Thursday, June 17, 2010

Group Stage: First Round, Ramblings and Rankings


Rambling thoughts from the first round of games:

= Spain still looked like a top-5 team even in loss. In this new offensive world in football, teams will lose those games. Every now and then, the boys don’t finish what they usually would, and the pipes are unusually mean. That is all. It happened a year ago in the Confederations Cup last year, it happened again. Sure, there was probably some complacency also, but Spain is still ultra-talented and ultra-set going forward.

= This does set up one interesting thing: The top four teams are as of now, in my mind, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands and Germany. In a perfect world, those four could play each other in the semifinals. As it was, Netherlands and Brazil, assuming they both win their group, were set to play in the quarterfinals, but with Spain a likely group runner up, Spain is thrown into that same quarter. Yes, Spain would probably play Brazil in the round of 16, and then the winner would likely get the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Talk about the real group of death (this is a lot like in 2006 when France, Spain and Brazil were in the same quarter, except in 2006 there were a lot more great teams out there).

= Big winner through one group game: Germany. The Germans already make it to the quarterfinals regardless of whatever happens, because you know, they’ve done it consecutively pre-Hitler and post. But the soccer Gods could not have been nicer. Unless Spain wins its group, here are the likely teams on Germany’s half: Argentina (Group B winner – this was written before I knew of Gonzalo Higuain’s hat-trick), one of the France, Mexico, Uruguay trio, one of the England, Slovenia, US trio, Japan, either Italy/Paraguay, Ivory Coast/Portugal and Switzerland. Yes, that’s right. The bottom half would likely contain Japan, Italy/Paraguay, Ivory Coast/Portugal and Switzerland. Germany is getting it much, much easier.

= Of course this all depends on those silly Swiss. They need to hold onto the group to create what would be the most lopsided knockout round in World Cup History (I’m guessing). Switzerland was actually the country that did this as well in 2006, when they won France’s group, sending France into the Spain/Brazil quarter. The Swiss have now not given up a goal in four straight World Cup Games, as they were knocked out of a goalless PK loss in 2006. Italy might be a more famously defensive team, but as Italy seemed to attack and attack some more in their opening game, the Swiss looked like the doorbolt the Azzurri usually are.

= There was a weird dichotomy in Switzerland beating Spain. After winning the French Open, Nadal was asked if he would make a wager with Federer for the game, and Nadal responded something to the effect of, “Why? Federer’s never made a bad move in his life, except for his choice of bride. Why would he take that offer?”. Who could blame Rafa for being cocky, but Federer’s influence evidently goes much further than we tought.

= I guess sooner or later I would have to address the two Elephants in the room.

= L’Affaire Vuvuzela: I actually don’t mind them anymore, which is why I hate that ESPN is supposedly muffling their sound in the broadcast. Of course, like most things at ESPN, it didn’t quite work, but even then, they are stripping the South African World Cup of its uniqueness. The games so far have been duds. The players have been duds. Lord knows the ball is a dud, so why try to ruin what seperates World Cup South Africa from the rest, their vuvuzelas. These vuvuzelas were used in last years Confederations Cup. FIFA knew what they were getting into. Also, I love the singing and drunken chanting as much as the next ‘lad’ but there is something oddly idyllic about the tooting of a colored water buffalo horn.

= The lack of goals: This is getting scary. There is really no real explanation. In my A-B-C’s of the World Cup, I said that ‘D’ was for ‘Defense?’ saying that is defense going to become a lost art. Obviously not. Now, there are a few games, like the Paraguay-Italy game, and definitely the Spain-Switzerland game, that did not feature so much great defense as just shoddy finishing, and were played quite wide open, but to think that only two teams have crossed the three goal limit is appaling. It may be the ball (I doubt it), it may be the altitude (possible, but it’s not like Altitide has never stopped anyone before (Broncos, Denver, from 1975-1998). To me, the best explanation is that it is a curious case best explained by randomness and a small sample size. People say that it is because “the teams just don’t want to lose, and are happy with a point”. If that’s the case, how do you explain the Champions League this very season, that had its highest scoring season in years. My guess is that the goals will even out over the next two group matches.

= The best player so far: Diego Forlan (again, written before Higuain’s hat-trick). Lionel Messi looked good, but not great in his opening match. Cristiano Ronaldo was his usual diving/flopping/choking self for his country, and Wayne Rooney was not on the field. (He was? Are you sure?) Forlan was great in Uruguay’s opening draw with France, and was the best player on the field yesterday. There is a long time left, but as of now, the Uruguayan is tops.

= Hopefully none of this sounds racist, but I am so tire of hearing about Africa. I get it. This is Africa’s first World Cup. I have fleeting memories of 2002, but I don’t think everyone gave two shits that that was Asia’s first World Cup. I get it, Africa’s impoverished. Well, then go play in Senegal, or Chad. South Africa is the richest African nation. If you want to play the poverty card, go all out. And finally, yes, I realize that just 20 years ago South Africa was in apartheid. Again, that is all very good. However, this has happened before. The World Cup was in Spain just 15 years after Franco’s tyrannical regime fell. Africa, honestly, doesn’t deserve any more coverage than any other place the World Cup might have possibly been.

= Kind of related to that last point but, doesn’t ESPN seem to be putting so much more effort in this time, and I love it. Somehow, international football is becoming all the rage in the US. Of course, people always watched the World Cup, but now people know the teams, the players, the rules of the game, etc. So, ESPN followed through on this groundswell by actually pimping out their World Cup coverage. They sent the guys over to South Africa this time (in 2006 they stayed in Bristol). They got actual soccer people (Martin Tyler, Efan Ekoku, Ian Darke, the Scottish guy who sounds so much like Andy Gray from the FIFA games) to call the games. They even got actual soccer players and coaches, including one old superstar (Ruud Gullit) to provide analysis in the hub in Jo-burg. However, I really have no idea why it took ESPN so long to come around to this. I taped some of the matches from the 2006 World Cup (so far, one of the best ones, and certainly the best of my lifetime), and while the games were better, the coverage as a whole was so, so, so, so much worse.

= This is also related to the South Africa thing, but I think only historically football nations should host the World Cup. Putting the World Cup in South Africa (or even the US in ’94 or Japan/Korea in ’02) is like putting the Super Bowl in Jacksonville. The Super Bowl should be limited to Miami, Tampa, San Diego, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Glendale. That is it. The World Cup should rotate between the following: Brazil, Argentina, USA (we are probably a top-20 team now, consistently), France, Spain, Germany, England, Italy. That’s it. Maybe throw in Holland, or maybe even Mexico. But South Africa? Russia? Australia? Greece? Sorry, lads, you don’t get the World Cup (of course, Australia is the favorite to get one of the 2018 or 2022 spots that FIFA is announcing at the end of the year). Those places have quality teams and traditions (so close, USA, so close to making this work). They have the right stadiums. Soccer stadiums need to be intimate and closed. Not necessarily domed, but closed in the make it a quaint, loud setting. These South Africa ones are way, way, way too open air. The German stadiums in ’06 blow Soccer City and the others out of the water.

= Let’s not get too excited about the referees being actually good for once. It is still early. I have no idea if the referees were good in the Group Stage of the 2006 World Cup. Other than the ref in the Italy-USA game, I don’t remember anything fishy in the Group Stage. Just like for the players, it is in the knockout round that the light shines brightest on them, and that is when they have to deliver. The fact that in the biggest game of the first round (Portugal-Cote D’Ivoire (not USA-England)), the referee was average and bought into Cristiano Ronaldo’s diving makes me really nervous.

= The biggest reason that the 2006 World Cup was better (again, so far), was that the teams were better. The only great team, on paper, in 2010 is Spain. Even the Brazilians, on paper, aren’t as great as most earlier Brazilian teams. The fact that the best team on paper lost is another story, but Spain is the only team that on talent alone could compete with some of the great 2006 teams. In 2006, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil and possibly even Portugal were better teams than all of the teams in the 2010 World Cup except for Spain and possibly Brazil. March Madness this year was the same thing. Sure, there were upsets galore, and Duke, a normal winner, won the tournament. But you could make a case that all of the last 12 Final Four teams from 07-09 (Florida, Georgetown, OSU, UCLA, Kansas, Memphis, UNC, UCLA, UNC, Michigan St, UCONN and Nova) were better than any of the four teams in the 2010 Final 4. A similar thing is going on the 2010 World Cup.

= Let’s get too unexcited about the fact that through one round of group games, the 2010 World Cup has been underwhelming. There have been more problems than goals scored. Obviously, lack of scoring ranks as the biggest problem, because it seems to be more of lack of trying to score (Spain certainly isn’t guilty of that), but so too is the ball, the over-blown media storm that is Africa, the lack of great players playing great (I’m looking at you, Ronaldo and Rooney), and of course, those damn vuvuzelas. I’m still enjoying the World Cup, because fuck, it is the World Cup, but I would be lying to say that the 2010 version has been as enjoyable so far as the 2006 version. Of course, there is a long, long way to go, and hopefully like Zidane, the 2010 World Cup gets better as it gets closer to the end.


Anyway, here is your 2010 FIFA World Cup Power 10, after the first round of Group Games.

1.)
Germany – the fact that they always make it to the quarters is already putting them in the top-8, but they were the most dominant team of the opening round. Their 4-0 beat-down of a good Australian team was scary. Germany’s youngsters attacked much better than most thought.

2.)
Brazil – They didn’t look all that great in beating North Korea, but after the end of the group stage, we could be saying that the real issue was the we all underrated the North Koreans. At least they won their game, and scored more than one goal.

3.)
Spain – I can’t drop them too far. They utterly dominated the game. Sadly, this is the second time I have said such a thing in 12 months about Spain, but it is no less true this time. Play that game 10 times, Spain would win 9. It happens. They shouldn’t change a thing, except benching Sergio Busquets. Hopefully, Torres and Fabregas will be good to go.

4.)
Holland – They very quietly dispatched a good Danish team 2-0, becoming one of just three teams to win a game by more than a goal so far. However, they didn’t look in true Holland form. It was as if Holland switched places with their bitter rival Germany.

5.)
Argentina – (written before their 4-1 win over South Korea) They were oddly disappointing in the Nigeria-Argentina game. They never looked capable of losing, they never looked like the comfortable. In the end, they were kind of lucky to escape with the win. This team just smells QF Penalty-Kick loss.

6.)
Ghana – Considering they were missing their best player, and they were playing a tournament dark horse, that was stunning. Ghana totally outplayed Serbia, and got rewarded with a clear penalty. Out of all the African teams, they were the one who did the best in 2006, so it really shouldn’t come to that much of a surprise that they could put up that performance.

7.)
Uruguay – I know this is supposed to be based off only their first game, but I couldn’t help. Uruguay was great in their takedown of the hosts. The hosts are not easy to beat, ever. That was amazing. Also, now that Suarez and Forlan have been let loose, they have as much firepower as anyone not named Spain or Argentina (or Germany, I guess).

8.)
Mexico – I was impressed and disappointed with them in their opener. They played well, outplayed South Africa, I thought, but also seemed to be a little lackadaisical. What I do know is that they had the hardest first game of anyone, against the hosts on opening night, and were the better team in the stadium.

9.)
Switzerland – Hey, credit has to be given to a team that has gone five straight World Cup games without conceding a goal. They might never concede one again. Of course, their offense is generally not there, but they showed some offensive ability and conviction against Spain.

10.)
Italy – Like Germany, they will most likely make the Quarters. However, unlike Germany, I doubt they get much further. Their age really showed in the Paraguay game. They started the game out playing better and more complete than any Italian team in recent memory. But the second that the clock reached thirty minutes, every Italian’s knees got heavy and tired. Their attack started to peter. Of course, their defense was as good as ever.

Enjoy round 2 of round 1!!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The 2010 World Cup Preview


Group A

Predicted Finish: 1.) Mexico – El Tri had a devastatingly poor qualifying campaign. Considering they have about 200 times the resources of any country in the North American qualifying not named “USA”, they should easily qualify every time. Either way, they are very talented, and in the past how good the team is qualifying has nothing to do with how they do in the World Cup. They have some really god young talent in their attacking corp, and that attacking style, which is all the rage, is perfectly suited for this group. Look for the real best team in North America to win a group for the second time in three World Cups. Mexico’s youth talent could take them really, really far, especially since they are in the cushy corner of the draw. Remember, two teams from groups A,B,C, and D have to make the semis.

2.) France
– Les Blues are definitely talented, with Ribery/Nasri/Henry/Malouda/Gourcoff still all there. They have the same defenders that helped take France to the World Cup Final in 2006. They even had the same coach; however there starts the problems. Coach Raymond Domenech is crazy. He’s horrible. The players don’t really like him, he doesn’t really like him. Of course, all of this didn’t matter in 2006 since they had a certain balding magician on their team who played the tournament of his life, but now that Zidane is gone, the problems that were really evident on the 2006 team are still there. Then again, they have enough attacking talent to carry them out of Group A, but it could be very, very tricky.

3.) South Africa
– Hosts have made it out of the Group Stage EVERY SINGLE TIME. Even the US made it out of the group stage when it hosted, so this is a vote against history and for a new precedent. South Africa, like all the African teams, is dangerous. They have great athletic ability, but as the US would tell you from experience in 2006, athletic ability can only take you so far. South Africa still has a great shot to get one of those top two spots, but with the possible exception of the US in 1994, this is the weakest host ever. It is not so much that the host has always made it, but that the host nation is good enough already. South Africa isn’t.

4.) Uruguay
– They have a lot of attacking talent (seems to be a trend in what should be a high-scoring, most un-traditional group), but have the least on defense to stay with France and Mexico. Diego Forlan is one of the best strikers in the world, but I cannot say the same, or even close to the same, about any other Uruguayan player. Admittedly, they have more talent than the hosts, but I cannot dream to put the hosts last in a group when not only have the hosts never finished last, but also, again, always made it out of the group stage.

Group B


Predicted Finish:


1.) Argentina
– They are probably the fourth most talented team after Spain, Brazil and Holland. However, talent is second to organization and technical ability. That is why the Germans have made at least the Quarterfinals in 10 straight World Cups, and that is why the Italians can win World Cups. The Argentineans are greatly lacking in these areas. Maradona’s craziness and his being a Messi Sabatuer will eventually catch up to the Argentineans, but just not until they build up hopes and get out of the Group Stage.

2.) Nigeria
– The Eagles have always done well in their recent World Cup appearances. They made it out of the group stage in ’94 and ’98, and in each, they won their group. Recent times haven’t been as strong, but there has been a recent rebirth of Nigerian football. They have a legitimate chance of becoming the first African team to reach the Quarterfinals since Senegal in 2002, especially with their offensive attack. They led all of Africa in goals scored during qualifying. They can score, and the Eagles will soar.

3.) South Korea
– Since their magical run to the semis in 2002, South Korea has been slightly overrated. They were average, at best, in 2006, and since they are one of the only two actually good teams in the Asia qualifying (with Australia) they are pretty much guaranteed a spot. They were great in qualifying, but again, that is against the likes of Myanmar and Philippines. Look for them to continue their run back down to mediocrity, especially in this group.

4.) Greece
– I’ll credit the Greeks for qualifying, because Greek football has been on a downward spiral ever since their magical run to glory in Euro 2004, but Greece still is nowhere what they were when they stunned Portugal and Europe as a whole. To be honest, the Greek team is a mystery. They were quite good in qualifying, especially on defense, but still don’t seem to have the necessary talent to get out of a very tough group. They probably have more talent the South Korean team, but they don’t have the confidence that South Korea does, fresh after rolling through Asian qualifying. It will be another long two weeks for the Gyro-maniacs.

Group C


Predicted Finish:


1.) England
– Ah yes, our monarchist friends. England has probably the most embarrassing World Cup history, since they damn near invented the sport, and were only able to win the World Cup once. They have a more talented team than they did in 2006, and a team that if things break their way can, gasp, win the whole thing. The group is kind enough, as only the US pose a major threat. Rio Ferdinand’s injury highlights what could be a rather weak defense, however their offense was the best in Europe during qualifying. Wayne Rooney, finally healthy, is on a mission to get himself in that Ronaldo/Messi argument. Lampard had the year of his life, and their role players all had solid years. England is really suited for their best World Cup run in decades. However, they still are England, and if there is any safer bet than them not winning the World Cup, there aren’t many more.

2.) USA
– The US team has grown so much since their roller-coaster ride in 2002, and grown to a point that if they fail to get out of the Group Stage, the World Cup will be a MAJOR disappointment. They have more skill than ever, with Landon Donovan in the form of his life, and their midfield is solid. I’m not the biggest expert on the US team (ironic, since they are, you know, my country) but they seem to be one of the most athletic teams in the tournament, and the toughest. With the recent injury to Jozy Altidore making him a question mark, there is concern over where the goals will come from, but with that solid defensive midfield and goalie
(the US produces some great goalies), other teams will be asking the same question.

3.) Slovenia
– They are a dangerous, dangerous team. They don’t have many known players, or any that play for the premier clubs in England, Spain, Italy or Germany, but the Slovenia team has its organization down. They will constrict the life out of every team they play, make teams wait, wait and wait until they can find an opening to attack. Luckily for the Slovenians, no one has that team that can make use of the limited openings. Slovenia can control the pace of the game by totally limiting their opponents chances to low percentage ones. Sadly, 0-0 draws can only take a team so far, and usually that location is out of the tournament before the knockout round.

4.) Algeria
– The third African team again is much like the other two: fast, athletic and can score in bundles. However, they lack the talent at the end of the day to make much of a dent. Talent still wins out in the World Cup. Now, when two teams play that have almost equal talent, then other things might, but Algeria is almost definitely the fourth most talented team in the Group, and that will not help their cause. Also, at least for them, don’t buy the “Oh, they’re a home team in Africa” reason. Algeria is closer to Moscow than it is to Johannesburg.

Group D


Predicted Finish:


1.) Germany
– Der Manschraaft is still as resolved as ever. In a tough, tough group, one that before Michael Essien’s injury would be a group that would not surprise me no matter what the two teams were advancing, Germany still stands out as the leader. The Germans are not the most talented team (although they are mighty talented, especially with Lahm and Schweinsteger, two of the most talented players at their positions, healthy and playing well). Just the winningest. They never are the most talented, they just win. Germany has this track record since 1974: Champion, Quarterfinalist, Semifinalist, Finalist, Champion, Semifinalist, Quarterfinalist, Finalist, Semifinalist. I can’t go against that track record, especially with a team that has some sleeping giants (Podolski, Klose) that could wake up at any time.

2.) Serbia
– The recent Sasha Vujacic vs Goran Dragic face-off in the Western Conference Finals enlightened the World to two things. First, that there is no single more annoying person in any team sport in the world than Sash Vujacic. Secondly, that Serbia is a very good country at producing World-Class athletes That is more true in the football team. Serbia is really, really talented. Nemanja Vidic is a top-5 defender. Bratislav Ivanovic is a Chelsea defender who is deadly in the air. Dejan Stankovic and Milos Krasic provide good solid force in the midfield. Serbia really is as talented as many of the more famous, more respected European playes.

3.) Ghana
– If only Essies was healthy, this could rival Group G as the Group of Death. Ghana is an extremely disciplined, defensive team, like a weird African form of Italy, but with Essien, the world’s best defensive midfielder, out, there is a gaping hole in Ghana’s organizational structure. Ghana still has other talents, but they are missing their best player. Of course, Ghana again is really nowhere close to South Africa, so there won’t be as big of a ‘home field advantage. I would not be shocked if the Ghanians somehow steal a spot away from those top two, but in a Group with three teams that all made it to the knockout round in the 2006 World Cup, there is a chance that one player will make a sizable enough difference to ruin the hopes of all the little Ghanians.

4.) Australia
– The socceroos made a wise decision to switch over to Asian Qualifying, so they get more games against better teams to prepare themselves for the challenge of the World Cup, but if I were the Aussie Soccer Federating (by the way, way in the Queen-Messiah’s name does Australia call in ‘soccer’ like we do. I thought we were unique in that regard). While they still have a team good enough to pull an upset, the Aussies are nowhere near as good as they were 4 years ago when they made the Quarterfinals and lost on a controversial penalty to the Italians.

Group E


Predicted Finish:


1.) Netherlands
– The clockwork orange are for once, a bit underrated. They, like Spain, did not lose a single game in World Cup Qualifying, but aren’t getting the same credit. They have been on an upswing, as until their tight loss to Russia in the Euro Quarterfinals, Holland was the best team in the tournament. With Arjen Robben in the form of his life after his glorious Champions League run, and Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, Mark Van Bommel and others providing deep depth on every level, Holland is loaded. They haven’t really done well in the World Cup since a semifinal loss to Brazil in 1998, but have the pieces in place to make that deep run. Plus, they are one of the few teams who actually has the ability and resolve to play attack football and not leave their defense totally open.

2.) Cameroon
– It is not just Samuel Eto’o and the boys, but it seems that way. Cameroon is actually a lot like Ghana, in that they are a very organized defense-first team. The only difference in this case is that the Cameroonians are not missing their best player, and that best player is a very dependable goal scorer, the rarest soccer breed around. Samuel Eto’o, after the possible injury to Didier Drogba, is now the most marketable African star playing in the World Cup, and who not? The man has just won two straight Club trebles with two different teams. Everywhere he goes, he wins. Now, I’m not saying that Cameroon can will the World Cup. Hell, I didn’t even pick them to win their group. He’s going healthy and inspired to the 2010 World Cup, so it is only logical that winning follows.

3.) Denmark
– The Great Danes are a god enough team to stay the course and make the Group interesting, but they are just not in the league of Holland. In many ways, they are the mini-Holland. Four years ago, Holland had a very young, very green, very talented team. They were lucky enough to be put in a manageable group, and were able to make it out, but the experience of that World Cup helped Holland mature into a team that was as beautiful as Spain was in Euro 2008, and is a favorite here in 2010. I don’t think Denmark will even be able to go that far four years from now, but if they develop like they can, I will at least pick them to get out of their Group four years from now.

4.) Japan
– They just aren’t good enough. Keisuke Honda is a very good forward, and they have good young talented players, but compared, really, to all three of their group peers, Japan is quite obviously seriously lacking in quite a few areas. What really raises a few flags is how much Japan struggled to qualify in Asia. Japan should never really have to struggle to qualify out of the Asia conference, unless there undergoes a Big 10 like transformation and teams from Europe flock over across the Eurasian landmass and join in on the fun. The fact that it did just highlights that there is a lack of confidence, concentration and overall simple, plain ability.

Group F


Predicted Finish:


1.) Italy
- Has there ever been less fanfare about the defending champs? France and Brazil both were favorites in 2002 and 2006. Italy in 2010? There is more news about a team that hasn’t won a World Cup in 44 years (England) than there is about the team that won the last one. Of course, there are reasons why no one is taking Italy too seriously. Firstly, they are really, really old. They have many of the players back from their World Cup winning team from 2006, and they were rather old then. 9 of the 11 Italian starters are over the age of 29, which is ancient in soccer standards. However, they are the Italians. They have reached the quarterfinals or better in five consecutive World Cups since 1994. They still have a ton of talent, one of the best systems and coaches and a great goalie. Italy was also given the Champions benefit and was placed in the easiest draw in the tournament. Sure they have no fanfare, but after they inevitably race through their group like they should, the defending champs might finally start to get some respect.

2.) Paraguay
– They are one of the teams leading the South American Revival, where there could be 4-5 South American teams in the knockout stages. Paraguay has enough capable players to make short work of New Zealand. Really, this is a battle to either beat Slovakia, or play Italy closer, and I give the edge to the Paraguayans. Aurellieno Torres might be the second most famous Torres in the World Cup but he heads a solid defense that can give the Italians a good run for best defense in the group. Roque Santa Cruz and Edgar Benitez are very good attackers. Paraguay is another of those disciplined teams that won’t really beat themselves and will be a dangerous out for any team.

3.) Slovakia
– Like Slovenia, they are short on known talent, with Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel being the only two players to play in teams that are in those competing for the Champions League title, but this team has youthful talent, again like Slovenia, that will make them interesting, at worst. They probably are not real threats, but in a group that would easily be called the Group of Life, in that all four teams (or in this case three teams – since even in the Group of Life, New Zealand is dead) have a chance.

4.) New Zealand
– They are probably the worst team in the World Cup. After Australia left to the Asia Qualifying, that left New Zealand, and a lot of Islands that rhyme with “tonga”, to fight for the Oceania Qualifying’s lone spot. New Zealand got it, almost by default. If they scam a point in the tournament, I would be extremely impressed. There is nothing really to say here except I am furious that the All-blacks are choosing to where white as their ‘home’ jersey in the World Cup. That seems a bit off.

Group G


Predicted Finish
:

1.) Brazil – Ahhh, the controversy of trying to not play “Brazilian”. Dunga has assembled a very, very, very talented team, but just not where most Brazilians like their team to be “talented”. Instead of guys Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, providing talent to the attack, the Brazilians have stockpiled their talent where Dunga likes it, on defense. Brazil has most likely the best goalie in Julio Cesar. Brazil has two excellent fullbacks in Maicon and Lucio. The problem is that Brazil, a team that really doesn’t know, historically, how to embrace defense, has only one true offensive player to serve as the catalyst, and that is Kaka, who has been battling injuries and more importantly poor play the l ast two years. Brazil’s defensive personnel is excellent, and with Drogba out, should have an easy time getting out of this group. However, it would behoove them to get out on top, because as a consolation prize for finishing second, the runner up, in all likelihood, gets a date with Spain in the round of 16.

2.) Cote D’Ivoire
– This was the toughest prediction to make. Drogba’s injury now looks like it is not bad enough for him to definitely not play in the tournament, but even without Didier in there, Cote D’Ivoire has the necessary pieces to push Portugal out of the World Cup. With the Toure brothers, Solomon Kalou and the rest of the Elephants (not a racist joke, just the teams nickname) have talent just spewing out their feet. Cote D’Ivoire was a disappointment in the 2006 World Cup, flaming out before the knockout stages, but that team was too reliant on Drogba. Not only is this team not too reliant, but it cannot be reliant on him. Drogba’s not walking through that door (most likely), but a lot of other quality folk are.

3.) Portugal
– Along with Argentina and France, Portugal is the enigma of the tournament. They are talented (though not as much so as before the 2002 and 2006 World Cups), and they have the, as of right now, second best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, yet they qualified by the skin of their teeth. At times Portugal was downright listless in qualifications, going four straight games at one point without scoring a goal. As was said before, there have been many teams that did not do well in qualifying that did extremely well in the World Cup, highlighted by Brazil in 2002 and France in 2006. But both of those teams were not whole in qualifying. Ronaldo missed a lot of the 2002 Brazil qualifying. Zidane had to be called out of retirement to rescue France in 2006. Other than Cristiano Ronaldo missing two games, Portugal was whole, and just as bad. Portugal has talent, definitely, but talent mixed with listlessness is not a good combination.

4.) North Korea
– They are the real enigma, in that most journalist don’t even know the names of all the players. They are a total unknown, a mystery that Agatha Christie would be proud of. The only thing worthwhile to note is that there are four kin-jong’s on North Korea. Hopefully none of them are related to that mouse of a dictator. That’s all I really have one them. They probably aren’t that great, but the only other time they made the World Cup, they made it to the semifinals. I really doubt that will happen again, but since Kim Jong Il probably fed them Uraniam laced-Squid, God only knows what we will get in South Africa from the North Koreans.

Group H


Predicted Finish:


1.) Spain
– It happens every time before a major tournament like this. People always try to find fault with the favorite, with the best team. It happened a lot in the 2007 NFL Playoffs where people were inventing reasons why the 16-0 (then 17-0 then 18-0) Patriots would lose (I guess they were right that final time). Now, people are trying to find fault with Spain. They only real scare was an injury bug, but not only are their players going to be back for the World Cup, all the injured ones (Xavi, Fabregas, Torres) played in Spain’s 6-0 bush-whacking of Poland. Spain is a good enough team that if Iniesta is really hurt (there were reports of a muscle tear, or at least a strain that might jeopardize his World Cup), Spain can just slide in Fabregas, the best central midfielder in England, onto the starting 11. They have limitless options on attack, and their defense is a lot better than people give them credit for, as shown by their run in Euro 2008 where they posted back-to-back-to-back shutouts in the knockout round. Spain is the best team, and should fly by this group without much resistance.

2.) Chile
– Chile is a team that will probably to fight fire with fire and attack Spain right back. The one problem is that they might have trouble getting the ball against them. Either way, Chile has the team to beat the other two. Gonzalez can score with anyone, and the rest of the team loves to push it up the field, fast. They might be faster than even Spain. They are probably the best example of the rebirth of South American football. Brazil and Argentina have always been there, but recently Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay have all taken steps up. Ecuador made the knockout round back in 2006. The best player in the world resides in Argentina. South America is finally beginning to at least make a serious effort to catch up to the depth of Europe.

3.) Switzerland
– Along with Ecuador, they are the forgotten team to make the knockout round in 2006, let alone the fact that they won their group. In fact, Switzerland was notable for being the first team to get knocked out of the World Cup without ever conceding a goal, helped by a 0-0 penalty kick loss in the Round of 16. Switzerland just doesn’t have another one of those runs in them. Plus, in a group with Chile and Spain, there is about a -45% chance that Switzerland doesn’t allow a goal again.

4.) Honduras
– They are the North Korea of the North American qualifying stable. Not much is known about the Hondurians, at least to me. Their players are unknown, again, to me. They will be fodder for Spain to pad some stats, and probably Chile as well, and even maybe Switzerland can get that goal finally, against the Hondurians as well. In all actuality, I have not heard of a single player for the Honduras, so there is no point of me even talking about them. I don’t like to make up stuff, and with them, I would be doing just that.

Knockout Round

‘*’ = in extra time (if the score is tied, that means penalties).

Round of 16


A1 – Mexico vs B2 – Nigeria

An interesting matchup of two teams that like to play similarly. Both teams like to push the ball. Mexico has slightly more defensive ballast to pull this game out. Plus, Mexico is due to make it past the Round of 16, which they have been felled in the last two World Cups.

Mexico 3* Nigeria 2



C1 – England vs D2 – Serbia


England is used to flaming out early, and Serbia is an up and coming team. This is an interesting matchup of two teams that are pretty evenly match, despite what the public will make you think. Neither team has a huge advantage here, so I’ll go with a hunch and say that the Serbians make a run.

Serbia 2 England 1



E1 – Netherlands vs F2 – Paraguay


Netherlands starts their run with a game against a team that has the ability to give the Clockwork Orange a load of problems. Paraguay can play enough defense to make the Netherlands work for every opportunity. Unfortunately for Paraguay, the Netherlands have the players to get quite a few of those opportunities.

Netherlands 2 Paraguay 1



G1 – Brazil vs H2 – Chile


If Dunga’s plan of playing defense and using his speed to counter-attack is going to have any success, it will have to start here. Chile is a team that will press the field and try to go at Brazil. If Dunga gets his way, this would probably end as a low scoring game where Brazil’s defense is really in control the whole time.

Brazil 1 Chile 0



B1 – Argentina vs A2 – France


This bottom half is loaded, and it starts with the matchup of the two most interesting teams. Argentina of course has the M&M show with Messi and Maradona. France has a team that dislikes its coach and may waste its sizable talent. Of course, France has the better recent pedigree, even with Zidane gone, and this Messi and Maradona thing will just not end well. Coaching matters. The last three World Cup Winning coaches were Marcello Lippi, Luis Felipe Scolari and Aime Jacquet, all three have had good careers in both club and country. Maradona has done nothing as a coach, save for throwing his best player under the bus.

France 2 Argentina 2 (FRA wins on PKs)



D1 – Germany vs C2 – USA


Ah, the Germans, again. They were the team who robbed the US of at least a chance at extra time in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal. It is unfortunate they draw the Germans here again. The last World Cup that the Germans did not make the QFs for was 1970. That streak will probably end some day, but I can’t say that the Americans will end it.

Germany 1 USA 0



F1 – Italy vs E2 – Cameroon


The defending champs stalwart but old defense against the fastest man in football, Samuel Eto’o. That doesn’t make me feel good for Italy’s Title Defense hopes. Cameroon also can squash whatever offensive attack the Italians can muster. Italy has always been hit or miss in the World Cup, crashing out early almost as often as winning, so why not lose here in the Round of 16.

Cameroon 1 Italy 0



H1 – Spain vs G2 – Cote D’Ivoire


I would love if Spain, the most together team, could have played Portugal, the most individualistic team, but this is nearly as good, for Spain, that is. Spain won’t really have to worry about their defense too much with Drogba injured, and they can attack that Cote D’Ivoire defense for 90 solid minutes.

Spain 2 Cote D’Ivoire 0


Quarterfinals


A1 – Mexico vs D2 – Serbia

Probably if I told anyone in 2006 that this would be a quarterfinal in the 2010 World Cup, I would get laughs. Well, I still would probably get laughs. The amazing thing is that if this happens, one of those two teams will be Semifinalists. As for the actual game, these two teams are a study of opposites. Mexico pushes the ball and relies on an opportunistic offense. Serbia can lock down teams, and relies on an opportunistic counter-attack offense. So, in the battle of wills, it becomes a skill competition with a nice little shootout to decide which one of these two countries, Mexico and Serbia, make the Semis (yes, that’s right, semis).

Mexico 1 Serbia 1 (MEX wins on penalties)


E1 – Netherlands vs G1 – Brazil


That’s more like it. It is unfortunate that the second and third best teams have to duke it out this early, but it does set up for what would be an EPIC quarterfinal. Brazil will face their toughest test in the Dunga-defense era. Netherlands has the fast defenders to slow down the Brazil counterattack, and the offensive skill and shotmaking to get shots from outside the 18, which Maicon and Lucio will most likely defend brilliantly. Overtime just feels write for this clash of heavyweights that unfortunately would come in the Quarterfinals. I’ll say that the dutch revival continues as a goal in Extra Time ruins Brazil, forever ending the Dunga-defense era.

Netherlands 2* Brazil 1


A2 – France vs D1 – Germany


Another epic battle between the last two World Cup runner’s up. France and Germany are both teams that are equally matched. France is a little more talented, Germany is a little more mentally tough and together. France has more offense; Germany, more defense. However, this is still Germany, and now that everyone is counting them out because of Ballack’s injury and Podolski’s mysterious drop in play, so why shouldn’t they just make the semis for the third consecutive World Cup.

Germany 1 France 0


E2 – Cameroon vs H1 – Spain


This is where the magical mystery tour for the African teams end. If Essien was healthy, Ghana might have challenged for the semis, same if Drogba was healthy and Cote D’Ivoire won their group. Cameroon, the last remaining African nation, just doesn’t have it to knock of Spain, anywhere. Spain has better attack, better middies, better defenders and a better goalie. That combination usually results in a win approximately 93% of the time.

Spain 3 Cameroon 1


Semifinals


A1 – Mexico vs E1 – Netherlands


In what will undoubtedly be a visually appealing match, with the contrasting colors of the Clockwork Orange’s orange and El Tri’s green, the first semifinal pits two teams together that play similar styles. Mexico likes to attack more directly, with more speed and fast-paced advancing. The Netherlands are more about the build-up, the sublime passes that will leave lanes open. However, throw all that out. It is a World Cup Semifinal between a team that has never been to the Final, and a team that hasn’t been in 32 years. Mexico has, in my book, played two extra time games in a row. They have become the Turkey from Euro 2008 of the World Cup. Look for it to continue with another dramatic game, and it will end just like Turkey’s run in Euro 2008 did, with a loss 3-2 in the semifinals.

Netherlands 3 Mexico 2


D1 – Germany vs H1 – Spain


The two teams that played for the Euro title in 2008 (a game that ended 1-0 with Spain finally winning a major trophy) is the ultimate battle of a team trying to reach its destiny and the perfect opponent. Spain is the ultimate underachiever at the World Cup. Finally, though, with the knowledge that this group of individuals who are as talented as any group of players since Les Blues from 1998-2000, has already won a major title, Spain is poised to win a World Title. Of course, the World Cup Winner’s club is very selective, with France being the only new winner since 1978. Germany, the team that has made the final 7 times, winning 3 of them, protecting the World Cup Winner’s club. I say that in what will probably look a lot like the Euro 2008 Final, Spain does it again.

Spain 2 Germany 0


World Cup Final


E1 – Netherlands vs H1 – Spain

In what would be the first World Cup Final to feature two teams that have never won the World Cup before for the first time since 1934 (yes, you read that right), this matchup is unlikely, but it would be a dream. The two most attractive teams in football (not in terms of attractiveness, because I don’t stretch out the limousine, if you know what I mean, but in terms of attractive football) meeting in a World Cup Final. It would be perfect. The last time we had a World Cup Final where both teams scored more than 1 goal was in 1966, so this would be a great repeat of that wonderful Final. Spain and Netherlands are perfect teams to play one another. It would be a weird twist on the battle of possession. Spain would probably win the battle anyway, but Netherlands is deadly on the counter-attack, and better in the air. I would have to just go with a hunch and say that in a tournament where so many first have happened (Mexico making the semis, Spain making the final, two teams that haven’t won the tournament play for the title) we get a high-scoring extra time final. Torres with the winner. Xavi with the Golden Ball.

Spain 3* Netherlands 2

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The ABCs of the World Cup

The ABC's of the 2010 World Cup

A is for Argentina, which is probably the most polarizing team in the World Cup. They have the current best player, and considering the last best player was an in-the-closet metro that liked to be caught with hookers, and currently squires around with Paris Hilton, Messi is the closest thing to an era defining player since Zidane. However, the era-defining player that came along before Zizou, Maradona, is back to ruin Argentina. He be batshit insane, and is dead-set on screwing the World Cup up. Maradona doesn’t like anyone challenging his name as the premier of Argentinean Football, so he would definitely sabotage Messi’s chances at glory just so no one thinks Messi is better than himself. Also, the guy that Messi will be playing with for goals, Sergio Kun Aguero (Kun Aguero is what most call him), is Maradona’s son-in-law, so there is an approximately 87% chance Maradona demands the middies pass to the Kun over Messi. They could win the World Cup, they could get knocked out early. What we do know is that they will be fun to watch.

B is for Boring Brazil, who has finally embraced what wins in a time where the old Brazil flair is all the rage. It is an interesting twist for the Brazilians. For years, they played aesthetically beautiful soccer, while the world played tactically strong, athletic soccer. Now, they decided to switch to a defensive/counter-attack style (aka – the exact 100% polar opposite of Brazil), while the world, headed by Spain, is starting to accept beautiful football as the way to go. I don’t think it is a bad idea, as Brazil attacking players are nowhere near as talented as even the Brazil team of 4 years ago, and most of Brazil’s true talent is at the back, with star defenders Maicon and Lucio, and even a damn good goalie in Julio Cesar, so the switch makes sense but it certainly has not gone over well. And if they don’t advance further than ’06, when they lost to the brilliance that is Zidane in the QFs, Brazilians, for once, might be furious at their soccer team.

C is for Coronation, this tournament can really settle a lot of lingering questions that the soccer world has created in the last four years since the last World Cup. First, is this Spain team the best European Team Ever? That question needs to be asked. Only two other teams have won both the World Cup and the European Championship consecutively. France in 1998 and 2000, and West Germany in 1972 and 1974. Spain is just as good. They rolled in Euro 2008, not conceding a goal in the knockout round, and beat the semifinalists, Russia, twice 7-1. They are just as talented now. The other coronation can be of Leo Messi. Other than possibly Ronadlinho in 2006, the last player that could gain so much by a great World Cup performance was Zidane in 1998. However, it is expected from Messi, Zidane’s was more of a post-tournament “Did we just witness greatness?” question. With Messi, people expect greatness. Lead them to glory, and he will be crowned a God of Football for life. I feel like Spain has the better shot at being coronated after the world cup ends.

D is for Defense? Defense has taken an interesting turn over the last four years. Outside of Brazil, who had the talent to overcome it, defense has historically won championships, like in every other sport known to mankind. I profiled this earlier in my Inter Milan/Barcelona breakdown, that great defense has become uniformly underrated. A great defensive team is just as good as a great offensive team, yet even more so than at the club level, offense has captured the world. Two of the top four favorites, Spain and Holland, are brilliant offensive teams. Italy, an aging team to be sure, is still one of the best defensive teams in the world, and is totally under-the-radar, despite being, well, the defending champs. If the Brazilian team had any other name on the front of their shirt, they would not be co-favorites with Spain, because they embraced defense. This tournament, like in 1990, 1998 and 2006 can see the best defensive team win, because usually that is what happens in World Cups, but with this infusion of offense, defense might be too far gone.

E is for Energy, in terms of offense. Scoring was way down in the 2006 World Cup, as the tournament’s top scorer had just 5 goals, which was the fewest in World Cup history. Look for that to change. Scoring has been up across Europe the past two years, with 2.62 goals being scored a game across the top-4 European Leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Seria A and the Bundesliga), and that has always correlated to scoring at the World Cup. With so many teams placing a bigger emphasis on offense at the top of their game (Spain, Holland, England, Cameroon, Mexico, Argentina) goals should be up, at least from 2006 levels. Offense is the new game in football, with ball possession being the key. Just like in the football across the pond, the one that involves using your hands to do the various things that the game revolves around, offense is winning the battle with defense currently, and look for that to continue.

F is for Furia Roja, the favorite to win and to watch. Each team has a nickname (Der Manschraft for the Germans, El Selacao for the Brazilians, etc) and for Spain, it is la Furia Roja, and they can take this tournament by red fury, or their fans faces will rage with red fury. They have the most talented team top to bottom. People say that a lot about Spain, as it has become the common theme to label Spain the most talented. However, much like the Chargers in the NFL, that title used to be undeserved. They were not any more talented than some of the other countries. Not true now. They are so stacked they have the best midfielder (arguable, I guess) in the Premier League on the bench in Cesc Fabregas. The weirder thing, no Spanish fan cares that Fab is on the bench, since they legitimately have four better players. Their defense is their supposed weakness; however, they allowed the fewest goals of any team during World Cup Qualifying in Europe. That is scary. So are they.

G is for Group of Death. There always is one, but this time, there are a couple. In reality, there are two different distinctions. One would be the group that has three very good teams, three teams that are all capable of making the Semifinals to little fanfare. That would, until Drogba’s injury, be Group G, that combines Brazil, Portugal and Cote D’Ivoire. Even with Drogba out, Cote D’Ivoire poses problems. Then, there is the real group of death, with four teams all capable of winning the group, where any combinations of advancing teams is not surprising. You can make a case that Group A and Group D fit this bill. Group A has France, a team that has the talent to go really deep, but a crazy coach (sound familiar), Mexico (ditto France), South Africa (hosts have made it out of the group stage every time) and Uruguay (a capable team that has the resolve to pull out of the group). Group D is even better with Germany (less talented than before but always dangerous), Ghana (missing Essien, but expected to get that normal African bump), Serbia (very talented and underrated), and Australia (QF in 2006, and should have taken Italy to penalties). Those two are the real Groups of Death, because all four teams are good. Of course, the real deathly experience will be in Group G, as the runner up gets Spain, most likely, as their consolations prize for surviving.

H is for Hemispheres, which are important. No team has won the World Cup in the opposite hemisphere, except for Brazil (it is amazing how many trends Brazil is the exception for, in a good way). None. In that sense, Brazil and Argentina, historically, are your best bets. They say it is because the grass grows differently (or at least that is what some ‘soccer’ fan said on Bill Simmons’ podcast the other day), but the easier, and probably more relevant explanation is that in the Southern Hemisphere the World Cup takes place in winter, and it is summer when it is the North. European teams are used to playing in winter, but not during June and July. That is a weird body adjustment to make. There obviously is some merit since no Northern Hemisphere team has ever won one of the seven world cups that have taken place in the Southern Hemisphere. So, for a Spain, England, USA, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal to break through, they will have to fight their opponent and geography.

I is for Injuries, which have already derailed the world cup. Obviously, the biggest two injuries are to Didier Drogba and Michael Essien of Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast to those normal folk who don’t do geography) and Ghana respectively. They are the best players in their country, and with the World Cup being in Africa, they were some of the big stars in the world cup. Essien’s injury just kills Ghana who needed his organization and technical ability in that holding midfielder role. If Cote D’Ivoire was in any other group, it probably wouldn’t be the death knell that Drogba is out, but in the group with Brazil and Portugal, despite how talented the rest of the Cote D’Ivoire team is, Drogba’s injury will certainly kill them. Of course, then comes the various nagging injuries to favorite Spain. Fabregas broke his leg in March, but is back now. Fernando Torres broke his knee in April, but is supposedly back for the first Spain game. Xavi supposedly tore his calf in a mysterious injury that still allowed him to play for Barca. Iniesta hasn’t played in a while. Spain has enough talent to withstand one of the Xavi/Iniesta/Torres group being out. If two are, then there are problems. Then, of course, there is the Ballack injury, but that’s not worth mentioning since Germany will just make the Quarters like they always do.

J is for Jozy Altidore, and more than that what he and the rest of the US team represents: a shift where the US is using athletic advantages to get ahead. The US will probably never have the innate talent to consistently be a major player in the World’s soccer scene, but it has the athletic ability. US athletes are better trained, conditioned and nutritioned than any other country. And whether this involves steroids or not (if it does, than the Dominican athletes probably have the upper hand, anyway), the US is probably the most athletic team, and this is headlined by Mr. Jozy Altidore. He probably is overrated, as his performance is nowhere near his recognizability, but in him and the rest of the new wave of US players, athleticism is starting to become the US’ trump card. It probably won’t work for too long, as talent still wins out, as does speed which the other countries probably have over the Patriots, but the US will never be outworked, nor outtoughed in a game. And that is more than what the US had to offer in 2006.

K is for Keeping, as this is still a sport with a goalie. Just like in the NHL where a hot goalie can take you places (see: Halak, Jaroslav; rounds 1-2 of the 2010 NHL Playoffs), so too can one in the World Cup. Gianluigi Buffon was brilliant for Italy in 2006 in their run. Oliver Kahn was even more brilliant, posting five straight shutouts before the Final against Brazil, taking an averagely talented German team (even by German standards) and putting them into the final. It is hard to really judge soccer goalies, since most face about 10 shots a game, and really only four or five of those are threatening (as opposed to hockey goalies), so I’m going from what I hear, but the best out there now is probably Brazil’s Julio Cesar. Of course, the old guard is still there with Gianluigi Buffon still keeping goal for Italy and St. Iker Casillas in net for Spain. Those two have been great goalies, including cup winning goalies, for ages, but age has been showing recently. Goalkeeping can decide this tournament.

L is for Lionel Messi, who is the star of the World Cup. He has the most to gain and to lose here, at least from an American perspective. American’s care about stars, that is our nature. Messi is currently the biggest star, and he is the biggest name, so if he pulls a Ronaldinho from ’06 (the biggest star coming into that tournament doing practically nothing and having no impact in the teams elimination game), then American’s will really have a bad impression of Mr. Messi. The real football fans probably won’t care if he doesn’t have a great tournament, since his coach is a moron who wants Leo to fail, but the casual fan will. Plus, Messi has a chance to become one of the all-time greats with a great performance here. Although I think it is too early to start these comparisons, many feel that Messi is already at a Maradona level. Again, not sure about that, not even sure he was any better than Ronaldinho was from 2003-2006, or even the Portuguese Ronaldo from 2006-2008, but he has a chance to fly his star higher than anyone else does.

M is for Moments, which the World Cup always provides us with. Each World Cup will have two or three moments that will be replayed for eons. Obviously, the 2006 Cup gave us a pretty memorable one, with ‘The Headbutt’, but even ’02 gave us the gap-toothed grin of Ronaldo waving his arms after scoring the Cup-Winning goal. ’98 gave us the moment of Zidane’s header (head-ER, not head-BUTT) to beat Brazil. ’86 gave us the “Hand of God”. ’98 had Michael Owen’s goal as an 18 year old kid. ’02 had Ronaldinho’s ‘welcome to the big leagues’ moment with his floater from 40 yards out over England’s goalie to beat England in the Quarters. ’94 had the US finally reaching the knockout stage at home. ’66 had the goal that was debated for decades as to whether it crossed the line or not. Each cup has a moment all to itself, and 2010 will provide this moment too. It might be anything. It might be a controversial call like in ’66, or a play that had nothing to do with soccer like the headbutt in ’06, but it will be memorable.

N is for Nationalism, which is never more present than it is during the World Cup. People who have never shown any interest in their heritage will start wearing their countries jersey, start eating their countries food, basically adopt back their motherland for the month. Whatever country goes deep in the tournament suddenly will have thousands of immigrants transplanted in every city. So, when you suddenly see Spanish paraphernalia around everywhere come July, just remember it is people that normally keep their heritage very dormant expressing it for the one time it seems okay for four years. Also, the underrated part of the world cup is how nationalism plays a role. If we beat England, not only did we beat them at soccer, the game they invented, but this just compounds what we did in the American Revolution. It is like paying homage to Washington, Adams and Franklin. If Germany goes down, the country that started World War II goes down (not that I believe that the WWII overtones are still really there in that major of a way, but it is a legitimate point of celebration in Europe). Then there are the countries that haven’t been on the best of terms, like Spain and Italy, England and France that can always play each other. Man, just for the nationalist part alone, I wish India qualified. It makes little sense that in a country of 1.1 billion they can’t five 30 guys good enough, but one day they will, and I will be right beside them cheering the Tigers eating Dosas and wishing we could get a crack at England and repay them for scalping our land.

O is for Ole! Ole, Ole, Oleeeee! Oleeee! Ooooleeeee! Which is the eponymous World Cup song. But really, it is all of the songs that make the World Cup an amazing fan experience. The World Cup crowds are the best, mainly because they don’t infuse the stadium with music blasted from speakers. The World Cup lets the fans sing and dance and play instruments in the stands, creating their own music. It is beautiful. If anything, it is too much music and noise, as it almost distracts from the game. But there is nothing better than turning on the game, and hearing fans act like what fans are supposed to act like. All the songs are good, yet nothing beats the classic ‘Ole!’ song. I’m not sure what country started it, but pretty much all of them use it now, and for good reason. After “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, goodbye” it is the best sports song out there. Also, the goal song at Euro 2008 was great too, and usually the World Cup releases a goal song of its own. If it is half as good as Samba de Janiero, the Euro 2008 goal song, I’ll be ecstatic.

P is for Penalties, which are sure to rear their ugly head at some point. Don’t get me wrong, they are truly dramatic moments, the tensest in all of sports, even tenser than hockey shootouts since the shot lasts all of one second, but they should not decide a competition. In 1990, 1994 and 2006, penalty kicks decided the World Cup Final. In 1990 it was a penalty, so it is hard to complain, but in 1994 and 2006 (Brazil beat Italy, then Italy exacted some revenge by beating France, who transitively beat Brazil in 1998), the whole tournament, all 51 games, came down to a skill competition. Of course, it will happen and probably more than once. Just hopefully the evil Lord that is PKs stays clear of Johannesburg on July 11th. However, if they do, they are entirely random. Sure, there are goalies better at stopping penalties, and players that are betting at shooting them, but at the end of the day, it is just utterly random who wins a penalty shootout. Spain in 2002 proved this by beating Ireland in one, where St. Iker Casillas stopped 3 out of 4 penalty shots, and lost the following round to Korea on PKs, where Casillas didn’t stop a thing. Penalty Kicks can ruin careers. David Trezeguet used to be a hero in France for his Golden Goal in 2000 that won France the Euro Title against Italy, but now he is a dog for being the only man to miss a PK in the 2006 Final. Just hope the next David Trezeguet is not lurking.

Q is for Quadrennial? As in, “Why is the World Cup a Quadrennial tournament?” It really is the greatest single month of any four year period (numbers 2-5 are the four NFL Playoffs months, but that is neither here nor there) and is the biggest moneymaking sports tournament by a mile, so in a world where money rules all, why wait four years to play one of these? This is not the Olympics. People will not get tired of more Word Cup. I’m not saying every year, as that would be tiresome, and I see that four is a nice square number, but that is too long to not celebrate. People in America are still trying to be wooed to soccer, and having the only relevant soccer event that American’s care about only once every four years is not a good way to start the wooing process. Every three years would be a little better. Every two years even. Of course, now that the Champions League is being shown in America each year, and ESPN broadcasted the Euro Cup, as well as select Premier League and La Liga games, there is soccer to digest during the other 47 months that encompass the four years, but still, there is a little too little of the World Cup. It’s not like people will rejoice any less if it was every three years.

R is for Ronaldo and Rooney, who are the two players, behind Messi, that will make this tournament. The former Manchester United teammates are still not in good terms with each other (stemming from an incident in the Portugal-England 2006 Quarterfinal where Ronaldo pleaded to the referee to get Wayne Rooney sent off), but they are in very similar positions. They both need good performances here to leapfrog one another on the “Best Player”chart. They are currently 2 and 3 in some order, and even if I think they are both a bit overrated, they are fantastic players that are able to carry their teams offense on their back. They might have to. England was great during qualifying, but are still underachievers on the World Cup stage. Portugal struggled mightily during qualifying. Both Ronaldo and Rooney are very pompous players, proud of their own abilities, and they both probably don’t like all the attention being given to Lionel Messi. They have their chance to say something about it in the World Cup. Also, the Player of the Year voting is greatly influenced by World Cup results, as the last four World Cup years the player that won the FIFA World Player of the Year award came from the winning team (Cannavaro, Ronaldo, Zidane, Romario), so there is a chance that they could even wrestle the prestigious awards from little Messi’s hands.

S is for Security, which has been a big story since South Africa was announced as host for the World Cup. The World Cup could be played in Switzerland, a neutral country that has no enemies outside of people who hate it by extension of hating Federer (me), and there would be security risks and scares, but put it in one of the most volatile countries politically and socially, and people think FIFA is asking for problems. Then, Barack Obama announced that if the US made the Quarterfinals, I believe, he will attend the game, creating more security problems. Personally, I think it is overblown. Has there ever been a major event like this that has been terrorized (other than the Munich Olympics, which did not terrorize fans, but athletes, which is horrible but not exactly the fear here). The Olympics in China had similar fears, and nothing happened. The Super Bowl always is supposedly a major terrorist target, and nothing has come out of that, ever. It makes too much sense for terrorism to occur at the World Cup. The real danger is South Africa at night, but really, it is not any more dangerous than Rio will be in 2014. However, to save us this trouble, FIFA, can you just put the 2018 in Spain?

T is for The Treble, which is a different treble than the one Barcelona and Inter won the past two years. In club football, the treble is when a club wins its countries league, its countries cup and the UEFA Champions League (ex: Winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in England or the La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in Spain). However, this is a different treble that involves tennis. In 2008, it was the year of Spain, as in six weeks, Nadal crushed Federer for the French Open title, winning 6-1 6-3 6-0, Spain beat Germany for the European Title, its first major tournament win in 40 years and one that erased years of underachieving, and then the triad was capped with Nadal winning Wimbledon in the Greatest Tennis Match ever. That was Spain’s month, and it very well could happen again. Part I is already done, as Nadal, just like he did in 2008, won the French Open without dropping a set. Part II, this time, will be up to Rafa, as Wimbledon will finish before the World Cup. If Rafa gets Wimbledon, I guarantee Spain finishes off its second consecutive Tennis/World Cup treble. Also, another little similarity, in 2008 Rafa Nadal, in doing the treble, took over No. 1 from Federer, just as he did with finishing Part I of the treble in 2010.

U is for Usual Suspects, which always happens in each tournament. So much is made of the favorites that teams that are so obviously going to contend are just plain forgotten about. In 2006 it was Italy, who breezed easily through their qualifying campaign, but lacked the pizzazz that the other European teams had. France had Zidane’s farewell, England was, well, England, Germany had more talent, Portugal had way more talent. Italy was the team that won it all. In 2002 it was Germany, who really is always slightly underrated. People talk themselves into taking outside picks for the World Cup, but underrating teams that have done it before and that consistently perform well is always dangerous. There is a reason only seven countries have won the world cup, and only five since 1970. In fact, since 1970 only six have even made the final. The World Cup Final seems oddly repetitive since 1970 (Brazil-Italy, then Germany- Holland, Argentina-Holland, Italy-Germany, Argentina-Germany, Germany-Argentina, Brazil-Italy, France-Brazil, Brazil-Germany, Italy-France). By the way, what scares me is that Spain is nowhere to be seen. They are much more talented now than they ever were, and they just won a top competition, but still, it seems pretty exclusive.

V is for Vacation Days, which will be taken en masse during the World Cup. Historically, countries that love soccer (read: all countries in the tournament not named US) basically shut down their business during World Cup games. Trillions of dollars are lost each tournament because no one works, just watches. It is truly mesmerizing. This extends far beyond work. Wars have stopped in the past. Cote D’Ivoire was in the middle of a light Civil War when the 2006 World Cup was about to start. All parties involved decided to take a small break to engorge themselves in the World Cup. It truly is the World’s unifying event, as it unifies the rest of the World to stop living their lives, drop everything meaningful and be glued to the TV and watch people that they will never meet kick a ball around grass. Boy, I love the fact that I won’t get flak for acting like I do the rest of the time, since everyone else will be doing it too.

W is for Winning, which teams have to remember is the ultimate goal. Too many teams try to win and try to play beautiful soccer. Those two things are not the same, as much as soccer ‘purists’ (see: soccer fans who are bored by defensive tactics and want offense all the time) try to convince the world that playing offense directly leads to wins. Win and advance. That is the mantra of every major sports tournament in the USA. It is especially useful if a team has a scare in one round. Get over it, win and advance and the slate is clean. Amazingly, Spain doesn’t fall into that trap that the others do of trying to appease the artist instead of the winner, as they played a mostly ugly 0-0 (penalty kick win) game against Italy in the Euro 2008 quarters. They won the PKs, and advanced. That’s all that needs to be done. Also, never get too high or low because of a team’s great or bad performance in a win. Whether the team wins 4-0 or 0-0 (penalties), they are the same. The team moves on and will play a completely different game. Germany knows this better than anyone. They play games in so many different ways, styles and tempos. The only link? Germany is the team that wins them. Win, that is what this tournament is about, or at least it should.

X is for Xavi and Xabi, arguably the two most important players for the Furia Roja. They both make up what is the best midfield a country has played in generations, but these two are especially important. Xavi makes up one half of Spain’s dancing duo, with Andres Iniesta being the other half. Sir Alex Ferguson said of those two last year before their other-wordly performance in the Champions League Final, that “the last time either lost the ball was when they are seven.” Xavi stays a little further back than Iniesta and is the brain of Spain. He was slightly injured at the end of the club season, and Spain need him at his best because he is at the crux of their possession attack. As for Mr. Alonso, he is arguably more important. Spain can dominate possession, sure, but if they get into the type of game that happened against the US last year, they need Xabi Alonso. Spains defense is what could kill them, and Xabi is the defensive midfielder. Marcos Senna played that role beautifully in Spain’s Euro 2008 run, and with a similar performance by Xabi here in 2010, it allows Sergio Ramos to do what he does best, go forward. Plus Xabi is one of the few Spanish players that can go aerial for a header, and set-pieces always play a part in determining winners.

Y is for Yellow Cards, which are almost as important as reds. Very few players actually get two yellow cards in the same game. Not only because players booked once get more careful, but also because referees are more lenient after a player has been booked once. So, in that vein, yellow cards have less in-game applications as do reds, but they can be deadly. As two yellow cards accumulated in separate games means a suspension from the next. I believe there was a rule made for the 2006 tournament that is carrying over to this one. It is that the yellow card slate is wiped clean at the start of the knockout stage, and then again at the start of the semifinals. In essence, it makes missing the final a hard possibility, but other than that, it is fair game. If a player gets a yellow in both the round of 16 game and the quarterfinal that player is gone from the Semi. This happened in many cases in the France-Portugal semifinal in 2006. The most oft used example of this was in the 2002 World Cup, where Michael Ballack missed the World Cup Final due to picking up two accumulated yellows in the Semifinal. That probably will not happen again, but yellow cards can greatly affect group play with suspensions for the third group game, and even knockout play.

Z is for Zidane, who obviously is not playing in this World Cup, but in the soccer community, still lords over as a central figure. Zidane was unquestionably the best player from 1996-2006 (with the real, better Ronaldo a close second), and those ten years were the Zidane era, and soccer is still looking for the next era. Eras are huge in soccer. There was the Pele era, then the Beckenbauer/Cryuff era, then the Maradona era, then the Zidane one. Messi seems like the logical candidate, but if the last four years taught us anything, it is that the title of “Worlds Best Player” is fleeting. It was Kaka in the 06-07 season, Cristiano Ronaldo in 07-08 and Messi in 08-09 (and in all likelihood, unless he is horrible in the World Cup) 09-10. All three of those player were simply amazing in their respective years, and they all have tremendous pressure, because they have been anything from slight underachievers (Kaka) to outright disappointments (Messi) for their country. That is what made Zidane great. He was amazing for his club, and better for France. To reach that level, one of these three will have to make a deep run. By the way, Messi is just not the polarizing figure Zidane is, and not only because Messi wouldn’t headbutt someone. Zidane had a charisma, had a magnetism that Messi doesn’t. Zidane did, Jordan did; Gretzky, Montana, Manning, they all do. Messi is a Brady: a great, great player who is missing that quality that makes him immortal. Maradona had it and that is why Maradona has almost become the biggest figure of this World Cup. Even in 2010, Zidane is the central figure of Adidas’ ad campaign, not Leo. In the real footballing part of the world, Zidane is still the man.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Changing of the (Swiss) Guard


There is a man in Switzerland today, a man who is quite upset, quite undone by the events of the last six days. This man has owned the world for seven years now, ever since his birth on a grassy lawn in England, to his coronation six years later, on those same mighty lawns. This man, for seven years now, has been better at his job than nearly everyone else in the world is at theirs, he has been perfect in nearly every way. That man is named Roger Federer, and he is quite upset, because he knows that his time is done. Two years ago, I could have said the same thing, as Federer languished after a 6-1 6-3 6-0 beatdown that he absorbed, but this time seems more definite. Not only did Federer not win the French Open, he was gone three rounds earlier. He was bested by four men, failing to make the semifinals for the first time in 6 years. No, this is final. Federer’s reign, the most bountiful, glorious reign in tennis history, is over. This is the Rafa Dynasty, and get ready, because it will be fun.

Rafael Nadal was not quite upset. In fact, he was sobbing harder than ever before, covering his weeping face in a towel, hiding his own emotions from the public. In tennis, though, the player is never public, and Nadal’s tears were known and understood. His rise to glory had been an odd one. Fifteen months earlier, after finishing off the Holy Trinity of tennis, beating Federer in the French Open Final, Wimbledon Final and Australian Open Final in the span of seven months, he seemed untouchable; however, his knees were conspiring against him, like the senators of Rome against Ceaser. Knee trouble, as well as the divorce of his parents, knocked Nadal off his lofty perch, and allowed Federer to complete the only two things left for him to complete, win the French Open and break Pete Sampras’ all-time Grand Slam record. Done and done. Federer followed this up with winning another Australian Open title, pushing his slam record to 16. Nadal, at that point, dropped to number 5 in the world, and ad sportswriters asking, “Will he ever be the same again?”. No, he’s better.

Rafael Nadal is a different player now. He attacks more, he plays a more complete, offensive game. The old skills like the jack-rabbit quickness, the ridiculous defensive shotmaking and the overpowering will to win are all still there, but they are buoyed by a new sense of self-belief. Rafael Nadal know believes that he can win by simply overpowering his opponent, and quickly massacring them. That is the truly scary part, Nadal is not done getting better. Nadal’s win in the French Open Final against Robin Soderling, the man who took out a weak Nadal last year in the French Open, and also beat Federer in the Quarterfinals five days earlier, was not a vintage Nadal victory, like his 2008 run to the Title that saw him lose just 43 games in seven matches, it was better. Soderling, a man with a newfound self-belief the last two years and the only man to ever know the feeling of beating Rafael Nadal on the clay terrain of the French Open, was powerless. The man who could hit hard enough to beat anyone, including the ‘Greatest of All-Time’ in Federer, could not penetrate Nadal’s mind or body. Soderling could do nothing but idly watch greatness punch and punch until there was nothing left in Soderling. Nadal, like he has done all but one time he has played at the French Open, had won the physical battle and the mental one, but again, he won it differently. Nadal was more offensive, more attacking. He fought Soderling head-on, fighting fire with fire against one of the hardest hitting shotmakers on the ATP Tour, and Nadal won, easily.

Roger Federer is not happy, and mainly because he now sees a different Nadal, one that honestly has no weaknesses, and he seems him hearlthier and better. Of course, this is not news to Federer, who has played Nadal 21 times and lost 14 of them, but what is more troubling was that there are players out there not named Nadal that Federer could lose to, which the opposite is coming true for Rafael. Since his win in the Australian Open, Federer has only made the final in one other tournament, and has lost to the following fringe top-20 players: Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, Ernests Gulbis and Albert Montanes, as well as Robin Soderling, a guy he held an 11-0 record against. In the meantime, Nadal has lost to no one, becoming the first man ever to sweep the top-4 Clay Court events in one spring. Nadal used to be the guy getting picked off by the lesser. It was Nadal’s fault that Federer couldn’t have beaten Rafa more than he did, because Rafa was the one that was knocked off early, while Federer calmly waited for the dream matchup that never happened. No, instead, it is now Federer that loses before he gets the chance to play Rafa. Since the Aussie Open, Federer has lost every time before Nadal did at every tournament. Even the one time they did play, in Madrid, it was more of the same, as Federer could not make a big point, and he comically swung and whiffed on match point. Federer had his one shot and failed, and in his heart, he knew The French Open would be no different.

Compounding the fact that Nadal crushed the guy that blasted Federer off the court in the quarterfinals (Soderling), is the even more desultory fact that with that win Rafael Nadal stands atop the ATP standings, again as the number one player in the world. Rafael Nadal had that ranking from August 2008 to July 2009, but lost it when his knee problems forced him out of Wimbledon last year. One year later, Nadal is healthy and changed his game to take pressure off the knees, and Federer may never see number 1 again. The hauntingly amazing fact is that Federer was just one week away from tying Pete Sampras’ record for 286 weeks at No. 1, but may never get that 286th week at this point. It is a Nadal world, and Roger and the rest are living in it.

Roger Federer is never a man to admit defeat. He’s a man that always feel that it is his ability that will carry him through, and that is partly why this is such a troubling time for him. Federer, like many great champions, is very, very stubborn. His beautiful game carried him to 16 grand slam titles, but no longer can. However, he is slow to change, slow to accept the fact that his game currently is just not good enough anymore. He used to believe that when he played Rafa, he was simply better than him, that on talent alone, he could beat him. In many ways, he still does believe that. He has rarely tried to change gameplans, change styles against Nadal. The man has once made Federer cry in defeat at the 2009 Australian Open Final, and also embarrassed Federer giving Roger the worst loss at a Grand Slam the No. 1 player has ever taken, with his 6-1 6-3 6-0 win in the 2008 Final, but through it all Federer truly believes that he is the more talented player. That is why this is a dark day for the maestro in Switzerland, because he is not.

Roger Federer, in all likelihood, will end up with more grand slams than Rafael Nadal. Sure, Nadal, who just turned 24 last week, is already two ahead of Federer’s pace (Federer had 5 slams when he turned 24 in August, 2005), but Federer from ages 24-26 was unlike anything seen in tennis. However, Rafa will always be the man who not only conquered the Fed-eration, but also was the man who completely toyed with Federer at times. Everything Federer did to other players (make them look foolish, pass them on the run with ease, tense them up so they play tentatively), Nadal did to Federer. Even though 12 of their 21 meeting have come on clay (Nadal is 10-2 in those), the other 9 non-clay meetings has Federer barely edging out Rafa 5-4. Also, Nadal has beaten Federer in a Grand Slam Final on clay, grass and hardcourt, while Federer’s only returned the favor on grass. Federer might be the greatest tennis player of the Open-era, but he had one rival who owned him, consistently, because when those two played, Rafa was the better player. This is the first time that Nadal has won a Grand Slam without Federer being an opponent, which is a more harrowing fact. Federer’s won 14 slams without playing Rafa in them. Federer has been able to extend his dominance to everyone, and up until now, Rafael Nadal couldn’t say the same, but now, after crushing the man that handily beat Federer, he can say that, he can make a claim that even with Federer gone, he’s still the best, Rafa Nadal could see his stock soar, and the slams pile up, and that, above anything, is why Federer is crying at home is Basel.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Story of the Year: 2006

The Headbutt


Just ten minutes were left, plus penalties. Win or lose, his career would be complete, and he would leave on top, nearly single-handidly leading his aging country from the depths of European Football to the precipice of a second world cup, and third major trophy (along with Euro 2000), in eight years. Zinedine Zidane still could not believe that Gianluigi Buffon, the Azzurri's talismanic goalkeeper saved his pinpoint header five minutes earlier. That, he assumed, would be his last great moment on the football pitch. Just like when he lit the world ablaze in 1998 with two great headers past the Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel, a header would be Zidane's last great moment. However, that career-capping header was yet to come, and would do something that above all his accomplishments, whether it be the World Cup Title, the Euro Championship Title, the countless league titles at Monaco, Juventus and Real Madrid, and even the three Champions League Final's he had played in, would move him to a rarified air. Zidane would become a mega-star for doing something most un-football like, for displaying brute force that is more generally associated with the 'football' played across the pond in the USA. Zidane would use his head to slam Marco Matterazzi to the ground, and provide a fitting end to a career most brilliant and most entertaining.

Nine months earlier, Zinedine Zidane was lured out of retirement because France was in a mess. They were lagging behind in World Cup Qualifying, with precious few of the old guard that had completed the double of holding the World Cup and the Eueropean Title at the same time, including Zidane. He came back from retirement and spurred a furious finish that allowed France to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. This was not supposed to be France's tournament, and merely a nice swansong for Zidane before France was inevitably knocked out and Portugal, Spain and Brazil fought for the World Cup Title. Weird thing happened, though. Zidane played like it was 1998 all over again. He was the everything for France, as he led Les Blues past all three of those aforementioned teams that were the pre-tournament favorites. Up first was Spain. They were talented, with the seeds of the team that enters the 2010 as the favorites as youthful players. Zidane was great, prolonging plays and passing seeds of offense to his forwards. He had a direct hand in France's game-winning goal, with a whipping cross from 40 yards out to Patrick Vieira, and then scored a goal himself with a great shot past Iker Casillas. Brazil was up next. Even more talented than Spain, Brazil was off a fresh 3-0 win over Ghana, and was back for revenge for France's 3-0 win in the 1998 World Cup Final. At this point, no one knew that Zidane would go Keyser Soze two weeks later against an Italian Thug. It was still about the masters swansong, and act two was about as good as it gets.

It was against Brazil eight years earlier that Zidane's star first shone brightly, and before it turned into a supornova in the 111th minute against Italy, that star ballooned against Brazil once again. Zidane was breathtaking, exhilerating and masterful. It was a performance for the Gods, for the Maradona's and the Pele's. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, the stars that could shine in 2010 can only dream of such games. The ball was seemingly tethered to the foot of Zidane, while his passes were strung along on the same string. He effortlessly toyed with the Brazilians. Against the team that toyed with everyone, and against the player that was currently the best in the world, Ronaldinho (who at that moment was better than Messi is now), Zidane was the best Brazilian on the field.

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Zidane's epic game against Brazil in 2006

Up next was Portugal. Against the man that would replace Ronaldinho as the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zidane, at the "young" age of 34, outshined them all. He scored a deadly penalty kick, placing it in the most perfect place at the net. France then stifled the Portuguese team for 90 minutes, shutting them down. Zidane's magic had led Les Blues to the World Cup Final. Somehow, a team that played 8 out of 11 starters over the age of 30, France was in the World Cup Final, against Italy. And that is where the story gets really ridiculous, more so than a 34-year old bald man being the best soccer player on the world, again.

The game was mostly undramatic. Zidane scored another sublime penalty. Italy scored a header twenty minutes later. Until Buffon's glorious save on Zidane's last great footballing moment. Next came his most lasting. Marco Matterazzi, a ruthless, brash defender, tugged at his shirt. Zidane pushed away, but the leech that is Matterazzi is not so easy to disengage from, and Marco re-tugged on the same shirt. Zidane quipped that "If you want my shirt, you can wait till the match is over." Marco Matterazzi responded with words that were shrouded in mystery for four years. Seconds later as each was jogging back down the field, Zidane slowly turned around to face Marco Matterazzi head on, lowered his shoulder and headbutted Matterazzi right in the chest. Although Marco Matterazzi was a tough, 6'4" player, he 'crumpled' to the ground as if he was sniped by a SWAT team. After some initial confusion, Zidane was deservedly sent-off ten minutes before his career would expire, and Italy won the penalty shootout to claim their fourth World Cup Title. However, no one cared that Italy won the World Cup again. No. All people cared about was that headbutt.

The Headbutt had a life of its own. Immediately, the biggest question, a bigger one than "Isn't it amazing that Italy are now the world champions?", was "Why the Hell did Zinedine Zidane to that?". Obviously he was provoked, although the exact provocation wasn't know for years, but speculation ran rampant. News organizations called in lip-readers who tried to decipher what Matterazzi said. Some said Matterazzi insulted Zidane's Muslim, Algerian roots. Some said he made a simple inslut of Zidane's sister. Some said he did nothing. Then there were the people who judged. Some wanted Zidane arrested for assault. Some wanted him stripped of his Player of the Tournament Trophy for the 2006 World Cup (which rightly never did happen). Some thought Marco Matterazzi, a known rabble-rouser, got what he deserved. However, no one stopped to realize what the headbutt really meant, and what it was. The Headbutt was the single most polarizing and known sports moment of the decade, by far. Billions know what 'the Headbutt' was. Billions know just what happened that night in Frankfurt, in the Olimpiastadon. The Headbutt was bigger than Zidane, bigger than soccer, or football or futbol, or anything. The Headbutt was a different monster.

Four years later, the headbutt is still as known as ever. Back in February, three and a half years after it happened, Zidane finally admitted as to what it was that Marco Matterazzi said. Matterazzi insluted Zidane's mother, who at the time was ill with cancer in a hospital. None of that matters now. All that matters is that it was an event that tarnished Zidane's career forever. Zidane is still known in the parts of the world that appreciate and love football above all else as the best player of his generation. However, in America, he is known as the guy who headbutted the other guy. He will always carry the reputation of a headbutter, he will always carry the reputation as a villain. Of course, that adds to the intrigue of football's dark night. Zidane will be a hero, a brilliant footballer, a magician on the field, but his most enduring moment will always be, in the hearts and minds of many, his headbutt. Of course, this belies the most interesting sports "what if?" of the decade as well. "What if Zidane didn't do it?"

Of course, Italy still could have won. People seem to act like the only reason that Italy won was because Zidane headbutted Matterazzi and got himself red-carded. The game would, in all likelihood, still gone on to penalties. The only man to miss a penalty, David Trezeguet, would have taken a penalty anyway. However, the best "what if?" is even more intriguing, "What If France won anyway?". The reason why that is so damn intriguing is because much of the reason that Zidane is villified for the headbutt was that France lost the game. If France won, Zidane, who is still a hero in France, would have been the hero anyway. Not only did he lead the French to the Final with amazing play, but he headbutted the thug of the Italian team, and his team won the most prized trophy in all of sports. Zidane would probably be praised for admitting some vigilante justice on Marco Matterazzi, but no, the fates were interested in a more delicious dish, one where Zidane did unleash his fury and Matterazzi did fall to the ground.

The Headbutt is probably the most famous World Cup play ever, and it did not even include a ball. It will always be remembered as the moment that the World Cup became mainstream in America. It is definitely the most famous World Cup moment here in the states. Back in 2006, youtube was still about a year from being mainstream, but after just minutes, the interwebs were alive with headbutt videos. 'The Ultimate Zidane Headbutt Video' was the quickest video ever to 1,000,000 views. Still today, the video has had to be re-uploaded three times, and each successive version got even more hits. The Headbutt will always define football in the 2000s, the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and sadly, part of Zinedine Zidane epic career.


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The Ultimate Zidane Headbutt Video, the Youtube Sensation

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.