Women’s World Cup Day 9: Contenders and Pretenders

Day Nine of the Women’s World Cup saw England and Germany win their groups in convincing fashion.  In doing so, they demonstrates why all the Barcelona comparison that France and Japan received were completely wrong.  In the quarterfinals, England plays France, Germany plays Japan, and mercifully nobody will mention the War (or Fawlty Towers).

First, an apology. 

At the World Cup, the final two matches of every group are played at the same time.*  As a result, I could only watch one match per group.  As much as I wanted to see New Zealand play Mexico and Canada play Nigeria, both of those games were for pride only.  Therefore I chose the matches that had bearing on the quarterfinals, and regretted it.  I want to congratulate New Zealand for heroically coming back from a 2-0 deficit to drawn Mexico and get the nation’s first point ever at a Women’s World Cup. Like the All Whites at last year’s World Cup, the Football Ferns won fans worldwide with their heart and grit.  I can only reiterate that I hope this is a fruitful beginning for the Ferns and not aberration.  I am hopeful, as the national media has already written proudly about the Ferns’ achievement.  I am sad however, that I missed the haka.  (Watch it here.)  The haka is one of those traditions I absolutely love about New Zealand sports, although admittedly the Ferns’ haka doesn’t have quite the fear factor as when the All Blacks do it.

While New Zealand had its best showing ever, Canada had its worst.  A 1-0 loss to Nigeria means that Canada is going home without points for the first time ever.  I have given loads of credit to Carolina Morace for taking Canada to sixth in the world, but likewise, this results reflects very poorly on her.  To an extent the life of a coach is unfair: the players get the credit for a win, and the coach gets the blame for a loss.  (Unless you are Jose Mourinho; then it is the other way around.)  Fair or not though, someone must be answerable, and that someone is the coach.

England v. Japan

Remember when I said yesterday that history is not destiny?  Well, this is exactly what I was talking about.  Despite England’s mediocre first two matches, despite Japan’s pretty passing and demolition of Mexico, England took apart Japan with stunning ease.  First Ellen White lobbed a honey of a goal over the Japanese goalkeeper and then Rachel Yankey scored a nice second.

I don’t have too much to say, because the match was not particularly interesting.  England deserved the win and England got the win.  Most importantly, England played smart; England avoided giving Japan set pieces in the final third and lo and behold, Japan became a paper tiger.  For all the passing ability, Japan are really strongest when there is a dead ball.  England robbed Japan of its strength, and like a shorn Samson, Japan were powerless.  Japan did have some nice play, but someone who only saw this match would think that England were the skill team.  And this is without Kelly Smith playing her best.

Germany v. France

This was quite a match, but that is not necessarily a compliment.  On a very basic level Germany beat France 4-2.  Germany never trailed, and each time France pulled to within one goal, Germany scored another.  In actual performance though, this match was far more complicated than that.

At this tournament, Germany have been a strange mixture of invulnerability and fragility.  Sure they beat opponents 2-1, 1-0, and 4-2.  Nor have they trailed.  The German bench is extremely deep (some key players were rested today.)  The German attack is like wave after wave of white hitting opponents.  The Germans have a winning mentality.  They know they are the best and never doubt it.

Yet in these group stage matches, opponents scored three goals on Nadine Angerer, which is just one fewer than she has given up in the past two World Cups combined (2007 being a perfect shut out.)  France scored two goals today.  The last time Germany let two goals in during a World Cup match was 1999.  Both goals today came in exactly the same way, poor marking on corner kicks allowed French players (Marie-Laure Delie and Laura Georges) to head the ball in.  Despite Germany’s dominance, I have the nagging suspicion that France lost the match rather than Germany winning it.  Had France been a little less intimidated, a little more aggressive from the beginning, then perhaps the match would not have been so one-sided.

And then there is the Prinz factor. I want to give Birgit Prinz the benefit of the doubt, but I fear she has become a poison to her team.  She sulked on the sidelines rather than give encouragement, and looked miserable when Germany did well.  Prinz is in an odd situation that few female athletes have faced before, although this is not unusual in men’s sport.  On one hand we want our athletes to have a competitive fire and confidence that borders on self-absorption.  On the other hand, that same confidence can be repellent, especially when the player is doing poorly or not on your team.  Prinz is well off her best form, and now open to attack for having a star athlete’s demeanor. It is sad though because Prinz is a star athlete, one of the great players in the history of women’s football.  This is an awful way for her legacy to end.

Despite the fall of Prinz, Germany has stars to spare.  Today Inka Grings scored a brace, Kerstin Garefrekes led the team quite capably (and opened the scoring), and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi put the game completely out of reach.  Then there is the curious case of Fatmire (Lira) Bajramaj who played today in front of her home crowd Mönchengladbach.  Bajramaj, now with Frankfurt, was an integral part of Turbine Potsdam’s Champions League title last year and second place finish this year.  Because of her talent and her background (her family fled from Kosovo to Germany when she was young), she has become the face of the German National Team.  She placed third in last year’s FIFA Player of the Year award (take that with a grain of salt given that the runner-up to Marta was Prinz and the Women’s Coach of the Year was Silvia Neid.)  Yet she seemed to have fallen out of favor with Neid, as today was her first start all tournament.  Supposedly this is because her finishing ability leaves something to be desired.  Today she displayed her dazzling dribbling abilities, her keen intelligence, and her lovely passes, but again, she could not finish.  This was not completely her fault.  She was robbed of what would have been a brilliant a goal by French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz (see below), although she could have done a better job.  Despite her good play, I am guessing she did not win back Neid’s favor.  Marta’s  position as the world’s best is not in jeopardy.

I have no idea what to make of France.  Unlike Germany which fights for everything, France approached this match with classic Gallic ennui.  Camille Abily and Sonia Bompastor, France’s two best players, started the match on the bench.  To top that off coach Bruno Bini told reporters beforehand that this match was not that important.  Who knows if France even wanted to win this match.  Gallic ennui.

What a blunder.  Sure enough, in the second half Abily and Bompastor were substituted in.  There is no guarantee that France would have won or drawn had Abily and Bompastor played from the beginning, but France guaranteed that they would lose before they stepped on to the pitch.  They fell victim to their own hubris and the hype of being called the female version of Barcelona.  As a result France was overwhelmed and now has a confidence-sapping loss to show for it.

And then there was the goalkeeper issue.  Bajramaj was in the box, and the goalkeeper Sapowicz fouled her.  Sapowicz was red carded, and Germany won the penalty which Grings converted.  This was the first red card of the tournament.  It was deserved, although the referee was a little too card-happy throughout the match.  (Since Germany v. Nigeria, the refereeing has not been fantastic.)  It is fairly shocking to see a goalkeeper red carded, and it is amazing that the keeper would have been so foolhardy.  Now the backup keeper will play the quarterfinal against England.  Julie Foudy and Ian Darke mentioned that Lyon’s goalkeeper was kept out of the international squad because of “personality issues.”  One wonders what those issues are, but one also wonders if that should be enough to keep a champion goalkeeper out of the squad.  If Pia Sundhage could bring back Hope Solo, why would Lyon’s goalkeeper be left behind.

Or it could be that France are just not ready for the big time yet.  Perhaps France’s pretty passing simply have fooled us all.

Not that Germany is ready yet.  Unlike in 2003 and 2007 Germany’s faults are very clear.  Whether they can be exploited by a stronger team than France is an entirely different question, but Germany are no longer the all-conquering juggernaut that they once were.

And this too is progress.

Footnotes:

*  Both matches in the group are played at the same time because of what happened in the 1982 World Cup.  Austria and West Germany controversially colluded in the final match of the group to ensure that they would both move on, and Algeria would be eliminated.  At that time, Algeria had already played its final match, so both Austria and West Germany knew that for both nations to advance, West Germany had to beat Austria 1-0.  West Germany got the goal early in the match and then for the remaining time, the two nations just kicked the ball around the pitch.  Even the Austrian and West German fans deplored the obvious fix.

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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.

Women’s World Cup Day 2: Your Office Pool Is Already Wrong

Day 2 of the World Cup just ended, and again it was quite entertaining.  ESPN’s quality is terrific all around.  The commentary is mostly top-notch.  Kate Markgraf in particular is exceptional.  Is this woman planning to coach?  If not, she should.  Her tactical breakdown of the Mexico v. England match was exceptional. My one quibble is to please stop comparing one side per match to Barcelona.  Today it was Cat Whitehill on Japan.  To drill it home, she made the comparison at least five times.  We get it; they’re Barcelona.  Except for the fact that they are not. Sorry, but it’s not like any other men’s team is Barcelona either (except maybe Spain for obvious reasons.)

Again the actual matches were incredibly entertaining, and after both matches, Group B is still very wide open.  All four teams played very well.  New Zealand is not the whipping post they were assumed to be despite losing (and being outplayed at almost every step.)  Mexico gave the English people déjà vu, as a second CONCACAF nation tied them 1-1 in their opening match.

Japan v. New Zealand

New Zealand is a young team.  They are an inexperienced team.  They play the long ball, and use their size as an advantage (which is becoming an ever more and more outdated tactic.)  All of these were things that I heard about New Zealand today, and all of them were displayed.  New Zealand football, which is not successful on the world stage, suffers in comparison to rugby.  New Zealand dominates rugby at both the men’s and women’s level.  There is a reason it is the national sport.  Nevertheless, since the good showing of the All Whites* in 2010, football has become more popular in that country, and if that keeps up, then perhaps even tiny New Zealand can make an impact at some point in the not-too-near-but-not-too-distant future.

The impact will not come at this tournament.  Granted, Japan is ranked 4th in the world according to FIFA (for whatever that is worth), and granted the score line was a respectable 2-1, but Japan controlled that match from start to finish.  I am not sure that New Zealand got more than two shots on goal.  Bravo to the Football Ferns for not losing their head when the could have after going down a goal (and for getting their second ever World Cup goal), but were it not for some very good goalkeeping by Jenny Bindon (and some poor finishing by Japan), the score could have been much worse.  New Zealand may not have top-notch players, but those players have top-notch heart–if it is not too condescending to say so.

One has to give credit to Japan.  Despite the horrors of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, which (and this sounds petty in comparison to the destruction and death it caused) hindered the nation’s entire football program, Japan is still the team to beat in Group B.  Japan also has a future star in Mana Iwabuchi.  Playing well against New Zealand however is not the same as playing well against England, and the next two matches are going to more of a test for Japan, particularly if the finishing remains poor.

England v. Mexico

I hate to say this having just watched the same nation humiliate the US men in the Gold Cup and eliminate the US women from the Women’s Gold Cup, but I was rooting for Mexico.  Everyone, myself included was picking England, and thus far everything in the tournament has gone true to form.  Mexico has a bona fide star in Maribel Domínguez,** and this is her last World Cup.  Granted England has Kelly Smith who is also looking at her last World Cup, but England is the perennial underachiever in everything.  Actually, unlike the English men, I kind of like the English women.  Mostly this is because the women’s team doesn’t have the odious personalities, the English media with its “We’re The Best/We’re Awful” complex hanging on every kick, and the English women legitimately have world-class players, Smith in particular.

The match was entertaining and rather evenly matched, all things considered.  England didn’t create as much as it should have, and missed a few chances.  Despite the fact that the score said 1-1, this was the first huge upset of the tournament.  It also puts England in a precarious position.  Should the Three Lionesses finish second in the group, they will probably face Germany in the quarterfinals, the team that everyone wants to avoid.  However, now England has to worry about finishing second.

I appreciated the way Mexico played.  They controlled for much of the game, and although England probably should have won, Mexico, unlike Canada and New Zealand, was able to get the draw.  Between the rise of Mexico, the surprising appearance of Colombia, and the ascendancy of Brazil over the past four years, it’s a reminder that women’s football is starting to become acceptable in the Latin countries, and that spells trouble for the former and current world powers who have largely thrived in the absence of such countries.  When women’s play is completely acceptable around the world and (if ever) given the same kind of care that the men’s game gets, then the Ancien Régime is really going to be in trouble.

Footnotes:

* I absolutely love the unoriginal originality of New Zealand national team names.  Obviously it all started with the All Blacks, New Zealand’s men’s rugby team, and the crown jewel of its sport.  The women’s rugby team is the Black Ferns.  Men’s football is the All Whites; women’s football is the Football Ferns; men’s basketball is the Tall Blacks; women’s basketball is the Tall Ferns; netball is the Silver Ferns; and so on.  See the list for yourself, and try not to laugh at the former name of the Badminton team.

** The commentators spoke about Domínguez having to hide from her father that she played football as a girl.  This is a recurring theme among players in this World Cup, and that too was noted.  One of the commentators, I believe it was Markgraf, alluded to the fact that this was a common story from the Latin national teams.  While she was correct, the problem is not limited to the Americas.  One of the reasons Norway and the United States (two nations lacking strong football cultures but advanced on women’s rights issues) dominated the early years of the Women’s World Cup were dominated by Norway and the United States is because it was okay for girls and women to play.  It makes one pause to wonder how many Martas, or Domínguezes, or Bajramajes missed out because of sexism.

Gold Cup Final: Montezuma’s Revenge

I’ll admit it, I’m in a funk.  I didn’t expect the US to win, mind you, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t hope for it.  Especially when the US led 2-0.  But the times have changed, and after a period of US dominance, Mexico is again the superior team in the region.  It wasn’t so much that the US lost (although it also is), as how they lost.

First a few observations:

1.  Freddy Adu was good.  I am still not an Adu-fanatic, but I will eat my earlier words about one good pass not meriting the love he gets from US fans.  He played a good match, and one (i.e. me) could argue he was the only bright spot of the US debacle.  Now if only he can get himself out of the Turkish Second Division.  Come home, Freddy.  I know we’re not a football country, but MLS really is several steps above Nowherezspoor (and maybe even the Benfica bench.)   Mexico in the Copa America could be fascinating.  I think they are sending a B Team though, so maybe it won’t be.

2.  El Tri were the better team.  Absolutely 100% better.  They may have finally put forward a team that doesn’t lose their collective head when they go down a goal (or two), and if that is the case then perhaps they can be competitive on the world stage.

3.  No US at the 2013 Confederations Cup.  Not a big deal for me, but it was a goal to go back there.

4.  One cannot completely blame Bob Bradley for this.  Not completely.  It is not his fault that Mexico has superior players, and it is not his fault that the marquis players he does have simply didn’t up.

That does not mean he is blameless.  I still cannot understand why the football media in this country generally gives him a free pass, (unlike us fans; someone needs to pick up the slack.)  It’s the same with Sunil Gulati.  The systemic failure of this country to produce good football players, especially when American children play football more than any other sport.  It underlies that the football administration, while perhaps good at marketing the product, has no idea how to develop players.  It also speaks to the failure of coaching at the youth level.

Failure, of course, is the operative word for tonight.  Specifically the failure of the US to keep a 2-0 lead.  Again.  At home.  To be fair, the 2-0 was highly deceptive; Mexico totally outclassed the US from the beginning, and the US got lucky by scoring early.  And then the US got unlucky when Steve Cherundolo was injured and needed to come off.

But then Bob Bradley made the tactical blunder of the tournament.  He put in Jonathan Bornstein, who is just not good enough, and that was the end.  How badly did Bornstein get outplayed?  Well (to engage in shameful racial stereotyping), Bornstein was Sylvester the Cat to the Mexicans’ collective Speedy Gonzalez.  While the US does not exactly have a wealth of good defenders, Bornstein may well have been the absolute worst choice, someone who shouldn’t have even been there to begin with.  But he’s one of Bradley’s pets because Bradley liked him while they were both at Chivas USA (a club that along with Real Salt Lake and DC United have earned my ire for the absolute worst team names.  Get your own identities, people and stop stealing from Europe!)  Typical Bob Bradley.  One cannot completely blame Bradley for the loss, but he deserves a fairly severe drubbing for his personnel decisions.

What astounds me though is that this match was a completely different kind of bumbling than the bumbling we normally expect from the US.  Usually the US go down a goal or two to weaker squads and then fight back to a draw or (less likely) a win.  In finals, the US go up 2-0 against superior teams and then snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Perhaps that is why misguided US commentators believe that a 2-0 is the most dangerous lead there is.  (It’s not; 1-0 is far more precarious.  Or 4-0 if you are Arsenal.)  Two years ago when it happened in Brazil, we were all disappointed.  Nevertheless, because the US punched above their weight by beating Spain and advanced to the finals to meet BRAZIL!, we overlooked that the US choked.  This time, we cannot be quite so forgiving.  This was not a choke per se, but the US have won the Gold Cup before, Mexico are not Brazil, and inferior teams around the world are capable of holding onto two goal leads, especially when playing at home.

Nothing will be done of course.  This is only the Gold Cup not the World Cup, and besides the US were expected to reach the final round.  Therefore, the USSF has every excuse to turn a blind eye to the failings of both the team and the national infrastructure.  Certainly neither Sports Illustrated nor ESPN will hold the USSF accountable, and the next intelligible comment to come out of Fox Soccer Channel will be the first.

Oh, well.  Today begins the Women’s World Cup.  The more successful US Women’s National Team is still very much a contender, and they know how to win.

Women’s World Cup: Getting Close

In between the Barcelona love and the aggravation given to me by the US Men’s National Team, I have neglected women’s football, and I truly apologize for that.  This is especially egregious because the Women’s World Cup starts next week.  To be fair, it seems like the World Cup has generally gotten remarkably little play in the media save for a few raised eyebrows about the decision of certain German internationals to pose for Playboy.

It’s not worth rehashing the reasons why the World Cup has been ignored.  I’ve written about it a few times (here, and here for example.)  If you want to be depressed, you can read this opinion piece.  Admittedly, the women’s game is not played at the same level and intensity as the men’s game, but that does not mean it is not entertaining, or that the players lack skill.  To the contrary, in terms of entertainment I bet that the Women’s World Cup will be more entertaining than the last year’s World Cup in South Africa, which is generally seen as a disappointment.

The women’s international game is actually more interesting than the men’s if you bother to learn about it.  Unlike in the men’s game where club football is superior, in the women’s game it is international competition.  Because there is little to no dialogue between the best women’s leagues the way that there is in the men’s game, it is still possible to find the stylistic differences that have been steadily eroding in men’s international football.  In the men’s game, the UEFA Champions League and not the World Cup is where the greatest teams are found, at least on a technical level.  In contrast, the international game is still the at the vanguard of women’s football.  I can only guess as to why that is but I imagine it at least partially due to the following reasons: (1) the talent pool is spread out across the world rather than concentrated in Europe, and clubs cannot simply buy up all the best talent, thus preventing Champions League from overshadowing the World Cup; (2) the women’s clubs, always teetering on the edge of ruin, are not nearly as supported as the national teams, and thus a national team coach has more leeway in shaping a squad’s identity; and (3) the only chance in women’s football for on-the-pitch exchange of ideas between countries is in international play and not club play.

The point of this post though is not to defend women’s football.  Instead I am going to offer predictions for the upcoming World Cup group stages.  You all can laugh at my completely off-base predictions when the group stages end, but I am telling you that it is tough.  Each of these groups is fairly evenly matched.  That’s why I am taking the wimp’s way out and avoiding the knockout rounds.  After I’ve had a chance to really see the teams, I’ll predict the rest of the tournament.

As always, I would love your comments.  Do you agree with me?  Disagree?  Don’t know?  Do you have an opinion about a Women’s All-Time XI?  Do you have a question that you need answered?  Please post.

So without further delay:

Group A: Germany, Canada, Nigeria, and France.  Germany are the reigning champions, one of three teams who have a claim to being the best in the world (the other two are the United States and Brazil.)  Germany won the last two Women’s World Cups, and this year the squad has home-field advantage.  I have no doubt they will finish first in the group.  Second is harder to predict.  Nigeria are always tough and the perennial African champion but have never really broken into the elite (kind of like the men.)  The real battle for second is probably between Canada and France.  Canada has a very good squad and under their coach Carolina Morace, the team became legitimate world-beaters, but their coach quit over disputes with the Canada’s FA and threw the team (who sided with Morace) into chaos.  The dust has since settled, and Morace is back, but is it enough?   Last month, France’s club Lyon won the women’s version of the Champions League (over German powerhouse Turbine Potsdam), and much of the French squad is from Lyon.  Maybe they have enough poise to go through to the knockout rounds?  Maybe, but I am going to pick Germany and Canada.

Group B: Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, England.  Another tough group.  Japan is a top (but not the top) team in a competitive confederation, while New Zealand is the powerhouse of Oceania (for what that’s worth.)  Mexico knocked out the US from the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup–the first time Mexico ever beat the US squad.  England are a tough floater, not a champion, but definitely a top-tier contender, and arguably the strongest of the lot.  And England also have Kelly Smith, one of the top players in the WPS.  New Zealand probably have no shot; they’re not quite ready yet.  Japan are brimming with talent and has gotten good results in the recent past, but also struggling of late.  Even though they only came third in the Asian qualification, the top teams were all very close, and Japan are due for a breakthrough.  I would love to see Mexico move on, but I don’t think that’s happening.  England and Japan are just too good.

Group C: United States, Colombia, North Korea, Sweden.  Is this the group of fading powers and up-and-comers?  The US are long past the great players of the 1990’s, but has won every Olympic title but one.  They were the last team to qualify, which is a tremendous embarrassment.  The US women’s program is fading, or at least the rest of the world has caught up.  In some cases moved past the US.  WPS is having trouble (shades of 2003 when WUSA folded?)  Sweden beat the US at the Four Nations Cup, but the US won the tournament while Sweden finished near the bottom.  Of course that was a glorified exhibition, but it does make one question Sweden.  While it was a shock for the North Korean Men’s Team to qualify for South Africa, the women are always at the World Cup (and also always seem to play the US in the group stages.)  North Korea are a power of the AFC, and knocked out China in the Asian Cup.  Colombia are appearing in the World Cup for the first time.  They have some bright young talent, and performed beautifully in qualification until they were thoroughly dominated by Brazil.  Even though neither has really impressed, I cannot side against the US or Sweden.  Not this time anyway.

Group D: Brazil, Australia, Norway, Equatorial Guinea.  Let’s get this out of the way: Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country on the central west coast of Africa, right by the Equator–hence the name.  It was formerly a Spanish colony, that has sizable petroleum reserves and a horrendous human rights record.  Unlike Nigeria which are a perennial power and has a strong men’s team, Equatorial Guinea women’s side only recently become strong, and the men’s side are nearly anonymous.  Equatorial Guinea won the African Women’s Championship in 2008, the only side other than Nigeria to do so, and came in second at last year’s competition.  As a result, there has been a lot of controversy about the Equatoguineans, particularly allegations that some of the players are actually men.  There is no evidence of this however, and until and unless there is some, I chalk this up to sour grapes.  I cannot see them advancing however, and they are definitely the weakest team in this group.  Australia are the AFC champions despite not actually being Asia.  Norway are the only team other than Germany and the US to win a World Cup (1995), and the only team other than the US to have won the Olympics (2000).  Brazil are Brazil.  If this competition were won by sheer talent alone, Brazil would dominate.  The players have sparkling skills, none more so than Marta, the greatest female player in the world and possibly ever.  On the other hand, the Samba Queens only play at major competitions and are otherwise ignored by the CBF (the Brazilian FA).  It’s frustrating for both players and fans.  Australia can play upset, but I have trouble seeing beyond Brazil and Norway.

So there you have it.  I would love your comments, and I will write more as the tournament progresses.

Love American Football (Soccer)? End CONCACAF!

By now it is old news that the United States did not get the 2022 World Cup.  The World Cup could have been a tremendous boost to American soccer, just as the 1994 World Cup was, but that is water under the bridge now, and new ways to grow the sport must be sought out.  While the United States Men’s National Team has a devoted following during the World Cup, MLS is still flagging.  I have two meager suggestions that might help, although I do not expect to ever see any of these changes implemented.  There is too much large scale global change involved, and if you are not an American, why change what isn’t really broken?  (I have avoided more concrete solutions like a coaching change or youth development, because this post is complete fantasy, whereas the two suggestions I just listed are in the realm of possibility.)

Suggestion The First–Name Changes

This one is for MLS specifically.  It is too late to change established team names (well, it’s not, but fans of Sporting Kansas City, how do you feel?)  For expansion teams, please stay away from names that remind people of European clubs.  We have American traditions; embrace them.  We are one step away from what the South Americans did in the early days, which was name local clubs after touring British clubs, which is why there is an Arsenal, an Everton, and a Corinthians in South America.  For all new clubs: Philadelphia Union–good, DC United–bad.  And for the love of God, make it illegal for an American team to put “Real” in front of its name.  Confidential to Salt Lake City: Americans do not have a monarch let alone a Spanish one.  Even Canadian MLS clubs should be banned from using “Real”, despite the fact that Elizabeth II is the titular head of the Canadian state.

Suggestion the Second–Join CONMEBOL

CONCACAF has long outlived its usefulness.  In the years between the 1950 World Cup and the 1990 World Cup, when the US almost completely stepped away from football, CONCACAF was fine.  It was more than fine because the US did not deserve to be a part of a better conference (and if we are honest, the only conference of poorer quality than CONCACAF is OFC.)  If it weren’t for the fact that qualification to the World Cup is a near guarantee, I would not be sure how Mexico could put up with CONCACAF.  For decades there was only Mexico.  Now it is only Mexico and the United States.

Starting in 1990 when the US team qualified for the first World Cup again, things started to change.  Now the worry for the United States, like Mexico, is not qualification, it is about improvement.  The quality of CONCACAF is simply not enough to make potentially powerful teams like the United States and Mexico better.  Competing in CONCACAF only hurts the United States.

The United States and Mexico should join CONMEBOL.  South American is the world’s super-region, and CONMEBOL is, from top to bottom, the strongest conference in the world.  There are only ten nations, but of those ten, nine have been to a World Cup (sorry Venezuela), six have made at least the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and all but one have advanced out of the group stages (sorry, Bolivia).  The weakest teams in CONMEBOL this past cycle were Peru and Bolivia; there are no Barbadoses, Belizes, Maltas, San Marinos, Thailands, Mongolias, Vanuatus, American Samoas, Madagascars, Comoroses, or the other zillion national squads that have no shot of ever making the World Cup.  (I am not saying they should not try, mind you, but facts are facts.)

In 2010, five South American nations went to South Africa.  Although Brazil and Argentina disappointed (two quarterfinal exits), Chile had its best showing since 1962, Uruguay made the semifinals for the first time in forty years, and Paraguay made the quarterfinals for the first time ever (in the process nearly upsetting eventual winner Spain.)  A few World Cup cycle ago, CONMEBOL changed its qualification process so that all ten nations play each other home and away.  This raises the standards of all CONMEBOL nations, as was proved in South Africa.

There is no easy way to say this, but the United States Men’s National Team is mediocre.  Really mediocre.  US Football fans know (or should know) that their team will win not the World Cup any time soon.  A true assessment of the US squad should begin with the fact that they got a comparatively easy group in South Africa, and even then only managed one win.  In every single match they played but one in the tournament, they fell behind almost immediately and had to fight their way back.  In the match against Algeria, the US barely eked out a solitary goal at the last minute to win.  This may be the sign of a determined team (and an exciting team), but not a good one.

I would argue that the mediocrity was visible during the qualification.  I blame CONCACAF competition for not exposing that mediocrity.  The United States has a very bad habit of playing to the level of its competition.  Occasionally that means spectacular performances (like the unbelievable 2-0 over Spain at the Confederations Cup), but more often than not it means eking out wins over Trinidad & Tobago or losing to the Mexicans (again) at the Estadio Azteca.  The United States’s record in the final round of qualification was not awful; they won six matches, drew two, and lost two, and finished at the top of the standings.  Nevertheless, the manner in which they qualified was very telling.  Their play was not great.  Stronger teams would have found them out as Ghana eventually did.

The fear of joining CONMEBOL is that the conference is so strong that the US is not guaranteed to qualify like in CONCACAF.  Assuming that is true–a fair assumption–I would ask which is better, a US team that always qualifies but never develops to its potential, or a US team that loses to the best now, but permanently becomes a fixture at the top of the world rankings.

There are two other major advantages to joining CONMEBOL–the Copa America and the Copa Libertadores.  Because CONMEBOL has only 10 nations, they always need to invite two other participants to the Copa America to even out the group stages.  This year’s edition will include Mexico and Japan.  The last time the United States was invited (2007), the United States Soccer Federations sent a watered-down team because (1) the majority of US players were involved in the MLS season, and (2) CONCACAF’s Gold Cup occurred just prior to the Copa America.  The US decided the Gold Cup was more important.  CONMEBOL got very angry and did invite the US back for this year.  This year Mexico and Japan have already indicated that they too will be sending watered down teams; CONMEBOL is not happy.  Sending a team of scrubs to one of the most competitive tournaments in the world is not just bad manners, it’s counterproductive.  If tournament should be sacrificed, it should be the Gold Cup, but that will never happen because the US has to give its best for the CONCACAF championship and because a Gold Cup victories guarantee a spot at the Confederations Cup (a useless tournament that should be dropped from an already packed calendar, but FIFA needs more money from television revenue.)

Whatever strength the US national side would get from going to the Copa America, that applies just as much at the club level and the Copa Libertadores.  The Copa Libertadores may be even more significant because it is an annual competition.  There are logistical problems with MLS teams joining the Copa Libertadores–travel being the major one.  It would be very very difficult and expensive for a team from the US or Canada to go to South America (or for a poorer South American club to go to the US or Canada.)  Nevertheless, there is major potential television revenue for the Copa Libertadores if MLS teams were invited.  (That is why Mexican clubs are invited every year.)

MLS clubs generally do not care much about international competition.  The SuperLiga should be retired immediately, and MLS teams treat the CONCACAF Champions League as more burden than honor.  The Copa Libertadores is a different beast though.  The level of competition would be far above what MLS clubs are used to.  Furthermore, MLS players would be more likely to draw the gaze of European scouts if they perform well at the Copa Libertadores.  Unlike the CONCACAF Champions League or the SuperLiga, there is real history at the Copa Libertadores; the winners’ list includes some of the greatest club sides and players in South American football history.

CONCACAF will never allow the move.  The United States and Mexico are the primary attractions of CONCACAF; without them the conference loses anything resembling competition.  It would be another OFC.  In order for CONCACAF to retain some kind of meaning, the United States and Mexico have to stay.

Australia faced a similar situation to the United States before its move to the AFC this past World Cup cycle, although Australia’s situation was ever more extreme.  The nations of Oceania, Australia and New Zealand excluded, have neither the money nor the resources to provide any kind of meaningful football competition (rugby is a different story though.)  When qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Australia crushed Tonga 22-0 (an international record) and then smashed a depleted American Samoa 31-0.  This was bad form on Australia’s part, but the scoreline was not so much an intended humiliation as a cry of desperation and rage.  Australia were begging OFC and FIFA to let them move conferences, because OFC would not help Australia develop as it should.  Australia’s weakness was underscored when they lost to Uruguay in a playoff and did not make the 2002 World Cup.  Australia is now in the AFC and much happier.  After their surprisingly excellent showing in South Africa, I wonder how long it will be before New Zealand joins Australia as an Asian nation.  However, without Australia and New Zealand, OFC has almost no reason to exist.  This is truly tragic because, as much as I have been bashing the smaller nations, I do believe that they should be able to qualify and improve.

What FIFA Should Do

If I ran FIFA, I would restructure the whole system, at least with regard to AFC, OFC, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL.  The competition needs to be structured fairly so that stronger nations can compete with each other and the so-called minnows are not constantly being bashed by the nations who have more resources.  Who does a 31-0 scoreline help?  Wouldn’t American Samoa improve if it played other teams that are at the same level?

FIFA should, as a non-profit, use the money it makes from television revenue to develop football in weaker countries: (1) football development; (2) tournaments for only small nations; and (3) aid to defray the cost of travel for federations with no money.  Developing football in places where money is in short supply should be FIFA’s legacy–not white elephant stadiums in countries that have never before hosted a World Cup.

AFC and OFC should be combined.  There are plenty of weak teams in AFC and OFC that can compete with one another.  CONMEBOL and CONCACAF should also be combined.  Let the minnows play with one another, and the minnow winners get to enter the main draw.  This should probably be applied to the minnows of CAF and UEFA also.

If this were successful, it could change the World Cup qualifying, and make it more equitable than it currently is.  Right now now Europe gets the most spots of any conference.  Europe argues that it deserves more spots because it provides better quality teams.  First of all, let us please retire that canard.  There are more teams from Europe who can compete at the top level, that is true but not that many.  Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany were strong in South Africa, but most of Europe tanked.  A Switzerland, a Slovenia, or a Greece is never going to win the World Cup, and the competition would not be poorer for their absence.

I would want to see 8 spots given to each of my 4 conferences: UEFA, CAF, AFC/OFC, and CONMEBOL/CONCACAF.  There is no reason that the 8th ranked team in a North/South America region is less qualified than the 8th ranked European nation.  I feel confident that the same applies to African and Asian/Oceanic competition.  My solution is equitable and fair.

And it will never happen.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Billie Holiday “Easy Living”;  Leonard Cohen “So Long Marianne”; Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane “Off Minor”; Arnold Schoenberg “Kleine Klavierstücke, op.19” Sehr langsam; Ludwig van Beethoven “String Quartet #6 In B Flat, Op.18/6 ” Allegro Con Brio; Erasure “Oh L’Amour”; Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane “Epistrophe”; Etta James “Don’t Lose Your Good Thing”; Marian Anderson “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”; George Gershwin “3 Preludes” Allegro Ben Ritmato E Deciso; Ladysmith Black Mambazo “Ujesu Wami”; Patricia Kaas “Faites Entrer Les Clowns”; Elton John “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”; Ella Fitzgerald “A-Tisket A-Tasket”;

Great Moments in FIFA History

If you, like me, are incredibly disappointed (but not surprised) that the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 went to a kleptocracy and an oil dictatorship respectively–two countries that have a horrific history of oppression, racism (Russia), sexism (Qatar), and homophobia (both)–let us remember that FIFA has a track record for this kind of thing.  Off the top of my head:

1.  The 1934 World Cup went to Mussolini’s Italy.  To be fair, holding the World Cup in Italy in 1934 is not the same as the IOC holding the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics in Germany (or even Italy in 1936).  Nevertheless, Italy in 1934 was still a Fascist totalitarian state whose policies and rhetoric was downright scary.

2.  Perhaps the most horrible thing FIFA has ever done (publicly) was during the qualification for the 1974 World Cup.  The Soviet Union and Chile had to play each other for qualification.  Chile’s legitimate government had recently been usurped by a brutal military junta.  The new government tortured and executed political prisoners (left-wing political prisoners) in the football stadium in Santiago.  These actions were well known.  After a 0-0 draw in Moscow, the return leg was to played in the Santiago stadium.  The Soviets refused to play there  because of the atrocities.  Rather than take action against Chile, FIFA disqualified the Soviet Union.  Chile went to the World Cup.  For once, the FIFA leadership suffered for their actions.  Stanley Rous, the head of FIFA was successfully overthrown by Joao Havelange, who ushered in a whole new era of FIFA corruption and greed.

3.  In 1978, Argentina (like Chile) was ruled by a military junta whose cruelty was well known around the world.  Despite public outcry both within and outside of Argentina, FIFA saw absolutely no problem with Argentina as host (and eventual winners.)

4.  In 2010 it was reported that the North Korean government had taken retribution against its national team and their manager after a poor World Cup performance.  FIFA buried its head in the sand until public outcry became too great.  They launched an “official investigation” which, to the surprise of no one, found out that no wrongdoing had taken place.

5.  Time after time FIFA refuses to acknowledge that technology can be used to correct refereeing mistakes and ensure a fairer tournament.  During the 2010 World Cup when Argentina played Mexico.  Argentina’s Carlos Tevez scored a goal that was clearly off-side.  The referee and his assistant missed the off-side at the time, but saw it on the instant replay in the stadium.  Because of FIFA rules, the referee could not overrule the earlier decision and the goal stood (let me repeat that, he saw the mistake, but could not change it because it happened after the fact.)  Mexico imploded, and Argentina won.  The poor referee was unfairly maligned for a mistake that could have been easily corrected.  What was FIFA’s response?  They stopped showing replays during the match.  (The United States was robbed a win against Slovakia after the referee in that match also made a horrific call.  Fortunately, the United States still won the group.)

6.  FIFA will suspend nations from participating in international competition if the nation’s government intervenes with the nation’s football association.  This is particularly galling in nations where the football association is so corrupt (Nigeria) that government intervention is the only way to clean it up.  On the other hand, an autocratic regime (North Korea) can get away with pretty much everything, because FIFA, like all bullies, is too frightened of taking real action against governments who not scared of them.

7.  FIFA has dragged its feet in responding to worldwide gambling syndicates.  One way they could help is by ensuring that national football associations, who have no oversight because of FIFA, pay their players so that said players–who are not stars and who do not make all that much money–are not tempted to throw matches.  This is a real problem in poorer nations.

These are just some of the things that FIFA has done.  This is all documented.  I am not even talking about the (probably true) allegations of bribery and corruption.  So, dear reader, if you are disappointed like me, at least let us understand that this is not the worst thing FIFA has ever done.  FIFA, like the IOC, is an international conglomerate that is solely around to ensure that its members get paid.  Russia and Qatar have money to pay those bills.