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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.]

CommentaryEnglandTactics

Winning Ugly: Mourinho Style

April 6, 2015 — by Sanibel

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Like a Wes Anderson film or a Kurt Vonnegut book, Mourinho’s teams have a distinct and recognizable style. They’re known to “park the bus” and happily take a 1-0 win. His forwards are fully expected to track back and anyone unwilling to do so will be sold (Mata’s fate) unceremoniously. Mourinho’s style has become full-blown at Chelsea where it was only nascent and semi-developed at his earlier clubs. Unsurprisingly, some scoff that it wants for aesthetic pleasure.

There are two basic storylines for a Chelsea under Mourinho (part II) win. First: Score early, play complacently, allow an equalizer, score a last gasp winner. Second: eighty-five minutes without scoring, frustratingly large number of corners that amount to nothing, jammy goal right before stoppage time.

Chelsea’s recent league match against Hull City was met with disapproval and classified as a typical Chelsea skin-of-their-teeth win. The disapproval is born of a belief that only beautiful football deserves to win. It’s a debate that will never die, but a win is a win. Mourinho can opt to stay out of the debate while he surveys the league from the top of the table.

park the bus

Mourinho’s style is tried and true in all sports. Tennis’ Brad Gilbert wrote a book on it called Winning Ugly. Displays of skill and dazzling footwork do not yield goals worth more than a gruff Ivanovich header, right? Mourinho is utterly rational and pays no heed to those who romanticize sport as art to his denigration.

Sure, Chelsea is capable of creating moments of beauty–but it’s hardly known for them. In fact, a recently lauded moment was the goal produced by Terry and Cahill, scored by Ivanovich. You can imagine that this was not a Maradona beautiful goal–but it was “Chelsea beautiful”. The goal was exemplary of Chelsea’s singular brand of Mourinho football, in which forwards can defend with skill and defenders can score spectacularly.

You shouldn’t expect a 5-0 rollicking of Hull if you know how Chelsea plays. Mourinho’s squad relies on good defense, which is heavily dependent on all of the field players tracking back. This keeps opponents from scoring as frequently as they might otherwise, but it also prevents a greater quantity of goal scoring opportunities. The score lines are accordingly prosaic, with only three relatively high-scoring league matches this season.

The match against Hull should not be used as evidence that Chelsea doesn’t deserve their top spot. They have consistently prevailed using the ‘winning ugly’ technique Mourinho has instilled in all of his players. Sometimes we forget that the beauty of the beautiful game is incidental. The late David Foster Wallace said it best, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”

 

 

 

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.

Champions LeagueCommentaryEnglandEuropeGermany

My Kingdom for a Shin Pad: Dortmund Daytrippin’

September 18, 2014 — by Tyler

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Aw, c’mon guys. Why so glum? We ripped Besiktas apart, 1-0, over two games! We beat Crystal Palace, 2-1–but it was at the Emirates! 17th place Crystal Palace! And Red Bulls! Wait, we lost to the freaking Red Bulls? On the bright side, we face Aston Villa on the road in a few days. 2nd place, undefeated Aston Villa. No sweat.

WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!?

Arsenal has seen worse Champions League losses for sure. But yesterday kind of felt like that competition’s version of the 8-2 at Old Trafford a few years ago. Gibbs looked pretty decent yesterday. And Ox, for that 30 minutes he played, was great. But one of those two will be hurt by October, so don’t get too excited. Szczesny kept it from being 4-0 or 5-0 (but so did Dortmund’s serial diver, Mkhitaryan, with his repeated shots off target). Yet even the Arsenal keeper couldn’t stay focused, almost caught by an onrushing Dortmunder whilst getting cute with the ball at his feet. I guess the away/Cup uniforms did okay. But only okay! Everyone and everything else, from the manager to the players’ equipment, just stunk up the joint. I guess after nearly ten years with no losses in Germany, it was bound to happen eventually. It’s a German kinda year anyway.

The manager, courtesy of the official team website, summarized the entire game quite eloquently as he explained the first goal. Try not to laugh:

“We had still three against one at the back and that’s still difficult to understand how we conceded the goal. It’s true that we lost the ball 80 metres from our goal but after that I think there were enough people to stop the goal.” Ha. I said don’t laugh!

In a game with many keystone cops in shades of blue, the sheriff had to be, conveniently, a German. The game was perfectly epitomized by Podolski being unable to find one of his shin pads only minutes before being subbed in, after warming up for much of the second half with no shin pads on. (Keep calm! Turns out he’d simply posted the shin pad on Twitter from the locker room at halftime.) Real pro-quality stuff. Game faces were worn yesterday, for sure. I don’t know what was more hilarious, exasperating, and embarrassing, the length of time Poldi was shown on camera looking for the elusive pad, or the almost disgusted manner with which Ozil removed one of his and tossed it at him. Lukas, didn’t your mom ever tell you that if you don’t keep track of your shin pads, you’ll have to wear a sweaty, used one as punishment? (There is one consolation, and it consists of imagining the thoughts of Aaron Ramsey, who had a front row seat for viewing the shin pad escapade, seated between Ozil and the frantic Podolski. Imagining the exchange in German, or in English with thick German accents, either way, is hilarious. It was a surreal night, indeed.)

At this point, we will pause the rant so that you can Google “Podolski shin pad pics”. By now you’ll have done this and learned that there are at least four pictures of four different pairs of shin pads available for viewing within seconds. Each shin pad of each pair of shin pads clearly says “Poldi” in various large fonts as designed by the respective sponsors. I suppose it’s fitting that on this day, the guy who loves to be any place where there is a camera, who loves Germany almost as much as Germany loves him, who was nearly transferred from his club this summer because there is just something about him that doesn’t click for his manager, who has his name in large letters printed on his shin pads, was shown in front of a worldwide audience in Dortmund just prior to entering a game which might push him up the pecking order if he could help engineer a comeback, looking for his lost shin pad. When it rains, it pours.

And subbing him in for the shockingly rusty (or just downright poor) Arteta with only 12 minutes to play? Professor, what kind of go-for-broke risk-taking was that? It’s a six-game home and away group stage where goals for and against might make a huge difference. So as the chances of merely pulling even quickly faded, Arsene got super crafty. Like, so crafty that even he might have had a glass of wine after the game and seriously pondered why he doesn’t play fantasy or FIFA more often. He took out our normally solid-tacking, smart-passing, traffic-directing, well-positioned, protector of the defense, our captain, and replaced him with the best shooter on the team… who has played 14 of 360 minutes in the league season so far. (Did you know that he couldn’t even find his shin pad?) It wasn’t necessarily a bad move, as Podolski has scored for Arsenal in Germany before. But he didn’t appear to slot in next to or behind Welbeck. It actually looked like the German took over in Arteta’s position for at least a few minutes. Brilliant! Klopp surely wasn’t expecting that.

But imagine that perhaps Podolski was in reality the only defensive option Arsenal had available in Germany yesterday. It’s not hard to do. At 2-0 down, with nearly every player behaving as if it were his first professional match, in the scary witch’s large, boiling, black pot–“cauldron” is so overused–that is Dortmund, I think closing up shop might have been a good idea in the 77th minute. (This wasn’t what happened, for Arsene will always try to get a goal back rather than prevent more goals. But let’s just say that he wanted to shore up the defense.) Imagine that he looked up and down his bench and decided not on [Jenkinson-on loan and injured/Debuchy-didn’t make the trip because he’s injured/Monreal-didn’t make the trip because he’s injured!/Flamini-didn’t make the trip because he’s injured?/Chambers-did make the trip but was eating raspberry sorbet on the bench–with a shin pad marked “Poldi”, as there aren’t any spoons in Dortmund, you sissyfrau!–because his tonsils were on fire/Vermaelen-because Wenger is either too uncompromising or too nice, never in between, and in this case he was the latter and now Vermaelen’s gone, and probably about to be injured in Barcelona]. I guess it’s fathomable that he could have needed a defender and said, “Le fuck it. Poldi, you’re a defender now. Please pad up.”

Regarding the injuries, the manager again spoke to the official website. This isn’t taken from 2011, 2012, or 2013. Nope, it was yesterday’s post-match interview:

“Jack Wilshere has turned his ankle, it’s difficult to say how bad it is because I am a bit cautious, normally it’s not very bad but because of his history I’m a bit cautious. Apart from that no player I took off was injured.” Double-ha. This is getting so old that it’s not funny, because it was already so old that it was funny, after it was so old that it wasn’t funny anymore.

That should be enough to sum up the game. But there is also the slightly depressing fact that, including the Man City game, Welbeck has missed the goal on at least four occasions when plenty of strikers [Theo-didn’t make the trip due to injury/Giroud-didn’t make the trip due to injury/Sanogo-okay, he would have missed/Campbell-hmmm?/Podolski-shin pad] would have put it in the net. Not easy goal scoring opportunities, but great opportunities nonetheless, which must be capitalized on at this level, against this level of competition. This would be a pill more easily swallowed if it weren’t for the fact that the word on Welbeck prior to his transfer, from just about everyone, was that he just needs to work on his finishing.

At least there is the new formation! Ah, the 4-1-4-1. Wenger hasn’t tried that one yet, so why not! With Ramsey now a household name, Wilshere finally free from injury (prior to yesterday, that is), and two pricey, world-class signings, why not try something new that leaves them all running around confused and switching places? The tactic is meant to get the most of the box-to-box capabilities of the two British midfielders, and not consign the German or the Chilean to the bench. The main problem with this, aside from all the running around looking confused and occasionally getting each others ways, is that things worked quite flippin’ well when Ramsey sat deep with Arteta, made charging runs forward, and sprinted back to make tackles. And perhaps that might have been helpful on the road in Dortmund. Maybe? You know, the stuff that worked really well last year? Though it’s early, the formation is already enough to make one wonder if Ramsey and Wilshere are the new Lampard and Gerrard: can they both occupy the center of the midfield and succeed as individuals as well as teammates? What if they both occupy the center of the midfield while a German phenom mopes around and a Chilean constantly dribbles into much larger men? But honestly, does anyone know what formation Arsenal actually played against Dortmund yesterday? I don’t, but I think it involved decimals.

For me the biggest problem with the formation is that for two enormous games in a row, Santi Cazorla started on the bench. The little wizard, soon to be heading into the twilight of his career at Arsenal simply because of his proximity to 30, is just too valuable to leave on the bench. He dribbles, he slows the game down at the right time, he buys time for teammates to get into better positions, he passes on a dime from any distance, with both feet, and he scores FA Cup comeback inspiring free kicks and sometimes other pretty goals. With both feet!

Of course, Cazorla on the bench is less a result of the new formation and more the consequence of so many great attackers in one team. But I think he needs to be in there. True, having so much attacking talent at one’s disposal is, as the saying goes, “a good problem to have”. What it isn’t is a cute way of finding unique defensive cover. And it is also, thankfully, not my problem.

So, nowhere to go from here but up. Maybe it’s best to have gotten the most difficult game out of the way while the team is still settling, then spank ’em good in the return leg. Eh, why not not. Countless ways to remain positive.

Yes, I think Welbeck will score crucial goals of varying degree of difficulty. Yes, Arsenal will weather this injury crisis (because let’s face it, in the dictionary under Arsenal it says “injury crisis”). Yes, the players will start clicking. Yes, Ozil will finish the season on the bench. (Look, I like him; it’s just a prediction, and if it’s for the best then so be it. I’d love to be proved wrong. We still have Theo coming back very soon, and if everyone is healthy then there will have to be some serious talent left on the bench this year.)

Yes, Arsenal lost to a very good team yesterday. Yes, Arsenal will finish in the top four. Yes, Arsenal will once again get out of the Champions League group stage, making it harder on ourselves than we should.

Yes, I’m exaggerating my annoyance at yesterday’s game for the sake of ranting, and I’m ranting for the sake of enjoying my own words. Yes, I will surely change my viewpoints multiple times this season. Yes, I will contradict myself before I finish writing this.

Yes, I’m a Gooner. Yes, I trust Arsene. I don’t really have any other choice, do I? Besides, it’s just boring to do things the easy way. We are Arsenal, and our shin pads don’t always match.

CommentaryDispatchesUnited States

Feeling friendly: 5 goals in 60 minutes

August 11, 2014 — by Tyler

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It’s not the name of a motivational seminar. It was another sprint to Denver and back for the sake of the game. In 2013 there was the U.S./Costa Rica blizzard bowl. Today was the haul-ass that was Manchester United/AS Roma. The tickets were a birthday gift from family, and it was a worthy spectacle in terms of cost and effort.

My sister and I agreed to meet at a parking lot at 1:15 so that we would have ample time to walk over to Sports Authority Field at Mile High, and you’d think we would have the logistics down by now. We both left our homes in different cities, we figured we’d given ourselves enough time, and each of us was late for the 2PM kickoff. She was late to the meeting place but early enough that she’d have gotten into the game with plenty of time, if it weren’t for the fact that I was much later. Some days the trip to Denver is an hour. Today it was two, and my trip was more special than usual this time. The clogged interstate is nothing new, as are the inevitable rear endings when traffic stops and starts. This afternoon, I had the pleasure of being the furthest car back in a three-car chain reaction. We all pulled over and got out, shook hands, agreed that while I was considered at fault in such situations (for following too closely), I was also the only one with any damage to my vehicle. It lasted five minutes. No harm, no foul, and we got in our cars and kept moving.

I found my sister and we hustled to the stadium on foot. It was already 2:15 when I parked, but there were plenty of other latecomers who had likely been stuck in traffic as well. We approached the steps and were met by men with clear plastic bags for my sister to transfer the contents of her purse. That was a new development, which we later learned is something now done at NFL stadiums. (Warning to any of you who plan to attend an American football game in the future: this sucked.) The catch is that anyone with a bag bigger than a baby’s fist must turn in the bag to a bag check station, and then walk around the game with the contents of said bag displayed for all the world to see in one of the clear plastic bags. At least the clear bags were free, but I can imagine a fee being imposed soon enough. At the bag check there were signs: “No weapons. No marijuana.” What about opium? No time for clarification.

We entered, found our seats, and the game already had progressed to the 30-minute mark. My family had come through with some decent tickets, though. They couldn’t have planned it as well as it turned out, but they turned out to be pretty good indeed. We were in the corner, but in the 8th row. For the next hour, we’d see five goals end up in the net at our end of the field. Not bad at all.

I don’t like United. I really don’t like United. But I’m learning to respect Rooney, at least in neutral games. I definitely can’t be mad at Mata, and I’m fine with Wellbeck and Valencia. Others on the team I’m not so fond of, and others more aren’t really worth the emotion or have recently departed. The scoring started just as we sat down, and those familiar United faces were making it look easy. We chatted while watching, I didn’t catch much in the way of tactics but I rarely do anyway, and our timing turned out to be pretty darn good. Rooney scored with a nice floater from the edge of the box into the upper left of the goal, and we’d barely had a chance to figure out if all the fans in attendance were United fans or if it just seemed that way because they were sitting all around us.

The next 15 minutes saw Rooney drop a nicely lobbed pass right in front of Mata for an easy dink into the net, and Rooney completed his brace by converting a penalty. Halftime, and with it came three advertisements on the big screen, all for United. Two of them were identical, played right at the start and again at the end of the break, and they looked like they were corporate ads. That wasn’t the intention, or maybe it was, but that was the feel of the ads. They featured players “training” indoors, doing a conditioning work, perhaps? They featured a good amount Giggs and van Persie, so maybe the ads were for skilled nursing facilities for all I know. Players were shown getting in shape while messages flashed on the screen. “Teamwork.” “Development.” “Religious Symbolism of Gothic Cathedral Sculptures.” “CHEVEROLET!!!” Hell, I don’t know what they said, but it was bizarre. Gag. What, still no opium?

The second half featured the predictable substitutions, like that sissy pants Ashley Young. I used to like that guy until he turned. And then I noticed the very obvious absence of mismatching pink and turquoise Puma footwear. Adios, World Cup. We chatted, United’s 8th-string keeper Amos shanked passes out of bounds and screamed at his own players for not having the forethought to know he was going to kick the balls out, and I laughed. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, the ball went flying more than half the length of the field, over Amos’ head, and into the same goal we were sitting near. What the hell was that? Fans took to their feet and roared, and it became clear that if you weren’t for United today, you were against United.

Pjanic’s 70-yard strike was hilarious to see on the big screen replays. Poor Amos. By the 60th minute, the large Spanish-speaking contingent of United fans had struck up yet another “Chicharito” chant, the (Mexican?) wave passed us by a couple times and eventually we joined in by throwing our hands up each time even if we didn’t stand when it went past. Too cool for that! At far at the other end of the field, the best 12th, 13th, and 14th man in soccer started warming up, which caused the expected reaction among the fans. I can’t hate on him either. As a matter of fact, I have a feeling there isn’t a single person on earth that doesn’t like Hernandez, regardless of who he plays for. Poor guy can’t get a start. He was clearly going to see some action, but first the crowd cheered for a different reason.

Enter Totti. Very cool. I don’t watch Serie A, but I suddenly felt like there was finally a superstar on the field. No disrespect to United (ahem, for now), but there was freaking Totti. We had ample Totti in our corner toward the end of the game, and it seemed like a good time to take some pictures. Hey, no disrespect for United (ahem, for now), but I don’t need any of those guys taking up memory in my phone. My phone takes star pics only, bitch, and Giggs was too far away on the coaches bench to warrant any attempts until now. I got a few Totti pics, and eventually my sister realized his name wasn’t “Toiti”.

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Blurry Totti

Another observation, which always catches me off guard when I get a chance to see top level players from a closer distance: some of these guys are pretty thick. Valencia looked like he could bench at least two and a half Amos, and Totti had the whole Sylvester Stallone can’t-keep-arms-down-at-sides-because-too-huge thing going on. He took the armband when he took the field, not by waiting for the exiting Roma player to remove it from his own arm, but by ripping the guy’s arm clean from its socket. He then turned toward the crowd while holding the bloody stump outward, then thumped his own chest with the lifeless hand of his teammate as the crowd roared, “Maximus! Maximus!”

A small band of dedicated Rome-ite fans just behind the nearby goal made as much noise as they could whenever the Rome-ite subs passed during their warmups. “Is that why they run all the way over there?” my sister asked, clearly implying, so they can have someone in the stadium cheering for them? Then the place erupted. Chicharito was on, and with him came one of several opportunities for me to be bothered by so much of the United fan presence and then calm down and remind myself that it’s just an exhibition match. Dominated by Chevy branding.

Eventually I noticed a lot of booing whenever a Romish defender touched the ball. I couldn’t see clearly, but I figured it was the player responsible for bringing down what appeared to be United’s large, center forward halftime sub whose name I don’t need to know. There were howls from the crowd for a penalty midway through the second half, but United were denied their second chance from the spot and the ref gave them a free kick just outside the box. The booing of the culprit continued and then it hit me: they were booing Roma’s new left piece of poop, Ashley Cole. I have a feeling there isn’t a single person on earth that likes that guy. Too bad he was as far from our seats as any player could possibly be. I would have un-photographed him. I don’t know what that is or how to do it, but it’s very disrespectful.

There was a flurry of activity as Roma tried in vain to narrow the margin. Crosses dropped in the box and we were treated to a bit of a frenzy right in front of us, even a nice shot cracking against the United post and a beauty of a Romium half-volley a few yards to the right of goal. But to no avail. Eventually, Totti brought his team within one more goal, courtesy of a penalty awarded after the ref deliberated for about five seconds, clearly swayed by frantic Italian hand gestures. (It was easy to see how he was persuaded, for Italians very rarely employ hand gestures when speaking.) The ball had smacked a United defender’s hand in the box, the call seemed accurate enough for a friendly, and Totti put it in the net from the spot. The goal was followed good amount of respectful applause for the national and club talisman. It was a nice moment.

The game ended, and we beat it from our seats before the United players’ slow victory lap reached our corner of the stadium. While that wretchworthy annoyance was developing, some Romulan subs were subjected to some light sprints by one of their coaches. It was a strange sight, and with many of the reported 54,000 in attendance remaining to applaud United, it felt like kind of a haves versus the have-nots moment. I really don’t like United. Really, really.

We left the stadium and stood in line for at least half an hour in order to retrieve my sister’s bag. There were no less than five Denver police officers standing there, making absolutely sure that the bag checkers caused as much confusion and delay as possible. Five cops, serving and protecting by monitoring a bag check. Well, what else should they do?–half the city is stoned anyway. I think their badges said “Chevy”. I passed the time by turning to watch small packs of United fans passing by while chanting–three hordes in total, comprised of between four and ten fans each time, not really conjuring up proof that they root for the most popular sports team on the planet–and looking through my pictures. Turns out I got a smidge of Kagawa and a dash of Nani stuck in my phone. Eh, those guys are also all right in my book. I swear I don’t like United.

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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Commentary

Historical Context For The Latest Luis Suarez Bite: Mauro Tassotti & Luis Enrique at the 1994 World Cup

June 25, 2014 — by Suman

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With the latest Luis Suarez biting incident (which is a remarkable sentence) dominating World Cup discussion today, let’s provide a bit of historical context. As is being mentioned in some news reports today about the possible repercussions for Suarez, the longest ban FIFA has given for a World Cup incident was the 8-match ban given to Italy’s Mauro Tassotti after he broke Luis Enrique’s nose with a vicious elbow in the 1994 quarterfinals. Let’s go to the video:

It can be argued that Tassotti’s elbow was clearly a much more dangerous action than Suarez’s (cf the discussion on yesterday’s Guardian World Cup Football Daily pod).

Via Enrique’s wikipedia page:

In the 1–2 quarter-final defeat against Italy, Mauro Tassotti’s elbow made contact with [Enrique’s] face to bloody effect, the action being of such impact that he reportedly lost a pint of blood as a result, but during the match the incident went unpunished – Tassotti was banned for eight games afterwards, and never played internationally again; when Spain met Italy at Euro 2008 on 22 June, to battle for a place in the semi-finals, Luis Enrique reportedly called for the team to “take revenge” on Italy for the 1994 World Cup incident. Tassotti, now an assistant coach at A.C. Milan, told Marca newspaper that he was tired of always being reminded of this incident, and that he had never intended to hurt the Spaniard.

Asides: Enrique is of course the new Barcelona manager, and among the Spain players in that video is Miguel Ángel Nadal, Rafa’s uncle (nickname: The Beast of Barcelona (<–interview with Sid Lowe published 11 Sept 2001) and the infamous Andoni Goikoetxea (nickname: The Butcher of Bilbao).  Reminders perhaps that the beautiful game was much more vicious in previous decades than it is today.