Monday, September 15, 2014

Starting XI (A Month Late): Granting Montanan Passports

I know that most football fans are fixated on the current league season, and while we too are interested in the fates of the world's best footballers, we'll also take some time this year to shout out smaller regional tournaments [such as those for Central America (going on in the US right now!), the Caribbean (November in Jamaica), Southeast Asia (December in Vietnam), Asia (January in Australia), and Africa (January/February in Morocco)]

But before we do that, let's take a minute to reflect on the players at the recent World Cup who impressed us most. Players we would want for a Montanan National team--if such a thing were to exist. Players who fit the Montana model: gritty, tough, dedicated, passionate, and just a little quirky (Ronaldo's and Muller's need not apply). And since FIFA's relatively easy going about the whole "actually being a citizen" thing, we might as well shoot for the stars with our starting eleven.

Here's our guys:

I. Tim Howard--As if there could be any one else. Timmy is welcome in Montana any time, the beard, the tats, the blunt and forceful shouting...he basically is Montana any time, so sign on up Tim-bo, we'll be happy to have you.

II. Stefan De Vrij--For the sector of the state that farms and ranches (which is to say...most of it), you need to be tireless, dedicated, omnipresent. There's no off day, no vacation time. And watching the Dutch run to third place it was clear that there was no break for Stefan De Vrij. So welcome aboard Stefan, there's a nice couple acres out north of Choteau if you're interested.

III. Matt Hummels--Montana has an ample German history, strong willed immigrants who stake out the land and hold on to it, come hell or high water. Hummels would fit that mold nicely, grinding through every match, but showing enough of an offensive streak to be a little bit dangerous too. We're printing out "Private Property" signs for him to put around the 6 yard box.

AND he has the quintessential Montanan basement
IV. David Luiz--Lest you think we're all grizzled ranch hands, remember we also have Missoula...a city weird enough to make Austin jealous with none of the vainglorious self importance. David Luiz would be a perfect Missoulian representative: the hair of a hippy, the soul of a leader.

V. Mario Ypes--As long as we're tending to often ignored demographics, why not get some of Montana's quickly aging population on board? I think if we offer them a representative on the team, say, Ypes, the certified crotchety old man of Colombia, we could have a little sympathy for the squad amongst the VAs and retirement homes.

VI. Javier Mascherano--Along with Montana's age and agriculture, we have a fierce artistic streak. That's where Mascherano comes in. The soul of an artist with the body and style of a defender, he's a perfect piece of dualism within a dualized state.

VII. Bastian Schweinsteiger--This is simple: the man is talented and has a name that would be great fun to hear all my dear hoarse and disbelieving neighbors say.
Don't shush my Alps mockery!

VIII. Xerdan Shaqiri--While Montanans tend to confine their Swiss appreciation to the Miss and the Cheese (I call the "Alps" mountains...please). Shaqiri feels like a great fit for my own home town of Great Falls, a flier of sorts with a bad-boy mohawk, but enough attacking energy to keep the kids and the seniors alike well pleased.

IX. Celso Borges--Costa Rica's overlooked midfielder offers a quiet, dependable presence, with little emphasis on style and a whole lot of focus on work ethic. He actually could spend his down time baling hay or on a thresher.

Your secret's safe with us
X. Enner Valencia--Ecuador's top striker just feels right for the Montanan national team. He's not the first name you think of, he's not the most dominating or domineering figure, but he's dangerous...always dangerous.

XI. Reza Goochenhejad--In the spirit of "to each his own" Montanan individualism, and with a consideration for some fierce patriotism, we'd be happy to adopt the Gooch as our own Double agent. He already serves that purpose on the field, employing a mostly defensive mindset with splashes of daring attacks.

There you go Treasure Staters, that's my pick for the Montana National Starting 11. Would we win? No. Would we make the finals? No. Would we be bad ass? Yes...and that's all that matters.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Starting XI: Cashing In--World Cup Transfers and the Price of Beef Jerky

In honor of Labour Day, let's appreciate what it's all about: honoring the workers of the world...especially those who have made an obscene amount of money via the transfer window after the world cup. (I assume that was Marx's vision: "From each club according to their means, to each player according to a completely random sum of ever increasing money."

Let's go ahead and total the tonnage of cash expended in the last two months on players who grabbed eyeballs and earned screams from the various supporters and rivals in terms of how much they are making, and how much beef jerky (particularly--Hi-Country Top Quality Beef Jerky--11 ounce packages at $12.95 each) they seem to be worth

I. Claudio Bravo (Chile/Barcelona Goalkeeper)--10 Million Pounds Transfer Fee/1.28 Million packs of Jerky. 
The highest transfer fee for a keeper this window, Bravo is a more reliable and known property than the world's most darling keeper: Keylor Navas (who still drew in a handsome 8 Million from Real Madrid). His hard luck loss in the playoff round against Brazil didn't bother Barca, nor should it.
Hi Country Beef Jerky Beef Jerky

II. Luke Shaw (England/Manchester Utd Defender)--33 Million Pound Transfer/4.23 Million packs of Jerky
England's underwhelming performance wasn't laid at the feet of Luke Shaw. After all, his one match (v.s. Costa Rica) was the only one where the Lions kept the ball out of the back of the net. Shaw joined the exodus out of surprising South Hampton this summer heading for the read devils for a wad of cash, and an equal amount of Teriyaki Beef Jerky.

III. David Luiz (Brazil/Paris St. Germain Defender)--43 Million Pounds Transfer/5.49 Million packs of jerky
The most famous head of hair from the back line of Brazil, Luiz left the premiership for the more fashionable and stylish Paris St. Germain. With all the money and praise, one has to hope that Luiz recognizes that he can and should run...even if there are Germans against him.

IV. Elaquim Mangala (France/Manchester City Defender) 35 Million Pounds Transfer/5.46 Million Packs of Jerky
While Mangala, did not feature for France, there was still considerable enthusiasm for him, particularly amongst the Premierships most reliable money geyser: Manchester City. As he matures and grows, you have to hope that he's reliable in defense...or at least, you do if you're French.

V. Angel Di Maria (Argentina/Manchester United Winger)--65 Million Pound Transfer/8.3 Million Packs of Jerky
The most recent transfer (required once United started stinking like yesterday's fish) Di Maria had been having a fine World Cup until an injury 33 minutes into the semifinal left him sitting and staring as Germany triumphed. I imagine that he can dry his eyes on his huge piles of money...or his huge piles of Honey Kist jerky, which would be more absorbent.

VI. James Rodriguez (Colombia/Real Madrid Midfielder)--70 Million Pound Transfer/8.93 Million Packs of Jerky
The hottest name at the World Cup (hotter even than "Hansel"), James (pronounced Ha-mez) was the undeniable star of the undeniable tournament darling. He may well be the man in the middle for one of the most eagerly anticipated squads at Russsia 2018. But before then he'll be the heir apparent to Cristiano Ronaldo amongst Los Galacticos

VII. Antoine Griezman (France/Atletico Madrid Midfielder)--26 Million Pound Transfer/3.31 Million Packs of Jerky
Sure, there are other players who were deemed to be worth a little more money, but we've got a soft spot for Griezmann, our previously noted "Hip-Star" for the French squad, who did quite well in coverage for Franck Ribery. So well, in fact that Les Blus might have been the last real threat to Germany's title aspirations. Now he's on with La Liga champions and looking thoroughly eager for more glory.

Hi-Country Beef JerkyVIII. Alexis Sanchez (Chile/Arsenal Winger)--33 Million Pound Transfer/4.23 Million packs of Jerky
When Chile was at their best in Brazil, it usually had something to do with Alexis Sanchez, darting, dodging, digging deep and doing other things that start with D. Now with the Gunners, Sanchez has perhaps even weightier expectations on his shoulders with Arsenal expecting a trophy at last. With that much heavy lifting ahead, he may want to invest some of his money in power packed protein of peppered Hi-Country Jerky!

IX. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium/Everton Forward)--31 Million Pound Transfer/3.95 Million Packs of Jerky
Lukaku is best known by American fans as "that-guy-who-crushed-our-dreams". But, as a herd of world cup fans make the segue to the Premiership, a large proportion of us seem likely to adopt Lukaku's new squad--the under awarded, highly enthusiastic Toffees of Liverpool. Just remember fellow hipster US/Everton fans--he did celebrate crushing our dreams by saying "Hi Mom"

X. Diego Costa (Spain/Chelsea Forward)--33 Million Pounds Transfer/4.23 Million packs of Jerky
The most valuable player in La Liga last year, the man who almost single handedly delivered Atletico Madrid the title (above Barcelona, above cross town rivals Real Madrid), he now has a chance to prove himself in the Premiership amongst the similarly high profile, highly paid Chelsea signings.

XI. Luis Suarez (Uruguay/Barcelona Forward)--71 Million Pounds Transfer/9.05 Million Packs of Jerky
The most expensive transfer of the summer is also, perhaps the most controversial. Infamous around the world due to his repeated and almost incomprehensible biting habits, Suarez completes a trio of world class South American strikers alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar. Unfortunately, in making those transfers, Barcelona has put themselves into a position where they will not be allowed to make any further transfers for a year. There are all kinds of comments to make here about Suarez, biting, money and jerky...but come on...Hi-Country doesn't deserve to be tarnished by association with Suarez.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

A Final Happy Trails Review

I posted this blurry, unsatisfying video that walked through all the teams that had been ousted, please spare me the singing critique that's not what this is about.
Instead let's look at the teams who did the best job of over/underperforming to their FIFA Ranking

To be  sure there are some flaws to my methods. I eliminated people chronologically, giving more credit to teams who powered through many rounds of difficult competition rather than those who ran up the score on the San Marino's of the world.

With that in mind, here are the top 5 over achievers club

Andorra + 112
Ethiopia +98
San Marino +84
Lebanon +82
Iceland +81

Everybody loves Gylfi
Okay, take out the "mathematical elimination in 2012 club" of Andorra and San Marino and you have three of the best stories of the tournament. Ethiopia (coached by a part-time high school gym teacher), Iceland (buoyed by one phenomenal Gylfi), and Lebanon (the only team in Asia to make it through three rounds of competition).

Here's our two best over acheivers of the finals themselves
Ecuador +51
Costa Rica +50

Yes Enner, I'm praising you again...
Not surprising that the Ticos were here given their astonishing run to the last 8, but bear in mind that Ecuador was an even longer shot to make the cup Finals languishing outside of the top 64 teams in the world. Yes, if FIFA had done away with qualification and just taken the top 32 teams...even if they had held a separate consolation tournament for the next 32, Ecuador would STILL be sitting at home, pretty good especially given that they were one stoppage goal miracle for the Swiss away from the final 16 themselves.

Meanwhile here are our underachievers in chief

Serbia -50
El Salvador -54
Trinidad And Tobago/Haiti -55
Scotland/China -56
Syria -77

Serbia gets special mention as the World Cup team from 2010 that dropped the farthest (even though North Korea got eliminated first, they began their descent much sooner than the Serbs). The underwhelming North Americans were compensated for by one big overachiever (see the Costa Rica note). And Syria, well, technically they were eliminated for fielding an ineligible player, but I'd guess that civil war had a little something to do with their poor showing as well.

We believe it too Steven
Meanwhile Scotland and China have absolutely no excuses. They had money, they had time, they had organizations behind them and they crashed and burned. The tartan army was irrelevant after about half their matches, and dreams of China asserting their dominance have been pushed back another four years. (For the record though, I'm plumping for Steven Naismith to guide Scotland back)

So what does all this mean: simply this--as we get set to embark on another four year cycle of the World Cup and all the qualification falderal that goes along with it: do not forget the teams you don't see every day. Don't exclude teams that don't dominate the Champions league rosters or give extra favor to those who do (if that were the case, Serbia would be in and Costa Rica out...I think we're all grateful to watch Los Ticos rather than the Serbs). It's a long road to Moscow and you'll be consistently surprised along the way as some times rise and others fall.

Copper Bullets may be dreaming of a
different trophy...
Also it allows for some totally random and not at all viable predictions:
Whose in the same sweet spot that saw Ecuador and Costa Rica rise up? How about these names: Ireland, Zambia and Oman.
And as for the long shot set to emulate near misses Ethiopia, Lebanon and Iceland? Is it too early to think that Antigua and Barbuda or Malaysia could take that vital next step?
But the potential disasters in waiting? could be literally anyone...but I don't know...Turkey may be the next cautionary tale.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Riding into the Sunset: GERMANY

For the past four years we've tracked every team to play in and eventually lose in the world cup, at the end of all that stands the final survivor, ready to ride into the sunset with the Jules Rimet trophy in one hand and an obscene wad of cash in the other.

That team is Germany.

They bested all these other fools

So how did they do it?

Well they kicked off qualifying with a 3-0 walkover versus Faroe Islands, with Mario Götze's 28th minute strike starting the march towards Rio.

The rest of qualifying was similarly easy with only Sweden really testing them: first by stealing a point in Berlin and then by striking twice in the first half to take a lead...before Andre Schurrle's second half hat trick put Die Nationalelf ahead for good.

All told they brought down 28 points from 10 matches, and ceded 10 goals...3 of them to teams not named Sweden.

Fortunately, the Swedes couldn't get past Portugal which mean that when they had finally qualified they were pretty high on my list of contenders (in fact I had them losing the final to close)

But in December fate seemed to frown upon the Germans foisting them with this year's "Group of Death" (cue dramatic music). The Portuguese who had shot down the rival Swedes? In it. The Ghanaians who had bedeviled them four years before? In it. The Americans who had beaten Germany (albeit their B team) in a friendly the year before? In it. At the time it prompted a lot of conversations among my fellow hooligans. The best part of which might be this exchange with my old student teacher:
"Parcursed: US in a group with the best European team, their bogey team, and the best player in the world... See you all in 4+ years.
Me: I 100% agree with my student-teacher (whose doing a great job of doing my real job while I'm home sick today). But the good news is, traditionally teams who emerge from the group of Death are the teams who compete for the title.  (Including Italy when they topped the US and Ghana in 2006--so at least we'll lose to the best?)"
Again I called for Argentina over Germany in the final, and again the Germans looked to be hard core, their build up to the trophy was impressive, and even though I gave in to the massive group think that we were building to Brazil V. Spain (Round 2), I knew they would be tough enough to make it to at least the quarterfinals--and that Benedikt Howdes would be brutal in defense (Sadly I was one round too early in my "injured Neymar" prediction.

The group stage started with Thomas Muller featuring prominently both as goal scorer, and Portugal's least favorite man, as they crushed the Portugese 4-0 (causing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to shake his head and go back to kicking gum into his mouth). They had perhaps their worst match of the whole tournament in a narrow 2-2 draw with Ghana where the Black Stars looked the better side for long stretches. The final day dawned with a result needed against the US and dreams of match fixing in the press. It wasn't nearly that serious as Germany controlled and the Yanks looked bedraggled before a 1-0 win.

The knockout stages started with a surprisingly game Algeria, repeating much of the same athletic end-to-end pressure that Ghana used so effectively. Though a pair of late goals gave Die Mannschaft a better result, it was dangerous for a while. 
Things were less dire versus the French in the quarters, as control and possession spelled the end for Les Blus. The blunted attack of Karim Benzema was just fine by the blunted attack of Miroslav Klose as they headed for the semis and the vaunted Brazilian side.

Well...maybe they shouldn't have been that vaunted. Instead 7-1 has all the makings of a national joke for decades to come. The superlative style of focused, ingenious attacking made fans around the world sit up and take notice--as well as several other football players look on in shock.
By the time the final came around, Germany looked the safer pick--even against the Argentine squad I'd been plumping over Germany for six months, and while Argentina looked strong in the first half, the gas ran out of Lionel Messi's legs in the second. Yet the Germans couldn't capitalize and while it looked for all the world like we'd be doomed to the pig-kissing penalty-kick shoot out, that was when Mario Götze came up big, delivering the final goal of Germany's campaign, just as he had delivered the first in Hannover 22 months before.

No question about it the Germans are champions and deserve to be them. They have the best league in the world and a relatively young squad that continue to improve. But will they be the dominant force in football for the next six years (as Spain was before them)? Not that likely: Sweden, Ghana and Algeria all had answers for them and may provide the model for how to dethrone the current kings. But until that happens, live it up Germany, now is the time for you to shine (and make huge chunks of money on the transfer market). Savor the sunset now, because who knows how quickly we'll say happy trails to you next time around.
It's good to be it is...

(Okay, we probably will see you in the semi-finals AGAIN in Russia...but let us dream, okay?)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Happy Trails: 4-2

As the competition ended we had to end what we began three years ago when the first batch of teams was eliminated. It's tough to say who had the worst World Cup ending: Macau who got dispatched by Vietnam by 13 goals at the tournament's first hurdle? Or Argentina who got dispatched by Germany by 1 goal at the tournament's final one?

4. Ate Mas Tarde, Brazil
Why they Lost: The six minute long Blitzkrieg of Belo Horizonte was an unmitigated disaster. God awful defending that had made Ghana, the US, Algeria and France stand up to say..."uh...can we please play instead?"
What we Missed in the Finals: A true demonstration of just how great Neymar really can be on the world's biggest stage.
Thanks Robin Van Persie.

3. Tot Straks, The Netherlands
Why they Lost: Another round of yet another mind-numbing penalty kicks didn't go their way, despite the success of the quarterfinal against Costa Rica. You can only play Russian Roulette for so long before you get a bullet.
What we Missed in the Finals: More Van Perseing.

2. Adios, Argentina
Why They Lost: The failure of other people in the blue and white to be named/play like Lionel Messi. Maybe with about three more Messi's they would have been unstoppable.
What we Missed in the Finals: An involved and energized Messi who could play to his full potential. Maybe that mid-winter cup idea Qatar's got would work well.

Monday, July 14, 2014

3 On/3 Off: The Final

It's been an amazing World Cup, every bit the action packed thrill-ride that makes me want to follow it for four whole years. 

ON: Sergio Romero--The german attacks were far more accurate and dangerous than the guilt edge shanks that bounced off, but Romero saw them all off time and time again. He wasn't the biggest star or the most efficient keeper this tournament but he was the man Argentina needed most--and he delivered.
OFF: Gonzalo Higuain/Ezequiel Lavezzi--We named Lavezzi as our hipster star of the team before the tournament and Higuain has often been featured as a star attraction. They were utterly MIA in attack for Argentina this tournament, leaving Lionel Messi to create all on his lonesome--which he certainly did...but that's more demanding than it ought to be.

ON: Manuel Neuer--The German stopper has certainly solidified his position as the world's preeminent keeper. It's thrilling to watch those who are close to seizing the crown and becoming the next king of the mountain, but neither Romero, nor Navas, nor Ochoa, nor Howard, nor Enyema have been able to show the same skill on the biggest stage of all. Maybe they can. Maybe they will. But until then Neuer is the man.
OFF: Thomas Muller's Acting Skills--Runner-up to James Rodrigez in the Golden Boot, shut out from all the major trophy hand outs. Muller had a good tournament. But he is undoubtedly the new poster child for the ugly art of diving. From the first match to the last, anyone who touched him evoked Wagnerian levels of tragedy, somewhere a stern German or a million is sternly scolding him.

ON: Mario Goetze/Andre Schurrle--Die Mannschaft's substitutes weren't unstoppable by any means. They certainly looked underwhelming for most of the first over time. But when they had the chance they did not spoil it, with Schurrle sparkling on a cross and Goetze's goal a thing of beauty that left even Romero stumped. In the end their combination was the reason Germany won.
OFF: Rodrigo Palacio--While L'Albiceleste's final sub was every bit as underwhelming as Goetze and Schurrle for most of the match, he was worse in three clear ways: botching an easy ball over the top (a chance that neither Goetze nor Schurrle had the opportunity to miss), committing a foolish foul that created the final run, and finally having the ugliest hair of the whole tournament.

It was a superb tournament, tied for the most goals ever, featuring phenomenal individual and team performances. It was every bit the thrill ride we've come to hope for from the World Cup and we can't wait to do it all over again, starting with qualification next winter.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

3 On/3 Off: The Semis

A pair of semi-finals as different as night and day, tea-party and hippy, or Lebron and anonymity. What did we learn?

ON: Ball movement--The Germans again showed their utter mastery of how to handle and move the ball. You might have noticed, it worked well.
OFF: Ball Watching--Singapore's Business Insider doesn't seem like a great futbol website, but their chronicle of just how Brazil collapsed is wonderfully detailed and telestrated. The primary culprit: ball watching, the dumbfounded, gobsmacked, ever uncertain Brazilian defense.

ON: Sergio Romero--It's a wonderful thing to see goalkeepers rise to the occasion when thrown against the ever exasperating penalty shoot out, and for all the clamor around Lionel Messi and his fellow shooters--Sergio Romero was perhaps the foremost savior of the club
OFF: Jasper Cillessen-- It's a terrible thing to see a goalkeeper take the blame when thrown against the ever exasperating penalty shootout. Worse still, for Jasper Cillessen, Holland had just won a Penalty Shoot out...but they did it without him between the posts. He did his job for 120 minutes, but got worked by the ruination of those gosh darn penalty kicks.

ON: Attacking-- Clearly Germany took the route to delight the fans, pounding and hammering a goal box until the flood of goals crushed their rivals and floated hopes of continued beautiful football.
OFF: Defensive Control--While Messi might be the star attraction on Sunday for nearly every dreamy-eyed kid in the world (outside of the Rhineland). The passive, delaying, defensive, wait-and-see, Lord-Messi-save-us Argentina style of play was infuriating. If he can invent, inspire and move it forward we would love to watch the final; if he and the team wait and see if they can make it through another penalty shootout it will be a sad end to a tremendous tournament.

What will we know after the finals? We'll see you on Sunday to find out.