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THE MIRACLE OF THE CAMP NOU: A CATALONIAN TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

FC Barcelona engineered the greatest comeback in European Champions League history, shocking Paris Saint-Germain, 6-1, before a jubilant, disbelieving crowd of 96,000 at the Camp Nou to advance to the quarterfinals on a 6-5 aggregate.

Barcelona scored three goals after the 87th minute, with substitute Sergi Roberto netting the deciding goal in the fifth minute of add-on time.

PSG was all but assured of an upset decision after humbling the Spanish giants, 4-0, three weeks earlier in its home leg.  It was a humiliation that prompted Barcelona boss Luis Enrique to confirm that he will leave at season’s end, saying the job had “exhausted” him.

Barca got its comeback underway with a headed goal by Luis Suarez in the third minute.  Three minutes before the intermission, Andres Iniesta worked some magic in tight quarters at the end line that forced an own goal by PSG’s Layvin Kurzawa, and in the 50th minute Lionel Messi converted a penalty kick drawn by Neymar.  But in the 62nd, Edinson Cavani scored to give the French side a 5-3 overall lead and a precious road goal as the Camp Nou balloon deflated.

But in the 88th minute, Neymar ignited what became the second comeback of the evening with a magnificent free-kick strike from the left that dipped inside the near post.  A minute later, Neymar converted a penalty kick after Suarez was pulled down in the box.  Barca 5, PSG 1, and the aggregate tied at 5-5.  And in the dying moments of stoppage time, the Brazilian striker’s chipped pass enabled Roberto to beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp for the winner.  [March 8]

Comment:  Perhaps the greatest rally by a great team in an important competition ever.

There have been several “back from the dead” performances in huge matches.  Liverpool’s epic “Miracle of Istanbul,” its PK victory over AC Milan after falling behind, 3-0, in regulation in the 2005 European Champions League final, comes to mind.  In the World Cup, you could start with the 1982 semifinals and West Germany’s resurrection in extra time against a fine French team to erase a two-goal deficit and force a winning shootout.

But there’s that qualifier, “great team.”  The 2005 Liverpool team couldn’t match the talent and accomplishments of its Reds brethren from the 1970s and ’80s; the banged-up Germans, featuring Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Paul Breitner, Uli Stielike, Felix Magath and Pierre Littbarski, were dispatched by Italy in the ’82 final.

Barcelona is a great team, the greatest club side of our generation.  It’s Hungary’s “Magic Magyars” of the early 1950s, Brazil from the late 1950s to ’70, clubs like the late ’50s Real Madrid, the early ’60s Santos led by Pele, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich in the ’70s, AC Milan of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and, yes, this current version of Real Madrid starring Cristiano Ronaldo.  Since 2005 it has won four Champions League titles, three FIFA Club World Cups, three European Super Cups, eight Spanish La Liga crowns, four Copas del Rey and seven Spanish Super Cups.  (It leads La Liga by a point over Real Madrid with a dozen matches remaining.)  But what will be remembered is how players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi (now riding into the sunset with a Qatari club) turned soccer into art, and that art into hardware.

And that’s why this stunning victory–without the need for overtime or a penalty-kick tiebreaker–over Paris Saint Germain was the most impressive by any team, anywhere, anytime.  Indeed, the ball bounced Barca’s way a few times:  German referee Deniz Aytekin falling for yet another instance of Suarez acting as though he’d been shot in the area by a sniper, thus setting up Neymar’s late PK; Aytekin finding an extra five minutes to tack onto the game’s end with the home side in need; the free kick drawn inside the PSG half by Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen ahead of the sequence that led to Roberto’s winner; a performance by Ter Stegen’s counterpart, Trapp, that won’t qualify for any goalkeeping instructional videos.  It’s better to be lucky than good.  And Barcelona on this night benefited from the “style-be-damned” teachings of Enrique, who, with Messi, Suarez and Neymar at his disposal, has nevertheless steered his team to a more direct approach.  But after watching FC Barcelona over the past decade run over La Liga teams, pick apart Champions League opponents with precision, it was impressive–perhaps unsettling, even–to see that this team can reach back and will its way to an unlikely triumph.  It’s as if Picasso momentarily turned his brush into a switchblade.

 



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.



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.



2014 WORLD CUP POSTMORTEM

Germany defeated Argentina in overtime, 1-0, before a Maracana Stadium crowd of 74,738 to win the 2014 World Cup.

Substitute Mario Goetze, who had not started in Germany’s last two games, scored the game’s only goal in the 113th minute.  Another sub, Andre Schuerrle, lofted a cross from the left wing that Goetze, on the run at the top of the penalty area, chested and volleyed inside the far post past Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero.  [July 13]

Comment I:  The best team won.

The overhaul begun by Juergen Klinsmann ahead of the 2006 World Cup and maintained by successor Joachim Loew in 2010 bore fruit in 2014.  All-time World Cup scoring leader Miroslav Klose (36) rides off into the sunset, and captain Philipp “The Magic Dwarf” Lahm (30), has announced his international retirement.  But Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski are all 29, and the rest of the nucleus, with some tweaking, figures to be around for the 2016 European Championship and beyond.  Much can happen in four years, but for now, the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas is well-positioned for Russia ’18.

Comment II:  The not-best team did not win.

Years from now, the 20th World Cup may be remembered not for Germany’s triumph or Luis Suarez’s bite or James Rodriguez’s arrival but the incredible collapse by Brazil.  The 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals and the 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third-place match were shocking on their own, but put them together and you have the most unbelievably pathetic 180 minutes in World Cup history.

If anything, it was all for the best.  This was a not-so-great team that was riding a wave of emotion provided by its thousands of yellow-clad supporters and the inner pressure created by the need to wipe away the nightmare–the Maracanazo–of 1950.  It needed penalty kicks to beat Chile in the second round and a fine free kick by David Luiz in the quarterfinals to keep up the facade.  It was unconvincing in the group stage, leaving the suspicion that its triumph the previous year in the FIFA Confederations Cup, capped by a 3-0 romp over defending world and European champion Spain, was an anomaly.  Not only could this team not be mentioned in the same breath with Pele’s 1970 champions, it was a far, far cry from another Brazilian also-ran, the 1998 array of stars headed by Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Cafu, Beto and Dunga that bowed to host France.  If that side needed a late jolt, it could look down the bench and call on Edmundo.  This Brazil’s bench had … Jo.  Had the current team pulled off two miracles and lifted the trophy at the Maracana on July 13, Brazilians would be the first to rank it behind its non-champions of 2006 and 1990 and 1986 and 1982 and 1978 and 1974 and 1966.

Comment III:  The second-best team could’ve won.

A 4-1 pick to win it all, Argentina coulda, shoulda wrapped up a 1-0 or 2-0 victory over Germany in regulation.  One goal could have come 21 minutes in, when Toni Kroos headed a ball back toward his goal only for it to be intercepted by Gonzalo Higuain.  Perhaps seeing Manuel Neuer standing before him and believing the German goalkeeper immortal based on his earlier performances, Higuain skulled a hurried shot outside the left post.  Eight minutes later Higuain had a goal disallowed for an offside call he easily could have avoided.

Either chance, if converted, would’ve thrown Argentina into defensive mode, and we saw what the Argentine defense (with the help of the midfield) was capable of against Germany for 113 minutes despite the Germans’ having greater possession.  Ironically, it was the back line that was regarded as the weak link heading into this World Cup while the team’s strength was Lionel Messi and his supporting cast of Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio.

Adding to Argentina’s frustration was Palacio’s chance six minutes into overtime.  Left back Marcos Rojo chipped a ball into the middle of the box to Palacio, alone with only Neuer to beat.  But he tried to chip the ball into the net and sent it wide left.  That was the Albiceleste’s last chance and only made Goetze’s goal seem inevitable.

Comment IV:  The bottom line on the impact Brasil ’14 had on America:

The U.S. media finally stopped referring to soccer as “perhaps the world’s most popular sport” and the World Cup as “after the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event.”  Instead, soccer and the World Cup became an unqualified “most” and “biggest.”

Progress.

Comment V:  Naturally, those Americans who don’t like soccer came out with their sharpened knives in June and July, and to soccer fans, their increasing desperation was another sign of progress.

Most of their criticisms–too low scoring, foreigners running around in shorts–have fallen by the wayside over the years, but they concentrated their efforts on two issues in particular this time.

The most curious one involved how time is kept during a soccer match.  “The game ends, and then it keeps going–no one but the referee knows when it’s gonna end!”   Of course the entire crowd and a worldwide television audience sees the fourth official hold up an electronic board indicating how much time has been added.  Two minutes, four minutes, and so on.  We all get the idea.  And TV viewers see the clock continue ticking in the upper left corner:  91:05 … 93:41 …. with a +4 next to it, for example.  However, “getting the idea” isn’t good enough in a country grounded in gridiron football countdown clocks and basketball games in which the final 30 seconds are massaged through 10 minutes of TV commercials. Maybe they were fired up by Portugal’s late equalizer against the U.S., when it was mystifying to some that the game seemingly went on and on, but soccer fans who saw the man with the electronic board knew that enough time remained for Ronaldo’s heroics, plus a subsequent kickoff and a few additional seconds of play.  If anything, that game should have been a lesson to the uninitiated.  Soccer is not a Hail Mary pass or buzzer-beater shot type of sport.  There is no way to “stop” the clock, so there is no need for a clock that shows 0:013 remaining.  And some people like being freed of that sort of nonsense.

The other complaint has merit.  “They flop, they roll on the the ground and act as though they’re in their death throes.”  From one ESPN radio talking head:  “This country will never embrace a sport in which the players are encouraged to be pansies.”

Good point.  We’ve seen all sorts of histrionics on the soccer field, and we all know it’s in an effort to draw a foul or induce a yellow card, not because the player has an incredibly low pain threshold.  But all that rolling around runs contrary to American sensibilities.  When Clint Dempsey is fouled hard he goes down like he was shot by a sniper.  No movement, no drama.  Stoic.  It’s the American way.  (Usually, Dempsey is either really hurt or trying to give his teammates a breather, or both.  If he’s trying to get the call, it’s by making the referee feel guilty over this lifeless figure on the turf.)

FIFA hasn’t been able to come up with a better tiebreaker than what it refers to as “The Taking of Kicks from the Penalty Mark.”  So it would do well to instead address its chronic play-acting problem–at least if it wants to win over America and its treasure trove of potential corporate sponsors.  There is a form of soccer that is played with a minimum of dives, flops and various sundry simulation.  It’s called women’s soccer, which is quite ironic.  These were, after all, the people who were once deemed too delicate to play this sport.  Instead, they cut each other down–hard–and the fouled party usually bounces to her feet and gets on with the game.  And no one questions their macho.

Comment VI:  And finally, while many Americans had finished applauding Tim Howard’s heroics in the USA’s 1-0 overtime loss to Belgium and had wandered away by the time Germany’s Manuel Neuer was awarded the Golden Glove as the World Cup’s best goalkeeper, it should be pointed out that Howard’s was not the greatest performance by an American ‘keeper in a meaningful match.

For those who saw it first hand, nothing will top Kasey Keller’s string of miracles to help the U.S. upset Brazil, 1-0, in the semifinals of the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup in front of a sparse crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  Keller made 13 saves that cool, damp night to Howard’s 16 against Belgium, but while Howard was masterful in handling several difficult shots, Keller made saves that left the Brazilians shaking their heads.  Two rapid-fire reflex saves on Romario defied belief, and the Brazilian striker later said of Keller, “It was an honor to be on the field with him.”

It should be recalled that this was mostly an under-23 Brazilian side preparing for the Olympics; that it took a goal by Preki in the 65th minute against the run of play to win it; and that the U.S. would go on five days later to lose to Mexico by the same score back at the Coliseum before an overwhelmingly pro-Mexico throng of 100,000.  But it also should be remembered that for one night, Keller, an outstanding goalkeeper very much the equal of Howard and Brad Friedel, was otherworldly.

 

 

 



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



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.