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FORMER FIFA BOSS HAVELANGE DEAD AT 100

Joao Havelange, who as president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 transformed the world soccer governing body into a moneymaking behemoth and in turn a breeding ground for corruption that ostensibly has peaked in recent years, has died.  He was 100.

The imposing Brazilian died at Rio de Janeiro’s Samaritano Hospital from a respiratory infection as the 2016 Summer Olympics track and field competition began at Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange.  It was Havelange who in 2009 led Rio’s bid presentation to the International Olympic Committee, and he invited the members to “join me in celebrating my 100th birthday” at the 28th Olympiad he correctly believed would be held in Brazil.

Havelange the athlete made his mark not in soccer but aquatics, swimming for Brazil at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and playing water polo at the 1952 Helsinki Games.  An imposing figure, he swam every morning before breakfast well into his 90s.

Havelange had been in charge of Brazil’s soccer federation for nearly two decades when he upset the status quo in international soccer by defeating incumbent Sir Stanley Rous of England in the 1974 election to become the first non-European to take the FIFA helm.  He wasted little time in transforming FIFA from a sleepy administrative organization in Zurich into a worldwide juggernaut.  As he put it, in his familiar deep-throated croat, perhaps in French, perhaps in his native Portuguese, “I found an old house and $20 in the kitty.  On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion.  Not too bad, I’d say.”

On his watch, FIFA membership expanded by a third, to more than 200 nations and territories–more than that of the United Nations.  Among the additions was China, which left FIFA in 1958 but was coaxed back 22 years later, and South Africa, which was suspended from 1964 to 1976 but would go on to host the 2010 World Cup.  But it was the minnows of the soccer-playing world that made Havelange’s long rule possible.  The Brazilian saw that the end of colonial rule had created scores of new nation-states, and under FIFA’s one-member, one-vote statute, Fiji had as much clout as England or Italy. Adding members, no matter their status on the playing field, and sharing FIFA’s increasing largesse with them all but guaranteed his unprecedented five re-elections as president.

Havelange also gave those minnows a shot at international experience and dreams–however faint–of international glory.  Quickly recognizing the power of television and the untapped potential of sponsorships, he expanded the World Cup from a stingy 16 nations to 24 and finally 32, and he created world championships for under-20s and under-17s.  He also introduced the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and later the women’s under-20 championship.

This rapid expansion and transformation of world soccer from a relatively naive enterprise that missed any and all commercial opportunities into a $250-billion-a-year industry threw open the doors to corruption that has only been slowed by an aggressive probe by the U.S. Justice Department that has left an indelible stain on Havelange’s legacy.  Havelange, who accepted no salary as FIFA president, enriched himself with kickbacks, and soccer officials worldwide eventually followed his lead–if they hadn’t already begun the practice.  Among them were scores who have been recently indicted by the Feds.  Havelange’s successor and loyal No. 2, Sepp Blatter, has not been ensnarled as yet, but he was banned from FIFA for eight years by its ethics committee in late 2015, six months after winning a fifth term as president.  The suspension stemmed from his $2 million off-the-books payment in 2011 to former star player Michel Platini, the UEFA chief who had hoped to defeat Blatter in his bid for a fourth term that year but who dropped out of the race.

Havelange’s most spectacular take, shared by his then-son-in-law, onetime Brazilian soccer president Ricardo Teixeira, was nearly $22 million over nine years beginning in 1992 paid him by the body in charge of FIFA’s marketing and commercial rights, ISL, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001.  Havelange and Teixeira ultimately paid back $6.1 million in a confidential settlement.

Havelange resigned in 2011 as a member of the IOC just days before its leadership was expected to suspend him and rule on claims that he accepted a $1 million kickback.  That ended, after 48 years, his tenure as the committee’s longest-serving member.  Two years later, facing suspension, he stepped down as honorary president of FIFA after FIFA ethics Judge Joachim Eckert called his conduct “morally and ethically reproachable” for accepting kickbacks from ISL. [August 16]

Comment:  Heading into USA ’94, Americans had known little of the power of the World Cup and the power of soccer outside this country in general.  On the eve of the 15th World Cup in their own backyard, they got an eye full of all that, along with the man behind it, Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange.

Ian Thomsen of the New York Times, reporting in December 1993 from the Las Vegas Convention Center, site of the 1994 World Cup draw:

Two hours before the globally televised presentation of the World Cup Final Draw, the soccer player whose work had largely made the ceremony possible still had not been told that he had been banned from appearing on stage.

“I don’t have any official word yet,” Pele said Sunday morning at a breakfast hosted by MasterCard International, an official World Cup sponsor which said Pele would continue to be its worldwide representative despite the controversy.

“All I know is that they said the names of the players appearing in the draw and I was not there,” Pele said.

The decision to bar Pele from the ceremonies had been made by his fellow Brazilian, Joao Havelange, the president of FIFA.  The reason:  a dispute between Pele and Havelange’s son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian soccer federation.

Pele has charged that a group with which he is affiliated bid $5 million for the rights to televise Brazilian league games, but that a rival group was awarded the contract, despite bidding $1 million less, because the Pele group refused to pay a bribe to Teixeira.

Teixeira responded by filing a defamation suit against Pele.  Havelange, over the objections of FIFA’s general secretary, Joseph Blatter, and other officials of the sport’s governing body, then entered the dispute and ordered Pele removed from Sunday’s ceremony because he didn’t want to share the World Cup stage with Pele.  He even refused to mention Pele by name at a news conference.

Members of FIFA and the World Cup Organizing Committee were unable to alter Havelange’s decision, which reportedly was made without discussion with either organization.

“FIFA has to respect the wishes of its president,” FIFA spokesman Guido Tognoni said.  “I can’t add more.”

U.S. officials said Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman of the World Cup USA 1994 organizing committee, was livid over the decision to exclude the only household name in American soccer from the grandest ceremony in American soccer history.

Havelange then rebuked Rothenberg.

“Mr. Rothenberg would be disappointed if we withdrew the World Cup,” Havelange said.  “Mr. Rothenberg has everything he wants.  Nothing will be missing.  The absence of one person is not going to affect the World Cup draw.  Persons who don’t participate are not important.”

Pele said he would be in the audience of 3,500 at the Las Vegas Convention Center to see the group assignments of the 24 finalists drawn by movie stars, entertainers and star athletes–everyone but the world’s greatest player.

“His son-in-law, with the secretary of the Brazilian federation–they proposed to me something which I do not accept,” Pele said.  “I do not accept corruption.  You know the problems of Brazil.  Corruption is a big problem here.  What I want to make clear is, my problem is with the Brazil federation.  I don’t accept their proposal for corruption.  Everyone knows I am for Brazil, I want to help Brazil, I want Brazil in the final, I want the best for Brazil.

“Everybody knows I don’t have anything against Mr. Havelange and FIFA,” Pele said.  “Mr. Havelange has been my idol since 1958.  He has encouraged me, he has given the message to me.  He is the boss of FIFA.  He can say whatever he wants.”

Of course, it was Pele who made Brazil an international soccer power, which helped put Havelange in place to become FIFA president in 1974.  And it was Pele’s decision to play for the North American Soccer League in 1975 that created the possibility for the World Cup to come to the United States almost 20 years later.  Pele remains the only soccer name recognized by Americans.

“When I came here to play for the New York Cosmos, we started to talk of the World Cup coming to the U.S.,” said Pele, now 54.  “They said, ‘Pele, are you crazy?  The World Cup in the U.S.A.?’  But today the dream comes true.  In my view, we are here today to start the World Cup.  This makes me happy.”

The soccer world we know today is, for better or worse, what the arrogant autocrat known as Havelange hath wrought.  For those who watched his career as FIFA strongman, this quote, to Time magazine in 1998, summed up Havelange:

“I’ve been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin.  In Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times.  When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion.  Do you think a head of state will spare that much time for just anyone?  That’s respect.  They’ve got their power, and I’ve got mine:  the power of football, which is the greatest power there is.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



HOPE SOLO: YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY WRONG

The U.S. women, hoping to become the first team to win an Olympic gold medal a year after capturing a World Cup crown, were upset in the quarterfinals by Sweden in Brasilia on penalty kicks, 4-3, following a 1-1 draw.

The Americans had medaled in every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was introduced to the Games in 1996, but with the loss they were sent home without even seeing Rio de Janeiro, host city of the XXVIII Olympiad and site of soccer’s semifinals and finals.

After the match, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo created a storm by calling the triumphant Swedes “cowards.”  Her remarks:

“I thought that we played a courageous game.  I thought we had many opportunities on goal.  I think we showed a lot of heart.  We came back from a goal down.  I’m very proud of this team.  But I also think we played a bunch of cowards.  The best team did not win today.  I strongly believe that.  I think you saw American heart.  You saw us give everything we had today.”

Asked what she meant by “cowards,” Solo responded, “Sweden dropped off.  They didn’t want to open play.  They didn’t want to pass the ball.  They didn’t want to play great soccer.  It was a combative game, a physical game.  Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their game plan was.  They dropped into a 50.  They didn’t try and press.  They didn’t want to open the game.  And they tried to counter with long balls.  We had that style of play when Pia (Sundhage, now the Sweden coach) was our coach.  I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament.  I think it was very cowardly.  But they won.  They’re moving on, and we’re going home.” [August 11]

Comment:  Hope Solo has been a polarizing figure her entire international career.  Many thought she should have been dropped from the U.S. squad following a 2014 family dust-up that led to two charges of domestic violence against Solo that have yet to be resolved.  Or after a 2012 domestic violence incident involving her ex-football player husband in which Solo was injured.  Solo also drew chants of “Zika” from the crowd at the USA’s Olympic opener after tweeting before the Olympics photos of a bed covered with bug repellant containers and another of her wearing mosquito netting.  (A P.R. faux pas in a country that earlier in her career considered Solo soccer’s reigning beauty queen.)  But now she’s gone from being a loose cannon to a disgrace.

That said, she’s absolutely correct in her assessment of what was a humbling defeat for the U.S.  The Americans did out-play Sweden, and Sweden did play a negative game, putting nine players behind the ball to neutralize world-class attackers Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan while hoping against hope (no pun intended) that it could produce a counterattack goal, which it did on the hour through Stina Blackstenius to open the scoring.  After the U.S. equalized through Morgan with 13 minutes left, Sweden played overtime aiming to hold on and get to PKs.

But if that’s cowardly, then Italy (the men) has been cowardly for about a century.  The Italians have prized defense, it’s in their DNA.  They are compact, cynically sophisticated and punishing on the tackle.  On the other end they have made an art form of the counterattack.  And all it’s gotten them is four World Cup championships.  It makes Solo’s rip job simply bizarre, because no player with more than 200 caps and 100 shutouts can possibly be that naive.  Or maybe it was just Hope being Hope yet again.

The U.S. went to Brazil ranked No. 1 in the world; Sweden was ranked sixth and obviously the underdog going into this match.  Sundhage, as the former U.S. coach, knows some of the American players better than they know themselves.  Her tactics were correct and they worked.

Sundhage, who had her own issues with Solo back when she was U.S. boss, also got in the last word regarding “cowards.”  “I don’t give a crap,” she snapped.  “I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”



PREDICTIONS, PREDICTIONS

The 20th World Cup will kick off Thursday, June 12, in Sao Paulo when host Brazil plays Croatia in a Group “A” match.  The Brazilians go into the 32-nation, 64-game tournament as an 11-4 favorite to lift the World Cup trophy for a record sixth time.  Oddsmakers also have established Argentina as a 4-1 pick to win it, followed by defending champ Spain and Germany, both at 6-1.  The United States is a 250-1 longshot.  [June 11]

Comment:  Here are predictions for Brasil ’14:

o  Argentina will defeat Brazil in the final on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, site of Brazil’s nightmare 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the last match of the 1950 World Cup.  This time, the Argentines will win an end-to-end thriller, 3-2, to capture its third world championship and its first in 28 years.  Why?  Because of Lionel Messi, who four years ago in South Africa played a part in several Argentine goals but scored only one.  This time, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year runs wild.  Along with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, the Argentine attack builds momentum against soft Group “F” opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, a momentum that only grows in the knockout rounds.  In the third-place match, a banged-up Germany defeats an aging Spain … unless an outsider crashes the semifinals.  Uruguay and Belgium are popular picks for that role, but Switzerland lurks.

o  The U.S. will confound the experts, defy common sense, and advance out of Group “G”, the so-called “Group of Death”–and it won’t require a brutal tackle on Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo.  Juergen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed an encouraging run-up to Brazil without suffering injury, and its considerable fitness level gives it an edge in the heat of coastal cities Natal and Recife and the Amazon jungle’s Manaus.  Under Klinsmann the U.S. has become the attack-minded side it was not under then-coach Bob Bradley four years ago, and he has established a culture of winning, from placing first in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to taking the 2013 Gold Cup to beating Italy in Italy.  More important, he has instilled in his team the belief that it’s not just Germany that’s capable of a late miracle comeback.  The U.S. enters its seventh straight World Cup without international stars, as usual, but as goalkeeper Brad Friedel, hero of the USA’s 2002 quarterfinal run, said in a recent interview, the Americans can do it as a team, if every player earns a 1-to-10 rating of 7 for every match.

o  World Cup television viewership in the U.S. will dwarf the ratings numbers established at South Africa ’10.  No matter where a World Cup is played, a World Cup game is scheduled to kick off in what is prime time in Europe, or close to it–the rest of the world be damned. With this being the first World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere in two decades, we Americans finally get reasonable game times:  noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. EDT on most days.  That’s a far cry from Korea/Japan 2002, when some games started at 2 a.m. on the West Coast.  Meanwhile, greasing the skids is the fact that, with apps and expanded streaming services, this will be the most digitally interactive World Cup ever.

o  ESPN/ESPN2/ABC has once again gone all-British with its play-by-play commentators.  Ian Darke rightfully gets the choice assignments, including the final, but it will only influence more in the American soccer media to go Brit.  A player, wearing a “kit” and a pair of “boots” and playing not on a field but a “pitch” will score two goals, which will be referred to as a “brace.”   One goal will have been made possible by a teammate who, at “pace,” sends him an “inch-perfect pass.”  That will leave the opposition “on its back foot” yet possibly inspire it into a “purple patch.”  Anyway, look forward to another four-year period in which an increasingly number of Americans who know better refer to any singular thing in soccer as a collective:  “France are,” “Uruguay are,” and the “Real Salt Lake are.”  I are looking forward to it.  Or we am looking forward to it.

o  Americans who really, really don’t like soccer–that is, those who feel threatened by it–will dig in their heels even further over the next four weeks.  Everyone from newspaper columnists and radio sports talkers to Internet commentators will call the World Cup a dull, overblown waste of time and make xenophobic remarks about the participating nations and their fans.  But with each World Cup, their footing is growing more unsteady.  Those cracks about foreigners and soccer can’t be so easily excused anymore, not with some of our cherished sports–like golf, basketball, hockey and tennis–now a virtual United Nations of participants.  Those jokes about one-named Brazilian soccer players?  See “LeBron,” “Kobe.”  The argument that soccer in the U.S. is a game for kids?  The estimated number of soccer players in this country has ballooned from 8 million in 1982 to 25 million today.  Hard to believe that a few of those millions aren’t adult players, particularly when what we see at the local park doesn’t say otherwise.  And the line about soccer and 1-0 games leaving Americans bored beyond belief?  That kinda lost something with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria four years ago.  What’s left is the complaint that penalty kicks are ridiculous and the charge that players feigning injury make soccer players crying, whining wimps.  PKs are ridiculous, and a Nobel Prize awaits the first person who figures out a better tie-breaker.  As for the macho involved in playing soccer compared to more manful, manly and masculine American sports, you could start with the hundreds of thousands of soccer players recovering from concussions caused by head-to-head contact.  Or ACL tears.  Or you could go straight to last Saturday, when Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo and Mexico’s Luis Montes sustained broken legs–in friendlies.

o  Finally, this official World Cup song will be forgotten three days after the Brazil-Croatia opener:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGtWWb9emYI



U.S. THE EARLY WINNER AT 2016 COPA AMERICA

The long-rumored centennial Copa America in America became a reality when CONMEBOL announced in Miami that it would play its 2016 championship in the United States.

The tournament, to be held outside South America for the first time, is scheduled for June 3 through 26.  In addition to CONMEBOL’s 10 members, the host U.S., Mexico and four other CONCACAF nations will round out a field of 16 teams.

Many questions remain, among them the cities that will host matches.

“One benefit we have in a country like the U.S. is that we have many, many venues that can host this,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  “A number of venues have been in contact with us in the last 48 hours that want to host it.  Some [candidates] in person here in Miami have talked to us, and a number by e-mail.”

Also at issue is the timing of the tournament, which would be a special edition wedged between the regularly scheduled 2015 Copa America in Chile and 2019 Copa in Brazil.  It would overlap with the 2016 European Championship, which kicks off June 10, and conflict with the same season as the 2016 Summer Olympics soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro.  It would mean the cancellation of that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, and CONCACAF clubs are not obligated to release players to play in an event that is a South American tournament.  For the U.S., that issue becomes problematic because Major League Soccer will be in mid-season.

The Copa America is the world’s oldest continental soccer competition, first held in Argentina in 1916 to commemorate that nation’s founding as an independent nation; midway through the tournament, the four participants announced the formation of the first-ever continental soccer confederation, the Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol.  It’s 14 years older than the World Cup and 44 years older than the European Championship.  [May 1]

Comment:  For those who see this as a way for South American soccer to milk the U.S. of many millions of dollars, keep in mind that clubs and national teams from South America, CONCACAF and, especially, Mexico, have been coming here to feed at the trough not for years but for decades.

Of course, there are always the dollars.  But when it comes to sense, the big winner here is the U.S. National Team.

The U.S., like Mexico, cannot progress living on a steady diet of regional competition–regardless of how hard it is to win a World Cup qualifier at Costa Rica or Honduras.  Playing competitive, non-World Cup games against European opposition is an impossibility, which is unfortunate considering that U.S. internationals play for European, not South American, clubs.  South America and its Copa America, then, makes perfect sense.

Unlike Mexico, a regular guest over the past 20 years at the Copa America and twice a finalist, the USA’s participation has been spotty.  It crashed in the group stage in 1993, surprised all by reaching the semifinals against Brazil in 1995 and predictably crashed again in the first round after sending an experimental team to the 2007 Copa in Venezuela.

It is hoped that the Centennial Copa America is a rousing success and a good U.S. performance inspires–compels–the U.S. Soccer Federation to find a way to make its national team a regular guest participant in future South American championships.  Otherwise, it’s a continuation of a dull treadmill involving the Gold Cup and friendlies against international opponents who, depending on the circumstances, may be under strength and/or under inspired.

 

 



RONALDO’S SHADOW-BOXING MATCH

Cristiano Ronaldo was named the world’s best player of 2013 in balloting by national team captains and coaches and selected journalists, receiving 1,365 votes to Lionel Messi’s 1,205 and Franck Ribery’s 1,127.

The Portugal and Real Madrid star received his Ballon d’Or trophy at the annual FIFA awards gala in Zurich.  Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer was the women’s winner.   Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayern Munich to the UEFA Champions League crown, plus the German league and cup double, was the top men’s coach.   Germany’s Sylvia Neid was selected the world’s best women’s coach.

Ronaldo’s triumph was his first since 2008, when he won what was then known as the FIFA World Player of the Year award, while with Manchester United.  The following year, he finished second to Argentina’s Messi.  The FC Barcelona striker would go on to capture the honor the next three years as well, with Ronaldo the runner-up in 2011 and 2012.  [January 13]

Comment:  It was an emotional Ronaldo who accepted the trophy as world’s best from Pele, who earlier had accepted an honorary Ballon d’Or of his own.   Still, he had to be thinking about “the little man” in his rear-view mirror.

Though Ronaldo scored 69 goals in 2013, capping it in November with a stirring hat trick in Stockholm that lifted the Portuguese to victory in its World Cup playoff with Sweden, he won by default.  Messi may have finished second, but he was hobbled three times by injury during the year–and opened 2014 like he’d never missed a beat.

Ironic that Pele would be honored the same night that his rival, the great Eusebio, was eulogized.  The Black Pearl and the Black Panther, who died January 5, met in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, with the irresistible Santos, behind Pele’s five goals, beating Benfica by an 8-4 aggregate as Eusebio scored once.   Four years later, at the World Cup, they met again.  Pele had been brutalized by Bulgaria in Brazil’s opener.  In its final group match, Brazil and a limping Pele bowed out as Eusebio scored twice and Portugal topped the group.  The Black Panther would go on to score a tournament-leading nine goals and the Portuguese would finish an unexpected third.

Unlike Pele and Eusebio, we’ve been treated to several clashes between Ronaldo and Messi in La Liga and El Copa del Rey since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid in 2009.  Nevertheless, here’s to a grand showdown in 2014.  If the stars align, Portugal and Argentina could meet in the World Cup quarterfinals on July 4 in Rio de Janeiro or July 5 in Brasilia.  Who knows?  It might determine the ’14 Ballon d’Or.



ARGENTINA IN 2014

The 2014 World Cup draw, as expected, produced multiple “Groups of Death” as the 32 finalists were sorted into eight groups of four nations each for the 64-match tournament, which will begin June 12 scattered over a dozen Brazilian cities.

The United States got the worst of it, being drawn into Group “G” with three-time champion Germany, the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and Ghana, the nation that knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups.   Not far behind in terms of difficulty were Group “B” (defending champion Spain, 2010 runner-up Holland, Chile, plus Australia) and Group “D” (2010 third-place finisher Uruguay, four-time champ Italy, England and Costa Rica).

Conducted at the beachfront resort of Costa do Sauipe before an international television audience, the draw also produced a first-round cakewalk for Argentina, which was joined in Group “F” by the tournament’s only World Cup newcomer, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Iran and Nigeria.  [December 6]

Comment I:  In a repeat of the Brazilian nightmare of 1950, Brazil will tumble in its own World Cup.  Argentina will defeat host Brazil on Sunday, July 13, before a stunned, heartbroken crowd of 73,531 at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, and lift the World Cup trophy for the third time.

Argentina, unlike host Brazil, has been steeled by 16 World Cup qualifiers in the ultra-tough South American region–and finished first.  It went into the draw at 6-1 odds, just behind Brazil and Germany.  It will be playing virtually at home, without all the pressure that comes with hosting a World Cup.  It will have the motivation of the opportunity to humiliate its neighbor and historic arch-rival.  Its only question mark is its defense, while its absolute certainty is up front, four-time FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who will turn 27 the day before his team meets its final group-stage opponent, Nigeria.  And the draw produced brackets that make a Brazil-Argentina final possible.

Comment II:  To distraught fans of the U.S. National Team:  Enough with the hand-wringing.

Setting the tone immediately after the draw, U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, the man hired two years ago to take this team to the next level, was frank in his initial comments after the last ball was drawn in Bahia:  “Well, I think we hit one of those real killer groups.  It is what it is.”
But what the draw yielded was a glass–er bowl, er pot–half filled.  To wit:
          o  This Group of Death merits its unwelcomed name based on numbers, if not history.  With three-time world champion Germany at No. 2 in the November FIFA world rankings, Portugal at No. 5, the U.S. at No. 14 and Ghana at No. 24, its average ranking–11.2–is the highest among the eight groups (Group “H”, at 28, is worst).  For those who take the monthly FIFA rankings at least somewhat seriously, and with the October rankings determining the eight seeded teams, it’s no longer merely a list of nations designed to produce chatter among press and public.  But on a practical level, this would not be a Group of Death if the U.S. was the international laughingstock it was before the first rankings were issued back in December 1993.  The Americans came to the draw as the first-place team out of the CONCACAF qualifiers and the top team out of Pot 3, which included its three other regional rivals (Mexico, No. 20; runner-up Costa Rica, No. 31; and Honduras, No. 41) and Asia’s qualifiers (Iran, No. 45; Japan, No. 48; South Korea, No. 54; and Australia, No. 59).  The U.S., with its fitness, physicality, growing depth, ability on set pieces and fight-to-the-finish mentality, is a team that no one wants to play.
          o  Ghana:  This U.S. team is better than the ones that were knocked out by the Ghanans in the first round of the 2006 World Cup and the second round in 2010–and obviously driven by revenge.  Ask Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, who were there on both occasions, plus the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Eddie Johnson, Steve Cherundolo and DeMarcus Beasley.
 
          o  Portugal:  There’s the USA’s shock 3-2 victory over Luis Figo and Portugal’s “Golden Generation” in the 2002 World Cup opener–a match the Americans led, 3-0, after 36 minutes–to motivate both sides.  This current Portuguese generation was rated No. 14–one spot below the U.S.–in the October rankings, then jumped a whopping nine places on the strength of must-win games over minnow Luxembourg and, in a playoff, Sweden, a home-and-home set in which Cristiano Ronaldo carried the team on his back, scoring all four goals in a 4-2 aggregate decision.  The U.S., meanwhile, was playing friendlies at Scotland (0-0) and Austria (0-1).
 
          o  Germany:  The U.S. will be lucky to steal a point against Germany in its Group “G” finale … unless the Germans have already locked up first place and might possibly ease their foot off the gas pedal.  Much attention has been directed to the Americans’ wild 4-3 win over Germany on June 2 in Washington, DC, that improved their all-time record against Germany to 3-6-0.  It also was dismissed as a friendly in which Germany was without eight starters.  However, in competitive matches, there’s the shock 2-0 victory in Guadalajara in the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 1-0 loss in Ulsan, South Korea, in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals that will be remembered in this country for the Torsten Frings goalmouth handball that was never whistled. Of course, there’s also the 2-0 first-round loss in Paris in the 1998 World Cup as a veteran striker named Klinsmann scored the clinching goal.  Now, Klinsmann is on the other side, and, as U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati observed,  “I guarantee you Juergen knows more about Germany than Jogi Loew knows about the U.S.”  What Klinsmann wouldn’t give to beat his former understudy.
 
          o  Much has been made of the USA’s first-round travel itinerary, the worst of any of the 32 finalists.  In 2010, the Americans covered the fewest miles in the opening round; all of them involved bus rides of no more than 75 miles.  In 2014, they’ll trek more than 9,100 miles; though based down in Sao Paulo, all three of their matches will be in the tropics.  They open June 16 against Ghana up in Natal on the Atlantic coast, then face Portugal on June 22 in Manaus and Germany on June 26 back on the Atlantic in Recife, just south of Natal.  The killer figures to be off in the far northwest in Manaus, a city in the Amazon where the heat and humidity, on the second day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, is expected to be in the high 80s.  However, part of the U.S. squad should be prepared for the travel, the other for the heat.  The players who play for European clubs, like their South American counterparts, are quite used to frequent flights over the Atlantic.  And Klinsmann’s choices from Major League Soccer teams know all about slogging through matches in the high temps and humidity of mid-summer.  The German and Portuguese players won’t have the same advantage. 
 
          o  Finally, since every World Cup involves a smile from Lady Luck, it should be noted that the U.S. does not have to play on Friday, June 13.  That’s reserved for Group “B”‘s Spain-Holland matchup in Salvador and Chile-Australia in Cuiaba, plus our friends south of the border.  Mexico will play Cameroon that day in Natal in its Group “A” opener … followed four days later by a date with host Brazil in Fortaleza.


ONE OF LAST LINKS TO USA’S FINEST, UNLIKELY, HOUR AND A HALF
February 12, 2012, 11:37 pm
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One of the most notable figures in the early history of American soccer, Harry Keough, died at his home in St. Louis.  He was 84.

Keough was the broad-shouldered center back of the U.S. team that upset England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the first round of the 1950 World Cup, a result considered by many perhaps the biggest upset ever in sports.  England, inventors of the game with a side made up of First Division professionals, came to Brazil as tournament favorite while the Americans were a collection of semipros.

Keough, a postal carrier by trade, earned 17 caps in the late 1940s and ’50s.  He also led St. Louis Kutis to the 1957 U.S. National Open Cup and six consecutive U.S. National Amateur Cups beginning in 1956.   Keough went on to a long and successful career as a collegiate coach.  After helping Missouri’s Florissant Valley become a junior college powerhouse, he took the helm at Saint Louis University and guided the Billikens to NCAA Division I championships in 1968 (shared with Michigan State), 1969, ’70, ’72 and ’73, compiling a 213-50-23 record from 1967 through ’82.

In 1976, Keough was inducted along with the rest of his 1950 U.S. teammates into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and in 1990 he became, along with ex-teammate Walter Bahr, the go-to guy for media members looking for a quote regarding the significance of America’s first World Cup appearance in four decades.   With Keough’s passing, only three members of that U.S. team remain:  Bahr, John Souza and Frank Borghi. [February 6]

Comment:  A fluke, a mistake, a month of Sundays in collision, but without the improbable heroics of Keough & Co. nearly 62 years ago, this country’s soccer’s history, at a glance, would’ve been a blank slate for 45 long years–from the USA’s two-win march to the semifinals at the first World Cup in 1930 to the arrival of Pele in 1975.   And when it came to America’s feeble hurrah in the middle of an otherwise barren resume, it couldn’t have had a more gracious and humble spokesman than Keough.

For those who aren’t inclined to read Geoffrey Douglas’ 1996 book “The Game of Their Lives” (or sit through the disappointing 2005 motion picture of the same name that managed to paint English star forward Stan Mortensen as an arrogant villain, among other distortions and inaccuracies), here’s a condensed account of U.S. 1, England 0, from Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

THE GREATEST UPSET OF THEM ALL

In terms of sheer shock value, it’s bigger than the U.S. ice hockey team’s gold medal triumph at the 1980 Winter Olympics.  It tops the 1969 Miracle Mets, Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s guaranteed win in Super Bowl III–all of them.

The U.S. National Team’s 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was the greatest upset in the history of sports.  England, the birthplace of soccer, lost to the United States, a team of semipros–plus one amateur–representing a country that was considered at the time to be on a par with Antarctica on the international soccer totem pole.  Imagine the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball squad, the so-called Dream Team, tumbling to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.  So preposterous was the thought of England losing to the United States that many sports editors around the world, upon seeing the final score come over the wire from Belo Horizonte, concluded that it must have been a typographical error.  Surely the actual score was England 10, United States 1.

England, at odds with FIFA from the late 1920s until just after World War II, had finally consented to play in a World Cup after skipping the first three, and it came to Brazil as a favorite.  In the first round a routine victory over Chile and the expected hammering of the United States, plus a win–at worst a tie–against Spain, and the English would be through Group 2 and into the final pool for a four-team, round-robin playoff for the crown.  From there England would cement its status as the game’s master.

The English indeed brushed aside Chile, 2-0, June 25 at the cavernous Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in their first-ever World Cup match.  The Americans, meanwhile, had opened the cup by falling bravely to Spain in Curitiba, 3-1, giving up all three goals after the 80th minute.  Thus, the stage was set for the USA’s expected elimination at the hands of England at Belo Horizonte, a mining town some 300 miles north of Rio.

A crowd of 10,151 gathered at the intimate Mineiro Stadium on that cool, cloudy June 29, most of them curious Brazilians rooting for the United States to somehow upend England and perhaps help remove an obstacle to their own country’s championship hopes.  The field was bumpy–an impediment to English skill–and the dressing rooms were so cramped and foul that England chose to change beforehand at its hotel.  From the opening kickoff, England set up camp on the U.S. half of the field and, early on, sailed a shot just over the crossbar.  The English were laughing and joking as they sauntered back for the ensuing goal kick.  Surely the slaughter would begin soon.

But, amazingly, the game remained 0-0 beyond the first half hour, and in the 39th minute (or 37th or 38th, depending on the account), the United States scored the Goal.  U.S. halfback Walter Bahr, one of eight native-born Americans in the lineup, latched onto a throw-in from the right by captain Ed McIlvenny, dribbled 10 yards down the wing, and rifled a 25-yard shot toward the far post.  English goalkeeper Bert Williams appeared to have the situation under control, but U.S. center forward Joe Gaetjens swooped in and sent a flying header into the right corner of the net.

Several English newspaper reports claimed the ball struck the unwitting Gaetjens in the head before caroming into the goal.  “Williams in the England goal positioned himself perfectly to gather in Bahr’s shot,” wrote John Graydon of the English Saturday Post, “but Gaetjens, the American leader, ruined everything for him.  Gaetjens jumped in, failed to connect with his forehead but the ball accidentally hit the top of his head and was deflected into the England goal.”  Surviving U.S. players later contended that Gaetjens was simply an unpredictable player who chose this moment to execute an unexpected diving header.

This was England’s wake-up call, and the red-faced favorites–frustrated by an underdog listed at 500-1–responded with a second-half barrage that increased in intensity as the final whistle approached.  But goalkeeper Frank Borghi and his back line held firm, the English marksmen were off-target, and there would be no equalizer.

At one point English defender Alf Ramsey’s free kick was headed on by forward Jimmy Mullen and seemingly bound for the U.S. goal, but Borghi made a sprawling save.

England’s best chance to draw level came with five minutes remaining.  Inside forward Stanley Mortensen split the U.S. defense, only to be brought down just beyond the penalty area with a desperate gridiron football-style tackle by U.S. center back Charles Colombo, the team’s hard man who, perhaps for reasons of intimidation, always wore boxer’s training gloves when he played.  So vicious was the hit that their momentum carried Mortenson and Colombo to the penalty spot.  Italian referee Generoso Dattilo, however, did not point to the spot to give England a penalty kick and he did not eject Colombo.  True to his given name, he shook his finger at Colombo yet said, “Bono, bono, bono!” (in this instance, “Good job!” or “Way to go!”) and awarded only a free kick that England subsequently sent sailing over the bar.

Moments later, Ramsey booted a free kick into the penalty area, where Mullen’s downward header got behind Borghi, but the U.S. ‘keeper recovered and palmed the ball away for right back Harry Keough to clear.  Dattilo rejected English claims that the ball had crossed the goal line.

Through it all, the Americans kept their cool.  Late in the match, with the partisan crowd chanting Mais um! (“One more!”), the balding inside forward John “Clarkie” Souza dribbled around a half-dozen Englishmen to kill several seconds off the clock.

At the final whistle, Gaetjens, Borghi, and other U.S. players were paraded around the field on the shoulders of jubilant Brazilian fans, and others set newspapers ablaze in the stands in celebration.  U.S. coach Bill Jeffrey, a Scotsman, danced a jig on the sidelines.

While the rest of the world buzzed, this monumental upset caused less than a ripple in the United States.  Only one American reporter, Dent McSkimming, was on hand for the game, and that was only because he was on vacation and taking in the game as a tourist; his paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ran not a McSkimming report of the game but a wire service account.  The disinterest shown the remarkable feat by the American public spoke volumes of the state of soccer in the United States in the 1950s; likewise, the shock and amazement in most quarters that greeted news of the upset said plenty about what the world thought of both English and American soccer.

*          *         *

Before the upset the U.S. Soccer Federation, then known as the U.S. Football Association (USFA), all but shut down its national team program following a humiliating 7-1 loss to host Italy in its only 1934 World Cup match and a respectable 1-0 loss to the eventual gold medal-winning Italians in its lone appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  The United States entered the 1938 World Cup in France but withdrew after FIFA pitted the Americans against the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in a qualifying playoff.  (Perhaps the USFA was influenced by a September 1937 trip to Mexico City during which the national team bowed to El Tricolores, 7-2, 7-3, and 5-1 over two weeks.

Thanks in part to World War II, the USFA (since renamed the U.S. Soccer Football Association) didn’t send a selection out onto the field until the 1947 North American Championship in Havana, where Cuba and Mexico flattened the Americans by a combined 10-2.  That was followed by the 1948 London Olympics, where the Americans–featuring future World Cup team members Bahr, Colombo, Gino Parini, Eddie Souza, and John Souza (no relation)–were humbled by Italy, 9-0, in their only match.  Four days later, the squad, now appearing as the national team, was humiliated by Norway, 11-0, in Oslo, and five days after that it tumbled to Northern Ireland, 5-0, in Belfast.

Obviously, the world had changed.  The United States had beaten Belgium and Paraguay to reach the 1930 World Cup semifinals with a collection of rugged characters, a smattering with pro experience from Britain but most from the hardscrabble ethnic semipro leagues of the urban United States.  But over the next two decades professionalism spread to Brazil, Spain, and other soccer hotbeds, while elsewhere, from the amateurs of Scandinavia to the minnows of Central America, the game only got stronger–stronger than the likes of the Fall River FC of Massachusetts, Kearny Scots of New Jersey, Stix, Baer and Fuller of St. Louis, and other domestic powers of the era.  Before long, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers playing in the American Soccer League and/or U.S. National Open Cup were hopelessly behind, a gap that would persist for a half century.

U.S. failure was supposed to have continued in September 1949 with World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City, but North America was generously awarded two slots in Brazil, and the United States team, despite being beaten by Mexico, 6-0 and 6-2, punched their ticket at the expense of the Cubans, 1-1 and 5-2.  Nevertheless, it was hardly a bold run-up to Brasil ’50.

The venerable Home International Championship, the world’s oldest international team competition (born 1883, died 1989 due to fan violence), was the annual battle for soccer supremacy among England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  In 1949-50, it doubled as a European qualifying group for the fourth World Cup, and the English finished first by two points with a 1-0 victory over Scotland in Glasgow in their final match.  A World Cup spot was reserved for the Home’s second-placed team, but the Scots deemed themselves unworthy as a runner-up and stayed home.

U.S. coach Jeffrey made his final World Cup squad selections after an April 1950 match in St. Louis between hopefuls from the East and West, which ended in a 3-3 tie.  Only seven players survived from the qualifiers in Mexico City:  Bahr, Borghi, Colombo, forward Nicholas DiOrio, defender Keough, John Souza, and forward Francis Wallace.  Jeffrey’s final selection then was thumped, 5-0, by the touring Turkish club Besiktas in St. Louis; a loss to an English B team, 1-0, at New York’s Randall’s Island, followed, and the United States was off to Brazil.

That English B team, playing as the English F.A. XI, would become part of England’s World Cup squad.  It tuned up for what would be, for some players, a trip to Brazil by winning all nine of its friendlies during a tour of Canada, outscoring the opposition 66-13, including the victory over the United States.

After the U.S.-England friendly, at a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, English Football Association president Stanley Rous, later elected head of FIFA, was gracious in his remarks regarding the U.S. team, but suggested his side was weary from the extensive travel in North America.  In conclusion, he said, “When you go to Brazil and play the English National Team, then you will find out what football is all about.”

*          *          *

After the incredible upset over England, the United States was unable to ride the victory into the tournament’s final pool.  The Americans lost to Chile, 5-2, three days later at Ilha do Retiro Stadium in Recife and were eliminated.  Like the Spain match, the defense collapsed in the second half.  After rebounding from a 2-0 deficit to tie on goals by Gino Pariani in the 47th minute and Ed Souza from the penalty spot in the 48th (or by Frank Wallace and Joe Maca, or by Wallace and John Souza, depending on the account), the team melted in the 110-degree heat and conceded three goals beginning in the 54th.

Nevertheless, the United States, whose squad included a postman, a school teacher, a factory worker, a knitting machine mechanic, and a hearse driver, went home tied for second in Group 2 with England and Chile, all at 1-2-0.  Spain (3-0-0) took first but eventually finished last in the final pool, behind champion Uruguay, host Brazil, and third-place Sweden.

Despite disbelief over the England defeat, the United States left Brazil with a respectable all-time World Cup record of 3-4-0.  Without a strong national league or public interest, however, the Americans’ immediate future in international soccer was bleak, and they wouldn’t make another World Cup appearance until Italia ’90, where an inexperienced squad of current and former college standouts, average age 23, lost all three of its games.  Following USA ’94 (1-2-1), France ’98 (0-3-0), the Americans’ encouraging quarterfinal showing at Japan/Korea ’02 (2-2-1) and Germany ’06 (0-2-1), the United States’ all-time record in World Cup competition stood at 6-16-3.

Coach Walter Winterbottom, who had kept Stanley Matthews out of England’s first two games, played the legendary winger in his team’s final Group 2 match, but the English lost, 1-0, to Spain before 70,000 at the Maracana and trudged home.  The English tumbled completely off their pedestal in 1953 when the “Magic Magyars,” the invincible Hungarian National Team, routed them, 6-3, at Wembley Stadium and 7-1 six months later in Budapest.

England, of course, did not curl up and die after the losses to the United States and Hungary.  Alf Ramsey, the man who played against the Yanks, was appointed coach, replaced Winterbottom, after England lost in the 1962 World Cup quarterfinals to eventual champion Brazil.  The Ramsey-led English won the 1966 World Cup.

As for Belo Horizonte, England avenged that defeat four times over by humiliating the United States, 6-3, in 1953 in New York; 8-1 in 1959 in Los Angeles; 10-0 in 1964 in New York; and 5-0 in 1985 in Los Angeles.  The United States came back to surprise the English, 2-0, in U.S. Cup ’93 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  For now, England’s advantage stands at 7-2-1, that tie coming at the 2010 World Cup.

As for Jeffrey, his tenure as U.S. coach consisted of those three games in Brazil and he returned to his day job as soccer coach at Penn State.  In 1951, with the national team temporarily in mothballs, Jeffrey led his Nittany Lions on a three-game tour of Iran.  The following year he closed out a successful 24-year career as Penn State coach, compiling a 134-21-27 record.

McIlvenny, who like Jeffrey was born in Scotland, played for Wrexham of Wales.  He moved to the United States in 1949 and played for the Philadelphia Americans, then in the midst of winning five American Soccer League titles over 10 years.  After the World Cup he returned to Britain and played two games with Manchester United, then ended his career with teams in Ireland, Germany, and once again, England.  Fellow defender Maca returned to his native Belgium, where he resumed his playing career as the hero who helped vanquish mighty England.

Left back Bahr followed Jeffrey to Penn State and guided the Nittany Lions to a 185-66-22 mark from 1974 to 1987.  Two of Bahr’s sons cut short promising professional soccer careers to pursue fame and fortune as place-kickers in the NFL.  Chris, a midfielder, switched sports after scoring 11 goals and winning the 1975 NASL Rookie of the Year award with the Philadelphia Atoms.  Matt, a defender, split the 1978 NASL season between the Caribous of Colorado and Tulsa Roughnecks before making the jump.

Defender Keough, later a successful coach at Saint Louis University (five NCAA titles in 16 seasons), is the father of TV soccer commentator Ty Keough, whose playing career spanned eight appearances for the United States–nine fewer than his father–and four seasons in the NASL.

Keough, Borghi, Colombo, Wallace, and Pariani were all products of St. Louis, the latter four from the southside Italian neighborhood known as “Dago Hill.”  A reserve, Bob Annis, and Jeffrey’s assistant, William “Chubby” Lyons, also were from St. Louis.  As a teen, Borghi, the hearse driver who would one day become his funeral home’s director, was a U.S. Army field medic in World War II.  He crossed the English Channel the day after D-Day, and among the men he treated in Germany was the future voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Buck.  Another army veteran, Wallace, nicknamed “Pee Wee,” served in the 191st Tank Battalion and saw action on the beach at Anzio, eventually earning four Battle Stars and a Purple Heart; he was captured by the Germans and spend 15 months in a POW camp.

Five Americans on the field at Mineiro Stadium that day were added by Jeffrey after the qualifiers in Mexico City.  Of them, McIlvenney, Maca, and Gaetjens were not U.S. citizens but were allowed to play under the more lenient rules of the time.  To the USSF, a player who declared his intent to become a U.S. citizen was eligible to play for the national team.  Questions were raised after the upset, but later that year FIFA declared that the United States had done nothing wrong.  Of the three, however, only Maca would go on to obtain U.S. citizenship.

Before scoring the Goal, Gaetjens, the son of a Haitian mother and Belgian father, was a dishwasher in a New York restaurant, working his way through Columbia University with the help of a Haitian government scholarship.  Previously his greatest claim to fame as a player had come in 1949-50 when he led the American Soccer League in scoring with 18 goals for the last-place Brook-Hattan Galicia.  After Brazil he played three years in France for Racing Club de Paris and Troyes, then returned to his native Haiti, where the rules of the day allowed him to play for the Haitians in 1953 in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico (a 4-0 loss).

Gaetjens later became a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble and owner of a string of dry-cleaning stores.  Gaetjens was apolitical, but apparently some of his relatives were not, and in July 1964 he was hauled out of one of his Port-au-Prince dry-cleaning shops and taken away by “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dreaded Ton Ton Macoute secret police.  Efforts to determine his whereabouts have been unsuccessful, but it is believed he died in prison in 1970, six years before he and his 16 U.S. teammates were inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Ironically, the Haitian government issued a commemorative stamp in Gaetjen’s honor in 2000.

*          *          *

So, just how big was this biggest of all sports upsets?

It changed nothing in the United States, and it did nothing to change English soccer’s opinion of itself, nor did the rest of the world think less of England’s game.  An anomaly, at best.

Keough, one of the St. Louis boys, probably put it best.  Years later, he told his hometown Post-Dispatch:  “Obviously, there was no television back then and, honestly, the World Cup wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it is now.  We knew what we’d accomplished was something very special, but I don’t think most people back home, even soccer people, had any idea how major an upset it was.

“Was it the greatest upset in history?  I think so.  In the [2002] World Cup, when Senegal beat defending champion France, almost all of the players for Senegal were first-division players from top leagues all over the world.  We had a team of nobodies.

“I’d say the [USA] hockey team’s win [over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics] was probably more significant because they went on to win that tournament.  But there’s no way anybody, including us, expected the U.S. to beat England in 1950.”