Monday, June 28, 2010
These two are marked men, and the best they can do through the maze of attacking players is to set up chances for others. Still, the hallmark of great soccer players is that they find a way to score against impossible odds. That's why they are great. Pele and Maradona and Cruyff had more than one opponent assigned to track and thwart their every move, still they performed their magic from impossible angles and through seemingly impenetrable walls.
It will be a shame if these two stars go through their run of the World Cup without a single goal to their credit. (No one remebers who provided the assists). Messi has to be at his best against Germany in the quarterfinals and carry his country on his genius. Bitter memories will haunt these two nemeses when they take to the pitch. Scoring a goal, and winning, will elevate Messi to his rightful place in soccer lore.
As for Kaka, unless he dazzles against Holland and helps Brazil to a convincing win, he will be considered a spent force. He will maintain his status in European leagues for a few more years but by 2014, he will be considered a spent force and will undoubtedly be replaced by younger wizards . Unless, of course, he does something spectacular in the remaining games for Brazil. Holland will be a tough mountain to conquer in the quarterfinals and the result could go either way. Holland's young Elia (of Surinamese descent), in particular, looks as good as any Brazilian and may help his country pull off an upset. Unless, again, Kaka does something sublime to give us an unforgettable moment or two at the 2010 World Cup.
Here's hoping that Messi and Kaka will deliver. And the ultimate dream final? Why, Messi against Kaka, of course!
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Why coach Bradley fiddled with the line that played so inspiringly against Algeria will be debated fiercely in the next few days. Ricardo Clark was responsible for giving up a goal to England two weeks ago; his glaring mistake this time led to Ghana's first goal, although Tim Howard, the goalkeeper, should have been in position to stop Kevin Boateng's shot.
But these are minor details. The U.S. lost possession of the ball too many times and played too many long stretches without purpose. The Ghanaians snatched the persistence that epitomized the Yanks and beat them in its own game. Although it dominated Ghana in the second half, tying on a penalty kick by Donovan, it ran out of gas in extra time and paid the price. It lost to a nation the size of Oregon, and with a population (24 million) that is less than one-tenth that of the U.S. (over 300 million). Only Dempsey, and to some extent, Brazilian-born Feilhaber, displayed the poise worthy of a world-cup match. Donovan was not at his best. In fact, he was lucky that his penalty shot went in after ricocheting off the right post. A inch or two to the right and it would have been a wasted effort. Americans must perfect their one-touch game if they want to be serious contenders.
The bigger question is: What now for U.S. soccer? A huge opportunity to take the game to the next level in America was lost. The euphoria around the World Cup will soon die down (it already has for many America fans) but how will soccer continue to fare in the America? Success in the first round is not a guarantee, and let's face it, the U.S. was lucky to tie against England in the first match. It was also in one of the easiest group in the tournament.
If the U.S. were to lose in the first round in Brazil in 2014 by, say, being in a tougher group, how will the average American react? Will it be: "No big deal since I have no cultural attachment to the sport, so I don't care," or, "We have to keep improving until we find the right mix of talent and technique to win the trophy"?
I believe it will be the latter. Americans want to see their boys win on the world's biggest sporting stage. If the nation can creatively assimilates its immigrants who care about soccer more than, say, baseball and basketball, there is no reason why the U.S. cannot claim soccer's ultimate glory.
The reality, however, is that America does a poor job of nurturing its soccer talent. A kid pursues soccer seriously here because it may get him or her a scholarship. In the rest of the world, a promising youngster is nurtured with first-rate coaching as well as financial incentives. Thus you see hungry and motivated stars from ghettos and inner cities dazzling the world with their skills. The U.S. has got to set up a similar infrastructure. If it does, then, only then, can we ever hope to reach the pinnacle of world soccer.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
By winning the group, the U.S. will face Ghana in the elimination stage, surely a better draw than Germany. Now it's the two old adversaries, Germany and England, who will lock horns, all their nationalistic baggages in full view . Meanwhile, America basks in its victory over Algeria, and suddenly even the most indifferent American is taking note. "I never cared for soccer," a friend said, "but when I saw in my email that America won its group, I became curious, interested." The whole country will be watching in prime time on Saturday if the U.S. can overcome Ghana and move onto uncharted territory.
I believe it can. A fairy tale like this will end but not this soon. The U.S. will reach the quarterfinals and soccer will finally become mainstream. "Dream on," you say? Yes, I do, because the American sports psyche does not resonate to the rhythm of basketball and baseball and football only, but also to the magical beauty of soccer.
Soccer moms across the nation will be joined by soccer dads and that's a wonderful way for the culture war on soccer to end.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
All the talk about the subjective beauty of soccer, that we have to live with the idiosyncrasies and the incompetence of referees to preserve the fluid beauty of the game, is a lot o fhot air. Instant replays should settle the score, literally, just like in other sports. FIFA has got to make the transition to the 21st century, instead of dwelling in the 19th. This is one area where technology can enhance the ethereal magic of soccer played at the highest level. Otherwise the Coulibalys - and already we have seen quite a few of his kindred in the first round - will ruin the game. Wake up, FIFA!
As for English soccer, the less said, the better. This is an over-hyped group that cannot function as a team and suffers from delusions of greatness. Rooney and company will probably beat Slovenia in a last-ditch effort to salvage some pride - the grim Churchillian determination in action - and make it to the next round along with the U.S., but that's about it. English fans have been spoilt by their star players shining in the reflected lights of foreign players but when it comes to the rough and tumble of World Cup, they need to realize that mediocrity can go only so far. Besides, you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but ...
The most impressive match so far has been Argentina's 4-1 victory over South Korea. Lionel Messi made the game a showcase for his genius. The team has found its rhythm and is executing with flair and imagination. Also, Argentina is playing with a 12th player without drawing any penalty. Diego Maradona's antics and unpredictability are actually helping the team perform better on the pitch. Call it the X factor but it is working. To paraphrase Francis Bacon, "There is no excellent soccer that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
It is important to peak at the right time in the World Cup. Peak too early and you almost always lose in the quarterfinals. We did see from Brazil the occasional magic that characterizes jogo bonito, but that was all. There was no finishing to make your blood rush and the music soar. Kaka showed nothing in which to go gaga over his game. In fact, some of his passes were so completely off target that you had to wonder if the real Kaka would show up.
The first goal by Maicon was a lucky one, even if worthy of drawing "Ooooh"s from viewers. A good goalkeeper should have picked that one off. The second goal by Elano from a sublime pass by Robinho was vintage Brazil. But then Brazil slacked off and in the dying minutes, Ji Yun Nam beat Julio Cesar. That was also good for Brazil. It just proved that all this talk of Brazil's defense being one of the world's best is just that: talk. As for Julio being the best goalkeeper in the world? Not yet, not yet.
Brazil got its three points in the frigid night in Johannesburg to sit atop its group. But the message is clear: You have to step up your game if you want to go beyond the next round. Stop passing too much in the penalty box and take more shots at the goal. Artistry for the sake of artistry is foolish unless matched by the ability to get the ball into the net.
All in all, a good lesson for a team that expects to win the first world cup being held in Africa
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Having seen the German team execute with such flair and finesse against Australia, I now think the team has a good shot at reaching the final. The veterans and the newbies played as if they have been playing forever. It is possible that the they were able to play so well because the Australians were so hopelessly outclassed but if the team keeps its poise and continues to have fun on the pitch, the trophy can be within reach.
I think one reason the Germans played so brilliantly was because of Michael Ballack's absence. I have always found this "superstar" overrated and a drag on German soccer. That he is out because of injury may turn out to be a blessing. Miroslav Klose can even close in on Ronaldo's tally of 15 goals if he continues his never-give-up style of play. Scoring a goal against Australia has certainly given the veteran forward a boost.
However, it has too often been the case that a team that roars in like a lion often goes out like a lamb. The reverse is true as well; you only have to think of Italy. If Germany can display the same flair against Serbia in its next match and win convincingly, naysayers will change their minds. Otherwise, the victory against Australia will be seen as a flash in the pan.
On a different note: It is clear that the vuvuzela drone by South Africans is drowning out the simple pleasures of soccer. This aural assault is turning out to be a torture. I suppose if someone wants to know what it feels like inside a beehive, the unmusical sounds emanating from these cheap and long plastic horns would offer an excellent simulation. But we don't care to be inside a beehive, certainly not when soccer is being played on a global stage
So, no offense to our fun-loving South African sisters and brothers, but please leave your vuvuzelas home when you come to the stadiums. Screaming your hearts out when the situation warrants (a goal scored, a glorious save) will do beautifully when you are watching the beautiful game. If you don't, we will take the ultimate step: We will petition Nelson Mandela.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
English fans may think of Clint Dempsey's goal as Robert Green's gift to the U.S. The English keeper couldn't hold on to a routine shot on goal but it should not diminish the dazzling ball-control ability of Dempsey that led to the goal. He faked three times at the same spot to lose a defender and when his shot slipped away from the disbelieving Green, American fans all over the world, including soldiers in Afghanistan, erupted in wild cheers.
But the hero of the match was Howard. He made three fabulous saves (including one in the 52nd minute when he collided with Emile Heskey and lay writhing in pain after punching the ball away) that inspired the Americans to step up their game.
Particularly in soccer, nothing is more demoralizing than an early goal. When Steve Gerrard scored in the 4th minute to put England ahead, and the English attackers simply outplayed the Americans. for the next 20 minutes or so, I thought it was all over.
But the tide slowly turned. The Americans shed their jitterbugs and found their rhythm. Dempsey's goal at the 40th minute gave the U.S. a surge of confidence.
In the second half, the Americans were equal to anything the English threw at them. In fact, Jozy Altidore almost scored the go-ahead goal in the 65th minute when he made a brilliant run down the left flank and beat Green, only to see his shot hit the goalpost. Landon Donovan also began to play with more flair and imagination. If the first half belonged to England, the second half certainly belonged to the Americans.
As I wrote in "Miracle on Grass," a draw would be a victory for the U.S., and so it was. What is clear is that unless it plays better, England has no chance of winning the Cup. As always, it will go down heroically (think Robert Falcon Scott and his attempt to reach the North Pole) probably in the quarterfinals or even before.
The Americans will also not win the Cup (if they do, it will be beyond miracle) but they have already given a terrific account of themselves in this trial by fire. Today's game was not the Miracle on Grass of 1950 (it would have been if Altidore's shot went in) but if Tim Howard plays the way he did against England, he may come to be regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world.
Saturday, June 05, 2010
Will history repeat itself?
This is the million-dollar question that has gripped soccer aficionados in
On June 12, the
So it appeared to be. The American goalkeeper, an Italian-American from
Then, thirty-seven minutes into the game, Walter Bahr of the
When the goal stood after 53 more unbelievable minutes, the 15,000+ Brazilians at the Independencia Stadium erupted in wild celebrations, less because of the Yank’s victory and more because
The “Miracle on Grass” did nothing, however, to popularize soccer in the
Sixty years later,
On paper, however, the Americans are the lesser team against
The world will, of course, be riveted by the anticipated wizardry of Lionel Messi of Argentina (although how he will fare under the unpredictable coaching of soccer legend Diego Maradona is anybody’s guess), the playmaking flair of Brazil’s Kaka or the explosiveness of Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba (who may unfortunately miss the World Cup because of a dislocated elbow).
But the first match of the beautiful game –
There is a tragic postscript to the 1950 Yanks. Joe Gaetjens, hero of the American team, returned to
For eight years, the world knew nothing of what happened to the lone goal scorer against