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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

CommentaryEuro 2012

Euro 2012: Quarterfinals Wrapup

June 30, 2012 — by Suman


After a tremendously fun twelve days of Euro2012 group stage matches, we found the knockout phase over the past week a bit of a letdown. Well, until the 2nd semifinal match on Thursday.

(This was originally going to be a wrapup of the quarters and semis, but got long enough with just the quarters. See here for some thoughts on the semifinals.)

The quarterfinals were all one-sided, at least in terms of possession and chances created. Indeed, they fell into the Manichean proactive/reactive divide that Jonathan Wilson identified early in the tournament, in a column about “the flaw of tiki-taka“:

A clear pattern has emerged from the first round of group games at Euro 2012. Holland against Denmark, Germany against Portugal, Spain against Italy, Ireland against Croatia, France against England, the first half of Poland against Greece: each have featured one proactive team taking the game to the opposition; one reactive team sitting deep with compact lines absorbing the pressure, trying to restrict the opposition and looking to score either from counter-attacks or set-plays.

That was also the pattern that emerged in the quarterfinal games: Portugal proactive against a reactive Czech Republic, Germany against Greece, Spain against France, and Italy against England.

But of the proactives, only Germany was able to finish their chances, lighting up Greece for 4 goals (reinforcing the then-growing conventional wisdom that der Nationalmannschaft were the clear favorites to win the whole thing).

The only drama in the first quarterfinal, a week ago Thursday, was waiting to see if Cristiano Ronaldo would finally score, which he finally did with an admittedly spectacular header late in the game (reinforcing the then-growing sense that just maybe he could carry them to the final).

Last Saturday night in Donetsk, Spain unlocked the l’autobus the French had garé, scoring an early goal, and then spent the 70 minutes playing the recently much-maligned tiki-taka, before adding a late PK score (oddly, Xabi Alonso scored both goals, in what was his 100th cap).

In the last quarterfinal match, Sunday in Kyiv, Italy bossed the match (especially the much-praised deep-lying midfield capo Andrea Pirlo), but Gli Azzurri  couldn’t find their way to a finish against Roy Hodgson’s English bus.  It was scoreless through 120 minutes, all the way to penalties, which at least made for a tense end to the quarterfinals–a shootout that will be remembered for Pirlo’s audacious Panenka.

From Daniel Taylor’s writeup in the Guardian:

Italy had 815 passes compared with England’s 320. The shot count was 35-9. Italy had 20 on target, one more than England managed in their four games. Andrea Pirlo put together more passes, 117, than England’s entire midfield quartet of Gerrard, Milner, Scott Parker and Ashley Young.

It was a peacock-like spreading of Pirlo’s feathers. What a player he is and what a moment when he ambled forward for his penalty and popped the ball into the back of the net. Hart had tried everything to put off Italy’s penalty-takers. He eyeballed them. He stuck out his tongue, pulled faces, made silly noises. He did everything but drop his shorts and squirt water from a flower. Pirlo talked afterwards of deliberately setting out to bring him down a peg or two. So he went for the Panenka chip, named in honour of Antonin Panenka’s decisive penalty for Czechoslovakia against West Germany in the 1976 final. Of all the moments that encapsulated Sunday’s quarter-final, it was this: the man in the England shirt acting the fool while the serial champion put him in his place and the rest of the football world sniggered behind their hands.

(Emphasis added, with a h/t to the English friend of ours who copied and pasted that last sentence to facebook midweek, prefaced with: “I know its ancient history now, but this sums up England’s lack of a game today.”)

The details of the quarterfinal results, with links to’s match reports/facts:

21 June 2012
Czech Republic Czech Republic 0-1 Portugal Portugal
Referee: Howard Webb (ENG) – Stadium: National Stadium Warsaw, Warsaw (POL)

22 June 2012
Germany Germany 4-2 Greece Greece
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN) – Stadium: Arena Gdansk, Gdansk (POL)

23 June 2012
Spain Spain 2-0 France France
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA) – Stadium: Donbass Arena, Donetsk (UKR)

24 June 2012
England England 0-0 Italy Italy
Italy win 4-2 on penalties
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR) – Stadium: Olympic Stadium, Kyiv (UKR)


Marca on Madrid: “Con 10 Se Juega Mejor”

April 17, 2011 — by Suman1


We’ve been digesting Saturday’s Real Madrid-Barcelona 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu–just the first installment of this month’s 4-part El Clásico series; the second is coming up this Wednesday with the Copa del Rey final, to be contested on neutral turf–at the Mestalla in Valencia. In the meantime, it’s always entertaining to see how Madridista tabloid Marca spins the latest big result.

There’s much to savor in this cover. The screaming lead (“Con 10 se juega mejor”) seems pedestrian enough. Translating to “It’s better to play with 10” (or “We play better with 10”?), Marca is seemingly remarking simply that Madrid played better after losing Albiol to a red card and playing a man short for the final 40 minutes of the match.

But it turns out the headline may actually be an allusion to an aphorism attributed to the legendary manager Helenio Herrera–which leads to something of a Möbius strip of historical resonances: Herrera, nicknamed Il Mago (“The Wizard”), is best known for managing Barcelona (1958-1960) and subsequently Inter Milan (1960-1968).  His Barcelona sides successfully challenged the 5-time European champions Real Madrid on the domestic front. Then in Milan he gave birth to Catenaccio and led “La Grande Inter” to two consecutive European championships (1964 and 1965).  Inter didn’t conquer Europe again until last year–led by Jose Mourinho of course, defeating Barcelona along the way in the semifinal, which led to headlines such as “In José Mourinho Inter finally have a true heir to Helenio Herrera.”

(For more on Herrera, confer this post on The Equaliser (which also has a post about La Grande Inter); Chapter 9 of Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The World, titled “A Day with Helenio Herrera”; the chapter of Jimmy Burns’s Barça: A People’s Passion covering Herrera’s tenure at Barcelona, titled “El Salvador”; or this post titled “The Really Special One – Helenio Herrera.”)

Back to the Marca cover: Mou(rinho)’s comment on the matter gets put across the top (“Me cansa jugar siempre contra ellos con diez jugadores” / “I am tired of always playing against them with 10 players”), and Marca asks whether the “roja directo” (straight red) for Albiol versus no yellow (“ni amarilla”) for Alves on the respective penalties represents a double standard (“¿doble rasero?”).

Of course it’s CR7 and Messi that dominate the image–another fine piece of photoshopping. Ronaldo striding with the ball, looking up, clawing at the air like some sort of big cat (perhaps an allusion to Mourinho’s hunting with cats?), while Messi shuffles behind him, eyeing the ball, looking disturbed/disturbing.

But we also rather like the little image of Guardiola and Mourinho inserted at the top: the two managers with their backs to each other, pistols in hand.  One round of the duel completed–three more to go.


El Clásico TODAY!

November 29, 2010 — by Suman2

The game we’ve all been waiting for kicks off in just over an hour (3pm ET, 9pm local time–at the Camp Nou).  El derbi español, “más conocido como El Clásico“–Barcelona vs Real Madrid, which also means: Catalans vs Castilians, L’Equip Blaugrana vs Los Blancos, La Masia vs Los Galacticos, Los Cules vs Los Madridistas, regionalism vs centralism, Cryuff vs Franco, Guardiola vs Mourinho, Messi vs Ronaldo.

It’s no wonder that Sid Lowe saw the need to talk us down from all the El Clásico hype–before talking it up:

Contrary to what you might have heard, the world will not end on Monday night. The sun will rise on Tuesday morning. And there is life beyond the clásico. It’s just that right now, it doesn’t feel like it — it feels like nothing else matters, like no other games exist, like no other teams do. Every year Barcelona versus Madrid, already the biggest club game in world soccer, seems to get bigger. Even the old title seems worthless now. Derby? No thanks, this is the clásico. It’s even moved on from that. Now it’s the Super Clásico. Carry on like this and soon we’ll run out of superlatives.

And it’s certainly superlative. It’s almost ridiculous….Whichever way you look at it, this is probably the most extraordinary club match there has ever been. Until the next time, at least.

In terms of talent per square meter, you could argue that there has never been a game like it. It is possible that no two teams have ever dominated the planet’s talent like Barcelona and Madrid do now.

To get a better idea of how all that talent will matchup on the field today, take a look at this, which lists five key matchups to watch (1. Carles Puyol/Daniel Alves vs Cristiano Ronaldo/Ángel Di Maria; 2. Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets vs Mesut Ozil; 3. Ricardo Carvalho/Pepe versus David Villa; 4. Sami Khedira vs Xavi Hernández; 5. José Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola); or this, which gives a longer and largely different list of matchups–but closes with the same managerial matchup:

"Por que tu es un canalla"

José Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola from the sidelines, in the locker rooms, in front of the press, and on the training pitch. The Special One is the best in the world outside of Pep or Sir Alex at this point in time. But, it’s hard to pick a clear favorite here being that Mourinho won a Treble last year, while Guardiola won six trophies the season before. Last year, Mourinho won-out eliminating Barcelona from the Champions League. Has Guardiola learned from that lesson? I think he has. However, I see this coaching-bout being a draw between Emperor Mourinho Palpatine and Pep Skywalker Guardiola.

That latter preview also mentions each side’s most-used formations (4-2-3-1 for Real Madrid, 4-3-3 for Barcelona’sand For more on tactics, see Zonal Marking’s detailed tactical preview, which includes the probable starting lineups shown below. For squad statistics, play around with’s nice interactive graphic.

FC Barcelona (blue) vs Real Madrid (white)

And for an idea of the historical context surrounding El Clásico, take a look at this column from 2002 by Phil Ball (who wrote Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football):

Not only is the dislike between the two clubs an interesting phenomenon in sporting terms, it also has implications that stray deeply into the sociology and politics of the country. It might not be going too far to say that the strife and struggles between the two clubs from 1905 onwards accurately mirror the very essence of twentieth-century Spanish history. The two cities have always been moving in different directions, partly through bloody-mindedness, partly through political allegiance, but mainly through clear cultural differences.

A supporter of Real Madrid seems a very distinct creature from a supporter of Barcelona, a fact that cannot be attributed wholly to the fact that they probably talk about football in a different language. Madrid is a bourgeois, grand, rather suffocating sort of city on first acquaintance. The surrounding countryside is bleak and bare, – suggestive of some harshness in the citizens. To an outsider it is not a welcoming city – its taxi drivers grumpy and sullen, its waiters coldly efficient, its shops too self-consciously trendy. Madrid was built on and is sustained by the notion of centralisation – in this century exemplified by Franco’s obsessive opposition to regional nationalism, which he regarded as one of the principal reasons for the turmoil of Spain’s ill-fated second republic.

Madrid was symbolically in the geographical centre of the country, put there by Felipe II in the mid-sixteenth century. It is part and parcel of the Madrid-Barcelona morbo that the latter seems to inhabit a different planet. Despite the fact that Madrid has the Prado, the seat of government and the royal family, according to John Hopper’s book The New Spaniards almost all the ideas that have shaped Spain’s modern history – republicanism, federalism, anarchism, syndicalism and communism – have found their way into Spain by way of Catalonia.


Shortlists for FIFA Balon d’Or 2010

October 27, 2010 — by Suman

2009 Balon d'Or Winners


The following 23 men (in alphabetical order) are in contention for the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010:
Xabi Alonso (Spain), Daniel Alves (Brazil), Iker Casillas (Spain), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Didier Drogba (Côte d’Ivoire), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon), Cesc Fabregas (Spain), Diego Forlán (Uruguay), Asamoah Gyan (Ghana), Andrés Iniesta (Spain), Júlio César (Brazil), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Philipp Lahm (Germany), Maicon (Brazil), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Thomas Müller (Germany), Mesut Özil (Germany), Carles Puyol (Spain), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands), David Villa (Spain) and Xavi (Spain).

The odd man in there seems to Asamoah Gyan.  Don’t get us wrong, we were impressed by Baby Jet performances this summer in Africa (this one against the USMNT in the World Cup of course–but also this more recent performance)–but he hasn’t accomplished what the other players on the list have.  (Özil and Müller are two even younger players that one might argue about–but those two have already impressed and achieved more for both club and country than Gyan has.)

There’s more to the Balon d’Or than just the men’s player award however.  The shortlists for the other three categories:


AC Milan v Panathinaikos? In the Pontiac Silverdome? On grass?

August 7, 2010 — by Suman

"Panathinaikos' Sotiris Ninis, front left, and AC Milan's Alexandre Pato fight for this ball in the first half at the Silverdome on Friday. (JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DFP)"

Doesn’t it seem like every club in Europe is somewhere in the United States over these few weeks, playing warmup matches and making odd publicity appearances?  Thierry Henry scoring on Spurs yet again, but this time after “Coming to America” (really MSG?), making a memorable appearance on NY1, and taking the lovely PATH train from Manhattan to Harrison NJ; Sir Alex eating ribs while competing with a gospel choir in Kansas City; Cristian Ronaldo lecturing at UCLA (hat tip for that link to faculty member Steve Lee (although some are pushing him to try out for goalkeer on the 2014 South Korean squad–Be the Reds Steve–literally!)); and hapless Portsmouth on the pre-season tour from hell.


C. Ronaldo and the Phlegm Wad

June 30, 2010 — by Sean2

Crissy’s ineffectual performance against what looks again to be the team to beat (plus his general lack of a cutting edge in the group games) saw the old temper rise to the surface for a split second. The interweb is abuzz over his latest act of disrespect: hocking a loogie at the feet of a cameraman, then pushing past reporters while seeming to blame his coach for the loss.

Let’s all cut him some slack. He’s an outrageous talent, and part of that is his belief in himself. If he was humble, he would never be such an explosively exciting (though selfish) player to watch. He’s as great as he is bratty, and though you may hate him, you’ll still watch him.