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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