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SAY IT AIN’T SO, LIONEL

Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced his international retirement immediately after Argentina fell in the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalty kicks, 4-2, following a scoreless draw at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, before 82,076.

The defeat capped a string of Argentina disappointments for the 29-year-old, including losses in the 2014 World Cup final and the 2007 and 2015 Copa America finals.  Although he led La Albiceleste to an under-20 world championship in 2005 and a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he has never claimed a winners’ medal with the senior team.

A back injury caused Messi to miss Argentina’s Copa opener against Chile, but he came off the bench in the second group game, against Panama, and notched a hat trick in just 19 minutes.  He scored against Venezuela in the quarterfinals to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record of 54, then surpassed it with a brilliant free-kick strike against the U.S. in the semifinals.

However, in the final he was hounded by multiple Chilean defenders for 120 minutes, and he capped a frustrating night by blasting his attempt over the crossbar on Argentina’s first shot in the tiebreaker.

“For me, the national team is over,” the distraught superstar told reporters.  “I’ve done all I can.  I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.  It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”  [June 26]

Comment I:  Perhaps the frustration got the best of him.  Maybe his tax problems back in Spain were weighing heavily.  Perhaps Messi will take a deep breath and reconsider.  (After all, he didn’t quit last year when Argentina lost on a tiebreaker to Chile–and Messi made his PK that day.)   But if he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll rue the day.

Messi has never been embraced by his fellow Argentines the way they adore Diego Maradona.  Messi left home as a 13-year-old prodigy for FC Barcelona, where he grew as an academy player and went on to win four UEFA Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns.  In Argentina, he’s been more closely associated with Barca than the sky blue and white, and while Maradona also played for Barcelona (and later became a hero in Italy with Napoli), El Pibe de Oro was the one who delivered the goods, singlehandedly lifting Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship.  Messi has no such clout.

If Messi does not change his mind, he will have forfeited any chance to change how he will go down in soccer history.  As things stand, he will be recorded as probably the greatest player of his generation, better even than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’ll be regarded as a the third member of Argentina’s holy trinity along with Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano.  But, in a world in which kids still look up to their sports heroes, he’ll also be regarded as a quitter.  Worse, a coward.

And this with the next World Cup, in Russia, and possible redemption, just two years away.

Comment II:  The question concerning the U.S. National Team was whether its Copa America Centenario performance had represented any progress.

Well, a year ago the Americans lost the third-place match at the Gold Cup, making it the fourth-best team in CONCACAF.  Now it’s lost the third-place game at the Copa America, technically making it the fourth-best team in South America.  What fourth-place mantle would you rather wear?

On a practical front, the mad scientist, coach Juergen Klinsmann, stopped with the tinkering and would’ve trotted out the same lineup throughout the tournament were it not for suspensions and injuries.  Young center back John Brooks grew into a genuine partnership with Geoff Cameron and was rewarded with a spot on the Copa America Centenario Best XI team, the only player from the U.S.–or Mexico–so honored.  Bobby Wood graduated from minor pest up front to major concern and will challenge Jozy Altidore for playing time in the future.

But then there were the questions raised over the course of the tournament.  Such as, will young right back DeAndre Yedlin couple his scintillating runs forward with some reliable defense?  Will Gyasi Zardes continue to have the first touch of a block of cement?  Will Michael Bradley’s skills as midfield maestro continue to erode?  Will 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, who scored three goals at the Copa to close to within five goals of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record of 57, continue to defy Father Time?

Those are the questions that matter.  They were raised at the Copa, not answered, but perhaps they’ll be answered where it really counts, when the U.S. resumes World Cup qualifying for Russia ’18, in September.

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2014 WORLD CUP POSTMORTEM

Germany defeated Argentina in overtime, 1-0, before a Maracana Stadium crowd of 74,738 to win the 2014 World Cup.

Substitute Mario Goetze, who had not started in Germany’s last two games, scored the game’s only goal in the 113th minute.  Another sub, Andre Schuerrle, lofted a cross from the left wing that Goetze, on the run at the top of the penalty area, chested and volleyed inside the far post past Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero.  [July 13]

Comment I:  The best team won.

The overhaul begun by Juergen Klinsmann ahead of the 2006 World Cup and maintained by successor Joachim Loew in 2010 bore fruit in 2014.  All-time World Cup scoring leader Miroslav Klose (36) rides off into the sunset, and captain Philipp “The Magic Dwarf” Lahm (30), has announced his international retirement.  But Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski are all 29, and the rest of the nucleus, with some tweaking, figures to be around for the 2016 European Championship and beyond.  Much can happen in four years, but for now, the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas is well-positioned for Russia ’18.

Comment II:  The not-best team did not win.

Years from now, the 20th World Cup may be remembered not for Germany’s triumph or Luis Suarez’s bite or James Rodriguez’s arrival but the incredible collapse by Brazil.  The 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals and the 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third-place match were shocking on their own, but put them together and you have the most unbelievably pathetic 180 minutes in World Cup history.

If anything, it was all for the best.  This was a not-so-great team that was riding a wave of emotion provided by its thousands of yellow-clad supporters and the inner pressure created by the need to wipe away the nightmare–the Maracanazo–of 1950.  It needed penalty kicks to beat Chile in the second round and a fine free kick by David Luiz in the quarterfinals to keep up the facade.  It was unconvincing in the group stage, leaving the suspicion that its triumph the previous year in the FIFA Confederations Cup, capped by a 3-0 romp over defending world and European champion Spain, was an anomaly.  Not only could this team not be mentioned in the same breath with Pele’s 1970 champions, it was a far, far cry from another Brazilian also-ran, the 1998 array of stars headed by Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Cafu, Beto and Dunga that bowed to host France.  If that side needed a late jolt, it could look down the bench and call on Edmundo.  This Brazil’s bench had … Jo.  Had the current team pulled off two miracles and lifted the trophy at the Maracana on July 13, Brazilians would be the first to rank it behind its non-champions of 2006 and 1990 and 1986 and 1982 and 1978 and 1974 and 1966.

Comment III:  The second-best team could’ve won.

A 4-1 pick to win it all, Argentina coulda, shoulda wrapped up a 1-0 or 2-0 victory over Germany in regulation.  One goal could have come 21 minutes in, when Toni Kroos headed a ball back toward his goal only for it to be intercepted by Gonzalo Higuain.  Perhaps seeing Manuel Neuer standing before him and believing the German goalkeeper immortal based on his earlier performances, Higuain skulled a hurried shot outside the left post.  Eight minutes later Higuain had a goal disallowed for an offside call he easily could have avoided.

Either chance, if converted, would’ve thrown Argentina into defensive mode, and we saw what the Argentine defense (with the help of the midfield) was capable of against Germany for 113 minutes despite the Germans’ having greater possession.  Ironically, it was the back line that was regarded as the weak link heading into this World Cup while the team’s strength was Lionel Messi and his supporting cast of Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio.

Adding to Argentina’s frustration was Palacio’s chance six minutes into overtime.  Left back Marcos Rojo chipped a ball into the middle of the box to Palacio, alone with only Neuer to beat.  But he tried to chip the ball into the net and sent it wide left.  That was the Albiceleste’s last chance and only made Goetze’s goal seem inevitable.

Comment IV:  The bottom line on the impact Brasil ’14 had on America:

The U.S. media finally stopped referring to soccer as “perhaps the world’s most popular sport” and the World Cup as “after the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event.”  Instead, soccer and the World Cup became an unqualified “most” and “biggest.”

Progress.

Comment V:  Naturally, those Americans who don’t like soccer came out with their sharpened knives in June and July, and to soccer fans, their increasing desperation was another sign of progress.

Most of their criticisms–too low scoring, foreigners running around in shorts–have fallen by the wayside over the years, but they concentrated their efforts on two issues in particular this time.

The most curious one involved how time is kept during a soccer match.  “The game ends, and then it keeps going–no one but the referee knows when it’s gonna end!”   Of course the entire crowd and a worldwide television audience sees the fourth official hold up an electronic board indicating how much time has been added.  Two minutes, four minutes, and so on.  We all get the idea.  And TV viewers see the clock continue ticking in the upper left corner:  91:05 … 93:41 …. with a +4 next to it, for example.  However, “getting the idea” isn’t good enough in a country grounded in gridiron football countdown clocks and basketball games in which the final 30 seconds are massaged through 10 minutes of TV commercials. Maybe they were fired up by Portugal’s late equalizer against the U.S., when it was mystifying to some that the game seemingly went on and on, but soccer fans who saw the man with the electronic board knew that enough time remained for Ronaldo’s heroics, plus a subsequent kickoff and a few additional seconds of play.  If anything, that game should have been a lesson to the uninitiated.  Soccer is not a Hail Mary pass or buzzer-beater shot type of sport.  There is no way to “stop” the clock, so there is no need for a clock that shows 0:013 remaining.  And some people like being freed of that sort of nonsense.

The other complaint has merit.  “They flop, they roll on the the ground and act as though they’re in their death throes.”  From one ESPN radio talking head:  “This country will never embrace a sport in which the players are encouraged to be pansies.”

Good point.  We’ve seen all sorts of histrionics on the soccer field, and we all know it’s in an effort to draw a foul or induce a yellow card, not because the player has an incredibly low pain threshold.  But all that rolling around runs contrary to American sensibilities.  When Clint Dempsey is fouled hard he goes down like he was shot by a sniper.  No movement, no drama.  Stoic.  It’s the American way.  (Usually, Dempsey is either really hurt or trying to give his teammates a breather, or both.  If he’s trying to get the call, it’s by making the referee feel guilty over this lifeless figure on the turf.)

FIFA hasn’t been able to come up with a better tiebreaker than what it refers to as “The Taking of Kicks from the Penalty Mark.”  So it would do well to instead address its chronic play-acting problem–at least if it wants to win over America and its treasure trove of potential corporate sponsors.  There is a form of soccer that is played with a minimum of dives, flops and various sundry simulation.  It’s called women’s soccer, which is quite ironic.  These were, after all, the people who were once deemed too delicate to play this sport.  Instead, they cut each other down–hard–and the fouled party usually bounces to her feet and gets on with the game.  And no one questions their macho.

Comment VI:  And finally, while many Americans had finished applauding Tim Howard’s heroics in the USA’s 1-0 overtime loss to Belgium and had wandered away by the time Germany’s Manuel Neuer was awarded the Golden Glove as the World Cup’s best goalkeeper, it should be pointed out that Howard’s was not the greatest performance by an American ‘keeper in a meaningful match.

For those who saw it first hand, nothing will top Kasey Keller’s string of miracles to help the U.S. upset Brazil, 1-0, in the semifinals of the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup in front of a sparse crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  Keller made 13 saves that cool, damp night to Howard’s 16 against Belgium, but while Howard was masterful in handling several difficult shots, Keller made saves that left the Brazilians shaking their heads.  Two rapid-fire reflex saves on Romario defied belief, and the Brazilian striker later said of Keller, “It was an honor to be on the field with him.”

It should be recalled that this was mostly an under-23 Brazilian side preparing for the Olympics; that it took a goal by Preki in the 65th minute against the run of play to win it; and that the U.S. would go on five days later to lose to Mexico by the same score back at the Coliseum before an overwhelmingly pro-Mexico throng of 100,000.  But it also should be remembered that for one night, Keller, an outstanding goalkeeper very much the equal of Howard and Brad Friedel, was otherworldly.

 

 

 



BELGIUM 2, U.S. 1, AND AMERICA’S FUTURE

In a match that looked like a re-enactment of the siege of the Alamo, Belgium pounded away at the U.S. defense for 93 minutes before breaking through and ultimately winning, 2-1, in overtime to earn a World Cup quarterfinal showdown with Argentina.

Midfield dynamo Kevin De Bruyne and substitute striker Romelu Lukaku combined on both Belgian goals, beating an exhausted U.S. defense that was bombarded with 38 shots.  Three minutes into extra time, Lukaku beat U.S. defender Matt Besler down the right wing to set up De Bruyne for the first goal, then a pass by De Bruyne allowed Lukaku to score on a powerful short-range shot.  The desperate Americans staged a furious comeback and were rewarded in the 107th minute when 18-year-old substitute Julian Green volleyed home a chipped pass into the box by Michael Bradley, but the rally fell short.

The game was played in Salvador, and fittingly the man of the match was the USA’s savior, Tim Howard, who put on a two-hour goalkeeping clinic.  He made 16 saves, many of them spectacular, in sparing his side an embarrassingly lopsided defeat.  It was the most saves in a World Cup game since the statistic was first kept in 1966.

Remarkably, the Americans nearly won the game in the final seconds of regulation added-on time.  Substitute Chris Wondolowski, a natural poacher, latched onto the ball in a goalmouth scramble but put his shot over the bar in an effort to lift it over sprawling Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.  [July 1]

Comment:  Now, following the handwringing, the postmortems start.  Americans caught World Cup fever in a big way for the first time.  But the Belgian police banged on the door and broke up their party, and they want the next party to last beyond midnight.

How can the U.S. get better and go farther at Russia 2018 (the team’s qualification being a given)?  A stronger Major League Soccer?  An expanded U.S. academy program developing more and more young talent?  The U.S. goal will soon be in the capable hands of Brad Guzan–unless the unpredictable Juergen Klinsmann tries to make Howard, now 35, the USA’s answer to Dino Zoff.  DaMarcus Beasley isn’t likely to play in a fifth World Cup, so there is a need for a left back, and forward Clint Dempsey will be 35 in four years.  Whether it’s Besler or Omar Gonzalez or Geoff Cameron or a newcomer in the central defense, Klinsmann needs to find the right duo and stick with it.  And the midfield must somehow get better without a Xavi or Andres Iniesta on the horizon.

Who knows if a “Group of Death” awaits the U.S. if it reaches Russia.  And if it reaches the second round there, will its opponent be Belgium, or a side like Ghana (2010), or Mexico (2002) … or Brazil (1994).  But it is a sure thing that the U.S. will be better–by how much is unknown, but it will be better.

The U.S. is nowhere near reaching its considerable potential.  Participation figures that exceed 20 million and our soccer infrastructure say so.  There’s also that intangible, the slowly continuing evolution of the soccer culture here.  Since the Pele Generation of the 1970s, the sport has improved on the grassroots level by leaps and bounds–and, admittedly, sometimes by small increments–but it has improved, and that improvement goes on uninterrupted .  Compare that, then, with countries where soccer is well-established and yet the fortunes of the national team waxes and wanes, like Belgium.  Or Chile, or Portugal, or Uruguay, or Romania, or Holland, or Norway, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Paraguay, or Sweden, or the remnants of the former Soviet Union or former Czechoslovakia.  Most are left awaiting the emergence of its next “golden generation,” which may require several generations of waiting.  A nation like Spain played in the first World Cup in 1930 and didn’t win one for 80 years.  Hungary peaked in the early 1950s with one of the greatest teams ever and has been mostly an international soccer afterthought since.

The U.S. isn’t any of those nations.  Plot the national team’s progress on a graph and the red line continues upward, sometimes sharply (Korea/Japan ’02), sometimes not (France ’98).  It’s why many of the countries in the soccer-playing world would trade their past and present for the USA’s future in a heartbeat.



THE POSSIBLE ‘ACCOMMODATION’

The USA’s draw with Portugal in the second game of Group “G” play created all sorts of intrigue because a tie between the Americans and their last first-round opponent, Germany, would see both teams into the second round at the expense of Portugal and Ghana.

The web is beyond tangled:  The U.S. is coached by Juergen Klinsmann, who as a player helped Germany win the 1990 World Cup and coached Germany to a surprise third-place finish in 2006; Klinsmann resides in Huntington Beach, Calif., with his American wife and American-reared children; the U.S. squad features five players who have American fathers and German mothers and were largely raised in Germany; four of those five play in the Bundesliga and most of those five were coaxed into a USA jersey by Klinsmann; Germany’s coach, Joachim Loew was Klinsmann’s trusted top assistant in 2006; and five current Germany players–Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and, of course, Miroslav Klose–called Klinsmann “boss” eight years ago.

So, rather than a series of haymakers, would the U.S. and Germany come to an “arrangement” and take it easy, playing to a draw that would assure group-favorite Germany a first-place finish in Group “G” and the Americans the coveted second-place finish in the so-called “Group of Death”?

Klinsmann, immediately after the tie with Portugal, dismissed any suggestion that he’d ask a favor of his old deputy.

“There’s no such call,” Klinsmann said.  “Jogi is doing his job and I’m doing my job.  I’m going to do everything to get to the round of 16.  There’s no time to have friendship calls.  It’s about business now.”  [June 24]

Comment:  What you’ll be hearing about from now until Thursday morning, and possibly all the way into halftime in Recife, from Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

“The 1982 World Cup in Spain kicked off with 24 finalists–an increase of eight from Argentina ’78–and a format in which the winners and runners-up from the eight four-team groups would move on as well as the four best third-place finishers.  Nevertheless, FIFA … failed to give the last two matches in each group the same kickoff time.  In fact, it didn’t even have the last games of each group played on the same day.

“Algeria, a Group 2 longshot, pulled off an early stunner in Gijon when it upset West Germany, 2-1, in its opener.  The Algerians lost to Austria, 2-0, in Oviedo five days later but closed out their first-round slate by beating Chile, 3-2, also in Oviedo.  That result left the North Africans tied on points with Austria and two ahead of West Germany; on goal difference, the Germans and Austrians were both +2 and the Algerians 0.  [Until 1994, a win was worth just two points, not three; a tie, the customary one.]

“The next day in Gijon, six days shy of the 20th anniversary of Algeria’s independence, West Germany and Austria met in Group 2’s last match and engaged in the biggest farce in World Cup history.

“The Germans opened the scoring in the 10th minute on a header by hulking striker Horst Hrubesch.  Knowing that a 1-0 West German win would see the two neighbors through at Algeria’s expense, the Germans and Austrians proceeded to aimlessly pass the ball around for the next 80 minutes.  Algerian supporters on hand, convinced the match was fixed, booed and whistled in disgust; some tried to invade the field to halt the game.  In the stands, a West German burned his nation’s flag.

“FIFA rejected out of hand an Algerian call to disqualify West Germany and Austria on sportsmanship grounds, and Algeria’s first World Cup adventure ended in bitter disappointment.  Final group standings (with goal differential):  West Germany 2-1-0 (+3), Austria 2-1-0 (+2), Algeria 2-1-0 (0), and Chile 0-3-0 (-5).

“West Germany later bowed to Italy, 3-1, in the final in Madrid.  Austria lost to France and tied Northern Ireland in its second-round group and was eliminated.  Algeria qualified for Mexico ’86, crashed in the first round, and didn’t make it back to the World Cup for 24 years.

“How distasteful was the game derisively called a second German-Austrian anschluss?  French coach Michel Hidalgo, anticipating a second-round meeting with the Austrians, scouted the match and didn’t take a single note.  Hidaldo later suggested that the two sides be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

It was all so perfect–and perfectly repugnant.  However, this time, it may become an impossibility because of the competitiveness of the two sides, starting with master (Klinsmann) and student (Loew).  Not to mention a bit more international scrutiny that didn’t exist 32 years ago.



U.S. THE EARLY WINNER AT 2016 COPA AMERICA

The long-rumored centennial Copa America in America became a reality when CONMEBOL announced in Miami that it would play its 2016 championship in the United States.

The tournament, to be held outside South America for the first time, is scheduled for June 3 through 26.  In addition to CONMEBOL’s 10 members, the host U.S., Mexico and four other CONCACAF nations will round out a field of 16 teams.

Many questions remain, among them the cities that will host matches.

“One benefit we have in a country like the U.S. is that we have many, many venues that can host this,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  “A number of venues have been in contact with us in the last 48 hours that want to host it.  Some [candidates] in person here in Miami have talked to us, and a number by e-mail.”

Also at issue is the timing of the tournament, which would be a special edition wedged between the regularly scheduled 2015 Copa America in Chile and 2019 Copa in Brazil.  It would overlap with the 2016 European Championship, which kicks off June 10, and conflict with the same season as the 2016 Summer Olympics soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro.  It would mean the cancellation of that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, and CONCACAF clubs are not obligated to release players to play in an event that is a South American tournament.  For the U.S., that issue becomes problematic because Major League Soccer will be in mid-season.

The Copa America is the world’s oldest continental soccer competition, first held in Argentina in 1916 to commemorate that nation’s founding as an independent nation; midway through the tournament, the four participants announced the formation of the first-ever continental soccer confederation, the Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol.  It’s 14 years older than the World Cup and 44 years older than the European Championship.  [May 1]

Comment:  For those who see this as a way for South American soccer to milk the U.S. of many millions of dollars, keep in mind that clubs and national teams from South America, CONCACAF and, especially, Mexico, have been coming here to feed at the trough not for years but for decades.

Of course, there are always the dollars.  But when it comes to sense, the big winner here is the U.S. National Team.

The U.S., like Mexico, cannot progress living on a steady diet of regional competition–regardless of how hard it is to win a World Cup qualifier at Costa Rica or Honduras.  Playing competitive, non-World Cup games against European opposition is an impossibility, which is unfortunate considering that U.S. internationals play for European, not South American, clubs.  South America and its Copa America, then, makes perfect sense.

Unlike Mexico, a regular guest over the past 20 years at the Copa America and twice a finalist, the USA’s participation has been spotty.  It crashed in the group stage in 1993, surprised all by reaching the semifinals against Brazil in 1995 and predictably crashed again in the first round after sending an experimental team to the 2007 Copa in Venezuela.

It is hoped that the Centennial Copa America is a rousing success and a good U.S. performance inspires–compels–the U.S. Soccer Federation to find a way to make its national team a regular guest participant in future South American championships.  Otherwise, it’s a continuation of a dull treadmill involving the Gold Cup and friendlies against international opponents who, depending on the circumstances, may be under strength and/or under inspired.

 

 



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.



SOCCER STORIES–THIS TIME IT’S ’30 FOR ’30’

ESPN Films has announced that in April it will premiere “30 for 30: Soccer Stories,” a series of documentaries as part of the lead-in to its coverage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in June.

“Soccer Stories” will “include a mix of stand-alone feature-length and 30-minutes-long documentary films from an award-winning group of filmmakers telling compelling narratives from around the international soccer landscape.  In addition, a collection of 10 vignettes about Brazil’s rich culture will be featured throughout ESPN’s FIFA World Cup programming,” according to ESPN Films, creators of the critically acclaimed “30 for 30” film series.  Among its works in that series was “The Two Escobars,” which explored the murder of 1994 World Cup goat Andres Escobar of Colombia and drug king Pablo Escobar’s involvement in soccer in that country.

Said Connor Schell, vice president of ESPN Films and Original Content, “With ESPN being the home of the 2014 World Cup, we know that sports fans will be looking forward to high-quality content focused on what is perhaps the world’s most revered sport.  We feel this is the perfect time to expand upon the success of our “30 for 30″ series by focusing this collection on some of the incredible stories of soccer’s legendary past.”  [January 11]

Comment:  “Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats” hereby grants ESPN permission to use the title “Soccer Stories” for its series of pre-Brasil ’14 documentaries.

Indeed, soccer is a treasure trove of compelling, ironic, tragic and humorous tales.  Some are even true, others apocryphal.  Many beg to be told.  The Hillsborough Stadium disaster is part of the ESPN series–one of its two feature-length films–and it’s part of “Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities. Lore and Amazing Feats” the book, as well.  So is a profile of the tragic life of Brazilian great Garrincha, entitled “Garrincha, Crippled Angel” in the ESPN series.  And “Barbosa–The Man Who Made All of Brazil Cry.”  And “The Opposition” (about the 1973 military coup that led to Chile’s national stadium being turned into a concentration camp/execution ground).  And “Mysteries of The Jules Rimet Trophy.”  And “Maradona ’86.”

The ESPN series is rounded out by “White, Blue and White,” a feature-length exploration of Osvaldo Ardiles’ and Ricardo Villa’s stardom in England with Tottenham Hotspur on the eve of the Falkland Islands War, and “Ceasefire Massacre,” about the terrorist murder of six men at a small pub outside Belfast who were watching Ireland play in the ’94 World Cup.  Neither made the “Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats” cut.

Perhaps ESPN’s “Soccer Stories” will prove to be an effective scene-setter for its World Cup coverage.  Not that a World Cup needs much in the way of an hors d’oeuvre, but soccer people in this country are a funny lot.  Many play but will not watch televised soccer on a regular basis or follow it through the press or Internet.  Some will watch only their kid or a favorite club.  Some are ex-patriates who’ll wake up and make like a fan only if the homeland is playing in a World Cup; some are Americans who, Olympic-like, pay attention only in World Cup years.   They’re all missing the soul of their sport, the incredible worldwide kaleidoscope that is soccer.

Look for ESPN’s “30 for 30: Soccer Stories.”  Soccer is alluring, exciting, exhilarating; by turns, it makes dreams come true and crushes hopes.  But you have to take the trouble to meet it halfway.  If you’re only playing, if you’re only coaching, if you’re only officiating, if you’re only watching, you’re missing out.