11 vs 11

Spain winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
Spain winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa

One of the things that most people like about soccer is that it is a team sport. At any level of competition the pitch is to be shared among teammates who all want to benefit their team in order to win. There might be a star among its players but he/she won’t be able to beat the other team when he/she is facing the entire opposition on their own.

At the highest level of competition like the “FIFA World Cup”, it is no different. Many of the teams that have hoisted the trophy do it because they play as what they are supposed to play, as a team. Let’s backtrack to the last three World Cups. France had in Zinedine Zidane all its hopes. He was already destined to be called among the best players to ever play the game (my personal favorite) but when facing a squad like Italy in the final of Germany 2006, Zizou’s magic was not enough to be victorious.

With Buffon under the three posts, Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Materazzi leading on defense. Mauro Camoranesi, Pirlo and Gattuso taking control of midfield and Del Piero and Totti closer to the opposing net, they were as good as they needed to be to win it all. Four years later Spain also played as a team and conquered the world with players like Casillas, Ramos, Puyol, Iniesta, Villa and many others under the guidance of Vicente del Bosque. They were not a team known for their high scoring but for their way to treat the ball keeping it away from rivals and giving the audience something nice to see.

Brazil, for many years played that way but after 2002 when the won in Korea-Japan, they forgot all about it and depended on guys like Ronaldinho to produce the whole show. That did not work. This time they have a more balanced team, where Neymar is the star but can count on every one of its players to do a good game from the goalie to the strikers. Same is the case for Germany, one of the teams that is always expected to perform as well as its cars during soccer competitions. A team know by its discipline and how fearless they going after every ball. They were second in Korea-Japan and third place in South Africa, they consider that failure since they expect perfection and that is translated into being called champions. This time, they are not messing around anymore, anyone should consider Germany a serious contender for the Jules-Rimet trophy.

Recently a german coach took control of the U.S.A. national team. After Bob Bradley’s era came to an end, Klinsmann who had already coached his nation at their home World Cup in 2006 where they finished third, now took over a team that has been tuning up to be the best in north america (even better than Mexico). He had three years to work his magic over a team where he had not coached at club level. Whatever he did worked as the US qualified first in CONCACAF and their final victory over Panama helped Mexico fight for a Wild Card spot.

Right before the World Cup, he announced that Landon Donovan, considered by many the best player in the nation did not make the final list. He was booed by many that believed it takes a player with over 100 games playing for the stars and stripes with close to 40 goals. What most people did not know, is that the 23 invited to Brazil are just as good as a team as it can be. They play with the determination that the “Kaiser” has instructed them to play with and the discipline germans play. They do not fear any team no matter how good they are, the will to succeed from this team can’t be doubted. Today they beat Ghana 2-1 without Donovan on their opener of “The Death Group”.

Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina has Lionel Messi, but none of them can think of winning the whole thing by himself, he needs the other 10 players on the pitch or he will be sent home early. In the end, that’s what makes a team sport a TEAM. There is no “I” in team.

Todays Results: Germany 4 – 0 Portugal, Iran 0 – 0  Nigeria, U.S.A. 2 – 1 Ghana

Prediction Killers

Cabecao the Predicting Turtle (Lucio Tavora/AP)
Cabecao the Predicting Turtle (Lucio Tavora/AP)

While americans have “March Madness”, the rest of the world has the “FIFA World Cup”. Yes, there a lot more teams involved in the NCAA National Championship but in the World Cup the element of surprise is also among the vibes of the game. While the collegiate tournament has 63 games to define a winner, the FIFA World Cup has 64 to crown a champion. Along the way in both tournaments, anything can happen.

We’ve seen it plenty of times during March Madness, and we have already seen it in some of the first 11 games of the World Cup. The first one and probably the biggest one of them all was Netherlands crushing the defending World Champion 5-1. Colombia winning its first WC game against Greece 3-0 and Uruguay falling against Costa Rica after taking an early lead but finishing behind 3-1 on the scoreboard. Teams from North and South America had a perfect streak all the way until France avoided what could have been a huge upset if Honduras beat them.

Even though only 11 of the 64 games have gone by, it is hard to think there is someone that has guessed correctly to the outcome of every game. Take into consideration that even soccer analysts say they are surprised by what they are seeing. Also consider the fact that in countries like Mexico networks dedicate 80% of their programing to the biggest soccer tournament that happens every four years, while publicity by companies is almost 100% related to the mentioned tournament.

If the World Cup Results obeyed to the rankings FIFA has the teams in, it would be boring, no doubt about that. Spain would defend its crown, Germany would take silver just like in 2002, Brazil would fail in their attempt to win for the first time in their home by finishing third and Portugal, after barely getting in as a Wild Card would finish fourth (See FIFA Rankings).

But Goldman Zachs sees the host nation as the winner followd by Germany and Argentina fighting for that second spot which is decided in two different games. Playing the World Cup final is not the same as playing for third. Spain was also set to find itself among the top three, but losing like it did against Netherlands now has it begging for fourth in many bets.

Soccer star Neymar from Brazil along with Messi from Argentina are going neck and neck on the predictions to who will score the most goals. Messi after one game has one, Neymar took the lead with two but is tied with two Dutchmen (Robben and Van Persie) who scored four of the five goals in their opening game.

Then there are also animals who predict winners. In the last edition of the soccer tournament “Paul the Octopus” predicted Spain as the winner and he got it right, but died after knowing he wouldn’t get any money for it. This time “Cabecao the Turtle” is taking his place and already got the first game right by choosing Brazil over Croatia.

So if you like the art of either predicting or betting on a team, you are on for an exciting and probably bumpy ride through the FIFA World Cup of Brazil 2014.

When Soccer is “Fair”

Miguel Herrera vs Wilmar Roldan (Eduardo Vedugo/AP)
Miguel Herrera vs Wilmar Roldan (Eduardo Vedugo/AP)

“FIFA Fair Play”, the slogan used by the organizing committee of the World Cup to promote fairness. The word itself seeks to clear games from any controversy but can hardly be done. When the world expects the show to be centered on the 22 players on the pitch, it is often that we find the three extra men running around the field as the villains.

Three of the first four games of the FIFA World Cup 2014 have been controversial because of referee decisions, but at least today the outcomes were fair. Yesterday Brazil got more than what they deserved with a penalty, a win and three points considering how well Croatia was playing until a bad call. Today, Mexico and the Netherlands beat their opponents fair and square despite some bad calls from those that try to keep a clean and fair game.

At the “Stadium Das Dunas” El Tri had its World Cup debut against Cameroon, a team that almost forfeited from the competition but was considered dangerous based on its speed and physicality. The game showed just abit of those strengths but showcased a lack of concentration by the african team that was beat to it on every sector of the pitch. Then came the controversial calls. Two good goals by Mexico were called off because of “offsides”. Giovanni dos Santos could have tied Neymar as the leading goalscorer of the competition but Wilmar Roldan from Colombia decided to be the bad guy and along with his lineman Humberto Clavijo sent both teams 0-0 to their dressing rooms, when the score should be 2-0 in favor of the Aztec squad.

But here is where the fairness came to play. Giovanni may have not found the net again in the rest of the game, but Mexico did. Oribe Peralta was in the right spot and at the right time to push a deflection by the African keeper to the back of the net. It took the team 60 minutes to finally see their efforts reflected on the scoreboard and it stayed that way until the final whistle was blown. It may not be a fair result, but it was a fair win.

Not even two hours later, at “Arena Fonte Nova” a a rematch from the final of South Africa 2010 between Spain and the Netherlands was considered a must-watch game. Spain took advantage of a bad call from the judge Nicola Rizzoli who did not hesitate of calling a dive by Diego Costa a penalty Kick well executed by Xabi Alonso 30 minutes into the game. But after the 90 minutes were played Netherlands was too good and demolished the spaniards by five goals to one. A result that not even the winning team expected.

But soccer was fair once again, to make it fair the trick was simple. When teams forget about bad calls and continue to play their game fairness will find its way into the scoreboard. We see it all the times when a team is devastated by a bad call and lets the opposing team take the win by forgetting about the game. Mexico and Netherlands did the right thing by continuing to play the way they wanted no matter what came out of the referees decisions.

Referees have to run between 6 and 7.5 miles per game trying to be as close as 20 feet to the ball at all times no matter the rhythm of the game. That may sound hard but when you are getting paid around $30,000 to be at the World Cup, perfection should be expected.

On the final match of the day Noumandiez Doue from Ivory Coast did not have much to do with a called deserved win from Chile over Australia 3-1.

Game On!

It finally happened, and after a four year wait since Spain took the trophy home at Johannesburg in “South Africa 2010” against the Netherlands, today Brazil and Croatia played the first of a 64 game tournament called the FIFA World Cup.

Before the ball started rolling the Inauguration Ceremony, which viewing audience is estimated around 1 billion by some sources, seemed to be colorful but not as strong or completely representative of a country with 200 million  people living on it. At least I was expecting more samba and costumes like the ones they use in the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro before lent begins.

Media outlets reported that safety was highly taken into consideration for this game, with a periphery of 5 blocks around the stadium blocked only for those with tickets to the game that would start it all. Among the surprises in the opening ceremony was the presence of the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff who had already skipped on opening FIFA’s Congress taking place in the host country. Jennifer Lopez, who sings the tournaments official song alongside Pitbull and Claudia Leitte made the last minute decision to attend the event.

But once the stage was taken down it was time for 22 players plus the Brazuca to take center stage. At the Arena de Sao Paulo Croatia got things going and within the first minutes showed that they were not scared of the stage and playing against the favorite team to take it all Brazil. Their up-tempo playing speed led to a huge mistake by Marcelo (BRA), who scored the 37th own goal in the history of World Cups but the first one for Brazil in the history of the biggest tournament organized by FIFA.

That goal made Croatia take an early lead on the game after Marcelo pushed the ball into the back of his own net after what seemed a weak cross from Ivica Olic. It would be Neymar (Brazil’s star) who tied things up by shooting from outside the box and finding the bottom-left corner of Croatia’s goal. It would take a mistake by the referee to give Brazil the lead. Fred acts like he is being pulled by a croatian defender and the referee Yuichi Nishimura signaled the penalty spot. Neymar nearly missed his chance but the power on his strike was the key to avoid failure 11-steps away from goal as he saw the ball going the goalkeepers hands.

Croatia died trying to even things out but just as we were going into stoppage time Oscar took matters into his own feet and scored for the host team to leave Croatia stunned with a 3-1 goal lead just minutes away from the end. Five minutes later it was all over. Mexico vs Cameroon will close the first round action for group A tomorrow in Natal. Followed by the revenge of the past World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.

Neymar who now has 33 goals with his national team will play Mexico next tuesday to try and clinch Brazil’s ticket to the second round of the tournament. Croatia will play Cameroon for its first three points of the competition. 63 games to go in the FIFA World Cup.

Neymar celebrates his first goal of the game.
Neymar celebrates his first goal of the game.

Brazil Is(n’t) Ready

Brazil Squad at Confederations Cup 2013
Brazil Squad at Confederations Cup 2013

For the next month the eyes of the world will be in Brazil. The samba, the breathtaking beaches and the hospitality of the brazilian people will host the soccer world in an event that paralyzes countries for as long as their team is on the hunt for the Jules-Rimet trophy or the Brazzucca (name of the soccer ball) is rolling.

32 teams will compete for the trophy in a tournament that has the host-country as the wide favorite to add the sixth star to its logo. Brazil has not won it since Korea-Japan 2002, since then Italy and Spain have been the last team standing in one of the most watched sporting events around the world alongside the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl.

Brazil is ready and is not ready all at the same time. The 23 men called by Luiz Felipe Scolari are considered by many experts the strongest group in all the competition. A team led by Barcelona’s striker Neymar who just a year ago still played with Santos in the local league. Today, he is the “leader” of a team that without Kaka and Ronaldinho hope to give the brazilian people something to cheer about.

The reason for it is because none of the 12 stadiums that will be used to play 64 games total in the span of 30 days is 100% ready just hours of what they received about six years ago. For some stadiums the seats are not painted yet, not set up yet, the roads that lead to the stadium are not finished nor the parking lots paved, airports unfinished, etc… Many workers have died in the construction process, others have lead strikes showing disapproval with the government as it is now forced to pay multi-million dollar contracts in a nation where poverty is a big problem despite being the planet’s seventh strongest economy.  The money goes to a selected few.

Winning the World Cup is the “Verde Amarela’s” only solution to make Brazil proud these days. The players need to win it for its people, for a country where soccer is almost the only thing. The other 31 teams all want to be the party-pooper.

22 players on the field per game, with over 3.2 billion people watching all around the world. that is what the FIFA World Cup is about. An event that happens once every four years but this time in a country where winning is the only option. After losing to Uruguay in the  “Maracanazo” of 1950, hoisting the trophy as world Champions is not only revenge against history, but happiness to all its people who want something to cheer about these days.

From June 12 to July 13 the world may stop rotating but the Brazuca won’t stop rolling until there is a champion. Only Bosnia and Herzegovina has its World-Cup debut this year, Mexico wants to make it to the quarterfinals for the first time in 28 years and Brazil wants to keep adding to its tradition of a winning soccer team by adding one more star to the five they already have in their jersey.

What will happen next, who knows, is Brazil ready, who knows, but the world will be watching so they better be.