Monday, July 10, 2006

Zizou, The Legend Continues.

I was going to write a report on the World Cup final. But, really, what's the point? After figuring out that the easiest way to defend corners is to not concede corners, France dominated Italy for 90 minutes to an extent that almost makes it unbelievable that they are not celebrating their second triumph. Ultimately, the Italians held on for the penalties for which they have obviously been practicing and France (poor Trezuguet) were denied by a ball flighted an inch too high, that landed a foot too far forward. Whatever some may say, this match is not likely to be thought a classic ten years from now, at least not for the game itself. But no matter. No one save the Italians will really remember this match for the result in any case. We will all remember Zidane's exit.

It was an exit worth remembering. Zidane was sent off with ten minutes remaining for leveling Italy's Materazzi with a headbutt. He has been almost universally vilified in the press for this action. But I wouldn't be so quick to judge. Zizou is a man not only blessed with remarkable skill and vision but also burdened with a fierce temper. But he has every right to his anger after a life of enduring racial prejudice. I cannot be the only one wondering what it was that Materazzi said to Zizdane. And I cannot be the only one who suspects that it was a racial slur. If that is the case, then I fully excuse Zidane for his action. No, violence cannot be the answer, even to the reprehensible taint of racism, but it can and sometimes must be the trigger to action. If Zidane chose the final moment of his career on the biggest stage in sport to show everyone the rage that we should all feel over this issue, then his end is worthwhile. He clearly chose this action, and I think we owe it to him to ask why.

As a technical aside, it is interesting to note that while Zidane's headbutt clearly waranted a red card, he should probably not have received it. The referee clearly missed the incident and it seems obvious that so did the other three officials. The report is that the fourth official saw the attack on a video replay and notified the referee. Since when did FIFA sanction instant replay? FIFA has been adamant in its opposition to replay or any other technical assistance for referees. If FIFA really believes in its position it should sanction the officiating crew for making a video-assisted post-facto ruling. FIFA needs to be consistent to maintain the few shreds of respectability that it has left. That said, I actually support the introduction of video replay in the form of a video official who would have constant access to live and playback video and who would communicate the information to the referee. There also needs to be game-by-game comprehensive review of all officials. This would increase accountability and aid in officials' education. It's also time for that computer chipped ball that senses the goalline.

Friday, July 07, 2006

What a Long Strange World Cup It's Been. Wait. What Do You Mean It's Not Over Yet?

Has it really been two and a half months since I've posted? Good lord! I might as well just start a whole new blog. But here I am to chime in with a few thoughts on the past month's goings on over in Deutschland before the whole thing comes to its conclusion.

I am going to start off by stating (partly as a matter of pride and partly as an embarassing admission) that I have seen every single game of this world cup. (Well, almost. I haven't seen Switzerland-Korea or France-Togo, but I still have them on the DVR and I feel duty-bound to watch them at some point.) And I am therefore brimful of opinions on every slightest aspect of the tournament. Unfortunately, I've been wasting all of this musing by writing angry letters to Jamie Trecker over at Fox Sports instead of being dilligent and productive and posting on my own blog. I guess you could say that I've been too much Cristiano Ronaldo and too little Lukas Podolski. Thats right. I did just say that.

So, how about that Podolski? Apparently he's the young star of the tournament. I can't disagree. But mostly because there really wasn't a young star to this tournament. The only other option is Ronaldo (the skinny, long-necked one, not the rotund, spherically-headed one). But, as they say, he is all hat and no stick. His performance reminded me a lot of a certain Denilson in 1998. Stepovers galore, speed and lots of falling down, but not really anything to show for it. Podolski is unpolished and needs to develop his off foot (being a little more efficient in front of goal wouldn't hurt either) but he worked his butt off every game and came away with three goals so far (all from the run of play, no less). He has every right to enjoy his reward. The undoubtably talented Torres and Messi are relegated to also-rans by their teams' performances and coaching decisions.

But the real "young" stars of this tournament are actually from the slightly higher age bracket. I would point any interested readers towards Phillip Lahm, Frank Ribery and Carlos Tevez. All of these players have shown more than enough to suggest that they could be true stars come 2010. Fortunately, two of them still have a game left.

And speaking of those remaining games, since no one can contradict me, I'm going to say that I predicted this all along. And should you suggest that I am taking the piss, I would say to you that I would never take any piss from anyone. That's disgusting and unhygenic.

In any case, it has been quite a turn of events. I'm not surprised to see Germany playing one last game. Sure they're not a great team. But they are more talented than people give them credit for. They have a good chemistry, they work hard, play fun football and have the home advantage, which is enormous in a World Cup. Italy, I find surprising. It's a solid team and capable of playing very well. But it's not one of the great teams. They've managed to be just as consistent as they've needed to be, they've gotten a favorable road through the knockout stages and they played their hearts out against Germany (I was gutted by that because I personally abhor the
Italian team, but credit where credit is due). Portugal was always going to be a tricky team to pick. They've got talent and a desire to win in any way that they possibly can as long as it doesn't require playing tough, honest, hard-nosed football. That makes them a bit frustrating to watch. And, of course, France who are doing their best to turn this World Cup into their very own "Grumpy Old Men". After struggling to wake themselves up, the heros of '98 have moved through the knockout rounds with a sort of easy and somehow appealing crotchetiness. And they've brought some young supporting players along for dramatic diversity. Who could have predicted that they would end up in the final. That will teach us all to think that Zidane would retire with anything less than a second World Cup medal.

For the games themselves, I have no idea who will win. I just predict that the consolation game will have more goals. Not exactly a bold prediction given that it almost always does, and that Italy are in the final. Playing in front of the home crowd should give Germany the edge over a Portugal team that will probably be struggling to raise their emotions. Italy has a team that can win it. But France have a team that knows how to win it. Zidane, Viera, Makalele and Thuram have craftiness enough to deal with the Italians. The question should be, do they have the legs? I don't think this will be a classic in the way that many are predicting, but I think it will be a very interesting game. Watch it closely.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Back and Better than Ever (Unlike USA B)

Yes, I am back to post about some things football. The second claim may be something of an exageration. I don't really have any excuse for my long absence. It's not as though the football world stops turning for even a minute. I've just been busy and somewhat less than inspired by goings-on. I am, dare I say it, awaiting the return of our beloved MLS. What?! you say. You are not overcome with awe by the drama of the climax of the European season? No. It's been hideously dull. And Fah! I say to you. False fan! If you truly cared about football you would be eagerly supporting our own league and players and bursting with anticipation at their return nine days hence. Which isn't to say that don't still watch the European game (and I still support Chelsea). But enough.

I was finally awoken from my stupor by yesterday's 1-4 loss to Germany in Dortmund. That score really doesn't look good for the USA. It also is even more meaningless than Germany's 1-4 loss to Italy at the beginning of the month. Here, at least, we can say that we fielded a substantially weakened side against what really is about the best side the Germans can put out there at the moment. That doesn't really excuse the result, and there are a lot of things about which we should worry. No one who claims to be an able professional should show such lack of awareness on the pitch against anyone as some of our defenders did between the 70th and 80th minutes. At least no one knocked it into our own net this time (Jeff, I'm looking your way). On the international pitch, or any football pitch, the game requires 90 minutes of concentration. 90 minutes really isn't that long a time. It's only about as long as the average college class... Ah... now I see a connection. We need to only field players who haven't been ruined by college ball. Damn you higher education! Acclimating our young men to late-in-the-period naps. Whoever we field at the World Cup has to be prepared and accustomed to playing for the full 90. Just that alone can bring unexpected results. Ireland, for example, have made it into an art.

Concentration issues aside, there really wasn't anyone on the USA who gave a complete performance. But that isn't to say that there isn't any good to take from this game. there were times when the USA moved the ball well against the Germans and we created at least 3 really good scoring opportunities. That without Donovan, Reyna, Beasley or McBride. Controling play and creating legitimate offensive opportunities against quality opposition has traditionally been another problem for the US. Admittedly, this may say more about the weakness of Germany's defense than anytihng else, but it's something we can take away from this game.

All in all, this really wasn't such a horrible result. The Nats have been coasting this year and really needed a difficult result. This also gives Bruce a better idea of which second tier players are really going to be ready for the World Cup. In addition, this may help us out by leading our group opponents to underestimate our team even more severely. We may know that this was a B team, but to an Italian, American players are distinguish only because they wear different numbers. I would actually be a lot more worried if I were Klinsmann right now. The score looked good for them, but it is likely to give them a little too much confidence and it was clear that they have done little to fix their defensive frailties. But only time will tell.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

What's in a Name?

I know it's been a long time since I've written. It's not that there hasn't been anything to write about (although the winter is pretty slow). Mostly I've just been really busy, tired and uninspired by goings on in the world of football. I mean, how excited can one really be about Svengate Part 503? I don't care how much he's being paid at the FA, I would still want out. And sure, it's a bit inconvenient for an employer if a key employee is spending his free time scoping alternative employment opportunities. That may be grounds for dismissal, but it's not illegal to my knowledge. We don't get upset about the average Joe trying to get out of a job he doesn't like. I defy you to explain to me how football is different.

I think we all know that the real issue is that Sven just happens to have this annoying habit of being not English. Fine. Get rid of him. People will very quickly learn that there simply isn't an English manager in the game today who's worth a damn.

But I'm getting sidetracked. All I wanted to comment on was the fact that Houston has announced it's new name. We now have a fourth pseudo-traditional sounding team in MLS (well, fifth if you count United). Houston 1836. Destined, I hope, to be called the 36ers (you heard it here first). I actually quite like the name. It sure beats the hell out of Real Salt Lake (except when you just say RSL and forget what the letters stand for). I'm just a little skeptical about the motivation. Apparently the name is modelled on all of those venerable German clubs with names like Schalke 04, Mainz 05 etc. Of course, the dates in those names commemorate the founding dates for the clubs (ok, we have to be a little careful. Munich 1860 football club was certainly not founded in 1860. I think that date refers to the founding of the larger athletic club.) I guess Houston 2006 just sounds a little silly right now. Hey! We're no years old! It's like all of those silly Ye Olde Crappe stores all over this country with signs proudly proclaiming Est. 1983. Hell. I was established earlier than that. Now, the motivation behind the Earthquakes replacement name may simply be to honor the founding of one of the country's great cities (you can argue with that, but hey, everyone's heard of Houston, that must count for something). If that were the sole motivation, I would be all for the new name. But if it's just another gimmick to make this league sound more respectable to foreigners, then it just sounds a little silly. The way our teams play is what will bring our league respect, not the names we give to our teams.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Here's to the New Year!

Wow. It's been a long time since I've found the time to sit down and write anything here. The end of term and the holidays really take over the schedule. But now I have some free time and the benefit of the winter breaks to try to catch up on all I've missed. So here's a shot at getting out my thoughts on all the major football events of the past month.

The World Cup Draw:

The poor US. We really got the short end. The presence of Argentina and the Netherlands alone makes their group the highest profile and perhaps even the group of highest total quality (hey, those two count for a lot) but it is true that, overall, the US got dumped in the most competative group. I think that we can make it out. It will take some luck, though. The real disadvantage is having to play the Czech Republic first instead of Italy. The Czechs are not only talented, but hungry. Their abilities aside, I think the Italians are always vulnerable. Just think back to Euro 2004 or Korea/Japan. And I hope that no one is underestimating Ghana. Sure they have only two players that anyone here is likely to have heard of, but the same could have been said of Iran in 1998 and their two players alone took the US apart. Now, we're a lot better than back then, but it is a cautionary tale.

As for all the complaints about seeding, here's what I think. Get off it! FIFA's methods and motives are obsure and seemingly arbitrary, but what good is seeding the entire tournament going to do? We'll still have plenty of yawners. The problem there is due to the huge format of the tournament. And if the groups are determined entirely by seeding we'll be likely to end up with groups that look like European qualifying all over again. If we have to sit through minnow first rouders, I would much rather watch minnows from different confederations battle it out.

I think the commentators need to be a little more circumspect when arguing our own placement. Yes, it stings to watch Mexico snag a seed when we just crushed them in qualifying, took the Gold Cup out from under them and can still look back fondly at that World Cup round of sixteen drubbing we handed them. And yes, as the pundits are fond of pointing out, we made it to the quarterfinals in 2002 while Mexico has only ever made that far in the distant past and only on home soil. However, it should also be noted that Mexico has made it past the first round in at least the last four World Cups it has contested. This is more than can be said for the US (we still have to live down that dead last showing in 1998, sure that's a while ago now but we all still remember it). Also, recall that Mexico also have this curious habit of beating Brazil with alarming frequency. The fact is, Mexico just have a better track record against the big teams outside of CONCACAF. Things are changing in our favor, but we have to be patient. I think it's healthy to complain, it shows we have passion, but at the same time let's keep some perspective.

World Player of the Year:

It's Ronaldhino again! Big surprise. I actually would have voted for Lampard. Not just because I'm a Chelsea fan, either. The issue is the interpretation of the award. Does it go to the single best footballer? I.e. the one who has demonstrated the greatest amount of talent and the greatest ability to entertain fans. If this is the case, Ronaldhino must win, hands down. But I would argue that the award should go to the footballer who has shown the greatest combination of achievement within the game and indispensibility to his team's achievements. If this is the case, it seems to me that Lampard is the clear winner. In either case, the winner is more than worthy. And it looks as though both will have highly succuessful ends to the current campaign. Moreover, we can look forward to seeing them in action against one another in the first CL knockout stage and, who knows, possibly in the World Cup this Summer.

The Club World Championship:

Or whatever the heck it's called. I wonder sometimes if I am the only English speaking person who thinks that this was an interesting and worthwhile tournament. Ok. So it ended up as the same old same old: Europe versus South America. But it was a pretty close thing. Al Ittihad really gave Sao Paolo a run for it, contrary to what the wire story might have said. Liverpool had no such problems making the final, but Saprissa should hold their heads high. They played as well as a teams of Costa Ricans could ever be expected to play against the champions of Europe and they really should have had a goal. The overall quality might not be even at the level of the CL or Libertadores, but it is early yet. Football is growing in the rest of the world and this tournament can give it an impetus.

The final may not have had many goals, but it had tension in abundance. In regards to the outcome, I have only one thing to say to the English language press. Shut the hell up and deal with it! Liverpool lost as fair and square as it gets. Yes, they dominated the second half in a way that left one wondering how they had failed to score by the bucketload. But if one wants to talk travesty, maybe some people need to be reminded about a certain other game last May. At least Sao Paolo controlled the possession for a period of greater than six minutes. Actually, Sao Paolo played a lovely first half and, though they were pressed at the end, they deserved their lead. What on Earth Hyypia thought he was doing is anyone's guess. The goal was well made and well taken.

Despite all of their second half dominance, Liverpool really have no one but themselves to blame. They had two goals called back for clear offsides. The third was debatable. Replays show that Luis Garcia was not actually offsides, but the same replays show that, when the ball was played, three other Liverpool players were. I think the linesman can be excused. Lesson for Liverpool: if you want the goals to count, make sure the entire team is onsides, just to be safe (it's not that hard). As for the foul on Gerrard, yes, it could have been a red card. But there are three things to consider. It was actually from the side, not from behind. Gerrard was not running straight at goal. And even if he had outpaced Lugano and turned in towards goal, there was another defender coming in to cover. You can rage all day about the enforcement of the law as it is written, but honestly, how many times have you seen the law enforced exactly as it is written? Don't worry, I'll wait while you think about that.

So all in all, I think this inaugural event was a success. For me, the clear winners were Sao Paolo (of course), CONCACAF who saw their side finish a surprise third, and Sydney, a team that counted it's history in months yet still managed to win their second match against Al Ahly. The losers would have to be Liverpool who must have been desperately disappointed and CAF who saw their "greatest team of the last decade" twice defeated.

Just one more thought. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere else so I wonder if anyone else has thought of it. I find it funny that, even in this limited format, it is possible, though not likely, for the CWC to be contested by two teams from the same country. That would be Mexico, whose teams compete in both the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Libertadores. Funny, huh?

The Angry Bogger Strikes Again:

I had an interesting experience shortly after I wrote my last post. I Googled myself. I found this blog referenced in a board discussion on We Call It Soccer. I was flattered that someone patronizing that much better established (and maintained) blog would not only have heard of my blog, but also have read it. So I checked out the conversation. It had to do with my blog's name (which as anyone could figure out is a refence to WCIS, intended mostly as a reverential one). To get right to it, I came across the comment that my "angry blog is actually pretty good". Flattering. But, I thought, angry? I'm not angry? I asked my fiancee, "Do you think I'm angry?" "Well", she said, "when you talk about football you tend to sound kinda angry." "I'm not angry," I replied. "I'm just very intense about football." "Yes", she said, not a trace of irony in her voice, "intense, that's it."

And it's true. I'm just a bit tense. I mean intense. But on reflection, I realized that there are a few things that do make me angry in football. Chief among them are the "esteemed" Paul Gardner and Brian Glanville. Apparently legends of football journalism, I must admit that I fail entirely to understand what has given them the stature they enjoy today. I won't even start with Mr. Glanville. Just read a wide selection of his columns. Mr. Gardner seems often to me to be a creature out of the nineteenth century (although this could be said about many who write about or manage British football). For this, I would refer the reader to his column on the smart ball and his ideas about the purposes of the game. What I find more galling still is his inability accurately represent the American game. He is unfailingly critical. This is sometimes justified but must be backed up with facts. I would refer the reader to his account of the MLS playoffs in the December World Soccer. He is certainly correct that the final was an abomination but his criticism of Steve Nicol is entirely unfounded. Nicol has been an unqualified success. He took over a disorganised, dispirited team and wrung every last drop out of it. Sure, it wasn't pretty at first, but things improved over time. He shrewdly analysed talent, select two consecutive rookies of the year and one runner up. He turned the unfailingly defensive Revolution into the unfailingly attacking team that we saw all season. Yes, as the playoffs progressed they became increasingly defensive, but they really can't be blamed for that. The Metros and Fire took what could be politely termed a vigorous approach to their match-ups with the Revolution. I hardly think a 3 goal second half comeback qualifies as defensive in any case. By the final, the Revolution had lost two key players and had at least three other starters significantly knocked. I would think that a truly legendary journalist would be able to incorporate this information into his analyses. If Mr. Gardner is going to comment on our league, maybe he should watch it.

That's my angry rant for the moment. I'm sure there will be more, but I'll try to keep most of these posts within the bounds of normal intensity.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The End of an Era (or the CL Group Stage, at least)

So it's the final day of the CL group stage. My last chance to embarass myself picking the results of matches involving teams about which I know little to nothing. But, come on! Do you know anything about FC Thun? I think not! Have you ever seen (or wanted to see) them play? I think not! Do you even know where Thun is? (I actually do know this. One of the strange benefits of having a fiancee who grew up in Switzerland.) All of this notwithstanding, it sure is fun pick them each time and watch them disappoint me. If I didn't get worked up about this, I might get worked up about something that actually mattered and then where would I be? Huh? Probably somewhere a lot more interesting, doing something a lot more productive. That's where. But enough of this.

I'm not really going to say anything at the moment about my picks for yesterday. I was undone by teams calling it in and by boring, boring Liverpool. Oh well. It's always hard to pick these results when there is so little at stake for some teams except on the last day of the Italian season when everything is so crooked you can pick all of the results just by looking at the table and seeing who needs what from whom. My cynicism aside, here are today's picks.

Group A:

Bayern and Juve are through, Brugge are into the UEFA Cup. I think that Bayern and Juve would still like the top spot, although with teams like Chelsea and Real already entering as 2nd place teams, top spot doesn't guarantee an easy ride. I still think these two will win away to the small fry.

Group B:

Arsenal and Ajax are through. They play each other at Highbury. I would say that Arsenal would rest key players, but Ajax could do the same. I think Arsenal will edge this at home. Thun and Sparta are playing for the UEFA Cup place. I'm picking Thun to go through with the draw.

Group C:

Barca are through. Udinese look poised to go through except that they're playing Barca. A loss and a Werder Bremen win will put Bremen through instead. The question is: will Barca ease up enough to let Udinese get the point they need? I'm betting that they're honorable enough to beat the Italians fair and square. I think Bremen can manage Pana at home, although there is nothing guaranteed with Werder.

Group D:

This is wide open. You might think that that would make it an exciting group. Wrong! I almost don't care who comes out of the Group of Mediocrity. It seems that whoever does is due for an immediate exit in the knockout stages. I'm going to pick two more draws here. That would put Villareal and Lille through and send ManU to the UEFA Cup.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Back to the Grind

Holidays are wonderful. Getting back from the holidays is not quite so wonderful. All that time off usually means there is plenty of work just waiting for you when you come back. So it has been that I have been kept from my beloved blog for this past week. But now I am returned! It is a European matchday and it is time to dispense some more "knowledge". Note how I put that in quotes so that no one could accuse me of false advertising. You make use of this "knowledge" strictly at your own risk. Of course, anyone who has been following my predictions thus far probably knows that my predictions are about as much use for personal gain as a rubber knife would be of use in a gun fight. And yet I persist. Silly me.

Actually, this week might have some interesting results. There is a strange combination of wide open groups, completely decided groups and groups with one qualified team in which the rest have everything to play for.

Group E:

This is an exciting group. Milan, Schalke and PSV all have chances to win. If there is a winner between Milan and Schalke, that team will win the group and leave the loser hoping that PSV loses as well. I think Milan will take this game at home. I also think that PSV will manage to beat Fener, leaving Schalke wishing that had made more of their chances. Of course, if Milan lose, I will enjoy a very hearty laugh at their expense.

Group F:

Lyon have won this group already. Madrid are going through too. Since the little guys are playing the big guys, the order won't change unless someone really mails it in. Lyon over Rosenborg and Real over Olympiakos are my picks.

Group G:

Liverpool and Chelsea are through and only have the order to work out. But getting the top spot can have important implications down the road. And whatever Peter Cech says, Chelsea are not very happy in general about Liverpool. They're at home, they have more to play for, I think Chelsea wins. Further down the table, Anderlecht have put together the astounding record of 5 played, 0 won, 0 drawn, 5 lost, 0 goals scored. Why did they even show up and what have they been doing with the money they keep getting for playing in this competition? Not improving their team, certainly. Do I even need to say that I think Betis will beat them?

Group H:

This could very interesting. Inter are clear through in top spot. Everything else is a mess. Anyone could follow them. Gers are in second, but they play Inter. Of course, the game is at Ibrox, Inter have nothing to play for and they might just dispense with the trouble and let Rangers get the win. That would be highly disappointing. Artmedia have Porto at home. They beat Porto at the Dragao. I'm going to pick them to win again. Since I think that Inter's effort notwithstanding, Gers will get a draw through their own ineptitude, that puts Artmedia through. Gers can have fun getting knocked out of the UEFA cup.


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With that taken care of, I just wanted to let anyone who hasn't already seen it know that the USA missed out on a seed for the WC draw. That's too bad. I can't say that I am all that surprised or that it is a horrible injustice, but it was a very close thing. We fell one point shy of Italy. Mexico made it in though. That would have been spectacular. Two seeded CONCACAF teams? Hah! That would have been something more for the AFC and the CAF to think about. The bigger news is that the Netherlands are unseeded. I can't say that I am all that surprised about that either. And neither was their coach, the great Marco Van Basten. The FIFA formula judges on the past two World Cups and the past three years of rankings. The Dutch failed to qualify for 2002. They saw this coming. But based on their performances in qualifying it's hard to doubt that they could be a very difficult proposition next Summer.