Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup Myths...Exploded!

It's funny how a lot of journalists become even lazier when they report on the World Cup Finals. Then again we all shouldn't be so surprised when they've had six months or so to bone up on the players and still we get BBC match commentators mangling names (it's "Kay-soo-kay" Honda not "Ka-zoo-key" Honda).

Speaking of bones, those of contention are World Cup soccer myths journalists seem intent on perpetrating every four years.

Myth #1
Italy "Always" Start Off Slow

Now, I believe this myth can be traced back to 1982. This is because Italy did start off very slow with three draws in its group stage and barely qualified for the 2nd round by the fingertips of Dino Zoff's hands. The fact that they Paolo Rossi-ed their way to the 1982 title and also shocked the world by knocking off the in-form and magical 1982 Brazil squad cemented this so-called "fact" that Italy starts any World Cup Finals slow. This all follows with reams and reams of cybertext and on-air babbling about how we should all watch out for Italy as they "always" start off slow at these tournaments.

Well, since 1982, Italy has started off four of the seven World Cup Finals campaigns that have followed with a win in its opening game. Their records in these "first" group games is 3W 3D 1L. In its second game of those seven campaigns they have exactly the same record.

So, in simple terms, in those 14 World Cup games they have lost exactly twice since 1982.

Three of those campaigns ('90, '98 & '06) they got 4 or 6 points from their first two matches, topped their group and ended up going to a semi-final ('90), a quarter-final ('98) and won it all ('06).

A better argument about Italy's chances is to look at their top strikers. The 2010 version of Italy really had no world-class striker. When Italy does well they have a striker who can get them that vital goal when needed (Angelo Schiavio and Raimundo Orsi '34, Silvio Piola '38, Luigi Riva '70, Paolo Rossi '82, Toto Schillaci '90, and Roberto Baggio '94). Only in 2006 did they really not have striker of true quality as Luca Toni is, frankly, not going to go down in the annals of Italian soccer as anything other than being tall.

Myth #3
Cameroon Are Africa's Best Shot
This was established in 1990 after they became the first African team to get past the group stage and managed to make it to the quarter-finals before losing to a Gary Lineker-led England.
Since then Cameroon have consistently qualified for the World Cup Finals and only missed out in 2006.
Their record at these four World Cup Finals since that glorious run in 1990 has been:
1W 4D 6L
9 GF 24 GA
Their lone win came in 2002 1-0 vs. the world soccer "powerhouse" of Saudi Arabia.

So, let's just say, Roger Milla might be more right than Samuel Eto'o in his assessment of the Cameroon national team.

Since 1990, Nigeria in '94 and '98 went through to the knockout stages and now Ghana in '06 and '10 have done the same. Let's just put it this way, soccer goes in cycles nation to nation. Just don't expect Cameroon, as cool as their uniforms look, to be the flag bearer of Africa's faint World Cup hopes.

Myth #3
Germans Play Like Robots
Well, if this is how robots play, let's get more robots into the World Cup as at least we'll see goals, come-from-behind wins, huge upsets and controversy. In other words we won't be bored to death by unimaginative and uncreative England.

Call the Germans "ruthlessly efficient" but I'll take the 1970 semi-final extra time thrilling 4-3 loss to Italy (arguably greater than the much ballyhooed 4-1 Brazil win over Italy in the Final) or even the now forgotten (except in Austria) match where the Germans got Krankl-ed 3-2 by their neighbors in 1978.

Every decade sees at least two to three classic matches involving Germany (and don't forget they were only "half a Germany" as West Germany up to 1998!) at the World Cup Finals. In 1982 there was the Soccer Anschluss vs. Austria and the Toni Schumacher Micahel Peca-like hit on Patrick Battiston in yet another wild semi-final. In 1986, for my money, the best World Cup Final ever with a come back from 0-2 down only to lose 3-2 thanks to a magical pass from Diego Maradona to free Jorge Burruchaga for the Argentinian winning goal.

Even in the very poor 1990 Finals, the Germans were the lone bright spot blitzing through their first two matches with 9 GF and 2 GA. The round-of-16 2-1 win over Holland with the spit heard all across Europe was again a match for the ages. Then there was the semi-final that brought Gazza to tears.

Although 1994 would be a failure by German standards they played three thrillers: the Jurgen Klinsmann show in the 3-2 group stage win over South Korea featuring, a 3-2 round-of-16 win over Belgium and the huge Letchkov-ian 2-1 upset of the Germans by Bulgaria in the quarter-finals.

I won't even mention 1998 other than Davor Suker really put the nail in a dull German team that year.

In 2002 goalkeeper Oliver Kahn became a cult hero in both Germany and host nation Japan but other than smoking Saudi Arabia 8-0 the fact that a goalkeeper was their star pretty much sums up the entertainment value of Germany that year.

As hosts in 2006 they impressed in the group stages despite many German fans belief this team was not good enough for prime time. It showed in the knockout stage as they struggled to score. So although making the semi-finals, lost quite as expected lost in extra time 2-1 to Italy.

Basically, the English-language media (meaning the English tabloids) hate the fact that the Germans, of all possible nations, are better at the English national sport (you mean whining about anything and everything isn't their national sport?).

All I know, you watch a German match, since 1982 when England finally returned to the World Cup Finals, and you'll see an average of 2.68 goals per match. You'll fall asleep watching England's attempt to out-Italian teams as their matches average just 1.82 goals per match. I don't know about you but I'll take German robots over the blood and guts thunder of the humans that play for England.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup Tiebreakers Explained

As we are well into the last matches in each group the permutations of what results will result in which teams going forward is almost as confusing as the NFL's playoff tiebreakers.

Actually, the World Cup tiebreakers are fairly straightforward.

1st tiebreaker: Cuisine
Just not Gouda-nough

If teams are tied in the standings it goes to cuisine. The country with the better cuisine always advances.

This worked to great effect in 2006 when Argentina and Holland were level with 7 points in their group. Argentina got to top the group as their inexpensive and tasty steaks just narrowly beat out the Edam and Gouda of the Land of the Nethers.

2nd tiebreaker: Music
Hate to say we told you so

If taste buds cannot discern between two national teams, it will go to music. This can be a difficult tiebreaker given the English-speaking world has little, or no knowledge, of Third World music unless Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Paul Simon and Sting tell us about it.
Often the judges have to revert to traditional musical forms (i.e., tango, Peruvian pan flutes, etc.) to decide on a winner.

In 2002 Sweden and England had to battle it out this way. Now, normally, England would have walked away with this given its New Wave history but, remember, this was 2002. New Wave or punk had long been over. Even the Stone Roses and Oasis were old news by then. Sweden was rising a musical wave of itself in bands like the Hives, Sounds, Caesars and Cardigans to pip England as winners of their group.

3rd tiebreaker: Hotness
The winners--no contest

Once we get to the 3rd tiebreaker it gets much easier to separate the teams. It basically comes down to a selection of women determining how hot the respective players are on each team (this gives the Italians a decisive edge and shows us why they've won 4 World Cups).
If the male soccer player hotness quotients are level, it goes to the dreaded hotness ratings on female supporters (Brazil also uses this to huge advantage hence its 5 World Cups).

4th tiebreaker: Culture
Well, it is the "Whirl" Cup, isn't it?

This is an even tougher category to judge. Judges are often swayed by one odd yet unique aspect of a nation's culture.
In 2002 Turkey advanced to the knockout stages thanks to its whirling dervishes and fez hats over Costa Rica's eco-tourism which the judges felt was a stretch thinking this was more a Costa Rican fluke of geography than culture.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup Previews: June 21

Battle of B Teams
(Portugal vs. North Korea)
Harro, Cristiano Ronaldo!

Brazilians often derisively refer to Portugal's national team as Brazil's B team. Well, that insult holds up well with Brazil-born Pepe (#15), Deco (#20) and Liedson (#9) on this uninspired Portugal national team in 2010. North Korea's national team you'd expect to be exclusively filled with North Koreans but even they have cast their net across a body of water. Jong Tae-se (#9) and An Yeong-hak (#17) come from "communist" families who escaped to Japan after the Korean War. It's a long story you can read here as to why this politically charged group of families were not booted back to North Korea way back in the '50s and live in the West.

Does the Teacher Have a Nickname?
(Chile vs. Switzerland)
Chile should win this match on nicknames alone. There's backup goalkeeper Miguel "Kryptonite" Pinto (#12), Matias "Matigol" Fernandez (#14), Gary "Pitbull" Medel (#17), Rodrigo "Little Clown" Millar (#20), Jorge "the Magician" Valdivia (#10) and the goal scorer in their first match Jean "Frenchman" Beausejour (#15). Should the Swiss want to get the game under control they should bring defender Ludovik Magnin (#3) off the bench. He's a registered primary school teacher and given the youthful Chileans could put those skills to good use in controlling their forwards.

Colonizers Take On the Colonized
(Spain vs. Honduras)
You'd think the Hondurans would take advantage of that historical connection but not a single member of their squad plays their club soccer in Spain. Of the Honduran national team members playing outside Central America, three members play in the English League, two in Italy and two in China. Spain won't feel too slighted as they know they have the divine on their side in Saint Ilker in goal. Now all they need is the Davids (Villa and Silva) to come through with some goals.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup Previews: June 20

We Have Liftoff!
(Slovakia vs. Paraguay)
The Soccer Is Out There

Slovakia have an alien playing forward in Martin Jakubko who hails from Saturn--Saturn Moscow Oblast of the Russian League that is. Paraguay counters with the superhero duo of Hulk (defender Carlos Bonet who strangely plays wing for his club team Olimpia in Paraguay) and Bird (forward Edgar Benitez)

All Immigrants Welcome
(Italy vs. New Zealand)
It Does Takes Two To Tango

Italy won two World Cups by stealing top Argentine players and getting them to play for the Italian national team back in the 1930s. Mauro Camoranesi continues in this tradition being born in Buenos Aires. New Zealand, on the other hand, stole an English player in Tommy Smith. He represented England at the youth level having been born in the town (Macclesfield) that 9-foot 7-inch England forward Peter Crouch hails from. Smith did grow up in Auckland so switched allegiance given he no longer wanted to be associated with the most boring team in world soccer--the Land of Eng. Smart move on Smith's part and Camoranesi has not done too bad choosing Italy over Argentina given his 2006 World Cup winner's medal.

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
(Brazil vs. Cote d'Ivoire)

For Cote d'Ivorie, you can't tell your Toures without a program. Kolo (#4) is the oldest brother and is a defender with Manchester City. Yaya (#19) is the younger brother and a midfielder with Barcelona. Ibrahim is the one in the stands cheering them on and plays his club soccer in Saudi Arabia.
Now Brazil's defender Luisao, or Big Luis in English, (#14 and whose "real" name is Anderson Luis da Silva) is the the older brother of Alex Silva who did not make the Brazil squad this time around and is not related to Gilberto Silva (#8) who did. Gilberto Silva has no brothers playing pro soccer but he does have an anteater at the London Zoo named after him. Thiago Silva (#15) is also not related to the other Brazilian squad Silvas but he has played in Portugal where Luisao now plays his club football.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

World Cup Match Previews: June 19

The Unusual Suspects
(Holland vs. Japan)
A three-time champion
There is a strong Dutch connection on the Japan squad and it's an imperial one. Scorer of the winning goal in Japan's first match and current top Japanese soccer hottie, Keisuke Honda, was known as Keizer Keisuke during his playing days in Holland with VVV Venlo. Keizer being Dutch for "emperor." No word on whether now playing for CSKA Moscow if he's in line for "czar" status.
The Dutch, though, have their own three-time champion "sexiest babe of the year" Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen, who is midfielder Wesley Sneijder's girlfriend.
Hopefully, this is a good omen for a beautiful match.

Centers for Disease Control
(Cameroon vs. Denmark)
African teams supposedly have an advantage as far as being acclimatized to playing on the continent. Don't tell that to Pierre Webo. Four years ago he contracted malaria on a visit to Cameroon.
On the Danish side manager Morten Olsen has come down with a fever heading into this match.

A Fez of The Church
(Ghana vs. Australia)
A match covered in milk chocolate

It's Istanbul not Constantinople! Ghana's #1 in goal is Faruk Gursoy--a naturalized Turkish citizen. Richard Kingson moved to Turkish club Galatasary in 1996 and renamed himself after the club's president Faruk Gursoy and chairman Ergun Gorsay.
Faruk's got nothing, though, on Australian forward Joshua Kennedy. Known as "Jesus" for his ability to walk on water...or maybe it's the long hair, Aussie supporters often shout, "Call your dad, Jesus!" to Josh when the team needs divine intervention.

Match Previews: June 18

Work And Play Safe
(Slovenia vs. USA)

It's a medical condition, ref!

Slovenian forward Zlatko Dedic lost the tip of his middle finger while go-karting at the start of this soccer season. The US of Eh features a goalkeeper (Tim Howard) with Tourette's syndrome.
Watch for this match to be filled with some interesting hand gestures and inappropriate swearing.

Goalkeeping The Dream Alive
(England vs. Algeria)

Glove, Glove Me Do!

Just in case the Land of Eng need inspiration in net, be assured David "Calamity" James was named the "15th" greatest player in Portsmouth history.
Robert Green (of the Hamburger Helper Mickey Mouse gloves) was the first keeper to be red carded while wearing an England shirt so he has that going for him. And at least he's consistent as seen by this clip.
Lastly, Joe Hart has spent the last three seasons on loan to three different clubs unable to crack through and take the #1 job at Manchester City who actually are paying his salary.
So, looks like you're in good hands, Ingerlund, in goal.

Over in the land of Algeria their choice in net comes down to the guy who had his suspension lifted (Faouzi Chalouchi), the guy who was suspended (Lounès Gaouaoui) or some other guy who actually has never been suspended (Raïs M'Bolhi).

So, to paraphrase, you're also in good hands with the nation state of Algeria.

Schweinsteigering The Former Yugos
(Germany vs. Serbia)
Cultural diversity is what the World Cup is all about. From the melodious sounds of the vuvuzelas to Germany's child labor laws--German keeper Manuel Neuer has been with his club team, Schalke 04, since the age of five.
Look for Serbia to try to out-Crouch the Germans with their (1/2-inch taller than England's Robot Dancer Peter Crouch) skyscraper of a striker in 6' 7 1/2" Nikola Zigic.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Can Anybody Score?

"Tor" blimey, score with the Germans!

Whether it's the vuvuzelas, the Jabulani soccer ball, the mixed natural grass/artificial turf pitches or the altitude, South Africa seems to be the World Cup Finals where goals go to die.

The last World Cup Finals got off to a similar poor start with 12 "clean sheets" among the first 16 matches. So far in 2010 there have been 11 teams held scoreless.

Only one team (thank you Germany!) has scored more than 2 goals. Only two other teams have scored at least 2 goals (South Korea and Brazil).

In '06 we had scores of 4-2, 4-0, 3-0, 3-1 and 2-2 in the first round of matches.
In '02 we had an 8-0, 3-2, 2-2 and 3-1.
In '98 we got a couple of 3-1 and 2-2 each matches.

If you're not PVRing and skipping straight to second halves of games you really are a glutton for watching paint dry.

Here's hoping Spain and Chile both come out with many barrels a blazin' to save these World Cup Finals from possibly being the worst in the modern era.