World Cup Update (The Bedeviled by Red Devils Edition)
So the World Cup’s round of 16 is over and done, and to general sadness but no one’s great shock, USA has gone down to defeat against the land of great beer, overrated chocolate, American-style bluegrass music, and Jean-Claude van Damme. Once again, I’m here to answer your questions, which I’ve taken the liberty of making up myself.
Eesh, I feel like crap.
That’s not a question.
You’re prickly today. Is it because you’re in a bad mood, too? Does anybody else feel as crappy as USA fans right now?
Sorry about that. Yeah, Mexico. They’ve been beaten in the Round of 16 for the last six World Cups now. They had victory over Netherlands in sight on Sunday, they were ready to break the hex over them, and take down one of soccer’s superpowers in the bargain. They choked when it came to conceding Wesley Sneijder’s equalizer in the 88th minute of play, but the game-winner came off a dive by Arjen Robben that won a penalty. Perhaps Netherlands would have beaten Mexico in extra time or in a penalty shootout anyway, but our neighbors down south are justified in feeling that referee Pedro Proença screwed them over. And Switzerland suffered possibly a more painful defeat earlier today, as they held off Argentina for 118 minutes, gave up a goal to Ángel di María, and then had a chance to equalize in stoppage time, only for Blerim Džemaili to head a corner kick against the post. Our loss wasn’t as heartbreaking as those, and we take some solace in knowing that we didn’t really deserve to win but still played creditably against world-class opposition despite serious injury issues.
Tell me more about the “played creditably” part.
If you don’t believe me, read the foreign news match reports, which have no reason to suck up to an American audience but are still paying tribute to USA. (Also, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said after his win that the game was “bad for my heart.”) Tim Howard played one of the all-time great World Cup games by a goalkeeper, tallying more saves in a World Cup game than any keeper since FIFA started keeping track of the statistic in 1966. The fact that he lost doesn’t take anything away — World Cup history is rich with goalkeepers performing heroically in defeat. I remember Paraguay’s José Luis Chilavert in 1998 repelling everything that France threw at him for 119 minutes. He not only derailed the eventual champions in the round of 16, he almost won the game by scoring off a free kick in regulation. (He was that rare thing, a goalie who could score goals.) Howard’s performance is in that class. Like the vanquished Algerians did against Germany yesterday, we got a goal despite going down two in extra time, and it came from Julian Green, who turned 19 this month and came into this tournament having played all of three minutes of top-level soccer for German powerhouses Bayern Munich. Despite his inexperience, he arrived toting endorsements from teammates like Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Now we know they weren’t bluffing. Green’s bosses at Bayern will take note of his goal.
Green scored, but should Landon Donovan have still been in Brazil instead of him?
That’s a loaded question. Unless USA had gone on to win the World Cup, Donovan’s defenders could always say that the team could have done better with him. I thought Jürgen Klinsmann made a mistake cutting him, and nothing in the tournament convinced me I was wrong. USA had trouble keeping the ball against every opponent except Portugal, and Donovan could have helped with that and at least taken pressure off USA’s defense, if not contribute to the scoring. Having said that, though, I can’t say for sure that Donovan’s absence was the difference between defeat and victory over Belgium. USA missed Jozy Altidore and (against Belgium) Fabian Johnson every bit as much, but every team struggles with injuries at the World Cup, and that’s how the ball bounced for us.
What now for USA?
As I said before, under ordinary circumstances we’d have to wait four years for another international tournament. Not this year, though. Only two years from now the Copa América will take place on American soil, and we’ll be able to see USA go up against the best South America has to offer for a championship of the Western Hemisphere. Think of us facing Messi and Argentina, or those thrilling Colombians. Better yet, we’ve got two years to think of insults to sling at Luis Suárez and Uruguay. The European countries have the Euro tournament. It promises to be a feast of football, and it might very well land in our backyard at AT&T Stadium. Watch this space for updates.
I can’t wait two years. Is there international soccer before then?
The Women’s World Cup is next summer, and because it’s taking place in Canada, the games will be on TV during daylight hours. Pray for the continued health of Alex Morgan’s hamstrings.
Is there any reason to watch the rest of the tournament?
Tons! If you’re not excited for the France vs. Germany quarterfinal match, you need to be checked for a pulse. The last time these two countries met at the World Cup, it ended in broken legs, horrible officiating calls, and a controversial win for the nation that was then called West Germany. These are two great teams, and there’s that whole “you tried to destroy my country in a war” vibe that gives these tilts extra spice. You really can’t top that vibe, although the “you used to be our colonial oppressors” vibe comes close, which is why a France vs. Algeria quarterfinal would have been fun, too. This is what the World Cup is all about!
What about the other quarterfinal games?
As Football365 recently pointed out, Colombia is the only team that’s playing as well as it can right now, and they won’t have any fear of facing Brazil on their home turf, since the South American teams play each other regularly to qualify for the World Cup. I just love watching Juan Cuadrado torch defenses down the wing, and James Rodríguez (his first name pronounced the Spanish way: HA-mess) has been unstoppable so far. He wears “James” on the back of his jersey just like LeBron James, and it appears the two are now fans of each other. Soccer’s powers that be won’t be pleased if those plucky Costa Ricans make the semis, but I’d rather see Los Ticos in the last four than those cynical Dutch. And neutral fans around the world were probably rooting for Belgium to beat USA, because that sets up an Argentina-Belgium match that promises to be very interesting. Lionel Messi’s brilliance has kept the Argentines here, but he’s going up against a formidable defense led by Vincent Kompany, a towering central defender who captains both Belgium and his club team Manchester City, where he’s led them to two championships in the English league. He’s also a nice guy, by all accounts. The possibility of a Belgium-Netherlands semifinal hangs in the air, and that would be insane.
What is the iftar?
It’s the meal that Muslims take after sunset to break their daily fast during the month of Ramadan. That month started last Saturday, and it’s affecting the World Cup because France, Germany, and Belgium all have starting players who are Muslim. (Those are just the teams that are still alive. Other teams in action after the 28th with Muslim players included Nigeria, Switzerland, and of course, the entire Algerian team.) This has led to some fascinating sidebars about which players are fasting during the tournament and which ones aren’t. Islam allows exemptions to Ramadan fasting (sick people, pregnant women), and many players are taking the exemption for travelers. However, some have promised to maintain the fast, like Ivory Coast’s Kolo Touré, though his brother Yaya responded to a question about fasting with, “Have you seen the weather? I would die.” I seem to remember Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets obeying the fast during the NBA playoffs 20 years ago. Strangely, there haven’t been many medical studies about the impact of fasting on the performance of even regular athletes, let alone elite ones like the World Cup players. The subject probably bears some study.
Today I heard some news reports about Cameroon being involved with match fixing at the World Cup. How seriously should I take this?
This is potentially huge. It all revolves around a Singaporean gambler named Wilson Raj Perumal who has been convicted of fixing soccer games in the past. The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that hours before the Cameroon-Croatia group stage match, Perumal had predicted to one of their journalists that Cameroon would lose 4-0 and one of their players would be red-carded. Sure enough, 4-0 was the final score, and Alexandre Song was sent off for what looked at the time like an unfathomably stupid elbow in the back of Croatia’s Mario Mandžukić. Perumal has since denied saying this to Der Spiegel, but I tend to believe Der Spiegel’s word over the word of a convicted felon. The game also featured an on-field shoving match between Cameroon teammates Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Benjamin Moukandjo, which now appears in a different light. Betting on soccer is a global business, and it’d be stupid to think that criminals haven’t tried to get in on the action. FIFA proclaims that it’s vigilant, but we haven’t seen them take too many high-profile measures against match-fixing. Cameroon probably wasn’t going to advance in this tournament, but if there’s anything to the reports, this is a nightmare scenario for soccer’s governing body. We’ll have to monitor this.