Friday, June 27, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: As It Enters the Knockout Stage, Jordan & Paolo Assess a World Cup Worth Sinking Your Teeth Into

Prior to the start of the 2014 World Cup, I posted a preview that predominantly included the insights of my soccer-loving friends Jordan and Paolo.

Now that the Group Stage has concluded and 16 teams--including the U.S.--have made it to the Knockout Stage (played in a one-and-done tournament format), I thought I'd get their assessments and perhaps revised predictions, while sharing some of mine.

Of the 48 games played in the Group Stage, I watched 16 of them, and followed most of the results, but Jordan has seen them all except one, and Paolo has seen most of the major ones.

I've largely been impressed, though--as seeps into some of my conversational-type questions here--I have been troubled by certain aspects, and not just Luis Suarez' biting incident, which I imagine has united the entire world in condemnation.

So rather than pontificate any further myself, I'll simply provide below the e-mail-based trialogue.

1. What are your thoughts on the World Cup so far? Mine, likely not uncommon, are that it's largely been great--good games throughout, several superb goals, surprises among teams that have been really good, good but not advancing and pretty bad, etc.--but marred significantly by the Suarez biting incident and some poor refereeing.  

Jordan: This World Cup has been fantastic. There have only been a handful of sub-par games. I've watched every game live except Spain-Australia.

Paolo: The play of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL has shown that the Americas have loads of talent, and a lot of it is playing in Europe but also in the Mexican league and even in MLS.

The new disappearing chalk that is being used to demarcate where the wall should stand and where the
ball should be on free kicks. Brilliant idea and not sure why it hasn't been used before. Also worthy to note that the ball has NOT been a distraction like it was in South Africa in 2010 and also that the vuvuzela has not really been replaced (although the Brazilians have something similar).
  
2. Weird things often seem to happen in the World Cup--e.g. the Zidane headbutt in 2006, handballs affecting games, etc.--but the cream of the crop (in terms of teams) frequently rise to the top nonetheless. Yet, for me--and I was no great fan of them coming in--what happened to Italy (knocked out by Uruguay after losing a player to a red card, the at-the-time non-penalized Suarez bite, a goal by Uruguay's Godin who arguably should have been red-carded against England and therefore not playing, the WC end for stars like Buffon and Pirlo) casts a bit of a pall over the rest of the Cup. How do you feel?

Jordan: Nah. No pall. Yeah, Italy got pretty screwed by a very debatable red card, Godin not getting a second yellow against England in the previous game, and the referee not seeing Suarez try to take a chunk out of Chiellini's shoulder, but as you note in your first question there were several bad decisions made by the referees throughout the group stage. Maybe Italy got it worse than others and maybe I would feel a little differently if I thought Italy was playing well but aside from being okay against England I didn't think they offered very much.

Paolo: The World Cup is a global celebration of the world's most popular game and also indirectly of our cultures. I find it fascinating to see how fans dress and cheer on their teams. So no pall.

But the Suarez incident, and some poor refereeing have impacted a few games. The Italians got screwed. 

3. Luis Suarez has now been banned by FIFA for the rest of the World Cup and beyond, for a total of 4 months (and 9 international games). Is this just? Should it have been worse?

Jordan: I don't know exactly what the scope of FIFA's authority is and I think I have heard some talk that they may be overreaching by suspending him from Premier League games for Liverpool. We'll have to wait and see about that.

I don't know if it's enough of a punishment. How many times can he be allowed to bite people? If he continues biting people at this rate he will next bite someone on January 18th, 2015 and by August 3rd, 2015 he will be biting a person every day. (Credit for those calculations goes to these tweets from Bootiful Game: 1, 2)

He needs to stop biting people but I've seen no evidence that he is going to. (Here is Suarez' lame defense of the incident, which was a particular shame given how well he showed against England, scoring 2 goals just a month removed from knee surgery.)

Paolo: I applaud FIFA for handing down a stiff sanction. Suarez has issues. I'm worried because Barcelona has been looking to add him. 

4. Let's talk about the U.S.A., who have advanced to the knockout stage. I didn't see the Ghana match, but heard the U.S. was outplayed despite winning; they were better than Portugal, but gave up a stunning goal to settle for a draw. They lost to powerhouse Germany--in the rain after playing in stifling Manaus--but surprisingly made it through the "Group of Death." Assess their play, success, chances and any revised world stature.

Jordan: You heard right about the Ghana game but part of the reason that game may have unfolded the way it did was due to Dempsey's goal in the first minute. The U.S. wasn't very good and Michael Bradley had the worst game I think I've ever seen him have. They were better against Portugal but Portugal was well below full strength and also not in good form. Germany didn't look great against them but they still seemed very dangerous and on a different level. Maybe Germany just felt like they didn't need to do too much more than they did.

I'm not trying to take away any credit (even though as I read what I just wrote it may seem that way). The U.S. fully deserved to advance. As for their chance against Belgium, they certainly have a chance. Belgium won all three of their games but did not look great in their first two. (In their third game they rested about half of their first team so I'm not really counting that one.) I do remember the U.S. playing Belgium in a friendly in May of 2013 in Cleveland and Belgium really smoked the U.S. 4-2 (you can read about that game here). The lineups will not be exactly the same when they play on July 1st, and Belgium is missing their star striker Chistian Benteke while the U.S. is missing Jozy Altidore. You can read about that game here:

If Belgium plays well I don't think the U.S. can beat them. I give the U.S. about a 30% chance of winning.

Paolo: The U.S. should be proud of advancing out of the Group of Death and making the knockout round for the second straight cup. They lost by a goal to the number 2 team in the world (Germany), and tied the number 4 team (Portugal). They said they had to beat Ghana and they did. They still haven't played a complete game, and I predict they will against Belgium. On paper Belgium wins, but who doesn't love an underdog better than Americans?

I say they shock everyone, beat Belgium and meet Argentina in the Quarters. There, however, the dream ends... but (Coach Jürgen) Klinsmann chose a young squad thinking about the next World Cup. I think the U.S. continues to make huge strides and wouldn't be surprised with a quarterfinal appearance in 2018. 

5. To paraphrase My Fair Lady, why has the reign of Spain gone mainly down the drain?

Jordan: Spain just finished an era of unprecedented dominance but their core players have gotten older. Their central defense especially was lacking. They also played two of the best teams in the world in their first two games. They have a lot of very good young players and there is no reason why they shouldn't be among the best teams again very soon.

Paolo: Spain's dominance over 8 years is unmatched in European football. Two Euro Championships sandwiched around the World Cup make them team for the ages and the tiki-taca football they invented is now used by many. But they got old, seemingly overnight. Casillas was a mistake in goal and the defense just plain didn't show up. But new blood is on the way and Spain will remain a world power. 

6. Which teams have impressed you, not just in advancing, but in the way they played. Jordan, I know you liked how Australia showed, even though they wound up with 0 points in the group stage.

Jordan: I was expecting Australia to get crushed but they were great in their first two games against Chile and the Netherlands (the same teams that Spain played). They easily could have drawn both of those. France was mostly awesome. Colombia was great and very entertaining, scoring some of the best goals so far. Costa Rica surprised me (and pretty much everyone) and was really solid.

Paolo: No one has looked AWESOME for all three games, but the Brazilians, Argentines, Germans, and Dutch look to be the most complete teams.

Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica have also impressed. And the Greeks and US and the Aussies showed some grit. Kudos to all of them. 

7. To my untrained eyes, no team has looked completely dominant. Obviously the Netherlands impressed against Spain, but not against Australia. Argentina went 3-0, but largely thanks to Messi and their defense seems suspect. Germany was strong but drew vs. Ghana. Brazil has been solid, but not awesome, and were fortunate to survive Croatia thanks to a terrible call. Costa Rica and Columbia were impressive, but probably far from favorites to win it all. How do you view the group stage play & results, and how it may foretell what happens in the knockout stage.

Jordan: Aside  from Spain getting knocked out the biggest surprises were probably Costa Rica, Greece, and Algeria advancing. France looked like a very, very good team.

Paolo: Agree. 

Follow match results at FIFA.com
8. 16 teams are now left in the tournament-style "knockout" stage. Who are your picks to advance to the semis, finals and win it all? I'll guess Brazil v Germany and Netherlands v Argentina. It can really go any way from there, but given the locale, would love to see Brazil play Argentina, with Neymar vs. Messi. I'd root for Argentina, but wouldn't be shocked if Netherlands or even Belgium were to beat them, let alone Brazil.

Jordan: I mostly agree. Even though Brazil have not been that good I can't pick against them. I wouldn't be that surprised though if they lost to Chile in the round of 16 or in their next game which I am guessing would be against Colombia. I think the Netherlands has the easiest route, playing Mexico (who I don't rate even though other people seem to like them) then, if they win that, would face the winner of Costa Rica-Greece. (I have heard the Netherlands have injury concerns with a bunch of their best players, including Robben, so that could affect things)

France looks so good (and don't look like they are going to implode) so maybe I would pick them to beat Germany and face Brazil in one semifinal, Argentina-Netherlands in the other. If I had to pick a winner I still think Brazil is the most likely. If I was going to pick a winner on how the teams look I'd take France. They have great depth as well.

Paolo: Seth, I think you have the 4 finalists. France looks better, but no way they beat Germany. 

9. Who have been the best players so far, and of those still in play, who should have the most impact? Besides strong play from Neymar (Brazil) and big goals by Messi (Argentina), I've been impressed by Robyn van Persie and Arjen Robben of the Netherlands, and Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa. But they've been pretty obvious, so feel free to go a good bit deeper.

Jordan: James Rodriguez from Colombia has been brilliant. Also on Colombia, Cuadrado and Jackson Martinez. And 38-year-old Mario Yepes on defense has been great. Mueller of Germany and Shaqiri of Switzerland each have a hat trick so they are kind of obvious. Benzema (France) has been excellent and is unlucky to not have more than three goals. Slimani, Halliche, and Feghouli on Algeria. Blind on Netherlands. Aranguiz and Diaz on Chile.

Paolo: Agree. 

10. Especially given the success of the U.S., and that of countries with large U.S. populations--Mexico, Germany, Greece, Dutch and others, it certainly seems like the World Cup is bigger in the United States now than throughout our lifetimes. Two questions related to this:

a) I've read about Americans complaining about games ending in ties, players flopping and/or faking injury and bad calls affecting outcomes. Will or should any of this impact future "football" fandom in the U.S.

Jordan: I don't know. If that's what people focus on not much can be done. I don't get what's wrong with a tie. They should have them in baseball. Sometimes the most representative result of a game is a tie. (And it's okay, you don't have to call it "football". The game is called soccer here (among other places)). 

Paolo: I think that the pendulum has swung in favor of soccer. Look at the crowds cheering the team on and it is obviously younger demographic. The old stuffy reporters who for decades have spoken about how much they hate the game, are being put out to pasture. Younger reporters who grew up around the sport understand its significance. 

Story at ChicagoTribune.com
b) It seems the media is speculating about the popularity of the World Cup spurring an increase in MLS popularity (there's a story on the front page of Thursday's Chicago Tribune but registration may be required to see it online). There seems to be plausibility in this, but the logic is a bit askew, as from what you've both previously imparted, MLS lags well behind the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and likely elsewhere in terms of fielding the world's truly elite players at the peak of their careers. This sense of "second-tier" play also differentiates MLS from MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. Please discuss.

Jordan: I hardly watch the MLS. The quality isn't great and I don't have any space left in my brain to follow it. There is just too much other (and better) soccer available to watch. That being said I wish I was able to see more of the league below the Premier League (called the Championship).

Paolo: Most of the U.S. squad and about another 15 or so members from other squads play in the MLS. While it is still not a European league, it is increasingly becoming a destination for players from Latin America. MLS will continue to grow as a result.  I'd also point out that teams playing well (France, Holland, Greece, Costa Rica, Mexico) have 2nd tier leagues as opposed to La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and the Premier League. While some of that talent does play in those leagues, a lot of it doesn't. They play in other leagues. 

11. Anything else you'd like to mention about what you've observed in World Cup 2014 so far, what you expect, what you've liked and hated, etc.?

Jordan: I expect the Brazil-Chile game to be a barn burner. In their last game against the Netherlands the Chile players did not cover themselves in glory with the way they conducted themselves. Brazil also has some players inclined to histrionics and I expect it to be a very difficult game to referee. England's Howard Webb will be the ref. Good luck.

It wouldn't be a World Cup without a team imploding and this year we have Ghana to thank. (Cameroon gets special mention as well) Ghana players threatened to strike unless they got their bonus payments in cash so Ghana's president flew $3,000,000 over to Brazil. Then, for whatever reason, Sulley Muntari physically attacked a Ghana official and was kicked off the team, as was Kevin Prince-Boateng for some type of verbal altercation.

Honduras was just trying to hurt people. Glad they're gone.

Outside of Spain, England, Ivory Coast, and Japan were very disappointing. Croatia and Bosnia generally did well but were unfortunate.

This has nothing to do with anything but two players have been kicked in the face. Dempsey got his nose broken and I don't believe a foul was even called. Von Bergen on Switzerland had his cheekbone/orbital bone broken (and is out of the World Cup) by a Giroud kick. In neither case was a card given when at a minimum a yellow was deserved and I don't know that a red would have been out of order.

One last note about the refereeing. I can complain about referees with the best of them but I think it should be remembered that it is a very difficult job. Many of the players, for lack of a better word, cheat. Ultimately they are the ones more to blame. It is one thing to exaggerate contact to draw attention to being fouled. It goes to a different level when players are trying to get an opponent carded. Then there is also the subject of pretending to be injured in order to waste time, which is also unsavory.

I'm not sure what the solution would be to cut down on that stuff. Diving is a whole other subject and in cases of diving I'm in favor of retrospective punishment. I know it is not always easy to conclusively prove a dive but sometimes they can (I'm looking at you, Fred), and when they can I think players should be suspended. I think that if the players knew that a suspension was a possibility it would at least somewhat curtail the diving.

Paolo: Hate the diving and shows of poor sportsmanship. Love the shows of solidarity and the time held tradition of trading jerseys with the team you just played.

Jordan brings up a good point about how blood can be drawn and no card be awarded? I also think that the goal line cam has been used well.

Well, there you have it. Thanks to Jordan and Paolo for all their great insights, provided quite expeditiously. Enjoy the rest of the World Cup even if your team doesn't "go to Rio."


1 comment:

Mike Hassy said...

Suarez has banned for 4-month is not new news for the soccer fans. But, the latest news is Suarez Bite on Fifa 2015 Game that seems very interesting. However, FIFA 2015 game developers have not officially announced it yet.