Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


SPAIN’S PAIN

The Netherlands dismantled defending world champion Spain, 5-1, in its Group “B” opener in Salvador to avenge its loss to the Spaniards in the 2010 World Cup final.

Strikers Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben each scored twice and defender Stefan de Vrij once to wipe out an early Spanish lead created by Xabi Alonso’s penalty kick.

The shocking margin of defeat was the worst for Spain in a World Cup since its last appearance in Brazil, in 1950, when it was humbled by the hosts, 6-1, in a final pool match.  It also marked the first time a reigning world champ has dropped the first game of its title defense since France was upended by Senegal, 1-0, at Korea/Japan ’02.  That team infamously crashed out in the first round without winning a game or scoring a goal.  [June 13]

Comment I:  Amidst the Dutch jubilation, was there a sadder sight than Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas’ expression moments after his careless giveaway gifted Van Persie’s second goal?  And this, nearly three weeks after his blunder against Atletico Madrid nearly cost his club, Real Madrid, the UEFA Champions League final.

Spain may yet recover from this dreadful collapse and still make an impact on this World Cup, but at the moment, the face of its team is, fittingly, its captain, the one-time boy wonder who made his Real debut at 17.  He’s now 33.  Not a senior citizen as goalkeepers go, but like most of the team, not prime time.

Comment II:  Despite the grave concern by U.S. fans over their team being drawn into the so-called “Group of Death” and having to travel a total of some 9,000 miles for its first three games, there is a bit of consolation that’s been overlooked.

That was on display during the Netherlands-Spain match in the form of the spectators.  Fans of the Oranje were loud, of course, but much louder were the thousands and thousands of Brazilians, who were more than happy to see a team they considered a larger threat to their beloved Selecao go down in flames.

Count on Brazilians, who will out-number supporters of the participating teams at the USA’s games against Portugal and Germany by a wide margin, to be solidly behind the Americans, who they would much rather see Brazil face later in the tournament than the No. 4-ranked Portuguese or No. 2-ranked Germans.

Doubt it?  Go back to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, where the U.S. shocked mighty England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte.  America was represented by a team of semi-pros while the English, inventors of the game, were playing in their first World Cup after blithely skipping the first three.  The U.S. closed out the final minutes of the match to the roars of the crowd of 10,000, most of them Brazilians, and after the final whistle, newspapers were set ablaze in the stands in celebration while a crowd of happy locals carried the goal-scorer, Joe Gaetjens, off the field on their shoulders.



NEUER TIME

Bayern Munich will meet Chelsea in the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League final on May 19 at Munich’s Allianz Arena, becoming the first team since Roma in 1984 to play at home in European club soccer’s biggest match.

The two finalists both pulled off stunning upsets in the semifinals.  German powerhouse Bayern, a four-time Euro champ (1974, 75, ’76, ’01) eliminated Real Madrid while England’s Chelsea, a finalist in ’08, shocked cup holders FC Barcelona.

Prediction:  With all due respect to Iker Casillas (Spain, Real Madrid), Gianluigi Buffon (Italy, Juventus), Victor Valdes (Spain, FC Barcelona), and, yes, Chelsea’s Petr Cech (Czech Republic), Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer will emerge from the match having cemented his place as perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper.

And if he doesn’t, he has plenty of time to do so.  Already a World Cup veteran, Germany’s No. 1 is just 26.



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.



MESSI RE-CROWNED: IN A WORLD CUP YEAR, THE VOTERS GOT IT RIGHT

Lionel Messi won a second consecutive World Player of the Year trophy, topping the bill at the annual FIFA awards gala in Zurich.

The Argentine forward out-polled FC Barcelona teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in a vote of national team coaches and captains and selected journalists.  Messi received 22.65 percent to Iniesta’s 17.36 and Xavi’s 16.48.    In addition to winning the award last year, Messi finished second in 2008 and 2007; Xavi placed third in 2009.  In the 20-year history of the award, eight winners have come from Barcelona, including Brazilians Romario, Rivaldo, and two-time winners Ronaldinho and Ronaldo.

The award marked the merger of the FIFA Player of the Year and the Golden Ball, first handed out by France Football  Magazine in 1956 to honor the European Footballer of the Year.  The new honor is the FIFA Ballon d’Or.

Other winners that evening were Brazil’s Marta, named the best woman player for the fifth straight year; top men’s coach Jose Mourinho of Portugal, who guided Inter Milan to the UEFA Champions League crown; and Germany’s Silvia Neid, top women’s coach. 

Named to the All-World XI were Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and three other Barcelona teammates, Spanish defenders Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique and forward David Villa; plus Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, both of Real Madrid; and Brazilian defenders Lucio and Maicon and Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder, all of Inter.  [January 10]   

Comment:  The voters got it right. 

It would be tempting in a World Cup year to hand the award to the leading player on the world championship team.  Four years earlier, it was Real Madrid defender Fabio Cannavaro, who captained Italy to its fourth World Cup title.  But was Cannavaro the world’s greatest player the moment he lifted the trophy?  Subtract one ill-conceived head butt and the voters’ choice have been the voters’ second choice, three-time winner Zinedine Zidane, if not its third-place finisher, Ronaldinho.

Messi, from the recent past to the foreseeable future, is the world’s greatest player.  Along with Spaniards Xavi and Iniesta, he led FC Barcelona to five titles in 2010, and though he failed to score at South Africa ’10 for Argentina (some will remember his near-misses and the goals he set up), this 23-year-old only grew in stature.  From 25 yards out to the top of the goalie box, an unstoppable ball bearing on legs.

Ask any coach around whom he’d like to build a team and he’d reach past Xavi and Iniesta and grab Messi.  The same couldn’t have been said for Cannavaro, then 33, four years ago.



REAL LOUSY

Real Madrid dismantled Ajax, 4-0, in Amsterdam in its second-to-last Group “G” match, clinching first place in the group and eliminating the faded Dutch power from the UEFA Champions League.  Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice after halftime to put the match away, the second from the penalty spot.  [November 23]

Comment:  With its final group match against Auxerre on December 8 rendered meaningless, Real Madrid engaged in some gamesmanship that could be described as low farce, played out by a couple of players sitting on yellow cards who would just as soon sit out the Auxerre game and go into the next round with a clean record.  They succeeded.

Awarded a free kick near his own penalty area, Xabi Alonso, in a lame attempt to take time off the clock, made several phantom run-ups to the ball before Scottish referee Craig Thomson lost patience and showed Alonso the second yellow card he was looking for.  Not long after, Sergio Ramos, with goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Spanish World Cup captain, standing nearby, lined up a goal kick and gave an impeccable impersonation of Alonso.  After being shown his red card, Ramos out-did Alonso and shook Thomson’s hand on his way off the field.

Alonso and Ramos aren’t the first players to deliberately draw a suspension to skip a game.  Players stick out a hand to stop a sure goal; too routinely, they dive in the penalty area; in the most innocent of instances, they dribble to the corner late in a game to waste time.   However, the efforts of Alonso and Ramos were so embarrassing they should be banned by the UEFA not only for the final group match but Real’s first match of the next round, if not beyond.   And Madrid’s big-time coach, Jose Mourinho, in charge of Europe’s most decorated team, deserves to show us a blush, and if his side wins yet another Euro championship in May, the trophy should come with a small but symbolic scratch.