Friday, June 09, 2006

Soccer? Have Some.

I'll be a good guy and warn you of something: What follows is 1,500 words about soccer, the other football. But I never ask you for shit, so I implore you to read this...with an open mind. I like to call it, "Why You Should Watch the World Cup, Even If You Don't Have Feet."

Beginning at noon, the next month will feature some of the best athletes in the world putting on a fine exposition worthy of its moniker as The Beautiful Game. I don't want to cheese it up and use a kitschy phrase like "poetry in motion," but you have only the next two fortnights to bear witness to some of the finest playmaking in all of sport. Then, like Al Gore or Scott Hamilton, you won't see this action again for four years.

So without much introduction or fanfare, here are the eight reasons (representing the eight World Cup groups) why everyone would be wise to pay close attention to an unbelievable tournament:

USA Has the Fifth-Ranked Team in the World
So say the FIFA world rankings, which are highly questionable. Cynics would have you believe this ranking has more to do with selling soccer to the largest consumer market on the planet. Others...well, they mostly agree with that assessment.

Optimists predict the United States will survive our horrific, unlucky placement in the "Group of Death" with Italy, Czech Republic and Ghana and advance to play Brazil in the Round of 16, where we'll either be demolished by a near-perfect team or score the biggest upset in non-Nazi soccer history. Pessimists believe we'll be held scoreless through the group stage and subsequently trash the lockerroom in disappointed rage.

I say we'll end up somewhere in between, valiantly defying the odds against some of the best teams in the world and barely miss out on the next round. I think Bobby Convey (no relation to game show host Burt) and Brian McBride will put a couple home, and Claudio Reyna will heal quickly from his recent injury to provide the necessary spark. We should temper all expectations, but hey, if Kasey Keller's hot, there's always a chance. So you're telling me there's a chaaaance.

And unlike USA Hoops, you can actually root for this team. We're not the Ugly Americans, we're the Underdog Americans.

Ronaldinho = Sickness
Brazil's the likely favorite to win its second straight World Cup and third in four tournaments. In laymen's terms, they're strong to quite strong.

They also feature the most inventive and agile player in the sport today, a buck-toothed Tiger Woods-ish character with stringy hair and the craziest moves ever. He was pretty well neutralized in the Champions League final versus Arsenal, so who knows if he'll excel on the world's biggest stage (almost literally) this time around. But he still puts on an incredible show every time he touches the ball. There's nothing more I can say, so watch these YouTube videos of his greatness. Sickening. Sweet Moves, Also Sweet Moves, Incredible Goal Against Chelsea (watch the replays on this, just a mind-blowing goal).

Peter Crouch Is Really, Really Tall...and Pretty Good
England gasped when Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney went down with a bad foot injury in the late meaningless minutes of a 3-0 loss to league-champion Chelsea. Michael Owen was already hurt, and the team's other starting forward had just been carted off in agony.

That injury was Peter Crouch's lucky day. Standing 6'7 and weighing 126 pounds, Liverpool's halogen lamp of a striker is enormously funny and fairly mesmerizing to watch. But get this: He's pretty damn good. He can outjump defenders for headers inside the box and he's got a knack for the net. I'd go so far as to say he may be the guy at the end of the tournament people are talking about in a most valuable kind of way. Mark those palabras.

Whether he starts over Rooney for the short term or remains the starter if he can't go hard, one thing is for sure: The announcers will openly refer to him as a "beanpole" the entire game. Maybe these won't, but the Brits do all the time and it couldn't be funnier. Picture a British guy saying "Look't 'at beanpole put a 'ead on it" right now. Now picture a lanky 6'7 beanpole doing the Robot to James Brown tunes.

Who Needs Formalized Diplomatic Relations To Play Soccer?
The Group Stage provides a wide array of match-ups between countries that really have nothing to do with each other: Iran and Mexico (well, Iran and anybody), Ghana and Czech Republic, Poland and Ecuador, Sweden and Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil and Croatia, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine, and Togo and South Korea. Incidentally, does asking "What the hell is Togo" make me racist? And is it possible someone from Iran or Mexico will throw a Barkley-esque elbow into the chest of a poor Angolan?

The Captain, Steven Gerrard
If all goes according to plan for England, Gerrard will have the tournament he's capable of having as arguably the best midfielder in the world. I still think after his great club season that Joe Cole will surprise some folks and be the top lymie out there, but there's nobody I'd rather have creating plays and rifling shots from 35 yards out.

Sven-Goran Eriksson doesn't quite know how to use Gerrard and Frank Lampard together on the same field, but here's to hoping my favorite player lives up to his big-time potential.

Like Ronaldinho, pictures are worth more than my words. So here are a couple of must-watch YouTube videos: First, check out Gerrard's unreal goal to tie up the FA Cup finals against West Ham (replays are clearer than first shot, such a ridiculous goal). Secondly, here's a compilation of Stevie's top ten career goals -- #2 against Portsmouth is especially craisins.

Players on the Same Club Teams Facing Off
One of the coolest parts about watching club games from England's Premiership and the UEFA Champions League is observing players from all around the world play together as a unit, different styles of play meshing. In this tournament, they'll face off against each other with club loyalties on hold. It's like watching Mariano brush back Jeter in the World Baseball Classic or Richter stoning Messier point-blank in the Olympics, only eight-million times better. This year's tourney features some great intra-club match-ups on which to keep your eye:

In Group B, Arsenal's Freddy Ljungberg of Sweden takes on English defenders Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. Group C is a clusterfuck of Premiership action: Chelsea's Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, Hernan Crespo of Argentina and Arjen Robben of Netherlands all play each other in every possible permutation (or is it computation?). Arsenal's Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue of Ivory Coast square off against Robin van Persie of Netherlands.

And Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Sar of Netherlands go up against Nemanja Vidic of Serbia and Montenegro. (Interestingly enough, Montenegro split from Serbia earlier this month -- not for soccer, I mean they declared fucking independence -- so this will be the last year of combined teams. All future World Cup competitions will have a separate Montenegrin squad. Awesome).

Group E features Chelsea goaltender Petr Cech of Czech Republic taking on Michael Essien of Ghana, and Juventus' (Italy) Pavel Nedved of Czech Republic plays five greasy Vespa drivers named Gianlugi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro del Piero, Gianluca Zambrotta and Mauro Camoranesi, all obviously from of Ghana Italy. In Group F, Arsenal's Thierry Henry of France, Phillippe Senderos of Switzerland and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo play the Group B Chelsea Love Triangle, and Man U's Mikael Silvestre and Louis Saha of France karate it up against Park Ji-Sung from unsuspecting S. Korea.

Brazilian Names
You're not cool unless you have one name. Unless your name is Roberto Carlos. He's cool, too. And he scored this goal, one of the greatest free kicks you'll ever see. The rest of the cool cats, though, they've got cool one-name names. Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Ricardinho, Dida, Cher, Menudo and everybody's favorite, Kaká. Um, dude, I don't care if you've got the accent mark or not, your name means "poop." I don't care if you're an awesome soccer player worthy of my respect, your cool one-name name is synonymous with "doody." Poor form.

Just Flat-Out Amazingly Athletic Goals
Ever since my Soccer Renaissance I've gained an age-old newfound respect for the athleticism of the players. Ninety-plus minutes up and down the field with barely a break, constant runs up and down the wing, and some of the greatest one-on-one deke moves and long-range scores in any sport. To refresh your memory of what happened the last time around, here are to YouTube videos showing some of the best goals from the 2002 World Cup: Vid #1 and Vid #2.

Now that we're done with our own little group stage, here are my predictions for the Cup (which is usually a tip for youse to bet big the other way):

Group Stage: Group A: Germany, Poland; Group B: England, Sweden; Group C: Netherlands, Argentina; Group D: Mexico, Portugal; Group E: Italy, Czechs; Group F: Brazil, Japan; Group G: France, S. Korea; Group H: Espana, Ukraine

Round of 16: Sweden over host Germany, Netherlands over Portugal, England over Poland, Argentina over Mexico, Japan over Italy, France over Ukraine, Brazil over Czechs, Korea over Spain

Quarterfinals: Netherlands over Sweden, France over Japan, England over Argentina, Brazil over the Koreans

Semis: Netherlands over France, England over Brazil

Finals: England wins its first championship in 40 years over the Netherlands on a late header off a set piece by John Terry.

There you have it. Thanks for sticking with me. Now get to a television and cancel all your plans for the next two weeks.

Soccer aficianado and Slack co-founder Donald W. Fiedler contributed greatly to this report. All praise be to him. And God.


At 10:14 AM, Blogger Don Fiedler said...

Now that the World Cup is upon us, maybe I'll throw a daily little comment column up here. So, without further Freddy, I present:

Today's What to Watch for:

Germany vs. the Ticos of Costa Rica:

Four years ago, I was bearded and watching Germany's opening game of the Cup against Saudi Arabia. A lackluster German team (just as lackluster as this one), destroyed a completely overmatched Saudi squad. Miroslav Klose, then of Kaiserslautern, now of Bremen, scored a hat trick and did some stupid flips or cartwheels after each one. Even old-timer Oliver Bierhoff put one home in that game if I recall correctly, and he tallied against the US way back in France '98 when Ace and I were in short pants and sucking down nitrous.

Now, Germany is the host and they pretty much stink. Their defenders are a liability. Lehman is obviously insane and who knows when he'll snap? Ballack, who just signed an enormous contract with Chelsea, is banged up but says he'll play today. They do have a few cool young players, my favorite of which is Bastian Schweinsteiger, if only because his last name translates roughly to "pig foreman" (I speak German!). Up front, Klose is steady and good with the noggin but certainly no world beater. Podolski is the new kid but I have never really seen him play. I've also always liked Bernd Schneider, who is getting up there in age but, along with Ballack and Brazil's Ze Roberto, helped lead Leverkusen to the Champions League final back in 2002 when I watched every knock out stage game drinking beers with my high school students. So that's fun.

The Ticos got their talisman Paolo Wanchope back for the game today. He used to play for Man City, I think, but that was eons ago. Other than that, I know nothing of Costa Rica other than their jerseys in Italia '90 looked just like NFL referee attire and that they missed out on the 2d round on goal differential to Turkey 4 years ago.

Germany is pretty underwhelming and vulnerable. Plus, it's the opening game and they are the hosts. I think the pressure might be too much to bear. Costa Rica has performed over their heads in the Copa before and, though they've struggled in the lead up, I'm not sure they couldn't manage a draw here. Then again, maybe Germany will unleash a monster here, drop a deuce on the Ticos, and march to a 4-nil winner. I could see it break either way, with the first half-hour being the real test. If Germany scores within 30 minutes, they might romp. If it stays close until the half, nerves will tighten, and the Ticos might earn a point, at which point, German coach Juergen Klinsmann might be torn to pieces.

Poland vs. Ecuador:

Ah, the great classic rivalry resumes. Ecuador qualify for the World Cup every 4 years because they play on top of a mountain and when the other South American teams go there for qualifying they start breathing like Superman's wife. Now, at sea level, they have to play fair. They don't have any real European players, certainly not in any of the top teams. But they do play that really good reed flute music in the subway at 51st and lex.

Poland also lacks any real big name stars, except of course last year's Champions League shoot-out hero (Dirty) Jerzy Dudek of Liverpool, and they left him at home for lack of match fitness. Poland lead the World Cup in the number of z's and w's in the lineup so I'd expect them to take this match. They'll have huge support. I read that somethign like 300,000 Poles are expected to cross into Germany during the next month, which means that Germans will make roughly 500,000 "piss in the corner of the round room" jokes in that time.

Call it Poland 2, Ecuador 0.

Don't forget to watch all of the horrible pageantry, as some lame female world pop star like Anastasia fires up the WC with a special song called "The Day is Here" or "Kick for the Stars". If FIFA knows anything, they know schmaltz. Enjoy Day 1.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

As always, Donnie, your comments are insightful and jerk-like. Pickin on Dana Reeve, that's awesome. She deserves it.

What an un-fucking-believable start to this tourney -- Germany and Costa Rica trading goals early...let this continue.

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous SpanishMiguel said...

Korea over Spain? That sure won´t win you any fans over here. In fact, Korea trounced Spain from the last world cup - in Korea. And when I say trounce, I mean Spain dominated the entire match, had 2 legal goals dissallowed and then lost in penalties. So, if you think that might happen again, well, I guess it might.

Otherwise, what´s great and not great about football is that it´s quite impossible to predict. I can´t think of any other sport where the less deserving team routinely wins - superstars and luck really factor in a lot.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Abolutely, Spanish...I doubt any of those predictions will come through. I mean, England beating Brazil is even a stretch. But it'll be a fun tourney and hopefully my soothsaying will prevail.

What a start, Germany puts home to INCREDIBLE goals. That 35-yarder by Frings was, dare I say, craisins.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Don Fiedler said...

Lahm's curling gem beats Frings' cannon shot for me. The placement on Lahm's goal was insane.

Alright, so the first game wasn't that far off from my predictions. The Ticos kept it a little closer than I thought after Germany opened its account but, aside from 2 defensive lapses, Germany controlled throughout.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Lahm's goal was supersweet as well, didn't mean to slight that goal. Especially because it was in the first seven minutes of the match, opening the account as the soccerphiles say.

But I'm a Gerrard guy, and as we discussed, Frings goal was Gerrard-esque.

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Oguchi Onyewu's Balls said...

So, in order to make it through the second round, you have to be a non-neutral, unified european country. UEFA should just invite Brazil and Argentina to join their fed, secede from FIFA, and just have the Euro championships every 2 years. I think someone's been reading a lot of Euro media.

While Brazil's team is as good as they've ever been, one can't help but glance to South Africa 2010 when Dudu will team with Kaka to make Brazil truly the shit. Read about some of his success in the youth ranks here:

England and Mexico both open their 2006 campaigns on ABC this weekend. The yanks open up on... ESPN2.

The US - Czech game (for which I will be in attendance. booyah.) is highly critical if the US are to get through group play. If they get no points out of that first match, their odds plummet. That said, the US team can certainly take the Czechs and Nedved's hair down. Here's to EJ finding his scoring touch.

The gamesmanship in Group E has been awesome if not over the top. If you believe the reports, all 23 Czech Republicans and their manager are severely crippled. The US scrimmaged against Angola in numberless jerseys so no one could scout their likely starting lineup and set pieces. Bruce has still not decided on his starting lineup. Will it be Dempsey on the right? Beasley? Will JOB be able to go for 60?

It is looking like a valiant campaign for the yank-stache is going to fall short. Hopefully it will not affect team morale.

I will be doing no work for the next month.

At 8:12 PM, Blogger Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Going to a bar with a bunch of drunken Irishmen to watch soccer is on my to-do list for the next few weeks.


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