Tag Archives: World Cup

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.

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Socrates Remembered

6 Dec

Socrates, the great Brazilian soccer maverick, has died at age 57. Those who saw him play were moved by his style. He glided over the grass, his intelligence working the angles, carving space, inspirational and beautiful. He was unlike the other midfield maestro of his era — Maradona. The Argentine was a short squat explosive; Socrates embodied elegance and poise, something special, the man with the golden heel. In the Beautiful Game, Socrates was the Beautiful Player.

Soccer was art to Socrates, it was never about winning and losing, “victory breeds conformity,” he said. He possessed contradiction, conflicted like so many great artists. He was a rarity amongst the soccer professional; an intellectual and writer, a qualified medical doctor, smoking packs of cigarettes each day during his playing years. His demon was the drink, so often the hemlock of the visionary. It helped kill him, and his reputation suffered, “They don’t want me to drink, smoke or think?” he said, “Well, I drink, smoke and think.” Off the field, he was an advocate for Brazilian democracy playing his part in the country’s democratic renaissance as it emerged from military rule.

His philosophical name was a perfect fit. He asked many questions of opponents and they rarely had an answer when he was in full flight. He captained Brazil in the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain, now acknowledged as the best team never to win the tournament. Arguably, Brazil ’82 were the best Brazilian squad of all-time. He wished for Brazilian football to return to it golden era of flair and freedom. He had little patience for the modern game’s tactical methods, dull and bureaucratic, players hampered in confining roles. Socrates was a man who stood for freedom of expression, on and off the field. When will we see his likes again?

Team USA – We’re Off to See The Wizard

28 May

To imagine how the USA is going to fare in the World Cup Finals, we could look down the yellow brick road, and dream of bringing the trophy home to Kansas.  But who should lead the team – the straw man with his brain, the tin man with his heart or the lion with his courage?

If the straw man leads, the players will be on the plane home after round one. Leave the thinking to the old masters of football. If the lion appears, there may be room for some valiant moment but courage may not be enough. That leaves the tin man – squeaky, like an old Ford, and requiring gulfs of oil to keep the whole thing running. It’s the combustible gasoline of the heart that the national team needs if the World Cup drive is to be long and thrilling. American soccer is on a new popular highway, right through the heartland, all the way home.

In the Korea/Japan World Cup in 2002, the heart was at the pump. What bookmaker would have taken odds on the USA opening up a three goal lead against top drawer Portugal in their opening game, then knocking a violent Mexican side out in the Round of 16, only to be defeated by an over thinking German soccer machine aided by a referee who one suspected read by Braille. How could he have missed the blatant German handball on the goal line, a penalty that would have given the USA the momentum to win the tie?

But in Germany 2006, the USA game shifted. The soccer gear had moved from the heart to the brain, and the USA imagined itself to be an equal partner by moving up the FIFA rankings, keen to be taken seriously by the game’s old masters. The play was measured, and self-conscious, and the paint was soon stripped from the body. Eliminated in the first round, the wheels spinning off, the tank was empty – there was no heart.

American bark should frighten people. But it doesn’t on the soccer field. We are the underdog. And the team must remember this on June 12 when the English bulldog snarls at them in the most anticipated game in US soccer history for sixty years. The English are the old masters. They will bring their brains and their courage but will be saving their heart for later in the tournament when they may need it against their mortal soccer enemies, Germany and Argentina. So play from the heart, USA. Remember the tin man. But no tears. We don’t need rust on the road to glory.

The Hand of Henry

19 Nov

The Hand of Henry

Think of all those brand names that players pick up as endorsements. And make bags of money in the process. And the team strips emblazoned with corporate logos. But maybe it’s time for a new logo to be branded across the chests of our favorite soccer stars, those ones who like to dive, or use their hand to earn a goal. Welcome to soccer’s growing, dynamic brand: CHEAT.

Branding a player a cheat is a tough and ugly call. Some argue that unfair advantage is a natural part of the game. Yet, French star Tierry Henry deliberately used his palm to knock Ireland out of the World Cup Finals. Shouting and cursing will follow him like the smell of rotting escargot but it will come to nothing. The hubris of star players demonstrates their supremacy over the game. Henry will shrug his shoulders and be happy that his World Cup appearance bonus is secure.

But back to that CHEAT endorsement. FIFA will no doubt be happy that its marketing department has all the big teams in its World Cup 2010 tent while gearing up its message of liberty, equality and fraternity for all the soccer-loving nations. But maybe it’s time to add a new positive campaign like FIFA’s No to Racism effort. We need a Kick Cheats Out of Football crusade. A yellow card for simulation needs to become a three-month ban. A Hand of Henry goal needs to be a year ban.

A ruthless manufacturer in China could make three million fake Henry tops with his new endorsement and sell them to every man, woman and child in Ireland. They will not forget the Hand of Henry. The Irish memory is long.

The Death of Scottish Football

13 Aug

funeral

If you’re Scottish, your football is dead. Once, a thriving field of imaginative players lived in this football worshiping country; now a dead zone, populated by footballing zombies. Scotland’s latest humiliation against Wales ranks as the worst effort by a Scottish team, probably, ever. An abomination of capitulation.

So what has made this footballing country die? Is it the culture? So long enveloped in drink and bad habits. Throughout the years, so many Scottish players banned for alcohol inspired abuse. Is it the fact that Scotland is not a nation, but a region of the United Kingdom? You can only play for your country if you truly have one. Or maybe Scots can’t dance? Brazilian Samba, Argentine Tango, cool, and svelte; the Scottish Highland Fling, no use in football. A corrupt and provincial mindset at the top of the Scottish football establishment condemns it to the grave. Scotland is now a minor football planet, a Luxembourg, an Iceland. And once they talked of winning a World Cup. And still they sing that ironic dirge, I’ll Walk a Million Miles for One of Your Goals, Oh Scotland. Indeed, that is the distance the Tartan Army will have to travel to see their nation score big again. And all that they have left..Let’s hope the English lose. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. The end of Scottish football.

If you fancy it, check out my guide to the World Cup Finals, published on May 4 – www.thegloriousworldcup.com

Iran – The Soccer Revolution

23 Jun

Watch it!

Momentous times for Iran, last week they were eliminated from participating in the soccer World Cup Finals in South Africa in 2010. During their fateful last game, several of the nation’s players wore rebel green armbands in solidarity with their compatriots fighting in the streets. Soccer in Iran is more popular than politics and revolution. Iranians believe in the sentiment expressed by the legendary Scottish soccer coach, Bill Shankly, “Life and death? Football is much more important than that.”

But under Ahmadinejad’s mob, Iranian soccer has deteriorated. The team’s play in recent times has shifted from a long thread of poetic nuance to subdued aggression, much like the grin on Ahmadinejad’s mug. Iran lost its stylish play, and some of the players resorted to out of character roughness on the field. Ahmadinejad acts like a soccer hooligan, he’s got that casual look but doesn’t mind sticking the boot in to his enemies. And the Iranian people know that under his governance, the nation has failed to qualify for the biggest show on earth. Even the Shah avoided that humiliation. It’s a national disaster.

Blame them! Ahmadinejad’s calling card popped through the doors of Ali Karimi, 31, Mehdi Mahdavikia, 32, Hosein Ka’abi, 24 and Vahid Hashemian, 32, four of Iran’s best players. According to reports, the four are now banned for life from playing for the their country, having donned the green armbands in last week’s game. And the former head of Iranian soccer has been arrested, an ally of the reformist movement. The clampdown on the Iranian game will backfire on the mob currently in charge. In the future, expect to see packed soccer stadiums in Iran, as the vehicle for protest. The soccer revolution can pack a whopping strike. Ahmadinejad would be well advised to have his revolutionary shin guards on.

In miracle news, the USA has qualified for the semi-final of the Confederations Cup, currently being played in South Africa. Tomorrow’s game against Spain, the best team in the world, is a great opportunity for the boys to show the world some true grit. ESPN has the coverage, get behind the team.

Kick the Balls is out now in paperback in the bookshops www.alanblack.info

World Saved From North Korean Nuclear War

17 Jun

nkoreaflag

North Korea have qualified for next year’s soccer World Cup Finals in South Africa ending the possibility of a nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula. No country will threaten its chance of glory at the world’s biggest event. The corks are popping in Pyongyang and cheering could be heard across the DMZ in Korea, the world’s most dangerous stand-off. North Korea’s qualification comes at the expense of Iran, who will not be at next year’s Finals. Centrifuges could be heard spinning in Tehran after news of North Korea’s qualification came through. Expect a draw down of troops in the Asian theater but longer stays in Iraq. Israel has an outside chance of qualification. Let’s pray that they make it.

North Korea’s qualification sets up the enticing possibility of a match up with the United States. Here is an opportunity for President Obama to meet Kim Jong-Il, and allow the outcome of the game to settle the conflict once and for all. If America loses, they leave Korea. If the Koreans go down, hand over the nuclear bombs now! Is there a better way?

The last time North Korea qualified for the World Cup Finals was in 1966 in England, when they impressed the world with their all-out attack style of play, reaching the quarter-finals. In that historic game against European power-house Portugal, the Koreans gave up a 3-0 lead at half-time, to finally lose 5-3. The long bus journey back to North Korea was filled with the singing of patriotic songs, and endless cans of warm English beer.

Check out the highlights of North Korea’s 1966 classic game against Portugal. Vintage stuff.

Kick the Balls is out in paperback now in the bookshops. www.alanblack.info