Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


SAY IT AIN’T SO, LIONEL

Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced his international retirement immediately after Argentina fell in the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalty kicks, 4-2, following a scoreless draw at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, before 82,076.

The defeat capped a string of Argentina disappointments for the 29-year-old, including losses in the 2014 World Cup final and the 2007 and 2015 Copa America finals.  Although he led La Albiceleste to an under-20 world championship in 2005 and a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he has never claimed a winners’ medal with the senior team.

A back injury caused Messi to miss Argentina’s Copa opener against Chile, but he came off the bench in the second group game, against Panama, and notched a hat trick in just 19 minutes.  He scored against Venezuela in the quarterfinals to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record of 54, then surpassed it with a brilliant free-kick strike against the U.S. in the semifinals.

However, in the final he was hounded by multiple Chilean defenders for 120 minutes, and he capped a frustrating night by blasting his attempt over the crossbar on Argentina’s first shot in the tiebreaker.

“For me, the national team is over,” the distraught superstar told reporters.  “I’ve done all I can.  I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.  It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”  [June 26]

Comment I:  Perhaps the frustration got the best of him.  Maybe his tax problems back in Spain were weighing heavily.  Perhaps Messi will take a deep breath and reconsider.  (After all, he didn’t quit last year when Argentina lost on a tiebreaker to Chile–and Messi made his PK that day.)   But if he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll rue the day.

Messi has never been embraced by his fellow Argentines the way they adore Diego Maradona.  Messi left home as a 13-year-old prodigy for FC Barcelona, where he grew as an academy player and went on to win four UEFA Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns.  In Argentina, he’s been more closely associated with Barca than the sky blue and white, and while Maradona also played for Barcelona (and later became a hero in Italy with Napoli), El Pibe de Oro was the one who delivered the goods, singlehandedly lifting Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship.  Messi has no such clout.

If Messi does not change his mind, he will have forfeited any chance to change how he will go down in soccer history.  As things stand, he will be recorded as probably the greatest player of his generation, better even than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’ll be regarded as a the third member of Argentina’s holy trinity along with Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano.  But, in a world in which kids still look up to their sports heroes, he’ll also be regarded as a quitter.  Worse, a coward.

And this with the next World Cup, in Russia, and possible redemption, just two years away.

Comment II:  The question concerning the U.S. National Team was whether its Copa America Centenario performance had represented any progress.

Well, a year ago the Americans lost the third-place match at the Gold Cup, making it the fourth-best team in CONCACAF.  Now it’s lost the third-place game at the Copa America, technically making it the fourth-best team in South America.  What fourth-place mantle would you rather wear?

On a practical front, the mad scientist, coach Juergen Klinsmann, stopped with the tinkering and would’ve trotted out the same lineup throughout the tournament were it not for suspensions and injuries.  Young center back John Brooks grew into a genuine partnership with Geoff Cameron and was rewarded with a spot on the Copa America Centenario Best XI team, the only player from the U.S.–or Mexico–so honored.  Bobby Wood graduated from minor pest up front to major concern and will challenge Jozy Altidore for playing time in the future.

But then there were the questions raised over the course of the tournament.  Such as, will young right back DeAndre Yedlin couple his scintillating runs forward with some reliable defense?  Will Gyasi Zardes continue to have the first touch of a block of cement?  Will Michael Bradley’s skills as midfield maestro continue to erode?  Will 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, who scored three goals at the Copa to close to within five goals of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record of 57, continue to defy Father Time?

Those are the questions that matter.  They were raised at the Copa, not answered, but perhaps they’ll be answered where it really counts, when the U.S. resumes World Cup qualifying for Russia ’18, in September.

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THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 



MAKING THE SQUARE QATAR PEG FIT INTO THE ROUND WORLD CUP HOLE

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be an autumn affair, the first World Cup not to be played in late spring/early summer.

A task force formed to look into ways to avoid the sweltering summer heat in the tiny Gulf state is recommending that Qatar ’22 be played in November and December.  Its report is expected to be ratified by the FIFA Executive Committee when it meets in Zurich on March 19 and 20.

Summer temperatures in Qatar routinely top 100 degrees while the heat drops to the high 70s in late fall.

The task force, headed by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, considered a January-February tournament,  but that would clash with the Winter Olympics.  April was rejected because Ramadan will be observed in the Muslim world in that month in 2022.

Under the recommendation, it is believed that Qatar ’22 would be shorter than the traditional 31 or 32 days, kicking off November 26 and ending on December 23, two days before Christmas.

Though FIFA says all of its confederations favor the move to November-December, it is expected to encounter fierce opposition from Europe’s top leagues.  Most of those leagues traditionally schedule a winter break of up to four weeks for weather reasons, but the task force’s plan would idle players not involved in the ’22 World Cup for up to eight weeks  [February 25]

Comment:  A very bad idea got worse.

The FIFA Executive Committee’s expected rubber-stamp to this topsy-turvy scheduling of a World Cup is further proof that the world’s soccer-governing body is hell-bent on holding its world championship in Qatar at all costs.  Allegations that the Qataris won over a solid U.S. bid through bribery have been swept under the rug.  Reports that foreign workers involved in World Cup preparations have been mistreated or even died in accidents is worth a shrug, all the more troubling because the stadiums and infrastructure promised by Qatar are being built from scratch.  At No. 109 in the latest FIFA World Rankings, the Qatari National Team is poised to be the worst host side in World Cup history, far weaker than South Africa in 2010.  And if a June World Cup in Qatar is being considered unworkable, then Qatar isn’t likely to be able to host the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup, the tradition World Cup dress rehearsal for a host nation.

On a much, much smaller scale, there’s something for Americans to consider, and it’s not just the fact that, among EuroSnobs, their favorite club’s schedule will be interrupted by a November-December World Cup after just a dozen matches.

TV ratings, those figures that determine in the future how often you can see your favorite European club or whether you can watch UEFA Champions League games on cable or network television here, will take a serious hit if the 2022 World Cup is played in late fall.

At last year’s World Cup, the USA’s first-round match against Portugal was played on a Sunday.  America was sitting on its couch with nothing more than mid-season baseball and a golf tournament as a diversion, and the TV audience for what will be remembered here for Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp, heartbreaking assist, was 24.7 million on ESPN and Univision combined, a record for a soccer telecast in the U.S.  There were no NFL games, no college football games, no NBA games, no NHL games to syphon off viewers.  A similar World Cup game, played on an NFL Sunday in 2022, will be buried in the ratings.  NFL games last season averaged 17.6 million–five pro gridiron games attracted more than 29 million.

Perhaps, in seven years, a November World Cup can steal casual viewers from the NFL.  At present, it’s doubtful.



ARE WE NOT RUBES?

Manchester United, looking to recover quickly from its worst showing in the English Premier League era, rallied to defeat EPL rival Liverpool, 3-1, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium to win the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup.  A 14th-minute penalty kick goal by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was cancelled out by strikes by United’s Wayne Rooney (55th minute), Juan Mata (57th) and Jesse Lingard (88th).

The tournament, held in 12 U.S. cities and Toronto as a warm-up to the European season, kicked off July 24 with eight European clubs, two of them defending champions of their respective national leagues, plus UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.  Manchester United (2-0-1) won its group over Inter Milan of Italy (1-0-2), AS Roma of Italy (1-2-0) and Spanish giant Real Madrid (0-2-1).  Liverpool topped a group that included Greek champion Olympiakos (1-1-1), English champion Manchester City (1-2-0) and Italy’s AC Milan (0-3-0).

Attendance for the 13 games totaled 642,134, for an average of 49,395.  Topping the list was the throng of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Manchester United defeat Real Madrid, 3-1.  That crowd was the largest in U.S. soccer history, eclipsing the 101,799 on hand for the 1984 Olympic gold-medal match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.   A more modest 51,014 were on hand for the Manchester United-Liverpool finale.  [August 4]

Comment I:  Proof positive that World Cup fever not only hit America full-force early this summer but that it lingers.  Throw in the 84,362 who witnessed Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, a Bayern Munich-Chivas Guadalajara friendly at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and a dozen other exhibitions involving Major League Soccer teams and foreign opposition ranging from Spanish champion Atletico Madrid to EPL tail-ender Aston Villa, and about a million fans in the U.S. paid top dollar to say they saw in person some of the finest players from some of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Comment II:  Are we not rubes?

Sure, there are plenty of expatriates here who’ve just got to see the old hometown club.  And then there are the so-called Eurosnobs, young Americans who’ll get up at dawn from August to May to watch their adopted club–usually from the English Premier League–on a television at the local pub, er, sports bar, but wouldn’t cross the street to watch an MLS game for free.

But to the folks in Europe, a million people over here just shelled out big bucks to watch some clubs with fresh hardware and others living on their good name.  The spectators wore their replica jerseys and cheered and chanted as their favorite players went through the motions during cameo appearances while plenty of the playing time was taken up by fine fellows fighting to win a place on the roster, if not into the starting 11.  Wholesale substitutions disrupted the flow of the games, players weren’t exactly keen on the extensive travel, and coaches considered these moneymaking adventures an intrusion on serious pre-season preparations.  In the end, fans here saw moments of brilliance, mis-timed tackles, remarkable goals, and shots that actually resulted in throw-ins.  And at the final whistle of each match, a result that meant absolutely nothing.

There are many benchmarks that will indicate that the U.S. is developing into a soccer nation.  Like criticism of the U.S. National Team for its shortcomings in a World Cup instead of praising its goalkeeper for repeatedly bailing it out.  Or the prompt emergence of a genuine successor to the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan.  Or, in this case, attendance at meaningless midsummer friendlies involving European clubs in numbers that aren’t an embarrassment to MLS.



ALFREDO DI STEFANO

Alfredo Di Stefano, the greatest player of the 1950s, has died in Madrid.  He celebrated his 88th birthday on July 4 but suffered a heart attack the following day and passed away at Gregorio Maranon hospital two days after that.

Known as “The Blond Arrow,” the Argentine-born Di Stefano scored more than 800 goals in his career and was named European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and ’59.  Through his all-round skills and considerable leadership, Real Madrid won the first European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League) in 1956 and the next four that followed.  His record of 49 goals in 59 Euro Cup games still stands.  In the 1960 final before a crowd of 135,000 at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, Di Stefano scored four goals and teammate Ferenc Puskas three as Real Madrid pounded Eintracht Frankfurt, 7-3, in a match regarded by many as the greatest ever played.

Di Stefano’s career began in 1944 with River Plate.  He jumped to a Colombian pirate league in 1949 to play for Millonarios of Bogota, winning four titles in as many years.  Real Madrid tried to sign him in 1953, but, River Plate, which still technically owned his rights, struck a deal with Real’s arch rival, FC Barcelona, and FIFA approved the transaction.  The Spanish soccer federation, however, decreed that Di Stefano stay in Spain for four years, playing alternate seasons for Barcelona and Madrid.  Barca officials threw up their hands over the ludicrous decision and sold their share in Di Stefano to Madrid.  [July 8]

Comment:  Di Stefano never played in a World Cup, but nevertheless his career included a hat trick of national teams.  Early in his career he played seven games for his native Argentina.  While with Millonarios, he played four for Colombia.  And when he joined Real Madrid, he became a Spanish citizen and played 31 games for Spain, scoring 23 goals.  Had it not been for an injury, he would have played in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where he would’ve teamed with his Madrid strike mate, Puskas, the Hungarian legend who was playing for his second country, and a third star forward in the twilight of his career, Barcelona’s Ladislao Kubala, who was playing for his third country.  (Kubala earlier had represented Czechoslovakia and his native Hungary).  Not long after, FIFA tightened up its rules on players playing for more than one country in full internationals.

 



SPAIN’S PAIN

The Netherlands dismantled defending world champion Spain, 5-1, in its Group “B” opener in Salvador to avenge its loss to the Spaniards in the 2010 World Cup final.

Strikers Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben each scored twice and defender Stefan de Vrij once to wipe out an early Spanish lead created by Xabi Alonso’s penalty kick.

The shocking margin of defeat was the worst for Spain in a World Cup since its last appearance in Brazil, in 1950, when it was humbled by the hosts, 6-1, in a final pool match.  It also marked the first time a reigning world champ has dropped the first game of its title defense since France was upended by Senegal, 1-0, at Korea/Japan ’02.  That team infamously crashed out in the first round without winning a game or scoring a goal.  [June 13]

Comment I:  Amidst the Dutch jubilation, was there a sadder sight than Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas’ expression moments after his careless giveaway gifted Van Persie’s second goal?  And this, nearly three weeks after his blunder against Atletico Madrid nearly cost his club, Real Madrid, the UEFA Champions League final.

Spain may yet recover from this dreadful collapse and still make an impact on this World Cup, but at the moment, the face of its team is, fittingly, its captain, the one-time boy wonder who made his Real debut at 17.  He’s now 33.  Not a senior citizen as goalkeepers go, but like most of the team, not prime time.

Comment II:  Despite the grave concern by U.S. fans over their team being drawn into the so-called “Group of Death” and having to travel a total of some 9,000 miles for its first three games, there is a bit of consolation that’s been overlooked.

That was on display during the Netherlands-Spain match in the form of the spectators.  Fans of the Oranje were loud, of course, but much louder were the thousands and thousands of Brazilians, who were more than happy to see a team they considered a larger threat to their beloved Selecao go down in flames.

Count on Brazilians, who will out-number supporters of the participating teams at the USA’s games against Portugal and Germany by a wide margin, to be solidly behind the Americans, who they would much rather see Brazil face later in the tournament than the No. 4-ranked Portuguese or No. 2-ranked Germans.

Doubt it?  Go back to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, where the U.S. shocked mighty England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte.  America was represented by a team of semi-pros while the English, inventors of the game, were playing in their first World Cup after blithely skipping the first three.  The U.S. closed out the final minutes of the match to the roars of the crowd of 10,000, most of them Brazilians, and after the final whistle, newspapers were set ablaze in the stands in celebration while a crowd of happy locals carried the goal-scorer, Joe Gaetjens, off the field on their shoulders.



THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE’S SAME GAME

Atletico Madrid, behind goals by Adrian Lopez, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, recovered from a scoreless draw at home in the first leg to pound Chelsea, 3-1, at Stamford Bridge to win its UEFA Champions League semifinal series, setting up an all-Spanish final May 24 in Lisbon.

The victory comes a day after Real Madrid humbled defending champ Bayern Munich, 4-0, on a pair of goals each by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and won its home-and-home set by a 5-0 aggregate.

The final, at Benfica’s massive Estadio de Luz, will mark the first time that teams from the same city have met for Europe’s biggest club prize.  Since the European Champions’ Cup became the UEFA Champions League in 1992, four finals have pitted clubs from the same country:  2000, Real Madrid 3, Valencia 0, at the Stade de France outside Paris; 2003, AC Milan 0, Juventus 0 (Milan on PKs), at Old Trafford in Manchester; 2008, Manchester United 1, Chelsea 1 (United on PKs) at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium; and 2013, Bayern Munich 2, Borussia Dortmund 1, at Wembley Stadium in London.

Real Madrid, a finalist for the 13th time, will be seeking an unprecedented 11th European champions title.  Atletico, which last appeared in a final 40 years ago–losing to Bayern Munich–will be playing in its second final.  [April 30]

Comment:  Like Spanish soccer?  You’d better.

(Full disclosure:  This writer likes Spanish soccer.)

This derby showdown–to be played more than 300 miles from Madrid–will be the fifth this season for the two teams, and the sixth since Atletico defeated Real in last May’s Copa del Rey final, ending a 14-year, 25-match winless streak against its rival.  In La Liga, Atletico, the current frontrunner, won at Real, 1-0, in September and tied at home, 1-1, last month; Real swept their Copa matches in February by an overall 5-0.

It raises the question, what will this grand finale prove?

Sometimes, these things work.  Last year’s UEFA Champions League final was an entertaining advertisement for German soccer.  But for those who want to see a real contrast in styles, a meeting of sides that don’t know one another too well, it often does not.

There’s no going back to the days when the European Champions’ Cup was true to its name and involved only defending league champions.  This year’s competition was open to a whopping 76 clubs, including a handful from the more powerful nations who dazzled the soccer world the previous season by finishing fourth in their league.  Of course, this is about money–lots of it.  Clubs that qualified for the group stage automatically pocketed $11.9 million; maximum points in the group would bring in another $8.3 million.  The payout for an appearance in the knockout rounds began at $4.8 million.  As for the final, one of the Madrids will walk home with an additional $14.5 million.  And the public doesn’t seem put off by a same-country final:  Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund last year attracted a global television audience of 360 million–better than three Super Bowls.

But from a sporting perspective, the UEFA has both turned its prime club championship into the impossible dream for dozens of its member associations and reduced its secondary competition–once known as the UEFA Cup and now known as the Europa League–into an afterthought for all but the most ardent fans.

As for the “champion” credentials of this year’s two finalists, Real Madrid qualified for the 2013-14 Champions League by finishing second to FC Barcelona a year ago, a whopping 15 points off the pace; Atletico was third, a dot in the rear-view mirror at 24 points back.