Preview: Kicker Conspiracy
Occasionally Informed Commentary About International Soccer
When I heard that Sergio Ramos was photographed in a disco on his off day partying with a Swedish fan, I expected something far more scandalous than this
. No wonder Aragones laughed
The Magnificent Dutch
All neutrals must surely rejoice at Holland's magnificent dismembering
of France at Euro 2008 today. It wasn't just the victory of a superior team, it was the triumph of a brand of optimistic, swashbuckling attacking football that has largely fallen out of favor among the so-called elite teams.
There's nothing wrong per se with playing defensive football. Sometimes you're up against a superior team. Sometimes you need to keep it congested at the middle for tacticv. It happens. But when you are A) the manager of a skilled, top team, and B) you always play that way, there's a problem.
The reasons why a top team would choose to play that way against even lesser opponents have to do with the stakes involved. At the club level, the huge money of the Champions League encourages certain teams to take this approach. In England, the leading proponent of this kind of game is Rafa Benitez's Liverpool. This is a team with Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel, Steven Gerrard, and enough talent to really light up the pitch. Instead, Benitez's Liverpool play an defensive safety-first style, the principle being is that they can beat the lower and middle teams 1-0 and 2-0, and draw the others in the big four. That way you can keep getting Champions League football, and hope for a great run as they got in 2005. It's an awful philosophy.
But far worse than Benitez is France's Raymond Domenech. Even against weak opponents, Domenech's France play one striker, two very conservative defensive midfielders and fullbacks who limit their attacking forays. It got them in huge trouble against Scotland in the qualifiers, it got them an utterly turgid 0-0 draw with Romania, and, thank god, it got them absolutely clobbered today.
But it did get them to the World Cup finals two years ago. There were two reasons why that team is more effective than this team: Zidane and Vieira. Zidane's creativity and ability to hold the ball meant that the three other attackers got far better service than they are getting this year. And Vieira as a holding mid meant that if France did need to get a goal, he could go forward with effectiveness. But even this French team weren't always attractive to watch.
This French team doesn't have Vieira or Zidane. And its attacking has been turgid. Against the Dutch, they weren't helped by the bizarro substitutions. Gomis for Malouda? Where was Benzema? Where was Nasri? And why would you continue to play two holding midfielders when neither of them can attack, when they both have yellow cards, and when goal difference doesn't even matter for chrissake?
The only answer I can think of to that question is careerism. Coaches who play this philosophy never really get thumped and generally get a decent-ish win-loss ratio, meaning that when the end inevitably comes, they can get another job. Mild failure isn't a disqualifier for a coaching position, but abject failure is.
And the frustrating thing is that the French could be playing this game. They have players who can play the kind of game the Dutch played today. They used to play that way
So in summary, it's good for the game that Domenechism met its Waterloo today against a Dutch squad who scored exquisite goals and were beautiful to watch. It was a triumph of daring and optimistic joy over craven caution and careerism. Exhilarating.
They showed the opening ceremonies!
Cows on stilts! Swiss milkmaids with glitter on them! A gigantic moving human clock! "Tradition meets modernity," argued part-time art critic Derek Rae and who am I to argue?
(I'm not being snarky. I really enjoy opening ceremonies.)
Switzerland & Austria: Two Countries for Old Men
The premise of this article
is Euro 2008 seems to have more old (meaning, over 33 or so) players than is typical for a major tournament. I can't be bothered to look at the average age stats that indicate whether or not this is true, but I wonder if this will be a trend rather than an aberration. Fitness regimens and diets have been very strictly controlled by the clubs for about fifteen years now--about when many of these players started their careers--and many of these teams are increasingly savvy about managing their older players.
That said, none of that lot have anything on this guy
Cannavaro out of Euro 08
Italy were my pre-tournament favorite, but this
is not good news. Cannavaro was titanic for this team in 06. Now Italy faces the prospect of having Marco Materazzi anchoring the center of their defense. Oy.
Hey this blogging thing is fun! I should try it more often.
Plastic People of the Universe.
One off the key games tomorrow is England's trip to Russia. In a display of gamesmanship, the Russian federation has decided to play the match on a plastic artificial field
in Moscow, the effect of which has been to send the English press into something of a tizzy. My guess is that will make exactly zero difference to the result, as the English game is based upon speed and flank play rather than precision play through midfield. It means Paul Robinson will have to be sharp and pay attention to wayward bounces, not that he has a chequered past
with regard to such matters or anything.
Meanwhile John Terry was pronounced fit only to be hilariously ruled out of the match a few hours later. It happened so fast that the Guardian still hasn't adjusted the header of their web page
to correspond with the news.
Some other games of note:
Kazakhstan vs. Portugal. The Portuguese normally travel less well than leftover French fries, but they did well enough against Azerbaijan last weekend. Now they go even deeper into the former Soviet bloc. I'll be routing against the Kazakhs on my usual grounds: viz. Kazakhstan is not in Europe and shouldn't even be in this competition.
Georgia vs Scotland. Not elementary for the Scots, since they are playing away and missing many key players though injury. A win puts them in a gilt edged position for their final game, so really they must attack the Georgians here.
Turkey vs. Greece. These countries love each other! A Greek victory all but seals the deal on their qualification but they'll have to do it in front of 90,000 Turks.
Sweden vs Northern Ireland. The Irish started out brilliantly, but faded down the stretch somewhat. They pretty much need to win in Sweden to keep their hopes alive.
The US team returns to action tomorrow in a friendly against Euro 2008 hosts Switzerland with a largely European based team that's pretty inexperienced. Check it:GOALKEEPERS
- Marcus Hahnemann (Reading FC), Tally Hall (Esbjerg), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake)DEFENDERS-
Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham FC), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Dan Califf (Aalborg BK), Jay Demerit (Watford FC), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard de Liege), Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock), Steve Purdy (1860 Munich)MIDFIELDERS-
Freddy Adu (SL Benfica), DaMarcus Beasley (Glasgow Rangers), Michael Bradley (SC Heerenveen), Maurice Edu (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Derby County), Eddie Lewis (Derby County), Danny Szetela (Racing Santander)FORWARDS-
Clint Dempsey (Fulham FC), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake), Preston Zimmerman (Hamburger SV), Sal Zizzo (Hannover 96)
Somewhere along the line, Bob Bradley add Taylor Twellman and Brad Guzan to the roster, apparently concerned about that five game losing streak that they've been carrying (which, to be fair, consists of those three Copa games
, a loss to Brazil and an away loss in Europe.) I have to say that I'm not incredibly optimistic that they'll do so against a more than decent Swiss team at home. A shame really, that they aren't playing the other Euro 08, who, as Raphael Honigstein recently pointed out
, are comically inept
Am I right in thinking that this match
was the last time the US played Switzerland? I miss Alain Sutter.
That subject line doesn't quite work; Venezuela's uniforms are a deep maroon. Likewise, this goal isn't perfect
--look closely... you'll see it takes a lucky deflection off the wall!--but damn is it ever impressive. What a way to start your World Cup campaign.
is over already, after two quick French goals. Meanwhile Scotland-Ukraine is a must win match for both teams, currently 2-1, being played in front of 50,000 fans. But we can't be showing that on TV now, can we? Must have the latest action from the Faeroe Islands.
To add to the depression, even the little stadium in Torshavn has that irritating motion-filled electronic billboard in the background.
Great sporting events of our time,
So it's a different world than it used to be. When I wanted coverage of European football in the 80s and early 90s, I used to have to rely on my grandfather, who, from his base in Cardiff, would send me copies of the Daily Express
. Now I can read the internet and watch matches live on TV, the latter thanks to one of the more benign tentacles of the Rupert Murdoch empire: Fox Soccer Channel.
But when it comes to international soccer, FSC are so frustrating. Take tomorrow's European qualifiers for instance. They are doing live broadcasts of France vs the Faeroe Islands and Sweden vs. Liechtenstein. Their tape delay broadcast is Slovenia vs. Albania, both of whom are eliminated. Is it too much to ask for them to show a game that's both competitive and relevant? I mean, I like Liechtenstein as much as the next guy (okay, probably way more), and there once was that too funny time
they drew Portugal, but really... this just isn't worth it. The good games are either on pay per view or not on at all.
And France vs. the Faeroes probably won't happen anyway, because there's a snowstorm or something
in the islands. I'd like to believe that Domenech would screw up this game with his needlessly defensive formation just as he did against Scotland
, but they'll probably just get a workmanlike 2-0 win if the plane lands.
I'm more likely to turn to Gol TV, where the South American 2010 World Cup qualifiers get underway. Yes, it is still 2007. I think. Anyway, Bolivia vs. Uruguay should have the intensity that the FSC games are lacking.
The current French team presents a problem for me. I love France, a beautiful country with extraordinary culture, society and cuisine. I have close relatives who live there. And France has produced some fantastic players over the last decade: Zidane of course, but also Thuram, Vieira, Ribery, Djorkaeff, Henry, etc. etc. I even liked Stephane Guivarch'h.
But I find the current French team incredibly frustrating to watch and it's mainly down to coach Raymond Domenech. They play with two defensive midfielders, usually only one committed forward, and outside backs who are very conservative in gettnig forward. The attacking players that they do have--such as Henry, Ribery, Nasri and Malouda--are so good that they often offset this philosophy. But nonetheless the philosophy is still there.
At least yesterday there was a good reason for it: they came to get a draw in Italy, and they got it. With ease. The problem is that they always
play that way. I wish that Domenech would give Vieira a little more license to get forward, and get the outside backs into attack more frequently.
So yes, the big match yesterday was all a bit drab. Is it me or is the Italian attack looking very old all of a sudden.
I actually used to live in Iceland, so I was very excited to see them get the result in Reykjavik, although it's a shame about that tying goal. (In fact, I saw my first soccer game at that stadium: NY Cosmos vs Valur in the early 80s) With Northern Ireland losing in Latvia, it shouldn't make much difference to Spain; as long as they can stay within two points of them before their final match against the Irish in Spain, they're going to be favored to go through.
For Italy, it's more tricky. I think they have to win in the Ukraine.
I'm not dead yet
So... um... yes. A five weeks or so without a single post. It was one of those things where for a while there wasn't much going on in the international soccer offseason, and then just as it got interesting, I got extremely busy.
In any case, it's a beautiful Saturday morning and I'm looking forward to a nice slate of Euro qualifiers. As usual, there's the frustrating situation where the match I really have an emotional investment in--England vs Israel--is on US pay per view, and I'm hesitant to shell out the 25 dollars to watch Second Choice Steve (moniker crudely swiped from the Guardian
) scrape out a dull draw. And as usual, FSC has managed to broadcast the mostly uninteresting games. But I'll be watching Italy-France on GOL TV today, which should be an excellent rematch. With Scotland matching them step for step so far, there's a very real risk one of these marquee countries won't make it to the 2008 championships, so there's every incentive for both teams to go for the win. If you're lucky enough to live in a Portuguese-speaking area of the US and get RTPi, you can also see Portugal-Poland. Portugal have a game in hand over the group leaders Poland, but if the Poles get a win today, the Portuguese will be in major trouble. I'll also see if sentimental faves Iceland can pull off an upset and get points from Spain.
So sit back, grab a favorite beverage, prepare to teach the offside rule to some member of your household... AGAIN, and enjoy.
Projected Napoleon complexes
Several commenters on his article already make this point, but Michael Wilbon's assertion
in his not-really-coherent comparison of MLS with NFL Europe that "[p]rofessional soccer isn't satisfied with being the most popular sport in the world; its international powers that be won't be satisfied until soccer has conquered the United States...." is telling. Conquest? What precisely is he talking about? FIFA and MLS want to continue the slow growth that the sport has experienced in the US over the last 20 years.
What nobody is planning is the displacement of other sports from the US sporting scene. That Wilbon and other commentators always see changes in terms of "conquering" is more indicative of personal insecurity than anything that is going on in reality. These frequent accusations of plans of conquest--followed by confident assertions that this will never ever happen--is just an extended plea for them not to have to cover or think about a sport with which they are not familiar.
Personally, I'd like soccer to grow a bit more so that I can see more frequent highlights, and to get the respect of the mainstream media so that I don't have to read columns like Wilbon's. Otherwise, I'm quite happy with the way things are.
Bunnies! Math is hard!
Every so often, someone in the US soccer community facetiously suggests rehiring Bora Milutinovic as the coach of the US national team purely on the grounds that he's kind of funny. If that's a criterion we are considering (and we definitely should be!), than a better bet would be to nick Japan's coach, Ivica Osim. In a press conference prior to Japan's defeat of Vietnam, he noted that "it is pointless looking for unborn rabbits in the forest
." Apparently, that's a proverb in Bosnia, where Osim is from. It's baffling in context, but somehow it's even more baffling out of context. First off, it implies that there are other, better places for looking for unborn rabbits. But I just don't get the analogy; I mean, why would anyone even think of looking for unborn rabbits in the first place
? For something to be described as pointless, it has to have some nominal claim to having a point. But this isn't even in the realm of possibility.
Weird almost contradiction: first saying "There are several mathematic equations involved. You have calculators -- you work it out!" and then saying "It's not rocket science!"
Copa America final thoughts
The dust has settled on Brazil's 3-0 victory
over Argentina in the Copa America final--probably the only time in history when a Brazil tournament triumph has been seen as an upset--and the dominant narrative has emerged: Argentina bottled it. The word on the footballing street is that Argentina--and Riquelme in particular--can't handle
the big occasion.
Perhaps. But it's worth noting that the Argentinian setup and approach to this game played right into the hands of their opponents. Argentina had Riquelme, Messi, and Veron in the attacking midfield with only Tevez up top, and relied on their fullbacks Heinze and Zanetti to provide the width. But with three holding midfielders, Brazil were easily able to contain the Argentinian midfield, and since Argentina so resolutely insisted on trying to play neat combos through the center, they were snuffed out time and time again. What they should have done is played Crespo up with Tevez and taken out Veron. This would have allowed Tevez to get in some wide positions and run at defenders. Argentina seemed unwilling or incapable of getting the ball to wide areas in dangerous positions, something that would have stretched the comfortably bunkered Brazil defense.
Give Brazil credit: they were organized and had two excellent finishes. One has to feel sorry for poor Ayala; rarely has an international career finished
with such a sad performance (although even as I type that the words "Claudio Reyna" come to mind.)
The bad news about this, of course, is that we have to deal with another three more years of Dunga-ball. Still, at least the 0-0 draws will be livened up by his completely stylin' shirts.(image)
A frustrating match against a well-coached Austria team who deserved the win. The first thing that struck me is that the US looked very tired in this match. Adu, Altidore (not surprisingly), Zizzo and especially Szetala looked a little wilted. The US seemed a step slow to every ball.
There were other ways in which things might have been better. The service from the wings was, aside from the Adu cross for the goal not what it might be. And there were too many misplayed balls all over the park, even when they were under comparatively little pressure.
As I say, a tired game. But overall, a successful tournament for the US. Altidore, probably Adu, and maybe Zizzo and Szetala get European contracts out of this performance.
Feeling down (under)
I haven't blogged too much about the Asian Cup
. It's only televised here in the US on Setanta, and so I've been hesitant to comment too much on the matches I haven't seen.
But one of the big stories of the Asian Cup so far is the poor form of Australia. After drawing with Oman in their first game, they took their game to a whole new level, losing 3-1 to Iraq. (Iraq!) Now this story implies strongly
that Aussie coach Graham Arnold has lost the locker room prior to their must win match against Thailand.
It was the right decision, I think, for Australia to abandon the silly Oceania Football Confederation and join the AFC. Their chances of getting to a World Cup are far better in that confederation's format than they are taking their chances against Iran or Uruguay in a playoff. Still, in terms of their team, I wonder if the switch came at the wrong time. Kewell, Viduka and Neill are clearly past it, and it's not immediately apparent if the next generation will be as dangerous as the early-mid 00s Australia team clearly was. As a prelude to their qualifying campaign for 2010, this could hardly be a less propitious performance.
Interestingly, the OFC website
still lists Australia as a member, making them seem kind of like that friend you have who insists that his ex-girlfriend is going to call back any day now to apologize for dumping him.
Paul Doyle tells the harsh but fair truth
: Brazil have been surprisingly tedious during the Copa America, the Chile game notwithstanding. It's amazing the way that Dunga's personality as a player seems to have infected the entire national team. Hopefully the excellent Argentinians will beat them in this weekend's final.
What's potentially alarming for Brazilian fans going into next year's World Cup qualifying, is that Brazil seem to be a pretty ordinary team with two extraordinary players: Kaka and Ronaldinho. If one or both of them gets an injury, the Brazilians look eminently beatable.P.S.
If you haven't done so, please do yourself a favor check out the Argentina-Mexico highlights
. Two simply delightful goals.
The saddest country in the world is shaped like a tear....
It's been a tough week for Uruguay, so much so that I'll refrain from the usual juvenile orc references
. First, they unluckily tumbled
out of the Copa America on penalties after twice coming back against Brazil. According to Uruguayan coach Oscar Tavares, this was largely to do with the Uruguayans getting a crummy locker room
. Sounds a bit implausible to me, but hey, I'm no tactician.
Tonight, the USA bounced them
out of the U-20 World Cup 2-1 in extra time. The Uruguayans were quite unlucky here, as they really had the better of the play. Choosing a high tempo game to harry the US on the ball worked really well, and there were stretches where they really seemed to dominate. But the effort they expended left them a bit gassed in extra time, and without the really dangerous Luis Suarez on the field, they didn't offer as much of a threat after the US equalized.
Best moment: when Cardaccio got yellow carded for essentially just being an unbearable dickweed. Such a shame the ref didn't spot his elbow on Szetala (which Danny totally embellished, by the way) or whatever it was he did after the whistle that so incensed Michael Bradley.
An ugly win for the US, but you kind of knew that a letdown was coming, I think. Hope the injury to Altidore is not as serious as it seemed.
Due to a combination of work, travel, and sheer laziness, I missed about a week of blogging, a week during which the US national team's future either looks very rosy or very bleak. Your perspective literally depends on which direction you look.
Down south, the US meekly fell out of Copa America by falling 1-0 to Colombia
. Bob Bradley sensibly gave everyone who hadn't seen the field yet time against Colombia but the performance was more or less the same.
What do we take from the Copa? The point of the whole exercise
was to gain experience even as we get obliterated. The problem is that such gains are pretty much intangible; it's hard to say whose future play will benefit by this tournament and by how much. I agree almost entirely with Steven Goff's big picture take
on the Copa and the Gold Cup, possibly with the exception of his opinion on Marvell Wynne who, with the right coaching, could take his game to a higher level. I think that Wynne is essentially Frankie Hejduk ten years ago, and that the right sort of development could see him as a future factor for the US.
Up north, the U-20s have gone from strength to strength, beating Brazil 2-1
and winning their group. They face the Uruk-hai in the round of sixteen
on Wednesday. It's hard to handicap this match, but assuming that the young Uruk-hai share their older compatriots' propensity for mindless violence, I think the US will be up against it. They'll need to make the most of the inevitable free kicks that their opponents concede and be prepared to use Altidore and Szetala's strength effectively to hold their own.
So a tasty set of international games this week as the U-20 knockout games start tomorrow and the Copa semis begin tonight. Anyone know if the Asian Cup is being broadcast anywhere in the States?
Ask and ye shall receive
My previous pessimistic malaise
now seems a touch foolish: at the U-20 cup, the US just stomped on Poland
6-1. Freddy Adu got a hattrick. Even the US Soccer website
is down in disbelief.
Clearly the difference-maker in this match is that I wasn't actually able to watch the game. There's a repeat tomorrow at 6:30 that I'll try to catch, assuming that my powers to make favored teams suck just by watching them doesn't work backwards in time.
The good points...
were the play of Feilhaber, who continues to make a starting place for himself in the best XI, and Clark. I like the idea of a D-mid who can actually make the odd thing happen on offense from time to time.
But to go back to accent-shuating the negative, I also caught twenty minutes of the US U-20 draw with South Korea, a twenty minute stretch where they were getting their asses handed to them
. Truly a bad week for US soccer.
On the other hand this result keeps alive the possibility of a North Korea-South Korea final round match, which would be too cool for words.
My match report is here
. This match was far more frustrating than getting tonked by Argentina, because really and truly, we could have won this.
I don't need to dwell on the abysmal finishing (three and maybe four or five chances that paid professionals should expect to put away.) Let me just say that this tournament is revealing how little depth there is in attacking midfield for the US. Beyond Donovan, Dempsey, Beasley and Convey, there's a vast gap. Against Paraguay, we were forced to start essentially with four defensive/holding midfielders. Olsen used to be a right mid, and he would run through a brick wall for you, but he's not an attacking midfielder any more... the fact that we need
him to play on the right is telling. Kljestan was simply awful on the left. Mapp and Gaven can't seem to raise their games to this level (in the latter's case, to any level.)
A modest proposal: for the Colombia game, why not start Herculez Gomez at the left mid. Yeah, it probably won't work, but he can't be worse than Kljestan or Mapp. Better still, play 4-3-3 with Gomez and Johnson on the flanks. Oh, and I'd bring in Guzan for Keller. Keller has added little at this stage, so why not give the young'un experience?
Meanwhile, in the Northern hemisphere, the FIFA U-20 World Cup
is about to start. If you're keen on seeing some of the talent that will be breaking on the world football scene in a few years, clearly this is the tournament to watch. In doing so, you'll be joined by hundreds of scouts from top clubs. So if Josy Altidore and/or Freddy Adu have excellent tournaments, they could find themselves with fat European contracts.
Standing in their way are Brazil, Poland, South Korea, and the fact that their squad is coached by Thomas Rongen. Oh and perhaps also their boyish impulses in a city
with a vibrant night life. However their prep for the tournament has been strong, including wins against Chile and a closed door match against New Zealand
The US will play their matches in Olympic Stadium
, which I had thought been condemmed, but can apparently still host events with a relatively minimal risk
of concrete blocks falling. I passed by it on my trip (on the way to the Botanical Gardens) and took the above picture; I love the way it looms like a claw over east Montreal. Apparently, ticket sales are good--I've utterly forgotten where I read this, but apparently they're the second highest for a U-20 World Cup.