To the Semis(2)

Posted July 1, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

Yesterday, the games ran true to form.  Germany outlasted Argentina on penalties and Italy rolled over the Ukraine.  Quick to the breakdown.

It was a bad move to replace the sublime Riquelme in the 70th minute for a defensive replacement.  I don’t think Germany would have equalised with Riquelme on the field.  The Argentian coach Pekerman (snicker, snicker) said Riquelme looked a little tired.  Then Pekerman fell on his sword and resigned.  Even if Riquelme couldn’t move at all ala Ronaldo, he needed to stay on the pitch.  

Never go to penalties with Germany.  They are 4-0 in penalty shoot-outs in the WC.  Their kick-takers (Neuville, Ballack, Podolski and Borowski) looked as composed as Jason Bourne in a car chase.  And their goalkeeper Lehman has the two most important intangibles needed to save penalties:  he’s big and crazy.  He covers alot of the net and the Argentian players had no idea which way he’d dive.  

Full disclosure.  I did not see the first 80 minutes because of a previous committment.  Was celebrating Canada Day by playing golf and then having a steak dinner in a hockey rink while listening to the Tragically Hip and Loverboy.  I kid you not.  2517_small.jpgBut that lead to a weird experience where we watched the end of the Germany game at this golf course in the middle of nowhere, BelgiumAnd in the tiny, tiny clubhouse the former Belgium Foreign Minister (like Condi Rice) and current EU minister Louis Michel watched it with us while calmly sipping some water and puffing on fat Cuban cigar.  There was no security around him, he was joking around with a couple of buddies and was just a nice guy.  He’d get my vote. (He’s got the beard). 

The 2nd game offered up no surprises as Italy completed their usual trifecta.  Won the game, kept a clean sheet and lead in stretcher jobs 3-1.  Italy meets Germany on July 4th in the first semifinal.  Hope the TV ratings are huge in the US for this game.  And now a quick peek at today’s games.   

England-Portugal @ 17:00 Central European Time. 

Potugal coach Big Phil Scolari goes for the quadruple diss against England.  He beat England in the quarterfinal at WC 2002 with Brazil, in the quarters at Euro 2004 with Portugal and then turned down the England coaching job two months ago.  Normally my money would be on Big Phil, but Portugal goes limping into the game missing 2 key players.  Midfielders Costhina and Deco both received well-deserved red cards in the NetherlandsPortugal debacle.  I think England has one great performance in them and deliver today in a 2-0 win.  The English are in a frenzy anyway with their team on the verge of the semis and the unreal line-up at Wimbledon today:  Agassi vs. Nadal, a Sharpova match and then Murrary (great British hope) vs Roddick.  You gotta love sports!!!!

France-Brazil @ 21:00 Central European Time.

The winner of the last 2 WCs meet in a dream match-up.  Can an aging France recall the glory of ’98 and defeat the defending champions Brazil?  Will the old midfield horses Vieira, Makele and Zidane keep up with the splendid Brazilians Ronaldinho and Kaka?  Do Ronaldo and Henry both score?  How do the sometimes shaky keepers Barthez and Dida fare?  Questions, questions.  For no particular reason, this is the most excited I’ve been for a game (outside of the USA).  If France plays well, this will be a memorable game. 

Enjoy your Saturday and enjoy the games. 

To the Semis

Posted June 30, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

Big day, big game(s).  Let’s start with the 1st game:

Germany-Argentina @ 17:00 Central European Time

Both teams are playing well and this would have made a great final.  Actually was the final in ’86 (Argentina won) and in ’90 (Germany won).  So these teams have history.  Which means absolutely nothing to this game except for cool highlights during the pre-game and several shots of Maradona in the crowd. 

This has all the potential of a classic.  Although with the stakes being so high, it could turn into Swiss-Ukraine II.  It should fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes.  (I know I really went out on a limb on that prediction.  After the WC, I’ll return to writing speeches for Hillary Clinton). 

Both teams have clinical finishers on form up front.  And great players litter the midfield.  And are a bit shaky on defense.  And I have no idea who is going to win.  Sorry.  Take the day off, put the brats on the grill, chill the beer and enjoy.  If the game lives up to its potential you can watch again immediately after on ESPN Classic. 

Italy-Ukraine @ 21:00 Central European Time

Italy should and will win. Ukraine is essentially a one-man team with Shevchenko being that man.  While he’s crazy good, one man will not beat the Italians.  And this game could be quite boring with the Italians trying to desperately defend against a team who won’t attack.  So I suggest you play the Italian soccer drinking game instead.  Take the indicated number of sips of your drink (preferably Zima or a wine cooler) when the following occurs:

1 sip:  For anybody named Andriy and when an Italian protests the ref’s decision:

2 sips:  For Ukranian corner kicks and every glimpse of the overwrought Italian coach Lippi. 

3 sips:  For every shirtless Ukrainian fan and every Italian dive. 

4 sips:  For each card issued and every stat the ESPN announcers blather on about.

Continuous drinking:  While the stretcher is on the field until the “injured” player magically reappears in the game. 

Pass out after 15 minutes of gametime and catch the “highlights” later.  But seriously, Enjoy The Games.   

(If you haven’t check the site lately, that’s 3 posts within the past 24 hours, including “Joga Bonito” about going to Brazil-Ghana and “The Last (16) Roundup” a review of the past 8 games.  I apologize for being slow on the trigger earlier this week). 

The Last (16) Roundup

Posted June 30, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

After a scintillating round of group play I thought the WC was only going to get better.  However, the momentum seemed to stall a bit for this last slate of 8 games.  Time to separate the wheat from the chafe. 

Saturday June 25.

Germany 2 Sweden 0:  The Swedes inexplicably survive the group stages in big tournaments and then get exposed in the knockout phases.  Ze Germans ran roughshod over them with Podolski netting a brace (2 goals- soccer lingo) in 12 minutes.   Swedes never recovered and the game was really over when Lucic received his walking papers in the 35th minute for a 2nd yellow.  Terrible call, just a quick tug on Klose at midfield and the Germans shamelessly baited the ref into producing the yellow.  Far from a classic and perhaps all the Nordic countries should merge into a super Viking team for the next WC.   

Argentina 2 Mexico 1 in extra-time:  Mexico played Argentina to a standstill in a stirring game.  It only took the goal of the tournament from Argentina’s Maxi Rodriquez to separate the teams.    Worth a 2nd, 10th or 50th look.  Best game of this stage. 

Sunday June 26.

England 1 Ecuador 0:  The Equatorians put up a game fight with only Ashley Cole’s great hustle in blocking Carlos Tenorio’s shot preventing Ecuador from taking an early lead.  This was followed by 80 more minutes of sputtering offenses best summed up by England’s Lampard repeatedly “shooting” balls into various sections of the stadium.  Only Beckham’s sublime free kick rescued England.  And according to the English press Beckham and Lampard deserved to be benched, Hargeaves sucks, Sven tactics are abysmal and England is plain awful.  Just think how delighted the press will be if England reaches the semifinals.   

Portugal 1 Netherlands 0:  A terrible game that was strangely compelling like watching clowns riot.  Didn’t know whether to look away in incredulous horror or stare with mouth agape.  Portugal committed 10 fouls and received cards on 9 of them.  The Netherlands trailed by a goal for 70 minutes yet their coach Marco van Basten never subbed in their best goal scorer Rudd Van Nistelrooij.  Instead he played my feudal overlord, Jan Vennegoor Of Hesselink (real name), who I owe my allegiance and 40% of my barley harvest. 

Monday June 27.

Italy 1 Australia 0:  The Aussies played for 40 minutes with a man advantage, but the Italians managed to fend them off.  To quote Italian goalkeeper Buffon:

I thought I played well even though I had less to do than in the previous match against the Czech Republic. I did well on the few occasions I was needed. I never thought the Australians would score, but in the second half I didn’t think we would either.

This quote perfectly sums up the game and the cocky, me-first spirit of the Azurri.  Italian soccer players should all be stamped “Fragile; Handle with Care or I’ll dive on the ground and roll around in tremendous mock agony unless a penalty is called then I will leap to my feet and celebrate with my teammates.”  Needs to be a big stamp. 

Swizterland 0 Ukraine 0 a.e.t. 0:3 PSO:  In less complicated terms the Ukraine defeated the Swiss on penalty kicks.  Swiss are 1st team in WC history to get knocked out without conceding a goal.  Ukraine is the first former republic of Mother Russia to advance to the quarterfinals.  Game was a complete bore.  And somewhere a solitary Swiss striker is out practicing his penalties to the faint sounds of cowbells. 

Tuesday June 28.

Brazil 3 Ghana 0:  The Black Stars of Ghana gave a valiant effort. (For a more complete recap read the “Joga Bonito” post listed on your right).  Unfortunately, they shouldn’t have invited England’s Frank Lampard to give them a shooting clinic.  All this ragging on Lampard pretty much guarantees he scores in his next game.  After all, I believe my constant nitpicking on the French inspired them to this:

France 3 Spain(no longer Espana) 1:  Party like it’s 1998.  Great storyline.  The French behind aging stars Zidane, Vieira, Thuram and Barthez recapture their form of old and defeat white-hot favorites Spain in a thrilling affair……HOLD IT.  I saw it a bit differently.  This was 1-1 game almost certainly heading into OT when Thierry Henry went all Italian and dropped like a rock when nudged by Puyol.  That swan dive produced the free kick that resulted in France’s 2nd goal and effectively ended this game.  Zidane’s injury-time stunner was chantilly sur la mousse chocolate.  Or something like that.  I respect Henry immensely but I think diving has no place in the beautiful game. 

After 4 days of mildly entertaining soccer and 2 off days, it is time for the quarterfinals.  Storied rivalries, revenge games, the Ukraine and Posh Spice are all on tap.  I’ll preview the match-ups in the next post. 

Enjoy the games. 

Joga Bonito

Posted June 29, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

I received probably my favorite email ever on Saturday when I got confirmation from FIFA for two tickets to match 55 in Dortmund on Tuesday.  Back in May when I put my name and money down on the waiting list for this game, I had hoped against all odds for Brazil-USA.  But Brazil-Ghana was almost as excellent.  And this is how the day went.

At 9am we were on the road for the 3 hour drive to Dortmund.  It was cloudy, drizzling and in the low 60s, but that didn’t dampen our spirits as we cruised through Belgium and the Netherlands into Germany.  We were going to see the Samba Kings play live in the WC.  

After picking up our tickets from the box office, we fortified ourselves with the vital beer and sausage combination.  Despite it being 4 hours until kickoff, decided to just hang around the stadium until gametime instead of heading into Dortmund.  Plenty of food and beverage to be found and the Brazilian fans were already geared up. 

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There are approximately 200,000 Brazilians traveling around Germany during the WC.  And these people know how to have a good time.  A constant dim of drums was in the air as everywhere were groups of fans dancing, singing, posing for pictures and just enjoying life.  It must be great to be a Brazilian and have such a passionate love for sunshine, dancing, and soccer. 

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This guy’s drumming apparatus was awesome. 

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We entered the stadium about an hour before kickoff.  A sizeable contingent of Brazil fans were making a racket behind one goal, but most of the 66,000 were rooting for Ghana.  It’s true that almost everyone’s 2nd favorite team is Brazil, but at this point in the WC that no longer matters.  If your team is still alive, you root for someone to beat Brazil because you don’t want to play the 5-time champions.  So the Black Stars of Ghana had temporarily become Germany’s favorite team. 

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As kickoff approached there was a definite buzz around the stadium.  Probably few sporting events have this type of electricity.  It was like waiting for Tiger to tee off, Michael to be announced or Tyson to strut to the ring.  And when the players entered flashbulbs popped off like 11 Elvises had hit the stage. 

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The game was fantastic live.  Ghana was flying around, stringing together chances, using the crowd’s energy but never could find that elusive goal.  Brazil was intriguing. They seemed content to let Ghana have the ball and then in a flash Brazil would score.  Ghana played well and still they were lucky not to lose 8-2 instead of just 3-0. Witnessed some history as well when Ronaldo scored his 15th WC goal breaking the record he shared with Der Bomber, Gerd Muller. 

After the game we took the U-bahn downtown Dortmund to watch FranceSpain on the big screen while the Brazilians tooted their horns. 

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Dortmund was packed with fans.  Most people were rooting for Spain, but France prevailed 3-1.  Didn’t lighten the mood though, as I’m sure the party was still going long after we got back to Brussels at 2am.   Overall, it was a fantastic day at the WC. 

If you wish there are more photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/57226564@N00/.

Enjoy the games. 

Not so Fair Play

Posted June 26, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

Portugal-Netherlands was not a good game but was certainly gripping entertainment.  16 yellow cards and 4 reds was the final tally in Portugal's bitter 1-0 win.  And it was exactly what this WC needed.  This game was a stark reminder of how much players need to improve their behavior.  It was like recess time for kindergartners.  The iconic image of last night had to be the Netherland's Van Bronckhorst and Portugal's Deco, teammates on Barcelona, watching the game from the stairs like petulant teenagers.  (It was on TV, but I cannot find a picture of this anywhere.  Sorry).  This was the ultimate ugly side of soccer on display for the world to watch.

I honestly believe the referee did a good job.  The players did not adapt and some of their play was simple brutal.  Costinha simply lost the plot with his handball.  Figo's headbutt and theatrical injury fakes certainly tarnishes his legacy and Deco was childish in holding the ball to receive his 2nd yellow.  But for all the Portuguese transgressions the Dutch were worse.  Dirk "Porn Star" Kuyt and Van Bommel spent more time flopping around on the pitch trying to draw penalties than playing.  Robben played like a colicky baby and Boulahrouz deserved to be arrested for his assault on Ronaldo.  It was a pitiful display. 

Shaking off the bad of yesterday, (England's 1-0 win over Ecuador was no picnic to watch either) and looking ahead to the quarterfinals with ArgentinaGermany and EnglandPortugal match-ups set.  Today brings Italy-Australia and Switzerland-Ukraine as two of these teams will move on.  Here's hoping that real soccer action will return.  Enjoy the games. 

The Spirit of Togo

Posted June 24, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

The last 16 is set.  The harsh reality of overtime and the heartbreak of penalties looms over every game now.  Two teams enter and one team leaves.  But before we enjoy WC football at its finest here is an ode to Togo. 

Yesterday we made the short 2.5 hour drive from Brussels to Cologne to see FranceTogo.  This game did not have the same carnival spirit that surrounded Japan-Australia and Italy-USA. Cologne must not have received the memo that they were hosting the WC since the main fanfest in the downtown was basically a gigantic construction site.  Also, the French fans were super nervous since they had to win by 2 goals to advance for certain.  But once we fortified ourselves with the essentials, the day started to pick up. 

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We watched the early games on a big-screen.   Unfortunately, this screen was being used for a band concert because its setting in front of Cologne's Cathedral is magnificent. 

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After the games, the mood of the crowd started to become more festive.   The Spanish and Ukrainian fans were celebrating their wins.  The Togo fans were making friends and earning converts to their side.  And the French were displaying their Frenchness.

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Cologne didn't seem to have a central meeting point where all the fans were gathered.  Instead everyone was spread out by the Cathedral, at a big-screen park and throughout the Old Town, especially by the river where fans of all ages enjoyed some soccer. 

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Most people took the U-bahn or subway for the fifteen minute ride to the stadium.  It was packed like rush hour except that people were smiling, singing, blowing horns and generally happy.  I stumbled upon some French patriots and some dyslexic Togo fans. 

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Inside the stadium was great.  All the neutral fans adopted Togo as their team. Since Togo had already been eliminated many fans were sporting Togo jerseys purchased at greatly reduced prices.  The French National Anthem was fantastic, spine-chilling stuff.  Great song and always reminds me of "Casablanca." 

The French fans were nervy throughout until their team scored two nice goals to secure passage to the next round.  Then a full-on dance party broke out.  The "Wave" cascaded 6-7 straight times around the stadium.  With 10 minutes remaining the Togo fans behind each goal started huge conga lines.  The stadium was rocking and the game became secondary.  After the whistle and the French had received their applause, about 5 Togo players did a slow lap around the field.  Laughing and smiling, waving to fans, these guys were indicative of the spirit of the WC.  Togo, outmatched on the field, making headlines for all the wrong reasons off, still managed to play 3 spirited games.  The whole place went wild, even the French fans, as the stadium literally rocked to the rhythmic chants of Togo, Togo.  What was an ordinary match had turned into something memorable.    

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More pictures of the day can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/57226564@N00/sets/72157594175751810/

What an experience.  There is no other competition quite like the WC. 

Enjoy the games.   

The Day After

Posted June 23, 2006 by Gil
Categories: World Cup

Here are some musings on the USA while I wonder why Japan would want to make Brazil so angry by daring to score 1st in their game? 

Yes, the penalty was a terrible call.  But both Ghana goals were preventable.  Don't know what Reyna was thinking on the first.  Never play with it in the back, he should have just booted upfield to clear his lines.  To add injury to insult, that play knocked him out of the WC and will probably be his last game for the USA besides a cameo on Claudia Reyna Night coming on a cold night next year in Columbus.  Pre-order your bobblehead now. 

The 2nd Ghana goal was even worse.  Bocanegra needed to knock it out of bounds.  Gives Ghanaa throw-in, but no real danger.  Instead he plays with it, gets chased down, beat on a header and then the penalty call on Gooch.  Game over, as this USA team was never going to score 2 goals in a half. 

Ghana played a smart game.  They pressured for moments, then set-back and roughed the US up (32 fouls on Ghana to 16 for USA) and then used the counter-attack.  But without Essien who's suspended on cards, they will get rolled by Brazil.  Hey look, Ronaldo is scoring again.  He still can't move, but is a clinical finisher. 

Where does the US go from here? Don't know, but I'm headed to Koln for France-Togo right now.  Actually, I'm preparing a whole state of the USA soccer piece that I'll post in the next week.  Feel free to send me your ideas, so I can laugh at their silliness and revel in my mock-intellectual superiority. 

A final word on the WC refereeing: shitesnessstrautsausageweisersuckfest as the Germans so eloquently put it.  And I couldn't agree more.  The parade of yellow cards and penalty kicks is ruining the game.  A player from Croatia last night managed to receive an unprecedented 3 yellows in one game.  My biggest reason for seeing France-Togo was to watch Zidane play.  He's the greatest player (along with Ronaldo) of the past 20 years and retiring after the WC.  Instead, he's suspended for picking up a 2nd yellow in the 90th minute against S. Korea on a horrible call.  Let the players play. 

Enjoy the games.