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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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NOW WE KNOW

In a classic marked by two brilliant goals by substitute Gareth Bale and two inexplicable blunders by goalkeeper Loris Karius, Real Madrid defeated Liverpool, 3-1, at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium to win its third consecutive UEFA Champions League crown and extend its record to 13 European championships.

The game will be remembered for Bale’s spectacular bicycle-kick strike in the 64th, two minutes after he entered the match, a goal that snapped a 1-1 tie.  But it was the misadventures of Karius that decided things.

Underdog Liverpool had applied considerable pressure in a scoreless first half, so there was little concern in the 51st minute when Karius collected an over-hit Real ball and turned to bowl it, carelessly, to his right.  A pressuring Karim Benzema, however, stuck out a right foot and sent the ball rolling gently into the Liverpool goal.

Liverpool drew level just four minutes later on a strike by Sadio Mane.  Bale’s overhead stunner put Real Madrid ahead for good, but a second Karius howler, in the 83rd, handed the Spanish giants their fourth European title in five years.

Given yards of space by the Liverpool defense, Bale lined up a 35-yard shot from the right and sent a blistering, knuckling left-footed shot on goal that Karius had comfortably covered.  However, the ball broke through his hands and twisted over his left shoulder for an insurance goal.

While Karius reacted to the defeat with tears, Real was left to contemplate its future.  Reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, 33, who turned in a quiet performance, could be on the move, as could 28-year-old Bale, who’d been demoted to the bench by coach Zinedine Zidane, now the first man to coach three straight UEFA Champions League winners.  Days later, Zidane, choosing to go out on top, resigned as Real boss.  [May 31]

Comment:  Turns out, Karius was suffering from a concussion.

In the 25th minute, Real’s Sergio Ramos brought down Mohamed Salah with a harsh tackle that resulted in strained ligaments.  The Egyptian marksman, who had scored an English Premier League-record 32 goals and 44 on the season, carried on until he was substituted five minutes later.

Ramos wasn’t done.  Four minutes into the second half, on a Real corner kick, he delivered a devastating right elbow to Karius’ face.  The foul on Salah drew no yellow card; the elbow to Karius went undetected.

Then came the woozy Karius’ bizarre decision to try to roll a ball past a lurking Benzema, followed a half-hour later by the complete mis-read on the dipping shot by Bale.

Upon his return to England, Karius flew to America to begin a vacation but was ordered by his club, dutifully following head injury protocol, to get examined at Massachusetts General in Boston, where he was seen by Dr. Ross Zafonte, a leading expert in the treatment of NFL players suffering from head trauma.  He concluded that the ‘keeper indeed sustained a concussion from the Ramos blow.  “Visual spatial dysfunction existed” and “additional symptomatic and objectively noted areas of dysfunction also persisted,” according to Zafonte.  He also expected Karius to make a full recovery.

Now we know.  But what will come of it?

Probably nothing.  To FIFA’s credit, world soccer has moved to recognize and address head injuries, especially after the 2014 World Cup final, when German midfielder Christoph Kramer played 14 minutes after being flattened in a collision with Argentina’s Ezequiel Garay.  (“Ref, is this the final?”  Referee Nicola Rizzoli, later:  “I thought he was joking and made him repeat the question.” Kramer:  “I need to know if this is really the final.”  Rizzoli:  “Yes.”  Kramer:  “Thanks, it was important to know that.”). That’s a head injury, and Kramer was taken off in the 31st minute after slumping to the turf.

But, in the case of Karius, it is unfortunate that so dramatic an example of the impact of a head injury to an athlete will go unnoticed in this country because it occurred in a soccer match, played a dozen time zones away.

King of the Hill in America is the National Football League, which has done its best to run away from concussions, while U.S. Soccer, the National Hockey League and other domestic sports organizations have addressed the problem to varying degrees.  The NFL should be taking the lead, but instead its resistance leaves the general public with the image of the head injury as an athlete flat on his back, out cold, or possibly stumbling about the field in a stupor.  Karius was an example what happens when a player is standing upright, seemingly OK but suffering from “visual spatial and additional areas of dysfunction.”  A sports fan can disregard the well-being of the players and blithely go on enjoying the show.  But maybe that fan will at least be more concerned with head injuries when he recognizes that they could affect how his hero’s foggy-headed decisions may play a part in the final score or, in the NFL’s case, the all-important point spread.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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.

 



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.



MAKING THE SQUARE QATAR PEG FIT INTO THE ROUND WORLD CUP HOLE

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be an autumn affair, the first World Cup not to be played in late spring/early summer.

A task force formed to look into ways to avoid the sweltering summer heat in the tiny Gulf state is recommending that Qatar ’22 be played in November and December.  Its report is expected to be ratified by the FIFA Executive Committee when it meets in Zurich on March 19 and 20.

Summer temperatures in Qatar routinely top 100 degrees while the heat drops to the high 70s in late fall.

The task force, headed by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, considered a January-February tournament,  but that would clash with the Winter Olympics.  April was rejected because Ramadan will be observed in the Muslim world in that month in 2022.

Under the recommendation, it is believed that Qatar ’22 would be shorter than the traditional 31 or 32 days, kicking off November 26 and ending on December 23, two days before Christmas.

Though FIFA says all of its confederations favor the move to November-December, it is expected to encounter fierce opposition from Europe’s top leagues.  Most of those leagues traditionally schedule a winter break of up to four weeks for weather reasons, but the task force’s plan would idle players not involved in the ’22 World Cup for up to eight weeks  [February 25]

Comment:  A very bad idea got worse.

The FIFA Executive Committee’s expected rubber-stamp to this topsy-turvy scheduling of a World Cup is further proof that the world’s soccer-governing body is hell-bent on holding its world championship in Qatar at all costs.  Allegations that the Qataris won over a solid U.S. bid through bribery have been swept under the rug.  Reports that foreign workers involved in World Cup preparations have been mistreated or even died in accidents is worth a shrug, all the more troubling because the stadiums and infrastructure promised by Qatar are being built from scratch.  At No. 109 in the latest FIFA World Rankings, the Qatari National Team is poised to be the worst host side in World Cup history, far weaker than South Africa in 2010.  And if a June World Cup in Qatar is being considered unworkable, then Qatar isn’t likely to be able to host the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup, the tradition World Cup dress rehearsal for a host nation.

On a much, much smaller scale, there’s something for Americans to consider, and it’s not just the fact that, among EuroSnobs, their favorite club’s schedule will be interrupted by a November-December World Cup after just a dozen matches.

TV ratings, those figures that determine in the future how often you can see your favorite European club or whether you can watch UEFA Champions League games on cable or network television here, will take a serious hit if the 2022 World Cup is played in late fall.

At last year’s World Cup, the USA’s first-round match against Portugal was played on a Sunday.  America was sitting on its couch with nothing more than mid-season baseball and a golf tournament as a diversion, and the TV audience for what will be remembered here for Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp, heartbreaking assist, was 24.7 million on ESPN and Univision combined, a record for a soccer telecast in the U.S.  There were no NFL games, no college football games, no NBA games, no NHL games to syphon off viewers.  A similar World Cup game, played on an NFL Sunday in 2022, will be buried in the ratings.  NFL games last season averaged 17.6 million–five pro gridiron games attracted more than 29 million.

Perhaps, in seven years, a November World Cup can steal casual viewers from the NFL.  At present, it’s doubtful.



ABBY WAMBACH: THIRD-BEST HERE, THE BEST EVERYWHERE ELSE?

Lauren Holiday was voted 2014 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year, becoming the first player to win the USSF’s athlete and young athlete of the year awards.

The holding midfielder received 43 percent of the vote, followed by Carli Lloyd (25 percent) and Abby Wambach (18 percent).

Holiday has 110 caps, including 16 earned this year, when she scored two goals and set up three others.  She also starred for FC Kansas City, scoring eight goals with seven assists.  In the National Women’s Soccer League championship match, she assisted on both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Seattle Reign, winning MVP honors.

Taking part in the balloting for the athlete of the year award were players who earned a cap with the U.S. National Women’s Team in 2014, women’s and youth women’s national team coaches, National Women’s Soccer League head coaches and select former players, administrators and media members.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard was named U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year a week earlier.  [December 6]

Comment:  Wambach has been named one of three finalists for the 2014 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award, along with Brazil’s Marta (the winner from 2006 through 2010) and Nadine Kessler of Germany.  A finalist for the fourth time and winner in 2012, the imposing striker led the U.S. in scoring with 14 goals to increase her world-record tally to 177.  Despite a string of injuries during the NWSL season, Wambach scored six goals and contributed four assists in 10 games for her club, the Western New York Flash.

The winner of this award, along with the men’s honor (Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich are finalists), men’s and women’s coach of the year, and goal of the year, will be presented in Zurich on January 12.  The voters included national team captains and coaches and media members.

Best of luck to Wambach. We must live in a wonderful land of female soccer talent when the woman considered the third-best female player in America can also be considered among the three best female players on the planet.



U.S. SOCCER’S WARM SEAT GETS A BIT WARMER

The U.S. was denied passage to the second round and Portugal remained alive after the Portuguese got a goal from Silvestre Varela nearly five minutes into added-on time to eke out a 2-2 draw at Manaus in the second game for the two Group “G” rivals.

The Americans and Germany, both with four points, are scheduled to meet in Recife on Thursday, June 26, the same time that Portugal and Ghana play in Brasilia.  The Portuguese and Ghanans have one point apiece.

Portugual, coming off its disastrous 4-0 loss to Germany in its opener, got off to an ideal start when winger Nani pounced on a mis-hit clearance by U.S. defender Geoff Cameron and scored from short range in the fifth minute.  The Americans replied with a 25-yard blast inside the right post by midfielder Jermaine Jones in the 64th minute and took the lead in the 81st when striker Clint Dempsey chested home a short cross in the box by midfielder Graham Zusi.

The prospect of the USA notching its first-ever comeback victory in a World Cup dissolved with 30 seconds left.  Midfielder Michael Bradley was dispossessed just inside the Portuguese half, superstar Cristiano Ronaldo–neutralized for 94 minutes–carried the ball down the left and got off a perfect cross, and substitute midfielder Varela was on the other end for a flying header from eight yards away. [June 22]

Comment:  Though Portugal’s last-gasp equalizer left millions of American television viewers (a record 24.72 million, according to the TV ratings) stunned, Bradley seemed as shell-shocked as anyone.  Interviewed by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap after the game, he struggled mightily to put words together, especially after he was asked, “Do you blame yourself for what happened?”

http://www.espnfc.com/united-states/story/1904636/michael-bradley-has-no-regrets-on-united-states-performance-after-settling-for-draw-with-portugal

Was it a fair question?  No.  But there was a positive side to it.

Unlike the old adage, “Success has a hundred fathers, but failure is an orphan,” a review of most any goal will reveal mental and physical mistakes by the defense, just as that same goal will likely be the product of skill/creativity/luck involving more than one attacking player.  To pin the goal on Bradley–despite his having his second straight weak showing at this World Cup–would be unfair.  The U.S. had numbers back as Ronaldo dribbled down the wing, and regardless of Ronaldo’s pedigree, the situation appeared to be under control.   If there are goat horns to be handed out, they should go to Cameron, who had played a solid match six days earlier in the 2-1 win over Ghana.  Caught ball-watching and poorly positioned, Cameron allowed the much smaller Varela to surge past him and get to Ronaldo’s cross unmolested.

On the other hand, Schaap’s question is another of those indications that the U.S. continues to evolve into a soccer nation bit by bit.  It’s still too rare for American sports media members to put soccer players and coaches on the spot or generally make life hell for them like their European and South American counterparts.  It was only one question, but as interest in the sport grows and the United States becomes a country of one hundred million or so soccer critics, the media here will be under increased pressure to scrutinize every move made on the field and give us not just the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” as to what happened in a match but the “why” and “how”–even if it has to include unfair questions in the process.  As this World Cup has revealed, there’s a growing number of inquiring minds who want to know.