Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The FIFA Election: Seriously...this is happening...

This Friday, Sepp Blatter will stand for election against former vice president Prince Ali of Jordan. Until about 7 hours ago, he was widely expected to win easily, he had seen two of his other challengers (Michael Van Praag of Holland and Luis Figo of Portugal) off and after nearly two decades worth of political wrangling and glad handing there was nearly no one who would dare challenge him...outside of the cranky Europeans who would like a little more say in matters as its their leagues and their players that make most of the money.

And then...this happened

Okay...that wasn't quite as dramatic as I thought it would be, I mean its a lot of bed sheets and nice brown pants, but still!!

The point is this: Swiss Police arrested 9 current and former FIFA executives including major executives in the CONCAF and CONMEBOL federations.

Accusations of bribery and corruption make up the main list of charges against these officials. Some suggest that broadcasting rights, kit sponsorship deals, and any number of other pieces of football management have been tainted by bribery and black backroom dealing. To which soccer fans around the world replied, "well D'UH!!!" 

Still there's something immensely satisfying after a few weeks of raids on Biker Bars and ISIS camps, it was nice to hear of a raid on a Luxury hotel in Zurich. It was also strangely gratifying to read newly minted Attorney General Loretta Lynch hammer the targets of the probe, noting how their actions have "profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable". As someone who has long rooted for underdogs and against heels, this is a big one.
No more wretched hive of scum and villainy
Exactly what happens next is unclear. I mean, it's clear if you're a an FA executive. Those charged will be extradited to New York to answer their accusations. Meanwhile, Swiss officials have said that they're launching a separate investigation into corruption and bribery surrounding the infamous 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process votes. So basically, if you've been a FIFA official in the last row 30 years or so, it's pretty clear that you'll want to schedule a meeting with your lawyers.

It's clear that FIFA is determined to continue its business as per normal. The Women's World Cup, the various summer tournaments (COSAFA, Gold Cup, Copa America, U-20 Cup, etc.) will continue on as will all the qualifiers and stadium building for Russia 2018. Even the FIFA stupidity will continue too, as evidenced by the fact that they are currently claiming to be one of the victims of these terrible, terrible, men. (Odd that Lynch neglected to mention "immensely powerful/enriched friends and colleagues" alongside the children, impoverished and fans around the globe...)

When it comes down to it on Friday, voters will still have to choose between Sepp Blatter and Prince Ali of Jordan. Blatter is conspicuous only by his absence from the list of accused individuals (and his prominence in being referenced/pictured in every news story covering it). FIFA officials have noted that Blatter "is not dancing in his office...he's not kind of a happy man today saying, 'that's really cool what happened.'"

And yet it's a pretty safe bet that come Friday Blatter will be happy. Because after all think of it like this:
Say you're a voting member in the FIFA parliament. You can A) Vote for Prince Ali as a stand against corruption and the system that enabled it even though many others may not and risk irking the teflon president of the organization who has a habit of making his rivals disappear. B) Vote for Sepp Blatter as a sign of unity and trust for a man who has not been implicated and continue riding the gravy train all the way to Scrooge McDuck's vault (assuming the Feds don't get you first).

We may eventually see some hefty fines and minimum security jail time for the guys (including, apparently the CEO of the NASL), but the games will still be played, he cash registers will still ring out, and this Friday in Vienna, we'll see old Uncle Sepp raise his fists, thank the thronging masses and promise to respect the trust placed in him.

If only that extended to admitting culpability for the culture he's created.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shooting From the Hip: AFC Second Round

You don't get far in this world playing it cautiously. It's as much a part of the Montana spirit as speed-limit free highways and sales-tax-free beef jerky.

So when it comes to predictions, I'll shoot from the hip. Take a chance when I'm not exactly sure. Be blunt and direct and optimistic when I can be.

The second round of Asian qualifying was announced on Tuesday, and while it won't start for another month and won't end for another year, I figured it was best to make predictions within 48 hours.

The nearly-year long second round, 8 groups of 5 will play home and away. The winners, and the top four runners up, will move on to the final round. (That's where your odds as one team in 2 groups of 6 get a heck of a lot better.)

So who will reach those lofty heights?

Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Malaysia
Winner: The Saudis have the higher profile and the richer pedigree, but the United Arab Emirates has had the better run of form lately. With probably the softest competition around them, I'd guess Zayed's Sons have the best chance.

Dark Horse: Set aside the geopolitical turmoil and the fact that their leaders seem hell bent on getting Israel kicked out of FIFA, but Palestine likely offers the best chance at an upset. A squad built on non-local players will never coalesce perfectly, but their familiarity with top flight squads (as seen in a trip to the the AFC Cup in January) will serve them well.
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Winner: This isn't quite a tap-in for The Socceroos but it's close. One of the dominant sides in Asia will have no trouble handling the rivals, the only real match to watch will be against Jordan.
A Socceroo tap in
Dark Horse: Speaking of Jordan, "The Chivalrous" have a strong case to make as one of the top sides in West Asia. They've had great fortune against the lesser sides of Asia (which definitely includes the Bangladeshis, Tajiks and Kyrgyzseseses--okay the Kyrgyz no offense meant), and by cutting their teeth in an endless series of friendlies against higher profile foes they'll keep that strength, take their lumps against Australia and move along.
Group C: China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Winner: Loathe as I am to give them any credit, Qatar has put just about everything they have into developing a team that will match their stadia by 2022. And in case you're wondering, yes that does include pressuring foreigners into service (including Frenchman Dame Traore, Ghanaian Mohammad Muntari and Brazilian Luiz Junior). A strong 2014 was undercut by a truly underwhelming performance in the Asian Cup, but I think they'll be under pressure to get close this cycle--so they don't become the first team since Italy in 1934--the second cup ever--to host a world cup without having played in one before.

Dark Horse: I'm absolutely drinking Bhutan's Kool-Aid, but I don't care. The low profile, lack of film, high altitude home matches and general "do you believe in miracles vibe" makes the land of the Thunder Dragon an easy squad to root for. In the end they'd need to take points at home against both China and Qatar and sweep all matches against Maldives and Hong Kong, but hey, crazier things have happened.
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Winner: With or without the recently departed Carlos Quieroz, Iran's got too much talent to miss out in this group. A debacle during a penalty shoot out at the Asian Cup this January shouldn't distract from the fact that they were easy front runners at the tournament and should be for this one as well. If they put their minds to it, I'm sure that young striking talents like Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarfarid could find some salient suggestions for the nuclear deal too.
Go Go Guam!
Dark Horse: Much as I love plumping for India (where I lived and worked for a few years), the baffling dark horse to root for is Guam. The rare American protectorate that actually IS an underdog, Guam garnered big headlines when they drew at higher profile Singapore. A squad filled with American college kids and MLS developmental talents might not do much against even average Asian sides like a dangerous Omani crew. But they are the ultimate dark horse.
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Winner: It will take a lot for any of these teams to meaningfully challenge Japan. The Blue Samurai got an excellent draw despite a lackluster World Cup and Asian Cup. Still, they're at the top of the Asian standings and even if they don't consistently bring back European based players they should be able to handle these qualification rivals.

Dark Horse: If one of the other four sides can put together a consistent run against the other three they could pull a surprise especially with other second-tier teams (and Japan) playing so inconsistently. At a guess, I'd put money on Singapore which boasts a young squad with some internationally based players and more who work together at Lions XII bringing cohesion and confidence into the mix (not to mention avoiding the ...but when you lose to whole confidence is undermined.
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei
Winner: Credit where it's due, Iraq consistently makes the best of an unusual and often trying situation. They've played the top teams in Asia very closely and make a habit of taking lower-ranked rivals seriously. A few foreign based players (including the Columbus Crew's Justin Meram) show continued promise and growth.

From Left to Right: Chanathip Songkrasin and Kroekrit Thawikan
Dark Horse: The biggest challenge for Iraq will be the frequent long-distance hauls to South East Asia. So the question for a dark horse will be any team who can boast a difficult home environment (to steal a win against the favorites) and real sway over regional rivals. By that standard Thailand is your most likely nominee (just winning the South East Asia Suzuki Cup, boasting a young and growing squad, consistent at home), but that's not anything I'd wager heavily on.
Group G: Korea Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Winner: Korea is still one of the preeminent powers in Asian football, perpetual status as bridesmaid's not withstanding. Their growing influence in Europe doesn't hurt matters, world cup qualification is now expected and the rivals here won't slow that down.

Dark Horse: Right now the hottest team for fans of Asian underdogs is Bhutan, but Lebanon was pulling the Cinderella story during the 2014 cycle. They're back again against two teams they beat on the road during the last set of qualifiers, higher regarded Kuwait and Korea. Though it ended with whimper in the final round of qualifying, the Cedars stood tall, and while Kuwait's a more likely runner-up/qualifier. Lebanon is still where my loyalty lies.
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, DPR Korea, Yemen
Winner: The Uzbeks have long been a favorite of this blog. After all there's a strong corps of players being augmented by solid youth talents from a growing domestic league. They were in the hunt for a World Cup Spot until the final weeks of the last cycle, and they played well in the Asian Cup this January. Sure their president might be a nut job who made his daughters pop stars, ambassadors, corporate honchos, heirs apparent to the presidency, and then (at least in one case) political prisoners. But still, how 'bout that team, eh?

At least he didn't name them manager
Dark Horse: Maybe it's that they're the only reasonable country in the group. Maybe it's that their nickname is "the Street Dogs". Maybe it's that I'm afraid of Manny Pacquiao. But I feel like the Philippines might be poised for a surprising finish. Bahrain and Korea are both on the slide and Yemen is in turmoil while the Philippines has seen steady results and, in goal keeper Neil Ethridge, boast the only Chelsea trainee in the whole group.

12 Teams advancing to third Round (** signifies Top 4 runner up)
South Korea
**The Philippines

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Happy Trails: 209-196(ish)

I'm rather fond of giving a little glimpse into the minnows and would-be-Cinderellas of the World Cup Qualifying campaigns, and I don't even feel like it's a pattern that should be limited to those who win (or are likely to win).

That's where this "Happy Trails" feature comes in. At the end of any month that features World Cup qualifiers I try to take a peek and see who has ridden off into the sunset of international futbol irrelevance for the next few years.

As this is the first time every member of FIFA is set to compete in qualifying, we have a lot of people to say goodbye to, long before we even smell the borsht in Russia three years from now. With that, let's raise a pint (or, given FIFA's sponsorship deals: Let's raise AN ICE COLD BUDWEISER BROUGHT TO YOU BY COCA COLA, OFFICIAL SPONSOR OF HYUNDAI'S SPONSORSHIP OF THE WORLD CUP) to the gone, and soon to be forgotten eliminated squads of the World Cup

(Note, each entry bases the ranking on games played, goal difference and finally chronological order. Entries begin with goodbye in a local language, a recap of previous performance, and change in position from one world cup cycle to the next)

209-ish*Lesali Sesihamba, Zimbabwe (2014 Finish #115; -94 spots)
Why They Lost: Well, technically they haven't lost yet, they haven't even played a game yet. But FIFA has "expelled" Zimbabwe from the World Cup because they failed to pay former coach Jose Georgini after firing him. And while Zimbabwe's totally going to fight this, FIFA's not exactly known for changes of heart.

It's worth noting that Zimbabwe was allowed to participate in the 2014 qualifiers, despite the fact that their previous head of the FA (ZIFA) was fired when she sent a fake national team to lose in South Asia and couldn't explain what happened to a $103,000 loan from the government. So, you know, undermine the legitimacy of the international system, no biggie, fail to pay a coach and hold your horses! Her replacement Dr. Cuthbert Dubet (who some accuse of organizing the charges against her despite his awesome name) makes $6.4 Million a year, so at least graft shouldn't be an issue for him.

So long story short, if Dr. Dubet fixes it we'll drop the others on this list down a spot each, if Zimbabwe stays eliminated let's just say it's because of total systemic corruption...
What We'll Miss: Lots of sure fire Robert Mugabe zingers. "Robert Mugabe's so paranoid, he thinks the Western forces driving him out of power are being driven out of power by other Western forces"; "Robert Mugabe's got so many delusions of grandeur even Kanye West thinks he needs to settle down." I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY MUGABE!!

#208 Buh Bye, Bahamas (2014 Finish: #176;  -32)
Why They Lost: After their unfortunate dismissal due to infrastructure problems four years ago, The Bahamas were utterly smoked by Bermuda in both legs of their matches, losing five-nil AT HOME and three-nil in Bermuda. Sloppy defending and frequent fouls seem to be the most common problem for Bahamian Slayersz (seriously, according to Wikipedia that's their nickname). With disarray on set pieces, failures to clear, cynical challenges and even captain Happy Hall earning a red card.

What We'll Miss: Hard to top a player named Happy Hall, even if he didn't look remotely Happy during the drubbing 

#207 Fare thee well, Anguilla (2014 Finish: #195; -12)
Why They Lost: The worst team to enter CONCAF Qualifying had to feel unlucky drawing the best team in the first round. There were long odds against Nicaragua from the off, and those long odds got longer when they lost five-nil in the first leg. The Three Dolphins may have bitten off more than they could chew, but there's always four years from now.
What We'll Miss: Ryan Liddie may not sound like a great keeper, but from the Nicaraguan match report, it was pretty clear that he was the only thing standing between Anguilla and a brutal drubbing.

#206 Ta-Ta, Turks and Caicos (2014 Finish #196; -10)
Why They Lost: Four years after getting pummeled by the Bahamanians, Turks and Caicos clearly found a way to get in to goal. They even grabbed a lead during the away leg thanks to Defender Widlin Calixte's brace in the first five minutes. However, all the new fire power made little difference when they were repeatedly picked apart by St. Kitts' even more potent attack (including Leicester City's Harrison Panayiotou and his hat trick).
What We'll Miss: As a Montanan living in Minnesota, the chance to bask in Cup Qualifying glory of the rival San Antonio Scorpions 'twin Turk/Caicos combo, Billy Forbes and Marc Fenelus (though since Fenelus is only 17 there's still time.)

#205 Bayarti, Mongolia (2014 Finish #198; -7)
Shirt badge/Association crestWhy They Lost: The Blue Wolves couldn't repeat the 2011 feat of taking a win in qualifying against this cycle's opponent, Timor-Leste and while a 4-1 defeat left a lot of work to do on the return leg. But a stultifying one-nil loss in Ulan Bator where nothing but cards flew after the 9th minute, showed that the young Mongolians still have a long way to go. 
What We'll Miss: Forward Soyol-Erdene Gal-Erdene has a lot of weight on his shoulders as a part of Tottenham Hotspur's youth program, but the real focus should be on Murun Altankhuyag, the midfield playmaker who will need to partner with Gal-Erdene for future matches. Hopefully a move to Serbia will boost those odds.

#204 Jongin, Macau (2014 Finish: #207; +3)
Why They Lost: Four years on from a 13 goal drubbing by Vietnam, Macau was actually much improved against Cambodia including a 1-1 draw to draw a point in the home leg of the match. But the 3-0 defeat in Phnom Penh under cut that.
What We'll Miss: Easy access to book makers and Macau's world famous gambling paradise. What's that? International accusations of match fixing? Uh...I'm sure there are other things to miss in Macau...

#203 So Long, US Virgin Islands (2014 Finish: #160; -43)
The Dashing Eagles must leave the pitch
in 20 minutes so 7th graders can
run the mile.
Why They Lost: The Dashing Eagles have a lot of youth and optimism around their team. With a host of teenagers, a confident captain in Dusty Goode (the old man of the team at 28), and an inspirational coach in Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed (of Mogadishu). But they do not have Wigan Athletic captain Emmerson Boyce. Barbados did. So despite a 1-0 win in Barbados, a 4-0 loss at home (where Boyce's addition seems to have made the difference) saw them out of the contest
What We'll Miss: The Virgin Islanders hosted a match at a Junior High School Field. That's the kind of home field advantage for young players that would be beautiful to see (especially if Mexico had to come to town)

Shirt badge/Association crest#202 Namaste, Nepal (2014 Finish #190; -12)
Why They Lost: In the last cycle we were plumping for young Rohit Chand, while he's still young, and still Nepal's best hope, he seemed out gunned, if you believe scouting reports that put him in charge of stopping India's top striker: Sunil Chhetri...only to have Chhetri's brace be the difference in qualification. But it's also worth noting that vaunted youth striker Bimal Magar, (currently trying out with Belgium's KRC Genk), was a total non-factor.
What We'll Miss: The charming Nepalese badge, like a double corner kick over Mount Everest.

#201 Khuda Hafiz, Pakistan (2014 Finish: 201; No Change)
Why They Lost: I've got to say, I don't think Pakistan is at all to blame here, I mean. They played Yemen twice in the gulf due to security concerns in both Yemen and Lahore. Delays, confusion, all of that left the Pak Shaheens unfortunately discomfited for their ties against a similarly confused but more highly regarded Yemeni squad. 
What We'll Miss: Muhammad Hamza's tweeting and writing is a great sample of passionate and proud futbol journalism from a country that few might focus on otherwise.

#200 Poittu Varen, Sri Lanka (2014 Finish: 202; +2)
Why They Lost: Overconfidence? Underestimation? Apathetic fans? Whatever the case, Sri Lanka crashed out to Bhutan. They had the better run of form, more professionals who played in a better league, a more experienced and worldly coach, a higher FIFA ranking and none of that mattered an inch. But on the plus side, they are responsible for what may become my new mantra while talking about underdogs. Whatever skills and talents the favorites have..."So Did Sri Lanka"
What We'll Miss: The chance for a nice nap...

Here's the fans when Bhutan won at home
And here's the best shot of the fans I could find from Colombo. 
Tiny Thimpu turned out 15,000 for a match, Colombo only rounded up 3,500 (many of those were Bhutanese University students)...despite the fact that Thimpu's metro population of 115,000 is about 2% of Colombo's 5 Million. Sure Bhutan's story is great for football, but sports writers need to sleep as much as the next guy/girl.

Uh, oh...he heard me.
#199 Selamaat Tiggal, Brunei (2014 Finish: Did Not Enter; +11)
Why They Lost: Brunei seemed to suffer from a classic case of scoring too early. The down side of doing that in a two-legged match is that you leave all manner of time for your opponents to get you back. Adi Said's strike in the 36th minute in Tapei gave "The Wasps" a big lead...a lead they squandered at home, conceding a goal on either side of their orange slices, to leave the wealthy sultanate wondering what went wrong...and why they didn't get a better half-time snack than orange slices, I mean...come on you're Brunei! You're supposedly the fifth richest ruler in the world!
What We'll Miss: Sassing the Sultan of Brunei: he's a man rich enough to afford a different medal for every hour of the day. But clearly he missed the oligarchical football management class from Roman Abromovic

#198 Bye, British Virgin Islands (2014 Finish: 193; -5)
Why They Lost: The British Virgin Islands didn't get the benefit of a home leg against Dominica due to construction on their best pitch (a combination cricket/soccer pitch...more proof that multipurpose stadiums just don't work! If only an owner could threaten to move the national team...). So despite young talents playing the game in the lower levels of the British professional system and various American colleges, they couldn't put it all together against Dominica.
What We'll Miss: For a team called "The Nature Boyz" this would have been a tremendous opportunity to double down on Ric Flair References. Sadly, we'll save the stylin' and profilin' for Christiano Ronaldo.

#197 Ta, Ta, Montserrat (2014 Finish: 193; -4)
Why They Lost: A team made up almost entirely of English citizens with Monserratian parentage (since a volcanic eruption 20 years ago sent a lot of the population to the less volatile English countryside) had a fair way to go just to compete, and minimal time to train. Also, they faced a Curaco squad coached by Dutch striking legend Patrick Kluivert...who can even get this match on to the sports pages of the vaunted Idaho Statesman.
Shirt badge/Association crestWhat We'll Miss: Lyle Taylor is clearly the main attraction and focus for the Emerald Boys, his potential has allowed him to bounce around a bit, with his greatest successes coming in Scotland first with Falkirk and now on loan to Partick Thistle. Still just 25, he may be able to boost the islanders to new heights in four years.

#196 Catch ya later, Cayman Islands (2014 Finish: 156; -40)
Why They Lost: The Away Goals Rule. A surprisingly game Cayman squad managed a pair of draws against a better Belize team (though Belize was without Atlanta Silverbacks Striker "Dangerous" Deon McCaulay who knotted 11 goals in the last cycle), but since they drew 1-1 in the Cayman city of George Town, Belize moved on.
What We'll Miss: The Cayman Island badge is a nice subtle nod to their English heritage, but with a slightly smilier Lion. He's your pal!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

WIBD CONCAF Round 1: Anguilla

Shirt badge/Association crestIn keeping with my fondness for righteous underdogs, it's time to consider the wee minnows in our own backyard.  Or in this case, the dolphins in our own backyard

While the US has only a slight chance of hoisting the World Cup, their odds are decidedly better than their neighbors in the North American Federation, I mean, we're not Haiti, or Suriname, or Canada, and we are most certainly not the lowest seeded squad in the contest: Anguilla.

The Three Dolphins (who might be smarter than the Three Lions of England, but are also less likely to win a bar fight) are ranked 208th in the World after going almost three years without a match (a 1-0 loss to the British Virgin Islands). But recent form suggests they might have a better future ahead, after taking two matches against those self same British Virgins (Note: There's got to be a better demonym than that...oh Virgin Islanders of a British persuasion...that's better) in the last month as a tune up for their qualifier against Nicaragua.

Still, this is the World Cup, and Anguilla's never won a qualifying match. They haven't scored a goal against CONCAF opponents in a meaningful game like this since 2002, and have been dusted by rivals by a total of 28-0 in their last six matches. Their highest honor lately was making my list of 11 cool looking federation badges.

Girdon Connor (#2, Left)
Normally statistics like that don't matter, I mean, squads turn over, especially in a decade worth of matches...but...well...this is still Anguilla, and they're still a nation sparsely populated by footballers, so much so that 36 year old Girdon Connor (who has been on the squad since 2004) is still their top performer.

Facing all this, coach Ryszard Orlowski (a Polish refugee living in Pennsylvania who helped coach Nepal before taking over Anguilla) remains optimistic.  "We’ve now and winning is contagious. Play our football and we will succeed.” Orlowski may have a point--after all, while Nicaragua has a squad filled with professionals, and consistent access to international competitions, so did Sri Lanka*.

Win or Lose, the Dolphins will keep playing, keep working, keep improving, and keep living in Anguilla. That's a pretty excellent way to live your life, all things considered.

*Note: "So did Sri Lanka" may become the rallying cry of every minnow in the wake of Bhutan's stunning may call "Trademark" on that.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Well I'll Be Damned! 2018 Kickoff

We're two short weeks away from the kickoff of World Cup 2018 Qualifying, and as such, it's time to reignite one of my favorite features to write during World Cup Qualification "Well I'll Be Damned" (WIBD) for short.

WIBD is a quick way to give some press to the least known and most easily forgotten teams in qualification, the squads for whom winning a match would be a high point in their national history, for whom qualifying for the finals is the stuff of intense day dreams, and for whom actually winning the cup would signify certifiable delusions.

Since the Road to Russia/Miles to Moscow/Long Haul to Luzhnki starts in Asia, that's where our WIBD profiles will start too, with the lowest ranked team in the whole cup: Bhutan

Shirt badge/Association crestThe Druk 11, as they're known in Bhutan, have a pretty paltry history in international soccer events. The 2018 tournament will mark their first foray into the World Cup. They haven't played a game at all in the last 18 months (a 5-2 loss to Sri Lanka in September 2013). And now they're set to face those same Lankan Lions in their first ever qualifying matches.

Given the absurd altitude in the land of the Thunder Dragon, the national squad might be able to develop some tremendous endurance. But given the lack of financial opportunities for football players in Bhutan (the game is often given up by kids once they discover more exciting/profitable math), players tend to have a hard time developing the skill sets to keep up with their other AFC counterparts.

Ranked 209th in the world and with an historical goal differential of -185, the odds are most definitely stacked against Bhutan. They've never drawn so much as a point against Sri Lanka, and in 15 matches against them they have scored exactly twice.

Still I'm optimistic. Maybe it's the fact that anything can happen. Maybe it's the fact that Changlimithang Stadium is at 7,600 feet above sea level 1500 feet below the insurmountable Quito in Ecuador. Maybe it's the fact that I taught the former son of the Bhutanese FA and am still hoping I can get a national team jersey. But come on, let's face facts. Bhutan is a rising power, ten years after beatin gMonserrat they could easily beat the world.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

3 On/3 Off: African Cup of Nations

A week after the Asian Cup concluded the African Cup of Nations wrapped up too.

I watched, I cared, so why didn't I write about it until now, nearly a month later?

Hey look it's an evasion of a question! On with the subjective judgements!

ON: Ivory Coast's Golden Generation
Arguably the greatest African nation of the past decade, the Ivorians boast a constellation of European club stars, a wealth of continental and global attention and acclaim and now, finally a major trophy. 23 Years after their first trophy, they've finally got another Nations' Cup title, and despite some middling, sleep-walking draws en route to the trophy they got there in the end. And though the biggest legend of the country could only watch from afar, his reaction pretty much says it all.
OFF: Ghana's Golden Generation
I'm pretty unrepentant about loving the Black Stars. It's been 11 years for me supporting the squad even through the seemingly inevitable Grudge Matches with the USA. But the team still has little to show for their decade of success other than a couple of youth trophies, and an increasing funk around Penalty Kicks. (Give them this though: Andre Ayew is the boss)

ON: Equatorial Guinea's Team
Nzalang Nacional was bounced unceremoniously from qualification for fielding an ineligible player. Even without that they struggled against their "ousters" Mauritania, who in turn got whipped by Uganda, who in turn came up short in the group stage. The backdoor qualification, taking over for a concerned Moroccan FA, didn't bode well either. But when it came down to it, they played well, qualified for the second round and knocked out Tunisia (thanks to some suspecting referring, but still). With four players under 23 trying to break into the first squads of La Liga's best, they're well positioned for the future as well.
OFF: Equatorial Guinea's Everybody Else
Sure it was short notice, a tournament cobbled together on the quick and the cheap. But the facilities reported by journalists and teams alike were slipshod and poor. Rumors of biased referring dogged the knockout rounds. And the home team's biggest match (a semi-final versus Ghana) devolved into a full scale supporter riot that ended in tear gas from an army helicopter.

The highest drama in football.
ON: Random Chance
Guinea and Mali drew their way through three matches, ending the group stage with the same points, goal difference, and goals scored. So what was the best way to select a winner? How about randomly drawing a name from a hat! In future random chance can also be used to determine overlong penalty kicks (which from Ghana's point of view, might actually be a better chance)
OFF: Cameroon's Best Efforts
Once upon a time Cameroon was the best squad in Africa. Roger Milla was king and when people thought of African football, they thought of the Indomitable Lions. And though the team still has the infrastructure and resources to consistently contend for continental trophies, the lackluster, sleep-walking performances both in Equitorial Guinea and more aggravatingly at last summer's world cup make the team look lackluster at best.

Monday, February 23, 2015

3 On/3 Off: Asian Cup Edition

So, I was back on schedule, and then...yeah.

We hereby return to our summaries and catch-up of notable (and not-so notable) tournaments starting with the first federation cup of the new cycle: the AFC Asian Cup

On: Tim Cahill (Soccer Legend)
Tim Cahill is to Australlian soccer what Bronco Nagurski is to American football.

That is all.

Off: Australian Fans (Geopolitical Novices)
I'm all for hospitality, but Australian fans took it to a new level expressing their affection for North Korea. The Red Robot wasn't too likely to have a lot of fans in the stands, but that's as much for it's systemic disadvantaging of citizens as it is due to the country's small population. Cheer how you want to Aussies...but just remember that one man's satire is a nut job despot's eternal devotion.

On: South Korea
The Taeguk Warriors are certainly disappointed to have been forced to settle for a fourth silver medal since their last trophy in 1960. (Their four bronzes over the same time don't help either). But set aside the final standings and you can see a dominant squad that only trailed for 45 minutes (the second half of the final) and still managed a stunning equalizer in stoppage time. The resilient South Koreans are certainly worthy of a trophy, and I have every confidence they'll be gunning for one sooner rather than later.
Off: Japan
Meanwhile, Korea's primary rival, Japan's Blue Samurai, were underwhelming, topping a middling Group D before being on the back foot for 74 minutes against the United Arab Emirates en route to their eventual ouster in the quarterfinals. Combine this lackluster showing with the fuzzy and unfocused runs in Brazil both last summer and the year before (at the Confederations' Cup) and Japan doesn't look terribly well prepared for the future.

On: Asia's "Perceived" Third Tier (Uzbekistan/UAE/China/Iraq)
Recent form suggested that China and Iraq had no shot at the second round and that the UAE and Uzbekistan were too unknown to thrive in a bigger tournament. At the end of the tournament Iraq and the UAE finished 3rd & 4th, while China and Uzbekistan topped a group featuring more recent World Cup qualifiers (North Korea/Saudi Arabia).

Off: Asia's "Perceived" Second Tier (Saudi Arabia/Oman/Jordan/Qatar)
The Saudi's remain Asia's most baffling squad, with a fine pedigree and minimal results. The other gulf states with rising standards and results (Oman, Jordan and Qatar)looked totally underwhelming en route to their own early exits. And while none conceded as many goals as debutants Palestine, their standards aren't to compete against's to compete against the other top teams in Asia.