Merge Gold Cup and Copa America for genuine tournament of the Americas

Merge continental tournaments into true Copa Americas

This is the second post in a series of five recommendations for USSF President Sunil Gulati

International tournaments are soccer’s Holy Grail. Club soccer has exploded around the world and changed the business of game, but it’s still the World Cup that grabs the attention of fans like no other competition. Europe’s continental championship is just a tick below the World Cup and South America’s is well above other such competitions. These tournaments are not just great for fans, however, as consistent high-level competition is a huge advantage for national teams. Our continental championship, the Gold Cup, is a very poor tournament that does little for fans or players. A merger of the North and South American competitions in a true Copa Americas makes sense on competitive, fan interest, and importantly, financial grounds.

While the US national team has several years until its next truly consequential game, the first match in qualifying for Euro 2012 is just a few months away. The qualification round is the best of both worlds for the development of top European teams, as there is a mix of very weak teams and strong sides with a reasonable margin of error to get through to the tournament finals. The weaker and middling sides allow teams like Germany to bring younger players into the squad in competitive matches against weaker opponents while there are enough tough games to keep the team sharp. This works for fans too, as it’s just a short World Cup hangover until meaningful games begin again. And needless to say, the national soccer federations reap huge windfalls from playing numerous qualifying games on top of another major tournament. Continue reading

The Hand of Gaul: Henry cheats Ireland out of World Cup

There are some hand ball decisions that are hard on the player because the ball simply deflects off their hand or arm and they couldn’t really do much about it. Then there are the times when a player moves his hand and opens his palm to play the ball. Thierry Henry did the latter for France in extra time to put Ireland out of the World Cup.

Egypt v Algeria: An eye for a… World Cup berth

You know there is a problem when a match is played in Sudan to avoid violence. But that’s what will happen Wednesday when Egypt face Algeria in a playoff for the last African berth to the first World Cup played on African soil. These two neighboring North African nations have a deep, and at times violent, rivalry on and off the soccer field. The last time these two countries squared off with a World Cup Finals place on the line, it ended with an unlikely Egyptian victory and melee that cost the team doctor an eye. Everyone is hoping that the riots that preceded Saturday’s group stage finale in Cairo can be avoided and the focus can return to the pitch, because it should be a cracking game.

While most Americans associate soccer violence with mindless hooligans, it’s more often based in international and domestic politics than simple anti-social behavior. Soccer is a genuinely global game and unique among sports in that it often mixes athletic competition and international relations. The El Salvador-Honduras Soccer War (a real war between the two nations fought after violence during a World Cup qualifying match in 1969) gets the most attention, but Egypt and Algeria have had their share of intense soccer-political rivalry. Continue reading

European WC Playoff Preview Round 2


After rigging the draw by suddenly ranking teams following the completion of the group stages – thereby ensuring that none of the top sides would play each other – the first round went according to plan for Fifa and UEFA but barely. Here is a review of the four first round games and some predictions for tomorrow’s games.

Ireland vs. France (first match 0-1 to France in Dublin). In the first match the luck was definitely not with the Irish on Saturday. Ireland in blood and guts performance gave France fits but ultimately weren’t able to convert there few opportunities. The Irish striker Kevin Doyle put in an excellent shift and the Irish central midfield was everywhere and effectively neutered the French attack. That said, and as was recognized by the Irish announcers France’s athleticism and skill began to win out and while Nikolas Anelka’s goal was a fluke deflection, France, and especially Anelka were looking more and more dangerous. Anelka was the best player on the pitch, playing as a right wing/midfielder. He tracked back defensively with a purpose and was constantly a threat on the ball.

Ireland is definitely up against it and it seems doubtful that they can go to Paris and get a win. But a lackadaisical performance from France would not be a huge surprise and if Ireland play with the same intensity that they did in Dublin, an Irish upset is not out of the question. That being said Ireland really misses the creative midfield presence that Stephen Ireland provided. With Stephen Ireland this would be a much more dangerous team. In the end Ireland give it their all and get a goal, but France scores as well and a draw puts France in the world cup.

Portugal vs. Bosnia (1-0 to Portugal in Lisbon).
Really, Bosnia is not just up against Portugal they are also up against the crossbar and the left post. In the dying minutes Bosnia hit the crossbar on a header and saw the ball fall kindly to them only to see a shot that looked in hit the inside of the left post. Portugal was well Portugal. They created a lot of chances, played beautiful football but failed to convert on many of their chances. Bosnia led by American striker Ibisevic of the Bundesliga created a lot of chances and posed a real threat to Portugal. Going into this match up I thought Bosnia was a potential sleeper. I still think that’s the case. I think Bosnia goes through in an inspired performance.

Russia vs. Slovenia (2-1 to Russia in Moscow). The Soviets, err Russians (did you see those new uniforms), were absolutely cruising – it looked like they were going to get 3 or 4. But a late push from Slovenia got the crucial away goal and almost leveled the game. One has to think that Russia will advance on the backs of Arshavin, Zhirkov, Pavlyuchenko and Bilyaletdinov, but Slovenia has to have confidence after the way they finished the game. This could be a very interesting game, but I think the Russians pull through.

Greece vs. Ukraine (0-0 in Athens). After watching this game, is it possible that we can make it so neither of these teams make the World Cup? If you had no rooting interest, this game was an absolute snoozer. I mean I am not the only one to think this, the Olympic stadium in Athens was 2/3rds empty. How a country that enthusiastically supports their club teams and won the European championships in 2004 has an empty stadium for a World Cup qualifier is beyond me. Prediction: after another snoozer 0-0 draw, game goals to penalties in which a Shevchenko miss puts Greece through.

Saudi scores 2 seconds into game; fastest goal ever

Saudi striker Nawaf al Abed scored the fastest goal ever recorded, just two seconds into a match between al Hilal and al Shoalah. 2 seconds!!!!

Honduran political crisis heats up in advance of US WC qualifier

Honduran demonstrators; photo by egmb

Honduran demonstrators; photo by egmb

National and international politics impact soccer far more than most Americans appreciate. Whether it’s the Soccer War (seriously, a real war) fought between Honduras and El Salvador after rioting during a 1969 World Cup qualifying match, or “more than a club” FC Barcelona serving as a proxy for Catalan nationalism and resistance against Franco-supported Real Madrid, soccer and politics are often linked. American awareness may be about to change, however, as the U.S. team is gearing up to go to Honduras for a critical World Cup qualifier in the midst of a massive political crisis that pits the anti-American elected president against the de facto government that ousted him in a summer coup.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya came to office as a conservative rancher and businessman turned politician. But over the course of his term in office Zelaya veered sharply left, embraced Hugo Chavez-style populism, and pushed constitutional changes to allow him to serve an additional term as president. Zelaya is a pretty unsavory character who has defied repeated legal orders to stop his proposed referendum on constitutional changes—a move straight out of the Chavez playbook right down to having the ballots printed in Venezuela—but nothing justifies his seizure by the military and exile. That’s a coup. Continue reading

Quote of the Day: Maradona

Diego-Maradona-001

“We’ve qualified via play-offs in the past and nobody died” – Diego Maradona. We shall see

Win or Lose Today at Azteca, Soccer in America has Already Won

Odd to say in win-obsessed America, but no matter the result in Mexico City later today, soccer in the United States has already won. While the first ever win by the U.S. Men’s National Team at the Azteca Stadium would be the icing on the cake, a cathartic summer of success has brought soccer into the mainstream of American sports, and importantly, sports media. I never thought I would hear the hourly national news bulletin on NPR reporting on a U.S. soccer match hours before kickoff. Soccer has truly arrived.

Being a soccer fan in America has been hard. Even though it is now by far the sport with the highest participation at youth level across the United States, soccer has never even come close to rivaling football, baseball, and basketball. Major network and cable coverage of the game has been virtually non-existent and print and broadcast media outlets have largely ignored soccer outside of major tournaments and events. And the disdain isn’t reserved to American media – most international media enjoy nothing more than ridiculing American soccer. Fans in the U.S. have been literally under siege.

But the difficulty of following soccer in America has fostered among its devotees a growing underground network of intensely loyal and knowledgeable fans. The Internet and soccer focused cable networks have brought unparalleled access to the world game for all those who choose to find it. And those kids that started playing soccer in large numbers in the 70’s are grown up now (that means me unfortunately) and have money to spend – and they are showing it. The most significant developments underlying the strength of soccer in America are happening off the field and this is why the sport can survive a defeat in Mexico.

Global soccer powers have been touring the United States in their summer pre-season for years, but this summer was different. From the first big game in Seattle when Chelsea squared off against the Sounders, American football stadiums have been packed with tens of thousands of fans decked out in hometown kit as well as Milan, Madrid, and Chelsea gear. The energy and atmosphere during the games belied any sense that they were mere exhibitions and demonstrated that there is now massive potential for U.S.-based support for soccer played at the highest level. Everyone noticed, most importantly ESPN and advertisers.

ESPN has a de facto sports media monopoly in the U.S. Of course the major networks broadcast football, baseball, and basketball games, but every sports fan goes to ESPN first and SportsCenter is to sports in America what Walter Cronkite was to the evening news – it defines and drives coverage, reporting, and viewership. And ESPN has clearly made a conscious effort to promote soccer. At least one great goal or save from around the world always makes the daily Top Ten Plays, always, and the sport now has a regular place on the omnipresent update trackers that run across the bottom of the screen on each of the network’s channels.

These off the field developments are the necessary predicate for on the field success. The emergence of soccer as a legitimate national sport in America will mean all those kids who play the game will see a future in the sport. All the best athletes play multiple sports as kids – I played soccer, baseball, and basketball but there was never any question that soccer would be the first sport I dropped as got older and better. I dreamed of a big league baseball career, but I can never remember even considering professional soccer even though I played on an elite traveling team. That’s because as far as I knew, there was no professional soccer. Now a kid from suburban Maryland plays for AC Milan.

Today is a day of many great first for soccer in America. I had never heard it promoted on NPR. The tiny channel that is broadcasting the game in English has forced its way on to every major cable television provider in the United States just for the day because demand was so high. ESPN is running a pre-game show even though it is not broadcasting the match on any of its networks, a first for soccer. Now go on boys, go out and get that first win in Azteca.

Looks like its gonna be Capello

Is the long national nightmare over? The news out of England points to Italian Fabio Capello as the man set to replace Steve McClaren as England manager. If the FA can tie up the details of Capello’s contract—a big if with this crew—the former Milan, Juventus, Roma, and Real Madrid coach will take over a team that twice threw away qualification for next summer’s European Championships with defeats when a solitary draw would have seen them through.

 

McClaren’s disastrous decisions in both the Croatia fixtures, experimenting with an untried 3-5-2 formation in Zagreb and an untested Scott Carson in the return, were a key factor in England’s ultimate failure. But Michael Owen is right, not a single Croat in their starting XI would have made it into even the injury- and suspension-depleted line-up that ran out for the Three Lions at Wembley. For all the obsessing over the manager, soccer is a players’ game. Preparing and selecting the team are important, but once the coach turns in the team sheet, the players have 90 minutes to settle things on the pitch.

 

Capello will start with a leg up on the first foreign manager to take the reigns of the English national team. The Swede Sven Goran Eriksson was expected to be the final piece to the puzzle that finally took the supposed golden generation of English players to the winners’ circle at a major tournament. Never able to live up to those lofty expectation, yet Eriksson’s three quarterfinal losses—two on penalties and once to the eventual champion—now look like stunning achievements compared to McClaren’s bungling qualification campaign. Consequently, expectations will be reasonable.

 

Challenges do remain, however. Can Michael Owen still perform at an elite level or is he simple too fragile to be relied upon to score goals? Will Wayne Rooney recover the form that dazzled at Euro 2004? Can Rooney, Lampard, and Gerrard all play together in the center of the park? Who will play on the wings and are they fast enough to stretch elite International defenses? Are any of the midfielders capable of maintaining possession and controlling the pace of the game? And of course, who is going to play in goal?

 

Fortunately for Capello, he wont have to play a competitive fixture until next September, giving him plenty of time to work through these questions. With his credentials, he will probably be able to come up with at least enough of the answers to make England competitive. The rest will be up to the players.