Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.

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THE USA’S RED, WHITE AND BLUE GREEK

Alkis Panagoulias, coach of the U.S. National Team from 1983 to 19985, has died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, at age 78.

The native of Greece  and naturalized U.S. citizen posted a 6-5-7 record as the USA’s coach, second in wins at the time to Walter Chyzowych (8-14-10 from 1976 to 1980).

Greek players were to wear black armbands in his memory during their upcoming European Championship quarterfinal match with Germany in Gdansk.   Panagoulias coached Greece from 1973 to 1981 and fom 1992 to 1994, guiding the Greeks to their first-ever World Cup appearance, in ’94.  He guided Olympiakos to Greek titles in 1982, ’83 and ’87, and he also coached Aris Thessaloniki and Iraklis.  [June 18]

Comment:  Panagoulias had the misfortune of presiding over perhaps the most frustrating and fruitless period in U.S. National Team history.  Worse still, it seemed as if no one cared–no one, that is, but Alketas “Alkis” Panagoulias.

A national team coach, of course, is paid to care.  But Panagoulias gave the U.S. Soccer Federation far more than it’s money’s worth in that department.  Chomping a cigar and sprinkling his brutally frank comments with profanities, the burly Greek battled with the federation and battled with the North American Soccer League, all the while leaving his players with no doubt as to who was in charge.  (He once told me in an interview that the team had “all these goddam California surfers,” such as Mike Fox, Paul Caligiuri, Kevin Crow, Jeff Hooker, Dale Ervine and Steve Sharp.)  Above all, he was unabashedly patriotic when it came to his adopted country and absolutely passionate as an advocate of the national team, trying with little success to explain to the media and public in general its importance in a country overwhelmingly indifferent to soccer.

A player for Aris before moving to America to earn a degree at NYU, Panagoulias turned to coaching and steered the New York Greek Americans to three straight U.S. National Open Cups beginning in 1967, back when that cup was more or less the championship for the country’s ethnic semipro clubs.

In 1983, with the U.S. having played only one match since a World Cup qualifier in 1980, Panagoulias was chosen by the USSF to succeed Chyzowych as coach of both the national and Olympic teams–a foreign-born coach with international experience and, presumably, an understanding of the American player.  And in a unique twist, his players were to play in the NASL as Team America.

Panagoulias recalled in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, “It was very difficult.  I first had to sell the league people and owners on the idea that the national team has to be the No. 1 team in the country.  We needed their players.  I was almost crying when I talked about the national team.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  They didn’t know from the national team.”

NASL club owners dragged their feet over what some regarded as a flawed grandstand play, most of the Cosmos players invited to join this grand experiment chose to stay in New York and Team America, based in Washington DC and featuring naturalized Americans like Alan Merrick and Alan Green and national team regulars Arnie Mausser, Perry Van der Beck, Dan Canter and Jeff Durgan, stumbled to a league-worst 10-20 record in their only season.

The following year, with Olympic soccer’s amateur restrictions rapidly crumbling, the U.S. was allowed to field its national team at the Los Angeles Games.  The Americans went 1-1-1 but it wasn’t enough to get them into the quarterfinals, and a golden opportunity to put soccer on front pages across the nation–or at least get the sport some airtime on Olympic broadcaster ABC–was missed.

Then in 1985, the U.S., needing just a draw at home to advance to the final three-team round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, lost to Costa Rica, 1-0, before a small but overwhelmingly pro-Ticos crowd in Torrance, Calif.

That heartbreaking defeat ended Panagoulias’ run as U.S. coach, but he bowed out knowing that he was right.  The sport desperately needed the rallying point of a successful national team, not yet another NASL championship by the Cosmos.  And without one, soccer in America would remain largely rudderless, a game much more fun to play than to watch.  Unfortunately for Panagoulias, it would take many years, other coaches and several generations of American players for the country to actually experience what this passionate Greek had been talking about.



DOCTOR SOCRATES

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, one of the stars of the 1982 and 1986 Brazilian World Cup teams that dazzled but ultimately disappointed, died at a Sao Paulo hospital of septic shock resulting from an intestinal infection.  He was 57.  His survivors include a wife and six children

Socrates captained the ’82 Brazil side that, needing only a tie to advance, lost a second-round match to Italy, 3-2, in Barcelona to become one of the greatest teams never to win a World Cup.  Socrates scored a brilliant goal in that game, and an even better one in a group-round victory over the Soviet Union.  Among those who exited with him were Zico, Falcao, Serginho, Oscar, Toninho Cerezo and Leandro.

Socrates scored 22 goals in 60 international appearances.  The midfield maestro’s club tally reads 207 goals in 396 matches, 172 of them for Corinthians, for whom he starred from 1978 to 1984.  He later played one season each in the late ’80s for Fiorentina, Flamengo and Santos.

Socrates was a true Renaissance man.  He studied medicine during his playing career and went on to practice in his hometown of Ribeirao Preto.  Politically active, he founded an opposition movement to Brazil’s then-ruling military government, and he became a popular soccer columnist and TV commentator.  At the time of this death, he was working on a novel.  [December 4]

Comment:  The 1983 South American Footballer of the Year and a member of Pele’s FIFA list of the top living players of the 20th century, Socrates is probably best remembered by a younger generation as the older brother of star midfielder Rai, a member of the 1994 World Cup champion Brazil team who was ignominiously deposed as skipper four years later. 

In his time, Socrates was the face of Brazilian style between the post-Mexico ’70 sag and the embrace of the Dunga-style grit and guile that produced world championships in 1994 and 2002.  At 6-foot-4, he thoughtfully surveyed the field from a high perch and would pry open an opposition’s defense with a wide variety of tools, most notably his trademark back-heeled pass.

With Brasil ’14 fast approaching, what’s disappointing is that the hosts, with luck, may win the next World Cup, but they won’t embody The Beautiful Game, they won’t do it with any player as elegant, as thoughtful as Doctor Socrates.



FAREWELL TO ANOTHER UN-FRIEND OF SOCCER IN THE U.S.

Dick Ebersol resigned as chairman of the NBC Sports Group, capping a 22-year reign in which he made the Peacock network synonymous with the Olympics.

Ebersol spent more than 40 years at NBC, overseeing every summer and winter Olympics since 1992.  According to the New York Times, “Over the past 22 years, Ebersol acquired, then dropped, NBA rights; retained, did not renew, then re-acquired NFL contracts (NBC carries Sunday night games); ventured into a partnership with World Wrestling Entertainment to create the XFL, a bizarre, money-losing football league; brought Major League Baseball back to NBC, then got out; and became a prominent member of the Olympic movement.”

He steps down after being unable to reach agreement on a new contract with Comcast, which merged with NBC in January. [May 19]

Comment:  So long, Dick.  Soccer in the U.S. won’t miss you.

Ebersol may go down in history as the man whose largess with NBC’s money put the bling in the Olympic rings, but his coverage of Olympic soccer came grudgingly.  And some soccer fans in the U.S. may remember him as the guy who tried to throw a wet blanket over the 1994 World Cup, the event that went on to put a burgeoning sport here into overdrive.

NBC, which covered a handful of games during the 1986 World Cup, secured the rights to the 1994 World Cup along with SportsChannel America for $11.5 million–a ridiculous sum for a host nation.  FIFA in 1990 nullified that contract as part of a coup in which overmatched U.S. Soccer Federation and WorldCupUSA94 supremo Werner Fricker was replaced by Alan I. Rothenberg.  The rights went back on the open market, and NBC’s new sports guy, Dick Ebersol, declared, “We’re not going to bid, and I don’t know why anyone else would be interested.” 

Taken at his word, it looked for a time as though the first World Cup hosted by the United States would be blacked out across the United States.  Or, once again, available only through Spanish-language Univision.   Fans here held their breath.   Fortunately, two years before kickoff, ABC/ESPN stepped forward with a more respectable bid of $23 million, and everyone exhaled. 

It may have been for the best.  Had NBC and SportsChannel remained the tournament broadcaster, they certainly were not about to televise all 52 matches, as ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 did–an American first.   And it can’t be assumed that NBC/SportsChannel would have come up with the continuous sponsor/score/time graphic in the corner of the screen, another American first that has since become a staple of televised team sports.  Without that, NBC/SportsChannel likely would have resorted to what other U.S. broadcasters had when faced with covering soccer:  the dreaded commercial break during the action.

In the end, Ebersol, the man who turned his back on soccer to champion the Olympics ended his NBC tenure with a 2010 in which the Vancouver Winter Olympics lost $223 million while that summer’s World Cup eclipsed the summer Olympics as the world’s most-watched sporting extravaganza.



36 EJECTIONS, AND ONE THAT GOT AWAY

Claypole defeated Victoriano Arenas, 2-0, in an Argentine second division match that came to an early end with all 36 players in uniform ejected, believed to be a world record.   Referee Damian Rubino had already reached into his pocket several times in an effort to control the ill-tempered match when a harsh challenge by Arenas midfielder Rodrigo Sanchez touched off a bench-clearing brawl.  Rubino responded by red-carding what remained of the starters and reserves from both teams.

Appeals lodged by the two sides could not be heard before their next matches, so in those games the equally depleted Claypole and Arenas were forced to field teams made up entirely of youth players.  [March 6]

Comment:  This unusual tale is mentioned primarily because it recalls one that just missed the final manuscript of Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

Antonio Marquez Ramirez is one of the most accomplished referees in Mexican soccer history.  A distinguished gentleman with trimmed mustache and silver mane,  Marquez, then 50, was in the middle for two matches at the 1986 World Cup (West Germany’s 2-0 win over France in the semifinals and Denmark’s famous 6-1 first-round dismantling of Uruguay),  and later that year he ran a line at the FIFA World All-Star Game for UNICEF at the Rose Bowl.  He was not, however, allowed to go gently into that good night.

In August 1986, in his swan song as a referee, Marquez had the honor of working Mexico’s classico, Club America against Chivas Guadalajara at the Estadio Azteca.  Some honor.  In the 72nd minute, in a dust-up between Mexican internationals, a fallen Fernando Quirarte of Chivas was kicked in the chin by America’s Carlos Hermosillo, triggering a free-for-all that featured an equal number of high kicks and wild haymakers.  Marquez called it a career by calling it a day:  he lifted a red card and turned a 360, ejecting everyone in sight, then walked off the field.

The remaining 18 minutes were played out a month later in an empty stadium with referee Edgardo Codesal in charge.  Of course, none of those ejected America or Chivas players were involved.  America, leading thanks to a 50th-minute goal, prevailed, 1-0.