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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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



WORLD CUP TICKETS SOLD TO THE U.S.: 125,000 AND COUNTING

With nearly four months remaining before kickoff, the United States has the highest number of allocated tickets among visiting countries for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. 

A total of 125,465 tickets were distributed to the U.S., according to FIFA.

Through all sales channels, a total of 2.3 million tickets have been assigned to the nations attending the World Cup. After Brazil, which was allocated 906,433 tickets as the host, and the U.S., the following nations round out the top 10:  Colombia (60,231), Germany (55,666), Argentina (53,809), England (51,222), Australia (40,446), France (34,971), Chile (32,189) and Mexico (30,238).

“We have seen the interest in the World Cup increase every four years and are excited to see the large number of tickets purchased for the games in Brazil,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “There were more ticket requests than available tickets for all three of our first-round matches by a large margin, and we are once again expecting incredible fan support for the team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”

U.S. Soccer Supporters Club members who applied for tickets to the specific U.S. matches will be notified soon whether they were selected in the lottery.

The remaining tickets (approximately 160,000) will be available to the public through FIFA.com in the next window of the sales phase on March 12.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup runs from June 12 through July 13 across 12 venues in Brazil. The U.S. National Team was drawn into Group “G” and will open the tournament Monday, June 16, at 6 p.m. EDT against Ghana in Natal. The USA then faces Portugal on Sunday, June 22, at 6 p.m. EDT in Manaus, and Germany on Thursday, June 26, at 12 p.m. EDT in Recife.  [February 21]

Comment:  International soccer’s outlier has become a World Cup insider.

Only seven other countries that will compete at Brasil ’14 can match the USA’s record of appearing in the last six World Cups:  host Brazil–which has never missed one–Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Germany and South Korea.  The U.S., which finished first in CONCACAF qualifiers for the second straight World Cup cycle, is No. 14 in the latest FIFA rankings and came close to becoming the region’s first nation to be seeded for the first round without hosting a World Cup.  Fox/Telemundo has paid $1 billion for the U.S. rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, topping a $600 million bid by ESPN/ABC, which, along with Univision, paid a combined $425 million to air the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups and 2009 and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cups.  Now this.

Obviously, while those 125,465 ticket orders may have come from America, many of those ticket holders will be scattered throughout Brazil this summer, following other national teams.  This is, after all, a land of immigrants.  (At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, of the 2.8 million available tickets, sales to U.S. residents–more than 130,000–trailed only the host nation, although the American allotment for the U.S.-England opener at the 44,530-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium was just 5,200.)   Moreover, this is a wealthy nation with plenty of folks who can afford the trip to an exotic, alluring destination like Brazil.  

Though its odds of getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” and winning Brasil ’14 are a daunting 100-to-1, the United States, on every level, has become a significant part of the planet’s most-watched sporting event.  That’s a far cry from the beginning of its World Cup run at Italia ’90, when a U.S. team of current and former college standouts needed a miracle to qualify for the first time in four decades, then crashed out in three games, supported by a smattering of American fans, many of whom were already in Italy on vacation and decided, on a whim, to have a look.



TWO HAPPY BIRTHDAYS

A young, experimental U.S. National Team, defeated South Africa, 1-0, on a goal by substitute Juan Agudelo five minutes from time in a friendly at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town.

The U.S. starting lineup averaged only 10 1/2 caps, and four of coach Bob Bradley’s halftime substitutes were 20 years old or younger and making their international debut.  [November 18]

Comment:  No doubt Agudelo will still be celebrating his goal six days hence, when he marks his 18th birthday.  After all, the Colombian-born striker, set up brilliantly in the box by the Norwegian-born Mikkel Diskerud, is the youngest scorer in U.S. history, eclipsing Jozy Altidore.

A more impressive birthday boy, however, was U.S. right back Eric Lichaj, who turned 22 the day of the South Africa match.  Lichaj, whose parents were born in Poland and reared in America, earned his first cap as a sub in last month’s scoreless draw with Colombia, and he played a key role, along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan, in keeping the American net clean.

Lichaj turned in the kind of performance–smart, strong, creative and utterly cool–that was sorely missing at times on the U.S. back line during the Americans’ last stay in South Africa.  All this despite playing the last hour with a yellow card.  Best of all, he covered ground like a young Thomas Dooley, popping up deep in the South African end on a regular basis.

It was only one match, but Lichaj (pronounced “LEE-hi”) showed off the qualities that inspired Aston Villa to sign him when he was a University of North Carolina freshman.  He’s just now breaking into the Villains’ starting lineup, but with the venerable Steve Cherundolo due to turn 35 when the next World Cup rolls around, it is hoped that Lichaj will be doing same for the U.S. over the next couple of years.



ESPN GOES ALL IAN DARKE, ALL THE TIME

Ian Darke, part of ESPN/ABC’s all-British team of play-by-play announcers for its telecasts of the 2010 World Cup, has been signed by ESPN to be the network’s lead announcer through the 2014 World Cup.

Darke, who leaves Sky Sports for ESPN, will call English Premier League games, U.S. men’s and women’s national team matches, marquee Major League Soccer games, the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil and Brasil ’14 itself.  [September 24]

Comment:  First, a personal disclaimer:  The author worked for Darke during a couple of 1994 World Cup matches and found him to be a consummate professional and a very nice man:  funny, quicker than you or me,  beyond well-prepared, so comfortable calling a game he coulda done it from a lounge chair.  Darke was the only Englishman working that tournament for ESPN/ABC, and he proved to be a refreshing change of pace from the stable of American announcers the network had lined up.  And during the 2010 World Cup, with or without his memorable call of the dramatic U.S.-Algeria game, Darke out-announced (if there is such a word) the network’s lead play-by-play man, fellow Englishman Martin Tyler.

Nevertheless, appointing Dark as The Voice of ESPN Soccer for the next four years represents a step back in the development of the game here.  No doubt, Darke did a fine job in South Africa, helping ESPN set ratings records, and ESPN (a for-profit operation, last we heard) is understandably sticking with the hot hand.  But Darke’s assignments include not just English matches and international tournaments but MLS and U.S. men’s and women’s games.  The move will only reinforce the opinion among those who are not soccer’s friends that this sport is, and always will be, foreign.  For the country’s so-called Euro snobs, meanwhile, it bolsters the view that when it comes to announcing soccer, there’s the American way, the wrong way, the right way, and the British way.

And in the short term, it accelerates a trend in soccer announcing here that can be described as “Brit Creep.”  Words and phrases like “fixture” and “cup tie” are worming their way into the vocabulary of Americans calling games and narrating highlights.  Players don’t have “speed,” they have “pace”; even balls have “pace.”  Players don’t “appear” or “play” in games, they “feature.”  A player doesn’t score two goals, he scores a “brace.”  It’s only a matter of time before a struggling MLS club finally scores a goal and some fellow at the mic, American born and bred, works the term “break duck” into his call.



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.