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U.S. Takes Top Prize, Fast and Furious; Fellow Daughters of the British Empire Leap Forward, Swiftly, Less Furiously

July 14, 2015 — by Rob Kirby

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As breaking news to no one, Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after the famous 1999 Women’s World Cup penalty shootout final victory, punctuating the U.S. women’s national team’s second taking of the top prize in soccer with a classic photo finish, cameramen lapping up her iconic knee drop and sports-bra reveal. The Americans won the debut trophy in 1991, but 1999 represented the moment when the team first captured the hearts and minds of the American public. Sixteen long years then transpired before the team and country would again celebrate another, on both the day of the 5-2 victory over Japan in Vancouver on July 5 and again in New York City at a ticker tape parade custom ordered for the occasion.

In nearly as notable news, England shrugged off the indifference of a nation to make the semifinals and dispatch Germany in the third-place playoff of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, while Australia took on the mantle of giant killer and dumped Brazil out of the tournament to the shock of everyone, even perhaps themselves.

Seemingly endless hype about the ’99ers surrounded the 2015 tournament, with all the attendant pressures for the female American soccer players competing in this millennium. Germany had usurped the American States United for world number one for the first time in eons, for co-dominance with their male counterparts in the world game. But the current crop of the U.S. women’s national team has now lifted Women’s World Cup trophy, and for a record third time, reasserting top dog status. Perhaps most importantly, everything begins anew, the team has shed the burden of pent-up expectations and the country has identified a generation of new stars.

As for a veteran like Abby Wambach, the all-time highest-scorer in the international game at 183 goals, she has tidily wrapped up any and all unfinished business after semifinal losses in 2003 and 2007 and avenged the penalty shootout loss to Japan in the 2011 final after the 2-2 draw. Officially now retired, Wambach can finally call herself World Cup champion. Of course, she could previously call herself two-time Olympic Gold medalist and 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year, so Wambach hadn’t exactly led a life of abject failure.

American media had conditioned the country to expect success from the not-hands of Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan, but in the end the star that burned brightest bore the jersey of number 10, Carli Lloyd.

Making World Cup history, Lloyd became the first woman and only the second human to score a hat trick in a final—the fastest/faster at that, three goals in the first 16 minutes. (Geoff Hurst scored his hat trick over 120 minutes for England in 1966.) She added the three speed goals achievement to her stat of the only soccer player ever to score match-winning goals in back-to-back Olympic gold-medal games in 2008 and 2012. Lloyd won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, but missed out on the Golden Boot, despite equaling the six-goal haul of Germany’s Celia Sasic, having played more minutes. For those looking to argue Lloyd’s case vis a vis the pitch-time tie-breaker rule, she scored all her goals in the knockout rounds, whereas Sasic scored three in the flat track 10-0 group stage demolition of perhaps the weakest team at the tournament, Ivory Coast. (At the time, Sasic had scored the fastest hat trick in Women’s World Cup history, in 31 minutes, which Lloyd bested in nearly half the time in the final.)

Before the Japanese ever got their bearings in the match, America had run over them, backed up over the bodies, run them over again, backed up again, and then run them over one last time for good measure. Ultimately, the last couple were overkill in payback for the 2011 final loss. The match effectively ended even before Lloyd completed her hat-trick that put the scoreline 4-0, though that safety would only reveal itself later. Lloyd scored twice in the opening five minutes, followed by Lauren Holiday in the 14th minute followed swiftly by Lloyd’s long-distance halfway line strike at the 16th minute mark.

Over the course of seven games, the Americans started off slowly but then steadily improved. Most importantly, they never lost, grounded on a rock-solid defense, gathering form, and with a slice of luck, the right formation, on their way to their most comprehensive win of the tournament on the final day.

Americans had the height advantage over the Japanese, so aerial set pieces that pundits expected the Japanese to contest and lose partly came to pass, only minus the aerial. The first two goals came from set pieces, but not from the air. The U.S. instead went low and direct. The first corner deliveries drove hard to the feet and then straight into goal for Lloyd’s first two strikes, faking out the opposition not once but twice, the Americans blitzing their way to 2-0 on the scoreboard.

After the lone goal conceded to Australia in the opening match of the tournament until Japan’s 27th minute goal in the final match, the the U.S. defense went 513 minutes without surrendering a goal. In the early stages of the tournament, when America failed to score with freewheeling ease, its miserly defense proved vital. When that changed and the goals came, the team could absorb an event like the Julie Johnston own-goal that bestowed Japan a second-half goal.

In hindsight, suspensions to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday proved fortuitous in that they caused a rejigger of the lineup. Coach Jill Ellis and the team found the best formation, perhaps by accident, perhaps by design—either way, one that gave Lloyd free rein to roam and go for goal while others retained possession, tracked back and covered the central midfield and defensive duties that previously blunted her attacking instincts.

As the tournament signaled a new chapter in U.S. soccer, it also turned out to be the making of two other English-speaking nations, England and Australia.

England reached the final four of any tournament for the first time since 1990 (aside from the ’96 Euros) and the women’s team logged its first major success of any real note ever. Australia reached the quarters, a major World Cup milestone for the former penal colony.

Every four years, women’s soccer appears on the world’s scanners. Or not, depending on the nation. The U.S. belongs to the former, England began June decidedly in the camp of the latter. A look at the U.K. papers showed perfunctory interest at the beginning of the tournament, which itself dwarfed the actual interest of the actual man on the street (minimal to none). As the team beat rivals in a manner totally unlike the men’s national side, however, the English drive to support a homegrown winner ramped up. This became especially pronounced in the first knockout round when Lucy Bronze scored from long-range against Norway to send the team into the quarterfinals and then headed a crucial goal against Canada to help seal a berth in the semis. Staying up past midnight to tune in, 2.4 million viewers in the U.K. watched England narrowly lose 2-1 to Japan, but by then women’s soccer had firmly positioned itself in the national spotlight.

Australia emerged from the World Cup as the Brazil Slayer, just as England did the Anonymity Slayer. Australia’s 1-0 victory over Brazil heralded the 2011 Asian Cup champion and 2015 Asian Cup runner-up as a true force for the future. Brazil came runner-up in 2007 and not long ago ranked world number two. Five-time World Player of the Year Marta, one of the best women’s players to ever play the game, still calls the shots for club and country. The team easily won its group. Australia took a scalp for the ages, and betrayed no sign that the performance represented any form of a freak win.

Professional matches in the women’s leagues of England and Australia see attendance numbers of approximately 800 to 1000. Broadcasters have not tripped over themselves to invest in TV rights, but the viewing figures for the World Cup could change that, although the variables of a one-off tournament and international summer fever have a part to play, and more than once that excitement has failed to carry over into the regular season of many leagues, not just women’s leagues of those countries. One must include America in that discussion, as well.

However, the viewing figures give pause for thought.

In the U.S., each group stage match drew in more viewers. The 3-1 against Australia opened to 3.3 million viewers, the largest television audience for a Women’s World Cup group stage game on record, triple that of the 2011 group stage opener in Germany, though that match occurred on a weekday during office hours in the U.S. (The previous high reached nearly 2.5 million in 1999 during the U.S. incarnation of the tournament.) The scoreless draw with Sweden averaged 4.5 million. Finally, for the final group stage match, the 1-0 win over Nigeria averaged 5 million viewers, the third-largest audience ever for a Women’s World Cup match to that date, behind only the 1999 and 2011 finals but of course, the tournament kept forging new records each day. The Nigeria match numbers nearly quadrupled the 1.3 million for the third U.S. group stage match in 2011, but again, an unfair comparison, as that match took place a weekday during office hours in Germany.

The Round of 16 match in which the U.S. women’s national team beat Colombia 2-0 held more or less even with 4.7 million viewers. The U.S. game against China in the quarterfinals clocked 5.7 million viewers. The semifinal between USA and Germany attracted 8.4 million viewers—the third largest audience ever for an English-language telecast of women’s soccer in the States. Ratings rose precipitously as the Women’s World Cup continued, with the final the apex of shattering past records.

The U.S. women’s national team victory night in the July 5 final in the thrashing of Japan made for action-packed early viewing and blew the roof off the previous ceiling of soccer TV ratings, and not simply by a small margin. The match stands as the most watched soccer game in U.S. history, men’s or women’s, and may hold the title for quite some time. A mammoth 25.4 million viewers watched the Women’s World Cup finals, according to Nielsen ratings data, smashing the previous record, the 18.2 million that tuned in for the 2014 Brazil World Cup men’s group stage U.S. vs. Portugal that so nearly ended in a U.S. victory but which in fact concluded in a 2-2 draw. At its peak, in the final 15 minutes, the TV audience actually peaked at 30.9 viewers.

In the U.K., around 500,000 people stayed up until midnight to watch the final, unlike England’s semifinal against Japan for which the match drew a peak audience of 2.4 million in the U.K. despite a kickoff time of midnight. At the beginning of the tournament, the English media essentially ignored the team and the tournament in general, broadcasting on backwater stations when at all. However, once England bested Norway, featuring with the sensational Lucy Bronze kick in the quarterfinals, the team suddenly found itself live on prestige channels like BBC 1, gaining solid viewership numbers in the wee hours of the morning.

Before this summer’s tournament began, the biggest American TV viewerships in women’s soccer ranked accordingly: the U.S.-China Women’s World Cup final in 1999 topped the list with 17.97 million and the U.S.-Japan 2011 Women’s World Cup final came took silver with 13.46 million. Those events each now move down a rung, as does the overall men’s record.

For comparison, the viewing figures for the July 5 match average audience exceeded every game of the NBA finals.

Expected soccer story lines didn’t come to pass, but what did come to pass made perfect sense in hindsight and from that vantage, all can be reordered from the start to fit the ending of the current present/recent past. And that’s what gets remembered. No one will remember that everyone expected Morgan to explode. Everyone will remember that Lloyd did.

A month on from the June 6 kickoff, things have already changed. The question is, for how long. The sun may have long since set on the British Empire, but the Daughters of the British Empire have risen again. America, England and Australia emerged from the tournament as definite winners, in differing but undeniable degrees, theoretically not to be forgotten as quickly as in years past.

As with any international tournament, one can get sucked in—the matches come fast and furious, and they’re the only game(s) in town, free from competition from the Premier League, the Champions League, La Liga, et al (granted, the Copa America also put on many entertaining displays in the South American men’s international game). The question becomes one of longevity and sustainability after the tournament. Will people keep on watching after the final whistle of the finals? Will spectators show for women’s professional leagues. In the past, the answer has been no. In the present and future, it remains to be seen. But signs look more promising than ever, for a few reasons.

When the tournament approached and then began with the U.S. winning games unconvincingly, pundits pointed to the tournament as the turning point when the technique of other countries would at last surpass the physicality of the Americans. The clunky 4-4-2 that centered on a slower, out-of-form Abby Wambach resulted in an attack lacking bite and creativity. Ellis had taken few personnel risks, brought in hardly any new players, barely rotated. Although the team had strength in depth, that depth had barely gotten anything like regular games pre-tournament. Hope Solo kicked ass on and (controversially, allegedly feloniously) off the field, but should she have received an injury or suspension, no backups had any minutes between the sticks. Expected it-girl Alex Morgan remained injured, continually foiled in reaching full fitness. She started to rack up more minutes, but goals did not arrive in direct proportion.

Teams from countries with thriving leagues had indeed improved greatly in terms of technical skills, particularly third-ranked France, but across the board teams had closed the gap. But to call the U.S. purely a physical team at the expense of technique or tactics is overly reductive. Players can be both technically gifted and amazing athletes. They can play long balls to a dominant striker without it being an act of unimaginative desperation. For an imperfect analogy in the men’s club game, think Chelsea, long balls with lethal finish and attacking bite. The criticisms came in the stages of the tournament when that lethal finish lacked or went missing.

Some wondered whether the nature of a blowout final was bad for the women’s game, but few held that opinion after the mesmerizing 7-1 demolition of Brazil by Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. Conversely, many point to Japan’s poor defending against Lloyd’s first two blitz goals. If so, then so much the better for the health of the women’s game. The blowout final would and could have been a much more closely contested affair.

A couple points for why a shock and awe blowout was good:

First, consolidation of the core audience, the U.S. base. The day after America’s birthday party for itself, sixteen minutes into the Women’s World Cup final on July 5th, the shock and awe recaptured the ‘99er love that had gone AWOL. The multitudes watching renewed their investment in their team, renewed their memberships as soccer moms/dads signing up daughters in youth leagues, and girls watching saw bona fide champions broadcast live and direct. Should it be that America has had its last hurrah, the final clinched a whole new clutch of recruits, suggesting it won’t be the last hurrah.

Second, after all the nil-nils and game-deciding shootouts of Copa America, people wanted goals, and goals they got. Did it damage the women’s game? Since when do viewers hate goals, especially insatiable, win-hungry Americans? Woe to those with poor feeds or tuning in late. The eventual 5-2 seemed an exercise in whether the Americans would blow that sort of mammoth lead. They would not.

Afterwards, in the aftermath, does the international women’s soccer landscape adjust positively to the fallout of a blowout, or react positively to the fertility of the bomb, the boom? The U.S. women’s national team put an end to a sixteen-year barren spell in the World Cup, although several consecutive Olympic golds arrived in the interval. The team had waited, the team had finally ceded world number-one to Germany before the tournament began, but when victory came, they did deserve top prize and the manner of their victory, the nature of the play, did contribute to the benefit of the game.

The U.S. had come under heavy criticism in the group stage for not scoring with abandon. What better answer than to score in the final with abandon? Wambach had complained during the low scoring run that the turf was to blame. She may or may not have been right. She herself may not have been vindicated, but in the end the team won, and as she watched from the bench and came on late, she accepted her elder statesman role. She had either temporarily lost her A-game, got thrown off her game due to the turf or perhaps her professional-level game had just inevitably departed as her career has now wound down. Wambach the Trusted Clutch Finisher represented one main narrative gone awry in the World Cup, just like Alex Morgan the It-Girl. In the end, during the ticker tape parade, it didn’t matter, at least not to the celebrating American public.

To backtrack, the controversial artificial turf, in addition to injuring players, certainly exacerbated the U.S. team’s (and others’) problems with clinical finishing and precise passing game. However, everyone played on the same surface. Passes slightly overstruck went uncaught, long ball strategies involved more speed than players possessed. But, that’s how it goes, that’s how it went.

In their off hours, even in the Group of Death, the Americans still seemed confident enough, in their defense game to get them through to the knockout stage. Undoubtedly, the offense improved once Lloyd took a more forceful role going forward. Once that happened, the formula of power, precision and athleticism finally blended and clicked. The change of formation that freed Lloyd up definitely changed that narrative.

The final would be bad for the women’s game if it merely showed the superiority of physicality over technique, but that’s not what it was. Lloyd put on a master class against a Japan team not at its best. The U.S. team finally gelled after searching for form and the right formation. All the women’s teams in the tournament had improved over the four-year interval. Japan had an off-match, but the Mizuho Sakaguchi goal against Holland that followed the deft, tight passing, backheel and tricky dummy right in front of the goalmouth showed pure class from both herself and her teammates.

In the women’s game, different teams showed they have developed different strengths, some with very good possession and passing technique, like France and Japan. The U.S. has a more direct style incorporating technique and physicality, much of it long ball—not the sexiest soccer term. To compete at the top level in years to come, the U.S. must inject more technical style and incorporate more technique with their athleticism, like Germany, for example. They will have to, if they wish to stay competitive, but for now they have just beaten Germany, Japan and all comers, so no one need sound the alarm too hysterically.

The scoreline certainly did no harm to where viewers won’t watch again. If anything, the opposite. Would the masses prefer another nil-nil? To women’s soccer’s largest viewing audience, the U.S., it hooked people right back in again.

In England, the World Cup effect has already seen an uptick in Women’s Super League interest, but it remains far too soon to declare any sort of real turnaround. Manchester City Women, which features five English internationals, including Bronze, defeated Birmingham 1-0 and set a new attendance record on Sunday with a crowd of 2,102. Sponsors, league officials and broadcasters will watch with interest to see if the trend continues, in England and elsewhere, but 2,000 spectators still represents a near-grassroots level of support.

Neither FIFA President Sepp Blatter nor this number-two, Secretary General Jérôme Valcke attended the Women’s World Cup final to present the trophy, underscoring once again the continuing disrespect for the women’s game in the shadowy power corridors of FIFA. One may recall Blatter’s infamous, endlessly embarrassing hot-pants quote from 2004. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” Blatter opined grandiosely and idiotically, like a modern day Marie Antoinette of soccer, by way of volleyball.

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

Women’s soccer did not, in fact, use a lighter ball, though the first World Cup did insultingly reduce halves to 40 minutes, assuming that women couldn’t last a full 90, while simultaneously scheduling matches with fewer rest days, thereby actually making for a more grueling schedule than the men’s tournament.

Meanwhile, in 2015 as women kick ass onfield, Blatter remains Zurich-side sipping Swiss Miss in a state of curtain-twitching terror. The day of the final, Blatter told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, “Until everything has been cleared up, I am not going to take the risk of traveling.” He clarified, “”Not because the Americans have anything concrete against me, but because it would cause a public stir.” Canada poses notorious travel risks for Swiss nationals fearing prosecution. And public stirs.

Blatter will, however, travel to Russia in late July for the qualification draw for the 2018 World Cup. Apparently that would pose no risk of public stir. Or perhaps it pertains to the fact that Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

Blatter once declared, apparently with no genuine meaning, that “the future is feminine.” Perhaps among he mixed up his words, meaning the future is fraught with exile, extradition-dodging and bunker-dwelling.

***

[A special thanks to Larry Weinstein for many of his points in internal emails that I incorporated, concerning overhit passes because of the turf, the long ball game and the 7-1 Brazil killing. I may have missed a couple other points. Also to Sean Mahoney regarding the blend of technical skills/athleticism of the USWNT and John Lally for some factual corrections. I emailed several of the CF crew about the matches and I don’t want to claim their ideas as my own. As well, many ideas came in response to justifying my viewpoints to Eddie Guo, so he gets a shoutout, as well.]

CommentaryEnglandEuropeThe AmericasUnited States

Rubio Rubin, Blast from the U-17 Past

March 30, 2015 — by Rob Kirby

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[Editor’s note: Rubio Rubin featured as a 67-minute substitute for Aron Johansson in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Denmark and won his first cap for the full-blown USMNT. Originally commissioned by the Sarasota Herald Tribune to Rob Kirby in December 2011 but ultimately unpublished, this article featured a 15-year-old and U-17 Residency Program standout Rubio Rubin, before those heady heights. Congratulations, Rubin!]

For two years, the crop of under-17 soccer players in the U.S. national team housed at the 350-acre IMG sports complex in Bradenton live and breathe soccer. They keep their eyes fixed firmly on the prize of representing their country at the 2013 U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. The top trophy represents the culmination of a 24-month dream.

This newest group of 15 year olds, 32 boys all born in 1996, left home in August and moved into the all-expenses-paid U.S. U-17 residency program, with a schedule as jam-packed as the young men are gifted. The team trains six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and players spend almost all their time together.

Braces-wearing Steven Echavarria from New York revels in the soccer immersion. “It’s a great experience, because you get to test yourself with the best players around and you’re getting better every day, so you know you’re in the right place.”

By the third week they felt like a unit, said Brandon Tetro, also from New York. “We bonded real quickly. When you’re with someone so much, it just happens so quickly.”

“We go to school together, we go to breakfast together, we go to lunch together and we train together, so we’re building chemistry having fun with each other on the field and off the field,” Rubio Rubin of Oregon said. “We’re together 24/7.”

Rubin does not exaggerate. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, they eat breakfast at 7:00 am, report to an hour and a half of weight training at 7:30, pile into seven Honda minivans at 9:00 for the pristine Bermuda grass soccer fields at IMG and practice for almost two hours. After they scarf down lunch and refuel, it’s off to St. Stephen’s Episcopal School from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm, then dinner and homework.

On Tuesday and Thursday, they eat at 7:00 am, leave at 8:00 for an hour to train on sprinting, mechanics and jumping before embarking on regular drills for roughly two hours. After lunch, it’s off to school, then back to the dining hall for dinner, then back to school for study hall from 6:30 pm to 8:15 pm, then back to the dorms to finish up schoolwork. All must comply with a 10:00 pm curfew. Saturday is game day. Sunday they go off to a local mall or check out a movie.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

By the end of two years, most players will have traveled to eight countries, staying on track educationally with online-based homework, podcast lectures, one-on-one conversations with teachers via Skype and even tests in foreign cities timed to synchronize with players back in Bradenton.

“You get postings, notices every day. It’s basically like Facebook for school,” said Californian Thomas Ziemer, who recently traveled to Spain and France with the first team for back to back tournaments over 21 straight days in October.

But though supremely focused, they’re teenagers. When they return from school, they take to the nearby IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy courts, but with a twist. “After school we play soccer tennis, basically tennis but with your feet. We play until it gets dark,” according to Jorge Calix of Washington, D.C., who added with a laugh, “Gotta work on those skills.”

At a recent match, players in the bleachers flirted with girls at IMG, texted, talked about laundry, debated messiest roommate and generally cracked one another up.

Though the players could easily eat with impunity, given their daily cardio and weight training regimen, they resist the lure of fast food and eat with strict adherence to optimizing nutritional intake. In Spain, they indulged in salad and paella as opposed to McDonald’s.

Ted Allen, U.S. History teacher at St. Stephen’s, said, “They may not care about U.S. history, but they care about doing well, and the coaches check up. They are so great to teach. They act like a team and keep each other in line. And for boys so young, they feel the responsibilities of representing their country and also their careers.”

Ziemer takes the national team very seriously. “When everyone’s watching and there are internationals and cameras everywhere, it hits you. We’re competing with the top teams in the world. We want to win at the highest level, bring U.S. soccer to the highest level.”

Rubin concurs. “When you walk out on the field, you feel all the excitement and are so grateful that you’re representing your country and all the people living in this country. You feel like you can do big things.”

As for big things, Rubin scored within the first two minutes with a stunning shot in the 3-1 victory over favorites Brazil in Lakewood Ranch on December 4. “I got the chance to have the ball right in front of me and just tapped it behind the ‘keeper. It’s the best memory I’ve ever had as a soccer player, representing this country. Best day of my life.” What Rubin omits out of humility is that he chipped it in over his shoulder with his back to goal.

The victory, after positive results against the U-17 teams from France and Turkey, won the team its first trophy, one that injected the squad with cautious optimism. “Getting the tie with France and beating Brazil and Turkey shows that we can compete with anyone, we just have to keep working and training,” Ziemer said.

The players head home December 16, after finals at St. Stephen’s. But though they may breathe a sigh of relief, they take nothing for granted, as inclusion in the program gets evaluated semester by semester. If a player’s performance drops, he gets dropped.

“We’ve gotten so close, and leaving this place would just kill you,” Tetro said. “No one’s spot is guaranteed—you can lose your spot at any time.”

“There’s a lot of pressure, but you got to just take it one day at a time and stay focused,” Rubin said.

For these 15-year-old elite athletes, the residency program is where pressure, passion and drive intersect. And soccer tennis.

England

Civilian Soccer Tyrants: Leeds and Massimo

August 19, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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Northern English football fans are usually all-in or all-out. At Leeds United, however, the roller coaster highs and lows over the past decade have inner-ear imbalanced supporters. After a rogues gallery of financial disaster club owners, they remain wary of a flashy, volatile new Italian guy for whom “eccentric” puts it mildly. They could be excused for remaining cautiously fill_in_the_blank. (This said by someone who has never been to olde town Leeds and whose defining viewing moment involving the team begins and ends with the storybook match-winning FA Cup goal from an on-loan MLS Thierry Henry a few years back.) But as of August 3, Massimo Cellino, eccentric Italian entrepreneur, convicted fraud and serial sacker of coaches, announced he’s buying back the LUFC stadium grounds that the club’s broke ass previously had to sell, so that’s positive, yes? Yes, Leeds fans? I’ll take that grumbled assent as cautiously optimistic. And you’re no longer in the third tier, though he had nothing to do with that… Robble.

High-flying millennium era Premier League Leeds reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 but they walked a razor’s edge to do so, and racked up huge debts in the process. After finishing fifth in 2003, meaning they didn’t qualify for the European competition (and more importantly, the associated TV rights cash), the “spend money to make money” strategy backfired massively. Debt collections led to mass player sell offs and a subsequent plummet down the table. Leeds sold the Elland Road stadium and grounds in 2004, and the team got relegated the same year. In the Championship, the team went into financial administration in 2007, which then triggered relegation to the third division with a 10-point deduction. They found themselves unceremoniously dumped down two divisions within six years. (Still, as Leeds fans will tell you, they’ve won the league more recently than Liverpool.) High-powered consultants were not required to explain the collapse. Simple financial fallout of reckless overspending. Leeds fought the big dogs Cold War CCCP-style and arms-raced themselves to bankruptcy by kiting checks and making bad big buys. They got burned in a very real sense, and have fought to keep creditors at bay the past decade as they heal in the burn victims ward.

Meanwhile, in Sardinia, during the whole rise and fall of Leeds Massimo Cellino operated a separate universe of terror and infamy in his war against the local Sardinian island government and its refusal to allow him to build his stadium how he wanted and where he wanted. As result, he threw one of the most incredible club owner tantrums of all time and relocated the Sardinian home grounds to Trieste, on the far northeastern end of Italy near Slovenia and Croatia–basically as far from the Mediterranean island off the western coast of Italy as one could get, 600 mixed-transport miles away. He fired 36 managers in 22 years at Cagliari, the club which he sold in June. The Italian Feds have found him guilty twice, once for agricultural import malfeasance (he’s a corn magnate) and once for accountancy issues regarding Cagliari (okay, for the English FA, that one seems rather pertinent…) with the specter of further charges perpetually overhead. At the time he was buying Leeds, in early 2014, he had some problem or other with customs over his yacht. Tax evasion and import malfeasance, something like that. The usual.

It’s nearly impossible to fail the English FA’s “fit and proper persons” test, but Cellino did. (Apparently, the yacht thing killed him, not the football-specific financial crime, or the other.) That is, before he didn’t, and passed it. He appealed, the FA reversed its decision, and Leeds, after a string of owners that have left it in different stages of ruin and bankruptcy, had a new man on the throne who may further destroy the club or actually scheme it back to the Premier League. He’s clearly got some sleight of hand skills, even if he does keep getting busted. Also he projects promotion to the Premier League in two years as his goal, so naturally ears prick up for the Leeds hopeful, cast out from the top tier for the past 10 years.

In contrast, the hated David Haigh, who managed Elland Road of a sort until last year as managing director, has been sweating in a Dubai jail for three months, incarcerated on charges of £3 million for fraud and embezzlement. From his cell, he counter-threatened previous owners Gulf Finance House Capital with “damaging allegations” of their own misconduct to which the mega corporation remained colossally deaf until it blasted back about a reported tell-all book deal Haigh may or may not slimily have in the works. Gulf Financial House Capital still cling on as 25% current minority shareholders. Again, Leeds has endured a run of pretty bad owners. And that’s just a fraction of the nonsense.

But back to Cellino. First, in the President’s vision to the masses, he plans to deliver the ancestral grounds. Next, the promised land: the top tier of English football. Unless the whole continental shelf erupts in the process. Past owners have showcased a sort of object lesson in what not to do, and then along comes Mr. Volatile, very likely to blow up an already detonated landscape, but promising to buy back the land. It’s contrasting but compelling, especially for Leeds supporters more than ready to “March on Together” back to the Premier League again.

Cellino doesn’t do warm and fuzzy, but he does do money and he kept (sometimes) island-bound Cagliari in the Italian top flight for a long time. Fans may see him as a crook, but if so, at least one who has the financial mind to make the right moves economically–like buying back the stadium at Elland Road, previously liquidated at massive long term cost to come up with cut-rate quick cash. Though the actual squad lacks Premiership star quality, he has brought in inexpensive but promising players from the top two tiers of Italian football, making use of his connections in and knowledge of players in Seria A and B. The club has lost and continues to lose money, and on the controversial side, In July, after 4 months, he has sacked his first Leeds manager for the second time (surprise!) in his first three months, having only bought the club in April 2014. He’d pared the budget also by firing well-liked staff, academy coaches and, most controversially, the best player, if for a pretty huge price. But Cellino requires all-aboard in righting the ship, by hook or by crook, as some say, but certainly not publicly by any sort of skipper. He doesn’t suffer insubordination lightly. (See aforementened “sacking of Sardinian fan base and moving stadium grounds to Trieste” incident.) But some people still have some beef.

The scarred and pessimistic point to the glaring exit of their source of goals (last season’s leading scorer Ross McCormack, sold by Leeds to Fulham for a fee of £11m). Too many foreign imports, too many young and/or academy players, too much deadweight that didn’t perform up to par in the season past, not to mention the unceremonious sending off of staff that people considered part of the Elland Road firmament. In addition to McCormack, 14 other where’s were sold or released. Hockaday has managed in the Conference, but never the league. These things can mount a bit worrisome for those who value the stability and experience. However…he apparently costs about a tenth of what McDermott earned, so Cellino balances some ledgers right there. Who needs a manager?

According to the Guardian, (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/aug/08/maverick-owner-massimo-cellino-leeds-united-big-mess) new coach Dave Hockaday seemed nervous as he repeatedly referred to Cellino as “the President” (echoes of Il Duce?), in an opening press conference. Fear of his infamously tyrannical new boss is, of course, well-founded. He fired Brian McDermott before rehiring him last season. In the the same Guardian interview regarding the Hockaday press conference, Cellino said, “I can change manager like underwear if needs be.”

After the bizarre, convenient freezing out of main goalie and second highest wage earner at the club because of Cellino’s superstition about the number 17 (more below), this summer Cellino also fortuitously signed young Seria A GK Marco Silvestri, “the best goalkeeper in Italy,” per Cellino, sort of via his other club Cagliari in Serie A. Conspiracy theorists will unquestionably swarm the scene if the £400,000 looks in hindsight an overly kindly price. Silvestri signed on June 9, having just been on loan from Chievo for the previous six months. Cellino then agreed to sell Cagliari itself two days later, embuing his last movements with a whiff of a backroom deal. Not so much as anyone could prove, mind, and Chievo actually owned Silvestri, not Cagliari, but seems like something there nonetheless.

But the day before the sale, in a narrative twist, Leeds had to pay £950,000 to Sport Capital, the company that filed a winding-up petition against the club and had tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April. Apparently backed by David Haigh (former Leeds man of Dubai incarceration) Sport Capital issued the petition in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan, to previous owner (and current minority owner), Gulf Finance House Capital, subsidiary of Bahrain finance giant Gulf Finance House, which owned the club from December 2012 to April 2014 and hemorrhaged debts to the tune of £1 million a month, according to the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/10/leeds-united-repay-loan-sport-capital-david-haigh-court

Sport Capital tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April and slapped petition on the court’s desk in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan to Gulf Capital (wherefore came that information?), and once Sport Capital complained with evidence that Leeds had £1.6m in their bank account, meaning that bank account account could be frozen, they got £1 million (plus legal fees) for their corporate watchdog altruism. Even though the money was to a partner unrelated to Sport Capital. It was sort of a bitch move. Though Haigh soon came into enough trouble of his own in the end.

In the season opener away at Millwall, Leeds lost, 2-0. At home, against Middlesbrough, they won, 1-0. The Serie A and B players haven’t yet scored, but one recent Southampton signing has, Billy Sharp. Sharp scored the lone goal over Middlesbrough in the 88th minute to secure Leeds 3 important points, as opposed to sitting two games into the season scoreless. The Hockaday wear may not need to be discarded yet. Which works for Cellino, because Hockaday comes cheap.

In addition to all his other eccentricities, other stories abound about Cellino’s abhorrence of the number 17, his dropping of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny (coincidentally second-highest earner) for being born on the 17th of a month; his alleged dread of purple (when does that even come up?); and other things that could be fact or fiction. The first two are apparently fact, though. He has actually spoken about them, and at Cagliari, he had all the seats renumbered from 17 to 16B.

Cellino isn’t first-choice as stabilizing forces go, but he could finagle the destabilization into heading upwards. As regards Cellino the cost-cutting yacht owner, he has apparently shut down the training ground cafeteria, which means brown bag lunches for players, and players are also responsible for washing their own clothes. Subtract player wages, manager wages, add player sales, he’s getting there, even if it’s shoestring jerry-rigged. And a lot depends on whether the Elland Road purchase comes to pass. Delivering on that sort of milestone could sway some minds toward his side, or at least serve as a solid first step.

Although, as a tarnish on that silver lining, he did recently get arrested last year in connection with a stadium redevelopment deal in Italy. http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/cagliari-president-massimo-cellino-arrested-in-stadium-investigation-8494422.html

He’s a sketchy cat, what can you say?

CommentaryEnglandThe AmericastransfersUnited StatesWorld Cup

Besler-Zusi Axis of SKC Loyalty-Legacy Represent

July 22, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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[Editor’s note: On the eve of Sporting KC’s expected destruction of Manchester City in a stateside friendly–booo, Nasri!!!!–Cameron Garrison, rabid SKC and AFC supporter, weighs in on his unbelievable happiness at USMNT Brazil 2014 standouts Matt Besler and Graham Zusi rejecting offers from England and abroad and staying put at the home of the MLS champions. Loyalty isn’t dead, the legacy is only beginning.]

So, Saturday.  What an AMAZING day for Kansas City and soccer in Kansas City.  It’s really difficult to overstate just how big Saturday was.  We have been fortunate to have a number of fantastic players during this 4-year run.  Many have moved on. Many have stayed. And we have been so successful because Vermes is so brilliant at replacing those that have gone.

But through it all, these two were THE guys. They were the heart and soul of the whole thing. Always.  As the WC approached, I was equal parts thrilled and terrified.  I knew that if they played well, we would probably lose them.  But I also knew that, if that happened,  I would be so proud to see them go.   They *are* SKC.conf

Then it happened. One played pretty well that first match  but had to leave at half because of a hamstring.  The other didn’t start, but he came on, they let him take the set pieces,  and he perfectly delivered the corner that Brooks turned into maybe the second or third most famous USMNT goal ever. The next game brought a masterpiece against Ronaldo, another assist, and I knew the dreams and nightmares were coming true. It was after Portugal that I first told myself that one, and likely both, were leaving. The next two games just reinforced that. When Brazil was over, I was SURE one was gone, and assumed the other was too.  I was already trying to mentally move on.

Then it kept dragging on more and more, and I allowed myself to dream a bit. But just a bit. It wasn’t until this past week that I began to think there was even a chance. And then on Saturday it happened:

@SportingKC: DONE DEAL! #SportingKC re-signs @mbesler and @gzusi to Designated Player contracts.

IT HAPPENED. They’re staying!!! With all those options in front of them, they chose to stay and keep this going. Out of all the choices, they chose to try and win ring after ring at Sporting Park.  This thing that has been so amazing for the last 4 years is going to remain that way for at least 4 more.  And I’ll get to be there for it all. And my son, who lives and dies with SKC, will be there with me. The sheer JOY on his face when I told him they were for sure staying is something I will never forget.

And then, for good measure, we went out and rolled the squad that won the last 2 titles before we took it last year.

I will never forget that day. I can’t possibly ever explain what this means in KC.  With all that we’ve been through with our sports the past couple decades.  Then we finally get a real team.  Then the city totally buys in…we give them our hearts and souls.  Then,  just when it seems like it’s all over, THIS happens.

So. Happy.

We love you Sporting, oh yes we do.

We love you Sporting and we’ll be true.

We will forever, bleed blue!

Oh Sporting we love you.

#NoOtherClubbesler

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Dictators and Soccer: The Junta, Argentina 1978, Disappearings, Match Fixing and Early Deity Era Maradona (Argentina)

July 11, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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The ruthless military junta that hosted the 1978 World Cup in Argentina lit the stage to maximum wattage and leveraged the spectacle to flashiest effect, by hook, crook and any means necessary. A world champion team would obviously cap that off, as would an obediently silent public and extermination of political enemies, so they duly made this winning trifecta come to pass. That it should happen to involve match rigging, bribery, bulldozing of shantytowns and villas miserias, “disappearing” tens of thousands of dissenters in abductions, incarcerations and torture, as well as forced relocation of squatters or any other huddled undesirable masses, so much the better. The junta hired a PR firm Burson-Marsteller to help improve the likeability of their public face, however. They weren’t completely oblivious to popular opinion.

[Editor’s note: The ongoing Dictators and Soccer series includes other installments on Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Hitler of Third Reich Germany, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre.]

imageThe generals had a three-point plan. Silence all dissent. Grease the wheels to first prize. Claim the glory as their own, a divine right along with the total subjugation of the people in their reign of terror. But the people would wear smiles for the cameras. Never mind that between 1976 and 1983 the junta brought about the death of 30,000 fellow Argentines. Or that as in Pinochet’s Chile, soccer stadiums sometimes doubled as temporary detention centers for political prisoners. One can understand why the world community might have issues with a World Cup in late-’70s Argentina.

But just like the devil may care of the cat burglar mustache on head junta big man General Jorge Videla, nicknamed the Pink Panther because of his overall look (but mostly the mustache and his stealthy lurk), it all went down, no matter what the moral authorities had to say about it. Exiles and human-rights organizations tried to organize a boycott from abroad, but missing out on the World Cup seemed too steep a price for most nations and no one delivered on their rhetoric when the time came.

Far outstripping an initial proposed budget of $100 million to $700 million, a mysterious murder transpired of the prime finance official days before the Dudley Doright planned to speak against the expenditure. The government conveniently blamed the murder on government dissidents, 30 of whom were found massacred the next day. The junta proceeded to spend big on the Mundial with no further interference. But just like that huge honking mustache on General Jorge Videla, the boldness of it was too obvious to fail to see–not to say they didn’t get away with it all. Only in the Plaza de Mayo did the mothers and grandmothers of the “disappeared” attract the cameras not trained in on the pitchside exploits. But mostly even the protests of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo went ignored.image

The junta cut funds for hospitals and schools, and allegedly (almost definitely) diverted them in part Peru to throw a critical game by at least 5 goals in last match of the semifinal group stage (different system from now). Arms, grain and $50 million in debt forgiveness sweetened a theoretical deal. The stakes? If Argentina won by more than 4 goals, arch-rival Brazil would see its tournament summarily terminated and Argentina in the finals. Peru lay down obediently to a 6-0 hiding. Allegedly, after the the fourth goal went in, a bomb detonated at the house of a minister who had criticized World Cup costs. Later, when ecstatic Argentinians flooded the street, toasting the generals presiding on high on the balcony of the presidential palace, the junta agreed as one “job well done,” money well spent.

To celebrate, the military provoked Chile over three small islands in the Beagle Channel that escalated to war, ended only by Vatican intervention. The event foreshadowed the attempted takeover of the Falklands which in turn brought the junta’s eventual downfall in 1983. The junta really should have stuck to match rigging, corruption and torture. Their track record with island military victories was abysmal. At the rest, they excelled.

imageIronically, considering Maradona’s later infamous drug busts, some players may also have been given illegal injections for the match. Insiders say Mario Kempes and Alberto Tarantini had to keep running after the match to wear off the excess effects and that a waterboy had to provide urine samples.

The Dutch team refused to shake hands with junta leader Jorge Videla after the Men’s World Cup final. He probably would have executed them all for their brazen disrespect but for all the damn cameras.

After the tournament, Maradona came on the scene. Controversially left off the 1978 team because he was too young (17), he captained the Argentine 1979 World Youth Cup team in Tokyo. Maradona exploded and brought the Cup back to Argentina in style. The junta had saturated state television with the Argentina victories, with an important exception. They’d censored all images of protest or anti-junta banners in the stands.

Upon his return, the junta paraded Maradona around, conscripted him into the army, sheared his hair and then–it seems laughable now–advised him to carry on in his capacity as a role model for Argentina’s youth. Maradona later claimed in his autobiography that he had no choice but to shake General Videla’s hand, and to be honest, at 18 he hadn’t developed the ego, waistline or godlike status he would later inhabit so profusely.

Videla either had no crystal ball, possessed an excellent sense of humor or just couldn’t see the weight gain, the coke, the prostitutes and the Che Guevara tattoo in that giant orb, or the classic future clip of him calling George W. Bush “human garbage.” Perhaps the mustache got in the way or scrambled reception.

Argentina made it to the semifinal group stage of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but crashed out with losses to Italy and Brazil. Any feel-good revival factor the junta may have hoped for in the shambles of the Falklands aftermath died then and there.

Maradona didn’t have a great tournament in 1982. But in Argentina, Maradona is a god. Therefore, he must have done it on purpose, as gods do. Therefore, Maradona toppled the junta singlehandedly. One Maradoninian hand can smite whole armies.

After the junta collapsed in 1983, Videla got sentenced to life his many human rights crimes, then pardoned by a later president, then re-sentenced for apparently illegally distributing babies of pregnant dissident women his thugs abducted. You normally think of a cat burglar junta leader as above black market adoption, but then did anyone ever really know Videla? The court ruled his former pardoning unconstitutional, regardless, the nasty baby snatcher. He eventually died in prison on May 17, 2013.

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GermanyHistory

Dictators and Soccer Short: Hitler Fandom Rejected by Schalke

July 10, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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Germany in the Brazil World Cup 2014 finals. The Brazilians are all rooting against the Argentinians, so there’s a core fan base. But then word gets out Hitler once supported the German national team. Then people bring up the old taboo of Nazis hiding out in Brazil and then counter allegations of Nazis in Argentina. Public opinion sways rapidly against Germany (amnesia or foolish forgetful forgiveness had set in at some point over the last 60 years) and the country’s PR department has to act fast.

[Editor’s note: The ongoing Dictators and Soccer series includes other installments on Kim Jong-il of North Korea, the Military Junta of Argentina, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre.]

The German spin doctors swiftly publish incontrovertible evidence that Hitler never actually supported the German side. Far from it. In fact, in the one known Fürher appearance at a soccer match, the 0-2 defeat to Norway at the Berlin Olympics, humiliation at his own doorstep, he left at halftime muttering one choice obscenity or other, a distasteful experience that put him off the sport for good.

This is fact. May the press conference enter into evidence Exhibit A. [[shuffled papers]]

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Fun fact about Adolf Hitler and soccer, also true (the PR machine and the German press conference, not true). Word on the street and a 1998 article “The 50 Worst Famous Football Fans” in The Times had it Adolf was a fan of Schalke 04, six-time German/Austrian champs during the Nazi era. Modern-day Schalke went so far as to launch an investigation and issue formal response that no photographic evidence whatsoever existed linking him at any club matches. The letter to The Times from Schalke PR is hilarious for the use of “bugger,” if nothing else. Exhibit B:

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Formal refutations of previous past unassailable der diktator fandom. Now that’s up-to-the-minute unpopularity.

CommentaryEuropeGermanySpainThe AmericasUnited StatesWorld Cup

Klinsmann, Rainforest Conditioning and the 1953 Hungarian Golden Team

June 17, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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[Extreme conditioning, cribbed from 1950s Communist Hungary? After last night’s 2-1 victory over Ghana in the coastal heat of Natal, that’s the ideal method for Klinsmann and the U.S. team as they stare down the barrel of the Ruffhouse in Manaus, heart of the Amazon, against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Enjoy the Cult Football at Large article here in excerpt or over at Vocativ.com.]

It’s no secret that the U.S. Men’s National Team is not a favorite going into the World Cup in Brazil. The media has panned the team’s chances, pointing to its unfavorable inclusion in Group G—what some call the Group of Death, with some justification. The U.S. faces three big opponents in the group: Ghana in Natal on June 16, Portugal in Manaus on June 22 and Germany in Recife on June 26. Ghana has knocked the U.S. out of two straight World Cups. Portugal boasts Cristiano Ronaldo—probably the best player in the world—and always shows up in big tournaments (semifinalists at the 2006 World Cup, and the 2008 and 2012 Euro Championships). And Germany reached the World Cup finals in 2002, and the semis 2006 and 2010.

What’s more, America will endure a travel itinerary of almost 9,000 miles between the three group stage matches, kicking off in the far northeast of the country, the heart of the rainforest, then back to the far northeast of the country. None of their games take place near base camp in São Paolo (where the team will return after each match), and all of them hug the most extreme equatorial heat and humidity zones of Brazil.

For the USMNT, there are a lot of factors they couldn’t control: group selection, World Cup layout, the humidity of the Amazon. But prepping for climate extremes, now there’s something that could have been addressed in training.

Way back in January, USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann organized a two-week training camp (of mainly Major League Soccer players) in air-conditioned, five-star facilities in São Paolo. The May training camp was in Stanford, California—hardly known for oppressive conditions. The team then played friendlies in California and New Jersey before confronting some actual humidity in Jacksonville, Florida, against Nigeria (Ghana’s neighbor and stylistic analogue) and winning 2-1.

If he really wanted to prepare his players, Klinsmann should have sent them to the Amazon, confiscated their passports and stranded them in the 80 percent humidity of the rainforest. To acclimatize, players need to swelter for long stretches, training in the muggiest midday heat available, rather than being strapped to electrodes in climate-controlled sports laboratories. Live in huts, not hotels. Yoga, but Bikram. Pull on the humidity like a second skin. The World Cup commences and the players leap through the gate as if on endorphin rushes, ripping through defenses at top speed.

So now what the U.S. needs is an alternate plan—and preferably an out-of-nowhere checkmate. Klinsmann could steer the USMNT out of its hellish World Cup group in Brazil and into the knockout stages, provided he gets dictatorial at the helm. He just needs to incorporate some Cold War Communist management tactics and perhaps jam some treadmills into the sauna.

***

Jürgen Klinsmann had a clinical soccer pedigree. He won German footballer of the year in 1988 and set controls for world domination. He won the World Cup with West Germany in 1990, the 1996 European Championships with unified Germany and two UEFA (Union of European Football Association) Cups—one with Internazionale and one with Bayern Munich. As a player, he barked orders like any authoritative striker, and his stats gave him automatic street cred.

As a manager, Klinsmann led Germany to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, and later managed Bayern Munich, only to fall out with the board. His “führer factor” had come under question due to his relentless optimism, yoga advocacy and his residency in Southern California. People sometimes doubted the tanned man in après-ski casual could be the cold-blooded dictator fans expect in a coach.

But when you don’t have superior force (as is the case with his current U.S. squad) psychological warfare and conditioning are your two best hopes. The horse has bolted on conditioning, but regarding mind games and subterfuge, Klinsmann may yet have some chops. Klinsmann goosed Cristiano Ronaldo a good half-year ahead of the World Cup in the FIFA Ballon d’Or voting. When ballot choices became public, people saw that Klinsmann had not only left Ronaldo off his list, but he also nominated his nemeses: Franck Ribery, who deprived Ronaldo of the UEFA player of the year award; the “New Ronaldo,” Gareth Bale—Real Madrid teammate and therefore enemy within; and Radamel Falcao from the smaller club in Madrid that knocked Real out of last year’s Copa del Rey, and handed the team its first city derby loss in 14 years.

The devious placement of the World Cup qualifying match versus Costa Rica in high elevation Colorado in March 2013—and the ensuing snowpocalypse against the group rival in zero-visibility blizzard—was another example, and showed some promising diabolical tendencies. Finding a way to present Ronaldo with a mirror palace built in the jungle would prove an even bigger coup; like Narcissus trapped by the beauty of his image, Ronaldo might miss training sessions or group stage matches entirely.

But yet, Klinsmann brought 26 American players to Brazil in January and let them all leave. That was his biggest mistake. Jürgen should have embraced his inner Iron Curtain coach; in particular, his inner Gusztáv Sebes. By cribbing from the 1953 Hungarian Golden Team’s shocking 6-3 victory at fortress Wembley, and the autocratic advance measures Sebes took in adaptation prep, Klinsmann could have concocted a modern-day heat-tolerance strategy to get America into the knockouts.

***

Back in newly nationalized 1949 Hungary, the Ministry of Defense appropriated the Budapest-area Honvéd team as the army team, whereupon Sebes, as deputy minister of sport, installed himself as coach, appropriated the team for international competition purposes and started conscripting the best players in the country to Honvéd. Conveniently, the club already possessed the deadly left foot of star player Ferenc Puskás, who went on to score 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary (357 in 354 games for Honvéd).

Honvéd doubled as club side and national team, winning the league title five times between 1949 and 1955. It shared trophies with MTK Budapest, the secret service team, because even a ranking deputy minister doesn’t provoke the secret police unnecessarily. MTK also held the final key players for when the operation went full Voltron into the aggregate entity, the Aranycsapat (the Golden Team).

Emerging from the darkest days of Stalinist repression, the Golden Team (also known as the Magical Magyars) fused full-court pressure with fluid interchangeability of roles, a precursor to 1970s Dutch total football. Sebes subjected his national team to a full-time fitness and dietary regimen to ensure their conditioning would deliver high tempo for the full 90 minutes—they were Communist soldiers, after all. (The English media called Puskás, in actuality a lieutenant colonel, the “Galloping Major.”) Sebes focused on technique across the board, so players could change position seamlessly, scoring at will.

After the Golden Team won the Olympics in 1952, England, which historically held up its nose at foreign opposition—having codified the rules 90 years previous, cementing their superiority—deigned to invite the actual world No. 1 team to play at the vaunted Empire Stadium at Wembley. England had never lost to continental opposition at home, and a wet late-November day would offer classic English home turf conditions. England needed a boost. After having declined part in any of the first three World Cups, they got dumped out of their first, the 1950 World Cup, in a stunning 1-0 loss to the lowly U.S. team, which did not qualify for another for 40 years.

Here’s where Klinsmann could have learned a thing or two. As if marshaling forces for something outlandish (you know, like a match in a rainforest), Sebes prepared for the 1953 match against England by importing every aspect of English football to Budapest. He resized a training pitch to the exact oversized dimensions of the Wembley field. He considered the different-style English leather ball that got waterlogged as the game went on; especially with the all-English conditions of a cold, wet November day, it would take on weight quickly. Sebes obtained some English soccer balls and instituted training with them on the replica pitch immediately. He also compelled opposition players in the league to play in an “English style,” in order that the team get used to the different formation the British employed.

Sebes tested the English ball as the match ball in a slightly concerning 2-2 draw with Sweden 10 days before the so-called Match of the Century. A final calibration of shot settings with the gradually heavier ball, in a 18-0 blowout against a patsy Renault factory worker side in France, got Hungary fully acclimated. And on the day at Wembley, Hungary scored within the first minute and destroyed England 6-3. Six months later at the return fixture in Budapest, Hungary inflicted an even more brutal 7-1.

Famously, no Communist nation has ever won the World Cup. Hungary won the Olympics in 1952 and dominated the 1954 World Cup tournament, including a group stage 8-3 rout of West Germany, until suffering a crushing loss to those same Germans 2-1 in the final. (But, somehow, not the same Germans–a totally different lineup, as if the Germans had initially played possum.)

Although Hungary’s Golden Team scored a World Cup record 27 goals in the tournament, logged the famous 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England and went 31 straight games unbeaten between 1950 and 1956, they lost that crucial match in 1954. They’re called the best team to never win a World Cup, though the Dutch team of the 70s also has a claim on that title. In 1956, the Soviets invaded to crush an uprising against Communist rule, and Puskás and several others defected while Honvéd toured South America on exhibition. After that, the national team slowly disintegrated.

Imagine Jürgen had stationed his players in Manaus ever since that January training camp, and all the clubs, agents, sponsors and litigators had miraculously allowed this to happen. Not in plush São Paulo, but in maximum acclimation Manaus—capital of the rainforest. The players willingly submitted to six months straight of Amazonian boot camp, with full focus on their Arena da Amazônia showdown with Portugal, the Ruffhouse in Manaus. Jaunts to the marginally less oppressive coastal Natal and Recife would have seemed like destination vacations. While Cristiano banged in all the goals in Spain and the Champions League, posed in various stages of nudity for magazine covers and photo spreads, and opened a museum about himself in his own honor, U.S. players would have explored new realms of heat exhaustion and emerged reformed, rebuilt and steeled for heat-tolerance in the group stage and beyond.  …

Full article: The Communist Guide to Winning at Soccer  at Vocativ.com

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The Real Group of Death

June 12, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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[Editor’s note: The good folks at Vocativ.com asked for an article on the Real Group of Death, and Rob from the Cult Football crew gave it his take. Check out the excerpt below and the full article on the Vocativ site. Another article on Klinsmann and lessons to learn from the Hungarian Golden Team of 1953 to follow.]

Fans salivate over the Group of Death that every World Cup inevitably thrusts upon unlucky heavy hitters cage-matched in the same group. This year, however, regional factions are debating which group qualifies as the real Group of Death for Brazil 2014.

American media says Group G—Germany (FIFA rank: 2), Portugal (4), the U.S. (13) and Ghana (38)—holds the title, hands down. In England, tabloid headlines sound a different alarm: English Premier League high-scorer (and convicted biter) Luis Suárez leads Uruguay (7) with canines bared against Italy (9), England (10) and Costa Rica (28) in Group D. But the real Group of Death, in our humble opinion, features a rematch of the 2010 final and allows no margin for error.

The insidious nature of Group B means that coming second equates to a stay of execution. In fact, think of Group B as having only one actual qualifying spot. Spain (1), Chile (14), the Netherlands (15) and Australia (62) will all have to bare-knuckle for first, because the group runner-up plays the winner of Group A, and as sure as Pelé talks about himself in the third person, Brazil will top its group.

You could argue that Brazil winning isn’t a sure thing, but consider this: Host countries almost always perform over the odds, and Brazil is already a super heavyweight. The team has the goal-scoring exploits of Golden Boot contender Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (Zenit St. Petersburg) and even defenders like Dani Alves (Barcelona).

Host nations have won five of the 19 World Cups. In recent years, France won France 1998, South Korea got to the semis of South Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany reached the semis at Germany 2006. Anything less than a Brazil World Cup victory will amount to a national tragedy—not unlike the 1950 final in which Brazil lost to Uruguay in the dying minutes on home soil, one of the darkest days in the nation’s collective memory, even 64 years later. Desperate to rectify that loss, the Seleção need no motivation.

What our position comes down to, essentially, is that the other groups saddled with the Group of Death label will still send on two teams to live another day. So while Group D has three top-10 teams, Italy will take the top spot, leaving Uruguay and England with an eminently dispatchable Costa Rica and a fair fight between themselves. Uruguay barely qualified for the World Cup; England bottles it at big tournaments. May the best team win.

All four teams in Group G would normally emerge from their group, but Germany could potentially win the tournament, and a Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo fundamentally has the firepower to progress even if the defense leaks goals. Still, both the U.S. and Ghana have the quality to beat Portugal, so ultimately after a fair fight, the best two progress from a tough group.

In Group B, however, either Spain, Chile and the Netherlands will miss out, and then one lucky non-loser must play Brazil. So after Brazil likely slaughters Croatia June 12 amidst the opening day pandemonium, Spain and Holland face off in Group B—two returning finalists drawn in the group stage for the first time. And those two progress, yes? Not so fast. … [continued]

Full article: The Real Group of Death (Vocativ.com)