June 19, 2010

Denmark 2, Cameroon 1: An African team finally played a wide-open and exciting brand of soccer, and for its reward gets tossed from the World Cup. Unlike their opening performances, both teams played positive and attacking soccer, with the Danes becoming the first side to gain a come-from-behind win. Samuel Eto'o scored early, and the Indomitable Lions had more chances, but their inability to contain Dennis Rommedahl cost them dearly, and Rommedahl drove the final nail into their collective crotch with a goal less than a half-hour from the finish. By winning, the Danes also enable Holland to become the first team to clinch a spot in the second round.
Australia 1, Ghana 1: Almost as if FIFA was disappointed that a photograph materialized showing that the ref made the technically correct in the waning minutes of the USA-Slovenia game, so it decided that this game would set the bar even lower. Harry Kewell, the one remaining world class player among the Soccerroos, received a red card following a clearly-accidental hand ball in the goal area, with his team up by a goal in the first half. Ghana converted the ensuing penalty kick, played a defensive and thoroughly gutless remainder of the game with the man-advantage, and moved a step closer to becoming the second African team to evade first round death.
Holland 1, Japan 0: Another dull, unimpressive win by the Dutch over a surprising Japanese team. The Netherlands are rapidly approaching the same pattern which afflicted Uruguay forty years ago. There's no doubt they have talented, albeit overrated, stars, but watching them play in the last two World Cups has been very painful for soccer fans who grew up in the '70's, and like Uruguay starting in the mid-60's, they seem content to play for 1-0 and 0-0 results. DON'T DO IT !!! DOWN THAT PATH MADNESS LIES !!!!

June 18, 2010

England 0, Algeria 0: Are you shitting me? Is Tony Hayward also in charge of this?
The Vic & Paul Show: I saw Game 7 last night at a lounge in Woodland Hills called Push, a small, cozy setting usually ideal for those who want to watch a game, but only one game. No sports bar, however, since Push was simultaneously hosting a cabaret show in the adjoining room, forcing the patrons to temper our enthusiasm in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, with the Lakers having cut the big Celtics lead to single digits, I turned to my right and suddenly realized that I was sitting in front of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was apparently there for the show.

Hopefully, anyone who saw last night's nailbiting finish to Game 7 of the Lakers-Celtics series will now realize that a tight, low-scoring, defensive struggle can also be thrilling.
Slovenia 2, U.S.A. 2: Just about every reaction to the result today blames the Malian referree for stealing a win richly deserved for the Americans. Rallying from a two-goal deficit to tie an opponent noted for its defensive savvy, then having what appeared to be the winning goal taken away with less than five minutes to play for what appeared to be a phantom foul seems a bitter pill to swallow. But there are two things to remember about today's officiating.

First, there were no fewer than four Slovenian players who received a yellow card today, as opposed to only one American. That is an unusually high total, and even if we exclude the red card not given for a rather blatant trip in the second half near the penalty area, the Slovenians can not be happy about how that it impacts their future in the tournament. Second, Clint Dempsey could easily have been sent off in the first minute of the game for a rather vicious elbow to the head, a play not dissimilar to the one that got de Rossi a red card and four-game suspension in the middle of the last World Cup (interestingly, against the U.S.A.). So lets not hear any whining from Americans tonight.
Serbia 1, Germany 0: An upset only to those who assumed the former Yugoslavia would play down to its underachieving reputation. Germany uncharacteristically played stupid soccer, receiving its first red card, in any competition, since the 1992 Euros, and missed a regulation penalty kick for the first time since the 1974 World Cup.

In what may be classified in the realm of totally useless info, the Serbian goal was set up by a play set up by their star, Nicola Zigic, who happens to share the same surname as one of the Serbian war-criminal villains from Prime Suspect 6, whose name my blogmuse, Phoebe Nicholls, with brilliant condescension, performs the best deliberate mispronounciation this side of GD Spradling in Godfather II (starts about 1:40 into the video).

June 17, 2010

Mexico 2, France 0: Stick a fork in 'em.
Greece 2, Nigeria 1: It may surprise people, but it was only about ten years ago that a lot of people thought that the Nigerians were on the verge of being the next great soccer power. They got out of their first round group pretty easily in 1994 and 1998, and won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The last time they made the Cup, in 2002, they were placed in the Group of the Church Triumphant, as my last paternal grandmother would have said, and they were eliminated only after two one-goal losses to Sweden and Argentina. Even in defeat, they could ball.

Now they can't even beat Greece, which until today had never scored in a World Cup Game, much less given anyone a challenge. In all fairness, they were ahead after the Greeks conceded what will likely be the longest goal of the tournament, a rather innocuous-looking free kick by Kalu Uche that no one bothered to pick up, and seemed dominant until one of the dumbest ejections this side of Rasheed Wallace. Long live Sokratis Papastathopoulos !!

And believe it or not, Nigeria still has a decent chance of advancing to the next round. After the athletic fart the South Koreans cut today, there is no reason the Super Eagles can't win their final first round game next Tuesday, nor is there any reason to believe the Greeks can beat or tie the Argentinians. Should both of those events happen, Nigeria is through, in spite of its back-to-back losses.
Argentina 4, South Korea 1: First hat trick of the tourney goes to Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina in a one-sided affair (the Koreans only goal came on a breakaway against a napping defense on the final second of the first half). The strategy of tightly marking star Lionel Messi appears to have the same effect that double-teaming Kobe or Rondo has; it just means someone else is going to be open, which in this case is Higuain. It should be noted that Argentina was also the most impressive team after two games in 2006....

June 16, 2010

Uruguay 3, South Africa 0: Finally, someone came up with a way to shut up the vuvuzela. Thanks to the two goals of Diego Forlan, Uruguay breezed over the hosts, and effectively knocked them out of their own tournament. In addition, the victory was only Uruguay's second in the last 18 games for the two-time World Cup champions, going back to 1970, and the three goals scored is only the second time in the past fifty years that they have scored more than two goals in a World Cup game, a stretch in which they have been shut out fourteen times and held to one goal on ten other occasions. Your long national nightmare is over.

Going back to my earlier post, another way in which Jon Chait misses the point is by dismissing the relatively high ratings (when compared with events like the NBA Finals, for example) of the World Cup by asserting that such is irrelevant, because the tourney is a big event and thus not representative of the sport as a whole. The obvious problem with that has to do with the nature of how people follow sports: sports fans do not "follow" sports, they follow teams (or specific athletes) and/or watch events.

For example, football is, by any objective standard, America's National Pastime, but few of us will go out of our way to watch someone else's high school play on TV, or Tivo a broadcast of last year's NAIA playoffs. Its success stems from its short season, meaning that it can package each game as being important, an "event," making it easier for casual fans to partake, as well as its relative simplicity; compared with other team sports, there are fewer actions occurring during the course of the game(there are rarely more than 150 plays per game for both teams, few of which are anything more than "QB passes/hands ball off to teammate"). That, and the constant stoppages in play, allow the casual fan to more easily digest the game. It's that feature which allows someone to walk into a sports bar on any Saturday or Sunday, and comfortably watch four or five games at once, even if he has no rooting interest.

Soccer, like sports which demand a higher degree of audience attention, like basketball and hockey, can't accomplish that. In order to generate fan interest, these sports have to get the audience involved in the spectacle itself, whether it be the NCAA or NBA Finals, Lord Stanley's Cup, or the tournament we're watching now. Uniquely, football can package every game as an "event" to entice fans; other sports have to be more particular.

So the fact that sports other than football are able to entice fans during events like the NBA Finals, the World Cup or the Olympics matters a great deal. Such events are how most people in the real world "follow" sports.
Switzerland 1, Spain 0: A shocker. After dominating the first half, the world's number one team showed why it may be considered the Cleveland Cavaliers of the Beautiful Game by conceding a goal off a counterattack, which the Swiss performed frequently to perfection in the second half. The final minutes were back-and-forth madness, with the Spanish unlucky not to tie at the end.

In spite of the game, this has been a very disappointing World Cup, at least in terms of the activity on the field. Much of what has passed for offense has been truly wretched, with scoring down more than a third (35.9%, to be exact) from 2oo2, which was itself a near-record low. The thirty-two entrants managed to combine for 25 goals, and 11 of the 16 games were shut-outs; in fact, only one losing team (North Korea) has managed a goal. It will be interesting to see what sort of blame the new ball will receive, especially since many of the shots and crosses have been almost laughably out of control.
Chile 1, Honduras 0: Another freezing day saw Chile end a winless WC streak going back 48 years. The Chileans should have had many more goals against a Honduran team that was just happy to be there, no doubt almost as relieved as the North Koreans yesterday to be out of their national hellhole. Hopefully, soccer fans will be spared the efforts of the Honduran military to reverse the results.

During every World Cup there is always an attempt by a certain element within America to disparage the sport that we Yanks call "soccer," brilliantly parodied here by Stephen Colbert. Such eminents as Frank Deford, Jim Rome, and Glenn Beck have taken up the cudgel, usually with the aim of proving American Supremacy from the fact that soccer does not have the mass popularity here that it has in most of the world. Seat-of-the-pants sociology and outright xenophobia intermingle in their arguments, which have become less attached to reality over the years. It's one thing to make the argument in 1990, when there was no domestic league in America and the World Cup was broadcast on TNT, a cable station offered by few outlets at the time, and quite another to make it today.

Over at the New Republic, Jon Chait has attempted to resurrect this tradition. This post includes some of the hoarier chestnuts of this tradition:
Again, I don't really care if soccer becomes a major sport in the U.S. But it is not a major sport in the U.S., nor is it remotely close to becoming one. Bergmann cites two data points to suggest that soccer is a runaway cultural juggernaut. The first is that the World Cup has drawn higher television ratings. This is true. But keep in mind that the World Cup is a quadrennial event that creates massive international hype. Americans love international competition. When the Olympics comes on, we'll watch sports we'd otherwise never dream of following for the chance to cheer our country on against foreigners. U-S-A! U-S-A! Yet the U.S.-England match still drew less than any NBA Finals game. (Check SportsMediaWatch.) It drew less than NFL pregame shows, let alone actual NFL football. This is not a good showing.

The second data point is that millions of American kids play soccer. This is true. It has been true since the 1970s, which is when the claims that soccer is the sport of the future began. Soccer is a great sport for kids -- young kids don't have the hand-eye coordination to play baseball, basketball or football, but they have enough foot-eye coordination to play soccer. When I was a kid, my friends and I all played in soccer leagues for years. Then we got older and starting playing other sports. Even the kids who continued playing soccer mostly became fans of other sports. I realize that soccer can be played by skilled athletes at a high level. In this country, it is primarily a children's game.
The argument that soccer is not a "major sport" in the United States may or may not be true; since the term "major sport" isn't defined by Chait, it's hard to tell what he means. It clearly is not as popular a TV or spectator sport as American football, and it clearly is a much bigger sport, both in terms of spectator attention and fan interest, than tennis. But no screeds were ever generated ridiculing that sport as "minor," nor have there been any attempts to show that American disinterest in the recently-concluded French Open is evidence of American Superiority over the swarthy masses overseas.

But more ridiculous is Chait's request to "check" the SportsMediaWatch blog to compare the ratings for soccer and other "major" sports, focusing specifically on the US-England game and the NBA Finals. Ridiculous, I say, because if you do so, you find that this supposedly trivial, minor pimple on the American sports scene attracted higher, not lower, ratings than the first four games of the NBA Finals. And it's not just any NBA Finals, sir: try Lakers and Celtics, the two most hated-loved teams in the country, which, unlike the World Cup, is playing on prime time TV, when the audience isn't at the office or the beach.

Chait's glaring miscue on the rating's issue probably stemmed from his ignoring of the high ratings that the game Saturday also received on Univision, the Spanish-language station, which may arise from a much more insidious problem: the view that Latinos (as well as other soccer-loving ethnic groups) are somehow less equal than the white fans. Chait himself gives the game away, here:
The cultural backlash against soccer may get nutty at times, but soccer triumphalists bring it with with displays of smugness like this, from The Nation's Dave Zirin:

Among adults, the sport is also growing because people from Latin America, Africa and the West Indies have brought their love of the beautiful game to an increasingly multicultural United States. As sports journalist Simon Kuper wrote very adroitly in his book Soccer Against the Enemy, “When we say Americans don’t play soccer we are thinking of the big white people who live in the suburbs. Tens of millions of Hispanic Americans [and other nationalities] do play, and watch and read about soccer.” In other words, Beck rejects soccer because his idealized “real America”—in all its monochromatic glory—rejects it as well.

This sentiment actually mirrors the right-wing's efforts to divide the country into "real America" and the unrepresentative coastal elites. People who don't like soccer don't really count because they're white, fat and live in the suburbs. It also fails on its own terms, because of course African-Americans are also loyal to football and basketball. But attacking black people for being too fat and unsophisticated to appreciate soccer doesn't have the same P.C. zing, does it?
One would hope that Chait is not as disingenous when writing about important subjects, like politics and foreign policy, since Zirin doesn't come close to saying that. Any fair reading of what Zirin does say is that those who pretend that soccer has little if any popularity in the U.S. are deliberately ignoring the demographic changes in America that have made such assumptions about the sport false. It is hardly an "ugly" sentiment, as the title of Chait's post implies, to observe that America is not as white a country as it used to be, or that assuming that America has "rejected" soccer because white conservatives from the heartland don't like it has a strong element of racial myopia to it.

In fact, the more important demographic shift involved may not be racial or ethnic, but generational; the reason why soccer-bashing may seem more passe nowadays it that its practitioners are slowly dying out. The fanbase for the sport isn't middle-aged pundits like Chait (or Glenn Beck and Jim Rome, for that matter), but people between the ages of 21 and 35, the generation that went to the polls in 2008 and elected Barack Obama President. For them, soccer isn't simply a kids sport; it's a normal part of their lives, like basketball and football (baseball, the former National Pastime, is a distant fourth). Complaints about low-scoring games and being able to only use one's feet are about as relevant to them as arguments about busing and the gold standard. At a time when ratings for most sporting events are going down from year to year, the World Cup's ratings consistently rise, which is, itself, the clinching argument.

June 15, 2010

Brazil 2, North Korea 1: In one of the coldest games in World Cup history, tournament favorites Brazil shook off a scoreless first half to barely defeat the crazier half of the Axis of Evil. With a wind-chill factor below freezing in Johannesburg (it's wintertime down there), defender Maicon hit a shot from an impossible angle to put his team ahead shortly before the hour:

After a second Brazilian goal fifteen minutes later, North Korean left back Ji Yun-Nam shocked the crowd by putting his team on the scoreboard with three minutes left, an undeserved result considering how Brazil controlled the ball for an astonishing three-quarters of the game. A fun game to watch, if not a great game.
Annie Liebowitz, the Thomas Kinkade of photography, hops on the World Cup bandwagon, complete with the same cheesy music and half-clad subjects you get in an SI swimsuit video.
Ivory Coast 0, Portugal 0: Two evenly-matched teams played conservatively and got a result which satisfied both teams, but no one else. Cristiano Ronaldo seems to have an ungodly gift at being able to almost-but-not-quite score whenever he plays for his national side, and his booming shot off the goalpost in the first minutes of the game was the closest either team came to scoring. The Ivory Coast had the better team, FWIW, and the return of Didier Drogba in the second half (he had to wear a cast for his broken arm) may be a sign of good things to come. Finally, an African soccer team that doesn't underachieve in the World Cup !!

Lastly, when the non-English speaking peoples of the world start referring to my native land as the "United States of America", and not "L'Etats Unis" or "Estados Unidos" or whatever, I will start to refer to this team as "Cote d'Ivoire."
New Zealand 1, Slovakia 1: An underconfident Slovakian team couldn't blow out the least-respected team in the World Cup, and paid for it at the end. Robert Vittek scored five minutes into the second half for the country known mainly for its ice hockey team, making its first appearance in the tourney since the Velvet Divorce. The All Whites rarely threatened*, and seemed content to walk off the field with a closer-than-expected defeat, until Winston Reid headed in a cross in the final minute of injury time. Thanks to the two ties in Group F, both teams will have a mathematical chance to advance no matter what happens in their next game, when I will be on a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska and not have to care what happens.

*Or so I assume. Starting at 4:30 a.m. in Los Angeles, this was a classic TiVo 3x Special, and, much like the whole Palestine v. Israel dispute, this was a fight in which I had no dog. Since the more important game was on right after, I followed my policy of zipping through the action, stopping only to see what the goal celebrations honored, and watching only the final minute+ at normal speed. I think I can safely say that I didn't miss a thing.

June 14, 2010

Paraguay 1, Italy 1: An inauspicious start for the defending champs. Falling behind on a shock goal late in the first half, the Azzurri overcame a driving rain and sluggish defending to tie on yet another goalkeeping blunder, this time by Justo Villar, whose feeble efforts to corral a corner kick in the 63rd minute seemed more reminiscent of Lamar Odom trying to snag an offensive rebound in the NBA Finals. Since Italy managed to win World Cups in spite of drawing with such powers as Peru and Cameroon (1982), and the USA (2006), and even reached the Finals in years in which it suffered ties against Mexico (1994) and Israel (1970), all is not lost yet.

Paraguay's goal today came at the head of one Antolin Alcaraz, a journeyman who has spent most of his career trolling from team to team, but who has now signed a contract to play with Wigan Athletic in the Premier League. For the handful of Americans who don't religiously follow English soccer, Wigan is essentially soccer's version of the Oakland A's, a squad representing a relatively small market without sufficient financial resources to compete with the Big Boys (in this case, The Four, ie., United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool), and which has the lowest attendance in the league, but which has nevertheless managed to survive by plying its own form of Moneyball.

The undervalued talent that Wigan typically pursues is exemplified in players like Alcaraz; while Wigan's competitors pursue Brazilian, Dutch and Italian galacticos, Wigan prefers unknown players from Ecuador, Honduras, Ghana, and Egypt. And like their American counterpart, Wigan is quite good at talent-spotting, so much so that a good deal of their profit comes out of the re-sale of their more astute acquisitions, like Man U star Antonio Valencia. Of course, like the A's, Wigan isn't going to win any titles anytime soon, but their implausible stay in the world's top league for the past five seasons is reason to believe that some management principles are universal.
Japan 1, Cameroon 0: First upset of the WC. Late first-half goal by Japanese star Keisuke Honda, who may or may not be related to a friend of mine from Berkeley, and his team withstood heavy Indomitable Lion pressure in the second half to pick up their first "real" victory in their tiny nation's history (home wins don't count).

Efforts to ban the vuvuzela, the horn that has become ubiquitous with the 2010 World Cup, have proven to be of no avail. With a pleasing sound reminiscent of a massive swarm of bees that has just been sprayed with DDT, the vuvuzela is "ingrained in the history of South Africa," I suppose much like half-empty stadia, so FIFA will not deprive visiting fans, players and the billions watching on TV the pleasure of its sweet intoxicating sound. Yippee !!!
DutchLand 2, Great Danes 0: That is, Holland over Denmark. The Danes played defensively, seeking to shut down their much more talented opponents, struck first, less than a minute into the second half; unfortunately, it was into their own net, and things went downhill from there. First own goal of the Tournament.

June 13, 2010

Germany 4, Australia 0: Don't know if this means anything, but of the four goalscorers for Germany, three were born and raised in other countries. European teams are looking more and more like the US national soccer team used to look: foreign mercenaries who wear the national colors largely because it's where they started playing club soccer.

As far as the game is concerned, the Germans scored early, and coasted, while the Socceroos showed little sign it's going anywhere this time around, especially after its best player, Tim Cahill, got red-carded, which will keep him out of the remaining first round games. Germany often plays its best game in the opener, as it did in 1958, 1966, 1990, and 2002, and any signs that it has faded were not apparent today.
Ghana 1, Serbia 0: A continent celebrates. Unlike Nigeria yesterday or Algeria today, the Ghanians actually seem like they knew something about basic tactics, and had something up their sleeve other than relying on a hot goalie. Asamoah Gyan was the star of the Black Stars, nailing a penalty kick with ten minutes to go, and could have had a hat trick were it not for the Goalie's Best Friend on two other occasions. The winning goal was set up another boneheaded hand ball by the Serbians, who are sporting different national colors this time but playing their same traditional disappointing soccer. The first important result of the World Cup.
Slovenia 1, Algeria 0: In a result that is much more beneficial to the U.S. of A. than it is to England, the least-populous nation in the tournament stole a win against a team of French mercenaries disguised as the Arab World's only representatives. With a win or tie on Friday, the Americans will almost certainly clinch advancement should they beat the Algerians the following week, who will probably be mathematically eliminated by then. Highlights today include another classic screw-up by a goalie on the Slovene's only goal, and perhaps the dumbest hand-ball / red card in Cup history. A TiVo classic.

UPDATE: In light of the gathering consensus that Slovenia's win was actually a bad think for US chances, and/or the notion that America faces a must-win situation Friday, let me explain. Today's win puts Slovenia two points ahead of both England and the US, with Algeria holding up the rear. If the US ties Slovenia Friday, it would remain two points ahead of the US, and at the worst, tied with England, which plays Algeria later the same day.

However, in that scenario, the prognosis definitely favors the US. Our final game is against Algeria, which will likely have been eliminated by that point. A win over Algeria will give the US five points overall, thus requiring either Slovenia (or England) to win their last game against each other to stay ahead. Were that to happen, the US would finish ahead of the loser of that game, and would advance.

But even if England and Slovenia were to draw, creating a three-way tie for first, the US would still advance on the tie-breaker were they to defeat Algeria by more than one goal (on goal differential) or if they were to outscore Slovenia in winning by a goal (on goals scored). So the combination of a draw with Slovenia and a win over Algeria will, more likely that not, get the US into the next round. Since Algeria is likely going to be playing only for pride at that point, with the coach clearing his bench to give his back-ups some World Cup experience, the US' chances would remain good.

On the other hand, if Slovenia and Algeria had finished tied today, even at 0-0, Algeria would still be playing for advancement next week against the US, no matter how badly it does with England on Friday. With something to play for, they would give the US a much tougher battle; a draw, in fact, would be much more likely than it would be if they were simply playing out the string. Slovenia, on the other hand, would still be even with the US going into its final game (assuming that they tie the US), and would still have a good chance of advancing should it win or tie England.

So the result today does not mean the US needs to beat Slovenia Friday, or significantly reduce their chances of advancing. Got that?
U.S.A. 1, B.P. 1: I assume most of the readership here has seen this game, so there's no need to go into the details of yesterday's American win. When the back-up English goalie is known as David "Calamity" James, one can't really be surprised that their starter would play a largely negative role in games such as this. A dramatic reenactment of the Clint Dempsey goal is shown here:

For some classic schadenfreude, a better video may be this, involving an English blowhard predicting an English "ass-kicking" to avenge, believe it or not, the horrible way President Obama has treated the poor benighted souls at British Petroleum (starting at about two minutes in):