World Cup 2010 (The Quarters): Three Times a Charm? …

… Saturday’s 2010 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal between Spain and Paraguay probably ended as it should. After a flurry of penalties in the second half that I’ll discuss in a moment, Spain’s David Villa did what David Villa does, scoring the lone goal to put Spain into the semifinals with a 1-0 victory.

The win, combined with Germany’s 4-0 demolition of Argentina earlier in the day, left three European teams in the semifinals, joining Uruguay from South America.

As things played out, however, you can fairly question either way whether Spain’s 1-0 win was the right scoreline.

If you’re in the Paraguay camp, you have to be seething a bit this morning. It isn’t just that Óscar Cardozo badly flubbed his penalty, making for a somewhat simple save (such that penalty saves can be simple) for Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. And it may not even be something their fans noticed right away.

But seconds later, when Spain were awarded a penalty after Villa was pulled down in the box, the potential inconsistency of referee Carlos Batres became clear. Initially, this appeared to favor Paraguay, as when Xabi Alonso put home the spot kick to give Spain the lead, Batres waived off the strike, for encroachment against Spain.

It was a ticky-tack call, but by rule, it was the right one. But upon further review, it left me to wonder why Batres suddenly decided to call such a rule by the book. Alonso’s second attempt was saved by Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar, who then knocked away a follow-up shot, and may have even been guilty of an infraction for tripping a Spain player amid the chaos. I never saw a clear angle to determine if there was encroachment either way on Alonso’s second attempt.

But that leaves the question on Cardozo’s penalty. When he struck the ball, there are two Spain players clearly inside the penalty area (it’s not even close). Batres chose to ignore this, however, instead of awarding Cardozo a second opportunity to beat Casillas. And who knows if he would have. Cardozo’s original effort left a lot to be desired.

It’s the slippery slope officials must deal with, because one such call as the one Batres made on Alonso’s penalty, while correct, makes it fair to wonder how it could have been ignored just moments earlier.

If the encroachment is not called either way, Spain leads, 1-0, on the hour, and likely goes on to win. If the encroachment is called both ways, Spain is held off the board, and Paraguay at least has a chance to take a 1-0 lead were Cardozo to get it right with his second chance.

We’ll never know what Bastres was thinking. And I don’t think he goes down as a villain in this situation. Spain were the better team, and much more fun to watch, and I think most of the world would rather see Germany play Spain in the semifinals than Paraguay.

But the whole thing made for a chaotic sideshow that we probably could have done without.

Speaking of chaotic sideshows, how about Argentina? My pick to make the final went out with little more than a whimper in the morning game, falling 4-0 to Germany. It’s hard for me to say where the blame lies in Argentina’s debacle. There were times where they were well in control of possession after they fell behind to Thomas Müller’s goal off a corner kick in the 3rd minute. Argentina were completely clueless defensively on that play, and I have to wonder if the possession Argentina enjoyed after that and into the second half wasn’t a willing sacrifice from Germany knowing they could strike on the counter.

And they did exactly that, tearing apart Argentina for three goals in the second half – two by Miroslav Klose – for the 4-0 victory. It was clinical, it was awesome to watch, and if you’re anyone else still left in this tournament, it was scary. Holland and Spain both like to knock the ball around. It would appear Germany would let either one do exactly that, lying in wait to ambush their opponents with a quick strike the other way. The injuries that plagued this German side in the weeks leading up to the tournament are just a memory now, with us only given a reminder by the mutliple camera shots of the perhaps now relic Michael Ballack looking on as Germany finished off Argentina.

Klose, meanwhile, now has 14 career World Cup goals, tying him with countryman Gerd Müller for second-most in tournament history, behind only Brazil’s Ronaldo (15). The argument of where Klose belongs among all-time greats is probably pretty short and wouldn’t end in Klose’s favor, but there’s no denying the impact he’s had as a goal scorer for Germany on the biggest stage. Were he to score twice to reach 16 in Germany’s final two games of this tournament, it would be an accomplishment well worth acknowledging. One more goal would give Klose at least five goals in three different World Cups. He would be the only player to have ever accompished that feat.

For Argentina, despite all the good they did in this tournament, the scope of this loss to Germany makes me think they are almost going to have to restart from the beginning. Fair or not, this result will make many think that the Diego Maradona experiment did not work. Others will question Lionel Messi’s lack of scoring in this World Cup – though he did help create goals on mutliple occasions for his teammates. Messi will continue to wow us on the club level for Barcelona, and at 23, he probably has at least two chances to shed the memories of this World Cup. Damage to his long-term reputation is slim to none.

For Maradona, it is perhaps a different story. It’d be hard to see what his next chance would be to erase this ending. I can’t see any way he stays on as Argentina’s coach, and I don’t know what other nation would be crazy enough to bring him on. Perhaps he can still coach at the club level in Argentina, but the effects of this loss will be most hardly felt by him, a fact many will enjoy, fair or not.

The semifinals start Tuesday, with Holland vs. Uruguay, followed by Wednesday’s match between Spain and Germany. Both games kick off at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

Share your thoughts below on the quarterfinals, or anything else that strikes your mind about this World Cup so far – one that now has just 4 games remaining.

TUESDAY’S PREDICTION:
Holland 2-0 Uruguay

Saturday’s Record: 1-1.
Tournament Record: 34-26.

FIFA’s Fix to Officiating? Embargo the Evidence

In response to Sunday’s incident that saw Carlos Tevez score a goal when he had been offside as the ball was played his way, giving Argentina the lead in a Round of 16 match they eventually won, 3-1, over Mexico, FIFA today produced its comprehensive response.

The answer? Hide the evidence so nobody – not the players, the coaches, or perhaps most importantly, the fans, know what the hell is going on.

FIFA announced today that it has instructed stadium operators in South Africa not to show replays of controversial plays for the rest of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Instead of taking steps to fix the issues that are leading to all the key blown calls we’ve seen in this tournament (the Lampard no goal; the Edu no goal; the Tevez goal, etc.), FIFA has decided it would be better to make sure that no one knows exactly what happened, and that will somehow make the game experience a better one.

FIFA is apparently responding to the reaction of Mexican players after seeing a replay of Tevez’s goal on a large monitor in the stadium yesterday. There was no doubt Tevez was offside, something clear to everyone who saw it, save for the assistant referee. Even when questioned by head referee Roberto Rosetti, the AR seemed to have no clue about what he’d just seen. He had much the same mystified look on his face as Koman Couliabaly did when he disallowed Edu’s goal for the US vs. Slovenia. Incensed, the Mexican team surrounded the AR and Rosetti as they talked, followed by a gathering of Argentina players when it appeared that the goal might be disallowed.

It stood, of course, and Argentina went on to win handily. But FIFA’s response to this situation, and the others we’ve seen before it, is asinine. Rather than having the sack to stand up and fix the problems by whatever technology or means are available, FIFA would rather perpetrate a lie to those in the stadium, telling players, coaches, and fans … “Move along! Nothing more to see here. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.”

It’s not as if other sports don’t do this. I’ve been to NHL, MLS, and NFL games where controversial events weren’t replayed. But at least in the case of the NHL and NFL, they are constantly taking measures to try and improve the very officiating that often leads to the controversy.

FIFA will do no such thing. They’d rather smirk through the notoriety and bad publicity that such events provide than have these plays actually dealt with correctly, ensuring a valid and fair game result.

Instead of validity, FIFA would rather you not even know what the hell you just saw. They want you fooled, not informed. It’s enough to turn “The Beautiful Game,” into the “The Beautiful Fraud.”

Our sport is hard enough to defend to the Neanderthal jacknuts that come out every 4 years at this time and feel the need to protect their manhood by declaring to the world that they aren’t watching the game for whatever stupid reason – as if the rest of us give a damn. But unfortunately, FIFA’s actions of late make the sport all the more indefensible.

I wonder what call will be the next one to be horribly botched.

I don’t know the answer; but safe to say, if you’re in the stadium when it happens … you’ll never know.

World Cup 2010 (Day 17): Of Mice and Refs …

… You go into any high-level athletic event knowing that along the way, there are going to be things that officials miss. Soccer is no different. On occasion, a tug of the shirt, a kick to the shin, or a well-hidden elbow behind the play is going to occur in such a circumstance that neither the head referee nor his assistants are going to see it.

We know this to be true – we see it in nearly every match this is played. FIFA and the governing bodies of leagues around the world play along with this fact, because 99.9% of the time, these incidents don’t decide a game. And while we get pissed off when a super tight offside call costs our team a goal, or the lack of said call, or say, a uncalled handball near the goal line by someone in a yellow jersey playing in Ohio, allows one for the other team, most reasonable people eventually get over it and move on with their lives.

But when the missed calls become so blatantly obvious and potentially change the course of games, hiding under rock with your hands over your ears singing old Jerry Reed songs probably isn’t the wisest course of action.

At some point, there needs to be an admission that there’s a problem … and more importantly, there must be a path carved out toward finding a fair solution.

To be clear, I’m not sure today’s results were particularly fraudulent because of the Frank Lampard goal that wasn’t given for England in their 4-1 loss to Germany, or the Carlos Tevez goal that was given in Argentina’s 3-1 victory over Mexico. I thought Germany and Argentina were the better sides. I think if the games wer replayed, and all the calls were made correctly, we’d see the same winners.

Many saw today’s events and began rehashing the argument for replay – something I’m all for. It is neither difficult nor time consuming to have a fifth official at the game operations area in the press box who would watch the game, view replays, and when something so incredibly off as what we saw today occurs, contact the referee immediately and discuss the situation. The whole sequence could be done in no time flat – especially compared to all the time wasted in the “beautiful game,” by divers, cheats, and Ghana players who decide to take a nap during extra time. In the time the Argentina goal was being celebrated this afternoon, for example, such official-to-official contact could have been made to determine that yes, Tevez was offside, and the goal should not stand. It would be somewhat similar to what is currently used in rugby – where usually, the whole stadium knows a review is taking place, and an announcement and/or signal is made to clarify the determination when the review is complete.

Every play wouldn’t be cut and dry, and I’m not sure it is something that should be put to use on anything other than scoring plays (or denied scoring plays), but it’s a start.

My concern is that at this point, I’m not even sure that’s enough. In other sports, as the number of teams have grown, and the players have gotten bigger and faster over what is usually the same size playing surface, the number of officials have gone up. The NFL currently uses 7, but originally started with 3 and as late as 1964, had just five. In recent years, the NHL has gone from 1 referee and 2 linesmen to 2 referees and 2 linesmen. It hasn’t been that long since the NBA adopted a three-official system over the previous two.

At some point, the game evolves such that changes need to be made. And given that this goal/no-goal issue has been festering since at least 1966, and the basic set up is still the same some 44 years later, and such plays are still being shockingly missed on the world stage, it may be time to consider that the game has evolved past what the current set up allows.

Is another referee or official of some sort needed in soccer? At first glance, you might think of that as a harsh suggestion. It would break tradition and all that. Maybe only a “goal judge” as it were would be beneficial, which would have, in theory, provided the view necessary to properly count Lampard’s goal today and bring England back to 2-2 in the first half. Would that person have realized that Tevez was offside, however? Would that person even be tasked to do that? These are questions that can’t be answered currently.

FIFA remain steadfast that they won’t comment on the decisions made during games, and they aren’t too interested in adding officials across the board. And it’s a harder sell in soccer than in our American sports, where we have one league that governs the sport in our country – where as FIFA has hundreds of member nations, most with their own leagues and in some cases therir own way of doing things.

If we were sitting here tonight arguing over shirt-tugging or a little gamesmanship behind the play, I’d agree with FIFA that they are probably right.

But more so than any other responsibility in soccer, you go into a game expecting that the referee and his assistants are going to know when a goal should count and when it should not. Anything short of that, which would seem to be a common-sense standard, validly calls into question the integrity of the contest we are watching.

If FIFA’s officials can’t get that right when the world is watching, then people – fairly or not – will begin to question the validity of exactly what it is they are watching. And as mighty as it wants to be, not even FIFA can afford that.

If it takes replay, do it. If it takes a goal judge, do it. If it takes another official, do it. If it takes all three, do it.

When the three people in charge of a match can’t determine when a goal has been scored, or if it was scored legally – and such situations are happening more than 1 in say, 100 games, it’s time to find solutions.

* Argentina and Germany will meet in the quarterfinals at 10 a.m. Saturday.

MONDAY’S PREDICTIONS
Netherlands 2-1 Slovakia
Brazil 4-2 Chile

Today’s Record: 2-0.
Tournament Record: 28-24.

World Cup 2010 (Day 7): Argentina Awesome as France Fails …

… This morning’s match between Argentina and South Korea to decide who would go top in Group was just about everything I had hoped for. South Korea didn’t quite get as many chances as I thought they might, but Argentina’s defense were just sleepy enough at times to let their opponents have opportunities.

However, Argentina could have been completely zonked (see France, circa 2010) and they weren’t going to lose today, what with the creativity of Lionel Messi and the finishing of Gonzalo Higua

Why Spain, Brazil, Holland, Italy and maybe even Argentina can contend for this World Cup

We’ve been over the hype victims, darkhorses and well as the disappointments, but now is the time when I tell you who I think can win the 2010 World Cup. I started this post last week with five teams that I really thought could win it. Now, after Robben’s injury, I think it may be down to just four. Let’s start with the defending champions Italy.

The Contenders

Italy. I’ll sum it up this way. This team and manager have all “been there” and “done that” as it comes to the World Cup. Seven of the 2006 final-winning lineup return as does Marcello Lippi and that alone means you have to take Italy seriously as threat in this World Cup. Sure, they’re four years older and in the case of guys like Cannavaro (36), Camoranesi (33) and Zambrotta (33), that really means something but still, it’s Italy and if the altitude doesn’t kill this bunch, the cool winter temperatures might save these guys.

If there is a question about this Italy squad beyond its age, it’s whether the team will pay for its lack of a truly inspiring attacking force like a Del Piero or Baggio. Andrea Pirlo remains a threat whenever there is a deadball but can a forward unit made up of Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Di Natale, Alberto Gilardino, Fabio Quagliarella, and Giampaolo Pazzini really leave elite opposing defenses too worried? If I were Lippi, I’d go on form and start Serie A leading scorers Di Natale (29g with Udinese) and 3rd highest scorer Pazzini (19g with Sampdoria). If I supported Italy, my fear would be that Lippi would instead go with forwards from “bigger” clubs like Gilardino (Fiorentina) and Iaquinta (Juve). All that being said,with the second best goalkeeper on earth (Buffon, second only to Casillas) and a defensive spine that has won everything there is to win in the sport, Italy will still be a force in 2010.

Holland. Until Robben suffered a “small” hamstring tear in a pre-tournament friendly, I really thought Holland could contend for the title as sort of a “surprise finalist.” Wesley Sneijder comes into this tournament with some of the best form of anyone here and if Van Persie is fit and can stay fit, almost any combination of Robben, Van Persie, Sneijder, Kuyt, and target man Huntelaar will concern any defense they face.

But that’s all “on paper.” In reality, Van Persie was hurt much of last season, Kuyt was stuck in the debacle that was Liverpool, Huntelaar struggle to escape Milan’s bench, and now Robben will have quickly recover from an injury of his own. Can Holland recover from all of that? Maybe not, but it might just take them recovering from most of those problems to allow for Holland to reach the semifinals. Plus, Ajax goalkeeper Stecklenberg is a true penalty-stopping specialist.


Argentina. Based purely on club form, Argentina should run away with South Africa 2010. But should is the operative word, and thanks to coach Diego Maradona’s incompetence, stubbornness, intransigence, and sheer unpredictability, a team that should be stone-cold locks to reach the final would instead surprise the hell out of me if it reached the semis. Look at the talent they have and the form they’re in. Leo Messi just wrapped up a dominant season with Barcelona, Carlos Tevez just finished up scoring 29g for Manchester City, Diego Milito just singlehandedly won the Champions League final for Inter along with Walter Samuel backstopping the defense. Yet, it must be asked, will Maradona’s decision to leave Inter captain Javier Zanetti, and teammate Esteban Cambiasso off Argentina’s roster will hurt the campaign?

But, there is the massive question overshadowing the entire effort which is whether or how much will Maradona’s instability affect the team? Can he actually coach? What happens if Argentina trails, especially in a match where they wouldn’t figure to fall behind (like say, to South Korea). Will Maradona be able to tactically adjust or will he instead just throw on his talismanic (and utterly washed up) favorite Martin Palermo and stomp around look like he’s going to cry? Frankly, more than any other team in this World Cup, predicting what this team will do is nearly impossible. They could completely explode internally under the crazed Maradona and fail to get out of the group phase or they could win the entire thing. There is no other team in the 32 where I could say the same thing to the same extent.

Brazil. They’re Brazil, of course they’re in amongst the favorites. I think Dunga might be one of the best managers in this tournament and one that hopefully, very soon, gets his chance at a club atop the European club scene. He’s done very well to impose a real defensive strength to a team whose entertaining impulses can lead them to weakness at the back. I like that he left Ronaldinho out, as anyone who has watched Milan this year could see that he lacks the mobility and motivation to provide even a modicum of defensive cover in midfield. Luis Fabiano will be one of the discoveries of this tournament for fans unfamiliar with the Sevilla striker. When he’s with Brazil, all he does is score to the tune of 25 goals in 37 Brazil appearances including 11 in the qualifiers – wowza. Beyond him there are familiar star names like Kaka, Robinho (who seems to still have some friends in the Brazil camp, unlike at Man City), as well as Lucio, Maicon, and Dani Alves in defense. Another less familiar name that may burst on the scene is Lyon’s Michel Bastos, who has played well in the warmup matches will subsequently likely see more time in the tournament itself. They’re one of the two teams at this tournament where I really cannot find a weakness. They look like clear finalists to me.

Spain. They are the clear, resounding favorites to win this tournament. They got over the hump of actually winning a major tournament by winning Euro 2008 and now with Vicente Del Bosque in charge, there is absolutely no reason to believe they cannot win in South Africa. Not only is the Spanish starting lineup the strongest of the 32 teams (narrowly beating out Argentina), but Spain’s depth is far and away the strongest of anyone in South Africa. What other team could boast of having talent like Cesc Fabregas, Marchena, and depending on his fitness, even Fernando Torres coming off the bench? Just look at the midfield they played against Poland in their final pre-tourney friendly: Xabi Alonso and Xavi in the middle with David Silva and Iniesta out wide. Oh, then it’s the small matter of dealing with David Villa (37g for SPA). Finally, they have the consensus top goalkeeper in the world in Iker Casillas. No one, not even the Brazilians can match all that. If I am look hard, maybe, maybe, I see a bit of weakness in the center of defense with the increasingly aged Carles Puyol. But that assumes the other team will have the ball long enough to ever get near Puyol with it.

So here it is, my final pick. I know it’s a dreadful example of picking the “chalk,” but honestly, I can see no other final right now than Brazil v. Spain with the Spanish coming out as winners of their first ever World Cup.

So that’s what I think. Tell me why I am wrong in the comments or on Twitter. I can’t wait to hear from you today and all through the tournament.

The US wins the group; Costa Rica dives to a playoff; Maradona has the last laugh

… Quite thrilling for a tie, huh?

Yes, the United States got a goal from Jonathan Bornstein just about at the end of time to steal a point from Costa Rica last night at RFK Stadium in Washington. The point gave the US top honors in the CONCACAF 6-team qualification group, since Mexico failed to win at Trinidad & Tobago last night.

Perhaps more importantly, the late goal was a hammer blow for Costa Rica, for whom three points would have booked passage to next year’s World Cup in South Africa. Now, they must battle Uruguay home and away in the CONCACAF/CONMEBOL/Insert your acronym here playoff for one of the tournament’s last open spots. More on Uruguay in a moment.

While the US were lax defensively in the first half and that helped Costa Rica grab a 2-0 lead, I couldn’t complain too much about the attack – save for the final (and yes, most important) part, the finishing. Conor Casey and others had chances to put the US ahead early and failed, and then the second half was spent chasing the game, trying to rally from two down to avoid the country’s first home qualifier loss since 2001.

Bornstein’s header did that, some five minutes into stoppage time that Costa Rica mostly created for itself, with several players staying down for “injuries,” and CR coach Rene Simoes probably adding a bit to the time given with his running conversation to the fourth official (it was probably a pretty one-sided conversation, at that) which led to Simoes being sent off. He didn’t exactly leave quickly, despite DC’s finest giving him an entourage to the dugout.

Is a tie the best possible result? Certainly not. You want to win every home game and I’m sure there’s plenty for coach Bob Bradley to look at off this latest performance in beginning to determine what his team will look like when the World Cup begins in 8 months in South Africa.

But you also could have given the US every reason to fold up shop a bit last night down 2-1, playing with 10 since they had no substitutes and defender Oguchi Onyewu was out with an injury (which AC Milan isn’t happy about), and given the ominous cloud that overshadowed the game after the car accident that seriously injured Charlie Davies. Had the game ended 2-1, I don’t think too many people would have gone terribly nuts in their reaction. Though Mexican fans might have had some fun with winning the group.

I was most impressed by the efforts of the US in the final 10 minutes, though, and eventually it seemed as if the goal was certainly coming, it was just a matter of when. Credit to Bornstein – an oft criticized player who has appeared regularly during Bradley’s reign – for rising to the occasion.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, must find some way to rebuild their emotions and put this behind them to stand any chance vs. Uruguay, you’d think. Then again, it wasn’t as if Uruguay proved themselves to be powerhouses last night, either. Needing a win at home over a struggling Argentina team to advance, Uruguay failed to even nab a point. They were dealt a further blow when José Mart