Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.

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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.