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THE PUTIN WORLD CUP: ENTERTAINING, BUT NO CLASSIC

France scored twice early in the second half to stave off upstart Croatia and win the 2018 World Cup final, 4-2, before 78,011 at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

The world championship was France’s second, coming two decades after the 1998 World Cup it hosted.  France joined Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (4), Argentina (2) and Uruguay (2) as the only nations to lift the World Cup trophy more than once, and it allowed Didier Deschamps to join Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer in winning a World Cup as a player and coach.

With the French entering the second half leading, 2-1, Paul Pogba scored in the 59th minute from the top of the penalty area on a rebound of his own shot, and teen sensation Kylian Mbappe seemingly put the game away with a pinpoint 65th-minute strike from 20 yards.  Four minutes later, Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scored on a blunder by French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, whose poor first touch of a back pass was first-timed into the net by the onrushing striker.

Croatia had rallied to take its three previous elimination games after 90 minutes, but another miracle was not to be as the French defense held firm and the Croats, having played the equivalent of an entire match more than France, sagged mentally and physically over the last 20 minutes, although they out-shot the winners, 15-6.

The opening half signaled that this would be France’s night.  In the 18th minute, after French striker Antoine Griezmann drew a questionable foul just outside the Croat penalty area, Griezmann managed to skip his subsequent free kick off the scalp of a leaping Mandzukic for a goal, the 12th own goal of the tournament and the first-ever in a final.  Midfielder Ivan Perisic answered 10 minutes later, beating Kante N’Golo’s mark to score on a smashing left-footed shot.  However, eight minutes before intermission, a Griezmann corner kick caromed off the back of opposing midfielder Blaise Matuidi and against Perisic’s outstretched arm.  Argentine referee Nestor Pitana consulted VAR before awarding a penalty kick, and Griezmann buried the resulting PK, the World Cup-record 22nd of the tournament.  [July 15]

Comment I: Exciting, unpredictable, quirky–this World Cup had a bit of everything.  Everything but classic soccer, regardless of how our friends at Fox tried to sell it.

Who knew that Spain-Portugal in the first round would be the one game recorded by fans worth holding on to?

There were the record number of own goals, plus the record-29 penalty kicks awarded (22 converted) in part because of the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee System).  There were 169 goals (2.64 per game) scored, just two fewer than at Brasil ’14, and 70 of those–a whopping 30 percent–were scored from re-starts, a development that might change World Cup tactics for years to come.

Nevertheless, what fans and the merely curious in this country got was a final that was a nice sales job for the sport of soccer: wide-open, incident-filled (as the Brits would say), and all played against a David versus Goliath backdrop.

With 11.8 million in America watching (a drop of one-third from the 17.3 million who watched the Brasil ’14 finale on ABC), we didn’t get:

2002 — Brazil 2, Germany 0.  A perfunctory affair in Yokohama, Japan, as Ronaldo supplied the inevitable–two second-half goals–and Brazil became the last South American side in the 2000s to lift the trophy.  It also was the last final to end in regulation until France-Croatia.

2006 — Italy 1, France 1 (Italy on PKs, 5-3).  A taut match in Berlin infamous for a head butt in overtime by France’s Zinedine Zidane to the chest of Marco Materazzi in retaliation for a particularly stinging insult.  The absence of Zidane, red-carded for his startling attack, cost the French in the penalty-kick tiebreaker.

2010 — Spain 1, Netherlands 0.  The so-called “Battle of Johannesburg,” the ugliest World Cup final in history.  The Dutch committed 28 fouls and were cautioned eight times, the Spanish were whistled 18 times and shown five yellow cards.  A goal by Andres Iniesta in the 116th minute ended the carnage and spared everyone a PK decider.

2014 — Germany 1, Argentina 0.  Another tight, forgettable struggle, this one in Rio de Janeiro decided by a goal 23 minutes into overtime from late substitute Mario Goetza.

If there would be no gripping finish in Moscow, at least we were treated to a wild opening to the second half.  The Croats threw everything into the attack, only to be punished by Pogba and Mbappe.  Then came Lloris’ blunder, perhaps the biggest ever committed by a World Cup team captain, opening the door to a Croat comeback that never came.  And somewhere in it all was a pitch invasion by four members of the protest group Pussy Riot, for years a nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who watched the spectacle with other dignitaries from his stadium suite.  It was fun, it was interesting, and it made the rest of the ride comfortably acceptable as the Croats, the second-best team on the field, tried in vain to muster yet another rousing comeback.

Still, soccer fans everywhere await another truly classic final, something that transcends Beckenbauer vs. Cruyff in 1974, Pele’s crowning moment in 1970, England’s Wembley overtime thriller in 1966, West Germany’s miracle over Hungary’s Magic Magyars in 1954.  There remains the World Cup final that shows the average American–in this modern era of lavish live coverage of the tournament on U.S. network TV–why the World Cup final is the planet’s Super Bowl, times 100.

Comment II:  Many fans grieved over the second-round departures of two members of world soccer’s great triumvirate, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.  Ronaldo’s Portugal was eliminated by Uruguay, 2-1, the same day Messi’s Argentina was outlasted by eventual champion France, 4-3.

But few who care about the sport would’ve shed a tear six days later when the third member of that vaunted trio, Neymar, was shown the door with Brazil’s 2-1 loss to Belgium.

American soccer fans in particular.  You know, the people who have to explain to their fellow Americans all the silliness performed by stars like Neymar.  They watch a few minutes of soccer every four years and are disgusted by what appears to be fields littered with human carnage caused by minimal-to-no contact.

Do most soccer fans like “simulation,” as FIFA refers to it?  Just as much as they like penalty kicks deciding a match.  And FIFA has tried to address the problem over lo, these many years.  Yellow cards are shown to players who swan dive in the penalty area, and players seemingly incapacitated by an errant shoe are stretchered off immediately, or somewhat promptly, which means that a possible faker is forcing his team to play shorthanded until medical staff discovers his injury isn’t fatal and he’s waved back on the field by the referee.  And now, VAR may do to combat faking what DNA technology has done for crime solving.

Still, faking, embellishment, play-acting–call it what you want–remains a growing problem and a challenge because:
           o  A player has a tougher time selling a foul in soccer than in basketball or gridiron football.  He’s trying to influence one official (unless the contact occurred in front of a linesman), not two or three or four.  When there are multiple whistles at the ready, a foul ignored by one official may be whistled by another.  And unlike in basketball, the pace of soccer is such that often there’s a split second or full second in which the referee might reconsider a decision–often because of the advantage clause.  In addition, the foul in question may occur a matter of 10 or even 40 yards away from the ref, not 10 or 20 feet, and even blatant fouls get missed, particularly those off the ball.  An average soccer field is roughly 100,000 square feet, and the referee is expected to be lord and master over every inch of it.  Then there’s the intent that has to be behind a foul (“A player who intentionally commits any of the following nine offences” begins Law XII), so the downed player is often compelled to writhe on the turf or sit up with outstretched arms, shouting at the referee that the contact was the result of maliciousness, premeditation, or criminal intent, not clumsiness.  Above all, a foul call in soccer can result in the lone goal in a 1-0 decision, via a penalty kick or perfectly placed free kick, as opposed to basketball’s three to make two at the free throw line late in the third period, something that’s soon forgotten early in the fourth period of a game in which another 40 points are yet to be scored.
           o  A fouled player may actually be injured–and often is.  Metal studs hurt like hell, whether they land on an opponent’s foot or plow into his thigh or calf.  Bruised ribs are lots of fun, especially if you get hit in the same spot repeatedly from your club’s first practice in July until a cup final 48 weeks later.  Head-to-head contact remains a problem, same with elbow-to-head contact.  Oh, and while shoes are flying everywhere, no one’s wearing a protective cup.  Keep an eye on slow-mo replays of player contact during any game.  What’s unfortunate is that American non-fans glance at a soccer match, see what looks like a fake job and just assume every player who goes down is faking it.  Consider that the player most often criticized for play-acting in this World Cup was Neymar, who, four years ago in Brasil ’14, went down in his usual dramatic fashion and actually had suffered a broken back.
Nevertheless, fingers need to be pointed, because these antics are a choice.  And damn cultural correctness.
First of all, women players, even among the highest ranked national teams, are notably immune to the gamesmanship that plagues the men’s game.  Indeed, it’s creeping in as the women’s game grows in importance and the stakes get higher, but for now women’s soccer remains a breath of fresh air–increasingly tough, increasingly physical, and still minimally cynical.
As for the men’s game, the worst offenders over the years by far are the Latin Americans . . . or the Italians and their love of the penalty kick that might decide a tight-as-a-drum 0-0 game . . . or those playing in Third World countries where not being willing to do absolutely anything to win means a trip back to the slums . . .or the prima donnas playing for the royalty of European clubs who seem to believe they are not being fouled but victimized.  You can watch just one club, German giant Bayer Munich, and enjoy Frank Ribéry of France and Arjen Robben of the Netherlands put on a flying, rolling clinic.  There’s Rivaldo of Brazil, who, when a Turkish player kicked a ball at his stomach near a corner flag after a stoppage during the 2002 World Cup, collapsed holding his face.  And nothing will top a long-forgotten U.S. World Cup qualifier at El Camino College in Torrance, CA, in 1985 in which Costa Rica, clinging late to a 1-0 lead, saw one of its players dramatically roll eight–EIGHT–times after slight contact as part of the Ticos’ concerted effort to kill the clock.  No card was shown, and Costa Rica resumed its sprawling, rolling, histrionics enroute to a victory that eliminated the Americans.
American non-fans, however, are non-discrimanitory, they just accuse anyone in shorts:  They’re all girly-men crybabies, they conclude.  They don’t discern that, by comparison, on a Silliness Scale of 0 to 100, Germans and Brits might be on the lower end.  That Scandinavians, by comparison, don’t writhe as much.  That Japanese and Koreans, by comparison, simulate infrequently.  That black Africans, by comparison, don’t play-act to excess.  And as we all know, such antics are beneath most American players, and that’s why American non-fans take one fleeting look and say bye-bye to the global sport of soccer.  Clint Dempsey, a favorite target of enemy defenders throughout his fine career, got chopped down, but he got to his feet and, with those black eyes, looked like he would kill that defender at his next opportunity–but he didn’t play the victim, regardless of the call.  As the occasional American observer would conclude, Dempsey wasn’t naive, Dempsey wasn’t lacking in intestinal fortitude.  Quite simply:  Now, that’s an American.
That’s why most enlightening was a comparison of England-Colombia and England-Sweden during the World Cup.  The Colombians pulled out all their clownish, malevolent shenanigans and the English, thusly goaded, fought fire with fire, behaving decidedly out of character (COL 23 fouls, six cautions; ENG 13 fouls, two cautions).  The result was a disgusting spectacle, one of the lowlights of the tournament.  Five days later against the Swedes, both sides were physical, fair and, refreshingly, nonsense-free (SWE 10 fouls, two cautions; ENG seven fouls, one caution).  Both matches were must-win games, each one decidedly different in tone.  The English, never to be confused with choirboys, won the Colombia second-round match and the Sweden quarterfinal.
This is a cultural thing that should should be discussed openly, and addressed aggressively by FIFA, whose campaign of Fair Play pledges and Fair Play banners and armbands rings hollow in this regard.  Tie 32 national teams together for a month and what you’ll get are the teams whose gamesmanship is beyond histrionics, teams whose gamesmanship is a bit more, um, discreet, and what we see every four years are matches in which the lowest common denominator is what’s on display.  Each continental confederation should be directed to conduct a study to quantify the instances of blatant gamesmanship over a fixed period covering its national leagues and its continental international matches to establish the prevalence of its play-acting problem.  Only then can there be a FIFA-ordered crackdown by referees, who should be given a directive to assume a take-no-prisoners approach in invoking Law XII:  “A player shall be cautioned if [m] he is guilty of ungentlemanly conduct.”  Fortunately, in this matter, “ungentlemanly conduct” means most anything and everything, and that would cover the girly-man antics that turn off so many Americans every four years–and genuine soccer fans everywhere every week.  Use that modern miracle of science, VAR:  If linesmen are keeping their flags down nowadays because VAR can get an offside call right after the fact, then show the yellow card with impunity for perceived play-acting and let VAR clean up the mess later.  Such an assault on silliness might be seen as harsh, but it’s necessary, it’s overdue, and it can be done.  And don’t do it for Joe Six Pack in some bar in Pittsburgh who sees Sergio Busquets or Luis Suarez rolling on the ground during the 10 minutes of a World Cup he’ll bother to watch.  Do it for the integrity of the sport.
Until then, for now, the irony is that grown men, defending and projecting a macho that’s so darned important, writhe and cry and hold the right ankle when it was the left ankle that was kicked, er, brushed.  Elsewhere, it’s the players at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France who, like the girly-women they are, will usually take a knock, get up and carry on playing, cynicism-free.

 

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THE AMERICAN-GERMAN-AMERICANS

Bayern Munich forward Julian Green has applied to FIFA to change his national team association from Germany to the United States.

The highly touted 18-year-old, who was born in Tampa, FL, will become the latest German-American to join the U.S. National Team pool under the USA’s German coach, Juergen Klinsmann, following in the footsteps of dual-nationalists Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Daniel Williams (Reading, England), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Austria) and Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt).

The son of an American father and German mother, Green moved with his family to Germany when he was 2.  He played for Germany’s under-16 and under-17 teams, then represented the U.S. in an U-18 friendly against Holland.  He later played for Germany in a qualifier for this year’s UEFA Under-19 Championship.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Klinsmann, who first attempted to call up Green for U.S. friendlies in November.  “He is a very special talent.”

The teen winger has made just one appearance for Bayern Munich, a brief stint in November at the end of a UEFA Champions League match against CSKA Moscow.  Green has been a regular with Bayern’s Regionalliga team, scoring 15 goals in 19 games.  [March 18]

Comment:  Green is unlikely to play a role in the USA’s adventure at Brasil ’14, but this June we will finally learn whether the German way is the American way when it comes to soccer.

Back in the mid-1970s, when the growth of the North American Soccer League was forcing a spotlight on the American game in general and the national team in particular, the U.S. Soccer Federation took the tack that the style that best suited its team was German.  It hired Dettmar Cramer, an assistant to Helmet Schoen on West Germany’s 1966 World Cup runner-up team, as coach in August 1974.  Cramer was in charge long enough to lose two games to Mexico, throw up his hands at the lack of talent, money and organization at his disposal and, 5 1/2 months into his tenure, returned home, where he would guide a Bayern Munich starring Franz Beckenbauer to consecutive European Cup titles.  Less than a decade later, the USSF tried again with the appointment of former FC Cologne coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott as national coaching director, but Heddergott ran into the same frustrating constraints.  All the while, critics of this Teutonic shift claimed that the national team program–if “program” was the right word–was ignoring the coming USA wave of Latin players, eventually led by hyphenated Americans Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos, and Claudio Reyna, that would transform the national team and carry it to glory.

The U.S. has had a link with German soccer that dates to 1923 with the founding of the powerful semipro German-American Soccer League (later renamed the Cosmopolitan Soccer League) in New York, a circuit whose best players helped make up the roster of the original New York Cosmos in 1971.  Paul Caliguiri made a major–and unlikely–breakthrough when he leaped from UCLA to Hamburger SV in the late 1980s.  He later played for SV Meppen, Hansa Rostock, SC Freiburg and FC St. Pauli, paving the way in the Bundesliga for players like Eric Wynalda, Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo.  U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic’s decision to bring FC Kaiserslautern midfielder Tom Dooley–son of an American serviceman and a German mother–into the national team fold established a two-way street whose inbound lane has only increased in traffic by plenty under Klinsmann.

But it’s not just personnel.  Klinsmann has tapped into characteristics common between the two cultures.  Despite shortcomings that continue to keep the U.S. out of the top 10 in the FIFA rankings, the Americans’ compulsion, like the Germans, is to attack.  On a good day, Klinsmann has his players pressing forward–some would say recklessly–at speed with six and seven players, followed, at speed, by a similar commitment on defense.  High tempo, hard work.  They expect to win every challenge.  They count on wearing down the opposition long before the final whistle.  And like the West German teams Klinsmann grew up watching and then playing for, they now consider no deficit insurmountable.  The U.S. demonstrated that resolve by tying host Russia, 2-2, in late 2012 on two late strikes.   The following June, in a World Cup qualifier,  it squandered a 1-0 lead late in Jamaica and emerged with a 2-1 victory.

Above all, for those who remember Steve Sampson’s team of complacent U.S. veterans who crashed at the 1998 World Cup, Klinsmann has called out his established players, introduced interesting outsiders and created a player pool that may not be deep but is certainly competitive as the 30 players with a realistic chance to make the trip to Brazil are whittled to the final 23.

The critics from long ago must feel permanently slighted at this point:  Klinsmann has turned his back on any possibility that Latin flair is the USA’s recipe for success.  It’ll be grit, not beauty, heading into Brazil this year.  Some of the players may have names like Omar Gonzalez,  Michael Orozco Fiscal, Joe Corona or Juan Agudelo, but it’s not the name, it’s the mentality and the approach.  After all, when Klinsmann’s looked over his shoulder two years ago at the German National Team he once coached, the joint scoring leader of the European Championship was a German named … Mario Gomez.



BEST OF ALL TIME?

Defending World Cup champion Spain became the first country to win a second consecutive European Championship, humbling a shorthanded Italy, 4-0, in the 2012 final in Kiev.

The triumph made Spain, which won its first Euro crown in 1964, the second three-time winner of Europe’s biggest prize after West Germany/Germany (1972, 1980, 1996).

David Silva got the rout underway in the 14th minute when he headed in Cesc Fabrigas’ short cross.  Jordi Alba latched onto a pass by Xavi to beat Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon four minutes before halftime to put the match out of reach.

Substitute Fernando Torres, who also scored against Germany in Spain’s 1-0 victory in the 2008 final, scored in the 84th minute, and Juan Mata, set up by Torres, applied the finishing touch at 88 minutes.  Italy lost Thiago Motta to injury in the 62nd minute after coach Cesare Prandelli had used his three substitutions–the last of them Motta in the 57th–and appeared nearly helpless on the Torres and Mata goals.  [July 1]

Comment:  Spain’s dominating performance put a much-needed shine on a tournament that for the most part was downright dull.  But those quick to brand this team as the best of all time need to take a deep breath.

Is Spain the best?  Those who disagree might start with the West German team that won the 1972 European Championship and the ’74 World Cup.  That team also lost the ’76 Euro final to Czechoslovakia on penalty kicks before winning its second Euro four years later.  Others would point to Brazil’s Pele-led 1970 World Cup champs.  And so on.

So are the Spaniards the best ever over an extended period?  Various media reports branded coach Vicente del Bosque’s ball-possession magicians as the first to win three consecutive major titles.  ESPN, which televised Euro 2012, was among them.  But the first was Uruguay, winners of the 1924 Olympics in Paris and the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam–back when Olympic soccer was the sport’s de facto world championship.  The Uruguayans so dazzled the Continent on those occasions that they fueled the drive to create the World Cup in 1930, which that year was hosted and won by Uruguay.  De facto or no, that was three world titles in a row over a half-dozen years.

Too long ago, when soccer wasn’t quite the global game it is today?  Then for hardware in the modern era, go with another South American team, Brazil, just a decade ago.  Except for an interruption by Colombia at the 2001 Copa America, the Brazilians, three years removed from their win at USA ’94, won the next two South American championships, in 1997 and ’99, finished second at the 1998 World Cup to host France, then won their fifth world championship at Korea/Japan 2002, followed by another Copa in 2004.

But then, when it comes to soccer and other matters, we live in a Eurocentric world.