I’m Sorry Ronaldo, Klose’s For Real: World Cup Recap and Netherlands-Argentina Preview

/taps mic

I’m Sorry Ronaldo!

Klose’s for reeeeaaaal!

Never meant to make your country cry,

Die Mannshaft won it sieben-eins.

 

The US conceded six goals in four games. Costa Rica gave up two in five. Germany has let four in over six. Reiging (until Sunday) World Champions Spain saw seven balls roll over the line in their three group stage matches, as did Portugal. It took Algeria and Switzerland a fourth game to reach that total. Only Honduras (eight), Australia and Cameroon (nine each) allowed more than seven goals over the course of this world cup. Those last three teams finished 30th-32nd in the tournament.

Yesterday, in capitulating to Germany, Brazil surrendered seven goals to five different opposing players. In the span of six minutes, they allowed four, to three players. It got so bad that after Andre Schuerrle’s goal in the 79th minute*, this happened:

THE SCOREBOARD SCROLLED DOWN. There was not enough room in the real estate afforded and, thus, space had to be artificially created below that, such that the first goal — Thomas Mueller 11′ — was not visible at the same time and in the same space as the final two — Andre Schuerlle 69′, 79′. This may seem an odd thing to fixate on after such a match, but I’m doing it, mostly out of morbid fascination, but also because some metaphors are also facts.

Brazil was in this game for roughly eight minutes. By the time Mueller scored his fifth goal of the tournament (tenth of his career), after being left completely unmarked by interim-captain David Luiz on a corner kick*, it seemed like a 1-0 lead was already insurmountable. Fred** looked more likely to earn a red card than a goal; Hulk seemed intent on passing it to the least convenient — if not physically impossible — places for his teammates to receive the ball; wee bastard Bernard ended up isolated on the wing and any attempt to cut in toward goal was caught out by Philipp Lahm, finally playing at his natural fullback position. Without Neymar (RIP) to hold up play and control the ball in the attacking area, not to mention his ability to conjure up magic on his lonesome, the Brazilian attack was stymied.

When Klose scored, and in doing so took the all-time World Cup scoring record away from a Brazilian, in Brazil, against Brazil, I joked that the Germans would need a secret tunnel to escape the stadium. Six minutes — and three goals — later, I completely seriously suggested that the Brazilian team might want to use that tunnel as well. The fifth goal was the one on which it was obvious that Brazil had just about lost interest in competing in the game and given up any hope of winning it. Sami Khedira*** fed Mezut Oezil on the left side of the Brazilian penalty area and literally stood still, patiently waiting for Oezil’s return ball. It came, as it obviously would. How many Brazilian players came with it? Let’s watch and find out:

Zero. [Count von Count voice] Zero Brazilian defenders. Ah ah ah. [/Count von Count voice]

They still played for another hour, allowing two more goals, but the match, had it not been decided before Khedira’s goal, certainly was in that moment. Losing Thiago Silva, their best defender and leader, may have meant even more than losing Neymar. Brazil enjoyed more possession than Germany, took more shots and produced more crosses and deliveries into the penalty area. Germany attempted fourteen shots and scored seven. A 50% team average is rare in basketball, where teams often score in triple digits; it is unheard of in soccer. Silva’s absence put Brazil’s defense in disarray, which pulled Julio César out of his position or made him slow to react to what was happening in front of him. After a fairly good tournament that had seen him getting some renewed buzz, César had one of the worst days a keeper could ever imagine. This was the polar opposite of Tim Howard’s performance against Belgium. Everything that could have gone wrong for Brazil did. They lost the players that meant the most to them on offense and defense, and rather than attempt to adjust their style of play in light of those facts, doubled down on the tactics that had brought them to the semifinal in the first place. 

Of course, the problem with that was that they didn’t get there convincingly. They never looked the favorite even while playing with the decided advantage of having 60,000 rabid fans cheering them on every time they took the field. They played Mexico to an exciting but still goalless draw; eked past Chile on penalties in the round of 16; beat Colombia in something that was less like a soccer match and more like Muay Thai with a ball. They attempted to continue those bruising tactics against Germany, kicking out and shoving, coming in heavy and late in the midfield. This can intimidate and slow down a lot of teams, and it might have slowed down Germany, except that it also pulls your team out of shape. If you’re coming in late, or sliding, you need time to recover. Silva allowed them that luxury, but against Germany, all those rash movements simply opened up space for players like Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos to push the ball ahead to Mueller, Oezil and and Klose. Lahm’s move to right back also gave the German team another player capable of coming into the midfield to retain or regain possession.

This was Luiz Felipe Scolari’s plan. And it had worked. Brazil won the Confederations Cup last year without losing a single match, conceding only three goals over five games, and shutting down the dominant Spanish midfield by employing their defensive midfield to knock them over, and their wingers to run past them. The cracks began to show against Mexico and even Cameroon showed they were far from invincible. When playing a similar team in Chile, they were stretched to the very end of their rope. Facing Colombia, they clamped down even harder, throwing James Ramirez to the turf at every opportunity, aided and abetted by a referee reluctant to hand out cards for violent play until it was already too late.

As of this moment, Scolari is still the coach. I’m shocked. I’ll be further shocked if he’s not replaced before September, when they play their first post-World Cup friendly. Against Colombia.

4:00 – I have no idea what to make of this match. If you look at the rosters, you’d think another scrolling scoreboard might be in order. Argentina can roll out Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain and, if rumors are correct, a returning Sergio Aguero. The team has played largely unchanged (except via injury) for years. Yet, they’ve often been mercurial and inconsistent (does that make them consistently inconsistent?), struggling to put it all together.

The argle-bargle (Argie-bargle?) going into this tournament was that Messi plays well for his club, but not for his country. After five games, we can certainly say that if this one is their last, it might indeed be due to Messi not playing well, but also that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without his contributions. Messi has been the only thing that Argentina has had on offer going forward. Of the seven goals Argentina has scored****, Messi has four of them, and assisted on another.

Seven goals over five games is not a great scoring record for a team with the attacking firepower listed above. They’re still in it because they’ve only given up three, thanks to Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fernandez, Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta at the back, and the ageless Javier Mascherano just in front of them. The Albiceleste have only faced seventeen shots on target over their five games. Not only are teams not scoring on Argentina; they aren’t even getting the ball in areas where they might have a chance. Part of this is also down to their opponents concentrating on their defense so as not to be exposed, but after allowing six on target against Bosnia in their first match, they’ve held every other opponent to fewer than five shots, culminating in just one shot on target for Belgium last weekend.

So The Netherlands will have to unlock the lead door that Argentina have set up in front of their goal. To do so, Dutch coach Louis van Gall can offer up Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie (who might be out, but I can’t imagine van Gaal following through), Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Wesley Sneijder. van Gaal even deployed Dirk Kuyt, generally a forward or attacking winger, as a wingback (on the wrong side to boot), and moved him all over the place in order to fit more attacking verve into his side. It didn’t work. They scored zero goals over 120 minutes against Costa Rica, which — again — only gave up two over their five matches, and is the low for the tournament, so is no great insult. They also left it very late against Mexico, scoring two (one of which was a penalty) in the final ten minutes to push past Guillermo Ochoa and ten other guys — but Ochoa was a revelation, allowing only a meaningless and last minute goal against Croatia in the tournament, before the late Dutch goals.

So, are the Dutch actually more hapless on offense than their name recognition, obliteration of Spain and general tenor suggest? Or have they just run into three of the tournaments best defensive teams, in Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile? We might find out today, except that Argentina is another defensive stalwart.

One last thing, remember when I said that Argentina had only allowed seventeen shots on target and that’s really impressive over five games? Well, the Dutch have allowed only fifteen (15!!!) over the same*****. And while you might think that most of their opponents focused on defending Robben, RvP, et al — and you’d be right — it’s still pretty amazing.

So will we need the scrolling scoreboard or will we need 120 minutes and penalty kicks to finally get a goal on the board? The most obvious — and likely — answer is neither. Both of these teams will defend deep and defend well, hoping to catch their opponent sleeping on the counter. How effective those tactics will be when neither team really wants to control the flow of the game but react is up for debate. But it should feature some fun moments of creativity from Messi and Robben.

Happy watching and I’ll be back on Friday to preview the Final unless this game has something amazing in it (i.e. biting, seven goals, a double bicycle kick, more than one red card).

* I can see that Luiz was blocked off him a bit, but that’s still awful defending. And I had very high hopes for Captain Ham Cart.

**The Brazilian Tony Shaloub

*** The German Jason Schwartzman

**** Argentina have “scored” eight goals, but one was a Bosnian own goal in their opening match.

***** (Ed. Note): That’s Villa defenseman and eternal savior for your sins Ron Vlaar you can thank for that one.

When It’s Over: World Cup Recap and Brazil-Germany Preview

Julian Green's Goal Against Belgium

 

Five days.

It took me five days after the USMNT lost to Belgium to be able to read any of the many obituaries, encomia and tributes that followed in that match’s wake. It took me five days before I could begin to think on the accomplishments of the US team and reflect on what had happened. It took me five days to get over it, to move on from it. As I watched the games on Friday and Saturday, as the quarterfinals became the semifinals, I did so not really believing the next game wouldn’t feature Dempsey, Howard, Bradley and Jones. Their run was certainly, and decisively, over, and yet I was not ready for it to end.

In the first hour of October 17th, 2003, I found myself kneeling on a barroom floor, my legs covered in peanut shells and my hands on my head. The bar was emptying but I had not yet mustered the strength to join them. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I didn’t move at all or say anything at all. I stayed on the ground, staring into the distance, at the projection screen that hung from the ceiling, silently willing its images to become different, for time to rewind, for history to change.

Tim Wakefield, good and faithful servant that he was, had gone out to pitch to Aaron Boone in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 7 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium. That inning lasted one pitch: a pitch that wobbled out of Wakefield’s hand only for Aaron Boone’s bat to meet it, and redirect it into left field, into the night, into the stands. Wakefield walked off silently and sadly, but not despondently. I sunk into the peanut shells and grabbed at hair.

At a gas station, I got out of the car and just kind of paced around. I didn’t say much, was still in a mostly catatonic state. I kept seeing the ball leave the bat and Wakefield’s forced march from the field. It was not that they had lost, not that they had disappointed me, not that they had given up or choked or failed. It was that it was over, and I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted another night to watch them and take joy in them and thank them for everything they’d given me. But it was over.

I didn’t think the USMNT could do that to me. I didn’t think that they could make me care that much, not about them winning, but about them. I didn’t think that those guys could make me feel bad not because they lost, but because they lost. To think on Michael Bradley finally figuring out his new position and playing his best game of the tournament, and to imagine that it was his last game. To see Clint Dempsey’s battered face and know that it would heal long after he got on the plane. To watch Jermaine Jones walk off the field draped in flags, having become a star and hero over four games, and realize that they were the culmination and not a prelude. To look at Tim Howard, after the most complete performance any of us are likely to see a goalkeeper give, to see the tears and know that those were all he had left to give us. I only wanted to see them play again, not for me, not because they should have won or deserved to win, but because they had made me care so much about them and I didn’t want it to end for them, not yet.

And yet it has ended. Though they’ll play again for the US over the next couple years, this is likely the last we’ll see of DeMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Nick Rimando and Chris Wondolowski in the World Cup.* Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi might get passed by for spots as the team continues to bring on the next generation. That’s ten of the 23 players on this team, including three of its best performers in this tournament in Dempsey, Howard and Jones. When we think back on this team, those are the names, faces and moments we’re likely to remember.

Yet we may also remember this as the international coming out for DeAndre Yedlin (snapped up by Roma before the US even got on the plane home) and Julian Green, whose goal against Belgium in the game’s dying embers caused me to fall to shout louder than I can remember for any reason. Bradley will return, hopefully as a deeper-lying midfielder than trying to play as a number ten. Jozy Altidore will be entering his prime as the US goes to Russia. John Brooks, Matt Besler, and Fabian Johnson (probably on his favored left side with Beasley gone) will all return. And there is more youth and hope in the pipeline. Even when it’s over, there’s still hope for another time and another chance.

4:00 – We’re down to the final four, which this year looks like a Final Four of Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina. This is the 20th World Cup and these four teams have been semi-finalists 29 times, finalists 21 times and have won ten World Cups between them. Two of these four teams have played one another in the final five times. The Netherlands have never won but have appeared in three finals. Argentina have won twice and appeared in two more finals. But more on them tomorrow.

Brazil and Germany have appeared in a combined fourteen times and won the trophy eight times (five and three, respectively), and stand as the two greatest powers in the tournament’s history. Italy may have won more often than Germany, but the Germans have been more consistent. For Brazil, this is their chance to keep a second Jules Rimet trophy. This is the fourth consecutive World Cup that the Germans have reached at least the semis, a run that began in 2002 when they faced off against a Ronaldo-led Brazil in the final.

Somehow, Miroslav Klose was on that team, and the tournament’s second leading goal scorer, with five goals, a feat he would repeat in 2006 before being comparatively awful and netting only four in 2010. Klose only one goal in 2014, giving him fifteen total for his career, tied with Ronaldo for the most in World Cup history. Netting one against Brazil this afternoon would put him atop the board and could push his team past the only other country with a similar track record of sustained excellence. More likely, the goals will come from Thomas Mueller, who has scored nine over his two World Cups, or Mezut Oezil, who is a far better player than he has demonstrated over the last two weeks. The German defense remains characteristically stout, if plodding, with Phillip Lahm and the return of Bastian Schweinsteiger shoring up any of their weaknesses. They are a calculating and exacting team, that look to play as they want and impose that style on the other team, rather than react to what their opponents are doing. That said, they are perfectly capable of discovering a weakness in the other team and then exploit it ruthlessly.

Of course, Brazil remain the favorite to keep the trophy in Rio. This despite never looking entirely confident or competent for a full 90 minutes. Their road this afternoon became much more difficult thanks in large part to Carlos Velasco Carballo. Carballo does not play for Brazil. Neither does he play for Colombia, their previous opponent. Rather, he was the referee in that match, which swung well out of control under his watch, as fouls became nastier and tackles heavier the more Carballo let them go. In the end, Carballo’s inability to keep peace and calm stormy tempers led to Brazil’s best player being taken down with a knee to the back, resulting in a fractured vertebra** for Neymar, the astounding striker and focal point of the Brazilian attack. Thiago Silva, their captain and rock at the back, will miss the game as well, having received his second yellow of the tournament.***

The road is thus harder for the hosts, but by no means impassible. They still have a star-studded team full of goal-scoring threats (Hulk, Oscar, Fred, Willian, Jo), midfielders adept at turning over possession and initiating the offense (Fernandinho, Paulinho, Ramires) and the Exploding Ham Cart himself, David Luiz, who got his porkluminum all over Colombia with a free kick in the quarters. The problem being that Germany can answer with threats of their own (Mueller, Oezil, Goetze, Shurrle, Kroos) and mids of their own (Khedira, Lahm, Schweinsteiger). The Germans may have the better defense and goalkeeping, but Brazil will have a decided advantage playing in their home country.

For one of these teams, it will be over too soon, in just a few hours. The other will play again in the Final and hope to add to their already dominant resume. I think it will take more than 90 minutes, but not PKs, and Brazil will edge out Germany for a chance to get their sixth championship and second keepsake trophy.

 

* To be fair, I could very easily see Howard coming back as the mostly ceremonial third keeper in 2018 after ceding his role to his current backup (and great keeper in his own right for J Reed’s Aston Villa) Brad Guzan. Dempsey could also head over to Russia as a late-game substitute, but the honest hope would be that the US could produce someone capable of more than 30 minutes of action to bring in his place.

** Note: he fractured a vertebra (ver-teh-bruh), not several vertebrae (ver-teh-bray), as ESPN insisted on pronouncing it. It’s still a terrifying thought, and indeed a horrifying reality for Neymar, but it is at least slightly better. /pedant

*** It’s called “accumulation” and intends to stop players from getting one yellow every match of a tournament (which would be allowable under the rules of the game, but would imply a destructive and dangerous player not receiving any actual sanction for improper play), by suspending players who receive two yellow cards over their team’s first five (or fewer) matches for the team’s next match.

 

Whomp, You Do Not Sleep on the Fennec Fox – World Cup Day Six Recap and Day Seven Preview

Some quick hits today, since I actually have things to do.

Day 6 Recap:

Group H:

Algeria actually showed some real determination and ability in the first half against a Belgium team that seemed to think a little too highly of itself. The first half demonstrated the two kinds of believing in yourself. Algeria came out with confidence and energy, convinced that they could fend off the Belgian attack and hit on the counter, which they may or may not have a history of doing. The Belgians, meanwhile, appeared to think the contest was a foregone conclusion and putting forth any effort was beneath them. They came out flat, and Algeria’s vigor and urgency put them ahead on a deserved penalty when Jan Vertonghen pulled down Sofiane Feghouli.

If the game ended after 45 minutes, we’d be talking about the tournament’s most shocking upset, and watching hastily-assembled features on the Desert Foxes (which, yo, do not sleep on Fennec fox, which is cute as shit but surprisingly violent, aaaaand this is a perfect metaphor). There would be no shortage of potential angles. Do you lead with the fact that the 23 players all play for different clubs professionally? Or that the average age of their starting midfield and attack is just over 20 years old, only three players over age 30, and only one player with more than 50 caps? That 16 were born in France, and came up through the French national system before choosing to play for Algeria?

Alas, those will have to wait until the knockout round or Russia 2018, because they played the full 90 minutes, and the Belgium that came out for the second half was the one we expected to see, full of pace and skill and cohesion. Once they got their first goal, off the be-Afroed noggin of Maroune Fellaini, it wasn’t a question of whether they’d come back, but by how much they’d win. In the end, it was only 2-1 to the Diables, but the number could have been much higher. What remains to be seen, is whether they can put it together for a full match, though they likely won’t need to until the knockout stage.

I warned you. I told you. Go out. Enjoy your life outside soccer. Seize these brief moments when you don’t feel drawn to the TV or the livestream or the phone. But you didn’t listen. You watched Russia and South Korea anyway. And you saw this:

857258955

 

My ladyfriend instinctively reacts to moments in sports like this with a stock phrase: “Oh buddy,” as if she just saw a child drop an ice cream cone and then a tiny puppy comes by and tries to eat it and falls asleep before it gets more than a couple licks in. I showed her this last night. There was no “oh buddy” only “whomp.” This is such a singularly stupid play that could elicit no sympathy from the most sympathetic person to ever walk this earth. And it was the fifth or sixth time that Akinfeev — once considered to be a prodigy — spilled a ball he ought to have covered, but the only time he and the Russian team paid for it. South Korea also let the Russians waltz through their 18 yard box for an equalizer shortly thereafter, and both walk away from this match chastened, ashamed and with one point.

Mexico – Brazil: Can we give those two points to Brazil and Mexico, because they deserved much more than they received for giving us 90 minutes of breakneck soccer, during which one side would have sustained possession in the danger area for a few minutes, only to immediately allow the other the same opportunity. For about 75 minutes, I looked exactly like this lady did:

O CHOA
A meme is born.

Guillermo Ochoa looked as if he was suspended by wires and had a team of stagehands pulling him around his goal.* The Mexican team easily could have conceded four or five if not for his heroics, and his defense owes him all the damned tequila he can drink for life. They hung him out to dry (no shame against a team with the attacking quality of Brazil, but STILL) on so many occasions, you wondered not if, but when he wouldn’t make the save. And yet, when the whistle blew, we ended where we started: 0-0. If Iran and Nigeria was a 0-0 draw that would have been better off if neither team had taken the field, this was a match that I didn’t want to end, not to resolve the deadlock but because it was so tense and exciting that ending it all seemed like a shame.

Today!

Noon: The Dutch take on the Australians and I have no good gif for this, because in gifs, the kangaroo always wins. The kangaroo will almost certainly not win this one. Even before their systematic dismantling of Spain last week, the Netherlands weren’t expected to have much difficulty with Australia. Adding that result to Chile’s performance against the Aussies, keep an eye on this one just to see if the Dutch might score double digits in the group stage.

3:00 Here is where we see to just what extent the Spanish are devastated by complacency, age and the lingering effects of the Dutch beatdown. Chile are a good team, led by two dangerous players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez. Going in to the tournament, I had them fighting with the Dutch for the second spot, and taking it from them. That seems unlikely now, as the Netherlands will likely be through to the knockouts before this match starts. That means the pressure is on for both teams to win this game, albeit less so for Chile, who with a draw here and any result against a disinterested and resting Netherlands next week are certainly through. Spain, however, need all three points if they hope to advance. It wouldn’t be the worst performance from a defending champion**, but it certainly wouldn’t match up with the expectations they’ve set for themselves. Watch this with both eyes, and be constantly vigilant that they are liable to pop straight the fuck out of your head once or twice.

6:00 Cameroon will play Croatia, and if Croatia (and the lovely and wonderful Luka Modric) want to advance, they need all three points. Cameroon didn’t show much against Mexico, but it’s entirely possible that given Mexico’s performance yesterday, The Indomitable Lions (no shit) are more capable that they were initially given credit. A draw by either team here makes it exceedingly unlikely that either will advance to the knockouts.

Enjoy the games!

* Julio Cesar was also great, especially for an elderly sea turtle, but Ochoa was transcendent.

** It actually might end up worse than France’s disastrous 0-2-1 campaign in 2002, but I’m pretty sure they’ll get a win against the Socceroos.

World Cup, Bro …

So that happened.

The action kicked off yesterday and in the 11th minute, there was the calamity brought about by players who aren’t used to one another. A cross through the Brazil penalty box (and it was a very dangerous cross that could have gotten results in any league against any team) whistled past a Croatian player and two Brazilians before Marcelo deftly flicked it in … to his own net. He hadn’t expected the ball to get to him, what with the ball having to skitter past two teammates to get there. It appeared that both of the other defenders thought Brazil’s goalkeeper Julio Cesar could and would come to claim it, as a younger, sprier and more adventurous keeper might have. All this left poor Marcelo to stick a foot out, lest it run directly into the path of the laser-guided Croatian directly on his hip.

After the OG, the game didn’t change much. A slower pace than I expected, but Oscar and Neymar looked like they could produce something at a moment’s notice, and Rakitic (why didn’t I mention him or Olic in the preview!) found room to work between the Brazilian defense and midfield. They were merely lacking the final movement, although both goalkeepers were called on to protect their nets. It was Neymar who ended up slotting one past, a daisy cutter unleashed across his body, at an angle such that I was sighing over the lost opportunity and wasted chance before I realized it wasn’t going wide.

That changed the game, as Brazil were more energized and began pressing more consistently. Whereas before the equalizer, Croatia had been content to sit back and wait in passing lines to pick off and intercept, the goal seemed to make Croatia nervous about leaving any player an inch of space in their half. Both teams were playing in the middle third, sometimes seeming like 14 men in a complicated line dance. Well, halftime then. 1-1.

And then the other thing that makes international soccer unsexy happened: a dodgy penalty awarded to Brazil gives them the lead and a terrible offside call nullifies what would have been the tying Croatian tally. The referees do not suck. Well, they do. But they are also put into a terrible position. They are charged with adjudicating every interaction on the field outside of offside and out of bounds calls, which are generally left to the “assistant referees” AKA “guys with the colorful flags who also appear to have come from their other job of landing jets on aircraft carriers”. To be in the correct position to see a foul, and see it as a foul, is 90% of the referee’s job. But these fields are enormous and these players are tremendously fast, not to mention skilled in subtle fouling and exaggerating contact. Football, which takes place on a similar sized field and which stops to reset itself frequently, employs seven officials to police conduct, each surveying a particular portion of the field for potential infractions. Soccer (stupidly, IMO) employs one. Hockey, which is comparatively played on the surface of a dollar bill, brings four officials on the ice. Basketball has three. Baseball, in which no one ever moves very far very quickly, positions umpires all over the place. They use six in the playoffs. Six! So soccer, which operates on the largest field, along with football, and which plays at a constant and frenetic pace, like basketball and hockey, chooses to give one person essentially unlimited power and total responsibility for the events on the field. When that person is in the wrong place to accurately assess what has happened, you get shitty penalties and bogus offside/handball calls.

Diving (or flopping) is dumb and stupid and I hate it. I wish it wouldn’t be done at all. But it gets rewarded because no one man should have all that power! Similarly, and much less frequently remarked upon, are the jersey tugs and leg flicks that go uncalled for the very same reason. Players get taken off the ball all the time through less-than-legal means. If they don’t go down, it won’t be called, as the referee has often walked himself right out of the play by misjudging where it was leading. To be a good referee means not only knowing the rules of the game and being in incredible shape to trot around the pitch for ninety minutes, but also to have an understanding of the game and the teams such that he (or she) can predict where the action is going and be in position to read it when it gets there.

In short: Bullshit. It can’t be done. Put a second guy out there and split the field. You can do it lengthwise or across the halfway line. Give both of them the authority to call fouls and distribute cards. Players are too fast and too practiced for the era of one referee to continue. And, obviously, REPLAY. If there is any sport that is adequately prepared for replay, it’s soccer. The game already has amorphous rules that allow the referee to add “extra time” at his or her discretion. So replay adds a minute or two to a game. It’s not football where you need to parse the particulars of “a football move” or “completed catch”. You need only to answer the question “was that man in front of the other man when the ball was kicked” or “did his hand touch the ball”. THESE ARE NOT DIFFICULT ANSWERS TO FIND. A CHILD KNOWS WHAT A HAND IS AND WHAT A BALL IS AND CAN TELL YOU IF YOU ASK THEM IF THE ONE IS TOUCHING THE OTHER (disclaimer: do not go around asking random children “is the hand touching the ball?” That is not what I am suggesting here.).

Anyway, Brazil tacked on another in stoppage time and there was the game. Oscar is a lovely little man who is good at many things, most of them on the soccer field. You will enjoy watching him throughout the tournament. Yay Oscar. Yay Brazil. Croatians cry into their shirts and thus look like fat men wiping their sauce-ringed mouths on tablecloths. Game over.

But not tournament over. Brazil looked good, but were helped by the referees considerably. The looked nothing like an unbeatable army of invincible chupacabra. By the end of the weekend, we’ll have a better idea of where this tournament is headed and who the real favorites actually are. Onto your Friday/weekend games:

FRIDAY

Noon: Mexico and Cameroon are playing at noon on a weekday for a reason: so you don’t have to watch it. Neither of these teams are great, even though Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o is an ageless wonder and Alex Song is not properly rated for all the he brings. Benoit Assou Ekotto might bring some of the best hair game to the tournament since Carlos Valderrama. Mexico barely got into the tournament after bungling their way through qualifying, only reaching Brazil because the US played to win against a common opponent rather than to fuck over Mexico. I would like to go on record that I am strongly opposed to anything that does not fuck over the Mexican National Soccer Team and Urine Tossing Enthusiast Club. Mexico does not suck but I refuse to acknowledge that. Do not watch this game (which is likely already in progress or complete by the time you’ve read this). In conclusion: fuck “El Tri”, but not Mexico itself, because that would be racist.

3:00: Oh, this looks familiar. Spain and the Netherlands. When have we seen that before? Oh, right, the Grand Final of the last World Cup. How convenient. Spain are still the same team, with the ability and audacity to roll out four defenders and six midfielders with nary a striker, and still beat you 2-0. Netherlands are still the same team who will put a boot through your chest when the referee isn’t looking and then try it again right in front of him and dare him to produce a red card. Spoiler alert: he will. Though the Orange are full of great players up front, they’re very young at the back, which is a recipe for disaster against a team as seasoned and finely-tuned as Spain. Watch Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben up front for the Netherlands, and cover your eyes should Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas or Diego Costa start shredding up the wee tykes on the Netherlands’ back four.

Update (ed.):

6:00: ARTURO VIDAL DA GAW … Oh, wait, he might not even play because of a knee injury against Australia because Chile likely don’t need him to get the win, and should opt to save him for the matches against Spain and the Netherlands. Enjoy your Friday night.

SATURDAY

Noon: Colombia lost their best player, Radamel Falcao and now Jose Pekerman (yes, Jose Pekerman) has to rally his team full of good but not great players in order to overcome this adversity. Just kidding. This group is awful and Colombia could probably go top of the group fielding 10 players in homage to the importance of Falcao. Greece continue to show the world that soccer doesn’t have to be a beautiful game, but can be just as ugly and uninteresting as watching Greek people have sex.

3:00 Uruguay is a favorite because they have great players and a coach who knows how best to put them in dangerous positions. When it comes to players like Luis Suarez, Edisnson Cavani and Diego Godin, that position is in the game. The first two provide all the attacking wonder necessary to make your eyes turn into slot machines are they rack up goals and the latter has enough muscle to make opposing strikers’ eyes roll up into their heads. Costa Rica has a soccer team that is entered into this tournament.

6:00 Italy and England have been playing soccer for a long time. England invented the game and Italy were the game’s first superpower in the World Cup years, thanks to Mussolini’s insistence that Italians be good at something other than cars and inventive cursing. England’s team is a mix of the elder statesmen from their “Golden Generation” that won fuck all despite having an absolute preponderance of riches and a new group of kids that have grown up only knowing how shit their country is at crunch time. Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck are the likely starters up front, and if any of their midfielders can get them the ball, they might be dangerous as a unit. Sturridge especially had a great season at Liverpool and looks primed to be a great player for the foreseeable future. This means he will stumble tremendously on this stage and England fans will hate him. Italy have Mario Balotelli who is God’s most perfect angel and about whom there will be much more later. Watch this game.

9:00 Cote d’Ivoire have an assemblage of talent that rivals any other country’s and should well be the envy of many. Instead, they have become the England of Africa, never quite living up to the hype or gelling as a team despite world class players like Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho Wilfried Bony … JESUS WHY HAVEN’T THESE GUYS WON ANYTHING I KICK ASS WITH THEM IN FIFA. Japan have a couple great players in Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, and whom actually work well together. They play exactly how you’d assume the Japanese National Team would play, and this works no matter what you think that might be. Japan play a very fluid and dynamic game in which they shift their formation frequently, testing and prodding at the other team to find weaknesses. If and when they do, buckle up. If they don’t, they need to cover up.

SUNDAY

Noon: Switzerland and Ecuador. Do me a favor and go to church. It will make your mother happy.

3:00 No one knows what the hell to do with France. They still have some of the great players who made the run to the 2006 World Cup final, but they’re obviously aging. They have some bright and rising young stars who could make the team over and propel the team to another final. But they hate each other. So fucking French of them. Just sitting on opposite sides of the locker room sneering at each other and eating canapes. Honduras are not very good but have bitching uniforms. They would be happy to be at the World Cup, but when you’re from Honduras, going to Brazil (especially non-Rio Brazil) is not exactly a great treat. “Oh, this looks like home, but they’re speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish. Also, no one is trying to kidnap us … yet.” (Seriously, Honduras has terrible problems and soccer players and their families have been kidnapped on the regular. The players are very happy to not be in Honduras.)

6:00 Argentina is another favorite if only because they have one of the world’s three best players, tiny little Lionel Messi. He plays soccer as if it is a different sport that no one else really knows the rules to. He is Calvin and the rest of the world is Hobbes, never quite grasping what in the world they are supposed to do. This can be beautiful when Messi is making beautiful runs and pinging passes to his incredibly talented teammates, but leads just as often to him trying to shoulder the load alone rather than accept the assitance of Angel Di Maria, who has really come into his own in the last year at Madrid. Edin Dzeko is a runaway beer truck of a human being, who delivers as many crushing blows with his body as with his feet. He’s a striker built like a linebacker with the mentality of a cagefighter. He’s fun AND deadly!

HOLY SHIT, That’s all the games. See you Monday and enjoy all the games (except noon on Sunday, seriously, go to church … for you mother).

The World Cup Trophy Is Not a Cup, and Many Other Words

Hi everybody!

(Stranger danger!)

I’m the writer formerly known as Ghost. In the first iteration of this here blog, I mostly stuck to sports and booze, dabbling in the religion and politics beats — which is essentially how I spend my real life as well. There’s a really big sports event about to start in a few hours, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to make the first of possibly many infrequent contributions. I am not good at “blogging” both because I do not post regularly and because when I do, it is entirely too long. You might just finish reading this before kickoff.

The World Cup begins this afternoon, with only one game on the schedule: Brazil and Croatia at 4PM Eastern. Brazil are among the favorites to win the whole thing, which would be their sixth title. After they won the third, they got to keep the original trophy — which was actually a cup, and why the tournament is called the World Cup, even though the current trophy looks more like a couple of hands sensuously massaging a ball (or globe). If they win this year, they keep this one too. One can only hope the next one looks even more erotic, such is the sexiness of both the sport and the tournament.

World Cup soccer is actually not very sexy, unfortunately. The professional soccer season in Europe, where many of the best players in this tournament make their living, runs from August to May. The leagues play roughly 38 games — 20 teams playing one another twice each, home and away. In addition, there are domestic cup tournaments that could add another six to ten matches. The very best teams also participate in European competition, which can add on more than a dozen to the total. Real Madrid, Champion’s League … ummm … Champions, played 60 matches this season, with six players featuring in more than 50 of those matches, and 6 more playing in more than 40. Some of these dudes are going to be exhausted, having only gotten a month off since their club seasons ended.

Oh wait. Nevermind. If they’re playing in the World Cup, they are likely to have gotten maybe a week off, because of the second reason World Cup soccer is not exactly the most scintillating product: these teams don’t play together very often or very regularly. The players are committed to their professional club the majority of the year, and can only train with their national teams on certain “international weeks.” Rather than drilling with the same teammates for hours every day, month after month — such that each player knows everything about the others’ movements and tendencies, not to mention the coach’s tactics and strategy — national squads get a couple weekends to practice and then the three weeks leading up to the World Cup. It’s essentially a shitty custody agreement, where players live with Mommy for the bulk of the year and then have to figure out the kitchen cabinets and TV remote at Dad’s, only finally mastering it all just as it’s time to pack up and go home.

In short: Tired players who are unused to their team mates and coaching don’t regularly produce scintillating, attractive soccer. If you want that, you can watch soccer any other time of year. What you’re going to get over the next month is often sloppy and disjointed soccer punctuated with moments of absolute brilliance and stunning incompetence that will leave you, the players and the coaches shaking your head in bewilderment and bemusement. Sixty minutes of aimless meandering and passes to no one will suddenly turn into three minutes of beauty and/or calamity, making all that came before it entirely worth it. Don’t hate it because it’s not beautiful, love it for the mess that it is.

There are teams that have played together long enough, with the same players and coaching style (if not the same coach), that transcend this. We call these teams “favorites.” Brazil, Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Germany and Argentina can deploy some of the world’s best players, and have trotted them out together often enough that they almost look like they know what they’re doing, with a cohesive mindset and determined strategy. Their skill and their tactics set them above the teams that have only one — or in Australia’s case, neither.

But enough of all that. Let’s talk about today’s game. Brazil are heavy favorites because, as ever, they have some of the best players in the world. They have wizened veterans across their defensive backline in Dani Alves, Maicon and Thiago Silva, who might have lost a step but make up for it in their experience. They have two of the best young players in the tournament, and the sport: Oscar (22!) and Neymar (also 22!) to spearhead their attack and retain possession so the old guys can catch their breath. And they have some guys who are simply in their prime, like David Luiz, Fernandinho, Willian and Hulk. They are very good. But they always are.

Luiz nominally plays a centerback position, which means he should be ever playing near his goalkeeper as a last line of defense, tethered to the other centerback, within spitting distance of his own penalty box. Somehow, no one ever told him about this expectation, so he caroms and barrels up the field with the ball at his feet, past people who assume that he is not quite so stupid to just lumber up the field and leave his defense exposed. Newsflash to Brazil’s opponents: DAVID LUIZ IS PRECISELY THIS STUPID. And it is glorious. When a midfielder or striker makes a run from deep in their own half, they call it slaloming, as the player weaves and bobs his way through defenders like a skier down a mountain. When Luiz does it, it’s like filling a wonky wheeled grocery cart with ham and rolling it down an embankment. With fireworks buried in the hams. Luiz will do this three or four times a game. Someone will be covered in exploded ham and grocery cart shrapnel when the final whistle blows, but you cannot predict who.

Croatia, on the other hand, wear a shirt that looks like a picnic tablecloth. This is hands down the most notable thing about them to the outsider. People will root for them because of this. But there are other, better reasons to do so. Reasons like Darijo Srna, who will stab you several times and send the flayed skin to your mother if you do not. Also, Mario Mandžukić, who will certainly make Luiz reticent to go a-carting with his usual abandon, given Mandžukić’s ability to rifle in shots from seemingly desperate locations.

And, the biggest reason, the man who will be putting Mandžukić in those positions, leading the charge from the midfield and conjuring magic if given any time over the ball, Luka Modrić. Remember when I said Real Madrid played 60 matches, and some players appeared in more than 50. Meet Luka, who started 45 of those and came on as a substitute in 6 more, logging over 4000 minutes for his club. The only two players who saw more time on the pitch for Madrid were defenders, who have to do considerably less running than a central midfielder who is asked to defend and attack equally. Modrić is equally capable of pinging a 45 yard cross field pass over the head of a disinterested fullback and onto the feet of a hustling winger, dribbling past his counterpart to draw other defenders to him and open up space for his teammates, finding the smallest opening to release a shot so accurate it could shatter a tea saucer from 30 yards, and deftly picking off a ball from between an opponent’s feet. Full disclosure: Luka Modrić spent several years playing for my favorite professional team before going to Madrid and winning the Champions League. He is so good that this does not bother me, but I am happy for him. He deserves nice things. If anyone hurts him, I will fly to Brazil and be arrested trying to retaliate. No one hurt Luka please, I do not have the money for a plane ticket, let alone bail.

The game should be fun to watch, especially for a neutral. It will feature great players who have been playing with one another for a while and so play as a unit a bit better than most. Brazil are likely to be the better team, putting pressure on Modrić and not allowing him the time or space to get the ball to Mandžukić. Srna is now probably too old and slow to effectively stop players like Neymar and Hulk, but do not tell him I said that. The match could get pretty open, but both teams will likely devote much of their energy to stopping the other from getting into any kind of rhythm.

If Croatia can catch Luiz out of position and Mandžukić can capitalize on it, they have a chance. Those are pretty big ifs, but certainly not out of the realm of the possible. If the game is really fun to watch, that probably means Brazil is winning by a large margin, and David Luiz and his ham cart are exploding all over those tablecloth shirts, with Newmar and Oscar avoiding the splatter by putting the ball into the Croatian goal.

Prediction: Ham Cart 2 – 1 Luka Modrić and his Buddies

Back tomorrow with more …