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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.

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)

CommentaryEngland

Liverpool, Awoken from a Dream into a Dream

May 8, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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On the eve of the final weekend of the 2013/2014 Premier League season, we’d like to thank Bryan Belyea, heart-on-sleeve Liverpool supporter, for breaking it down and sharing his thoughts on the heels of Liverpool’s crushing draw with Crystal Palace on Monday night, when the fairytale title challenge may have faltered at the last.

What to make of Monday night? Pain, disappointment, nausea.

Having time to reflect I pondered why does this hurt so bad?

Who likes being slapped in the face whilst in the midst of a beautiful dream?  Being slapped by reality. The reality we all knew was lingering over our heads amidst this improbable title run. The reality that a team that panics in defense the way we do under pressure has no business making a title run. Yet our beautiful dream went on for so long that we thought it was becoming reality. That despite our fatal flaws we were going to make the impossible possible. We were going to shirk all the doubt and give those that have suffered so much for 25 years a little joy. Our captain was going to get the last feather in his cap that he so richly deserved after years of spilling his blood and guts for the team. A city beaten by economic turmoil was once again going to be home of the league champions.

The loss to Chelsea made us feel desperate. desperate to make the dream come true. Cruising along up 3-0 to Palace we persisted with the urgency of that desperation. The desperation created naivety. Naivety to our fatal flaw. That if left exposed our defense could be cut to shreds.And so it happened.. Palace made it 3-1. But we were still desperate. Desperate to overturn a large goal differential in the title race. So we pressed on with our naive urgency, forgetting about the critical 3 points we needed. Then it happened again… so quickly… 3-2. Now we finally realized what broth we were conjuring… the points were in danger now. But now our flaw was there once again for all to see… a defense shaken… was now shaking. Under pressure like this all season our defense has panicked. Panic begets mistakes. Mistakes provide the unavoidable. 3-3. The blood drained from the supporters in a collective flash flood. Silence. Confusion. That lost feeling of being slapped awake while in the midst of the most beautiful dream.

Now what? We are awake in reality now. Sobering reality. But as the pain subsides and the brain can start making sense of it all we still find ourselves in a place that is amazing given where we started from. If I told you in August that we would be where we are you would have told me that I was dreaming. The best we could hope for was a valiant run at 4th and if we finished 5th with good effort it would be the growth we needed. Yet here we are. Awake in a dream still. A dream that has become reality. The dream that would see Liverpool once again vying for titles. Qualifying for Europe’s most prestigious competition. No playing to get in. Direct qualification for the group stages of the Champions league. European nights at Anfield on the horizon. Money to spend on the 1st team for the summer. Transfer targets being drawn to beautiful attacking football and European competition. And lastly… still hope. Still a chance… a chance at the title. Could Agbonlahor or Carroll become legends to us? Could they now make our biggest dream a reality?!  Who knows? Anything is possible this season. A season in which we have been awoken from a dream into a dream.

No matter what… We HAVE dreams and songs to sing. Of the glory, round the fields of Anfield Road.