Friday, June 13, 2008

That's it?

When I heard that Sergio Ramos was photographed in a disco on his off day partying with a Swedish fan, I expected something far more scandalous than this. No wonder Aragones laughed.

The Magnificent Dutch

All neutrals must surely rejoice at Holland's magnificent dismembering of France at Euro 2008 today. It wasn't just the victory of a superior team, it was the triumph of a brand of optimistic, swashbuckling attacking football that has largely fallen out of favor among the so-called elite teams.

There's nothing wrong per se with playing defensive football. Sometimes you're up against a superior team. Sometimes you need to keep it congested at the middle for tacticv. It happens. But when you are A) the manager of a skilled, top team, and B) you always play that way, there's a problem.

The reasons why a top team would choose to play that way against even lesser opponents have to do with the stakes involved. At the club level, the huge money of the Champions League encourages certain teams to take this approach. In England, the leading proponent of this kind of game is Rafa Benitez's Liverpool. This is a team with Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel, Steven Gerrard, and enough talent to really light up the pitch. Instead, Benitez's Liverpool play an defensive safety-first style, the principle being is that they can beat the lower and middle teams 1-0 and 2-0, and draw the others in the big four. That way you can keep getting Champions League football, and hope for a great run as they got in 2005. It's an awful philosophy.

But far worse than Benitez is France's Raymond Domenech. Even against weak opponents, Domenech's France play one striker, two very conservative defensive midfielders and fullbacks who limit their attacking forays. It got them in huge trouble against Scotland in the qualifiers, it got them an utterly turgid 0-0 draw with Romania, and, thank god, it got them absolutely clobbered today.

But it did get them to the World Cup finals two years ago. There were two reasons why that team is more effective than this team: Zidane and Vieira. Zidane's creativity and ability to hold the ball meant that the three other attackers got far better service than they are getting this year. And Vieira as a holding mid meant that if France did need to get a goal, he could go forward with effectiveness. But even this French team weren't always attractive to watch.

This French team doesn't have Vieira or Zidane. And its attacking has been turgid. Against the Dutch, they weren't helped by the bizarro substitutions. Gomis for Malouda? Where was Benzema? Where was Nasri? And why would you continue to play two holding midfielders when neither of them can attack, when they both have yellow cards, and when goal difference doesn't even matter for chrissake?

The only answer I can think of to that question is careerism. Coaches who play this philosophy never really get thumped and generally get a decent-ish win-loss ratio, meaning that when the end inevitably comes, they can get another job. Mild failure isn't a disqualifier for a coaching position, but abject failure is.

And the frustrating thing is that the French could be playing this game. They have players who can play the kind of game the Dutch played today. They used to play that way.

So in summary, it's good for the game that Domenechism met its Waterloo today against a Dutch squad who scored exquisite goals and were beautiful to watch. It was a triumph of daring and optimistic joy over craven caution and careerism. Exhilarating.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

They showed the opening ceremonies!

Cows on stilts! Swiss milkmaids with glitter on them! A gigantic moving human clock! "Tradition meets modernity," argued part-time art critic Derek Rae and who am I to argue?

(I'm not being snarky. I really enjoy opening ceremonies.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Switzerland & Austria: Two Countries for Old Men

The premise of this article is Euro 2008 seems to have more old (meaning, over 33 or so) players than is typical for a major tournament. I can't be bothered to look at the average age stats that indicate whether or not this is true, but I wonder if this will be a trend rather than an aberration. Fitness regimens and diets have been very strictly controlled by the clubs for about fifteen years now--about when many of these players started their careers--and many of these teams are increasingly savvy about managing their older players.

That said, none of that lot have anything on this guy.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Cannavaro out of Euro 08

Italy were my pre-tournament favorite, but this is not good news. Cannavaro was titanic for this team in 06. Now Italy faces the prospect of having Marco Materazzi anchoring the center of their defense. Oy.

Hey this blogging thing is fun! I should try it more often.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Plastic People of the Universe.

One off the key games tomorrow is England's trip to Russia. In a display of gamesmanship, the Russian federation has decided to play the match on a plastic artificial field in Moscow, the effect of which has been to send the English press into something of a tizzy. My guess is that will make exactly zero difference to the result, as the English game is based upon speed and flank play rather than precision play through midfield. It means Paul Robinson will have to be sharp and pay attention to wayward bounces, not that he has a chequered past with regard to such matters or anything.

Meanwhile John Terry was pronounced fit only to be hilariously ruled out of the match a few hours later. It happened so fast that the Guardian still hasn't adjusted the header of their web page to correspond with the news.

Some other games of note:

Kazakhstan vs. Portugal. The Portuguese normally travel less well than leftover French fries, but they did well enough against Azerbaijan last weekend. Now they go even deeper into the former Soviet bloc. I'll be routing against the Kazakhs on my usual grounds: viz. Kazakhstan is not in Europe and shouldn't even be in this competition.

Georgia vs Scotland. Not elementary for the Scots, since they are playing away and missing many key players though injury. A win puts them in a gilt edged position for their final game, so really they must attack the Georgians here.

Turkey vs. Greece. These countries love each other! A Greek victory all but seals the deal on their qualification but they'll have to do it in front of 90,000 Turks.

Sweden vs Northern Ireland. The Irish started out brilliantly, but faded down the stretch somewhat. They pretty much need to win in Sweden to keep their hopes alive.

US-Switzerland preview

The US team returns to action tomorrow in a friendly against Euro 2008 hosts Switzerland with a largely European based team that's pretty inexperienced. Check it:

GOALKEEPERS- Marcus Hahnemann (Reading FC), Tally Hall (Esbjerg), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS- Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham FC), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Dan Califf (Aalborg BK), Jay Demerit (Watford FC), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard de Liege), Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock), Steve Purdy (1860 Munich)
MIDFIELDERS- Freddy Adu (SL Benfica), DaMarcus Beasley (Glasgow Rangers), Michael Bradley (SC Heerenveen), Maurice Edu (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Derby County), Eddie Lewis (Derby County), Danny Szetela (Racing Santander)
FORWARDS- Clint Dempsey (Fulham FC), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake), Preston Zimmerman (Hamburger SV), Sal Zizzo (Hannover 96)

Somewhere along the line, Bob Bradley add Taylor Twellman and Brad Guzan to the roster, apparently concerned about that five game losing streak that they've been carrying (which, to be fair, consists of those three Copa games, a loss to Brazil and an away loss in Europe.) I have to say that I'm not incredibly optimistic that they'll do so against a more than decent Swiss team at home. A shame really, that they aren't playing the other Euro 08, who, as Raphael Honigstein recently pointed out, are comically inept.

Am I right in thinking that this match was the last time the US played Switzerland? I miss Alain Sutter.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cherry Bomb

That subject line doesn't quite work; Venezuela's uniforms are a deep maroon. Likewise, this goal isn't perfect--look closely... you'll see it takes a lucky deflection off the wall!--but damn is it ever impressive. What a way to start your World Cup campaign.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

France-Faeroe Islands

is over already, after two quick French goals. Meanwhile Scotland-Ukraine is a must win match for both teams, currently 2-1, being played in front of 50,000 fans. But we can't be showing that on TV now, can we? Must have the latest action from the Faeroe Islands.

To add to the depression, even the little stadium in Torshavn has that irritating motion-filled electronic billboard in the background.

Great sporting events of our time,

So it's a different world than it used to be. When I wanted coverage of European football in the 80s and early 90s, I used to have to rely on my grandfather, who, from his base in Cardiff, would send me copies of the Daily Express. Now I can read the internet and watch matches live on TV, the latter thanks to one of the more benign tentacles of the Rupert Murdoch empire: Fox Soccer Channel.

But when it comes to international soccer, FSC are so frustrating. Take tomorrow's European qualifiers for instance. They are doing live broadcasts of France vs the Faeroe Islands and Sweden vs. Liechtenstein. Their tape delay broadcast is Slovenia vs. Albania, both of whom are eliminated. Is it too much to ask for them to show a game that's both competitive and relevant? I mean, I like Liechtenstein as much as the next guy (okay, probably way more), and there once was that too funny time they drew Portugal, but really... this just isn't worth it. The good games are either on pay per view or not on at all.

And France vs. the Faeroes probably won't happen anyway, because there's a snowstorm or something in the islands. I'd like to believe that Domenech would screw up this game with his needlessly defensive formation just as he did against Scotland, but they'll probably just get a workmanlike 2-0 win if the plane lands.

I'm more likely to turn to Gol TV, where the South American 2010 World Cup qualifiers get underway. Yes, it is still 2007. I think. Anyway, Bolivia vs. Uruguay should have the intensity that the FSC games are lacking.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

France-Italy, Spain-Iceland

The current French team presents a problem for me. I love France, a beautiful country with extraordinary culture, society and cuisine. I have close relatives who live there. And France has produced some fantastic players over the last decade: Zidane of course, but also Thuram, Vieira, Ribery, Djorkaeff, Henry, etc. etc. I even liked Stephane Guivarch'h.

But I find the current French team incredibly frustrating to watch and it's mainly down to coach Raymond Domenech. They play with two defensive midfielders, usually only one committed forward, and outside backs who are very conservative in gettnig forward. The attacking players that they do have--such as Henry, Ribery, Nasri and Malouda--are so good that they often offset this philosophy. But nonetheless the philosophy is still there.

At least yesterday there was a good reason for it: they came to get a draw in Italy, and they got it. With ease. The problem is that they always play that way. I wish that Domenech would give Vieira a little more license to get forward, and get the outside backs into attack more frequently.

So yes, the big match yesterday was all a bit drab. Is it me or is the Italian attack looking very old all of a sudden.

I actually used to live in Iceland, so I was very excited to see them get the result in Reykjavik, although it's a shame about that tying goal. (In fact, I saw my first soccer game at that stadium: NY Cosmos vs Valur in the early 80s) With Northern Ireland losing in Latvia, it shouldn't make much difference to Spain; as long as they can stay within two points of them before their final match against the Irish in Spain, they're going to be favored to go through.

For Italy, it's more tricky. I think they have to win in the Ukraine.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I'm not dead yet

So... um... yes. A five weeks or so without a single post. It was one of those things where for a while there wasn't much going on in the international soccer offseason, and then just as it got interesting, I got extremely busy.

In any case, it's a beautiful Saturday morning and I'm looking forward to a nice slate of Euro qualifiers. As usual, there's the frustrating situation where the match I really have an emotional investment in--England vs Israel--is on US pay per view, and I'm hesitant to shell out the 25 dollars to watch Second Choice Steve (moniker crudely swiped from the Guardian) scrape out a dull draw. And as usual, FSC has managed to broadcast the mostly uninteresting games. But I'll be watching Italy-France on GOL TV today, which should be an excellent rematch. With Scotland matching them step for step so far, there's a very real risk one of these marquee countries won't make it to the 2008 championships, so there's every incentive for both teams to go for the win. If you're lucky enough to live in a Portuguese-speaking area of the US and get RTPi, you can also see Portugal-Poland. Portugal have a game in hand over the group leaders Poland, but if the Poles get a win today, the Portuguese will be in major trouble. I'll also see if sentimental faves Iceland can pull off an upset and get points from Spain.

So sit back, grab a favorite beverage, prepare to teach the offside rule to some member of your household... AGAIN, and enjoy.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Projected Napoleon complexes

Several commenters on his article already make this point, but Michael Wilbon's assertion in his not-really-coherent comparison of MLS with NFL Europe that "[p]rofessional soccer isn't satisfied with being the most popular sport in the world; its international powers that be won't be satisfied until soccer has conquered the United States...." is telling. Conquest? What precisely is he talking about? FIFA and MLS want to continue the slow growth that the sport has experienced in the US over the last 20 years.

What nobody is planning is the displacement of other sports from the US sporting scene. That Wilbon and other commentators always see changes in terms of "conquering" is more indicative of personal insecurity than anything that is going on in reality. These frequent accusations of plans of conquest--followed by confident assertions that this will never ever happen--is just an extended plea for them not to have to cover or think about a sport with which they are not familiar.

Personally, I'd like soccer to grow a bit more so that I can see more frequent highlights, and to get the respect of the mainstream media so that I don't have to read columns like Wilbon's. Otherwise, I'm quite happy with the way things are.