Where the Control At?

Jabulani Ball

Creative Commons License photo credit: Eustaquio Santimano

Right up there with the complaints about the vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup has been tsuris about the Adidas “Jabulani” ball, which was made specifically for this event. Every four years goalies complain about the new World Cup match balls, which have consistently been made to fly faster and to swerve more severely. Glen Levy quotes Cote D’Ivoire coach Sven-Goran Erikkson as saying FIFA should heed the concerns of keepers and field players, yet Levy ultimately concludes that the concern is nothing: the low scoring is due to playing at altitude and to overly-defensive strategies.

I’m not so sure. The ball seems to be affecting offensive play more significantly than defensive play. From the opening match the ball looked to me as though it was coming upon players more quickly than they expected, and that passes were outpacing recipients more than what I’m used to seeing in the football I watch. Goalies were concerned that shots taken from distance would dip and dive and move about unpredictably; but few shots from outside the box even seem to be finding the target.

I decided to crunch some numbers to see if there was any data to support what I thought I was seeing with my eyes. I’m no Nate Silver, though I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I compared selected ball control stats from the first sixteen games of this year’s Cup with those from the sixteen matches in 2009’s Confederation’s Cup.

The results were pretty striking:

Total Passes Completed
2009: 73.7%
2010: 70.5%

Short Passes Completed
2009: 74.8%
2010: 73.6%

Medium Passes Completed
2009: 77.7%
2010: 77.4%

Long Passes Completed
2009: 61%
2010: 47.6%

Crosses Completed
2009: 34.3%
2010: 18.8%

Corners Completed
2009: 62.5%
2010: 40.6%

And, I also looked at shooting and scoring in 2009 and 2010.

Shots on Target
2009: 40.7%
2010: 34.2%

Shots Wide
2009: 42.2%
2010: 47.2%

Goals
2009: 43
2010: 27

In every one of these categories, control of the ball has been more fleeting in 2010 than 2009. Specifically, you can see that long passes, crosses, and corners have been the most severely impacted plays, sporting the largest differentials from last year to this.

All 32 of the games considered were played in South Africa, so the altitude question is neutralized. I supposed that strategic differences between a 32 team tournament and an 8 team tournament could have some impact on these numbers, as might the pressure of playing in the World Cup. I’m nowhere near equipped to integrate these allowances into my analysis. Now, everyone plays with the same ball, so I don’t think there are any questions about whether or not this situation is “fair.” But what’s above certainly combines with what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes to lead me to conclude that the Jabulani is having a negative impact on the ability of field players to control the ball.

Viva los Vuvuzelas*

When I was a youth soccer player growing up in Lansing, Michigan we used to regularly play against Eaton Rapids, a farming town about 20 miles outside the urban center. These were always tough games, mostly because the boys from Eaton Rapids were big and strong. Their squads were like little versions of the German national team, and this feeling was reinforced by the occasional racist taunts they hurled at our teams, which featured black and Latino players (and one Jew, me, who was often confused for a Puerto Rican).

But one of the most annoying things about playing Eaton Rapids was that their fans always brought these goddamn cowbells to the games, and would bang them throughout the match. I hated those cowbells, which came to mind this weekend amidst the furor against the vuvezelas that have blared and bleated throughout the first few days of the World Cup.  They’ve caused such an uproar that World Cup organizers were considering banning them from matches.

Vuvuzela

Creative Commons License photo credit: markhillary

Any soccer fan who watched the Confederation’s Cup last year or who has watched South American soccer in the past 30 years will already be familiar with this noise, and discussions about whether or not they should be banned from the Cup have been going on for a year. My feelings? Get over it. I’d much rather the Black Eyed Peas and, especially, Bono and R. Kelly be banned from the Cup; the vuvuzelas are less annoying, and at least they have character and impart a local feeling to the goings on.  Who knows, maybe they even give African and South American squads that are used to hearing them an advantage, which I’m all for given that this is the first World Cup in Africa. That they give idiotic American cretins another thing to whine about also seems an argument in their favor, doesn’t it?

If it annoys you, turn your sound down, go to a bar, or simply watch more matches. I’ve acclimated myself to them already, much more so than I ever did those goddamn Eaton Rapids cowbells.

Jason Gay offers an even heartier defense of the vuvezela here.

* Yes, I realize that “vuvezela” is not Spanish, but the alliteration was too alluring.

** PS.

1 Day to the Cup

As a certified lefty historian, I am well aware of the damage wrought by nationalism, and in almost all areas of my life I abhor the elevation of the group over the common bonds of humanity.

But not when it comes to soccer.

The confluence of my own past with the sport, America’s historic mediocrity on the pitch, and my religious conviction that sport fandom not only justifies but in fact requires a certain level of irrationality make me pull deeply for the Yanks.

We’re in our sixth straight World Cup after missing them for 40 years. Here’s a brief review of the past five performances.

1990

The US qualified for the 1990 World Cup on this goal by Paul Caligiuri at Trinidad & Tobago:

They showed up in Italy with the youngest squad in the tournament, consisting almost entirely of recent college players. They lost all three games: 5-1 to Czechoslovakia, 1-0 to Italy, and 2-1 to Austria. The achievement of this tournament was merely reaching it, though the US did show well against Italy, and would have tied the game had Walter Zenga not stopped a Peter Vermes blast with his rear end.

1994

The US qualified as hosts of the 1994 World Cup, and I was lucky enough to see them play Switzerland in their opening match, which they tied 1-1 thanks to this goal by Eric Wynalda:

In the second game, the US faced Colombia, who were fashionable picks that year to make a deep run behind Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla. The US shocked Los Cafeteros, behind this fateful own goal by Andrés Escobar (which led to his murder two weeks later):

And then this beauty of a game winner by Earnie Stewart:

The US slipped into the second round after losing their third match to Romania, and was rewarded with a match against mighty Brazil on July 4. Despite the fact that Brazil played the second half with ten men after Leonardo fractured Tab Ramos’ skull with this nasty elbow —

— the US couldn’t overcome Bebeto’s second half tally and the Brazilian ball control, and fell to the eventual champions.

Getting out of the first round was unquestionable progress.

1998

Any progress made in 1994 was returned in 1998 when the US stunk up France worse than the most aged blue cheese. The team entered the tournament in total disarray, and suffered resounding defeats to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslovia. It’s recently come out that John Harkes, who then national team coach Steve Sampson had recently named “Captain for Life,” had been stripped of his captaincy and dismissed from the team for (allegedly) sleeping with a teammate’s wife. This no doubt contributed to the Yanks’ miserable performance on the field, and one can only hope that the similar controversy that recently emerged from within the English side has a deadening effect on the British legs. The effort against Germany was especially troubling, as the usually plucky Americans caved to the physical assertiveness of their opponents.

2002

The 2002 World Cup was the high point of American soccer. After the dismal performance of 1998, few expected the US to get out of a group that featured the host country, the Korea Republic, a tough team from Poland, and Portugal, who had Luís Figo, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, and a was a team chosen by many to break through to the late stages. The US faced Portugal in their opening game (which I watched at 7 am ET), and came out confident and aggressive and with nothing to lose. They scored three goals in the first half (one was an own goal), and held on in the second for a shocking 3-2 victory.

After tying Korea (on this Clint Mathis goal):

and then losing to Poland, the US emerged from its group to face arch rival Mexico in the Round of 16: the biggest match the country has ever played. This one was a 4:30 am ET start time, and the US dominated and forced the Mexicans to completely unravel at the end of the game (Rafael Marquez’s hit on Cobi Jones was just as dirty as the Leonardo elbow to Tab Ramos in 1994).

The reward for beating Mexico was a matchup with Germany in the quarterfinals, the same German team that had pushed around the Americans four years earlier. Claudio Reyna, who at that point had enjoyed more success as a professional in Europe than any other American player (and who carried the nickname “Captain America”), had been especially abused by strongman Jens Jeremies in 1998. But on this day he was the best player on the field, and the US got the better of play through most of the game. The refs missed a blatant German handball on the goaline, and the US couldn’t ultimately punch home a goal.

This was a remarkable showing, and indicated to the world that American soccer was indeed capable of a world class performance. The run in 2002 set a new standard for the US side.

2006

The 2006 World Cup greeted the Americans with high expectations, but an extremely difficult draw: Czech Republic, Italy, and the top African side, Ghana. The US came out flat in their first match, falling to the Czech Republic 3-0, before showing brilliantly and confidently against Italy in a physical 1-1 tie in which two Americans (against one Italian) were ejected. Again, the US benefited from an own goal, the only score the Italians would concede on their march to the final. Needing a victory in their final group match against Ghana to advance, the US fell to Ghana 2-1, victims of the Ghanian’s speed and a horrid penalty call in the first half injury time.

That the US failure to advance from this difficult group was seen as a disappointment showed how far American soccer had evolved since 1990. You want to enter your third match of the group stage with a shot to advance, and the US has done that the past two World Cups– although they’ve lost both games!

2010

As the US preps for Saturday’s match with England, expectations are extremely high. Given the US’s experience — including a victory over a full-strength Spanish side and a near upset of Brazil at last year’s Confederation’s Cup — there’s simply no excuse for them to fail to advance from a group that includes England, Slovenia, and Algeria. If history is any indication, however, the US could struggle with this group. They haven’t beaten England since 1950, and always have a tough time with big Eastern European sides (see losses to the Czechs, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia). Slovenia is less experienced and talented than each of those sides, and the US is much more poised than in the past, so they should pull out a victory or at least earn a tie. They’ll be in good shape if they go into the final group match against Algeria with 3 points, and they’d be in great shape if they can get a draw against England in the first game and a win over Slovenia. The US has historically played one great match, one mediocre one, and a stinker in the group stages. Where those efforts are located will make all the difference in the world this year.

The US team has significant questions on the pitch. In previous years, central defense has been a strength, showcasing American toughness, size and poise with Eddie Pope and Oguchi Onyewu. Gooch is just returning from a knee injury, and hasn’t played 90 minutes in nearly 8 months. The other two center backs are the tough-but-slow Jay DeMerit (who tends to play too far off the ball in the defensive third) and the untested Clarence Goodson (who’s good in the air but not nearly as physical as what this position calls for). This could spell trouble for a side that likes to play compact defensively and spring counter attacks. Wing defenders (Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector, and Steve Cherundolo) are solid but again, slow. Head coach Bob Bradley loves Jonathan Bornstein, who has speed but lacks the size and toughness to compete at this level. We may see him as a situational substitute.

The strength of the current US team is in its midfield, and there’s more talent than can fit on the pitch. Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan are sure to be in the starting eleven. Bradley generally plays a 4-4-2 lineup, and though he’s tried to play Dempsey up front with Jozy Altidore, he’s indicated he’d like to play two true forwards (it’s looking that the second will be Edson Buddle, who comes in to the tournament in great goal scoring form). So, the big question is, who will be the fourth midfielder? Ricardo Clark has gotten most of the time there in tune up matches, but hasn’t particularly impressed; I’d prefer to see Maurice Edu, who tackles just as hard as Clark but is more solid with the ball (and also has a nose for the goal). The other midfielders — Stuart Holden, José Francisco Torres, and DaMarcus Beasley are capable substitutes, and can each go a full 90 if needed. I hope we don’t see Benny Feilhaber in a game; although he’s got the ability to possess the ball, he consistently disappears from matches and is a horrid defender. Up front, expect to see Herculez Gomez as a late game substitute if the US needs a goal, and Robbie Findley if the US feels it needs to exploit a speed advantage. Tim Howard will man the goal, and will both make the spectacular save and do his best to keep the rag-tag back line organized.

The World Cup is one day away, and we’re two days from what promises to be an epic US match against England. Let’s get the party started!

2 Days to the Cup

On Friday I’ll get to begin enjoying my fourth World Cup since moving to New York City. When the World Cup was in the States in 1994, I attended two group stage games at the Pontiac Silverdome: USA v. Switzerland and Brazil v. Sweden. Nothing beats attending a game and absorbing the spectacle and celebration that surrounds it, and seeing it played on real grass inside a dome (that recently sold for just over $500k) was a surreal experience that I’ll vividly remember the rest of my life.

But If you can’t attend the tournament, NYC must be the next best place to be. Thousands of folks are out in their kits, draped with flags, and every other conversation you overhear on the street seems to be about the Cup.  The event unites the focus of the world, and that effect’s on full display in New York. It gives those with ties to other countries permission to flamboyantly celebrate those connections, and for other New Yorkers to join or mock them.  Soccer bars (like Nevada Smith’s or these national rooting spots) are packed with fans throughout the day watching games played halfway around the world, and those fans are usually banging on drums, singing and screaming at each other, and downing pints (whether they have to go back to work or not). Whole blocks shut down in Little Italy, Koreatown, and Little Brazil on those countries’ match days, and fans watch from the street on gigantic displays amidst a carnival.

The best thing about New York City is the opportunity it gives us to sample the world. That’s never more true than during the World Cup.

2006 July - World cup Soccer final with Steel and Michelle

Creative Commons License photo credit: jenschapter3

4 Days to the Cup

I’m going to really, really hate England this week. I mean, this human aspect ratio buster features as a striker for that country? For real?

Peter Crouch is a tool. More evidence:

Holmes needs to bounce The Robot up from out his repertoire. He’s embarrassing himself and his girlfriend, and pissing Don Cornelius off.

One of the few things of value to come out of England over the past decade is Ricky Gervais, and even he ragged on this goof:

Now, if I was at all confident in the ability of the US central defense to actually beat this guy to a ball played in the air, I’d get really mean. Or maybe I’m just saving that for Terry, who might be shagging Crouch’s fiance.

7 Days to the Cup

The only side to underachieve in major international competition anywhere near as much as the Dutch is Spain. Coming off their rousing victory in the 2008 European Championship, the Spaniards are considered one of the favorites in the 2010 World Cup. This is a team without a significant weakness, and draws heavily from FC Barcelona for its spine: Carlos Puyol, Xavi Hernández, and Andrés Iniesta. Add in Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas, David Villa, and Fernando Torres and this team is simply stacked. The only player missing from the squad who played a significant role in the 2008 Euros is holding midfielder Marcos Senna, and it will be interesting to see if an another attacking midfielder moves into the starting XI, or if Vicente del Bosque opts for a destroyer like Sergio Busquets. There’s some concern with whether or not Torres will recover from a knee injury in time to be effective the in Cup, but in this team there’s more than enough firepower to overcome his absence.

Spain will breeze through it’s group (Chile, Switzerland, and Honduras), and could be matched up with Cote D’Ivore (though it looks as though Drogba is out with a broken arm) or face fellow Iberians Portugal in the second round, before likely facing Italy in the quarterfinals.

Here’s the best tribute video I could find… it’s also a bit bizarre.

8 Days to the Cup

The Netherlands are the greatest footballing nation never to hoist the World Cup.  They came close in 1974, when, led by the great Johan Cruyff, they got Beckenbaured by West Germany in the championship match. Their “Total Football” innovations brought the free-flowing style of Ajax to international football, and to great effect.

Here’s snippets of their victory over Brazil in the 1974 semi-finals:

The Netherlands won the European Championship in 1988 behind Gullit, van Basten and Rijkaard, but haven’t moved beyond the semi-finals in a major tournament since. I think they’ve got a shot this year, as they blazed through qualifying behind the tremendous form of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, who pair with the explosive Robin van Persie and the tough-as-nails Dirk Kuyt in the attack, with Mark van Bommel holding and banging away in the middle of the field (and Nigel de Jong attempting to break people’s legs behind him).  They’ve also got a ridiculous amount of attacking talent beyond those four but, like Argentina, are somewhat suspect at the back.

If everything goes to form, they’re likely to face Brazil in the quarterfinals.  What a match that could be. Here’s a look at some of their stars… remember, a lot of these guys will be on the bench:

9 Days to the Cup

I used to really dislike the Argentinian national soccer team. Maradona, despite all his talent, displayed an arrogance that was off-putting, especially when compared with the joyful exuberance of the Brazilian side I and just about every one else loved.  I also thought the team was prone to cynical, defensive football in 1990 and 1994.

Though this Maradona goal was ludicrous:

These were amazing:

I warmed to Argentinian football in 2006, when they played with an unbelievable team flair. This gem from the first round is an example:

And I’ve become a huge Leo Messi fan:

Argentina will be very interesting to watch in South Africa, as they have perhaps the most attacking talent of any side.  They have significant questions in the middle of the field (will they be able to get Leo the ball in dangerous places?) and at the back.  With Maradona at their helm, they may perhaps lack some emotional stability and discipline.

Argentina should advance out of a tough but not spectacular group that includes Nigeria, South Korea, and Greece, and I think they’ll make it to the quarterfinals where they’ll likely face England, setting the stage for another installment in a classic rivalry.

The Luck of Essien

We’re less than two weeks away from the World Cup, and football fans — Ghanaians in particular (sorry, Mo) — are cringing from the news that Michael Essien won’t recover from a January knee injury in time to participate in the first Cup to take place in Africa. I’ll assume that this blog is read by folks (both of you) who don’t know much about world football, and will warn you now that I’m going to use this space to document my thoughts on the tournament as the anticipation builds and the drama unfolds.

Over the past five years, Ghana’s Essien has become one of my favorite players, despite playing for a club team — Chelsea — who I don’t particularly care for. Nicknamed “The Bison” for his exceptional speed and strength, he’s the prototypical defensive midfielder (or “holding midfielder”). Essien is beautiful to watch because he’s always involved in the action, and glides across the field from goal box to goal box, exploding towards the ball when it’s available. The defensive midfielder is tasked with breaking up the other team’s attack and linking the ball between the defense and the offense. This player must be tough, possess great stamina, and be able to anticipate and take the right angle on the ball. Since the defensive midfielder plays just behind the attack, he/she should be able to shoot the ball on goal with power from range, and should also be able to win balls at every level of the field. In short, the defensive midfielder has to do everything that’s required of a soccer player, and do it well. Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark share that position for the United States, and they’re both solid and sometimes better than that. Bradley is a great tackler and able distributor, and Clark is a fantastic athlete who covers a lot of ground.

Without Essien, Ghana is going to have a tough time advancing from a difficult group that includes Germany, Australia, and Serbia, but I still think and hope they will (they have another fantastic player in Stephen Appia). Going in, I thought that Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire were the two African sides with the best chances to advance deep into the tournament. But Didier Drogba’s Les Elephants have the toughest draw of all, facing Portugal and Brazil in the opening round (and North Korea, which should be interesting).

Here’s a video of Essien’s brilliance, which I’ll be sad not to see in South Africa. Warning: the soundtrack is hideous, so turn it off and put on some Nas or Bach or Tribe Called Quest (“Brother brother brother, Essien you’re like no other.”)

Sorry, Michael.