Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.



THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 



ONE LAST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE DUTCH MASTER

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch genius credited with helping to reinvent the game in the 1970s, has died in Barcelona at age 68, a victim of lung cancer.

Tributes poured in from around the world for the three-time European Player of the Year.

“Johan Cruyff was a great player and coach,” said Pele.  “He leaves a very important legacy for our family of football.  We have lost a great man.”

“We will never forget you, mate,” said Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi added, “Another legend left us today.”

A longtime smoker, Cruyff had said last month that he was feeling “very positive” after undergoing treatment for his cancer.  A minor heart attack in 1991 led to two bypass operations, yet it took another coronary scare six years later for Cruyff to kick the habit for good.

A friendly between the Netherlands and France the following day in Amsterdam was halted in the 14th minute for a moment of silence–which became a minute of respectful applause–in memory of Cruyff, who as a player famously wore No. 14. [March 25]

Comment:  Cruyff was arguably the first true soccer superstar produced by Europe.  The list of his accomplishments is long, highlighted by European Cups with Ajax Amsterdam in 1971, ’72 and ’73, the hat trick of Ballon d’Ors in 1971, ’73 and ’74, eight Eredivisie championships with Ajax, a La Liga crown and Copa del Rey while with FC Barcelona and, for good measure, a Dutch league-cup double with archival Feyenoord after Ajax decided that Cruyff, at 37, was too old and let him go.

But Cruyff will be best remembered for his impeccable skill, the graceful long-legged gait coupled with tremendous balance, the intelligence, the superhuman vision, and the burning desire to not just win but to win attractively.  His partnership with coach Rinus Michels at Ajax and with the Dutch National Team ushered in the era of “Total Football,” where every player was virtually interchangeable rather than a specialist confined to a single role.  Each man had to be versatile, and Cruyff was the most versatile of them all, defending smartly when needed, controlling the midfield with impeccable ball possession here or a perfectly threaded pass there, and, in the final third, scoring with some of the most audacious shots ever seen (392 goals in 520 matches over 19 years).  Cruyff and the Netherlands team dubbed “Clockwork Orange” may have lost the 1974 World Cup final to host West Germany, but they were the revelation of the tournament, spawning Total Football imitators worldwide.

Upon retirement as a player, Cruyff became that rarest of coaches:  a former superstar who could effectively translate what he could once do as a player to what he wanted of his charges.  He already proved as a rookie manager for Ajax in 1985 that he had an eye for talent, eventually unearthing gold nuggets Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and the De Boer brothers.  Beginning in 1988, he guided FC Barcelona over eight years to four La Liga titles and its first-ever European Cup crown, in 1992.  But more important, as someone who had been nurtured in Ajax’s groundbreaking youth development system, he introduced the same pipeline at Barca, a conveyor belt of talent that ultimately produced the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi.

Cruyff’s greatest achievement, however, may have been his contribution to soccer fans who are smokers.  He came from a time when players smoked in the team room after a rigorous workout and the coach nervously puffed away on the bench during a match.  Cruyff caught the fans’ attention after his second heart scare, when he appeared on television in a public service announcement in which he juggled a pack of cigarettes while delivering an anti-smoking pitch before kicking the pack away in disgust.  (The pitch:  “I’ve had two addictions in my life–smoking and playing football.  Football has given me everything, whilst smoking almost took it all away.”)  But now he’s punctuated the dangers of smoking with his death.  To those who saw Cruyff mesmerize on the field but still light up and to the many unfortunates who never saw him play and now vape, it’s never too early to quit.

 



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.



ALFREDO DI STEFANO

Alfredo Di Stefano, the greatest player of the 1950s, has died in Madrid.  He celebrated his 88th birthday on July 4 but suffered a heart attack the following day and passed away at Gregorio Maranon hospital two days after that.

Known as “The Blond Arrow,” the Argentine-born Di Stefano scored more than 800 goals in his career and was named European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and ’59.  Through his all-round skills and considerable leadership, Real Madrid won the first European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League) in 1956 and the next four that followed.  His record of 49 goals in 59 Euro Cup games still stands.  In the 1960 final before a crowd of 135,000 at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, Di Stefano scored four goals and teammate Ferenc Puskas three as Real Madrid pounded Eintracht Frankfurt, 7-3, in a match regarded by many as the greatest ever played.

Di Stefano’s career began in 1944 with River Plate.  He jumped to a Colombian pirate league in 1949 to play for Millonarios of Bogota, winning four titles in as many years.  Real Madrid tried to sign him in 1953, but, River Plate, which still technically owned his rights, struck a deal with Real’s arch rival, FC Barcelona, and FIFA approved the transaction.  The Spanish soccer federation, however, decreed that Di Stefano stay in Spain for four years, playing alternate seasons for Barcelona and Madrid.  Barca officials threw up their hands over the ludicrous decision and sold their share in Di Stefano to Madrid.  [July 8]

Comment:  Di Stefano never played in a World Cup, but nevertheless his career included a hat trick of national teams.  Early in his career he played seven games for his native Argentina.  While with Millonarios, he played four for Colombia.  And when he joined Real Madrid, he became a Spanish citizen and played 31 games for Spain, scoring 23 goals.  Had it not been for an injury, he would have played in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where he would’ve teamed with his Madrid strike mate, Puskas, the Hungarian legend who was playing for his second country, and a third star forward in the twilight of his career, Barcelona’s Ladislao Kubala, who was playing for his third country.  (Kubala earlier had represented Czechoslovakia and his native Hungary).  Not long after, FIFA tightened up its rules on players playing for more than one country in full internationals.

 



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.