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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Catching up on the Cups: Southeast Asian Cup

When you have a job it's easy to lose track of the fun things in life: like minor international soccer tournaments.
So, as we near the end of the actual Asian Cup we take a look backwards at the smaller, less prestigious, but far more fun Southeast Asian Cup, also known as the ASEAN Football Federation Cup, or the AFF Cup, or the Suzuki AFF Cup, because why not.
Everything's Coming Up Kiatsuk!!

ON: Kiatsuk Senamuang (Coach of Thailand)
The former War Elephants striker returned to the team as a youth level coach and after a great run of form (including gold medals in two youth tournaments) repeated the feat when his youth players graduated to the national team. He's the first person to win the Suzuki Cup as both a player and manager. So basically, he's golden until Thailand fails to qualify for the World Cup.
OFF: Clarity of fan/political allegiance in Thailand
As the proud owner of a Bangkok knockoff Thai National Team jersey, I have to say that I was swiftly pressured into identifying the color that noticed my political allegiance. Yellow for the monarchy, red for the reformers or blue for...well...farang tourists who didn't want to piss anyone off. But with their most recent trophy won in red and dedicated to the ailing king, it's hard to tell what anybody's rooting for in the Thai stands (other than victory/peace).

ON: Mohd Safiq Rahim
Gratuitous Malaysian Bowling plug
While Malaysia was unlucky again to be waylaid in their pursuit of futbol greatness. The country has a strong hunger for glory, but little to show for it. Their 2010 Suzuki Cup win was their first trophy in 21 years, and they've got just 5 points in the last 3 World Cup qualifying campaigns. But that's nothing to do with Safiq Rahim, who remains absolutley deadly from the penalty spot netting four of his Golden Boot winning 6 goals. And if that weren't enough, he's married to one of Malaysia's best known female bowlers Zandra Aziela. (Take that Nomar Garciaparra and Mia Hamm!)
OFF: Baby Face Laotian Keepers 
Living in a part of the world with a large Laotian diaspora, I keep hoping that Thim Xad will pick it up. But that's hard to do when they field a pair of goalies with 5 caps to their names. Perhaps Thailand built for their future by trying so many young talents out, but manager Dave Booth (of Grimsby Town fame) may actually have set back the process of Seng Athit Somvang (23) and  Soukthavy Soundala (19) after that duo yielded 12 goals in 3 matches. God speed to the newbies.

ON: The Street Rep of South Asian Fans
You name the hooligan-ish behavior and South Asian fans seemed to go in for it. Throw toilet paper at the ref: Check (thanks Singapore). Point lasers into opponents eyes: check (thanks Malaysia). Deliver death threats to opponents: check (thank you Thailand). And just beat mercilessly beating people up: check (thanks again Malaysia...though Malaysian press says thanks go to Vietnam...let's just agree you both acted poorly.)
OFF: The Socceroos
Technically Australia is part of the Southeast Asian Cup, but technically, Australia is much much better than everyone else in the sub-region. So! The Socceroos have chosen to participate only in the East Asian cup, with greater prestige, more money and greater challenge. But we know the truth, they just don't want to face the potential upset of so many consonants being dropped on confused readers of Aussie Newspapers

Monday, January 12, 2015

Catching up the Cups: Caribbean Cup

When you have a job it's easy to lose track of the fun things in life: like minor international soccer tournaments.

So, as the new year kicks off, it seems only right to recognize some of the other tournaments in the world during 2014. Starting out with Caribbean Cup from November
ON: Jamaica's Reggae Boyz
Though they entered the cup ranked lower than everyone but Curacao (and the unranked minnows of Martinique and French Guyana), Jamaica was an all around force on their home turf at Montego Bay. They utterly demolished their rivals in group B and held the stronger Trinidad and Tobago side at bay for 120 minutes, before winning the cup in a shoot out. While Leeds United's Rodolph Austin won the MVP for his midfield work, it's hard to under state the effect of Andre Blake. The MLS top draft pick and former Husky goalkeeper shut down all comers after a 29th minute goal in the first match. That's 316 minutes of shut-out soccer and a job well done.

OFF: Trinidad and Tobago's Soca Warriors
Even thought they weren't the host, the Soca Warriors were the favorite, ranked 21 spots higher than anyone else in the tournament (Antigua/Barbuda according to FIFA), and 64 spots better than their rivals in the finals. And still they lost. They haven't won a trophy since 2001, and haven't made a dent in non-Caribbean Cup tournaments since the trip to Germany in 2006. I'm not sure what it's going to take for T'n'T to get back on the rise, but it's something other than this.

ON: Haiti's Youth Movement:
Les Grenadiers have a horde of talented youngsters (all under 28) populating the midfield, with the strongest players venturing far and wide to find the best careers, including Sony Norde (25) with Mohun Bagan (a dominant squad in India), and Jeff Louis (22) with Standard Liege in Belgium. While they were a little flat against Jamaica, the future's bright for Haiti.
OFF: Cuba's Old Guard
Relations were normalized shortly after the cup finished, but for the sake of Cuban futbol, the Castro's may want to keep beat downs from us Yanquis at arm's length. Since winning the 2012 event (on a scant 5 goals in 5 matches), the Cuban philosophy seems to have been: keep everything exactly the same (hey, it's worked for the economy for the last sixty...oh wait...never mind). Despite a couple of shellackings that saw them bounced from world cup qualifying, los Leones del Caribe keep trotting out 40 year old Odelin Molina in goal, and the similarly 30+ Jaime and Yoel Colome. I'm going to make a heretical request Cuba, get something new.

ON: The Ultimate Underdog--French Guyana
We're fans of underdogs in Montana, and it's hard to find a bigger one than French Guyana. How low is French Guyana in the pecking order of FIFA, you ask? Nowhere. They aren't even a member. How well did they do? 5th place, good enough to get them a crack at the Gold Cup playoff against Honduras in March. And given that Honduras just came back from a World Cup that may seem like along shot, but remember, Honduras played terribly and has generally been awful while dealing with the whole drug-war thing. Here's hoping French Guyana gets in and pulls a shock or two this July.
Jack Warner's "What Me Worry"? Look
OFF: Caribbean Officials
FIFA and "scandal" have slowly become synonymous, but it should be noted that more or less everybody involved in the caribbean football union had to resign over the alleged bribes paid by Mohammed Bin-Hammam in his ill-fated attempt to oust Sepp Blatter. (Included in the list the FA heads for Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and the Bahamas, as part of 27 total warned, fined or reprimanded officials from 18 confederations). Does that have anything to do with the talented athletes? No...but I needed to mock someone, and my default position is to mock anyone linked to FIFA scandals.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

NEW FEATURE: Texts and Subtexts

While most of the futbol-ing world has turned its attention to club season, some of us are stubbornly focused on international contests. Those people are: me, Panini sticker collectors, and FIFA executives.

So, on the off chance that people other than me want World Cup/International Futbol news even when there's a whole lot of time before any meaningful matches are played for Russia 2018, I'll be posting some key links about the World Cup, qualifiers, rumors, announcements, etc. every month--near the end of it.

But rather than just having a link blast, I offer an added feature: "Subtextual Reporting". Where I put other worthwhile facts and obvious thoughts/feelings of the key players into the most interesting article of the month.

This month I couldn't resist this article where Sepp Blatter announces his intent to run for another term as FIFA President, lauds the US's chances of hosting a world cup, and then passive-aggressively smacks down England.

First, Blatter is standing for another election, despite promises he wouldn't [because lying is actually a plus for FIFA politicians]. And with Michel Platini [who currently makes an obscene amount of money running UEFA] electing not to get elected [and inherit the corruption and mishagosh of Blatter's recent rule] Blatter is more or less a sure thing to be elected again.

King Sepp
He's rather pleased with the possibility of rounding out his next term with a vote on the 2026 World Cup [and all the associated pay-ola that goes with it] and hopes that it would go to the United States [because it would make FIFA a butt-load of money].

But my favorite part was the end
Blatter said: "It's not important who is the president of FIFA [so long as it's me]. If England wants to have again a competition then they bid [and tell their meanie-pants press to shut up] -- whoever is the president of FIFA [and it will be me]. And they should listen a bit about what is called fair play [the whiny cry babies].
"But, at least, don't forget that in football, you learn to win but also to lose [unless you are me...because I never have to compete so I never lose]. So, therefore, [to cover my ass] I appeal to all those to go back to the essence of football, and then you learn to lose [C'mon England, you know what that's like]. I have lost a lot of times [though it was so many years ago, I can't remember it] but, if you lose, then you stay there and you try to be better [or at least, more positive about me]. And then, stay fair, that's all.
"Fair play was invented by England, Great Britain -- the beautiful game and fair play [and stupid journalists who attack me]. So let's celebrate fair play [so long as I never have to do it myself]."
There you have it! The subtext of Sepp Blatter's recent clippings, all the truth, some of the slander, none of the responsibility. For more eloquent chiding of Blatter, check out the Dutch Welle's opinion section.
The biggest news is all about the 2018 & 2022 investigative report submitted to FIFA by American Lawyer Michael Garcia.

--One British MP wants to use the report to bring criminal charges against FIFA leaders (good luck)

--In the wake of many many fans wanting to see the report FIFA leaders also want fans to see the report 

--But a decision from FIFA's own personal judge on whether or not any action is taken against those accused of corruption won't be heard until November at the earliest...and more likely spring of 2015.

"I must protect the Russian parts of that ball"
--The fate of Russia 2018 may depend on just how badly Vladmir Putin wants to destabilize Ukraine. The FA fears a boycott or removal of the games by FIFA, though all mutterings of a boycott are pretty much just that...muttering.

--When not fretting over whether or not they'll get the tournament in the first place, Russia is also mulling a way to get more competitive by 2018. Namely, they're considering having the national team play in league matches against other Russian squads (in 2017)...because how better to suit up for Germany than playing a bunch of guys not as good as you

--A former head of the German FA has said he doesn't think the World Cup will be played in Qatar in 2022...though not because of corruption, just because it's hot...