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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.

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A MEMO TO WORLD CUP ALL-STAR TEAM VOTERS

The Netherlands became the first team to win a World Cup match in regulation after trailing in the 88th minute when it shocked Mexico, 2-1, in Fortaleza and moved on to a quarterfinal meeting with Costa Rica while the Mexicans were eliminated in the second round for the sixth consecutive World Cup.

Four minutes into added-on time, Arjen Robben was controversially fouled along the goal line by veteran Mexican defender Rafael Marquez, and substitute Klaas jan Huntelaar buried the resulting penalty kick for the winner.

Mexico dominated much of the first half and was rewarded three minutes into the second on a sparkling left-footed strike by Giovani dos Santos from the top of the penalty area.  That only awakened the Dutch, however, and after 40 minutes of increasing pressure they drew level through Wesley Sneijder.  The Netherlands’ 10th corner kick (to Mexico’s two) was cleared to the top of the area and Sneijder ripped a shot first-time inside the left post.  [June 29]

Comment:  So much for El Tri, but more important to soccer fans, so much for the hottest goalkeeper at Brasil ’14.  Francisco Guillermo Ochoa Magana.

Memo Ochoa helped get Mexico a 1-0 victory over Cameroon, a scoreless draw with tournament host and favorite Brazil, and a must-win 3-1 triumph over Croatia, and his heroics continued into the second round until Sneijder and jan Huntelaar got off shots that no mortal could stop.  Though no player whose team was eliminated in the round of 16 made the 2010 World Cup all-star team, Ochoa, with no more miracles to offer, could make the 2014 World Cup all-star team based on only these four matches.  (Germany’s Manuel Neuer, however, may ultimately stand in his way.)

This World Cup was sweet retribution for the bushy-haired Memo.  At the 2006 World Cup, he was Mexico’s 20-year-old understudy, its No. 3 goalkeeper.  Four year laters, for South Africa, he was controversially No. 2, behind the veteran Oscar Perez, a decision that mystified and disappointed his many fans.  This time, he made 10 official saves–many of them acrobatic–in four games, and while perhaps his greatest save was made, point-blank, by his face against the Dutch, he stamped his name on this World Cup.

So Ochoa leaves a loser.  Only he sparkled in the biggest shop window of them all.  After seven years at Club America and three in France, his club, Ajaccio, was relegated to the second division last spring, and Ochoa announced his intent to leave.  What kind of impression did Memo make while with Ajaccio?  One Ajaccio supporter announced that he would sell his home and everything in it–including his wife and kids–for $13.6 million in an effort to help raise what he believes would be the funds needed to keep Ochoa in an Ajaccio shirt.

 



BRIGHT START FOR THE MINNOWS

Costa Rica pulled off the first major upset of the World Cup, surprising Uruguay, 3-1, in Fortaleza in a Group “D” game.

Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte and substitute Marcos Urena all scored in the second half to shock the Uruguayans, who reached the semifinals four years ago.  Two of Uruguay’s heroes at South Africa ’10 were non-factors; Diego Forlan, still recovering from the flu, was  substituted in the 60th minute, and Luis Suarez, 23 days removed from knee surgery, did not play.  [June 14]

Comment I:  The Ticos’ victory came 24 hours after Mexico defeated Cameroon, 1-0, to join Brazil–a 3-1 winner over Croatia in the tournament opener June 12–atop Group “A”.

The U.S. opens play Monday against Ghana and Honduras will face France on Sunday.  But at the moment, it’s a bright start for CONCACAF.  The Confederacion Norte-Centroamericana y del Caribe de Futbol has never had much respect from the rest of the world, which can point to the region’s thin World Cup record:  the USA’s semifinal adventure at the very first cup in 1930, then three quarterfinal appearances by Mexico and one by the Americans since.  At South Africa, Mexico, Honduras and the U.S. combined to win two games, lose five and tie four, with the Mexicans and Americans tumbling in the round of 16.

The victories by Costa Rica and Mexico may not mean much at a time when the combined FIFA rankings of CONCACAF’s four current World Cup finalists is a ponderous 94, but it’s temporary progress for a region still in search of a World Cup group seeding that doesn’t come by way of being a host (Mexico ’70 and ’86, USA ’94).

Comment II:  Earlier in the day, Colombia, a dark horse favorite, pounded Greece, 3-0, in Belo Horizonte.  The Group “C” game was played at breakneck speed, but it ended without incident.

That bodes well for the referee, Mark Geiger of New Jersey, who was assisted by linesman and fellow countryman Sean Hurd.  With a dreadful penalty-kick call by Yuichi Nishimura of Japan in the Brazil-Croatia match and two Mexican goals erroneously called offside by Wilmar Roldan of Colombia the next day, another solid performance by Geiger could get him into the middle for the knockout rounds–a first for an American referee.

 



ARGENTINA IN 2014

The 2014 World Cup draw, as expected, produced multiple “Groups of Death” as the 32 finalists were sorted into eight groups of four nations each for the 64-match tournament, which will begin June 12 scattered over a dozen Brazilian cities.

The United States got the worst of it, being drawn into Group “G” with three-time champion Germany, the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and Ghana, the nation that knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups.   Not far behind in terms of difficulty were Group “B” (defending champion Spain, 2010 runner-up Holland, Chile, plus Australia) and Group “D” (2010 third-place finisher Uruguay, four-time champ Italy, England and Costa Rica).

Conducted at the beachfront resort of Costa do Sauipe before an international television audience, the draw also produced a first-round cakewalk for Argentina, which was joined in Group “F” by the tournament’s only World Cup newcomer, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Iran and Nigeria.  [December 6]

Comment I:  In a repeat of the Brazilian nightmare of 1950, Brazil will tumble in its own World Cup.  Argentina will defeat host Brazil on Sunday, July 13, before a stunned, heartbroken crowd of 73,531 at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, and lift the World Cup trophy for the third time.

Argentina, unlike host Brazil, has been steeled by 16 World Cup qualifiers in the ultra-tough South American region–and finished first.  It went into the draw at 6-1 odds, just behind Brazil and Germany.  It will be playing virtually at home, without all the pressure that comes with hosting a World Cup.  It will have the motivation of the opportunity to humiliate its neighbor and historic arch-rival.  Its only question mark is its defense, while its absolute certainty is up front, four-time FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who will turn 27 the day before his team meets its final group-stage opponent, Nigeria.  And the draw produced brackets that make a Brazil-Argentina final possible.

Comment II:  To distraught fans of the U.S. National Team:  Enough with the hand-wringing.

Setting the tone immediately after the draw, U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, the man hired two years ago to take this team to the next level, was frank in his initial comments after the last ball was drawn in Bahia:  “Well, I think we hit one of those real killer groups.  It is what it is.”
But what the draw yielded was a glass–er bowl, er pot–half filled.  To wit:
          o  This Group of Death merits its unwelcomed name based on numbers, if not history.  With three-time world champion Germany at No. 2 in the November FIFA world rankings, Portugal at No. 5, the U.S. at No. 14 and Ghana at No. 24, its average ranking–11.2–is the highest among the eight groups (Group “H”, at 28, is worst).  For those who take the monthly FIFA rankings at least somewhat seriously, and with the October rankings determining the eight seeded teams, it’s no longer merely a list of nations designed to produce chatter among press and public.  But on a practical level, this would not be a Group of Death if the U.S. was the international laughingstock it was before the first rankings were issued back in December 1993.  The Americans came to the draw as the first-place team out of the CONCACAF qualifiers and the top team out of Pot 3, which included its three other regional rivals (Mexico, No. 20; runner-up Costa Rica, No. 31; and Honduras, No. 41) and Asia’s qualifiers (Iran, No. 45; Japan, No. 48; South Korea, No. 54; and Australia, No. 59).  The U.S., with its fitness, physicality, growing depth, ability on set pieces and fight-to-the-finish mentality, is a team that no one wants to play.
          o  Ghana:  This U.S. team is better than the ones that were knocked out by the Ghanans in the first round of the 2006 World Cup and the second round in 2010–and obviously driven by revenge.  Ask Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, who were there on both occasions, plus the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Eddie Johnson, Steve Cherundolo and DeMarcus Beasley.
 
          o  Portugal:  There’s the USA’s shock 3-2 victory over Luis Figo and Portugal’s “Golden Generation” in the 2002 World Cup opener–a match the Americans led, 3-0, after 36 minutes–to motivate both sides.  This current Portuguese generation was rated No. 14–one spot below the U.S.–in the October rankings, then jumped a whopping nine places on the strength of must-win games over minnow Luxembourg and, in a playoff, Sweden, a home-and-home set in which Cristiano Ronaldo carried the team on his back, scoring all four goals in a 4-2 aggregate decision.  The U.S., meanwhile, was playing friendlies at Scotland (0-0) and Austria (0-1).
 
          o  Germany:  The U.S. will be lucky to steal a point against Germany in its Group “G” finale … unless the Germans have already locked up first place and might possibly ease their foot off the gas pedal.  Much attention has been directed to the Americans’ wild 4-3 win over Germany on June 2 in Washington, DC, that improved their all-time record against Germany to 3-6-0.  It also was dismissed as a friendly in which Germany was without eight starters.  However, in competitive matches, there’s the shock 2-0 victory in Guadalajara in the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 1-0 loss in Ulsan, South Korea, in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals that will be remembered in this country for the Torsten Frings goalmouth handball that was never whistled. Of course, there’s also the 2-0 first-round loss in Paris in the 1998 World Cup as a veteran striker named Klinsmann scored the clinching goal.  Now, Klinsmann is on the other side, and, as U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati observed,  “I guarantee you Juergen knows more about Germany than Jogi Loew knows about the U.S.”  What Klinsmann wouldn’t give to beat his former understudy.
 
          o  Much has been made of the USA’s first-round travel itinerary, the worst of any of the 32 finalists.  In 2010, the Americans covered the fewest miles in the opening round; all of them involved bus rides of no more than 75 miles.  In 2014, they’ll trek more than 9,100 miles; though based down in Sao Paulo, all three of their matches will be in the tropics.  They open June 16 against Ghana up in Natal on the Atlantic coast, then face Portugal on June 22 in Manaus and Germany on June 26 back on the Atlantic in Recife, just south of Natal.  The killer figures to be off in the far northwest in Manaus, a city in the Amazon where the heat and humidity, on the second day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, is expected to be in the high 80s.  However, part of the U.S. squad should be prepared for the travel, the other for the heat.  The players who play for European clubs, like their South American counterparts, are quite used to frequent flights over the Atlantic.  And Klinsmann’s choices from Major League Soccer teams know all about slogging through matches in the high temps and humidity of mid-summer.  The German and Portuguese players won’t have the same advantage. 
 
          o  Finally, since every World Cup involves a smile from Lady Luck, it should be noted that the U.S. does not have to play on Friday, June 13.  That’s reserved for Group “B”‘s Spain-Holland matchup in Salvador and Chile-Australia in Cuiaba, plus our friends south of the border.  Mexico will play Cameroon that day in Natal in its Group “A” opener … followed four days later by a date with host Brazil in Fortaleza.