July 14, 2014

Germany 1, Argentina 0: After an evening of poorly-executed chances by both teams, it took one of the best goals of the competition to give Germany its first World Cup title as a unified nation (the previous three were won by West Germany).  Mario Gotze's goal in the 112th minute ensured that Die Mannschaft became the first European squad ever to win the World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere, and finally bring a title to one of the illustrious generation of players in the sport's history.  As in 1990, Argentina failed to cause the German goalie to make a single save, and are now the first team ever to have been eliminated by the same country in three consecutive World Cups.  If the truest indicator of the quality of a tournament is that the best team is the same as the winning team, then this Cup met that criteria in spades...the two players who set up the goal, Gotze and super-sub Andre Schurrle, are the first two German players to have been born in the reunified nation, while semifinal hero Toni Kroos is the first, and probably last, person born in the defunct East Germany to win the World Cup.

July 13, 2014

Holland 3, Brazil 0: Most disappointing finish by a host nation ever comes to an ignominious conclusion.

July 10, 2014

Argentina 0, Holland 0 [PK: 4-2]: Well-played defensive battle, in which both teams played cautiously and where the stars (Messi, Higuain, van Persie, Robben, et al.) were mainly silent.  Which is to say, like a Ravens-Seahawks Super Bowl, or a Dodgers-Tigers World Series, it was dull for the non-partisan, but a feast for the connoisseur.  That it would be decided by penalty kicks was apparent before halftime.

Soccer fans spend too much time arguing with trolls about whether the frequency of scoreless draws and 1-0 results is a drawback for the sport, insofar as very little seems to be accomplished in terms of scoring, and to such little effect.  The fact is, people don't follow sports because of the activity is inherently exciting, or else ice hockey would have more American fans than baseball, or, for that matter, high-scoring, since the NBA Finals have much lower ratings than the Super Bowl.  People follow sports because they have an emotional interest in the outcome, not because a lot of points are going to get scored.  The higher ratings for the World Cup in the US have come about not because the USMNT has suddenly become a point-a-minute, offensive juggernaut, or a legit contender to win the whole thing, but because there is a gradual increase in public interest in how well the US does in the tournament.  And even after the US was eliminated, the ratings remain strong, showing that it's the competition itself that Americans are following.  Once you care who wins, the scoreline becomes irrelevant.

July 08, 2014

The hosts get brazilianed....

Germany 7, Brazil 1: Fired up by the loss of their leading scorer and star defender, the hosts came out firing on all cylinders, holding Die Mannschaft to only five goals in the first half, then capping things off with a deadly strike in injury time to clinch a spot in the consolation final Saturday...or to look at it another way, every favela that was torn down and each of its residents who were displaced to make room for a parking lot received a karmic vindication.  Brazil had reached the semis almost solely through home field advantage, besting two superior South American sides along the way who played the game the way Brazil used to, and it all culminated with the most shocking rout in my lifetime.  Germany had hardly looked more impressive since their opening blowout of Portugal, with three consecutive one-goal margins (who would have thought that the US could teach something to Brazil about resolute play and defensive creativity), but today's explosion was wholly unexpected.  Bring on the Final....

July 05, 2014

Duke beats Florida Gulf Coast

Holland 0, Costa Rica 0 [PK:4-3]: Scrappy, underdog team, barely kept in the game thanks to the heroics of a goalie playing out of his mind, taking a world power to the limit before succumbing at the end...it never gets old.  Holland won its first-ever penalty kick tie-breaker in a major competition, fueled in large part by a surprise substitution of goalkeepers in extra time, to advance to a date with Argentina in the semis, while the Ticos bow out just short of becoming the first CONCACAF team in 84 years to do the same.
Argentina 1, Belgium 0: To the apparent surprise of the Red Devils, Argentina plays the game better than the U.S.  Qualifying for their first semifinals since 1990, the Albiceleste went up in the ninth minute, thanks to their other real good player, Gonzalo Higuain, and then seemed content to let Belgium control possession and set up ineffectual pieces from the side.  At one point, Argentina did not try a shot for forty minutes in the second half, Lionel Messi blew a breakaway late in the game, and it hardly mattered.
Brazil 2, Columbia 1: Thrilling game, in which two of the towering leaders from this tournament played their final game.  Brazil jumped out to a quick lead, padded their advantage on a beautiful free kick, then held on as Golden Boot frontrunner James Rodriguez scored with ten minutes left off a penalty.  Shortly afterwards, Neymar, the only player on the host country's squad who could plausibly be placed at the same level with Pele, Garrincha, Zico and Ronaldo, fractured his spine, and will have to sit out the rest of the Cup (damn, the Germans always have a master plan). And just like that, the two most impressive teams from the group stage are sent home.....

Germany 1, France 0: Continuing the pattern of the initial knockout games, a dull, defensive, low-scoring affair.  The Germans scored early, shut down the high powered French attack, and justly earned their record fourth consecutive semi-final spot.  Each team had point-blank opportunities to change the scoreline, but fired directly at the goalkeeper.  Disappointing end to what had been a redemptive World Cup for Les Bleus, but at least this time they didn't have a player nearly decapitated.

July 02, 2014

Belgium 2, U.S.A 1 [A.E.T.]: Some miscellany about last night's game:

  1. Until the overtime started, Belgium pretty much dominated the match for 90 minutes, nearly scoring in the second minute and putting constant pressure on Tim Howard;
  2. The defense for the USMNT was shambolic, forcing Howard to make a record number of saves;
  3. Chris Wondolowski is going to have nightmares about his miss in the 90th minute for the rest of his life;
  4. Starting with the start of extra time, the tone of the match shifted, with the US dominating play.  In spite (or because) of that, Belgium was able to strike twice off the counterattack, set up by the speed of late sub Romelu Lukaku;
  5. There were at least four times when Clint Dempsey was inches from taking the ball in with a clear chance at the goal, only to have the ball bounce the wrong way;
  6. Whether Julian Green becomes the next Pele or the next Michael Owen, or somewhere in between, his shock selection will still be Jurgen Klinsmann's best move in the pre-Cup stage, since it now establishes one of the world's best prospects as a U.S. player into the distant future.  Actually playing in a key game, and scoring a spectacular goal that inexplicably brought the US back into the game in the second extra period, is gravy on the birthday cake;
  7. On the other hand, in all likelihood we've seen the last World Cup games for Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, and DeMarcus Beasley (all of whom were brilliant), since they will be in their mid-30's in Russia 2018 
  8. Belgium has improved markedly from game to game, and their quarterfinal match-up with Argentina on Saturday may be the de facto Cup Final;
  9. The elimination of the USMNT will only slightly reduce the ratings for the remainder of the World Cup.  The tournament has received decent ratings going back to 1994 (with the exception of 2002, when the games from the Far East were shown in the middle of the night), and the ratings for the Final have typically exceeded the best marks received by US games.  It is the event itself, and not necessarily the US performance, that drives public interest among sports fans;
  10. It will have little impact on the domestic popularity of the sport   Fans know the difference between an international competition featuring the greatest players in the world, and a domestic league that is, at best, behind 10 other national leagues in terms of quality.  Hard core fans already know enough to set an early alarm Saturday morning to watch the Premiership; everyone else will wait for the next big international tourney.  Which, come to think of it, is one year from now in Canada...    

July 01, 2014

Argentina 1, Switzerland 0 [A.E.T.]: 118 of minutes of sheer boredom punctuated by two minutes of utter madness.  Messi assists on a perfect pass at the end of the second extra period, leading to a desperation near-goal in final seconds by the Swiss.

June 30, 2014

Schurrle you can't be serious....

Germany 2, Algeria 1 [A.E.T.]: The sort of game that was exciting not because the teams were evenly-matched, but because one team was so much worse than the other that its ability to stay in the game for so long elevated the suspense for two hours...and as always, in the end, Germany wins.

The history behind the two teams centers on a controversy from back in 1982, when West Germany eliminated Algeria at the group stage.  That year, the Algerians had upset the Germans in the opener, then split their next two games with Austria and Chile, while the Germans had recovered in their second game by routing Chile.  The final games of group stage were played on separate days, so by the time the West Germans and Austrians suited to up to play their third game, Algeria had already finished their slate with a 2-1 record and an even goal differential.  The Austrians led the group with a 2-0 record and a +3 goal differential, and the Germans were at 1-1 but with a +2 differential.  Going into the game, so long as the Germans won by less than three goals, both teams would advance; if Austria won or drew, West Germany would be eliminated and the Algerians would advance.

West Germany scored in the opening ten minutes, and won 1-0.  Neither team mounted much of an effort after the opening goal, and the game, forever after known as the Second Anschluss, has become one of the most controversial in the sport's history.  Although the game was painfully boring to watch, I've always thought the Germans received a bad rap for what happened; were I to apportion blame, it would go 40% to FIFA, 30% to the Austrians, 25% to the Algerians, and the rest to the Germans.  Algeria blew most of a three-goal halftime lead against a pathetic Chilean team, and lost to a mediocre Austrian squad in the previous game 2-0; had they taken care of business, the result of the Anschluss game would have been moot.  Austria chose not to attack or play any sort of offense in their final game, not attempting a single shot, and hoping only to keep the score close, which led to the game being famously boring.  FIFA deserved the lion's share of the blame for setting up an unbalanced schedule that made such a result inevitable.

But what exactly did the Germans do in 1982 that was wrong or unethical?  They had to tread a fine line in that game, where a win by any margin got them to the next round, but a tie eliminated them.  Since when has any team been obligated to pour it on and rout their opponents in this situation?  They scored the goal they needed.
France 2, Nigeria 0: Another day, another African team bows out after a strike over "bonuses"...after a prolonged period of frustration around the Nigerian goal, Les Bleus struck twice in the final ten minutes to assure a spot in the quarters.  Regardless of who they play, there's a great film to put either match-up into context....
Costa Rica 1, Greece 1 [PK: 5-3]: Well, it's the first time Greece has ever scored in consecutive World Cup Games...Saw this game at a casino near Vegas, where the crowd was overwhelmingly supporting the Ticos.  The officiating left something to be desired: an obvious hand ball in the box was not called against the Greeks which would have put the game out of reach in regulation, then the ref swallowed his whistle when the Costa Rican goalie clearly moved early in saving the critical spot kick.  First team from the region not named Mexico or the US to reach the quarters since Cuba did it in 1938.

June 29, 2014

Dos a uno

Holland 2, Mexico 1: Just minutes away from their first trip to the quarterfinals in 28 years, Mexico instead lost for the sixth straight time in the second round, and the fourth time by a 2-1 scoreline.   To repeat the cliche used in a different sport of football, the only thing playing a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.  For sixty minutes, El Tri was in complete control, taking the game to the most dominant team out of the group stage round, only to fold in the last ten minutes, conceding a goal to Wesley Sneijder after a prolonged period inside the Mexican half, then drew a cheap penalty three minutes into injury time to set up the winner.  In spite of the loss, methinks Enrique Ochoa is going to be a well-compensated free agent; he made several more spectacular saves...absolutely brutal heat, with the first two scheduled water breaks in World Cup history.

June 28, 2014

Columbia 2, Uruguay 0: Remembering of course that Columbia's best player is sitting this tournament out, we may be watching the most impressive team coming out of nowhere since 1974 Netherlands...James (pronounced "ya-mayce") Rodriguez, aka J-Rod, scored twice.  Playing without its talismanic vampire, Uruguay came close to scoring on a number of occasions, and quite surprisingly, considering the history of this team in 1986 and 1990, no red cards.


Brazil 1, Chile 1: [PK: 3-2] And the Sweet 16 begins...a tense, beguiling two hours decided by a penalty kick off the goal post, and the host country advances.  It will be tough to top that one.  Both teams scored in the first half hour, then gamely held on for the duration as a combination of goalkeeping and woodworks kept the score even.  Chile conceded a goal on what was probably a deflection by the same player who missed the final penalty kick, tied the game on a defensive blunder by Hulk, who then played brilliantly the rest of the way until he missed a PK of his own.  Not a well-played game by the winners, but they survived.

Is "a Steven Smith" the Worst Person in the World?

Not quite, but I did make Keith Olbermann's hourly show on ESPN last night...it has to do with a commentary of his the other night, decrying the advancement of the USMNT over Portugal to the elimination rounds of the World Cup based on the "outdated" system of goal differential.  After all, the US had lost to Germany in the final game, while Portugal won its final game, and the US had "choked" in the final minute in merely tying Portugal.  I responded with tweets suggesting that point differential takes into account all the games the teams played, that it's a tie-breaker used in other high-intensity sports like the NBA, NHL and NFL, and that it showed the US had played better in its three games than Portugal had in their three.

So lo and behold, I have ESPN on last night, and Olbermann's show starts, and immediately, my Twitter response to his commentary is "deconstructed."  And I'm unimpressed.  He still doesn't seem to get the notion of what "point differential" is, and why most sports use it as a tie-breaker.  In a low-energy, low-intensity sport like baseball, you can easily schedule an extra game at the end of the year if you have a tie, but in a tournament format, where you have players running 4-6 miles per game on average, you can't just pick up the next day and play an unscheduled game.  You need something else to use to break ties, and most sports, including soccer, use some combination of point differential and head-to-head play.

The second point is, so what if the US blew a late lead to Portugal.  Neither team won.  And that was a game the Portuguese needed to win much more than the US, due to their one-sided loss to the Germans in their opener.  That's why after the last second game-tying goal, the Portuguese celebration was rather muted, while the US response was not one of utter devastation.  The Americans could have gotten more out of the game, but they got what they needed.  Losing to Germany no more discredits their World Cup than Connecticut's blow-out loss in their conference tournament made them undeserving of winning the 2014 NCAA hoops tournament.

But Olbermann seems to want a less objective method of breaking ties, not one based on head-to-head performance or scoring in the totality of games, but on the more subjective "the US choked so they were the real losers" standard.  Not since Norman Mailer tried to argue that Floyd Patterson had "existentially" defeated Sonny Liston in their first title fight in 1962 has a blowhard tried to celebrate the defeat of his hero with such audacity.  Suffice it to say, it is not a standard that any other sport or competition uses.

June 26, 2014

Belgium 1, South Korea 0 // Algeria 1, Russia 1: Playing the entire second half a man down, Belgium still managed to dominate the game and scored the well-deserved winner in the final fifteen minutes to win the group.  The Koreans never threatened, but did show ball-handling skills near the goal reminiscent of the San Antonio Spurs, if the NBA champs decided to never shoot.  The other team to advance was Algeria, which overcame a sixth-minute goal to become the second team from Africa reach the elimination rounds.  Belgium and Algeria are both the answers to questions which reflect the globality of today's game: which country has the most players in their lineup from the English Premier League (Belgium)/Ligue 1 (Algeria)?

USA beats Germany, 0-1 !!!

Germany 1, USA 0 // Portugal 2, Ghana 1: Playing as if they were in a competitive World Cup game, and not as if it were 90 minutes of kickball, the Germans used a spectacular second half goal by Thomas Mueller to best the USMNT, and assure themselves the top spot in the group.  Twenty-four hours ago, this result might have sounded the death knell for the Americans, with Ghana needing only to outscore the US by two in winning their final game, but the peculiar disease that always seems to strike African football, that combination of ridiculous team dissension and the non-payment of "bonuses", led to the removal of two star players from the line-up on the eve of the game, and in spite of the typical heroic efforts of Asamoah Gyan, they conceded a pair of goals on boneheaded defensive miscues and lost to Portugal.  Cristiano Ronaldo, to his credit, played with exceptional spirit, and after blowing several easy chances, scored the winner in the final ten minutes after a botched clearance by the goalie.  Portugal, at least, was able to end the curse of Manaus.

June 25, 2014

France 0, Ecuador 0 // Switzerland 3, Honduras 0: The Swiss recovered from the humbling rout on Friday with a convincing win against lowly Honduras, while Ecuador came up with a way to slow down an unstoppable French attack: get their best player sent off with a red card.  By virtue of the win, Switzerland nabs the second spot in group behind the French, thanks to a hat trick by Xherdan Shakiri, as well as avenging the result that knocked them out of the last World Cup.  Honduras clinched the last place position in this World Cup, although they managed to play surprisingly entertaining soccer in both of their final matches, while Ecuador became the first South American team to be eliminated.

Next up, France gets Nigeria, while the Swiss play Argentina...if the US can overcome the Curse of Manous, and wins its second round games, it will play the winner of one of these games.  Also, if you want a handy guide as to when you should tune in to either game, here's a breakdown, by time, as to every goal ever scored in the World Cup (hint, around the 18th and 75th minutes).
Argentina 3, Nigeria 2 // Bosnia-Herzegovina 3, Iran 1: In spite of losing its fourth straight one-goal game since 1994 to Argentina, Nigeria backed into the elimination round as Iran fell to already-eliminated Bosnia.  Paced by two first-half goals from Lionel Messi, the Albiceleste clinched the group lead, while Nigeria, led by two scores from Ahmed Susa, played its first attractive World Cup game in ages to fully merit their advancement, even in defeat. In the other game, Team Melli failed to take advantage of Nigeria's defeat, conceding a first-half goal to Eden Dzeko, but did avoid the tournament shutout by scoring late.
Greece 2, Ivory Coast 1 // Columbia 4, Japan 1: I see Mark Few has taken his big-game coaching to Africa.  Only minutes away from making their first-ever elimination round, Ivory Coast conceded a late penalty, and lost the spot to Greece.  Something seemed off about this game; Greece was on the attack for most of the match, even after they took the lead, while Ivory Coast seemed sluggish.  In the other game, Columbia seemed content to let the Blue Samurai dictate the pace and possession of the game, but still had enough in reserve to easily dispatch what may have been the most disappointing team outside of Europe.  In the final minutes, Columbia subbed out their regular goalie, and brought in the oldest player to ever play in the World Cup, Farid Mondragon; the starter on the last Columbian World Cup squad, Mondragon is also the only player in Brazil to have been on the roster of a 1994 World Cup team.

The other games scheduled for the weekend are now set.  Columbia will play what will probably be a cannibal-deprived Uruguayan squad, while Costa Rica will play Greece Sunday evening.

June 24, 2014

Uruguay 1, Italy 0 // England 0, Costa Rica 0: Luis Suarez, difference maker, goal-scoring talisman, foodie...Uruguay scored in the final ten minutes to send a short-handed Italy home early for the second straight World Cup, in a game marred by a savage foul by Giorgio Chiellini, who violently shoved his back into the teeth of Luis Suarez just before the winner.  

Fortunately for Mr. Suarez, there appears to have no damage done to his teeth, and the Azurri could not recover. Next time, the Italians should add some offense to their diet. In the other game, England cleared its bench, and so ended its disappointing run with a scoreless draw, enabling the country with the highest pre-tournament odds of winning its group, Costa Rica, to come out on top of Group D.

June 23, 2014

Brazil 4, Cameroon 1 // Mexico 3, Croatia 1:  A late offensive explosion sparks the Tricolores past a chippy side from Croatia, while Brazil, after a slow start, became the third team in group to dominate the Indomitable Lions.  Mexico was helped by the return to form of supersub Chicharito, who assisted on the second goal before getting on the scoreboard himself with a header in the 82nd minute.  Brazil's margin allowed it to win Group A, and with a second round game with Chile, the third time in the last five World Cups the nations have met in that round.  Mexico faces Holland on Sunday in what could well be the most entertaining match-up of the rounds.  Cameroon goes home after their seventh consecutive loss; I hope they haven't spent their bonuses at one place....
Holland 2, Chile 0 // Spain 3, Australia 0: The Oranje methodically took apart Chile in the final 15 minutes to win the group, and possibly avoid Brazil in the next round, while Spain ended its campaign with a victory over the Socceroos.  Not really a whole to be said about these games: Spain won the first truly meaningless game of the tourney, since both teams already knew they were going home, while the only thing at stake in the other game was the likelihood that the losing team would have to play Brazil, although even that contingency is not certain.  A palate cleanser for the rest of the third stage of games....

June 22, 2014

Portugal 2, U.S.A. 2: After rallying in the second half to seemingly assure themselves of a berth in the next round, the USMNT conceded a goal well into injury time to allow Portugal to secure a draw.  An absolute thriller/heartbreaker; in spite of the late heroics, the Portuguese are effectively eliminated from the tournament, victims of their awful result in the opener against Germany.  For the second straight game, the US can thank the gods that the Marshall Plan enabled the stationing of troops in central Europe....

Group G has a rather simple storyline on Thursday: a draw in either game will allow Germany and the US to advance, and will eliminate Ghana and Portugal.  Ghana needs to beat Portugal and hope Germany beats the US to have any chance; Portugal needs a one-sided result somewhere to have any hope.  Alas, Germany just needs to make sure they've received their shots to go through.
Algeria 4, South Korea 2: The Fennec Foxes win their first World Cup match in 32 years, scoring three goals in rapid succession to move into second place in Group G, and unlike the outrage back then, will control their own destiny when they play Russia next Thursday.

Belgium has assured itself of advancement, and will clinch the lead with a win or draw against South Korea.  Russia needs to beat Algeria, and hope that Belgium gets a positive result.  Algeria need only draw....
Belgium 1, Russia 0:  Unlike their battle in 1986, which featured a wild scoring onslaught in extra time, this game was more an exhibit soccer bashers use to denigrate the sport.  Late heroics by a Belgium sub are becoming the norm: Divock Origi became the third different sub to scored for the Red Devils, and clinched their spot in the next round.  Russia, after a first half which saw several close chances, seemed content to keep the score down
Nigeria 1, Bosnia-Herzegovina 0: Helped in part by bad officiating, the Super Eagles broke a winless streak dating back to group play in 1998.  The perennial African contestants caught an early break when a bad offsides call took away a goal from Eden Dzeko, then had their good luck compounded when the officials ignored an obvious push-off preceding their lone goal.  This was a 180-degree turnaround from the openers, when Bosnia played a thrilling, wide-open style in their close loss to the Argentines, while Nigeria seemed listless playing Iran.

The loss eliminates Bosnia from contention, and clinches advancement for Argentina.  Nigeria, who plays the group leaders next (it will be the fourth time in six World Cups that Argentina and Nigeria have played at group stage), needs only a draw to join Argentina, while Iran needs a win against Bosnia and a Nigeria loss.

June 21, 2014

Ghana 2, Germany 2: Best game of the Cup, and the most exciting half of the World Cup since the second half of Italy-Brazil in 1982. Maybe if FIFA just allowed Ghana and the Ivory Coast to send two teams to each World Cup all of my complaints against African football would be answered.

Also, Miroslav Klose became the all-time leading goal scorer at the World Cup when he tied the game at 2-2 with 20 minutes to play. For those who wondered how much they should be celebrating a US World Cup win when the winning goal was scored by a German who has never lived in the US, please take note that Klose was born and raised in Poland, and who has said that his nationality should properly be referred to as "European".  This is international soccer, folks; in the end, we're all from somewhere else....
Argentina 1, Iran 0: A charter member of Bush's Axis of Evil heartbreakingly loses to one of Thatcher's...Messi scored in his second consecutive game, after having been put in shackles for 90 minutes, with a blast in injury time.  Iran played a brilliant, frustrating defensive game (Argentina had 77% of the possession), and for the first hour was not afraid of pressing the ball forward to take chances .  The final fifteen or so minutes were almost entirely played within the final thirty yards in Iran's half, but Argentina never really threatened to score until they actually did so.
Ecuador 2, Honduras 1: Honduras became the second team in four days to end a 500+ minute World Cup scoring drought that started in the 1980's against Northern Ireland, only to blow the lead and lose.  The only buzz going into this game was the fact that the coached for both teams had coached the other team at their last World Cup, and what resulted was 90 minutes of fearless, balls-to-the-walls soccer.  Enner Valencia scored his second and third goals of the tournament for the winners, and perhaps caught the attention of one of the manydozen or so scouts for Wigan Athletic at the match.

In spite of losing, Honduras became the first team in 2014 to lose two games and not be eliminated.  Barring two obscene blow-outs next Wednesday, France has booked its place into the next round, and will clinch the group lead if it can somehow avoid losing by four goals to Ecuador.  Speaking of which, the South Americans now have a goal differential lead on the Swiss team that beat them Sunday, and although the Swiss are the more likely team to advance in that they get to play winless Honduras, one needs to remember they were in the identical position in 2010, and instead drew with the Hondurans.  The Central Americans need to beat the Swiss by 2+ goals, and hope France does the same with Ecuador for their miracle to occur.

June 20, 2014

France 5, Switzerland 2: In spite of missing the first penalty kick of the tournament, Les Bleus routed the Swiss, taking a 3-0 halftime lead, extending the lead to five goals with fifteen minutes to play before allowing two cheapies at the end. First team to win their opening two games by 3+ goals since...Les Bleus in 1998 !!!
Costa Rica 1, Italy 0: A stunner.  A country without an army or navy beats a nation whose army has been an historical joke and its navy better known for training cruise ship captains.   For the second time in 25 years, the Ticos advance out of the group stage.  Whereas in 1990 they surprised two B-List teams in their first trip to the World Cup, this time they knocked two of the sports' powers, with a combined six World Cups between them, and now stand on the verge of clinching the group lead.  The Azurri seemed overconfident, almost stunned with the notion that they play soccer in tiny Central American countries.  Costa Rica scored late in the first half right after the ref swallowed a whistle that should have given them a penalty kick; far from defending at all costs the rest of the way, they came closer to scoring a second goal than the Italians came to tying.

The Costa Rican victory officially eliminates England, the earliest it has been knocked out since 1958; the Three Lions would be excused if they were to hope FIFA never again scheduled another World Cup for Brazil.. A win or draw against England clinches Group D for the Ticos.  Italy and Uruguay face off in the other game Tuesday, with the winner advancing; a draw would eliminate Uruguay. 

June 19, 2014

Japan 0, Greece 0: Playing even more boring and defensive than usual, thanks to a first half red card that left it shorthanded for most of the match, the Greeks held on for a scoreless draw, the third of the tournament, and the 7th time in 8 games that Greece has been shut out in its World Cup history.  The Blue Samurai had almost all the scoring chances and more than two-thirds of the possession, but couldn't put the ball in the back of the net.

Because of the evening result, Group C is the first group for which we know for certain that all four teams have a shot of advancing to the next round entering the third game next Tuesday.  Columbia has clinched a spot in the next round, and seems almost certain to have won the group barring an out-of-character collapse against Japan.  The Ivory Coast will advance with a win against Greece, or a draw combined with a Columbian win, draw, or one-goal loss.*  Greece advances with a win over les Elephants and a Columbian win or draw; Japan has the mixed blessing of getting to play a team, Columbia, that has already punched its ticket, but needs a win and some help from a floundering Greek squad.

*provided the one-goal loss to Japan does not also feature a lot of goals....  

Suarez 2, Rooney 1

Uruguay 2, England 1: Who could have foreseen that Luis Suarez would end up being really important to the fortunes of La Celeste?  In a 180-degree reversal from their result on Saturday, when they looked bad in being dominated by lowly Costa Rica, the return of Suarez to the front was all Uruguay needed.  England, probably the only team in the Cup that is clearly using the tournament as a rebuilding exercise, got a rare international goal in a game that mattered by Wayne Rooney, only to blow it with inept defending in the final five minutes which allowed Suarez to score his second goal of the game.  England's chances of remaining in Brazil past the second week depend on something they never thought they would need: Costa Rica to lose twice.*

* Which is to say, England advances if
  1. Costa Rica loses both of its remaining games by an aggregate of at least three goals, and
  2. Italy beats Uruguay  
Columbia 2, Ivory Coast 1: All the terrible things I said yesterday about Cameroon, and about African soccer in general, most assuredly don't apply to Les Elephants.  This was pedal-to-the-metal action, and Ivory Coast could have easily won this game, but in the end it was the depth of Columbia that proved the difference.  A victory or draw by Greece in the late game will book Columbia's ticket into the second round.

June 18, 2014

Croatia 4, Cameroon 0: Another one bites the dust.  The "Indomitable Lions" looked inept, dropping their sixth straight since 2002, and have won only one game in fifteen attempts since they reached the quarterfinals in 1990. Mario Mandzukic, who sat out the opener with Brazil, scored twice for the Croatians. With one player red-carded for an unprovoked punch to the back of a Croatian, and two other Cameroonian players head-butting each other in the final minutes, this was a true debacle.

At some point, it needs to be said that the continent of Africa is getting no favors by having five teams in every World Cup.  Invariably, two or three of the teams will stink up the competition, finishing last in their groups, and one or two teams will play competitively only because they use eleven defenders.  The exceptions, Ghana and Ivory Coast, are genuine world class teams, but having to compete in a region that makes CONCACAF seem like the Group of Death assures them little benefit.  And of course, in every Cup there will be at least one squad (ie., Togo (2006), and Cameroon every Cup since 1998) that goes out on strike whining about the non-receipt of "bonuses" (ie., kickbacks) beforehand, which inevitably leads to that team going three-and-out once the competition starts. Cameroon has several terrific players, including Samuel Eto'o, but no leaders, no one like Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, who can bind his team together against a common adversary for the greater good.

But of course, Africa is the continent with the most countries, and therefore the most football associations, which under the archaic, "one country, one vote" rules of FIFA, mean it has a say on matters way out of proportion to its ability to send out world class teams to the Cup.  It is a simple quid pro quo; FIFA gives Africa five spots, and the African soccer federations provide the votes that allow the upper hierarchy of FIFA to maintain the corrupt status quo.

So one team is eliminated, and three teams are left to decide who advances out of Group A.  Brazil leads Mexico right now on goal differential, and will place at least second with a draw.  Mexico will also advance with a win or draw; Croatia needs a win to advance, and a Brazil loss to win the group outright.  Interestingly, Brazil will probably be eliminated (!) if it somehow loses to Cameroon and Mexico and Croatia tie.
Chile 2, Spain 0: The defending champs go bye-bye after only two games !!  It is the fourth time the incumbent has been knocked out in the first round; Brazil (1966), France (2002) and Italy (2010) at least managed to stay alive until the third game, and each of those teams were handicapped by the loss of their star (Pele, Zidane, Buffon) for almost the whole tournament.  Spain had no such excuse, and it is unlikely the core of the team that sandwiched the 2010 World Cup between back-to-back Euro titles will be around to defend their continental title in 2016.  There will also be questions about the tiki-taka style that seemed so unstoppable since 2008 could allow Spain to dominate the possession statistics and still get wiped out on the scoreboard.

Chile now plays Holland for the Group B lead next Monday, with the loser getting a likely face-off with Brazil in the second round.*  Spain's game at the same time with Australia will be for pride only.

*If the teams draw, Holland will win out on goal differential.  
Holland 3, Australia 2:  The Socceroos became the first team to be eliminated from the Tourney, but not before throwing a scare into everyone's fashionable World Cup pick.  Tim Cahill, playing what was probably his final World Cup game (he drew his second yellow card today and will have to sit against Spain), scored a fantastic opener, and a hand ball penalty in the box set up a go-ahead goal ten minutes into in the second half. The Orange, however, never lost their composure, drew even almost immediately thereafter on a blast by RVP (who will also have to sit out the next one), and won on a long-distance blast by Memphis Depay with just over 20 minutes left.

By far the best opening week to the World Cup I can recall....

June 17, 2014

South Korea 1, Russia 1: Methinks the Russian goalie is on his way to being a "rebel" on the Ukranian border in a few weeks.  His embarrassing muff of an easy shot led to Korea's goal, and the only thing that kept him sharing a bunk in Moscow with Edward Snowden was an equalizer three minutes later.  Not a bad game to watch; the only lemon so far was the Iran-Nigeria game, a consequence of Africa and Asia getting too many undeserving teams due to their control of FIFA....
Mexico 0, Brazil 0: Wide-open, back-and-forth battle for 90 minutes, but at the end both teams remain tied atop Group A with four points, needing only a draw in their next game to seem through to the elimination rounds.  This was the sort of effort fans of the sport have been anticipating from the Tricolores ever since they upset the Brazilians in the gold medal game of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and it seems hard to believe that it required a last-minute goal by the US in what was for them a meaningless qualifier just to get Mexico into the tournament last year.

Also, apparently Gordon Banks came out of retirement to suit up for the Mexicans this afternoon:

Belgium 2, Algeria 1: Late rally by the Red Devils staves off an upset bid by the Fennec Foxes.  Algeria played almost everyone back from the opening whistle, content to keep the score down and occasionally mount a counterattack.  As a result, they were badly outshot, rarely had possession, but on one such foray they drew a penalty and attained a shock lead at halftime, their first goal in six World Cup games going back to 1986. Eventually, the 2-1 advantage Belgium had in possession took its toll, and two goals in the final 20 minutes averted the upset.

June 16, 2014

U.S.A. 2, Ghana 1: Our long national nightmare is over.  On the third attempt, over eight years and two agonizing defeats, Ghana is finally vanquished, thanks to a late goal by the heretofore obscure Berlin-born-and-raised John Brooks. More info from Wikipedia on the second half sub who played his first real international for the U.S. today:

Clint Dempsey put the USMNT ahead inside thirty seconds, and the team did the bare minimum to survive for the next 81 minutes, only to see perennial nemesis Asamoah Gyan set up the tying goal with a brilliant backheel to Andre Ayew.  Ghana has the youngest team in the Cup, so the opening jitters that allowed the early goal, and which manifested itself by the waste of numerous scoring chances that were shot wide, could be alleviated in the next two games.  Team USA, on the other hand, can effectively clinch a spot in the next round with a win over beleaguered Portugal on Sunday.
Iran 0, Nigeria 0: Move along, please. Nothing to see here.
Germany 4, Portugal 0: Bad opening week for Iberians playing in Salvador.  Mueller scores a hat trick, and Portugal, not a deep team to begin with, sees one defender sent off and two others injured.  The score does not begin to describe how one-sided the game was.  That the losers were the fourth-ranked team on the planet, acc. to FIFA, is perhaps an indication that the system the world body uses is yet another thing about it that should be reformed...fourth straight time, and fifth time in last seven, that Germany has scored at least four goals in their opener.
Argentina 2, Bosnia-Herzegovina 1: Gifted by an early own-goal and sparked by a second-half score by obscure journeyman Lionel Messi, the powder-blue striped juggernaut that is Argentina wins an opener well-played by both teams.  B-H played an exciting, end-to-end style that put constant pressure on the group favorites, a nice way to debut in their first-ever World Cup.  Through 11 games in 2014, there have been 37 goals scored, as opposed to only 18 goals scored at the same point in 2010, and only one game has seen fewer than three combined goals scored.

June 15, 2014

France 3, Honduras 0: Scoreless game til just before the half, as Honduras put everyone back to frustrate, then a nasty shove inside the box by Wilson Palacios led to both a penalty kick and red card, and the game was not in doubt thereafter.  First time goal line technology was used to award a goal (France's second). The initial decision was to call it an "own goal", since the shot hit the goal post, struck the Honduran goalkeeper, and trickled over the line.  I've seen enough hockey games, where there is no concept of an "own goal", to know that putting the ball in a position where an incidental tap by a defending player can knock it into his own net is an offensive skill.  I would just as soon see the term eliminated for all but the most obvious foul-ups, like this:

On the other hand, the first goal here, from the 1974 World Cup, really shouldn't be counted as an o.g.:

Switzerland 2, Ecuador 1: As close to a walk-off goal as you can get, the Swiss win deep into injury time, just moments after Arroyo passed on an open shot that would have flipped the result.  What may quickly be forgotten was a great non-call by the ref after a Swiss player got hacked moving the ball upfield; rather than taking a spectacular dive that might have drawn a red card, the player kept on his feet, dribbled forward, and set up the winning goal:
Again, continuing a trend that has lasted throughout the early stage of the World Cup, this was the fifth come-from-behind win, and all but one game has featured at least three goals scored.

June 14, 2014

Ivory Coast 2, Japan 1: For sixty minutes, Japan was in cruise control, coasting to a well-deserved victory, only to have it all go so horribly wrong...Didier Drogba, playing the role of SuperSub, entered the game, then Les Elephants scored two headers in 100 seconds, and just like that we had our fourth game in eight in which the team that conceded the first goal came back and won (in 2010, there were only three such games the entire tournament).  As with the earlier game between Italy and England, the final fifteen minutes were seemingly played in slow motion.  And after consecutive World Cups where the Ivory Coast suffered the agony of having to compete in a Group of Death, playing in the competitive but eminently-winnable Group C has allowed Cote d'Ivoire of actually being able to dream of an elimination round game instead of an early exit.
Italy 2, England 1: Thrilling, end-to-end game for sixty minutes, before both teams wilted in the extreme humidity in the rain forest city of Manaus.  After their insipid effort against the Italians in Euro 2012, which they lost on penalty kicks after having been thoroughly dominated for 120 minutes, the Three Lions can draw succor from the close loss, with the end-to-end play, the offensive pressure placed on the Italian goal, and even a nifty pass by Wayne Rooney to assist on the only goal, by Liverpool standout Daniel Sturridge.  Both of Italy's goals came on defensive breakdowns, unfortunately, showing England's novice quality at the international stage, and Rooney later missed a tap-in in front of the goal, as well as uncorking perhaps the worst corner kick in the history of the World Cup: 

Costa Rica 3, Uruguay 1: Biggest upset of the Cup so far.  The defending South American champs, and 2010 semifinalist, controlled the first half in their return to the country that hosted their last World Cup title, only to collapse in the final 45 minutes.  The Ticos scored two goals four minutes apart to shock Uruguay, and perhaps answer why the US was so dead-set on playing its qualifier last year in a snowstorm.  Uruguay, on the other hand, played without Premier League scoring leader Luis Suarez, and effectively answered in the affirmative all the questions about whether they had passed their sell-by date three years ago.
Columbia 3, Greece 0: So much for Columbia missing Radamel Falcao...they scored early, late and in-between, dominating from start to finish, and putting some distance from their tragic disaster in 1994.  The Greeks were shut out for the sixth time in seven World Cup games.
Chile 3, Australia 1: From a sporting website Down Under:
Australian striker Tim Cahill says Chile's 3-1 win in Cuiaba came down to respect: the Socceroos showed their opponents too much and their opponents showed soccer none. Cahill says his Chilean marker Gonzalo Jara admitted to cheating in a feisty fixture at the Arena Pantanal. The pair tangled behind play in a first half incident which led to the Australian copping a yellow card. "The left back kicked out at me when I was trying to run past him for a cross and I pushed him away - and I got the yellow card," Cahill told reporters. "I called him a cheat. And he said 'yes, I'm a cheat, so what'.

The Orange Wedding:

Holland 5, Spain 1:

June 13, 2014

Mexico 1, Cameroon 0: Overcoming some dubious, goal-negating calls by FIFA-quality officials, the Tricolores finally got one to count in the second half and breezed to victory over an outclassed African squad in a torrential downpour.  Oribe Peralta, who carried the team through the play-in games with New Zealand, scored off a rebound in the 60th minute.  Samuel Et'o heroically carried the "Indomitable" Lions for 90 minutes, but ultimately you need a couple of other decent players at this stage; Cameroon has now lost its last five World Cup games.

June 12, 2014

Brazil 3, Croatia 1: And so it begins...the hosts fell behind early on a fluke own goal, then rallied behind two goals from debutant star Neymar, including a penalty off a terrible call, and clinching the game in injury time on a Mark Moseley-style toekick by Oscar.  Before anyone tries to draw any predictions based on this shaky start, please note that the last World Cup champs, Spain, lost their 2010 opener to Switzerland, and Brazil was itself unimpressive in its opener the last time it won, in 2002.  That game, a 2-1 victory over
Turkey, also featured an early deficit, an incredibly dodgy dive by a Brazilian player that led to the winning penalty kick, and an even sleazier bit of fakery that got a Turkish player sent off.  Good times....

World Cup 2014 is finally upon us, and as I have done here every four years  since 2002, here is the country-by-country comparison of this year's contestants and their NCAA hoops counterparts:

Algeria -- MEAC champion
Argentina -- Michigan State
Australia -- Play-in winner (16 seed)
Belgium -- Wichita State

Bosnia-Hrzg. -- Oregon
Brazil -- Kentucky
Cameroon -- Play-in loser (12 v. 12 game)
Chile -- San Diego State

Columbia -- Syracuse
Costa Rica -- Mercer
Croatia -- Stanford
Ecuador -- New Mexico

England -- UCLA
France -- Louisville
Germany -- Duke
Ghana -- Michigan

Greece -- Virginia
Honduras -- Big West champs
Iran -- OVC champs
Italy -- Kansas

Ivory Coast --Gonzaga
Japan-- PAC-12 Champion, when Arizona and UCLA are having off-seasons
Mexico -- Baylor
Netherlands -- Michigan

Nigeria -- New Mexico St.
Portugal -- Arizona
Russia -- Tennessee
South Korea -- Ivy League champion

Spain -- UConn
Switzerland -- Oklahoma St.
United States -- Virginia Commonwealth
Uruguay -- Creighton

Leave any criticisms, questions, challenges, etc. in the tip jar....

March 25, 2014

The Obamabots Are Out to Get Me !!!

It seems that Star Reporter and Brave Defender of Noble Whistleblowers everywhere Glenn Greenwald is in fine fettle today. Apropos of nothing, he takes on his favorite StrawMan, the mythical character who defends Barack Obama at all costs, no matter what he does, without giving any examples of the creature. This time, it's in the context of the President's apparent decision to discontinue the collection of metadata, while still allowing the government to get permission from FISA to review said data. I have no idea how any of that is really a reform or will bolster my right of privacy, but Greenwald seems to be getting some serious wood about this, less because the President has proposed such a step as that his "supporters" (ie., African Americans, feminists, MSNBC watchers, Latinos, etc.) will now have to back this apparent change in policy. Of course, I love a good old-fashioned "Everybody is a Hypocrite Except Me" rant as much as the next guy, except our Intrepid Junior Chomsky in Rio doesn't provide any examples of this misbehavior, not a single "defend-Obama-at-all-cost cheerleaders" who has publicly defended a decision by the Administration, then flipped after the President has had a change of heart. Not one link, not an anecdote nor quote. Nothing. Nada. The article begins with a long dissertation on the Obama Administration's decision not to release additional Abu Ghraib photos in 2009. Greenwald points out that the initial decision, popular with progressives, was to go ahead and publish the pics, but that public outcry forced a reversal. Greenwald claims that the decision was met with a similarly dramatic reversal among Obama's supporters, but provides no examples of same; in fact, he does link to an old Salon article which shows quite the opposite, with people like Andrew Sullivan, Dan Froomkin, John Aravosis and the proprietors of Talking Points Memo all attacking the President for the flip-flop !! This has been a recurrent habit of Mr. Greenwald, a self-righteous tone that demands that we acknowledge not only his bravery and intrepid defense of our Liberties and Freedoms, but that those who disagree with him aren't simply hypocrites, but even worse, Partisan Hacks. That he doesn't see fit to provide any evidence that these people exist outside of a blog's Comments Section ultimately weakens his ability to speak to the undecided, but in the end, that isn't important to him, since the issue, whether it be NSA spying or drone attacks or torture, isn't really important to him either.