Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


WE DIDN’T TELL YOU SO–WE WARNED YOU SO

As expected, Bruce Arena announced his resignation as U.S. National Team coach, four days after he watched his side fall in shocking fashion to Trinidad & Tobago, a defeat that cost America a berth in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Needing only a tie in its final CONCACAF qualifier to punch its ticket, the U.S. gave up two first-half goals in a 2-1 loss at Couva. The Americans then tumbled from third place in the six-nation competition to fourth and ultimately fifth place minutes later as Panama and Honduras, playing simultaneous matches, both won to move up.  The top three nations–Mexico, Costa Rica and the Panamanians–qualify for Russia automatically and the fourth-place finisher, Honduras, advances to a home-and-home playoff with Australia.

“No excuses,” said Arena in his resignation statement.  “We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”

Arena, who guided the U.S. to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, including a quarterfinal appearance in ’02, was hired to be Mr. Fix-It after Juergen Klinsmann was dismissed in November following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to open the hexagonal playoff.  The winningest coach in U.S. history at 81-32-35, Arena went 10-2-6 in his second go-round but only 3-2-3 in the USA’s remaining World Cup qualifiers.  [October 13]

Comment I:  We didn’t tell you so, but we warned you so.

Go back to our August 18, 2015 post (“Don’t Put the U.S. Cart Before the World Cup Horse”).  It was inspired by the cocksure attitude in the U.S. soccer community that its team was a rubber stamp to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.  At issue was whether the U.S. or Mexico, CONCACAF’s previous two Gold Cup winners, would win a playoff to secure a spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.  From all quarters came the description of the Confederations as “a valuable warm-up for the World Cup,” as if both countries had already qualified with the Hex still more than 12 months away.  After all, they’d piled up 13 World Cup berths between them since 1990, and Mexico probably would’ve qualified for Italia ’90 had it not been barred by FIFA for using an over-age player in a youth competition.

The post reminded readers of the progress being made by the nations behind the Yanks and El Tri, and above all it recalled Mexico’s near-miss four years earlier, when it was seconds from being eliminated until the U.S. threw it a lifeline with two goals in stoppage time for a comeback win over Panama.  The red-faced Mexicans humbly accepted the gift and went on to qualify for Brazil ’14 by beating Oceania’s New Zealand in a playoff.  Four years ago the impossible was possible for a matter of seconds, and now, as of the evening of October 10, 2017, the seemingly impossible has indeed become reality.

The lesson out of The Disaster of Couva:  A World Cup berth isn’t a given.  It’s precious.

Comment II:  Seven consecutive World Cup appearances.

If there was any justification for the confidence here that a World Cup berth had become an American birthright, it is that remarkable run of success.  It’s a boast perennial powers like Holland, Uruguay and England can’t make.  Only six other nations had done it since 1990:  Brazil (five world championships), Germany (four), Italy (four), Argentina (two), Spain (one) and South Korea, which seemingly owns Asia.  The U.S. staggered into Italia ’90, making its first World Cup appearance in four decades, and it made it automatically in 1994 as host nation, but it’s been soccer’s version of a cakewalk since.  CONCACAF may have the world’s ugliest, most contentious qualifying competition, but the U.S. was given a golden path with FIFA’s decision to expand France ’98 from 24 teams to 32, thus increasing the number of berths allotted to CONCACAF from two to three.  Suddenly, regional qualifiers here were no longer a contest to see which countries would be fighting for the one scrap left behind by mighty Mexico.

So where does this hubris leave us?  Next June and July, there will be no outdoor viewing parties for thousands of fans at cities throughout the country for a U.S. National Team.  Fox, which spent more than $400 million for the rights to the next two World Cups, won’t experience the bump ESPN did in 2014 when 18.2 million Americans tuned in for the USA’s first-round draw against Portugal–a figure larger than the domestic audience of 17.3 million for the Germany-Argentina final.  The dominoes that will fall will include sponsorship and endorsement dollars not realized.  You’ll see small headlines, not big headlines, in your newspaper’s sports section, and no special insert devoted to rising young star Christian Pulisic, ol’ reliable Clint Dempsey and the boys.  The day’s World Cup results may be the last thing mentioned on your local TV news’ sports report, if it’s mentioned at all.  In short, your mother-in-law and the stranger in line at the grocery store won’t ask you about the World Cup and whether our guys can win their next match.

Worst of all, there’s a big slice of an entire generation of young players who won’t get that extra inspiration that comes from watching their country play for a world championship.  When you’re age 10, eight years is a lonnnnnng time.

Comment III:  What happened?

U.S. fans will be asking that well into the future.  With its fate in its hands, the U.S. played without urgency long enough for Omar Gonzalez to score in the 17th minute what will now be known as the most notorious own goal in American history, followed by a 35-yard bomb in the 37th by Alvin Jones that beat 38-year-old ‘keeper Tim Howard high inside the far post.  Pulisic, the USA’s 19-year-old wunderkind, pulled one back with a right-footed drive from the penalty arc two minutes after intermission, but would-be savior Dempsey was denied an equalizer in the 69th by goalkeeper Glenroy Samuel’s leap and by the right goal post seven minutes later.

Where was the U.S. side that ran wild four nights earlier in a 4-0 rout of desperate Panama in the penultimate qualifier in Orlando?  Arena started the exact same 11 in Florida, so was it fatigue?  Was the U.S. subconsciously playing for a draw?  Only savvy teams like Italy know how to play for a tie on demand.

Whatever it was, what happened elsewhere wasn’t much of a surprise.  Costa Rica had already clinched second place in the hex, so its 2-1 loss at Panama City on a controversial late goal wasn’t much of an upset.  Mexico had already clinched first, so its seesaw 3-2 defeat at San Pedro Sula didn’t do much to dent El Tri pride.

No, the major surprise was in Trinidad & Tobago.  Because of electrical problems, the U.S. match had been moved an hour south of the national stadium in Port of Spain to a modest 10,000-seat track and field facility.  Just as well.  With the Soca Warriors long since eliminated, the turnout at Couva resembled a crowd for a junior college match.  In fact, an attendance figure was not released.  It was virtually a neutral site.  Certainly T&T was playing with absolutely nothing to lose.  But U.S. fans have to question the fortitude of a team playing what was becoming a do-or-die game devoid of the horrors of qualifying on the road in CONCACAF.

Comment IV:  What now?

Most of the focus is on the man who hired Klinsmann and then Arena, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  He’s up for re-election after three campaigns in which he ran unopposed.  The two fellows expected to run against him in February are relative unknowns.  What Gulati has in his favor is his influence as a player in the high stakes world of international soccer.  A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, he sits on the powerful FIFA Executive Council (formerly the Executive Committee), he was instrumental in getting Gianni Infantino elected FIFA president, and he’s leading the Canada/U.S./Mexico campaign to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first 48-nation World Cup in history.  It should be noted, however, that the North American trio’s lone opponent for ’26 is Morocco, which would have trouble adequately accommodating a 16-team competition.  It is not imperative, then, that Gulati remain U.S. Soccer’s chief executive.

Whoever wins this winter, it is hoped that the new president shows patience.  There’s no clear successor to Arena waiting in the wings here in America.  Come the final whistle at next year’s World Cup, there will be plenty of qualified coaches who either stepped down or were pushed from their post, and many will be interested in a job where the resources are ample, the players are promising if not international stars and the only goal is not to work miracles but just right a ship that’s badly listing.  Oh, and unlike back home, the public pressure is minimal.

 

 

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OUR BRAVE NEW BLOATED WORLD . . . CUP

The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams.

The move from 32 teams to four dozen was approved unanimously by the FIFA governing council, an expansion of world soccer’s championship tournament that was welcomed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but criticized by others as another cynical, money-driven effort by an organization still in the throes of a financial and ethical scandal.

The percentage of the expansion will be the largest ever, from the original 16 (1930-78) to 24 (1982-94) to 32 (1998-2022).  More teams mean more matches, in this case an increase from 64 games to 80.  It also means greater revenue:  the 2018 World Cup in Russia is expected to pull in $5.5 billion through television rights, sponsorships and tickets; the 48-nation ’26 cup will bring in an additional billion.  Some of the expected increased profit–approximately $640 million–will find its way into the coffers of soccer’s six continental confederations and–presumably–on to FIFA’s 211 member national federations.

New FIFA boss Gianni Infantino had pushed for the change in 2016 when he ran for the presidency in an effort to include more nations and invigorate what was already the world’s most popular sporting event.

But critics contend that opening the World Cup doors to lesser soccer-playing nations will result in a weaker tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s membership reaching its most prestigious competition every four years and more matches crammed into an already crowded international calendar.  Infantino was unconcerned.  “We are in the 21st century, and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” he said after the vote.  “Football is more than just Europe and South America.  Football is global.”

For Russia ’18, Europe, as usual, will have the lion’s share of berths, 13, plus the automatic slot that goes to the host nation.  Ten-nation South America gets four berths, as does 47-nation Asia.  Africa’s 56 members will battle for five slots.  CONCACAF gets three.  The 31st and 32nd berths will go to the winners of home-and-home playoffs between CONCACAF and Asian also-rans and between the Oceania winner and a South American also-ran.  A decision on how the 2026 pie will be sliced will be made in May.  [January 10]

Comment:  No surprise here.   A huge expansion of the World Cup field for 2026 became inevitable with Infantino’s early Christmas present to the likes of Asia, Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania:  release of a 65-page analysis by a FIFA in-house group of five options in growing the World Cup.   The 48-team concept was rated best (and most profitable), with 16–sixteen!–groups of three teams each playing round-robin to open the tournament.  Another 48-team format called for a 32-team knockout round, followed by a group stage involving the 16 survivors and 16 seeded teams, for 80 total games.  Then there was the idea of 40 teams divided into eight groups of five and, in the end, 88 games played.  Or, 40 teams with 10 groups of four for a total of 76 games.

The opposition, not surprisingly, was led by the European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs on the Continent.  It called the present 32-team format “the perfect formula from all perspectives.”  The ECA added, “We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable.”

The FIFA analysis indeed conceded the expansion would diminish the level of play at that World Cup, but it also explicitly stated that the FIFA governing council must make its decision purely for “sporting” reasons.  But back to reality.

While Option No. 2 (an opening knockout round involving 32 teams, with the losers going home after one match), may seem ridiculous, what the governing council–the body created to replace the greedy, seedy and disgraced Executive Committee–settled on is only slightly better.  Expansion itself is a bad idea.  Despite three expansions since the late 1970s, the World Cup has remained a relatively compact monthlong festival of soccer.  The approved 48-team formula would mean a reasonable increase by one or two days to 32; the two finalists would still play the customary seven games; and the usual 12 stadiums would be required of the host nation(s).  But the addition of no-hopers only means an erosion in the level of play and a resulting decline in interest among the general public.  If Brasil ’14 had been expanded to 48, the tournament might have included the likes Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan–and the forgettable matches they were likely to contribute.  As for inclusion, today’s 32-team format has already allowed otherwise outsiders Trinidad & Tobago, China, Slovenia, Angola, North Korea, New Zealand, Tunisia, Togo and Saudi Arabia to have their day in the sun, not to mention splinters from the former Yugoslavia–Serbia & Montenegro (2006), Serbia (’10) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (’14).

Beyond concerns over the drop in level of play, the 16 x 3 format given FIFA’s blessing contains a serious flaw.  Forty-eight teams divided into 16 groups of three might require penalty-kick tiebreakers after drawn matches in the first round to ensure there is a “winner.”  After all, there has to be a brutally quick method to determine a group’s top two finishers and send the third-place team home.  That radical change to how the opening round of a World Cup is run also would be necessary to prevent teams from conspiring to arrange a favorable result in the final group game.

Just what we need:  More chances for PK tiebreakers to rear their ugly head before a global audience.  And more of just what we need:  A reprise of the three-team group, with each team playing just two games.  That was tried at Espana ’82, the first go-round with a 24-team field, when four three-team groups followed the first round and those group winners advanced to the semifinals.  Three teams playing two matches each promised nothing more than mostly defensive, nervy encounters that would please no one, and while there was Italy’s classic 3-2 win over favored Brazil, the 12 games averaged less than 2 1/2 goals–a half goal fewer than the tournament average–and included three scoreless draws.  Happily, that format was jettisoned for Mexico ’86 in favor of the now-familiar 16-team knockout second round.

There’s also the matter of what the bigger field will mean to the qualifying competition for ’26.  If Europe and South America gain only a couple of extra berths, the traditional powers there will have even less to fear.  Even in CONCACAF, the U.S. and Mexico, which survived a mighty scare before slipping into the 2014 World Cup, have no worries.  And with still less drama during what is an interminable qualifying process, the fans lose.

Finally, the expansion in ’26 also will mean a greater burden on the host, which will have to find accommodations and training facilities for an additional 16 teams, a new consideration that will hike the organizing nation’s bill from $2 billion to $2.3 billion.  That’s why there has been talk of the job of hosting that first 48-team event going to the triumvirate of the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Informal talks among the three have already begun.  The decision will be made in May 2020, and FIFA’s World Cup rotation among the continents would put North America in line to host.  Fueling the speculation is that Infantino owes U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who was instrumental in getting the Swiss-Italian elected FIFA boss in February.  There’s also the matter of the now-disgraced FIFA Executive Committee having given the U.S. the shaft in 2010 when it chose to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, ignoring the stronger American bid.  But beyond ’26, FIFA will have created a monster event that few potential hosts can handle.  Potential hosts like . . . China, which, on the heels of its 2008 Beijing Olympics, is keen to play host to the world’s biggest single-sport event.

There can be no denying that the soccer-playing world is a much more level playing field today than it was back in the days when the World Cup was an exclusive club of 16.  You could start with surprise packages like Costa Rica, which at Brasil ’14 stunned Uruguay and Italy and tied England before nipping Greece on penalty kicks in the second round and bowing in the quarterfinals to the Netherlands, 4-3 on PKs, after a brave scoreless draw.  But the World Cup remains a competition won by only eight nations–Brazil, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, England and France–and the list of worthy also-rans remains limited to the Dutch; Hungary of long ago; Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists; and, in a bit of a stretch, Sweden.  That’s it.  Infantino’s gambit does nothing more than give hope to the hopeless and directs those extra one billion bucks into FIFA’s coffers at the final accounting of the 2026 World Cup.  And for the fans, if gives them countless more forgettable, hardly watchable matches between giants and minnows under the guise of FIFA World Cup soccer.  And World Cup games, even those not so great, should be somewhat memorable.

In the end, the winner is Infantino.  His act of patronage has placed dozens of soccer’s have-not nations in his debt, and when it comes to FIFA presidential elections, it’s a one-nation, one-vote world.  His power base is assured.



BRUCE 2.0

Bruce Arena was named coach of the U.S. National Team, replacing Juergen Klinsmann, who was fired a day earlier.

It will be Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach.  From 1998 to 2006 he compiled a 71-30-29 record, the most successful stretch in American history. A two-time winner of the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002, 2005), he guided the Americans to an historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal in their opening match before advancing out of the group and earning a 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16.  The run ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.

“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the Men’s National Team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” said USSF President Sunil Gulati of Arena, who also led the U.S. to a three-and-out finish at the 2006 World Cup. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Since his first tour as U.S. boss, Arena served as general manager and coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 through this past season, winning Major League Soccer titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.  He rose to prominence by winning five NCAA championships as coach of the University of Virginia, then led DC United to the first two MLS titles, in 1996 and ’97, as well as the ’96 U.S. Open Cup.  He also helped United become the first-ever U.S. team to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the now-defunct Interamerican Cup, winning each in 1998.

“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex. Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”

The U.S. in early November opened the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with losses to Mexico, 2-1, at home, and at Costa Rica, 4-0.  The Mexico defeat was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier in 15 years.  Those results left the Americans in last place, four points off the pace for the last direct qualifying berth with eight games remaining on the schedule.  [November 22]

Comment I:  The timing for the change was obvious for more than one reason.

The next U.S. qualifiers, against Honduras in Salt Lake City and Panama in Panama City, aren’t until March 24 and March 28, respectively.  Roughly four months.  Preceded by a low-key camp in January that traditionally includes a couple of friendlies where hopefuls from MLS and youngsters get a look.  There isn’t as big a window for the rest of the Hexagonal.  Plenty of time for Klinsmann’s replacement to pull together a staff and execute a smooth transition.  It’s the American way.  The USSF doesn’t fire its coaches on airport tarmacs after a big loss.

Then there was Arena himself.  On a personal level, he was the obvious choice, like him or not.  Arena is not the coach he was a decade ago.  He’s now 65, and a doting grandfather.  He signed a two-year contract with the USSF, and this obviously is his final hurrah.  He has an ego, and he’d like to go out with a signature accomplishment, like a successful World Cup run, which wasn’t going to happen if he stayed in Los Angeles.  What’s one more MLS Cup to Arena at this point?

Comment II:  Juergen Klinsmann made the fatal mistake of over-promising.

He was hired to replace Bob Bradley in 2011 on the promise that he would not only lead the U.S. to victory but remake American soccer culture from the top down.  Gulati doubled down on that promise in 2013, on the heels of a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and Gold Cup title, by extending Klinsmann’s contract (a reported $3.2 million a year, through 2018) and crowning him men’s technical director to boot, placing the fates of the Olympic and national youth teams in his hands.

But the ups and downs of the Klinsmann era turned mostly to downs by 2015.  That year the national team failed to finish in the top three in the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000, part of a slide in which the Americans lost four consecutive games on U.S. soil for the first time in a half-century.   Meanwhile, on his watch as technical director, the U.S. failed to qualify for consecutive Olympic tournaments, something that hadn’t happened since Montreal ’76-Moscow ’80.  As for the U.S. youth teams, the kids haven’t been alright.  The U.S. under-20 team is winless in its last eight games against European nations by a combined score of 27-7, including a humiliating 8-1 pounding by Germany.  The U.S. went winless at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, four years after failing to qualify for the first time ever.  Remember how the U-17s reached the semifinals of the 1999 world championship in New Zealand and teens Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were named the tournament’s top two players?

Klinsmann, 52, departs having compiled a fine 55-27-16 record.  There have been two World Cups, including one in which his team won a so-called “Group of Death,” in 2014.  There was the fourth-place finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.  And startling friendly victories:  1-0 at Italy in 2012; 4-3 at home over Germany in 2013; 4-3 at Holland and 2-1 at Germany in 2015.  But he also exits with the cupboard bare:  the Klinsmann national team pool is overly reliant on German players with U.S. passports and his youth teams–based on results–are a shambles.  Little was built, and the fallout is the minor chaos that’s now Arena’s problem.

Comment III:  So who’s to blame?  Sunil Gulati.

He was one of the driving forces behind the ill-fated Project 2010, a laughably optimistic $50 million development surge launched by the USSF that was supposed to make America a legitimate contender for a World Cup title.  The title of the 1998 report that introduced the project, “Winning the World Cup by 2010:  Soccer’s Equivalent to the Apollo XI Moon Landing,” is best forgotten.

Gulati’s first major decision as federation president, in the weeks after the 2006 World Cup, was to allow Arena’s contract to expire, saying the team needed to go in a “fresh direction.”  He hired Arena’s assistant, Bradley, as new national team coach, then found him wanting in 2011 and hired Klinsmann, ultimately giving the German, as noted above, an extension and adding technical director to his titles.  Now it’s Arena, back to direct the U.S. in a presumably fresh direction.

As he completes the final two years of his third four-year term as U.S. Soccer supremo, Gulati’s legacy, and that of USSF Chief Executive Dan Flynn, will be one of continued success on the part of the U.S. women and utter mediocrity–even retreat–by the U.S. men at all levels.

Comment IV:  Had Klinsmann lost his team?

One can only wonder.  But there’s Klinsmann’s track record of rarely owning up to a mistake, of throwing players under the bus.  The latest victim was young Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks who, as Klinsmann pointed out, lost his mark, Rafael Marquez, on Marquez’s late winner off a corner kick in the 2-1 loss to Mexico.  Four nights later down in San Jose, a demoralized Brooks turned in a disastrous performance against Costa Rica.  This same 23-year-old came close to earning a near-perfect player rating in the USA’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.

You don’t have to be embedded in the U.S. dressing room to draw the conclusion that Klinsmann, with his insistence on getting his players out of their “comfort zone,” his thinly veiled disdain for MLS players, his willingness to take chances on any and all European-based players, his infamous dropping of longtime U.S. captain Donovan on the eve of Brasil ’14 . . . was not a players’ coach.  And players’ coaches tend to have some support among the people in uniform when they get into trouble.  There was barely a peep from those wearing U.S. uniforms after Gulati dropped the hammer.

Comment V:    Is Arena Mr. Fix-it?

His first stab at professional coaching, with DC United in 1996, was, initially, a disaster.  A month into Major League Soccer’s first season, the team representing the nation’s capital was a laughingstock.  Arena quickly fired several players and United went on to win the league championship.  A year later, it won another.

Can Arena fix this with eight CONCACAF qualifiers remaining?  Odds remain good that the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 World Cup regardless of who is coach.  The top three finishers earn berths in Russia, and the fourth-place team remains alive through a home-and-home playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher.

But at this point, U.S. Soccer is in the position of merely hoping for an eighth straight World Cup appearance.  Should the team reach Russia ’18, the U.S. will be back in the familiar position of hoping for little more than surviving its first-round group and a trip to the second round of a World Cup.  Klinsmann’s promise of genuine progress remains a luxury . . . and an unfulfilled dream.

 



DON’T PUT THE U.S. CART BEFORE THE WORLD CUP HORSE

Mexico shook off its funk and stormed to its seventh CONCACAF Gold Cup title, defeating upstart Jamaica, 3-1, in the final before a partisan sellout crowd of 68,930 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Andres Guardado opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a spectacular left-footed volley off a cross by Paul Aguilar.  That ended a frustrating 272-minute stretch in which the Mexicans had failed to score from anywhere but the penalty spot.  Jesus Corona, voted the Gold Cup’s top young player, increased the lead to 2-0 two minutes into the second half after stealing a ball from Michael Hector, and in the 61st minute Oribe Peralta capitalized on another blunder by Hector to put the match out of reach.  Darren Mattocks got the Reggae Boyz a consolation goal in the 81st.

The triumph earned El Tri a playoff with the U.S. on October 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup at stake.

The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup and could have secured a trip outright to the Confederations Cup in Russia by winning the ’15 tournament, but the Americans were defeated by Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals and then sagged to a loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., bowing on penalty kicks, 3-2, after a 1-1 draw.  [July 26]

Comment I:  An aberration?  No climactic meeting of the U.S. and Mexico in the final, as the tournament promoters had hoped?  Perhaps.  Maybe we’ll know as early as the autumn of 2017, when the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup conclude.  But the balance of power in CONCACAF continues to shift, and the hold of Mexico and the U.S. on the top two rungs continues to erode, by degrees.

The Mexicans needed all of three late penalty-kick calls in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match (thanks to Guardado, they converted them all).  The Americans failed to impress in group play, buried a Cuban team decimated by defections in the second round, then went back to failing to impress thereafter and were rewarded with a deserved fourth-place finish.

Are Jamaica and Panama that good?  Of course not.  Neither is Costa Rica, Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago. The most recent FIFA World Rankings placed the Reggae Boyz at No. 55, the Canaleros at No. 65, the Ticos at No. 38, the Catrachos at No. 81, and the Soca Warriors at No. 56.

Fortunately for the U.S. (29th) and Mexico (26th), while CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers remain a challenge–with road matches ranging from headaches to nightmares–the outcome has been similar over the past five campaigns:  The Americans and El Tri qualify and are joined by . . . who?  For 1998, it was Jamaica, in its World Cup debut.  For ’02, Costa Rica.  For ’06,  it was the Costa Ricans and, for the first time, Trinidad & Tobago.  For 2010, Honduras qualified, and for Brazil ’14 it was Costa Rica and Honduras.  It’s like a game of Whack a Mole, as first one CONCACAF contender pops out of its hole, then ducks back down and a different one pops up.

And so the battle for the region’s 3 1/2 berths at the 2018 World Cup heats up this fall, and everyone has the U.S. and Mexico with boarding passes to Russia.  Many in the media describe the October playoff between the two at the Rose Bowl as being very important because the winner goes on to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, “something of a dress rehearsal for the next World Cup.”  But the U.S. or Mexico might–just might–go to Russia dress rehearsing for nothing.

Because if there was any proof that there’s no longer a sure thing in CONCACAF, it came in late 2013, when Mexico shockingly finished fourth in the World Cup qualifiers and had to sweat out a playoff with New Zealand to punch its ticket to Brazil.  (Were it not for two U.S. stoppage-time goals at Panama in the region’s final round, Mexico would have been eliminated for the first time since 1934–when the eliminators happened to be the Americans.)  And as CONCACAF nations evolve, there’s nothing to say that Costa Rica, a surprise World Cup quarterfinalist in ’14; Honduras, a semifinalist in the previous two Gold Cups; Panama and Jamaica; and even Trinidad & Tobago; don’t all pop out of their mole holes during a single World Cup cycle, leaving the U.S. and/or Mexico on the outside looking in.  Heck, don’t count out Canada (No. 101), which won the 2000 Gold Cup, finished third in ’02 and now has a generation of players developing in Major League Soccer.

Comment II:  The USA’s breakout star during the tournament was a recent retiree.  Timmy Chandler was a disaster, Michael Bradley disappointed, but former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, as a television color commentator, proved to be a find for Fox Sports during its Gold Cup coverage as it gears up for much bigger assignments, from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning late this year to Russia 2018 itself.

Friedel gives you the whole field, as a goalkeeper should, but he also gives you the whole picture and speaks with the authority of a player who’s gone from the top collegiate level (UCLA) to MLS (Columbus Crew) to national team (82 caps, two World Cups) to international clubs (Brondby IF of Denmark, Newcastle United of England, Galatasaray of Turkey, and Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, all of England).  He’s quick, articulate, witty and enthusiastic about the U.S. without losing his credibility–no easy task during this transitory period in soccer’s history in this country.  And unlike most of his predecessors, he compliments his play-by-play partner, instead of making him work.

Friedel is far better than a long line of ex-U.S. internationals who’d hoped to be the second banana in a national soccer broadcast booth for the next couple of decades.  Friedel is better than John Harkes, he’s better than Marcelo Balboa, and he’s better than the insufferable Taylor Trellman, whose partner, the outstanding play-by-play man Ian Darke, must dread going to work.  Friedel’s, literally, a keeper.

 

 

 



ABBY THE GREAT — BUT HOW GREAT?

Abby Wambach became the most prolific goal-scorer–male or female–in international soccer history when she scored four goals against South Korea in a friendly at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, as the U.S. rolled to a 5-0 victory.

All of Wambach’s goals were scored in the first half.  Her third, which came in the 29th minute, gave her 159 for her career and put her past former U.S. teammate Mia Hamm.

The 33-year old scored the record-setter with a trademark diving header off a corner kick by midfielder Megan Rapinoe.  A bench-clearing celebration followed as the crowd of 18,961 roared.  She exited the match to another long ovation 13 minutes into the second half.

Wambach also passed Hamm in another category:  The two had been tied at 38 career multi-goal games.

Wambach got even with Hamm with goals in the 10th and 19th minutes, both set up by Lauren Cheney.  She capped her historic evening in first-half added-on time on a selfless pass by Alex Morgan.

At the moment, Wambach stands alone at 160 career international goals, followed by Hamm at 158.  Among the men, Ali Daei of Iran (1993-2006) is on top with 109 goals in 149 appearances.  Among European/South American males, Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (1945-56) remains No. 1 with 84 in 85 matches, nearly a goal-per-game average.  [June 20]

Comment:  So who’s better, Abby Wambach or Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004 after 275 international appearances?

Hamm, of course, was an attacking midfielder, not a pure striker with the 5-foot-11 Wambach’s aerial ability in the penalty area.  Hamm probably passed up several more goals, as her  career assist total–144–suggests.  (Wambach has 62; second on the U.S. list is the retired Kristine Lilly, 105).  And while Wambach’s sheer drive, power and talent with her back to the goal are tremendous, Hamm could do it all in the attacking half, embarrassing a generation of would-be defenders in the process.  In another country, Holland, among men, this would be a comparison between strike master Marco Van Basten and one of the most complete players of all time, Johan Cruyff.  (For the record, Van Basten scored 37 goals in 73 games for the Dutch, Cruyff, 33 goals in 48 before his premature international retirement.)

And from a cultural standpoint, Hamm, thanks to her considerable skills, her two World Cup winner’s medals, her two Olympic gold medals, her two FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year awards and the marketing geniuses at Nike and Gatorade, remains the best-known American female soccer player in the U.S.–despite Wambach having won a FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year award of her own last year.   Heck, among this country’s millions of non-soccer fans, Hamm may be the best-known soccer player, period, with all due respect to David Beckham and Pele.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s a wash.  When Hamm made her U.S. debut in 1987, she was 15, and the women’s game was only beginning to be taken seriously in the U.S., Scandinavia, pockets of western Europe and the Far East–while it was frowned upon in macho Latin America, Africa and most of Asia.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup, won by the U.S., was four years away.  The first women’s Olympic tournament, won by the U.S. at the Atlanta Games, was another five years away.  It all seems like ages ago, and with the women’s game evolving at breakneck speed, the threats to U.S. hegemony aren’t just China, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Japan of Hamm’s day but Brazil, France, England, Canada, Australia and North Korea, while early powers like Italy and Denmark and Nigeria and New Zealand have faded into the second tier.   Wambach’s is a different world, one a whole lot more crowded–crowded with better teams with better defenders.



CONCACAF PLUS 3.5 ADDS UP

CONCACAF fell short in its effort to gain an extra berth in the 2014 World Cup as the FIFA Executive Committee decided to give the North/Central America and Caribbean region the same 3.5 spots it was awarded for the 2010 tournament.

Under the allotment, CONCACAF will have three guaranteed spots; the fourth-place finisher in its qualifying competition will have a chance to reach Brasil ’14 through a home-and-home playoff with a nation from another regional confederation.

South America will have 4.5 qualifying berths, plus Brazil’s automatic spot as host.  Europe will keep its 13 berths, and Africa its five.  Once again, Asia will have 4.5 and Oceania 0.5.

One change:  A draw will be held in July to determine the playoff pairings among the CONCACAF fourth-place finisher, South America’s No. 5, Asia’s No. 5 and the Oceania winner.

The outcome, nevertheless, left CONCACAF officials–among them president Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago, who said in January that his region would lobby for an outright fourth berth– disappointed, if not angry.  Said CONCACAF Secretary General Chuck Blazer of the U.S., like Warner a FIFA Executive Committee member, “We are 35 members who are very serious about qualifying.  We want to be treated fairly and given enough opportunity to be successful.  Hear us.”  [March 3]

Comment:  Crocodile tears. 

Much can be said about how berths have been doled out since the World Cup expanded from 24 teams to 32 for Francia ’98.  Did Asia, in 2002, deserve two qualifying berths to go along with automatic berths that went to co-hosts Japan and South Korea?  Should Europe, with a high of 15 nations in ’98, continue to watch its presence erode?  When it comes to Africa, which had six total slots at South Africa ’10 and saw only Ghana survive the second round, will FIFA continue to reward that continent based on, presumably, promise alone?

For now, FIFA uncharacteristically got it right, for the most part.  Oceania, which since Australia’s defection to Asia has become New Zealand and the Eight Dwarves, truly does not deserve a straight path to a World Cup.   South America, with Brazil holding one spot, deserves its five qualifying spots.   And CONCACAF, which to most of FIFA is Mexico and the U.S.–plus, depending on the year, Costa Rica or Honduras or Canada or T&T or Jamaica, plus a couple dozen dots in the Caribbean–deserves its 3.5.  

At the last World Cup, the U.S., though first in its group at 1-0-2, and Mexico (second, 1-1-1) and Honduras (0-2-1) failed to turn the tournament on its ear.  CONCACAF’s fourth-place team, Costa Rica, dropped its playoff with Uruguay, although it should be noted that the Uruguayans went on to reach the semifinals.

If CONCACAF wants its fourth, it will have to overwhelm FIFA with its performance in Brazil.  The USA’s appearance in the 2002 quarterfinals won’t do, nor will Mexico’s in 1986, when it was host.  It will take that combined, plus a repeat of Uruguay1930, to do it.  That time, the U.S., 32 years before the founding of CONCACAF, finished third.



THE WORLD CUP’S SILLY SEASON . . . Plus dozens of other posts, from March to September, 2010
March 31, 2010, 6:40 pm
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The FIFA Technical Inspection Committee completed its four-day tour of the U.S., which is bidding to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.  The committee, headed by Harold Mayne-Nicholls, president of the Chilean F.A., made stops in New York, Washington DC, Miami, Dallas and Houston, looking over a portion of the 18 stadiums that could hold matches as well as accommodations, infrastructure, and potential sites for the media center and the tournament draw.  [September 9]

Comment: This bid is a far cry from the USA’s successful bid for the 1994 World Cup, when a band of determined, delusional Americans led by USSF chief Werner Fricker went after the big prize.  That one played out in obscurity, and the country was literally asleep when FIFA announced that the U.S. had beaten out Brazil and Morocco–it came hours before sunrise here, on a holiday no less:  July 4, 1988.  This time, the bid process is bigger, slicker, more sophisticated.  It has sponsors, like AT&T and American Airlines.  The bid committee includes honorary chairman Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, and comedian-turned-soccer-nut Drew Carey.  And GOUSABID announced before the FIFA team’s arrival that the one-millionth American had signed its petition backing the bid.   An Olympic bid by an American city still gets more attention here, but this time a shot at an American-hosted World Cup won’t be a secret.

With attention comes scrutiny, and with scrutiny comes criticism.  Among the criticism drawn by the tour was a lack of transparency on the part of the FIFA Inspection Committee.  This just in:  Nothing involving FIFA can be described as transparent.  The bid process for the 1994 World Cup was as shrouded in secrecy as they come, and if an irate Morocco could have sued FIFA over its decision, it would have in a heartbeat.  Then there’s a column by Dennis Coates that ran recently in a major daily under the headline, “An Empty Cup.”  In a nutshell, Coates declared, “Huge sporting events have often resulted in massive costs, so why is the United States bidding to host another World Cup.”

Interesting, because Coates is a professor of economics at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.  The head of GOUSABID, Sunil Gulati, is a professor of economics at Columbia University.  Coates is past president of the North American Association of Sports Economists.  Gulati is president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Coates’ column is based on his report, released two months before FIFA’s visit, “World Cup Economics:  What Americans Need to Know About a U.S. World Cup Bid.”  From the column, it is hard to decern Coates’ motivation.  According to Coates, the report’s most relevant findings:  Organizers for the 1994 World Cup claimed that the U.S. would see a positive impact of $4 billion, yet a post-Cup analysis . . . showed a cumulative loss of $5.6 billion to $9 billion.  [Those involved in the study] arrived at this by comparing the gross domestic product in the host region during the World Cup with standard figures in non-cup periods for the same regions.  The average host city lost $712 million . . . .  Of course, while . . . the U.S. was losing billions, FIFA and the U.S. organizing committee was taking in record profits.”

Yes, WorldCupUSA94 raked in some $40 million, which was turned into the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which has since spun that windfall into grants that have, nationwide, funded new youth soccer leagues, refurbished existing fields, built new ones, even provided the loan that helped launch MLS.  That is fact.  What Coates doesn’t explain in his column is just how the economy in the nine World Cup host cities managed to tank at the precise moment the matches were being played.  Apparently, the out-of-towners among the tournament’s record-3.6 million spectators walked everywhere, slept in local parks, fasted, and refused to buy any souvenirs.  Even if they did, their net effect on local economies would be zero, plus ticket revenue.

For more, go to . . .

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-coates-worldcup-20100907,0,3706974.story

 

 ARGENTINA AND ITS EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES 4, SPAIN 1

Argentina crushed newly crowned world champion Spain, 4-1, in a friendly in Buenos Aires at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium.  The hosts staged a clinic in the first half, taking a 3-0 lead on goals by Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez, who set up the first two strikes.  [September 7]

Comment: Among the Argentines turning Spain inside out was a trio of players rejected by 2010 World Cup coach Diego Maradona:  bad boy midfielder Ever Banega, defender Esteban Cambiasso and substitute forward Andreas D’Alessandro.  Sergio Batista has the job at the moment, but the match demonstrated that when it comes to a country drowning in talent like Argentina, the best coach is a faceless fellow devoid of ego who will simply call up the best possible squad, then get the heck out of the way.

 

 CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS CALLS IT A CAREER

Former star U.S. National Team striker Brian McBride announced today that he will retire at the conclusion of the Chicago Fire’s current season.  The 38-year-old Illinois native made 96 international appearances and scored 30 goals for the U.S.–third-best behind Landon Donovan and Eric Wynalda–and was the first American to score in two World Cups (1998 and 2002).  The No. 1 selection in the inaugural MLS draft, in 1996,  McBride played eight seasons for the Columbus Crew before moving to the English Premier League, where he scored four goals on loan to Everton and 40 for Fulham.  [September 3]

Comment: McBride skippered Fulham on numerous occasions–a rare distinction for an American–in recognition of his cool on the ball, work rate and resilience.  When McBride wasn’t scoring a clutch goal or ranging deep into his own half to help out on defense, he was getting clobbered for going up for balls other forwards wouldn’t dream of winning.  (And he almost always got back to his feet.)  He was sorely missed by the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup, not necessarily for the half-chances he might have turned into goals but for the example he would have set for an American team that needed the calming influence of the big man known during his days at Craven Cottage as “Captain Courageous.”

 

BOB ON THE JOB FOR FOUR MORE YEARS

Bob Bradley will stay on as U.S. National Team coach, signing a four-year contract extension with the U.S. Soccer Federation today that will keep him at the helm through 2014.  [August 31]

Comment: The USSF missed a golden opportunity to send the message that it expects more from its national team at the next World Cup.  The U.S. player pool doesn’t figure to improve markedly before Brasil ’14; the U.S., should it qualify, will need dumb luck to face the same collection of opponents in Brazil that it took on in South Africa; and Bradley, barring some sort of epiphany, is unlikely to be a much better coach than he was during his first four years in charge.  Like presidential second terms, don’t count on Bradley’s to end in triumph.

 

 WAS THIS MATCH NECESSARY?

A new-look Brazil cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory over the U.S. at the New Meadowlands Stadium before a near-sellout crowd of 77,223.  Two players controversially left off the Brazilian World Cup side, Neymar and Pato, scored for new coach Mano Menezes in the first half, and key saves by U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan, a halftime substitute, prevented the game from becoming a rout.  [August 10]

Comment: Why was this friendly even scheduled, aside from the chance for the U.S. Soccer Federation to take advantage of the last vestiges of World Cup fever and pocket a healthy gate?  Was it for coach Bob Bradley to trot out nine members of the 2010 World Cup team, a side that will look quite different by the time qualifiers for Brasil ’14 begin in two years?  Was it so we could all get another long look at the likes of Alejandro Bedoya, or to see the U.S. defense, now featuring promising newcomer Omar Gonzalez, shredded by the devil-may-care Brazilians?

Unlike nations preparing for the fast-approaching qualifiers for the 2012 European Championship, there was no urgent reason for the USSF to recall its top players from their clubs for such a match.  Leave them alone, decide whether Bradley will be in charge for another four years, then begin the methodical preparations for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the World Cup qualifiers.  Money may be the root of all, but not if it comes at the expense of the afterglow of what was a largely positive, memorable South African adventure.

 

 THAT INCURABLE GRUMP IS IN THE HALL OF FAME

Long-time World Soccer and Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner has been voted the sixth recipient of the Colin Jose Media Award, an honor created in 2004 to recognize the nation’s outstanding print and electronic media members and public relations professionals.  The English-born pharmacist-turned-journalist will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame along with U.S. World Cup veterans Thomas Dooley and Preki, recent USA coach Bruce Arena, and 1970s NASL goal-scorer Kyle Rote Jr., in a ceremony August 10 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey prior to the USA’s friendly against Brazil.  [August 3]

Comment: There was a time, in the 1980s and into the ’90s, when Soccer America provided the best in comic relief with its letters to the editor section.  Chances were, each week, a letter would appear ripping, pillorying, excoriating Paul Gardner for having criticized what was going on in the game.  The sport, for all its potential in this country, was a mess, particularly in the mid-80s, when the NASL had collapsed, indoor soccer threatened to become the favored form of the game and the USSF, which had badly fumbled its chance to host the 1986 World Cup, was a million bucks in the hole.  Gardner, to borrow a popular phrase from that decade, dished out tough love week after week from what back then was the only pulpit on the U.S. soccer landscape.

Heaven forbid there is anyone out there who has agreed with every Gardner column, but for more than three decades he has done his job:  provoking soccer fans in America to think and think hard about the game’s direction and those at the rudder.  If he has failed in any way, it has been in his refusal to dish out the pablum a generation of letter writers craved.

 

 INTO THAT BRAVE NEW WORLD OF OFFICIATING REFORM

The International Football Association Board, soccer’s rule-making body, today approved the use of extra officials positioned behind each goal line on an experimental basis for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League.  [July 21]

The move by the board’s technical sub-committee comes on the heels of a similar test conducted during last season’s Europa League, the continent’s second-tier club competition most recently known as the UEFA Cup.  Several other competitions, ranging from a women’s championship in Brazil to the Mexican first division and the UEFA Super Cup also will experiment with a total of six officials–referee, two linesmen, fourth official and the two extra pair of eyes.

Comment: While the world clamors for goal line technology, this will no doubt be dismissed as foot-dragging on the part of FIFA, which has already demonstrated its reluctance to embrace, much less consider, goal line technology.  It is, however, a measured, prudent approach to a situation that didn’t suddenly appear with Frank Lampard’s goal that wasn’t during the second round of the 2010 World Cup.  Officiating gaffes in the World Cup go all the way back to the first round of the inaugural tournament in Uruguay, when a Brazilian referee ended a match between France and Argentina six minutes early at the precise moment a French winger was enroute to what surely would have been the equalizing goal.  (The ref realized his error and got the two sides back on the field to complete the game, but the shaken French lost, 1-0).  This time, in South Africa, each World Cup match was covered by an unprecedented 29 cameras, bringing home the action in HD with super slo-mo replay and turning every viewer into an armchair–or barstool–official.  Fans saw not only how many non-fouls were actually fouls (and fouls that were not fouls) but simpler things like how many more corner kicks should have been awarded.

Let the six-official experiments run their course, and before anything is cast in stone in time for Brasil ’14, run some tests of goal line technology as well.  But keep in mind a 1995 study conducted by a University of Oxford team that examined computer-enhanced footage of Geoff Hurst’s controversial winning goal in the 1966 World Cup final.  (It concluded that the ball Hurst sent off the underside of the crossbar did not wholly cross the goal line.)  While the footage at the team’s disposal was crude by today’s standards, its study was not conducted while 22 players and tens of thousands of spectators waited for the verdict.

 

 WHATEVER IT IS, IT’S CONTAGIOUS

Forward Sydney Leroux scored from close range in the 70th minute and the U.S. forged a 1-1 tie with Ghana in Dresden to open the 2010 Under-20 Women’s World Championship.  [July 14]

Comment: Now the women have caught it.  The U.S. needed Leroux’s goal because, in what has become true American fashion, it allowed a long-range strike by Ghana’s Elizabeth Cudjoe in just the seventh minute.

Sound familiar?  At the World Cup in South Africa, the U.S. fell behind early in three of its four matches:  fifth minute against England, 13th against Slovenia, and fourth against Ghana on, yes, a shot from beyond the penalty area.  Is it the coaching?  A national character flaw?  Or is it just that the American player lately seems to need a cup of black coffee and a slap in the face before taking the field for what to any other player would be a very, very important match?

 

 AMERICAN AUDIENCE FOR WORLD CUP FINAL:  24.3 MILLION

A television audience of 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland.  ABC attracted 15.5 million and the Spanish-language network Univision 8.8 million.  That set a U.S. record for total number of viewers for a World Cup match, and ESPN/ABC experienced an overall viewership increase of 41 percent over the 2006 World Cup in Germany.  [July 13]

Comment: Those numbers vaulted the World Cup into lofty company, by American standards.  Those 24.3 million put the World Cup final on a par with the deciding games of the World Series (featuring baseball’s marquee club, the Yankees) and NBA finals (a dream matchup for basketball fans, the Lakers and Celtics).  And this for a match played not in prime time on a weeknight but on a Sunday afternoon.

What the numbers do not reflect, however, is how omnipresent South Africa 2010 was in this country; how, thanks to new technology and a hungry media looking for more eyeballs and ears, World Cup exposure in America exploded exponentially.

This was not Italia ’90, when TNT televised a few matches, complete with commercial breaks during the action and the color commentary of a British-born NFL placekicker.  It also wasn’t France ’98, when ESPN/ABC televised all 64 matches but went on air for most right at kickoff, missing the playing of the anthems and forcing the announcers to squeeze in the lineups during the first five minutes.  And it wasn’t Korea/Japan ’02, when many matches aired in the U.S. in the wee hours, thus losing countless potential viewers here.

This tournament got wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN/ESPN2/ABC, with pre- and post-game shows lasting almost as long as the matches themselves, as well as prime time replays for those who actually have to work during the day.  There also was Univision, televising its eighth consecutive World Cup from beginning to end, plus 25 games in 3-D on ESPN and plenty of talking heads on Fox Soccer Channel providing daily analysis.

Stuck in your car or otherwise unable to watch on TV?  ESPN Radio provided match coverage, and if your local ESPN radio affiliate didn’t carry your particular match, Sirius and XM satellite had the ESPN broadcasts, as well as those in German, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese and Korean.  Sirius XM also had daily highlight shows, as did ESPN Radio, the Futbol de Primera network and even National Public Radio.  And for those even further cut off, fans could keep up through streaming video on mobile devices (ESPN3.com and UnivisionFutbol.com).  Thanks to numerous free and paid apps, if you had a mobile phone, you had South Africa in your hand.

What it all meant was an American audience more engaged than during any previous World Cup.  Where once trying to experience a World Cup meant giving an effort unknown to, for instance, Super Bowl viewers, who get their premiere event on a Sunday in prime time in the dead of winter, following South Africa ’10 was, by comparison, almost easy.  And if there is not another technical advance between now and the next World Cup, Brasil ’14, with kickoffs at midday and mid-afternoon, U.S. time, will be even more accessible.  Look for more records to be shattered, no matter how the U.S. team (provided it qualifies) fares.

 

SPAIN 1, HOLLAND 0 (OT):  STYLE OVER SABOTAGE

Spain defeated Holland, 1-0, in overtime in Johannesburg to claim its first World Cup crown in a final marred by 47 fouls, a dozen yellow cards and one ejection.  Impish midfield wizard Andres Iniesta scored the winner in the 116th minute, sparing the world of a third championship decided on penalty kicks.  [July 11]

Comment: The better team won, but it was not a good day for soccer as the cynical Dutch did their level best to try to take the skillful Spaniards out of their game and nearly succeeded, committing 28 fouls that helped destroy any flow this game might have had.  Perhaps coach Bert van Marwijk’s side could be excused, to a certain extent:  it had watched Spain edge Germany, 1-0, in a semifinal in which the Germans showed their opponent far too much respect (nine fouls by Germany, seven by Spain, no cards shown) and no doubt concluded that playing nice was no solution.

In the end, Holland, for all its talent, added another chapter to a World Cup history that includes bitter disappointments at the 1974 and 1978 finals and the second round at Germany ’06, a disgusting match with Portugal made hard to forget for its 15 yellow cards and four red cards.  (Yes, Holland lost, 1-0.)  With these last two artless ousters, it will be hard to regard them as sentimental favorites in future World Cups.

 

THE NIKE CURSE

Portugal, a semifinalist four years ago, bowed tamely to Spain, 1-0, in its quarterfinal match in Cape Town.  [June 29]

Comment: Snapshot of Portugal’s unhappy World Cup adventure would have to be a petulant Cristiano Ronaldo, sitting on Spain’s half, after failing to draw a foul.  He remained there while his teammates scrambled to stave off a Spanish counterattack, drawing whistles and jeers from the crowd.

So Portugal goes home a loser, but the bigger loser was Nike, which managed once again to put all its eggs in the wrong basket, or baskets.

In 1998, Nike’s World Cup TV commercials featured Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, who went on to suffer convulsions a couple of hours before the final and turned in a listless performance in the 3-0 loss to France.  This time, Nike spotlighted Ronaldinho, who was not even selected to play for Brazil, Wayne Rooney, a goal-less disappointment for England, Franck Ribery, who sank along with his fellow French mutineers, and Portugal’s Ronaldo.

The lesson for Nike:  This isn’t golf (Tiger Woods) or basketball (Michael Jordan), this is soccer, a sport in which stuff happens and there is no such thing as a lead-pipe cinch.  It should be recalled that another Brazilian, Rivaldo, was in the midst of a long stretch on the FC Barcelona bench when he accepted his 1999 FIFA World Player of the Year award.  But that’s what makes soccer so appealing–no one is bigger than the game, and the man of a particular match could be a lowly substitute.

Comment, Part 2: For further proof that a crystal soccer ball is often useless, back on April 18, a major daily newspaper’s soccer writer listed, in order of importance, the 20 players to keep an eye on at the World Cup:  Lionel Messi, Xavi, Wayne Rooney, Luis Fabiano, Gianluigi Buffon, Fernando Torres, Wesley Sneijder, Franck Ribery, Andres Iniesta, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Iker Castillas, Carlos Tevez, Julio Cesar, Arjen Robben, Samuel Eto’o, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Essien.  Sub-par performances, early eliminations, injuries . . . well, he managed to get six out of 20 right and could have made it seven if he’d bothered to include the World Cup’s Golden Ball winner, Diego Forlan.  [July 12]

 

MORE TIME FOR POT SHOTS

Said U.S. Soccer chief Sunil Gulati at a World Cup wrap-up press conference in Johannesburg today:  “The team is capable of more.  The players know it.  (Coach) Bob (Bradley) knows it.  And so at that level we’re disappointed we didn’t get to play another 90 minutes at least.  It’s also a missed opportunity to stay in the public eye for another four, five, six days, maybe 10 days, when interest is at an all-time high.”  [July 28]

Comment: What the USA’s exit did was cue the critics back home–not the soccer experts but the sports columnists and commentators and Joe Six Pack who can’t stand soccer and regard a World Cup as their own personal quadrennial enema.

Until the loss to Ghana two days earlier, this had to be the most positive World Cup on record in that most pundits had clammed up, reluctant to make jokes about soccer when sports bars across the country were jammed with Americans cheering not the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots but a band of life-sized heroes wearing red, white and blue.  (The notable exception came after the last-gasp victory over Algeria, when two well-known columnists managed to find the following dark lining to the silver cloud:  This is America, so we shouldn’t be acting so giddy over beating a backwater country like Algeria; we’re ranked No. 14 in the world, so it is expected that we reach the round of 16.)

But with the U.S. eliminated, out came the knives.  After two weeks of blissful peace, letters to the editor of your local paper proclaimed soccer boring, pundits whose sports knowledge stopped at soccer were suddenly experts at flopping and goal-line technology, and in many quarters it was noted that a poll revealed that 40 percent of Americans surveyed said they wouldn’t follow the World Cup now that the U.S. was out (not that 60 percent said they would continue to tune in).  As during Germany ’06, the Jimmy Kimmel Show aired its World Cup “highlight” of the day (two or three passes by defenders on their own half of the field, although he could have just as easily goofed on gridiron football with a clip of a quarterback going down on one knee to kill the clock or basketball with a free throw miss two minutes into a game).

Gulati returns home with visions of what a meeting between the U.S. and Uruguay in the quarterfinals would have meant in the ongoing evolution of the sport here.  For those Stateside who enjoyed a couple of weeks in which those in this country who are quick to express their distain for soccer lay low, an extra six days of quiet would have been nice.

 

GHANA 2, U.S. 1 (OT)

The U.S. gave up two long-range strikes and saw its World Cup end in Rustenberg with a 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana in the round of 16.   Ricardo Clark once again played the goat, getting stripped of a ball in midfield that set up Kevin-Prince Boateng’s fifth-minute goal, and after Landon Donovan netted a penalty kick in the 62nd, Asamoah Gyan scored the game-winner three minutes into overtime.  [June 26]

Comment: The Americans finally went to the well one time too often and paid the price.  The World Cup is too grueling for a team to keep falling behind early and be able to summon the physical and mental strength to create late  miracles.  The U.S., renowned for its fitness, was a lumbering mass over the last hour of the game.  Striker Jozy Altidore was the poster child, and not far behind him were center backs Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, muscled out of the way by Gyan enroute to Ghana’s deciding goal.

Although Bob Bradley did exactly what he was hired to do–steer the U.S. through the World Cup qualifiers, win its first-round group  and advance to the knock-out rounds–his choices while in South Africa were questionable.  Do Robbie Findley, who has yet to score a goal for the U.S., and Clark hold compromising photos of their coach?  Why did adventurous midfielder Benny Feilhaber and forward Edson Buddle, the team’s hottest goal-scorer going into the tournament, languish on the bench for so long?

By U.S. standards, Bradley should be back for a run at Brasil ’14.  The U.S. Soccer Federation has a history of holding onto coaches who simply meet expectations.  However, it’s time to use this run to create some momentum, some buzz, over the next four years.  Having failed once in attempting to hire Juergen Klinsmann, the USSF should do what is necessary to nail down the German as U.S. coach.  A World Cup winner, U.S. resident, articulate in English–Klinsmann would give the USA’s next World Cup campaign the visibility and credibility deserving of a nation that just finished among the 16-best soccer-playing nations on the planet.

 

U.S.-ALGERIA TELECAST SHATTERS RECORDS

The dramatic match between the U.S. and Algeria was the highest-rated and most-watched soccer telecast in the history of ESPN, delivering a 4.6 rating, or 4,582,000 households and 6,161,000 viewers.  The previous record was set five days earlier with the U.S.-Slovenia game, which attracted 3,906,000 viewers.  The U.S.-Algeria showdown also was the most-watched weekday morning telecast in the history of ESPN, eclipsing the U.S.-Germany quarterfinal at Korea/Japan ’02 (4.4 and 5,335.000).  In addition, with 1.7 million unique viewers, the U.S. victory was the most-viewed single live event in the history of the Internet.  [June 23]

Comment: Just imagine the TV numbers if the folks who compile the ratings counted the thousands and thousands of Americans who were watching in groups in sports bars, restaurants and public places around the country.

Unfortunately, they don’t.  So watch the U.S.-Ghana match alone.

Of course you won’t.  Watching the U.S. in a World Cup is a communal experience, much like all those Super Bowl parties each winter.  But there can be no doubt that good TV numbers bring the sport in this country respect from the unconverted; with the average TV audience for the first three U.S. matches on ABC/ESPN/Univision up 68 percent from Germany ’06, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to make the claim that “nobody here cares about soccer.”  And the better the numbers, the more inclined ABC and ESPN are to continue to give soccer’s marquee events the first-rate treatment no one could have imagined just a few years ago.

 

 A PREMATURE THANK YOU, MR. COULIBALY

The U.S. clawed its way back from a two-goal deficit to earn a stirring 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Johannesburg and keep alive its hopes of advancing out of the first round.  [June 18]

Comment: The talk afterwards wasn’t about the Landon Donovan goal in the 48th minute that got the Americans off the deck or Michael Bradley’s equalizer in the 82nd.  It was all about the goal by Maurice Edu three minutes later that was disallowed by Mali referee Koman Coulibaly for a mysterious foul committed by an unnamed U.S. player in the penalty area as Donovan’s free kick from the right was on its way to Edu’s foot.

What the in-over-his-head Coulibaly managed to do with one untimely whistle was to get all–or a good portion–of America talking about the World Cup and its team.  It was among the top stories on that day’s network evening news programs, and photos of Edu and teammate Clint Dempsey, reacting to the call, were on the front page of major newspapers.

Had the goal been allowed, the 3-2 U.S. victory would have made for a nice sports story.  But while Americans don’t like to play the victim, they can be as indignant as anyone else.  As a result, people who had never heard of Landon Donovan were suddenly familiar with and talking about guys named Edu, Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra.

So a premature thank you, Mr. Coulibaly.  Of course, if the U.S. fails to advance out of Group C because of your deficiencies as a referee, you will go down in history with German midfielder Torsten Frings (goal line handball, 2002 World Cup quarterfinals) as one of the two men who did the most to slow the progress of soccer in this country.  But for the moment, you’ve shown that one blunder can get soccer more attention here than all the hype ESPN can muster and more.

 

 THE WORLD CUP’S STRAW MEN

Mexico rolled past France, 2-0, in a Group A match in Polokwane and can qualify for the Round of 16 with a draw with Uruguay in its final first-round game.

Comment: Javier Hernandez was offside on his goal and Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s penalty-kick goal was set up by a poor call on a tackle in the box by France’s Eric Abidal, but the better team won.  And Mexico deserves praise for showing in its first two games a positive style that other teams would do well to emulate.

As for France, it is the Scarecrow of South Africa because it’s theme song should be, “If I Only Had a Brain.”  That brain, of course, belongs to Zinedine Zidane.  Without him, the French are just another team.

Or make that the Tin Man.  Even before Blanco’s clincher, France showed very little heart.

 

 AN AMERICAN VICTORY ON THE TUBE

The U.S.-England match attracted approximately 16.8 million viewers in America–nearly 13 million via ABC and 3.8 million through the Spanish-language Univision.  That made it the fifth-most-watched World Cup broadcast on ABC since the 1994 final and beat the audience of 16.4 million for the fourth game of the NBA finals played two days earlier.  [June 13]

Comment: Imagine the numbers if this match had been played, like the NBA finals, in prime time, not midday on a Saturday when many potential viewers had things to do.

 

 ENGLAND 1, UNITED STATES  1

Comment: Now we know what The Sun, Britain’s tabloid rag, meant when it ran the now-notorious headline “England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks” (it spells E-A-S-Y)  in December, the day after the World Cup draw produced a Group C that featured the U.S. vs. England in the opener.

Apparently the clairvoyant Sun peered into its crystal ball and was describing Clint Dempsey’s shot at England goalkeeper Robert Green.  [June 12]

 

 SOUTH AFRICA 1, MEXICO 1

Comment: No World Cup should begin or end with a dud, and fortunately, this opener–not a meeting of giants–was a somewhat entertaining, wide-open affair once the host South Africans shook their early jitters.  The World Cup has a history of opening match stinkers, so it is hoped that this game sets a positive tone.  [June 11] 

 

‘QUICK DRAW’ REFEREE ASSIGNED TO U.S.-ENGLAND MATCH

Controversial Brazilian referee Carlos Eugenio Simon has been assigned by FIFA to officiate the June 12 World Cup match between the United States and England in Rustenburg.  Simon was once banned from refereeing in Brazil for six months for corruption, and over a three-game stretch in 2006 he showed 17 yellow and red cards.  Flamengo once sent FIFA a DVD of Simon’s more questionable calls, and Palmeiras chief Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo called the referee a “crook, scoundrel and a bastard.”

Comment: If Simon is as erratic and incompetent as his Brazilian critics claim, the U.S., with its history of ill-timed World Cup cautions and ejections, whether born of naivete or impetuousness, has much to fear.

On the other side of the field, so does Wayne Rooney.  England’s hot-headed, mercurial striker was praised this past season for limiting the number of cards he was shown to a mere eight.

 

LOOKING BEYOND THE FIRST ROUND, IF WE DARE

The U.S. defeated Australia in a wide-open match, 3-1, in Roodepoort in the final World Cup tune-up for both teams.  Edson Buddle, getting a start thanks in part to the ankle sprain suffered by Jozy Altidore, scored twice in the first half.  [June 5]

Comment: This was a very good result for the Americans, if we dare look beyond the first round.  (And why not?  At the moment, all 32 teams are still deadlocked at 0-0-0.).  In the Round of 16, the Group C winner will play the Group D runner-up on June 26 in Rustenburg; the Group C runner-up will play the Group D winner the next day at Mangaung/Bloemfontein.  It is imperative that the U.S. win Group C, of course, to avoid facing heavy Group D favorite Germany, although the youthful Germans’ stock has dropped with the loss of Michael Ballack to injury.  What makes winning Group C doubly important is who the U.S. would likely face instead of Germany:  the Michael Essien-less Ghana, the Nemanja Vidic-lead Serbia or Australia.  The Serbs and Socceroos have been variously picked to finish second or third.  If they do indeed meet the Aussies in the second round, the Americans will be facing a team it had beaten somewhat easily within the past three weeks.

But we get ahead of ourselves.  There’s a match of some import coming up on June 12, and what could be even bigger games on June 18 and June 23.

  

BLOW IT OUT YOUR VUVUZELA

The U.S. National Team arrived in Johannesburg after a 17-hour flight and was bussed some 20 miles outside town to the luxurious Irene Country Lodge, where it will begin final World Cup preparations.  The team was greeted warmly by hotel staff, who left a vuvuzela–the plastic horn common at South African soccer stadiums–in each player’s room.  [June 10]

Comment: Those vuvuzelas–and every other vuvuzela in the entire country–should be confiscated, dumped in South Africa’s largest landfill and covered with a least 100 feet of topsoil before June 11.

If not, this could go down as the most annoying World Cup in history.  The incessant din caused by vuvuzelas was a major irritation during last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, and we’re in for more.  It’s bad enough that they will drown out the rousing, colorful chants and songs of visiting teams’ fans, which are what make the atmosphere at a major soccer match so special.  What’s worse is that the vuvuzela has a range of one note, preventing the blower from doing anything interesting with his instrument.  So, at last year’s Confederation Cup, when South Africa got off a promising long-range shot in a first-round game against New Zealand, all the fans with vuvuzelas simply blew harder; what television viewers heard was not human sounds like a gasp or ringing cheers or the beginning of a raucous song but the dull drone of the vuvuzela–only louder.  It was as if someone had turned up the volume on the white noise of a TV channel that was off the air. 

 

EURO CHAMPIONSHIP OVERKILL

The UEFA has announced that France will host the 2016 European Championship, which for the first time will feature 24 nations.  [May 28]

Comment: Too much of a good thing.

The Continent’s original format, which called for eight finalist nations (1960-1992), was too small.  The expansion to 16 in 1996 was just right.  This expansion, however, is overkill.  Nearly half of all members of the UEFA will qualify for France ’16.  Do we really need to see Albania, Latvia, Andorra playing against Spain, Italy, Germany?

Maybe South America should follow suit and increase the number of finalists in its continental championship.  The Copa America at present features all 10 CONMEBOL members, plus guests Mexico and, occasionally, the U.S.  Then again, maybe not.  To expand, the nations of South America would either have to further open its competition to CONCACAF nations or start subdividing.

 

USA UNVEILS ITS WORLD CUP ROSTER

U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley announced his 23-man roster for the 2010 World Cup, one day after a 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic in a warm-up match in East Hartford, CT, and six days before the FIFA deadline. [May 26]

Comment: There were minor surprises, among them the inclusion of Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle, two forwards who don’t even appear in the annual USSF media guide that was published at the beginning of the year.  However, Gomez, capped only three times, was co-scoring champ during Mexico’s clausura season with 10 goals for Puebla, becoming the first American to lead any foreign league in goals. Buddle, who has never played a full match for the U.S. (45 minutes against the Czechs, 11 minutes in 2003 against Venezuela), has an MLS-leading nine goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Bradley couldn’t afford to ignore either man.

The loser that day was Brian Ching.  Hard-working, dangerous with his back to the goal, one of those strikers who has the ability to make those around him look good, Ching was also 32 years old and coming off a hamstring injury that cut into his average foot speed.  Bradley may rue his decision to leave out the experienced (45 caps) and productive (11 goals) Ching.  The beneficiary is the player who goes to South Africa instead, Real Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley.  Findley has made four appearances for the U.S. and is seeking his first international goal.

 

INTER MILAN VS. BAYERN MUNICH

Inter Milan and Bayern Munich will square off in the UEFA Champions League final today in Madrid, with both sides aiming to become only the sixth club to win the treble (national league, national cup and Euro cup).  [May 22]

Comment: Prediction:  Inter Milan 2, Bayern Munich 1, and Inter coach Jose Mourinho finally smiles. 

 

WORLD CUP PRELIMINARY ROSTERS:  USA IS THE TEAM WITH NO STARS TO SPARE Preliminary World Cup rosters were announced today, and among the big names who will experience South Africa ’10 from the livingroom couch are Ronaldinho of Brazil, Patrick Vieira of France, Francesco Totti of Italy and Ruud van Nistelrooy of Holland.  [May 11]

Comment: If there’s anything that underscores the United States’ high ceiling in international soccer it comes every four years when World Cup finalists reveal their team rosters.

This time around, the rejects include a two-time FIFA Player of the Year, Ronaldinho, and two world champions, Vieira and Totti.  These omissions carry on a World Cup selection tradition that was highlighted in 1998, when France coach Aime Jacquet decided that his team could win the World Cup it would host without peerless midfielder Eric Cantona and electrifying winger David Ginola.  As we all know, it did.

It’s moves like these that separate the U.S. from the world’s upper echelon.  Ronaldinho, at 30, and Vieira, Totti and van Nistelrooy, all 33, have been deemed too old for South Africa.  (For the record, the oldsters among the non-goalkeepers on the USA prelim roster are striker Brian Ching, 32 this month, and defenders Steve Cherundolo, 31, and Carlos Bocanegra, 31 this month.)  Were they American citizens, Ronaldinho, Vieira, Totti and van Nistelrooy would not only be on the final U.S. roster but in the starting lineup for the opener June 12 against England, birth certificates be damned.  And that would be one helluva team.

They are not, so a few have busied themselves in the weeks leading up to coach Bob Bradley’s unveiling of the U.S. prelim roster with speculation over whether Brian McBride, 37, should be pulled out of mothballs and paired up front with Charlie Davies, a man nearly killed last fall in a horrific traffic accident.  (The U.S. will be fine.  A front line of Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey is the best we have to offer, and if Altidore can hold onto the ball and if Dempsey can conjure up some magic, the U.S. will reach the knockout rounds.)

So while some U.S. fans (and pundits) fret about the present, it is obvious that the future is boundless.  The U.S. is No. 14 in the most recent FIFA World Rankings, and it has done it with a group of European-based players from the likes of AGF Aarhus, West Ham, Stade Rennes, Bolton, Hannover 06, Fulham and Borussia Moenchengladbach.  Oguchi Onyewu is with AC Milan and DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu are with Glasgow Rangers, but because of injuries and other factors they mostly train and sit and wait.

Someday, one of Bradley’s successors will draw on Americans starting–maybe even starring–for FC Barcelona or Inter Milan or Manchester United or Bayern Munich.  And he might have the luxury of making like Jacquet, or perhaps Argentina boss Diego Maradona, who isn’t about to call up standout Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme for his 2010 World Cup squad because the two don’t see eye to eye. But that’s for tomorrow.  For today, the U.S. can’t afford to kill off useful players in their early 30s and the U.S. coach can’t afford to spit on talent simply because of a difference of philosophies or a clash of personalities.  The underdeveloped giant known as the U.S. National Team goes to South Africa with the very best talent its country has to offer, no exceptions.

 

 SOUNDERS’ REFUND OFFER NOT A STROKE OF GENIUS

The Seattle Sounders offered their fans an apology in the form of a refund one day after the team suffered an embarrassing 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy before a club-record crowd of 36,273 at Qwest Field.  Sounder fans will be extended a one-game credit toward 2011 season-ticket packages.  [May 9]

Comment: Now in its 15th season, MLS is a league whose quality of play remains questionable in the eyes of many, and it will continue to be suspect until it can beat Mexican clubs in CONCACAF competitions and/or attract foreign stars in their prime.  This is no time for one of its franchises to proclaim, “We’re lousy and not worth paying to see.”  The Sounders have done a whole lot right, but this idea is a wrongheaded grandstand play.

 

PELE, MARADONA BURY HATCHET FOR A GOOD CAUSE:  QUALITY LUGGAGE

O Rey, El Pibe de Oro and Zizu–Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane–will appear together in a Louis Vuitton advertisement slated to run in several international magazines in June, just in time for kickoff of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  The trio were photographed by Annie Leibovitz enjoying a game of foosball in the Madrid bar Cafe Maravillas, with Zidane’s Louis Vuitton luggage in the background.  [May 2]

Comment: Pele and Maradona, shown in the ad standing side by side at the foosball table,  have had a rocky relationship over the years.  It reached its nadir in 1999 with FIFA’s botched Player of the Century balloting, which was conducted over the Internet.  Younger voters–that is, people who had seen plenty of Maradona on color TV and who are more computer savvy than their older, Pele-era counterparts–gave the Argentine icon a landslide victory, which was leaked to a Spanish newspaper.  Back-pedalling quickly, FIFA formed a committee of soccer officials, coaches and journalists which–surprise–voted Pele the greatest player of the 20th Century.  Maradona, meanwhile, was clumsily declared “player of the century, Internet.”  Drawn into the flap, Maradona called Pele an overrated player who didn’t have to endure the tough marking of the top European leagues; Pele countered that Maradona wasn’t even the greatest Argentine ever, naming Alfredo Di Stefano and Jose Manuel Moreno as better players.  At that year’s FIFA awards gala in Rome, Maradona dedicated his honor to all Argentines, his (soon-to-be-ex) wife, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and the world’s soccer players, then promptly left the building in a snub of Pele, who had yet to be presented his award.

Now, more than 10 years later, they stand together, smiling, like two old pals.  Maybe it’s the power of foosball.  Maybe it’s the power of fine luggage.  What it is not, however, is a miracle.  A miracle is an ad featuring Pele, Maradona, Zidane and Marco Materazzi.

 

BAYERN MUNICH A REASON NOT TO FORGET GERMANY THIS SUMMER

Bayern Munich, behind a hat trick by Ivica Olic, routed Olympique Lyon, 3-0, in France to take its UEFA Champions League semifinal by a 4-0 aggregate.  [April 27]

Comment: The coach (Louis van Gaal), captain (Mark van Bommel) and leading scorer (Arjen Robben) are Dutch; one defender (Daniel van Buyten) is Belgian; and its Champions League goal-scoring hero (Olic) is a Croat.  But make no mistake, Bayern Munich is a German team.  The hardworking, no frills approach, one incisive pass and a goal–the German script for decades, and Bayern Munich, virtually assured of its 22nd Bundesliga crown, is once again the best at it in Germany.

Keep Germany’s World Cup team  in mind, then, as Bayern approaches the May 22 final and a shot to win its first Champions League title in nine years.  London oddsmakers list Spain as the 4-1  favorite to win South Africa ’10, followed by Brazil at 5-1, England at 6-1 and Argentina at 8-1.  Defending world champ Italy, Holland and Germany are next at roughly 13-1 each.  There will be plenty of movement as the World Cup opener approaches, but at the moment the oddsmakers have undersold the Germans.  Odds aren’t about the best team or the prettiest team–they’re about who can reach the final, where anything can happen.  And like Bayern Munich, Germany has a history of reaching finals.  Seven, and counting.

 

INTER 3, FC BARCELONA 1

Inter Milan got the jump on FC Barcelona in the first leg of its UEFA Champions League semifinal, coming from behind to knock off the Spanish leader, 3-1, in the first leg at the San Siro.  Diego Milito set up goals by Wesley Sneijder in the 30th minute and Maicon in the 48th, then scored himself on a header in the 61st to cancel out a 19th-minute strike by Barca’s Pedro Rodriguez. [April 20]

Comment: Barcelona and Argentine superstar Lionel Messi did not score against Inter, nor did he score in Barca’s last Spanish league match three days earlier, a game at Espanyol in which no one scored.  Perhaps that will give us all a brief respite from the growing “Messi is God” chants that are expected to reach a crescendo June 12 when Argentina opens its 2010 World Cup run against Nigeria in Johannesburg.

Messi is arguably the greatest player in the game today, a 5-7 cyclone whose invention, marksmanship, unselfishness and breathtaking runs through traffic make him a delight to watch and a nightmare to mark.  He’s won a FIFA World Player of the Year trophy at age 22, and in 2009-10 alone he’s scored 40 goals, including eight in the Champions League.

However, this is soccer, a game in which there are no sure things when it comes to actual goal production, and the World Cup is a tournament, a version of the sport in which the leading goalscorer can be as unheralded as Salvatore Schillaci, the twice-capped surprise package of Italia ’90.

Surely Argentina is better than the team that struggled mightily to secure its World Cup berth, and if manager Diego Maradona can provide some leadership (or at least act like a grown-up while in South Africa), Messi will have more than just three chances to show off his tremendous talents.  However, like any top player, he will need the help of both the men around him and that unseen 12th teammate, Dame Fortune.  Adidas has been running TV commercials and print ads featuring Messi for months.  The last time a sporting goods giant built a pre-World Cup advertising campaign around a single player, it was Nike, the player was another FIFA World Player of the Year, Brazil’s Ronaldo, and the World Cup was France ’98.  We all know how that ended.

 

ANOTHER ITEM OFF MLS TO-DO LIST

Toronto FC defeated the expansion Philadelphia Union, 2-1, in its 2010 Major League Soccer home opener before a standing-room-only crowd of 21,978 at BMO Field.  [April 15]

Comment: The match marked Toronto’s first at home on natural grass after playing its first three seasons at BMO Field on a much-criticized artificial surface.  That’s one more step forward for the league as, one by one, it eliminates or alters venues that were not ideal for staging professional soccer games.

Meanwhile, the Union, which drew 34,870 at Lincoln Financial Field for its first-ever home game five nights earlier, will move into the new 18,500-seat PPL Park in Chester, PA, on June 27, giving MLS its ninth soccer-specific stadium.  The Union represents Philly’s fourth stab at pro soccer, following the NASL’s Spartans (1967), Atoms (1973-76) and Fury (1978-80), but if there are doubts that the Union will draw well–at least during this honeymoon period–consider that the membership of the team’s supporters club alone, the Sons of Ben, is 5,200.  That’s more than the turnouts for all but three of the Fury’s 16 home matches at Veterans Memorial Stadium during its last, unlamented season.

 

LACKLUSTER LOCAL TICKET SALES FOR SOUTH AFRICA ’10

FIFA revealed that a half million tickets are still available 10 weeks before the opening of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Those tickets will be offered to South Africans on April 15 in the fifth and final sales phase.  Organizers admit that while the limp global economy and security concerns have affected sales abroad, they erred in trying to sell tickets–some as cheap as $19–domestically via the Internet in a country where the average monthly income is $400 and, thus, the personal computer is a luxury.  [April 10]

Comment: Of the 2.2 million tickets sold, 925,437 have gone to South Africans.  Next is the United States, at 118,945.  The U.K. has purchased about half that, 67,654.  Germany, which played host to a successful World Cup four years ago, has accounted for just 32,269 tickets sold.

What looms as a box office disaster for FIFA and local organizers–especially if the South African team lives down to expectations and becomes the first host side eliminated in the  opening round–could be a boost for the USA’s bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.  (Among the contenders are Australia, Belgium/Holland, England, Japan, Russia, Spain/Portugal, Qatar and South Korea, the latter two aiming at 2022 only.)  With sluggish ticket sales being added to the list of concerns over this first African-hosted World Cup, the FIFA Executive Committee may very well wax nostalgic for 1994.

Though the World Cup has since been expanded to 32 teams and 64 matches, the 24-team, 52-game USA ’94 remains far and away the best-attended World Cup ever:  3,567,415 total spectators for a 68,604 average.  And as FIFA faces the prospect of seas of empty seats from Cape Town to Johannesburg, it also should recall that ’94 produced the best “worst” single-game turnout of any World Cup ever:  44,132 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas for Nigeria’s 3-0 win over eventual semifinalist Bulgaria.

 

DID MANCHESTER UNITED LOSE, OR DID BAYERN MUNICH WIN?

Bayer Munich won its UEFA Champions League quarterfinal series with Manchester United on away goals.  The first thing Fox Soccer Channel’s British announcer had to say after the final whistle at Old Trafford was, “Manchester United are out.”  One day earlier, in the moment after FC Barcelona eliminated Arsenal, FSC’s Brit man proclaimed, “Arsenal run out losers.”  [April 7]

Comment: Isn’t there another way of looking at it, such as “Three-time champion Bayern are into the semifinals” or “Cup holders Barcelona run out winners”?   Are the majority of FSC viewers fans of soccer, or just fans of the EPL?  (See March 5, ESPN/ABC’s World Cup announcers.)

 

MLS LOOSENS PURSE STRINGS, BUT WHAT’S IN THE PURSE?

Major League Soccer amended its so-called “Beckham Rule,” allowing teams to sign up to two “designated players” with only $335,000 counting against a club’s salary cap, down from the price tag of $800,000 since the rule was put in place in 2007.  (The rest of a designated player’s salary comes out of the owner’s pocket.)  In addition, a team may sign a third DP after it pays a fee of $250,000 that will be distributed to all teams with two DPs or fewer.  [April 1]

Comment: MLS certainly needs the pizazz of a few marquee players from abroad, and though this move represents a further crack in the salary cap, it hardly allows one club to go Cosmos on the rest of the league.   However, the league at present has hardly taken advantage of the Beckham Rule.  Only six DPs are scattered over five of MLS’s 16 teams, and just two of those teams–one of them the wildly successful Seattle Sounders–turned a profit last season.  At this rate, what good is a license to spend in a league of lookie-loos?

 

BARCA VS. GUNNERS

FC Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal series against Arsenal will kick off momentarily.  [March 31]

Comment: The defending champs, with more commitment than they showed in the previous round against VfB Stuttgart, will eliminate Arsenal by a 6-2 aggregate.