Football Weekend Roundup

Barcelona beat Racing Santander at the Camp Nou today 3-0.  Anything less than a Barcelona win, especially at the Camp Nou, would have been a major shock.  Pep Guardiola switched up the back four somewhat, starting Adriano, Puyol, Abidal, and Maxwell.  It is probably a good move to let other defensive players learn how to play with each other given the loss to Real Betis this week in which the relatively untried back four was very undisciplined.  A word about that loss though; yes, it ended Barcelona’ record 28 match unbeaten streak, but it’s not like the match meant anything.  The Blaugrana already had a 5-0 lead going into the second leg.  Pep could have sent out Barcelona B and still would have moved on to the Copa del Rey semifinals.  As it was, he sent out few of the regular starters, and Lionel Messi (who played) was recovering from the flu.  A 3-1 loss, while not ideal, is not like the end of the world.  Certainly not worth the handwringing of the football press.

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The 2011 Asian Cup quarterfinals have ended, and I was 75% correct.  Japan beat Qatar 3-2; Uzbekistan beat Jordan 2-1; South Korea beat Iran 1-0; and Australia beat Iraq 1-0.  I correctly called wins for Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  The reason I did not pick Uzbekistan is because (1) the Uzbeks have been terribly inconsistent in the past; and (2) I thought there would be an upset somewhere, and South Korea over Iran does not qualify as an upset.

Although all four matches were incredibly tight, particularly South Korea/Iran and Australia/Iraq–both of those wins coming in extra time.  Nevertheless, the most important lesson of the 2011 Asian Cup is that it confirms the message we got from the 2010 World Cup qualifications–AFC supremacy has decisively moved to East Asian (and Oceania.)  Japan, Australia, and South Korea were among the first nations to qualify for the World Cup, and all three did so in imperious fashion.  At the World Cup, Japan and South Korea both advanced to the first knockout round before being knocked out in close matches (Japan by Paraguay and South Korea by Uruguay.)  Australia was in a very tough group, meeting a vastly superior German side who demolished them.  To its credit, Australia fought back, beating Serbia and drawing against a talented Ghana.  The Socceroos did not move on, but did not shame themselves either; in another group, they too may have made the next round.

North Korea’s qualification into the World Cup was a fluke, as both its World Cup humiliation and its poor Asian Cup showing attest.  Conversely, Uzbekistan had been on the verge of a breakthrough for years but was too inconsistent to for any significant progress.  Although Word Cup qualifiers were dismal, Uzbekistan is probably the third most accomplished team from the former Soviet Union (behind only Russia and Ukraine.)  That actually does not say too terribly much given that most of the former Soviet states play in the much tougher UEFA.  How much better would Kazakhstan or the Caucus nations or (especially) Russia seem if their competition were Asian nations instead of Europe ones?  How much worse would Uzbekistan seem if it had to play Spain and Italy instead of Qatar and China?

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan steadily developed into the lone Central Asian powerhouse and the only team from that region that can compete with the AFC’s upper echelon.  The 2011 Asian Cup has taught us to underestimate Uzbekistan at your own risk.  Having said that, I am going to underestimate Uzbekistan again and predict an Australian victory.

The other semifinal pits South Korea and Japan.  Japan is the dominant force of the Asian Cup, having won three of the past five titles.  South Korea, ranked lower by FIFA (for what it’s worth), has the better head-to-head record.  South Korea has not won the Asian Cup since 1960, but in 2002 it came in 4th at the World Cup thanks to the home crowd advantage and extremely dubious officiating.  South Korea has established EPL talent Park Ji-Sung.  Japan has, among others, Shinji Kagawa and potential future star Keisuke Honda.  Neither side has particularly impressed at this tournament save for Japan’s 5-0 humiliation of Saudi Arabia and South Korea’s 4-1 rout of India.  Japan played a more entertaining quarterfinal against Qatar; South Korea eked out a win against a much tougher Iran.  There is a decades-long animosity between the nations of South Korea and Japan which manifests itself in international sports–see the 2010 Winter Olympic battle between women’s figure skaters Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada, which became a matter of intense national pride.  On the football pitch, they are each other’s fiercest rival (although for obvious historical reasons their rivalry strongly parallels that of Germany and the Netherlands.)  It is hard to pick a winner, but given Japan’s history at the Asian Cup, I will weakly predict a Japan/Australia final.

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The Four Nations women’s tournament has begun, and it is not a happy beginning for the US Women’s National Team.  They lost 2-1 to Sweden, a group stage opponent at the World Cup this summer.  Worse, the USWNT lost despite holding a 1-0 lead–the first time the USNWT lost a match it had led since March 2002.  Canada edged past China 3-2 in the other match.

This is not the end of the Four Nations, and as I mentioned before, this is more of a scrimmage than anything else.  Nevertheless, I am deeply worried about the USWNT–and by extension the WPS.  2011 is the first time that the United States did not automatically qualify for the World Cup after losing for the first time to Mexico in the CONCACAF qualifier.  Kristine Lilly has retired for good.  Abby Wambach, the only real star the USWNT has left, is currently out with an injury.  The new generation has yet to assert itself.

I believe in Pia Sundhage; she has proven to be a great coach, and she restored morale (and world preeminence) to the USWNT after the humiliation and self-immolation of the 2007 World Cup.  Nevertheless, I fear Sundhage is fighting a losing battle.  The major problems that plague the American men’s game–the college system, the failure to tap into the black and Latino communities, a preference for athleticism over technique, a fan base that only thinks about the sport during major international competitions–also hinder the women’s game.  These problems never asserted themselves in the women’s game before because the rest of the world–save for Norway and (briefly) China–lagged so far behind the United States.  As the rest of the world has improved, particularly Germany and Brazil, the problems with United States football has manifested in the decline of the USWNT.  The US should have recognized this change; Norway fell off its perch as the top European side years ago, and China has dramatically declined over the past decade.  The decline of the USWNT was belied by Olympic victories in 2004 and 2008, but something drastic must be done to stem the tide, particularly if the WPS folds.

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What a shock.  Zinedine Zidane’s temper is again blocking anything resembling common sense.  I’ll let you read the article.  If I make any more comments, I’m afraid he’ll sue me.

It also shows that anger over the decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar is still running high.

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Finally, the news out of the Bernebeu suggests that even one of coaching’s greats cannot handle the powder keg that is Real Madrid.  For the last few days, there have been whispers about a fallout between Jose Mourinho and the Madrid leadership, particularly sporting director Jorge Valdano.  The struggle has nominally been over Mourinho’s desire to bring in a new striker during the January transfer window to replace the injured Gonzalo Higuain; in reality it is about control of Real Madrid.  This is the way that Mourinho operates.  He wants full control over the squad and sees a club’s management/ownership merely as the purchasing power behind his vision.

At Chelsea this worked because Chelsea was a club with little history of title and a very wealthy owner who wanted them.  Once Mourinho brought in those titles, said owner decided he wanted something more, i.e. style, which Mourinho does not do.  To accomplish this goal, said owner started buying players that he wanted but Mourinho did not.  That ended Mourinho’s tenure at Chelsea.  Mourinho went to Inter, a club that had a glorious history (depending on your view Herrera’s Grande Inter and catenaccio), but decades of frustration after being surpassed by city rival AC Milan and bitter enemy Juventus.  Mourinho took complete control and Massimo Moratti let him because Mourinho won.

Real Madrid is a different animal.  The president of Real Madrid is more than just the head of the club, he is a politician–a man of enormous ego and cutthroat ruthlessness.  No one’s position at the club is secure, not even the president’s, and an absence of trophies stokes the rage of the Madridistas.  The Madridistas demand victory and style.  When a manager does not give them both they turn against him and the Madrid leadership.  Rebuilding years are unacceptable.  This need for instant gratification–particularly in the Champions League, which Madrid sees as its birthright–is what led to the former Galacticos era and the current one.  Real Madrid cannot just be a great club; it must be history’s greatest club.

Madrid last won the Champions League in 2002.  Since then the club has woefully underperformed, and a parade of coaches has entered and left.  Barcelona, Madrid’s fiercest rival, has become the dominant force in the world with this current Barça side hailed as possibly the greatest ever.  Thus the Madridistas have had to watch their footballing enemies earn the glory they crave while simultaneously watching their own beloved side suffer defeat after defeat to the Blaugrana, sometimes in humiliating fashion.  That was why Mourinho, whose mutual loathing with Barcelona and its supporters rivals that of Madrid, had to be brought to the Bernabeu.

But now there is trouble.  Even Madrid does not have all the money in the world, and now–after two years of unbridled spending–the club will not accommodate Mourinho.  Valdano openly questioned Mourinho, wondering to the press why Karim Benzema, a striker bought with Galacticos II money is not good enough.  Last week, Almeria (a club that Barcelona beat 8-0) drew with Madrid which enabled Barcelona to open up a 4 point gap at the top of La Liga.  And in November Barcelona humiliated Madrid and Mourinho 5-0 at the Camp Nou.  For the first time the Madridistas had to recognize that Mourinho may not be the instant Messiah that they hoped he was.

Mourinho in turn is seeing, possibly for the first time in his career, a club turn against him.  He is realizing that he is not the top dog at Madrid; the club is far bigger than the man, and those in charge will never let him forget that.  Now Mourinho is openly hinting, despite Iker Casillas’s assurances to the contrary, that he may leave Madrid at the end of the season.

Mourinho is both a perfect and terrible fit for Madrid.  He is a perfect fit because he is one of the most prominent (if not the most prominent) manager in the world.  His record speaks for itself.  Madrid is one of the most historically illustrious (if not the most historically illustrious) club in the world with nine European Cup/Champions League titles.  One would think they are made for each other.  On the other hand, Mourinho’s ego is superseded by the collective ego of the Real Madrid community.  The clash of egos is ultimately going to end painfully, if not this year (the race for all titles is still very much on) than in the near future, particularly as long as Barcelona dominates Spain and Europe.

A better fit for Mourinho would actually be Manchester City, a club that he probably sees as beneath his talents.  However, Man City would give him everything he could possibly want in a club–near unlimited wealth, and carte blanche to use it.  Since its takeover by the oil-garchs, Man City has displayed an appalling lack of common sense in the transfer market.  It buys very talented head cases that other clubs gladly sell (Robinho, Balotelli, Adebayor, Tevez) or overpays for lesser talent.  One would be excused for thinking that the Man City decision-makers have never actually watched a football match.  Poor Roberto Mancini has to make lemonade from poisoned lemons.  He did not create the toxic atmosphere at the Eastlands, but he lacks the personality to do something about it or with it.

Not Mourinho.  He would dominate the Man City with his personality.  The decision-makers would be intimidated by him and let him do what he wants.  They and the Man City supporters just want titles and  Mourinho would bring them–the fans would deify Mourinho if these titles came at the expense of the despised Manchester United.

Mourinho could win every tournament and extend his Madrid contact, but it appears that the writing is on the wall.  The expectations are too high and the foundations too weak.  Madrid and Mourinho are too strong for each other.  Inevitably they will realize that too.

What I listened to while writing this post: Science Friday Podcast; World Football Phone-In.

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