Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


2014 WORLD CUP POSTMORTEM

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

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

Comment I:  The best team won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 



A RARE CALL … FOR A REASON

FIFA has announced that it will look into statements made by Canadian team members the previous day following their dramatic 4-3 overtime loss to the United States in the women’s Olympic semifinal at Manchester’s Old Trafford.

The U.S. scored the winner on a looping header by forward Alex Morgan three minutes into added on time, making the Americans a perfect five-for-five in women’s gold-medal game appearances.  What raised the ire of the Canadians in particular was a sequence that began in the 79th minute with Canada clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Norwegian referee Christine Pedersen whistled Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball in her penalty area beyond the allowable six seconds.  On the ensuing indirect free kick from inside the top of the Canadian penalty area, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd sent a shot into the Canadian wall that was ruled to have been handled by defender Marie-Eve Nault.  American striker Abby Wambach converted the resulting penalty kick to send the match to overtime.

Among the Canadian quotes:

From captain and forward Christine Sinclair, whose brilliant hat trick went for naught:  “We feel like it was taken from us.  It’s a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started.”

From coach John Herdman, who also took issue with a non-call on a possible U.S. handball in the box:  “The ref will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays.  She’s got to live with that.  We’ll move on from this–I wonder if she’ll be able to.”

And from Sinclair’s strike mate, Melissa Tancredi:  “[Pedersen] could have done a better job–a way better job.  This is the semifinals.  We’re supposed to be professionals and they should act like one too.  I feel robbed.  That’s all I can say.  I said to her, ‘I hope you can sleep tonight and put on your American jersey because that’s who you played for today.'”   [August 7]

Comment:   The six-second call on goalkeeper McLeod has been called everything from “unusual” to “bizarre.”  But it was justified.

McLeod took her time in playing the ball after gaining possession several times during the game.  It was so obvious that at the end of halftime a linesman told her to speed things up, but McLeod didn’t take it “like a real warning,” in her words, because it didn’t come from Pedersen.

Bad mistake.  McLeod was at it again in the 58th and 61st minutes, prompting Wambach to start loudly counting out the seconds as soon as the Canada ‘keeper picked up a ball.  By the 79th minute, with McLeod holding the ball for as long as 10 seconds, Wambach had cowed Pedersen into a decision.

“I got to 10 seconds right next to the referee,” said Wambach, “and at 10 seconds, she blew the whistle.”

It was indeed a rare call.  So much so that after the whistle, NBC play-by-play man Arlo White mistakenly thought that McLeod had been caught taking more than four steps with the ball–the 1985 restriction on goalkeepers to prevent time-wasting that was replaced in 1998 by the six-second rule (he quickly corrected himself.)   But there’s a reason why it’s rare at the highest levels of soccer.

The six-second rule is the only part of the Laws of the Game that doesn’t leave time-wasting–and the indirect free kick that goes with it–to the discretion of the referee.  Six seconds is six seconds.  It’s a rule that’s been fudged by ‘keepers for the past 14 years, along with the rule that’s supposed to keep ‘keepers glued to their goal line during a penalty kick.  But any goalkeeper who repeatedly flirts with nine and 10 and 11 and 12 seconds in a first division or international match is asking for it.  And any ‘keeper who calls attention to herself by doing it repeatedly while trying to protect a slim 1-0 first-half lead in an Olympic medal-qualification match is downright dumb.



THE USA’S RED, WHITE AND BLUE GREEK

Alkis Panagoulias, coach of the U.S. National Team from 1983 to 19985, has died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, at age 78.

The native of Greece  and naturalized U.S. citizen posted a 6-5-7 record as the USA’s coach, second in wins at the time to Walter Chyzowych (8-14-10 from 1976 to 1980).

Greek players were to wear black armbands in his memory during their upcoming European Championship quarterfinal match with Germany in Gdansk.   Panagoulias coached Greece from 1973 to 1981 and fom 1992 to 1994, guiding the Greeks to their first-ever World Cup appearance, in ’94.  He guided Olympiakos to Greek titles in 1982, ’83 and ’87, and he also coached Aris Thessaloniki and Iraklis.  [June 18]

Comment:  Panagoulias had the misfortune of presiding over perhaps the most frustrating and fruitless period in U.S. National Team history.  Worse still, it seemed as if no one cared–no one, that is, but Alketas “Alkis” Panagoulias.

A national team coach, of course, is paid to care.  But Panagoulias gave the U.S. Soccer Federation far more than it’s money’s worth in that department.  Chomping a cigar and sprinkling his brutally frank comments with profanities, the burly Greek battled with the federation and battled with the North American Soccer League, all the while leaving his players with no doubt as to who was in charge.  (He once told me in an interview that the team had “all these goddam California surfers,” such as Mike Fox, Paul Caligiuri, Kevin Crow, Jeff Hooker, Dale Ervine and Steve Sharp.)  Above all, he was unabashedly patriotic when it came to his adopted country and absolutely passionate as an advocate of the national team, trying with little success to explain to the media and public in general its importance in a country overwhelmingly indifferent to soccer.

A player for Aris before moving to America to earn a degree at NYU, Panagoulias turned to coaching and steered the New York Greek Americans to three straight U.S. National Open Cups beginning in 1967, back when that cup was more or less the championship for the country’s ethnic semipro clubs.

In 1983, with the U.S. having played only one match since a World Cup qualifier in 1980, Panagoulias was chosen by the USSF to succeed Chyzowych as coach of both the national and Olympic teams–a foreign-born coach with international experience and, presumably, an understanding of the American player.  And in a unique twist, his players were to play in the NASL as Team America.

Panagoulias recalled in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, “It was very difficult.  I first had to sell the league people and owners on the idea that the national team has to be the No. 1 team in the country.  We needed their players.  I was almost crying when I talked about the national team.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  They didn’t know from the national team.”

NASL club owners dragged their feet over what some regarded as a flawed grandstand play, most of the Cosmos players invited to join this grand experiment chose to stay in New York and Team America, based in Washington DC and featuring naturalized Americans like Alan Merrick and Alan Green and national team regulars Arnie Mausser, Perry Van der Beck, Dan Canter and Jeff Durgan, stumbled to a league-worst 10-20 record in their only season.

The following year, with Olympic soccer’s amateur restrictions rapidly crumbling, the U.S. was allowed to field its national team at the Los Angeles Games.  The Americans went 1-1-1 but it wasn’t enough to get them into the quarterfinals, and a golden opportunity to put soccer on front pages across the nation–or at least get the sport some airtime on Olympic broadcaster ABC–was missed.

Then in 1985, the U.S., needing just a draw at home to advance to the final three-team round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, lost to Costa Rica, 1-0, before a small but overwhelmingly pro-Ticos crowd in Torrance, Calif.

That heartbreaking defeat ended Panagoulias’ run as U.S. coach, but he bowed out knowing that he was right.  The sport desperately needed the rallying point of a successful national team, not yet another NASL championship by the Cosmos.  And without one, soccer in America would remain largely rudderless, a game much more fun to play than to watch.  Unfortunately for Panagoulias, it would take many years, other coaches and several generations of American players for the country to actually experience what this passionate Greek had been talking about.



FAREWELL TO ANOTHER UN-FRIEND OF SOCCER IN THE U.S.

Dick Ebersol resigned as chairman of the NBC Sports Group, capping a 22-year reign in which he made the Peacock network synonymous with the Olympics.

Ebersol spent more than 40 years at NBC, overseeing every summer and winter Olympics since 1992.  According to the New York Times, “Over the past 22 years, Ebersol acquired, then dropped, NBA rights; retained, did not renew, then re-acquired NFL contracts (NBC carries Sunday night games); ventured into a partnership with World Wrestling Entertainment to create the XFL, a bizarre, money-losing football league; brought Major League Baseball back to NBC, then got out; and became a prominent member of the Olympic movement.”

He steps down after being unable to reach agreement on a new contract with Comcast, which merged with NBC in January. [May 19]

Comment:  So long, Dick.  Soccer in the U.S. won’t miss you.

Ebersol may go down in history as the man whose largess with NBC’s money put the bling in the Olympic rings, but his coverage of Olympic soccer came grudgingly.  And some soccer fans in the U.S. may remember him as the guy who tried to throw a wet blanket over the 1994 World Cup, the event that went on to put a burgeoning sport here into overdrive.

NBC, which covered a handful of games during the 1986 World Cup, secured the rights to the 1994 World Cup along with SportsChannel America for $11.5 million–a ridiculous sum for a host nation.  FIFA in 1990 nullified that contract as part of a coup in which overmatched U.S. Soccer Federation and WorldCupUSA94 supremo Werner Fricker was replaced by Alan I. Rothenberg.  The rights went back on the open market, and NBC’s new sports guy, Dick Ebersol, declared, “We’re not going to bid, and I don’t know why anyone else would be interested.” 

Taken at his word, it looked for a time as though the first World Cup hosted by the United States would be blacked out across the United States.  Or, once again, available only through Spanish-language Univision.   Fans here held their breath.   Fortunately, two years before kickoff, ABC/ESPN stepped forward with a more respectable bid of $23 million, and everyone exhaled. 

It may have been for the best.  Had NBC and SportsChannel remained the tournament broadcaster, they certainly were not about to televise all 52 matches, as ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 did–an American first.   And it can’t be assumed that NBC/SportsChannel would have come up with the continuous sponsor/score/time graphic in the corner of the screen, another American first that has since become a staple of televised team sports.  Without that, NBC/SportsChannel likely would have resorted to what other U.S. broadcasters had when faced with covering soccer:  the dreaded commercial break during the action.

In the end, Ebersol, the man who turned his back on soccer to champion the Olympics ended his NBC tenure with a 2010 in which the Vancouver Winter Olympics lost $223 million while that summer’s World Cup eclipsed the summer Olympics as the world’s most-watched sporting extravaganza.