Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


THREE’S COMPANY, THREE’S A CROWD

The worst-kept secret in international soccer will be revealed tomorrow in New York when CONCACAF announces that the United States, Mexico and Canada will submit a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

FIFA decided last year to expand the ’26 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams and from 64 games to 80.

The U.S., which lost out to Qatar in its campaign to host the 2022 World Cup, is expected to take a leading role in the ’26 effort based on its wealth of stadiums, training facilities and infrastructure.

The bidding process will culminate with a decision in May 2020.  The CONCACAF bid will be an overwhelming favorite because Africa and South America hosted the last two World Cups and Europe (Russia) and Asia (Qatar) get the next two.  That leaves potential challenges by England and China as long shots for ’26.  [April 9]

Comment:  Regardless of whether the U.S.-Mexico-Canada bid succeeds, the 2026 World Cup will not be your father’s World Cup.

If this bid succeeds, it will usher in a new era in which a bloated 48-team field will require not just co-hosts–as in 2002, when Japan and South Korea reluctantly joined hands to play host to 32 nations–but tri-hosts.  And in this case, it would require a centerpiece host nation like the U.S., which in 1994 hosted the best organized, best-attended World Cup in history, to pull off a successful tournament.

And what of a tri-hosted World Cup?  Will USA-Mex-Can ’26 prove conclusively that a World Cup with four dozen participating nations and four score matches will henceforth require three host countries?  And if so, where will those trios come from in the future?  Considering geopolitical realities around the globe, how many threesomes of nations with common borders–or within shouting distance–and adequate infrastructure are there out there with the will and means to work together and competently stage a modern World Cup?

Three-country World Cups would open opportunities to host to many nations that otherwise could never pull off one on their own, starting with Canada, thus invigorating efforts to develop the sport in those nations.  But in the case of Canada, it will mean instances in which a bidding trio will include a nation that would be a long shot to qualify but whose automatic berth as host takes a berth from another regional rival.   It all begs the question, as with its wrongheaded decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, did FIFA create an unnecessary problem in over-extending itself, with the excuses, lame explanations and, um, solutions to come later?

 



KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



BLATTER BLATHER

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber was struggling to remain diplomatic in the wake of recent comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who criticized MLS for its lack of progress.

Blatter told Al Jazeera television, in an interview broadcast December 28, that “there is no very strong professional league” in the U.S.  “They just have the MLS.  But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

He added that MLS was “still struggling” to lift soccer to the level of gridiron football, baseball and basketball in America.  “We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said.  “But we are now in 2012–it’s been 18 years.  It should’ve been done now.”

Countered Garber in an interview with the New York Times:  “We still have a lot of work to do–we understand and accept that.  But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.  [January 2]

Comment:  Blatter’s latest blatherings triggered a firestorm of criticism among American fans of MLS and Americans who simply believe the man should have been unseated when his first term as FIFA chief ended in 2002.  What was disappointing was how a man who, as FIFA general secretary, held America’s hand as it prepared for and pulled off World Cup USA ’94, could still have such a dismal understanding of this country.

Mainstream America really doesn’t know what to make of soccer.  An estimated 18 million of their countrymen and countrywomen and countrykids play the sport.  Its women’s national team is usually No. 1 in the world while its men’s national team, usually ranked around No. 30, is capable of beating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup and Italy in Genoa, then losing to Jamaica in Kingston. And its official national league, whose average attendance of 18,807 last season topped the NBA and NHL for the second year in a row, making it third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball in average gate, remains a television bust, stuck at 0.1 and 0.2 in the ratings.

What Blatter and mainstream America need to understand is that MLS is no measuring stick of soccer here.  America loves the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA a whole lot more than MLS, not because they’ve had a 74-, 152- and 47-year head start, respectively, on MLS, but because the NFL, MLB and NBA are the best at their craft in the world.  The NFL, MLB and the NBA play their game like they invented it because, well, they have.  Even the National Hockey League can make the same claim, if, for the sake of this argument, we co-opt our Canadian friends.  As for MLS, everyone in America knows that it’s not the best soccer league in the world, even those who know nothing about the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Italian Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga or the Brazilian and Argentine championships.  And it’s hard to imagine a time when an MLS, which has gone from crawl to hobble to jog in those 18 years, will have the means and talent to challenge those leagues.

MLS will continue to be a symbol, a happy, regular rallying point, for soccer here, but it will never be the heart–or reliable barometer–of our sport.  While the NFL can boast of astronomical television ratings and Major League Baseball can point to its tremendous total attendance figures, soccer in the U.S. quietly moves forward with a balance that should be the envy of the so-called “big four” pro team sports:  a professional league that continues to grow and improve, a competitive men’s national team, a world-class women’s national team, and those millions and millions or participants of all ages and both genders.  All underscored by a patience that Blatter doesn’t seem to possess.



SHOOTIN’ HOOPS
The U.S. National Men’s and Women’s teams will have a new look when they play their next domestic matches in late May.  For the first time since Nike took over as the USA’s uniform supplier, both teams will feature the same design and concept.  In this case, the jersey will feature horizontal red and white stripes with a blue crew neck collar; the shorts are solid blue and the socks white with a blue band at the top.  The men will debut their uniforms May 26 when they play host to Scotland in a friendly at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL.  The women will sport the new look the following day in a friendly against China at PPL Park in Chester, PA.  [April 16]
Comment:  For Nike, which has been getting it wrong for so long, perhaps the tinkering can end for the next 10 or 15 years.  he U.S. jersey has always cried out for horizontal red and white stripes.  Given the most prominent feature of our flag, what could be more distinctively American?  The closest the team has ever come to that, however, was at the 1994 World Cup, when adidas, the supplier at the time, gave the team vertical red and white stripes.  (The shorts, in a weird nod to Levi Strauss, were denim blue.)  Worse, the jersey stripes were wavy, as if adidas didn’t want the U.S. National Team to be confused with Chivas Guadalajara or the Paraguayan National Team.  (Paraguay failed to qualify for  the ’94 World Cup, and neither, for obvious reasons, did Chivas).  American soccer apparently has had an aversion to horizontal red and white stripes–call them hoops– since January 1992 with the introduction of the World Cup USA ’94 mascot, a Warner Brothers’ creation called Striker, the World Cup Pup.  Striker was probably the most easily forgotten feature of the World Cup once the tournament began, but at the time, his first appearance was attacked, chiefly by Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, because of the horizontal stripes on his jersey.  Typically American, wrote Gardner:  Given a World Cup, their mascot trots out wearing a rugby jersey.
Some, but not many, pointed out that such storied sides as Glasgow Celtic and Queens Park Rangers–Brits like Gardner–have proudly worn horizontal stripes for decades.  Didn’t matter at the time.  The first-time hosts were desperate to be politically soccer correct, and so Striker’s design was quickly altered, giving him red sleeves and a white trunk–no stripes at all.  A silly over-reaction.
Nearly two decades later, it is hoped that the U.S. can take the field May 26 in red and white hoops and no one will mistake them for ruggers.  Given time, and a few victories, they’ll be unmistakably Americans.

Clint Dempsey, in the USA's new garb

Striker, in his previous life as a rugby player

The reformed Striker



ZAMBIA’S CHANCE FOR A BIT OF CLOSURE

Zambia pulled off an early surprise at the 2012 African Cup of Nations, beating Senegal, 2-1, in Bata, Ecuatorial Guinea, in its Group “A” opener.

Emmanuel Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba scored in the first half and the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets, in the Bemba language) held on for the win over Senegal, which reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2010.  [January 21]

Comment:  Ivory Coast is favored to win Africa’s biggest prize, followed by Ghana and the Senegalese; Zaire is considered by oddsmakers to be in the middle of the 16-nation pack.  Nevertheless, should it reach the final on February 12 in Libreville, capital of the event’s co-host, Gabon, Zaire will have come full circle regarding the most heartbreaking moment in his soccer-playing history.  From Chapter 11 (Tragedies) of Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

          1993.  Zambia lost eighteen members of its national team when a military plane carrying the squad to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal crashed into the Atlantic near Libreville, Gabon.  All thirty people on board, including five team officials, perished.

          The Zambians carried on with a team of inexperienced replacements and went into their final qualifying match needing only a tie with Morocco–second in the group and two points behind Zambia–to advance to their first World Cup.  The Moroccans, however, won, 1-0, to edge Zambia by a single point and deny the 1994 World Cup of what would have been the tournament’s overwhelming sentimental favorite. 



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.



THE ORIGINAL RONALDO, AND WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, citing the toll the game has taken on his 34-year-old body, announced his retirement from soccer.

Once known as The Phenomenon, the striker leaves as the all-time World Cup scorer with 15 goals over three tournaments (he was part of the 1994 World Cup squad as a 17-year-old but did not play).  Winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996 and 1997, Ronaldo received that honor a third time for leading Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title.

Ronaldo scored more than 400 goals in a stellar career that began in 1993 with Cruzeiro and followed with stops at PSV Eindhoven, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan and, finally, back in Brazil with Corinthians.  His contract with Corinthians was due to expire at the end of the year, and he had been routinely hooted by fans for his obvious lack of match fitness.

“With this announcement, it feels like my first death,” Ronaldo said. 

He added:  “My career was beautiful, was wonderful.  I’ve had many defeats but infinite victories.”  [February 14]

Comment:  Ronaldo’s career was doomed four years ago, when he learned he had hypothyroidism, a condition that makes it difficult to lose weight.   But it should be remembered that the man whose irresistable, explosive runs into the enemy penalty area often ended with a goal and a trademark gap-toothed grin was among the most star-crossed stars in modern soccer.

Best known of his physical setbacks, of course, is Ronaldo’s mysterious performance at the 1998 World Cup final against host France.  Ronaldo had scored a team-leading four goals to that point, but the afternoon of the game, in the team’s hotel in Paris, he suffered convulsions, possibly the result of the combination of medications that had been administered to him for injuries to an ankle, a calf, a knee.  Scratched from the starting lineup an hour before the game, he was reinstated (it was rumored under pressure from the team’s mega-sponsor, Nike), played a lackluster 90 minutes and managed two shots, one a sitter from five yards that he sent directly at the chest of France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.  Shaken by the pre-game drama, the swaggerless Brazilians bowed to the French, 3-0.

Not as well remembered is the period, starting four months after Paris, that typified the career of Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima.  That November, he scored for Inter in an Italian Cup game against derby rival AC Milan, but he soon limped off the field with a ruptured kneecap tendon.  Upon his return the following January he sustained another injury that shelved him for two months.  But the most serious threat to Ronaldo’s career came in November 1999 when he tore up his knee in an Italian league match against Lecce.  After surgery and rehabilitation, he returned to action in April 2000 in an Italian Cup game and lasted all of eight minutes before rupturing ligaments in the same knee.  Ronaldo wouldn’t be back until the following season, and in September 2001 he sustained a thigh strain in a UEFA Cup match gainst FC Brasov of Romania.  After eight weeks on  the sidelines, he touched the ball three times in a league match against Lecce and limped off with another thigh strain.  In all, the six injuries over four seasons forced him to miss 14 months of games.

The triumph over Germany at Korea/Japan ’02 proved that Ronaldo wasn’t entirely snake bit, and Real Madrid, apparently convinced that he was indestructable,  bought the then-25-year-old for $58 million.  Five years and 99 goals in 164 appearances later, a falling out with Real coach Fabio Capello prompted Ronaldo to move to AC Milan, and naturally another career-threating knee injury–the rupture of left kneecap ligament–followed.  During his rehabilitation his reputation took a hit when he was caught in an encounter with cross-dressing prostitutes.

Things were never the same, of course.  And now, one can only wonder where Ronaldo’s place in soccer history would be if he hadn’t lost what were four years from the prime of his career.  One thing is certain:  For the past few years, when one mentions “Ronaldo,”  it’s understood that the player in question is the Portuguese–not Brazilian–version.