Before the World Cup’s quarterfinal round starts, let’s take a break from all the pointy-headed soccer analysis and round up what’s happening on the wackier fringes of this tournament.
France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy met with striker Thierry Henry in the wake of the country’s shambolic exit from the tournament, while departing coach Raymond “Crazy Ray” Domenech was called on the carpet by lawmakers to explain his actions. Much as I would like soccer to get bigger in America, I’m glad we don’t live in a country where the president has to answer for it when the soccer team underperforms.
FIFA’s top brass finally got their heads out of their asses and admitted that the officiating was terrible for the Germany-England and Argentina-Mexico games. Sepp Blatter has promised to review what can be done to improve matters, but the next opportunity for that won’t be until next March. We’ll have to keep tabs.
With the tournament down to its final eight countries, Paraguay remains alive, which will be of particular interest to supermodel Dallys Ferreira. The Ciudad del Este native and Miss Playboy Paraguay 2005 (wait, Playboy has a Paraguay edition?) promised to have sex with everybody on the team if Paraguay won the World Cup.
Not wanting to be outdone Not wanting to be left out, lingerie model Larissa Riquelme promised to run naked through the streets of Asunción wearing only team-colors body paint if Paraguay won. Though nobody gives Paraguay much chance of getting past Spain this weekend, I note that los Guaraníes defeated both Argentina and Brazil in World Cup qualifying matches, so they know how to take down the top teams. The lovely ladies might have to make good on their pledges, though the sex thing might not be that bad, given that Paraguay’s players include the likes of Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Bonet.
The Paraguayans have a nobler motivation, too. They’re playing on behalf of Salvador Cabañas, their leading scorer in World Cup qualifying. He was shot in the head at close range during a bar fight in Mexico City last January. Incredibly, he is not only still alive but planning to play again, though he didn’t make it back in time for the tournament. Cabañas’ day job is playing for the Mexican team Club América, and he took the field at Cowboys Stadium when they played against Chelsea here last summer.
One of U.S. soccer’s problems is that it only captures the American sporting public’s attention every four years during the World Cup. Bill Simmons has been banging a drum for holding the tourney every three years instead of four to increase their exposure, but that’s the wrong fix. I’ve got a better one, though I must admit someone else (I think it was Grant Wahl) came up with it.
European countries have a major international tournament every two years to look forward to, because they hold the Euro championships in Summer Olympic years, while the World Cups are during Winter Olympic years. The same goes for the African countries, which hold the African Cup of Nations every two years regardless of whether there’s a World Cup that year or not. South American countries have a tournament called the Copa América, but it’s got several problems. Because there are only 10 countries in the South American confederation, they have to invite outsiders to fill the remaining two slots. (Tournaments like these only work when the number of entrants is divisible by four.) The Copa is poorly organized, not held on a regular basis, and not always taken seriously by the countries competing for it — the South Americans reserve their competitive juices and grudges for World Cup qualifying. Meanwhile, the North American federation has a tournament called the Gold Cup, which isn’t too highly regarded because the winner is always either USA or Mexico.
The solution seems obvious: Get rid of the Gold Cup and have all the Western Hemisphere countries compete in one big tournament. (We can hang onto the name Copa América.) Hold the tourney during the same summer as the Euro championships. Qualifying matches on international dates will winnow the 49 countries into the 15 slots for the big tournament, with the host country getting the remaining slot automatically. The process would have to be broken down into qualifying groups with uneven numbers of countries in each group, but Europe has the same problem and manages it well enough. If there were a way to hold the tournament as a March Madness-style single elimination bracket, I’d be open to that as well. Having a major prize to compete for every two years would be in the best soccer interests of not just the United States, but every other country in the hemisphere except possibly for Argentina and Brazil, and you could argue that such a tourney would benefit them as well.
The main obstacle to this is: Who would run such a tournament? The European confederation (UEFA) runs the Euros, while the African confederation (CAF) runs the Cup of Nations. South America’s federation (CONMEBOL) is separate from North America’s (CONCACAF). Who would be in charge? Someone might appoint a joint committee to simply handle this tournament, but this might plausibly lead down a slippery slope to having the two confederations merge into one. This would result in some bureaucrats in both confederations losing their power. More importantly for you and me, it might ultimately lead to USA and the other North American nations competing against the South Americans for World Cup qualifying. That would mean the end of USA enjoying its current near-lock on a World Cup spot, and really spell trouble for struggling soccer nations in our part of the world like Canada and Jamaica. On the other hand, USA missing out on an occasional World Cup might not be so bad if we have a serious Copa América two years later where we can atone for it. In the end, I think the benefits of increased competition would outweigh the risks.
Looking forward to Netherlands vs. Brazil. Now would be a good time for De Oranje to find that second gear that they haven’t needed so far in this World Cup.