Monday, January 31, 2011

January 2011: 3 On/3 Off

We'll try and set this up so that each month we review the most important information about world football gleaned from matches, competitions and news. (Hopefully there's always something to talk about.) And to do that, we'll think about three heroes subbed onto the pitch, and three out of form slugs heading for the bench with their heads hanging low.
3 Coming On:

Japan in General and Kaisuke Honda in particular:
Winning the Asian Cup is a little like being the greatest best baseball team in triple A. You've got a trophy and god knows you deserve it...but everyone knows in their heart of hearts that it might not be that way if you had to play a big-time, high-profile squad of superstars in the making.
Still, the blue samurai deserve to be congratulated. And unlike the Albuquerque Isotopes, they will get to play some high-profile superstars this summer when they head down to the Copa America to try their luck against Brazil and Argentina. Win that and I'll genuflect and beg forgiveness...until then, I'll just keep clapping politely
Except for Kaisuke Honda. After a sterling World Cup he won man of the tournament honors in Qatar and set the stage for his continued rise to the title of Asia's top footballer. Sniggering over his relationship to the car factory needs to stop...he looks like he's for real.

Feeling Good in Qatar
The Asian Cup was chock full of good stories. The hosts overcame their minnow-ish ranking and made a strong showing against eventual champions Japan. The Uzbeks were a surprise entry into the semi-finals (except not to me...because I predicted it...because I'm AWESOME!). And for a brief period of time the Australians were able to distract their countrymen from surging flood waters with some stellar football and a near miss in the final match. Kudos Asia, Kudos!

Spain...the system everyone wants a part of
Just in case the fawning adoration of the World Cup winners wasn't enough, FIFA pointed out the supremacy of Spanish Football at their annual awards ceremonies in Zurich. And while the Spaniards didn't walk away with any major individual hardware...their system and league gave a full throated power yell of domination to anyone who still thought Spain's best contribution to recent world history was tapas.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona's wunderkind) won the Ballon d'Or. Jose Mourinho (Mr. Jump on the Bandwagon/Real Madrid) won the coach of the year. And the Fifa Pro World XI features 8 La Liga representatives and 6 Spanish Nationals. Investing in all that talented football may have diverted funds from other areas like...say...the crippling Iberian debt crisis...but hey! SHINY TROPHIES!! (Suck on that England)

3 Heading off

Saudi Arabia: The Riyadh Zoo
Here in America we have a long and storied history of teams that are quite simply CRAZY. The Bronx Zoo of the New York Yankees in the 1970s, The Portland Jail Blazers from the turn of the millenia, The Cincinatti Bengals of...well...pretty much forever. But no matter what your preferred local sport, few crazy ass teams can compete with the insanity of Saudi Arabia at the Asian Cup.
Lose your first game (2:1 to Syria), that's bad...but maybe not: fire the coach this second bad. Still, the Saudi's made their choice and went in confident against Jordan...where they lost again (1:0). It's hard to fire a coach after one match, so instead King Abdullah fired federation president (Prince Sultan Bin Fahd) and replaced him with Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal. Surely, after cleaning house of these losers, a meaningless game against a half-strength already progressed Japan would give them the chance to lick their wounds, learn their lessons. Or...lose 5:0 and lead to the sacking of their second coach in three matches. (Cue the slow sarcastic clap)

A Break-away Confederation?
I listen regularly to the BBC's World Football podcast (and if you're reading this website hoping for news I suggest you look there instead). Last week the Beeb broke the story of scuttlebutt surrounding a new Confederation that could be created by merging Oceania with East Asia. The move makes sense for a few people. First, Australia could stop pretending to be Asian. Second, Japan and South Korea could have lovely holidays in New Caldonia. Finally, China could bid for the World Cup in 2026 and really stick it to the Qatari federation and AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam.
But once you dig a little deeper this is a terrible plan. Oceania gets nothing but a pack of guaranteed ass-kickings in Tokyo, Seoul and Sydney. The whole scheme completely undermines FIFA authority and sets up more snide bickering between bureaucrats (leading to more back stage wheeling and dealing rather than less). North America would likely get bumped to one-side AGAIN in the continental rotation order (and with Europe likely to throw a tantrum for 2030, our next shot would be 2034...22 years after the Mayan apocolypse!). Nice try East Asia (and Australia)...but no...just no.

Qatar's Crickets
One little bone to pick with Qatar after the AFC Cup...seriously? you broke the bank to win the World Cup and you the only two full houses you can draw are for the home team versus Japan...and the final? I've seen bigger houses for operas in Butte! I've met more dedicated footie fans in remote hillside villages of India! Come on us why you won it. (Unless it's through corruption in which case please give no sign).

Friday, January 21, 2011

AFC Cup Outrounds!

It's crunch time in Qatar and no...I'm not referring to the home stretch of a camel race. Today begins the out rounds of the AFC cup, and shockingly, for someone with absolutely no experience, I did pretty well on my predictions of the quarter finalists.

Japan, Uzbekistan, Australia, South Korea, Iran and Iraq all came through for me, with only China and Saudi Arabia (who fired two coaches in three matches) falling short. So the new darlings are Jordan and...yup...Qatar. I'm wondering if they're winning through illegality or through sheer antagonism towards the rest of the world.

If you've watched any of the highlights (Click here if you're interested) you may well have noticed the somewhat...generally...shall we say..."sparse" crowds at the matches. That's too kind: there are literally HUGE SWATHS of seats available at these games. Seriously, I've seen larger crowds at Craig Kilborn Fan Fests. My brother's high-school games were more attended than these matches...and they played in November...after shoveling snow off the field.

So, hey, if you want to go on vacation and see some international soccer in the lap of luxury: Qatar's the way to go. (It'll be easier now than in 11 years anyway).

We'll be back in a few days to check on the semi's which will have at least one starry-eyed dreamer playing with the World Cup perennials. (Good luck surviving that one Uzbekistan/Jordan)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

AFC Cup 2011: A half-hearted/belated preview

Since the Asian Cup kicked off two days ago, I suppose I ought to point out precisely who is likely to win this and head on to the Confederations Cup in 2013.

Why? Because it's early January and there's NOTHING ELSE TO DO!

Let's lose Qatar (the deal with the Devil only won the them the world cup hosting, not actual talent), Syria (with only two stars left on their flag they only have so much collateral to trade with), North Korea (a change in management's always tough--for all his problems Kim Jong Il always got the red robot motivated) and much as it pains me to admit it: India. (Where the fans will be cheering right up until the cricket comes back on.

Just missing out on the out rounds we have Jordan (any non Michael form of "Jordan" can't win a title for fear of copyright infringement), Bahrain and the UAE (losing out of sympathy for their fellow obscenely wealthy Arab state: Qatar) and Kuwait...because I flipped a coin and they lost.

Ooops, Uzbekistan stayed alive until the knock out stage, but Japan will take care of that, while China crushes Saudi Arabia and moves wins the title of country that most frustrates Bill O'Rielly. On the other side of the draw, Australia and South Korea will run roughshod over Iraq and Iran because they'll be busy moping over their demotion on O'Rielly's list.

In the semifinals Australia will take China out for "a quick snort" the night before. Several hours and 22 lost pairs of pants later, a bedraggled/hungover China will be dumped from the tournament by a barely winded set of Socceroos. Meanwhile the Japanese and Koreans will do what they do best: hate eachother through a tense draw that ultimately results in a Korean victory.

The final on the 29th we'll have a rematch of a previous game between two group C rivals (as seen on January 14th). And under the blazing Qatari sun, a clear victor will emerge: and that victory will be....AUSTRALIA! (Because the crafty Aussies will spike their opponents Kim Chee...diabolic villainy...that's the Aussie way!)

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Full 90: 2010/2011

Since we missed a chance to do a year in review, or a year in about we do both? With two halves covering 45 people, teams, places and moments that turned our heads in 2010, and 45 things to keep an eye on in 2011.

1st Half--2010
At the start of the year Egypt (1) showed us what we would all be missing in June by winning the African Cup of Nations (2). And while the Pharaohs would indeed be missed, you'd be hard pressed to say that The World Cup (3) was a failure without them. To be sure we might have been better served with them than with the whipping boys from Honduras (4) or North Korea (5). Speaking of the Red Robot (The coolest national team nickname of the year) (6) bad news for Kim Jong Il (7) and all fans of a free and independent press; the first live television event in decades, or maybe ever (8) ended with a 7-0 loss to Portugal (9) and professional tabloid headline/underwear model Cristiano Ronaldo (10).
Despite the triumph over the forces of evil on the pitch, Ronaldo lost a much bigger trophy--that of biggest goober in professional football to Wayne Rooney (11). You might recognize Rooney from his starring role in the Very cool Nike World Cup commercials (12) or, possibly, the bizarre Tiwanese computer animated recreations of his sexual exploits (13). Despite the monastic diligence demands of coach Fabio Capello (14) the Three Lions of England (15) were so distracted by injuries, Rooney and fellow horn dog John Terry (16) managed to barely scrape into the second round before getting positively throttled by Germany (16).
But protestations of English incompetence have nothing on France (17) and Italy (18). Les Blus quit on coach Raymond Domenench (19) not only mentally, but LITERALLY quitting and refusing to practice before playing South Africa (20) in their final (pointless) group match, the only Bafana Bafana win of the cup. Meanwhile, the Azzuri sleepwalked their way through two draws against Paraguay (21) and New Zealand (22) before losing to titans Slovakia (23). Point and laugh everyone point and laugh.
Okay, lets cease our focus on the idiots who lost, instead, lets remember those brave fools who managed to win in spite of everything else. Starting with Landon Donavan (24) whose last minute goal over Algeria (25) gave the USA (26) an epic win and begat the reactions that begat the Youtube clip that shut up the nation's soccer haters. Of course one could argue that Ghana's (27) win over us in the next round shut down the love affair, but I think it's probably still got some life left. Besides, as someone who was in Ghana at the time, I know it meant a lot to them (and this might just be my personal fandom highlight of the year (28) ):

While I learned to love Kevin Prince Boateng (29) and Andre "Dede" Ayew (30) I've got to feel for the truly impassioned (though slightly stubborn) Asamoah Gyan (31) who had the semi-finals in his fingers only to see them slip away. Of course, my personal tournament villain, Luis Suarez (32) helped with that. But no matter how much we may want to curse Uruguay (33) you've got to love Diego Forlan's (34) hair. Forlan led the way for exciting players captivating a world wide audience, and the raft of others including Mesut Oezil (35), Bastian Schwienstager (36), Wesley Snejieder (37), Keisuke Honda (38), Robert Koren (39) and David Villa (40).
Of course it was Villa who won in the end as the boys of La Furia Roja in Spain (41) finally lifted the World Cup over the perennial bridesmaids from The Netherlands (42). And while their party has lasted well into the new year, and the specter of insulting insinuations of corruption have faded in South Africa, Sepp Blatter (43) has gotten to appreciate scandal and innuendo anew with the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia (44) and the 2022 event to Qatar (45).

2nd Half--2011
The awarding of more cups to future hosts gives us the opportunity to start looking forward into the year 2011 and the tonnage of events that will effect future world cup activities.
Start with the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff (46) the new president of Brazil (47). As the successor to the politician who brought back facial hair: Luiz Inacio "Lula" DeSilva (48). The good news for futbol fans is that Rousseff will likely continue most of DeSilva's policies. The bad news is that she's not quite as popular as DeSilva and might struggle to keep the construction/renovation of the 12 stadiums on track. Hey, why does that sound familiar?
But to start things off nice and easy we've got the Ballon D'Or Awards Spectacle on January 10th (49). Inside the labyrinthine secret lair of FIFA in Switzerland (50) the votes have been tabulated and soon we'll know who has pulled down the big fat trophies. The big prize is down to a race between Andres Iniesta (51), Xavi (52) and Lionel Messi (53). If you're noticing a certain Spanish flavor to that you're not alone. The world game is distinctly connected to the joys of paella and if you aren't part of La Liga (54) you're really just an after thought now (as evidenced by the fact that the three coaches nominated for Coach of the Year (55) all work in Spain). The equally enticing World XI (55) will be announced the same day: but only 3 players on the 55 name shortlist hail from somewhere other than Europe or South America. (Those 3 would be Didier Drogba (56), Samuel Eto'o (57) and, my favorite,
Michael "The Bison" Essien (58).) C'mon FIFA, no token rep for North America? or Asia? Sigh...
Well, Asia will just have to try and find a stand out starting with the Asian Cup (59). Kicking off in just 5 days on January 7th in the arab nation of Qatar (remember them? They're gonna host the World Cup in 12 years?). The 16 teams gearing up include relative minnows Syria (60), Jordan (61) and (even though I love them) India (61). But as the tournament unfolds keep an eye on the dogfight in Group C between South Korea (62) and Australia (63) (two World Cup teams will keep it interesting) and rising power Uzbekistan (64) (drawn into a weak Group A).
That final will kick off a year worth of confederation competitions building to the 2013 Confederations Cup (65). First Panama (66) hosts the Central American Cup (67) to pick up 5 teams to fill out the big dance: the CONCACAF Gold Cup (68) in June, where Mexico (69) will try to re-establish its dominance of the confederation. El Tricolor will follow that up with a trip down to Argentina (70) for the Copa America (71). Oddly, they'll also be with Japan (72)...why precisely Japan is competing for the title of best team in South America...well...uhh...I've got no clue. Just trust that one of the big powers will knock them out, with Chile (73) looking to be the feel good story of the year.
Throughout the summer there will be qualifiers aplenty for the 2012 African Cup of Nations (74) (to be held in Equatorial Guinea (75) and Gabon (76)) and the 2012 Euro Tournament (77) (in Poland (78) and the Ukraine (79)). But just in case you aren't in the mood for Mozambique V. Comoros on October 7th (80) or Luxembourg V. Albania on September 6th (81) don't worry there's plenty of other action to enjoy. Including the Women's World Cup in Germany (82), the U-17 World Cup in Mexico (83) and the U-20 World Cup in Columbia (84). Whether you want to try and spot up-and-coming talents (Alex Nimley (85) anyone?)or a host of women with enough talent and toughness to crush you between their little fingers (I'm looking at you Abby Wambach (86))
there's plenty of futbol to be enjoyed.
Kick back and enjoy the matches wherever you are in the world. Appreciate the patience and consistency of Ji-Su Park (87), the fine touch and goal scoring acumen of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (88) and the eternally entertaining Diego Maradona (89). Best of all...there's the Qualification Draw for the 2014 World Cup, on July 30th in Brazil (90)

Extra Time Predictions:
1: Argentina wins the Copa America at home...Diego Maradona pouts, Brazil goes crazy with the fear that they're in dire straits for futbol matches 3 years away.
2: The qualifying draw for the 2014 World Cup creates one very difficult qualifying group including both New Zealand and New Caldonia...the world press corps does not notice.
3: I won't write another post like this for at least a year.