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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.

 



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.

 



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.



DON’T PUT THE U.S. CART BEFORE THE WORLD CUP HORSE

Mexico shook off its funk and stormed to its seventh CONCACAF Gold Cup title, defeating upstart Jamaica, 3-1, in the final before a partisan sellout crowd of 68,930 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Andres Guardado opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a spectacular left-footed volley off a cross by Paul Aguilar.  That ended a frustrating 272-minute stretch in which the Mexicans had failed to score from anywhere but the penalty spot.  Jesus Corona, voted the Gold Cup’s top young player, increased the lead to 2-0 two minutes into the second half after stealing a ball from Michael Hector, and in the 61st minute Oribe Peralta capitalized on another blunder by Hector to put the match out of reach.  Darren Mattocks got the Reggae Boyz a consolation goal in the 81st.

The triumph earned El Tri a playoff with the U.S. on October 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup at stake.

The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup and could have secured a trip outright to the Confederations Cup in Russia by winning the ’15 tournament, but the Americans were defeated by Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals and then sagged to a loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., bowing on penalty kicks, 3-2, after a 1-1 draw.  [July 26]

Comment I:  An aberration?  No climactic meeting of the U.S. and Mexico in the final, as the tournament promoters had hoped?  Perhaps.  Maybe we’ll know as early as the autumn of 2017, when the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup conclude.  But the balance of power in CONCACAF continues to shift, and the hold of Mexico and the U.S. on the top two rungs continues to erode, by degrees.

The Mexicans needed all of three late penalty-kick calls in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match (thanks to Guardado, they converted them all).  The Americans failed to impress in group play, buried a Cuban team decimated by defections in the second round, then went back to failing to impress thereafter and were rewarded with a deserved fourth-place finish.

Are Jamaica and Panama that good?  Of course not.  Neither is Costa Rica, Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago. The most recent FIFA World Rankings placed the Reggae Boyz at No. 55, the Canaleros at No. 65, the Ticos at No. 38, the Catrachos at No. 81, and the Soca Warriors at No. 56.

Fortunately for the U.S. (29th) and Mexico (26th), while CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers remain a challenge–with road matches ranging from headaches to nightmares–the outcome has been similar over the past five campaigns:  The Americans and El Tri qualify and are joined by . . . who?  For 1998, it was Jamaica, in its World Cup debut.  For ’02, Costa Rica.  For ’06,  it was the Costa Ricans and, for the first time, Trinidad & Tobago.  For 2010, Honduras qualified, and for Brazil ’14 it was Costa Rica and Honduras.  It’s like a game of Whack a Mole, as first one CONCACAF contender pops out of its hole, then ducks back down and a different one pops up.

And so the battle for the region’s 3 1/2 berths at the 2018 World Cup heats up this fall, and everyone has the U.S. and Mexico with boarding passes to Russia.  Many in the media describe the October playoff between the two at the Rose Bowl as being very important because the winner goes on to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, “something of a dress rehearsal for the next World Cup.”  But the U.S. or Mexico might–just might–go to Russia dress rehearsing for nothing.

Because if there was any proof that there’s no longer a sure thing in CONCACAF, it came in late 2013, when Mexico shockingly finished fourth in the World Cup qualifiers and had to sweat out a playoff with New Zealand to punch its ticket to Brazil.  (Were it not for two U.S. stoppage-time goals at Panama in the region’s final round, Mexico would have been eliminated for the first time since 1934–when the eliminators happened to be the Americans.)  And as CONCACAF nations evolve, there’s nothing to say that Costa Rica, a surprise World Cup quarterfinalist in ’14; Honduras, a semifinalist in the previous two Gold Cups; Panama and Jamaica; and even Trinidad & Tobago; don’t all pop out of their mole holes during a single World Cup cycle, leaving the U.S. and/or Mexico on the outside looking in.  Heck, don’t count out Canada (No. 101), which won the 2000 Gold Cup, finished third in ’02 and now has a generation of players developing in Major League Soccer.

Comment II:  The USA’s breakout star during the tournament was a recent retiree.  Timmy Chandler was a disaster, Michael Bradley disappointed, but former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, as a television color commentator, proved to be a find for Fox Sports during its Gold Cup coverage as it gears up for much bigger assignments, from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning late this year to Russia 2018 itself.

Friedel gives you the whole field, as a goalkeeper should, but he also gives you the whole picture and speaks with the authority of a player who’s gone from the top collegiate level (UCLA) to MLS (Columbus Crew) to national team (82 caps, two World Cups) to international clubs (Brondby IF of Denmark, Newcastle United of England, Galatasaray of Turkey, and Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, all of England).  He’s quick, articulate, witty and enthusiastic about the U.S. without losing his credibility–no easy task during this transitory period in soccer’s history in this country.  And unlike most of his predecessors, he compliments his play-by-play partner, instead of making him work.

Friedel is far better than a long line of ex-U.S. internationals who’d hoped to be the second banana in a national soccer broadcast booth for the next couple of decades.  Friedel is better than John Harkes, he’s better than Marcelo Balboa, and he’s better than the insufferable Taylor Trellman, whose partner, the outstanding play-by-play man Ian Darke, must dread going to work.  Friedel’s, literally, a keeper.

 

 

 



WORLD CUP TICKETS SOLD TO THE U.S.: 125,000 AND COUNTING

With nearly four months remaining before kickoff, the United States has the highest number of allocated tickets among visiting countries for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. 

A total of 125,465 tickets were distributed to the U.S., according to FIFA.

Through all sales channels, a total of 2.3 million tickets have been assigned to the nations attending the World Cup. After Brazil, which was allocated 906,433 tickets as the host, and the U.S., the following nations round out the top 10:  Colombia (60,231), Germany (55,666), Argentina (53,809), England (51,222), Australia (40,446), France (34,971), Chile (32,189) and Mexico (30,238).

“We have seen the interest in the World Cup increase every four years and are excited to see the large number of tickets purchased for the games in Brazil,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “There were more ticket requests than available tickets for all three of our first-round matches by a large margin, and we are once again expecting incredible fan support for the team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”

U.S. Soccer Supporters Club members who applied for tickets to the specific U.S. matches will be notified soon whether they were selected in the lottery.

The remaining tickets (approximately 160,000) will be available to the public through FIFA.com in the next window of the sales phase on March 12.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup runs from June 12 through July 13 across 12 venues in Brazil. The U.S. National Team was drawn into Group “G” and will open the tournament Monday, June 16, at 6 p.m. EDT against Ghana in Natal. The USA then faces Portugal on Sunday, June 22, at 6 p.m. EDT in Manaus, and Germany on Thursday, June 26, at 12 p.m. EDT in Recife.  [February 21]

Comment:  International soccer’s outlier has become a World Cup insider.

Only seven other countries that will compete at Brasil ’14 can match the USA’s record of appearing in the last six World Cups:  host Brazil–which has never missed one–Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Germany and South Korea.  The U.S., which finished first in CONCACAF qualifiers for the second straight World Cup cycle, is No. 14 in the latest FIFA rankings and came close to becoming the region’s first nation to be seeded for the first round without hosting a World Cup.  Fox/Telemundo has paid $1 billion for the U.S. rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, topping a $600 million bid by ESPN/ABC, which, along with Univision, paid a combined $425 million to air the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups and 2009 and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cups.  Now this.

Obviously, while those 125,465 ticket orders may have come from America, many of those ticket holders will be scattered throughout Brazil this summer, following other national teams.  This is, after all, a land of immigrants.  (At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, of the 2.8 million available tickets, sales to U.S. residents–more than 130,000–trailed only the host nation, although the American allotment for the U.S.-England opener at the 44,530-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium was just 5,200.)   Moreover, this is a wealthy nation with plenty of folks who can afford the trip to an exotic, alluring destination like Brazil.  

Though its odds of getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” and winning Brasil ’14 are a daunting 100-to-1, the United States, on every level, has become a significant part of the planet’s most-watched sporting event.  That’s a far cry from the beginning of its World Cup run at Italia ’90, when a U.S. team of current and former college standouts needed a miracle to qualify for the first time in four decades, then crashed out in three games, supported by a smattering of American fans, many of whom were already in Italy on vacation and decided, on a whim, to have a look.



DON’T JUST FOLLOW THE MONEY

Qatar beat out a strong bid by the U.S. to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup while Russia was awarded the 2018 tournament in balloting by the FIFA Executive Committee in Zurich. 

With 22 members taking part, 12 votes were needed to win.  The last-place finisher in each round was eliminated.

The 2022 vote: 

First Round — Qatar 11, U.S. 3, South Korea 4, Japan 3, Australia 1.

Second Round — Qater 10, U.S. 5, South Korea 5, Japan 2.

Third Round — Qatar 11, U.S. 6, South Korea 5.

Fourth Round — Qatar 14, U.S. 8. 

The 2018 vote: 

First round — Russia 9, Spain/Portugal 7, Holland/Belgium 4, England 2.

Second Round — Russia 13, Spain/Portugal 7, Holland/Belgium 2.  [December 2]

Comment:  So how did Qatar do it?  How did this nation of 1.7 million people perched on a tiny Persian Gulf peninsula, a country that has never even qualified for a World Cup, win the prize at the expense of the United States, a nation whose bid was the only one among the nine 2018/22 hopefuls to be given a 100 percent score by FIFA?

To many, the immediate answer was, “Follow the petrodollars.”  That, however, may be too easy.  The U.S. bid, after all, promised record broadcast rights fees and ticket revenues from a land that is home to many of FIFA’s  major sponsors.

However, there’s the usual horse trading of votes.  In fact, the trading season might have begun not during the bidders’ presentations in Zurich but back in August, when Asian Football Confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam announced that he would not run for the FIFA presidency in 2011 and instead devote his efforts to ensuring that his native land–Qatar–wins the 2022 World Cup sweepstakes, thus clearing the way for Sepp Blatter to win a fourth four-year term as FIFA supremo next year.  And beyond the horse trading, there was the geopolitical factor. 

Qatar’s bid borders on the fantastic:  Build seven stadiums and enlarge five others and air-condition them to beat July heat that can reach 115 degrees, then dismantle most and reassemble them in needy nations.  That grabbed the attention.   But two emotional appeals at the end of its slick bid presentation the day before the vote were telling.  One young man whose affiliation was listed as Qatar Foundation, a non-profit founded by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told of losing family members in fighting in his native Iraq, then recounted Iraq’s triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup, a feat that united–briefly–that country’s Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians.  The point, though a pipe dream, is that a Qatari World Cup could bring together the Middle East.   The emir’s wife, Sheika Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, then addressed committee members, pointedly, dramatically, asking them, “When?  When will the World Cup come to the Middle East?”

The United States is not loved in the Arab world.  The young Iraqi did not elaborate on the “fighting” that claimed his family members, but most U.S. bid members must have felt their ears burning, at least for a moment.  For Executive Committee members with sympathies toward, or obligations to, the Middle East, Her Highness’ question–“When?”–could be regarded as a firm prod, if not an effective bit of guilt tripping.  And what would be more delicious to those leaning in that direction than to award a World Cup to a Middle Eastern state at the expense of the Western nation that looms menacingly over the region, from Israel to Iraq to Afghanistan?

At the same time, the vote may have been FIFA’s way of putting the U.S. in its place. 

The U.S. bid, on its face, hit all the high notes:  stadiums, infrastructure, profits, experience, diversity, and what could be summed up as “give us the World Cup and we’ll finish what was begun in 1994.”  However, it could be that FIFA likes the United States exactly where it is, a giant who has, in soccer terms, struggled from a prone position to rise up on one knee.  Perhaps that’s the way FIFA wants things for the time being:  a United States that is a cash cow of Coca-Colas and Visas, a credible competitor on the international stage but not a perennial champion, a people whose interest in the game is encouraging but not overwhelming.

No country on earth has the soccer potential of the United States.  If realized, America could very well become the tail that wags the dog (see U.S. television rights, International Olympic Committee).  And what FIFA doesn’t need is another one of its 208 member-nations treating it with disdain.  Like England.

Some notes:

          o  Five of the new stadiums promised by Qatar have been designed by Albert Speer and Partners.  Yes, that Albert Speer–Albert Speer Jr., son of Hitler’s most favored architect and ultimately the Nazis’ munitions minister during World War II. 

          o  Russia’s current place in the FIFA World Rankings–No. 10–is a bit flattering.  That’s six places above four-time world champion Italy.  Qatar’s place–No. 109, one place ahead of Iceland–is not.   

          Qatar has been trying to reach a World Cup since 1978, and despite a string of Brazilian and French coaches it has failed all nine times.  Its greatest international feat remains its loss to West Germany in the final of the 1981 FIFA World Youth (U-20) Championship, followed by a fourth-place finish at the 1991 FIFA Under-17 World Championship.  The hardware in the dusty Qatari trophy case:  Winners of the 1992 and 2004 Gulf Cups, both times as host.  Qatar also pocketed runners-up medals at the 1998 Arab Nations Cup, an event it hosted.  In one of its most recent friendlies, the ultra-rich Qatar lost to the desperately poor Haiti, 1-0, in Doha before a throng of 5,000.  According to the FIFA rankings, No. 109 loses to No. 128–at home.  Had the U.S. been eliminated in the first round of its 1994 World Cup, it would have been a horror.  Then South Africa failed to reach the second round of its 2010 World Cup, and FIFA apparently concluded that losing a host nation after three matches doesn’t signal the end of the world.   So it’s on to Qatar.

          Meanwhile, don’t look to the Qatari Stars League–a circuit of 12 first division teams and six in the second–to serve as a springboard to international glory.  Since its launch in 1963, it has won zero honors in Asian club play.  Its most decorated club, at 12 national championships and six second-place finishes, is the aptly named Al-Sadd.

          o  It remains to be seen what Qatar ’22 will do to grow the game in the Middle East.  Soccer is already the region’s passion, so if the event cannot further rachet up the game’s popularity, then FIFA’s aim, surely, is to lift the level of play there.  However . . .

          Arab nations, despite considerable capital investment, have combined to make 20 World Cup appearances dating back to Argentina ’78.  The result is a record of 7-38-15.  Tunisia has crashed in the opening round four times, followed by Algeria, three; Egypt, two; and Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, one each.  Morocco and Saudi Arabia have both qualified four times, and they lead the parade with one second-round appearance apiece, in 1986 and 1994, respectively.

          Because of a reluctance on the part of Westerners to travel to Qatar for the ’22 World Cup, the in-stadium audience for the tournament could very well be overwhelmingly Middle Eastern.  And if so, a wave of passion could see the world’s 109th-best team into the Round of 16, the realm of respectability.  But don’t count on it.



A NEW BID, AND A WHOLE NEW AMERICA (PART II)

Fox Soccer Channel, already running a daily countdown graphic in the upper corner of your television screen, plans extensive coverage of the Thursday, December 2, FIFA Executive Committee vote on the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. 

“Fox Soccer Report Special, D-Day Minus One” will air Wednesday, December 1, at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.  “D-Day Minus One” will be reprised Friday, December 2, at 9 a.m., followed at 9:30 a.m. by live coverage of the announcements from Zurich.  (Note:  all times Eastern Standard.)  [November 28]

Comment:  Has America changed in the nearly 22 years since the U.S. was awarded its first World Cup?  There certainly was no soccer-specialty cable channel around in 1988 to cover the announcement that the United States had beaten out Morocco and Brazil.  (For the record, it was 10 votes to seven and two, respectively.)  There was no Internet, as we know it, so there was no www.fifa.com.   There was the nascent CNN, rare in American homes.  So it’s a personal anecdote that perhaps best encapsules the times:

The Executive Committe balloting to choose the host of the 15th World Cup had been moved by FIFA from June 30 to July 4, seen by many as a clear signal that the votes had lined up in the USA’s favor.  Nevertheless, advance coverage in the American mainstream media was almost non-existent.  This was just a World Cup, after all, not an Olympic Games.   On the Fourth of July, the winner was announced by FIFA Senior Vice President Harry Cavan at 1:21 p.m. local time in the Regulus Room of Zurich’s Movenpick Hotel.  So for one bleary eyed West Coast fan–nine time zones away in the pre-dawn darkness, anticipating a 1 o’clock, Swiss time, announcement–there was an additional wait of almost 25 minutes for the local all-news radio station to air its next twice-hourly sports report. 

At 4:45 a.m. (PDT), baseball scores and tennis results–nothing more.  Where to turn?   There was the temptation to call the Associated Press in New York, but perhaps there was a delay in the vote; surely the radio would bring the news in its next sportscast.  However, at 5:15 a.m., once again it was baseball and tennis, plus a bit of golf, so an anxious call was placed to the radio station’s newsroom.

Caller:  “Was the U.S. awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup?  Y’know, in soccer.”

KNX:  “Don’t know.  I’ll check sports.”  (A muffled, “Hey, did the U.S. get the ’94 soccer World Cup?”)  [Long pause]  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “The U.S. did get it?”  

KNX:  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “When did it come in?”

KNX:  (Muffled, again.)  [Pause]  “He says about an hour ago.”

Caller:  “Thank you.”

For the record, KNX reported the fact that the U.S. would host the biggest single-sport event in the world during its 5:45 a.m. sportscast to a listenership busy sleeping in on a national holiday.

[See the first A New Bid, A Whole New America; November 17; below.]



SO IT’S 2022 OR BUST

The U.S. Bid Committee has announced that it has dropped its efforts to host the 2018 World Cup and will concentrate on securing the 2022 cup.  [October 15]

Comment: The U.S. thus drops out of a competition in which the likely winner will be European (Belgium/Netherlands, England, Russia or Spain/Portugal, with the English favored) and zeroes in on beating Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Australia for ’22.

Said FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke:  “We have had an open and constructive dialogue with the USA Bid for some time now, after it became apparent that there was a growing movement to stage the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Europe.  The announcement today by the USA Bid to focus solely on the 2022 FIFA World Cup is therefore a welcome gesture which is much appreciated by FIFA.”

Just how much is this gesture appreciated by FIFA?  Is the USA’s move to simplify the 2018 situation a quid pro quo?  After all, England bid officials said as early as September 28 that they would withdraw from 2022 and concentrate on 2018 if the U.S. dropped its 2018 bid.  We’ll find out December 2, when the 24-man FIFA Executive Committee–seven of the members European–selects the hosts of the 21st and 22nd World Cups.

As it stands, what is perceived as a strong American bid only got stronger.  Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, so there’s no incentive to go back there any time soon.  Tiny Qatar (about half the size of Fiji) would win only if FIFA somehow wanted to curry favor with the Middle East.  And as for Australia, the land Down Under may resemble another New Frontier, like the U.S. pre-1994, but when it comes to the cash to be raked in, there’s no comparison.

For those who saw FIFA reject the USA’s bid to host 1986 out of hand, who sweated out the vote for 1994, it’s difficult to admit, but start making your ticket plans for 2022 now.  You’ll just be 12 years older, not eight.

If you want to soak in the official USA Bid party line, go to http://www.goUSAbid.com/



THE WORLD CUP’S SILLY SEASON . . . Plus dozens of other posts, from March to September, 2010
March 31, 2010, 6:40 pm
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The FIFA Technical Inspection Committee completed its four-day tour of the U.S., which is bidding to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.  The committee, headed by Harold Mayne-Nicholls, president of the Chilean F.A., made stops in New York, Washington DC, Miami, Dallas and Houston, looking over a portion of the 18 stadiums that could hold matches as well as accommodations, infrastructure, and potential sites for the media center and the tournament draw.  [September 9]

Comment: This bid is a far cry from the USA’s successful bid for the 1994 World Cup, when a band of determined, delusional Americans led by USSF chief Werner Fricker went after the big prize.  That one played out in obscurity, and the country was literally asleep when FIFA announced that the U.S. had beaten out Brazil and Morocco–it came hours before sunrise here, on a holiday no less:  July 4, 1988.  This time, the bid process is bigger, slicker, more sophisticated.  It has sponsors, like AT&T and American Airlines.  The bid committee includes honorary chairman Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, and comedian-turned-soccer-nut Drew Carey.  And GOUSABID announced before the FIFA team’s arrival that the one-millionth American had signed its petition backing the bid.   An Olympic bid by an American city still gets more attention here, but this time a shot at an American-hosted World Cup won’t be a secret.

With attention comes scrutiny, and with scrutiny comes criticism.  Among the criticism drawn by the tour was a lack of transparency on the part of the FIFA Inspection Committee.  This just in:  Nothing involving FIFA can be described as transparent.  The bid process for the 1994 World Cup was as shrouded in secrecy as they come, and if an irate Morocco could have sued FIFA over its decision, it would have in a heartbeat.  Then there’s a column by Dennis Coates that ran recently in a major daily under the headline, “An Empty Cup.”  In a nutshell, Coates declared, “Huge sporting events have often resulted in massive costs, so why is the United States bidding to host another World Cup.”

Interesting, because Coates is a professor of economics at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.  The head of GOUSABID, Sunil Gulati, is a professor of economics at Columbia University.  Coates is past president of the North American Association of Sports Economists.  Gulati is president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Coates’ column is based on his report, released two months before FIFA’s visit, “World Cup Economics:  What Americans Need to Know About a U.S. World Cup Bid.”  From the column, it is hard to decern Coates’ motivation.  According to Coates, the report’s most relevant findings:  Organizers for the 1994 World Cup claimed that the U.S. would see a positive impact of $4 billion, yet a post-Cup analysis . . . showed a cumulative loss of $5.6 billion to $9 billion.  [Those involved in the study] arrived at this by comparing the gross domestic product in the host region during the World Cup with standard figures in non-cup periods for the same regions.  The average host city lost $712 million . . . .  Of course, while . . . the U.S. was losing billions, FIFA and the U.S. organizing committee was taking in record profits.”

Yes, WorldCupUSA94 raked in some $40 million, which was turned into the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which has since spun that windfall into grants that have, nationwide, funded new youth soccer leagues, refurbished existing fields, built new ones, even provided the loan that helped launch MLS.  That is fact.  What Coates doesn’t explain in his column is just how the economy in the nine World Cup host cities managed to tank at the precise moment the matches were being played.  Apparently, the out-of-towners among the tournament’s record-3.6 million spectators walked everywhere, slept in local parks, fasted, and refused to buy any souvenirs.  Even if they did, their net effect on local economies would be zero, plus ticket revenue.

For more, go to . . .

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-coates-worldcup-20100907,0,3706974.story

 

 ARGENTINA AND ITS EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES 4, SPAIN 1

Argentina crushed newly crowned world champion Spain, 4-1, in a friendly in Buenos Aires at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium.  The hosts staged a clinic in the first half, taking a 3-0 lead on goals by Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez, who set up the first two strikes.  [September 7]

Comment: Among the Argentines turning Spain inside out was a trio of players rejected by 2010 World Cup coach Diego Maradona:  bad boy midfielder Ever Banega, defender Esteban Cambiasso and substitute forward Andreas D’Alessandro.  Sergio Batista has the job at the moment, but the match demonstrated that when it comes to a country drowning in talent like Argentina, the best coach is a faceless fellow devoid of ego who will simply call up the best possible squad, then get the heck out of the way.

 

 CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS CALLS IT A CAREER

Former star U.S. National Team striker Brian McBride announced today that he will retire at the conclusion of the Chicago Fire’s current season.  The 38-year-old Illinois native made 96 international appearances and scored 30 goals for the U.S.–third-best behind Landon Donovan and Eric Wynalda–and was the first American to score in two World Cups (1998 and 2002).  The No. 1 selection in the inaugural MLS draft, in 1996,  McBride played eight seasons for the Columbus Crew before moving to the English Premier League, where he scored four goals on loan to Everton and 40 for Fulham.  [September 3]

Comment: McBride skippered Fulham on numerous occasions–a rare distinction for an American–in recognition of his cool on the ball, work rate and resilience.  When McBride wasn’t scoring a clutch goal or ranging deep into his own half to help out on defense, he was getting clobbered for going up for balls other forwards wouldn’t dream of winning.  (And he almost always got back to his feet.)  He was sorely missed by the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup, not necessarily for the half-chances he might have turned into goals but for the example he would have set for an American team that needed the calming influence of the big man known during his days at Craven Cottage as “Captain Courageous.”

 

BOB ON THE JOB FOR FOUR MORE YEARS

Bob Bradley will stay on as U.S. National Team coach, signing a four-year contract extension with the U.S. Soccer Federation today that will keep him at the helm through 2014.  [August 31]

Comment: The USSF missed a golden opportunity to send the message that it expects more from its national team at the next World Cup.  The U.S. player pool doesn’t figure to improve markedly before Brasil ’14; the U.S., should it qualify, will need dumb luck to face the same collection of opponents in Brazil that it took on in South Africa; and Bradley, barring some sort of epiphany, is unlikely to be a much better coach than he was during his first four years in charge.  Like presidential second terms, don’t count on Bradley’s to end in triumph.

 

 WAS THIS MATCH NECESSARY?

A new-look Brazil cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory over the U.S. at the New Meadowlands Stadium before a near-sellout crowd of 77,223.  Two players controversially left off the Brazilian World Cup side, Neymar and Pato, scored for new coach Mano Menezes in the first half, and key saves by U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan, a halftime substitute, prevented the game from becoming a rout.  [August 10]

Comment: Why was this friendly even scheduled, aside from the chance for the U.S. Soccer Federation to take advantage of the last vestiges of World Cup fever and pocket a healthy gate?  Was it for coach Bob Bradley to trot out nine members of the 2010 World Cup team, a side that will look quite different by the time qualifiers for Brasil ’14 begin in two years?  Was it so we could all get another long look at the likes of Alejandro Bedoya, or to see the U.S. defense, now featuring promising newcomer Omar Gonzalez, shredded by the devil-may-care Brazilians?

Unlike nations preparing for the fast-approaching qualifiers for the 2012 European Championship, there was no urgent reason for the USSF to recall its top players from their clubs for such a match.  Leave them alone, decide whether Bradley will be in charge for another four years, then begin the methodical preparations for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the World Cup qualifiers.  Money may be the root of all, but not if it comes at the expense of the afterglow of what was a largely positive, memorable South African adventure.

 

 THAT INCURABLE GRUMP IS IN THE HALL OF FAME

Long-time World Soccer and Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner has been voted the sixth recipient of the Colin Jose Media Award, an honor created in 2004 to recognize the nation’s outstanding print and electronic media members and public relations professionals.  The English-born pharmacist-turned-journalist will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame along with U.S. World Cup veterans Thomas Dooley and Preki, recent USA coach Bruce Arena, and 1970s NASL goal-scorer Kyle Rote Jr., in a ceremony August 10 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey prior to the USA’s friendly against Brazil.  [August 3]

Comment: There was a time, in the 1980s and into the ’90s, when Soccer America provided the best in comic relief with its letters to the editor section.  Chances were, each week, a letter would appear ripping, pillorying, excoriating Paul Gardner for having criticized what was going on in the game.  The sport, for all its potential in this country, was a mess, particularly in the mid-80s, when the NASL had collapsed, indoor soccer threatened to become the favored form of the game and the USSF, which had badly fumbled its chance to host the 1986 World Cup, was a million bucks in the hole.  Gardner, to borrow a popular phrase from that decade, dished out tough love week after week from what back then was the only pulpit on the U.S. soccer landscape.

Heaven forbid there is anyone out there who has agreed with every Gardner column, but for more than three decades he has done his job:  provoking soccer fans in America to think and think hard about the game’s direction and those at the rudder.  If he has failed in any way, it has been in his refusal to dish out the pablum a generation of letter writers craved.

 

 INTO THAT BRAVE NEW WORLD OF OFFICIATING REFORM

The International Football Association Board, soccer’s rule-making body, today approved the use of extra officials positioned behind each goal line on an experimental basis for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League.  [July 21]

The move by the board’s technical sub-committee comes on the heels of a similar test conducted during last season’s Europa League, the continent’s second-tier club competition most recently known as the UEFA Cup.  Several other competitions, ranging from a women’s championship in Brazil to the Mexican first division and the UEFA Super Cup also will experiment with a total of six officials–referee, two linesmen, fourth official and the two extra pair of eyes.

Comment: While the world clamors for goal line technology, this will no doubt be dismissed as foot-dragging on the part of FIFA, which has already demonstrated its reluctance to embrace, much less consider, goal line technology.  It is, however, a measured, prudent approach to a situation that didn’t suddenly appear with Frank Lampard’s goal that wasn’t during the second round of the 2010 World Cup.  Officiating gaffes in the World Cup go all the way back to the first round of the inaugural tournament in Uruguay, when a Brazilian referee ended a match between France and Argentina six minutes early at the precise moment a French winger was enroute to what surely would have been the equalizing goal.  (The ref realized his error and got the two sides back on the field to complete the game, but the shaken French lost, 1-0).  This time, in South Africa, each World Cup match was covered by an unprecedented 29 cameras, bringing home the action in HD with super slo-mo replay and turning every viewer into an armchair–or barstool–official.  Fans saw not only how many non-fouls were actually fouls (and fouls that were not fouls) but simpler things like how many more corner kicks should have been awarded.

Let the six-official experiments run their course, and before anything is cast in stone in time for Brasil ’14, run some tests of goal line technology as well.  But keep in mind a 1995 study conducted by a University of Oxford team that examined computer-enhanced footage of Geoff Hurst’s controversial winning goal in the 1966 World Cup final.  (It concluded that the ball Hurst sent off the underside of the crossbar did not wholly cross the goal line.)  While the footage at the team’s disposal was crude by today’s standards, its study was not conducted while 22 players and tens of thousands of spectators waited for the verdict.

 

 WHATEVER IT IS, IT’S CONTAGIOUS

Forward Sydney Leroux scored from close range in the 70th minute and the U.S. forged a 1-1 tie with Ghana in Dresden to open the 2010 Under-20 Women’s World Championship.  [July 14]

Comment: Now the women have caught it.  The U.S. needed Leroux’s goal because, in what has become true American fashion, it allowed a long-range strike by Ghana’s Elizabeth Cudjoe in just the seventh minute.

Sound familiar?  At the World Cup in South Africa, the U.S. fell behind early in three of its four matches:  fifth minute against England, 13th against Slovenia, and fourth against Ghana on, yes, a shot from beyond the penalty area.  Is it the coaching?  A national character flaw?  Or is it just that the American player lately seems to need a cup of black coffee and a slap in the face before taking the field for what to any other player would be a very, very important match?

 

 AMERICAN AUDIENCE FOR WORLD CUP FINAL:  24.3 MILLION

A television audience of 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland.  ABC attracted 15.5 million and the Spanish-language network Univision 8.8 million.  That set a U.S. record for total number of viewers for a World Cup match, and ESPN/ABC experienced an overall viewership increase of 41 percent over the 2006 World Cup in Germany.  [July 13]

Comment: Those numbers vaulted the World Cup into lofty company, by American standards.  Those 24.3 million put the World Cup final on a par with the deciding games of the World Series (featuring baseball’s marquee club, the Yankees) and NBA finals (a dream matchup for basketball fans, the Lakers and Celtics).  And this for a match played not in prime time on a weeknight but on a Sunday afternoon.

What the numbers do not reflect, however, is how omnipresent South Africa 2010 was in this country; how, thanks to new technology and a hungry media looking for more eyeballs and ears, World Cup exposure in America exploded exponentially.

This was not Italia ’90, when TNT televised a few matches, complete with commercial breaks during the action and the color commentary of a British-born NFL placekicker.  It also wasn’t France ’98, when ESPN/ABC televised all 64 matches but went on air for most right at kickoff, missing the playing of the anthems and forcing the announcers to squeeze in the lineups during the first five minutes.  And it wasn’t Korea/Japan ’02, when many matches aired in the U.S. in the wee hours, thus losing countless potential viewers here.

This tournament got wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN/ESPN2/ABC, with pre- and post-game shows lasting almost as long as the matches themselves, as well as prime time replays for those who actually have to work during the day.  There also was Univision, televising its eighth consecutive World Cup from beginning to end, plus 25 games in 3-D on ESPN and plenty of talking heads on Fox Soccer Channel providing daily analysis.

Stuck in your car or otherwise unable to watch on TV?  ESPN Radio provided match coverage, and if your local ESPN radio affiliate didn’t carry your particular match, Sirius and XM satellite had the ESPN broadcasts, as well as those in German, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese and Korean.  Sirius XM also had daily highlight shows, as did ESPN Radio, the Futbol de Primera network and even National Public Radio.  And for those even further cut off, fans could keep up through streaming video on mobile devices (ESPN3.com and UnivisionFutbol.com).  Thanks to numerous free and paid apps, if you had a mobile phone, you had South Africa in your hand.

What it all meant was an American audience more engaged than during any previous World Cup.  Where once trying to experience a World Cup meant giving an effort unknown to, for instance, Super Bowl viewers, who get their premiere event on a Sunday in prime time in the dead of winter, following South Africa ’10 was, by comparison, almost easy.  And if there is not another technical advance between now and the next World Cup, Brasil ’14, with kickoffs at midday and mid-afternoon, U.S. time, will be even more accessible.  Look for more records to be shattered, no matter how the U.S. team (provided it qualifies) fares.

 

SPAIN 1, HOLLAND 0 (OT):  STYLE OVER SABOTAGE

Spain defeated Holland, 1-0, in overtime in Johannesburg to claim its first World Cup crown in a final marred by 47 fouls, a dozen yellow cards and one ejection.  Impish midfield wizard Andres Iniesta scored the winner in the 116th minute, sparing the world of a third championship decided on penalty kicks.  [July 11]

Comment: The better team won, but it was not a good day for soccer as the cynical Dutch did their level best to try to take the skillful Spaniards out of their game and nearly succeeded, committing 28 fouls that helped destroy any flow this game might have had.  Perhaps coach Bert van Marwijk’s side could be excused, to a certain extent:  it had watched Spain edge Germany, 1-0, in a semifinal in which the Germans showed their opponent far too much respect (nine fouls by Germany, seven by Spain, no cards shown) and no doubt concluded that playing nice was no solution.

In the end, Holland, for all its talent, added another chapter to a World Cup history that includes bitter disappointments at the 1974 and 1978 finals and the second round at Germany ’06, a disgusting match with Portugal made hard to forget for its 15 yellow cards and four red cards.  (Yes, Holland lost, 1-0.)  With these last two artless ousters, it will be hard to regard them as sentimental favorites in future World Cups.

 

THE NIKE CURSE

Portugal, a semifinalist four years ago, bowed tamely to Spain, 1-0, in its quarterfinal match in Cape Town.  [June 29]

Comment: Snapshot of Portugal’s unhappy World Cup adventure would have to be a petulant Cristiano Ronaldo, sitting on Spain’s half, after failing to draw a foul.  He remained there while his teammates scrambled to stave off a Spanish counterattack, drawing whistles and jeers from the crowd.

So Portugal goes home a loser, but the bigger loser was Nike, which managed once again to put all its eggs in the wrong basket, or baskets.

In 1998, Nike’s World Cup TV commercials featured Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, who went on to suffer convulsions a couple of hours before the final and turned in a listless performance in the 3-0 loss to France.  This time, Nike spotlighted Ronaldinho, who was not even selected to play for Brazil, Wayne Rooney, a goal-less disappointment for England, Franck Ribery, who sank along with his fellow French mutineers, and Portugal’s Ronaldo.

The lesson for Nike:  This isn’t golf (Tiger Woods) or basketball (Michael Jordan), this is soccer, a sport in which stuff happens and there is no such thing as a lead-pipe cinch.  It should be recalled that another Brazilian, Rivaldo, was in the midst of a long stretch on the FC Barcelona bench when he accepted his 1999 FIFA World Player of the Year award.  But that’s what makes soccer so appealing–no one is bigger than the game, and the man of a particular match could be a lowly substitute.

Comment, Part 2: For further proof that a crystal soccer ball is often useless, back on April 18, a major daily newspaper’s soccer writer listed, in order of importance, the 20 players to keep an eye on at the World Cup:  Lionel Messi, Xavi, Wayne Rooney, Luis Fabiano, Gianluigi Buffon, Fernando Torres, Wesley Sneijder, Franck Ribery, Andres Iniesta, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Iker Castillas, Carlos Tevez, Julio Cesar, Arjen Robben, Samuel Eto’o, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Essien.  Sub-par performances, early eliminations, injuries . . . well, he managed to get six out of 20 right and could have made it seven if he’d bothered to include the World Cup’s Golden Ball winner, Diego Forlan.  [July 12]

 

MORE TIME FOR POT SHOTS

Said U.S. Soccer chief Sunil Gulati at a World Cup wrap-up press conference in Johannesburg today:  “The team is capable of more.  The players know it.  (Coach) Bob (Bradley) knows it.  And so at that level we’re disappointed we didn’t get to play another 90 minutes at least.  It’s also a missed opportunity to stay in the public eye for another four, five, six days, maybe 10 days, when interest is at an all-time high.”  [July 28]

Comment: What the USA’s exit did was cue the critics back home–not the soccer experts but the sports columnists and commentators and Joe Six Pack who can’t stand soccer and regard a World Cup as their own personal quadrennial enema.

Until the loss to Ghana two days earlier, this had to be the most positive World Cup on record in that most pundits had clammed up, reluctant to make jokes about soccer when sports bars across the country were jammed with Americans cheering not the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots but a band of life-sized heroes wearing red, white and blue.  (The notable exception came after the last-gasp victory over Algeria, when two well-known columnists managed to find the following dark lining to the silver cloud:  This is America, so we shouldn’t be acting so giddy over beating a backwater country like Algeria; we’re ranked No. 14 in the world, so it is expected that we reach the round of 16.)

But with the U.S. eliminated, out came the knives.  After two weeks of blissful peace, letters to the editor of your local paper proclaimed soccer boring, pundits whose sports knowledge stopped at soccer were suddenly experts at flopping and goal-line technology, and in many quarters it was noted that a poll revealed that 40 percent of Americans surveyed said they wouldn’t follow the World Cup now that the U.S. was out (not that 60 percent said they would continue to tune in).  As during Germany ’06, the Jimmy Kimmel Show aired its World Cup “highlight” of the day (two or three passes by defenders on their own half of the field, although he could have just as easily goofed on gridiron football with a clip of a quarterback going down on one knee to kill the clock or basketball with a free throw miss two minutes into a game).

Gulati returns home with visions of what a meeting between the U.S. and Uruguay in the quarterfinals would have meant in the ongoing evolution of the sport here.  For those Stateside who enjoyed a couple of weeks in which those in this country who are quick to express their distain for soccer lay low, an extra six days of quiet would have been nice.

 

GHANA 2, U.S. 1 (OT)

The U.S. gave up two long-range strikes and saw its World Cup end in Rustenberg with a 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana in the round of 16.   Ricardo Clark once again played the goat, getting stripped of a ball in midfield that set up Kevin-Prince Boateng’s fifth-minute goal, and after Landon Donovan netted a penalty kick in the 62nd, Asamoah Gyan scored the game-winner three minutes into overtime.  [June 26]

Comment: The Americans finally went to the well one time too often and paid the price.  The World Cup is too grueling for a team to keep falling behind early and be able to summon the physical and mental strength to create late  miracles.  The U.S., renowned for its fitness, was a lumbering mass over the last hour of the game.  Striker Jozy Altidore was the poster child, and not far behind him were center backs Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, muscled out of the way by Gyan enroute to Ghana’s deciding goal.

Although Bob Bradley did exactly what he was hired to do–steer the U.S. through the World Cup qualifiers, win its first-round group  and advance to the knock-out rounds–his choices while in South Africa were questionable.  Do Robbie Findley, who has yet to score a goal for the U.S., and Clark hold compromising photos of their coach?  Why did adventurous midfielder Benny Feilhaber and forward Edson Buddle, the team’s hottest goal-scorer going into the tournament, languish on the bench for so long?

By U.S. standards, Bradley should be back for a run at Brasil ’14.  The U.S. Soccer Federation has a history of holding onto coaches who simply meet expectations.  However, it’s time to use this run to create some momentum, some buzz, over the next four years.  Having failed once in attempting to hire Juergen Klinsmann, the USSF should do what is necessary to nail down the German as U.S. coach.  A World Cup winner, U.S. resident, articulate in English–Klinsmann would give the USA’s next World Cup campaign the visibility and credibility deserving of a nation that just finished among the 16-best soccer-playing nations on the planet.

 

U.S.-ALGERIA TELECAST SHATTERS RECORDS

The dramatic match between the U.S. and Algeria was the highest-rated and most-watched soccer telecast in the history of ESPN, delivering a 4.6 rating, or 4,582,000 households and 6,161,000 viewers.  The previous record was set five days earlier with the U.S.-Slovenia game, which attracted 3,906,000 viewers.  The U.S.-Algeria showdown also was the most-watched weekday morning telecast in the history of ESPN, eclipsing the U.S.-Germany quarterfinal at Korea/Japan ’02 (4.4 and 5,335.000).  In addition, with 1.7 million unique viewers, the U.S. victory was the most-viewed single live event in the history of the Internet.  [June 23]

Comment: Just imagine the TV numbers if the folks who compile the ratings counted the thousands and thousands of Americans who were watching in groups in sports bars, restaurants and public places around the country.

Unfortunately, they don’t.  So watch the U.S.-Ghana match alone.

Of course you won’t.  Watching the U.S. in a World Cup is a communal experience, much like all those Super Bowl parties each winter.  But there can be no doubt that good TV numbers bring the sport in this country respect from the unconverted; with the average TV audience for the first three U.S. matches on ABC/ESPN/Univision up 68 percent from Germany ’06, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to make the claim that “nobody here cares about soccer.”  And the better the numbers, the more inclined ABC and ESPN are to continue to give soccer’s marquee events the first-rate treatment no one could have imagined just a few years ago.

 

 A PREMATURE THANK YOU, MR. COULIBALY

The U.S. clawed its way back from a two-goal deficit to earn a stirring 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Johannesburg and keep alive its hopes of advancing out of the first round.  [June 18]

Comment: The talk afterwards wasn’t about the Landon Donovan goal in the 48th minute that got the Americans off the deck or Michael Bradley’s equalizer in the 82nd.  It was all about the goal by Maurice Edu three minutes later that was disallowed by Mali referee Koman Coulibaly for a mysterious foul committed by an unnamed U.S. player in the penalty area as Donovan’s free kick from the right was on its way to Edu’s foot.

What the in-over-his-head Coulibaly managed to do with one untimely whistle was to get all–or a good portion–of America talking about the World Cup and its team.  It was among the top stories on that day’s network evening news programs, and photos of Edu and teammate Clint Dempsey, reacting to the call, were on the front page of major newspapers.

Had the goal been allowed, the 3-2 U.S. victory would have made for a nice sports story.  But while Americans don’t like to play the victim, they can be as indignant as anyone else.  As a result, people who had never heard of Landon Donovan were suddenly familiar with and talking about guys named Edu, Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra.

So a premature thank you, Mr. Coulibaly.  Of course, if the U.S. fails to advance out of Group C because of your deficiencies as a referee, you will go down in history with German midfielder Torsten Frings (goal line handball, 2002 World Cup quarterfinals) as one of the two men who did the most to slow the progress of soccer in this country.  But for the moment, you’ve shown that one blunder can get soccer more attention here than all the hype ESPN can muster and more.

 

 THE WORLD CUP’S STRAW MEN

Mexico rolled past France, 2-0, in a Group A match in Polokwane and can qualify for the Round of 16 with a draw with Uruguay in its final first-round game.

Comment: Javier Hernandez was offside on his goal and Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s penalty-kick goal was set up by a poor call on a tackle in the box by France’s Eric Abidal, but the better team won.  And Mexico deserves praise for showing in its first two games a positive style that other teams would do well to emulate.

As for France, it is the Scarecrow of South Africa because it’s theme song should be, “If I Only Had a Brain.”  That brain, of course, belongs to Zinedine Zidane.  Without him, the French are just another team.

Or make that the Tin Man.  Even before Blanco’s clincher, France showed very little heart.

 

 AN AMERICAN VICTORY ON THE TUBE

The U.S.-England match attracted approximately 16.8 million viewers in America–nearly 13 million via ABC and 3.8 million through the Spanish-language Univision.  That made it the fifth-most-watched World Cup broadcast on ABC since the 1994 final and beat the audience of 16.4 million for the fourth game of the NBA finals played two days earlier.  [June 13]

Comment: Imagine the numbers if this match had been played, like the NBA finals, in prime time, not midday on a Saturday when many potential viewers had things to do.

 

 ENGLAND 1, UNITED STATES  1

Comment: Now we know what The Sun, Britain’s tabloid rag, meant when it ran the now-notorious headline “England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks” (it spells E-A-S-Y)  in December, the day after the World Cup draw produced a Group C that featured the U.S. vs. England in the opener.

Apparently the clairvoyant Sun peered into its crystal ball and was describing Clint Dempsey’s shot at England goalkeeper Robert Green.  [June 12]

 

 SOUTH AFRICA 1, MEXICO 1

Comment: No World Cup should begin or end with a dud, and fortunately, this opener–not a meeting of giants–was a somewhat entertaining, wide-open affair once the host South Africans shook their early jitters.  The World Cup has a history of opening match stinkers, so it is hoped that this game sets a positive tone.  [June 11] 

 

‘QUICK DRAW’ REFEREE ASSIGNED TO U.S.-ENGLAND MATCH

Controversial Brazilian referee Carlos Eugenio Simon has been assigned by FIFA to officiate the June 12 World Cup match between the United States and England in Rustenburg.  Simon was once banned from refereeing in Brazil for six months for corruption, and over a three-game stretch in 2006 he showed 17 yellow and red cards.  Flamengo once sent FIFA a DVD of Simon’s more questionable calls, and Palmeiras chief Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo called the referee a “crook, scoundrel and a bastard.”

Comment: If Simon is as erratic and incompetent as his Brazilian critics claim, the U.S., with its history of ill-timed World Cup cautions and ejections, whether born of naivete or impetuousness, has much to fear.

On the other side of the field, so does Wayne Rooney.  England’s hot-headed, mercurial striker was praised this past season for limiting the number of cards he was shown to a mere eight.

 

LOOKING BEYOND THE FIRST ROUND, IF WE DARE

The U.S. defeated Australia in a wide-open match, 3-1, in Roodepoort in the final World Cup tune-up for both teams.  Edson Buddle, getting a start thanks in part to the ankle sprain suffered by Jozy Altidore, scored twice in the first half.  [June 5]

Comment: This was a very good result for the Americans, if we dare look beyond the first round.  (And why not?  At the moment, all 32 teams are still deadlocked at 0-0-0.).  In the Round of 16, the Group C winner will play the Group D runner-up on June 26 in Rustenburg; the Group C runner-up will play the Group D winner the next day at Mangaung/Bloemfontein.  It is imperative that the U.S. win Group C, of course, to avoid facing heavy Group D favorite Germany, although the youthful Germans’ stock has dropped with the loss of Michael Ballack to injury.  What makes winning Group C doubly important is who the U.S. would likely face instead of Germany:  the Michael Essien-less Ghana, the Nemanja Vidic-lead Serbia or Australia.  The Serbs and Socceroos have been variously picked to finish second or third.  If they do indeed meet the Aussies in the second round, the Americans will be facing a team it had beaten somewhat easily within the past three weeks.

But we get ahead of ourselves.  There’s a match of some import coming up on June 12, and what could be even bigger games on June 18 and June 23.

  

BLOW IT OUT YOUR VUVUZELA

The U.S. National Team arrived in Johannesburg after a 17-hour flight and was bussed some 20 miles outside town to the luxurious Irene Country Lodge, where it will begin final World Cup preparations.  The team was greeted warmly by hotel staff, who left a vuvuzela–the plastic horn common at South African soccer stadiums–in each player’s room.  [June 10]

Comment: Those vuvuzelas–and every other vuvuzela in the entire country–should be confiscated, dumped in South Africa’s largest landfill and covered with a least 100 feet of topsoil before June 11.

If not, this could go down as the most annoying World Cup in history.  The incessant din caused by vuvuzelas was a major irritation during last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, and we’re in for more.  It’s bad enough that they will drown out the rousing, colorful chants and songs of visiting teams’ fans, which are what make the atmosphere at a major soccer match so special.  What’s worse is that the vuvuzela has a range of one note, preventing the blower from doing anything interesting with his instrument.  So, at last year’s Confederation Cup, when South Africa got off a promising long-range shot in a first-round game against New Zealand, all the fans with vuvuzelas simply blew harder; what television viewers heard was not human sounds like a gasp or ringing cheers or the beginning of a raucous song but the dull drone of the vuvuzela–only louder.  It was as if someone had turned up the volume on the white noise of a TV channel that was off the air. 

 

EURO CHAMPIONSHIP OVERKILL

The UEFA has announced that France will host the 2016 European Championship, which for the first time will feature 24 nations.  [May 28]

Comment: Too much of a good thing.

The Continent’s original format, which called for eight finalist nations (1960-1992), was too small.  The expansion to 16 in 1996 was just right.  This expansion, however, is overkill.  Nearly half of all members of the UEFA will qualify for France ’16.  Do we really need to see Albania, Latvia, Andorra playing against Spain, Italy, Germany?

Maybe South America should follow suit and increase the number of finalists in its continental championship.  The Copa America at present features all 10 CONMEBOL members, plus guests Mexico and, occasionally, the U.S.  Then again, maybe not.  To expand, the nations of South America would either have to further open its competition to CONCACAF nations or start subdividing.

 

USA UNVEILS ITS WORLD CUP ROSTER

U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley announced his 23-man roster for the 2010 World Cup, one day after a 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic in a warm-up match in East Hartford, CT, and six days before the FIFA deadline. [May 26]

Comment: There were minor surprises, among them the inclusion of Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle, two forwards who don’t even appear in the annual USSF media guide that was published at the beginning of the year.  However, Gomez, capped only three times, was co-scoring champ during Mexico’s clausura season with 10 goals for Puebla, becoming the first American to lead any foreign league in goals. Buddle, who has never played a full match for the U.S. (45 minutes against the Czechs, 11 minutes in 2003 against Venezuela), has an MLS-leading nine goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Bradley couldn’t afford to ignore either man.

The loser that day was Brian Ching.  Hard-working, dangerous with his back to the goal, one of those strikers who has the ability to make those around him look good, Ching was also 32 years old and coming off a hamstring injury that cut into his average foot speed.  Bradley may rue his decision to leave out the experienced (45 caps) and productive (11 goals) Ching.  The beneficiary is the player who goes to South Africa instead, Real Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley.  Findley has made four appearances for the U.S. and is seeking his first international goal.

 

INTER MILAN VS. BAYERN MUNICH

Inter Milan and Bayern Munich will square off in the UEFA Champions League final today in Madrid, with both sides aiming to become only the sixth club to win the treble (national league, national cup and Euro cup).  [May 22]

Comment: Prediction:  Inter Milan 2, Bayern Munich 1, and Inter coach Jose Mourinho finally smiles. 

 

WORLD CUP PRELIMINARY ROSTERS:  USA IS THE TEAM WITH NO STARS TO SPARE Preliminary World Cup rosters were announced today, and among the big names who will experience South Africa ’10 from the livingroom couch are Ronaldinho of Brazil, Patrick Vieira of France, Francesco Totti of Italy and Ruud van Nistelrooy of Holland.  [May 11]

Comment: If there’s anything that underscores the United States’ high ceiling in international soccer it comes every four years when World Cup finalists reveal their team rosters.

This time around, the rejects include a two-time FIFA Player of the Year, Ronaldinho, and two world champions, Vieira and Totti.  These omissions carry on a World Cup selection tradition that was highlighted in 1998, when France coach Aime Jacquet decided that his team could win the World Cup it would host without peerless midfielder Eric Cantona and electrifying winger David Ginola.  As we all know, it did.

It’s moves like these that separate the U.S. from the world’s upper echelon.  Ronaldinho, at 30, and Vieira, Totti and van Nistelrooy, all 33, have been deemed too old for South Africa.  (For the record, the oldsters among the non-goalkeepers on the USA prelim roster are striker Brian Ching, 32 this month, and defenders Steve Cherundolo, 31, and Carlos Bocanegra, 31 this month.)  Were they American citizens, Ronaldinho, Vieira, Totti and van Nistelrooy would not only be on the final U.S. roster but in the starting lineup for the opener June 12 against England, birth certificates be damned.  And that would be one helluva team.

They are not, so a few have busied themselves in the weeks leading up to coach Bob Bradley’s unveiling of the U.S. prelim roster with speculation over whether Brian McBride, 37, should be pulled out of mothballs and paired up front with Charlie Davies, a man nearly killed last fall in a horrific traffic accident.  (The U.S. will be fine.  A front line of Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey is the best we have to offer, and if Altidore can hold onto the ball and if Dempsey can conjure up some magic, the U.S. will reach the knockout rounds.)

So while some U.S. fans (and pundits) fret about the present, it is obvious that the future is boundless.  The U.S. is No. 14 in the most recent FIFA World Rankings, and it has done it with a group of European-based players from the likes of AGF Aarhus, West Ham, Stade Rennes, Bolton, Hannover 06, Fulham and Borussia Moenchengladbach.  Oguchi Onyewu is with AC Milan and DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu are with Glasgow Rangers, but because of injuries and other factors they mostly train and sit and wait.

Someday, one of Bradley’s successors will draw on Americans starting–maybe even starring–for FC Barcelona or Inter Milan or Manchester United or Bayern Munich.  And he might have the luxury of making like Jacquet, or perhaps Argentina boss Diego Maradona, who isn’t about to call up standout Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme for his 2010 World Cup squad because the two don’t see eye to eye. But that’s for tomorrow.  For today, the U.S. can’t afford to kill off useful players in their early 30s and the U.S. coach can’t afford to spit on talent simply because of a difference of philosophies or a clash of personalities.  The underdeveloped giant known as the U.S. National Team goes to South Africa with the very best talent its country has to offer, no exceptions.

 

 SOUNDERS’ REFUND OFFER NOT A STROKE OF GENIUS

The Seattle Sounders offered their fans an apology in the form of a refund one day after the team suffered an embarrassing 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy before a club-record crowd of 36,273 at Qwest Field.  Sounder fans will be extended a one-game credit toward 2011 season-ticket packages.  [May 9]

Comment: Now in its 15th season, MLS is a league whose quality of play remains questionable in the eyes of many, and it will continue to be suspect until it can beat Mexican clubs in CONCACAF competitions and/or attract foreign stars in their prime.  This is no time for one of its franchises to proclaim, “We’re lousy and not worth paying to see.”  The Sounders have done a whole lot right, but this idea is a wrongheaded grandstand play.

 

PELE, MARADONA BURY HATCHET FOR A GOOD CAUSE:  QUALITY LUGGAGE

O Rey, El Pibe de Oro and Zizu–Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane–will appear together in a Louis Vuitton advertisement slated to run in several international magazines in June, just in time for kickoff of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  The trio were photographed by Annie Leibovitz enjoying a game of foosball in the Madrid bar Cafe Maravillas, with Zidane’s Louis Vuitton luggage in the background.  [May 2]

Comment: Pele and Maradona, shown in the ad standing side by side at the foosball table,  have had a rocky relationship over the years.  It reached its nadir in 1999 with FIFA’s botched Player of the Century balloting, which was conducted over the Internet.  Younger voters–that is, people who had seen plenty of Maradona on color TV and who are more computer savvy than their older, Pele-era counterparts–gave the Argentine icon a landslide victory, which was leaked to a Spanish newspaper.  Back-pedalling quickly, FIFA formed a committee of soccer officials, coaches and journalists which–surprise–voted Pele the greatest player of the 20th Century.  Maradona, meanwhile, was clumsily declared “player of the century, Internet.”  Drawn into the flap, Maradona called Pele an overrated player who didn’t have to endure the tough marking of the top European leagues; Pele countered that Maradona wasn’t even the greatest Argentine ever, naming Alfredo Di Stefano and Jose Manuel Moreno as better players.  At that year’s FIFA awards gala in Rome, Maradona dedicated his honor to all Argentines, his (soon-to-be-ex) wife, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and the world’s soccer players, then promptly left the building in a snub of Pele, who had yet to be presented his award.

Now, more than 10 years later, they stand together, smiling, like two old pals.  Maybe it’s the power of foosball.  Maybe it’s the power of fine luggage.  What it is not, however, is a miracle.  A miracle is an ad featuring Pele, Maradona, Zidane and Marco Materazzi.

 

BAYERN MUNICH A REASON NOT TO FORGET GERMANY THIS SUMMER

Bayern Munich, behind a hat trick by Ivica Olic, routed Olympique Lyon, 3-0, in France to take its UEFA Champions League semifinal by a 4-0 aggregate.  [April 27]

Comment: The coach (Louis van Gaal), captain (Mark van Bommel) and leading scorer (Arjen Robben) are Dutch; one defender (Daniel van Buyten) is Belgian; and its Champions League goal-scoring hero (Olic) is a Croat.  But make no mistake, Bayern Munich is a German team.  The hardworking, no frills approach, one incisive pass and a goal–the German script for decades, and Bayern Munich, virtually assured of its 22nd Bundesliga crown, is once again the best at it in Germany.

Keep Germany’s World Cup team  in mind, then, as Bayern approaches the May 22 final and a shot to win its first Champions League title in nine years.  London oddsmakers list Spain as the 4-1  favorite to win South Africa ’10, followed by Brazil at 5-1, England at 6-1 and Argentina at 8-1.  Defending world champ Italy, Holland and Germany are next at roughly 13-1 each.  There will be plenty of movement as the World Cup opener approaches, but at the moment the oddsmakers have undersold the Germans.  Odds aren’t about the best team or the prettiest team–they’re about who can reach the final, where anything can happen.  And like Bayern Munich, Germany has a history of reaching finals.  Seven, and counting.

 

INTER 3, FC BARCELONA 1

Inter Milan got the jump on FC Barcelona in the first leg of its UEFA Champions League semifinal, coming from behind to knock off the Spanish leader, 3-1, in the first leg at the San Siro.  Diego Milito set up goals by Wesley Sneijder in the 30th minute and Maicon in the 48th, then scored himself on a header in the 61st to cancel out a 19th-minute strike by Barca’s Pedro Rodriguez. [April 20]

Comment: Barcelona and Argentine superstar Lionel Messi did not score against Inter, nor did he score in Barca’s last Spanish league match three days earlier, a game at Espanyol in which no one scored.  Perhaps that will give us all a brief respite from the growing “Messi is God” chants that are expected to reach a crescendo June 12 when Argentina opens its 2010 World Cup run against Nigeria in Johannesburg.

Messi is arguably the greatest player in the game today, a 5-7 cyclone whose invention, marksmanship, unselfishness and breathtaking runs through traffic make him a delight to watch and a nightmare to mark.  He’s won a FIFA World Player of the Year trophy at age 22, and in 2009-10 alone he’s scored 40 goals, including eight in the Champions League.

However, this is soccer, a game in which there are no sure things when it comes to actual goal production, and the World Cup is a tournament, a version of the sport in which the leading goalscorer can be as unheralded as Salvatore Schillaci, the twice-capped surprise package of Italia ’90.

Surely Argentina is better than the team that struggled mightily to secure its World Cup berth, and if manager Diego Maradona can provide some leadership (or at least act like a grown-up while in South Africa), Messi will have more than just three chances to show off his tremendous talents.  However, like any top player, he will need the help of both the men around him and that unseen 12th teammate, Dame Fortune.  Adidas has been running TV commercials and print ads featuring Messi for months.  The last time a sporting goods giant built a pre-World Cup advertising campaign around a single player, it was Nike, the player was another FIFA World Player of the Year, Brazil’s Ronaldo, and the World Cup was France ’98.  We all know how that ended.

 

ANOTHER ITEM OFF MLS TO-DO LIST

Toronto FC defeated the expansion Philadelphia Union, 2-1, in its 2010 Major League Soccer home opener before a standing-room-only crowd of 21,978 at BMO Field.  [April 15]

Comment: The match marked Toronto’s first at home on natural grass after playing its first three seasons at BMO Field on a much-criticized artificial surface.  That’s one more step forward for the league as, one by one, it eliminates or alters venues that were not ideal for staging professional soccer games.

Meanwhile, the Union, which drew 34,870 at Lincoln Financial Field for its first-ever home game five nights earlier, will move into the new 18,500-seat PPL Park in Chester, PA, on June 27, giving MLS its ninth soccer-specific stadium.  The Union represents Philly’s fourth stab at pro soccer, following the NASL’s Spartans (1967), Atoms (1973-76) and Fury (1978-80), but if there are doubts that the Union will draw well–at least during this honeymoon period–consider that the membership of the team’s supporters club alone, the Sons of Ben, is 5,200.  That’s more than the turnouts for all but three of the Fury’s 16 home matches at Veterans Memorial Stadium during its last, unlamented season.

 

LACKLUSTER LOCAL TICKET SALES FOR SOUTH AFRICA ’10

FIFA revealed that a half million tickets are still available 10 weeks before the opening of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Those tickets will be offered to South Africans on April 15 in the fifth and final sales phase.  Organizers admit that while the limp global economy and security concerns have affected sales abroad, they erred in trying to sell tickets–some as cheap as $19–domestically via the Internet in a country where the average monthly income is $400 and, thus, the personal computer is a luxury.  [April 10]

Comment: Of the 2.2 million tickets sold, 925,437 have gone to South Africans.  Next is the United States, at 118,945.  The U.K. has purchased about half that, 67,654.  Germany, which played host to a successful World Cup four years ago, has accounted for just 32,269 tickets sold.

What looms as a box office disaster for FIFA and local organizers–especially if the South African team lives down to expectations and becomes the first host side eliminated in the  opening round–could be a boost for the USA’s bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.  (Among the contenders are Australia, Belgium/Holland, England, Japan, Russia, Spain/Portugal, Qatar and South Korea, the latter two aiming at 2022 only.)  With sluggish ticket sales being added to the list of concerns over this first African-hosted World Cup, the FIFA Executive Committee may very well wax nostalgic for 1994.

Though the World Cup has since been expanded to 32 teams and 64 matches, the 24-team, 52-game USA ’94 remains far and away the best-attended World Cup ever:  3,567,415 total spectators for a 68,604 average.  And as FIFA faces the prospect of seas of empty seats from Cape Town to Johannesburg, it also should recall that ’94 produced the best “worst” single-game turnout of any World Cup ever:  44,132 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas for Nigeria’s 3-0 win over eventual semifinalist Bulgaria.

 

DID MANCHESTER UNITED LOSE, OR DID BAYERN MUNICH WIN?

Bayer Munich won its UEFA Champions League quarterfinal series with Manchester United on away goals.  The first thing Fox Soccer Channel’s British announcer had to say after the final whistle at Old Trafford was, “Manchester United are out.”  One day earlier, in the moment after FC Barcelona eliminated Arsenal, FSC’s Brit man proclaimed, “Arsenal run out losers.”  [April 7]

Comment: Isn’t there another way of looking at it, such as “Three-time champion Bayern are into the semifinals” or “Cup holders Barcelona run out winners”?   Are the majority of FSC viewers fans of soccer, or just fans of the EPL?  (See March 5, ESPN/ABC’s World Cup announcers.)

 

MLS LOOSENS PURSE STRINGS, BUT WHAT’S IN THE PURSE?

Major League Soccer amended its so-called “Beckham Rule,” allowing teams to sign up to two “designated players” with only $335,000 counting against a club’s salary cap, down from the price tag of $800,000 since the rule was put in place in 2007.  (The rest of a designated player’s salary comes out of the owner’s pocket.)  In addition, a team may sign a third DP after it pays a fee of $250,000 that will be distributed to all teams with two DPs or fewer.  [April 1]

Comment: MLS certainly needs the pizazz of a few marquee players from abroad, and though this move represents a further crack in the salary cap, it hardly allows one club to go Cosmos on the rest of the league.   However, the league at present has hardly taken advantage of the Beckham Rule.  Only six DPs are scattered over five of MLS’s 16 teams, and just two of those teams–one of them the wildly successful Seattle Sounders–turned a profit last season.  At this rate, what good is a license to spend in a league of lookie-loos?

 

BARCA VS. GUNNERS

FC Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal series against Arsenal will kick off momentarily.  [March 31]

Comment: The defending champs, with more commitment than they showed in the previous round against VfB Stuttgart, will eliminate Arsenal by a 6-2 aggregate.