Tag Archives: World Cup Brazil

The Wee Man Rules in Football

28 Jul

I grew up in Scotland. The wee man was ubiquitous. And he could be dangerous. The big man was wary. Don’t annoy the wee man. His punch reached above his stature. You didn’t see it coming. He was down there. And you couldn’t catch him. He was fast. It was the same on the soccer field.

One of Scotland’s most famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic, fielded a player named Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone (pictured). He reached five feet, two inches. The fans loved him. In the sixties and seventies, he buzzed defenses with a dizzying zigzag. Big defenders employed every dirty trick to stop him – swats and hacks failed. Height jokes only provoked him to topple the tall. Nothing could repel the bite of wee Jinky. He was vital to Celtic’s 1967 European Cup winning side, the first British club to achieve the feat. If he were around today, Barcelona would have him on their team.

Barcelona is the smallest team in Europe. Their star player, Lionel Messi – nickname La Pulga, the Flea – is three inches below the team average, which is just short of five feet ten. As a kid, he took hormone growth shots with his cornflakes in the morning. He fits right in with small teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi, forming a diminutive triumvirate that dominates world soccer. No net is safe when they strike for it.

The wee man has ruled for decades. Go back over half a century to the great Hungarian player, Ferenc Puskas, a goal-scoring machine at five foot seven, eighty-four goals in eighty-five matches for his country. Pele, the greatest of all-time, nudged five feet eight, won three World Cups and became world soccer’s biggest star. His Argentine rival for that lofty accolade was Diego Maradona. God handed him a mere five feet five and that was enough to win the World Cup handily in 1986.

These guys possessed a low center of gravity combined with excellent technical skills boosted by an ability to rapidly change speed and direction. Their dominance forced defensive tacticians to think hard. One method was to assign a defender to shadow the wee man.

A famous example – an Italian defender, the paradoxically named Claudio Gentile, was far from sensitive when he removed Maradona’s sting at the 1982 World Cup after sticking to him like a glue trap for the whole game. “Soccer is not for ballerinas,” he said afterwards. Italy won the tournament.

If marking failed, brutality stepped in. Pele was kicked off the field during the 1966 World Cup vowing to never play again. Thankfully he changed his mind. In the eighties, the Basque, Andoni Goikoetxea, known to his friends as the Butcher of Bilbao, attacked the luckless Maradona with a savage tackle that destroyed the Argentine’s ankle, shredding his cleat. Later, reports claimed the Butcher displayed the shredded cleat like a trophy on top of his television set.

It can be dangerous being the wee man battling in the field. Many plot their downfall. Just ask Napoleon. But for all those aspiring soccer kids out there who are on the short side of the ruler, take heart from the fact that soccer is your game to master.

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The Dark Ages – What if the USA Failed to Qualify for Brazil 2014?

6 Jun

Imagine the scene – Clint Dempsey’s face is covered by the darkest shadow and it has nothing to do with forgetting to pack his razor. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, once the blond, now the gray, is catatonic. TV images show the colors on US painted faces dissolving in tears. The Stars and Stripes is lowered at the stadium. Somewhere inside the byzantine FIFA, bureaucrats ransack files to find a reason to disqualify a small country already packing for the beaches of Rio. No one steals the economic thunder of World Cup corporatism – but no reason can be found, and FIFA has to keep its new nose clean. The USA is out. A dark specter haunts the soccer fields of America. Fans are starved of USA! USA! Enemies pounce and eviscerate the alien game – the haters have been waiting for this moment for a long time, those foul bastards. Play the scary music. Would it be a dark age for US soccer?

Think of this argument. Major League Soccer’s existence, founded 1995, is enveloped through the four-year cycle of World Cups. And its growth has been connected to the success and failures of the US team at the tournament. At France ’98, the national team played rubbish and went home early. By 2002, there were questions as to whether MLS might survive – franchises were going bust. The surprising US quarter-finals appearance in the World Cup that year – including the rise of  Landon Donovan’s star and victory over Mexico – transfused interest. Expansion followed. Leap forward to South Africa 2010 and Landon Donovan’s famous last minute strike against Algeria which sent waves of patriotism around the fifty states. US soccer was stocked again and MLS got even fatter. So what would MLS feed on if the nightmare was real?

MLS has built silos in its field. Soccer specific stadiums for one. A place called home for the majority of its teams. Stock them with the grass roots fan movement that has been nourished on a diet of organic soccer and foreign grains. The many who have played the game, fans who cross over from other sports, those who occasionally migrate from the sofa-centric fix of the Fox Soccer Channel to attending a domestic game. Irrigate some TV revenue and the odd foreign star showing up for his American swansong. Look over the horizon to the promise of the sun rising on Russia 2018.

But no one wants to go there. In Klinsmann we trust. Produce enough aggression and finishing to carry the flag to Rio. USA kicks off its World Cup qualifying run against Antigua and Barbuda on Friday June 8 followed by a trip to Guatemala on Tuesday June 12. Six points in the feed bag would keep the sun shining. Rio, here we come.

Captain Klinsmann on the Amazon Bound

6 Apr

USA national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, is engaging. His voice has a laid back feel. He has lived in California for a while. And from there he stares out across a continent of differences, and beyond that, over the sea to Americans playing soccer in foreign lands. From this acreage he picks the ingredients that must safeguard the American settlement in world soccer. Consider the weight of responsibility. It befits the German national to have a relieving chuckle now and again as he picks the cargo that will carry America to the samba party at the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil. The qualifying sails will be raised in June.

Last week’s Olympics elimination fiasco for the USA was noted not just for the result. Many people, without knowing the game’s structures, assumed the senior team were carrying the can of humiliation. Even though the U-23 squad coached by Caleb Porter was the real loser, the focus turned on Klinsmann and his vision for the future. The US Soccer Federation acted fast. Klinsmann would now be available to the press on a regular basis to discuss everything. Perhaps the men in blazers feared panic creep before Klinsmann’s ship, let’s call it the Amazon Bound, leaves the harbor.

In taking over the helm in 2011 from the stern Bob Bradley, Klinsmann insisted on a root and branch reform of the US game. The current US colony on Planet Soccer was established through hunger, a bite that proved to the old masters of the game that Americans could compete and win against them. They laughed at the Yanks to begin with but underestimated the fire of players like Brain McBride and Landon Donovan among others, players happy being tough underdogs. Chewing on the bones of bigger beasts was most satisfying. But the USA is no longer considered an underdog in most of its match ups. So where will the feed for the long term Klinsmann project come from?

Here are some bones from yesterday’s press conference call with Jurgen Klinsmann.

The melting pot crew–

“I have to adjust to the different soccer landscape in this country, adjust to the fact that 75 to 80 percent of the players are overseas, some in Mexico, so they’re all over the place. They come in from all different backgrounds, so that’s a bit of a different challenge. I just take things the way they are, and then I look for solutions and I look for ways to communicate with them in their own ways. Maybe I have to adjust and use Twitter and Facebook to get hooked to them and get a message out to them, which I hadn’t done before. So as a coach, it’s important that you kind of analyze your environment and say OK, based on what you’ve seen now, this is what you have to do and you have to change the way of doing things. It’s important to get the messages out to the players and that they understand why we do certain things, why we want to encourage them to look at things a little bit different. Every one of them has lived their daily lives in a very different way, and so we have to figure out how we get things across to them and hopefully make them step-by-step a little bit better in everything that they’re doing.”

The seeds for tomorrow –

“How can we help our youngsters and our kids to develop to the highest level possible? What structures can we give them? The introduction of a 10-month season is just one of these pieces. It’s crucial that we adjust to the global game. It’s crucial that we understand that soccer is not a seasonal sport. Soccer is a sport that is played 12 months of the year. In most of the soccer nations, it’s really played 11, 11 and a half months out of the year. How can we compete with those nations? Whatever it takes in the discussion and what is ideal for 10- to 14-year-olds and further up, what is ideal for all these kids, then you should adjust. We need to find a tier-driven environment because we need to give a lot of the younger players the opportunity to get enough games per year. If you look at the players between 18 and 22 years of age and you summarize all the amount of games they really have and see if they are part of an MLS system, then maybe simply it’s not enough. It’s really worth it to get everybody at the same table sooner or later and discuss all those topics. It’s not me coming in and saying this is what we need, it’s really everybody involved that needs to come together and say, ‘This is how we need our players to grow more effectively, to grow more continuously and not drop off in a couple of months here and a couple of months there as often was the case.’ But this is a huge topic.”

Every American wishes the fair winds blow the Amazon Bound to a solid trade in goals. Klinsmann may also benefit from the wisdom of Goethe. Carve this on the mast – Der Worte sind genug gewechselt, lasst mich auch endlich Taten sehn! (Enough words have been exchanged; now at last let me see some deeds!)

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of the memoir, Kick the Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey, and The Glorious World Cup. (Penguin USA).