World Cup for Beginners (14)

The World Cup season has begun! Even if you don’t follow soccer (aka ‘football’ to the rest of the world), you have no doubt begun seeing ads, commercials, TV spots, and, of course, numerous Tweets and Facebook references to the most popular sport tournament in the world. According to FIFA (the organization that governs the World Cup), at least 1 billion people watched some of the World Cup in South Africa 2010 and more than twice that many are expected to watch Brazil 2014. That’s a lot of fans. Americans may make up one of the smallest percentages among fans, but the numbers grow with each World Cup. In the last few weeks, I’ve had some friends and colleagues ask me about some of the basics. They follow soccer only every four years and it’s hard to remember all the details. So here is, my friends, a cheat sheet for all of you who are either new to the World Cup or need a refresher course.

  • Numbers

o   23 players per team: 11 on the pitch (field), 3 substitutes allowed

o   32 countries compete (host qualifies automatically)

o   8 groups with 4 teams each

o   32 days: June 12-July 13

o   64 games total

  • Match organization

o   Each team plays the other three teams in the group

o   A win earns the team 3 points, a draw 1 point, a loss, of course, 0 points

o   Top two teams in each group go to the knock-out phase (16 teams)

o   The #1 team in a group plays the #2 team in another group (group match-ups are determined before the competition)

o   After the first knock-out round, it goes to quarter-finals, semi-finals (the losers then play for the #3 place), and then the final on July 13 (a Sunday)

  • Contenders

o  Defending champions Spain (best team over the last 6 years)

o  Host country Brazil (huge home advantage)

o  Brazil’s archrival Argentina ‘

o  Germany, always a contender

o  Outside chance: Belgium, the Netherlands, Uruguay

  • Who’s who?

o  Neymar (Brazil) is being billed as the next big superstar – a lot of pressure for his 22-year-old shoulders

o  Lionel Messi (Argentina) is considered the top player in the world (except by Ronaldo fans)

o  Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) is considered the top player in the world (except by Messi fans)

o  Luis Suarez (Uruguay) is one of the top players, but he’s controversial (a biter)

  • What about the USA?

o  Group G is a pretty tough group for the USA (#13): Germany (#2), Portugal (#4), and Ghana (#37).

o  While the USA should beat Ghana if you go by rankings, Ghana has kicked the USA out of the World Cup the last two tournaments, so rankings aren’t the be all end all.

o  Biggest shock: Landon Donovan didn’t make the team.

o  Biggest bummer: Manager Jürgen Klinsmann repeating that the USA cannot win the World Cup because it isn’t good enough (yet). We know that, the players know that, but still, not exactly motivating.

There’s a whole lot more I could say about the World Cup – history, trivia, gossip – but the main thing is to watch the games. I’ll save the gossip for another day!

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The journey to Brazil 2014—Are we there yet? (13)

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We are almost there. In fact, quite a few countries are already there. Just one more round of play-offs and the roster of the 32 countries competing in the 2014 World Cup will be finalized. This past international break was quite entertaining, unless of course, your country didn’t qualify or even make the play-offs. Then it was heartbreaking. So where are we?

Let’s start close to home – CONCACAF. ( Just a reminder what this clumsy acronym means: Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.) The top three teams qualify automatically and the fourth heads to the play-offs against New Zealand. By the final game, the USA (#1) and Costa Rica (#2) had already qualified and Honduras looked secure as #3. This was the last chance to qualify for the play-off spot, so the final game was tense for both Panama (#4) and Mexico (#5). Mexico, with a brand new manager after the fiasco of the Gold Cup, had to draw or win against Costa Rica or have the USA beat Panama for any chance at all of going to the World Cup. By the second half, Costa Rica was beating Mexico and Panama was beating the USA – hope for Panama, a disaster for Mexico. Then USA equalized, then Panama scored again. Suddenly, in the very last minutes of overtime, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson each scored to bring victory to the USA, hope to Mexico, and heartbreak to Panama. Mexico fans were cheering (though their team lost) and chanting USA! USA! Mexican fans flooded Twitter thanking the USA for winning and the USA tweeted ‘de nada’ (you’re welcome).  Commentators for Mexico began thanking, even praising the USA team (now there’s a first) and Mexican newspaper headlines the next day were full of gratitude and love for the USA team (did you ever think you’d see that?). So now Mexico gets a last-minute chance to play New Zealand (winner of the Oceania group, yes, there’s an Oceania group) for a coveted spot in the World Cup. Oh yes, and Mexico got a new manager again after the fiasco of World Cup qualifiers.

As for the rest of the world, Brazil automatically qualifies as they host, and Argentina, Chile, Columbia, and Ecuador had made it through. Uruguay has a play-off with Jordan from the Asia group (who made up these crazy play-offs?) and the winner will head to Brazil. Over in the Asia group, Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Australia qualified. Africa, who gets five spots, still has a round to go in mid-November before knowing who will compete. Europe has the most spots (soooo many countries, even more after post-cold war Europe subdivided, like ten times) and so far the Netherlands, Italy, England, Germany, Russian, Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina (World Cup virgins!), Switzerland, and Belgium have qualified automatically. Eight European teams head into the play-offs, including Portugal, who boasts one of the world’s best players, Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal plays Sweden, who also has a very talented player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ukraine plays France, who is hoping to qualify but not implode as they did in South Africa 2010. Greece plays Romania, and Iceland, who are thrilled to have made it this far, play Croatia. I’d like to see Iceland make it and hear how the commentators handle names like Eidur Gudjohnsen,  Gylfi Sigurdsson, and  Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. So there you have it. The journey to Brazil 2014 is almost over. Soon you can stop asking “Are we there yet?”

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And we’re off! (12)

It was a long, long summer for many of us soccer fans, but the European soccer season is finally off and running. In fact, we’re already into the drama that makes the season so much fun (unless, of course, your team is on the wrong side of it). The Barclay’s Premier League has even had the first manager firing, Paolo Di Canio, now former manager of Sunderland. The transfers are finished – not too many biggies outside of the astronomical transfer fee that Real Madrid paid for the Wales international and now former Tottenham footballer, Gareth Bale, and the sale of the excellent Germany international, Mesut Özil, to Arsenal. This last transfer may have been more shocking in that Arsene Wenger, an economist by training and nature, dug in his pockets to spend big bucks on a top player.

Despite all this, it seems like the English press has been more interested in all the new managers than players. A few have switched clubs –  Roberto Martinez left his relegated Wigan for the smaller Liverpool club, Everton – and some former BPL managers show up again with their newly-promoted Championship league clubs. The top three (of last season) BPL clubs have new managers. Sir Alex Ferguson handpicked a fellow Scot, David Moyes, to lead Manchester United. Manchester City replaced their Italian manager with a Chilean manager, Manuel Pelligrini. And the Portuguese Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea and a standing ovation from the fans, who are hoping that the revolving door of managers will stop revolving for a while.

Unlike the seasons for American football, basketball, baseball, or soccer, the European soccer season runs over nine months long, not including pre-season games. Each club plays each other twice, once at home and once away. Depending on how many clubs the league has, that can be up to 38 games each for 18-20 clubs. Then there are the various league and cup competitions throughout the season and for the top clubs, add in some Europa or Champions League games. That’s a lot of games, even spread over nine months. Injuries happen and there’s a second chance for transfers in January to refresh the club, if needed or desired.

Like other soccer addicts, I mean fans, I follow games every weekend for nine months and then go into withdrawal come end of May, or after the Champions League final. The games are aired mostly live from Europe, which means mornings and early afternoons here in the USA. Games are sometimes played mid-day and mid-week, too, which is why a DVR is a necessity, not luxury, for me.  Every Saturday and Sunday, I wake up to games being recorded on my DVR from 6:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., more or less. Mostly I watch in the comfort of my living room, during breakfast and in my PJs. Sometimes I gather the energy to get out of the house and meet up with my fellow support club members, the Austin Blues, at a local bar. I don’t usually feel like having a beer at 9:30 in the morning, but it’s definitely more fun cheering your club on with other fans. So after a summer of intermittent international matches or pre-season friendlies, I can now settle into my soccer-watching routine. The ball is round and life is good.

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Posted in Arsenal, Austin Blues, Barclays Premier League (BPL), Champions League, Chelsea Football Club, David Moyes, Europa League, Everton, Jose Mourinho, Manchester City, Manchester United, Mark Hughes, Real Madrid, Sir Alex Ferguson, Soccer Fan, Sunderland, Tottenham, Uncategorized, Wigan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Final Whistle (11)

Another soccer season is over. Done. Finito. I speak, of course, of the European soccer season, which is the most important one from my point of view. The American MLS plays over the summer, but it’s a weak substitute for the top European leagues. It’s a long stretch until the season begins. No Euros. No World Cup. Yes, there are some friendlies and qualifiers, a few other competitions, but generally speaking, the hours I spend soccer-viewing will be empty for the next few months. There will be no reason to get up at 6:30 to watch the first game, live from England. What will I do with all that free time on weekend mornings?

How did the season go, you might ask? It depends, of course, on which club you follow. There weren’t too many surprises this past season. Manchester United took back the BPL title as it so often has. Along with ManU, both Chelsea and Arsenal retained their Champions League qualifying spots, though it was touch and go for a while before Arsenal edged out Tottenham on the last game day. One of the newly promoted teams, Reading, went right back down to the lower league. Perhaps one surprise was that #18 Wigan beat #2 in the league, Manchester City, to win the FA Cup. Then they were relegated. Over the season, 38 league games were played, players got red and yellow cards, and one player lost control and bit another player from a rival club. Passion? Yes! A little crazy, too.

The biggest news may well have been about club managers, more specifically Sir Alex Ferguson, who finally decided to retire after 27 years of running Manchester United. Some people thought he’d never go, but I guess at 71, SAF thought the time had come. His influence will be felt for some time to come, though, and he pushed hard for his successor to be a fellow Scot, David Moyes. The other big managerial news was the return of ‘the special one’ – Jose Mourinho. The fans always loved him and no one has matched his winning record, so this news was greeted with cheers around the world of Chelsea followers. The sports journalists cheered, too. They love Jose’s strong personality; he always creates a buzz around him, and that sells papers. I’m sure they hope he’ll stick around, but only time will tell if he’ll last longer than the succession of managers between his first and second reign at the club.

As for the other leagues, Spain’s Barcelona FC won back the title and cleared 15 points above Real Madrid, who struggled for much of the season behind their local rival, Atletico Madrid. Big spenders Paris Saint-Germain, where David Beckham landed for half a season before retiring, won in France. Powerhouse Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga and Juventus won the Serie A in Italy. The European competitions consisted mostly of the usual clubs vying for top spots. Scotland’s Celtic boasted a historic win over Barcelona during the early stages, bringing Celtic fans to their feet and Rod Stewart to tears of joy. Reigning Champions League winner Chelsea unexpectedly did not make it out of group play in the Champions League and dropped to the lower European competition, the Europa League, where they regrouped and then went on to win it. The Champions League said ‘adios’ to the top Spanish clubs and ended, surprisingly, with an all-German final. Bayern had made it to the finals twice in the previous three years only to lose. Three times the charm, though, and they finally got to take home the biggest prize, the ‘trophy with the big ears.’  From August to May we soccer fans are glued to the TV and Internet, watching the games and following the news. It’s time to step away now, take a break, find something else to do for a couple of months. But we’ll still be counting the days until the season starts up again in August.

Posted in Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Barclays Premier League (BPL), Bayern Munich, Champions League, Chelsea FC, Chelsea Football Club, David Beckham, David Moyes, Europa League, FA Cup, Jose Mourinho, La Liga, Major League Soccer, Manchester City, Manchester United, Queen's Park Rangers-QPR, Real Madrid, Sir Alex Ferguson, Soccer Fan, Tottenham Hotspurs, Wigan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clint Dempsey – Playing in the shadows (10)

If you asked the average American who the best U.S. male soccer player was (and if that American had any inkling of soccer), most likely the answer would be – Landon Donovan. Donovan has been the public face of American soccer for some years now, but as most people know, even those not savvy about soccer, the really great soccer players don’t play here at home in the United States. They play with the big boys of soccer [aka football] in Europe. Donovan plays for L.A. Galaxy and has never been a permanent member of a European club (though he has been on loan a few times) and maybe if he were, he would deserve the title of best player. But until then, I think the roster of best players must go to those who play for the top clubs in European leagues.

In the English league we have two top goalkeepers, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel, and one top midfielder, Clint Dempsey. (We have several good upcoming players as well, but they are for the future, not today.) American goalkeepers have a fairly good reputation in England, but nothing grabs attention like a scorer and Dempsey has scored a lot of goals. In fact, during the 2011-12 season, Dempsey came in as the #4 goal scorer of the league. Only Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Sergei Aguero scored more – all top world players! It’s not that Dempsey doesn’t have fans; he does. But I haven’t seen him on a late night talk show or the morning news ones, though I have seen Donovan. It can’t be due to personality because Donovan doesn’t exude a lot of charisma (no offense, I don’t have anything against the guy, but he speaks with no expression whatsoever). No, Dempsey just focuses on his game, keeps his feet on the ground, and continues to score in the Barclays Premier League, one of the top leagues in the world.

This past summer Dempsey got a lot of attention in England – for an American player, that is. It was transfer season and rumors were flying that Dempsey, who was currently playing for Fulham (a nice little club, but not a BIG club), would be going to Liverpool. Now, Liverpool hasn’t been up to its famed form the last few years, but it’s still a BIG club. The Liverpool website even mentioned Dempsey before it was hastily taken down. Seems somebody jumped the transfer gun. Liverpool had not signed Dempsey . . . yet. I desperately wanted Dempsey to go to some BIG club because I knew it would be good for him and the U.S. national team. Every day I scanned the soccer websites and listened to Sky Sports hoping for an announcement.

The saga of Dempsey lasted off and on during the July-August transfer season until the very last day, to the very last hours. Then it finally came out – Tottenham Hotspurs had signed him. Tottenham is a good team and would have been playing in the Champions League competition if they hadn’t been bumped by Chelsea FC, who had won the competition the previous year (for which I’m glad as I’m a Chelsea fan, sorry Clint). Still, Tottenham is considered a fairly BIG team and a definite move up for Dempsey. It doesn’t hurt that the U.S. national team manager Jürgen Klinsmann, had played for Tottenham in the past. Dempsey has already scored some nice goals, and while not the star player on the team, he’s pulled his weight. He also continues to score for the U.S. national team. Lately, Donovan has gone through some injuries and even hinted at leaving soccer in the near future. Perhaps then the American public will pay more attention to the Texan going about his business, playing and scoring goals in England.

Posted in Barclays Premier League (BPL), Clint Dempsey, Fulham, Jürgen Klinsmann, L.A. Galaxy, Landon Donovan, Liverpool, Major League Soccer, Tottenham, Tottenham Hotspurs, U.S. Men's National Soccer Team | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Greening of the World’s Most Popular Sport (9)

As an avid soccer fan, I watched Euro 2012 last summer (second most important international tournament after the World Cup) and read all the news associated with it. One article caught my attention because it criticized the tournament’s environmental impact.  The co-hosting countries were Poland and Ukraine, and games were held throughout the two countries, which meant a lot of travelling between cities.  Fans usually traveled by car, bus, or train, but the 16 teams mostly flew. That’s a big carbon footprint for three weeks. I began to wonder how the governing soccer organizations handled this criticism or if they even cared.  Turns out, they care a lot.

In the USA, Major League Soccer (MLS) has an Annual Greener Goals Week to increase awareness on environmental issues within the soccer community. “Major League Soccer is committed to environmental sustainability,” said JoAnn Neale, Executive Vice President of MLS. MLS clubs throughout the USA and Canada work with local groups to educate and participate in various community projects to clean up the environment.  Soccer clubs in England are energy-conscious as well. Ipswich Town became the first soccer club in the UK to become carbon neutral.  Manchester City has created its own energy source by building wind turbines and recycle over 90% of everything they use, including all the debris (glass bottles, plastic cups, etc.) left in the stadiums. Not all clubs are this eco-friendly yet, but many work at reducing their carbon footprint in some way or other.

FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the association that organizes the World Cup, is also serious about reducing soccer’s carbon footprint, and to that end, their new headquarters in Zűrich is a zero emissions building. As you can imagine, a World Cup tournament has a huge carbon footprint, but FIFA works with local associations in the host countries to offset the tournament’s impact on the environment in a variety of ways. For example, for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA invested in solar energy, tree-planting, and carbon offsetting projects in South Africa like replacing coal-powered stoves with solar-powered grills. They also work with many local communities to increase education about environmental issues. Some of the stadiums in Brazil (2014 World Cup) will be powered by solar energy and FIFA continues to work with local associations there to maximize sustainability.

Soccer and other sports do, of course, impact the environment. Any time people travel for an event does. That won’t stop fans from attending soccer matches, no matter how many news stories abound about global warming, pollution, and carbon footprints. But while soccer tournaments may not be 100% green yet, I’m glad to know that they are working towards that goal.

Posted in Barclays Premier League (BPL), Environment and Soccer, Euro 2012, FIFA, Ipswich Town, Major League Soccer (MLS), Manchester City, World Cup | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Twelfth Man (8)

Some say the striker is the most important, some say the goalkeeper, and others the midfielder, but there’s no denying the importance of the twelfth man at a soccer match. It’s the fans who make the difference between a home and away game, who motivate the players, and who drive the atmosphere in the stadium. They sing, they chant, they yell and clap, they bring signs and banners, and sometimes they dress up in ridiculous outfits to show their devotion to their club. But fans can also bring a negative vibe. I’m not talking about violence or racism, serious as they can be. I’m talking about fan loyalty and fan hatred. Hell hath no fury like a fan scorned!

Back in November two managers lost their jobs. One club’s fans were thrilled; the other club’s fans were furious. Queen Park Rangers went into their second season in the Premier League with a poor record, which continued to be poor despite the millions spent to bring in good players. The manager, Mark Hughes, could not find a way to bring out the best from the team. They remained at the very bottom of the table for weeks and then months. Soon fans began booing the team and the manager. Signs began to appear in the stands and chants were heard:  We want Harry!  Harry, come save us! Harry Redknapp (aka ‘Harry Houdini’ because he seems to have the magic touch in bringing clubs up) had been fired from Tottenham Hotspurs in May, despite having brought them from the brink of relegation up to Champions League qualification in less than two years. But that’s the way it goes in sports. He was out of a job and the QPR fans wanted him. Eventually the club did hire him, and while Harry hasn’t been the quite the Houdini the fans hoped he would be, QPR has finally begun to win a game here and there. The fans love him (so far).

Chelsea FC is another case altogether. Most of the fans loved their manager, Roberto Di Matteo, a former Chelsea star player, previous backroom staffer, and finally, the one in charge. Now anyone who follows Chelsea, or the Premier League for that matter, knows that the manager’s door there is a revolving one. Numerous managers have come and gone since the Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, bought the club. Last year he brought in the up and coming manager Andres Villas-Boas to rejuvenate an aging team. When the club went through a losing spell, out when AVB and the next in line, Di Matteo, became interim manager. He then led the club not only to an FA [Football Association] victory but to the biggest club prize of all: the Champions League trophy. The ‘interim’ was removed and Di Matteo was made manager. Until the next losing spell. Out he went, to the great dismay of the fans, and Abramovich hired Rafael Benitez, former Liverpool manager. The fans went ballistic. They hated him (and most still do). Benitez had made disparaging remarks about Chelsea fans at one time, and the memory of the twelfth man is that of an elephant. Benitez has been booed at home games and signs mocking him and calling for his dismissal continue show up. A few hoped that Benitez would help Fernando Torres get back his ‘Liverpool form,’ when Torres had scores of goals. When Torres continued to struggle, many of the Chelsea fans lost faith in him, too. Torres got booed. The fans are unhappy and the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s stadium, is reportedly often negative.

Why should it matter what the fans do? Well, teams generally win more games at home in front of their fans than away, but recently Chelsea has won more games away than at home. Sports pundits have begun to comment on this and speculate that the negative fan reactions to the manager and the featured striker are taking its toll. Fans do matter. Their chants and singing can get the players going. Signs of support in good times and bad help the team believe in themselves. They pay good money for tickets and caps and shirts and all the other club paraphernalia. The fans are the backbone of any club, and in the end, without the twelfth man in the stands, there wouldn’t be eleven players playing on the pitch.

Posted in Andres Villas Boas, Andres Villas Boas, Chelsea Football Club, Fernando Torres, Harry Redknapp, Harry Redknapp, Managers, Mark Hughes, Mark Hughes, Queen's Park Rangers-QPR, Rafa Benitez, Rafa Benitez, Roberto Di Matteo, Roberto Di Matteo, Roman Abramovich, Soccer Fan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment