Way Off-topic… The World Cup, Soccer (football) and the U.S.

As most people have heard, the World Cup is over. Italy has won and a month-long tournament to choose the true WORLD champion of Soccer (outside the US football) is over. Thirty-two nations sent their teams to compete after a LONG qualifying process and of course, there are lot’s of individual stories that will be remembered. The main item that’s encouraged me to write this up is hearing someone on the radio talking about how boring a sport soccer is and how the U.S. will never care about it, and our top athletes are drawn to other sports… blah blah blah, “sport where no one scores” etc. Every caller that seemed to start into a rebuttal got talked over and good-bye’d… so I thought I’d use this post for a bit of a roundup.

Starting with the final. I don’t know what was said to Zidane to provoke the headbutt to the chest. But it was terribly disappointing to see such a world class player commit such a classless act and perhaps throw away his teams chance of winning the cup. I’ve read reports that he was called a “dirty terrorist” and fail to see how he thought a head butt to the chest would disprove or rebut that… Now – I know it was late in a LONG game – fatigue shortens the fuse immensely, and I’m sure that the shoulder injury he had earlier in the match and the just recently saved header that would have been the game winner…. that probably added to his frustration. Still, no excuse. Maybe he thought he didn’t have anything to lose (what is Fifa going to ban him from a few international matches? He’s already announced retirement.) If a U.S. player had done something like this I can only imagine the outcry of how violent the U.S. culture is and how this is evidence of the thuggery of our society. But…. I digress.

I missed the penalty that led to Zidane’s pk in the first half. I saw the penalty shot and it was very well done, confidence is the one word that comes to mind in seeing him face down the keeper. I did see Italy’s equalizer on a header off a corner kick. Fantastic corner kick and great header. Italy had another few good set pieces and looked VERY dangerous in stretches of the game. (Executed very well on the set plays.) Regulation, I thought France had the better chance the rest of the first half though. (And a good portion of overtime.) The potential go-ahead goal for Italy was called off due to the forward being off-sides in what I recall as a very close call. For Italy, I wondered what happened to Totti. He had been a real presence in previous Italy games, but was a non-factor. He might should have been subbed sooner.

On the Overtime rules. I REALLY dislike deciding the games on PK’s. I think it’s a cheap way to choose a winner. Golden Goal needs to be brought back. Also, realistically, I would like to see a rules change giving more sub’s in the overtime period. (No more than 3 additional substitutions.) But that would give teams an added boost when going into the overtime period. I think the fixed overtime + PK’s may encourage some teams to hang on defensively and wait for PK’s. Golden goal should force teams into a more offensive mindset. The extra subs would give fresh legs to help towards that end. It becomes more of a game of team depth that way too.

So, Italy wins their 4th World Cup. Being a US fan… I can’t say that Italy is my favorite (or even second or third favorite) for this, BUT… given the only other team to get a point out of them in the competition was the US…. I’ll claim it as a bit of consolation. (Ok – it was an own goal, I know…)

As far as athleticism … You really got to respect the fitness of players that run at full bore for at least 90-120 minutes with little more than a break midway. No timeouts, no tv timeouts, an occasional stoppage of play to check the status of an injured player, grab some water and keep running….

Yes, this world cup will be remembered for a few thuggish plays… the headbutt, the elbow to Brian McBride, (and probably a few other plays from that US game)… “The step” by Rooney (British player). I’m sure I haven’t hit ALL of them. But there will be some of the absolutely fantastic plays that will be remembered. Some of Zidane’s footwork in the Brazil game/and the Portugal game, beautiful. The pass to Henry for the goal against Brazil. Brazil’s Ronaldo’s nice fakeout of the goalkeeper and Ronaldo’s setting the record for most goals in World cup play. Whatever his play this cup, he will be remembered as one of the best forwards to play. Zidane will be remembered as one of the best midfielders as well. (Golden Ball winner as well for his performance over the tournament.)

There are certainly a number of stars that will be retiring other than Zidane from international play. It seems that each team had a number that it was suspected this would be their last chance at a World Cup and so it goes.

As for the US. Yes, I was disappointed in their performance. They were shell-shocked the first game. I was impressed with their grit the second game and didn’t get to see the disappointing finish against Ghana. One thing seems clear. The U.S. needed more offensive options. Coaching decisions will always be quibled with. Even for winning sides (ah yes, but they could have won bigger by…..) It seems that I’ve heard the most second guessing of Arena this time around than ever before in his career. I think in the position they were in a public calling out of the players was probably a calculated motivation attempt that seemed to work. It’s just unfortunate that the talent that we sent to Germany couldn’t have come up with at least a visit to the elimination round. I truly believe theirs was the true “group of death” this time around though. It should be noted that #2 in the world Czech Republic didn’t make it to the elimination round either. The US has now qualified for the last 5 World Cups which is no small feat. For almost 20 years the US has been building a development network and improving, refining the opportunities for players everywhere from the youth levels up to amatuer adult leagues.

Frankly, I think the prospects for US Men’s success in soccer is growing. The Women’s National team has already won the World Cup and I think the day will come when the US team does likewise. As the level of play in the MLS improves our “farm system” the proving and training ground for tomorrows national stars is being refined and improved. Already, I’ve read of international superstars with interest to come and play in MLS. Perhaps it isn’t yet a league on par with the great Premier League of England, the Bundesliga of Germany, Serie A of Italy, the Spanish league…. but they seem to be interested in improving the quality of play and I think the day will come that the MLS helps close the gap.

But what of spectatorship. One article I linked to suggested that viewership for the final rounds of the World Cup was up 75% in the US over the last Cup run and on Spanish language networks it was up over 100% from the last run. Certainly an increase in hispanic immigrants brings an increase in soccer. It makes sense that these recent immigrants are interested in following the sports that were so popular in their countries of origin. I’ve got to say that 75% growth in viewership is impressive. I’d love to be involved with most anything (other than debt) that was growing at that rate. I don’t know of any other sport in the US that is growing at such a rate.

Yes, many people see soccer as a boring sport. I see baseball as boring, and Nascar bores me too. Football and Basketball are more interesting. Although, I do find myself frustrated with the continual grind of stop/play/stop/play of football. I enjoy soccer because it is more free-flowing. Play continues. If there’s an injury the sportsmanlike think to do is kick the ball out of bounds until their tended to and then carry on when they’re off the field but the clock keeps ticking. The clock keeps ticking. I guess that’s it.

Hopefully this fall I’ll be watching DC United win another MLS cup and that league can continue to improve and grow. Let’s face it, we’re a big country, we’ve got room for quite a few great sports and I think we’ve got enough talent for all of them.

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