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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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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