong’s cheating – but one cannot help but think that the Livestrong project was an extension of Armstrong’s ambitions, something created after the fact. But there might be people, even children, alive today because of Armstrong’s misgained success. Does that make it OK? There are those who will argue it does. For me, I feel part of the fault lies with a human race who will not give freely to such charities unless there is a sporting icon attached to them.  We shouldn’t have to rely on a proven liar and cheater to show us the way. Gibney’s section that focuses on these children seems designed to tug at the heartstrings, perhaps a carryover from the original project. But it’s still worth including. We should confront the uncomfortable realities of a story like this.

And then there is the common excuse of “Everyone does it”. I’ve always found this a little hard to swallow, no matter how much people like Armstrong serve it up. In the case of the Tour de France, the race had 189 official competitors the last time Armstrong “won” it in 2005. It seems extremely unlikely to me that all of them were using performance enhancing drugs. Therein lies the rub: if even just one of them was following the rules as they were written down, then Armstrong’s go to excuse hasn’t any legs. But he still has his justifications beyond that, treating himself and others who used such “aids” as a separate class to those who refused to. Everything always seems to come back to that obsession with winning. If you aren’t willing to use performance enhancers, in Armstrong’s world, you’re just another loser not worth considering. When Armstrong says something like “everyone was doing it” he means all of the serious competitors. Everyone else, the athletes who approach the contest with respect for the rules and a desire to test their own physical limits without help from chemicals, are like a different species.

So, why all the belief, why the defences, why the delusion of his adoring public (which, in a small way, even I was a part of)? Part of that comes from cyclist authorities and press wanting to maintain the popularity of the sport, to the extent that Gibney essentially accuses them of collaborating with Armstrong in certain cover-ups of his drug use, a serious charge that is in no way refuted to the required degree in the course of The Armstrong Lie. Cycling as a professional sport depended on Armstrong to a scary extent, especially in the United States. Its explosion in popularity in the last 15 years or so can be largely traced back to him after all, and there were probably many people in positions to blow the whistle who refrained, for fear that they may have ruined the sport they loved so much. For an excellent example of a journalist who was caught up in such a manner (and who was a contributor to this documentary), read this piece by Steve Madden.

Armstrong was tested again and again during his career, to the extent that footage of his exasperation with the examinations gains a greater power than if they were just once offs. They are an intrusive and intensely public practise – the person being tested can be called upon while they are at home spending time with their children, and must (emphasis on the “must”, no matter how long it takes) urinate into a cup while being watched by a tester. I think anyone, cheater or no, would get annoyed at such things. But the point is that for all of the repeated tests, it took years and years for the truth to finally be acknowledged. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark, or at least the UCI, which only acted against Armstrong when incontrovertible evidence was presented by a separate body, the USADA. There were almost certainly cover-ups perpetrated by very high ranking members of the sports governing body, who are probably hoping that the whole storm has passed them by.

Part of it comes from Armstrong’s (usually successful) litigation of those who pressed the issues, like journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, two men whose subsequent vindication might not quite make up for the constant haranguing and intimidation they were subjected to from Armstrong and his supporters. They were certainly a bit callous in their own reporting – referring to Armstrong in one article as a “cancer” is a deliberately provocative and needlessly insulting statement – but this pales in comparison to Armstrong, who verbally attacked them in press conferences, repeatedly called them liars and then successfully sued them when they tried to publish books that contained the truth about his drug use. Walsh’s newspaper lost a million British pounds over one such lawsuit, and agreed upon an unstated sum in a countersuit last year. That it got so far, and that the accusations of these men were so brutally shut down by their peers and the law, is an astonishing testament to the influence of Armstrong, a man who could ruin people and companies with ease.  One interviewee for The Armstrong Lie notes, “It’s not a story about doping, it’s a story about power”. Armstrong had that power, and used it to hound people out of the sport if it served his purposes.

Gibney takes the time to focus a lot on a former teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, who testified in court proceedings to the effect that Armstrong was taking performance enhancers, (as was Andreu). Armstrong denied it, lied in open court about it, and got away with it. The Andreu’s were shunned and cast out of the cycling world, receiving crazy-sounding messages of violent content from Armstrong’s inner circle. It is typical of the effect that Armstrong had on people, and to this day the man struggles to avoid talking about that specific affair.

Armstrong is portrayed as thinking he is a God among insects, and those insects were annoyances who had to be squashed if they were getting in his way. If it took outright bullying of teammates to keep them in line, or lying under oath in court proceedings (and winning), or enforcing pariah status on the ones who dared to tell the truth, Armstrong would do it, and happily it would seem, a man who was practically getting off on his own sense of control.

Gibney expertly brings Armstrong's self delusion to the fore.

Gibney expertly brings Armstrong’s self delusion to the fore.

But most of it I think, the excusing I mean, comes from the sheer hypnotism of Armstrong himself. In the archive footage he simply seems so genuine in everything he says. The charming arrogance while winning the Tour de France again and again, the anger at journalists who continually push the doping issues, the annoyance at being continually surprise tested, the hurt as he discusses the issue on numerous talk shows. Here is a man so adept at lying, so good at playing on the emotions of the crowd, so competent at using an overly-sympathetic media to his advantage, that it must be a case of Armstrong himself believing his own lies, or at least the justifications for them that come later.

His attempted comeback in 2009 is a great example of a man manufacturing his own legacy, wanting to be seen as the kind of guy who never gives up, he refuses to lay down for the criticism of his lessers, a message that resonated with Gibney throughout that Tour. Armstrong still thinks his seven Tour victories are legitimate for example, and that his immense fortune was not undeserved. He isn’t believable just because he is a great liar. He was believable because he seems to believe his own lies, maybe because he was so used to telling them, over and over and over again.

If there are problems with The Armstrong Lie, it is just that one of the main hooks of the promotional materials – that Armstrong’s own contributions would tell the untold story of his cycling career – does not really pan out. The segments that feature Armstrong’s modern day interview is a lesson in avoiding the issue, poorly constructed apologies and weaselling out of the accusations thrown his way, always coming back to that same old mantra of seeking success without compromise. In a bizarre way, it rather reminded me of Sean Connery in Michael Bay’s The Rock: “Losers whine about their best, winners go home and fuck the prom queen”, the kind of blunt philosophy you can well imagine Armstrong endorsing. Aside from that, I suppose Gibney portrays nothing that is not already in the public record, but he is the first documentarian of note to make such a film about this subject. As you might expect from his accomplishments, he is imminently capable of putting it together in the right way.

A good comparison is with another documentary I saw recently, John Singleton’s Marion Jones: Press Pause. Part of the ESPN 30 For 30 series, it too followed a disgraced former athlete who consistently denied using performance enhancers only to confess that she, of course, had been all along (the difference between Jones and Armstrong being that she spent time in prison for it, after lying to federal officials about her drug use).

Singleton’s documentary is everything that Gibney’s could have been if it had taken all the wrong choices: overly-sympathetic to its focus, far too quick to offer excuses for her behaviour and mindlessly biased in its selection of interviewees, nearly all of which are there to back up the viewpoint that Jones is an unfairly maligned personality. It is a documentary where it is laughably claimed repeatedly that Jones would have won all of her success even without performance enhancers. You can imagine Armstrong watching it and wishing he had allowed Singleton into his inner circle instead of Gibney.

This kind of story is easily turned into the most inane kind of puff piece, and in the comparing and contrasting of Press Pause and The Armstrong Lie we really do get to see the sheer gulf in class between the two filmmakers, and all of the positives that Gibney brings to the task: lack of bias, aloofness from the subject and a willingness to refrain from dictating conclusions to the audience. With the kind of direction Singleton showed in Press Pause, we see the terrible alternative history that The Armstrong Lie could have been, an apologist piece of propaganda designed to excuse the worst kind of sporting dishonour. When Gibney talks frankly of his previous respect for Armstrong during the 20009 Tour, we can envision how The Armstrong Lie would have looked if it was completed quicker or if the truth had not come out when it did. It would have been an entertaining fiction, I’m sure, with Armstrong looking glorious even in defeat.

Depressingly, The Armstrong Lie does give me pause when it comes to other sports. In the vast ocean of journalism and reporting on football, my most beloved pastime, there are the inklings of what must be the unpalatable truth beneath the surface, that players and clubs are involved in such activities in the same manner that Armstrong was, with chemical enhancements and dodgy procedures to make players bigger, faster and stronger. For now, we get glimpses of it, through the actions of individuals, easily dismissed as not part of the whole. One day, I believe that football will face that scandal on a wide scale, when the truth slips out or when some whistleblower does the right thing. That will be a bad day for football, as we see the truth behind some of the impressively built facades. On that day, those of us who had no great appreciation for cycling may feel as many of its fans felt when Armstrong dropped the pretence, when heroes became villains. And football will not be the only sport, I’m sure. Part of me suspects there are coaches and players from GAA to cricket who will see the events depicted in The Armstrong Lie and squirm in a most uncomfortable manner.

The Armstrong Lie is a fine documentary. It’s edited very well, paced superbly, and you never feel its length (something Gibney can’t claim with his other sport-orientated piece, Catching Hell). It offers a frank and absorbing overview of its main subject, and explores the main issues surrounding it with aplomb. Perhaps it does not wow as well as it could have, lacking that outstanding revelation many expected, and I suspect that those who know much about the story before seeing it might find their attention drifting in parts. But speaking purely for myself, I found The Armstrong Lie to be entertaining and engaging, very much the equal of something like the previously reviewed Mitt, albeit without that films sense of really seeing beneath the surface.

In the end, Gibney comes up with no real judgements of his own – God knows Armstrong has been judged extensively by both the courts and public opinion, and the legal battles are ongoing – but leaves the audience to make their own conclusions on a man who seems to believe in his own fiction so strongly that he holds out hope that he will be considered a sporting hero again in the future. It is much more likely that his legacy will be defined by how every list of Tour de France winners or cycling statistics now chooses to display his tainted name, a damnatio memoriae for the modern age: Lance Armstrong.

An intriguing and well made documentary.

An intriguing and well made documentary.

(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Classics).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Fall Of Galway

The fall of Limerick was a death knell for the Royalists in Ireland, but the war was not over yet. The former Confederates and Royalists still maintained a military and a basic civic structure, but it was now confined almost entirely to the province of Connacht, and even there only to the west.

The focus of the entire war now turned to Galway. The city was now the last major urban centre of any importance remaining in Royalist hands, their last significant port. It was the obvious target of the remaining Parliamentarian efforts, the legislatures forces keen to capture the city as soon as possible, a conquest they hoped would bring an end to the fighting in Ireland.

But the situation was a bit more complicated than that. Clanricarde, distracted by the now doomed negotiations with the Duke of Lorraine and disputes with the civilian authorities in Galway, was not even in the city, with what force he had elsewhere in the province. Galway, like Limerick before it, had proven difficult to garrison, its civilian leaders unwilling to house men they did not trust, and angering Clanricarde further by openly proclaiming Lorraine with a title the Lord Deputy had not agreed to – “Protector Royal”. Galway, like so many other places, still held out hope that this Catholic warlord would arrive soon and save them from the Parliamentarian menace, but it was a fools hope: following the fall of Limerick, Lorraine would send some supplies and nothing more.

Before Limerick even fell, Galway was under threat. Charles Coote had achieved mastery over Athlone in June 1651, and while Ireton busied himself with Limerick, he turned his armies westward and started heading, gradually, towards Galway. There were plenty of stops along the way, in places like Portumna and Athenry, smaller towns with castles that had to be besieged and reduced, so that supply lines for the final attack on Galway could be maintained, and that the Royalist hold over the land could be broken. These early movements were the kind of operations that would only take a few days, and were relatively low-intensity: plenty of Royalist soldiers were throwing in the towel now.

But Coote found things much more difficult when he actually reached Galway and realised what the situation there was. The town had been in Confederate hands for nearly ten years at this point, even since its walls and its forts had been handed over by Captain Willougby in 1643. And the citizens and military personnel placed there had not been idle. Galway was a wealthy trading position, and some of that money had been redirected to the military situation. In combination with the natural defences Galway was able to enjoy – bounded by water on multiple sides due to Lough Corrib (and the River Corrib) to the north-east, Lough Atalia to the east and Galway Bay to the south – extensive work had been done on improving the walls of the city, those that faced north.

As the contemporary print on the left makes clear, the walls had been strengthened and deepened, numerous bastions had been constructed to allow a wide field of fire on any attacker and the forts surrounding the city had been improved as well (in the picture on the right I give a rough approximation of the size of Galway in 1651 compared to much more sprawling city that it is today. I do use “city” as a description frequently, but Galway at the time was not that big). Before Coote would have gotten as far as Galway, earth embankments would have been added to the walls to shore them up even further. While not quite on the same level as Limerick, Galway would still have been a very tough nut to crack.

The man in charge of the garrison would have helped as well. Thomas Preston was, by now, one of the most senior former Confederates left still fighting in Ireland. His garrison had been unable to defend Waterford the previous year from Henry Ireton’s attack, but had been permitted to march away with their arms. To Galway they had gone, and now the man who had lost most of the Leinster Army at Dungan’s Hill was one of the Royalists last military commanders left in Ireland, along with Clanricarde, Richard Farrell with forces to the west, Muskerry in the south and the last remnants of the army Castlehaven had commanded. Preston was one of the great survivors then, despite his battlefield inexperience and alleged drinking problem. He was adept at siege warfare though, even if he had greater success when he was undertaking one, not defending from one. With a garrison of around 2’000 or so troops at his call, he was able to man the defences of the city well enough. When the war started Preston was serving abroad for the King of Spain, and Coote was just the eldest son of his rebel fighting father. Now, they were the respective commanders of what would be the final major operation of the conventional struggle.

Coote had several thousand troops, plenty of cavalry and probably a bit of artillery too. But he did not have enough men to tackle Galway as he would have liked when he arrived near there in August of 1651 – most of the Parliamentarian forces were either around Limerick or garrisoning the rest of the country. The defences Galway enjoyed were considerable, enough that a direct assault would be difficult if not hopeless. So, Coote immediately decided to enact a blockade, spreading his troops between Lough Atalia and Lough Corrib, while a significantly large squadron of the Parliamentarian Navy attempted to cut off Galway access to the sea in Galway Bay. This was a crucial commitment from the Parliament, since they were not far away from open naval warfare with the Dutch in the English Channel.

But it was not enough. Coote’s forces were stretched too thin – they had been campaigning for several months now, so they were probably exhausted as well – but a large section of the landward approach to Galway, to the west particularly, was left unguarded. That meant that Galway could not be starved out realistically, but there was nothing that Coote could do: he simply did not have enough men to guard all of the possible approaches, not without stretching them so thin as to become immensely vulnerable. And so, he waited.

And waited. Very little combat took place for the remainder of the year. Following the fall of Limerick, Ireton wanted to send significant reinforcements Coote’s way – I can surmise he might even have wanted to take over command of the operation – but the oncoming winter instead prompted him to move the New Model Army into winter quarters until the new year. Ireton himself was already suffering from the illness that would kill him within a month, and when the weather did clear it was Edmund Ludlow in command of the Parliamentarian military in Ireland.

The citizens of Galway endured a bitter winter, with supplies getting low even with the blockade not fully enforced. Preston had a task that was next to impossible, needing to hold out for an indefinite time, with no chance of relief from within Ireland. The aims and plans of the Royalists now extended no further than simple survival for as long as possible, probably just in the hope of making better terms for themselves – Clanricarde was already contemplating surrender, and there remains a fractious dispute in the second hand sources over whether he encouraged Galway to give up or insisted it hold out.

The reinforcements were sent to Coote eventually, and the ring around Galway was tightened. Still, no attack was made on the walls, a measure of how impressive the defences were. But there may also have been just the practicalities of a war that was drawing to a close, finally: no one wanted to be the last person to die in this conflict, or the last commander to make a failed attack. The food supplies ran lower, plague broke out and, just as in Limerick, the citizenry of Galway became divided between those who wanted to seek whatever terms they could get now and other who wanted to continue the resistance. With refugees from other parts of the country swelling Galway’s population – Coote had no problem letting them through – Preston was running out of time.

Clanricarde was now a Royalist government unto himself, and about as effective as you would expect. Attempts to convene legislative councils were largely ignored, as were his efforts to summon what troops remained in Connacht to his banner in nearly 1652, ostensibly to march to the relief of Galway. The armies, once of the Confederates, now of the Royalists, were melting away, either staying at home to fend for themselves and families, or becoming Tories.

The endgame approached in Galway. There are two main inconsistencies in the existing narrative, one on the final fate of Thomas Preston, the other on the exact date of the capitulation. Preston is suggested to have left Galway a while before the inevitable surrender, perhaps to save his own skin, or maybe just because Coote and Ludlow gave up the right terms to do so. Or maybe he did stay until the end and helped to negotiate the final settlement. I actually think it might have been the latter, for no other reason than the sources that claim the former are obviously biased against Preston, being written either by hardcore Catholics or the Parliamentarians. Preston was a lot of things, but part of me thinks he would not just leave without assuring at least his soldiers lives and safety. But this is just a supposition on my part.

Regardless, the surrender did come, either in early April or May. The city’s position of resistance was unsustainable, and Coote offered relatively lenient terms, that matched much of what had been offered elsewhere. The military would be allowed to take ship and leave Ireland unmolested, and the townspeople would have their lives and property guaranteed though Ludlow would renege on some of the terms when he was told about them. Thus agreed, the garrison left and the Parliamentarians marched in. Preston, whenever he did go, would wind up in France, seeking out the court of the exiled Charles Stuart. There he would die in 1655, at the age of around 65. Never to be remembered as fondly as his great rival Owen Roe, his record in Ireland was decidedly mixed. A number of successful sieges – and the recruitment of a sizable army backed up by his continental veterans – were offset by the terrible defeat at Dungan’s Hill and his own substantial part in the discord that split the Confederation of Kilkenny in two. Those events, and his command of Galway at the end of the war, would tarnish his reputation in Ireland ever after.

The siege had been a simple, professional job by Charles Coote, one of his final contributions to the Parliamentarian cause. All he had to do was wait for the right amount of troops to be available to him to close the trap around the city, and then stay in place. The waiting was the hard part of course, with the poor weather to be endured, but once that had passed the capture of Galway was all but assured. Preston could arguably have been a bit more pro-active in his defence – there is no mention of any sallies taking place at any time – but it would probably have been a useless gesture anyway. There was such little actual fighting that no source I have read actually mentions casualties.

The surrender was one of the last blows against the largely destroyed morale of the Royalist faction. Men like Castlehaven were soon also sailing away from Ireland, to seek more troops for the cause on the surface, but in reality simply fleeing for their lives and liberty. Clanricarde was now a largely a Lord Deputy in name only, his authority extending over a hodgepodge of territory west of the Shannon, with the war effort’s true authority now falling under numerous Tory commanders throughout the country.

The fall of Galway is traditionally seen as the end of the conventional conflict. There were other castles and towns in Royalist possession that would have to be captured, and some armies still capable of taking the field – like Muskerry’s for example. But there would be no more battles and no more large scale sieges. That portion of the war was over. The war itself would go on and on.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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World Cup 2014: Final Rankings

Here’s my rankings of the teams, based along a fairly straightforward stat model, that I used for South Africa and Euro 2012. 32-17 are the teams that failed to get beyond the group stage, ranked in the order of points (P), goal difference (GD) and goals for (GF). 16 to 8, the beaten teams in the Second Round, are ranked in the order of manner of defeat (penalty shoot outs trumping AET, and AET trumping a normal time defeat), margin of defeat, total tournament goal difference (TTGD) and total tournament goals for (TTGF). The same is then applied for the teams ranked 8 to 5, the beaten quarter finalists. Teams ranked 4 to 1 are automatically assigned by the results of the final two games in the tournament.

The bracketed number to the right of the team names is the difference in ranking with my 2010 World Cup final standings, if applicable.

Eliminated In Group Stage

32. Cameroon (-1)

0 Points , -8 GD

A remarkably poor return from the former stars of African football, somehow going one worse than their record in South Africa. Wracked by internal discord and with no star players performing to the level required, they were doomed from the moment they failed to hold on to a 0-0 against Mexico. The collapse against Croatia and the surrender to Brazil were their other contributions. Absolutely worthless, and no sign of getting any better.

31. Honduras (-1)

0P, -7GD

I asked, on Honduras in 2010, who would the Central American/Caribbean whipping boy be in 2014? Turns out it was Honduras again, only this time they were poorer. With a violent streak added to their remarkably bad play all over the field, it was only in the first half of the game against Ecuador that they looked in any way spirited. Terrible against France and Switzerland, their lack of competitiveness is something CONCACAF seems likely to ignore.

30. Australia (-9)

0P, -6GD

A poor tournament for a team that has, regrettably, regressed since 2010. There they beat Serbia and got a point off Ghana. Here they could barely keep up with the likes of Chile and Spain, and their defensive frailty offset any of their attacking prowess against the Netherlands. Desperately reliant on the occasional genius of Tim Cahill, the Aussies just never looked like competing at the level required. The move to the AFC has given them more tournament football, but they appear to be stagnating a bit.

29. Japan (-20)

1P, -4GD

A very poor return for a side that were a few spot-kicks away from the quarter finals in 2010. With the likes of Honda and Kagawa AWOL in terms of quality, the midfield engine was lacking, and time and again the “Blue Samurai” were undone from there. Falling too easily to Cote d’Ivoire after going ahead and failing to take advantage of Greek indiscipline despite their dominance of possession, they were then ripped to shreds by a Columbian side that was really operating in second gear. A tournament to forget.

28. Iran (NA)

1P, -3GD, 1GF

A decent opening – not in entertainment terms, but in game play – saw Iran on their way against Nigeria, and then they really held their own against Argentina, a game they might well have gotten three points from on any other day (and if one Lionel Messi was not playing for the opposition). Needing something very special to try and get out of the group they were undone by a purposeful Bosnia and Herzegovina team, whose attack they could not contain when they themselves needed a win, but should still be satisfied with the defensive effort they put in to this tournament.

27. South Korea (-15)

1P, -3GD, 3GF

Rounding out a disappointing AFC tournament are South Korea, almost traditional second round mainstays at this point, who stumbled repeatedly in a group they should have had an easier time with given the talent in their squad. A poor opening contest saw them grab a deserved point against the Russians without impressing much themselves, but then they were completely undone by the Algerians brilliant attacking display, shipping goals with ease. All that was left was for a dour showing against an almost uninterested Belgian side. A very poor return for a team that should be doing much better than this.

26. England (-10)

1P, -2GD, 2GF

A remarkably poor side in reality, bulwarked by players like Gerrard and Rooney who should have been removed from the equation years ago. Completely outshone by a Pirlo inspired Italy before being unable to contain the threat of Suarez, England stumbled over the line against Costa Rica, only the likes of Sturridge and Sterling stopping them from looking totally beyond any praise. A bad defence, an inept midfield and a toothless attack. Football isn’t coming home anytime soon and its finally dawning on England that this is the reality.

25. Ghana (-20)

1P, -2GD, 4GF

The Africans will be disappointed with their effort, far short of what occurred in 2010. Stung early against the Americans it was all they could do equalise, only to lose it late with a succession of poor defensive moments. They upped their game for Germany, really getting competitive with one of the tournament favourites, finally showcasing what made the 2010 team so special. They had a decent chance of advancing given the circumstances on the last day, but even after drawing level with Portugal they couldn’t get things together enough to get a winner. Ronaldo’s winner was a good summation of their tournament. Much to improve upon, and a lot of squad overhaul required.

24. Russia (NA)

2P, -1GD, 2GF

Fabio Capello hasn’t changed much, and so the team that he led into a major tournament played grim defensive football for too long, and found themselves in trouble when faced with any opponent of even moderate talent and initiative. Lucky to even open with just a point, they again failed to make any kind of headway against Belgium, paying for their inept upfront challenge with a late winner for the dark horses. Needing a win against Algeria, they went ahead but couldn’t hold that lead, with a list of star names underperforming and the tactics making it look like they couldn’t care less. A lot to make up for when they host the grand stage in four years.

23. Spain (-22)

3P, -3GD

An utter disaster for the humiliated former Kings of international football. Given a hiding by an aggressive and attackingly astute Dutch side, they were then outplayed to a shocking degree by Alexis Sanchez and Chile, sealing their fate and a return to the dark pre-2008 days of tournament disappointment. Men like Costa, Casillas and Torres were not up to the task, and only a consolation victory against the Australians spared even a fraction of their blushes. Is a thorough rebuilding required? Is tiki-taka dead? Time will tell, but I imagine a firm “Yes” is the answer to both questions.

22. Italy (+4)

3P, -1GD, 2GF

Despite a nominal gain in my rankings, another really disappointing showing for the Italians, especially after getting as far as the final in 2012. Pirlo dominated the field as they outpassed and outplayed England, dealing well with the heat and the opposition’s youthful exuberance. Then it all came unstuck against the enthusiastic and steadfast Costa Ricans, Italy suddenly looking tired and unable to work any real chances. With Pirlo fading and Balotelli suddenly underperforming, they allowed themselves to be dragged into a niggling, foul-filled contest with Uruguay, where concentration levels lapsed after “that” incident. It cost them, dearly. So much work, and rebuilding, to do.

21. Cote d’Ivoire (-4)

3P, -1GD, 4GF

Another disappointing showing from the golden generation of this nation’s footballing history, as Gervinho, Drogba and company routinely forgot their lines and stumbled. A good comeback win against Japan made them look like the kind of team they’ve always threatened to be on this stage, but then the attacking genius of Columbia did them in before they were unable to contain one of the most offensively impotent sides of the tournament in the form of Greece. A lot of dead weight in this side, which has clearly become far too reliant on a handful of players. I feel they have had more than their fair share of chances to impress on this stage.

20. Bosnia and Herzegovina (NA)

3P, 0GD, 4GF

A great amount of expectation followed “BIH” but very little of it was realised in the end. They did manage to outplay Argentina for large stretches of their opening game, but only managed to get the ball in the net themselves when it was too late. There were less excuses in the defeat to Nigeria, when the likes of Dzeko failed to equalise again and again, and the whole team generally looked out of their depth. Only when there was nothing left to play for did they bring the same skill and drive that marked their qualifying campaign, in a fine win over the Iranians. The experience will likely stand to them as they take a tilt at Euro 2016.

19. Croatia (NA)

3P, 0GD, 6GF

Croatia suffered in their first game, doing enough to get something off Brazil but unjustly denied by some incompetent officiating. It was a decent outfit, and they got the opportunity to bounce back well by easily overcoming an undisciplined and uncaring Cameroon. The big test would always have been Mexico, and there Croatia fell down decisively, unable to keep up going into the latter stages of the second half and only fighting back when the game was beyond them. The second of this nation’s golden generations may just have had their day, with two consecutive failures to get out of group stages.

18. Portugal (-7)

 4P, -3GD, 4GF

Painfully, painfully reliant on Ronaldo, Portugal were reduced in stature greatly by his injury problems. Combined with the sudden inefficiency of Moutinho and the dependence on average players like Nani, Portugal went into the tournament already at a distinct disadvantage. The hiding at the hands of Germany was the start, and the struggles against the United States, despite leading most of the game, was the continuance. Spared early elimination only thanks to Ronaldo’s lone moment of brilliance, they put in a bit more of an effort against the Ghanaians, but even there looked vulnerable at key moments. Portugal have missed their chance for glory since 2004, and it doesn’t look like coming anytime soon.

17. Ecuador (NA)

4P, 0GD

The best of the worst, but only just. Ecuador played some great attacking football at times – Enner Valencia is one of the tournaments really great highlights – but seemed bizarrely unable to play proper football at other moments.  The late defeat to Switzerland seems to have been a terrible blow, and a very scrappy, mistake-ridden victory over Honduras did little to produce confidence in them. A surprising lack of bite characterised their final game against France, where the sending off of captain Antonio Valencia epitomised much of their play. There’s potential there, but not that much.

Beaten In Last 16

16. Nigeria (+11)

Lost 2-0, -2 TTGD, 3 TTGF

An improvement on last time, but much still to be improved upon. The opening borefest against Iran indicated that Nigeria would struggle again, but they bounced back well to take three points off an underwhelming Bosnia and Herzegovina team, even if they really should have dropped two by the end. There followed an exhilarating contest with Argentina where some of the old passion of this once great African side came out, Musa and Emenike showing fine form even if it was a losing effort.

They should have been capable of giving a better game to France than they did, only occasionally showing the kind of bite required in the final third. In the end, they failed to stymie the French presence in midfield, and one of Enyeama’s only mistakes of the tournament spelled the end, before Yobo’s own goal. A disappointing way to go out, but the Nigerians have taken a few steps forward. If only their FA could say the same.

15. Uruguay (-11)

Lost 2-0, -2 TTGF, 4 TTGF

A very underwhelming showing from the team that set the 2010 tournament on fire, marred as much by non-football issues as anything else. Ambushed and well beaten by an aggressive and potent Costa Rican side, Uruguay were off to a bad start to be shown up in such a manner. They recovered, thanks almost entirely to the appearance of Suarez, to beat a fairly mediocre side in the form of England and then played their best of the tournament in a nasty game against Italy, one filled with fouls and violent conduct. They got the only goal though, mores the pity.

A few days of embarrassingly stupid defences of their disgraceful star man followed, before a side with class and vision, Columbia, put Uruguay to the sword in a comprehensive and comfortable manner, the 4th place team of the last tournament struggling just to keep up at times. A major step backwards for Uruguay, who now retreat into a den of self delusion over the prosecution of Suarez.

14. Mexico (=)

Lost 2-1

Another World Cup, another second round exit for the Mexicans. They had limped into the tournament after a shockingly disorganised qualifying campaign, but did a bit better when it actually started, overcoming Cameroon despite some dodgy officiating against them before holding the hosts to a hard fought 0-0 draw. The test was against Croatia and Mexico passed with flying colours, dominating that game in all the areas that really counted. Guardado and Hernandez, the impact sub, proved they had the attacking skill to make Mexico a force to be reckoned with and Ochao was having a fine tournament between the sticks.

Wilting in the first half heat, Mexico made the first strike after the break against the Netherlands, but then inexplicably fell back and defended what they had rather than try to kill the game off. The result was all but inevitable, Mexico denied even the chance of extra time to rectify their conservative error. Will they finally make the last eight in Russia? Don’t bet on it.

13. USA (-3)

Lost 2-1 AET, -1 TTGD

The Americans came into the tournament on a wave of unprecedented support, but struggled to really live up to it on the field. An early strike let them defend for most of the 90 against Ghana, before striking late to steal the three points. Defensive frailties were obvious again in conceding against Portugal, but having fought back and taken the lead through two well worked goals – showing some attacking skill at any rate – they let it all slip at the death. What followed was half a dead rubber, but a vision of things to come, as Germany tore them apart but settled for just one goal.

Belgium did the same, and only some poor shooting and fine goalkeeping kept a dire US performance at level terms for as long as it did, their defence full of holes, their midfield absent and their attack impotent. Exhaustion finally gave up two before the States decided to start playing like a Last 16 team, but the missed chances spoke for themselves. The Golden Generation is done, and the current team is worse, especially at the back. They talk like the States can win this tournament soon. Give me a break.

12. Algeria (+16)

Lost 2-1 AET, 0 TTGD

A vast improvement on 2010 for Algeria, who decided to show up for this tournament with a greater attacking flair than we have come to be used to. That wasn’t quite on show for the opener against Belgium, and that task was a step too far, probably due to the Africans conservative tactics after going ahead. Far better was the explosion of offensive talent against Korea, with Slimani at the centre of several great moments of play, as four goals were racked up, Korea flattered by getting two themselves. Algeria had grown since the opening defeat, and that showed against Russia, as they recovered from going behind and rescued the draw, seeing out the game with confidence and security.

Perhaps they might have been better served holding a bit back against Germany, but I suppose the attacking focus of the first half would have been excused if they had actually put the ball in the net. From there they went back to containment, with Rais in goal needing to push away a multitude of efforts, but Algeria lacked the legs to get to a shoot-out (and what good would that have done, against Germany?), giving up two soft goals in the additional 30, striking back too late. A good run, but the team needs just a bit of refinement.

11. Switzerland (+8)

Lost 1-0 AET

The opening game flattered Switzerland, a last minute win against Ecuador they really did not deserve that much. That game illustrated some of their flaws, and it was the French who shone a harsher light on them, scoring again and again, in a game they could have won some records in. But the Swiss were good enough to recover, with talent like Shaqiri more than enough to handle the awful Honduran team they finished up against (luckily).

A barely deserved knockout place secured, the Swiss gave it a much better go against the overconfident and frequently outplayed Argentineans. While it was mostly defensive, it also mostly worked. If only they had been able to cling on a few minutes more. The Swiss had their chances though, and failed to take them. They’ll look to continue improving for France 2016.

10. Greece (+15)

 Lost 5-3 In PSO

They are the great survivors, aren’t they? A minnow team that is so often despised for their defensive outlook, Greece got off to a very bad start, letting in several soft goals against Columbia, perhaps illustrating that the glory days at tournament level were well and truly gone. It seemed doubly to be the case as they had to grind out a draw with 10 men against Japan. But then the great escape, as Samaras and company out did the disappointing Cote d’Ivoire to snatch a late victory and a progression, rarely venturing from that counter attack/set-piece style when it came to going forward.

The situation was flip-reversed in the Last 16 though, as Greece found themselves a man up and needing to attack to rescue an early second half concession. They seemed unused to that, and blew a number of opportunities to draw level or even put Costa Rica away, unable to find a way past Navas until the 88th minute. They should have won it before the shoot out. They should have done better from the spot kicks. They did neither, and went home, albeit having once again shown they are capable of surprises. And God knows they could do it all again in two years time.

9. Chile (+6)

Lost 3-2 In PSO

Much expectation on this team and some of their stars, and they started out well enough, that attacking talent having far too much for Australia. The high point was next, as the World Champions were outpassed, outplayed and outscored in comprehensive fashion, the Chilean attack finding gaps in their defence that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But the failure to really press the Dutch to the degree required, combined with some late defensive lapses of their own, doomed Chile to a meeting with the hosts.

That was a dicey affair, even with Brazil in such mediocre form. The Luiz was goal was soft, but Chile resolutely pressed on, and Sanchez’ strike was richly deserved. Neither they nor the opposition were willing to risk too much for the remainder of the game (save for that last minute strike off the crossbar) and so to the shoot-out, where Chile faltered as Cesar prospered. A disappointing way to end it for a team that could have gone further.

Beaten in Quarter Finals

8. Belgium (NA)

Lost 1-0, 3 TTGD

Much expectation was following this Belgium team around, some even tipping them for the tournament. And while it was a decent enough return considering the squads age and experience at this level, there will be many who felt that the Belgians did not play as well as they could have, or with as much flair.

That was plain to see from the off, as they struggled to make any headway against the athletic and feisty Algerians. Only the introduction of a decent target man in the shape of Fellaini changed things, as did their superior fitness levels  – every Belgian goal was scored after 70 minutes. The Russian game was a dour affair as neither side seemed willing to really go the whole hog, and it was only when Hazard actually got into the game late on that a goal was fashioned. A practically dead rubber game against the South Koreans saw the Belgians out of their group, but having convinced no one of their credentials.

They went on to dominate the US in the Second Round, but with no goals to show for it in the 90. This was due to some of their own mishit’s – Origi, Mertens, Hazard and De Bruyne were all guilty – and the performance of Tim Howard. Belgium were a step above the US all night, but it took extra time and the introduction of Lukaku to actually win the game for them and even then they were slack in allowing the States back into the contest.

Still, they had a reasonably chance against Argentina, but struggled to put anything worthwhile together. It was a game where only a moment of genius would really have changed things, and the Argentineans had that reserve to call on in the last few minutes. Belgium lacked the same verve all over the pitch, but could prove to be an immense force over the next four to six years of international tournaments.

7. France (+21)

Lost 1-0, 7 TTGF

A gigantic improvement for the French. The squalid embarrassment of the 2010 campaign, clinched through such unpalatable circumstances and then carried out with rancour and mismanagement, had to be made up for, and the French did.

It helped that the group was so straightforward. Starting off against Honduras, the French eased to victory, coming off the gas long before the end, only struggling when the Central Americans played rough. The Swiss self-destructed in the first half in the next contest, and the attacking talents of Benzema, Pogba, Giroud and Debuchy were more than enough to have that game put to bed long before full time. A pedestrian dead rubber against Ecuador, and the French had advanced.

Nigeria were, at times, a tough opponent, but lacked the really strong kind of players that the French were able to show off. While France stuttered themselves throughout, they proved themselves the fitter and the more focused as the game drew to a close, capitalising on errors and never resting on their laurels until the tie was killed off.

The reward was a difficult task against Germany, arguably France’s first real test of the tournament. Conceding the early goal was a killer, and while they had their chances to equalise – especially Benzema – they were in no way deserving of a reprieve. Still, a vast improvement on the last few tournaments for the French, who now march on to their hosting of the next European Championships, certain to be among the favourites for the first time in a while.

6. Columbia (NA)

Lost 2-1

What could have been, personified in the form of this athletic, joyful South American team. Right from the off Columbia were impressing, when they took on the defensive shell of Greece and tore them apart with ease, and very quickly too. James Rodriguez announced himself on the World Cup stage, and Columbia were off. Cote d’Ivoire provided a more serious test of a more committed defence, but a two goal blitz in a few minutes, scarily efficient, set Columbia on their way to progression, before they rounded off their group stage triumph by running riot over a rather hapless Japan, who could not even begin to keep up with the flowing attacking moves.

The fun continued into the Last 16. Uruguay were marred by controversy before the game, and marred by inability to keep up with Columbia after it. The two best goals of the tournament left Columbia high as a kite, and sudden darlings of the neutral.

And then it all sort of came crashing down. Brazil played ugly at times, and had more than their fair share of benefit from poor refereeing. But they took the lead and didn’t allow Columbia back into the game properly, marking Rodriguez and Cuadrado out of the contest, and fouling them out of it if that didn’t work. It wasn’t pretty, but it succeeded, notwithstanding the late comeback that fell short. Columbia should be proud of their effort, but they need to be prepared in future for those kinds of tactics.

5. Costa Rica (NA)

Lost 4-3 In PSO

The big surprise of the tournament. There’s usually one all right. I was one of many who casually write Costa Rica off as just another Central American whipping boy in waiting, but they exploded into the tournament with vigour and purpose. Joel Campbell was lethal in his attacking intent as Uruguay were put to the sword in the second 45 minutes of that game. And it just got better, as the Costa Ricans took advantage of a tired Italian outfit to grab three points where one would have been impressive. After a boring stroll against England, Costa Rica had actually topped their group.

Greece were a more difficult task, made worse by the loss of Duarte. But Costa Rica went a goal up and, thanks to the performance of Navas, stayed that way, but could not hold back the oncoming Greeks for the full 90. They could have lost and won the game in extra time, but exhaustion was telling, Navas needing to save the day a few more times. Costa Rica held their nerve, demonstrated their precision in the shoot out, and the dream continued.

The Dutch were an even harder problem, but the Costa Ricans did all that they could, Navas being superb and even the defence doing all that could have been expected against a team of such attacking quality. And in 120 minutes of football, Costa Rica could have won the game themselves, the misses and saves providing potential nightmare fuel for years to come I’d imagine. A second shoot-out, but this Dutch team was one that came prepared for that eventuality. The Costa Ricans were immense at times, and easily the best sign of CONCACAF’s gradual improvement in quality.

Top Four

4. Brazil (+2)

Lost Third/Fourth Place Play Off

I think Brazil carried more weight on their shoulders than any host has in decades. The expectation of success was added to by the rancorous environment in which the tournament was organised and began.

Into that maelstrom stepped this team. The world expected samba football, 1970 revisited. What they got was anything but. Brazil were nervous, rough, simulating and very reliant on a handful of star players, the most important being Neymar. Going behind to Croatia was no surprise on the basis of play, and it was a lucky enough equaliser. Poor refereeing put them in front before Oscar’s excellent last goal. The Mexicans ground Brazil down in the next game though, refusing to be bullied and lashing back whenever they had the chance. Bereft of the opportunity for supply, the likes of Fred and Jo could not get the breakthrough. Lucky for Brazil that their last game was against an awful Cameroon side, and for the only time in the tournament, Brazil strolled to a well earned victory.

If people thought Brazil would wake up and apply themselves for the knock-outs, they were to be disappointed. Chile pushed them extremely hard, and only Neymar’s suburb crosses and touches had Brazil looking like they were on a higher level. Bad defensive lapses let Chile score, and Brazil did not appear to be willing to put in the extra effort after the game descended into a scrappy second half mess. They got the better of penalties, and that was that.

Many expected Columbia to finally be the match that Brazil could not advance in. But the hosts through their weight around, marked or fouled the likes of Cuadrado and Rodriguez out of the game, made their  chances and took them. Luiz was proving invaluable going forward, maybe a bit more than he was at the back. Brazil survived Columbia’s late rally, but the loss of Neymar and Silva looked portentous.

And so it proved. In the semi-final, Brazil were made to look utterly amateurish next to the professional, calm, collected and completely ruthless Germans. It was not a match for the host nation, but a festival of despair. Fred, Fernandinho, Bernardo, Luiz, Marcelo, they were all as awful as they could have been, no match for the kind of game Germany came prepared to play. It was pitiful.

All that was left was the bare comfort of the Third/Fourth Place Play Off where Brazil barely seemed capable of threatening the Dutch goal and as porous as ever at the back. Brazil entered the tournament over-rated to the extreme, but actually played above themselves to get as far as they did. Having over-reached their ability, they got a hiding that will live long in the memory. Where to go from here is a very depressing question for them to address.

3. Netherlands (-1)

Won Third/Fourth Place Play-Off

After a dire Euro 2012, you wouldn’t be sure what to think of the Dutch team, who had so horrified the world in the South African final. Plenty of talent there, but could they rise above the reputation for thuggery?

Oh yes they could. Muscling Spain off the ball in a more professional manner, carving open the gaps through the runs of Robben, and with the cool finishing from the likes of Van Persie, the defending champions were put to the sword. The Dutch annihilated them in a thrilling second half, and it could have been far, far worse. Perhaps over-confidence then played a part in a more nerve jangling affair against the Australians, where the Dutch reliance on a number of home league defenders seemed to prove a weak point. But still, they won the game thanks to some great attacking play at the other end. Chile were a tough task, but the Dutch absorbed their offensive threat and countered at speed whenever they could, and three points was the reward for their effort.

The baking heat was more of an obstacle than the opposition for the Second Round game against Mexico, with the match not even starting to be a real contest until Mexico scored in the second half. From there the Dutch were afforded the opportunity to dominate, and made chance after chance, only the fine performance of Ochao stopping them from easing to victory. The goals were inevitable though, and thanks to the individual talents and astuteness of Robben, the Dutch were able to win the game without needing another 30 minutes.

Costa Rica were a different challenge, as they became a shell and allowed the Dutch to come on. A mixture of attacking ineptitude and great goalkeeping kept them out for the entire contest, as they came dangerously close to messing up at the back themselves a few times. Van Gaal archived mastery of the shoot-out with the late addition of Krul, and the Dutch could breathe a sigh of relief.

The game against Argentina was an epic tactical battle, with little chances but plenty of intriguing football. The Dutch had their periods of dominance, but could not find a way through the staunch South American defence, but also held their own line superbly. Another shoot-out then, and this time, minus Krul and a bit of will, the Dutch fell down.

For the Third/Fourth Place Play Off the Dutch seemed unconcerned but still far superior to the Brazilian opposition they faced, running out easy winners in the end. This nation has had to wait for World Cup success for a very long time, and now they will be waiting a little longer. They have some truly amazing players, but the best are ageing fast and the replacements might not be up for the job. Euro 2016 is a big, big moment for them.

2. Argentina (+6)

Lost Final

With the best player of his generation and a squad of attacking stars around them, I suppose you could e forgiven if this time, this tournament, would be the one where Argentina managed to get everything right, in a way where they had been unable to for the last six iterations.

From the group stages, it was in no way clear that they would. A lucky own goal set them up against a Bosnia and Herzegovinian that seemed to be suffering a bit of stage fright, but even then Argentina were pegged back for much of the rest of the 90. Messi’s first of the tournament have then some brief breathing room, but it was still close enough by the conclusion. An even worse display followed, as Di Maria, Higuain, Rodriguez and Aguero were all kept from making an impact by a determined Iranian defence, Messi’s individual genius needed to steal the game near the death. A back and forth contest marked by hectic attacking football summed up the last group game with Nigeria, and Argentina, allowed the space to play as they would like, came out on top of both that contest and the group.

A cavalcade of European opposition followed. First the Swiss, who had recovered from a disappointing group stage to run Argentina dangerously close. Shut down in attack again and looking occasionally nervy at the back, it was more brief genius, this time from a rampaging Messi and Di Maria near the death, which got Argentina to the next round.

The highly fancied Belgians were next. Argentina’s early enough strike through Higuain would decide the game, as the South Americans dealt easily enough with the piecemeal and ineffective Belgian attacks that followed. It was the first time that Argentina truly looked comfortable in the tournament, but even with that, they could not extend their lead.

Then the Dutch. It was a tactically impressive game from both sides, with the respective attacks limited by tight defending and midfield pressure. Mascherano was effectively employed ahead of the defence, which made up for Messi’s somewhat disappointing showing upfront. Argentina were finally showing what they were made off in terms of their team cohesion and ability to measure up to the major powers, but they could not find the opening as before. But they had the better of the shoot-out, and that was all that mattered in the end.

And so to the World Cup Final. Argentina gave a powerful performance for much of the game, especially at the back, where Demichelis and Garay were magnificent at times in shutting down the potent German attack. Messi, looking lethargic throughout, struggled to make the expected impact, playing very far back at times. Upfront, Higuain and Palacio missed gilt edged chances. Argentina went 120 minutes, but did not have the fitness of Germany, surrendering the vast majority of possession in extra time even while a few gaps were starting to open up. Goetze took advantage of that, and Argentina had no response.

It’s actually a good return for Argentina, despite the closing heartbreak. They need a more consistent team spirit and to end a certain mental reliance on Messi’s contribution, but they could be great. They can try again next year in the Copa America.

1. Germany (+2)

Won Final

They have been one of the my favourite squads to watch since they lit up their own World Cup in 2006, and they have been knocking at the door of success numerous times since then. This time, this year, could they finally go that little bit further, and become the legends they have always threatened to become?

It started with a bang and kept going from there. An undisciplined and ragged looking Portugal offered a surprisingly minimal challenge, and the German goal machine of Muller, Klose and Schurrle got into motion quickly with an overwhelming display of attacking power. Ghana provided the first real test, and it needed the experience of Klose and the composure of the whole squad to recover from goinjg behind to grab a point and keep it. On the way out of the group the Germans dominated the Americans, with a one goal victory a very unfair reflection on the balance of play.

Germany did stutter a bit against the Algerians, although hardly to the extent depicted from some source. They allowed the Africans to control much of the first half an hour, but controlled the ball and made most of the chances from there. Their better fitness levels and reserves of calm saw them pull away with a few good strikes in extra time, the Algerians late fight back too little, too late.

Thus stung, the Germans seemed intent on being a bit more circumspect in their play against France. The early goal set them on their way, and then an accomplished defensive job from the likes of Hummels and Boatang kept them on course for the remainder of the ninety. It helped that it was the immense hands of Neuer behind them, pulling off one of the underappreciated saves of the tournament in the dying moments from Benzema.

Many salivated at the thought of a Germany/Brazil semi. They got a treat alright, but not in the way they expected. Muller, Klose, Kroos, Khedira and Schurrle all combined repeatedly to rip apart the unprepared and atrocious organised host nation again and again in the first half, the game done and dusted before the 30 minute mark had been reached. It was cool, it was precise and it was utterly ruthless, everything we have come to associate with this German team.

And so they faced into the World Cup Final. They controlled the ball throughout, they made the better amount of running the final third. But the Argentinian defence was resilient for most of the game, and the likes of Klose, Schurrle and Muller could only grab the odd half-chance. They defended brilliantly at the other end save for one or two potentially fatal hiccups, Boatang and Hummels very impressive, and Neuer a rock in-between the sticks. Schweinsteiger, in the wars, battled heroically from midfield and Low got his sibs dead right, enforced or otherwise, Goetze finally giving this squad the success they deserved.

I’ve been watching this side excel and impress for five tournaments now, and it is a delight to finally get to see them with some silverware. It is a well deserved triumph. Names like Lahm, Neuer, Klose and Ozil will now go down in history at a level higher than they previously would have. They are the Kings of football once again.

And so we say goodbye and thank you to Brazil. The 2014 World Cup has been a true festival of football, even with the repeated and numerous controversies surrounding its holding. It’s had its diving and its disgraces. But it’s also had goals galore, great attacking football, star names impressing and disappointing, more than its fair share of upsets. It’s had a load of teams with a hardcore passion for the game giving as much as they can. In terms of entertainment quality, I believe that it has been the best World Cup in several decades. France in two years time has a terrible task on its hands to try and live up to what has been on display for the last month. Perhaps, we may hope that the Irish might be there to assist in that task.

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World Cup 2014: Matchday Twenty Five (Final)

Germany 1 – 0 Argentina AET

Argentina started marginally better, attacking with purpose down the left, with Higuain planting a shot across the face of goal in the opening minutes. Messi, Higuain and Zabaleta would combine down that flank a few more times in the first 15 minutes, causing some problems, while the Germans tried to feel their opponents out down at the other end. Kroos gifted Higuain the first clear chance with his badly thought-out backwards header, but Higuain, perhaps surprised at being given the chance, blasted badly wide.  Soon after Klose was nearly in for Germany, but for a fine deflection by Mascherano, continuing where he left off against the Dutch. The Germans now controlled most of the play with their patient build-up style, but then suddenly Higuain had the ball in the net from a lovely Lavezzi pass, only for it to be rightly ruled out for offside.

So, the Argentineans were dangerous while Germany kept most of the possession. Losing Khedira before the match started, and then his replacement Kramer, left Germany looking a little out of sorts for much of the first half. But Schurrle’s involvement down the left galvanised them a little, and they had the better chances before half time, Schurrle’s shot beaten away at the near post and Howedes’ header coming back off the post.

The game was scrappy enough as the second half began. Argentina again had the better start, the German offside trap frustrating them a few times while Messi pulled a shot just wide of the post from a very good position. But soon the pattern of the game reasserted itself, with Germany pushing forward and the Garay/Demichelis combination shutting them down before they could get too close.

Down the other end Neuer was back to his effective sweeper keeper role, mopping up whenever the impressive Boatang and Hummels were not. The gaps were appearing in the Argentina penalty area past the hour mark, with Ozil and Muller both miscontrolling at crucial moments, and Kroos shooting too closely at Romero. Messi had gone quiet, playing around the centre circle most of the time, save for a good dribble and wide shot around the 75 minute mark.The game became taut and tense, many bad challenges and panicked shots in-between some great defensive tackling and wonderful passing football. The sub Goetze, Schurrle, Messi and Aguero all had distant efforts or half chances, but the remainder of the game belonged to the defences.

And so the extra time. Schurrle had a chance almost immediately, but hit too straight at Romero before Aguero fizzed a ball well wide at the other end. The Argentineans were tiring quickly, and Germany were allowed the vast majority of the play. They could do little with it though, and Argentina’s Palacio had the best chance of the additional 30, hooking an amazing chance wide.

It looked like a shoot-out would be required until suddenly the breakthrough came. Schurrle powered down the left, the opposition defence that had been so strong up to then drifted into pieces, and Goetze was given the time and space to take down a fine cross and side foot it past Romero. A great strike. Argentina, fatigued and near broken, could only look to Messi’s late free kick, but it ballooned well wide.

So, it was Germany’s World Cup Final. They were worthy winners, absorbing the brief moments of Argentinean danger, and dealing with the increasingly aggressive nature of their tackling late on. They maintained their patient approach, and took the chance when it came. Final rankings coming up shortly.

Prediction finals scores: I got both of the last two games right giving me a final result of 33/64. Just over 50%! Hurrah!

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World Cup 2014: Matchday Twenty Four (Third/Fourth Place Play Off)

Brazil 0 – 3 Netherlands

A poor contest, far different to the last four editions of this contest. This time around neither side really looked that interested. The Brazilians are the footballing equivalent of a person who just wants to pull the blanket over their head and pretend the last week never happened, while the Dutch are still dreaming of that final berth, snatched away from them in the cruellest manner.

The Dutch had the game won in twenty minutes. The gaps in the Brazilian defence, largely facilitated in their openes by an appalling David Luiz. Robben made the most of some slight contact to win a penalty, easily converted by Van Persie. Then Luiz awful clearing header fell easily to Blind for the second.

The game immediately petered out. A few half chances were created here and there. Brazil were given the opportunity to control the possession of the ball, but seemed tired, jaded and totally unmotivated. The Dutch looked a little bit better on the counter, but they too seemed unwilling to really go all out. Wijnaldum’s closing goal came from a neat bit of play, and made the scoreline a fairer reflection of the games progress.

More games like this, and the Third/Fourth Place Play Off will soon be a thing of the past, which would be a shame. Both teams leave the World Cup with a bit of a whimper, the hosts more so. And roll on Sunday night.

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