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HISTORIC, OR ANOTHER OF THOSE OCCASIONAL SPIKES ON THE GRAPH?

The U.S. National Team upset Italy, 1-0, in a friendly at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris to post its first victory over the Italians in 78 years.  Clint Dempsey rolled a shot from the top of the penalty area past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the 55th minute and the Americans, behind some stout defending, held on for their fourth consecutive win under new coach Juergen Klinsman.  [February 29]

Comment I:  The triumph was described in many quarters as historic, and given the fact that the U.S. went into the match with a 0-7-3 record against the Azzurri and had been out-scored, 32-4, over those 10 matches, the feat was indeed historic.  Italian commentators no doubt shrugged it off as an aberration.  Dempsey’s goal, they no doubt pointed out, came against the run of play–decidedly.  Italy out-shot the U.S., 19-4, and would have had more had the pesky Sebastian Giovinco and mates not been flagged for offside nine times (to the USA’s zero), mostly on hopeful balls lofted over the U.S. back line.  Italy also had the edge in corner kicks, 8-2, and Buffon was forced to make only one save to U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard’s seven, which included a clutch kick-save in the fourth minute.  This also wasn’t a full-strength Italian squad; neither could it be said of the U.S., but while the Americans remain sorely lacking in depth, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli could trot out a starting lineup heavy on players from Juventus, at the moment Serie A’s second-place club.   Moreover, all would agree that a better look at reality came in the teams’ last meeting, at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a competitive match in which Italy took the U.S. to school in a 3-1 win that left the Americans’ hopes in that tournament on life support.

So was this upset truly meaningful?  If so, the U.S. in recent years has enough such moments to fill a history book, starting with the 2-0 win over Mexico in the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals, and followed on a semi-regular basis by England 2-0 at U.S. Cup ’93,  Colombia 2-1 at the 1994 World Cup, Argentina 3-0 at the 1995 Copa America, Brazil 1-0 at the 1998 Gold Cup semifinals, Germany 2-0 at the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, Portugal 3-2 at the 2002 World Cup, and the biggest of all, World-Cup-champion-to-be Spain 2-0 at the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals. 

The best way to describe what happened in Genoa is to suggest that the U.S. further cemented its reputation as a team capable of anything at anytime, an erratic opponent who’s a no-win proposition for the world powers.  Why should they relish facing an opponent they’re expected to beat when, on the odd day, they’ll fall victim to grit, fitness and just enough skill to get the job done?  At the same time, this giant killer can’t get past the mid-level teams on a consistent basis, as it demonstrated in its 1-0 loss to Belgium in Brussels in September, Klinsmann’s third match in charge.

What may have been most noteworthy about Italy 0, U.S. 1 is that Klinsmann stuck his neck out and agreed to have the game scheduled at all.  He rolled the dice in Genoa and won with a conservative 4-5-1.  His 4-4-2 may come and go, depending on the opposition and the circumstances, but it’s clear that he intends, as he’s said, to pull the Americans out of their “comfort zone” and tap into the bravura and blue-collar characteristics that made the U.S. job so appealing to the German in the first place.  In sum, Klinsmann with nothing to lose, the fellow hired to be the anti-Bob Bradley.

Comment II:  Klinsmann’s boldness crossed a line when he substituted a spent Jozy Altidore with Terrence Boyd. a striker who has yet to work his way from the Borussia Dortmund reserves into the club’s first team.  Boyd was clearly a fish out of water, and it can be gently said that he was lucky not to be shown a yellow card for a high foot a few minutes into his 11-minute cameo.  A 21-year-old kid making his debut against Italy in a one-goal game?  There are limits.

Comment III:  It’s been nearly 20 years since Nike took over for adidas as the national teams’ outfitter, and it still hasn’t gotten it right.  The same company that has repeatedly ruined Brazil’s classic jersey–and those of the countless other national teams and prominent clubs it has come to sponsor–dressed the U.S. for its Italy match in something that could best be described as a bad version of Arsenal in navy blue.  In fact, it simply looked like the Americans had their sleeves ripped off, revealing their white long underwear.  Fortunately, the U.S. played better than it looked, sartorially speaking.  

Comment IV:  On one day, the U.S. National Women’s Team routed Denmark, 5-0, in Portugal in its Algarve Cup opener; the U.S. National Under-23 Team blanked Mexico’s U-23s, 2-0, in Dallas in an Olympic qualifying tune-up; and the U.S. National Team shocked Italy, 1-0, in a friendly in Genoa.  Oh, and the Mexican National Team bowed to Colombia, 2-0, in a friendly in Miami.

It won’t take away the sting of a day like June 25 last year, when Mexico thumped the U.S., 4-2, at the CONCACAF Gold Cup final … but for American fans, it doesn’t hurt.

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EX-WORLD CUP REFEREE BUSTED FOR HEROIN

Former FIFA referee Byron Moreno, a hated figure in Italy for calls he made in the 2002 World Cup that helped eliminate the Azzurri, was arrested in New York by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after he was caught at JFK Airport with more than 10 pounds of heroin.

Moreno had arrived in New York on a commercial flight from his native Ecuador when the heroin was discovered during a routine search.  Moreno “became visibly nervous” during the inspection, and agents eventually found 10 plastic bags attached to his stomach, back and legs.  A federal judge in Brooklyn ordered him held without bail on a drug smuggling charge.

The news of the arrest was greeted in Italy with another round of derision.

“I think Moreno already had the (heroin) in 2002, but not in his underwear–in his body,” said Gianluigi Buffon, who was the goalkeeper the day Moreno’s controversial decisions allowed World Cup co-host South Korea beat Italy in overtime.  “Joking aside, when sports people get involved in drug cases it means they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.  It also means they’ve lost the real meaning of the sport, which is also to save kids from the street and various dangers, like drugs.”  [September 21]

Comment: An opportunity to run an excerpt from the “Referees” chapter in Soccer Stories, entitled “The Curious Officiating of Byron Moreno”:

          Soccer is the most international of games.  In what other sport could an Ecuadoran cause nationwide joy in South Korea and despair throughout Italy on a single day?

          Byron Moreno is the Ecuadoran, a referee whose questionable work during South Korea’s 2-1 victory over the favored Italians in Daejeon in the second round of the 2002 World Cup arguably altered the outcome of the tournament.

          The then-three time champions were ahead, 1-0, on a headed goal by striker Christian Vieri in the 18th minute and doing what they do best, protecting a slim lead.  The only bump in Italy’s road came back in the fourth minute when a debatable penalty kick was awarded to Korea, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon saved off the foot of striker Ahn Jung-Hwan.  In the 88th, however, Seol Ki-Hyeon slipped in, pounced on a misplay by defender Christian Panucci, and beat Buffon with a low shot to level the score.

           Thirteen minutes into overtime, it all began to unravel for Italy as playmaker Francesco Totti dived in the penalty area and was shown a second yellow card by Moreno for attempting to draw a penalty kick.

          The shorthanded Italians then had a seemingly valid goal by midfielder Damiano Tommasi nullified by Moreno for offside.  Given new life, the Koreans finally produced the winner three minutes from the end of extra time when Lee Young-Pyo floated a cross onto the head of Ahn, who nodded in the golden goal.

          More than a million Koreans flooded downtown Seoul in the biggest of the impromptu celebrations staged throughout a country where seemingly everyone was wearing a bright crimson “Be The Reds” T-shirt.  Many of the revelers linked the South Korean triumph of 2002 to the North Korea upset of Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

          In Italy, the reaction was quite different.

          “Shame!” and “Thieves” read the headlines in Italy’s leading sports dailies, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, and Italian commentators suggested that Moreno was part of a plot by FIFA to prevent a fourth Italian world championship and/or to deliver South Korea, the tournament co-host, into the quarterfinals.  One Italian town named a row of toilets after Moreno.

          Italians were already in a snit over the officiating during their team’s earlier 2-1 loss to Croatia, a result that left Italy second to Mexico in its group.  A first-place finish would have pitted Italy against what was believed to be a soft touch, the United States, in the second round.

           “Italy has been thrown out of a dirty World Cup, where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen,” read a commentary in the normally reserved Corriere della Sport.

          FIFA, which selected Moreno to work the match, received approximately 400,000 e-mails from fans of Italy regarding the state of the officiating at the Korea-Italy game, causing the world soccer governing body’s server system to crash.  A FIFA spokesman described the e-mails as “virulent, some quite abusive, some of them very threatening, some of them quite disturbing.”

          Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter seemed to believe that Moreno and his brother referees had it out for the Azzurri.  “Unfortunately, through exceptional circumstances and coincidences, numerous and consecutive errors were concentrated on the Italian team,” he said.

          So the 32-year-old Moreno went home in disgrace.  He wasn’t quite done, however.

          That September, Moreno was still refereeing–and running for a seat on the Quito city council.  While working an Ecuadoran league match between Liga Quito and Barcelona of Guayaquil in Quito, he awarded a hotly disputed PK to each team, ejected two players, and disallowed a goal he originally OK’d.  The topper:  With 90 minutes gone, Barcelona was leading, 3-2, and Moreno signalled for six minutes of stoppage time.  Unfortunately for the visitors, Moreno extended stoppage time for a total of 13 minutes and Liga scored in the 99th and 101st minutes to pull out a 4-3 win.

           Exasperated by the performance of its supposed top referee–and by the perception that he was trying to capitalize on his exposure as a ref to win public office–the Ecuadoran soccer federation suspended Moreno for 20 games.

          Within weeks, FIFA began an investigation “as a result of a number of controversies regarding referee Byron Moreno in Japan, Italy, and South America over the past few months . . . .”  At the new year, he was dropped from FIFA’s list of international referees.

           In May 2003, three matches after his 20-game suspension ended, Moreno was at it again, ejecting three Deportivo Quito players during a league match at Deportivo Cuenca.  All three were sent off for being cautioned twice.  Quito somehow survived, holding Cuenca to a 1-1 draw.

          The Ecuadoran referees’ association finally had enough and booted Moreno out in 2004 when it was discovered that he was officiating regional tournaments without authorization.