Monday, August 29, 2011

AFC's WIBD #2 (GO TREES!)

Yes, it's an eco-friendly version of the "Well, I'll Be Damned!"Minnow of the Round award as we recognize the most adorable of Asian underdogs: Lebanon.


Setting aside the unlikely ascent of Tajikistan (who lost two matches, then got into the next round anyway by virtue of Syria getting disqualified), Lebanon is easily the most rank outsider in the third round of Asian qualifying ranking in the bottom half of Asian teams. They are 21 spots below Bangladesh, even after a 4-0 drubbing of the Bengal Tigers in Beruit (Hey, even in soccer the Bengals can't win!)



Despite that big win (recapped in English here), there hasn't been much to
celebrate of late. First Lebanon slipped into the next round despite losing 2-0 in Bangladesh. Then they bid farewell to the coach who led them this far (Emile Rustom) and brought back old coach Theo Bucker (Booker? Booger?). Add to this the whole Lebanon/Hezbollah/Arab Spring/general unrest thing and you have a place that's not exactly conducive to sporting glory. (To be clear though, I have to give credit to Lebanon writer Kenny Laurie who wrote a scathing smackdown of Sepp Blatter)

If the Cedars are going to have any chance against the slightly more intimidating force of South Korea's Taegeuk Warriors and the White & Blue of the UAE and Kuwait, they'll need the very best of 23-year-old star-in-the-making Hassan Maatouk (he of the Futsaal fame, pictured at left). It probably wouldn't hurt to get returns from Roda Antar and Youssef Mohamed (two Lebanese stars who have built careers overseas), and hey, while we're at it maybe punch Srecko Katanec in the face (he who claimed the UAE would quote: "have no problem with Lebanon")...clearly Mr. Katanec does not know much about Lebanon.

All in all we here at the Montanan Hooligans' World Cup Center want to go green as we cast our vote for best underdog in Asia. So here's to you Lebanon and your Mighty Cedars! Go forth and conquer...oh wait, you're trees...well, just stand still and conquer!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

CONCACAF's Minnow to Watch (Round 2)

We're a week away from the next World Cup Qualifier Match Day with action brewing in North America and Asia. Before those matches kick off we're going to try and introduce some of the unlikely squads still standing and offer our comprehensive, utterly illogical analyses of each qualifying group.

Let's start out by introducing the "Well I'll Be Damned" team in the North American 2nd Round: the US Virgin Islands (USVI for short).

How unlikely is the 2nd round berth for the "Dashing Eagles" of the USVI? Bear in mind that they only became a FIFA recognized team in 2000. Over the last decade the team's record was 1 Win, 6 Draws and 20 Losses. In June they neared a personal best in the World Rankings by getting to 193rd in the World. The area is known more for being a port for cruise ships than for having any football fortunes to speak of.

Then this happened:

After 2 wins over the British Virgin Islands and advancing on to the Second Round of the Cup competition, the USVI has leapt up to 149th in the World--in a dead heat with Madagascar. They've already gone farther than any USVI team ever has in the Cup...can the go even farther?

Honestly...Maybe. Top ranked Haiti has been in disarray of late (with good reason) and neither Antigua and Barbuda nor Curacao have a larger international legacy than the USVI does. Some of the local press have got high hopes for a third round tussle with the big bad U.S. of A, but that might be putting the cart before the horse--or in USVI terms, putting the sales before the conch shells--especially given the inexperience of the team.

Most players ply their trade in the amateur league that dots the three islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix), but a young squad has gotten better by incorporating college players into the mix including a Seton Hall Griffin, a Pitt Panther and Alberto Van Grup--a Virginia Tech Hokie. Unfortuantely, it's not clear yet whether the college boys will be able to squeeze Cup qualifiers into their course schedule...I mean, can you imagine selling that to a professor? "Yeah, I know that we have a mid-term but I have to fly to Curacao...to play soccer...please...". Not the most compelling excuse I've yet heard.

But the best player may be Reid Klopp who has made two appearances and scored two goals to boost the Dashing Eagles into the second round. He lives on the islands so no worries about his arrival, and hey...if the NBA's locked the USVI could always ask Tim Duncan to come home and use his height in a Peter Crouchian manner. (He's already got the Robot thing wired!)

But win lose or draw you've gotta root for the Dashing Eagles and the US Virgin Islands. If only because they play and pump themselves up like your local high school squad. (Seriously, hard to imagine snobby Frenchmen doing this)

So best of luck Dashing Eagles! Rise on!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Happy Trails #186 & 176 (Second Thoughts Edition)

I was all set to write about cinderella stories, and then I read the news that FIFA has decided to eliminate two teams, because--according to the official press releases--Sepp Blatter does what he wants to bitches!!

Seriously, there's no detail in either posting just: "TEAM X is hereby disqualified for violating Rule Y Subsection 43d. In accordance with FIFA regulations, this decision is binding and will not be subject to appeal or reversal, so suck on that."

As a result we have to make a couple quick corrections to the Happy Trails posts, and here they are

186 Ma'a As Salaamah Syria
Why They Lost: Yeah, remember when I said that Syria won the first leg 2-1 and the second leg 4-0? Yeah, what I meant to say was: "Tajikistan won both legs 3-0" Minor mistake I know...but, as you can tell...a pretty clear difference.

Who/What We'll Miss: I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure that this
George Mourad guy looks pretty good. I mean, he not only score a vital goal early in the first leg against Tajikistan, he also managed to change from Swedish to Syrian in just six short years! Or wait...you don't suppose that his doing that and failing to ask for FIFA's permission was the root cause of the whole problem do you?
176 Buh-Bye Bahamas

Why They Lost: They didn't. FIFA didn't even pretend they did. We all just looked up one morning and POOF no more Bahamas. The Press release from CONCACAF makes a little more sense: apparently the Bahamas FA built a beautiful new stadium, but forgot to build those pesky roads that would get fans TO said stadium. Once it became clear that they wouldn't be able to host any matches (or draw any revenue from said matches) the Bahamas became a whole lot less inclined to fly its team all around Central America just so that slightly bigger teams like Panama and Nicaragua could kick them around for 90 minutes. So, instead the team will sit back and enjoy the beautiful Bahamanian scenery.
Who/What We'll Miss: Not for nothing but the team captain's name is Happy Hall. If we picked the best players just by their name, he'd be a sure fire member of the squad. Also..to be sure, that stadium does look pretty sweet.

So there you go, two more teams bite the dust, and the Tajiks get a second chance. Next up we'll finally get around to celebrating the little minnows who can still dream of an utterly implausible World Cup berth. Assuming they don't forget a critical part of their infrastructure or accidently employ a psuedo-Swede.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Happy Trails #191-177 (AFC Rd. 2)

Before we look ahead to the next set of matches kicking off in early September, let's pour one out for the teams who have fallen out of the competition.

191 Sok Dee Der Laos
Why they lost: Perhaps I put a bit of a jinx on Thim Xad by giving them the recognition of being the first "Well I'll Be Damned" Award. Perhaps the Laotian sport press was right that the team was weak in defense. Perhaps the Chinese national team was a little tougher than the Cambodian one. What ever the case, conceding 13 goals in two matches rarely works out well, and definitely led to the Laos loss.
Who/What we'll miss: A great Cinderella/scrappy underdog story would have been awesome--hence the whole post that I wrote about them...not to mention crushing Chinese hopes. Ah well...better luck next time.

190 Namaste Nepal
Why they lost: The Gorkha Warriors were another team that couldn't quite keep pace with a bigger, stronger Asian power, falling to Jordan 10:1 on aggregate. But they did pull together an excellent second leg, getting a 1:1 draw that was a small comfort after a 9:0 drubbing in Aman.
Who/What we'll miss: The big name in Nepal is Rohit Chand, a 19 year old center back who has been pumped up as a player good enough to make it in the upper echelons of Europe. Wikipedia claims that he's getting a shot with Kettering Town FC in England's 5th tier, which might make him easier to scout than if he was in...say...Kathmandu.

189 Joigin Hong Kong
Why they lost: While Laos gave up goals, they did score a few. The same can't be said for Hong Kong who were blanked by a Saudi Arabian team that has been in the midst of a tumultuous year.
Who/What we'll miss: Hopefully nothing. We'll hope that this is Hong Kong's nadir, 25 years after almost qualifying for Mexico '86. Though they've made less progress in each subsequent Cup campaign, this should be the end of that unfortunate trend.

188 Jakshy Kalyngydzar Kyrgyzstan
Why they lost: I might place the explanation for this one on facing an up-and-coming opponent in an Uzbekistani side that made the out rounds at the Asian Cup, and seemed dangerous at the U-20 Tournament in Colombia. Facing that, it's gotta be tough for Kyrgyzstan to keep up. So their 7 goal wipe-out makes a little more sense.
Who/What we'll miss: Confusing attempts to settle on one nickname for a side that is occasionally called the "snow leopards", The Eagles, and the Blue Eagle (even though their kits are red).

187 Dhanee Maldives
Why they lost: Take your pick. No goals, giving up 5, having to make do with a team of locally based players while facing an Iranian side that's one of the most well-established in Asia, having a population approximately .5% of Iran's. Any one of those would probably explain the Red Snapper's failure to advance.
Who/What we'll miss: Ali Ashfaq, a man called "The Best Striker in South Asia" isn't well known outside his own country--but when you captain the national side and celebrate like this...you should be.

186 To Bozdid Tajikistan
Why they lost: Though a 2:1 loss in Syria was a tough beat, the series still could have gone the Tajiks way. But a stunning 4:0 loss at home knocked them out. If you can't defend your home pitch, you can't go far in qualifying.
Who/What we'll miss: Coach Pulod Kodirov, the winningest coach in history for "The Persian Lions" of the national team won't get any more matches to prove his bowing out after 3 years in charge of the team. (Of course, if you ask Tajik fans, that might be a good thing)

185 Paalam The Philippines
Why they lost: A 3-0 loss in Kuwait gave them a major task for the home-leg, and they simply couldn't make it up falling 2-1 at home to finish 4 goals out.
Who/What we'll miss: Hard to pick. There's Midfielder Simon Greatwitch who could help Hartwick college known for something more than...okay he could help Hartwick College be known. Then there's Neil Ethridge, Fulham's Reserve Goalkeeper and ex-Chealsea trainee. And of course...there's the fact that their nickname is "The Street Dogs" which is a kind of badass in an adorably scruffy way.


184 Thwa Dau Me Myanmar
Why they lost: You mean besides the fact that their military junta creates a national atmosphere of blind fear and anxiety which makes playing a children's game one of the few escapes...unless you play for the national team and must face the spectre of bringing shame on the nation and being sent for "re-education"? Well, their fans throwing garbage on the field at half-time during the home-leg probably didn't help matters--especially since refs cancelled the second half and Myanmar's last chance at a comeback.
Who/What we'll miss: The feeling that maybe, just maybe watching 22 men kick a ball for 90 minutes might distract the citizens of Myanmar from that aforementioned military junta.

183 Phir Milenge India
Why they lost: It's either because of FIFA's ancient curse against the country that declined to play in the 1950 World Cup (What do you mean we can't play barefoot?) or the fact that, as children, Sachin Tendulkar & MS Dhoni picked up cricket bats instead of cleats.
Who/What we'll miss: An inevitable Bollywood soccer movie with a star studded song and dance number...wait...there already are some like that...well, I know what's going into my Netflix queue.


182 Selamat Tinggal Malaysia
Why they lost: After a thrilling 5-3 loss in Singapore in the first leg, Malaysia had some work to do, but 3 away goals to help their cause. If they won by two they would be in pretty good position for advancement. While they led 1-0 after 60 minutes and were one goal (and solid defnese) away from moving on a Singapore equalizer in the 73rd minute knocked them out
Who/What we'll miss: The Malay Tigers might have my new favorite football kit. As if the black and yellow stripes weren't unusual enough--they also have an ad campaign that makes it painfully clear that you're either a Malaysian fan or you are unwilling to rip your own skin off.

181 Tam Biet Vietnam
Why they lost: Despite a thrilling 2-1 win at home in the second leg, Vietnam simply couldn't overcome a 3-0 loss in Qatar in the first leg. Meaning that, once again, the Qataris crush the dreams of other people (FIST SHAKE!)
Who/What we'll miss: A pretty solid underdog story is one thing. A pretty solid underdog story that could have knocked out the internationally mocked Qatari side...that's a great thing.

180 Bhalo Thakben Bangladesh
Why they lost: Like Vietnam, Bangladesh got a great win at home 2-0 over Lebanon. Like Vietnam, Bangladesh couldn't overcome a big loss (4-0) in the first leg.
Who/What we'll miss: The chance for a doggie fight between Bangladesh and the Phillipines (don't bet against the street dogs)
179 Ila Al-Liqa Yemen
Why they lost: Continuing the trend of the last two teams, Yemen played better in the second leg, with a goalless draw; but they lost 2-0 in Iraq and head home despite their fine performance.
Who/What we'll miss: Yemen has won fewer games by smaller margins in each consecutive World Cup qualifying campaign. So, hopefully we'll only miss them until they reorganize their team and reverse that trend.

178 Ila Al-Liqa Palestine
Why they lost: I know Grant Wahl meant well, but clearly this is another case of the Sports Illustrated Jinx. After a nailbiting 1-0 loss in Thailand, Palestine nearly pulled a stunner in the second-leg back home but had to settle for a 2-2 draw against a higher ranked team. That was great--but if SI hadn't been there?
Who/What we'll miss: A team full of college kids, biologists, and dreamers who play international football in their spare time after work? We'll be missing a stirring underdog movie just waiting to happen. (And this "Happy Trails" winner of coolest Federation logo)

177 Sag Bolun Turkmenistan
Why they lost: With everything to play for after a 1-1 draw at home, the Green Men Turkmen waited too long, ceding 4 goals to Singapore in the first 75 minutes. An own goal and two late, intentionally Turkmen, goals made it close, but not close enough.
Who/What we'll miss: The sophomoric humor potential of the most popular club sides in Turkmenistan FC/HTTU Asgabat...Heehee..Asgabat.

PHEW! That's a lot of teams to bid farewell. In our next posts will look ahead to the next rounds of competition in North America and Asia, the start of South American qualifying, some unlikely teams to root for and predictions from a host of Hooligans.

World Cup OVERLOAD

I stopped posting for a little while the last few weeks (in case there is a devout reader out there who was wondering). Between a spurt of job applications and a two-week honeymoon in Thailand, I thought that would be for the best. And while I was gone, quite a bit happened. The 2nd Round of Asian qualifying concluded. Teams were drawn into dozens of qualifying groups in Rio de Jinero. The US National Team hired J├╝rgen Klinsmann to coach the men's team (thereby giving me many more excuses to write with umlauts!). And hey! FIFA's still awash in scandalous bribery allegations which means there's still a shot (an extremely outside shot, but a shot) that the US could host the 2022 World Cup.

Since I'm now gainfully employed, I may not have much time to write. But I love the whole World Cup event so much that I honestly do want to write whenever I can. I may try to enlist some help from fellow Montanans/soccer fans/gene pool members but until then trust that posts are coming in the next few days that will cover farewells to the eliminated Asian nations, "Well I'll Be Damned" awards for minnows who have survived a shark attack (or perhaps just a "slightly bigger minnow" attack) and advanced to the later rounds of qualifying and maybe even previews of the various groups kicking off in the next few months and weeks.

To keep the space warm for me I'm including a link to Grant Wahl's great writing from Palestine in the second round of the AFC's Qualifying. I read the polished form of his article during my 12 hour flight from Seoul to Chicago (it helped make a long flight--made longer by a lack of sleep and broken video system--much more enjoyable). Since this is the kind of writing I would love to do on this blog but can't (both because I have no funds to finance it, and because I'm not nearly that good of a writer) so I'll let him do it for me.

Enjoy Wahl's writing (if you haven't already), I'll be back with snarky commentary aplenty in the very near future