July 01, 2006

Portugal 0, England 0 [P.K.-Port 3-1]: Damn penalty kicks. In a game which England dominated, in spite of playing a man down for the final 58 minutes, the lack of an assured goalscorer proved decisive. Portugal, the only nation still left that has never won a World Cup, advances to their first semifinal in forty years, and assures that this year's winner will be a country that was at one time ruled by a fascist government. A devastating loss for the English; this was by far their best game of the tournament, and the red card given to Wayne Rooney is further evidence that the world's dumbest soccer players play for the Three Lions.

June 30, 2006

Great Moments in Crackerdom: Overheard by a spectator at the annual Dems v. GOP Congressional Baseball Game:
Two rows behind me is Congressman Bilbray. A lot of people walked by and said congratulations and all that, and these two guys stop and say it and that they were out in San Diego for election day helping him. And Bilbray says ‘you guys were great out there, that’s an election day you can tell your grandkids about, let’s just hope you don’t have to tell them in Spanish!
[Link via Wonkette]
Italy 3, Ukraine 0: To no one's surprise, the Azzurri are through. Gianluca Zambrotta's goal in the sixth minute was all Italy needed, and Luca Toni ensured the Ukrainians would sleep with the fishes by scoring two easy tap-ins in the second half. Ukraine came close several times, hitting the cross bar twice, but failed to score on Gianlugi Buffon, who has yet to allow a shot past him in the World Cup.* The only blemish on Italy, as they head to the semifinals on July 4 against Germany, is the 1-1 draw with the U.S.

*The only goal he conceded was an own goal.
Germany 1, Argentina 1 [P.K.- Ger., 4-2]: Klose Kall. Trailing by a goal with less than ten minutes to play, Germany equalized via the head of Miroslav Klose, then prevailed on penalty kicks over an exhausted Argentinean team playing its second extra time in less than a week. It was everything predicted, at least for the first ninety minutes, as both sides through everything they had at the other, Argentina grabbing a lead just after the start of the second half, only to lose their momentum when goalkeeper Roberto Abbodanzieri had to be replaced following a collision with Michael Ballack. The tense action during regulation gave way to a tentative overtime, with both sides, previously unbeaten in penalty kicks, seemingly content to run out the clock. Then Jens Lehmann, whose controversial selection as starter over legend Oliver Kahn threatened to drive Jurgen Klinsmann of the country out on a rail, came up big, stopping goalscorer Roberto Ayala to clinch a place in the semis.

June 29, 2006

Todd Zywicki, who normally writes apologias for last year's awful Bankruptcy Reform Act, has a rather thoughtful piece on the World Cup, and its sudden emergence as a major event on the American sports calendar:
The way to think of sports, I think, is like fashion (I'm sure this isn't original to me). The rising and falling interest in sports over time is just a matter of changing tastes, rather than one sport or another being better or worse than another. Having just read Jeremy Schapp's "Cinderella Man" I was stunned to learn how popular boxing was in the 1930s compared to all other sports. Babe Ruth's scandalously large contracts during that era were a small fraction of the amount that Jack Dempsey would pull down for one fight. Today, boxing is a borderline fringe sport. Ditto for horse racing. The Olympics may or may not be in a permanent death spiral--I suspect that it is too early to tell. Hockey has gone from one of the country's "four major sports" to essentially the same level as Major League Soccer, and I think the NHL strike just expedited a trend that was already underway. It is now standard to refer to the "three major sports" in the U.S. Casual sports fans used to be expected and able to watch and politely talk about the Stanley Cup playoffs; today that is no longer the case.

So, the World Cup is becoming more popular because, well, it is becoming more popular. For whatever reason, one can speculate. But I'm guessing it has little to do with the intrinsic merits of soccer and more to do with the fact that it is becoming part of the lexicon of the casual sports fan, perhaps because it is fun to be wrapped up in an event of such global proportions. But, for instance, I don't expect much crossover from the World Cup's popularity to MLS. In the sense I am thinking of it, MLS is essentially a different sport from the World Cup because it is wrapped in a different social network, not because it is somehow a different sport.
Zywicki's observation about the malleable trendiness of certain sports is well worth noting. When I first started following sports some thirty years ago, the sports landscape we know of today was much different than it was then. Baseball was inarguably the national pastime, with pro football battling with college football for second. The NBA was a distant third, with half-filled arenas and title games broadcast at 11:30 p.m., and college basketball a sideshow, with attention paid only when the "UCLA Invitational" reached the finals. Pro hockey had no Sun Belt presence worth noting, and soccer barely existed. And every four years, everyone watched the Olympics, and unless you were willing to plunk down cash to see closed circuit broadcasts of the event, no one saw the World Cup.

With individual sports, the landscape was even more different. When one spoke of tennis, it was almost exclusively of the men's game, and it was considered a major sport, light years ahead of golf in terms of popularity. Women's tennis was considered a novelty; some interest would be paid if Billie Jean King was in the finals, but beyond that, nothing. Not only would Muhammed Ali routinely defend his title on live prime time network TV, so too would fighters in lower weight classifications, like Carlos Monzon and Roberto Duran. Track and field was also a major sport in the U.S.; the annual dual meet between the US and Soviet Union was one of the big events of the late summer. The Indy 500 was much, much bigger than the Daytona 500; NASCAR was considered minor league, and A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti routinely dominated that circuit when they deigned to race in it. The Triple Crown in horse racing was huge; you weren't a sports fan if you could not name the previous year's winners. And obviously, thirty years ago there was no cable sports TV to speak of; a fan pretty much got to see his local teams, the Game of the Week, and little else.

None of the changes over the last thirty years occurred overnight. In the U.S., cable television has pretty much obliterated the sports world we knew of back in 1975. It not only fueled the explosive growth of sports like football (both pro and college), where the public appetite can now be sated by wall-to-wall broadcasts of games over fall weekends, but it has also enabled other sports, like soccer and hockey, to survive even with a fraction of the public interest. It has created public interest in activities (X-Games, poker, hot dog eating, spelling bees) that weren't even imaginable as spectator sports thirty years ago, and given female athletes celebrity that exceed that of men in the same sport (as with tennis or U.S. soccer), at the same time that few people know who the heavyweight champion(s) is, or can name another male tennis player besides Roger Federer.

The changes fueled by cable television are what makes a broadcast of the World Cup possible in the U.S. Otherwise, it would be impossible to justify televising all sixty-four games of a tournament for a sport few English-speaking people in the country follow. With so many channels available, each of them appealing to a separate niche, televising Serbia v. Ivory Coast or Angola v. Iran becomes viable; American soccer viewers are now plentiful enough to sustain the needs of advertisers, so that even the lowest-rated games in the World Cup are higher than what would typically be shown by ESPN at that time.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that today's Supreme Court decision invalidating the President's "innovative" interpretation of due process would be seen as surprising, rather than just a routine assertion of what a fair trial is supposed to look like.

June 28, 2006

Halfway through my forty-eight hour decompression, I present you some...fun with numbers !!
The long-awaited decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on the Tom Delay gerrymander is out, and it's a split decision (literally: it was 5-4, with something like six different opinions). A couple of the districts will have to be redrawn on Voting Rights Act grounds, which may help the Democrats pick up a seat, but the principal of mid-term reapportionment was sustained by the Court. This could be super good news for the Democrats over the long run, since legislative districts can now be redrawn everytime the party captures the governorship and state legislature in a state. Rather than waiting until the next census, the party can rely on any big year at the ballot box to make changes (ie., Ohio in 2006, anyone?).

UPDATE: A more pessimistic view of the decision is here. Certainly, in states where Democrats now have control of the state government, like Illinois, creating even more Democratic districts will be tough, because of the Voting Rights Act. While that constrains the party from encouraging immediate reapportionment, the key will be how well Democrats do in statewide races in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, where the Republicans have a decided partisan edge in House membership even though the states are split down the middle between the parties. Should the Democrats capture the governorship and the legislature in just one of those states, since today's ruling gives a stamp of approval for the redrawing of districts as early as next year, it would wipe out much of the current GOP edge in the House.

June 27, 2006

So much for a powerful wave of xenophobia carrying the GOP to victory in November. Utah Republican Congressman Chris Cannon, who was targeted by anti-immigrant groups for his moderate stance on the issue, won an easy primary victory tonight over a challenger who ran a single-issue campaign based on anti-immigration. If there was any deep-seated obsession among the conservative base (Utah, anyone?) on this issue, it would have shown up here.
France 3, Spain 1: Two late goals from '98 vets Vieira and Zidane enabled Les Bleus to maintain its perfect all-time record against Spain, and advanced to a quarterfinal rematch with Brazil. The Spanish, on the other hand, maintained its perfect streak of never having failed to disappoint in the World Cup.

Part of the story of this evening's game will be how France has managed to drift aimlessly through the first round, barely doing enough to qualify with a 1-0-2 record, only to "suddenly" catch fire and surprise the Spanish, who had looked so impressive in the first two weeks. It's always a story when that happens, even though it seems to happen every World Cup.

For instance, in 1970, Italy finished the first round with a 1-0-2 record, managing only one goal, and failing to score against both Uruguay and Israel, but still qualified for the quarterfinal. They went on to lose in the Final to Brazil. In 1978, Holland went 1-1-1 in the first round, including an embarassing loss to Scotland, and qualified for the second round only on goal differential. Again, they caught fire, and took Argentina to overtime in the Finals before losing. In 1982, Italy went 0-0-3 in the opening round, and again got out of the group on goal differential. They ended up winning it all, beating West Germany, a team that lost its opener and also only making it out on goal differential.

And so it goes. The West Germans again had to struggle in 1986, losing to Denmark, tying Uruguay, and rallying to beat Scotland in the first round. Even after they squeaked out of their group, they didn't get hot right away. They beat Morocco, 1-0, on a goal in the final three minutes, then knocked out Mexico on penalty kicks (after a scoreless game) to go to the semis, where France completely dominated them from start to finish. However, the Germans scored a fluke goal early, then snatched the clincher when the French sent everyone forward at the end, thereby earning the right to lose to Argentina in the Finals.

Four years later, it was Argentina's turn to live dangerously. After losing to Cameroon in the Cup opener, they needed a late goal to tie Romania and advance to the second round, where Brazil slapped them all over the field for 81 minutes, only to score on their only opportunity of the day, and win 1-0. As with the West Germans four years earlier, the quarterfinal featured a scoreless tie, this time against Yugoslavia, which was then followed by a 1-1 tie against Italy in the semis. In both instances, the gods smiled on them in the penalty kick phase, and the RG's suddenly found themselves in the Finals. And in 1994, Italy started off 1-1-1 in its first round games, again advancing only on goal differential. They never looked that impressive en route to the Finals, scoring two goals late to beat Nigeria, beating Spain 2-1 in the quarters, then getting some questionable non-calls against Bulgaria in the semis to win, 2-1.

In 1998 and 2002, each of the Finalists breezed through the first round, so it's not like the Finals have to include at least one team that started slowly (although France in '98 and Germany in 02' did not set the world ablazin' in the games leading into the Finals). But how well you play in the opening round is not a reliable barometer on who goes all the way, and fans of France and England should be advised that other squads have played even more poorly than theirs, yet have still been able to play for the gold trophy at the end.
Brazil 3, Ghana 0: Ronaldo completely pulled the pants off Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson in the fifth minute, juking and jiving before drilling a shot into the back of the net for his record-breaking 15th career World Cup goal, as Brazil beat a game African squad to advance to next Saturday's quarterfinal. Both this article and the ESPN broadcast noted how the Black Stars played the more attractive soccer, and "dominated" the action, which, quite frankly, is bullshit. Brazil scored right off the bat, played prevent defense and allowed Ghana only a couple of good scoring chances, and hit back when they needed to. Ghana kicked the ball around more, and to use the euphemism favored by soccer geeks, played "creatively" (ie., they looked good when ineffectually firing the ball at the goal), but the game was never in doubt. The score could have easily been 7-0; only the brilliant play of Kingson kept the game respectable. Ronaldinho still hasn't scored, btw.

June 26, 2006

A great inventor dies.
A level-headed, non-elitist critique of the O'Brien-Balboa announcing team, as well as why many of us who understand little espanol still prefer watching the Univision broadcasts, in the NYT World Cup blog. And to follow up on last week's post on the killer ratings the Cup is getting, here's a story from the heart of Red American, Atlanta, where the U.S.-Italy game last Saturday outdrew all three games of the Braves-Red Sox series, the U.S. Open, and that week's NASCAR event.
I suppose the two questions people have of over the new Mrs. Urban's nuptials last night are 1) how come it was in a Roman Catholic church, if her previous marriage wasn't annulled; and 2) why was she wearing white? Well, for an answer to the first question, at least, go here...Andrew Sullivan has more.
Ukraine 0, Switzerland 0 [P.K.-Ukr., 3-0]: The Swiss accomplished two dubious firsts, one ignomonious, one bittersweet, in the process of being eliminated by Ukraine. After both teams failed to score in ninety tedious minutes of regulation and thirty undramatic minutes of overtime, Switzerland failed to make a single penalty kick, the first time that had ever happened in a World Cup. Moreover, after shutting out their opponents for the fourth straight game, they became the first team to ever go an entire World Cup without surrendering a single goal. The Ukraine now take on Italy this Friday in the quarterfinals.
Italy 1, Australia 0: An absolute heartbreaker for the Socceroos. Francesco Totti converted a penalty kick on the final play of the game to lead the Azzurri to a spot in the quarterfinals. Australia had a man advantage almost the entire second half, and seemed prepared to take the edge into the thirty-minute overtime, when disaster struck.

June 25, 2006

Portugal 1, Holland 0: In the ugliest game of the tournament to date, Portugal used a goal halfway through the first half by Maniche to edge the Oranje (who, incidentally, were wearing their away gear, which inexplicably has no orange in it. What gives?), as the first of the World Cup co-favorites gets bounced. Nine of the fourteen Portuguese players who saw action got carded, opposed to seven of the Dutch players, and some of the record-tying sixteen yellow cards were even deserved. Both sides finished with nine men. Kudos to referee Valentin Ivanov, for reminding soccer fans that at the end of the day, it's really the refs that are the story, not the players. Portugal next plays England, but will be without playmaker Deco, who received a red card for, believe it or not, delaying the game, and, in all likelihood, Man U. star Cristiano Ronaldo, who was badly injured in the first half.
Steve Gilliard, whose "e-mails" figure prominently in the New Republic's fatwa against Kos, responds here. It's an eloquent and measured post, indicating that on a very key point in Jason Zengerle's argument, something may have been falsely atributed to Gilliard, and at the very least, TNR owes the man an apology (least of all for quoting private e-mail), and the rest of us an explanation.

[UPDATE: Zengerle has now, kinda sorta, apologized, admitting that the Gilliard e-mail was bogus, but then claiming that "this error is of a relatively minor nature," which unfortunately will allow "others to try to use this minor error to distract people from much larger issues" (including, swear to Kobe, whether Kos' buddy Jerome Armstrong was once a believer in astrology), and refusing to out the source who gave him this Fake-But-Accurate memo.]
The New York Times has a good summary of the collapse of immigration reform in Congress. Although most of the article focuses on the problems Bush has had with House Republicans, it really underlines how the Democrats have hit the Trifecta. Not passing any bill shows that Bush and the Republicans can't get anything done, depressing turnout among the base in much the same way that the failure to pass a health care bill doomed the Democrats in 1994. Second, taking an extreme anti-immigrant position turns off swing voters who are less passionate about the issue, and are amenable to a compromise that doesn't vilify immigrants. And lastly, it dooms efforts by the GOP among Latino voters, who stand to be much more important, over the long haul, than any latent conservative appeals to xenophobia, as the California Republican Party can attest. The Republicans may be on the verge of creating a Democratic base in the Southwest, and more significantly, making Texas a two-party state again, that may rival the solidly Blue Northeast come election time.
England 1, Ecuador 0: David Beckham provided all the offense England needed with a patented swerving free kick in the 60th minute, then threw up moments later due to dehydration caused by the extreme humidity in Stuttgart. England almost never loses games like this in the World Cup, and they did just enough to win today. None of the athleticism Ecuador showed in their first two games was evident here. In spite of the fact that Beckham has never really come up big in the World Cup, he is now the only English player in history to score in three different Cups. All in all, a morning yawner.
Argentina 2, Mexico 1 [O.T.]: Unbelievable game. Maxi Rodriguez hit the goal of the tournament nine minutes into overtime, as the the popular favorites took everything the Tricolores had for 120 minutes. Both teams swapped goals in the first nine minutes, then exchanged body shots the rest of the way before Rodriguez hit his gamewinner. Those who have attached Team U.S.A. as "overrated" should note that Mexico is a team we routinely beat. Next up is an epic quarterfinal between Argentina and Germany, a rematch of the 1986 and 1990 World Cups.

The local paper had an op-ed piece yesterday by a local talkradio blowhard, who discovered the startling numbers Univision has been getting for its World Cup coverage and posited the notion that the Reconquista has occurred. Imagine, more people are watching Spanish language coverage on Univision than on ABC (a phenomenum that has been true in L.A. for the 25 years that the games have been broadcast). More people are tuning into Mexico's games than the U.S.' (bfd, most soccer fans in SoCal aren't American citizens, they're immigrants; why should they root for the U.S.?). Being a sports fan means developing a loyalty to a team, a loyalty that doesn't get abandoned simply because you move away. If a Mexican immigrant were to immediately abandon El Tris and start rooting for the U.S., that would be stark evidence he's untrustworthy and not fit to be a U.S. citizen, and he should be deported immediately. Who wants someone in our country whose loyalty is so pliable?