28 June 2010

World Cup Question Time

Two weeks into the global football party and I figure its time to answer some reader mail (actually I have no readers so these are all questions I have asked myself in one of those weird one person conversations).

Referees continue to miss calls in critical moments in critical games. Roughly 2 billion people saw that Lampards' goal against the Germans was over the line and that Tevez was 4 feet offsides in the opening goal against Mexico. What's up with those douches at FIFA not using technology at all to assist the referees in their decisions?

Well that's just it, FIFA is a bunch of stodgy, traditionalist, ignorant a-holes bent on maintaining control according to their antiquated, anachronistic view of the game. The rule making body for the game, the International FA Board (IFAB), met most recently in March of this year and obstinately rejected technological assistance for goal line or offsides calls or reform of any sort for that matter that might have improved upon the current umpiring set up (i.e. the use of two additional referees on the respective goal lines). The IFAB consists of the Football Associations from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and FIFA. In voting protocol, each of the British FA's has one vote and FIFA has four, with 6 votes needed to pass any rules modification. The English FA, governors of the most profitable and successful domestic football league in the world, support to a modest extent the introduction of some sort of technology to assist referees in goal line decisions. While I'm not sure where the other British FA's stand, it hardly matters as FIFA is really the man behind the curtain here. And FIFA's euro-centric, conservative captains manage the game on their own cloak and dagger, Vatican-like terms. Their rationale for rejecting technology would be fodder for debate if there was one, but the organization rarely feels the need to inform the public or media outside of blanket statements touting the "integrity of the game" and maintaining the "human element". It's difficult to root for a disastrous situation, but I wonder how many more fans, players, those with an investment in the game FIFA must ostracize before there's a serious attitude shift in Zurich. CLEARLY, Lampard's goal was good, the game takes on a different dynamic at 2-2. This could have been confirmed to the head referee in 2 seconds by someone watching a replay of anyone of the 75 camera angles or in less time by a chip in the ball which upon crossing a magnetic field defined as the goal mouth triggers a signal to the the head referee or a Hawkeye system similar to the ones used in professional tennis. Offsides calls require a bit more brainstorming but I'm confident smart, open minded people could at least figure out a way to avoid the glaring mistakes that have marred a number of games, most notably the Argentina-Mexico round of 16 match yesterday.

Yo dude, love the blog. What's wrong with African teams? Seems like every year we talk about a breakthrough. This year especially with the World Cup being held in Africa for the first time, everyone thought this would be time for a couple of teams to get through to the second round at least.

Thanks man, appreciate it. I think there's a couple of issues plaguing the African outfits when it comes to their World Cup performances, not only in this World Cup but over say the last 12 years. While Ghana earned a place in this year's quarterfinals ( a feat equal to Senegal's run in '02), they were the only one of the continents six entrants this year to advance beyond the group stage. And since 1998, when the tournament was expanded to the current 32 team format, only one African team has gotten to the second round in each edition. Nigeria in '98, Senegal in '02 and Ghana both in '06 and now. Problem numero uno (these go in no particular order); too many games=tired legs. In addition to the demands of European club seasons (where most of the World Cup caliber African players ply their trade), African footballers participated in their continental tournament earlier this year. The African Cup of Nations was held in Angola in January and is held every two years, during even numbered years at least until 2012 when they get off that cycle. So the tournament second in importance to African players, fans, and football associations has been falling within months of the World Cup since 1970. For starters, there's no way the tourney should be held the same year as the World Cup. Beginning in 2013 when Libya serves as hosts, that will change. Fine. Now the African Football Associations should also decide to hold the tournament every 4 years much like the other continental tournaments in Europe and South America. The grind of club competition, the qualifying campaign in Africa, the Cup of Nations blunts and subdues the threat of the better African teams. Yes good on Ghana but even there are without one of their best playmakers, Michael Essien, due to injury. Secondly, a major issue holding back the potential of many an African team is administration. The FA's are doing a real injustice to us all but especially the players with short order personnel changes, misguided managerial hires and firings that have led to indifferent performances on the pitch and turmoil off of it. Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast brought on new coaches in the months before the Cup began. Even Carlos Alberto Parreira had been in and out of favor with the South Africans (I would imagine he's out of favor again now after the disappointing first round exit of the Bafana Bafana). Officials at the African FAs need to exhibit a little more patience with managers and managers in turn need to exploit, not temper, the skills, speed and size of Africa's elite players. I'm not saying the tactics should be tossed aside in favor of all out offensive football just that the last two World Cup's in particular were characterized by stifling, confounding play from the majority of the African sides. Nigeria's recession from there promise of the 1990's when they reached the 2nd round at USA '94 and became the first non-European, non-South American winner of Olympic gold at Atlanta '96 is especially disappointing.

Really great insight on the blog, I'm an avid reader, you should work for ESPN or something. My question is about the downfall of some of the traditional powerhouses in international soccer. France and Italy played poorly and were both knocked out in the opening round, England didn't fare much better squeaking into the knockout stage but getting beaten soundly by Germany. What's up with that?

Thank you, from your keyboard to ESPN's ears sir. I fear, at least for the national sides mentioned above, that this World Cup may be the leading indicator of a generational gap in world class talent. Victims of their own success I suppose. The high profile nature of their domestic leagues and the runaway transfer fees and salaries paid to top flight players these days in Europe has meant that top clubs pay for the privilege of foreign talent rather than invest the capital into homegrown potential. It is not difficult at all to find an Italian Serie A squad or an English Premier league outfit with more foreigners than Italians or English in the roster. Look no further than Inter Milan, this year's European Club Champion, as they fielded not a single Italian in their starting 11 at the Bernabeu during the final. The development of younger players, especially in England and Italy, has stagnated in recent times. You might be shocked to know that England last finished in the top 4 at the Under-20 World Cup back in 1993, Italy never has. The larger clubs in both countries have splashed millions of Euros to bring in Brazilians, Argentinians, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish or even players from Eastern Europe at the detriment of their once fertile club junior ranks. France is suffering from the same issues to a smaller degree with the added impediment of a rudderless national strategy over the last two major international tournaments. Raymond Domenech long ago lost the respect of his players, the benefit of the doubt from the always fickle French public and now the cracks throughout French football led to a structural collapse of the spectacular sort. I blame all. The players were primadona's, Anelka has and always will be locker room cancer. His teammates acted shamefully in refusing to train and played as individuals in three games of forgettable football for Les Bleus. And the French federation may have gotten what they deserved having kept Domenech on too long. Perhaps there is some poetic justice in the French flop given that they cheated the Irish out of a spot in South Africa.

So what'd you think of the Team USA? Topped the group but dumped out in the round of 16 by Ghana.

How's this for confusing you, I viewed the US performance in South Africa as both a success and a failure. The draw and game against England created a significant amount of buzz even among the non-soccer loving in this country. Our gutsy fightback against the Slovenes captivated a mass audience. The dramatic late winner from Landon in the Algeria game will prove memorable for generations to come. And despite falling against a technical skilled and physically imposing Ghana side, our Yanks should be proud of their efforts. I think the team worked extremely hard for each other, Michael Bradley emerged as a young talent and hopefully a creative midfield stalwart for years to come, Landon and Clint Dempsey proved why they're the class of their generation. However, in the final analysis, this team had the potential to go further in this tournament. The early goals were the most obvious blemish, exposing the lack of experience on our back line. The lack of a true striker, I believe, is a bigger issue. Our front line players lacked the technical skill to compete at this the highest competitive level in the game. In fact it's the 2nd straight World Cup where not a single goal was scored by a forward from the US squad. Too many loose dribbles, lack of control, sloppy turnovers, wildly optimistic shots from outside the area and opportunities squandered in front of the goal mouth cost this team more than anything else. Jurgen Klinsmann, a man who's opinion I'm growing to respect more and more each day, said US soccer society is essentially turned upside down. Parents pay for their kids to play so that maybe they can eventually earn a college scholarship and thus the game here remains a middle class endeavor. If I'm following his reasoning correctly, I would agree without hesitation. The best soccer players are produced from the inner cities, from the lower income classes a conjecture almost counter intuitive in it's nature to most Americans. A lack of resources, monetary or otherwise, fuels improvisation, creativity, quick thinking and efficiency in effort, in other words a skill set suited towards success at the game amongst other things. I wouldn't suggest we intentionally foster favelas in American cities for the sake of producing a Pele or Romario, but I do believe and hope US Soccer aggressively promotes the game to a broader segment of society. You own the suburbs, now get into the inner cities, the police athletic leagues, the schools cutting budgets left and right...throw them a soccer ball. From there we can build. Then come 2014, 2018, 2022 (when the Cup will most likely be played here again), there may be someone from the current team (Edson Buddle, Hercules Gomes) or someone else who can be the finisher we need in the final third.

I know you don't like making predictions, but we're down to 10 teams left here, who you liking now?

Oh my readers, you know me so well. I do not indeed like making predictions, anything can happen on any given day. Honestly you would have thought the defending champs would be last in group with Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia? But I will say from the beginning of the tournament Argentina has looked the strongest side to me. Even though Lionel Messi hasn't scored a goal he's playing really well and has created multiple opportunities for his teammates. The game against Germany should be very interesting because I've been impressed by there free flowing play as well. Ze Germans are still a young side, perhaps poised for the greener pastures in four years time. I think Argentina goes through and beats Holland in the final. The Dutch have been practical in their approach and expended very little energy to date in reaching the quarters. I think they have the organization to deny Brazil space and speed on the wings in the form of Arjen Robben to trouble the Brazilian back line.

Seen any good soccer related flicks recently that you might suggest?

Absolutely, glad you asked. "The Two Escobars" is a two-hour documentary about the influence of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar amongst other narcotraficantes in Colombian soccer in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Most poignantly the film, directed by brothers Michael and Jeff Zimbalist, recalls the life of Andres Escobar who was tragically murdered in Medellin only a week after he accidentally diverted a John Harkes cross into his own net in the 1994 World Cup. The film has a bevy of interesting interview subjects including most of the players from that bad ass '94 team, Escobar's (the drug lord) right hand man and Escobar's (the gentleman footballer) family and friends. I thought the production was superb which included a surprisingly edgy soundtrack and incredible footage of Colombia's violent days. The film is part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series so if you can catch it on the network I highly recommend.

Alright I know this is totally unrelated to the World Cup but I have to ask you what you think of the proposal to put two large aquariums behind home plate at the new Marlins Stadium?

Stupid....really, really stupid.

Thanks again, as always you can reach me at dmanic23(at)gmail(dot)com with your comments or questions. laters.

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