Final Asian Cup Comment

Well, it had to end.  It’s funny because for once I don’t actually have much to say about the Asian Cup.  Japan beat Australia in a very good 1-0 overtime nail biter.  The Socceroos played better, but could not find the back of the net.  Samurai Blue converted when it mattered most and now have a record four Asian Cups.  The South Koreans’ souls have died just a little more.

Japan has dominated the Asian Cup now for quite some time, but as Australia proved today, there is a actually a real rival now (other than South Korea.)  In four years, expect Australia (should they be able to find the talent) to be a favorite when the Asian Cup is in . . . Australia.

Both teams have a lot to be proud of, and for both it is a way to make up for disappointingly early exits from the World Cup.  Japan have defended their title as Unofficial World Football Champion, which I am sure they care about deeply.  Australia, well, this is going to hurt for a while.  The past eight months have not exactly been kind to Australian sports–the early exit from the World Cup,  a semifinal exit in the Women’s Rugby World Cup, annihilation by the All Blacks at the Tri-Nations, poor showings at the men’s and women’s basketball World Championships, losing to New Zealand at the 2010 Rugby League Four Nations, the disappointment of the 2022 World Cup bid, the Ashes, Sam Stosur’s early exit at the Australian Open (although Belgium’s “Aussie Kim” Clijsters won), and now this.  Maybe the Aussies can turn their collective fortunes at the Cricket World Cup starting next month.  If not, they always have the World (Field) Hockey World Cup win from last year.  Fair dinkum.

Japan meanwhile has booked a spot for the oh-so-glorious 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil which will also feature Spain, Brazil, New Zealand (probably), the USA or Mexico (depending on which one wins the Gold Cup), the African country that wins the next African Cup of Nations, the non-Brazil South American team that places best at the Copa America, and the 2012 UEFA Euro Champion (or runner up if Spain wins.)

Now I will not think about the Asian Cup for four years as the (sorry, it’s true) more interesting continental tournaments approach (Gold Cup excluded), starting with this summer’s Copa America, which this year will ironically feature Japan.

Weekend Football Happenings

I’m sure I will have much more to say after this weekend, but I did want to make note of a few things before the big matches start.

The first is that, as predicted, South Korea beat Uzbekistan in the third place match of the 2011 Asian Cup  (3-2).  Why these tournaments have a third place match is beyond me.  Even though the third place match is usually of higher quality than the final (see: 2010 World Cup), it still seems excessively cruel to the two losing semifinalists.  Besides which, the fans don’t care.  Even the fans of the competing teams.

The Neymar Tournament has now concluded all first round play.  To the surprise of no one, Brazil and Argentina each topped their groups.  Rounding out the final group are (from Group A) Chile and Uruguay and (from Group B) Ecuador and Colombia.  Colombia will automatically go to be at the World Youth Cup because it is hosting that tournament, but the top 4 who are not Colombia will also get spots.  Which means there will be only one real loser from the group.  The top two teams of the final group will qualify for the 2012 Olympics.  If Brazil does not get one of those top two spots, there will be hell to pay.  Brazil has not won the Olympics yet, and it desperately wants to.  Additionally, because Brazil is hosting the 2014 World Cup, it won’t compete in qualifying, which will be a huge disadvantage.  The Olympics will at least provide some competition, even if it is only for (mostly) players under 23.

Alex Morgan, an up and coming star of the USWNT, got a very nice write-up on Sports Illustrated’s website.  Morgan is expected to be the next Mia Hamm/Abby Wambach.  I would advise you to watch the goal that SI linked to in the article; it is quite a beauty.  Come the new WPS season, Morgan will be a player on the Western New York Flash, i.e. Marta’s latest team.  I can’t decide if this is a good thing for Morgan or not–she will be learning from the best, but she will be heavily overshadowed.  I think the Flash may be the most interesting team to watch in the new WPS season.  I predict they will either run away with the title or flame out spectacularly.

Finally, I want to comment on the Sky Sports debacle.  Andy Gray and Richard Keys are idiots; I have no sympathy for them.  Essentially they have ruined a woman’s career.  Sian Massey will never be able to officiate a match again without tremendous scrutiny, and every time that she makes a mistake (inevitable in her line of business), it will be a black mark against her and all women.  What’s worse, is that Gray and Keys have no real remorse, just self-pity.

Just because Gray and Keys don’t understand the offside rule is no reason to take it out on the officials.  The sexism and misogyny that they have shown at Sky is appalling, beyond the comments about Massey. Frankly, I’m glad Karren Brady refused to take Keys’s call.  He should not be allowed to think he was absolved because he offered an insincere apology.  This is long overdue.  Frankly, both of them should have been fired long ago for having no idea what they are talking about–Gray’s recent comments about Messi and Barcelona (But can they go to Stoke or Blackburn on a Tuesday night?  Of course they can, you moron!  And Barcelona would do far better at Stoke or Blackburn than Stoke or Blackburn would do at the Camp Nou.) alone are worth the sack.

It’s very telling that no one, and I mean no one came to their defense.  They have clearly made too many enemies at Sky, and they deserve to go.  It’s only a shame that they will be able to carry on their filth with (of course) Al Jazeera if The Mirror is to be believed–a dubious prospect, I admit.  It’s a reminder to us American fans.  Although we have a dearth of good football announcers, it could be worse.

Asian Cup Roundup: Australia Applies For CAF Membership

Okay, so the Socceroos aren’t really trying to join Africa’s federation, but Australia’s 6-0 (!?!) semifinal (?!?) drubbing of Uzbekistan today was a reminder of the infamous 31-0 massacre of American Samoa.  That match forced FIFA to recognize that Australia were just too good for Oceania, which led to Australia being reclassified as Asia.  While the Aussies annihilation of Uzbekistan was nowhere near as humiliating as that of American Samoa (thank goodness for small miracles), the six goals scored by six different players are a tacit indication that Australia is too good for most of Asia too.

Not only was this the biggest rout of the tournament, it nearly doubled Australia’s previously underwhelming goal total; the Socceroos scored seven goals before today, and four of those seven came against India.  The most impressive stat of the Socceroo’s tournament thus far though, is not the number of goals scored (after all, Uzbekistan kind of imploded in the second half), but the number that the Aussies have allowed: one, to South Korea.

It has been fairly clear for some time now that the top teams of the AFC are Japan, Australia, and South Korea.  Australia may be the best of those three–certainly they think they are.  Four years ago, the Socceroos went to the Asian Cup positive that they would win, only to suffer a mediocre group stage and a humiliating quarterfinal exit (to Japan on penalty kicks.)  Since then, Australia dominated Asian World Cup qualification.  The Socceroos are a very solid squad, even if at the World Cup Germany showed them exactly how much of a gap exists between the best Asian sides and the best European sides.

I fear this is the Australians’ last hurrah.  The Socceroos are an aging squad.  Their two most recognizable players, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill, are 32 and 31 respectively.  While calling the current Socceroos a golden generation would be dramatically overstating the case, they may well be the most successful team produced by what until recently had been an underachieving football nation–most likely because until recently the Australians love for the sport was somewhat less passionate than Americans’ love for it.  In four years the Asian Cup will be in Australia, so we shall see if a new generation can rise up (from the ashes of a Wellington Phoenix?)

In the other semifinal, Japan broke the hearts and hopes of South Koreans everywhere, after Samurai Blue beat the Taegeuk Warriors on penalty kicks.  The match, which was far more intense than Australia’s ritual sacrifice, ended at 2-2.  It’s a cliche I know, but this was a game of two halves; Japan was better in the first half, South Korea in the second.  Nevertheless, at penalty kicks time South Korea lost its nerve and all three players who took kicks missed while all three Japanese players made theirs.

Japan v. South Korea is quite possibly the fiercest rivalry on the continent (and in a continent that has the Middle East that says a lot.)  Certainly it is the highest quality rivalry in Asia.  A lot was at stake; I think the souls of the entire population of South Korea die a little every time an athlete or team (or anything really) from Japan beats them in something.  Additionally, this continues what is now 51 years of South Korean hurt in the Asian Cup.  Japan will try for its record 4th title.

Before today I would have said the final will be a high powered clash between Japan’s dynamic attack and Australia’s impervious defense.  However, one cannot overlook the offense of any team that wins a semifinal by a six goal margin.

Australia desperately want this trophy to prove themselves to the world.  They will not be happy until they win the Asian Cup.  Their defense is far more solid than Japan’s, and their attackers can turn it on when they need to.  Japan is also the squad that eliminated them last time.  This is a grudge match and a chance for redemption for the Socceroos–both for the 2007 Asian Cup and last year’s World Cup (and outside of football, for dual humiliations of the Ashes and the Tri-Nations rugby tournament.)

I predict that Australia will win over Japan and South Korea will come in third–a confirmation of the hierarchy of Asian football.  But I’ll bet with your money only.

Music I listened to: Red Baraat Concert

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.

Asian Cup Group Stage Roundup (And Other News)

I was mostly correct about my Asian Cup predictions.  I was right about all eight quarterfinalists, although I did get wrong the seedings of South Korea and Australia.  Because Sunil Chhetri of India scored a goal against South Korea, and the score was 4-1 instead of 4-0, Australia sported a better goal differential and the Group C top seed.  So take what I said in this post, change Australia and South Korea around, and that is the quarterfinals.  I’d pat myself on the back, but figuring this out after two rounds were completed was not the most difficult thing in the world.

I predict that the semifinals are going to be: Jordan v. Australia and Japan v. South Korea.  Now I put myself out on a limb.

What will be lost in the shuffle of quarterfinalists is how well India did at this tournament.  Which is not to say that they were good; they weren’t.  They lost their matches by scores of 4-0, 5-2, and 4-1.  Nevertheless, everyone expected India to bomb in a major way, and the fact that they scored three goals (against some decent opponents) shows tremendous improvement and potential in the distant future.  I am sure that everyone will overlook India’s three goals, but keep in mind that despite being the whipping boys of the Group of Death, Sunil Chhetri alone scored more goals than Saudi Arabia, North Korea, the UAE, or Kuwait.  In fact Chhetri’s goal total equalled all four of those nations’ combined goals.  So no, India did not humiliate itself.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, did humiliate itself.  In fact, all other underachievers (North Korea, UAE, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain) can thank the Saudis for making them look good.  It wasn’t just that the Saudis lost all three matches, nor was it that Japan (their perennial Asian Cup rival) drubbed them 5-0 in the worst rout of the tournament thus far.  It was that the Saudi FA fired not one, but two coaches in the course of this tournament.  And there were only three matches.  Do you remember when the Saudis used to make World Cups?  There is a top-to-bottom rot in that federation that needs to be cleared out before they will make another World Cup.  Otherwise, it’s just entertaining.

Random question: after a campaign that was only slightly less disappointing than the World Cup, do you think North Korea will even have a football squad anymore?

Iran was the only squad to take 9 points out of 9 in the group stages.  It is hard to bet against them, but their next opponent is South Korea.  The East Asian powerhouses, Japan, South Korea, and Australia(?), have been steadily dominating the AFC.  Therefore, despite Iran’s perfect group record, South Korea still has an edge.  I believe we should all hope for a Japan/South Korea semifinal because that will be an intense match full of animosity and decades-long grudges.  That, my friends, is the true spirit of football.

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In South America, the U-20 South American Championship (i.e. the Neymar Tournament) has begun.  All eyes, especially those of the European superclubs, are on Brazil’s newest wunderkind Neymar.  He knows it, we know he knows it, he knows we know he knows it.  All his opponents know it.  All his teammates know it.  Neymar’s club (Santos) know it.  And Pelé knows it too, which means he most likely has already made a Neymar voodoo doll to stick pins into.

Neymar scored all 4 goals in Brazil’s 4-2 victory over Paraguay, which is definitely a good start.  I’ll recommend you to a comments discussion I have been having with Tyler of Tyler’s World Football for both our takes on the pros and cons of Neymar.

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Do you like football and schadenfreude?  (My guess is yes–the two seem to go hand-in-hand.)  If so, you will love this reading from the Book of Kopites–unless of course you are a Liverpool FC fan.  I heard Steven and Kenny reading it on World Football Daily today.  Brilliant stuff.  Seriously folks, when did Liverpool becomes Newcastle United?

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And finally in non-sports related news, Joe Lieberman officially recognized the obvious today.  Everyone hates him, and he wasn’t going to win reelection.  So, he did the quasi-honorable thing (this time) and dropped out of the race before he could screw everything up.

While his stand of climate change was admirable if ultimately futile, and his leadership on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and other LGBT rights issues was worthy of applause, a majority of Connecticut voters, most Democrats, and all liberals around the country–including me–will never forgive the Senator from Aetna for the way he drew out and then neutered health care reform.  His baffling and self-centered opposition to a public option (or any kind of government-sponsored alternative) helped turn the debate into a tortuously long process which in turn severely harmed the Democrats (and the country) in November 2010.  Lieberman’s actions were the classic example of “cut your nose to spite your face.”  He was angry at Democrats and liberals for turning away from him first in 2004 in his aborted Presidential campaign and then in 2006 in his ultimately successful Senate race.  This was his way of getting back at them–sabotaging that which they held most dear (this being after campaigning for John McCain in 2008 and still being allowed to keep his committee chair.)

The repercussions were more than Lieberman bargained for though.  He severely underestimated exactly how much he was loathed and how important health care reform was.  Nothing he could do would ever get him back into good graces with the voters, and quitting now is the only way to avoid humiliation in 2012.

So goodbye, Joe.  Thanks for DADT repeal, but don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Music I listened to while writing this post: The Barry Sisters “Zug Es Meir Noch Amool”; Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley “Sisters”, “Ohio”.

News From The Asian Cup And Other Thoughts

In the Asian Cup, all four groups have now finished two rounds, and the playoffs are starting to take shape.  I spoke about Group A earlier this week.  In Group B, Japan started to establish its dominance after beating Syria 2-1.  Japan and Jordan are tied on points and on goal differentials, but Jordan’s next match is Syria whereas Japan plays the already eliminated (and hopelessly woeful) Saudi Arabia.

Group C is the playground of South Korea and Australia.  They played one another and drew 1-1 with Australia’s Mile Jedinak scoring the equalizer in the 62nd minute.  Bahrain beat India 5-2, and the only surprise for me was that India managed to score 2 goals.  That has to be a moral victory somehow.  Bahrain still has a chance to move on if it beats Australia, but that is a tall order.  Australia will probably not lose to Bahrain, so the real question is who will win the group.  The runner-up have to play Iran, which is plenty incentive to win Group C.  The real question left is how badly South Korea will rout India.  That match will not be pretty.

Finally in the Axis of Evil group, Iran has already qualified as group winner after beating fellow George W. Bush enemies Iraq 2-1 and North Korea 1-0.  Iran can get totally blown out of the water by UAE and will still win, although I suspect that will not happen given how much Iran hates its neighbors.  The big match is Iraq v. North Korea.  Iraq also bet the UAE (1-0) in the second round and is currently in second place.  Despite their World Cup appearance, I do not see the North Koreans being good enough to beat the Iraqis.

My quarterfinal matchup predictions: Uzbekistan v. Jordan, Iran v. Australia, Japan v. Qatar, and South Korea v. Iraq.

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I have been thinking a bit more about the Puskás Award, and specifically about the goal of Matty Burrows who plays for the Northern Irish club Glentoran FC.  The goal that brought him to FIFA’s notice is quite a stunner–and for my tastes, far more impressive than the Hamit Altintop goal that actually won the Puskás Award (as nice as that goal was.)  Linus Hallenius’s goal is also worth checking out; it is perhaps even nicer than Marco van Basten’s famous shot against the Soviet Union at the 1988 Euro which it clearly resembles.  My opinion as to who should have won the award however, is neither here nor there.  The Puskás Award is the ultimate example of FIFA subjectivity and myopia, more so than any of the other awards that FIFA gave out that night–which says quite a bit.  And it misses the point.

A goal is both an individual achievement and a team effort.  With some famous exceptions, the most attractive goals are team efforts.  Yes, there is a finisher, and that finish may be extremely stylish, but what makes the goal spectacular is the team effort involved.  The Puskás Award is really a team award.  After all, every one of the three goals I mentioned from this year’s selection benefitted from excellent teammate assists.  No man is an island.

It is the team effort that made Argentina’s second goal against Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 so spectacular.  The ball flew traversed all of Argentina before finding the back of the net.  One thing that makes this Barcelona side so spectacular is the team effort that is produced in scoring goals, even those that Messi seems to create out of thin air.  Messi may be the first violin of the Barcelona orchestra, but Xavi is the conductor–and no orchestra is made of only two people.  Individual brilliance can take a player only so far; team brilliance wins championships–and makes legends.

Matty Burrows will never score as magnificent a goal again, nor will we never hear his name again.  He is a journeyman in one of Europe’s minor leagues.  In the UEFA coefficient, Northern Ireland ranks just above Luxembourg and just below the Faroe Islands.  It would have been nice for FIFA to recognize that great moments can also happen when the eyes of the world are not watching and that even lesser players are capable of making people happy.  This however, is anathema to FIFA.  Nevertheless, for one instant Matty Burrows created indelible magic and made himself into something more, and that is worth more than any silly award.

Music that I listened to while writing this post: Christina Aguilera “Beautiful”; Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”.

Asian Cup News

Two rounds of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup’s Group A are now complete.  As it stands now, Uzbekistan has now won both of its matches after beating Kuwait 2-1 today.  Qatar beat China 2-0 today, showing just how bad the Chinese actually are (and how much worse Kuwait is for losing to them.)  Qatar and China are now tied for second.  I wonder how many other squads would get away with having so many players from other countries as Qatar (by my count there are players from Qatar, Kuwait, Senegal, Ghana, Brazil, and Uruguay on the squad.)  In the final round Qatar plays Kuwait and China plays Uzbekistan.  I will go out on a limb and say that Uzbekistan and Qatar will advance to the quarterfinals from Group A.

It is a sad sad group when Uzbekistan are the clear powerhouse.  The Bahrainis (who are grouped with actually powerhouses Australia and South Korea in the closest thing that the AFC can muster to a group of death) must be pissed off at their bad luck.

No real surprises in the other groups after one round except for Japan only drawing with Jordan(?!?).  The Saudi Arabian FA sacked the national coach after their team’s loss to Syria, which, regardless of his merits, is the most foolish thing they could have done.  Clearly they neither expect to win the Asian Cup, nor want to anymore.  Why don’t they just go home?

India did not embarrass itself in losing to Australia 4-0, although that may be because Australia, now firmly in Asia, no longer have the appetite/need to win matches 31-0.  The real match to look forward to is Australia v. South Korea in two days.  South Korea already beat Bahrain.

In the Axis of Evil (Group D): Iran beat Iraq 2-1, and nothing exploded on or off the pitch, despite the predictions of sports journalists.  North Korea drew with the United Arab Emirates 0-0, although no doubt North Korean state television reported this as a 10-0 victory for the North Koreans.