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The World Cup Wrap-Up: Why this World Cup will hurt the chances of soccer in America, best goals & national anthem and the underbelly of the competition

July 15, 2010 1 comment

Part 1: An underwhelming World Cup with a worthy champion.

Farewell until Rio...

The curtains have officially closed on the 2010 World Cup and I am surprisingly unfazed. I thought that I would feel anxious and saddened by the fact I would have to wait another four years for my World Cup fix; that simply has not been the case. It may have something to do with the fact that this year’s edition of the world’s greatest sports competition was an oddity. There were few roller-coaster matches, no classic encounters, a visible lack of big stars and a cynical, nervy, often negative final match that was mired by a multitude of fouls and a hesitant referee.

The first act of the competition saw 2006’s finalists – France and Italy – exit ignominiously, while the finale saw two European powers – who had never won the Cup before last Sunday – vying for what was once believed unattainable. For the final matchup alone, this World Cup was intriguing. Spain ended up winning the Cup, deservedly so, for the first time in their history due to their display of a style that celebrated slick possession and movement over direct play and goals. Spain had to work hard for their goals in large part due to the opposition putting their players behind the ball and hoping for a counter-attack. The fact that they won the Cup is a testimony to the failure of this strategy and the superior class of the Spanish side. Bravo. Here’s a bit more insight…

The zeitgeist of this tournament proved to be defense and the counter-attack; a style of play perfected by Jose Mourinho, the current boss of Real Madrid. His Inter Milan squad of 2009-2010 succeeded in defeating the all-powerful FC Barcelona in this year’s Champions League Final using the logic of having the opposition hold onto the ball for the majority of the game while keeping defensive shape and quickly taking advantage on the counter. The World Cup Final pitted Spain, a team largely composed of Barcelona players and founded on possession, against the Netherlands, a team who slowly shed the colorful and flamboyant “Dutch” play for a style most in-line with Mourinho’s Inter Milan. According to the de-facto Dutch national philosopher on soccer matters, legend Johan Cruyff, the Oranje renounced their traditional style and played “anti-football” on the pitch. The embodiment of this unfortunate transformation of the Dutch team was Marc Van Bommel. The ultimate enforcer, he was like your friend in grade school who quietly stirred-up a lot of trouble but was never punished for it. Fact: Van Bommel did not receive a SINGLE yellow card for his malicious and incessant fouling until the final against Spain. It was unfortunate to see a team traditionally respected for its creative use of space and fluidity around the pitch resorting to fouling the Spaniards as their only way to slow them and gain a semblance of control in the game. In the end, the “beautiful”game prevailed but I was left underwhelmed. The interminable histrionics and continual fouling led me to walk away from the final happy for Spain but unhappy with how it all went down.

In contrast, the Germany vs. Uruguay 3rd place match gave us a teasing display of the kind of back and forth game that we wanted to see throughout the tournament; the teams were unafraid to make forays into the opposition’s half and they were willing to give up goals as a result. It was a thoroughly entertaining game.

Bold prediction: this World Cup did not help the case for those in America striving to prove to the traditionalists (American football, baseball and basketball fans) that soccer is an entertaining and enjoyable sport to watch. It’s surely not the fact that the games were low-scoring; the beautiful game has always been low-scoring. Rather, it was the way the game was played and the lack of flair and audacity — the stuff that make people’s jaws drop, bar tabs rise, and spirits lift. It all makes a sad truth for American soccer fans.

Part two: Goals of the tournament, best celebration and best national anthem.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst

Siphiwe Tshabalala

Diego Forlan – World class from the Golden Ball winner

Surprise of the Tournament: Uruguay

Reaching their first semifinals since 1970, the Uruguayans proved to be an industrious, well-organized, and an ultimately creative side to watch. The 3rd place match against Germany was the best tie of the tournament.

Disappointment of the tournament: The “marquee” stars

Rooney, Ronaldo and, to a lesser extent, Messi are just a few of the names on the list of the game’s superstars who failed to perform on the highest stage. What can explain this? I would wager fatigue from long domestic campaigns and, of course, pressure to succeed for their home country and not just for a multinational club.

Best Goal Celebration:

The Black Stars’ celebration after scoring against Australia takes the cake.

Best National Anthem:

One part opera, the other part pop song. I’ll be playing this at a party. Maybe not, but it’s still a cool song.

Part 3: The underbelly of the World Cup.

While the tournament was a bit underwhelming, we can at least say that the social, economic and political gains from having the World Cup in South Africa were significant, right? Well, yes and no. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point to scholarly research which shows that the anticipated “economic bonanza” a World Cup is purported to bring (jobs, boost in tourism, investment ,etc.) is, in fact, a misleading notion. Countries compete to host the World Cup because it makes them feel as if they are in the world’s elite and fosters a sense of national solidarity amongst the various classes and groups of society. Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, presides over a country with the largest gap between rich and poor in the world and where a third of the population lives off of less than $2 a day. Before the World Cup, he had to grapple with riots in the shantytowns as well as trying to find new schemes to lower his country’s high unemployment rate. There were many critics who voiced their concern over South Africa hosting the World Cup due to the amount of money that would be spent on infrastructure and stadiums. Improved roads and trains are politically and socially viable goods that can be used after the competition, while the state-of-the-art stadiums will be much harder to fill. (The majority of Japan’s glittering stadiums used in the 2002 World Cup are largely unused to this day; almost lurking in the background to be used as chips for future World Cup bids).

Tom Humphries of the Irish Times recently wrote a decidedly scathing op-ed entitled, “Bye South Africa, thanks for being had by us” in which he sheds light on the underbelly of the World Cup. FIFA, or as Humphries likes to call them – “the pin-striped mafia” – were sitting on €2.6 billion in TV and marketing rights before the competition even began and will walk away with the lion’s share of profits. Underestimating the cost of building the stadiums caused the final price-tag to be 2 billion rand more than initially planned. Host cities were thus obligated to pick up the excess. Upwards of 355,000 unsold tickets forced the South African government to buy up tickets and sell them to their own people at subsidized rates. Meanwhile, 450,000 pre-booked rooms were put back onto the market by Market AG after overestimating the number of visitors. The ubiquitous markers of global capitalism superseded the local culture as colorful street vendors in front of stadiums were replaced by proper sponsors’ tents. What should we make of all of this? Is FIFA essentially offering the glitz and glamour of the world’s most popular sporting even while effectively stripping it of the selected host’s local culture and flavor for the benefit of global capitalism? Was the only truly South African contribution to the World Cup the vuvuzela?

There are all questions that should to be seriously pondered as we head into World Cup 2014 in still-developing Brazil…

What do an unwashed cashmere sweater, a national anthem with no words, and an erudite octopus have in common?

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Answer: The World Cup.

Spain

So here we are. The final stage of the World Cup. A competition filled with utter disappointments, pleasant surprises, heartbreak, and the power of youth. Spain and the Netherlands will go head to head in pursuit of their respective nation’s first ever World Cup trophy. We will see who will prevail. Until then, here’s a quick overview of last week’s quarterfinal and semifinal matches.

1) Brazil vs. Netherlands

Brazil came in as the undisputed champs, at least in their own minds, and in the first 15 minutes they showed their athleticism, guile, creativity, and superiority against the Dutch who were chasing the game. Felipe Melo, the Brazilian defensive midfielder, started the game as the hero and ended it, unceremoniously, as the villain. His sublime through ball to an in-stride Robinho gave me goosebumps, while his childish petulance and histrionics made me cringe. Melo’s rise and fall in the match closely mirrored how the Brazilians played. They started off well, performing in the superb, only to regress to playing like a wounded animal with no place to hide. The Dutch deserved to go through. For their part, the second half was a clinical exhibition of possession and movement.

2) Ghana vs. Uruguay

This game was a true heartbreaker for the neutral fan. With all the hopes and aspirations of a continent on their shoulders, the Black Stars of Ghana were unable to advance to the semifinals of the competition. The game was theirs to win or lose and Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s star striker, missed his penalty in the 120th minute. Regarding the handball incident that led to the penalty, the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that any soccer player would have done the same thing. While I find the hand ball reprehensible and unfortunate, it was the only play that Luis Suarez had to keep his team in the game. By handing the ball he knew he would be ejected but it luckily (didn’t feel that way at the time) left the fate of the game in the hands of his keeper and the fallibility of the opposition’s kick taker. Gyan missed the penalty kick and Uruguay stayed alive. Well played. Poor penalties sealed Ghana’s fate and left me scratching my head. Not all is lost for Ghana though–they are the reigning champions of the U-20 World Cup and should figure in the World Cup of 2014.

The Netherlands

3) Germany vs. Argentina

Germany absolutely demolished Argentina 4-0 in an impressive exhibition of counterattacking soccer. Argentina failed to adapt their game and remained narrow in their attack with Leo Messi, Carlos Tévez, and Gonzalo Higuaín continually frustrated by the stout German defense. Their midfield lacked creativity while their defense was finally exposed with Gabriel Heinze and Nicolás Otamendi horribly dismantled by the speed of Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose, and Lukas Podolski.

4) Spain vs. Paraguay

This game started as a bore and then turned into a white-knuckler with penalties on both sides of the pitch within 5 minutes of each other. As expected, Spain dominated possession, leaving Paraguay to chase the game for the majority of the match while creating sporadic opportunities in the front of the Spanish goal. Spain deserved to go through but left a lot to be desired by only scoring one against the pesky Paraguayans.

Semifinal recap:

1) Uruguay vs. Netherlands

This high-scoring affair sure had its moments. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s master-class strike was one for the ages. While scoring three goals, the Dutch still looked quite vulnerable in the back with Khalid Boulahrouz continually making things interesting on the right side of the defense. When asked what the difference was between the 2010 Dutch team and those of the past (’94,’98), the current crop of players stated that they expected to win regardless of how they got there. Long gone are the days of playing beautifully but not getting the results. They have the confidence and expectation to win but the “Dutch Way” is no longer their modus operandi. Check out this illuminating article by Raphael Honigstein about Dutch soccer and the death of total football.

Uruguay was missing the services of the suspended Suarez – leaving Diego Forlan to create on his own chances, which he did – and the sturdy defender Diego Lugano who would have provided more of a test against the wily and melodramatic Arjen Robben. Uruguay can be proud of making it to the semifinals for the first time since 1970 and will most certainly make noise in Brazil in 2014. Brazil will hope that they don’t. Some Cocktail Fodder for you: Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 final in the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janiero 2-1. A rash of suicides in the country befell the country, as well as national competition to change the colors of the Brazilian team uniforms. A 19 year old came up with the winning design and won a yearlong internship with the national team.

Goal of the tournament:

The Prize

2) Spain vs. Germany

The youthful multicultural team of Germany finally met its match in the polished, methodical, geometrically ascetically pleasing, near lull-inducing Spanish squad (whew!). Not even a debonair coach with the unwashed lucky blue cashmere sweater could prepare his team well enough. From the beginning of the match one could tell that the Spanish were going to dictate the pace of the match with the Germans occasionally mounting a threatening counterattack. Now, there is something rather interesting and sobering about the Spanish starting 11 that is worth noting: the majority of them ply their trade at either Real Madrid or Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga. At the start of each season all the teams in La Liga, from Getafe to Real Madrid, have the same number of points (Check out the Alphabetized 2010-2011 standings) However, once the ball is kicked, the season is eventually predetermined with the only tension in the campaign revolving around whether Barcelona will continue its recent dominance or if Real Madrid can overtake them. Valencia finished in third place last year with 25 points between them and second place Real Madrid!  It is only natural that the national team be made up of the players from both squads as they are not only the leagues best paid but also the best players pound for pound. I like to think of this Spanish squad as Barcelona plus 5.

Where it gets even more interesting is in the identity of the player who scored the winning goal in yesterday’s semifinal to propel the team into the World Cup Finals for the first time. Carles Puyol, the shaggy-locked central defender, is from Catalonia; one of the 17 semi-autonomous regions of Spain. Spain could lift the World Cup for the first time thanks in large part to the talent pool generated by FC Barcelona; a well-established Catalonian institution and a sporting representation/symbol of Catalonian independence. I find this quite remarkable. General Franco would be rolling in his grave if he saw what was happening on the pitch.

A World Cup soothsayer?

Here is some more fun Cocktail Fodder for you: the Spanish national anthem has no words. It is one of the few in the world devoid of words. Why is this? Because the regionalism of Spain makes it virtually impossible to create a song that encapsulates what it means to be a “Spaniard.” From Galicia over to Catalonia and down to Andalucía, one finds areas that are politically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the central government of Madrid. When one of the ESPN commentators noticed that none of the Spanish players were singing the national anthem I almost threw my drink at the screen (not really, but you get my point).

Patrick Cox’s podcast The World in Words from Public Radio International has two excellent episodes in which he touches upon the Spanish national anthem and whether the 2009 Champions league win by Barcelona could be hailed as a win for all Spaniards– definitely worth a listen. Here is the main page (http://patrickcox.wordpress.com/) with the topics of Spain coming up in the first and fifty sixth episode of the podcast.

Finally, check out this article about the “psychic” octopus who correctly predicted that Spain would beat Germany keeping its streak of correct match predictions alive: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/jul/08/soccer-octopus-world-cup-final

Enjoy the final. Until next time, cheers.

World Cup Quarter-Final Predictions

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Soccer City

1) Brazil vs. Netherlands. Friday, July 2 at 10 am EST on ESPN.

History is on the side of the Brazilians who beat the Dutch in the 1994 and 1998 Quarter-finals in the United States and France. The first 30 seconds of the 1994 youtube clip is too funny. Hawaii Five-O meets the pitch! Both teams are playing well at the moment but I would put the Brazilians as slight favorites to win against the Oranje.  Expect tight passing games from both teams. While the Dutch will be more of the adventurous type in attack, the Brazilians will play tough defense and wait for an opportunity to pounce and counter.

2) Uruguay vs. Ghana. Friday, July 2 at 2:30pm EST on ESPN.

Ghana’s Black Stars, the last hope for Africa in this tournament, take on the defensively solid La Celeste of Uruguay in the first-ever clash between the two countries. Uruguay is making its first appearance in the quarter-finals since 1970 and their attack force of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez has scored 5 of the 6 goals for the team so far. Ghana will be without the services of Andre Ayew and John Mensah due to accumulation of yellow cards. I expect Ghana to enjoy the lion share of possession in this game but see the pesky Uruguayans advancing on the back of either a Forlan or Suarez goal.

3) Argentina vs. Germany. Saturday, July 3 at 10 am EST on ESPN.

This is going to be a rollercoaster of a game. Both teams are playing attractive, high-scoring soccer and there is some bad blood between the two stemming from the World Cup in 2006. Watch this match with a group of friends and have the beer flowing as the action will be non-stop and the cards may be flying. This game is hard to call but I give a slight edge to Germany and think they can catch the Argentinean defense flat-footed on one of their trademark counters. Also, if there is any game that Lionel Messi could choose to make his mark this would be the one. He needs to step up.

4) Paraguay vs. Spain. Saturday, July 3 at 2:30 pm EST on ESPN.

I obviously expect Spain to win this match and advance and would not be surprised if they have 70% possession of the ball. Paraguay played an uninspiring match against a much weaker Japanese squad and I just don’t see how they will be able to compete with the Spanish. That said, once the ball drops it is anyone’s game.

Here’s another nice little preview:

World Cup Recap #2: How the English failure to advance can be explained by history, if only Twitter was around in 2002, and why the United States team needs a complete reshuffling — starting with the coach.

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

In this week’s footie post, I will address the huge disappointments of the English and American World Cup campaigns and attempt to put them in perspective for the Cocktail Fodder reader. Everything else can take a backseat at the moment.

Jabulani

English Ineptitude:

Let’s begin with the English. Their failure to progress beyond the round of 16 is a classic example of a dysfunctional family of overpaid superstars put together and expected to perform when all signs already pointed to calamity; a shaky defense, mediocre goalkeeper options, and a genuine lack of leadership within the squad. (And this is only to name a few.) The pressure to bring home the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1966 hung heavily over the heads of the English players and they caved in. Players like Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, superstars in the English Premier League, transformed into lamentable shells of themselves on the international stage in South Africa.

After their ignominious exit from the European Championship qualification round in 2008, the English soccer authorities thought it best to bring in a Continental coach with a fresh, more refined, less brutish version of the game for the English to play. As was we have seen, not even a well-dressed Italian tactician, Fabio Cappello, was up to the task of bringing glory to England. So whom is to blame for their exit? The English media are looking for scapegoats but they should look no further than history itself. Here is some Cocktail Fodder for you to use when talking about England’s early exit from the World Cup: In six of their eight last World Cups, England has been knocked out by either Germany or Argentina. From the infamous “Hand of God” by Maradona in 1986, to the most recent 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the Die Mannschaft, the English seem destined by history to continually lose to former wartime combatants in the World Cup. (I picked up this bit of fodder from the entertaining book Soccernomics. Definitely worthy of a read.) The English players are back in England, preparing themselves for another season in the most popular league in the world where the pressure to succeed is high but nowhere near the level associated with playing for country.

The Hand of God:

The 4-1 Drubbing:

The Great Deception

The United States failure in the round of 16 against Ghana was a major step backwards; a blunt reminder of how much work is yet to be done for the country to be taken seriously on the international stage.

Just when one thought the team had effectively turned the corner by winning their group for the first time since 1930, they were quick to revert to being uncreative, mediocre, and one-dimensional; a team unsure how to carry itself and play with confidence. Let me put it bluntly: The 2010 United States soccer team was grossly overhyped due to heightened media coverage. Social media tools, Twitter and Facebook especially, attracted large numbers of soccer converts and casual watchers to take an interest in the cup. The team’s pluck and never-say-die ethos resonated with the general public. This unfortunately imbued them with a belief that the team could actually go far. The party was rocking with high levels of patriotism (red meat anyone?), but the team was destined to fall short.

The high-water mark for the USMNT* was in 2002. In that World Cup, they actually beat a European powerhouse in Portugal and advanced all the way to the quarter-finals only to be robbed of a place in the semifinals by the opportunistic hand of a German. Does anyone even remember who played on that team? Here’s something to think about: Imagine if the 2002 World Cup of South Korea and Japan was held in Europe where there is a shorter time difference and social media tools were as pervasive as today? Would the level of participation, funding, and general excitement surrounding the beautiful game be more significant today? Hard to say, but I am inclined to say yes. What do you think?

US-Portugal:

Robbed by Germany:

What needs to change:

What needs to change in order for the United States to realize its potential? First, the American coach must be replaced by a European—preferably German or Dutch—manager who will be charged with restructuring the team to run with purpose, while conserving energy, and make the ball do the bulk of the work. An American coach should be involved as an understudy to the European to learn the game. Issues of strength, conditioning and nutrition should be kept in American hands. (We are, at least, very good at this.) Second, if the United States wants a winner, they need to take it seriously and correctly finance the program. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski rightly state in Soccernomics, “If only Americans took soccer seriously, the country’s fabulous wealth and enormous population would translate into dominance.” With a population of 307 million plus and large immigrant communities from such soccer crazy continents like South America and Africa, there is a surplus of potential soccer stars out there.

The underlying problem with soccer in the United States was astutely underscored by former German national team player and coach Jurgen Klinsman in the post-match segment of the USA vs Ghana matchup last week. America’s first touch–how a player receives and handles the ball when passed it—was inferior to other teams. The first touch in the rest of world is the beginning of a love affair; playing the game becomes second nature and a daily occurrence. Why is this? To keep it short, generally speaking at least, soccer is seen elsewhere in the world as a viable vehicle of social mobility from the lower to upper classes of society. If one has the potential, at least. Children in Brazil are scouted at a young age and whisked to soccer schools where they receive an education, hone their skills on the field, and become upstanding citizens. Here in the United States – football, baseball, and basketball – are the preferred vehicles of social advancement. This is highlighted by the absurd amounts of money the average player makes. As a result, youth soccer players only see the sport as a way to potentially attend a great collegiate soccer program and receive a top education for their life after sports. This is nothing to scoff at but it drastically changes the soccer culture of our country. Can we make those changes? I do not know. We should try though.

*USMNT: United States Men’s National Team

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Reflections on the 2010 World Cup thus far

June 24, 2010 2 comments

Close to three weeks have passed since the opening ceremonies of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals in South Africa. While it started off slow, the plot lines have thickened and the play has gradually improved. From the plucky Kiwis of New Zealand earning a well deserved draw from the cup-holding Italians, to the unfolding soap opera of the French team refusing to practice due to what they deemed to be the unfair expulsion of their teammate, Nicolas Anelka, this World Cup is as much for the soccer enthusiast as it is for the gossip queen.  Today I will blog about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tournament so far.

The good: Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico)

With only two losses between all six countries through this Wednesday, Latin America has been the class of this World Cup. Argentina is thriving, Brazil is their usual solid self and Mexico has been steady. More unexpectedly, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile are all making noise in the tournament and are marching confidently into the round of 16. We will see if they can continue the trend and truly make this World Cup theirs.

The bad: Africa (Cameroon, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria)

African teams failed to impress due to a lack of team management, unity, and the development of competing cliques within the teams. Cameroon and the Ivory Coast serve as perfect examples. The Indomitable Lions and Les Elephants supposedly had the major perquisites for a strong World Cup campaign: solid European-based squads and a good balance between youth and experience. What they lacked, in spades, were competent coaches and a solid foundation of team unity and purpose. South Africa, on the other hand, had the requisite team unity bolstered by the fact they were the hosts of the tournament. Unfortunately, what they made up for in unity, they lacked in talent and experience to advance. No matter though, the Bafana Bafana can walk away with their heads held high while the two aforementioned teams will walk away with the albatross of embarrassment and underperformance around their necks. Not all is lost though. Ghana is still in the competition and they are not only playing well but have some of the most colorful fans and best goal celebrations. The United States vs. Ghana fixture this Saturday afternoon will be a rematch of the 2006 World Cup meeting in Germany that saw the Black Stars down the U.S. 2-1 and advance to the round of 16.

The ugly: France, Italy, and England.

Where do I begin? Let’s start with the French or Les Bleus as they are known. They leave South Africa in abject failure after losing all contests, staging a practice coup d’état, having a player dismissed from the team, and to top it all off, having the coach refuse to shake the hand of South Africa’s coach after their last fixture. Quel horreur! The team and country are suffering with a crisis of self-identity and purpose. Across the pond from the Continent, England, the gatekeepers on the game, continue in their dogged pursuit to win the Cup for the first time since 1966. They meet their historical rivals in Germany this Sunday which promises to be an entertaining affair. The English looked remarkably better in their last game but I don’t see them overcoming the Germans. Nonetheless, expect the odd World War 2 songs to be chanted. Lastly, the Italians are officially out of the World Cup. They never seemed fit to wear the crown as Cup holders (they won in 2006) and relied too much on their Machiavellian cynicism and theatrics to get through. Amidst all this European disarray, look for Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain to seize the opportunity and go far.

Here are some international links to visit to get your soccer fix:

1) www.guardian.co.uk/football : World Cup Football Daily (English). One-liners and puns galore make this my favorite podcast to listen to each night to get my soccer fodder.

2) http://www.rtl.fr : Mondial 2010: En Route Pour L’Afrique du Sud (French). These guys know their stuff and it’s cool to listen to the game analysis in a foreign language even if you don’t understand everything.

3) http://www.marca.com/futbol/mundial_2010.html : Check out the Calendario : Los 64 partidos in the top right corner. Send it to your friends and wait for the props to roll in.

4) http://www.gazzetta.it/ : Gazetta dello Sport (Italy). The paper version is the color pink—how awkwardly cool is that? The English version is worth checking out online.

5) http://oglobo.globo.com/esportes/copa2010/ O Globo Esportes (Brazil).You might as well check out the sports section from the soccer crazed nation.