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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


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.]

Champions LeagueCommentaryEnglandEuropeGermany

My Kingdom for a Shin Pad: Dortmund Daytrippin’

September 18, 2014 — by Tyler


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.


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.


Dictators and Soccer Short: Hitler Fandom Rejected by Schalke

July 10, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


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

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

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

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



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



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

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Klinsmann, Rainforest Conditioning and the 1953 Hungarian Golden Team

June 17, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


[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]

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

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The Real Group of Death

June 12, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


[Editor’s note: The good folks at 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 (

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Giroud Joins Arsenal, Ditches Nasri in Polkraine

June 27, 2012 — by Rob Kirby


All non-German Arsenal players exited the Euro 2012 tournament at the quarters, so no more Tomáš Rosický, no more Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott or even new signing Olivier Giroud, the 6’3 striker who scored the most goals in the Ligue 1 with Montpellier this past season. Giroud knows what it feels like to win titles and scores goals. The experience can only contribute promisingly to the operations of the club. Hopefully Giroud beds easily into the team and may his explosiveness out of the gate be everything one could hope for in the world of combustability. State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine 1 and Polkraine 2: Electric Vindaloo, we will miss you, but it’s hard to Arsenal it up properly Polkrainically with the spine of the team now largely absent.

Not to forget, of course, the first big new signing of the summer, Lukas Podolski, who quietly roars into the semis after he and Per Mertesacker quietly sat behaving themselves on the bench against Greece. Considering Rosický did something distinctly not good to his Achilles region and Walcott’s never-100% hamstring is again sub-100, one can appreciate Joachim Loew giving the guys whatever breathers they need. Mertesacker must be itching to get some time on the field, but that’s a different matter entirely.

Increasingly it looks like Germany/Spain in the finals and we’ll either see two newer players (Per and Poldi) lifting the trophy, or perhaps our former captain (good for him) and the main principals of the “Barca DNA” mafia (very bad people). I prefer Germany, and not just because it’s trendy right now to knock Spain’s Barcelona-based style of play. I grant either team permission to win the trophy, as long as the winning team goes fully at it and makes the event into a great final. Or Portugal. A Germany/Portugal matchup could be interesting. Oh right, we saw that already. It ends 1-0 to Germany, and Ronaldo does nothing of interest.

At the very least, please no Spain/Holland World Cup 2010 extra time action, unless it’s scoreless only until extra time where both teams drop the act and go batshit-crazy-nuts, racking up dozens of perfect downfield passes and goal after goal after goal. Or even just one mythic goal, but one that lends itself to a dozen interesting different camera angles. You get the full feel for how the goal action went down in incrementally more comprehensive views, even though it was just the one photogenic ball that crossed the goalpost plane. 12 different replay-as-new-play camera angles make for a 12-goal video replay frenzy.

In other, self-aggrandizing news, Nicklas Bendtner’s agent claims he’s attracting interest from major global clubs, so that’s clearly a done deal. I mean, he’s the agent. Meanwhile, Sebastien Squillaci reportedly is bound for Ligue 1, and we might be offloading Carlos Vela and Denilson to teams in La Liga. Overoptimistically, unwisely assuming all those go through, Johann Djourou and Andrey Arshavin both want new career moves, as well. First it looked like Arshavin to Zenit St. Petersburg, then he pissed everyone off by saying it was the Russian public’s fault for unrealistic expectations of Russia getting further than they did, or doing more in the match time they had. Then he apologized. So, maybe a Russian deal could still work, but apparently the Arshavins dig living in London, for what it’s worth. Where does that leave the man, then? QPR? West Ham? Fulham? Drop down a level and start raking in the bucks and that shimmery Crystal Palace adulation? As for Djourou, a mooted move to Turkey for the Swiss defender has popped up occasionally in the news.

The Robin van Persie issue remains as uncertain and unresolved as ever, but the new signings represent on the one hand a direction out of the wastelands if Robin leaves, and on the other, our ambition to push forward, theoretically what Robin’s been waiting for. Either way, Robin will seek fame and fortune elsewhere or he’ll seek fame and fortune with Arsenal. It should be decided before long. That will in turn trigger activity on the Walcott front. If anything positive came out of the shambles of last year’s summer transfer market, the transfer activity thus far this summer has shown a fundamental difference in intention from the club.

What of the fates of Marouane Chamakh, Park Ju-Yung and wantaway Lukasz Fabianski? Diaby? Gervinho? Considering Diaby’s once again out injured, it doesn’t seem like too many clubs will be banging down that particular door. And one would think Gervinho still has a year to make it with the side, despite starting berths on the left hand side of attack drastically shrinking in availability lately. Podolski would seem the natural starter for the left, with Robin and/or Olivier Giroud in front (or Robin dropping back into the hole) and Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain duking it out for wide right. Gervinho will need a hefty and timely dose of good form to force his way into the starting XI. Fortunately for the Ivorian, he always seems like he’s just one skill away from really making it work with his jerky cutback style. He’s got goals in him, somewhere. Maybe he’ll find new ways of impressing as an impact sub, who knows.

Hopefully, long term injuries to Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere will heal apace, as will last-season injuries to Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin. Hopefully Rosický and Walcott soon recover from what seem shorter term injuries contracted from the Euros. And hopefully Mertesacker and Podolski continue to get into prime shape for the tournament’s finale, in which they combine for an astounding all-Arsenal goal to wipe the floor with Barca DNA.

Walcott returns from a good showing at Euro 2012, so presumably there will be another contract offer. Of course, Walcott may decide to not sign and kick off a delightfully neverending last-year-in-contract story for the next installment of news-overexposure hell. And Alex Song’s contract is winding down, too, so that too should provide some fun times. Oxlade-Chamberlain returns to a pay increase of 300%, which takes him up to £45,000 a week. For comparison, “flop” players Diaby, Denilson, Chamakh, Fabianski, Djourou, Arshavin, Vela,  Bendtner, et al  make more than that at this very moment, so it’s hard to say the Ox-Cham hasn’t earned it.

Anyhow, that’s all.

Enjoy the semis this week.

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The source of Manuel Neuer’s Power – Revealed!

June 17, 2012 — by Sean


By now we can all recognize that Manuel Neuer, that strapping ideal of aryan idealism, is awesome. He may have let the Champions league trophy slip through his fingers last month, but not for lack of scoring a PK and saving a couple in the shootout.

Today, while ensuring his goal was mostly unpenetrated, he came out to collect the ball around the 25 yard mark and swing play to the opposite flank. “Why, those are the duties of an old fashioned sweeper!” I hear you saying. But these skills, and surely more, have been mastered by the German batter-awayer of balls flying toward his face.

What has made this young man so outstanding? Perhaps it’s the time he put in on training grounds at Schalke before his big move to Bayern? Or maybe it has more to do with his formative years spent at the Gesamtschule Berger Feld (whose most recent other famous footballing graduate is Mezut Özil – a man you’re sure to know after he won a prestigious Bambi award for excellence in integrating his Turkish self into German society).

But it seems even more likely that Manuel Neuer, that giant of giants, that leaping monster of man, receives his power from an eternal and supernatural source. That’s right people, Neuer has tapped the earth energies that were surely uncovered by the Bavarian illuminati at the turn of the nineteenth century. I wouldn’t be surprised if his DNA had been honed in a Mendel-style bean-crossing experiment for the last 10 generations.

Where’s the proof, you ask? Why just look at this YouTube video that reeks of validity. You can practically see the Eye of Providence emerging in the space between Neuer’s hands.


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State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine

June 15, 2012 — by Rob Kirby3


The Arsenal won’t play a competitive match until August, but that’s no reason to cease obsessing and expounding upon the team. With two of our strikers, a few top wingers and midfielders, a couple central defenders and a goalkeeper in Polkraine, we’re fielding a mostly full team. No fit right back or left back, but then that was the month of January. This is familiar territory.

As internationals enter the final round of the group stage matches of Euro 2012 on different teams, some have excelled in Poland and Ukraine, while others hide their heads as they make their way to the exit.

In Group A, Russia captain Andrey Arshavin, Czech Republic captain Tomas Rosicky and Poland first-choice goalie Wojciech Szczesny have been facing off in a tightly competitive, if comparatively weak, group.

Current Zenit St. Petersburg loanee Arshavin has had a great Euro comeback, putting in some of his best performances since Euro 2008, with three assists thus far. Whether it derives from finally playing in his preferred position behind the striker or whether he simply feels happier and more comfortable captaining a side of his countrymen is unknowable, but Russia currently sit atop Group A and look poised to go through to the knockouts. A victory or draw against Greece would seal it, but a late game counterattack from the notoriously difficult, itinerantly attacking  Hellenic defense could scupper Russian hopes. Arshavin can help ensure that does not happen. He still has moments of listless apathy, such as the second half against Poland, and would never dream of tracking back, but the mercurial Little Tsar still shows the moments of genius that made Arsenal fans so excited to sign him in January 2009.

Finally fit and in form again after so long, Rosicky unfortunately suffered an Achilles issue in the second match of the group stage and looks out for the count no matter what happens in the final match against Poland. Hopefully he can recover in time for the new season, but few players shake off Achilles problems without long layoffs. But having spent abundant time at adjoining physio tables with fellow rehab regular Thomas Vermaelen, he probably already knows this all too well. Sadly for Tomas, his tournament is likely over.

Wojciech Szczesny got sent off in the opening match of the tournament for a clumsy penalty but returns for the winner-takes-all match against the Czech Republic, in a bid to salvage his rep on home soil and help Poland progress to the quarterfinals, after missing the draw against Russia from suspension. From a purely selfish, club-centric point of view, hopefully he can put in a good showing even if cohost Poland ultimately fails, so that no psychological hangover haunts the big keeper in the Arsenal campaign ahead. Sadly for club and country backup Lukasz Fabianski, even with Szczesny out of the picture an injury keeps him from getting his big moment on the home stage, especially as he actively seeks pastures new and desperately needs the visibility. You can’t help but feel a bit bad for the guy. Until you remember why he got bumped down to number two and get your blood pressure up all over again. And bay wolfishly for his blood.

In the Group B group of death, Arsenal captain Robin van Persie, Arsenal headache Nicklas Bendtner and new signing Lukas Podolski have been facing off, while the recovering Per Mertesacker (ankle) has looked on from his seat on the uncomfortable Teutonic bench.

Nicklas Bendtner, a.k.a. the Great Dane, a.k.a. the best striker in the history of scoring goals, had a mostly anonymous match in the surprise victory over Holland but then clawed and headed Denmark even with Portugal on Wednesday with a handy brace before the Portuguese snatched the crucial late goal. If last year’s Sunderland loanee can put in an impressive shift against Germany in the final match of the group, all while resisting the urge to drop trou for illicit underwear advertising, the ultra-arrogant wantaway forward will have made good use of his time in the shop window. Furthermore, Denmark may just eke through to the knockout stages. But then Lukas, Per and the rest of the German horde won’t make it easy for them, unless Die Mannschaft willingly and shadily go for a draw to shaft the Dutch and ensure their bitter rivals’ exit. Murky sportsmanship terrain. Of course, revisiting the issue of Bendtner and the shop window, buyer beware. His Royal Car Crashingness plays outstandingly well for country (20 goals in 50 appearances), less so for club (22 in 99 league matches).

By contrast, Robin van Persie had been on fire for for both club and country in 2011 and 2012, although new eyes watching the Oranje going into what might be the country’s final match of this Euros could be forgiven for not knowing it. That said, van Persie managed a fantastic right-footed, chocolate-legged consolation goal in the crunch match against Germany, but not enough for the Netherlands to take any points from the encounter. With Holland sitting bottom of the table in the Quartet of Death with zero points, the future doesn’t look especially rosy. Perhaps the national team’s collapse could be Arsenal’s gain, though. In an ideal world, RvP returns to preseason well rested and ready to sign on the dotted line of contract extension. A backlash from the Dutch (and world) media may just make him appreciate the loyalty Arsene Wenger and the club have showed him over his many injury-plagued seasons. One can hope.

Arsenal new boy Podolski has played well for Germany, even if he has not scored. The former Cologne striker has put in excellent performances for Germany the last two World Cups and in the 2008 installment of the Euros, so with Germany unlikely to exit anytime soon, he’s got time. Perhaps he’s just pacing himself. He has scored 43 goals in 99 appearances for Germany, so a betting man would say he’s got goals in him, yet.

National teammate Mertesacker won the fitness race for the bench, but has yet to feature in either of the German victories in the group. As disappointing as benchwarming may be, one must remember he went off at Sunderland with an ankle ligament injury last February, an injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season. The fact that he has not suffered any new niggles or problems in training bodes well for the new season, and the veteran center half may yet have a role to play, as many expect the Germans to go the distance this summer.

Group C features no current Arsenal players–only the ones that got away, like former captain Cesc Fabregas (the hurt, it still hurts so much…) and Eduardo, the awesome but tragically leg-shattered Croazilian.

And in Group D, we’re back in traditional Arsenal territory. The group does, after all, include France (and England). But as opposed to past years where the French contingent drew from an overabundance of Arsenal riches, Laurent Koscielny alone keeps the flames alive for injured compatriots Bacary Sagna (leg) and Abou Diaby (bones on self-destruct)–and only from the bench, at that. Meanwhile, England flanking speedsters Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pace it up on the English attack, though the elder young’un came on only as a super sub against France.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, in particular, has made huge strides in his adaptation to international competition, especially in his tournament debut against France at the Shakhtar Donetsk home stadium. He seemed unfazed by the moment and never got pushed around by the French. Late sub Theo, however, never even touched the ball in his one-minute cameo on the pitch. Hodgson clearly rated the teen higher than his precursor.

But then came Friday and the England/Sweden match. England went up after Andy Carroll shocked the world and forgot to blow it. Then England went down 2-1, Hodgson signaled for a substitutio,n and who should pull them level but fresh supersub Walcott, his first goal for England since the hat trick against Croatia in 2008? And then who would dribble, charge deep into the box and deliver the powerful cross to the flukey rebounding backheel of Danny Welbeck that killed off the game and looks to have sent England to the quarters? None other than the original Speedy 1.0 himself. Oxlade-Chamberlain (the 2.0) came on in the 90th minute, but Theo authoritatively made his case for both club and country with his second half display, all the more important as the race for Arsenal wing positions heats up between the two Southampton graduates, especially if Podolski lines up on the left wing at season’s start, as expected. (Obviously all depends on the $64.44 million dollar question of RvP’s presence/absence.)

As for possible Arsenal recruits, Yann M’Vila and Oliver Giroud of France seem good prospects, even if neither has really had a chance to fully shine at the tournament, though for different reasons (knee, former; Karim Benzema, latter). Each played about 20 minutes in the match against Ukraine on Friday. And Samir Nasri showed that he’s still good, if still despicable and utterly devoid of any gratitude to his former team or coach. Open letter to Emmanuel Frimpong: at your earliest convenience, please tweet, “If hating weak chins is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Or just hand that punk a pimpslap beatdown. Word, Dench.

Wayne Rooney is now eligible to rejoin the starting XI of the English squad, but Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain have deputized well in the meantime and kept the English firmly in the competition under Roy Hodgson’s tightly structured defensive regiment. Rooney could catapult the team to the knockouts, but that is far from the point here. The Euros is a way to see Arsenal players in new and different rescramblings, not about hyping players from Manchester United, no matter how hair-transplanted or talented. Any such trains of thought are hugely and boringly off-topic. And to the extent that they do register, hugely irritating.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine. May an Arsenal player be hoisting the trophy two weeks hence.