Monthly Archives: June 2014

Reflections on the Exciting 2014 World Cup Group Stage

Today is the first off day of the 2014 World Cup as the survivors of the group stage prepare to begin the round of 16 tomorrow. To be honest, I do not mind having a day off from watching matches because this tournament has been intense! There have been unexpected results and goals galore. Nearly every match was enjoyable to watch, and the final 16 includes a number of surprises that will continue to add intrigue to the tournament, most notably the qualification of Costa Rica and Algeria and the absence of Spain, Italy, and England.

Some of the teams who qualified for the second round were especially impressive, notably Holland and France, and others will need to step up their game to have a chance of advancing, including two of the pre-tournament favorites, Brazil and Argentina. I said before the tournament that Brazil would not be the champions, and I am even more sure of this prediction after seeing how flat they have been. They got a lucky victory against Croatia after a horrible penalty call, and then beat a Cameroon side who had already been eliminated and ended up finishing last. They will have a difficult time beating Chile, let alone getting to the latter stages of the tournament. I am picking Germany to win the tournament. They have not been as impressive as the Dutch, but I just do not trust the Dutch to win the big one.

Of course picking a European team to win the World Cup in South America is dangerous, as a European side has never won the trophy when the tournament took place in the Americas (indeed, the only European team to win the tournament outside of Europe was Spain in South Africa in 2010; similarly, the only non-European team to win in Europe was Brazil in Sweden in 1958) and more than half of the European teams failed to reach the second round. Argentina has a shot to win if Lionel Messi continues to be unstoppable, but the rest of the squad have not shown the necessary quality. Colombia has been the most impressive South American side, and they could make a deep run into the tournament.

Teams from the Americas have had an excellent tournament in general. Five of the six South American sides went through to the round of 16, and South America is guaranteed at least one semifinalist because the winners of the two all-South American second round match-ups will meet each other in the quarterfinals. Three of the four CONCACAF sides went through, which is especially impressive because the U.S. were in the Group of Death, Costa Rica were in the Group of Death Part II and won it handily, and Mexico were in a group with Brazil (which ended up being less of a difficulty than everyone predicted, but still). These results should put to rest any talk about taking away any of CONCACAF’s 3.5 qualifying slots for the 2018 World Cup. However, Asia had a terrible tournament, with none of its four teams even winning a game. The AFC might be in danger of losing its half qualifying slot to Africa, who did surprisingly well after a difficult start to the tournament, with two of its five teams advancing–one better than in 2010.

The U.S. did an excellent job advancing from the Group of Death (an especially impressive feat considering the injury to one of their key players, Jozy Altidore, in the first match), and will be a difficult out in the knockout rounds. Just like 2002, they won their first match, drew their second, and lost their third, but unlike in 2002 they played solidly in their final match and should feel good about themselves going into their second round encounter with a Belgian side that has looked about as unimpressive as it is possible to be while still winning all three group matches. Most people expected the U.S. to be eliminated in the first round, but Jurgen Klinsmann has done an excellent job instilling confidence into the squad and making tactical and personnel adjustments during the tournament (really his only misstep was starting Brad Davis against Germany).

I was critical of Klinsmann for leaving Landon Donovan out of the American squad and for including DeAndre Yedlin, but the team’s results have shown that these were both correct decisions. What I have realized after thinking about this turn of events is that the U.S. has finally progressed to the point where they no longer have to take their best 23 players to the World Cup and hope that they mesh together well enough to get results. They have enough quality players that the manager can choose the 23 that will work together the best as a team, and this is what Klinsmann did. I feel very confident about having him in charge over the next four years as the U.S. prepare for the 2018 tournament in Russia. The U.S. have never advanced to the second round when the World Cup has been held in Europe (conversely, they have always advanced to the knockout stages when it has been held outside of Europe with the exception of 1950 in Brazil, when they had their famous 1-0 victory over England, which was almost as good), but I am confident that they can break this streak just like they broke their streak of never qualifying for the second round two tournaments in a row this year.

I look forward to seeing how all of the tournament’s intrigue continues to develop over the coming weeks!

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Books Acquired Recently: World Cup Edition

As a long-time soccer fan, I am currently experiencing a major bout of World Cup fever, and the only prescription… is more soccer books!

Davies, Pete. All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ’90. 1990. London: Mandarin, 1991.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a lot of nostalgia for the 1990 World Cup because it included the first soccer match I ever saw on television, the semifinal between England and West Germany. England’s fourth-place finish remains their second-best ever World Cup result, and it set off an era of hope for the national team that was crushed when they failed to qualify for U.S. ’94. Davies’s book chronicles England’s experience leading up to and including the tournament.

It came in the mail earlier this week and I have already finished reading it because it is so grippingly written; the tournament itself was exciting, but Davies manages to make its narrative even more thrilling despite readers already knowing how it will end. Even the fact that it is dated in some ways, as the soccer universe is incredibly different now than it was then (e.g., wins were still only worth two points, the referees still dressed all in black, only two substitutions were allowed, and the World Cup only included 24 teams, not to mention that lucrative ventures such as the English Premier League and the Champions League were still several years in the future), helps make the book more appealing to present-day readers because the story Davies tells is even more tragic now that we know that Italia ’90 was the pinnacle of English football as well as the best World Cup until this year’s fantastic version. It was also the last time Paul Gascoigne (who comes off as a lovely person in the book [which is by no means a hagiography], making his ever-present battles with addiction even more heart-wrenching) ever played in a World Cup. The front cover has a blurb from Time Out that says the book “could well be the best book ever written about football,” and I would say that it is at least in the top three that I have read.

Vecsey, George. Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer. New York: Times, 2014.

It has been wonderful to see so many Americans following this year’s World Cup because I became a soccer fan just as the American soccer dark ages were beginning to come to a close, thus I can appreciate how much the game has grown in the U.S. over the past 25 years. Vecsey is a writer who has been covering soccer since those dark ages, and I am excited to read this account of his career doing so.

Both books were acquired from amazon.com’s network of independent sellers.

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U.S.A. 2 Portugal 2: Another Crazy Day in the Group of Death

The U.S. drew Portugal 2-2 in Manaus, Brazil this evening, with Portugal getting a (beautiful, it must be said) goal in the 95th minute to keep the U.S. from advancing to the second round with one match to play in the group stage. It was yet another thrilling, high-scoring match in an incredibly exciting World Cup. While it was a difficult result to accept because the U.S. were the better team over the 90 minutes and would have been in pole position to win the group with a win, the draw is not a bad result. If you had asked me before the match whether I would have accepted a draw I would have said yes in a heartbeat. Likewise, after the World Cup draw in December, if you had said the U.S. would get four points in the Group of Death I would have taken it immediately.

The U.S. are still likely to advance to the knockout stages even if they lose by one goal (and especially if they lose by one goal in a match in which they score), and they are playing well enough that getting at least a draw against Germany is a reasonable possibility, especially since Germany would win the group with a draw. (If the match ends in a draw, there will be match-fixing allegations from some cynical quarters no matter how organic the game looks [and, presumably, is] considering that the U.S. is managed by a German who is very good friends with the current German manager). The U.S. will be rooting for a draw in the Portugal-Ghana match (if this occurs, the U.S. will go through no matter what), and, failing that, a Portugal victory. The fact that Portugal scored so late against the U.S. will hopefully give the Portuguese a momentum boost, which would benefit the Americans.

Although the U.S. did not clinch a berth in the second round against Portugal, by clinching at least an even record in a very difficult group I think they did ensure that Jurgen Klinsmann will keep his job. His tactical decisions and substitutions have all been spot-on thus far in the tournament. I can’t wait for Thursday! I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN. ONE NATION. ONE TEAM.

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The Uni Watch Fifteenth Anniversary Party

Last Tuesday I went down to New York City for Uni Watch’s fifteenth anniversary party. I’ve written here before about how I love Uni Watch because of its attention to the tiny details of material culture, thus it was exciting to meet its creator, Paul Lukas, and some fellow fans. I have always wanted to go to a Uni Watch party, and this was the first time that I was living close enough to one to go to it. I had been planning to wear my New York Cosmos Johan Cruyff jersey, but a few weeks ago I found a vintage Harry M. Stevens vendor’s shirt from Shea Stadium on Etsy.com for only $10.00, so I wore that instead. I am delighted that, as Lukas says in his write-up of the event here (scroll down to the second half of the post) (as is par for the course for me, in the close-up photograph of the shirt that is linked to in the article I am doing something weird with my arms), the shirt was his “favorite item of the entire gathering.”

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A Good Start to the World Cup

The World Cup has gotten off to an excellent start, with an abundance of exciting matches and storylines. It is always interesting to see where each team is at after one match once all of the hype is over and they actually have to perform on the pitch. While the tendency is to overreact to initial impressions (e.g., Holland and Germany will be in the final! Spain is finished!), there are some nuggets of truth to be found in this first set of games. Four major ones stand out to me:

1. Brazil is not as good as everyone was expecting. I predicted in my previous World Cup post that Brazil will not win the tournament, and in their match against Croatia they showed why. Neymar is their only player who can carry a team, and their defense is suspect. The match would have ended in a draw if it had not been for the referee’s horrible penalty call. Brazil will probably win their group because of this win, but they will likely play Spain in the second round, and it will get more difficult from there. I do not see Brazil having the quality necessary to get through four of these tough matches to win the trophy.

2. Portugal are always crap at the World Cup. It is true that Portugal are better than they showed yesterday in their 4-0 loss to Germany. However, they have a history of disappointing World Cups that was clearly weighing on them. They did not seem ready to play, and now they have zero momentum going into what is basically a must-win match for them against the U.S. on Sunday.

3. CONCACAF’s strong start is not a fluke. Mexico, Costa Rica, and the U.S. all had solid victories (the U.S.’s was probably the least convincing because they played rope-a-dope, though still well-deserved; more on that below), and have put themselves in good position to make the second round. While Honduras looked terrible against France, it was their toughest match, and I expect the Catrachos to get better. CONCACAF has slowly and steadily been getting stronger, with more players playing in Europe and many playing in the ever-improving MLS, and this improvement is beginning to show on the global stage. The CONCACAF teams also seem to be less affected by the difficult weather conditions in Brazil than other countries because they are used to the difficult conditions in their own region. This is one reason why I think Portugal will be in trouble against the U.S. in Manaus.

4. Conversely, the African teams have been disappointing (note that Algeria hasn’t played yet, but I expect them to be the fourth place team in Group H). Aside from Ivory Coast’s comeback win against Japan (which was made possible by poor finishing by Japanese in the first half, as it should have been at least 2-0 going into halftime), the CAF teams have looked flat and it does not look like any of them have a chance of advancing. Cameroon was on the back foot the entire match against Mexico and now have to face Croatia and Brazil, Nigeria looked listless in their draw against Iran (even though Iran’s strategy was to park the bus, they actually had the best scoring chances of the match and were a bit unlucky not to win) and now face a must-win match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ghana now need at least a point in their next match against red-hot Germany to have any hope of advancing after their crushing loss against the U.S. These disappointing results come after a subpar 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when only one of the six African teams made it out of the first round. Although the African squads have lots of big-name stars, they have not looked cohesive as teams, which is in major contrast to their CONCACAF counterparts.

Speaking of good team performances, the U.S.’s 2-1 victory over Ghana last night, practically a must-win game for both sides, epitomized the spirit of collective effort necessary to be successful in a tournament like this. The U.S.’s best player, Michael Bradley, had a poor game, the team’s most dangerous player, Jozy Altidore, went off injured midway through the first half and Matt Besler went off injured at halftime, and the captain Clint Dempsey played most of the match with a broken nose, but the team rose above these difficulties to get the necessary three points. The exciting thing is that the U.S. did not play nearly as well as they are capable of playing and they still won the game. Now they have a golden opportunity to get a result against a hurting Portugal side.

If the U.S. beat Portugal they will clinch a berth in the second round unless Ghana manages to beat Germany. If the U.S. draw Portugal they will probably go through to the second round because of Portugal’s bad goal difference assuming that Germany beats Ghana. If these two results occur, the U.S. would be at +1 and Portugal would be at -4, so Portugal would need to beat Ghana by four and hope that the U.S. lost to Germany (i.e., as long as the U.S. did not lose by more than a goal to Germany, they would probably advance). However, if Ghana gets some kind of result against Germany, then everything will remain up in the air. Ghana and Germany play on Saturday, so the U.S. will have a clear picture of the ramifications of their match on Sunday.

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Books Acquired Recently

Oyer, John S., and Robert S. Kreider. Mirror of the Martyrs. Intercourse: Good, 1990.

I bought this book to use in my continuing research on the Martyrs Mirror. My research of late has been especially focused on the illustrations by Jan Luyken, which are one of the main subjects of Oyer and Kreider’s book.

Santos-Febres, Mayra. Sirena Selena. Trans. Stephen Lytle. New York: Picador, 2000.

I’ve been reading some Puerto Rican history lately, and this novel has been mentioned as an important recent piece of Puerto Rican literature, which is a field that I am woefully unversed in. I was able to find a new copy of the first edition for less than $4.00.

Both books were acquired from amazon.com’s network of independents sellers.

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It’s World Cup Time!

I am incredibly excited for the men’s World Cup that begins today. It is my favorite sporting event because it is long enough that one can get completely ensconced in it and because of its global aspect: I love knowing that I am sharing the experience with hundreds of millions of people around the world. This happens to a certain extent each summer, as there is the men’s World Cup-women’s World Cup-men’s European Championships-Confederations Cup (along with men’s World Cup qualifiers) tournament cycle, but the men’s World Cup is the most satisfying because it is the longest and because it gets the most people talking. I also have a nostalgic attachment to the men’s World Cup because the first soccer match I ever watched on television was the semifinal between West Germany and England (Alas, Paul Gascoigne! Alas, West Germany’s classic green change shirts! Alas, England’s newly begun tradition of losing on penalties!) at Italia ‘90. This is when I found out that the next World Cup would be in the United States, and I became a soccer fan following the buildup to the tournament both on television (mostly via matches on Univision and Telemundo, though sometimes ABC would show a U.S. match) and in print via a subscription to the now-defunct Soccer Digest.

Although the marquee matchups usually come in the knockout stages, the group stage is my favorite because of its unpredictability and inclusiveness. There is something exciting about watching a team like Honduras or Greece play because it is their one chance on the big stage that is missing when you are watching a perennial powerhouse like Germany or Brazil who are all but guaranteed to move on in the tournament. Games from previous group stages are some of my most vivid World Cup watching memories. The U.S. versus Switzerland in 1994 when Eric Wynalda scored an excellent goal off of a free kick just before halftime, Belgium against Holland in 1998 when Patrick Kluivert was red carded, the U.S.’s stunning upset of Portugal in 2002 when the Yanks went up 3-0 before halftime, the U.S.’s bizarre draw against Italy in 2006 in which three players were sent off, and, of course, the U.S.’s thrilling last-minute victory in 2010 against Algeria.

I love the drama of the matches themselves, but my favorite thing about watching the group games is the pageantry: the fans dressed in their jerseys, scarves, and crazy hats, the teams parading out onto the pitch, the national anthems. International soccer tournaments are always a reminder that the U.S. has one of the worst national anthems. It sounds so ugly and uninspiring compared to the others. Generally, it seems like the less amount of geopolitical clout a country has, the better their anthem sounds. It is always interesting to see which players sing their anthem, and which are so ensconced in mentally preparing themselves for the match that they stay silent. One of the reasons that I love watching the anthems (which is also true about the matches in general) is that there is a single television feed that is broadcasted everywhere around the world. Each country simply has its own announcers (and sometimes its own graphics) for the pictures. The knowledge that I am seeing the same exact video as someone in Europe or Africa makes me feel connected to the rest of humanity in a way that I do not normally experience.

Along with being excited about the tournament itself, I also feel good about the U.S.’s chances. I expect them to get out of their group even though it is the “group of death,” and if they do so their potential opponents from Group H (Algeria, Belgium, Russia, and South Korea) in the second round are all beatable, thus it is conceivable that the U.S. could match their best-ever modern World Cup showing from 2002 (they reached the semifinals in 1930, technically finishing joint third-fourth [the third place playoff was not instituted until 1934], but at the time the semifinals were the first knockout stage, so one could argue that the fact that the U.S. won a knockout round game in 2002 makes it their best showing ever).

The answer to one major question will go a long way toward determining the U.S.’s fate: just how group-of-deathy will the group of death be? The most group-of-deathy group of death ever was 1994’s Group E, in which all four teams, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, and Norway, finished with a win, a draw, and a loss, and a goal difference of zero. In 2014’s Group G, will there be lots of draws, or will there be lots of decisive results? The former will benefit the U.S., and the latter will not unless it is them getting the wins. One middle of the road scenario that would be favorable to the U.S. is if Germany wins its first two matches and the other three teams spend time drawing each other. The Germans would have little to play for in their final match against the U.S., which might make it easier to get a result. It is really up to the U.S. and Ghana to make the group a true group of death. If they can get some results, the group will be very interesting. Germany and Portugal will probably be content to draw one another in their first match, thinking they can get the necessary points in their final two matches, but this could be a risky strategy. If Germany and Portugal draw and the U.S. beat Ghana, then Portugal will feel some pressure for a result against the U.S. in the second game. Of course the key for the U.S. is to get a win against Ghana. If the U.S. does this then they only need a result against either Portugal or Germany, but if they lose to Ghana, getting results against both Portugal and Germany is a tough ask. Because it is the group of death, it is quite plausible that a win and a draw will be enough to advance to the second round.

I will not predict a champion yet (I think Germany, Argentina, and Spain are top contenders), but I will predict a loser: Brazil will not win the World Cup. I do not think they have enough talent in their squad from top to bottom to do it, and the pressure from their home fans will be a negative influence on them. But for me the best thing about the World Cup is the experience of going through it during one glorious month rather than the end result of who becomes champion (unless the U.S. makes a miracle run to win it!).

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