Saturday, July 03, 2010

Beautiful game

Now that we're down to the final tour teams I wanted to talk a little about what I've seen at this year's World Cup, along with some footy talk in general. And I need to hurry, because this year's Tour de France has already started!

After a fairly mundane croup stage, I have to give FIFA credit - the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals have produced some wonderful soccer, some terrific drama, and some juicily awful errors to give us something to talk about.

Perhaps my most delightful surprise came yesterday with the Netherlands comeback win over Brazil.

Don't mistake me - I love Brazil, land of the Beautiful Game - I wasn't down on the cariocas. But I've had a tendre' for the Hollanders ever since I fell in love with the Clockwork Orange and their "total football" back in the Seventies. The World Cup finals losses to West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978 seemed unjust to me at 17 and 21; Cruyff, Neeskens, "de Kromme", Jongbloed...they were so good. How could they NOT be the champions of the world?I had big hopes for this year. But when Robinho slipped through the Holland defense to put the Brazilians up 1-0 with more than an hour to play, well...I had a doctor's appointment and turned off the truck radio with some, but not overwhelming, regret.

When I turned the truck over a half hour later I thought I was hearing wrong. Brazil down a goal? Down a player? What the..?

But the Dutch Masters hung on, and now they have a chance to wipe out the Seventies. I'll be there cheering for them Tuesday. Oranje boven!

The German team, though, looks terrific; young, energetic, dangerous on the attack and the counterattack. They have looked better with every game; their demolition of the Argentine side was murderous, clinical. I see the Germans as the other potential finalist in the group of four. Spain has been as good as they needed to be, but have lacked anything like the skill they showed in the UEFA championships. Uruguay is just dour; frankly, I'm sorry that Gyan missed the 120th-minute penalty that would have sent them home.An what about the Big Show in general?


1. The finals have been as entertaining and spectacular as ordered. Play ranging from transcendent to dire. High drama, low comedy, heroes, villians, and Diego Maradona. I don't think anyone, at least any soccer fan, can complain we haven't had our feast of footy. It has been a wonderfully crazy tournament so far.

2. Yes, some of the officiating has been dire. There does need to be a goal-line camera. Referees need to be better evaluated, and the incompetent ones removed. And in some cases the rules themselves should be evaluated.

I'm specifically thinking of the handball committed by Uruguay's Luis Suarez. I've thought about this and although I have some sympathy for the argument that the notion of allowing the referee to "award" goals is a slippery slope, I have to think that the current rule is not severe enough. Here was a clear case of a man committing a foul, preventing a sure goal that would have beaten his team. He was ejected from the game and the Ghanaians given the penalty. But they missed the PK, and the cheater's team won. Even Suarez caught the injustice of the moment; "...the way in which I was sent off," he said, "truth is, it was worth it."

But overall the bad calls have not been sufficient to destroy the flow of the games or the overall competition.

3. There is something very wrong with many of the traditional European soccer powers. Italy was dire in this year's finals. Spain has looked pedestrian, and the once brilliant Portugese barely managed to get out of the group stage. France, not a "traditional" power but one that has done well lately, was beneath awful. All of these national teams need to take a hard look at their domestic leagues and their young players. Or they will not be here again for some time.

Note that I am inclined to be less severe on England for the rather sad reason that I don't see England as a "traditional soccer power" any longer; it is, rather, one of the "other" European sides that occasionally make it to the finals because UEFA has so frigging many places. England has become a Slovenia, a Switzerland, a Greece, or a Denmark. The fact that the British tabloid press and the England supporters haven't realized this is rather pathetic but doesn't change the fact of it.

4. As for the rest of the world, well, it was nice to see both Japan and one of the Koreas go through to the Round of 16. It would be even nicer if another of the Asian sides could get that far next time. We already know that Japan and the ROK have the about the rest of Asia?

And much as I'd welcome fewer UEFA spaces, can we stop pretending that there is any reason to send one team from "Oceania"? And I would suggest that although the Asian teams are better, the notion that four should get berths in the finals? Please. Oceana and Asia could conceivably get four between them.

Anyway, it's been a great time, and I hope that the next three games will be as good or better...And in case you don't remember, we have our own soccer club here in Portland, and they may not be Germany or Brazil but those of us who consider ourselves part of the Timbers Army love them all the same.Usually I go to Timbers' games with my friends and stand with the Army, to sing and chant and support the club. But this Saturday Brent and Julie were not in town, so I took my son. Big Peeper was as excited as a seven-year-old can be, wrapped in his borrowed scarf and toting his vuvuzela, as we designated his plastic horn. We rode the MAX train in from North, pointing out the other Timbers supporters, and sights along the way. We queued up for hot dogs and sodas and Red Vines before heading up to our seats, close but not too close to the Army for sensitive seven-year-old ears.Normally I am an emotional wreck at the games, exulting over goals, fretting for poor play, all atwitter if the game is close and the visitors are pushing forward.Tonight I had the chance to sit back and enjoy watching my little guy watch the game. He cheered every shot, on or off target. He jeered every Vancouver foul. He ate his junk food, blew his vuvuzela, climbed all over me, and just generally had a terrific time. That we took 25 shots and didn't score, that we ran off the field with a scoreless draw? He could have cared less. The game itself was the best, even better was the chocolately cupcake at saint cupcake afterwards, better still the fireworks we lit off when we got home.He tumbled into bed smiling.

As I had found myself smiling, too, at my son, as he shouted his joy to the sparkles crackling in the night sky.

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