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.

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