Tuesday, July 6, 2010

From history to immortality

As most of you know, there's a reason why the media swarms around semifinals, Conference Championships, and the Final Four. Each team is just one game removed from the sport's biggest stage, and after weeks of muddled brackets, it's finally pretty simple: win and play for everything, or go home and never get the chance. Your accomplishment is already cemented in history, the glory is still fresh, but your work goes on towards immortality. Quick, who played for the 2010 NCAA Basketball championship? Who were the losing semifinalists? The answer to one question is historically significant; the answer to the other is legendary.

In the next 48 hours, four teams will take the field with this in mind. Two will play next Sunday. Doesn't get much simpler than that.

My predictions:

Netherlands beats Uruguay, 3-1
Much of the focus surrounds the suspension of Luis Suarez, as the man who saved their World Cup journey is forced to possibly watch it end. However, Diego Forlan is skilled enough to unlock a Netherlands defense that hasn't exactly answered every threat it's faced.

The more problematic absences are in defense, as Jorge Fucile and Diego Lugano are unavailable to deal with Sneijder et al. This is the inescapable difference between the two sides, as the Dutch have too many skilled dribblers for Uruguay to stop with a patched-up back line. After 90 minutes, La Celeste will know that their holes in defense were larger than the Suarez-shaped one up front, as the Dutch dominate play.

Germany beats Spain, 2-0
Incredibly difficult game to predict, because everything hinges on who scores the first goal. If Spain score first, they're able to spread the whole field and play keep-away until the clock strikes 90:00. However, when Germany has scored first, they've frustrated every opposing offense by committing their disciplined men behind the ball, counter-attacking to quickly put games out of reach. Each team has thrived all tournament when scoring first, yet both experienced group-stage hiccups when someone else beat them to it. Thus, my prediction is that whoever draws first blood will dominate the rest of the match.

With that said, who is more likely to strike first? To be honest, Spain have looked subpar to me all tournament: Torres has struggled to hit the net, the midfield's passing game has lacked precision, and the defense has given away quite a few more balls than usual. Even Iker Casillas has looked less than luminous. Thus far Spain hasn't been made to pay, thanks to still-superior talent, a slate of very defensive teams (Chile aside), and David Villa's best Superman impression. However, Germany has looked world-class in the knockout rounds, showing virtually no glaring weaknesses and looking clinical as ever. True, form is temporary while class is permanent, so Spain could revert to their Euro-winning ways. However, without seeing any evidence of this in the last 5 games, I have to think that Schweinsteiger and co will find the weak point and hammer away.

FINAL: Germany beats Netherlands, 2-1
If this match-up happens, expect the entirety of Holland to collectively wet themselves in a combination of excitement and fear. You can read further in David Winner's excellent Brilliant Orange, but basically the Dutch have a continual inability to beat the Germans when it matters, a cultural anxiety which the 1974 World Cup final did nothing to change.

This may not change anything at a tactical level, but from a personnel standpoint, no way this German side ends its ruthless streak against a Dutch defense that let Robinho walk right in on net. Goals could come from anywhere with such a matchup of two stellar squads, but the German defense has looked far likelier to keep out more of them. Given the combination of both ancient and recent history, I'm not betting against the German side.

It's a shame, too. I've always disliked that only 7 nations have ever won a World Cup, and both Holland and Spain are distinguished enough as soccer powers to deserve becoming the 8th. Even Uruguay would be enough of a throwback to please me, but my gut tells me to listen to Gary Lineker's infamous definition of soccer: "22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and in the end, the Germans win." I'll be rooting hard against it, but something tells me that won't matter much.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Video of the Week: Jon Stewart tackles "futbol"

CLICK HERE for the Video of the Week!

This week's Video is 10 times as long as our typical clips, and infinitely funnier. On June 30, Jon Stewart broadcast a "special futbol edition" of The Daily Show, and thanks to his background as a winger for William & Mary, Stewart certainly had enough expertise to fill a great half-hour.

The first segment, "You're Welcome", is some of the Daily Show's more absurd humor, but focuses more on political jokes with a World Cup background. If you're looking for more soccer-related humor, skip to the second segment, the latest in the show's "Vuvuzealots" reports. The piece is a hilarious look at soccer fanatics, drinking and hooliganism, so any American soccer will definitely laugh out loud.

However, the best segment is saved for last: Stewart's interview with Landon Donovan and Bob Bradley. The interview is an incredibly interesting take on not only U.S. Soccer, but also the perspectives of Donovan and Bradley.

I'll leave most of the video for you to judge, but am I the only one worried that Landon et al are acting like we accomplished something great? True, the World Cup was a milestone for America's soccer attention, but the team led for 3 minutes and struggled mightily to advance from a fairly weak group. Landon's gotta do the talk show circuit after the USA's (and his personal) epic World Cup, but I'd be reassured of the team's ambitions if he seemed disappointed at least once.

Oh, and if you haven't realized it yet, you're crazy if you think I'm not gonna write about the Algeria and Ghana games. More to come.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Video of the Week: "Oh Africa!"

This week's Video continues the trend of great World Cup commercials, and I think this one's my favorite. Can't even do it justice with a description, just an awesomely cheerful commercial marrying football and Africa. You really should watch this, all 2+ minutes.

Side note: Funny how the best World Cup commercials are from non-sponsors of the tournament: Pepsi beats Coke, Nike over Adidas, etc. (Though their Star Wars ad is worth a look, if you somehow missed it.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When referees play karma

After the USA-Slovenia rollercoaster ended Friday afternoon, our entire nation seethed at one man alone. Koman Coulibaly's phantom call was inexplicable at the time, and it still remains mystifying no matter how many times you replay the free-kick itself: no offsides, no fouls (aside from the slew of Slovenian ones), nothing at all. It was, easily, one of the worst calls in World Cup history.

Most media sources have largely chalked this one up to gross incompetence, but some have started to realize that we've been robbed much worse than we knew. I noticed this via a revelatory tweet, as Twitter user paddytim wrote to WhitlockJason:

"bs call was a make up call for a bad call on awarding free kick to US. Ref blew whistle before play even started. US guy dove"

Upon further review, this is exactly what Coulibaly was thinking. Here's how the play happened by his reasoning. (Click link for full video.) Jozy falls under contact to the neck from a Slovenian defender. Coulibaly blows his whistle for the free kick. He quickly doubts his decision, and this doubt is reinforced when he notices the linesman doesn't raise his flag. When the free-kick is struck, Coulibaly already has his whistle in his mouth and blows the play dead, without hesitation or any particular reaction to what's in front of him. In other words, he was resigned to whistling a makeup call from the moment he doubted his original call.

I barely even know where to begin with this logic. I guess let's start from the beginning: the play leading to the free kick was absolutely a foul. Jozy certainly embellished the contact, but it doesn't change the fact that the Slovenian defender put a hand to his neck. That's a foul and a free kick in any circumstance. It's comparable to Nigeria's red card against Greece: Torosidis rolled around like he was shot, but Kaita had still tried to spike a dude in the thigh. That's a red card no matter what, and a hand to Jozy's neck is a foul, no matter what.

Into the real issue: the make-up call. Let's even put aside that make-up calls are explicitly outlawed by FIFA. Simply put, it is still an unacceptable justification. Think about it, where does that thinking lead to? If he thinks he mistakenly awarded a penalty, does he give another one later? (What if that guy misses, how do those mistakes cancel out?) If he didn't realize he was giving a second yellow to a player, does he send off someone from the other team? A referee should never play karma by retrospectively evening out his own mistakes, because these decisions have ripple effects.

This human interference is even worse than getting unluckily screwed by human error. At least poor officiating is an honest mistake, something we've long understood and forgiven as a part of sport. (Just ask Jim Joyce.) The U.S. fought back deservedly, and the game was decided by the players on the field, until Coulibaly decided that it wasn't. Such revision is absolutely intolerable from someone who is only supposed to enforce the rules of the game, and whatever punishment FIFA hands out is warranted.

As for the U.S., Algeria's draw with England means that the U.S. controls its own destiny, advancing with a win over Algeria on Wednesday morning (10 AM, ESPN). A draw can also put them through if England fails to win, yet without Coulibaly's input, that draw would have sufficed no matter what. The resolute Algerians make such a specter haunting, yet the U.S. proved its toughness against Slovenia, and this squad is ready for the fight. Bottom line, the USA showed that it's capable of advancing, but nobody will benefit if more than 11 men stand in their way.