FIFA Oscars 2013: ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi!

Ah the annual pageant of the Ballon d’Or.  Every year the spectacle becomes ever more bloated, which means that every year I appreciate it all the more as a camp spectacle, or more accurately, only as a camp spectacle.  Like the real Oscars, the FIFA Oscars are less about the awards themselves and more about big names vying for media attention.  It’s so tacky, that one can only laugh at it.  Which is why Lionel Messi’s polka dot tuxedo (he apparently gets his fashion tips from El Diego) may represent the epitome of the ridiculousness that is the Ballon d’Or.

As with any year, there are a whole bunch of little awards that FIFA wants me to care about, but I don’t.  I feel like FIFA keeps adding awards just to stay relevant–if you can consider giving an award to Franz Beckenbauer, a man who has not kicked a ball competitively in decades, relevance.  And of course there is the annual Puskas award for best goal, which never seems to go to the most interesting goal, but rather to a long ball volley from a player who either plays in or for Turkey.  If you want to know about those other awards, the Guardian has a nice live blog.  Otherwise you are on your own.

Women’s Player of the Year

Every year I wonder whether people who vote for these awards actually watch women’s football.  This year is no exception.  Given that the US team won the Olympics, the only important international competition in 2012, it is no surprise that two US players–Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan–were nominated.  What is something of a shock (if you follow women’s football, that is) is that the third player in the final three was Brazil’s Marta.  I am a big fan of Marta, as I have made clear numerous times on this blog.  I have called her possibly the greatest individual player the women’s game has ever seen (or second behind Michelle Akers), but this year was not a particularly good year for Marta.  Last year when she was also somewhat surprisingly a top three finalist, at least it made sense because of her good club season and because she played well at the World Cup was stellar (if her team did not).  But this year?  By Marta’s standards it was pretty mediocre.  Nevertheless, Marta is a name and a known international commodity while the person who should have been in the top three in her stead, Canada’s Christine Sinclair, is not.  (One might also suggest that FIFA look beyond the international game into the club game where Lyon won a second Champions League in a row, but that may be asking too much.)

I have no complaints about Abby Wambach winning.  She is certainly deserving.  Over the past two years, the US got to the finals of the World Cup and the Olympics almost sheerly by Wambach’s will alone.  But for Homare Sawa’s incredible World Cup performance last year, Wambach probably would have deserved last year’s award too.  Alex Morgan arguably had the more spectacular year, but Wambach is very close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, one that I thought would stand forever.  Therefore, there is a certain symmetry to Wambach being the first American winner since Hamm.  Alex Morgan will probably win next year because FIFA will not pay attention to women’s football until the 2015 World Cup, and Morgan is the new star.

Women’s Coach of the Year

Unlike Wambach’s win, which was not easy to predict, there was no doubt that Pia Sundhage would win the women’s coach of the year.  And being Pia Sundhage, she sung when accepting the award.  Like with the player of the year, there were two candidates who deserved to be there, Sundhage and Japan’s Norio Sasake, and one candidate who was a complete head scratcher, France’s Bruno Bini.  FIFA’s website says that he was nominated because:

Semi-finalists at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, Les Bleues continued their excellent run of form at the Olympic Football Tournament by again finishing fourth, a few months after their success at the Cyprus Cup. The credit for this new consistency in reaching the semi-finals of major competitions must go to Bruno Bini, who has been coach of the French women’s national team since February 2007.
Notably, France won neither semifinal.  Moreover, I would argue that the teams achieved those two fourth place finishes despite Bini not because of him.  If anything, France is largely made up of players from Lyon, and I would think that Bini’s spot should have gone to Lyon’s manager (according to Wikipedia, it is Patrice Lair, who placed fourth in the voting).  But that would mean paying attention to women’s club football.  Notably, the person who placed 5th in the voting was Germany’s Silvia Neid, whose team did not even qualify for the Olympics.  Le sigh.
Another person sadly overlooked was John Herdman (6th).  This was a man who took a shattered Big Red from last place at the World Cup to third at the Olympics–almost to the final round, barely losing the sport’s best ever match. Probably Herdman’s and Sinclair’s omissions had less to do with merit and more to do with the way they bitterly (and not completely unfairly) complained about the refereeing after their semifinal loss to the US.  Probably the fact that Canada is Jan Brady to the US’s Marsha had something to do with it too.
Men’s Coach of the Year
Vicente del Bosque won the award he should have gotten two years ago for the World Cup.  This year it was for the Euro, the first time a nation won two in a row, and the first time any nation ever won three major tournaments in a row.  Really though the award was for the 4-0 annihilation of Italy, as before that magical match Spain’s performance was yeoman-like at best.  No matter how you slice it, he accomplished something bigger than any other coach, certainly a bigger accomplishment than that of the two runners-up, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.  Why those two men were nominated given that neither the Champions League?  I have no idea.  Mourinho didn’t even show up to the ceremony because he knew he wasn’t going to win.  For anyone else, I could respect that decision, but the Surly One such a bad sport at everything he does, that it is hard not to call him a sore loser in this case too.  Here is the truth about Mourinho–he is incredibly insecure because he knows his wins had less to do with his coaching abilities and more to do with major financial backing of rich clubs and some very lucky breaks.  Now he is self-destructing at Real Madrid as I predicted he would.  Madrid is too big a club with too proud a tradition of winning and too many big names to put up with his insecurity-driven ego.
FIFA XI
If I were a suspicious person, I would think that FIFA was sending a message to everyone, the English especially: “Be like Spain.”  Not only were all three coach finalists and all three Ballon d’Or finalists either Spanish or plying their trade in La Liga (or both), all 11 players of the World XI play for either Real Madrid (Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo), Barcelona, (Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves), or Atletico Madrid (Radamel Falcao).  Whether or not those are the most deserving 11 is some matter of debate (but the answer is “no”), but FIFA has firmly jumped on the Spain bandwagon is not getting off yet.
Ballon d’Or
Five months ago, I was unsure who would win this award.  It was pretty clear that it would be either Messi (best player in the world, possibly ever, who smashed all sorts of scoring records this year), Cristiano Ronaldo (second best in the world, won La Liga), or Iniesta (hero of the Euro).  In fact, I leaned toward Iniesta, who really deserves major recognition.  As of December 2012, I knew it would be Messi.  And all because of a sort-of meaningless statistic–91 goals in a calendar year.
To be fair, Messi was probably going to win all along.  No asks who is the “next Maradona” anymore because of Messi, sub-par World Cup be damned.  The real question is about where his place in history is (the summit) rather than where he is in the hierarchy of today’s players.  Sometimes I like to imagine that Cristiano Ronaldo goes home at night and screams his own name in front of a mirror with a picture Messi taped to it.  He so desperately wants to be the best, and that will forever be a frustrated ambition despite the best efforts of Marca, AS, and certain British tabloid jingoists who cannot fathom that this generation’s great player will never have played in the Premier League.
And yet Messi’s win, while not as baffling as that of two years ago, is still somewhat confusing because it raises a fundamental question about the Ballon d’Or.  What exactly are the criteria for the winner?  Is it for the most accomplished player of the season or the best player in the world.  If the latter, then Messi should win it for the next five years or so.  If the former, then certainly Iniesta would have a better claim to it, since international play trumps club play according to FIFA.  Yet Messi won the votes of a majority of the first place votes of captains, coaches, and journalists–the three groups that vote for the Ballon d’Or.  It was his record-breaking fourth title, which means that Messi has now won more titles than the following players:  Di Stefano, Ronaldo (both), Platini, Zidane, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer (Pele and Maradona were ineligible).  Certainly there is a very solid argument that he is a better player than all of them, but it makes the next few years kind of predictable, especially if Barcelona does to Europe what it is doing to La Liga this year.
And this is why the Ballon d’Or is such a ridiculous spectacle.  I hope that next year Messi take his sartorial sensibilities to its logical conclusion and goes for full-out clown outfit complete with make-up, red horn nose, and oversize shoes.  I cannot imagine a better mascot for the FIFA Oscars.
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Please Don’t Go, Pep!

Now that André Villas-Boas has been sacked, Chelsea is looking for a new manager.  Again.

I never quite understood why Villas-Boas went to Chelsea to begin with.  Well, obviously I do understand; money talks.  But at the time he signed I felt like Villas-Boas was shooting himself in the foot.  Had he stayed at Porto, he would have gotten some Champions League experience, and probably another league title.  Chelsea paid better and was higher-profile, but there were far too many pitfalls.  If the England manager is a poison chalice, than how much worse is Chelsea manager?  Not only do you have to deal with the press and the inflated expectations to win everything, you also have no time to settle in before someone is calling for your head–even when you are winning.  On top of that the players control the locker room, and really who wants to be subservient to a loathsome human being like John Terry?  Then there is the shadow figure of Roman Abramovich who expects nothing less than total domination in England–a feat that may be more and more unlikely as Manchester City can now match him dollar for dollar–and the Champions League.  Above all there is the memory of José Mourinho.  It’s unfair of course, Mourinho never won the Champions League at Chelsea either (and lest we forget, Mourinho was also sacked), but Mourinho brought Chelsea to heights it had never before scaled and has yet to attain again–even if Chelsea actually did won the League/Cup double under Carlo Ancelotti.

Villas-Boas definitely did himself no favors, and as the pressure ratcheted up on all sides, he cracked.  A deity in Porto and a laughingstock in London.  It’s almost Shakespearean in tragic scope.

So now Abramovich is looked for a new manager and his eye is firmly fixed on Spain, at least if we are to believe the British press.  Mourinho’s name is being thrown around, which is not a surprise given his (inevitable) unhappiness in Madrid and the fact that his name is always thrown around whenever Chelsea need a new manager.  Rafa Benitez has also been mentioned, which boggles the mind given (1) how long ago his success was, and (2) he much of a buffoonish figure he has become.

But for me, the most alarming name mentioned is Pep Guardiola who has (again) been hedging about signing a new contract for Barcelona.  Guardiola is the best manager Barcelona ever had.  In not fully four seasons he won 13 of a possible 16 titles, and possibly could have won more if not for an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland.  He is the epitome of the Barcelona system; he grew up in the academy, played for the first team, captained the team, managed Barcelona B, managed Barcelona proper, and is now the city’s most favored son.  Pep Guardiola is Barcelona.

Managing Barcelona is not easy.  It has aged Guardiola very rapidly.  No doubt Guardiola is also a man aware of history.  While I wouldn’t agree, there are so many pundits who believe that if Guardiola wants to be considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, he has to go and coach and win at another club, and in another league.  Additionally, the Alex Ferguson type manager, the man who spends decades at one club as an absolute authority, is not really a viable model anymore.  If Guardiola wants to go, I wish him the best. And thus my open letter to Pep Guardiola.

Dear Pep,

If you choose to leave Barcelona, may the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.  May sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.  You’ve given so much, Pep.  You’ve turned this Barcelona team into possibly history’s greatest side.  I want you to stay, but if you feel like you’ve given all you could, then no one can ask for more than that.

But don’t go to Chelsea.  I’m thinking about you, Pep.  The Barcelona backroom may be bad, but how much worse is Chelsea where you have no allies, only the whims of Roman Abramovich?  At Barcelona the players are devoted to you, and those who are not are traded.  At Chelsea, a few over-the-hill players rule the roost.  Terry, Lampard, Drogba, they run Chelsea, not the manager.  And they won’t let you do anything to jeopardize them.  You saw Raul at Madrid and you know about Totti at Roma.  Imagine three of them instead of one.  The team needs an overhaul, and there is no La Masia production line to provide replacements.  You only have the transfer market, and no recent additions will replace the unholy trinity in the fans’ eyes.

Barcelona has aged you, but Chelsea will kill you.  Please don’t go, Pep!  Please stay, but if you can’t stay, go somewhere else where you will be the boss.  You are not some title collector like Mourinho; you are an architect and a builder.  You create, you mold, you shape, and football is all the better for it.

Pep, whatever you choose to do is fine by me.  But for your sake, please don’t be tempted by Abramovich’s money.  Look at Villas-Boas; he was on the verge of greatness, and now his career is in tatters.  I’m thinking only of you, Pep.

Sincerely,

Solitary Muser

Another Day, Another Clásico

Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.

For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal.  And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead.  The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins.  The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field.  It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate).  Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss.  At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses.  (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.)  Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.

Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season.  Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league.  Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible).  The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.

Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry.  It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou.  The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals.  Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.

On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!”  The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards.  Too many draws.  Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won.  No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces.  Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it.  Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans.  This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down.  Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner.  When Madrid shut down the  Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.

(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol.  In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them.  In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws.  It’s pretty incredible.  Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)

This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona.  Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou).  Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.

Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona.  But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse  Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season.  At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat.  He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies.  He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play.  And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving.  Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking.  So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.

Mourinho’s response was fascinating.  His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.  His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else.  At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this.  The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.”  On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager.  On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss.  It’s unfair.”  If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility.  Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know.  I claim no neutrality.  I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good.  I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.

Footnotes: 

* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League.  Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts:  (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago.  (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans.  (3)  So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are.  (4)  The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality.  For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years.  So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.

** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost.  The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing.  I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot.  For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.

Women’s World Cup Day 6: Banzai!

Japan equaled France’s amazing performance yesterday in a match that featured hat trick scored by someone’s grandmother and a philosophy born thousands of miles away.  New Zealand was foiled in its attempted act of matricide; the Football Ferns nearly beat an underperforming England, until Jill Scott (no, not that one) broke Kiwi hearts.

Japan v. Mexico

All honor to Japan for their domination of Mexico.  Whereas Mexico fought back against England, and even looked the better side, Japan suffocated the fight out of El Tri (La Tri?)  Pity poor Maribel Domínguez, the rock of the Mexican team, who watched her World Cup ambitions fall apart under the force of the divine wind that is Japan’s passing game.

What makes Japan so dangerous is that they can score for everywhere.  If they are in their opponent’s third, do not under any circumstances let them get a set piece.  Like their male counterparts (particularly Keisuke Honda), Japan’s women have mastered the velocity of the World Cup ball, which makes them far more threatening on set pieces than most of the other sides.*  What they lack in height, they make up for in precision, which is far deadlier.

The star of this match was the decrepit Homare “Grandma” Sawa, who at the ancient age of 32, rose from her deathbed to score three of Japan’s four goals.  Or so I gathered from ESPN, which harped on Sawa’s age and noted about fifty times that she is the oldest player to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup.  Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement, but not because of her age.  My God, 32 is not old!  In terms of sheer awe, Sawa’s hat trick was not in the top ten greatest ever.  Sawa was able to score two of her three goals because for once Japan had a height advantage–Mexico is the shortest team of the tournament.

The real reason why Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement is because of what it says about Japan.  Japan is an incredible well-trained, well-organized, well-coached, skillful team, who has only started to realize its potential.  Sawa’s goals were the culmination of all of these positive team attributes.  It is fitting that Sawa should score all of those goals (and as a result leads the Golden Boot chase.)  She is the team’s leader and in her fifth World Cup.  She is the most capped player and the highest scorer in Japan’s national team history, male or female.  Unlike Birgit Prinz, also in her fifth World Cup, Sawa has performed exceedingly well, and is the not the focus of criticism from her national press.  Nevertheless, Sawa’s shots were the culmination of spectacular team efforts, especially the terrific last one.

Japan has almost certainly won Group B, only a loss to England will prevent that.  As for Mexico, all is not lost, although they no longer control their own destiny.  Too many things have to go right.  Japan has to beat England and Mexico has to beat New Zealand (not a guarantee.)  Even if all that happens, Mexico will also have to make up a five goal differential, which, given the way this tournament has gone thus far, is highly unlikely.

One has to wonder if Japan even wants to win the group.  Both Group B quarterfinalists will have battles on their hand because they are guaranteed to meet either Germany or France.  Japan v. Germany, possibly Japan’s nightmare scenario, will be a study in contrasts.  Germany is a far more direct and high-powered team that relies extremely effectively on physical size, strength, and individual talent.  In contrast, Japan is shorter, faster, and a better team.

Japan v. France has the potential to be extremely fascinating or extremely boring.  Both sides play a quick, skillful passing game, and both have been compared to Barcelona.  Both were also extremely impressive in their respective 4-0 victories.  Even if the comparisons to Barcelona are overblown (any France team should be compared to Arsenal first, right?), the success of Japan and France has shown that women’s football is fully engaging in the dialogue going on in men’s game right now.  This debate can (perhaps sloppily) be called Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism.  Although those coaches did not invent the debate, they are the two most prominent voices of their respective styles.

Guardiolism (the ethos of Barcelona if not the style) is attack, attack, attack and then attack some more using short passes while in possession (tiki taka style) and exhaustive pressing to win back possession.  Guardiolism at its most basic has one single tenet: you cannot score if I possess.  Mourinhoism is a well-organized defense, effective usage of the counterattack and set pieces, no concern about possession, and disrupting the opponent’s flow with a strong physical presence.  (I should stress that this debate is not either/or.  Only a limited number of teams play these styles, and not necessarily exclusively.  The long ball style, for example, is neither Guardiolist or Mourinhoist.)

There are two prominent examples of Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism from the last year.  The more recent of the two is the series of matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  The other one is the final of the World Cup between Spain and Holland (or Spain v. all their other opponents except Chile and Germany.)  Not surprisingly, many of the players on Spain’s side were from Barcelona although there were a few from Madrid.  In both the Champions League and the World Cup, the Guardiolist side was the superior side, and in both tournaments came out on top.

Guardiolism is the more appealing style, which does not mean it is always more effective.  It is also the far more difficult one to institute, because it requires supremely talented and intelligent players merged into a cohesive team over a sustained period of time.  Mourinhoism is a far easier style to impose on a team because it does not require the same amount of time or the same quality of player.  Unsurprisingly, the men’s World Cup last year was dominated by Mourinhoism–unsurprising because international sides have a limited player pool and extremely little time to come together as a team.

In this Women’s World Cup, the triumphs of both France and Japan signal that Guardiolism can exist in the international game outside of Spain.  The commentators are wrong when they say France and Japan are like Barcelona.  What they are trying to say is that both sides subscribe to the same basic tenets of Guardiolism, which they can do because both side have skillful and intelligent players molded together over a long period of time.  (The women’s international game affords more opportunities to play together than the men’s international game.)  Surprisingly, at the 2011 World Cup, the sides that have used Mourinhoist tactics (Nigeria) have already been found wanting.  While Guardiolism is only one of many styles on display, right now in the women’s game it is carrying the day.

England v. New Zealand

One cliché that never dies is that defense wins titles.  This is a pernicious lie designed to excuse those teams who suck the joy out of sport by being overly defensive.  Good defenses are only a starting point; they can get you draws but not wins. To win, one needs a good offense.  The first round of this tournament showcased plenty of good defenses.  In the second round, good offenses have started to shine though, and it is becoming readily apparent which teams are for real and which are pretenders.

This is the problem with New Zealand.  The back line was incredibly steady.  They were smart and organized, and they successfully contained Kelly Smith.  An early goal on a good counterattack left them  with a 1-0 lead and the momentum.  But after that first goal, New Zealand could not score.  Their scrappy play won them a host of fans, including me.  Before the match started, I thought New Zealand were headed from the same humiliation as Canada and Mexico.  Instead they led a match for the first time in their history.  If sport were fair, the Football Ferns would have pulled out at least a draw.  Unfortunately, sport is not fair.  New Zealand gave it their all, but they didn’t have the experience to pull out a result.

The good news for New Zealand is that the best is yet to come.  The reason why New Zealand dominates rugby is because they put the resources into it.  The All White’s performance at last year’s World Cup and the Ferns performance this year show that New Zealand have what it takes to make a difference if the resources are put to good use.  New Zealand may never win a non-Oceania tournament, but that doesn’t mean they cannot always be contenders.

England has no excuses.  As with the men, the women are dramatically underperforming.  Had Jill Scott not put the team on her shoulders, they could have fallen victim to the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.  The one positive takeaway though is that England can still win even when Kelly Smith has a bad match.  Unless they majorly fall apart against Japan, the Three Lionesses will move on to meet either national nemesis Germany or wildly talented French.  I cannot decide which would be worse for them.

Final Thoughts:

Teams from Europe have utterly dominated so far.  None has lost, and only one (England) has drawn.  There are two ways to look at this, and both are right to an extent.  The first and more Eurocentric explanation is that UEFA is the toughest confederation and European teams have the best overall quality.  The second explanation is that only France and Germany, arguably Europe’s two best squads, have met a top non-European team.  As fun as they have been to watch, Mexico, New Zealand, and Equatorial Guinea are not the US, Brazil, and Japan.

Finally, the Copa America starts tonight, and alas, I will probably only see highlights.  I may write some thoughts as the tournament progressed, but nothing like my dispatches from the Women’s World Cup.  If only they weren’t being played at the same time.

Footnotes:

* Set pieces have been somewhat disappointing this tournament.  Everyone once in a while there is some brilliant display, such as Christine Sinclair’s wonder goal against Germany.  Unfortunately, more often than should happen at an elite level, a player will squander a corner by kicking it into the side netting.  This is especially a problem with New Zealand.  Corner kicks may not be particularly sexy, but wasting chances is just stupid.

On Diving

Listen to a s0ccer-hating American complain about football, and you find that several complaints come up again and again.  “It’s boring!”  “There’s not enough scoring!”  “The players go down without being touched!”

Football is far from boring.  Nevertheless, learning any sport is like learning a new language.  Without a basic grasp of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, what you hear makes no sense.  The Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature the world has ever known, but listening to a recitation of The Iliad in ancient Greek makes no sense unless you (a) are ancient Greek; or (b) know ancient Greek.  It’s the same with football.  Although the game looks simple, that appearance is deceptive.  Even with some basic knowledge, football can still be impenetrable because of the history, culture, rivalries, and tradition that are integral to the sport. It takes time and effort to learn football, but once you learn even scoreless draws can be tense and exciting.  (Or they can be boring, as individual games in any sport can be.)

Diving though is a more complicated topic, or at least it should be.  The perception of diving changes depending on where you live and enjoy the sport.  The English, for example, despise diving.  In the Latin countries, diving is not castigated so much.  The Italians are infamous for diving, as are the Spanish.  (This is a humorous but generally accurate depiction of how the English see the rest of Europe.  Notice who are the divers.  Subscription may be required.)  Diving is also fairly common in South America, especially Brazil.  Despite a move to Europe, Robinho still down at the slightest touch, and Neymar is following in his footsteps.

I do not write to defend diving, at least not entirely.  I do not really enjoy watching the deceit, the overacting, and the downright bad sportsmanship of diving.  But this is because I am American, and my outlook has been shaped by and American reaction to diving.  In many ways, the American football fan considers himself the younger brother of the English fan.  It makes sense; the cultural and linguistic ties make it far easier for the American to enter the game through England and the EPL than any other major world football power.  (It is a little surprising though, given how much less impatient American fans are when there is similar playacting in the other major American sports, such as basketball and American football.)

Nevertheless, diving is not the hand-wringing evil that the British press makes it out to be.  There are many ways to cheat in football, and it’s only cheating when your team was wronged.  (To wit, had Gary Linker scored the Hand of God goal instead of Diego Maradona, one can imagine that the English fans would laugh about how their boys pulled one over on “the Argies” while Argentinian fans would still be complaining about the cheating English.)

In my opinion, the worst form of cheating the method of stopping the team not through on-field superiority, but rather by aggressive fouling and constant disruption of play.  The reason this is such a horrid form of cheating is because (1) there is no on-field way to overcome that; and (2) it destroys the flow of the game–the very reason why people watch in the first place.  When a side with superior talent faces such tactics, there is no other alternative but to dive.  The more the referee disciplines the cheating side, the more that side is forced to play the game.  Diving forces the referee to act (although diving is also a punishable offense.)

The English do not understand this.  Diving offends their sensibilities and their ideal of fair play.  While they claim to hate tough, fouling sides, that does not offend them as much.  In fact, such a team may be lauded for how tough it is.  (Stoke City is the quintessential example.  While not may like Stoke exactly, they held up as the paradigm of the toughness of English football.)

While I can not give a definitive answer as to why the English feel this way, I imagine it has something to do with the game’s origins.  Since its inception, football in England was very violent sport.  English kings tried very hard throughout the years to suppress this proto-football game but with little success.  The Industrial Revolution succeeded where the English kings failed and as the poor moved from small towns to overcrowded cities, the game was virtually eliminated.  The British public schools saved it, as headmasters adopted it as a way to exhaust their rioting students by having them take their aggression out on each other rather than on the faculty and local townspeople.  The games were very violent, a test of manhood, “Muscular Christianity.”

There are still remnants of that violence in the modern game, but more so in its various cousins such as rugby and the various football codes of the United States, Australia, and Ireland.  (The rugby code was created, for among other reasons, to keep that violence that the Football Association outlawed.)  In South America though, it is the skill rather than the muscle that is prized.  Furthermore, authority is distrusted rather than respected.  Therefore, a successful dive not only strikes out against an opponent who is stopping beautiful play, it also is a way of deceiving the authority figure.

The greatest exponent of this ultra-defensive, fouling play in the current era is Jose Mourinho, although he would surely resent that depiction (and, although he will not admit it, he is not above getting his players to dive.)  Like Helenio Herrera before him, Mourinho uses such tactics to great effect.  Herrera’s catenaccio has, almost since its beginnings, become shorthand for everything wrong with defensive play.  Which brings us to the football wars that Real Madrid and Barcelona engaged in this past season.

The roots of this war lay with Mourinho and Chelsea.  As Chelsea manager, Mourinho was heavily criticized for his (very successful) defensive tactics.  Chelsea won titles, but they sucked the joy out of the sport.  When Chelsea met Barcelona in the Champions League, Mourinho used those same tactics on the Blaugrana, thus earning a man who was once a well-liked Barcelona assistant coach the eternal enmity of the cules.  The next year, Barcelona exacted revenge en route to a Champions League victory.  Two years ago, a Mourinho-less (but still extremely defensive) Chelsea nearly derailed Barcelona, before the Blaugrana finally moved on thanks to the 11th hour goal of Andres Iniesta, and lots of complaints about the referee.  Last year, Mourinho practiced his dark arts at Inter, and brought them the treble, beating Barcelona in the semifinals.

Each time they met, Barcelona were the better side.  Mourinho (and the Mourinho-less Chelsea) stifled Barcelona’s attack only through antifutbol and fouling.  The idea was that if Barcelona were allowed to play, Barcelona would win.  Therefore stop them from playing by any means necessary, and to hell what it does to viewing pleasure.

The truth is that using such tactics is actually a very risky strategy.  It involved a lot of contact, fouling, violence, and frankly, cheating.  There was more contact with the Barcelona players than with the ball.  As a result, players on Chelsea, Inter, and Madrid were red-carded for their on-field actions.  Which is not to say Barcelona were innocent victims.  They adapted their game, and engaged in their own cheating: diving.  Diving fits into their game though, because while Barcelona can out-skill anyone, they lack the physicality of other top sides.  Because of that size disparity, Barcelona’s diving is a way of fighting fire with fire.  And as with their tiki-taka, Barcelona are very good at what they do.

The pressure from this year seems to have sent Mourinho over the edge (and it clearly wore on Guardiola.)  He has ranted and raved about conspiracies, while the Madrid papers dutifully followed suit.  For the first time, diving became an issue in La Liga.  The fact that diving is now as issue is less about a dislike of diving, than the fallout of Barcelona’s recent domination of Real Madrid.  The truth is that the Madrid fans and the media do not see diving as an evil; if they did, they would howl about Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the sport’s greatest actors.  What Mourinho and the Madrid papers hate is that diving gives Barcelona an effective way to combat Real Madrid’s stifling tactics.

The irony is that while diving is not an evil in the Spanish game, Mourinho-type tactics are.  It is why many in the Real Madrid hierarchy (Di Stefano, Valdano, Butragueño, and the disgraced former president Calderon) hate Mourinho, and spoke out against him.  Had Mourinho been the manager at any other club, or if Madrid had been more successful over the past few years, the Madrid papers would be calling for his head.

This is why I do not understand the hysteria over diving.  Like many things in football, it is all about where you are from.  It’s as much a tactic as anything else, a darker tactic and one to be used only in the case of emergency, but a tactic nonetheless.  Love it, hate it, it’s not going anywhere.  Therefore, one might as well understand it.

No Way, Jose!

Today Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals.  This defeat was all the more satisfying because it happened at the Santiago Bernabeu in front of the Madridistas.  This is the fourth of five times that Barcelona has met Madrid this season, and thus far the Blaugrana have won 2, drew 1, and lost 1.  As a result, Barcelona will probably win La Liga and advance to the Champions League final at Wembly to face Manchester United.

This season Real Madrid beat Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey, thereby winning its first trophy in (I believe) three years.  A few things to note: (1) The Copa del Rey is far and away the poor cousin tournament of the Spanish season.  If it weren’t Barca v. Madrid, it would not have carried nearly as much meaning as it did.  (2) Sergio Ramos promptly destroyed the trophy by accidentally dropping it from the team bus.  In honor of Passover, Ramos created the first unleavened trophy.  (3) It was a psychological victory, but even that victory was tainted (the first victory over Barcelona in seven meetings.)  Madrid had to become everything the Madridistas hate.  The fans want attractive football; the team is a bunch of thugs.

Today, once again Madrid was reduced to 10 players during the match.  Once again, the match was highly combustible and resulted in handbags and red cards.  And once again, Madrid coach Jose Mourinho–the eye of the hurricane–complained about how the referees (and everyone else) fixed the match for Barcelona.  Mourinho has been going off the handle for the past few week–even more so than normal.  In fact, so much so that the normally demure Barcelona coach (and legend) Pep Guardiola exploded and called him out.

The truth is that Mourinho had this coming.  He uses an ultra-defensive, in-your-face style that at times threatens to become antifutbol.  It was the same at Porto, at Chelsea, and at Inter.  His style reflected his personality.  No one would accuse Mourinho of making friends, either with other coaches or with the media.  Maybe his abrasive and obnoxious personality is an act, but it is a convincing one.  It overshadows all else about him, including the teams he coaches and his legacy.

He has also been incredibly successful.  He was brought to a cowed Madrid to win, specifically to win the Champions League.  Given the loss today, he has probably failed, and failure is not acceptable at Madrid.  It remains to be seen what will happen, but the cracks that appeared in the Madrid facade months ago (between Mourinho and Jorge Valdano) will surely grow once Madrid is eliminated from the Champions League.  Yes, they won the Copa del Rey, but the biggest prizes will have eluded them.

This is what Mourinho feared in his nightmares.  Failure.  And worse, failure at the hands of Barcelona.  He has a special hate for Barcelona, which is the other reason Madrid brought him in.  The Barca fans hate him with equal passion, and Mourinho is only too happy to make himself a pantomime villain for them.  He likes the attention, but, he fears failure.  He cannot stomach it.  As a result, there has to be an excuse.  Now he blames the referees and UEFA.  The truth though is that all year his team has been second-best.  Rather than deal with that, he has been only too happy to turn into a conspiracy theorist, aided and abetted by Marca and AS.

The truth is that Mourinho brought this on himself.  He alienated everyone while raising expectations to an impossible level.  Instead of turning his team into something special (only he can be the Special One), he turned them into thugs and whiners.  The truth is that Madrid has been completely remade in Mourinho’s image.  When the passions die down, the Madridistas should call for his head–although they are probably so thrilled to have won something that they will overlook that he did not succeed.  (Although who knows.  These same fans demanded the termination of the Vincente del Bosque era, and he won the Champions League.  They didn’t like the way his teams played.)

I am waiting for the obligatory statement from Alfredo Di Stefano saying how awful Madrid has become.  He has already made his displeasure publicly known.  It will not change anything, but perhaps it will make the Madrid fans wake up.  Let Mourinho go back to England, which is more suited to his style and personality.

Mourinho failed.  He wanted to humiliate Barcelona, and Madrid was his vehicle to do it.  The real loser however, has been Real Madrid.

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.