Tuesday, June 30, 2009

a few thoughts on the confederations cup, part three: Brazil and Italy

Brazil. To anyone who follows world soccer, it's not news that Brazil doesn't samba across the pitch any longer, and hasn't for a long time. These days they look like a talented team, but not one with a style that sets them significantly apart from other talented teams. But while joga bonito may have seen better days in Brazil, this is also not the leadfooted defensive-minded Brazil that shocked many of us in the 2007 Copa América. Whether or not Dunga, their coach, cared about the criticism leveled at his dull-but-successful squad at that time, he's definitely fielding a more attacking and creative team these days.

And yet Brazil doesn't rouse an ounce of passion in me--I'm an Argentina girl myself, and somehow the magic of Kaká and Robinho, Alexander Pato, Gilberto Silva and Dani Alves (when he's not at Barça) and all the rest fails to move me. Or maybe I'm just stuck in the past, missing that Ronaldo and Ronaldinho magic. (And yeah, both of those guys, past their heydays much too early, have been guilty of wholly uninspired performances on the pitch as well.)

They were champions in this tournament; they'll do well in the World Cup. But they're not invulnerable, and for a little while on Sunday it looked like the US might beat them. However, the 3-2 scoreline was a little bit of a lie; the disallowed second goal was entirely legit and the score ought to have been 4-2. Had the US won that match the result would have always been tainted with that unfortunate call.

Italy. I like several of the Italian players, I've enjoyed quite a few Serie A matches in my day, and Joe McGinniss's Miracle of Castel di Sangro, about one Terza Categoria's team improbable rise to Serie B is one of my favorite books ever. And yet watching Italy never fails to make me mad sooner or later. Maybe it's the reputation (no longer deserved) for catenaccio, or the ease with which they go to ground; then there's Daniel DeRossi's elbow-in-the-face to Brian McBride in Germany in 2006, Marco Materazzi's goading of Zidane in the final, the unpleasant association of some Italian players with fascist ideology. I don't know; I can't explain it.

I was sorry the US couldn't exact a little payback for the World Cup brawl, but I took satisfaction in Italy's departure following the group stages. Will the world champions look more formidable in a year's time? Eh, probably. But they're an older squad, and they need to inject some more youth into their ranks if they want to go all the way again in South Africa.

And speaking of young talent, I know a lot of Americans are all het up--in varying degrees of seriousness--over young Guiseppe Rossi's decision to play for Italy instead of the US. Jaysus, people. It's not as though he grew up here and obtained foreign citizenship through some long-dead great-grandparent or something. He was born in the US to immigrant parents and moved back to Italy to play for Parma when he was 13. I'm not surprised he doesn't have particularly strong ties to this country, and I don't blame him one bit for choosing a national team that's likely to get him a lot more playing time at a much higher level and is probably, at this point in his life, closer to his heart culturally.

(And yeah...if Italy faces the US again in South Africa next year, and Rossi ends up being decisive in an Italian victory, all my high-mindedness is likely to evaporate in a spittle-crazed vindictive rant about traitors and deserters. But that's football for ya. Watch this space.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

a few thoughts on the confederations cup, part two: Spain, South Africa

Spain. Spain started out cool, calm, and collected, tiki-taka-ing right on over poor New Zealand with a 5-0 blowout. Here I confess that it really never occurred to me that they wouldn't be in the final. They entered the tournament with a winning streak of more than 30 games; who was going to defeat them en route? Certainly not the US! Mea culpa. In retrospect, it's quite clear to me I was guilty of that very arrogance I despise in other fans and players: the assumption that my team possessed some sort of entitlement to victory. That'll teach me.

You might say that the Spain we saw in South Africa this month was the Spain we're more accustomed to seeing on the world stage, the Spain everyone predicted in Euro 2008: starting out strong and gorgeous, hardly seeming to break a sweat, followed by utter disintegration. Some pundits have said in the past that Spain can't win because the Spanish team, like Spain itself, is hopelessly divided by regionalisms: they are Basques, perhaps, or Catalans, before they are Spaniards. I don't know if that's true, or ever has been, but I don't think it was the case in South Africa on June 24.

I've been puzzling over what went wrong there. The short version is that the US defeated Spain because the US played superior football that day, and it's true--Xavi was slightly off throughout the game; David Villa and Fernando Torres were terrible, incapable of finishing (and the pressure Torres was placing upon himself in the third-place match as a result was unmistakeable). But beyond that--and here I'm looking for reasons, not making excuses--Iniesta, who plays so well with Xavi, was missing, still recovering from late-season injuries. And a number of the key players were Barca boys--and thus at the end of an exhausting season in which they claimed the triple.

At any rate, the pressure's off Spain now to maintain that winning streak. Here's hoping they've been reminded of their vulnerability and they'll learn from their mistakes in time to claim their first-ever World Cup victory in 2010.

South Africa. These guys were probably my happiest surprise of the tournament. Well, okay, besides the US's excellent run into the finals. I don't get to see African teams play nearly as much as I'd like, and I enjoyed watching Egypt play a lot, but I knew they were good: South Africa was spirited and much better than I expected, and along with Spain certainly provided the most thrilling five minutes of the entire tournament in the third-place playoff on Sunday. It was looking like a sure 1-0 defeat for Spain right up to the 88th minute when Daniel Guiza sank the ball home to ensure overtime. But wait! One absurd minute later, Guiza did it again! Oh, the stricken faces of the South Africa fans! Shock, despair, tears, departures in the stands. But wait--here's stoppage time and in the 93rd minute Katlego Mphela (who'd also scored the previous goal) leveled the scoreline again. I was rooting for Spain but I screamed "Oh yeah!" Apparently as the roar went up within the stadium, the fair-weather fans who were on their way out went running back in. South Africa fell anyway in the end, to Xabi Alonso's overtime goal, but this time you felt they'd had a decent chance versus the cruelty of those last-minute shockers, and while the fans looked sad again, there was less of the punched-in-the-gut air about them. I loved this team and I can't wait to watch them again next year, and I like their capable coach Joel Santana, a Brazilian ex-defender with a history of saving clubs from relegation in Brasileirão, Brazil's top league.

to be continued...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

some thoughts on the Confederations Cup, part one: Team USA

Wow! That was fun!

For those of you wondering what the heck is going on with this international-tournament-that-isn't-a-World Cup, the FIFA Confederations Cup is played every four years in the year before the World Cup, hosted by the same country that will host the following year's World Cup. Eight teams participate, generally the champions of their respective continents as well as the previous World Cup winner and the host country national team. It's a great trial run for the participating teams and for the host country. The tournament is not without controversy; it used to be held every two years, which was, as many argued, a bit much, given how many demands are made on top players as it is, and in 2005 FIFA wisely changed it to an every-four-years affair.

You'll also hear differing opinions as to its importance. My own view is that it's somewhere in the middle; I wouldn't call it a major tournament, necessarily, but neither is it a lot of meaningless friendlies as some might try to argue. It's definitely lower-key than the European Football Championships or the Copa América or--certainly--the World Cup, and for that very reason, I find it a lot of fun to watch without a lot of the angst and stress that accompany more significant championships.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on the teams from the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa.

USA. Now you all know how I feel about the US Men's National Team--our checkered past, my brief flights of infatuation followed by a refusal to commit, my dissatisfaction with their style of play and attitude. But--but--but! This team did what no other US team has yet managed: they won my heart. Oh, I cursed the day they (rightfully) trounced a disarrayed Spain, but seeing them transform from the ineffectual squad that limped through matches against Italy (1-3) and Brazil (0-3) into the scrappy underdogs who clawed their possibly-undeserving way out of the group stages with a rather astounding win against Egypt (3-0) and then to organized and spirited finalists--well, now, that's a narrative to fall in love with! This US team has struggled in some regional World Cup qualifiers and at the start of this tournament I commented that I thought this was a poorer side than the US fielded in either 2002 or 2006. Today, I think that the US might actually make their most respectable showing yet at next year's World Cup.

Among the things the US needs to work on now is consistency, communication (let's work on those passes!), and a lighter defensive touch. They were sent off in three out of five matches and while one or more of those calls may have been questionable, the fact remains that factions in the US are overfond of the "professional foul," that tactical maneuver which says it's okay to cheat, potentially injure an opposing player, and sacrifice yourself in the interest of stopping a goal. Sorry, I call bullshit; I consider the professional foul the most egregious of footballing sins, far worse than the handball or the dive.

Having said that, I was particularly pleased with Jonathan Spector's defending and some really skillful tackles he made. A few years ago, I was at the Marathon in Portland watching an Arsenal v. West Ham match with my fellow apm-ers Lisa and Derek. I was a neutral, rooting for West Ham for my Hammers-supporting friends' sake. At one point, I commented that Spector was making some rough tackles. Two heads swivelled; drinks in hand, my comrades both snarled at me defensively "He's doing his job!" "Right," I whispered meekly, sinking back behind my pint of Guinness.

Other observations on the US team: I'm not yet convinced by the Jozy Altidore hype and I'm waiting for him to impress me. In the early stages, when the US was playing so poorly, I really wanted Bob Bradley to put in Freddy Adu and see what he could do--not because Adu's impressed me in recent memory, but because the squads Bradley was fielding in those early matches played in so astoundingly mediocre a fashion I figured hey, might as well give ex-wunderkind Freddy another shot at it. Now this Charlie Davies, on the other hand, had some fantastic plays and I'm looking forward to seeing more of him. Tim Howard, after a shaky start (was he really the right choice for the national team keeper, I found myself asking) just got better and better and absolutely deserved his Golden Glove.

Poor Clint Dempsey, and indeed the entire team, looked absolutely devastated following their 3-2 loss against Brazil in the final. And good for that--I want a team that plays with every single ounce of courage and heart and feels broken by anything less than a win. My love of Argentina and Spain, those players and that style of beautiful passing football, will always trump my support for the US team, but this was a great week for US soccer. Bob Bradley and his squad should be very proud of themselves indeed. The US team made history; let's do it again in 2010.

To be continued...