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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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RUSSIA ’18 THUS FAR

Sweden edged Switzerland, 1-0, in St. Petersburg on a deflected shot by Emil Forsberg and England outlasted Colombia in Moscow, 4-3 on penalties after an ill-tempered 1-1 draw to close out the Round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.  Joining the Swedes and English in the quarterfinals are France, Uruguay, Russia, Croatia, Brazil, and Belgium. [July 3]

Comment I:  It has been a World Cup marked by upsets, stoppage-time goals, saved penalties, own goals, and it heads into the final eight with the prospect of a true outsider reaching the final.  On one side of the brackets there’s Friday’s quarterfinalists,  France (7) vs. Uruguay (14) in Nizhny Novgorod and Brazil (2) vs. Belgium (3) in Kazan; on the other side, Saturday brings Sweden (24) vs. England (12) in Samara and Russia (70) vs Croatia (20) in Sochi.

Those numbers in parentheses are the FIFA World Rankings heading into the tournament.  The total for the Friday bracket:  26, with three former champions, eight World Cup trophies among them.  The Saturday total:  126, with one former champion, England.

For those who see an insidious FIFA conspiracy at every World Cup draw, this imbalance is one for the books.  If Belgium is to be considered an outlier because it’s never lifted the trophy, the only World Cup that’s come closer to a final with two outsiders was in 2002, when eventual champion Brazil and runner-up Germany spared us a final between eventual third-place finisher Turkey and host South Korea.

Comment II:  Russia ’18 has been a disaster for CONCACAF, the regional confederation whose teams have reached the semifinals only once (U.S. in 1930, the inaugural World Cup) and whose only first-round group seeds have come when it was hosting the tournament (Mexico 1970 and 1986, U.S. 1994).

Costa Rica, whose remarkable run to the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil was CONCACAF’s highlight, was shut out by Serbia and Brazil before meekly bowing out of Group “E” with a draw with Switzerland.  World Cup debutant Panama also finished last in its group, losing to Group “G’s” Belgium 3-0, England 6-1 and Tunisia 2-1.

The region’s Great Green, White and Red Hope, Mexico, lifted expectations by upsetting defending champion Germany, 2-1, and South Korea, 2-1, but it was put in its place by Sweden, 3-0, to finish second in Group “F.”  That proved fatal to El Tri, which faced Brazil, not Switzerland, in the second round and succumbed as expected, 2-0.  Mexico’s surprise defeat of Germany would’ve been more impressive had the South Koreans not followed with a 2-0 victory over the Germans.  Those results said a whole lot more about the defending champs’ impotence than anything about perceived Mexican might.  And then there was Mexico’s going scoreless over its final 204 minutes.

The good news is that FIFA now bases its World Cup group seeds on the top eight teams in the world rankings at the time of the draw, not on a team’s–or a region’s–reputation.  The bad news is that rankings are based largely on competitive matches, and in this case that means unimpressive CONCACAF teams playing one another.

This bodes ill for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.  As for the 2026 World Cup in North America, CONCACAF once again gets seeds not based on merit:  tri-hosts Mexico, U.S. and Canada are each automatically seeded in a tournament bloated to 48 teams.  But today begins with Mexico’s elimination.  Tomorrow is eight years away.

Comment III:  TV viewers have enjoyed a relatively seamless transition from Brasil ’14, when the tournament was covered for the sixth straight time by ABC/ESPN, to Russia ’18.  Fox/FS1 raided ESPN of some of its soccer talent, but the network that swung and missed earlier with hyper basketball play-by-play man Gus Johnson plowed ahead and blew it again by plaguing us with the clown prince of soccer, Jorge Perez Navarro.

Fox apparently figured it was worth the risk to possibly annoy non-Navarro fans in the hopes that he could draw more fans of El Tri.  Wrong.

The numbers are in and Fox and FS1 averaged 2,069,000 viewers for its 48 group-stage matches, according to Nielsen Media Research, down 42 percent from the 3.54 million average by ABC/ESPN in Brazil.

Blame the absence of the U.S. from the tournament and kickoff times much earlier–particularly 5 a.m. kickoffs on the West Coast–than four years ago.  So why did U.S. fans have to endure the added insult of El Tri cheerleader Navarro while trying to watch games involving Mexico?

It came as no surprise based on earlier appearances on Fox, but Navarro was loud, silly and unabashedly partisan.  It was bad.  He referred to Mexico as “we,” not “they.”  He offered virtually no information on Mexico’s opposing players while regaling viewers with factoids on the Mexican players, all the while referring to them by their nicknames, as if they were Navarro’s close personal friends.  Another network would remind Navarro that it’s all about the game, not the announcer, but Fox knew what it was getting when it went out and got him.

Based on on-line comments, there are those who enjoy Navarro’s “enthusiasm” and regard the typical soccer play-by-play man in America as best suited to be calling a golf tournament.  But if they need a frenetic delivery and these unprofessional antics to stay tuned, they’d have a great deal of trouble getting through a well-played scoreless draw without him.

What’s unfortunate is that Fox takes this leap at a time when it rounded up solid announcers in Americans John Strong, Glenn Davis and JP Dellacamera, plus Scotsman Derek Rae.  (Reports say Fox cut back on its Russia ’18 budget after the U.S. was eliminated, so no sign of ESPN mainstays Ian Darke or Adrian Healy.).  The stable of soccer announcers here has improved considerably since the days when World Cups were called by baseball announcers paired with American college coaches.  At the same time, the viewership is much more knowledgable than it was two dozen years ago, when ABC/ESPN first provided wall-to-wall World Cup coverage.  What was unfortunate here was that Mexico fans and neutrals were going to watch El Tri regardless of the announcer.  No one tuned in because of Navarro–and some had to tune in in spite of him.



50 DAYS TO OUR RED, WHITE AND GREEN 2018 WORLD CUP

The 2018 World Cup kicks off in 50 days, on Thursday, June 14, when host Russia meets Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s 80,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium in a Group “A” match.  The 32-nation, 64-match tournament concludes Sunday, July 15, with the final back in Moscow.

Among the favorites, according to Las Vegas bookmakers, are Germany (9-2), Brazil (5-1), France (11-2), Spain (7-1), Argentina (8-1) and Belgium (12-1).  Hometown favorite Russia is a 30-1 pick; Saudi Arabia is at the bottom at 1,000-1.

And among the missing are four-time champion Italy, three-time finalist Holland and, for the first time since the Reagan Administration, the United States.

Comment:  The World Cup will be televised in the U.S. by the Fox network, a first after six in a row by ABC/ESPN.

Viewers with cable can also watch the games on the Fox Sports GO app on their iOS or Android phones, or on their Apple TV, FireTV, Roku, Chromecast and Xbox.

Telemundo Deportes, the Spanish-language sports network, will also air matches on its network and Universo, as well as online.

But for most American fans, big Fox (the one you get without cable or, possibly, rabbit ears) and Fox Sports will be their World Cup destination.  So here’s the promo that’s been airing on Fox’s recent European Champions League, Bundesliga, and English F.A. Cup telecasts as Russia ’18 approaches:

Fox’s Alexi Lalas (his image superimposed on a Matryoshka doll) :  “The most anticipated event on the planet is coming, and here on Fox, we’re all about El Tri.”

[Cut to Mexico game highlight]

Fox Deportes’ Mariano Trujillo: “This is gonna be epic.”

[Cut to Mexico game highlight]

Fox Deportes’ Fernando Fiore:  “If you breathe all things Mexico, this is your home for the 2018 World Cup.”

Lalas:  “Fox and FS1, official home of El Tri.”

This is one more harsh reminder of what it’s like in America when the U.S. doesn’t qualify for a World Cup.

And Fox is getting it wrong on all three fronts.

First, fans of El Tri in the U.S. won’t rely on Fox or FS1 or FS20 for its World Cup coverage.  They’ll watch Telemundo.

Second, viewers with an allegiance to other national teams, whether they’re Nigeria, Brazil or Serbia, will tune out any extra Mexico coverage.  They will not be drawn by it, they will tolerate it at best.

Third, die-hard U.S. fans still licking their wounds over the USA’s failure to qualify will resent any sort of favoritism shown by Fox toward the Mexican National Team.  Fox couldn’t be more tone deaf in this regard.  U.S.-Mexico in soccer has developed, since the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup, into the USA’s biggest international sports rivalry, and for Fox to assume that U.S. soccer fans will swallow four weeks of red, white and green–well, the two weeks before Mexico is eliminated in the second round yet again–is beyond insult.

 

 



WE DIDN’T TELL YOU SO–WE WARNED YOU SO

As expected, Bruce Arena announced his resignation as U.S. National Team coach, four days after he watched his side fall in shocking fashion to Trinidad & Tobago, a defeat that cost America a berth in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Needing only a tie in its final CONCACAF qualifier to punch its ticket, the U.S. gave up two first-half goals in a 2-1 loss at Couva. The Americans then tumbled from third place in the six-nation competition to fourth and ultimately fifth place minutes later as Panama and Honduras, playing simultaneous matches, both won to move up.  The top three nations–Mexico, Costa Rica and the Panamanians–qualify for Russia automatically and the fourth-place finisher, Honduras, advances to a home-and-home playoff with Australia.

“No excuses,” said Arena in his resignation statement.  “We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”

Arena, who guided the U.S. to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, including a quarterfinal appearance in ’02, was hired to be Mr. Fix-It after Juergen Klinsmann was dismissed in November following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to open the hexagonal playoff.  The winningest coach in U.S. history at 81-32-35, Arena went 10-2-6 in his second go-round but only 3-2-3 in the USA’s remaining World Cup qualifiers.  [October 13]

Comment I:  We didn’t tell you so, but we warned you so.

Go back to our August 18, 2015 post (“Don’t Put the U.S. Cart Before the World Cup Horse”).  It was inspired by the cocksure attitude in the U.S. soccer community that its team was a rubber stamp to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.  At issue was whether the U.S. or Mexico, CONCACAF’s previous two Gold Cup winners, would win a playoff to secure a spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.  From all quarters came the description of the Confederations as “a valuable warm-up for the World Cup,” as if both countries had already qualified with the Hex still more than 12 months away.  After all, they’d piled up 13 World Cup berths between them since 1990, and Mexico probably would’ve qualified for Italia ’90 had it not been barred by FIFA for using an over-age player in a youth competition.

The post reminded readers of the progress being made by the nations behind the Yanks and El Tri, and above all it recalled Mexico’s near-miss four years earlier, when it was seconds from being eliminated until the U.S. threw it a lifeline with two goals in stoppage time for a comeback win over Panama.  The red-faced Mexicans humbly accepted the gift and went on to qualify for Brazil ’14 by beating Oceania’s New Zealand in a playoff.  Four years ago the impossible was possible for a matter of seconds, and now, as of the evening of October 10, 2017, the seemingly impossible has indeed become reality.

The lesson out of The Disaster of Couva:  A World Cup berth isn’t a given.  It’s precious.

Comment II:  Seven consecutive World Cup appearances.

If there was any justification for the confidence here that a World Cup berth had become an American birthright, it is that remarkable run of success.  It’s a boast perennial powers like Holland, Uruguay and England can’t make.  Only six other nations had done it since 1990:  Brazil (five world championships), Germany (four), Italy (four), Argentina (two), Spain (one) and South Korea, which seemingly owns Asia.  The U.S. staggered into Italia ’90, making its first World Cup appearance in four decades, and it made it automatically in 1994 as host nation, but it’s been soccer’s version of a cakewalk since.  CONCACAF may have the world’s ugliest, most contentious qualifying competition, but the U.S. was given a golden path with FIFA’s decision to expand France ’98 from 24 teams to 32, thus increasing the number of berths allotted to CONCACAF from two to three.  Suddenly, regional qualifiers here were no longer a contest to see which countries would be fighting for the one scrap left behind by mighty Mexico.

So where does this hubris leave us?  Next June and July, there will be no outdoor viewing parties for thousands of fans at cities throughout the country for a U.S. National Team.  Fox, which spent more than $400 million for the rights to the next two World Cups, won’t experience the bump ESPN did in 2014 when 18.2 million Americans tuned in for the USA’s first-round draw against Portugal–a figure larger than the domestic audience of 17.3 million for the Germany-Argentina final.  The dominoes that will fall will include sponsorship and endorsement dollars not realized.  You’ll see small headlines, not big headlines, in your newspaper’s sports section, and no special insert devoted to rising young star Christian Pulisic, ol’ reliable Clint Dempsey and the boys.  The day’s World Cup results may be the last thing mentioned on your local TV news’ sports report, if it’s mentioned at all.  In short, your mother-in-law and the stranger in line at the grocery store won’t ask you about the World Cup and whether our guys can win their next match.

Worst of all, there’s a big slice of an entire generation of young players who won’t get that extra inspiration that comes from watching their country play for a world championship.  When you’re age 10, eight years is a lonnnnnng time.

Comment III:  What happened?

U.S. fans will be asking that well into the future.  With its fate in its hands, the U.S. played without urgency long enough for Omar Gonzalez to score in the 17th minute what will now be known as the most notorious own goal in American history, followed by a 35-yard bomb in the 37th by Alvin Jones that beat 38-year-old ‘keeper Tim Howard high inside the far post.  Pulisic, the USA’s 19-year-old wunderkind, pulled one back with a right-footed drive from the penalty arc two minutes after intermission, but would-be savior Dempsey was denied an equalizer in the 69th by goalkeeper Glenroy Samuel’s leap and by the right goal post seven minutes later.

Where was the U.S. side that ran wild four nights earlier in a 4-0 rout of desperate Panama in the penultimate qualifier in Orlando?  Arena started the exact same 11 in Florida, so was it fatigue?  Was the U.S. subconsciously playing for a draw?  Only savvy teams like Italy know how to play for a tie on demand.

Whatever it was, what happened elsewhere wasn’t much of a surprise.  Costa Rica had already clinched second place in the hex, so its 2-1 loss at Panama City on a controversial late goal wasn’t much of an upset.  Mexico had already clinched first, so its seesaw 3-2 defeat at San Pedro Sula didn’t do much to dent El Tri pride.

No, the major surprise was in Trinidad & Tobago.  Because of electrical problems, the U.S. match had been moved an hour south of the national stadium in Port of Spain to a modest 10,000-seat track and field facility.  Just as well.  With the Soca Warriors long since eliminated, the turnout at Couva resembled a crowd for a junior college match.  In fact, an attendance figure was not released.  It was virtually a neutral site.  Certainly T&T was playing with absolutely nothing to lose.  But U.S. fans have to question the fortitude of a team playing what was becoming a do-or-die game devoid of the horrors of qualifying on the road in CONCACAF.

Comment IV:  What now?

Most of the focus is on the man who hired Klinsmann and then Arena, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  He’s up for re-election after three campaigns in which he ran unopposed.  The two fellows expected to run against him in February are relative unknowns.  What Gulati has in his favor is his influence as a player in the high stakes world of international soccer.  A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, he sits on the powerful FIFA Executive Council (formerly the Executive Committee), he was instrumental in getting Gianni Infantino elected FIFA president, and he’s leading the Canada/U.S./Mexico campaign to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first 48-nation World Cup in history.  It should be noted, however, that the North American trio’s lone opponent for ’26 is Morocco, which would have trouble adequately accommodating a 16-team competition.  It is not imperative, then, that Gulati remain U.S. Soccer’s chief executive.

Whoever wins this winter, it is hoped that the new president shows patience.  There’s no clear successor to Arena waiting in the wings here in America.  Come the final whistle at next year’s World Cup, there will be plenty of qualified coaches who either stepped down or were pushed from their post, and many will be interested in a job where the resources are ample, the players are promising if not international stars and the only goal is not to work miracles but just right a ship that’s badly listing.  Oh, and unlike back home, the public pressure is minimal.

 

 



THE MIRACLE OF THE CAMP NOU: A CATALONIAN TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

FC Barcelona engineered the greatest comeback in European Champions League history, shocking Paris Saint-Germain, 6-1, before a jubilant, disbelieving crowd of 96,000 at the Camp Nou to advance to the quarterfinals on a 6-5 aggregate.

Barcelona scored three goals after the 87th minute, with substitute Sergi Roberto netting the deciding goal in the fifth minute of add-on time.

PSG was all but assured of an upset decision after humbling the Spanish giants, 4-0, three weeks earlier in its home leg.  It was a humiliation that prompted Barcelona boss Luis Enrique to confirm that he will leave at season’s end, saying the job had “exhausted” him.

Barca got its comeback underway with a headed goal by Luis Suarez in the third minute.  Three minutes before the intermission, Andres Iniesta worked some magic in tight quarters at the end line that forced an own goal by PSG’s Layvin Kurzawa, and in the 50th minute Lionel Messi converted a penalty kick drawn by Neymar.  But in the 62nd, Edinson Cavani scored to give the French side a 5-3 overall lead and a precious road goal as the Camp Nou balloon deflated.

But in the 88th minute, Neymar ignited what became the second comeback of the evening with a magnificent free-kick strike from the left that dipped inside the near post.  A minute later, Neymar converted a penalty kick after Suarez was pulled down in the box.  Barca 5, PSG 1, and the aggregate tied at 5-5.  And in the dying moments of stoppage time, the Brazilian striker’s chipped pass enabled Roberto to beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp for the winner.  [March 8]

Comment:  Perhaps the greatest rally by a great team in an important competition ever.

There have been several “back from the dead” performances in huge matches.  Liverpool’s epic “Miracle of Istanbul,” its PK victory over AC Milan after falling behind, 3-0, in regulation in the 2005 European Champions League final, comes to mind.  In the World Cup, you could start with the 1982 semifinals and West Germany’s resurrection in extra time against a fine French team to erase a two-goal deficit and force a winning shootout.

But there’s that qualifier, “great team.”  The 2005 Liverpool team couldn’t match the talent and accomplishments of its Reds brethren from the 1970s and ’80s; the banged-up Germans, featuring Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Paul Breitner, Uli Stielike, Felix Magath and Pierre Littbarski, were dispatched by Italy in the ’82 final.

Barcelona is a great team, the greatest club side of our generation.  It’s Hungary’s “Magic Magyars” of the early 1950s, Brazil from the late 1950s to ’70, clubs like the late ’50s Real Madrid, the early ’60s Santos led by Pele, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich in the ’70s, AC Milan of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and, yes, this current version of Real Madrid starring Cristiano Ronaldo.  Since 2005 it has won four Champions League titles, three FIFA Club World Cups, three European Super Cups, eight Spanish La Liga crowns, four Copas del Rey and seven Spanish Super Cups.  (It leads La Liga by a point over Real Madrid with a dozen matches remaining.)  But what will be remembered is how players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi (now riding into the sunset with a Qatari club) turned soccer into art, and that art into hardware.

And that’s why this stunning victory–without the need for overtime or a penalty-kick tiebreaker–over Paris Saint Germain was the most impressive by any team, anywhere, anytime.  Indeed, the ball bounced Barca’s way a few times:  German referee Deniz Aytekin falling for yet another instance of Suarez acting as though he’d been shot in the area by a sniper, thus setting up Neymar’s late PK; Aytekin finding an extra five minutes to tack onto the game’s end with the home side in need; the free kick drawn inside the PSG half by Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen ahead of the sequence that led to Roberto’s winner; a performance by Ter Stegen’s counterpart, Trapp, that won’t qualify for any goalkeeping instructional videos.  It’s better to be lucky than good.  And Barcelona on this night benefited from the “style-be-damned” teachings of Enrique, who, with Messi, Suarez and Neymar at his disposal, has nevertheless steered his team to a more direct approach.  But after watching FC Barcelona over the past decade run over La Liga teams, pick apart Champions League opponents with precision, it was impressive–perhaps unsettling, even–to see that this team can reach back and will its way to an unlikely triumph.  It’s as if Picasso momentarily turned his brush into a switchblade.

 



OUR BRAVE NEW BLOATED WORLD . . . CUP

The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams.

The move from 32 teams to four dozen was approved unanimously by the FIFA governing council, an expansion of world soccer’s championship tournament that was welcomed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but criticized by others as another cynical, money-driven effort by an organization still in the throes of a financial and ethical scandal.

The percentage of the expansion will be the largest ever, from the original 16 (1930-78) to 24 (1982-94) to 32 (1998-2022).  More teams mean more matches, in this case an increase from 64 games to 80.  It also means greater revenue:  the 2018 World Cup in Russia is expected to pull in $5.5 billion through television rights, sponsorships and tickets; the 48-nation ’26 cup will bring in an additional billion.  Some of the expected increased profit–approximately $640 million–will find its way into the coffers of soccer’s six continental confederations and–presumably–on to FIFA’s 211 member national federations.

New FIFA boss Gianni Infantino had pushed for the change in 2016 when he ran for the presidency in an effort to include more nations and invigorate what was already the world’s most popular sporting event.

But critics contend that opening the World Cup doors to lesser soccer-playing nations will result in a weaker tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s membership reaching its most prestigious competition every four years and more matches crammed into an already crowded international calendar.  Infantino was unconcerned.  “We are in the 21st century, and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” he said after the vote.  “Football is more than just Europe and South America.  Football is global.”

For Russia ’18, Europe, as usual, will have the lion’s share of berths, 13, plus the automatic slot that goes to the host nation.  Ten-nation South America gets four berths, as does 47-nation Asia.  Africa’s 56 members will battle for five slots.  CONCACAF gets three.  The 31st and 32nd berths will go to the winners of home-and-home playoffs between CONCACAF and Asian also-rans and between the Oceania winner and a South American also-ran.  A decision on how the 2026 pie will be sliced will be made in May.  [January 10]

Comment:  No surprise here.   A huge expansion of the World Cup field for 2026 became inevitable with Infantino’s early Christmas present to the likes of Asia, Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania:  release of a 65-page analysis by a FIFA in-house group of five options in growing the World Cup.   The 48-team concept was rated best (and most profitable), with 16–sixteen!–groups of three teams each playing round-robin to open the tournament.  Another 48-team format called for a 32-team knockout round, followed by a group stage involving the 16 survivors and 16 seeded teams, for 80 total games.  Then there was the idea of 40 teams divided into eight groups of five and, in the end, 88 games played.  Or, 40 teams with 10 groups of four for a total of 76 games.

The opposition, not surprisingly, was led by the European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs on the Continent.  It called the present 32-team format “the perfect formula from all perspectives.”  The ECA added, “We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable.”

The FIFA analysis indeed conceded the expansion would diminish the level of play at that World Cup, but it also explicitly stated that the FIFA governing council must make its decision purely for “sporting” reasons.  But back to reality.

While Option No. 2 (an opening knockout round involving 32 teams, with the losers going home after one match), may seem ridiculous, what the governing council–the body created to replace the greedy, seedy and disgraced Executive Committee–settled on is only slightly better.  Expansion itself is a bad idea.  Despite three expansions since the late 1970s, the World Cup has remained a relatively compact monthlong festival of soccer.  The approved 48-team formula would mean a reasonable increase by one or two days to 32; the two finalists would still play the customary seven games; and the usual 12 stadiums would be required of the host nation(s).  But the addition of no-hopers only means an erosion in the level of play and a resulting decline in interest among the general public.  If Brasil ’14 had been expanded to 48, the tournament might have included the likes Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan–and the forgettable matches they were likely to contribute.  As for inclusion, today’s 32-team format has already allowed otherwise outsiders Trinidad & Tobago, China, Slovenia, Angola, North Korea, New Zealand, Tunisia, Togo and Saudi Arabia to have their day in the sun, not to mention splinters from the former Yugoslavia–Serbia & Montenegro (2006), Serbia (’10) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (’14).

Beyond concerns over the drop in level of play, the 16 x 3 format given FIFA’s blessing contains a serious flaw.  Forty-eight teams divided into 16 groups of three might require penalty-kick tiebreakers after drawn matches in the first round to ensure there is a “winner.”  After all, there has to be a brutally quick method to determine a group’s top two finishers and send the third-place team home.  That radical change to how the opening round of a World Cup is run also would be necessary to prevent teams from conspiring to arrange a favorable result in the final group game.

Just what we need:  More chances for PK tiebreakers to rear their ugly head before a global audience.  And more of just what we need:  A reprise of the three-team group, with each team playing just two games.  That was tried at Espana ’82, the first go-round with a 24-team field, when four three-team groups followed the first round and those group winners advanced to the semifinals.  Three teams playing two matches each promised nothing more than mostly defensive, nervy encounters that would please no one, and while there was Italy’s classic 3-2 win over favored Brazil, the 12 games averaged less than 2 1/2 goals–a half goal fewer than the tournament average–and included three scoreless draws.  Happily, that format was jettisoned for Mexico ’86 in favor of the now-familiar 16-team knockout second round.

There’s also the matter of what the bigger field will mean to the qualifying competition for ’26.  If Europe and South America gain only a couple of extra berths, the traditional powers there will have even less to fear.  Even in CONCACAF, the U.S. and Mexico, which survived a mighty scare before slipping into the 2014 World Cup, have no worries.  And with still less drama during what is an interminable qualifying process, the fans lose.

Finally, the expansion in ’26 also will mean a greater burden on the host, which will have to find accommodations and training facilities for an additional 16 teams, a new consideration that will hike the organizing nation’s bill from $2 billion to $2.3 billion.  That’s why there has been talk of the job of hosting that first 48-team event going to the triumvirate of the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Informal talks among the three have already begun.  The decision will be made in May 2020, and FIFA’s World Cup rotation among the continents would put North America in line to host.  Fueling the speculation is that Infantino owes U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who was instrumental in getting the Swiss-Italian elected FIFA boss in February.  There’s also the matter of the now-disgraced FIFA Executive Committee having given the U.S. the shaft in 2010 when it chose to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, ignoring the stronger American bid.  But beyond ’26, FIFA will have created a monster event that few potential hosts can handle.  Potential hosts like . . . China, which, on the heels of its 2008 Beijing Olympics, is keen to play host to the world’s biggest single-sport event.

There can be no denying that the soccer-playing world is a much more level playing field today than it was back in the days when the World Cup was an exclusive club of 16.  You could start with surprise packages like Costa Rica, which at Brasil ’14 stunned Uruguay and Italy and tied England before nipping Greece on penalty kicks in the second round and bowing in the quarterfinals to the Netherlands, 4-3 on PKs, after a brave scoreless draw.  But the World Cup remains a competition won by only eight nations–Brazil, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, England and France–and the list of worthy also-rans remains limited to the Dutch; Hungary of long ago; Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists; and, in a bit of a stretch, Sweden.  That’s it.  Infantino’s gambit does nothing more than give hope to the hopeless and directs those extra one billion bucks into FIFA’s coffers at the final accounting of the 2026 World Cup.  And for the fans, if gives them countless more forgettable, hardly watchable matches between giants and minnows under the guise of FIFA World Cup soccer.  And World Cup games, even those not so great, should be somewhat memorable.

In the end, the winner is Infantino.  His act of patronage has placed dozens of soccer’s have-not nations in his debt, and when it comes to FIFA presidential elections, it’s a one-nation, one-vote world.  His power base is assured.



HOW NOW, THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Homegrown player Jordan Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders in a splashy ceremony at the team’s fan clubhouse in Pioneer Square, capping a whirlwind six weeks in which the 21-year-old striker led Stanford University to the 2015 NCAA Division I men’s national championship, was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the country’s top collegiate player and took part in a trial with Werder Bremen that left the German Bundesliga club poised to offer a contract.

Morris earned seven caps with the U.S. National Team last year, scoring in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in April and becoming the first college player to make an appearance with the full national team since UCLA forward Ante Razov in 1995.  He also scored six goals and added four assists in 11 appearances in ’15 for the U.S. under-23 side, including two goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada in its opening qualifier for the ’16 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; that campaign will be decided in March with a home-and-home playoff with Colombia .

The signing of Morris reunites the Mercer Island, Wash., native with U.S. and Sounder striker Clint Dempsey.  Sounder coach Sigi Schmid was delighted by Morris’ signing, saying he possesses “unteachable” qualities.  The Sounder rookie, however, is expected to spend his first MLS season in a supporting role, watching Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez start ahead of him.  [January 21]

Comment:   Here comes Mr. Jordan, and possibly others.  Can embattled U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann channel his inner 2006?

In recent months Klinsmann has been blessed by an interesting wave of fresh young talent.  Before the broad-shouldered, baby-faced Morris there was another forward, Bobby Wood, 23, a promising poacher who scored late winners in friendlies against Holland and Germany last spring, plus equalizers against Mexico in the CONCACAF playoff and the World Cup qualifying opener against St. Vincent & the Grenadines.  Wood continues to produce for his club, Union Berlin of the Bundesliga 2.  There’s also midfielder Darlington Nagbe.  Born in Liberia, raised in the U.S., the 25-year-old naturalized American made his U.S. debut against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and dazzled in leading the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup title.  Finally, defender Matt Miazga, 6-foot-4 and a mere 20.  He went from buried on the New York Red Bulls roster last spring to becoming one of MLS’s best central defenders in ’15.  Before bowing in with the full national team in the St. Vincent match, Miaza helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and became a starter on the U-23 team.

Then there are youngsters who appeared in the 2014 World Cup:  defender John Brooks, 23, of Hertha Berlin, defender-midfielder DeAndre Yedlin, 22, of Sunderland, and forward Aron Johannsson, 25, of Werder Bremen.  Johannsson battled injuries in 2015 but Yedlin and another attacking player, Gyasi Zardes, 24, of the Los Angeles Galaxy, appeared in 19 of the USA’s 20 matches in ’15.

Is this the cavalry thundering down the hill?  Klinsmann can only hope so.  Dempsey is 32.  Defensive midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and left back DaMarcus Beasley are 33.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard is 36.

Klinsmann, in his fifth year as national team coach, is on a hot seat, becoming the first national team coach in this soccer-averse country to experience a modicum of public scrutiny.  In 2015, after historic wins against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Germany in Cologne, the U.S. stumbled badly at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, finishing fourth, its worst showing in a Gold Cup in 15 years.  A humiliating 4-1 loss to Brazil in Foxboro followed, which served as a warm-up (or down) to the lifeless 3-2 overtime defeat to Mexico in a CONCACAF playoff at the Rose Bowl that cost the Americans a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.  Three days later the U.S. tumbled to Costa Rica, 1-0, in a friendly in New Jersey, but it salvaged the year by opening a new World Cup cycle by routing St. Vincent & the Grenadines, 6-1, in St. Louis and escaping Port of Spain with a scoreless draw and a point against Trinidad & Tobago.

As the mixed results mounted, Klinsmann came under increasing criticism for his often baffling player selections, his lineups (20 different lineups in 20 games), his tinkering with formations (a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1, a flat 4-4-2 and a diamond 4-4-2) and tactics.  At one point, former U.S. star Landon Donovan said that Klinsmann should lose his job if Mexico won at the Rose Bowl.  The U.S. lost, and Klinsmann got a half-hearted vote of confidence from USSF President Sunil Gulati.

This cavalry of young talent may yield a couple of riders or, in Klinsmann’s dreams, a full platoon.  And what the U.S. coach does with it will determine the course of the national team for the near-term, although it figures to be closing in on a 2018 World Cup berth when 2017 dawns.  He’s nurtured young talent before, steering a bunch of young Germans to third place at the 2006 World Cup, becoming a national hero in the bargain.  Among his players were defenders Philipp Lahm, then 22, and Per Mertesacker, 21, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, 21, and forward Lukas Podolski, 21.  That was a generation of talent that would go on to win the 2014 World Cup.

Can Klinsmann do it again?  He could succeed.  He could fail.  This new crop–and possibly others to emerge over the next 18 months–could win in spite of him.  Or too many of them could prove to be all false promise.  Time will tell.  But for the U.S. to nail down a World Cup berth and go into Russia ’18 with any hope of a better showing than the last World Cup, Klinsmann is going to have to succeed, and once again engineer a successful changing of the guard.