Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Annoyance is Your Gain - A World Cup Preview of Sorts, Part I

I had a 4:39 flight from Chicago to Atlanta today. I arrived at the airport at 2:45 after my meeting wrapped up early and was thrilled to find out that there was a 3:15 flight with room. I was less than thrilled when I arrived at the gate at 2:55 and was told by the harried, unapologetic AirTran serf working the gate that she couldn't put me on the earlier flight, not because there was no room, but because she had a number of changes to put into the computer and the doors were about to close. I tried pointing out that the doors were only supposed to close ten minutes before the flight. I tried pointing out that she could make her precious computer entries after the flight left. I even invoked the Magna Carta. No luck. (Little do they know that I shall have my vengeance in this life or the next...or by ordering a bevy on drinks in Business Class and pulling an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Pray for me.) Now, my 4:39 flight has already been delayed to 4:55, so I'm left here at the gate with a laptop, a WiFi connection, World Soccer's World Cup preview, Ryno's request that I do a World Cup preview, and a sense of obligation to pick up where LD left off. As the inscription in the Montreal Canadiens' locker room goes, "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."

1. I've found World Cup Blog to be a good source for news over the past few weeks. There's not a whole lot of analysis or commentary, but there are good links for just about every team, which is a welcome break from Soccernet's regular hyperventilation about Wayne Rooney's foot boo-boo. For instance, I found this interesting article on World Cup myths there. I've come around to the belief that penalty kicks are not a lottery. They reward teams with confidence and good keepers. That said, given the icy reaction from Andrea when I bounced my estimated soccer consumption during El Mundial off her during the Braves game on Monday, I can't agree with this statement:

"The World Cup is a male party. It turns women into soccer widows."

This is decreasingly true. In countries that have only recently embraced football – Japan, the US, even France – women are often as keen as men.

I also don't like the jibe at Johan Cruyff at the end, since he's absolutely right that the '74 Oranje are far more beloved in retrospect than the West Germans who conquered them in Munich in the '74 Final. I'm a soft spot for this argument, especially since I've used a very similar one in an attempt to re-write the victor of the 1993 NCAA Basketball Final.

2. I am inevitably an England skeptic. Maybe it's because I've been burned too many times by seeing overhyped players like Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham never deliver the goods. Maybe I have never gotten past the association between the English and Heysel (or any one of a number of ugly riots). Maybe my oppositional sense forbids me from rooting for a team that most American fans support as a second favorite team. Maybe the gap between England's perceived place as one of the superpowers in world football and its actual record - one World Cup (won at home 40 years ago on a goal that absolutely, positively did not cross the line), no European Championships, and no berths in a major final since '66 - irks me. Anyway, my Anglophobia is in full bloom. Why? Let me list the reasons:

a. Their starting keeper is an average starter in the Premiership. Their back-up is nicknamed "Calamity." Their third-stringer, until this week, doesn't even play in the Premiership. And English fans wonder why they never win shootouts. Contrast them with a team like Spain, who is leaving the Champions League-winning keeper at home. Or Brazil, who has a three-way battle for the starting spot (or would if Parreira wasn't in love with Dida). Or Germany, whose #3 is probably the best keeper in the Bundesliga. Or France, whose #3 is the very capable Mickael Landreau.

b. They apparently have only two good strikers in the whole country, since the solution to Wayne Rooney's injury is apparently to bump their best central midfielder into attack. Or play Peter Crouch. Good luck with that.

c. Their options at defensive midfield are either a guy who can't get off the bench at Bayern Munich or a Tottenham midfielder. Good luck with that, too.

d. Their head coach has been fired before the tournament has even started. I'm sure he'll command great respect from his players.

England will advance because they are in a weak group and are slotted to play a survivor from another weak group in the first knock-out round, then they'll lose in some sort of bizarre circumstance (probably after blowing a lead, as has been their pattern under Sven), and they'll cross back over the Channel muttering about their bad luck yet again.

3. Is is possible to write an article about Germany without referring to their "traditional footballing virtues"? Is there any other team in the world that gets this treatment? And it's always a condescending way for the English to dismiss the fact that the Germans win so much more than they do, since "traditional German footballing virtues" are fitness and commitment to victory. It would pain the English to admit that the Germans have better players, so they have to chalk their success up to more minutes on the treadmill.

4. Speaking of traditional German virtues, I have an on-going debate with my boss at work about whether the German Tiger or Panther tanks were better than the Soviet T-34. (And who says that lawyers don't have fun?) My argument is that the Panzers were technically better than the T-34, but they suffered from typical German over-engineering. In comparison to the simple, durable, well-armed T-34 that could be mass produced, the Tiger and Panther were too complicated, used too many different parts, and as a result were often out of commission and therefore useless. How does this relate to the World Cup? Take a look at Allianz Arena, the new stadium in Munich, and tell me that I'm not right about German over-engineering:

5. Want a good dark horse? Meet Australia. They're coached by Guus Hiddink, who has only taken South Korea to the World Cup semis and then PSV to the Champions League semis in the past four years. (He also got the Dutch to the semis in '98, their best showing in the World Cup since losing the '74 and '78 finals.) They have a team full of players with Premiership experience, led by an in-form Harry Kewell. And most importantly, they are drawn in a group with Croatia and Japan, both of whom are eminently beatable for the Aussies. Japan are going to find life a little tougher away from home (and I bet the Germans will still be bitter about that whole “not opening a second front in Siberia” in late 1941). Croatia? Well, according to World Soccer, Dado Prso is their only world class player. Alrighty then.

6. A few obligatory words about Brazil, the presumptive favorite. The conventional wisdom is that: (1) they’re clearly the best team in the world; (2) their best players are off-form (Ronaldo, Adriano, Dida, and Emerson), tired (Ronaldinho), or just plain old (Cafu and Roberto Carlos); (3) they don’t do that well as favorites or in Europe. Let’s break those down. They definitely have the best depth of talent at this World Cup, as they have to leave a bevy of quality players (Juninho, Robinho, Cris, Cicinho, Luisao, and Gilberto Silva) on the bench. That said, I’m not totally sold that their talent is that much better. Ronaldo is on the downward slope of his career. Adriano? Not consistent enough for my tastes. Kaka is inconsistent, as any Milan fan will tell you. And it’s absolute sacrilege for me to say this as a Barca fan, but Ronaldinho isn’t in the best form right now. As I’ve said over and over again, his shooting has been off-form in 2006. He also isn’t quite the dribbler he was before, probably because many of his tricks have been scouted by now. His passing is still sublime and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being a strong player who can’t be knocked off the ball. Overall, he’s still the best player in the world for my money, but in terms of form, he isn’t the best player in the world in June 2006 (unless he picks things up after having had a little time off). As far as the Europe thing goes, that might be one of the real canards in the lead-up to this summer. Maybe the location of the tournament mattered when Brazil’s players were all domestic, but their whole team plays in Europe. The climate and the location are not going to affect them. And look at their results in Europe. They lost the Final in ’98 after Ronaldo had a seizure, they got knocked out at Italia ’90 despite absolutely dominating Argentina, and they lost to Italy in ’82 in a classic de facto quarterfinal. Those aren’t bad performances.

More to come once I get some more free time.


Ed said...

Sorry to write off-topic, but wasn't last night's Braves' game the perfect way to end the first third of the season? Suspect managerial decisions, the bullpen unable to hold the opposition, unearned runs, and another 1-run loss....welcome to 2006 Braves' baseball!

I'm really, really starting to become concerned that the closer situation is going to be the undoing of this team. It isn't simply that the Braves don't have a reliable closer. It's also that the Braves have a manager who so obviously doesn't have faith in his bullpen that he is starting to make really questionable decisions regarding his starters.

His decision to pitch Sosa into the 8th a few nights ago was unprecedented. He has extended Smoltz to a degree that is really troubling for a pitcher his age.

And now last night....there was no reason in the world that Ramirez should have pitched in the 8th. He was making just his second start off the DL; he's a guy who has had a recent history of pitching poorly and has a demeanor that gives the impression of shaky confidence; he had just dodged a bullet in the 7th; he was pushing 100 pitches. On and On.

No way does Cox leave him in if he believes in the guys he has in the pen. And the result is another close loss.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I actually picked England to finish second behind Paraguay in it's group.