A few random thoughts after watching the Dutch team do their best imitation of Pat Riley’s mid-1990s New York Knicks (with the same result):
* Watching the final earlier today, I got the impression that the Netherlands were trying to beat Spain at their own game — tight defense and wearing down the other side. You know how athletes always talk about how “if we just play our game, we’ll win”? That’s precisely what Spain did … and what the Dutch didn’t.
* Furthermore, the “thug life” aspect of the Oranje’s game plan could not have been more badly timed. Maybe it rattled the Spaniards and led to all those near-misses, though I suspect that had more to do with just plain bad luck. More to the point, Howard Webb, the English referee who oversaw today’s match, is known for being pretty liberal with the yellow card. As eight different Dutchmen found out today (one of them twice), he was not about to put up with that mess. In soccer as in basketball, scouting the refs is almost as important as scouting the other team.
* One of those cards went (very deservedly) to Nigel deJong, for planting one of his cleats in Xabi Alonso’s sternum. deJong is the same guy who broke midfielder Stuart Holden’s leg during Stars and Stripes’ “friendly” against the Oranje in March, thus essentially removing him from the U.S. World Cup roster. Dude needs to rein it in — or have someone rein it in for him …
* Spain won all four of their win-or-go-home games 1-0, without a single goal scored in the first 60 minutes of any match. Does anyone know the Castillian Spanish phrase for “the Cardiac Kids”?
* The Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player went to Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, which I thought was a little strange. I mean, Forlan had a great World Cup and all, but I think the logical choice would’ve been someone who didn’t even make the top three — namely, Spanish goalie Iker Casillas. La Furia Roja only scored eight goals in seven games (lowest of any team to ever hoist the Jules Rimet Trophy), and only three by players not named “David Villa”. We’re talking no margin for error. They could not have come close to winning had they not had possibly the best goalie in the world in their net — who, incidentally, was also the team captain. The only time I’ve ever seen a goalkeeper in any sport play so well in international competition, it was Dominik Hasek basically willing the Czech Republic to the ice hockey gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Iker, you were epic! (And at least they gave him the Golden Glove … but still.)
* Congratualtions to Thomas Müller, winner of both the Best Young Player Award AND the Golden Boot for top scorer (5 goals, 3 assists). Dude doesn’t turn 21 until September. Bayern Munich, his home club, better be prepared to make Müller a very rich man …
* FIFA head referee Jose Maria Garcia-Aranda’s statement yesterday that the World Cup officials were “a big success” may have been the most glaringly obvious public denial of reality since George W. Bush uttered the immortal words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” I’m just saying.
* Is it just me, or would Andres Iniesta bear a striking resemblance to Landon Donovan if Iniesta grew his hair out a little? After he scored and started running toward the corner, I automatically expected him to slide on his chest like Landon did after the score against Algeria …
* And speaking of Landon … hey, I know what’s going on. You’re a young man, handsome, in superb shape, you were alone in a foreign country, and all the chicks dug you. But don’t you think you could’ve waited until a) you’d finished breaking up with your wife back in the States (if, in fact, you and she do break up), and b) you’d finished unpacking your stuff in England before possibly knocking up some random Everton groupie?!? Here, Landon, three goals in the Cup or no three goals, you need to read this … trust me, loverboy, it’s for your own good.
* I’ve gotten inured to the sound of vuvuzelas somewhat … but it still doesn’t mean I like them. African football tradition or not, my friend Dairl’s description of them as sounding like “a yak with indigestion” is spot-on. My general opinion of them (expressed in the previous World Cupdate) is unchanged.
* Okay, I’ve put this part off long enough …
Was the U.S. showing in the 2010 World Cup a disappointment? Yes and no. On the one hand, the general consensus was that Stars and Stripes would make it out of the group stage and get bounced in the round of 16 — which is precisely what happened. On the other, the strong showing against England and the repeated comebacks gave hints that they could do some real damage in the knockout rounds — which is precisely what didn’t happen.
Let’s face facts, the current hallmark of Stars and Stripes in international football circles is their maddening inconsistency. In their best moments, they can tie the soon-to-be 2006 World Cup champs (Italy) despite playing much of the match a man down, beat an eventual 2010 World Cup winner (Spain, in last year’s Confederations Cup) and end their 35-game unbeaten streak, or stifle an England eleven that many (including me) thought could go to the Cup final. In their worst, they can find themselves down two goals to the lowest-populated country in the tourney, or get eliminated from consecutive World Cups by a country with 1/13 of our population and 1/800 of our GDP, a nation we could probably invade and conquer in about a month. (Not that we’re going to invade Ghana or ever would; I’m just trying to put it in perspective here.) There’s no real rhyme or reason to it that I can see. The 2009 Confed Cup final, when they came out for the second half leading Brazil 2-0 and proceeded to spit up on themselves for the next 45 minutes, is U.S. Soccer’s recent performance in a nutshell.
And I don’t know what the solution is. The drug conglomerates don’t make a pill to cope with team schizophrenia. Is it the coaching? The feeder system? Management at the U.S. Soccer Federation? Is one of the current players a Wilt Chamberlain-like clubhouse cancer who always seems to bring the team down at the worst possible moment? I dunno. I hope Sunil Gulati, Bob Bradley & Co. look into it, and find some solutions to the national team’s bipolarity. Because if we can’t get out of the round of 16 in Brazil four years from now, I won’t have to ask if their showing was a disappointment — I’ll simply be counting the ways.
Well, that’s all from Johannesburg West. Stars and Stripes have a friendly against the Brazilians next month in Joisey. Until then, remember — don’t tread on this!
(I couldn’t resist — that song always fires me up …)