Revenge of the Soccer Bridesmaids: The 10 Most Interesting Stories from The World Cup
A month ago we posted our World Cup preview, so we thought we’d wrap things up with some final thoughts on the tournament. A month ago, we didn’t know the difference between a Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and Paul the Octopus, and were unfamiliar with the sound of a vuvuzela; now, these are household words. Now, without further ado the ten most interesting stories to come out of this Cup.
1. Revenge of the Perpetual Bridesmaids
The two finalists this year, Netherlands and Spain, had never won a World Cup. Spain had never even been in a World Cup final; Netherlands has now lost three finals, including two consecutive, during their “Total Football” heyday of 1974 and 1978. These European powers are often described as the two best teams, historically, who have never won the Cup. So, yesterday, Spain finally shed the perpetual bridesmaid label.
Spain decided to challenge themselves by losing their first match of the group stage, to Switzerland 1-0, despite controlling the ball for much of the match. They just couldn’t find the net, and the Swiss scored an opportunistic goal. Spain is now the first team to win the World Cup after losing their first game. They dominated every game they played, and trusted in their ball possession to finally break through and score late goals for the win. Their posted four knockout round scorelines of 1-0, but they earned their title, dispatching a former winner, Germany, and defeating the number-two team from the Group of Death, and their arch-rivals from the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal.
In The Fanzine World Cup preview, we described Netherlands as a team you can feel good rooting for. Their stars—Mark van Bommel, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder—stepped up in a big way. Their supporting cast supported in invaluable ways. I’m talking to you Dirk Kuyt and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. They won every match, until the final, and they also knocked out past Cup winners Brazil and Uruguay. It was baffling to me why everyone was shocked when Netherlands beat Brazil. It’s not like Netherlands are soccer nobodies. They are ranked 4th in the world (and perhaps will go higher after their fine run) but for some reason, were overlooked by everybody.
This game was a tough one to watch because I liked both teams. It was hard to root against Spain, but I did it for my ego: i.e., I picked un-fancied Netherlands from the get-go, and wanted to be right. The game was a bit dull, not too many clear-cut scoring chances for either team. There was a record number of yellow cards for a World Cup final—14, plus one sending-off. Netherlands got lucky that Nigel de Jong wasn’t sent off with a straight red for his full-on karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso. It’s a wonder he didn’t crack Alonso’s ribs or sternum. Congrats to Spain. Netherlands: don’t play scared and cynical next time. Play to win, not to not lose.
2. The Tournament Buzz in the U.S.
The buzz I speak of wasn’t just the soothing sound of the vuvuzelas. And it wasn’t just ESPNs 24-7, World Cup advertising blitz, and their sneaky-smart programming moves (like migrating their popular SportsCenter news program to ESPN2, and broadcasting most of the actual games on the mothership ESPN, hoping to snare viewers tuning in to SC). Being a New Yorker I can never tell for sure if what I’m seeing is a country-wide trend, since New York comparatively is a soccer kind of town; but it sure felt like the World Cup buzz was real this time around.
Every bar, cafe and bagel shop seemed to advertise the fact that they had TVs tuned to the Cup, no matter how early the games. Most bars in my Brooklyn neighborhood were open for all the matches, even the daily, early kickoff of the group stage, which aired on the east coast at 7:30 a.m. For the United State’s first match against England, a friend and I tried to find space at about a half dozen bars before we finally settled for the neighborhood’s biggest bar—a bowling alley/nightclub/live music venue called Brooklyn Bowl—because that was the only place that had enough elbow room to watch the game comfortably. And even The Bowl was packed to the gills.
It warmed my heart to walk my kids to school and hear that vuvuzela buzz emanating from the bars we’d walk by. One of my best spectator-moments of this summer’s extravaganza was dropping the kids off at school at 8 a.m. and then meeting a Dutch friend at his favorite hangout, Brooklyn’s Boulevard Tavern, and watching Netherlands’s first game (a 2-nil win against Denmark).
3. Team U.S.
As for the U.S. team itself, after they lost to Ghana I went back and forth for a few days trying to answer the question: did they under- or overachieve this time? Immediately after the Ghana loss I was distraught and felt like they underachieved, that they had missed an opportunity. They had an easy-ish group, which they ended up topping (though, not without a lifetime’s worth of come-from-behind magic which, ultimately, makes the win all the better and more exciting, for a fan anyway), and a seemingly light path to the semi-finals. But their leaky, aging, and recuperating defense, and their less-than-killer front line, were weak links.
The U.S. team’s strength is in their goaltending and midfield: always has been and is still now. U.S. soccer has been producing world-class goaltenders for some time now, from yesteryear’s Tony Meola and Brad Friedel to their current “man with the gloves” Tim Howard. Ditto our midfielders, with the likes of Tab Ramos and John Harkes giving way to current studs Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. But until they shore up that defense and find a stone-cold-killer up front who will convert the myriad scoring chances our midfield now produces, we’ll be stuck at this plateau: we’ll make it out of the group stage, but not win the big games.
Has the U.S. team moved forward? Absolutely. As a full-on soccer nerd, I re-watched both our games against Algeria and Ghana, and was struck by how many scoring opportunities we created but didn’t convert. Conversion is the difference between great teams and good teams. We find that goal-scorer in the next few years, we’ll advance further. But time was, we didn’t even create these scoring chances. Even the fact that we were awarded a spot-kick against Ghana showed me something; I couldn’t ever remember us taking a spot-kick in the World Cup, because we had never before threatened so much that a team felt they had to foul us in the box. A Pyrrhic victory, for sure, but improvement nonetheless.
The revelation of the U.S. team was the coach’s son, Michael Bradley. We all knew about Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, but this kid was smokin’. I was completely floored by the skill, raw potential, intensity, and maturity of the 22-year old midfielder. His game-tying goal against Slovenia in the U.S.’s second group match was deceptively skillful. Here’s a kid who already plays in one of the world’s top leagues (the German Bundesliga) and no doubt, top-tier English, Spanish, or Italian clubs will come knocking soon. Come the World Cup 2014 in Brazil, he’ll be one of the world’s premiere players. You heard it here first.
4. The Insufferable and Head-scratching Arrogance of FIFA
We’re kind of burying the lead here by placing this so far into the piece, as really, this was probably the major talking-point of the tournament. When I speak of FIFA and their arrogance, I am speaking about referees botching calls during games, and FIFAs reluctance to put themselves in front of the public to discuss the botched calls. To my mind, there are two different issues here: goals and the issuance of overly-harsh yellow or red cards.
There were three major instances where referees blew calls on goals, for one reason or another. The U.S. team was the recipient of one such bogus mystery call. On a set-piece, rife as always with lots of pushing, shoving, shirt-grabbing, headlocks, and downright throw-your-mark-to-the-ground rough stuff, U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu’s apparent goal was whistled no-goal for no reason. It was well-earned and skillful, and would have been the go-ahead tally, capping a monstrous comeback against Slovenia; but the goal was disallowed for reason(s) which remain, to this day, a mystery.
When I say “no reason” I mean that literally. No reason was ever given, either on-field by the referee or, later, by his bosses at FIFA. You see, FIFAs official policy is that they never, ever, never, never have to explain a referee’s on-field decisions to us, the great unwashed. Their power is absolute. It was quite amusing to watch ESPNs prime-time recap crew of three soccer experts deconstruct that play for a half hour, running the slo-mo replay a dozen or more times, and each time coming up empty about what the transgression could have possibly been.
As a fan of other North American team-sports, it’s maddening and baffling, this outmoded arrogance of soccer’s governing body, especially in the wake of that most-instructive blown call in what is now referred to as baseball’s Imperfect Game. That situation was handled correctly, masterfully, even though the outcome wasn’t changed. But at least the umpire was made available to the press, he had to stand there and admit he missed the call. He gave a classy mea culpa, the pitcher forgave him, and we moved on. The fans were happy, because at least the umpire showed humility. That’s all we want, as fans, for someone to admit they botched a call, and to explain the thought process at the time. Would it be so difficult for FIFA to stand up and be counted in these situations, for them to hold the offending referee’s feet to the public fire?
FIFAs reluctance to embrace replay of any kind for any kind of situation has been well-documented. Their official stance on botched calls is that they think the controversy adds to the lore—if not the allure—of the game and that the element of human error is simply part of football. As an American I’ve seen how instant replay has been seamlessly added to all our major team sports, and how this has made all these games better. Hockey instituted goal-line replay technology years ago, and it has improved the game exponentially. It takes only minutes for officials in hockey’s war room in Toronto—who watch every game on-screen—to weigh in with the verdict, yay or nay. Surely, it’s worth a few minutes to get the call right, yes?
The other two instances of missed calls on goals came on the same day in different games. England suffered the now-infamous Phantom Goal, where Frank Lampard’s blistering shot from range hit the crossbar, bounced down over goal-line, and spun back into the hands of the German goalkeeper, who deftly pretended the ball hadn’t gone in, thus fooling the referee. Problem was, the tens (hundreds?) of millions of fans watching across the globe on TV knew within about 10 seconds that it was a goal. Sadly, it wasn’t even close, the ball was about a yard over the line, but had such backspin coming off the woodwork, that it bounced forward to the keeper. There’s a great shot of England coach Fabio Capello raising his hands the moment it goes in, then seconds later, his look of utter disbelief when play continues. He saw it, and he was at half-field, so how did the referee miss it?
Later that same day, in the Argentina v Mexico match, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez was clearly offsides when he was passed the ball and calmly headed in his team’s first goal in an eventual 3-1 win. Extraordinarily, FIFA actually came out and said that they might now consider some sort of goal-line technology to review goal situations. Simply getting the stodgy old white men of FIFA to even consider this is a victory of sorts, at least something finally broke through their thick plexiglass shield of arrogance.
And while they are at it, they should review all yellow and red cards given during games, and overturn calls that were overly harsh and comical. There were numerous instances of players getting ridiculous yellow cards that impact future results because players with two cumulative yellow cards will miss their next game. The most egregious example happened to Germany midfielder, Thomas Mueller, who accidentally touched a ball with his upper bicep, and the ref carded him in the belief that he knocked it down intentionally with his arm. Mueller, an integral part of Germany’s starting XI, missed his team’s semi-final against Spain.
If you have FIFA reviewing these bogus calls after the match, they could overturn unduly harsh or outright incorrect yellow cards, thus allowing impact players a reprieve. You want the game’s stars on the pitch, showing their talent, not sitting out for over-zealous and perhaps incorrect calls. Other sports do this: hockey reviews certain types of penalties called during games, and passes judgment on future suspension based on the reviews. Why not soccer?
5. The Fall of a Venerable European Team, Part 1: France
No one does melodrama like the French, one of the amusing stories of the past month. Well, amusing in a schadenfreude kind of way. We wrote here a month ago about how France qualified on a blatant and intentional Thierry Henry handball, how that led to their decisive goal against Ireland and they subsequently punched their ticket to South Africa. Sounds hippie, but really, that kind of act is truly going to come back and boot you in the ass, in a karmic kind of way. You can scoff all you like, but in sports this happens all the time. Frankly, France was a mess coming into the tournament, and it didn’t take a genius (ahem) to predict that they would play three games and go home.
What we didn’t foresee, however, here at the Fanzine Sports Desk, was the accompanying melodrama and shameful shenanigans that went along with it. Star striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home mid-tournament for berating coach Raymond Domenech during halftime of one of their matches. In response to the banishment, the team refused to train for their next match, which they of course lost, to hosts South Africa, whom they should have soundly beat. A team official resigned in embarrassment. The much-maligned Domenech is sacked (well, technically, he was out the door before the tournament even started).
Les Bleus arrived home to derision from both the populace and a vitriolic sporting press (on our shores, The Wall Street Journal waggishly pronounced: Even the French Hate the French). President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded an investigation. The French Minister of Sport (why doesn’t the U.S. have one of those?) berated the team, insisting that they no longer are heroes to French children. Past captains suggested current captain Patrice Evra be banned for life for his asinine and childlike snits. The new coach, Laurent Blanc, defensive stalwart of their 1998 Cup-winning team, said he’s heading for suicide or the guillotine. To be continued…
6. The Fall of Venerable European Team, Part 2: Italy
If the French hadn’t so thoroughly and loudly bolloxed their shot at World Cup glory, perhaps more attention would have been paid to another venerable, blue-jersey-wearing, European team, The Azzurri of Italy. While France’s disgrace was mostly due to their off-field melodrama, Italy’s shame was in their lethargic, on-field “performances.” Coming in, the dope on Italy was that they were presenting virtually the same side as four years ago; hence, an already mature team was even four years older. Soccer really is a young man’s game. Once footballers hit 32, the constant running and resultant wear and tear to the lower body takes its toll. Unlike in, say, hockey or baseball, where players hit their stride at 32 and can play effectively well into their late 30s and even early 40s.
Soccer players peak earlier, in their late 20s, and most of Italy’s team were well past that age-marker. The strategy of picking the same team that won it all four years ago seemed dicey from the start, simply because you want some of the team to be Cup-winning virgins, so that there is an infusion of hunger, and a striving to taste the euphoria. If ever a team simply didn’t give a crap about winning a game, this was it. Italy was in the easiest group in the tournament, and even despite their age, should have handily won the group. But they didn’t care. For evidence, watch game highlights of Italy’s last match, versus Slovakia, on FIFAs Web site and look at Slovakia’s second goal. Shame.
7. The Fall of Venerable European Team, part 3: England
England did it again. And by “it,” I don’t mean win; I mean enter a World Cup with outlandishly high expectations from the populace and sporting press, only to have their hopes dashed once again. This time, it was sooner than expected, but again at the hands of one of their football rivals, Germany. Like Italy, England looked lethargic, and pundits far and wide complained of the length of the Premier League season and all the peripheral competitions within the time-frame of the season. With the way they played in qualifying (England only lost one match—to Ukraine—after they had already qualified), and with their coaching upgrade (the silky Italian Fabio Capello, who had won many major competitions on the club-level), I thought England would go further than their usual quarter final flame-out. Instead, they flamed out one step before the quarter-final.
England started off quite well: barely four minutes into their first match against the United States, midfielder Steven Gerard lost his marker, and buried a skillful toe-ball, to go up 1-nil. Watching that goal at the above-mentioned cavernous bowling alley, I had visions of England rampaging to a 3- or 4-nil win over the stars and stripes. But Clint Dempsey’s flukey, speculative shot was mishandled by England’s goalkeeper Robert Green, and from then on, England never really looked big. And I don’t just mean for the remainder of that first match versus the U.S., I mean for the rest of the tournament. They were then thoroughly outplayed by Germany in the round of sixteen, despite The Phantom Goal.
The post-mortems followed fast and scathing in the U.K. football press. German footballers, past and present, weighed in too, betraying that blunt and arrogant streak they are known for. Playing and coaching legend Franz Beckenbauer, claimed England had gone backwards in their flair and skill, and pinned on them perhaps the most stinging insult there is in soccer: he called them a kick and run team, playing an unsophisticated and outdated style of clunky football. German coach Joachim Low, in so many words, said that Germany out-thought the England side, and suggested that England were strategically unprepared.
Fabio Capello kept his job, so now the pressure mounts for England’s 2012 European Cup and 2014 World Cup campaigns. He has a job, for now, so expect a wholesale shift towards a younger, hungrier, and less ego-driven squad. If I may tweak all the Brits out there, I would argue that the U.S. team was actually better, and has perhaps surpassed England, at least in athleticism and desire.
8. Argentina Was Fun, Thanks for Coming
I gladly admit when I am wrong, and I perhaps came on a bit too heavy in my condemnation of Diego Maradona, the Argentine coach. Maradona’s schizophrenic qualifying selections had many people thinking that this squad was woefully underprepared. They had a suspect defense, which Germany exploited in the quarterfinal, but up to that point, Argentina were one of the surprise hits of the tournament. Maradona looked sharp and fun on the sidelines, decked out in a gray suit and white shirt (a new look for the coach who had previously dressed in athletic wear), pacing the touchline nervously, but enthusiastically.
Though the Worlds Best Player, Lionel Messi, didn’t score for Argentina, it seemed like he either directly assisted, or in some way set up, every goal his team scored. After the group stages, one soccer scribe wondered if a player could win the tournament scoring title (poetically referred to as the Golden Boot) without knocking in a goal. Immensely entertaining, Argentina were a treat to watch, and in four years, with their relatively young midfield and front line, seem to have a legitimate shot at winning it all. Thanks for coming.
9. Africa was Bad
Sorry to be so blunt, but the African teams, with the exception of Ghana, performed badly. There were six teams from Africa to make the tournament; I separated them into two groups: the weaker two (South Africa and Algeria) and the stronger four (Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast). The two weaker teams comported themselves with honor: Algeria, though they didn’t win a game, produced one of the shock results of the tournament by drawing England 0-0. They only gave up two goals in three games, and almost kept the U.S. from advancing, playing them tough until Donovan’s miracle, injury time goal. South Africa compiled as many points in the group stage (four points, from one win and one draw) as Mexico, but the Mexicans advanced on the goal-differential tiebreaker.
Nigeria and Cameroon, for whatever reason, barely showed up; Ivory Coast, at least, was in the group of death and like South Africa, lost out on advancement to Portugal by an inferior goal-differential. Only Ghana, who sent the Americans packing in their round of 16 match, sparked a little magic, and salvaged some pride for Africa.
10. The Death of European Football, and the Dominance of South America, was Greatly Exaggerated
At one point in this tournament, when all five South American teams (Brazil, Argentina, Chile and the two Guays) had advanced out of group play, and some of the venerable old European teams (Italy, France) and up-and-coming dark horses (Serbia, Greece, Denmark) had played three and gone home, much was made of the ascendance of South America at the expense of Europe. Well, it appears that the Death of European Football was greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase soccer scribe of yore, Mark Twain. What these pundits failed to remember was that the tournament doesn’t end at the quarterfinal stage, but you have to look at the competition as a whole, in hindsight, in order to accurately assign any sort of trend or personality to it.
People were licking their chops over a possible All-South American semi-final; and that was a distinct possibility, with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay all facing European or African opponents in the quarterfinals. But only little Uruguay, the last of five South American teams to qualify, made it to the semis, and was the continent’s lone representative in the final four. Brazil imploded in the second half of their quarterfinal tilt versus Netherlands, and lost for the first time ever in the World Cup when leading at half-time. Argentina was shellacked 4-0 by a rampaging German side of speedy, creative and intelligent youngsters, in the most jaw-dropping scoreline of the tournament. Paraguay were beaten by Spain, but gave a good account of themselves by only losing 1-0. Thankfully, Paraguayan lingerie model Larissa Riquelme still agreed to pose nude for a photo spread, after earlier promising to run naked through the streets of Asuncion, should Paraguay have won the Cup.
I’m only half-joking here: stories like these—and like Paul the Octopus—are a large part of the reason I follow sports in the first place. The games themselves are just the games, two teams square off and one team wins (well, in the case of soccer, sometimes both teams draw; not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s all the attendant human-interest sideshow and melodrama that make sports rise above simply being games. The reason the debacle that was France Football got so much more ink than the debacle that was Italy Football is because France’s drama all transpired off the pitch. Italy merely sucked on the pitch, and so outside of Italy, people just shrugged.
Until 2014 then. There are going to be a lot of depressed people come Monday morning, when we wake up and there’s no scintillating international football to watch later in the day. Luckily, there’s TIVO; and the club season starts in a month.