Sunday, November 07, 2010

"Cheaper" By the Bundle

What's wrong with this picture?

I'm used to kvetching about the (mis)use of language in a post-literate society, but as an English major by training (and trade), I'm not used to having to do the math for people.

Then again, I remember an article I read some years back about "weasel" words and phrases in advertising. It brought up the issue of unfinished or ungrounded comparisons--a typical trick in advertising. It suggested that whenever you see or hear an ad with a comparative--quieter, faster, cheaper--you train yourself to finish it by adding "than what?"

Great gifts are "cheaper" by the bundle. But getting a bundle of four doesn't make them cheaper by unit or overall than getting a bundle of two. Cheaper than buying each of the four books individually, I guess. Not cheaper than if you had bought all four books in sets of two by two, though.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stuff My Ipod Throws Together

"And I don't want to die...
But sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all...."
Queen; "Bohemian Rhapsody"

"And He gave us life, in His perfect will;
And by His good grace, I will praise Him still."
Fernando Ortega; "I Will Praise Him Still."

I remember once, growing up, my friend Steve opined that while my musical choices were not particularly out there, they did combine elements he was always startled to see together. I think this comment was made at a record store where I had just bought cassette tapes of the Pretenders Learning to Craawl and Amy Grant's The Collection.

Granted, I don't think Steve knew too many people besides me who listened to any CCM, so I guess that combined with anything seemed like a strange marriage (or being "unequally yoked" as most CCM listeners would probably say).

Today I don't listen to cassettes any more, but my Ipod shuffle can make such juxtapositions all the more frequent by throwing together songs from the recesses of my music library that, in the past, would never have been played one after the other.

Case in point--earlier this week it spit out Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Fernando Oretga's "I Will Praise Him Still" and I've been thinking about how wide is the gulf not just between the two artists and their genres but in the psychological and spiritual state embedded in the songs.

I don't know too many postmodern people who fret about hell when they think of the afterlife. With skeptical agnosticism or downright atheism, the new fear is that of nothingness, non-existence. If Christ was not risen from the dead, St. Paul wrote, then we are deceived and the most pitiable of men. Because, absent a life after this life, consciousness, life, is really a curse rather than a blessing, an awareness of one's eventual extinction. Better to have never been born than to be born only to a life of constant psychological torment. Yet, again, absent a life after this, life is the only imperative. One cannot choose to hasten the move into nothingness, can't want to die. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for all its operatic kitchy-ness, is a painful song (to me, anyway).

In contrast, Ortega's hymn of praise is about as far at the other end of the spectrum as could be. Because life, all life, is a gift of God, it is the subject of praise--even if our current circumstances are painful, confusing, or seen and understood imperfectly. Because His will is perfect, one can trust that the conditions one must endure to receive the greater (and greatest) gifts are necessary ones, and that what seems unnecessary or what we wish we could have not had, will actually be the thing that leads to the greatest praise because we could not have had true life (life eternal, not merely temporary consciousness) any other way.

I'm grateful for both songs...for artists who document the questions and doubts and fears as well as those who remind us that there are answers for the questions, encouragement to face the fears, and good news, gospel, to speak to the doubts that permeate the very air we breathe in the culture in which we life.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TIFF 2010 Schedule

So it's almost that time again. I received confirmation of my advance ticket order, and this year, I got all the films I requested. Barring last minute changes, here's my expected schedule:

Thursday September 9

Inside Job (Ferguson)

Friday September 10

The Way (Estevez)
Guest (Guerin)

Saturday September 11

Erotic Man (Leth)
Stone (Curran)
Jucy (Alston)

Sunday September 12

Conviction (Goldwyn)

Monday September 13

Tamara Drew (Frears)
The Game of Death (Nick & Bornot)
Of Gods and Men (Beauvois)

Tuesday September 14

Miral (Schnabel)
Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt)

Wednesday September 15

Amigo (Sayles)
Blue Valentine (Cianfrance)

Hard to pick one film from a list like this and say it is what I'm most looking forward to, but Blue Valentine has been on my radar since Cannes. Look for reviews at 1More Film Blog.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Netflix Recommendations....

....kinda, well...suck.

I read somewhere that Netflix had a contest for a million dollars for someone who could improve their recommendations. They need it.

Recently I got this odd genre category: "Cerebral Movies With a Strong Female Lead"

Um, okay, that sounds like the SORT of movie I might like, but...

Based on Your Interest in:

Sex as Comedy (Catherine Breillat)
Filmmaker Catherine Breillat's semiautobiographical tale captures the making of a cinematic sex scene in all its awkwardness. Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), the director, has a clear vision of what she wants, but the actors (Grégoire Colin and Roxane Mesquida) loathe each other and just can't make it work. The situation is further complicated by Jeanne's sexual relationship with the actor, who balks as she tries to exert her directorial authority.

Netflix recommends:

Very Young Girls (Rachel Lloyd)
David Schisgall's startling documentary captures the heartbreaking stories of underage girls -- many as young as 13 -- who've been forced into prostitution in New York, exposing how pimps use isolation, violence and drugs to keep girls dependent. Many of the girls interviewed take part in GEMS, a shelter and mentoring program founded by activist Rachel Lloyd -- once a prostitute herself -- that helps them transition out of "the life."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Worst. Airline. Ever.

Gotta be Delta.

So I've got a 3:50 out of San Antonio. I get to the airport gate and they are delayed until 4:27. So I go to the gate agent and say, you know, it doesn't look like I'll make the connecting flight in Atlanta, so why don't you just go ahead and switch my reservation to a later flight to Raleigh. No, no, no, no, you'll make it, no problem. I get on the plane, and, of course, we circle Atlanta in the air for awhile and I deplane at 8:20 to try to catch my 8:30 connection in another terminal. Needless to say, I don't make it.

Delta has a a station set up to assist passengers--I should suspect something is up when every other gate has a red "Missed Your Flight?" sign with a "Swipe and Go" machine. The cusmoter service there says, well, the later flight to Raleigh, you know the one you asked us to put you on in San Antonio? Well that's sold out. Good news, though, there's a plane tomorrow morning.

I feel like saying "I told you so" but I've had a long day and I've been sick on the plane, etc. so I say "fine, just give me my hotel voucher and I'll take the morning flight." Well, sir, the hotel will be at a REDUCED rate for you...


Yeah, only $59.

Delta is not going to give me a voucher for causing me to miss my connecting fault? No, we don't do that unless it is our fault that you missed the connection. Ummmm....but it is your fault. No, it's air traffic control's fault because the weather shut down the airport earlier....that's why your flight in San Antonio was delayed. But that's also when I told you to put me on the later connection and you declined to so because you, Delta, said the plane would still arrive in time to make the connection.

Guess I won't be flying Delta again any time soon.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Courtyard by Marriott Scam

Hey Courtyard by Marriott welcome to the customer service hall of shame.

Wife and I prebooked a room via Priceline to stay at a Courtyard by Marriott for two days. When we checked in, even though the room was prepaid, they asked for a credit card for "incidentals." No problem, usually, since I just don't use the incidentals at a hotel.

When I checked out, they tried to charge me a $1.08/per night for a "Room Safe Warranty." I mentioned that I had paid in advance and that per the agreement with Priceline, they had agreed to give me a room for the price quoted.

I got a canned response that this was a "standard" policy and that this charge was not covered in the price of the room because it was an incidental.

Huh? Since when? Incidentals are things you request over and above the cost of the room or which you can opt out of by not using. A safe is in the room, whether you use it or not and they know it will be part of the room when they get the offer for the price. This is not like a movie or Internet service where the person can agree on the additional charge when they use the service--this was added just for it being there to use if I wanted it.

I swear, all I could think about was that song in Les Miserables:

"Charge em for the lice..
Extra for the mice...
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice!
Here a little slice,
There a little cut...
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut!"

Courtyard by Marriott, when the first thing that comes to someone's mind when they hear your name is the Thernardiers, you have a corporate image problem.

CC to Priceline, too...if the customer can't be assured that the price the hotel "agrees" upon when you book through Priceline is the actual price he will have to pay, then what is the point of using your service? So, if I were Priceline, I would tell Courtyard that they need to cease this practice or I won't send them customers. Their dishonesty hurts the faith customers have in YOUR service.

Monday, August 02, 2010

GoDaddy Rocks

Okay, so I'm probably going to get howls of derision from people who are really tech savvy, but since I've often posted about customer service nightmares I've had (I'm looking at you Blockbuster), it's only fair that I mention some positive experiences.

For the last year and a half, I've had my personal film blog, hosted on GoDaddy. Today I had a technical issue that was giving an error message instead of my site.

I called the 24/7 help line at 11:30 at night, spoke to an ACTUAL PERSON (within a 10 minute wait time) who resolved my issue.

Having the tech support allows me to focus on the content of my site, which is what web hosting should be all about. For a very reasonable price, GoDaddy allows me to create a site that I think looks great and is kept up to date.

Plus, the service person I spoke to was very knowledgeable. He neither spoke to me like I was an idiot nor tried to shove more products down my throat. It's so weird to get good customer service these days that when you do it almost feels like, "That didn't just happen, did it?"

Thanks GoDaddy.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 64: Spain 1, The Netherlands 0

It was, as one announcer said on ABC, "an ill-tempered final."

Blame it on the Dutch, mostly, who were trying to do what Germany, Paraguay, and others had failed to do: beat Spain by playing ugly soccer.

Spain becomes the first team to win the World Cup after losing its opening match, and perhaps the Swiss have to share a portion of the blame for the strategy of teams that followed, since they laid the blueprint for how a team with inferior talent could hang with, and ultimately beat, the mighty Spaniards.

If I was not surprised that some followed suit, color me a bit surprised that Germany and Dutch appeared to go away from what got them to where they were. I wouldn't think they would concede to themselves that the Spaniards were THAT much better than them. Spain has only lost twice in its last 26 matches, and the other team to beat them, The United States, laid out a different plan (in last year's Confederations Cup) taking the fight to them and scoring early. Traditional logic says that the later the game goes to 0-0 the more the edge tilts towards the lesser side since penalty kicks are a toss up. Yet when a team plays to get to penalty kicks, they also minimize the mistakes they can make. They need to be near perfect.

Holland did have a good chance in the first half with a ball split down the middle (glad to see that doesn't only happen against the U.S.), and the goalkeeper made a solid play diving one way but getting his feet out to deflect the shot that went the other. Spain also missed a golden opportunity late in regulation when an unmarked header went wide.

FIFA was spared controversy on the scale that had marked some of the games, but there were stretches, especially in the second half, where tactics became to dive to the ground at any contact and hope that the attrition of yellow cards would culminate in someone being sent off. The Dutch did lose a player early in the second overtime for a pull just outside the box. The player was unimpeded to the goal, so it pretty much had to be a mandatory yellow (and since it was the second, a man down for The Netherlands), but it was ironic that the foul itself was garden variety given the chippy stuff that had been played all game long.

We've seen a few brilliant strikes of the ball in this cup, but this was one of those very nice (if a little ragged) build ups with multiple players touching the ball as it went from end to end and side to side. The goal itself was a crossing strike off the bounce, and while it was not quite as spectacular as Forlan's similar strike in the 3rd place game, given the time in the game and the stakes, it was a pretty impressive goal.

A couple of other notes. Spain set the record for fewest goals scored by a champion. The previous lowest cumulative goals had been 11 or 12, while Spain found the back of the net only eight times in seven games. an average of 1.14 goals per game. To put that in perspective, that's actually LESS than the U.S. average of 1.25 goals per game and doesn't extrapolate for the fact that the U.S. had a goal disallowed and Spain scored two of its goals in bonus time in the knockout stage (which wouldn't be played in pool play).

It's tempting then to suggest that the U.S. needs to focus on better defense despite the fact that it had trouble settling on strikers and had no goals by strikers. Really, though, teams of Spain's level can make chances (albeit fewer ones) against the best defenses, so its more about not giving away chances. Some of that may be communication, and it was telling to me to hear that seven of Spain's starting 11 players play in the same city. It's the classic debate--break up players to help them develop talent at the highest level or derive the benefits of coherence and playing together.

Depth is another key difference. Having watched every game of the World Cup one thing I noticed was how on the best teams different players impressed in different games. In the final David Villa (tied for the golden boot) was quieter, but Xavi was relentless, controlling the ball and making probing pass after probing pass. Only Brazil seemed to have as many different players to step up.

Congratulations to Spain for its first ever World Cup title. They were the best team throughout and deserved to hoist the trophy.

Wow, watching every single game of the World Cup was harder than I thought.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 63: Germany 3, Uruguay 2

The third place games is one of those eccentricities of the World Cup that makes it what it is. There used to be a third place game in the NCAA tournament but it was discontinued twenty, thirty years ago under the reasonable notion that fans rarely cared and that forcing teams that were coming off staggering disappointments to play a somewhat meaningless game was just mean.

Picking a third place game is like betting on a professional sports preseason game or an NBA or NFL All-Star game. A lot depends on predicting who will care, who will show up, which coach wants to save his job or get momentum for the next meaningful part of a schedule.

I assumed, on one hand, that the game would be a little looser on defense and that would favor Germany. It is just human nature to have a little less concentration on defense, to not be able to trick your mind into thinking its like the "real thing" and bear down. Since Uruguay's game is a little more defensively minded, I figured it would be harder to change on a dime.

On the other hand, Uruguay would have a couple players coming off suspensions who would be eager to play, and that might make the effort a bit more on their part. (Germany, for instance, didn't even play Miroslav Klose, who had an opportunity to set a career mark in World Cup goals).

The game itself was pretty typical of a third place game, which is to say atypical of a World Cup game. There were lead changes (Germany scored first, Uruguay took a 2-1 lead out of the half, and Germany scored the last two for the win). The field was rained on and pretty sloppy, so that didn't make for pretty soccer. But it was worth watching for Diego Forlan's goal that could (depending on what David Villa does) earn him a part of the Golden Boot and should earn him a permanent YouTube home in some thread of pretties World Cup goals. Typically called a scissors kick, Forlan's shot was a perfectly timed strike in which he managed to get his leg over a crossing ball by throwing his legs in the air. That a player can just not whiff on such a play is extraordinary, that he can hit the goal (that is, aim) is astounding.

Plus, that play had one of my favorite replays of the World Cup. Next time you see the highlight, keep your eye on the German goaltender. He never even moves until the ball is in the net.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 62: Spain 1, Germany 0

The game was a little boring, actually. Disappointingly so, unless you had a rooting interest. Not that Spain, or its fans, will apologize. This was one of those games where the teams played less to win than to not lose. Each had enough respect for the other that they did not want to give away a key mistake to put themselves in the hole.

That was a game recipe that, I think, played into Spain's hands, as they have been playing that style all World Cup, while Germany had been playing more wide open, up and down. In some ways, I was a bit surprised. I thought Germany would have--and play with--more confidence, and be able to play at Spain, using its offense not just to counter punch but to control the time of possession and thus put less stress on its defense. Instead Germany looked a little too tentative.

I think I may have underestimated Spain's defense. Granted, like Brazil, Spain's defense always looks better because the offense holds the ball so the defense is fresher and has less opportunities to defend. Still, Spain has played the two teams (Germany and Portugal) in the last three games that have scored the most goals in the world cup and both teams were held scoreless. In between those two was a grind it out game against a Paraguay team that was the soccer equivalent of the Baltimore Ravens or '85 Chicago Bears. As such, Spain has won different kinds of games, and it got its bad break out of the way against Switzerland.

I also think I undervalued Spain because of its loss a year ago to the United States in the Confederations Cup. I now suspect in that game the United States played loose because like the underdogs they were, they had nothing to lose, and like the team from another conference in the NCAA they didn't necessarily know to be cowed. In some cases, teams like that are dangerous because they are used to the other team being better and to playing games where they know they have to maximize potential, whereas more prestigious teams are not used to experiencing that and have trouble adjusting when they play an elite team.

It should be a great final.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 61: The Netherlands 3, Uruguay 2

Not much to add about this game. It was a more talented side against a game, scrappy, undermanned side. I almost felt like I was watching the U.S. again.

The Netherlands scored early with what the announcer called an absolute firecracker, and it was. Because camera distances are used to show broader parts of the field in soccer, the casual observer often doesn't realize how quickly the ball moves with some of these kicks.

Uruguay got level on a goal by star Diego Forlan on a play in which he took a pass, thought about shooting from distance and then noticed he wasn't be closed on and so used some dribbling to set up a cleaner shot. The ball bent and deflected off the keeper into the net.

This goal, too, reminded me of watching the U.S., and it was nice to know that even a team like Holland has some defensive lapses during the game. I'm used to hearing American defenders say about such goals that on this level players can "make you pay" for not closing soon enough. Forlan did.

Even so, the Dutch never looked shaken. This was a team that trailed Brazil, so there isn't panic in them. They scored two quick goals in the second half and the game was effectively over, although Uruguay got a late goal to make the closing few moments a Maalox masher.

Credit an understaffed Uruguay team for making the semifinals and staying level for a half, but the better team went through today.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 60: Spain 1, Paraguay 0

Immovable object, meet irresistible force.

Paraguay had given up a total of 1 goal in this World Cup, and no team had scored in the last four games.

Spain had the most offensive, attack minded squad of the World Cup and had, in its last game, figured out a way to crack a Portugal defense that had also not given up a World Cup goal.

In a World Cup of bizarre referring blunders, goalkeeper errors, last minute goals and extra-time handballs, what else was left? How about two saved penalty kicks and yet another disallowed goal.

The key sequence started with a Paraguayan being pulled down in the box on a set piece--somewhere Michael Bradley must be thinking, "I knew that was a foul"--getting a penalty kick which was saved by the goalkeeper. Video shows three players inside the box when the ball is struck, a clear violation that was not called. Spain immediately broke on a counter attack and when their striker was tripped moving towards the goal, the referee awarded a penalty kick to Spain but inexplicably gave only a yellow card to the defender (a foul to stop a clear goal scoring opportunity is supposed to be an automatic ejection). Spain buried the penalty kick and was finally on the board against the stingy Paraguayan defen...

Not so fast. The referee waved off the goal, claiming a violation...that Spain had put people inside the box to rush a possible rebound. He made them to the penalty kick again, and this time, amazingly, the goalkeeper stopped the kick. Yet the referee nightmare was not yet over. As is common on a penalty kick, several players are rushing the box to try to get a rebound. The goalkeeper pretty much tackled one Spanish player to stop him from getting the rebound, yet this was not called a penalty nor even a foul and Paraguay had dodged its bullet.

If ever a game seemed destined for penalty kicks, this one was it. But Spain kept pressing forward and around the 80th minute had a clear shot that beat the goalie and...deflected off the post! David Villa took the rebound and curved a shot to the far post which again hit the post but this time spun bounce in.

Spain now moves forward for a match with Germany. It has plenty of practice with teams playing defensive minded soccer, but now they get a team that has put the ball in the net 13 times this World Cup, a feat Spain has accomplished only six times. Yet because of Germany's pressing attack, Spain may find more room to operate and the semi-final could be an up and down, more open game that suits the Spanish well. In the end, the question may be how good is the Spanish defense?

World Cup 2010 Game 59: Germany 4, Argentina 0

In my World Cup pool I had picked Argentina for this game all the way until the morning of, when I did a 180 and switched my pick to Germany.

Sometimes it helps to have a few hard games out of the way, to be challenged and forced to elevate your game. Argentina had looked very impressive, but its competition had yet to include a Top 10 ranked team (Nigeria-21, South Korea-47, Greece-13, Mexico-17). Also, people forget that Argentina was up and down during qualification and actually, until the last game or two was in danger of missing the World Cup altogether or having to play the play-in series against Costa Rica. Which is to say, I kind of felt like Argentina was a bit inconsistent and would have a bad game somewhere.

Germany, after it's 4-0 win over Australia was a bit undervalued because of its loss to Serbia. They had to play most of that game with 10 men, however, so that result was misleading. Mostly, though, Germany was scoring goals. I was concerned about it giving up a 2-0 lead to England (even though the second goal wasn't counted), but having strikers who put shots on goal is very important at this stage. Opportunities are fewer, so you have to finish them.

Argentine star Lionel Messi made a record for the most shots on goal in a World Cup without recording a goal. Perhaps because of the history of Maradona in 1986, Argentina was waiting for an individual to have a transcendent goal, to run through four or five defenders and laser a picture perfect shot on goal. Germany seemed to spread it around more, and that brought up the classic question of whether you want to have a go to guy in the clutch or whether you want to have a "balanced" team. This appears to be a year, in sports, for the latter, with the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl and Duke winning the college basketball championship. (Neither of the two seniors from that team was drafted in the NBA.)

Miroslave Klose might not have his name bandied about with Kaka, David Villa, and Messi as the best in the world, but he's closing in on all time goals at the World Cup. Even so, I'm sure he'd give up the Golden Boot (for most goals scored) to get the team trophy.

Friday, July 02, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 58: Uruguay 1, Ghana 1

In the first 56 games of the World Cup, the team that scored first lost once. In the quarterfinals, the first team to score has yet to win. And this was a game that, years from now, will be remembered for how it ended rather than how it began.

Ghana broke through at the end of the first half on a curving, rolling shot that caught the goalkeeper leaning the wrong way. Uruguay got the equalizer early in the second half, then both teams settled in.

The end of overtime looked a bit like a reverse of the end of regulation between Ghana and the United States. In the earlier game, Ghana looked gassed and was saved by the whistle, getting enough of a second wind to score early in overtime. Here it was Uruguay that looked out of energy, hanging on by a fingernail against a younger, pressing side. Even so, the penalty kicks looked inevitable.

Then a foul let to a free kick that landed in the box. Shot...saved by goalie. Rebound for another kick which was kicked out by a defender on the goal line. The second rebound was put on goal and Ghana was going to the semi-finals.

Except Uruguayan Luis Suarez, standing on the goal line, deliberately handed the ball away. He got the compulsory red card (ejection, suspension for next two games), but Uruguay was technically still alive.

Then, incredibly, Ghana missed the penalty kick as the player hit the top of the goal post and the kick sailed away.

I've mentioned earlier in this series of blogs that one problem with eliminating diving and other forms of cheating is the cost/benefit analysis. Here was a classic example. Suarez deliberately cheated to prevent a certain goal in a situation where the game would have been over. In such a situation, anything that keeps the goal off the board is better than taking the loss, and so he took the 1% chance over no chance at all.

Once the penalty kick was missed, it seemed inevitable that Ghana would lose in the shoot out, and they did.

Uruguay may find itself in the position of villains after a sort. Yet what Suarez did is what anyone would do...and he accepted the penalty. Perhaps people will look at this the same was as an American fan might view fouling a player on a breakaway layup to concede two freethrows or tackling a receiver and getting a pass interference call rather than giving up a touchdown. One difference is, of course, that this was that here the outcome was certain. (A player can miss a breakaway dunk, a receiver can drop a pass.) I seem to recall that in baseball or softball, if a player used an illegal means to stop a home run that the home run would be awarded. But the deliberate handball has a penalty in the rule book and rare, very rare is the instance in which that penalty is preferable to the outcome of the play.

Will any of this matter to FIFA? Probably not. The Maradonna "Hand of God" goal was deliberate cheating and they did not change the rules. This is the most puzzling aspect of the sport for Americans. To be sure, nothing could be done here since the rules governing the game were in place, but American sports generally move to ensure such instances won't happen again.

Will it matter to Uruguay? Nope. They will be underdogs against The Netherlands, particularly with Suarez serving a suspension, but they live to play another game.

World Cup 2010 Game 57: The Netherlands 2, Brazil 1

I guess that's why they play the game.

Pretty much everything that happened in this game was not supposed to happen. Brazil got the first goal and yet lost the game, only the second time, I think, in this World Cup where the team that has scored first lost. (The other was Nigeria/Greece, a game where the balance was affected by a red card.)

Brazil has won five championships; The Netherlands is the consensus best team to have never won. When Brazil went up the early goal, The Netherlands was supposed to fold, one more time of being good but not good enough.

Not this time. A lucky break with an own goal in the second half (the first ever "own goal" in Brazil's World Cup history), and suddenly it was Brazil losing its composure...looking like a favorite that was feeling the pressure.

This game was absolutely earned. In retrospective, Brazil's final with the United States at last year's Confederation Cup said more about chinks in its armor than the arrival of the United States. One talking point--the field was in poor shape. Did that help The Netherlands? They scored one goal from a long volley and another off a set piece header. Was Brazil's precision passing hurt by the field? (It didn't look that way in the first half where the first goal was scored on a thirty yard diagonal pass up the heart of the defense.)

The Netherlands will likely be a favorite in the semi-finals.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 56: Spain 1, Portugal 0

Even before Diego Maradonna ran through England and Belgium and almost single handedly (pun intended) delivered the World Cup to Argentina in '86, one of the subplots of the tournament has been which player will establish himself as the best in the world.

Today it looks like Spain's David Villa may come out of the tournament as the alpha male of the sport, besting Christiano Ronaldo (who looked more petulant than threatening as he called out his teammates and the referees) and Portugal. Argentina's Lionel Messi has probably had a better tournament, but as his own strikes haven't found the back of the net and Villa's have, Villa will have the advantage unless or until the two teams go head to head. The fact that Brazil's goals have been modest and distributed amongst the team also makes it easier for players from another team to strike their claim. Then again, if someone does something special in the next three games, that is what will be remembered, not the player who had the lead after 54 holes (metaphorically speaking).

Portugal was a disappointment in this game, and their 0-0 draw with the Ivory Coast was more indicative in the long run than the 7-0 explosion against North Korea. Yes, they hadn't given up a goal in something like 12 matches, but excepting the game against North Korea, they hadn't scored in this World Cup either. I could be wrong, but they looked a bit intimidated by Spain, a bit tight.

With Spain's victory, seven of the eight group winners advanced. Only the United States failed to win its round of sixteen game.

World Cup 2010 Game 55

Paraguay 0, Japan 0

The only thing more dissatisfying than winning a game on Penalty Kicks is losing one.

In one of the earlier telecasts an ESPN announcer chatted about a psued0 debate among statisticians as to whether these such games should be counted as a loss or a draw. Hard to explain how you lost a game where they opponent didn't score, but, then again, if there is a result, then one team did what they needed more than the other.

Japan did not exactly go into a shell and play for a draw, but they were very conservative, often playing only one striker up front and hoping for a moment of brilliance from Honda rather than a team goal. Paraguay, accustomed to playing Brazil and Argentina twice in qualifications had a little more practice in playing defensive shut down games. Neither team had ever made it to the quarterfinals.

Paraguay will be heavy underdogs against either Spain or Portugal but they have beaten two of the teams in the final eight within the last year, so they can score goals in regulation time...though I'm sure if you offered them a penalty kick shoot out right now, they would take it.

World Cup 2010 Games 53 & 54

The Netherlands 2, Slovakia 1
Brazil 3, Chile 0

One doesn't make oneself look smarter than everyone else by picking Brazil, which is the favorite of any world cup until it loses. The experts have been volleying back and forth, embracing Germany after their first big win against Australia, warming up to Argentina after they flattened a weak group, falling in love with Portugal after they poured in six goals in a half against a North Korea team that held Brazil to within 2-1, and falling back in love with Spain after they overcame their goose egg against Switzerland to win their group. (For the latter, there is something to be said for getting your bad game out of the way early in the tournament.)

Even so, Brazil is ranked #1 for a reason. The outcome against Chile was never really in doubt, but two moments impressed me. In the 70th minute, with Brazil up 3-0, the team pressed forward and Kaka got an unmarked strike just over the top of the box. He sailed the shot high, and as the camera panned back on him, you could see him chastising himself for not doing better. In most games with a 3-0 score, the leading team feels carte blanche to try to pad the stat sheet, but each opportunity here is an opportunity to practice and prepare for the key moments.

Perhaps more telling was a moment four minutes later. Brazil had one a corner kick that was headed out of the box starting a counter attack moving the other way. The Brazilian player who did the corner kick literally sprinted back on defense, marking the Chilean with possession, and slowing the break to give the defense time to get back and set up. A fifty yard sprint in the 75th minute with a 3-0 lead? It's customary to think the best teams just coast by on superior natural talent, but they often work just as hard or harder than those trying to overtake them.

The Dutch cruise along, also winning their fourth game with no draws and setting up a quarterfinal showdown of #1 vs. #4. Not as flashy in the build up as Brazil, the Dutch still have some nifty finishers and they are good enough with possession that their defense minimizes the chances the opponents get. At this level, that's what you do...minimize the number of opportunities. Still, Brazil will create a few opportunities on skill, and they will finish. The question, then, is whether or not the Dutch can capitalize on their opportunities. If they do, it will be a close match.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 52: Argentina 3, Mexico 1

Well, at least Mexico can say, by virtue of scheduling, that they lasted longer than the United States by a day. This sort of regional supremacy is pretty much all the two would be soccer powers have left.

This game was marked by--you guessed it--yet another egregious officiating error. This one gave Argentina a 1-0 lead as a goal from a man who was clearly offside was allowed (unlike the clearly legal goal in the England game that was not allowed). The error was magnified by the fact that the official was not really in position to call the play. But hey, Argentina was clearly the better team, so it's not as though giving them a 1-0 advantage had any outcome on the game.

Argentina eventually went up 3-0 before Mexico scored a late goal, a beautiful strike to the corner that made me wonder whether or not Concacaf would be competitive if it just formed one regional team with players from different nations. The United States, remember, hasn't had a World Cup goal from a striker in about 8 years.

Argentina continues to pour in goals in a tournament where goals are hard to come by. They have a quarterfinal match with Germany.

And whither now Concacaf? Rather than closing on Europe and South America, it appears to have been caught by Asia, which put as many teams in the second round as Concacaf and had a better showing from its teams that didn't go through (Australia at least put up a fight whereas Honduras looked like it couldn't score a goal if it had another six games).

World Cup 2010 Game 51: Germany 4, England 1

FIFA will no doubt take the position that the final score of the match supports the contention that England's disallowed goal did not determine the outcome of the match.

As even the casual observer over the last two weeks will have noted, though, playing from behind in soccer is a very different proposition from playing level, and the notion that all other things would have been the same moving forward from that point on is as laughable as the failure to award England a goal for a ball that struck the crossbar and bounced inward a yard inside the box and over the line. When the backspin on the ball bounced it back to Germany's keeper, play quickly continued despite the protests of the English side.

In eschewing goal line technology, FIFA has said that it likes the controversy that the human element introduces to the game. Let's be clear on something, then. This was not a controversial decision. This was a wrong decision. There was nothing controversial about it. It is not and was not a judgment call. It was not a borderline decision. It was a flat error. At one of the showcase events of the largest tournament in the world.

As an American with a non-rooting interest in this particular game, I can only say that my hope is now that the final gets somehow marred by an error of this magnitude. Even then, will that be enough to make the governing body heed the cries to take even the most basic steps to correct the most blatant errors? Chip technology has existed for years to measure these sorts of plays and is used effectively in hockey, a much harder sport to judge goal line technology. As American coach Bob Bradley has pointed out, diving could be effectively eliminated without stopping play or altering decisions on the field by rescinding automatic suspensions after review and penalizing the players that took a dive.

When an error of this magnitude takes place, it is customary to focus on the unfairness to the losing side, in this case, England. There is an unfairness to Germany, too. Germany could very well go on to win the World Cup (though they face some fierce competition). If they do, will there always be a nagging question to mitigate their sense of accomplishment? Maybe not. And certainly everyone would rather be on one side of these decisions than the other. It is easy enough to believe you would have prevailed regardless. But believing you are the best team on the field and knowing it, proving it, are two different things.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 50: Ghana 2, United States 1

Yes, well...we didn't think they would win it, but I am surprised the United States did not advance further.

Two things made the difference. The United States twice again gave up an early goal, first early in the game and then, again, early in the overtime period. In four games at this World Cup the United States played with the lead a grand total of about two minutes after the stoppage goal against Algeria. Mentally, physically, always pushing uphill costs you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Secondly, there was just a difference of individual skill at the striker level. Ghana's second goal came not just on a U.S. defensive breakdown but on a skillful finish from a Ghana player who kept his balance, controlled the ball and put it on goal with pace over a good keeper. The few shots that the United States had were at the keeper. Set pieces, normally a strength of the United States were few and far between and are, of course, harder to execute with tired legs.

There are no easy games in the World Cup, no mismatches any more. The bitterness of a loss is, perhaps, alleviated a bit by the fact that it was not on a huge mental lapse or a poor referee's decision but rather on getting beat squarely by a team that capitalized on the chances it had.

World Cup 2010 Game 49: Uruguay 2, South Korea 1

Congratulations to Uruguay for its first knockout victory in over thirty years. Congratulations, too, to South Korea, which fought hard and valiantly in the second half, scoring an equalizer in the second half before giving up a beautiful curving corner strike from Luis Suarez.

Uruguay now plays the winner of the United States vs. Ghana and will like its chances. It has conceded one goal thus far in the tournament and is toughened by having survived what was, apparently, the most challenging regional qualification process.

Two stories to keep an eye on that ESPN has mentioned but perhaps not highlighted:

--Once again, there were a lot of empty seats. I understand that these are not two teams with huge international fan bases, and from a neutral standpoint was the least sexy of the matchups, but FIFA has to be concerned about this matter. I could not find attendance reported in any of the stat sheets, but the figure I saw for the US-Algeria game was 35K. I would think, if anything, this bodes well for the US bid to host 2018 or 2022. It certainly puts a hamper on the argument for more host nations in non-traditional (i.e. South American or European) sites. (Incidentally, ESPN's Bob Ley mentioned there were also a lot of empty seats for the U.S.-Ghana game. The explanation offered there was that these could have been bought by English fans expecting their side to win the group, but I'm not sure I'm buying that. Anyone who has been around a tournament knows that there are usually fans hanging around after the game trying to pick up tickets for the next game from fans of the losing side. So maybe some English fans had tickets they didn't want to use, but the bigger story would be that there was nobody there to take them off their hands.)

--The field was not in nice shape. Okay, one commentator used the phrase "terrible." There are other knock out games scheduled for here, including, perhaps a game with the popular (and pass oriented) Brazil. Could the field conditions affect the run of play at a key moment? Stay tuned.

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 47 and 48: Group H

Spain 2, Chile 1
Switzerland 0, Honduras 0

Yes, that was a shot, not a fluke occurrence. The last set of group games was punctuated by the jaw dropping goal of Spain's David Villa who capitalized on yet another goal keeper error to score from loooooong range.

With the score 0-0 and Chile forcing the action and controlling much of play, Spain had a long pass to a striker making the run. It actually looked like the Chilean defender took an angle and was going to cut off play, but the Chilean goalkeeper streaked out of his box to try to reach the ball first, fearing a break away. He slid into the ball just before the Spanish player and Chilean defender, but he failed to clear the ball out of bounds, so it deflected off both charging players back to the left center of the field and at the feet of David Villa. Villa was staring at an empty (literally) goal. There was just one was 40 yards away. Did I say problem? Nope, Villa made a long, curving ball that started left of goal and arched like a slicing golf drive into the seemingly gaping goal mouth.

Funny, isn't it, how sometimes (like when the U.S. was 0-0 and needing a goal to advance) that goal can look so small and at other times (like when you are a Danish goalkeeper facing a Japanese free kick) the space you have to cover seems so wide.

Chile started the evening with six points and had a man sent off for a second yellow card just before half time. They faced the prospect of forty-five minutes against the number two team in the world while playing a man down, and a seemingly secure position now looked precarious.

Cynics may suspect that Spain took their foot off the gas in the second half. Once Chile scored a short handed goal to close it to 2-1 it was almost as though both teams tacitly admitted they had the results they needed barring two goals from a Swiss team that only managed one the whole tournament. Still, Switzerland was playing a weak Honduras team, so nothing was in the bag. Honduras actually had a few more chances (and an outside shot at qualifying if they could win by three or more goals). Instead both sides played to a zero-zero draw and we were spared yet a third Top 10 team in the world going out before the second stage.

We were also spared the 1 v 2 match of Spain/Brazil in the knockout round, though, honestly, Spain/Portugal will be nearly as heavy. Brazil is the big winner as they not only get a weaker Chilean team but one that will be missing two players from an accumulation of cards. That said, Chile has played Brazil twice in qualifying and while they didn't win, the familiarity of playing that team means they won't be in awe of the Brazilian side. Still, look for Brazil to go through and set up a round of 8 match with the Dutch.

In the knockout stage things rarely go according to seeds, but if they do, one would half to say that America got a much easier draw than the second place team in their group, England. To win the World Cup, America would have to beat (in order): Ghana, Uruguay/South Korea, Brazil, and Spain (which they have done). England would have to beat Germany, Argentina, Spain, and Brazil or the 1, 2, 5 and 6 ranked teams in the world. So while America is bemoaning its bad luck to get the Malian referee in game two, let us remember they caught a break with a fluke goal against England.

World Cup 2010 Games 45 and 46: Group G

Brazil 0, Portugal 0
Ivory Coast 3, North Korea 0

Much as I predicted yesterday Brazil and Portugal played a less than enthralling match today. There were chippy fouls and a lot of yellow cards in the first half and while Ivory Coast scored an early two goals at no point was Portugal's nine goal differential in doubt. Even if it were, that would be all the more reason for Portugal to play for a draw. Brazil goes to one side of the bracket, seemingly on a collision course with the Dutch, while Portugal may get Spain as their reward for not getting the victory...unless of course Spain can't get a result against Chile.

This was the equivalent of an exhibition game, so I wouldn't read too much into it, but there was one play that was telling. In the first half Portugal had a rare counterattack and a man advantage on a four-three break away. The attacker was in the penalty box, unmarked on the right. Granted the angle wasn't the best, but he laid it off to the center to another player who dove in the box. The result of Portugal's best scoring chance? No shot on goal and a yellow card for embellishment. Portugal is an immensely talented team but that sequence suggests a confidence gap to me. Do they believe they are as good as Brazil? That they can win? In every sport there are players that want the ball in crunch time and players that in the back of their minds would be just as happy to see it go to someone else.

There were a few moments in injury time, including a nice stop by Portugal's goalie off of a deflected shot, but mostly this was a game played very close to the vest.

It's fashionable to feel sorry for the Ivory Coast, probably the best African side, both for the injury to their best player and for drawing the toughest group. Ultimately, though, it didn't come down to goal differentials since Portugal got a tie against Brazil. Also, Ivory Coast had a shot at Portugal in the opening game and both sides played very cautiously, more not to lose than to win. When you do that, you can't complain later that things aren't in your own hands.

One thought about Brazil going forward. They are the #1 team. They are the favorite. But they got 2 goals from a North Korea team that gave up seven to Portugal and were held scoreless by Portugal. Once you get to the knockout stage, will the recipe for beating Brazil be on defense rather than offense...going to penalty kicks or getting a goal of your own on limited opportunities (if North Korea can score on them than anyone can)?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 43 and 44: Group E

Japan 3, Denmark 1
The Netherlands 2, Cameroon 1

Pretty much this whole tournament announcers have been lamenting the lack of goals from direct free kicks (not penalty kicks). It must be the new ball sailing...or the altitude. Then Japan scores two in the same half. First time it's happened in long time. Granted the first (which was from waaaaaay out) was aided by a goalie misstep--he broke the wrong way and didn't have time to recover. The second was a beauty. Later a long, looping cross from near midfield bounced off the goalie's hand and hit the crossbar. It wasn't the goalie's best day.

But that makes it sound like the goalie had a bad day. Japan dominated this game, with speed, creativity, and solid defense. (The goal allowed was on a bogus penalty kick awarded by...yes...a crazy referee.) As the game progressed, Denmark chipped long ball after long ball forward, hoping that a loose ball would fall in the box for an opportunistic goal. I suppose scouting may have made this a strategy, but if madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result....

I have nothing to say about The Netherlands, a team that had already advanced against Cameroon, a team that had already been eliminated other than to ask why this game needed to be played (except to get another African goal on penalty kicks). Then again, I should ask that of a tournament that makes the semifinals losers play a third place game? (Could you imagine West Virginia playing Michigan State the afternoon before the Duke-Butler game?)

The Dutch have had a very workmanlike stroll through their group and unless Brazil beats Portugal wins tomorrow will be the only team to finish the first round with three victories.

Speaking of Brazil, Portugal and meaningless games: with Kaka out on a bogus booking and both sides safely through (assuming Ivory Coast can't make up a 9 goal differential) I suspect you may actually see a pretty boring game...conservative, safe, with both sides caring more about avoiding cards and injuries moving forward. Add to that the fact that the winner of the group gets put in a subbracket with The Netherlands, and there may not be much urgency.

Then again, the second place team may get Spain in the round of 16. (Assuming the Swiss can beat Honduras, Spain has to win to advance to the next stage, so they are likely either going to win the group or go home.)

Interestingly enough, we could have three of the top four ranked teams in the world in the same quadrant of the bracket, and the teams ranked 6,7, and 8 (Germany, Argentina, England). Due respect to Japan, who shredded the Danes, but if you were Portugal, your reward for winning is a bracket with Spain (probably), Slovakia, and The Netherlands. Your reward for coming in second is a bracket with Switzerland/Chile, Japan, and Paraguay. Hmmmm, we may have a bunch of "own goals" in this one.

World Cup 2010 Games 41 and 42:: Group F

Slovakia 3, Italy 2
Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0

Ciao Azzuri. Italy joins France with an early departure from the World Cup. Given my ambivalence for the Italian side, it was especially gratifying to see de Rossi give away the lazy (and dangerous) central pass that led to the first Slovakia goal.

The oddest thing about this game was the last ten to fifteen minutes. Once Italy gave up the second goal, they went relentlessly on the attack, and when they scored the first goal, Slovakia (which needed a win to qualify) looked shaky. Then, as quickly as Italy established dominance, the old arrogance set in and they didn't mark a man on a THROW IN. The Slovakian sub scored on his first touch of the ball to make it 3-1. Even then Italy threw in a second goal and it seemed like Slovakia was the team on the ropes. Despite the referee chastising the Slovakians for wasting time, they fell to the pitch crying injury with every touch. It really was a shameful display, and if it happened against anyone except Italy, which had stolen a point from New Zealand with a dive of their own, I suppose I would have felt angry. Here it just seemed apropos.

The whistle finally blew, leaving the Italian players showing emotion that had been lacking most of the last three games.

Once Slovakia took a 2-0 lead Paraguay was reasonably safe, but they were playing a dangerous, defensive game. Despite leading the group, Paraguay would have been passed by New Zealand if they had given up a goal, and by Italy if the Italian side won. Even once Slovakia beat Italy, they had a few nervous moments to wait in case New Zealand slipped a ball into the net, which would have elevated them into second place. (This was sort of the revers of the last day of Concacaf qualifying in which Honduras finished their win a few minutes early but still found themselves behind Costa Rica, which was tied with the United States. When American Jonathan Bornstein put in a stoppage time goal, he knotted the game and put Honduras through and Costa Rica in a playoff with Uruguay.) Unfortunately for the Kiwis, their magic ran out and they go home without having lost a game (or winning one).

A lot of attention has been on France and their early exit, but the departure of Italy is a bigger deal. Italy is ranked fifth in the world (to France's ninth) and had a significantly easier draw. (France's opponents were ranked 16 [Uruguay], 17 [Mexico], and 83 [South Africa, playing on home soil]; Italy's opposition was ranked 31 [Paraguay], 34 [Slovakia], and 78 [New Zealand]). In retrospect there might have been signs that Italy was overrated. They fell to Egypt in last year's Confederation's Cup and then got pasted 3-0 by Brazil (allowing a U.S. squad it had beat handily earlier in pool play to advance on goal differentials.) The FIFA rankings are based on results from the last four years (it used to be on the last EIGHT). This would be a little bit like ranking the Philadelphia Eagles as one of the top five teams in the NFL because they have made the Super Bowl with players who were no longer there. Still, much as with the NCAA tournament, the name on the Jersey least to oddsmakers. Today it didn't matter to Slovakia, they certainly appeared to want it more. Italy acted like they deserved it because of who they were, but they didn't. If they had played with anything approaching the intensity and urgency they did in the last ten minutes they would have skated through this region. Turns out, as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

One footnote to this match. Italy looked like they had a second goal when a Slovakian defender on the goal line kicked it away. It was hard to tell if the ball had crossed the goal line first, replays were inconclusive and the refs on the field ruled it no goal. They also had a goal taken away on an offside penalty that looked as close as the U.S./Algeria disallowed goal that had Americans up in arms. It's not that the refereeing has been terrible at this World Cup, it's that the difference between these teams, even the powerhouses and the little fish, is very small, and with not too many goals scored, every decision is critical. Again, I would feel more sympathy for the Italians if they hadn't been the recipients of a dubious penalty kick against New Zealand. That said, the U.S. should can any "why does this only happen to us?" It doesn't.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 39 and 40: Group D

Germany 1, Ghana 0
Australia 2, Serbia 1

As thrilling as the end of the U.S.-Algeria game was, the last 10 minutes of Australia-Serbia was just as intense. Before moving to the knock out stage lets take a moment to praise Australia, a team that could have folded its tent after a 4-0 drubbing to the German side and playing two games with 10 men. Instead they scored two quick goals and suddenly the impossible seemed to be gaining momentum. They went for it, pushing forward, trying to make up a goal differential that weighed heavily against them. Then, in the desperate push forward, they left the defense vulnerable to a counter attack. Serbia scored and suddenly they went from dead in the water (down two goals in the second half) to needing only a tie to pass Ghana on goals scored).

Suddenly both teams were desperate for goals and that meant back and forth play like you don't never see.

Oh, and hey, lets throw a little controversy in the mix. On a Serbian corner kick a deflection hit Australian Paul Cahill in the hand. The referee (rightly, in my opinion) determined the hand ball inadvertent and did not award the penalty kick.

Like Group C, Group D turned out to be very evenly matched. Although the referee decisions weren't as dramatic as those in the U.S. games, consider that Ghana got all its points on penalty kicks, that Germany played half a game (and all the next game) without their best player. Australia won every game that they got to keep all eleven players on the field. That said, Serbia didn't push when they had a man advantage against Germany and Ghana did not put more pressure on Australia when they had a man advantage.

One side note--Germany certainly seemed to be playing a less aggressive game. Cynically, I might think that the U.S. result meant they may have preferred second place in the group (which would have happened with a tie), but a tie combined with a Serbia win would have knocked the Germans clean out. Once the Australia/Serbia game went into the 90th minute with Australia up a goal, I have expected Germany to let in a howler to get a more favorable match up in the knockout round.

Or is it? The U.S. scored four goals to England's two. Still, once you get to one and done stage, the World Cup is filled with teams who have looked less than great during the pool stage and manage to gain momentum and improve as it goes along.

World Cup 2010 Games 37 and 38: Group C

United States 1, Algeria 0
England 1, Slovenia 0

It is traditional from a sports reporting context to report these sorts of fairy tale endings by saying you could just feel it coming.

I didn't. I thought they were dead in the water. All credit to Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and the rest of Bob Bradley's crew. When Clint Dempsey put the ball in goal in the first half and it was disallowed due to a questionable offside call it just felt as though the United States was going to have a valiant effort followed by four years of legitimate griping.

ESPN commentator Chris Fowler mentioned after the game that the United States in qualifying and the World Cup have scored 9 goals from the 86 minute mark and on--more than double that of any other team. Part of that, of course, may be due to its penchant for playing from behind, but surely part of it is a commitment to playing from whistle to whistle.

I really can't say enough about this U.S. team. I think one of the hardest things to do in life (or the subset of life) is to continue to plug away after you've earned a result (or feel you have) only to have it taken from you by unfairness, circumstances, or bad luck. Psychologically, it becomes easy to feel that things are stacked against you, that it was not meant to be, and that you have a built in excuse for failure. I'm very happy for the team.

The English win was not quite as dramatic. They got an early goal and looked to be group winners until Landon's run. The story line here may be missed opportunities. Rooney put a shot off the post (and this one looked like he was offside). This is important because another goal would have put England in first place rather than second. Why is that important? The United States plays Ghana and then the winner of Uruguay-South Korea; England will get Germany with the winner to play the winner of Argentina-Mexico; which side of the bracket would you rather be on?

Alexi Lalas claims the United States will be the underdog since Ghana will most likely be the only African side to advance. I'm not so sure. Ghana has scored two goals in three games, and both were on penalty kicks. That said, if we've seen anything in the group stage it is that on any given day the margin between these teams is not that great.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 35 and 36: Group B

Argentina 2, Greece 0
South Korea 2, Nigeria 2

I was mostly watching the South Korea-Nigeria game, so when I turned to the Argentina-Greece match I was really surprised to see the Argentine side wearing navy blue. How odd. While not quite as iconic as the Dutch orange, the power blue with white stripes is so associated with Argentina that I actually did a double take when the announcers called a guy in the darker blue "Messi."

In my Yahoo! Pick'em Group, I predicted a 2-0 Argentina win. My thought process was that they were the better team and that Greece, behind on goals scored, would have to play aggressively. I figured they would give up a goal eventualy and once they did have to keep attacking. That is pretty much what happened.

The Nigeria-South Korea game was definitely the more entertaining of the two. Because Nigeria still had a decent chance, but only with a result, and because South Korea knew a tie might not be enough (if Greece were to upset Argentina) we had two sides pushing for the victory.

We also had a rarity in soccer--a seesaw battle. Nigeria took an early goal, but South Korea equalized and then took the lead on a free kick that curved in when the goalkeeper (previously very good for Nigeria) broke the wrong way. Nigeria tied it on a penalty kick and on the last ten minutes, with both sides knowing that Greece had gone down 0-2 knew a goal would for Nigeria would win it.

And they had some chances. South Korea definitely looked gassed at the end, and even though they were the better side, you could feel the crowd, desperate for an African team to get behind, swelling for a goal. Two lasers in the last ten minutes were just wide right and eventually Nigeria didn't lose so much as run out of time.

Ultimately it was Nigeria's foolish red card against Greece, for a frustrated kick after a shove, that will haunt them. Greece, coming off of an 0-2 drubbing from South Korea, was dead in the water; being able to play with a man advantage got them back in it.

Argentina has a show down with Mexico while South Korea will meet Uruguay. South Korea is a work horse team, but I think Uruguay's discipline, talent, and experience will make the difference. I'll have to think about the other game for awhile before making a prediction.

My one surprise was the lack of urgency on the Greek side. They needed a result, were basically playing Argentina's "B" side (Maradonna put in six subs to protect players with yellow cards), and yet they let Argentina control possession and lean on them the whole game until the inevitable breakthrough.

World Cup 2010 Games 33 and 34: Group A

My quest to watch every game got both easier and harder. The movement to simulcasts meant no more 7:30 a.m. games, but it did mean I had to stream France and South Africa on the computer while watching Uruguay and Mexico.

Uruguay 1, Mexico 0
South Africa 2, France 1

The results mean that Uruguay wins the group and Mexico goes through second on goal differential.

The real story of this group, though, was France. Ranked in the Top 10 and a penalty kick shoot out away from winning the cup four years ago (and not that far removed from the Zidane glory days of winning it all themselves), the team struggled through qualifying, avoided a play-in loss to Northern Ireland on the infamous Henry handball, and failed to score a goal in the first two games. Team turmoil had a conditioning coach quit, a player (Anelka) sent home after the second game for insubordination, and, yet, amazingly, still had an outside sniff of qualifying for the second round with a decisive win against South Africa. Instead, they gave up an early goal and had a man sent off with a red card for an elbow to the the head.

Although a tie would move both Mexico and Uruguay to the next round, Mexico appeared to have enough of a goal differential cushion that a loss would not hurt them, so there was some incentive to play for the win. This game played out much as I had predicted, with Mexico moving forward early and Uruguay content with the counter attacks. When Uruguay scored a late first half goal, the complexion changed slightly. With South Africa up 2-0 and having a man advantage, Mexico suddenly found a seemingly insurmountable goal differential advantage cut in half. Thus the second half was a bit more tentative as the quest for the equalizing goal (which wouldn't have changed the rankings coming out of the group) became less important than scoreboard watching and ensuring they didn't give up any more goals. When France scored a short handed goal (welcome to the World Cup, guys, glad you finally showed up), the ordering of the group stage was set and the teams played out the string. (To be fair to South Africa about giving up the short-handed goal, they were pushing forward, even with a two goal lead, because they needed a bigger margin of victory.)

How to assess the chances of the two sides moving forward?

Uruguay will most likely play either Greece, South Korea, or Nigeria, and will be favored to beat any of those teams. If they were to make the quarterfinals they would play the winner of a match up between groups C and D, possibly the United States, England, Slovenia, Serbia, Ghana, or Australia...with an outside chance it could be Germany.) Given the way England is playing, none of those teams would scare Uruguay, though several could beat them. Still, the Uruguayan squad has to feel as though they have as good a chance at the semifinals as anyone, and if they can make it that far, anything can happen in one game (see US in Confederation Cup).

Mexico will almost certainly play Argentina (unless the Argentines give up four or more to the Greeks while failing to score). Argentina would certainly be favored, but Mexico has the right sort of demeanor for that game: because they think they are better than they are they will not be cowed. They also have the individual talent to make plays. (Guardado's strike that hit the crossbar in the first half of this game was almost a highlight show stopper.) A win there would get probably Germany, the United States or England. In other words, that side of the bracket is quite a bit tougher, explaining why Mexico pressed for a victory when a tie would put them through. The difference between winning Group A and coming in second was substantial, assuming, of course, that the Germany that played Australia with a man advantage is closer to what we'll see against Ghana than the Germany that played Serbia with a man disadvantage. Germany may be the hardest team to judge so far because they have played less than a half in two full games with equal footing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 32: Spain 2, Honduras 0

We're half way there. This was Game 32 of 64. The pace will pick up a bit tomorrow as there will be four games a day instead of three to accommodate the last games of pool play being played simultaneously.

Group H is shaping up for a wide open finish. All four teams are still alive, though Honduras would need Chile to beat Spain and to make up a difference of four in the goal differential category. Since they've not seriously threatened goal in two games, this seems unlikely.

But Spain may live to regret not jumping on Honduras when they had a chance. Unlike Portugal in the early match didn't want to leave the door open for the Ivory Coast (whom they had tied and had already played Brazil), Spain seemed content, almost relieved when they finally broke the ice with David Villa's first goal. (That goal, by the way, while not quite a Maradona run, was a beautiful possession keeping one on three challenge that culminated in the player making his own shot. Aesthetically it wasn't as spectacular as a few we've seen, but it will be on the short list for best goals of the tournament.)

Perhaps most troublesome, they missed a penalty kick late in the game that would have been the third goal. This would have no outcome on the game but could have a huge outcome on the tournament. Even if Spain were to beat Chile, they can't guarantee they won't end in a three way tie between Chile and Switzerland. Chile's goal differential is currently +2, Spain's +1, and Switzerland's is even. Were Spain to win, they'd have to outscore Chile by at least 1 goal, so they would move ahead on goal differential and be in. That mean's Chile has to play for a win or hope that Switzerland doesn't score big against Honduras. Here's the thing, though, if the Swiss post a large number on Honduras, they could leapfrog Spain to the first position. So while Spain can make sure they go through by winning, they are less certain to get first place (though they still could) and avoid a match up with Brazil in the Round of 16.

Then again, the team in second gets, most likely, Portugal, who seem to have turned on the jets. It's probably pick your poison. Could it be possible that someone might actually prefer Brazil. (It need be said, too, that with Kaka out, there is no guarantee that Brazil will beat Portugal. Since they are already safely through to the Round of 16, they could rest players.)

World Cup 2010 Game 31: Chile 1, Switzerland 0

Chile gets a second win yet they aren't guaranteed to advance. They have a final game against a Spanish team that will need a result, and the Swiss get the weaker Honduras side. (That is, of course, unless Honduras ties or beats Spain later today.)

The story of this game was simple. After Switzerland had a man mysteriously ejected (straight red for a challenge), they tried to buckle down and just play for a tie. For awhile it looked like they would do it, but a goal line crossing shot to a header put Chile on the verge of advancing.

Switzerland is primarily a defensive, countering team, so the pressure is on them since goal differential will likely determine which two of the top three go through, again, unless Honduras can get a result against Spain. Because of that, this is a bigger loss (and they were hurt more by the referees sending the player off) than the Spain upset was a big win.

In the area of small consolations, Switzerland broke the record for most consecutive World Cup minutes without conceding a goal. So, while there was no guarantee that they would not have given up a goal any way, the red card really, really, hurt them.

That said, it is not a foregone conclusion that Spain will beat Chile in the last game of the round robin. Chile will have several things to play for...they will want to win the group so as to avoid Brazil in the next stage. And Spain will be playing against a side that knows it needs only a tie. While other games show the danger of playing for a tie (if you let a goal in all the air seems to go out, like it did to North Korea, because you've psychologically convinced yourself that you can't score), Chile is also aggressive enough that it can score even against a defensive minded team. So I don't expect them to go into a complete shell against Spain, but I do expect them to push forward less and for Spain to have fewer opportunistic chances (as opposed to chances they create).

Switzerland had an open shot from within the box in the 89th minute for a chance to tie. If they don't go through that miss, as much as the foul, will probably haunt them.

Other news of note, Chile player got a yellow card for diving in the box. As I mentioned earlier, the risk reward of that rule is all wrong. The reward for pulling it off is a penalty kick (see Italy/New Zealand). In a group that may come down to goal differential, that's worth a shot to try to draw the penalty call. The penalty for a dive in the box should be more severe. That said, I'm not sure what it should be. A red card may be too severe, as would a penalty kick the other way. Maybe a suspension for the next game? (That would make sense if FIFA would be willing to review calls between games, but...)

World Cup Game 30: Portugal 7, North Korea 0

Well, excepting Germany's 4-0 result against a ten man Australia side this World Cup had been lacking the good old fashioned rout. Portugal kicked an extra point in the first half and then put a touchdown on the board in the second. Legend has it that when the United States beat England in the last century that everyone assumed the 1-0 score was a misprint and that the score must have been 1-10. Well this was no misprint.

Because Portugal has Brazil in their last game and a tie breaker is on goal differential, they can be excused for pressing for every goal. North Korea is officially eliminated and Ivory Coast all but. (They would have to have a Portugal loss to Brazil and make up a nine goal differential.)

Portugal showed why, despite a lack of success on the biggest stage, people continue to think them favorites to make deep runs in every tournament. They scored goals of all kinds: counter attack, build up, header off a cross, individual strike. Since I picked on Christiano Ronaldo for diving let me say this: with Portugal up 3-0 Ronaldo had the the ball in the box and an opportunity to take on a tiring Korean defender. He layed the ball off to the top of the box for a charging teammate to make an easier strike. With the outcome not really in the balance a lot of players would begin to think about their own stats, much like the basketball players who pad their stats in the fourth quarter of a rout. Ronaldo did get a goal later after springing a defensive trap and winning a mad scramble in the box.

Portugal's win means that, most likely, if Spain recovers and qualifies out of their group they will likely have to play either Portugal or Brazil in the Round of 16. That means a match up of one of the following: World Ranking #1 (Brazil) vs. #2 (Spain) or #2 (Spain) vs. #3 (Portugal). Forget the "Group of Death" (Ivory Coast was hurt by an injury to their best player) the real story of the draw may yet be that three of the top four teams in the world ended up slated for the same quadrant of the knockout stage. Oh, and for all you non-geography majors, remember that Spain and Portugal are neighbors. The plot thickens...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup Game 29: Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 1

Okay, so maybe whatever group Brazil is in is the Group of Death. Maybe the tournament is one big group of death.

The story here was not the result, not even the fact that an African team scored on Brazil for the first time ever. No, the story here was, as one announcer put it "the not so beautiful game."

Make no mistake FIFA is so big and soccer so powerful that they don't really care about controversy. They like it. Because other than Americans people don't seem to let the bad parts of the sport drive them away. The premiere games of the tournament have been marred with controversy from poor officiating to poor sportsmanship.

Ivory Coast was a bit chippy against Portugal. The pathetic nature of the display here is that they howled and complained about Portugal's propensity to dive and managed to get Ronaldo thrown out for the next game. Here they were chippy again, and when Brazilian star Kaka put up an elbow to protect himself from an oncoming bump the Ivory Coast player took his hit to the chest, dove to the ground and grabbed his face. Remarkably, the Brazilian player was shown a yellow card, his second, and will now miss the last game. In what may only be seen as a bit of irony, Ivory Coast actually needs Brazil to do well in that game (against Portugal) or they will not have any chance to go through.

This pathetic display was on the heels of a game in which Italian villain de Rossi (if you don't know who he is Google "Brian McBride foul Italy" or check out this link). De Rossi salvaged a point by Italy when he dove in the box after a slight shirt pull, earning a harsh penalty kick from a referee who, we can only assume, was the only person in the world who hadn't been shown the replay of Slovenia-USA a couple dozen times to see what ISN'T called a foul.

Earlier in the tournament I expressed happiness at two German players getting carded for taking dives. It really doesn't matter, though, how many announcers scold or fans complain. The issue of diving is simply an economical one of risk and reward. With goals at a premium and FIFA insistent on not using review to check or correct bad calls people will continue to dive because the rewards of it working far outweigh the penalties of it failing. De Rossi got a goal and saved a much needed point for Italy, maybe even made the difference between their advancing to the knockout round and not. You think he cares that some British announcer called him "pathetic"? It's incentive to break the rules.

When games of this magnitude get played with obvious errors that go uncorrected and effect the outcome not just of the game but the whole tournament, that's a problem. You would think FIFA would understand that their inaction sends the message to those watching of how to play the game and maximize your chance at results. More and more players dive because...well, it works.

Other than that...oh, yes, the game. Well, Brazil is #1 and despite the problems of most #1 seeds they dominated the match from start to finish. Can they be beaten? Of course...they were down 0-2 at half time to a United States squad just a year ago. They lost games in qualifying. New Zealand showed us that a feisty undermanned team can hang with superior talent. If someone does that and gets a lucky break...

I think the team that beats Brazil would have to defend well (Brazil will make enough opportunities, you can't give them extra), have a decent possession (you can't just sit back and let the waves come like New Zealand did at the end of the Italy game), have a hot goal keeper and believe they can win. Here are six (yes ten) sides that could do it:

Spain: Yeah they lost to Switzerland, but that's my point. Switzerland showed you can beat a superior side and the talent difference between Spain and Switzerland is greater than that between Brazil and Spain. That said, Spain has a reputation for early exits in the Cup. Some people were looking at these two teams as co-favorites. Could they meet up in the Round of 16? Yes, if Spain comes in second in their group. If not Brazil might face...

Chile: The Chileans lost twice to Brazil in qualifying, giving up 7 goals and scoring 2. Here's the thing though, they attack. Sometimes that means losing by a larger margin than a team that concedes defeat from the get go and just plays to keep it close.

Portugal: Remember in Olympic Basketball how Spain played USA in the round robin format and played very conservatively saving their best game for when they would see them again. If Portugal can get its act together they are a very talented team.

Paraguay: Know the last team to beat Brazil in qualifiers? They are still around in the tournament and are 2-0 and safely in the field of 16.
Netherlands: They are winning ugly but ranked fourth in the world.

Germany: Remember the first game and remember that Serbia is a good team that was playing with a man advantage.

Argentina: Messi gives them confidence. They had a loss and a tie against Brazil in qualifying and they weren't playing nearly as well.

All of these, except Argentina, are on Brazil's side of the bracket in the knockout stage. There are teams on the other side that could spring an upset (remember the United States was up 2-0 at half time in the Confederations Cup final) but I think if Brazil gets to the final they will win. Or, stated differently, if they go down it may be in one of the early knockout stage games.

World Cup Game 28: New Zealand 1, Italy 1

Wow, where to start?

Many of the themes of World Cup 2010 were on display. First and foremost was the struggle of the Top 8 teams. Consider that of the top 9 teams in Fifa's World Rankings, the aggregate record so far is six wins, three losses and five draws. The Netherlands and Argentina and Brazil are fairly safe, while France is in trouble. England, Italy, Portugal, and Germany could all still go through, but, amazingly could all go home.

Italy dominated play. At one point they had fifteen corners to New Zealand's zero. Shots on goal were 20-3. The last fifteen minutes reminded me of the end of the Brazil-USA Confederation Cup Final with wave after wave going forward. That said, Italy's only goal was on a penalty kick for a tugged shirt. (I'm guessing American Michael Bradley wishes the referees for these two matches had been switched.)

Like Group C this group now faces a final set of matches where any of the four teams can go forward. Slovakia plays Italy and would need a win and help in the other match. New Zealand plays a Paraguay side that has looked the best so far but the Kiwis are playing with house money and are dead even with Italy in terms of goals scored and goal differential.

Italy had a ball deflect off the inside of the goal post, but the spin made it bounce harmlessly away. There is a game of inches.

All that being said, remember that four years ago the Italians weren't exactly lighting it up at this point, failing to score a game winner against an American side that was playing with 9 men. They got a good draw in the knock out stage (Australia, Ukraine) and then beat the home Germans to go to the final and win on penalty kicks. So the difference between not being in great form and not still being a threat is quite different. "Survive and advance" Jim Valvano used to the say about the NCAA basketball tournament. In that tournament, you often see a heavy favorite struggle early against a lesser opponent and yet survive (think of Florida beating Butler in Round 1 before going on to success or UCLA needing a buzzer beater to top Missouri in the second round before going on to win the tournament). It's not so much that this result could be a "wake up" call as that to go out you have to actually LOSE a game not just give up a tie.

When asked if his team could beat Slovakia and advance to the knockout stage the New Zealand coach said "does it matter?" That says it all. House money.