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THE PUTIN WORLD CUP: ENTERTAINING, BUT NO CLASSIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.]