June 25, 2010

Spain 2, Chile 1 // Honduras 0, Switzerland 0: How did the Swiss do it? Beating the number one-ranked team in the world is apparently not good enough to get out of group…in their seven games played in the last two World Cups, they've conceded one goal, officially lost only once, but have almost nothing to show for it. Getting outplayed by Honduras, a team which pretty much knew from the outset today that they had nothing to play for, is really a testament to Swiss ingenuity…oh, and Spain and Chile managed to conspire to obtain a result that got both teams through, setting up nice showdowns next week, with Spain playing its Iberian neighbor Portugal, and Chile, first South American loser in fifteen games, getting a date with Brazil.

Portugal 0, Brazil 0 // Ivory Coast 3, North Korea 0: Not a whole lot to be said about Brazil v. Portugal; a dull, poorly-played game between two defensive-oriented teams who will have to elevate their game some to go much further in the tourney. Not surprisingly, the result was enough to send both through to the next round, with Brazil "winning" the group. Being the best African team in soccer in this tournament isn't all that impressive, but the Baby Elephants always come to play, and they easily coasted past the hapless minions (or as Matt Welch might describe with consummate subtlety, eleven Evil Men) of the world's favorite South Park Villain. Timing is everything; if IC had drawn the NoKoreans second, rather than Brazil, it is likely that they would have been the second African country to qualify for the second round. But it was Portugal who drew North Korea second, and with their 7-0 blow-out effectively made today's games moot. BTW, aside from that game, Portugal has scored a total of two goals since getting out of group in 2006, a true testament to the dull, bland nature of success in soccer.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the recent imposition of severe sanctions against USC's college football program (ie., L.A.'s only pro football team) is the lack of anything resembling journalistic propriety or balance in covering such a story. An athlete, in this case Reggie Bush, gets accused of having received benefits (or, in Bush's case, his parents), and the sports media will go balistic with the platitudes, accusing the athlete and the school of being sleezy, unethical, and even worse, "professional." Since sports "journalism" typically thrives when it sucks up to the powerful institutions and individuals that dominate sports, an athlete or school will usually be presumed guilty even on the flimsiest of evidence.

So now it turns out that simply applying a little bit of due diligence to the evidence the NCAA used to place the USC football program on the fritz is enough to pretty much discredit the entire factual case. Were the university to challenge the sanctions in federal or state court (it has already adeptly played the first card, by offering to submit to the least important of the sanctions, the bowl ban), it would most certainly win, since the courts are not usually willing to permit quasi-public entities like the NCAA to redefine "reasonable basis" for guilt into the novel standard "no basis for guilt at all; fuck you !!" At the very least, it is going to provide Trojan Nation the rhertorical grounds for its defense. The evidence that Pete Carroll "knew" is significantly weaker than the rather clear evidence that John Wooden knew about the antics of Sam Gilbert.

More troubling, though, is the whole notion that Reggie Bush, or any other athlete, should have to apologize for wanting to make money playing football. We tend to forget that the NCAA regulations concerning amateur play are malum prohibitum; that is, they reflect actions and conduct that are banned not because they are immoral or unethical on their face (ie,. malum per se), such as murder, theft, or fraud, but because the acts are just prohibited. An example of a malum prohibitum law that we face everyday is parking in a loading zone, or speeding on a freeway. Driving fast or parking in a certain location is not, in and of itself, evil, since we can perform the identical act and not be breaking any rules.

In Bush's case, taking money for playing football is not now, nor was it 2004, an evil or unethical act. Of course, in 2004, Bush had no choice in the matter, since the NCAA prohibited him from doing so, and the NFL had recently received judicial sanction allowing them not to give athletes Bush's age the right to do so. Since there was no competing set of values that Bush and the NCAA could have a free dialogue over, insofar as Bush and other college athletes having not been given any free choice, Bush's decision to take money from third parties was not an evil act, nor would his decision to obey the NCAA regulations on the subject have imparted any virtue upon him. In the moral universe, rules concerning compulsory amateurism at the college level impart upon the athlete the same obligations that obeying Jim Crow laws imposed on Rosa Parks.

Amazingly, NCAA rules that would be considered to have a much stronger malum per se basis, such as academic fraud or steroid use, would not be considered to have anywhere near the stigmatic effect on the football program. Admitted roid users, like Brian Bosworth and Tony Mandarich, have never seen their awards threatened, or had their actions lead to penalties against the teams for which they played, even though the taking of PED's clearly gave them an unfair playing advantage, and directly assisted their teams in gaining wins. On the other hand, no one has creditably argued that Bush driving a car paid for by one of the many parasites that compulsory amateurism festers gave him any added skills on the field, or actually tainted USC's results, any more than Sam Gilbert paying Alcindor or Walton tainted UCLA's wins, or you or I parking in a yellow loading zone makes us bad people.

June 24, 2010

Japan 3, Denmark 1 // The Netherlands 2, Cameroon 1: The Danes usually have one really stinky game in the tournament, but it’s usually not in the first round. The score could have easily been 6-1. This continues the trend of the Cup so far, which is that European teams are overrated and in decline, much like their governments. Must be something about the penny-pinching, budget deficit-fetishizing mindset. Soccer favors the bold, and/or the Keynesians. In the other game, Holland won again, and Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions proved to be easily dominated. There is no justification to have any more reps in the World Cup from Africa than what CONCACAF currently gets; so far, three of the five African contestants to have completed group play have finished last.

Because of the mediocre calibre of teams coming out of Group F, winning Group E doesn't really do a whole lot for the Dutch, at least in the second round, where they will play Slovakia on Monday. Equally mediocre Paraguay has a date with surprising Japan on Tuesday. I am unaware of any prior match-ups between these four non-rivals, so expect to see at least ninety minutes of soccer, with varying amounts of inspiration.
Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0 // Slovakia 3, Italy 2: And the fans celebrate...actually, the Azurri may have good reason to gripe, losng two goals off of a marginal offsides call as well as a ball defended behind the goal line. Comparisons with Les Bleus are inevitable, although even the Frence can take solace from the fact that they played in a relatively tough group, while Italy was in the weakest. The All Whites represented in their game, but needed to win this one, and Paraguay was in command throughout the game.
Germany 1, Ghana 0 // Australia 2, Serbia 1: Missed these games too. Will have some great pics of the Great White North soon...it does seem that Ghana and Germany, of all countries, had the first-ever match-up in the Cup between two brothers, Jerome and Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Aussies have to be kicking themselves for not putting up a better effort in their first game with Germany.

Nice set of second round match-ups coming at the end of the week. The US team got screwed last time against Ghana, who will be rolling into the match having backed into this stage with a draw and a loss. And of course, England and Germany are the Red Sox and Yankees of the sport.

June 23, 2010

England 1, Slovenia 0 // U.S.A 0, Algeria 0: Can someone tell me if anything happened in these games? I'm on a coach and rail tour today into the Yukon…no, seriously. Hugely important games, and I'm in Skagway, a tiny Alaskan community that doesn't have WiFi. I suspect the Americans had a close one again.

June 22, 2010

Uruguay 1, Mexico 0 // South Africa 2, France 1: Although there was a brief scare for the Tricolores, both Uruguay and Mexico live to play another day, with the South Americans winning the group. As a result of the loss, Mexico gets to play these guys in the second round.

In the other game, the Bafana Bafana salvage some national glory, winning only their second game in nine previous attempts in the World Cup, but fell three goals short of the Mexicans in spite of getting to play with a man-advantage for most of the game.

Stay classy, Les Bleus....

Spain 2, Honduras 0: Another one-sided affair, although the world's number one-ranked team failed to convert their dominance into something as gaudy as goalscoring. David Villa scored once in each half, then missed a penalty kick that would have given him a hat trick. All in all, a bad day on the pitch for dictatorships….

Half the games of have been played, and we're now at the stage where every game means something. The third set of games commences tomorrow, and here's what's in store:

Group A: Uruguay and Mexico play for the group title, with the winner avoiding Argentina in thesecond round (Uruguay would get the nod in the event of a draw, due to goal differential). The loser is also likely to advance, but it might sweat a little hoping the other game is close. France and South Africa will be eliminated if they draw, or if the winner fails to overcome the 4-6 goal differential with the loser in the other game. If the hosts are eliminated, it would be the first time the home country has not advance out of its group. If the French fail to advance, it would not be the first time a collection of assholes similarly fails.

Group B: Argentina has got this one in the bag, even if it loses to Greece. South Korea and Nigeria play for what will likely be the second spot, unless Greece shocks the world and avoids defeat against Argentina. It's hard to believe Nigeria can stink up the field in its first two games and still finagle a spot by winning tomorrow.
GROUP C: All four teams pretty much have their fate in their feet. Only Algeria needs some help; it must beat the USA, and hope either that Slovenia doesn't lose, or that it wins by two or more goals. Everyone else just needs a win; Slovenia will also advance with a tie. Something for Americans to dwell on: Team USA has played at least three games in six previous World Cups, and has lost all six times in its third game.
GROUP D: Amazingly, Germany could be going home early, should it lose to Ghana and Serbia beats or ties the Socceroos. Serbia needs a win, or a high-scoring draw combined with a loss by the Black Stars. The Aussies could actually advance, but it would require them to rout Serbia and the Germans to beat Ghana.
GROUP E: Holland has already advanced, and will win the group barring a collapse in its final group match against Cameroon, one of two teams already assured of elimination. Denmark needs to beat the Japanese to advance, otherwise they can watch Japan play in the second round next week.
GROUP F: There are multiple scenarios here, but the most interesting one by far is that New Zealand will advance if they beat Paraguay. WTF ?!? Like Group C, all four teams control their own destiny, with Slovakia in the role of Algeria in clinching a spot with a 2+ margin of victory.
GROUP G: Brazil has qualified for the second round, and will win the group title if it wins or ties its former colonial master, Portugal. Ivory Coast can qualify for the second round, if Portugal loses and it can edge already-bounced North Korea by a score of 8-0.
GROUP H: Chile will probably be the first team since the Algerians in 1982 to win two group games and not advance, since it plays Spain next, while the team they beat today, plays hapless Honduras. 1-0 results in favor of the Swiss and the Spanish will give the Spanish the group, while Chile and Switzerland draw lots to determine the runner-up (actually, it's more likely an NBA draft lottery, but you get the picture). And again, Honduras, with two losses, can advance with a two-goal win and a loss by Spain.

June 21, 2010

Chile 1, Switzerland 0: Winning be contagious; after not having a positive result in nearly fifty years (when they hosted the Cup, so that doesn't really count), Chile now has back-to-back wins. Ironically, having had the worst record of any team ever to make it out of group play back in 1998 (3 games, 3 draws, 3 points), it may now be the first team since 1982 to win two games in group and not make it out, should it lose its final game on Friday with Spain.
Portugal 7, North Korea 0: I don't do 7-0 routs, especially when the losers are all going to disappear in less than a week.

June 20, 2010

Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 1: I understand this was a disappointing game for the Ivorians, but since I am on a cruise ship that didn't pick up ABC's feed, I played bingo instead. ESPN seems to believe the game was a feast for afficianados of bad coaching, with the winner losing its best player to a red card with the game well in end, and the loser getting the benefits of the technical banality of the gimlet-eyed lothario from Sweden. But my testimony as to any of this has to be considered inadmissible as double hearsay.
New Zealand 1, Italy 1: In perhaps the most lopsided, one-sided game of the tournament so far, a shocking result. Both goals were tainted by botched decisions by the officiating; the All-White / Kiwis scored off an offsides call that wasn't made, Italy evened on perhaps the worst dive since Lewiston, Maine, and fans thereafter were treated to a game that could have easily ended in a six or seven-goal rout. The defending champs had a 15-0 edge in corner kicks, a 23-3 advantage in shots, and controlled the ball for about 75% of the game, but couldn't get a winner, and so will have to beat Slovakia to advance to the second round.

After the game, there was a discussion as to where the game ranked on the list of the greatest upsets in history: was it bigger than the US over England (1950), or North Korea over Italy (1966), or Cameroon over Argentina in the 1990 opener? Here's a tip: today's game was not one of the biggest upsets ever, because it wasn't an upset. New Zealand didn't beat Italy. They tied. Soccer is a sport where ties frequently happen, and in the World Cup, which has a higher degree of parity than league play, it scarcely raises an eyebrow even in this case. Italy tying against a noticeably weaker opponent in first round World Cup play is a dog-bites-man story. If New Zealand makes it to the second round, then wake me up.
Paraguay 2, Slovakia 0: Yes, you read that correctly. Paraguay beat Slovakia.

An even more entertaining spectacle than Las Albirrojas defeating the poor man's Czech Republic is the utter collapse of the French National team in the run-up to their final group game. By all accounts, the French head coach, Raymond Domenech, is nuts: there is no other way to describe a coach who admits to using astrology to determine line-ups and who is the subject of a hit song, "Je Kiffe Raymond" performed by a 51-year old former porn star, Catherine Ringer. After France's previous soccer debacle, after their quick elimination from Euro 2008, he used the post-match press conference to ask his lover to marry him, a troubling sign even for a nation that reveres Jerry Lewis as a comedic genius and the late Serge Gainsbourgh as a "poet."

So Domenech was on his way out after the tournament, no matter how well the team played, and perhaps the bitterness targetted from his team was inevitable. But the way these events have played out over the last four days is remarkable. Last Thursday morning, France entered the day in what was arguably the strongest position in its group, having shut down an impressive Uruguayan team in its opener. It then proceeded to shut down Mexico for most of its second game, only to have the Tricolores score on a bad call by the linesmen. Moments later, having to throw everyone forward in an effort to draw even, they draw a penalty, which the Mexicans converted into an insurance goal.

Even now, their chances of advancing are not out of the question; they only need to win, have either Uruguay or Mexico beat each other, and for both games to have combined margins equalling five goals (in comparison, at last years Confed Cup, the US advanced in the same situation in spite of having a six-goal margin to overcome, and with the team they had to surpass being Italy). The meltdown of the team is more connected to the lack of character among the players than the fact that their coach is a moron, especially when you remember that Nicolas Anelka's initial outburst occurred at halftime of the Mexico game, before the second half collapse. If I was the director of a major club, I would have a very difficult time allowing Anelka, another opportunity to poison the clubhouse; in fact, anyone on this team should be presumed guilty.