Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


A STRING OF GEMS–AND JUST ONE ROCK

The first two doses of pain were inflicted in the so-called “Group of Death” as Germany humiliated Group “G” co-favorite Portugal, 4-0, in Salvador and the U.S. scored late to defeat Ghana, 2-1, in Natal.

German striker Thomas Mueller, the leading scorer at the last World Cup with five goals, picked up where he left off, scoring a hat trick.  The rout was both humiliating and painful for the Portuguese:  defender Pepe was sent off eight minutes before halftime for head-butting Mueller and both striker Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao limped off with injuries.

U.S. forward Clint Dempsey scored 30 seconds after the opening kickoff–the fifth fastest goal in World Cup history–and the Americans held on until the Ghanans equalized through forward Andre Ayew in the 82nd minute.  In the 86th, however, substitute Graham Zusi curled in a corner kick and another sub, 21-year-old defender John Brooks, pounded a downward header into the net.  [June 16]

Comment I:  They can’t all be gems, but they’ve come close.

Two more entertaining matches.  Though it was lopsided, the German victory over the world’s No. 4-ranked team and its reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, was beyond impressive.  The U.S.-Ghana match was entirely different but no less compelling, with Ghana ratcheting up the pressure over more than an hour before gaining the tying goal, only to see the match turned on its head in dramatic fashion four minutes from the end.

Fitting, then, that those two games should bookend the day’s stinker, a toothless scoreless draw between Iran and Nigeria in Curitiba that put a dent in the average of 3.4 goals through the first 12 games–the best since 1958 in Sweden, a 3.6 average.  Unlucky No. 13 only underscored how entertaining this tournament has been.  Will any of the matches played thus far go down in World Cup history as classics?  No.  But this sure ain’t the dreadful 1990 World Cup in Italy (2.21), which gave new meaning to the word “dour.”

Comment II:  Americans are responding.  The Brazil-Croatia opener in Sao Paulo drew a total 9.5 television rating on ESPN and Spanish-language Univision, and the U.S.-Ghana game got a 7.0 on ESPN and 3.8 on Univision for a combined 10.8.  By comparison, the NBA finals on free TV (ABC) averaged a 9.3 rating and the Stanley Cup finals, also on free TV (NBC), averaged a 5.0.

 

 



THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE’S SAME GAME

Atletico Madrid, behind goals by Adrian Lopez, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, recovered from a scoreless draw at home in the first leg to pound Chelsea, 3-1, at Stamford Bridge to win its UEFA Champions League semifinal series, setting up an all-Spanish final May 24 in Lisbon.

The victory comes a day after Real Madrid humbled defending champ Bayern Munich, 4-0, on a pair of goals each by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and won its home-and-home set by a 5-0 aggregate.

The final, at Benfica’s massive Estadio de Luz, will mark the first time that teams from the same city have met for Europe’s biggest club prize.  Since the European Champions’ Cup became the UEFA Champions League in 1992, four finals have pitted clubs from the same country:  2000, Real Madrid 3, Valencia 0, at the Stade de France outside Paris; 2003, AC Milan 0, Juventus 0 (Milan on PKs), at Old Trafford in Manchester; 2008, Manchester United 1, Chelsea 1 (United on PKs) at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium; and 2013, Bayern Munich 2, Borussia Dortmund 1, at Wembley Stadium in London.

Real Madrid, a finalist for the 13th time, will be seeking an unprecedented 11th European champions title.  Atletico, which last appeared in a final 40 years ago–losing to Bayern Munich–will be playing in its second final.  [April 30]

Comment:  Like Spanish soccer?  You’d better.

(Full disclosure:  This writer likes Spanish soccer.)

This derby showdown–to be played more than 300 miles from Madrid–will be the fifth this season for the two teams, and the sixth since Atletico defeated Real in last May’s Copa del Rey final, ending a 14-year, 25-match winless streak against its rival.  In La Liga, Atletico, the current frontrunner, won at Real, 1-0, in September and tied at home, 1-1, last month; Real swept their Copa matches in February by an overall 5-0.

It raises the question, what will this grand finale prove?

Sometimes, these things work.  Last year’s UEFA Champions League final was an entertaining advertisement for German soccer.  But for those who want to see a real contrast in styles, a meeting of sides that don’t know one another too well, it often does not.

There’s no going back to the days when the European Champions’ Cup was true to its name and involved only defending league champions.  This year’s competition was open to a whopping 76 clubs, including a handful from the more powerful nations who dazzled the soccer world the previous season by finishing fourth in their league.  Of course, this is about money–lots of it.  Clubs that qualified for the group stage automatically pocketed $11.9 million; maximum points in the group would bring in another $8.3 million.  The payout for an appearance in the knockout rounds began at $4.8 million.  As for the final, one of the Madrids will walk home with an additional $14.5 million.  And the public doesn’t seem put off by a same-country final:  Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund last year attracted a global television audience of 360 million–better than three Super Bowls.

But from a sporting perspective, the UEFA has both turned its prime club championship into the impossible dream for dozens of its member associations and reduced its secondary competition–once known as the UEFA Cup and now known as the Europa League–into an afterthought for all but the most ardent fans.

As for the “champion” credentials of this year’s two finalists, Real Madrid qualified for the 2013-14 Champions League by finishing second to FC Barcelona a year ago, a whopping 15 points off the pace; Atletico was third, a dot in the rear-view mirror at 24 points back.

 



RONALDO’S SHADOW-BOXING MATCH

Cristiano Ronaldo was named the world’s best player of 2013 in balloting by national team captains and coaches and selected journalists, receiving 1,365 votes to Lionel Messi’s 1,205 and Franck Ribery’s 1,127.

The Portugal and Real Madrid star received his Ballon d’Or trophy at the annual FIFA awards gala in Zurich.  Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer was the women’s winner.   Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayern Munich to the UEFA Champions League crown, plus the German league and cup double, was the top men’s coach.   Germany’s Sylvia Neid was selected the world’s best women’s coach.

Ronaldo’s triumph was his first since 2008, when he won what was then known as the FIFA World Player of the Year award, while with Manchester United.  The following year, he finished second to Argentina’s Messi.  The FC Barcelona striker would go on to capture the honor the next three years as well, with Ronaldo the runner-up in 2011 and 2012.  [January 13]

Comment:  It was an emotional Ronaldo who accepted the trophy as world’s best from Pele, who earlier had accepted an honorary Ballon d’Or of his own.   Still, he had to be thinking about “the little man” in his rear-view mirror.

Though Ronaldo scored 69 goals in 2013, capping it in November with a stirring hat trick in Stockholm that lifted the Portuguese to victory in its World Cup playoff with Sweden, he won by default.  Messi may have finished second, but he was hobbled three times by injury during the year–and opened 2014 like he’d never missed a beat.

Ironic that Pele would be honored the same night that his rival, the great Eusebio, was eulogized.  The Black Pearl and the Black Panther, who died January 5, met in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, with the irresistible Santos, behind Pele’s five goals, beating Benfica by an 8-4 aggregate as Eusebio scored once.   Four years later, at the World Cup, they met again.  Pele had been brutalized by Bulgaria in Brazil’s opener.  In its final group match, Brazil and a limping Pele bowed out as Eusebio scored twice and Portugal topped the group.  The Black Panther would go on to score a tournament-leading nine goals and the Portuguese would finish an unexpected third.

Unlike Pele and Eusebio, we’ve been treated to several clashes between Ronaldo and Messi in La Liga and El Copa del Rey since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid in 2009.  Nevertheless, here’s to a grand showdown in 2014.  If the stars align, Portugal and Argentina could meet in the World Cup quarterfinals on July 4 in Rio de Janeiro or July 5 in Brasilia.  Who knows?  It might determine the ’14 Ballon d’Or.



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.


AN ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE GERMAN GAME ON AMERICAN TV

Bayern Munich defeated Borussia Dortmund, 2-1, at London’s Wembley Stadium on a last-minute goal by Dutch star Arjen Robben to win the first all-German UEFA Champions League final in history.

Munich, losers of five of its previous six finals but a five-time Euro champion overall, is on track to pull off a rare treble.  Already runaway winners of the Bundesliga, the new European champs will be decided favorites when they face VfB Stuttgart in the German Cup final on June 1 in Berlin.

After surviving considerable early pressure from Dortmund to produce some promising chances, Munich opened the scoring after an hour on a goal by striker Mario Mandzukic, set up by a Robben pass across the goalie box.  Dortmund, which went into the match 1-2-2 against Bayern in all competitions this season, got level on Ilkay Guendogan’s penalty kick eight minutes later after defender Dante’s reckless challenge on Marco Reus.  Dante, cautioned earlier, was lucky not to have been sent off by Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli.

Munich nearly ended it with a heart-stopping shot by Thomas Mueller that Dortmund defender Neven Subotic hooked out of the goalmouth.  But Robben, whose penalty-kick attempt in overtime of last year’s Euro final  against Chelsea was saved by Petr Cech, willed the ball past Borussia goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller from eight yards to cap a move begun by Franck Ribery.  [May 25]

Comment:  An intriguing, entertaining, end-to-end match that featured plenty of chances, spectacular goalkeeping by Weidenfeller and Germany’s No. 1, Manuel Neuer, and, given the familiarity between the opponents, little gamesmanship and just 18 fouls.

A wonderful showcase for European soccer, but more than that a valuable showcase for German soccer.  And certainly a reminder to Americans that there’s more to the game overseas than a steady diet of English Premier League telecasts and highlight clips of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.  Typically solid and stolid, the Bundesliga is short on glamor names (unless they’re home grown), short on the scandals that regularly plague countries like Italy, short on disorganization (Dortmund’s near-bankruptcy eight years ago aside) and long on attendance (a world-best average turnout that regularly tops 40,000 a game).  And despite the never-ending specter of 22-time Bundesliga winner Bayern Munich, Germany has had six different champs over the past 20 years, more than England and Spain and just as many as Italy.

Have German clubs supplanted Spain as the darling of international soccer?  Bayern Munich, after all, demolished the world’s most skillful side, FC Barcelona, by an astounding 7-0 aggregate in the UEFA Champions League semifinals, while Dortmund, harkening back to its 1997 Euro championship, outlasted Real Madrid, 4-3.  Perhaps not.  German power, speed and that one telling pass isn’t likely to top Xavi to Iniesta to Messi and a gentle tap-in.  But the Bundesliga deserves to be part of the discussion.



FOX’S MYSTERIOUS GAMBLE

Manchester United escaped the Santiago Bernabeu with a precious away goal as it battled Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the opening leg of the UEFA Champions League’s round of 16.

Midfielder Danny Welbeck put United ahead in the 20th minute against the run of play, heading home a corner kick by striker Wayne Rooney.  Ten minutes later, forward Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for the Spanish giants with a powerful header off a cross by winger Angel Di Maria.  Ronaldo, in a nod to his six stellar years with the English club, did not celebrate his goal.

The two sides meet in the second leg March 5 at Old Trafford.  [February 13]

Comment:  A minor epic, but what might be the most notable aspect of the match for American viewers was that it marked the Fox Soccer Channel debut of play-by-play man Gus Johnson–notable because Johnson, relatively unknown among soccer fans, has been anointed by Fox Sports President Eric Shanks as the network’s No. 1 soccer announcer.  That means he will be the man at the microphone for Fox’s telecasts of the English FA Cup final and UEFA Champions League final in May, and much, much more.  Like … the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Johnson, 45, cut his broadcasting teeth calling basketball, football, hockey and boxing for, among others, ESPN, CBS and the Madison Square Garden Network.  His on-air soccer experience consists mainly of radio broadcasts of San Jose Earthquake road games last year, which served as a warm-up for his Fox gig.  Apparently, Shanks’ grand experiment is a counterpunch to ESPN’s all-Brits, all-the-time coverage of the 2010 World Cup.  He wants someone speaking American English when it covers Russia ’18, and like ESPN three years ago, he’s thumbed his nose at the country’s experienced soccer play-by-play men.

What was heard during the Real Madrid-Manchester United telecast was not surprising.  Johnson, who’s tried to make up for lost time by playing in pick-up soccer games near his New York home, simply showed no feel for the sport.  Nice voice, seemingly well-prepared with plenty of factoids to share, but there was no comfort level or ready insight that comes with a lifetime of exposure to soccer.  It forced color commentator Warren Barton to repeatedly deal with loose ends and point out subtleties that would ordinarily have been taken care of smoothly by an experienced play-by-play man.  Over two hours, Barton, who usually looks like he’s just learned that his daughter has run off with a motorcycle gang, maintained his composure despite being the hardest working man in the Fox booth.  Low point:  With United sweating out its gritty draw on the road, Johnson asked Barton if Sir Alex Ferguson would be pleased with the result.

Best of luck to Johnson, for the sake of America’s soccer TV audience.  Somehow, over the next five years he will have to make himself smarter and more perceptive than his viewers, a majority of whom have been playing, coaching and/or officiating the game much of their lives.  At the moment, the thinking behind Shanks’ needless gambit remains a mystery.



IS FC BARCELONA THE BEST CLUB EVER?

Argentine forward Lionel Messi, all of 24, became the first player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times in a row as the world’s top players and coaches were honored at the 2011 FIFA Awards Gala at the Kongresshaus in Zurich.

Messi received the FIFA Ballon d’Or, beating out FC Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez of Spain and Portugal and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo in voting that involved national team coaches and captains and selected media members.  A two-time runner-up, he joins Ronaldo (1996, 1997, 2002) and Zinedine Zidane (1998, 2000, 2003) as the award’s only three-time winner.

Other honorees:

          o  Homare Sawa of Japan, Women’s Player of the Year.  Marta of Brazil, the winner the previous five years, finished second and the USA’s Abby Wambach third.

          o  Pep Guardiola of FC Barcelona, Men’s Coach of the Year, ahead of Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson.

          o  Norio Sasaki of Japan, Women’s Coach of the Year.  Pia Sundhage of the U.S. and Bruno Bini of France finished second and third.

          o  The FIFA/FIFPro Best XI:  Iker Casillas; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso; Messi, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney.

          o  Best goal award went to Brazil and Santos forward Neymar, and the Japan Football Association received FIFA’s Fair Play award for its response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck its country in March.  [January 9]

Comment:  The night may have belonged to Messi, but Guardiola deserves the brightest spotlight.

The Coach of the Year award is as close to a Club of the Year trophy as FIFA can hand out, and Guardiola has played a leading role in creating a club for the ages.

A couple of years into Guardiola’s four-year tenure at the Barcelona wheel, his team had already drawn comparisons with Ferenc Puskas’ Honved of the early 1950s, Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid of the late ’50s, Pele’s Santos of the early ’60s, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax of the early ’70s, Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich of the mid-’70s, Liverpool of the early ’80s, AC Milan of the late ’80s, and Manchester United of the late ’90s.

On a practical level, Barcelona won five trophies in 2011 and 13 of 16 possible honors since the Catalan powerhouse began to roll three years ago.  It is the current FIFA Club World Cup holder, having dismantled Santos, 4-0, in last month’s final, and the UEFA Champions League winner.   Its youth academy and scouting system are the model for ambitious clubs worldwide.  Its talent serves as the backbone of the Spanish National Team, the reigning world champion.

But on an artistic level, Barcelona is tiqui-taca, that oh-so-pleasing style that features 11 players, each of them comfortable on the ball, nine of the other field players running to provide the ball holder with myriad options, and nothing so ugly as a 40-yard thump into the box that would be described by the British as “speculative.” 

Guardiola may have had the horses–Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Cese Fabregas, David Villa, Pique, Carles Puyol, et al.–but he has held to the Barcelona way and gotten everyone on the same page.  And to the observer, what they do game by game  is so much more appealing than what they’ve done.