Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


BRUCE 2.0

Bruce Arena was named coach of the U.S. National Team, replacing Juergen Klinsmann, who was fired a day earlier.

It will be Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach.  From 1998 to 2006 he compiled a 71-30-29 record, the most successful stretch in American history. A two-time winner of the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002, 2005), he guided the Americans to an historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal in their opening match before advancing out of the group and earning a 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16.  The run ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.

“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the Men’s National Team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” said USSF President Sunil Gulati of Arena, who also led the U.S. to a three-and-out finish at the 2006 World Cup. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Since his first tour as U.S. boss, Arena served as general manager and coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 through this past season, winning Major League Soccer titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.  He rose to prominence by winning five NCAA championships as coach of the University of Virginia, then led DC United to the first two MLS titles, in 1996 and ’97, as well as the ’96 U.S. Open Cup.  He also helped United become the first-ever U.S. team to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the now-defunct Interamerican Cup, winning each in 1998.

“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex. Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”

The U.S. in early November opened the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with losses to Mexico, 2-1, at home, and at Costa Rica, 4-0.  The Mexico defeat was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier in 15 years.  Those results left the Americans in last place, four points off the pace for the last direct qualifying berth with eight games remaining on the schedule.  [November 22]

Comment I:  The timing for the change was obvious for more than one reason.

The next U.S. qualifiers, against Honduras in Salt Lake City and Panama in Panama City, aren’t until March 24 and March 28, respectively.  Roughly four months.  Preceded by a low-key camp in January that traditionally includes a couple of friendlies where hopefuls from MLS and youngsters get a look.  There isn’t as big a window for the rest of the Hexagonal.  Plenty of time for Klinsmann’s replacement to pull together a staff and execute a smooth transition.  It’s the American way.  The USSF doesn’t fire its coaches on airport tarmacs after a big loss.

Then there was Arena himself.  On a personal level, he was the obvious choice, like him or not.  Arena is not the coach he was a decade ago.  He’s now 65, and a doting grandfather.  He signed a two-year contract with the USSF, and this obviously is his final hurrah.  He has an ego, and he’d like to go out with a signature accomplishment, like a successful World Cup run, which wasn’t going to happen if he stayed in Los Angeles.  What’s one more MLS Cup to Arena at this point?

Comment II:  Juergen Klinsmann made the fatal mistake of over-promising.

He was hired to replace Bob Bradley in 2011 on the promise that he would not only lead the U.S. to victory but remake American soccer culture from the top down.  Gulati doubled down on that promise in 2013, on the heels of a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and Gold Cup title, by extending Klinsmann’s contract (a reported $3.2 million a year, through 2018) and crowning him men’s technical director to boot, placing the fates of the Olympic and national youth teams in his hands.

But the ups and downs of the Klinsmann era turned mostly to downs by 2015.  That year the national team failed to finish in the top three in the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000, part of a slide in which the Americans lost four consecutive games on U.S. soil for the first time in a half-century.   Meanwhile, on his watch as technical director, the U.S. failed to qualify for consecutive Olympic tournaments, something that hadn’t happened since Montreal ’76-Moscow ’80.  As for the U.S. youth teams, the kids haven’t been alright.  The U.S. under-20 team is winless in its last eight games against European nations by a combined score of 27-7, including a humiliating 8-1 pounding by Germany.  The U.S. went winless at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, four years after failing to qualify for the first time ever.  Remember how the U-17s reached the semifinals of the 1999 world championship in New Zealand and teens Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were named the tournament’s top two players?

Klinsmann, 52, departs having compiled a fine 55-27-16 record.  There have been two World Cups, including one in which his team won a so-called “Group of Death,” in 2014.  There was the fourth-place finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.  And startling friendly victories:  1-0 at Italy in 2012; 4-3 at home over Germany in 2013; 4-3 at Holland and 2-1 at Germany in 2015.  But he also exits with the cupboard bare:  the Klinsmann national team pool is overly reliant on German players with U.S. passports and his youth teams–based on results–are a shambles.  Little was built, and the fallout is the minor chaos that’s now Arena’s problem.

Comment III:  So who’s to blame?  Sunil Gulati.

He was one of the driving forces behind the ill-fated Project 2010, a laughably optimistic $50 million development surge launched by the USSF that was supposed to make America a legitimate contender for a World Cup title.  The title of the 1998 report that introduced the project, “Winning the World Cup by 2010:  Soccer’s Equivalent to the Apollo XI Moon Landing,” is best forgotten.

Gulati’s first major decision as federation president, in the weeks after the 2006 World Cup, was to allow Arena’s contract to expire, saying the team needed to go in a “fresh direction.”  He hired Arena’s assistant, Bradley, as new national team coach, then found him wanting in 2011 and hired Klinsmann, ultimately giving the German, as noted above, an extension and adding technical director to his titles.  Now it’s Arena, back to direct the U.S. in a presumably fresh direction.

As he completes the final two years of his third four-year term as U.S. Soccer supremo, Gulati’s legacy, and that of USSF Chief Executive Dan Flynn, will be one of continued success on the part of the U.S. women and utter mediocrity–even retreat–by the U.S. men at all levels.

Comment IV:  Had Klinsmann lost his team?

One can only wonder.  But there’s Klinsmann’s track record of rarely owning up to a mistake, of throwing players under the bus.  The latest victim was young Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks who, as Klinsmann pointed out, lost his mark, Rafael Marquez, on Marquez’s late winner off a corner kick in the 2-1 loss to Mexico.  Four nights later down in San Jose, a demoralized Brooks turned in a disastrous performance against Costa Rica.  This same 23-year-old came close to earning a near-perfect player rating in the USA’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.

You don’t have to be embedded in the U.S. dressing room to draw the conclusion that Klinsmann, with his insistence on getting his players out of their “comfort zone,” his thinly veiled disdain for MLS players, his willingness to take chances on any and all European-based players, his infamous dropping of longtime U.S. captain Donovan on the eve of Brasil ’14 . . . was not a players’ coach.  And players’ coaches tend to have some support among the people in uniform when they get into trouble.  There was barely a peep from those wearing U.S. uniforms after Gulati dropped the hammer.

Comment V:    Is Arena Mr. Fix-it?

His first stab at professional coaching, with DC United in 1996, was, initially, a disaster.  A month into Major League Soccer’s first season, the team representing the nation’s capital was a laughingstock.  Arena quickly fired several players and United went on to win the league championship.  A year later, it won another.

Can Arena fix this with eight CONCACAF qualifiers remaining?  Odds remain good that the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 World Cup regardless of who is coach.  The top three finishers earn berths in Russia, and the fourth-place team remains alive through a home-and-home playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher.

But at this point, U.S. Soccer is in the position of merely hoping for an eighth straight World Cup appearance.  Should the team reach Russia ’18, the U.S. will be back in the familiar position of hoping for little more than surviving its first-round group and a trip to the second round of a World Cup.  Klinsmann’s promise of genuine progress remains a luxury . . . and an unfulfilled dream.

 



FORMER FIFA BOSS HAVELANGE DEAD AT 100

Joao Havelange, who as president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 transformed the world soccer governing body into a moneymaking behemoth and in turn a breeding ground for corruption that ostensibly has peaked in recent years, has died.  He was 100.

The imposing Brazilian died at Rio de Janeiro’s Samaritano Hospital from a respiratory infection as the 2016 Summer Olympics track and field competition began at Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange.  It was Havelange who in 2009 led Rio’s bid presentation to the International Olympic Committee, and he invited the members to “join me in celebrating my 100th birthday” at the 28th Olympiad he correctly believed would be held in Brazil.

Havelange the athlete made his mark not in soccer but aquatics, swimming for Brazil at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and playing water polo at the 1952 Helsinki Games.  An imposing figure, he swam every morning before breakfast well into his 90s.

Havelange had been in charge of Brazil’s soccer federation for nearly two decades when he upset the status quo in international soccer by defeating incumbent Sir Stanley Rous of England in the 1974 election to become the first non-European to take the FIFA helm.  He wasted little time in transforming FIFA from a sleepy administrative organization in Zurich into a worldwide juggernaut.  As he put it, in his familiar deep-throated croat, perhaps in French, perhaps in his native Portuguese, “I found an old house and $20 in the kitty.  On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion.  Not too bad, I’d say.”

On his watch, FIFA membership expanded by a third, to more than 200 nations and territories–more than that of the United Nations.  Among the additions was China, which left FIFA in 1958 but was coaxed back 22 years later, and South Africa, which was suspended from 1964 to 1976 but would go on to host the 2010 World Cup.  But it was the minnows of the soccer-playing world that made Havelange’s long rule possible.  The Brazilian saw that the end of colonial rule had created scores of new nation-states, and under FIFA’s one-member, one-vote statute, Fiji had as much clout as England or Italy. Adding members, no matter their status on the playing field, and sharing FIFA’s increasing largesse with them all but guaranteed his unprecedented five re-elections as president.

Havelange also gave those minnows a shot at international experience and dreams–however faint–of international glory.  Quickly recognizing the power of television and the untapped potential of sponsorships, he expanded the World Cup from a stingy 16 nations to 24 and finally 32, and he created world championships for under-20s and under-17s.  He also introduced the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and later the women’s under-20 championship.

This rapid expansion and transformation of world soccer from a relatively naive enterprise that missed any and all commercial opportunities into a $250-billion-a-year industry threw open the doors to corruption that has only been slowed by an aggressive probe by the U.S. Justice Department that has left an indelible stain on Havelange’s legacy.  Havelange, who accepted no salary as FIFA president, enriched himself with kickbacks, and soccer officials worldwide eventually followed his lead–if they hadn’t already begun the practice.  Among them were scores who have been recently indicted by the Feds.  Havelange’s successor and loyal No. 2, Sepp Blatter, has not been ensnarled as yet, but he was banned from FIFA for eight years by its ethics committee in late 2015, six months after winning a fifth term as president.  The suspension stemmed from his $2 million off-the-books payment in 2011 to former star player Michel Platini, the UEFA chief who had hoped to defeat Blatter in his bid for a fourth term that year but who dropped out of the race.

Havelange’s most spectacular take, shared by his then-son-in-law, onetime Brazilian soccer president Ricardo Teixeira, was nearly $22 million over nine years beginning in 1992 paid him by the body in charge of FIFA’s marketing and commercial rights, ISL, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001.  Havelange and Teixeira ultimately paid back $6.1 million in a confidential settlement.

Havelange resigned in 2011 as a member of the IOC just days before its leadership was expected to suspend him and rule on claims that he accepted a $1 million kickback.  That ended, after 48 years, his tenure as the committee’s longest-serving member.  Two years later, facing suspension, he stepped down as honorary president of FIFA after FIFA ethics Judge Joachim Eckert called his conduct “morally and ethically reproachable” for accepting kickbacks from ISL. [August 16]

Comment:  Heading into USA ’94, Americans had known little of the power of the World Cup and the power of soccer outside this country in general.  On the eve of the 15th World Cup in their own backyard, they got an eye full of all that, along with the man behind it, Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange.

Ian Thomsen of the New York Times, reporting in December 1993 from the Las Vegas Convention Center, site of the 1994 World Cup draw:

Two hours before the globally televised presentation of the World Cup Final Draw, the soccer player whose work had largely made the ceremony possible still had not been told that he had been banned from appearing on stage.

“I don’t have any official word yet,” Pele said Sunday morning at a breakfast hosted by MasterCard International, an official World Cup sponsor which said Pele would continue to be its worldwide representative despite the controversy.

“All I know is that they said the names of the players appearing in the draw and I was not there,” Pele said.

The decision to bar Pele from the ceremonies had been made by his fellow Brazilian, Joao Havelange, the president of FIFA.  The reason:  a dispute between Pele and Havelange’s son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian soccer federation.

Pele has charged that a group with which he is affiliated bid $5 million for the rights to televise Brazilian league games, but that a rival group was awarded the contract, despite bidding $1 million less, because the Pele group refused to pay a bribe to Teixeira.

Teixeira responded by filing a defamation suit against Pele.  Havelange, over the objections of FIFA’s general secretary, Joseph Blatter, and other officials of the sport’s governing body, then entered the dispute and ordered Pele removed from Sunday’s ceremony because he didn’t want to share the World Cup stage with Pele.  He even refused to mention Pele by name at a news conference.

Members of FIFA and the World Cup Organizing Committee were unable to alter Havelange’s decision, which reportedly was made without discussion with either organization.

“FIFA has to respect the wishes of its president,” FIFA spokesman Guido Tognoni said.  “I can’t add more.”

U.S. officials said Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman of the World Cup USA 1994 organizing committee, was livid over the decision to exclude the only household name in American soccer from the grandest ceremony in American soccer history.

Havelange then rebuked Rothenberg.

“Mr. Rothenberg would be disappointed if we withdrew the World Cup,” Havelange said.  “Mr. Rothenberg has everything he wants.  Nothing will be missing.  The absence of one person is not going to affect the World Cup draw.  Persons who don’t participate are not important.”

Pele said he would be in the audience of 3,500 at the Las Vegas Convention Center to see the group assignments of the 24 finalists drawn by movie stars, entertainers and star athletes–everyone but the world’s greatest player.

“His son-in-law, with the secretary of the Brazilian federation–they proposed to me something which I do not accept,” Pele said.  “I do not accept corruption.  You know the problems of Brazil.  Corruption is a big problem here.  What I want to make clear is, my problem is with the Brazil federation.  I don’t accept their proposal for corruption.  Everyone knows I am for Brazil, I want to help Brazil, I want Brazil in the final, I want the best for Brazil.

“Everybody knows I don’t have anything against Mr. Havelange and FIFA,” Pele said.  “Mr. Havelange has been my idol since 1958.  He has encouraged me, he has given the message to me.  He is the boss of FIFA.  He can say whatever he wants.”

Of course, it was Pele who made Brazil an international soccer power, which helped put Havelange in place to become FIFA president in 1974.  And it was Pele’s decision to play for the North American Soccer League in 1975 that created the possibility for the World Cup to come to the United States almost 20 years later.  Pele remains the only soccer name recognized by Americans.

“When I came here to play for the New York Cosmos, we started to talk of the World Cup coming to the U.S.,” said Pele, now 54.  “They said, ‘Pele, are you crazy?  The World Cup in the U.S.A.?’  But today the dream comes true.  In my view, we are here today to start the World Cup.  This makes me happy.”

The soccer world we know today is, for better or worse, what the arrogant autocrat known as Havelange hath wrought.  For those who watched his career as FIFA strongman, this quote, to Time magazine in 1998, summed up Havelange:

“I’ve been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin.  In Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times.  When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion.  Do you think a head of state will spare that much time for just anyone?  That’s respect.  They’ve got their power, and I’ve got mine:  the power of football, which is the greatest power there is.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



HOPE SOLO: YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY WRONG

The U.S. women, hoping to become the first team to win an Olympic gold medal a year after capturing a World Cup crown, were upset in the quarterfinals by Sweden in Brasilia on penalty kicks, 4-3, following a 1-1 draw.

The Americans had medaled in every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was introduced to the Games in 1996, but with the loss they were sent home without even seeing Rio de Janeiro, host city of the XXVIII Olympiad and site of soccer’s semifinals and finals.

After the match, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo created a storm by calling the triumphant Swedes “cowards.”  Her remarks:

“I thought that we played a courageous game.  I thought we had many opportunities on goal.  I think we showed a lot of heart.  We came back from a goal down.  I’m very proud of this team.  But I also think we played a bunch of cowards.  The best team did not win today.  I strongly believe that.  I think you saw American heart.  You saw us give everything we had today.”

Asked what she meant by “cowards,” Solo responded, “Sweden dropped off.  They didn’t want to open play.  They didn’t want to pass the ball.  They didn’t want to play great soccer.  It was a combative game, a physical game.  Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their game plan was.  They dropped into a 50.  They didn’t try and press.  They didn’t want to open the game.  And they tried to counter with long balls.  We had that style of play when Pia (Sundhage, now the Sweden coach) was our coach.  I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament.  I think it was very cowardly.  But they won.  They’re moving on, and we’re going home.” [August 11]

Comment:  Hope Solo has been a polarizing figure her entire international career.  Many thought she should have been dropped from the U.S. squad following a 2014 family dust-up that led to two charges of domestic violence against Solo that have yet to be resolved.  Or after a 2012 domestic violence incident involving her ex-football player husband in which Solo was injured.  Solo also drew chants of “Zika” from the crowd at the USA’s Olympic opener after tweeting before the Olympics photos of a bed covered with bug repellant containers and another of her wearing mosquito netting.  (A P.R. faux pas in a country that earlier in her career considered Solo soccer’s reigning beauty queen.)  But now she’s gone from being a loose cannon to a disgrace.

That said, she’s absolutely correct in her assessment of what was a humbling defeat for the U.S.  The Americans did out-play Sweden, and Sweden did play a negative game, putting nine players behind the ball to neutralize world-class attackers Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan while hoping against hope (no pun intended) that it could produce a counterattack goal, which it did on the hour through Stina Blackstenius to open the scoring.  After the U.S. equalized through Morgan with 13 minutes left, Sweden played overtime aiming to hold on and get to PKs.

But if that’s cowardly, then Italy (the men) has been cowardly for about a century.  The Italians have prized defense, it’s in their DNA.  They are compact, cynically sophisticated and punishing on the tackle.  On the other end they have made an art form of the counterattack.  And all it’s gotten them is four World Cup championships.  It makes Solo’s rip job simply bizarre, because no player with more than 200 caps and 100 shutouts can possibly be that naive.  Or maybe it was just Hope being Hope yet again.

The U.S. went to Brazil ranked No. 1 in the world; Sweden was ranked sixth and obviously the underdog going into this match.  Sundhage, as the former U.S. coach, knows some of the American players better than they know themselves.  Her tactics were correct and they worked.

Sundhage, who had her own issues with Solo back when she was U.S. boss, also got in the last word regarding “cowards.”  “I don’t give a crap,” she snapped.  “I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”



SAY IT AIN’T SO, LIONEL

Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced his international retirement immediately after Argentina fell in the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalty kicks, 4-2, following a scoreless draw at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, before 82,076.

The defeat capped a string of Argentina disappointments for the 29-year-old, including losses in the 2014 World Cup final and the 2007 and 2015 Copa America finals.  Although he led La Albiceleste to an under-20 world championship in 2005 and a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he has never claimed a winners’ medal with the senior team.

A back injury caused Messi to miss Argentina’s Copa opener against Chile, but he came off the bench in the second group game, against Panama, and notched a hat trick in just 19 minutes.  He scored against Venezuela in the quarterfinals to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record of 54, then surpassed it with a brilliant free-kick strike against the U.S. in the semifinals.

However, in the final he was hounded by multiple Chilean defenders for 120 minutes, and he capped a frustrating night by blasting his attempt over the crossbar on Argentina’s first shot in the tiebreaker.

“For me, the national team is over,” the distraught superstar told reporters.  “I’ve done all I can.  I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.  It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”  [June 26]

Comment I:  Perhaps the frustration got the best of him.  Maybe his tax problems back in Spain were weighing heavily.  Perhaps Messi will take a deep breath and reconsider.  (After all, he didn’t quit last year when Argentina lost on a tiebreaker to Chile–and Messi made his PK that day.)   But if he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll rue the day.

Messi has never been embraced by his fellow Argentines the way they adore Diego Maradona.  Messi left home as a 13-year-old prodigy for FC Barcelona, where he grew as an academy player and went on to win four UEFA Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns.  In Argentina, he’s been more closely associated with Barca than the sky blue and white, and while Maradona also played for Barcelona (and later became a hero in Italy with Napoli), El Pibe de Oro was the one who delivered the goods, singlehandedly lifting Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship.  Messi has no such clout.

If Messi does not change his mind, he will have forfeited any chance to change how he will go down in soccer history.  As things stand, he will be recorded as probably the greatest player of his generation, better even than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’ll be regarded as a the third member of Argentina’s holy trinity along with Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano.  But, in a world in which kids still look up to their sports heroes, he’ll also be regarded as a quitter.  Worse, a coward.

And this with the next World Cup, in Russia, and possible redemption, just two years away.

Comment II:  The question concerning the U.S. National Team was whether its Copa America Centenario performance had represented any progress.

Well, a year ago the Americans lost the third-place match at the Gold Cup, making it the fourth-best team in CONCACAF.  Now it’s lost the third-place game at the Copa America, technically making it the fourth-best team in South America.  What fourth-place mantle would you rather wear?

On a practical front, the mad scientist, coach Juergen Klinsmann, stopped with the tinkering and would’ve trotted out the same lineup throughout the tournament were it not for suspensions and injuries.  Young center back John Brooks grew into a genuine partnership with Geoff Cameron and was rewarded with a spot on the Copa America Centenario Best XI team, the only player from the U.S.–or Mexico–so honored.  Bobby Wood graduated from minor pest up front to major concern and will challenge Jozy Altidore for playing time in the future.

But then there were the questions raised over the course of the tournament.  Such as, will young right back DeAndre Yedlin couple his scintillating runs forward with some reliable defense?  Will Gyasi Zardes continue to have the first touch of a block of cement?  Will Michael Bradley’s skills as midfield maestro continue to erode?  Will 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, who scored three goals at the Copa to close to within five goals of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record of 57, continue to defy Father Time?

Those are the questions that matter.  They were raised at the Copa, not answered, but perhaps they’ll be answered where it really counts, when the U.S. resumes World Cup qualifying for Russia ’18, in September.



THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 



ONE LAST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE DUTCH MASTER

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch genius credited with helping to reinvent the game in the 1970s, has died in Barcelona at age 68, a victim of lung cancer.

Tributes poured in from around the world for the three-time European Player of the Year.

“Johan Cruyff was a great player and coach,” said Pele.  “He leaves a very important legacy for our family of football.  We have lost a great man.”

“We will never forget you, mate,” said Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi added, “Another legend left us today.”

A longtime smoker, Cruyff had said last month that he was feeling “very positive” after undergoing treatment for his cancer.  A minor heart attack in 1991 led to two bypass operations, yet it took another coronary scare six years later for Cruyff to kick the habit for good.

A friendly between the Netherlands and France the following day in Amsterdam was halted in the 14th minute for a moment of silence–which became a minute of respectful applause–in memory of Cruyff, who as a player famously wore No. 14. [March 25]

Comment:  Cruyff was arguably the first true soccer superstar produced by Europe.  The list of his accomplishments is long, highlighted by European Cups with Ajax Amsterdam in 1971, ’72 and ’73, the hat trick of Ballon d’Ors in 1971, ’73 and ’74, eight Eredivisie championships with Ajax, a La Liga crown and Copa del Rey while with FC Barcelona and, for good measure, a Dutch league-cup double with archival Feyenoord after Ajax decided that Cruyff, at 37, was too old and let him go.

But Cruyff will be best remembered for his impeccable skill, the graceful long-legged gait coupled with tremendous balance, the intelligence, the superhuman vision, and the burning desire to not just win but to win attractively.  His partnership with coach Rinus Michels at Ajax and with the Dutch National Team ushered in the era of “Total Football,” where every player was virtually interchangeable rather than a specialist confined to a single role.  Each man had to be versatile, and Cruyff was the most versatile of them all, defending smartly when needed, controlling the midfield with impeccable ball possession here or a perfectly threaded pass there, and, in the final third, scoring with some of the most audacious shots ever seen (392 goals in 520 matches over 19 years).  Cruyff and the Netherlands team dubbed “Clockwork Orange” may have lost the 1974 World Cup final to host West Germany, but they were the revelation of the tournament, spawning Total Football imitators worldwide.

Upon retirement as a player, Cruyff became that rarest of coaches:  a former superstar who could effectively translate what he could once do as a player to what he wanted of his charges.  He already proved as a rookie manager for Ajax in 1985 that he had an eye for talent, eventually unearthing gold nuggets Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and the De Boer brothers.  Beginning in 1988, he guided FC Barcelona over eight years to four La Liga titles and its first-ever European Cup crown, in 1992.  But more important, as someone who had been nurtured in Ajax’s groundbreaking youth development system, he introduced the same pipeline at Barca, a conveyor belt of talent that ultimately produced the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi.

Cruyff’s greatest achievement, however, may have been his contribution to soccer fans who are smokers.  He came from a time when players smoked in the team room after a rigorous workout and the coach nervously puffed away on the bench during a match.  Cruyff caught the fans’ attention after his second heart scare, when he appeared on television in a public service announcement in which he juggled a pack of cigarettes while delivering an anti-smoking pitch before kicking the pack away in disgust.  (The pitch:  “I’ve had two addictions in my life–smoking and playing football.  Football has given me everything, whilst smoking almost took it all away.”)  But now he’s punctuated the dangers of smoking with his death.  To those who saw Cruyff mesmerize on the field but still light up and to the many unfortunates who never saw him play and now vape, it’s never too early to quit.

 



BRACE FOR INFANTINO’S 40-NATION WORLD CUP

A dark horse candidate–Michel Platini’s lieutenant at the UEFA–emerged as the victor in a tense, six-hour FIFA presidential election in Zurich as member nations sought to put behind them years of scandal that cost Sepp Blatter his job as world soccer boss and led to the indictment of 41 soccer officials and marketing agencies.

Gianni Infantino, an Italian-Swiss attorney who grew up in the Alpine Village of Brig–just seven miles from Blatter’s hometown of Visp–surprisingly finished first in the initial balloting, attracting 88 votes to 85 for the favorite, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim of Bahrain, 27 for Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan and seven for Jerome Champagne of France.  With no one having won a two-thirds majority, that set up a second ballot for the first time in 42 years, and with a simple majority of the 104 votes needed,  Infantino out-polled Salman, 115 to 88.  Ali received four votes and Champagne none.

Salman, the head of the Asian Football Confederation, was the front-runner during the four-month campaign, but he apparently was undone by concerns over his actions during the Arab Spring riots of 2011.  Infantino only entered the race in October to hold a place for Platini, who was under investigation for financial wrongdoing and ultimately was banned from soccer activities by FIFA for six years.

Infantino, 45, will be president until May 2019, completing Blatter’s term.  Blatter resigned under pressure last May, four days after winning a fifth four-year term as FIFA chief.  He subsequently was banned for eight years–later reduced to six–for financial mismanagement related to his dealings with Platini.

Before the election the member federations approved a wide-ranging slate of reforms intended to increase transparency, foster greater inclusion and restore the confidence of sponsors.  Among them, FIFA presidents will be limited to three four-year teams, and the FIFA Executive Committee will be expanded from 24 to 36 members (six of whom must be women) and renamed the FIFA Council.  [February 26]

Comment:  Best of luck to Infantino in righting the FIFA ship.  But beware of another Swiss bearing gifts.

Just as Blatter before him and Brazilian Joao Havelange before him, Infantino assumes the world soccer throne having made offers to please the have-nots among the membership, including more funding steered in their direction from the $5 billion taken in by the 2014 World Cup.  But for those who consider the World Cup the greatest of all sporting events, what’s troubling is Infantino’s stance that the tournament be expanded from 32 finalists to 40.

It doesn’t seem like much:  eight extra nations, probably 10 groups of four teams instead of the eight groups of four at Brazil ’14 and every World Cup since France ’98.  But does international soccer’s biggest stage really need an additional eight no-hopers, eight teams that under today’s format wouldn’t have even been strong enough to earn the opportunity to finish last in a World Cup first-round group?

World Cups have had contenders who hadn’t a prayer of even surviving the opening round of a 16-nation tournament, from Dutch East Indies in 1938 and South Korea (0 goals for, 16 against, in two matches) in 1954 to Zaire (a 9-0 loser to Yugoslavia) in 1974.  But while the balance of power around the world has improved, FIFA has maintained the World Cup gap between the strongest nations and the rest by expanding the tournament, first to 24 nations in 1982, then the present 32 in ’98.  As a result, the finals remains diluted, and we get performances like those of Cameroon, Australia and Honduras two years ago, which went a combined 0-9-0 with five goals scored and 26 conceded.  That amounted to matches not worth watching on what is the sport’s grand stage.

The parameters for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and ’22 in Qatar have already been set, so the first time Infantino could spring a 40-nation tournament on the world wouldn’t be possible until 2026, whose host–the U.S., perhaps–has yet to be determined.  But Americans already have seen how these things get out of control.  The NCAA basketball tournament started modestly enough in 1939 as an eight-school affair.  Within a dozen years it had been expanded to 16, then doubled again in 1975.  Four years after that it was 40, and the year after that 48.  It has since grown by degrees to 68 schools, and for the past five years there has been pressure to expand it to 128.  And the driving force behind this amazing expansion has been–no surprise here–television money.

Infantino has to lead the reform of FIFA while his organization deals with a current deficit of $108 million.  A tall order.  Should he win a term in his own right, he’d have the opportunity to make a 40-nation World Cup a reality in 2026.  And he would know how to get it done.  In his previous post, as UEFA general secretary, Infantino oversaw the expansion of the European Championship from 16 teams to 24.  If that seems bloated, it is:  That’s nearly half the UEFA’s membership of 54 nations.  Ridiculous, but countries like San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra can dream, now, can’t they?  And soccer fans who want to watch a competition like the Euro Championship that offers the highest possible quality can hope that no-hopers like that continue to be able to do nothing more than dream.