Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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Lasting World Cup Memories

In every World Cup, there are moments that stand the test of time, moments that leave their mark on all who watched. This was the third World Cup I can remember paying attention to. When I think back to my early soccer fandom at the 2006 tournament in Germany, I instantly think about Philipp Lahm’s screamer against Costa Rica in the opener, the Portugal-Netherlands round of 16 match with 4 red cards and 16 yellows, Maxi Rodriguez’s incredible stoppage time winner against Mexico, and of course Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the final. Had I been a better fan back then, the semifinal between Germany and Italy probably also would have been a standout game. The Portugal match for years was my favorite game I’d ever watched. Clearly, I didn’t know much back then.

When I think back to South Africa in 2010, the first image that comes to mind is Luis Suarez’s handball to save the quarterfinal match against Ghana. After that, I think about his teammate Diego Forlan and his free kicks, Michael Bradley’s equalizer against Slovenia, Landon Donovan’s winner against Algeria and Germany’s dismantling of England and Argentina in the knockout round. And of course I think about Spain and the brutal final against Netherlands. The images of Iker Casillas’s save against Arjen Robben, the karate kick from Nigel de Jong and Andres Iniesta’s winner will never leave me.

So now as this World Cup ends, it’s time to think about what the lasting memories will be from Brazil. When I think about this last month, a ton of images flood into my mind. I see Fred flopping in the opener, Casillas being made a fool of by Robben and Robin van Persie, John Brooks scoring the late winner for the U.S., Lionel Messi taking over against Bosnia and Iran, and of course I see Luis Suarez’s bite. And that’s just in the group stage.

In the knockout round, I think about Chile hitting the bar in the dying moments of extra-time against Brazil, Manuel Neuer playing the best game in goal I will ever see against Algeria, Wesley Sneijder tying the game against Mexico late on and James Rodriguez scoring a stunner against Uruguay. I think about Neymar getting his back broken and Tim Krul coming in to save the day in PK’s against Costa Rica. And then there was Germany 7, Brazil 1 – the most unforgettable 90 minutes many of us will ever see. Lastly, there was the bloody Bastian Schweinsteiger and the brilliantly taken Mario Götze extra-time winner in the final.

It’s hard to know which of those moments will stand out a number of years from now. But there is no doubt I’ll never forget Germany’s semifinal win over Brazil. And few will forget Suarez’s bite. In this country, we’ll probably also remember John Brooks and Julian Green, but will that be at the expense of recalling other special players in Brazil such as Costa Rican goalie Keylor Navas?

But regardless, there was plenty worth remembering from Brazil. It was a great four weeks. And now we have to wait another four years.

What will you remember from this tournament? Please comment below


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Ein Deutscher Tag Für Alles

Guten Morgen! The World Cup is finally back today. And I couldn’t be more happy about it, as my brief journey back to baseball quickly made me question the decision. Last night, I went to the Red Sox-White Sox game at Fenway Park. Granted, I’ve learned to expect next to nothing from the Red Sox these days. But I was thoroughly impressed with how unimpressive the reigning champions are right now. You watch them hit and wonder how this team will ever score a single run, let alone win a game that Clay Buchholz starts. How many sub .240 hitters can you start and legitimately hope to put runs on the board? When a 29-year-old rookie pitcher with a plus-five ERA throws six and two thirds innings of one hit baseball, and nobody in the park is surprised, something is wrong. We all know these players are capable of being better. But it’s just not happening this year.

Had the Red Sox not won the championship a year ago, this team would be getting slammed in Boston right now. Imagine the talk radio hosts going off on John Farrell and his group of players that more closely resemble the September of 2006 Red Sox than they do the 2013 team. But instead, we are in this wonderful grace period, a time when anything could go horribly wrong and nobody could get angry. Because we love these guys. The same players that helped rebuild this city last fall won’t ever be capable of breaking our spirits.

So I believe Ben Cherington must use this grace period to his advantage and shop his players while Boston fans will allow it. In my view, hardly anyone on the roster should be untouchable right now, with the possible exceptions of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. Despite their poor seasons, many players will have relatively high market values, and Cherington would do well to restock his offensive talent in return. He needs to be making a lot of phone calls this month.

But enough of that. It’s time to get back to soccer. Here’s my first semifinal pick.

Germany 2 Brazil 0

This dream semifinal will lack flare at times, but the Germans will be ruthlessly efficient once again, hardly troubled by the weakened Brazilian defense. For Brazil to have a shot, I would like to see Oscar occupy the number 10 role in Neymar’s absence. He has the ability to press higher up the pitch than Neymar ever wanted to, and pressing Bastian Schweinsteiger any time he receives the ball in his own half would lead to a drop in the German’s play, as he does much better with more time and space on the ball. Oscar will also have to pick up his offensive game, as he will need to bring his wingers into the match. Hulk will need to provide the creativity and Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho or Paulinho will have to be willing to make the late run into the box should Brazil hope to score without their star man. However, the bigger loss might be in defense, where Thiago Silva will be sorely missed. I hope Dante gets the start, as his knowledge of the Bavarians could prove a huge help.

On the German side, it will be quite interesting to see how the front four line up, especially if Miroslav Klose doesn’t get another start. I would like to see Mesut Özil pushed wider than normal, occupying the space behind the attacking fullbacks and away from Luiz Gustavo. If Toni Kroos can keep Gustavo busy, spaces will open up for Özil and Thomas Müller to receive the ball in front of the back four. From there, they should have more success with their final ball, finding openings in between the inexperienced tandem of David Luiz and Dante. In defense, I would like to see Per Mertesacker come back in, either for Jerome Boateng or Benedikt Höwedes, with Boateng shifting to the left. Defending set pieces will be crucial against a depleted Brazilian attack that will be dying for a cheap goal. Fred’s lack of pace shouldn’t worry Mertesacker, so it would be wise to bring his experience back into the side.

I predict Manuel Neuer will not let in a goal, playing more of his sweeper role than of his goalie role. He’ll be able to beat Fred to any ball played in over the top, and when called upon to deny Hulk or Ramires from distance, he’ll be up to the task. Germany will be patient in the first half, allowing Brazil some unthreatening possession, but they will manage to keep the crowd silent and out of the match. Late in the first half, Özil will unlock the defense, threading a through ball in to Müller after a lengthy build-up. Müller’s cool finish will give Germany the lead at half. As Brazil throw on more attacking threats in the second half, Lukas Podolski will come on for Deutschland and will score the clinching goal on the break, beating Julio Cesar near-post. Neymar and Thiago Silva will be sorely missed and it will be a German day in Brazil. The streak will finally come to an end, as Brazil will lose at home. That is, unless the referee decides to help the hosts out. Let’s hope Marco Rodriguez is up to the task.

I hope you all have a great day, and I’ll be back later today with some analysis of the semifinal after the match. Hoffentlich kann ich in Deutsch das schreiben mit einem Sieg. (And hopefully that bit of German was correct.)



How Neymar’s Devastating Injury Could Have Been Prevented

Brazil may have won today against Colombia, but they suffered two huge losses in the process. The first, a ridiculously stupid yellow card by Thiago Silva, knocked the captain out of the semifinal with Germany due to a suspension. The second though, announced by a team doctor after the game, is even more devastating. Neymar, the face of the World Cup, has broken a vertebra, ruling him out for the rest of the tournament.

Brazil now faces the harsh reality of a semifinal against Germany without its two most important players. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will have to be at his best this week getting his other players mentally ready for playing without their superstar, as the Neymar injury will come as an equal blow to the psyche of both the team and the fans. The poster child won’t be there to save them any longer. Players like Hulk, Fred and Oscar will need to be step up their games three or four notches.

Neymar has always been a fragile player on the field, one who was easy to knock around due to his slight build. Teams everywhere would try to stop him by clipping his heels and going body-to-body, hoping he would begin to shy away from contact. The one time I have seen Neymar play in person – the Gold Medal match in London in 2012, when Mexico beat Brazil 2-1 – it was clear that any time Neymar touched the ball, a Mexican was headed straight for his body. He hit the ground time after time. And since then, that’s become the prevalent strategy for defending the young Brazilian.

I believe it is the referee’s duty to protect the players. I’m not advocating for protecting the stars. I’m advocating for protecting players in general. If a team’s strategy involves consistently knocking a player to the ground, that team’s players should be reprimanded. Yellow cards must be shown to discourage the continued use of that tactic. For the most part in this World Cup, referees haven’t gone out of their way to protect Neymar. You might say he rolls around on the ground too often, but there’s a reason he’s always on the ground and it’s not flopping. He gets hit. And the referees haven’t been doing much about it.

Today, referee Carlos Velasco Carballo was determined not to show any yellow cards. As a result, the Colombians were free to play rough with Neymar. There would be no consequences it seemed. And Brazil lashed out in retaliation. The match quickly got out of hand, with fouls piling up by the minute. However, the Spanish referee did nothing. Neymar’s injury came late in the second half from a brutal challenge that had Juan Zuniga kneeing Neymar in the back. The intent was clear, but because of the way the game had been officiated, Zuniga knew there would be no consequences. “It was a typical play,” he said after the game, showing that knocking down Neymar had become the norm in that match.

When fouls pile up, yellow cards need to be handed out, regardless of the time in the game. Keeping 11 men on the field for both sides should not be a goal for the referee. He should want to control the game, keeping things clean. A yellow card for a deliberate, early tackle from Colombia could have sent a message that the referee wasn’t going to mess around today. But instead, he let everything go. That an injury resulted is no surprise, but that it happened to Neymar himself should send a message to FIFA: the referees need to focus on protecting the players on the pitch rather than protecting the cards in their pocket. No referee should be afraid of exerting control.

As big as the loss of Neymar is for Brazil, Thiago Silva’s absence could prove just as devastating. The central defender was excellent today, and showed why many consider him to be the world’s best defender. His yellow card was one you’d expect from a fifth grader, not a seasoned veteran. Stealing the ball from the goalie as he punts it has never been allowed and everyone knows that. So why do you try that in a World Cup quarterfinal with a yellow card already to your name? He deserves to miss the next match for his stupidity alone.

Brazil will now be at a severe disadvantage against Germany and frankly, I don’t think they overcome their losses. They are simply too great. It’s a sad day for soccer fans.



Why I Hate Penalty Shootouts

Back when I didn’t know much about soccer, a penalty shootout was about the most exciting thing there was. But I’ve grown to hate spot-kicks since, and today’s Brazilian victory over Chile on penalties only served to confirm my disdain. It’s not that I don’t think penalties are objectively exciting, or that I believe there’s a better way for games to end, I just hate how penalty kicks affect how games are played and how they affect the individuals that take them.

After Chile’s equalizer in the first half, the Chileans looked the much more dangerous side. Brazil’s fluidity was gone, and they were feeling the growing anxiety in the stands. Chile weren’t creating many first-rate chances at that point, but Brazil was beating themselves, and could have combusted at any moment. Had Chile kept their pressure up, a mistake was likely to come. But around the 75th minute. Chile stopped attacking with regularity, instead deciding they would take their chances in penalties. For the last 45 minutes, including extra-time, Chile played with a high level of caution, not capitalizing on Brazil’s fragile mental state. Had they not been waiting for penalties, I think a goal would have come.

Brazil should not have won that game, but because Chile played for penalties, a lifeline was offered to the hosts. In penalties, any team can win. In theory, that favors the underdog Chile, but today, it favored Brazil. All of a sudden, there was a clean slate for the hosts, and a chance to forget how underwhelming their performance was. The pressure was as high as it could be, but it had been high all game. For Neymar, the added pressure of penalties hardly mattered. But for Chile, a team that had little pressure on them from the start, penalties proved too much, as they missed three of the five.

Beyond what penalties did to Chile’s tactics, and the fact that a lifeline was offered to an undeserving Brazil, I also dislike watching spot-kicks on a personal level, even when I don’t have a team I’m rooting for. Seeing the crushed face of a player who has just missed a penalty is horrible – for they all feel like they’ve singularly let their country down. That one person carries the weight of an entire country doesn’t seem right to me, even if it makes sense soccer-wise. I hate watching people wilt under pressure. It’s not fun. And that’s not even taking into effect the feelings of a fan, and how agonizing penalties are. They are a brutal experience for all.

But through all that, Brazil has advanced to the quarterfinals. There are certainly a lot of questions to answer though, and they will face a tougher task in their quarterfinal. The Luiz Gustavo suspension for the upcoming game is no small matter, as he has been a rock in front of the back four. But aside from that, many other individuals need to step up. Oscar in particular for me was noticeably invisible going forward today. And for a team that is having such trouble creating chances without Neymar involved, Brazil needs Oscar to show off his creative potential. If he can be first choice for Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in the number 10 role, he shouldn’t be having as much trouble as he is now making an impact for his country.

I feel for Chile going out the way they did, but as I said above, I think they brought the suffering upon themselves with their tactics in the latter parts of the game. It would have been wonderful to see Mauricio Pinilla score that late screamer, but you can hardly say Chile deserved a goal at that stage. The true shame for the Chileans is that Arturo Vidal was never fit enough to make much of an impact on the field in Brazil. As one of the world’s best players, he could have been the difference today. But instead, he was quietly substituted and had to watch his country lose from the sidelines. I hope he gets another chance in Russia.

Lastly, I thought Howard Webb and his refereeing crew were excellent today. From the start he commanded the fiery game with authority, never falling prey to Neymar’s acting or Chile’s late attempts at time wasting. His decision on the Hulk handball needed to be perfect, and I felt it was. Big games need referees who aren’t afraid to make the tough call, and Webb did that today. I would like to see more of him in the coming weeks.

Despite my disdain for penalties, we were treated to an exciting first half and a level of intensity we hadn’t yet seen at the World Cup this year. Brazil will move on, and the neutrals will all be better for it in the end. Getting more chances to watch Neymar play for his country can never be a bad thing. Let’s hope there are many more games like this to come.