July 03, 2010

Spain 1, Paraguay 0: Two penalty kicks missed in two minutes !!! Paraguay somehow went the final 304 minutes of play in the 2010 World Cup without scoring a goal and still made to within breathing distance of the semis. Well done, wizards; please accept these parting gifts and go home. Spain, of course, sticks around, thanks to a H.O.R.S.E.-inspired shot by David Villa eight minutes from the finish to play in its first real semifinal, where they will get a rematch from its 2008 Euros opponent, Germany.
The World Cup is only eight days from being over, but there is another big international sporting event coming up: the World Basketball Championships. It starts on August 28, 2010, in Turkey. And yes, the U.S. is ranked number one two.* Team America hasn't won this since 1994, although the possible participation of Kobe^, LeBron, Durant, and Melo offers hope this time around. The Olympics gets most of the attention in this country, but with basketball emerging as the world's new Number One sport (thanks, China), this event will become bigger and bigger in the future

*Argentina is ranked ahead for now.
^He may have to undergo surgery.
Germany 4, Argentina 0: Some pre-game puffery about the Argentine coach, courtesy of Dave Zirin:
In his playing days, Maradona made people reconsider the sacred idea that Pele was surely the greatest player to ever patrol the pitch. He went from soccer superstar to Argentine folk hero during the 1986 World Cup, when he “avenged” the 1982 British defeat of Argentina in the Falklands War by defeating England in the quarterfinals, with a little help from the "Hand of God."

Maradona's brilliance inspired Eduardo Galeano to write, “
No one can predict the devilish tricks this inventor of surprises will dream up for the simple joy of throwing the computers off track, tricks he never repeats. He’s not quick, more like a short-legged bull, but he carries the ball sewn to his foot and he’s got eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the field....In the frigid soccer of the end of the century, which detests defeat and forbids all fun, that man was one of the few who proved that fantasy can be efficient.
It's too bad, though, that the Little Ball of Hate can't coach worth shite, so Mr. Galeano and others can take Maradona's manroot out of their collective mouths' nightmares can be efficient, too.* There is no conceivable way that a team with Messi, Tevez, et al., should have lost by four goals to a German team missing its best player (Michael Ballack), even if Jorge Larrionda had reffed this match as well. The Germans are the first team since the French team in 1958 to score four or more goals in three different games of the same World Cup.

* Which isn't to suggest that Maradona is gay, not that there's anything wrong with that....

July 02, 2010

Uruguay 1, Ghana 1 [PK: 4-2]: The finish of the game was like Bill Buckner's error, only it came in the midst of an event the whole world was watching, not just the New York-Boston corridor. In other words, Gyan's miss in the final seconds mattered a little more, and broke the hearts of a few more people. Uruguay, in the meantime, returns to the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1970, but will play Holland without arguably its best player, Luis Suarez, the striker whose instictive save set up the Penalty Kick.
Before anyone starts weeping over the pending demise of Christopher Hitchens, here's an obit he wrote about Bob Hope several years ago, and another one about former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. There's too much unkindness here for anyone not to believe that, if she does indeed exist, God is Good. A sample:
To be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is not a particular defect or shortcoming in, say, a cable repair man or a Supreme Court justice or a Navy Seal. These jobs can be performed humorlessly with no loss of efficiency or impact. But to be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is a serious drawback, even lapse, in a comedian. And the late Bob Hope devoted a fantastically successful and well-remunerated lifetime to showing that a truly unfunny man can make it as a comic. There is a laugh here, but it is on us.
More instances of his execrable talent at taking a dump on the recently-deceased can be found here (apparently, it is a talent shared with other libertarians and right wing nut jobs). With the touch of a bully, Hitchens never wept for the people killed in the wars he cheared on, so pardon me if I don't shed a tear now for the self-proclaimed "contrarian."
Netherland(s) 2, Brazil 1: The least-popular Brazilian team in memory gets bounced in the quarters again. Bye, bye, Brazil...losing by a goal doesn't have the same descriptive ability that losing by a run has in baseball, or by a point in football or hoops. It's the same thing in the so-called "real world": when the Supreme Court rules 5-4, that's a strong indication that the court is hotly divided on the subject, and will be revisiting the issue soon; politicians and constitutional scholars tend to give greater weight to cases that are decided 9-0, or even 8-1 or 7-2, because such decisions show a public consensus that will not quickly be shaken, as well as a powerful Chief Justice who can build consensus. When a political race is decided by one percentage point or less, well, that's a good sign that the victor should tread very carefully in the near-future. As with 5-4 legal decisions, it's a good idea to write the results in pencil.

Because of its inherent low-scoring nature, a one-goal victory in soccer is different. One-point wins are not that common in basketball or football, but in soccer, it's the most common result, so it can be less of a benchmark in revealing what really happened in a game. The back-and-forth, free-swinging play in the Ghana-U.S. game was decided by the same margin (same score, in fact) as the ugly, one-sided Holland-Slovakia game. One game was decided in OT, whilst t'other was close only because the losers scored a penalty kick on the game's final play. If you want to get a feel for what happened, you have to look at the numbers behind the scoreboard.

In this instance, we're talking about two different games. Brazil scored inside of ten minutes, and toyed with their opponents for the rest of the half. Going into today, Brazil had never lost a World Cup game when leading at halftime, and had lost only twice before when scoring first (v. Norway in 1998, and v. Uruguay in the 1950 "final"). In the second half, the opposite happened, as Brazil proved unable to defend set pieces, then lost a player (Felipe Melo, btw, who had earlier scored on a beautiful header to tie the game up...for the Dutch, the first own goal ever for Brazil in the tourney) on a thuggish kick to all-around Dutch wuss Arjen Robben (wrong target!!). So two one-sided halfs add up to...a statistically evenly played game: both teams had the same number of shots, same number of fouls, and nearly identical time of possession, leading to a 2-1 win for Holland.

July 01, 2010

Spain 1, Portugal 0: Finally playing like the top team in the world, Spain permitted a few chance to their Iberian rivalry, scored halfway through the second half, thanks to David Villa, then shut down the 2006 semifinalist convincingly.

We have now reached the quarterfinals, the point in the World Cup that the tournament goes from being an event that unites the sports fans of the planet to just another sports championship. Sharing in common with all other sports, offense usually takes a hit at this stage:

YEAR 1st Round/2nd Round/Quarterfinals/Semifinals/Finals
1986 74 (36) // 24 .....7 ... 4 /// 5
1990 82 (36) // 18 ... 7 .. 4 /// 1
1994 88 (36) // 25 ...15 .. 4 /// 0
1998 127 (48) // 24 ..11 .. 5 /// 3
2002 128 (48) //17 .. 6 ... 2 /// 2
2006 117 (48) // 15 .. 6 .. 3 /// 2
2010 101 (48) // 22 ..10..6

In the early rounds of the World Cup, goals are typically scored more frequently, since the disparity in talent usually permits the games to open up; thus, a talented but defensive-oriented team like Portugal will beat North Korea by seven goals; when there’s some debate as to whether a team belongs at this level, the question isn’t so much the outcome but the ability of the better team to break through. Scoring in soccer, like offense in baseball, football or basketball, goes way up when the match-up is lopsided. In the second round, there are still a handful of teams that are lucky to be there, such as the representatives from Africa, CONCACAF and Asia, so the possibility for a number of highscoring games is increased at that point as well.

After the second round, the teams that are still alive are likely to belong among the elite; they're in it to win it. And at that level, it is unusual for a team not to have a solid cadre of players at the back. No matter how creative they are up front, those teams run into other teams that can slow them down. In addition, the tendency in any sport is for defenses to be ahead of offenses; teams at this level are usually playing to stop the other side rather than outscore them, which makes sense in a sport where 1-0 scores are the most common. When defense becomes too dominant, as it has now in soccer, the governing authorities in the sport will try to devise a way to open up scoring, but that’s more likely to happen after the Cup, which through the first round generated the fewest goals per game in history. So in the meantime, get ready for more non-scoring games going to penalty kicks, and 1-0 results that have the feel of being one-sided.
Paraguay 0, Japan 0 [PK, 5-3]: Three hours of my life, shot to hell. A more pressing problem for the integrity of the World Cup than the occasional blown call by the ref (somehow, when Brazil has its star sent off on a bogus second yellow card, it always manages to survive) has to be the willingness of inferior teams, like the Japanese, to play for penalty kicks pretty much from the opening whistle. If FIFA is going to insist on this tiebreaker, a good idea would be to weight the procedure, so that the team that had the most corner kicks (or shots on goal, or shots, or fewest fouls, or some combination of the stats) would start off the penalties with a 1-0 edge....

June 28, 2010

Brazil 3, Chile 0: If anyone can make a 3-0 game entertaining and seemingly close, it's Brazil. Still no magic, though.
Holland 2, Slovakia 1: Pathetic effort by the Slovaks, whose only goal came on a penalty kick on the final play of the game. If the game had been played in the US, the FBI would have been investigating the Poor Man's Czechs for match fixing. Just go away.

June 27, 2010

Argentina 3*, Mexico 1: Holy shit, where does FIFA come up with these idiots? I can't wait to see the quarterfinal where Argentina gets to play with a twelfth player, or Lukas Podolski picks up the ball and carries it over the goal line....
Germany 4, England 1*: Interestingly, by all statistical measures England was the better team: it had more touches, corners, shots, shots on goal, and even had the edge in time of possession. So I guess they really won, at least on an existential level. Suck on that, Huns... actually, the Goal-That-Wasn't-Counted changed the game completely, especially in those categories (btw, the ref was the same guy who officiated the US-Italy game in 2006 that saw two Americans red-carded under very suspicious circumstances, plus a late goal taken away on a rarely-called offsides against a player who hadn't touched the ball). If England tied the game up, it would have no doubt played more defensively, and done less to press forward in the second half, so their possession and "shot" advantages would have disappeared.

They also still would have lost, simply because they don't have the horses the Germans have. In the first half the Germans completely outclassed the Three Lions, and could have easily had two or three more goals, and in the second, they toyed with their opponents until they could two counter-attack opportunities that they converted. The better team won.

Ghana 2, USA 1 [OT]: This might be a sign of the emerging base of true soccer fans in America: that a tactical mistake by the coach of the national team could be a subject of discussion, as a cause for blame for the team's early departure. Bradley's decision to start Ricardo Clark would have a questionable move the first time it happened, since there is nothing in his pedigree or career that suggests he belongs on the national team to begin with, much less start in the World Cup (even if he was a superstar, he's missed most of the last year with injuries, and has not been able to get into the lineup on his club team in Germany).

Another sign: I saw the game at a diner/bar in Valdez, Alaska, where the assembled mass of riggers, teamsters and their families watched the game in rapt attention. I don't know how they reacted when Gyan scored in extra time to put Ghana ahead, or when the ensuing futility of Team USA's comeback bid proved itself out, as I was on a long coach ride to the Copper River Valley, but I take it I didn't miss a thing. FWIW, Ghana is going to have to elevate its game enormously to beat Uruguay in the quarterfinals next Friday.

Uruguay 2, South Korea 1: 0-0, 2-1, 0-0, 0-4, 2-0, 0-0, 0-1, 1-0 (OT), 1-3, 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 0-3, 1-1, 1-6, 0-0, 0-1, 0-0, 1-3, 1-0, 0-2. Those are Uruguay's World Cup results from 1966 to 1990. Notice a pattern there? In 21 matches, they had five scoreless draws, twelve games where they were shut out, with another game where they didn't score their one goal until the final minute of extra time. In the five World Cups they played from 1966 to 1990, Uruguay scored a grand total of eleven goals. All in all, a remarkable 19 of their 21 games during that spell saw them score only once or not at all, with only four wins, against France (1966), Israel and the Soviet Union (1970), and South Korea (1990).

Since Diego Forlan joined the national squad, this is their World Cup record: 1-2, 0-0, 3-3, 0-0, 3-0, 1-0, 2-1. Maybe that wouldn't be an impressive spell for a team like Brazil or Germany, but three wins in seven matches, with only one defeat and two scoreless draws, ten goals scored total, is definitely out of character. On two occasions, they scored three goals in the same game !!! I know Forlan was a flop with United, but them again Wayne Rooney is actually a star for that team, so Forlan must be given his due for being able to come up when it counts.

Today's game was consistent with Uruguay's play during the Forlan Era, fast-paced, attack-oriented, nothing like the abysmal match the two countries played in 1990. Kudos to both teams.