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THE PUTIN WORLD CUP: ENTERTAINING, BUT NO CLASSIC

France scored twice early in the second half to stave off upstart Croatia and win the 2018 World Cup final, 4-2, before 78,011 at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

The world championship was France’s second, coming two decades after the 1998 World Cup it hosted.  France joined Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (4), Argentina (2) and Uruguay (2) as the only nations to lift the World Cup trophy more than once, and it allowed Didier Deschamps to join Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer in winning a World Cup as a player and coach.

With the French entering the second half leading, 2-1, Paul Pogba scored in the 59th minute from the top of the penalty area on a rebound of his own shot, and teen sensation Kylian Mbappe seemingly put the game away with a pinpoint 65th-minute strike from 20 yards.  Four minutes later, Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scored on a blunder by French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, whose poor first touch of a back pass was first-timed into the net by the onrushing striker.

Croatia had rallied to take its three previous elimination games after 90 minutes, but another miracle was not to be as the French defense held firm and the Croats, having played the equivalent of an entire match more than France, sagged mentally and physically over the last 20 minutes, although they out-shot the winners, 15-6.

The opening half signaled that this would be France’s night.  In the 18th minute, after French striker Antoine Griezmann drew a questionable foul just outside the Croat penalty area, Griezmann managed to skip his subsequent free kick off the scalp of a leaping Mandzukic for a goal, the 12th own goal of the tournament and the first-ever in a final.  Midfielder Ivan Perisic answered 10 minutes later, beating Kante N’Golo’s mark to score on a smashing left-footed shot.  However, eight minutes before intermission, a Griezmann corner kick caromed off the back of opposing midfielder Blaise Matuidi and against Perisic’s outstretched arm.  Argentine referee Nestor Pitana consulted VAR before awarding a penalty kick, and Griezmann buried the resulting PK, the World Cup-record 22nd of the tournament.  [July 15]

Comment I: Exciting, unpredictable, quirky–this World Cup had a bit of everything.  Everything but classic soccer, regardless of how our friends at Fox tried to sell it.

Who knew that Spain-Portugal in the first round would be the one game recorded by fans worth holding on to?

There were the record number of own goals, plus the record-29 penalty kicks awarded (22 converted) in part because of the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee System).  There were 169 goals (2.64 per game) scored, just two fewer than at Brasil ’14, and 70 of those–a whopping 30 percent–were scored from re-starts, a development that might change World Cup tactics for years to come.

Nevertheless, what fans and the merely curious in this country got was a final that was a nice sales job for the sport of soccer: wide-open, incident-filled (as the Brits would say), and all played against a David versus Goliath backdrop.

With 11.8 million in America watching (a drop of one-third from the 17.3 million who watched the Brasil ’14 finale on ABC), we didn’t get:

2002 — Brazil 2, Germany 0.  A perfunctory affair in Yokohama, Japan, as Ronaldo supplied the inevitable–two second-half goals–and Brazil became the last South American side in the 2000s to lift the trophy.  It also was the last final to end in regulation until France-Croatia.

2006 — Italy 1, France 1 (Italy on PKs, 5-3).  A taut match in Berlin infamous for a head butt in overtime by France’s Zinedine Zidane to the chest of Marco Materazzi in retaliation for a particularly stinging insult.  The absence of Zidane, red-carded for his startling attack, cost the French in the penalty-kick tiebreaker.

2010 — Spain 1, Netherlands 0.  The so-called “Battle of Johannesburg,” the ugliest World Cup final in history.  The Dutch committed 28 fouls and were cautioned eight times, the Spanish were whistled 18 times and shown five yellow cards.  A goal by Andres Iniesta in the 116th minute ended the carnage and spared everyone a PK decider.

2014 — Germany 1, Argentina 0.  Another tight, forgettable struggle, this one in Rio de Janeiro decided by a goal 23 minutes into overtime from late substitute Mario Goetza.

If there would be no gripping finish in Moscow, at least we were treated to a wild opening to the second half.  The Croats threw everything into the attack, only to be punished by Pogba and Mbappe.  Then came Lloris’ blunder, perhaps the biggest ever committed by a World Cup team captain, opening the door to a Croat comeback that never came.  And somewhere in it all was a pitch invasion by four members of the protest group Pussy Riot, for years a nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who watched the spectacle with other dignitaries from his stadium suite.  It was fun, it was interesting, and it made the rest of the ride comfortably acceptable as the Croats, the second-best team on the field, tried in vain to muster yet another rousing comeback.

Still, soccer fans everywhere await another truly classic final, something that transcends Beckenbauer vs. Cruyff in 1974, Pele’s crowning moment in 1970, England’s Wembley overtime thriller in 1966, West Germany’s miracle over Hungary’s Magic Magyars in 1954.  There remains the World Cup final that shows the average American–in this modern era of lavish live coverage of the tournament on U.S. network TV–why the World Cup final is the planet’s Super Bowl, times 100.

Comment II:  Many fans grieved over the second-round departures of two members of world soccer’s great triumvirate, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.  Ronaldo’s Portugal was eliminated by Uruguay, 2-1, the same day Messi’s Argentina was outlasted by eventual champion France, 4-3.

But few who care about the sport would’ve shed a tear six days later when the third member of that vaunted trio, Neymar, was shown the door with Brazil’s 2-1 loss to Belgium.

American soccer fans in particular.  You know, the people who have to explain to their fellow Americans all the silliness performed by stars like Neymar.  They watch a few minutes of soccer every four years and are disgusted by what appears to be fields littered with human carnage caused by minimal-to-no contact.

Do most soccer fans like “simulation,” as FIFA refers to it?  Just as much as they like penalty kicks deciding a match.  And FIFA has tried to address the problem over lo, these many years.  Yellow cards are shown to players who swan dive in the penalty area, and players seemingly incapacitated by an errant shoe are stretchered off immediately, or somewhat promptly, which means that a possible faker is forcing his team to play shorthanded until medical staff discovers his injury isn’t fatal and he’s waved back on the field by the referee.  And now, VAR may do to combat faking what DNA technology has done for crime solving.

Still, faking, embellishment, play-acting–call it what you want–remains a growing problem and a challenge because:
           o  A player has a tougher time selling a foul in soccer than in basketball or gridiron football.  He’s trying to influence one official (unless the contact occurred in front of a linesman), not two or three or four.  When there are multiple whistles at the ready, a foul ignored by one official may be whistled by another.  And unlike in basketball, the pace of soccer is such that often there’s a split second or full second in which the referee might reconsider a decision–often because of the advantage clause.  In addition, the foul in question may occur a matter of 10 or even 40 yards away from the ref, not 10 or 20 feet, and even blatant fouls get missed, particularly those off the ball.  An average soccer field is roughly 100,000 square feet, and the referee is expected to be lord and master over every inch of it.  Then there’s the intent that has to be behind a foul (“A player who intentionally commits any of the following nine offences” begins Law XII), so the downed player is often compelled to writhe on the turf or sit up with outstretched arms, shouting at the referee that the contact was the result of maliciousness, premeditation, or criminal intent, not clumsiness.  Above all, a foul call in soccer can result in the lone goal in a 1-0 decision, via a penalty kick or perfectly placed free kick, as opposed to basketball’s three to make two at the free throw line late in the third period, something that’s soon forgotten early in the fourth period of a game in which another 40 points are yet to be scored.
           o  A fouled player may actually be injured–and often is.  Metal studs hurt like hell, whether they land on an opponent’s foot or plow into his thigh or calf.  Bruised ribs are lots of fun, especially if you get hit in the same spot repeatedly from your club’s first practice in July until a cup final 48 weeks later.  Head-to-head contact remains a problem, same with elbow-to-head contact.  Oh, and while shoes are flying everywhere, no one’s wearing a protective cup.  Keep an eye on slow-mo replays of player contact during any game.  What’s unfortunate is that American non-fans glance at a soccer match, see what looks like a fake job and just assume every player who goes down is faking it.  Consider that the player most often criticized for play-acting in this World Cup was Neymar, who, four years ago in Brasil ’14, went down in his usual dramatic fashion and actually had suffered a broken back.
Nevertheless, fingers need to be pointed, because these antics are a choice.  And damn cultural correctness.
First of all, women players, even among the highest ranked national teams, are notably immune to the gamesmanship that plagues the men’s game.  Indeed, it’s creeping in as the women’s game grows in importance and the stakes get higher, but for now women’s soccer remains a breath of fresh air–increasingly tough, increasingly physical, and still minimally cynical.
As for the men’s game, the worst offenders over the years by far are the Latin Americans . . . or the Italians and their love of the penalty kick that might decide a tight-as-a-drum 0-0 game . . . or those playing in Third World countries where not being willing to do absolutely anything to win means a trip back to the slums . . .or the prima donnas playing for the royalty of European clubs who seem to believe they are not being fouled but victimized.  You can watch just one club, German giant Bayer Munich, and enjoy Frank Ribéry of France and Arjen Robben of the Netherlands put on a flying, rolling clinic.  There’s Rivaldo of Brazil, who, when a Turkish player kicked a ball at his stomach near a corner flag after a stoppage during the 2002 World Cup, collapsed holding his face.  And nothing will top a long-forgotten U.S. World Cup qualifier at El Camino College in Torrance, CA, in 1985 in which Costa Rica, clinging late to a 1-0 lead, saw one of its players dramatically roll eight–EIGHT–times after slight contact as part of the Ticos’ concerted effort to kill the clock.  No card was shown, and Costa Rica resumed its sprawling, rolling, histrionics enroute to a victory that eliminated the Americans.
American non-fans, however, are non-discrimanitory, they just accuse anyone in shorts:  They’re all girly-men crybabies, they conclude.  They don’t discern that, by comparison, on a Silliness Scale of 0 to 100, Germans and Brits might be on the lower end.  That Scandinavians, by comparison, don’t writhe as much.  That Japanese and Koreans, by comparison, simulate infrequently.  That black Africans, by comparison, don’t play-act to excess.  And as we all know, such antics are beneath most American players, and that’s why American non-fans take one fleeting look and say bye-bye to the global sport of soccer.  Clint Dempsey, a favorite target of enemy defenders throughout his fine career, got chopped down, but he got to his feet and, with those black eyes, looked like he would kill that defender at his next opportunity–but he didn’t play the victim, regardless of the call.  As the occasional American observer would conclude, Dempsey wasn’t naive, Dempsey wasn’t lacking in intestinal fortitude.  Quite simply:  Now, that’s an American.
That’s why most enlightening was a comparison of England-Colombia and England-Sweden during the World Cup.  The Colombians pulled out all their clownish, malevolent shenanigans and the English, thusly goaded, fought fire with fire, behaving decidedly out of character (COL 23 fouls, six cautions; ENG 13 fouls, two cautions).  The result was a disgusting spectacle, one of the lowlights of the tournament.  Five days later against the Swedes, both sides were physical, fair and, refreshingly, nonsense-free (SWE 10 fouls, two cautions; ENG seven fouls, one caution).  Both matches were must-win games, each one decidedly different in tone.  The English, never to be confused with choirboys, won the Colombia second-round match and the Sweden quarterfinal.
This is a cultural thing that should should be discussed openly, and addressed aggressively by FIFA, whose campaign of Fair Play pledges and Fair Play banners and armbands rings hollow in this regard.  Tie 32 national teams together for a month and what you’ll get are the teams whose gamesmanship is beyond histrionics, teams whose gamesmanship is a bit more, um, discreet, and what we see every four years are matches in which the lowest common denominator is what’s on display.  Each continental confederation should be directed to conduct a study to quantify the instances of blatant gamesmanship over a fixed period covering its national leagues and its continental international matches to establish the prevalence of its play-acting problem.  Only then can there be a FIFA-ordered crackdown by referees, who should be given a directive to assume a take-no-prisoners approach in invoking Law XII:  “A player shall be cautioned if [m] he is guilty of ungentlemanly conduct.”  Fortunately, in this matter, “ungentlemanly conduct” means most anything and everything, and that would cover the girly-man antics that turn off so many Americans every four years–and genuine soccer fans everywhere every week.  Use that modern miracle of science, VAR:  If linesmen are keeping their flags down nowadays because VAR can get an offside call right after the fact, then show the yellow card with impunity for perceived play-acting and let VAR clean up the mess later.  Such an assault on silliness might be seen as harsh, but it’s necessary, it’s overdue, and it can be done.  And don’t do it for Joe Six Pack in some bar in Pittsburgh who sees Sergio Busquets or Luis Suarez rolling on the ground during the 10 minutes of a World Cup he’ll bother to watch.  Do it for the integrity of the sport.
Until then, for now, the irony is that grown men, defending and projecting a macho that’s so darned important, writhe and cry and hold the right ankle when it was the left ankle that was kicked, er, brushed.  Elsewhere, it’s the players at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France who, like the girly-women they are, will usually take a knock, get up and carry on playing, cynicism-free.

 

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RUSSIA ’18 THUS FAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A MEMO TO WORLD CUP ALL-STAR TEAM VOTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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.

 

 



BRIGHT START FOR THE MINNOWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



PREDICTIONS, PREDICTIONS

The 20th World Cup will kick off Thursday, June 12, in Sao Paulo when host Brazil plays Croatia in a Group “A” match.  The Brazilians go into the 32-nation, 64-game tournament as an 11-4 favorite to lift the World Cup trophy for a record sixth time.  Oddsmakers also have established Argentina as a 4-1 pick to win it, followed by defending champ Spain and Germany, both at 6-1.  The United States is a 250-1 longshot.  [June 11]

Comment:  Here are predictions for Brasil ’14:

o  Argentina will defeat Brazil in the final on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, site of Brazil’s nightmare 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the last match of the 1950 World Cup.  This time, the Argentines will win an end-to-end thriller, 3-2, to capture its third world championship and its first in 28 years.  Why?  Because of Lionel Messi, who four years ago in South Africa played a part in several Argentine goals but scored only one.  This time, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year runs wild.  Along with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, the Argentine attack builds momentum against soft Group “F” opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, a momentum that only grows in the knockout rounds.  In the third-place match, a banged-up Germany defeats an aging Spain … unless an outsider crashes the semifinals.  Uruguay and Belgium are popular picks for that role, but Switzerland lurks.

o  The U.S. will confound the experts, defy common sense, and advance out of Group “G”, the so-called “Group of Death”–and it won’t require a brutal tackle on Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo.  Juergen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed an encouraging run-up to Brazil without suffering injury, and its considerable fitness level gives it an edge in the heat of coastal cities Natal and Recife and the Amazon jungle’s Manaus.  Under Klinsmann the U.S. has become the attack-minded side it was not under then-coach Bob Bradley four years ago, and he has established a culture of winning, from placing first in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to taking the 2013 Gold Cup to beating Italy in Italy.  More important, he has instilled in his team the belief that it’s not just Germany that’s capable of a late miracle comeback.  The U.S. enters its seventh straight World Cup without international stars, as usual, but as goalkeeper Brad Friedel, hero of the USA’s 2002 quarterfinal run, said in a recent interview, the Americans can do it as a team, if every player earns a 1-to-10 rating of 7 for every match.

o  World Cup television viewership in the U.S. will dwarf the ratings numbers established at South Africa ’10.  No matter where a World Cup is played, a World Cup game is scheduled to kick off in what is prime time in Europe, or close to it–the rest of the world be damned. With this being the first World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere in two decades, we Americans finally get reasonable game times:  noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. EDT on most days.  That’s a far cry from Korea/Japan 2002, when some games started at 2 a.m. on the West Coast.  Meanwhile, greasing the skids is the fact that, with apps and expanded streaming services, this will be the most digitally interactive World Cup ever.

o  ESPN/ESPN2/ABC has once again gone all-British with its play-by-play commentators.  Ian Darke rightfully gets the choice assignments, including the final, but it will only influence more in the American soccer media to go Brit.  A player, wearing a “kit” and a pair of “boots” and playing not on a field but a “pitch” will score two goals, which will be referred to as a “brace.”   One goal will have been made possible by a teammate who, at “pace,” sends him an “inch-perfect pass.”  That will leave the opposition “on its back foot” yet possibly inspire it into a “purple patch.”  Anyway, look forward to another four-year period in which an increasingly number of Americans who know better refer to any singular thing in soccer as a collective:  “France are,” “Uruguay are,” and the “Real Salt Lake are.”  I are looking forward to it.  Or we am looking forward to it.

o  Americans who really, really don’t like soccer–that is, those who feel threatened by it–will dig in their heels even further over the next four weeks.  Everyone from newspaper columnists and radio sports talkers to Internet commentators will call the World Cup a dull, overblown waste of time and make xenophobic remarks about the participating nations and their fans.  But with each World Cup, their footing is growing more unsteady.  Those cracks about foreigners and soccer can’t be so easily excused anymore, not with some of our cherished sports–like golf, basketball, hockey and tennis–now a virtual United Nations of participants.  Those jokes about one-named Brazilian soccer players?  See “LeBron,” “Kobe.”  The argument that soccer in the U.S. is a game for kids?  The estimated number of soccer players in this country has ballooned from 8 million in 1982 to 25 million today.  Hard to believe that a few of those millions aren’t adult players, particularly when what we see at the local park doesn’t say otherwise.  And the line about soccer and 1-0 games leaving Americans bored beyond belief?  That kinda lost something with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria four years ago.  What’s left is the complaint that penalty kicks are ridiculous and the charge that players feigning injury make soccer players crying, whining wimps.  PKs are ridiculous, and a Nobel Prize awaits the first person who figures out a better tie-breaker.  As for the macho involved in playing soccer compared to more manful, manly and masculine American sports, you could start with the hundreds of thousands of soccer players recovering from concussions caused by head-to-head contact.  Or ACL tears.  Or you could go straight to last Saturday, when Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo and Mexico’s Luis Montes sustained broken legs–in friendlies.

o  Finally, this official World Cup song will be forgotten three days after the Brazil-Croatia opener:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGtWWb9emYI



THE USA’S INDISPENSABLE MAN

A highly motivated Ukraine turned a friendly into a mini-clinic as it defeated the World Cup-bound U.S. National Team, 2-0, in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Andriy Yarmolenko scored 12 minutes into the game and Marko Devic iced the victory with a 68th-minute goal.  On each strike, the Ukrainians took advantage of a shaky American defense anchored by center backs Anthony Brooks and Oguchi Onyewu.

The match, originally scheduled for Kharkiv, was moved 600 miles to Cyprus’ Papadopoulos Stadium days after the Russian military intervention in Crimea.  Only 1,573 spectators were on hand for the hastily relocated game, many of them Ukrainian expatriates who broke into chants of “No war in Ukraine!” after the final whistle.  [March 5]

Comment I:  Clint Dempsey did not score against Ukraine, nor did a slumping Jozy Altidore; Landon Donovan, preparing for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS opener three days later, wasn’t even there, nor was playmaker Michael Bradley, who recently moved from AS Roma to Toronto FC.  Nevertheless, after the USA’s shutout loss, the most indispensable man of the night proved to be another no-show, right fullback Steve Cherundolo.

Coach Juergen Klinsmann’s back four figures to be Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron–or Brad Evans of the Seattle Sounders–plus the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzales and Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City and the veteran DaMarcus Beasley of Puebla, who has revived his international career as a left back.  But despite Beasley’s 114 caps, the back line will sorely miss the experience and steadying influence of the 34-year-old Cherundolo, whose ongoing knee problems make his appearance at a third World Cup a long-shot.  Cherundolo has 87 caps to the combined 30 of Gonzalez and Besler, but he brings much more than just a wise old head.

Without the feisty, reliable, attack-minded Cherundolo, Klinsmann is without the player who’d most closely resemble the right back at his disposal if he was still coach of Germany–Philipp Lahm.  Cherundolo, of course, is not quite in Lahm’s league, figuratively speaking, although both play in the German Bundesliga.  While Cherundolo usually captains perennial also-ran Hannover 96, Lahm, a member of the 2006 and 2010 All-World Cup teams, captains both European champion Bayern Munich and the German National Team.  Nevertheless, Cherundolo is as important to his team as Lahm is to his.  At 5-foot-7, Lahm is known as “The Magic Dwarf.”  Without the 5-6 Cherundolo, Klinsmann will be missing his own magic dwarf.

Comment II:  The Ukraine-U.S. match and several other friendlies–many of them World Cup tune-ups for one or both sides–were played March 5, which marked the 100-day countdown to the kickoff of Brasil ’14.  What ESPN2 viewers of that game and the Italy-Spain game that followed were not subjected to was what they would’ve seen four years ago at the same point ahead of South Africa ’10:  promos touting ABC/ESPN/ESPN2’s upcoming World Cup coverage featuring the play-by-play talents of Martin Tyler.

Ian Darke, whose call of Donovan’s last-gasp goal for the U.S. against Algeria four years ago is now part of American soccer lore, has replaced Tyler as the lead commentator for ABC/ESPN’s coverage in Brazil.  Darke will be the play-by-play man for the June 12 Brazil-Croatia tournament opener, all U.S. matches, the final July 13, and other games.

British viewers in this country might miss Tyler, who we are given to believe is to soccer across the Pond what Al Michaels is to major sports here.  But American viewers will find Darke a significant upgrade–if they haven’t already over the last four years with his TV calls here of MLS, U.S. National Team and English Premier League games.  Tyler has proven to be urbane, witty, knowledegable, and–unlike Darke–understated to a fault.  Unfortunately, the end result is play-by-play that is very easy to tune out if the game Tyler is calling isn’t exactly, well, scintillating.  Tyler describing “a thoughtful, probing ball down the left flank,” is not unlike a visit to the doctor’s office, where Dr. Tyler, the proctologist, is carrying on a pleasant, soothing, benign conversation with his patient while the patient isn’t really concentrating on this pleasant, soothing, benign chat.

“So, how are we today?  Any complaints?”

“Well, actually, I ….”

“Yes, of course.   Now, shall we try to breath normally?  This portion will take but a minute ….”

Comment III:  At the Ukraine match, the U.S. sported Nike’s newest stab at designing a national team jersey.  Gone were the welcomed horizontal red-and-white striped shirts that all but shouted “USA,” replaced by something straight out of the bleach bucket:  a white shirt with single red pinstripes on the sleeves and collar, plus the U.S. Soccer logo, not the classic, old-fashioned stars-and-stripes shield the players sported during the 2013 USSF centennial season.

http://www.ussoccer.com/news/mens-national-team/2014/03/140303-new-kit.aspx

The collar is quite alright–a soccer jersey without a collar looks more like a glorified T-shirt.  But Nike’s end result is a boring jersey more suited for playing golf or tennis or lounging about.  And maybe that’s what the marketing geniuses at Nike had in mind all along when it comes to replica jersey sales.