Friday, April 22, 2016

Happy Trails in 2016: (142-116) One Shining Moment

The following is as close as we really come to an In Memorium tribute for World Cup competitors. After all, while "One Shining Moment" Montages love to end with a a thrilling buzzer beater and confetti explosion, they just don't pop without a crying flutist or two.

Here now are the World Cup corollaries to said sad flautists.

142 'Ilaa Liqaaa, Kuwait 2014 Finish: #132 (-10)
Why they lost: While they were riding high in second place of their group last October, Kuwait's government (read: the royal family) got involved in the FA again. (Exactly what they did is unclear, as every press release and wire report uses vague generalities to excuse the actions.) So, for the third time in 10 years, Kuwait was disqualified from all tournaments and competitions they were entered in. (Oddly almost held on to their runner-up status, a Lebanon draw on the final match day, just barely knocking them back into third).

What we'll miss: The excitement of dream casting the HBO Mini-series/Movie about the Kuwaiti FA offices. Please let this be an excuse to cast Shah Rukh Khan....PLEASE!

141 Long Jay Gay, Bhutan: 2014 Finish #205 (+64)
Why they lost: The Thunder Dragons may have had their heads turned a bit by all the positive press coverage. But that kind of coverage will come your way if you win your first games ever in FIFA qualifications (even if they're won against Sri Lanka). After the BBC, ESPN and all manner of mainstream (and more obscure) media gush over them, it's hard not to be excited.

What we'll miss: Changlimath Stadium. I mean...we'll see it again at the 2046 World Cup when 80% of the Earth is under rising sea levels and all tournaments are hosted by mountain ranges. But who knows how often we'll connect again before that?

140 Lia Suhn Hao-y, Cambodia: 2014 Finish #199 (+59)
Why they lost: The Angkor Warriors have made some serious strides since we last saw them get dummped out of the competition by Laos four years ago. Still, a porous defense ceding 27 goals nearly half of which came in two ties against Syria, is hard to over come.

What we'll miss: The seven way Phenom Penh Derby is practically a league unto itself, but while that particular drama mostly plays out in the streets of the capital, the music of Cambodian-style Pop band Dengue Fever, is for everyone!

139 Jaigen, Chinese Taipei: 2014 Finish #197 (+58)
Why they lost: Taipei, or as it's better known from the labels on your shirts/your kids toys "Taiwan" took another step this round. Moving in to the second round after beating Brunei. However, and to state the obvious, second round teams were better than Brunei, and despite scoring several goals on the road, a drought at home left them unable to capitalize on any kind of home field advantage.

What we'll miss: We're not China-phobes or anything, but c'mon, a little pro-democracy tweaking of President Xi Jingping, is always a plus in our books.

Carter/Sohel...similar positions
138 Bhalo Thakben, Bangladesh: 2014 #180 (+42)
Why they lost: The final 590 minutes of Bangladesh's qualifying run passed in an offensive malaise that left even Jimmy Carter speechless (YEAH! obscure Carter Joke!). Ultimately falling: five-nil; four-nil; two-nil; five-nil; four-nil; and eight-nil to a Jordan crew that clearly missed the memo about goals against the worst team in your group not counting. In retrospect giving six out of seven games to keepers younger than 25 might have given experience, if not confidence to the young team.

What we'll miss: First choice goalkeeper Shahidul Yousuf Alam Sohel. Not because he was incredible, but because we expect he'll be going into witness relocation programs.

137 Hau ba lai, Timor-Leste: 2014 Finish #203 (+66)
Why they lost: When the Little Samba Island was going well, they were really going well. A famous draw in Kuala Lumpur and a draw at home against Palestine was a vast improvement on the last cup. Even narrow defeats at home to Malaysia and UAE were things to take pride in. But when they went wrong, they really went wrong, with a 10-0 drubbing AT HOME to Saudi Arabia the final straw.

What we'll miss: Samba-offs in place of penalty shoot outs. Honestly, it seems about as fair, and possibly more dramatic (especially if we're dealing with Russian judges). 

136 Ila Al-Liqa, Yemen: 2014 Finish #179 (+43)
Al-Sarori celebrates, that much closer
to a college mixer!
Why they lost: The Red of Yemen didn't have much offense, and when both of their goals at this stage came from 40 minutes from substitute striker Ahmed Al-Sarori. To be fair he's only 17, and better still, he's only 17.

What we'll miss: With the rise of Al-Sarori, we may just be missing the final bottoming out of Yemen. 14 years ago they were dangerous, now they're increasingly an afterthought. Easier to miss the trough than the peak.

135 Phir Milenge, India: 2014 Finish #183 (+48)
Why they lost: India's biggest sports juggernaut: T20 Cricket. Great for a cricket-crazed country and people who love instant offense. Lousy for a minor soccer bubble and anyone who likes a good tea interval. (Sidebar: India also holds a unique distinction, the first team I've ever seen who had to forfeit a game 3-0 after losing it in real time...3-0)

What we'll miss: The probable swan song for Captain and 50 goal legend of the Blue Tigers: Sunil Chettri. Cricket players get half-centuries all the time, Chettri (31) may not be around long enough to add to his tally in another Cup Qualifier.

134 Selamat Tinggal, Malaysia: 2014 Finish #182 (+48)
Really hope they're debating whether
they like "Comet" or "Weeping Willows"
Why they lost: If your country gets shellacked 10-0, you're pretty much cooked in World Cup qualifying. If your country gets shellacked 10-0, you're probably going to be pretty upset with how your team and Federation are working. If you get shellacked 10-0, you might be tempted to show how upset you are at the next home match. However, if you get shellacked 10-0, then show your displeasure by throwing flares and smoke bombs on the pitch while your crew looks for a late equalizer against the best team in the're not helping much.

What we'll miss: A far more angsty counterpoint to the most frustrated American ultras.

133 Sok Dee DerLaos: 2014 Finish #191 (+58)
Why they lost: Laos saved their three goal outburst for a game that did not occur, winning by forfeit over Kuwait...and yet Kuwait still managed to finish six points clear of Tim Xad.

What we'll miss: The statute of limitations running out on the "New Laos National Stadium", constructed in 2009. I never thought I'd see the need for naming rights so clearly. Speaking of...any one want to go in on the naming rights for Laos' National Stadium with me?

132 To Bozdid, Tajikistan: 2014 Finish #186 (+54)
Why they lost: Squished amongst other former Soviet states, Tajikstan has the smallest landmass, relatively minor economic advantages, and a beloved leader/despot who has ruled for 22 years. I'm not saying they're a little disadvantaged in investments in youth soccer, but I'm guessing other things come before set-piece training.

What we'll miss: Despite a clear decline in their form from the last cycle, the Persian Lions have invested heavily in youth development, going so far as to make their U-19 side double up as a club team in their top division. On top of all this, they're making the team the focal point of their the only HD network in Tajikistan, so what I'll really miss is discovering exactly what passes for a "Hot Take" in Tajik color commentary.

131 Dhanee, Maldives: 2014 Finish #187 (+56)
Watch the sunset, or the news....
No brianer in the Maldives
Why they lost: Ahhh, Maldives, pretty enough to be my retirement home, tumultuous enough to be my nightmare. (Seriously, I know I just did a little mini-poli-sci rant about Tajikistan, but the Maldives makes that mess look as controversial as a Rick Santorum sweater vest.) There's a former president in jail for terrorism, a former vice president under arrest for plotting the assassination of his OWN president, and a growing hunger for the authoritarian, China-cuddling, radical-Islam preaching, son-of-a-former-dictator current president to lead the way. With all this unrest it was nice to have Bhutan to beat up on.

What we'll miss: Ali Ashfaq. Now, as he was before, the most interesting striker in Southeast Asia. And possibly, the most trustworthy public persona in the Maldives. 

130 Adios Esta, Guam; 2014 Finish 207 (+ 77)
Why they lost: Like Bhutan, Guam didn't even enter last cycle's tournament. Unlike Bhutan, Guam won a game in this round. They actually won two! And won a draw against Oman to be well positioned for advancement half-way through the round. Then the wheels came off the wagon, right around the time they went on the road.  Dropping their final four matches without scoring a goal (notably, talisman/LA Galaxy player AJ DeLaGarza did not travel for those games).

What we'll miss: Having a little slice of America kick butt in a totally different confederation: USA! USA! USA!

129 Tam Biet,  Vietnam: 2014 Finish 181 (+52)

Why they lost: If you ask the Vietnamese board, it probably has something to do with former coach Toshiya Miura's poor player development. Despite a solid 24 points out of 14 matches under Miura, and a better record with the U-23's, the board canned Miura after getting bounced out of the U-23 championships in January of this year. To be fair, under coach Nguyen Hu Thang, the first local manager to cover a Cup qualifier in over a decade, they did record a thumping 4-1 win over Taipei, and a narrow 1-0 loss away to Iraq.
Nguyen Van Toan...Nào Loons!!

What we'll miss: Scouting opportunities. (Under the theory that Vietnam has a clearer development system than Laos, I thought my local club side--Minnesota United--could consider taking on players who appeal to a large segment of the local fan base.) Two of the most promising candidates: Luong Xuan Truong and Do Duy Manh have already been poached by the J-League and the K-League respectively, but their fellow Academy member Nguyen Van Toan has also been called up...I'm just saying...

128 Thwa Dau Me, Myanmar: 2014 Finish 184 (+56)
Why they lost: Four years ago, we pinned their defeat on that all encompassing of villains, the military junta. This time, it's a little more logical: deprived of all home matches (see the in-match violence that contributed to their elimination last time round), it was vital to gather up as many road points as possible. But a late goal in Lebanon and a fail to scramble home a winner in Laos left them in fourth rather than second.

What we'll miss: Awkward photo ops for Aun San Suu Kyi. Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Parlimentarian, "State Counselor"/Power-Behind-the-Throne in Myanmar's politics, and burgeoning football fan!

127 Khuda Hafez, Afghanistan: 2014 Finish #200 (+73)
Why they lost: Still young, still growing, still optimistic, Afghanistan notched their first point ever in World Cup Qualifying. In fact they notched 9 points in 8 games, both massive improvements for the team. The downside is that the points all came against fellow lower tier squads like Cambodia and Singapore while juggernaut South Korea (and shocking story Syria) ran roughshod over them. 

What we'll miss: With players bringing their training from refugee locales around the world, the mixing of Afghanistan's Swedish, German, Dutch, and American roots makes them a veritable stew...or since we're talking about Afghanistan...a Chalau for the masses.

The fall of Bahrain is, indeed,
a head scratcher.
126 Allah Yisallimak, Bahrain: 2014 Finish #130 (+4)
Why they lost: With so many other rounds of qualifying knocked off before Asia wrapped up, it looks like Bahrain got a little better...but don't be fooled, this is a sharp decline from a team that twice in the last decade, was one match away from a World Cup debut. Maybe their golden generation has rusted, maybe they're despondent that Sheikh Salman wasn't elected as president, or maybe they're the poster children for how oodles of FIFA money can't buy you a trip to the big show.

What we'll miss: Poking fun at Sheikh Salman, I mean...c'mon, he was nearly the most powerful man in football AND a Human Rights abuser! Such a better villain than another bald European linked to offshore bank accounts again...c'mon let's not totally buy into cliches, people!!

125 Paalam, Phillipines: 2014 Finish #185 (+60)
Why they lost: I was rather bullish on The Azkals/Street Dogs at the start of this round, but they whimpered on the way to the finish line through a stunning 1-0 loss at home to bottom of the heap Yemen. 

What we'll miss: The logo that appears on most national team broadcasts: that's a dog that looks like it would even take a bite out of Manny Pacquiao!
124 Smell Ya Later, Singapore: 2014 Finish #138 (+14)
Why they lost: At the end of the day, second place Syria was simply better than Singapore. Big defeats home and away broke up a promising opening half of the campaign, and punctuated a miserable final three defeats in a row.

What we'll miss: I would say the by now psychic team chemistry between 120+ cap duo Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Izak, but as they both play for the Malaysia's favorite B Team (Johor Da'Rul Tazim) they're nearly inescapable. So I'll just say the dream of covering a game in Singapore and writing off drinks at the Raffles bar as a business expense.

123 'Illa-liqaa, Lebanon: 2014 Finish #95 (-28)
Coming soon to a box near Beriut
Why they lost: As their greatest offensive outburst (a seven goal thumping of Laos) Lebanon can thrive when playing in from the wings, but their inability to repeat that feat against non-Laotian sides like Kuwait and South Korea tamped down their goal difference and stopped them from making their second straight trip to the last round of qualification.

What we'll miss: A host of young debutantes have a chance to make a real impact on the Cedars in years to come. Most notable FSV Mainz's goal keeper in waiting: Daniel Zeaiter.

122 Ila Al-Liqa, Palestine: 2014 Finish #178 (+56)
Why they lost: Palestine needs a much wider pipeline into the burgeoning world of Chilean/Palestinian prospects. The path blazed by defender Alexis Norambuena has now led to Yashir Pinto, who netted two goals in his first ever national cap.

What we'll miss: Any chance to see more matches in the Palestinian territory. After all, if they can host a match in Jerusalem or Hebron, it's because they have a safe environment for foreign teams, referees, journalists and observers. And the more safety there is in Palestine, the better for everyone.

121 Sag Bolun, Turkmenistan: 2014 Finish #177 (+56)
So Excited, But we Can Actually Hide It.
Why they lost: Turkmenistan was at their best at their home stadium in Ashgabat, City of White Marble and gargantuan golden statues of former President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov (who may also have named himself President of the After-Life, reports are vague). Had they been able to take all that white marble with them to Tehran, Oman or Guam, they might not have lost those matches.

What we'll miss: Following up a match in Turkmenistan with that most exciting of Turkemn activities: Bumper Cars

120 Jakshy Kalyngydzar, Kyrgyzstan.  2014 Finish: 188 (+68)
Why they lost: As we all know, as FC Dordoi goes, so goes the Kyrgyz national team....okay, maybe we don't all know that. The Yellow Blue of FC Dordoi Bishkek have put 19 players on the national team in the last year alone. But while that unity often pays off for national teams with cohesive squad mentalities (see Spain), Dordoi's struggles against reigning champions Aly Osh may have affected their confidence.

What we'll miss: Kyrgyzstan is a 30 point Scrabble word...if only they allowed Proper Nouns! 

119 Allah yisallimak, Oman. 2014 Finish #92 (-27)

All for Al-Habsi
Why they lost: Oman seems to be that perpetual bridesmaid of Asian soccer. Always on the cusp of breaking through, never actually doing it. It may have become part of their whole identity, like the Cubs or the Clippers. They've even begun to shuffle blithely to their doom in smaller contests like the Gulf Cup of Nations. Oman needs a win, a convincing, commanding triumph to get back on track. Perhaps they could host Andorra?

What we'll miss: If Daniel Zeaiter is the future of Goalkeeping, let's take a moment to tip our cap to the past in Ali Al-Habsi whose 118 national team appearances (and track record in the Premiership) have set a lofty standard for his heirs to the gloves in Oman.

118 Jongin, Hong Kong: 2014 Finish: #189 (+71)
Why they lost: In the NCAA tournament field they talk about "signature wins", impressive wins against vaunted opponents. Hong Kong needed one of those. Two scoreless draws against mainland rivals (both athletically as well as socially and politically: China. Against a backdrop of the umbrella revolution and perpetual soft power exertion by Xi Jingping, Hong Kong would have thrilled to beat their overlords opponents, or at least settled for eliminating them from the competition. (Poor perfromances by our next two eliminated squads couldn't even give them that small solace)

What we'll miss: Triumphs for democracy.

117 Annyong hi-Kashipishio, North Korea. 2014 Finish: #133 (+16)
Starting at every position soon....
Why they lost: There's a little bit of pressure on the Thousand Mile Horse (Chollima in Korean). Failure may be met with torture or public shaming. So with victory with less than 10 minutes to see out a victory that would move them on to the final round of qualifying, it is entirely plausible that the pressure got to them in Manila: ceding two late goals and beginning the long, slow march back to Pyongyang.

What we'll miss: Pak Kwang-ryong. The lone North Korean to play in Europe (in the Swiss League)...but I've also struggled to identify where he's playing at present. If you google yourself Kwang-ryong: STOP READING. Run, Run, RUN NOW.

116 Salaam, Jordan. 2014 Finish: #34 (-82)
Why they lost: The Chivalrous had a difficult time putting the ball through in the final third. Take away their shellackings of Bangladesh and their 21 goal outburst shrinks to 9. Part of that may come from the revolving door in the manager's seat since their inter-confederation playoff three years ago. Six coaches including two non-consecutive terms for local Ahmed Abdel-Qader, two ill-fated brits and one hapless Belgian have left a once promising squad adrift and listless.

What we'll miss: The vanishing Jordanian strike force of Abdallah Deeb (pushed back to the midfield) and Mossab al-Laham (uncalled for a year, and stalled out on the club side).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

FIFA Election 2016: Lose but Don't Choose

Just when you think you've done the unthinkable and escaped the endless talking points and countdown clocks around the American Presidential Primaries, I'm here to batter you with news of another election!

Don't worry, this one isn't about who gets access to nuclear launch codes, or the power to appoint a generation of jurists. It's actually about important things: World Football. Specifically the election of a new FIFA president (unless Sepp Blatter seizes power through some kind of bureaucratic coup, rising up with umpteen forms in triplicate and pockets stuffed with Swiss Francs).

Unfortunately, we have absolutely no way to influence the vote. No fan does. No FA has polled their populace. No debate was held (though one was hilariously/feebly scheduled). No candidate is glad handing or meeting regularly with the press, players or supporters who make the beautiful game so beautiful.

So perhaps it's fair to ask "why should we care about which over-indulged bureaucrat gets to over-indulge until they die or an Attorney General arrests them?" It's a fair question, but here's the fair answer: even the court jester had to know who was king. 

Much as we mock the misanthropes in Zurich, we are beholden to them for the national games, for the global pride, for the international joy of watching and wallowing in athletic artistry. We're stuck with them, and even if they don't care about us, what they choose to do will effect the games we see across America in the future.
Last Supper final
Candidates in the light from Left to Right:
Sexwale, Salman, Champagne, (Blatter & Platini), Infantino, Ali
Using, The Sporting Intelligence's insightful and brutally direct break down, I highlighted a few key parts of each candidates platform. Almost every candidate has known enough to make approving noises about big transparency issues, and pledges for reform, but so did Uncle Sepp, and while those things matter, we may not see the truth of such "reforms" for another 20 years or so. For the here and now, local fans will most notice if the next president works to: 
  • improve minor associations (which would expand the talent pool for US Club teams and support greater parity on the world stage);
  • expand the World Cup (from 32-40 as per Michael Platini's proposal)
  • invest in grassroots and women's football; tackling social ills (i.e. doping, racism, child trafficking from the third world under the guise of "club scouts"); 
  • include geo-political requirements on World Cup hosts (which would ideally save fans from the queasy feelings instilled by bully candidates like Russia and Qatar); 
  • and increase technology in the game (the one thing everyone has claimed they will do).
So where do they stand and who would win a local-fan primary? Let's look at the candidates, their life stories, their effect on local fans, their chances, and who their best presidential campaign corollary is (apologies to ardent Republicans who would rather not see their favorite candidates connected to the mess of FIFA. I'm not implying any judgement, it was just easier to draw from a big pool)

The Guy who Doesn't Know When to Quit: Prince Ali Bin Hussein
Who He Is: A member of the Jordanian royal family and runner-up to Sepp Blatter in the last election (in May of 2015). Prior to that he founded a regional organization for football in the Middle East, was a FIFA VP for Asia and a staunch advocate for allowing the hijab in Women's football. He's also kind of the rock and roll candidate, turning up to Arsenal games, showing up for just about every public event, showing his family man status, etc.

Who He Is Not: A humble street urchin posing as Prince Ali Ababwa...that would be ridiculous!

How He Would Effect Mid-American Fans: Hussein is in favor of continuing many of the growth oriented practices of FIFA's recent past (more technology, cracking down on racism, supporting small member associations, growing grassroots/women's game). But he differs in two key details: he would alter requirements for World Cup Hosts (incorporating human rights issues--after 2022--and looking for ways to decrease cost burdens on hosts), and he's mostly focused on giving money to smaller countries rather than growing membership or reforming local FAs. 

What are His Chances? Fading fast. Ali was the only other option 9 months ago, and had the backing of the Europeans furious with Blatter. But with two European candidates this time around, his support base has dried up faster than an Agrabah oasis.

Which US Candidate does He Resemble? Mike Huckabee/Chris Christie. Cool enough to be intriguing, but not to actually win anymore.

The Man Out of Time: Jerome Champagne
Who He Is: A French diplomat who segued into football management during the 1998 World Cup. After 11 years near the center of the football decision makers, Champagne took to bopping around the globe consulting smaller federations on ground level improvements (most notably in Palestine). He didn't get the nominations needed to run in 2015, but is back again and still bucking for the presidency.

How He Would Effect Mid-American Fans: Like Prince Ali, Champagne is one of the most vocal reform candidates. But he would take a more active role in addressing the minor associations (as a consultant for minnows, that makes sense): building pitches, pushing an on-line management training class, adding a voice for players in FIFA, getting boots on the ground in burgeoning markets (China/India/Indonesia) and explicitly campaigning to add Kosovo and more Oceanic nations.

What are His Chances? Not good. As relevant, viable, and progress-driven as he may seem in the eyes of fans and the press, he's not terribly relevant to the powers that be in FIFA-land, being dismissed by some as "the minutes taker". 

Which US Candidate does He Resemble? John Kasich. Obviously capable, but oblivious to the tides of voters and the times.

Infantino (w/ball) and his homies
The Rock Star: Gianni Infantino
Who He Is: A Swiss sports management official, given the defacto backing of European confederations when Michael Platini was banned in the fall. He's been around the ever increasing popularity of European football, and enjoys the support of lots of players also connected to UEFA management.

How He Would Effect Mid-American Fans: Unclear. Infantino is long on popularity and short on specific suggestions for improvement. Of the five topics I identified as relevant, he hasn't take a definitive stand on any of them (not even curbing racism, which...COME ON MAN!). He has said in the past that he backs World Cup expansion, and he wants to start his presidency with a football game at FIFA with some favorite old stars, which would be fun.

What are His Chances? Great! Most of Europe and South America have pledged their support, and with a platform that's long on vagaries and short on specifics, the old hands in Zurich will feel quite comfortable with him.

Which US Candidate does He Resemble? A hybrid of Jeb Bush's establishment credentials and Donald Trump's blanket pronouncements/celebrity pals.

The One with a Die-Hard Fan Base: Sheikh Salman
Who He Is: A member of the Bahraini royal family, Salman Bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, has a degree in English literature, but rather than racking up debt (or just wasting royal family money) on a graduate degree, he got involved in football, first as president of the Bahrain FA (just as the team's golden generation finished painfully short of the World Cup in 2006 and 2010), and now as President of the Asian Federation. He also has been linked to the imprisonment and torture of Bahraini athletes who took part in pro-democracy protests during the Arab spring.

How He Would Effect Mid-American Fans: The Sheikh wants more money to small federations (his own has gotten the most over the last decade), and he has made appropriate mutterings about the social issues everyone cares about...or says they care about anyway. Racism = Bad. Mission accomplished. Hope you're happy everybody. But generally he wants to be hands off and let the game be the game. So if you're cool with how the most powerful clubs and countries have been doing things lately, get comfy.

What are His Chances? Pretty strong. Many FIFA watchers have suggested a potential backdoor deal between Infantino and Sheikh Salman where the president isn't white, and nothing really changes either. 

Which US Candidate does He Resemble? Ted Cruz. All the promise that makes his supporters happy, all the baggage that makes others wince.

The Zombie Campaign: Tokyo Sexwale
Who He Is: A former dissident and prisoner in Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. But rather than becoming a beacon for hope and democracy around the world, he followed up a brief political career by making gobs of money in mining, starting the "Say No to Racism" campaign, and becoming Franz Beckenbauer's BFF.

How He Would Effect Mid-American Fans: Sexwale is in favor of EVERYTHING! More associations! More grassroots promotions of pitches in the developing world! More money to the poor! More teams in the World Cup! More Women (presumably playing football)! More doping!...Wait...I mean, more stopping of doping! All he doesn't explicitly want is vetting of World Cup hosts, so get ready for Venezuela 2026!

What are His Chances? Bizarrely worse than the other "reformers". As a new face, a rich backstory, and a person from the underrepresented constituencies in FIFA, many tipped Sexwale (Seck-wall-ee, not Sex-whale) as a putative early favorite. But after making a big bang on his entrance, he's fizzled. His website is down, his twitter is dormant, his campaigning looks meek next to Ali and Champagne, and he has no confirmed voters (heck, even the mild mannered Champagne has Guinea-Bissau).

Which US Candidate does He Resemble? Ben Carson, but without the narcolepsy.

So, it's pretty clear that, barring some bizarre turn of events, it will be either Sheikh Salman or Gianni Infantino. But in a more democratic world, where the whole world actually had a voice, who would get your vote? 

Friday, January 01, 2016

What to Watch for Worldwide in 2016

We spent the last few days reflecting on the teams that have bowed out of the next round of the world Cup in 2015. Now it's time to look ahead to the 2016 International Soccer Calendar and ponder what, if anything, matters to the average Upper-Midwest-Mountain-Time-Zone-Type Soccer Fan.

January 3rd: SAFF Championship--India
Forget your podunk Tax Slayer and Alamo Bowls, the first real hardware on the line this year will be awarded when India and Afghanistan meet in Kerala this Sunday. The Afghans have long dominated the subcontinent but are about to defect to a different subregion, meaning that India will soon be the lone giant in their area (as usual). The Blue Tigers have already been mathematically eliminated from the world cup qualifiers with two games to go, but they play throwback American footy. As in: a throw back to those late 80 days when 90% stadium seats were empty and even the best players were tentative. Ahhh memories. (You can watch the live stream here at 7 AM local time Sunday, but be warned there are no announcers, but feel free to invent your own.)

January 11th: Ballon d'Or Awards
AKA Lionel Messi wracks his brain to think of someone he hasn't yet thanked in an acceptance speech. great-great-great grandma I guess?
January 12th-30th: Asian Olympic Qualifying/U-23 Championship
It will be interesting to see who makes it to the Olympics (I'm still riding the Thai War Elephants bandwagon), but what really matters is our sense of progress and organization in Qatar who hosts the tournament. Sure it's still 6 years off, and they've hosted an Asian Cup with more spectators and journalists, but the closer we get to 2022 the more we want to see wrinkles ironed out.

February 7th: African Nations Championship
You might be thinking...didn't Africa just play a championship last year? Yes they did, but this time they take only players based on the continent into their national teams, giving a slightly trickier job to the coaches involved. Unfortunately the late timing means that if someone has a great tournament they have to wait five long (injury-prone) months before they can become a transfer target again. But, as an added bonus, you can brag at that evening's Super Bowl party that you won the Office ANC Pool. ("What's that?" you can continue "your office doesn't have a pool for the African Nations Championship final? Well...I suppose we're just more worldly over where I work"--and that's how you win Hipster of the Year with 10 months to spare)

February 26th: FIFA's Extraordinary Congress
Sadly, it's not a congress made up of FA directors who are also steam punk superheroes. It's a bunch of officials running to replace Sepp Blatter as most derided and loathed man in the world. There's a full month plus of campaigning, including the possibility of a live ESPN debate around the world on January 29th so we can get more into the who, what and why and if you want logical, intelligent coverage rather than my style of mockery and pop culture allusions, Sporting Intelligence has just about everything you need to know to make an informed decision about who you would least dislike winning an election you can't vote in.

Be prepared to loathe one of these men for the rest of their professional lives!
March 15th & 16th: FIFA Meetings on Development and Cup Organization
AKA Shoot, people are watching us do we "develop" our bank accounts like this?

March 21st-29th: International Break #1
The biggest piece in this session will be Asia's final round of second round matches, with a number of spots in the final round still up for grabs. The great stories of Bhutan and Guam have reached their disappointing endings, but there's still hope for Cinderella story runs for Thailand (coming of a trophy win last year), Hong Kong (who could qualify off the back of China) and Syria (who...holy hell what would their progression mean?).

May 12th-15th: FIFA Congress in Mexico City
The new president will have the eyes of the world on him as he announces a host of minor bureaucratic "reforms" that will either continue the devolution of power to an international base or set billionaire European club owners toes a-curling.

May 15-29th: COSAFA Cup--Windohek, Namibia
Bafana Bafana remains the dominant force in the region, but shockingly trail Zimbabwe and Zambia in total titles. With Zambia a dark horse for Wold Cup qualifying and Botswana and Angola riding a youth wave, there are some interesting story lines to watch before most teams settle in for three years of waiting for the 2022 qualifiers.

May 28-June 11: OFC Nations Cup/2nd Round Qualifiers
AKA New Zealand enjoys some lovely beach weather in Papua New Guinea and wonders how it can join the Asian Federation.
C'mon All Whites, look at this view

June 3-26: Copa America Centenario--USA
Ahh, the tournament that gave Attorney General Loretta Lynch the opening needed to whomp FIFA on the head with the reform stick (thanks Traffic Sports Marketing!!) For those who are still keen on seeing great international soccer (assuming it rises above the stink of bribery that it was built on) it's only 5 hours to Chicago which will host three first round games (including one US Men's National Team and one Argentine game) as well as a semi-final.

June 10-July 10: Euro 2016--France
The big tournament of the summer will offer answers to a few big questions: is Germany unbeatable? Can Spain and Italy bounce back? Are France and Belgium ready to join the short list of title contenders? Dare we dream of Irish, Welsh or Icelandic qualification? Who is destined to make Euro pundits giggle like star-struck teens before turning in a wildly disappointing next season and disappearing off the face of the sporting earth? Ohh, Euro season, how I tolerate you.

June 24: CAF 3rd Round Qualifying draw
While some strong teams still look indomitable (Ivory Coast, Algeria, Ghana) we've reached that stage of African development where often overlooked squads are on the rise (Cape Verde Islands and Congo), while older squads have faded just enough to create groups of deaths (Egypt and Nigeria). We'll have to wait and see how the groups shake out, but there's a good chance that three more spots will be in the balance.
Alright! More Cartoon Sports Enthusiasts
August 3-20: Olympic Tournament--Rio de Janeiro
Hey! A soccer tournament in Brazil! Move over pigeons of Manaus, we need that stadium again...for a couple of hours anyway. Seriously, the U-23 teams coming in from around the world should give a sense of which county's development programs may be bearing fruit in two years time (Denmark, Sweden, Honduras, South Africa, maybe just maybe the US--if they can beat Columbia in March).

August 29-September 6: International Break #2
Just a few weeks into the start of the new club season, and just six weeks after the Euro Championships, UEFA starts another round of Cup Qualifiers, and even San Marino dreams big (We lost 5-0 it's a miracle!!)

October 3-11: International Break #3
It's Africa's turn to start a round of qualifications based on the June draw for 5 groups. Assuming people aren't so pumped after watching the new Channing Tatum as Gambit movie to lose focus. They love their early-90s X-Men in Gabon!

Let's go, cher pantheres!
October 20-11: FIFA Meetings on Marketing and Television/Development
AKA "Dude, check out all the tv money we can...oh...dang it, they're still looking."

October/November: Central/East-Central African Cup (Possibly?)
Uganda has been on a great run of late, making the third round of World Cup qualifiers and winning their 14th regional cup. If (as Wikipedia seems to believe) there's another cup in the offing, the Cranes may be able to build themselves up more for a longer qualifying run (or run themselves ragged when they need to be fresh).

November 7-15: International Break #4
North American fans rejoice, it's time to start the Hexagon. Assuming the US can get past the Grenadines and Tobago, we will see more high stakes matches with local rivals Mexico and Costa Rica, whether or not we see that with Jurgen at the helm depends on your fondness for our resident Ubermensch.
Jurgen and his critics move to a slightly larger space

December: ASEAN Football Federation Cup--Myanmar/Phillipines
What a great way for Aung Sang Suu Kii to celebrate her first year in power! The Southeast Asian nations will run another tournament. With Thailand on track for their first final qualifying round and Vietnam still in the hunt, the AFF Cup might make a good tune up for those teams with big dreams, or salve the wound if it all falls apart. Plus, I hear the Nobel Prize winner's a pretty creative attacking midfielder.