Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A World Cup History Lesson

Today was the first day in a while without live World Cup soccer - which makes it much easier to concentrate on one's work. The Round of 16 games bought few surprises. Every group winner beat the group runner-up they were matched against, with the exception of the United States losing to Ghana. The officiating continued to be a problem, most notably in the Germany-England and Argentina-Mexico matches, though the superior team clearly won in both cases and would have won even without assistance from the officials. The exit of the United States was disappointing, but understandable given one fairly damning statistic: the US, which accomplished amazing things at this Cup by winning its group and with exciting comeback results, led for exactly 3 minutes out of its 390 at this World Cup, after Landon Donavan scored against Algeria. You can't dig yourself a hole and escape every game. Ghana became only the third African team to make it to the quarterfinals, and will try to become the first to make it to the semifinals, and Uruguay is beatable. But after they knocked my team out for the second Cup in a row and given their pathetic time-wasting measures such as lying down on the pitch without reason in the final few minutes against the US, I wouldn't mind seeing Ghana lose to another team with a compelling story, Uruguay. Uruguay are by far the smallest country to have won the World Cup, about a tenth of the size of Argentina in population, and they won the first Cup, in 1930, at home in Montevideo, then shocked hosts Brazil when the Cup resumed in 1950.

Three compelling match-ups await in the quarterfinals, along with Spain vs. Paraguay (two reasons to root for shock Paraguay victory: their gorgeous superfan, and the possibility of a Uruguay-Paraguay final to determine which nation is the guay-est). I think Spain will play against Brazil or the Netherlands in the final.

But for now, here's some World Cup history factoids since I've gotten so into the all-time records this year:
  • At the first World Cup, 1930 Uruguay, only four European teams decided to sail for South America, and random ones at that: France, Belgium, Yugoslavia and Romania. A odd total of 13 teams competed. The United States had their best ever result: not only did they finish in third place, but American Bert Patenaude recorded the World Cup's first-ever hat trick against Paraguay. Uruguay beat Argentina in the final.
  • For the second World Cup, 1934 Italy, defending champions Uruguay decided not to make the trip to Europe because Italy hadn't bothered to come to South America four years earlier. Mexico made the trip over the Atlantic, but then found out they had to play the United States in a play-in game in Europe even though the Americans had turned in their application late. The US won, so Mexico didn't get to compete. Sorry, that was sort of a dick move. The tournament did take on its long-running 16-team format here. Mussolini's Italy won the World Cup.
  • Only 15 teams got to play in 1938 France, because GERMANY ANNEXED AUSTRIA. Austria was one of the best teams in 1934, so maybe this was another reason for the Anschluss. World War II canceled the Cup for a while, when the fourth edition was finally held, in 1950 in Brazil, Germany was red-carded and had to stay home. The US shocked England in this Cup, but even more importantly, Uruguay shocked Brazil in the final.
  • 1954 saw favorite Hungary lose to Germany in der Wunder von Bern. No small European country like Hungary has ever managed to win the World Cup, this was probably the best shot. Instead, it was the beginning of Germany's impressive haul of championships.
  • In 1958 Brazil won the Cup in Sweden. This is the only time a South American team has won in Europe. The pattern has been Europeans win in Europe, Brazil and Argentina win in South America and Mexico, and Brazil wins everywhere else. Brazil won in 1962 and 1970. England won in 1966 at home against Germany, and had deja vu when a goal off the crossbar, much their winner in 1966, was discounted against Germany on Sunday.
  • If you look at just the last nine World Cups, Brazil, which has won the most total titles, doesn't look quite as dominant. Beginning with 1974, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Italy have each won two World Cups, France has won one and lost another final in penalty kicks.
  • The tournament finally expanded to 24 teams in 1982 and again to the modern 32 teams in 1998.
  • So right now, 5 Cups for Brazil, 4 for Italy, 3 for Germany, 2 for Argentina, 2 for Uruguay, 1 for England, 1 for France. Four teams look to add to their totals in the next two weeks, while Spain, the Netherlands, Ghana and Paraguay aim for their first Cup first-place trophies.
  • The 20th World Cup will be held in 2014 in Brazil. Guess who will win.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

End of the Group Stage

After fifteen days of great soccer, boring soccer, and low productivity worldwide, we are accustomed to the sound of vuvuzelas and ready for the knockout rounds at the World Cup. Here are a couple big stories looking back and looking forward:
  • The embarassing implosion of the French team, from the players' striking to the government response to the coach's classless refusal to shake the hand of the South Africa coach after the last game, punctuated the 2006 runners-up's exit from the Cup. Defending champions Italy didn't go out so spectacularly, they just failed to win a game and finished behind surprising New Zealand. The announcer at the end of Slovakia's win over Italy said that 5 of 6 of the shots on goal against Italy were successful, the 2006 champs obviously missed their injured keeper Buffon. Only 6 (of the 13) European teams advanced to the second round, an all-time low: three time winners Germany, one time winner England, co-favorites Spain, perennial dark horses the Netherlands and Portugal, and Slovakia, which as the only new team at the World Cup has jumped all the way to 16th in FIFA's all time records table (they share Czechoslovakia's records with the Czech Republic). And all 6 European teams are matched up with other Europeans, so there will definitely be 3 European reps in the final 8.
  • 8 teams from the Americas entered the Cup, out of 32 teams in South Africa. Only one, Honduras, is going home, so the Western Hemisphere has gone from a quarter of the teams to nearly half. Five South American teams in the Round of 16 is an all-time high, four of them won their groups, as did the United States, while Mexico and Chile made it through as group runners-up. Out of the South American five, only Chile lost a game (to Spain). Asia did surprisingly well, with both South Korea and Japan advancing without much difficulty. Africa's performance has been disappointing given the raised expectations of a Cup in Africa. Algeria didn't score a goal, Cameroon, which had the easiest path out of their group, failed to get a result. Hosts South Africa failed to get out of their group due to a bad loss to Uruguay, the first time the hosts failed to get out of the group stage, but they performed respectably for the second-lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Nigeria was good enough to advance but failed to. The exciting Ivory Coast team fought valiantly in the Group of Death for the second Cup in a row. So the hopes of all of Africa are now on Ghana, the United States' opponent this afternoon.
  • There are some great match-ups coming up in the next few days: Germany-England, Spain-Portugal, Brazil-Chile especially, but USA-Ghana is a rematch of the pivotal group game in 2006, in which Ghana eliminated the US and advanced. We're in the most wide-open quadrant of the bracket now. While the winner of Germany-England will face Argentina and the Netherlands will face Brazil in tough quarterfinal match-ups, and Spain should sail through to the semis if they can get past Portugal, one team out of Uruguay, South Korea, the United States and Ghana will be the surprise semifinalist at the 2010 World Cup. I'm rooting for the USA to turn in their best Cup performance since 1930 and then face Brazil or the Netherlands. But Ghana going further than any African team ever (Cameroon and Senegal have made the quarterfinals) would also be a great story, as would a strong tournament for Uruguay, winners in 1930 and 1950, the original South American Cup hegemons despite their small size. South Korea has a less compelling storyline for me, as they made the semis 8 years ago at home, but another semifinals for the Koreans, halfway around the world, would gain a lot of respect for Korean and Asian soccer.
  • Diego Maradona. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Cup, Day 3

When Clint Dempsey's shot slipped through Robert Green's hands yesterday, the American ran down the field pointing his fingers and his eyes to the heavens. With good reason - America's draw against England can't really be attributed to an impressive performance by its strikers or midfielders, and the less said about the defenders the better. Chalk it up to a combination of divine intervention or luck, whatever you prefer, and Tim Howard's top-notch goal-keeping. The draw was a fine result for Team USA. England, who I believed was one of four or five teams that could win the Cup (Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, England, maybe Argentina), did not look bad but nor did they look like champions.

Germany, on the other hand, just made a statement. Given that their goalkeeper had committed suicide last year and that their next-choice goalie and captain Michael Ballack were out of this Cup, I predicted Germany, along with fellow European powers Italy and France, was headed towards a disappointing Cup, even a first-round knockout in Group D, which looked decently tough before today. But after today's results Germany and Ghana have momentum, Germany looks like a contender, Ghana looks like it might be Africa's great hope, Serbia looks haunted by the prospect of second consecutive bad Cup performance, and you can stick a fork in Australia's ass and turn them over, they're done, with their best player red-carded out of the last two group games.

Little Slovenia is next up for the Americans. When I was shopping for jerseys I considered them, as their mountain outline is either one of the coolest jerseys in the tournament or a bit too Charlie Brown. But Slovenia gear was off-limits because they're in my team's group. I see a US victory and the US and England both in the Round of 16, with England more likely to finish first on goal differential or America drawing one of its two remaining opponents. Then Germany would be a scary opponent, but we'll see how they play in their next two games. Ghana is capable of beating them, and from the qualifiers, you would think Serbia able as well.

And then there's Greece, who I had picked as my second-favorite team in the Cup, based on my Greek roots and the present situation of the country (this job is flexible, last year it was held by home team Germany). I picked them for the semifinals on a whim, but now I don't think they're going to make it out of the group. They were easily outclassed by South Korea yesterday. Which means they're playing for respect, and against history. I've found many interesting nuggets of information in the Goldman Sachs World Cup 2010 and Economics report. One of which is that only one team has played a full six games in the World Cup without winning at least a draw. But Slovenia, Greece, and New Zealand could all have joined El Salvador in this ignominious record by the end of this World Cup. With its victory, Slovenia has more than a snowball's chance in hell of actually advancing to the second round ahead of the United States or England. But Greece and New Zealand could yet match the record. Greece, additionally, has lost four games, and never scored a goal, with 12 goals against it. Only Zaire, which was outscored 14-0 in its one Cup, has a more lopsided history. El Salvador's goal differential is 1-22. To escape ignominy, Greece must beat or draw mighty Argentina or Africa's largest county, Nigeria, which has a very good keeper. So good luck Greece, you'll need it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup, Day 1

Since the last World Cup, I have mastered the arts of international affairs (incidentally, this is the excuse I have for not posting for a month - celebration around graduation). So I came up the following formulation: in the world of soccer and in the international system, the roles of the United States and Brazil are reversed. In the real world, the United States is the hegemonic superpower and Brazil is the emerging great power that isn't quite there yet (as the West, Russia and China's response to the Brazil and Turkey-brokered deal with Iran on nuclear energy shows). In soccer, the roles are reversed. The USA is one of the most likely countries who has never won the World Cup to win one this time or in the near future (Goldman Sachs gives the USA a 2.81% chance, ninth most likely overall, behind fellow never-wons Spain and the Netherlands and a bit ahead of fellow dark horses Serbia, Mexico and Portugal). But they are an underdog, and it makes them easy to root for.

It is Day 1 of the World Cup, and while I have not managed to write about the Cup ahead of the start of play, I have been eagerly anticipating this day and am plenty inspired now. I have made my predictions with several brackets, bought a Greece jersey as I have decided to make them my second-favorite team, at least at the start of the tournament (why? because they've been in my thoughts, and I am of one-eighth Greek ancestry, and because I thought it would be fun to wear that jersey at European Studies cocktail parties around graduation; its cooling technology also made it a great choice to wear under the graduation gown), and have washed my USA jersey for tomorrow's match with England. Today I was drinking a Dos Equis at Cafe Citron watching the Cup opener on Univision with a bunch of Mexico partisans before 10:30 a.m. Unfortunately I had to closely watch my alcohol intake during the games today, with an afternoon optometrist appointment, lest the World Cup leave me with several years of headaches from a bad prescription, that would be a truly terrible hangover.

OK, not a game was won today, but the games were quite enjoyable, and host South Africa got a good result, if disappointing considering their chances for more goals. The vuvuzela horns made their presence known, filling bars across six continents with a droning noise to accompany the match and the commentary. South Africa is an easy team to root for, we'll see if they can make it out of the first round. I also like Uruguay, perhaps the most improbable of the seven teams that have won the Cup (Brazil five times, Italy four times, Germany three times, Argentina and Uruguay twice, England and France once). Uruguay hasn't won since 1950, but still, all the other countries that have won are much bigger (Uruguay has about 3.5 million people, Argentina has more than 40 million and the others are larger).

I love the World Cup, it is indeed my favorite sporting event. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to be living in Hamburg, teaching less than 20 hours a week, and had plenty of time for enjoying the full Cup experience, and the fantastic chance to blog about it for the International Herald Tribune (the 2006 blog site is no longer online, and I had technical difficulties posting my writings a week ago, so let me know if you really want to read them and I can e-mail you my copy as Microsoft Word document). Four years prior to that, Team USA's surprise showing made me a World Cup fan. I had to leave home for the airport to fly to Alaska, where I was spending the summer, in the middle of the game against Germany, and did not see the Cup to the end from the Alaskan wilderness, where I was learning the arts of birdwatching and bicycling and hiking on glaciers and living in a tent and drinking my dirty dishwater. But the experience (along with playing youth soccer in Mia Hamm's old league, the Annandale Boys and Girls Club of Northern Virginia) primed me for football fandom when I arrived in London for my study abroad program the next year.

Speaking of England, tomorrow's match is simply the most exciting of the 48 first round match-ups. If any of the 32 teams could play any of the others, North vs South Korea might be most interesting, but that's impossible because they're both from the relatively weak conference of Asia which only gets four slots. Brazil vs Portugal is another great match-up of former colony vs its old master, and the level of football might be even higher there, except that it's a game 3 and chances are both will have advanced already and the stakes won't be as high. So USA vs England is the pick of the group stage. Like many a patriot, I'm predicting a USA upset. It won't be easy though. I really think Germany, Italy and France are all going to have disappointing Cups, which leaves England as one of the strongest European powers. But then there is Spain flying high in recent years, and ever-dangerous Holland.

OK, lest I go on for too long, here are my picks for the cup, from my brackets. I filled out a bracket in January when I first could, and picked Spain to beat the Netherlands in the final (by the way, Argentina, Brazil, Germany or Italy has played in every final, so this would be unprecendented), with the United States and England both making it to the semifinals. In May, I couldn't edit this bracket because I couldn't remember my user name or password, so I just discovered this today, although I remembered I had picked Spain. In my main bracket, my May bracket, I picked Spain over Brazil, with the United States and Greece in the semis. And yesterday, not being allowed by ESPN to enter my May bracket in a fourth group, I chose to go a little wilder on the group stage, and ended up with the Netherlands over Spain simply because I had given my bracket a Dutch name from a Wikipedia article on the Dutch War of Independence and why not (although a Dutch victory would probably give rise to mixed feelings for many in South Africa), with the United States and England again in the semis. So those are the teams I think are going to have a good Cup. And we'll just see what happens.

May Wayne Rooney sleep tonight like Richard III before the battle of Bosworth Field. USA! USA! USA!