(Blogger’s note: if you don’t like sports, you’ll want to skip today’s entry – as well as tomorrow’s , when I’ll be talking about the NBA draft. Fair warning.)
A few random thoughts on the ongoing World Cup, on the day after the greatest “whew, that was close!” goal in the history of United States soccer:
* First of all, I have to do this, so bear with me … (ahem) … LAAAAAAAN-DOOOOOOON! DOOOON-O-VAAAAAAAN!
* Had Donovan not scored in extra time against Algeria, Stars and Stripes would have finished third in Group C, been knocked out of the tournament, and their flight home would’ve seemed longer and more interminable than that Isner-Mahut fifth set at Wimbledon. With that goal, they won the group on a tie-breaker and have a decent shot at making the tourney semifinals. Talk about clutch.
* Would anyone be offended if I said I hate vuvuzelas? I know it’s a cultural thing for South Africans, but one of those stupid things sounds like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber making The Most Annoying Sound in the World. 20,000 of them together in one stadium sound like the locusts from Revelation 9 have decided to attack the pitch. I REALLY hate vuvuzelas.
* All along, I’ve been saying that the U.S. had better win Group C, due to the way the World Cup schedule is set. If they’d finished second in the group (as most predicted they would, given the presence of England and all), their opponents in the round of 16 would have been the winner of Group D, which I fully expected to be (and in fact is) Germany. I wanted absolutely NO PART of Die Mannschaft, whose storied Cup history is second only to Brazil’s. Granted, they’ve lost a lot of players to injuries this year (most notably captain/supermidfielder Michael Ballack), but still, they’re freaking Germany! Needless to say, I’m glad we dodged that bullet and left the English to deal with the Teutonic hordes this time – the Three Lions can pay us back for saving them from the Hun in the ‘40s.
(As a side note, is there any weirder team name to hear an English-language announcer say than “Die Mannschaft”? I know, I know, it’s German for “The Team” or “The Crew” and it’s a perfectly legitimate nickname … but it’s just strikes my Anglo funny bone. It makes it sound like their team video would be rated NC-17 …)
* Granted, the U.S. would have had an easier time of it if the officiating had been better. I’ve specifically avoided watching any replay of the disallowed goal against Slovenia (or for that matter, the one against Algeria) for two reasons. One, my blood pressure is high enough already. Two, I have friends who work as umpires or referees and know how hard a job it is, so I don’t like to second-guess their colleagues. These folks are human, they work hard, they’re doing the best they can and deserve what support we can give them. What bothers me is that an obvious solution exists, but the Powers That Be are refusing to even consider it. The NFL uses instant replay in a carefully limited form (two coach’s challenges per half, plus automatic double-checks in the last two minutes of each half, incontrovertible evidence required to overturn a call) and it’s actually improved the sport, eliminating almost all of the “we’ve been robbed” complaints I grew up hearing. There’s no reason a similar method of using replay couldn’t be implemented in Major League Baseball (thus saving Armando Galarraga’s perfect game), the NBA (preventing some of the awful calls we’ve seen in recent playoffs) or international soccer (just ask the Ireland squad). But the mucky-mucks, intent on destroying their games’ sanctity in order to save it, won’t hear of it, thus leaving entire fan bases dissatisfied and forcing their own officials to continue walking a tightrope without a net. It’s stupidity in short pants.
* A number of commentators (most notably ESPN’s Roger Bennett) have been referring to the 2010 Cup as “the World Cup of Parity” and I can’t disagree. Nor do I mind. Defending champ Italy was knocked out in the group stage, along with 2006 runner-up France (more on that in a mo’). Spain, the #1 team in the world coming into the tourney, may follow as soon as tomorrow. England didn’t win their group (tee hee). Even Germany was on shaky ground for a little while. Meanwhile, the U.S., Ghana, Japan and Slovakia are in the round of 16, perennial non-power Paraguay won its group, and with a little luck Switzerland could move on as well. That’ll shake things up.
* Schadenfreude alert! I was among the many who enjoyed watching the 24-car pileup that was France’s tenure in the tournament. In case you missed it, the French came in with a coach (the tastefully named Raymond Domenech) whom everyone despised, and their best player of the last decade, Thierry Henry, relegated to the bench. They squeaked into the tournament on an uncalled handball assist by Henry that caused a formal protest to FIFA. After a sloppy scoreless tie with Uruguay, their current best player, Nicolas Anelka, delivered a blistering, profanity-laced review of Domenech to the press. Domenech, of course, voted his stock and threw Anelka off the team; the team responded by skipping a practice in protest. They lost 2-0 to one of the weakest Mexican entries in recent memory, then 2-1 to South Africa, who were only in the Cup this year because the host gets in automatically. They had to slink back into France under police protection to avoid their own fans, and Henry went straight from the airport to a meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who apparently thinks straightening out a frigging soccer team is his #1 priority. Domenech is expected to resign (a classic case of jumping before he’s pushed), and the president of the Fédération Française de Football has already quit in disgust. Remember, this is the country that has a history of going to pieces under stress – just ask Otto von Bismarck. Nice consistency, Jean-Pierre.
* And now, on to the round of 16, where American chances look pretty decent. First up is Ghana on Saturday, which is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that (barring an incredible stroke of luck for the Ivory Coast tomorrow), the Black Stars will be the only one of the six African teams in the tournament to advance – which in turn means that a largely African crowd is likely to be on their side. Furthermore, the Ghanians aren’t slouches – they beat a great Serbian team in Group D, held Die Mannschaft (giggle) to a single goal, and striker Asamoah Gyan has scary skills.
* The good news is that it sure beats facing the Germans; the Black Stars are good but not borderline-unbeatable. Stars and Stripes are used to facing hostile crowds – I guarantee they won’t be dodging bags of urine like the last time they played in Mexico City. And they’ll have a first-rate scouting report on Gyan, since he also plays for Stade Rennes in the French Ligue 1. As does the U.S. team captain, defenseman Carlos Bocanegra.
* The further good news is that if Stars and Stripes can get past Ghana, they face the winner of Uruguay-South Korea – both very good squads, but nobody was picking either of them to haul home the Jules Rimet Trophy. So while I recognize the danger of getting too far over my skis, so to speak, it seems like the U.S. team has at least a puncher’s chance at making the semifinals for the first time in 60 years. (Where they’ll probably get filleted by the Brazilians or the Dutch, but still.) A far cry from 25 years ago, when we couldn’t even get into the tournament because the Trinidad and Tobagos of the world kept kicking our tails. I’ll take it.
* Oh, and one other factor to consider. The United States is bidding to host the World Cup again, either in 2018 or 2022 (Brazil has it in 2014). It’s generally expected that the ’18 Cup will go to a European country – I’m told England is the favorite, but Russia is trying as well, and Belgium/Netherlands and Spain/Portugal are also making joint bids. But if that happens, Europe will be ineligible to host in ’22, and South America is out of the picture as well (due to FIFA rules). That leaves the following candidates:
- Australia (never hosted before, but would be the third WC host in the Southern Hemisphere out of the last four)
- Japan (co-hosted in 2002)
- South Korea (ditto)
- Qatar (no, seriously, Qatar!)
- The United States (last hosted in 1994)
I believe all of the bidding countries would have to build new stadia to host the Cup except the U.S., which has more of them than we know what to do with thanks to the NFL and the major athlete-factory colleges. The U.S. also has far more media outlets, potential corporate sponsors and cold cash money than any of the other four above (maybe more than all of them together). And we’re showing our support for the Cup already. More tickets to this year’s tournament were bought in the U.S. than in any other country except host South Africa, and Americans purchased more ducats than the English and the Germans combined. Not all of those Americans are rooting for Stars and Stripes, but FIFA isn’t going to care about that.
It was the availability of our stadia and the color of our money that brought the Cup to America in ’94, but it was a near-run thing. Had the U.S. not qualified for the 1990 World Cup (and remember, they hadn’t made it in since Truman was President), FIFA was considering tearing up our bid and awarding it to Brazil or Mexico. Thankfully, the young U.S. squad squeaked into the tournament and protected our bid (better than they protected their own goal – they were swept in the group stage), and four years later, the 1994 Cup set financial and attendance records. The United States still has all the advantages it had sixteen years ago – but now it also has a national team that has to be reckoned with. If that team makes the final four in the coming days … who knows?
Don’t tread on this. (Unless “this” is a vuvuzela – then stomp it to pieces, please.)