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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.

 



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.

 

 

 



NO NEED FOR A FOURTH LION

Uruguay, behind two goals by Luis Suarez, defeated England, 2-1, in a Group “D” showdown in Sao Paulo that kept the South Americans’ hopes alive and all but sent the winless English home.

Suarez, who led the English Premier League with 31 goals to spark Liverpool’s strong run last season but was coming off knee surgery, scored in the 39th and 84th minutes.  The second came after an errant header by England midfielder Steven Gerrard–a Liverpool teammate–sent him in alone against goalkeeper Joe Hart.  In between, Wayne Rooney, scoreless in nine previous World Cup appearances, shrugged off two near misses to produce an equalizer in the 75th.  [June 19]

Comment:  American TV viewers saw not only the likely exit of England after just two matches but the temporary exit of impartiality on the part of ESPN commentators.

Englishman Ian Darke has established himself as the Voice of Soccer in the United States with his knowledge, authority, wit and professionalism, but on this day he was too much the England fan.

Darke and analyst Steve McManaman went from restrained and nervous cheerleaders for 84 minutes to sharp critics after Suarez’s second strike to, in the end, resigned fans.  What should have been, at most, recognition of yet another textbook example of a gritty Uruguayan team getting a necessary result dissolved into a eulogy for a not-so-good English team.

Two moments were telling.  In the 29th minute, Uruguay captain Diego Godin, sitting on a yellow card for a handball in the ninth, hauled down Daniel Sturridge and was not issued a second caution.  Darke was right in criticizing Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, but he wouldn’t let it go throughout the rest of the half.  And in the 61st minute he initially dismissed an apparent head injury to defender Alvaro Pereira as cynical Uruguayan time-wasting.  Only after replays showed that Pereira had been clobbered by the knee of England midfielder Raheem Sterling did Darke temper his earlier remarks.

Has Darke been impartial during his calls of U.S. matches?  Of course not.  His paychecks are signed by ESPN, and from the Landon Donovan game to what is now known as the John Brooks game, his calls have been enthralling.  But while there may be many fans of the English Premier League in this country, most soccer fans here are not, and most of those have no allegiance to England.



BRIGHT START FOR THE MINNOWS

Costa Rica pulled off the first major upset of the World Cup, surprising Uruguay, 3-1, in Fortaleza in a Group “D” game.

Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte and substitute Marcos Urena all scored in the second half to shock the Uruguayans, who reached the semifinals four years ago.  Two of Uruguay’s heroes at South Africa ’10 were non-factors; Diego Forlan, still recovering from the flu, was  substituted in the 60th minute, and Luis Suarez, 23 days removed from knee surgery, did not play.  [June 14]

Comment I:  The Ticos’ victory came 24 hours after Mexico defeated Cameroon, 1-0, to join Brazil–a 3-1 winner over Croatia in the tournament opener June 12–atop Group “A”.

The U.S. opens play Monday against Ghana and Honduras will face France on Sunday.  But at the moment, it’s a bright start for CONCACAF.  The Confederacion Norte-Centroamericana y del Caribe de Futbol has never had much respect from the rest of the world, which can point to the region’s thin World Cup record:  the USA’s semifinal adventure at the very first cup in 1930, then three quarterfinal appearances by Mexico and one by the Americans since.  At South Africa, Mexico, Honduras and the U.S. combined to win two games, lose five and tie four, with the Mexicans and Americans tumbling in the round of 16.

The victories by Costa Rica and Mexico may not mean much at a time when the combined FIFA rankings of CONCACAF’s four current World Cup finalists is a ponderous 94, but it’s temporary progress for a region still in search of a World Cup group seeding that doesn’t come by way of being a host (Mexico ’70 and ’86, USA ’94).

Comment II:  Earlier in the day, Colombia, a dark horse favorite, pounded Greece, 3-0, in Belo Horizonte.  The Group “C” game was played at breakneck speed, but it ended without incident.

That bodes well for the referee, Mark Geiger of New Jersey, who was assisted by linesman and fellow countryman Sean Hurd.  With a dreadful penalty-kick call by Yuichi Nishimura of Japan in the Brazil-Croatia match and two Mexican goals erroneously called offside by Wilmar Roldan of Colombia the next day, another solid performance by Geiger could get him into the middle for the knockout rounds–a first for an American referee.

 



ONE MAN’S FLOP IS ANOTHER MAN’S DIVE

A FIFA vice president has labeled diving in soccer “a cancer” and demanded that players found guilty of simulation be punished retroactively.

Jim Boyce made his comments in response to an incident three days earlier involving Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, a player with a reputation for diving, in an English Premier League match with Stoke City.

“I watched the latest Suarez incident two or three times, and to me it is nothing less than a form of cheating,” Boyce said.  “It is becoming a little bit of a cancer within the game, and I believe if it is clear to everyone that it is simulation then that person is trying to cheat and they should be severely punished for that.

“It can be dealt with retrospectively by disciplinary committees, and it is done so in some associations, and I believe that is the correct thing to do,” added Boyce, a Northern Irishman and Britain’s representative to the world soccer governing body.  [October 9]

Comment:  Boyce is only the latest in a long, long line of critics who have slammed the play-acting that has become routine down on the field, but his labeling the problem “a cancer” was the strongest, most incisive, most welcomed comment from a person in power  possible.

This blog long ago (scroll down, there’s only 10o posts) urged soccer authorities to appoint panels to view videos and take appropriate action against divers after the fact.   With so much at stake, it’s awfully tempting for divers to go for the Oscar, but for the same reason, it’s long past time for the guardians of the game–such as they are–to act.  Divers should hear a little voice–make that a booming voice–every time they are challenged anywhere on the field and feel the need to hit the turf unnecessarily rather than try to continue what just might be a successful run with the ball.

It’s a global problem, of course, but in a way it’s an American problem in particular.

American sports fans hate play-acting, and just six days before Boyce’s comments, the National Basketball Association announced that it would crack down on what it calls “floppers” under a new policy that would assess the first flop with a warning, a second with a $5,000 fine, the third, $10,000, the fourth, $15,000, and the fifth, $30,000–this in an NBA world in which players earn an average salary approaching $6 million.

Basketball players, of course, don’t flop as often as soccer players dive.  It’s easier to “go to ground,” as the British put it, when the ground is nice, soft green turf, not varnished wood.  And it’s easier to get caught when the referee is 10 feet away, not 20 yards.  Besides, why flop early in the second quarter when another 150 points are bound to be scored?  So while the average American sports fan knows basketball as the sport in which simulation occurs, he/she knows soccer as the sport in which simulation–with its clumsy fall, followed by a dramatic roll and obligatory cry of agony–is a constant aggravation.

Major League Soccer could take a significant step in improving soccer’s image among the non-believers in its midst if it would institute an aggressive program to eliminate diving.  Appoint a panel, give it Inquisition-like powers to hand out retroactive yellow cards and fines, then deliver the video each week.  It might serve as an example to world soccer, and it just might improve soccer’s image among the sport’s critics here who have long held the impression that–based on the incessant diving they see–it takes as much courage to play badminton or golf as it is to play the wimpy sport of soccer.



SOUTH AMERICA LOSES ITS LAST MINNOW

Uruguay, behind two goals by World Cup hero Diego Forlan and one by Luis Suarez, out-classed Paraguay in the 2011 Copa America final, cruising to a 3-0 victory in Buenos Aires.  [July 24]

Updated Comment:  The big news out of the South American championship wasn’t Uruguay’s triumph.  After all, the Uruguayans have always taken the Copa America very seriously and, in the process, have won 15 of them.  It also wasn’t the quarterfinal eliminations of host Argentina (14 Copa championships) and Brazil (eight, including four of the last five).  No, the most notable development over the course of the three-week tournament was the fourth-place finish by Venezuela.

You know Venezuela:  Baseball-mad, never won anything in soccer, South America’s perennial doormat, once went 12 years between World Cup qualifying victories.  But in Argentina, the Venezuelans, who showed signs of life during the qualifiers for South Africa ’10, opened play with a scoreless draw with Brazil, then beat Ecuador, 1-0, and tied Paraguay, 3-3, to reach the quarterfinals.  A 2-1 victory over Chile got them into the semifinals, where it took Paraguay penalty kicks to stop them after a 0-0 deadlock.  The party ended with a 4-1 loss to another surprise team, Peru, in the third-place match in La Plata, but four days later the Vinotinto got some consolation after all:  a best-ever No. 40 in the FIFA world rankings, up from No. 69th the previous month.

What does it all mean?  Not all that much, per se.  Teams rise and fall in South America–30 years ago, Peru was in the ascendency; 20 years ago it was Colombia and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia; recently, Ecuador appeared on the verge of a breakthrough.  But with Venezuela’s rapid climb out of what had been a perpetual basement, this small community of soccer-playing nations–10 in all–that make up CONMEBOL can claim that it is by far the most competitive regional confederation in the world.  With Venezuela having attained respectability, it means that South America is the only one with no Andorra (No. 203) or San Marino (203), no Bermuda (185) or Turks & Caicos Islands (193), no Somalia (191) or Mauritania (187), no Bhutan (201) or Timor-Leste (202), no Cook Islands (195) or American Samoa (203).  At present, the worst of CONMEBOL is Bolivia.  No. 80, the impoverished Bolivians are ranked higher than recent World Cup qualifiers like Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and Trinidad & Tobago .  [July 27]