Monthly Archives: June 2010

FIFA and the Ministry of Truth

In the official report, that goes down as a Ronaldo-style laser into the back of the net

Let it be known that Big Brother, a.k.a. Sepp Blatter, is an idiot. That, I believe, is a commonly accepted truth.

Let it also be known that FIFA’s attempts at control in the past couple of weeks have reeked of the Ministry of Truth. First, it was decreed that there was no problem and that the referees were doing fine jobs. Now stop asking questions! Next, the Ministry decided that the stadium jumbotrons would not show replays, lest it upset the masses (or show how the referees screwed up). Although the FIFA spokesman used the word “mistake” it was not in response to on-field human error, but in response to showing replays on the big boards.

Now, however, after yelling at him a lot, Blatter has changed his mind and said that us of video technology will be reviewed. Again. So Big Brother will stick to his guns, unless Europe is affected (yes, I think that the tune has changed because England was involved; it was just Mexico and the US, Blatter would be telling us that everything is fine).

So Blatter finally removed his head from his ass. That’s good. But it doesn’t solve anything. “Reviewing” is just that: a platitude that will mollify some people for now until, sometime after the World Cup (maybe 6 or 7 months), the issue will be quietly dropped again. FIFA will not change unless it’s forced to. And the only thing that will force it to change is a colossal mistake during the final. And I, for one, am hoping that happens.

There are several easy ways to fix this without messing up the games. All referees wear microphones that, so far as I can tell, don’t actually do anything. Add a fifth referee who’s watching a video feed and is empowered to tell the referee on the field of any fouls or missed calls. Simple. For the scrums in the box on free kicks and corner kicks, add one referee behind each goal whose sole job is to watch those scrums for infractions. As a bonus, he/she can also watch the goal line. Blatter’s beloved human element is still in place, and it might even clean up the game.

Nothing is perfect and things will be missed, even with HD cameras all over the pitch. The goal is to cut down the number of ridiculous errors, the kind of game-changing errors that cost England, Mexico, and the United States (just to name three). Referees have a difficult job because the game moves at such a fast pace; therefore, FIFA should give them all the help they need, including video technology. To do anything less is idiotic. But I’d expect nothing else from Sepp Blatter.

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A long, bad sports weekend

At least for me. In the span of two days, the three teams I like best (Spain is a close fourth because I love the way they play, but that’s for another day) were eliminated in the knockout round. On Saturday, the United States was eliminated by a sturdy Ghana squad. On Sunday, England crapped the bed against Germany and Mexico was soundly defeated by a very good (though still unappealing) Argentina side.

1. Ghana 2-1 United States. Once again, the US failed to start when the game did. Five minutes in, Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng scored a goal Tim Howard really should have saved. But he still scored. And that, in a nutshell, is the United States’s problem. The back four is leaky and slow. I love Jay DeMerit and I think he’s an excellent defender, but the fact is that he has no pace whatsoever. The goal was as much his fault as Howard’s. But that’s neither here nor there. The real issue is that the US starts slow. Unbelievably slow. It’s like the team needs to play from behind to show any urgency (the exception was the Algeria game, when the urgency of elimination was there from the beginning – where was that in the bleedin’ knockout round??). I’m at a loss to explain why the US does that. It’s unfathomable, to me, that the team cannot get up for an elimination game in the World Cup. Perhaps that’s what’s missing: some sort of killer instinct. Someone who’s ruthless and demands more and more from his teammates. What US soccer needs is some sort of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, at least in terms in competitiveness.

2. Germany 4-1 England. Great players, terrible team. That’s the refrain played in England (though it must be noted that England has an inflated sense of its place in world soccer, much like Mexico; again, fodder for a later post). England never looked good at all. There was something wrong with the team from the beginning. I like Fabio Capello and believed he was the right choice for England manager, but he made a bad call playing Jamie Carragher. Carragher simply doesn’t have the pace to play against the world’s best strikers. Too late, he inserted Matt Upson, who was a much better fit beside John Terry. Compounding that mistake was his misguided faith in James Milner as a wing player when Joe Cole was a much better option. Finally, the team failed to include Wayne Rooney, a top-5 striker in the world (at least this year). The failure to get Rooney involved is the squad’s biggest failure and the best proof that England’s best players cannot play together. Perhaps it’s time to look to support players – players who fill vital roles and rely on a few big names (Rooney, Gerrard, and Terry among them; I remain convinced that Lampard and Gerrard cannot play together and that Gerrard is the better player).

Sergio Romero gets lucky v. Mexico (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

3. Argentina 3-1 Mexico. The scoreline is deceiving. Argentina dominated Mexico in this game. In fact, the only thing that could have saved Mexico was if Carlos Salcido’s amazing 8th minute strike had gone in. Instead, shaky Argentine keeper Sergio Romero got just enough of it to direct it off the crossbar. Bad luck went further against Mexico when Carlos Tévez’s goal was wrongly allowed to stand. In the end, that didn’t matter. Argentina outclassed Mexico from the 20th minute on and thoroughly deserved their win, even though I cannot root for them because of Diego Maradona. During the match, the commentators suggested that Maradona was responsible for Argentina’s success. I humbly suggest that my cat could manage Argentina to the knockout round. Maradona doesn’t really have to earn his money so long as Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano are on the pitch. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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The Jabulani ball is funky

The root of all evil?

It acts weird, at least according to Caltech aeronautical engineers. I wonder if Adidas knew they could test this stuff before putting the ball on the market…

UPDATE: FIFA finally admitted that something is wrong in the state of Denmark. Not surprisingly, Gigi Buffon wanted to go back to the old black-and-white ball he used as a kid.  In the same article, Jéròme Valcke tries to paint FIFA as responsive: “We’re not deaf. FIFA is not unreceptive about what has been said about the ball.” The prompted a solitary giggle from me.

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Patience is a virtue, except when it’s not

By and large, playing any game patiently is a good thing. You have a chance to take in everything that’s affecting the pitch – or the board or the court or the ice – and plan your response accordingly. Tactically, it makes sense because the times to throw caution to the wind are few and far between. Which brings me to Spain.

The Spanish style, under Vicente del Bosque, is to patiently build up the play. It’s to pass around, to control the pace (and the tempo – yes, they’re two different things), and to strike when the opportunity presents itself. Or when the opposition has fallen asleep. I kid. Spain actually plays a version of Barcelona’s system, in which a premium is placed on possession. To control the game, and to impose your will, surely leads to victory. Except when it doesn’t.

In Spain’s first World Cup game, a 1-0 loss to Switzerland (!), the patience worked against it. In the end, Switzerland’s Gelson Fernandes scored the only goal that mattered and when Spain actually played with some urgency, it was too late. Spain controlled the match in every way, except the scoreboard. And when that’s happening, you have to loosen the reigns. Spain’s squad is full of thoroughbreds, players who can start on any team in the world. To keep them shackled was criminal. Of course, the loss was a bad one, in the sense that it shouldn’t have happened. The second game was more typical of Spain’s game: it totally dominated Honduras and, but for some bad luck, would have won a lot more than 2-0. Indeed, it should have been 4-0 or 5-0, but it wasn’t. In the second game, despite the dominance, Spain looked lethargic, as if it was unsure of itself. As if they were intimidated by the world’s biggest stage. Who knows? Maybe the players were, to a degree.

David Villa scores for Spain against Chile (Márcio José Sánchez/AP)

Which brings me to today’s game, a 2-1 victory over Chile which put both teams through to the knockout stage and gave Spain the top spot (thus avoiding Brazil). For the first 20 minutes, Spain looked slow and, once again, lethargic. After David Villa’s amazing goal at 24 minutes, the team relaxed and played with the breezy confidence we’ve come to know and love. But for the first 15 minutes of the second half, Spain tightened up again, as if they were surprised that Chile would attack them (as if that’s surprising: Chile’s been attacking the entire tournament). It was only after the 60th minute that the team relaxed and played well again (at least until the 85th minute, when both teams stopped playing for the win, their places in the next round assured).

So patience was one of the keys to Spain’s epic undefeated streak (broken in last year’s Confederations Cup by the United States). And patience also led to that defeat, the defeat by Switzerland, and the panic (there is no better word) for about 35 minutes today. When is patience good? It’s good when the team is composed and relaxed. Passing the ball around and retaining possession is excellent, but if the players are tense the chances of colossal mistake rise exponentially (no, I can’t prove that scientifically, but anecdotal evidence supports me). And that was the problem. Spain was tense, perhaps because of the burden of past failures. And it’s only going to get more tense now that the knockout phase is officially starting.

Spain play Portugal and the former have to be careful not to get too frustrated with the latter’s stultifying defensive tactics. Spain needs to be in control and relaxed. Good things will come from both and will help Spain avoid another shock result.

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Slovak’d!

Slovakia defeated Italy on 24 June 2010 (David Cannon/Getty Images)

For the first time in World Cup history, the two finalists from the previous World Cup did not make it to the knockout stage. France’s exit was hardly unexpected, given that they weren’t very good and, perhaps more importantly, karma’s a bitch. That would be divine retribution for Thierry Henry’s blatant handball. But Italy is another story. Slovakia’s 3-2 victory was a bit of shock.

The Italians have developed a bit of a reputation as slow starters who eventually get all their pistons firing. Strange thing about 2010, though, is that never happened. Italy constantly looked lethargic, with bad passing and inadequate players. In fact, Italy looked old. And that, boys and girls, was the main problem. The Italian team was old; it relied too much on old warhorses like Fabio Cannavaro, who should have been thanked for his service and reduced to a substitute. The strikers couldn’t find the net; in effect, they couldn’t do their job. Marcello Lippi, who left the field without shaking hands with the Slovakian manager (which I really have no problem with, but it is kinda classless, though he redeemed himself by falling on his sword at the post-match press conference), failed to inject the squad with youth. And yes, I mean Giuseppe Rossi, among others. How much did he want Rossi to come on the field in the second half for a much-needed spark? I know that’s what I wanted.

The problem is a little more systemic, though. Italy was an old team because they don’t have young players to replace the veterans. The lack of development at Italian clubs is catching up with the national team (for example, everyone makes a big deal out of the fact that Italy’s best team – Inter Milan – did not have one Italian on the World Cup squad), and it’s going to cost them. The Italian FA need to ensure that domestic clubs develop talent. And the national team needs to start accepting players that don’t play in Italy (England and Spain have better leagues).

This is hardly a crippling problem, to be sure. It is fixed relatively easily. The Italian FA needs to hire a manager unafraid to make changes.

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Landycakes no more

Landon Donovan scores v. Algeria, 23 June 2010 (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In the future, we’ll look back at 23 June 2010 and realize that it was that day that Landon Donovan grew up.

To be sure, he’s matured immeasurably over the last two years or so. Most of that has to do with him finally accepting his position in US soccer’s player hierarchy and history. Donovan is the most talented player in US history. Now that he’s seeing that as more blessing than curse, he’s thriving.

Example A: his tenure with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He’s a leader and refuses to back down from anyone, not even Goldenballs himself. Example B: his work with the national team. Although Carlos Bocanegra is the captain and Tim Howard is the vocal leader, Donovan commands everyone’s respect. He’s the key for the strikers and the midfielders and they play off his vibe. He’s quietly confident now. Clint Dempsey’s rise has helped, because Dempsey is vocal where Donovan is quiet. At the same time, Dempsey and Donovan can switch sides without a large drop-off in skill level, a huge tactical advantage and a huge psychological burden lifted from Donovan.

The best, and final example, is Donovan’s 3-month long loan spell at Everton. In contrast to his stay in Germany, Donovan thrived in England. And the reason he thrived has everything to do with his maturity. Donovan accepted his position and the pressure and used it as a motivating factor, rather than getting psychologically crushed by it. Donovan was a revelation in England, and that led directly to today’s goal.

Donovan’s always had the ability to score. He’s not even 30 and he’s US soccer’s all-time leading scorer. He’s always been clinical, to a degree. But he’s never been happy with the result. It was like every time he scored, it was just another burden, something else to make him stick out from the crowd. After he scored the most important goal in US soccer history, there was genuine joy on his face. Even after the mob broke up, the smile remained. Donovan’s leadership and maturity and, most importantly, hard work over the last 2 years led to that goal.

So, no longer will I call him Landycakes. He’s Landon Donovan now. And US soccer is far better for it.

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The most important win in US soccer history

US players celebrate Landon Donovan's goal v. Algeria (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Sure, that could be hyperbole. And I could be wrong in less than a week. But for now, the United States’ 1-0 victory over Algeria on 23 June 2010 at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, is the biggest win in US soccer history.

The victory, sealed by Landon Donovan’s injury time goal at 91 minutes, was a long time coming. In the last game, a comically bad decision by Koman Coulibaly denied Maurice Edu a winner and the US a victory. But the result – a comeback draw – was still acceptable. Today, in the 20th minute, Clint Dempsey was called offside. Wrongly. The soccer gods were against the US for some reason. To add more insult to injury, the soccer gods rewarded a thoroughly unimpressive England team with a goal from Jermain Defoe. But the US didn’t give up. They kept doing the things that the soccer gods appreciate: work hard, pass crisply, keep shooting. Finally, the soccer gods rewarded them for their effort: Clint Dempsey’s low blast ricocheted off Algerian keeper Rais M’Bolhi and into Landon Donovan’s path. Donovan slotted it home, lighting Loftus Versfeld Stadium in red, white, and blue.

With that goal, the US won its World Cup group for the first time since 1930. It advanced to the knockout stage, and erased the awful memories of 2006. I submit that this win is more important the famous win over England in 1950. To be sure, the 1950 win was less expected (although the US was still seen as a pretty big underdog; witness the newspaper coverage). While the draw was a surprise to some, it was not a surprise to the players.

This US team expects to win games and expects to hang with the soccer elite. This game, the last in the group stage, shows that the US means business. They’ll have a chance to prove that again when they play Ghana on Saturday.

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