On Rooney and Suarez, Playing the “What If” Game, and a World Cup Day 8 Recap and Weekend Preview

Wayne Rooney scored his first ever goal for England in a World Cup yesterday, in his 10th match. He had four shots in that match: one was a header that struck the undersides of both the crossbar and the post and another a stinging  point-blank shot directly into the keeper’s stomach when anywhere else would have resulted in a goal. Either of those could have been his first goal for England in a World Cup. He’s scored 40 of them in other competitions and friendlies while playing for his country, for a decent return of .42 goals a game over his 94 game career. One could have expected that he might have put four or five in the back of the net over his World Cup career.

He has been the attacking focus and main target of the England team since 2006, spends quite a bit of time on the ball, and has demonstrated enough ability for both club and country (scoring roughly .46 goals a game as a professional, at Everton and Manchester United) to become one of its most well-known and highest paid stars. Rooney is not just a poacher, who cleans up goalkeeper mistakes. Nor is he merely a good striker, in that he needs the ball to be delivered to him in an already dangerous position in order to be effective. Though Rooney’s goal yesterday certainly had elements of both — the cross from Johnson put Rooney in an almost unbeatable position, and the goalkeeper reacted belatedly to the danger, and ended up caught trying to corral the cross and stop the shot at the same time — many of his goals have resulted from his creativity and work rate.

Rooney Goal

Even when he’s having an off game, he has always continued to run, to drag defenders with him to open space for other players, to drop deep and play as a “sunken striker”, winning balls in the midfield, collecting outlet passes and setting up teammates on the wing. This is not to say that he hasn’t sulked when playing poorly or being played out of position, but merely to note that it would be difficult to say that Wayne Rooney has ever “disappeared” from a game or not made himself a noticeable part of his team’s efforts on any given day. He’s always been an excellent passer, and in another time or in another country could well have been an Andrea Pirlo or Claude Makalele, sitting in front of defense and initiating an attack rather than being its spearhead. Even when everything goes wrong for Rooney in the penalty box, he generally makes his presence known in many other ways.

Luis Suarez scored two goals yesterday. He missed Uruguay’s first match with an injury. So they were the first two he scored in this tournament. Over six games in 2010,* he scored three goals, which meshes perfectly with the near .5 goals per game average he’s had when playing for his country. Suarez has a return of .6 goals per game as a professional for Nacional, Groningen, Ajax and Liverpool. He is an incredible goalscorer, combining a deft and elegant touch with immense power. Suarez is, in some fashion, the iron fist in the velvet glove. He can flick the ball with just an ankle and toe, delicately placing a ball in the corner opposite from the poor bedraggled keeper. Or he can do this:

Suarez Head Shot

If that had not gone past Joe Hart, it may well have gone clean through him.

The thing is, Luis Suarez wasn’t really involved in the match as much as Rooney was. He completely disappeared for long stretches and his only impact on the game was in his goals, in two moments of sublime glory that left him in tears of joy on the bench as the clock ran out. If either his first half header or the howitzer giffed above are off target, the general consensus would be that Suarez was still too injured to contribute to his team’s efforts. Indeed, had they lost, he might have shouldered the burden for his country.

Instead, it is, again, Wayne Rooney who has the weight of a nation on his back, the heavy breath of pundits and punters and pub-crawlers on his neck. Yet, six inches on his header and a small gust of wind on his excellent free kick and we’re all talking about Rooney “saving his best” for when it matters most, and putting together a hat-trick on the world’s grandest stage and in his country’s most crucial hour.

Every sport is a game of inches. And every game has moments in which it is neither skill nor resolve, but luck and chance, that determine its outcome. There is no doubt that Rooney will look back on that header, and that free kick for the rest of his life and wonder “what if” along with all of the English fans. And Rooney will also know that there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of identical moments, when ball meet foot or head and began its path toward the net, with the possibility of elation or frustration, and all he could have done, he already had.

Weekend Action!

Friday:

Noon: Italy have an in form Mario Balotelli straight trolling England:

Hands down, that is why I will always love Mario Balotelli. It doesn’t matter that almost every other player on their roster has essentially stolen my car, burned down my house and kidnapped my dog, I want Italy to win as long as Mario is there. There is no limit to what he is capable of on and off the field. The Ticos shocked Uruguay, but Italy will be prepared. With three teams currently on three points, Costa Rica and Italy will both be looking for a win, as a draw leaves everything up for grabs. Italy certainly has the firepower for victory but [insert World War I joke; World War II joke; failed attempt at colonizing anywhere joke].

3:00 I’ll be watching this match with a great friend of mine, who has just finished his seventh year working at a therapeutic day school for kids with social-emotional and behavioral disabilities in and around Boston. He is the most patient and calm human being I have ever met, and in the 14 years I’ve known him, I can’t think of a time where he’s not been in control of his emotions. Unless he is watching North Carolina basketball. At which point, he becomes mini-Roy Williams, barking orders, throwing his hands up and saying “Goddammit” in the most Dad-like way possible. He and his wife are expecting a child later this summer and it will be the best child ever, potentially the second coming of Christ. Also, France and Switzerland are going to play soccer. As a team, Switzerland have way better names: Gohkan Inler, Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri, Blerim Dzemaili. France, though, have better players. That said, both of these teams — in their makeup — show not only the results of their colonial histories, but also the changing demographics of Europe in the wake of EU immigration policies. France and Switzerland love their multicultural soccer teams, but are increasingly electing nationalist politicians who base their campaigns on fear of the very “kinds” of people who populate them. Won’t effect the match, but it is an interesting part of international soccer generally and European soccer particularly.

6:00 FIFA should generally only be brought up if you plan to talk shit about them, as they are probably the most blatantly corrupt organization in the world. But I have to say that they have done a fantastic job of scheduling the worst matches when I have other shit to do. Am I going to watch Honduras and Ecuador? I am not. I am going to have a nice dinner and take my dog for a long walk, knowing that I will not be missing anything. I apologize to all of you who have had to miss the good matches while you’re at work, only to come home to the snoozefests of Russia-South Korea, Greece-Japan and Ecuador-Honduras, but you made your choices in life. Win some, lose some.

Saturday:

Noon: This could get ugly. Iran played Nigeria to a 0-0 draw in the most unwatchable game of the tournament thus far. Argentina is among the favorites to win the tournament and employs Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi in their attack. They are very fun to watch. Argentina could probably end up with something like 65% of possession, most of it in the Iranian half of the field, and will probably put at least one goal together that will make you wonder how it was physically possible — if Iran can even get in the way enough to make it difficult.

3:00 I know this is going to be difficult, and it’s going to feel really weird, but you need to root like crazy for the Germans. If they lose or get a draw here, and the US draws or loses to Portugal, Die Mannschaft will still have something to play for, and thus be fully engaged, in their match against the US next week. This is not a circumstance in which we would be expected to emerge from in anything other than completely engulfed in flames. If Ghana plays as they did against the US, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to trouble the German defense. Although the ponderous Per Mertesacker might have trouble keeping up with Asamoah Gyan in the box, if he does stay close, he should be able to keep the ball away from the (relatively) diminutive striker.

6:00 Remember how I was all like “thanks FIFA, for putting shitty matches when I would like to be occupied by something other than soccer”? Yeah, this is another of those times. It’s Saturday night. Go out and have fun. Get drunk with celebration for Germany’s victory over Ghana and in anticipation of the US game with Portugal. Appease your roommates, family or significant other by doing anything other than watching soccer, so that you will be able to watch Germany-Ghana and US-Portugal. Clear out all those old episodes of House Hunters, play some Call of Duty, grill some tasty food and enjoy the beautiful weather you’ve been missing while being cooped up in front of the television for the last week and a half. Or watch Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic and Muhamed Besic run over and through a Nigerian team that somehow passed well (83% of their passes were completed) and in the right direction (31% went forward) without anything actually coming from it.

Sunday:

Noon: Belgium put it all together in the second half against Algeria, and Russia looked anything but competent against a weak South Korea side. That said, underestimating Russians is never a good idea, and Belgium were certainly uneven — to say the least — in the opening 45 minutes of the first game. Whether Marc Wilmots sticks with his original starting lineup (that looked disinterested and unprepared) or keeps the changes he made throughout the match (and who scored the goals that lifted them over Algeria) is a real question. Belgium have the depth and adaptability to go either way, and whichever lineup comes out is likely to be more a message to his own players rather than a response to anything about Russia particularly.

3:00 Algeria are probably the better team, and certainly the better story. A victory here by the Desert Foxes would give them all the confidence going into their final match against Russia. If they draw here, and assuming a loss by Russia, South Korea would be playing to advance a Belgian side already through to the knockouts and thus with nothing to play for, while Algeria and Russia would be battling one another to try to grab the second spot. While the odds could still be in Algeria’s favor at that point, they wouldn’t be pitched heavily so in that direction.

6:00 OH FUCK YES AMERICA LET’S DO THIS SHIT RIGHT EXPLODING EAGLES AND THE STATUE OF LIBERTY GIVING THE FINGER TO PORTUGAL ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC I’m hoping to put up a post on this match either this afternoon or over the weekend, but you know the score by now: the US win and they’re through (6 points, with Ghana and Portugal both at 0). They draw and it comes down to the final match, against a German team with likely nothing to play for, which is a recipe for the 0-0 draw they would need to advance (4 points, with Portugal on 1 and Ghana on 0). They lose, and suddenly we’re counting on Ghana to take out the Portuguese in their match, and probably still playing that dull and lifeless 0-0 draw with Germany (Germany with 6, and the US and Portugal both with 3, Ghana still with 0). I would like to not have anything in doubt going into the final day, and I’m sure it would please Klinsmann greatly to have a kickabout against the national team for which he won a World Cup in 1990, rather than a competitive match in which his current side needs to outperform a vastly more talented one. You should root for this as well.

Now, everyone go and have fun out there. Orange slices and juice boxes for everyone at halftime!

*But, you say, Uruguay played in seven games in the 2010 World Cup. Indeed they did. But they only got to their sixth because of this:

Uruguays-Luis-Suarez-Hand-Of-God

which is just completely afoul of the rules of the game, and which resulted in Suarez being red-carded and suspended for the next match.

 

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