Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The World Cup Final

There are so many things one could say about this Final. First of all, is there a more dissatisfying resolution in all of sports than penalty kicks at the end of a World Cup Final? You might as well flip a coin - the final result would just as accurately reflect which team deserved to win. More on that in another post.

Did Zizou's red card cost the French the match? Of course not. Les Bleus dominated the run of play the entire match, especially the second half and extra time. But they hadn't scored a goal in 105 minutes, and they hadn't scored anything other than a penalty in 243 minutes. I don't think it's quite reasonable to expect them to score in 10 more minutes with Zidane on the pitch, do you?

And was there ever any doubt about who would win on penalty kicks between Italy (with Buffon in goal) and France (with Barthez)? France has won a World Cup, won a European Cup, and been to another World Cup Final DESPITE Barthez, who is, at best, an adventure in goal. Buffon had 27 saves during Italy's 7 matches this World Cup, compared to 14 for Barthez - almost twice as many. Even if Zidane stays on the pitch and buried his OTPK, Trezeguet is still shooting in the first 5. The only thing that surprises me (mildly) about the result of the penalty kicks is that it was a French mistake, rather than a Buffon save, that made the difference. There's no way Barthez was making a save.

The real shame is that Italy looked completely impotent on offense, except during set pieces. According to the stats, they had 5 shots all match, only three of those on goal. Did any of those come during the run of play? Not that I recall. They did look very dangerous on corners and free kicks, but it would be very sad indeed for the World Cup if future champions were built based on a packed in defense and an offense 100% dependent on set pieces.

I find the 'terrorist' story completely believable. In fact, knowing Zidane's Algerian ancestry, the moment he head-butted Materazzi I assumed that the Italian had made some sort of terrorist crack. What else is going to provoke that response? Materazzi's denial in the Italian papers is both ridiculous and hilarious:

It is absolutely not true, I did not call him a terrorist. I'm ignorant. I don't even know what the word means.

So, let me get this straight... your defense is that you are a complete idiot? Now I'm that much more angry with Zizou. To viciously attack a complete, drooling mental incompetent. How dare he?

What's truly amazing is that Zidane picked this moment to lose his cool. It's international soccer - if Thierry Henry head-butted every opponent who threw the N-word at him, he'd have brain damage by now. This can't possibly be the first time someone called Zidane the T-word, right? Why blow up 10 minutes away from one of the most glory-filled retirements in the history of sport? Even if they lose the match on OTPKs (which I say they would have), he gets the Golden Ball, he scores three goals in World Cup final matches - he is without doubt the greatest player of his generation. Now, instead, he's the guy who head-butted someone in the World Cup Final. That's the tragedy.

I'm certain that we have not heard the last of this. So far Zidane has remained silent on the subject, but he'll tell his side soon.

Monday, July 10, 2006

How I Would Fix the Game

Now let's just be clear. I mean 'fix' as in 'make better the things that are not correct' as opposed to the Italian Serie A definition of 'fix' as in 'makes lots of money for my mafia pals.' Glad I got that out of the way.

A surprising number of casual US sports fans really tried to watch the World Cup this time around. From Bill Simmons to my brother, I know of a LOT of people who actually paid attention to this World Cup, which they had not done in the past. There are undoubtedly several reasons for this - the games were on at a better time than in 2002, all of the games were shown live, the US team had high expectations, etc. Whatever the reason, people were paying attention.

And Americans LOVE events. Although soccer and cycling remain decidedly minor league in the US, the World Cup and the Tour de France are followed simply because we're SUPPOSED to follow them. 'Millions of people in other countries care about this? Well then, I care about it too!' Not that anyone but the most hardcore cycling enthusiast would step out his front door to see a cycling event other than the Tour de France; but by golly we'll watch Lance (and now Floyd) ride in the Alps! The proliferation of live sports on cable TV certainly helps to fuel this particular fire.

(Bill Syken has an interesting take over at si.com. Americans will watch something if it's truly the best. But that's bad news for the MLS. We're spoiled. We like the best. Why would we watch a second-rate soccer league?)

Having said all that, these same Americans who gave the World Cup a chance this year simultaneously shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads and wondered aloud 'Why does the rest of the world like this so much?'

I try to explain to the ones I talk to about 'the beautiful game', but at the end of the day, my heart's not really in it, because dammit, they have a point. Where is the offense? And what's with all the melodramatics? And why are the referees so inconsistent and so impactful on the outcome? These are all valid questions, and much more glaring problems to the eyes of those new to the sport.

Not that anyone (least of all FIFA) cares, here are my suggestions for improving the game.

Where is the offense?

This one is tough. In fact, by far the toughest. It also happens to be the one where the powers that be have been most willing to tinker. The last two major changes (I can think of) were both designed to encourage more offensive play (or maybe to discourage defensive play): the scoring change to award 3 points for a win instead of 2, and the rule against back-passes to the keeper.

And it doesn't help that Italy won a World Cup playing slow, conservative, BORING soccer. If you're an international coach, your take away from this World Cup is build a GREAT defense, and put ALL of your efforts on offense into set pieces. You can bring guys up to the front for corners and free kicks, but other than that, keep (at least) seven guys back. You know what? This is great stuff. I should be selling this, not giving it away for free.

The one simple, realistic thing that can be done to help offenses is to modify the offside rule, or at least modify how it is called. I'm a big fan of understanding the 'spirit of the law' rather than slavishly adhering to the 'letter of the law.' Of course, I realize that things have to be codified, but it was never in the original 'spirit' of the off-side law that defenses should deliberately move forward and trap offensive players. The idea is that strikers can't be allowed to cherry-pick. Fine.

But of course it still has to be codified. No one is going to institute some sort of hockey-style blue line (although that would be pretty cool), so here goes my attempt at defining a more lenient offside that still maintains the 'spirit of the law' and doesn't change the game too much.

1) You can't be off-side on a free kick. Look, the ball is dead. The whistle blew. If the defense can't realize that an attacker is behind them and get back and mark them, tough nuggies. The idea that the AR's flag would go up because an attacker broke free behind the defense a split second before the ball was played forward on a free kick (as happened in the final) is just ridiculous. Everybody is set, the defense is ready - let them play.

2) All of the attacker has to be beyond all of the second to last defender to be considered off-side. I find this interpretation more in keeping with FIFA's laws in other areas (like all of the ball has to be over all of the line). Call it the 'daylight' rule. The AR has to see daylight between the attacker and the defender to put up the flag. It might not have a huge impact, but defenses might be a little more hesitant to play a trap if there were an extra yard or so of 'grey' area. I'd even allow an attacker to stick his hand as far behind him as possible (to use the hockey analogy again, like a winger doing the splits at the blue line) to try to stay on side. Those bang-bang plays where the attacker is a fraction ahead of the defender when the ball is played forward now go to the attacking team.

3) When in doubt, keep the flag down. Of course, this is officially the advice to AR's currently, but clearly not the way they call the game. Look at it this way - in the long run, is it better to create scoring chances on questionable calls, or to kill scoring chances on questionable calls? Keep the damn flag down unless it is blatant. If nothing else, teams will stop playing the off-side trap in that event.

What's With the Melodramatics?

FIFA had better be taking this problem seriously, because the diving has gone way beyond ridiculous. Seriously, they are no longer allowed to call this 'The Beautiful Game' as long as the ugly, ugly spectacle of players diving all over the pitch is allowed to continue. The biggest problem of course, and the reason that it keeps happening, is because it works. France's last two goals in this World Cup were on PKs, and while neither Henry nor Malouda were 'untouched', they weren't mugged either. In both cases, the touch just before the foul was probably a little too far out in front, so both guys went into the turf like pelicans into the surf.

One wonders if this particular problem affects the american audience more than other audiences. Not only do we not 'get it' not having watched these theatrics for years, but to an audience raised on basketball and american football, these guys writhing on the floor in pain just look stupid. In basketball, if you step in front of Shaquille O'Neal going full speed to the basket and take a charge, you hop up and start high-fiving your teammates. Did it hurt? Sure. But nobody's paying you to lie on the ground crying. In football, if you get blindsided on a crossing route, you hold on to the ball, signal first down, and run back to the huddle. No WAY you want that safety to know it hurt.

Simmons actually lists the flopping on his list of 10 reasons he loves the World Cup, but of course he's being tongue-in-cheek.
Everyone makes fun of the flopping, and it is hideous, but it's also funny as hell. These guys drop like they were gunned down by a sniper, then they roll around for 10 seconds in absolute agony, heroically hop up and limp around to "shake it off," and within 30 seconds they're running full speed again. Even Ric Flair didn't sell pain so well. More important, it's the one thing that will keep soccer from ever, ever, ever becoming a bona fide force in this country. Americans won't stomach such dishonesty. We see right through it. No way Dwyane Wade pulls that crap; we'd never allow it. OK, bad example.

Compare american athletes to World Cup strikers, supposedly some of the best athletes in the world, falling as if they have been shot, lying there for several minutes, being carried off the field (on a stretcher for PETE'S SAKE), and then immediately hopping off the stretcher and asking the ref to let them back on. It's a farce.

Interestingly, following the law of unintended consequences, one recent attempt to clean up this mess actually contributed to the farce. In an attempt to limit the diving, FIFA mandated that if play was stopped, the player had to leave the pitch and could only return when the referee signaled him back on. The idea was that teams would be at a disadvantage and therefore there would be less diving. But it turns out, strikers are only to happy to have a little lie down in the middle of the match (they're tired, you see), and the idea that playing a man down for a few seconds is any disadvantge is laughable. So now we have the surreal sight of incapacitated players rising miraculously off of their death beds 5 or 10 times per match, as if each team has employed Jesus himself (or at least Oral Roberts) to lay hands upon the lame on the sideline.

So what to do? Well, as I said, they do it because it works. It needs to stop working. Even Materazzi, who of course was legitimately butted by Zidane, was rewarded for playing it up. Elizondo has to stop the game to see why Materazzi is down, and after much time has passed (during which time the fourth official may or may not have seen the replay), Zidane is red carded. Come over here and head butt me in my chest. I won't stay down if you don't reward me for staying down, I promise.

It is particularly curious in a sport that prides itself in endurance and non-stop action (no open substitution, only three subs per game, running clock, no time outs, etc.) that the game stops CONSTANTLY for injuries. If you're injured in basketball, your team has to call timeout. And if the other team has the ball, your team has to play 4-on-5 (which is a lot harder than 10-on-11). The 'gentlemen's' tradition of putting the ball out of play when a player is down is the first thing that has to go.

It is another irony that basketball, with pretty much open substitution rules, has a more stringent mechanism for dealing with the potential of feigning injury. In basketball, if you are too seriously injured to shoot a free throw, then you are NOT allowed to return for the rest of the game and the OTHER TEAM gets to pick who shoots.

So, let's do this right.

1) Don't stop the game unless the injured player asks that the game be stopped.

2) If a player asks that the game be stopped due to injury, that's it, they are done. They must be substituted for, and the standard rules apply, i.e. they may not return.

3) Penalty kicks should be awarded ONLY for red card offenses in the penalty area. A standrad foul or a yellow card results in a free kick, wall and all. It's ridiculous that a foul committed 18.1 meters from the goal results in a free kick that has about a 5% chance of being converted, while the same foul committed 17.9 meters from the goal results in a penalty that has 95% chance of being converted. Does ANYBODY like penalty kicks? I mean other than the fans of the team that gets them? Seriously, every neutral fan HATES a penalty. Quick, name 3 penalty calls in this World Cup that you disagreed with? Now name 3 that you agreed with? Which ones were easier to name? Now name a penalty that EVERYONE agreed with. Can't do it, can you? Penalty kicks should be reserved for the MOST OBVIOUS and EGREGIOUS violations (a deliberate hand ball that saves a goal, a deliberate take down that saves a goal, etc.) Nothing will keep strikers on their feet more than the possibility that they have a better chance to score NOT falling down than they do falling down.

4) Use video replays to hand out suspensions and fines for diving. No matter what you do, it is basically impossible for the referee on the field to tell, in real time, if a player is diving or legitimately fouled, with 100% accuracy. In addition to the above recommendations, FIFA should start suspending and fining players for obvious dives in post-game reviews. How many yellow cards were handed out for diving in this World Cup? I remember 1. But there were plenty more dives than that. Don't make the ref on the field solely responsible for cleaning up this mess. Review the match, and suspend players who dive. That will get their attention.

The current situation rewards diving, with basically no risk of punishment. If the rewards are reduced and the risks are increased, the diving will stop.

Why are the referees so inconsistent and so impactful?

This is a good question. Any sports fan will tell you that the best referee is the one you don't notice. Well, in World Cup soccer, that seems to be impossible.

Again, Simmons facetiously includes this aspect of the sport on his top ten list of things he loves:
The red card/yellow card thing. Nonsensical, completely arbitrary, even crooked to some degree … I love it. Why hasn't the NBA adopted this yet? Can you imagine how many yellows and reds the Mavericks would have gotten in the Finals?

The obvious answer is, 'have the referees be more consistent.' But that's a tad banal - it's not as if FIFA is currently striving for inconsistency, right? Although, I do believe that FIFA takes strange pride in the 'human-ness' of the game - one ref, no time keeper other than that one ref, yellow and red card 'bookings' that are almost entirely up to the ref's interpretation. The wireless mics are the first incorporation of technology in 100 years, and they were adopted about 20 years after they were first suggested.

There is no way to codify the consistency of the refs. So one is left with performance reviews, and rewarding the best refs with the best assignments, which is supposedly how it works today. Of course, Larrionda ended up reffing in the semis after his highly questionable performance in Italy-USA, so that may not be really working either.

There is a problem inherent in the laws of the game, however. The problem is, the ref in a soccer match has a choice between calls which have essentially no impact (standard fouls) and calls which have MASSIVE impact (yellow cards, and especially red cards and penalties.)

I've already suggested that penalties be awarded much more strictly, which should help. As for yelow cards, I really don't see why those decisions can't be reviewed after the fact. I am not a fan (in any sport) of INTRUSIVE use of instant replay. I think the NBA has it about right - plays that can be reviewed and reversed WITHOUT slowing down the game (like last second shots) should be reviewed. Anything else has to be called on the fly.

The impact of a yellow card invariably is on the NEXT game. I only recall a couple of Reds resulting from multiple yellows in this cup - Trinidad and Tobago against Sweden and of course Eddie Pope against Italy. Why not have the referee's committee review every card handed out in every game, and rescind those which are unwarranted? Or even hand out new ones that were missed? This has zero impact on the flow of the game, while enforcing consistency on the refereeing community. It even gives FIFA a concrete 'scorecard' for evaluating refs. Those which are overturned the least are doing the best job. If you're supposedly doing the evaluation anyway, why not let the sport benefit from it?

If the impact of penalty calls and yellow cards is reduced, then we're left with red cards which the referees have to get right on the field. Will the refs still be able to impact the match? Of course, just as they do in every sport. But the direct impact is reduced. A penalty call can absolutely decide the outcome of a match (Italy benefited against Australia in the round of 16). It's too much power in the hands of one man.


Let me reiterate that I know none of these things will ever happen, but I actually think there are some simple, feasible things on the list above. I know we'll never see drastic changes (open substitutions would keep fresh legs on the pitch at all times and increase offense, a hockey-style blue line would break things wide open), nor will we see significant use of technology any time soon (in and out of touch, close calls at the goal line and even offside could be easily solved with sensors in the ball and on the field). In fact, I'm not advocating drastic changes. But I am finding it more and more difficult to watch, and I don't seem to be the only one. Something needs to be done.

ESPN and ABC

A few years back, media confluence and the supposed synergies that would result were all the rage. Of course, all you have to do is look at the current name of AOL-Time Warner to see that those synergies weren't really all that terrific. Sometimes, the whole is exactly equal to the sum of its parts. Most of the time, it is less. In mega-mergers, it is almost never greater.

However, in the one, isolated, area of televised sports in America, Disney's acquisitions of ESPN and Capitol Cities (i.e. ABC) is a real boon. For one thing, the incredibly simple advantage of being able to air simultaneous sporting events when one of them goes longer than expected is pretty sweet. I could not have cared less about whatever golf tournament was supposed to start at the conclusion of the World Cup Final Sunday, but I'm sure there were plenty of golf addicts who would have been livid to miss a single stroke because of something as meaningless (to an American golf fan) as extra time and penalty kicks in some soccer game. And the simple ability to broadcast BOTH of the simultaneous matches in the third games of group play live is also significant (not to mention a probable uptick in the sales of picture-in-picture TVs).

From the NBA to the NFL to the World Cup, ESPN/ABC have been able to cross-promote effectively, filling lots of hours on basic cable with live sports, while saving the premier events for the network. Whether or not they actually cross-promoted sex between Tony Parker and Eva Longoria, it didn't hurt the ratings for Desperate Housewives to have her on screen all the time during Spurs games (and no, she would NOT have gotten as much screen time if she were the star of an NBC show.) The real test of course will be to see what happens to the venerable MNF franchise when it moves from network to cable this September. My own feeling is, it's about time that the networks realized that anyone who doesn't have basic cable isn't really in their advertisers' demographic anyway. You can't get basic cable, you ain't buying a new Lexus. (You're not even buying Budweiser - PBR is more like it.)

However, there is one HUGE disadvantage to this ESPN/ABC TV Sports dynasty that I can sum up in two words: Brent Musberger. HEAVENS TO MURGATROID! I thought I had lost him, I really did. I thought he would never find me again. I don't watch a lot of college football (and pretty much only Pac-10, so I get Keith "Oh doctor" Jackson). Brent was out of my life for a good long time. But then, there he was, broadcasting NBA playoff games (games that I CARED about), with Tom Tolbert for PETE'S SAKE! I say again, HEAVENS TO MURGATROID!

Then, after 3 and a half weeks of solid studio analysis for the World Cup, ESPN/ABC brought in the big hitter for the semi-finals and finals. Does anyone believe that Brent Musberger knows ANYTHING about international soccer?

In their wrap up show, here was Musberger's pick for best goal - Clint Dempsey! A nice goal, to be sure, but I'm wondering if the fact that it was the ONLY goal of the tournament to be scored by an American had anything to do with it? Brent's pick for best save? "Buffon against Zidon [sic]." (I'm assuming he changed Zidane's name because of his tendency to get a little tongue-tied, and was not some sad Seussian-attempt at a cute rhyme, but either way, my brother doesn't call him Mush-berger for nothin'.) In short, his picks were quite uninformed, and came exclusively from matches that featured the US or England and the Final. Any chance that those were the only matches Brent actually watched? Hmmmm?

I found a Musberger drinking game online that was invented for Big 12 college football games. I would modify it for his NBA telecasts, but I would have to turn up the sound with him on the air to do that, so I don't see that happening.

In a related note, the Jim McKay piece at half time of the Final was not so much annoying as it was sad. Don't get me wrong, I get it. We're watching some international sporting event on a Sunday afternoon, and ABC is harkening back to the Wide World of Sports, to 'the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.' But the man is 85, and he didn't really have much to say. I mean, yeah, we know that the World Cup is important (outside the US). Did we really need Jim McKay to tell us that? And the fact that they didn't even put him on camera (not to mention the frailty in his voice) made me suspect that perhaps Jim is not doing so well these days.

Like I said, I found it sad.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Sports Guy on the World Cup

Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy, has actually written something about the World Cup, despite the fact that Boston is in no way involved in soccer (unless you count the Revolution, which I don't).

Now, I ask you, my beloved readers.... Is this guy me, or what? I mean, sure, he's better at being me than I am, but let's face it, he's me. We've all seen it before with the hoops stuff, but now he's being me with the World Cup.

I wish I got paidto write this stuff like he does.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

REAL Fan of the Match, AUS v. BRA

That guy Kotowski is a total piker compared to this fan! One flag? Here we've got both country flags plus the final score, not to mention Japan, France, South Korea, Germany, and who knows what else if we could just get her to turn around (or take off her pants)! Of course, you need to use more than just your face if you're going to put so much detail in your body painting, and she really went above and beyond the call of duty. World Cup blog salutes you, anonymous 'Fan of the Match!'

Official Fan of the Match, AUS v. BRA


Hyundai is sponsoring a 'Fan of the Match' on the official FIFA World Cup web site. For the match between Australia and Brazil, the 'Fan of the Match' was this guy, Chris Kotowski. Now, sure, he's got on a funny wig, and he painted his face to look like the Australian flag. But I think all of my readers will agree, that in fact our friend Ron captured the REAL 'Fan of the Match' for Australia v. Brazil...

Not That it Matters...

But Adriano was offside. Way offside. Obviously offside. Offside for his entire run.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine if a player is offside. The defense is moving one way, the player is moving the other way, a split second difference on when the ball is played forward determines whether he is on or offside.

That's not what happened here. Adriano was in an offside position for about 40 yards. The whole time. And this isn't one of those 'with the benefit of instant replay' things. I was watching in real time, and he was in an offside position when the ball was played to Kaka, and he never got back onside. I was thinking, "What's he doing?" And then he gets the goal. How does the AR miss that?

Bad calls happen. And offside can be really, really difficult to call. But this one was easy. This one was AYSO-easy.

I guess it isn't just the NBA where the best players and the best teams also get the benefit of the calls from the officials.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Last Post for Awhile


This blogger is off to Zion for a week beginning early Tuesday morning, returning Sunday the 25th. So by the time you read anything again, we'll be midway through the round of 16, down to 12 teams. Try to be strong in the absence of new posts. I know it will be difficult.

Here's a picure of a pretty girl holding a soccer ball and wearing a bikini.

Italy 1, USA 1

First of all, let me just explain that this World Cup blogger has been away from the TV (and the computer) for a few days. The kids finished school on Thursday, and on Friday morning we went to Yosemite for the weekend.

I was able to catch most of the second half of Italy v. USA in the restaurant area in Curry Village, along with a fairly large, multi-national crowd, which was fun. Unfortunately, I arrived a few minutes after Pope was sent off, so I was unaware that the teams were playing 10 against 9. Oh, that's the other thing... ABC, in it's infinite wisdom, decided to delay the national TV broadcast (because 3:00 is so much better than noon) on the west coast, so we were watching the Spanish language broadcast on Univision. My Spanish isn't that good, I was pretty far away from the TV... basically, I saw the action, but short of counting bodies on the field, I had no way of knowing they were palying short-handed.

Consequently, other than relating my slightly surreal viewing experience, I have very little to say about this match. It wasn't until I got an update from another viewer afterwards that I knew that the Czech Republic had lost, which explained why everyone seemed so pleased with a tie.

Based on the comments on my off-side trap post, I take it that no one was very pleased with Pope's marking on the Gilardino goal. And, yes, it would be nice to see the US actually put the ball in the net, as opposed to relying on opposing defenders to get the job done. But let's face it, going into the last day of group play, needing a US win over Ghana plus an Italy win over a depleted Czech side... well, the US could not have realistically asked for a better chance going into this group. Thank you Ghana. It is also nice to have at least ONE group where no team has advanced and no team has been eliminated going into the last games of group play.

I do have one question for the group. On Beasley's disallowed goal, does everyone agree with the off-side flag? Like I said, I was a long way from the TV, but the shots of Arena indicated that he did not necessarily agree with the call. I also find it interesting that the FIFA web site does not include that disallowed goal in the video highlight package, which means I've not been able to review it (forgot to set the TiVo before I left for Yosemite). It sort of tells you that FIFAA don't want to call a lot of attention to the play - I mean, you'll show me a shot off the post, but you won't show me a goal disallowed because of off-side? Isn't the disallowed goal more significant? How does it make sense to exclude it from the highlights?

Passive off-side is one of the calls that seems VERY inconsistent to me. I thought it was the right call in this case, but like I said, Arena appeared to be arguing it, and I just wanted to see what you guys thought.

From Ron....

Ron apparently is more comfortable with eMail than with posting to the blog. Whatever. He was kind enough to point out some 'errors' in my post regarding the seeding of the draw. (This is a very special occasion, as it the first time in our association of 12 years that he has been able to correct me.)

I don’t remember all the rules of the draw, but you got them wrong. They only give number one seeds. They don’t give 2,3 and 4 seeds.

Everything else comes down to keeping the Confederations away from each other. 14 teams from Europe and max of two teams per group. So, there are two groups that get only 1 European team and they are automatically in an easier group. Portugal, Mexico, Angola and Iran…vs. Italy, Czech, USA and Ghana…come on. Of course Group F had Brazil but even so you’ve got Croatia, Japan and Australia fighting for a second spot. But the reason those groups are easier is because there was NOT a European team with the 1 seed. Mexico and Brazil both got one seeds. They had to draw two European balls out of the eight that were left in the bowl….hmm, eight groups and eight European teams left in the bowl, hard to get two. So, if USA gets the one seed instead of Mexico, and let’s face it USA is now better than Mexico, they get the easier group.

You did get it right that they use past World Cup performances….even back to 1998. And from what I understand, if the USA had not finished last in 1998 then they would have moved past Mexico and gotten the one seed.

Thanks for the correction, Ron. Too bad you are also WRONG! Who do you work for again?

Here are the actual rules. Basically, Ron is right that first and foremost they seed the top 8, and after that it is all driven by confederation. The top seeds this year were: Brazil, England, Spain, Germany, Mexico, France, Argentina and Italy. The formula used results from 2002, results from 1998, and FIFA rankings from the last 3 years, although I do not know the weighting for each.

With 14 UEFA teams qualified, and 5 UEFA teams as top seeds, there were actually 9 other UEFA teams to place in groups. Serbia and Montenegro was determined to be the lowest UEFA seed (no doubt influenced by the fact that they are 'officially' a new country and have no World Cup history, but after the first two games of group play, it certainly looks as if FIFA got that one right), and they were drawn into one of the three groups with non-UEFA top seeds.

The rest of the pots of teams were strictly based on confederation: one pot of 8 non top seed UEFA teams, one pot of 7 teams from Asia and CONCACAF (7 because Serbia and Montenegro was isolated), and one pot of 8 teams from Africa, Australia and the non top seeds from CONMEBOL.

I don't agree that having a non-Euro top seed means the group will be weak. Let's face it, Brazil and Argentina are just as strong as the UEFA teams. Mexico may look like a 'weak' top seed, but isn't France really the 'weakest'? That makes the weakest group this year Group G, with two UEFA teams who just aren't that great (France and Switzerland.)

As for how far back they go in FIFA World Cup history, they must give a LOT of credence to 1998 if France was a number 1 seed this year:

(Champions in 1998) + (zero goals in 2002) = Number 1 seed in 2006

The US came out 9th in the seeding system, just missing a top seed. For their trouble, they were GUARANTEED under the system FIFA used to be in a group with a top seed other than Mexico, and a UEFA team, so basically, almost any group the US went into was going to be 'the group of death.'

I'm not espousing that the World Cup go to an NCAA-style seeding, everyone ranked from 1 to 32, etc. Part of the charm is having a 'group of death.' Besides, luck plays a part in all sport, but especially in soccer. But if the goal of group play is to have 2 teams advance from a group of 4, don't you need to seed 16 teams? Don't you need to do something active to keep undeserving teams from advancing simply by virtue of being in a really weak group?

It becomes even more important in 4 years, when South Africa will receive a top seed for being the host country. If FIFA has not adjusted the system by then, the difference between a group with South Africa as a top seed and a group with a strong team from outside of UEFA (like the US) could be huge.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

FIFA-ISL Bribery Allegations

This blogger is shocked ... shocked! ... to hear of bribery allegations involving FIFA, ISL and World Cup Marketing rights.

The official FIFA press release in response is a HOOT.
Certain allegations have been aired in the BBC’s Panorama programme that FIFA and its President take exception to, which does not mean that any of the other points raised are acceptable to FIFA or true.

I'm not even sure what that means, but I'm pretty sure Sepp and FIFA aren't happy.

Help Me Out Here People - Part 2

Second in a series of questions that prove I know nothing about soccer.

One thing I do NOT get at all is the off-side trap. Again, I'm not really an expert, but I have noticed this one thing about soccer: it's REALLY HARD to score. Play solid defense, mark people, clear the ball when you have the chance. If you do these things, the ONLY way you give up goals is if you make a mistake or if someone just makes a miraculous shot. This is another thing I learned in U-10 that seems to hold true in the World Cup.

So, given all of that, why would anyone, EVER, employ a strategy that says 'I know what we'll do... we'll intentionally allow the attackers to get behind us. That way, if it works, and if the referee gets the call right, we'll get the ball back. The only downside is that if it doesn't work, we give up a goal. Seems worth it, right?'

Wrong. Play defense, and get the ball back. The risk/reward calculation on this one is way effed up. Remember the stunning insight I began with: it's REALLY HARD to score. If you play solid defense, they probably won't score, and you'll get the ball back. If you run the off-side trap, and you screw it up, you're dead. It seems to me that there are lots of ways to screw up the trap, and no way to recover. One guy out of four misses the timing, the attacker happens to play the ball forward at the wrong time, the AR misses the call, whatever. If you just play defense, not only will you probably keep them from scoring, you've also got a chance to recover from you're mistakes. Miss a mark? Someone else will help. Miss a clear? Mark up and play some D. Botch the off-side trap? Your keeper is one-on-one.

Look at Germany v. Costa Rica. Germany was far and away the superior team. Costa Rica got 4 shots in the entire match. Two of those were for scores. Guess what? The Germans ran an off-side trap and Wanchope came clear against Lehmann for both goals. One time he might have been off-side, but the AR did not put up the flag, and the other time he was clearly on-side. BTW, at least one other time the AR called the off-side and I'm not so sure he was right on that one. The case of Germany v. Costa Rica is particularly ridiculous. Costa Rica has ONE attacker that can hurt you. Mark him with all four defenders and you pitch a shut out. Instead, they go to a gimmick, and give up two goals in the process.

So help me out here people. Why would you ever run an off-side trap rather than just playing defense? What am I missing?

Help Me Out Here People

As anyone who knows me is aware, I know a lot more about basketball than I do about soccer. In fact, basketball is the only sport where I know enough, that when a player or a coach makes a decision that I don't agree with, I pretty much know that they were wrong. In other sports, I assume that I just don't understand enough to know what they were thinking about.

My organized soccer experience has thus far plateaued with coaching an Under-10 AYSO team. I'll be moving up to the big time of U-12 in a couple months, so that's exciting.

The first day of practice, I asked the kids on my team, 'Who here is left-footed?' Austin raised his hand. Then I lined them up and had them run. Austin was the second fastest on the team. 'Austin' says I, 'you are the left mid-fielder.'

Not real sophisticated, I'll grant you, but the ability to cross the ball is important, at any level, so it simply makes sense to have the stronger foot on the outside of the pitch. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who ever noticed this.

So can somebody help me out here? Why would Arena put Beasley on the right? Here's my specialized, patented check list, that you can use in similar situations:
  1. Is he left-footed? Check
  2. Is he fast? Check
Put him in the mid-field on the left. Done. Oh, and you're welcome.

Obviously, it is possible that Arena knows more than I do. So what am I missing? Is it all about match-ups? Oh, and by the way, how'd that go against the Czechs, having him on the right?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Czech Republic 3, USA 0

Ouch.

Did anyone else get a SERIOUS case of deja vu watching that match? Obviously, the expectations were not as high in 1998, but...
  • The fourth day of the tournament
  • The first match for the USA
  • Playing a very good opponent from Europe
  • Give up an immediate goal
  • Never get in the game
  • Look completely outclassed
Of course, in 1998, we never got it going at all, finishing 32nd out of 32, and even losing to Iran, not exactly your traditional world power.

Look, it's a tough group, we knew that. And no one was really expecting to come away with 6 points against the Czechs and Italy (what's the Schoon, you were?). Nor was it really realistic to hope for ties against each - it would be nice, but if you play for a tie, you usually lose. So what does that mean? It means we went into the tournament needing a win against EITHER Italy or the Czechs. One chance gone, one to go.

I know, goal differential is a tie breaker, blah blah blah. Let's face it, as far as advancing is concerned, there is very little difference between losing 3-0 and losing 3-2. Either way, we need three points against Italy.

The bigger problem is how poorly we played. No one stepped up. (That's another similarity to that Germany match in 98 - no one played well, with the exception of a second half sub - Frankie Hejduk in 98, Eddie Johnson this time.) SI cover boys Donovan, Convey, Beasley and Onyewu ranged from useless to far worse (is it time to revive the SI cover jinx?).

Grant Wahl termed Beasley 'invisible' but that seems a little too kind. Did he have a clean touch the whole game? Forget all the complaining about playing out of position on the right, being asked to play too much defense, etc. The guy was not sharp. Frankly, he looked like an American out there. You know how Americans are: like they would really rather use their hands?

As for Onyewu, he must wish he was invisible. Unfortunately, we all saw him fail to clear that ball that ended up being Rosicky's first goal, and then we all saw him take the wrong angle as Rosicky ran right past him for his second goal. And wasn't he supposed to be the one with the size to match up with Koller in the box?

This team was supposed to be better than this.

Of course, all of this will be forgotten with a win against Italy. (And this being the United States, all of it will be forgotten by August regardless of what happens, so that's nice.) The team needs to re-group, play with some urgency, and at least have a decent showing on Saturday.