Friday, July 26, 2013

Who's cheating now?

If there's one thing I love about FIFA it's how long they wait before announcing that someone has done something wrong.

No...wait...that bugs me.

Turns out that two CAF teams who thought they were set for the playoff rounds will be playing meaningful games when the final match day (September 7th) rolls around.

The hardest hit goes to Ethiopia which might be the best story of African qualifying so far. The Black Lions have been trying to qualify since November 2011, when they needed a play-in home-and-away with Somalia just to get to the group stage. Only two teams from the play-in games still have a chance to qualify.

While Ethiopia looked to have qualified at the end of June after a pair of victories over South Africa and Botswana, they now have only one victory?

Sometimes it's okay to watch
from the bench Minyahile
How you might ask?

Apparently, the Ethiopian team and head coach Sewnet Bishaw forgot the whole "two yellow cards requires a game suspension" rule, and nobody thought to remind them of it during the whole course of the playing the game. So Minyahile Teshome Beyene, we hope you enjoyed playing that day, because it's suddenly made group A competitive again.

Yes, now Botswana and South Africa are alive and in the hunt for the next round. Fortunately, Ethiopia still tops their group and since the Zebras and Bafana Bafana are playing each other next, the Black Lions just need a better result against bottom feeding C.A.R. and they'll be in to the next round.

Emilio scoffs at article 55
Meanwhile Equitorial Guinea forfeiting their recent win against Cape Verde doesn't mean Equitorial Guinea. They were last before, they are last now. Emilo Nsue Lopez (he of the joint Equitorian/Spanish citizenship) and Equitorial Guinea violated article 55 paragraph 1 (the most important paragraph of all article 55), so what was a 2-1 loss, becomes a 3-0 loss.

Again, big woop for Equitorial Guinea, but somewhat of a big woop for Cape Verde who sees their goal differential go from plus 3 to plus 5. Still, since they play group leading Tunisia in September, it's still win or go home for the Blue Sharks. (And actually, since they're playing in Rades, Tunisia it will more likely be win, lose or draw AND go home).

So congrats to Cape Verde, Botswana and South Africa...your dreams live again. And tough luck to Ethiopia here's hoping your little faux pas doesn't cost you a trip to Brazil.

(please note that the happy trails post has been updated to reflect these changes)

Friday, July 05, 2013

Lessons from the Confederations Cup: 3 On/3 Off

Later today my wife and I will fly off for England and Scotland. My dreams of seeing a premier league match are not to be met (it's July after all) but I've got fingers crossed that we'll find some footy entertainment somewhere. Until we return, here's this post.

Inside of a year to go until the World Cup in Brazil, there are very few chances left to get any real sense of who can or will do well next June. And while it might still be way too early to make any kind of assumptions or conclusions about good, bad and i-between, it's also way to quiet this summer to ignore it.

So here's another in the oft-forgotten 3 On/3 Off series where we identify 3 positives and 3 less-than positives from a major tournament.

3 On
Neymar (2nd from R) That's my next haircut!
  1. Neymar is every bit as good as advertised. The run up to this tournament was all about the youngster from Mogi das Cruces. Would he be the million dollar man Barcelona thought he was? Would he be another case of dynamic youngster out of his depth in international competition? Would he have an ugly hair cut? The answers, as we all know now, are yes, no and yes. His fluidity and inventive style of play clearly justify the faith of the millions in green and gold throughout Brazil, and even make me pause before I comment on the soggy tea cozy atop his head. With a more than competent ally up front in Fred and an increasingly confident set of backs shoring up the defense, Brazil is officially back.
  2. Only fools doubt Spain. We're all a little desperate for some drama in international soccer, so the stories have begun: Spain is getting older. Spain is getting tired. Spain is too unsure of the next generation. Pbbt on all of that. Spain is every bit the well-oiled, soul-crushing machine they have ever been, and while there have been brief spurts of teams like Nigeria and Italy looking ominous in their own end, once La Furia Roja gets control in midfield it's all over but the crying. And even despite the final drubbing at the hands of the Selacao, they still have to be deemed favorites
  3. Dilma Roussef and the Brazilian Government is very smart.  Here's a little lesson for all future cup hosts: if you spend billions of dollars on a bunch of fancy pants stadia built to sell Pepsi and Hyundai to the world and then ask average citizens to pay more for things like busses or schools, be prepared for citizens to get pissed. Better still, let them be pissed. Let the march. Let them demonstrate. Let them exercise their rights as citizens. And make absolutely sure that Pepsi and Hyundai execs ride the bus at least once or twice. That's the way to be a modern nation where disagreement does not equal destabilization (hint hint Egypt/Turkey)

3 Off
"Why do my teeth hurt? Could it be all that biting of opponents?"
( via SBNation)
  1. Luis Suarez is a jerk...maybe without a future. It really doesn't fail does it. Luis Suarez shows up on the pitch and the dander of anyone who roots for Ghana, or for Patrice Evra, or for just--you know--not biting people, gets their dander up. Luis Suarez has tremendous talent, but won't ever be a global favorite when his behavior makes him seem like a crazy man's Diego Maradona (yeah...that's pretty crazy). But with Uruguay in 5th place in Conmebol qualifying, with Diego Forlan aging rapidly, with Edinson Cavani alternating hot and cold, and with la Celeste's defense folding against top flight scorers like a Tide commercial soccer mom, there's no guarantee that he'll get to bring his madness back next summer...please, oh please...let's go everybody else in South America.
  2. Expect more disappointment in Asia, Africa, North America and Oceania. As major supporters of the minnows of international soccer, our biggest disappointment in watching the Confederations Cup was the utter destruction of anything not from Europe or South America. Worse still, with the exception of Tahiti, these are teams that ought to represent the best of their continents. Yet Japan came way with nothing, Mexico slightly more than nothing (but even more scorn and derision from pundits), and Nigeria came away with the standard issue victory over Tahiti and a solid half against Spain. These are not the most promising signs of greater parity in the global game. Drat.
  3. Hold off on that Hulk reboot. It's okay Disney, you can shed a tear over soccer. Admit it, it was too good to be true: your most successful tv station (ESPN) is all geared up to lovingly ogle Brazilian futbol, and perhaps the most ogle-able Brazilian player is named "Hulk"after a character in your most successful film franchise (Marvel comics). You could practically hear the keyboards rattling off spec scripts in Malibu coffee shops where Mark Ruffalo meanders down by Ipanema bumping into the staggering striker in a winking little aside. Then the Zenit St. Petersburg man went and underwhelmed us all (not unlike the Hulk movies themselves), next year's a long way away, but Disney's cross-platform synergy is on the verge of sputtering out.

Monday, July 01, 2013


It's time for me to do something else new and different. In an effort to make sure there are some regular posts I'll try posting a list of 11 things that catch my attention or mean something special or just make me giggle. What better way to start out than with something that ties together two of my favorite sports passions: futbol and baseball.

I'll Buy This
XI Reasons Being a Baseball Fan Makes it Easy to Be a Soccer Fan (and vice-versa)

I. Under the surface strategy: Don't get me wrong, a well placed 3 run homer or penalty kick is all well and good, but more often than not it's not what you see happening on the ball, it's what's happening away from it that matters. Did the outfielders really leave the left field line open for Joe Mauer? Did you see how Asamoah Gyan made that run to the back post? Totally drew the defenses attention away from Dede Ayew. There's always something more to see than what you see.

II. Minimal interruptions: The best games of baseball simply roll through, pitchers working quickly, catches made or missed, hits and walks building into rallies and sides swapping chances one after another. The same is true in soccer: passes and movements flowing seamlessly up and down the pitch for forty-five minutes at a time without a single commercial break. Sometimes there have to be bullpen bucket brigades, sometimes there's an obnoxious array of feigned injuries that eat up valuable time...but at their best the only thing that matters is playing the game.

III. Players pay their dues: Both baseball and soccer have baby-faced phenoms who soar into view out of nowhere and take the world by storm (your Mike Trouts and Neymars, for example). But even the young bucks have to work their way up to the top: through Clearwater and Round Rock  and Scranton until you get to Yankee Stadium or battling through Eindhoven and Valencia en route to London. But at the top levels of the game there are both phenoms and well seasoned vets who arrived at this stage through dedication and perseverance.

Cobb and Maradona would be best friends...after they killed each other

IV. Body types are no bar: Speaking of dedication and perseverance, you don't watch soccer or baseball with the sense that they are totally different than you. Take the top 5 baseball players of all time (by WAR [excluding Barry *Human Asterix* Bonds]: Ruth, Young, W. Johnson, Mays and Cobb). Their slightly taller than average (5'10" [Mays] to 6'2 [Johnson], and range from 170 pounds (Cobb) to 220 (Ruth), unlike the sky scraping NBA's top 5 (by PER: Jordan, James, O'Neal, Chamberlain and Robinson--all over 6'6") or the NFLs (by AVV: Favre, Rice, Manning, White and Lewis--all over 200 lbs, [minus Rice its 220]). Soccer players have a similar everyman quality about them--with the one exception that none of them had Ruth's hot dogs and beer diet--but world renowned names like Pele, Maradona, Johann Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer are all under 6 feet. Helping you dream that just maybe you could do it too.

V. Whole new world of statistical analysis: While I've often been accused of being a numbers-averse, story heavy fan/writer, I absolutely appreciate well employed statistical analysis. And increasingly Soccer has started using advanced stats with serious foresight. Added into a vocabulary full of BABIP and VORP comes PS% (Pass Success %) and ADW (Aerial Duels Won). Heck, FIFA even sold naming rights to a statistic to Castrol! So as someone who appreciates their affectionate nerdery with a dash of numbers, it's an ideal situation.
VI. Long Season as an Asset: Part of the reason statistical analysis works so well in baseball and increasingly in soccer is the sheer size of the season, you can be confident that you're getting a good sample size with six months worth of games. Better still, you get to know players and story lines as they develop, and you also get a sense that every game counts because pennants are a badge of honor in baseball (and one of the only ways into the playoffs) and they are the whole kit and caboodle in futbol. While soccer does have a variety of in-season tournaments (an idea I floated on my own baseball blog), there's a great deal to savor in every game, no matter where you stand.

Admire the honesty
VII. Loyalty rewarded: Being a fan requires loyalty, sincerity and pride of purpose. It seems a little silly to non-fans that you care so much about a group of men you'll never meet, and yet you really come to feel like you live with and for the players you watch every day, cheering on their successes and screaming over their failures. And in the end there are players who want to be every bit as loyal to their fans and their adopted home as the fans are to them, which is why Jim Thome tears up in Minnesota, and why Mario Balotelli still wants to play for Italy, no matter what obscenities some people throw his way.

VIII. Front office strategy galore: Loyalty is great, but for many fans, winning is better. So I have to appreciate the cajoling, conniving and various intricacies of altering a roster to make your team better. It's not just Terry Ryan's trade talks, it's the waiver wire watching and the AAA call-ups. That's not an option in a lot of other sports, but it is in soccer. Twice a year ownership groups go on spending sprees that would make the worst shopaholics blanche. They scour the globe for the best talents and drop a dime or two to bring them aboard (50 M seems to be the going rate for the best scorers these days). But that's not all...there's a raft of players in youth development programs itching for a call-up and rigorous competition among players already on the team striving to unseat one another. What will happen and where and with whom? Half the fun is that the hot-stove season never really ends.

Pretty awesome
(Hurriyet Daily News)
IX. Female fans, not objects: With three boys and a boy-at-heart, my mother might seem to care about sports out of self defense, but she really worried about the hole in Delmon Young's swing, the Viking's doomed defensive schemes, Wolves' missed passes and, of course, offsides traps. But she rolls her eyes every time football and basketball cameras zoom in on bouncing/bouyant cheerleaders, and she brought me up to do the same. Look around a baseball stadium and you find no cheerleaders or spirit squads, just women in the stands bemoaning bad middle relief or celebrating good plate discipline. The same thing holds true on soccer terraces (possibly because women in the US play the game at an elite international level), where every well paced pass and deflected shot are cause for joy or alarm. I don't think cheerleaders are evil...but I know I'd rather be around women who know and love the game they're watching.

X. Low scoring: This might be even less American than saying, I feel weirded out having eye candy cheerleaders shoved in my face. I like low scoring contests. I like it when runs or goals come at a premium rather than in a bundle, because it encourages you to relish every opportunity you get. It also highlights that, though you may fail, persistence is it's own reward. 

XI. Sweet satisfaction in toppling the almighty: One of the things that goes hand-in-hand with low scoring affairs, is that anyone can be beaten at any time. The Yankees may spend more than the gross national product of Belize, but scrape together a few runs and they can be beaten. Manchester City may drop more hundred dollar bills than Montgomery Burns taking out the trash, but sneak a late goal and they too can be beaten. It feels great to be a Twins fan when the pin-stripers are scratching their heads in dismay, and equally great when Watford unseats City (or, on a global scale--when the plucky old stars and stripes shocks England/Spain or any one of a host of European Goliaths).

It's easy to love sports. And when you love these things, it's easy to share the love between two great games.
Drat you legal copyrights! I want to buy this!!

I'm looking forward to visiting the birthplace of one great game, and to a great year of both games.