Golden Balls

An Award Ceremony to
Mask FIFA’s Horror Show

No offense to Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar, top contenders to this year’s Ballon d’Or award – and arguably three of the greatest footballers ever – but Monday’s ceremony in Zürich may not be all about rewarding the deserving and honoring the honorable.
Not that we should expect any mention of FIFA’s annus horribilis (and we’re not getting anywhere near that stinky pun either). After all, this is the time to pay homage to these players’ artistry, and whoever wins has proven their worth on the pitch.
It’s just that such artistry, talent, and exuberance, shown throughout an ever more demanding, year-round season, are in stark contrast to the staggering catalog of behind-closed-doors misdeeds FIFA officials have perpetrated on their account.
As of now, former president Sepp Blatter, and the ex-head of UEFA, its European arm, Michel Platini, continue fighting their 8-year ban from the sport, and a stretching number of officials, in many countries, face criminal charges.
It’s also emblematic that the corruption dragnet has caught both Platini, who’s all but squandered his past as a great player, and (more)
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The Scream Is Over

The Biggest of the Little Guys
Gets Bounced Off the World Cup

The World Cup has always been a lot of things to a lot of people. In fact, for millions of Americans, there could hardly be anything more important happening this Tuesday than the game that Team USA was playing against Belgium in the Brazilian city of Salvador.
But the cup is a brutal place for underdogs. Despite its cathartic explosion of goals, already exceeding previous editions, it also has a predatory taste for heartbreak. Thus when Lukaku scored and kicked out the U.S. from the tournament, millions of dreams were crushed.
World Cup 2014 Logo copyThe unprecedented crowds that overwhelmed bars, clubs and eateries throughout the States were absolutely sure that this was not going to be Belgium, even if it was Tuesday, and cheered and screamed and dared to imagine victory until what felt like a sucker punch in the gut.
The deafening silence that followed the referee’s final whistle would moved to tears even the hardest Neocon, or those known for despising beggars and Greenpeace activists. The 2X1 score was even more disappointing because, as it’s often the case, the U.S. was so close to tying it, so close to overwhelming it.
It wasn’t to be. Not that this is unfamiliar territory for the only major nation on the planet that calls football soccer, where the great majority still prefers to follow its insulated brand of league sports, and whose notion of a global ball competition involves exclusively its Northern neighbor.
There’s no need to act so sourly about Jürgen Klinsmann’s choices. After all, the current cycle of sunspots is also not what it’d been cracked up to be, scientists say. So if even the billions-old shiner can afford an off cycle or two, so can Clint Dempsey and his mates. And so can we all.
Which doesn’t mean that Team USA’s ride wasn’t thrilling, as it’s been for at least three consecutive World Cups, and that they haven’t given their very best, which it’s also been the case for the longest while. Then again, you can say the same about pretty much every ‘little’ team that never makes it to the final.

EVERY BIT A FLAMING TRAIL
For there hasn’t been a single case of a fragile team winning it all in this almost century old tournament, including the big guys, when they play a notch below their historical best. Continue reading

Out of This World (Cup)

Ecstasy to a Precious Few

& Agony for the Rest of Us

Time to face the inevitable: to pick a wrong team and bet the farm that your dreams won’t go south. In about two weeks, the World Cup will kick off in Brazil and the host, plus 31 other nations, will spend a month chasing a soccer ball through grit till glory.
Two will book a ticket to the July 13 final in Rio, and out of some 400 players expected to step on the grass, they may count with one or two of a group of eight outstanding talents to fulfill, or deflate, the hopes of millions of their comrades.
The history of this tournament may as well be written by the feet of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Messi, Spain’s Iniesta, Brazil’s Neymar, Italy’s Balotelli, Netherlands’ Robben, France’s Ribery and Chile’s Sanchez, or by the drive, team work, and ultimately sheer luck of everyone else.
The cup is capricious, though, and make a hero out of some unknown buck, instead, who’ll score that untimely goal, make an unlikely play, and provide the fleeting moment of suspended time when the ball succeeds in kissing the net. Between that kiss and the stadium explosion that follows it, lives the world’s most popular sport.
Short of divining who’ll be the winner, we once again embark on the vain exercise of establishing what we know, hoping that what we don’t, doesn’t bite us on our behind. In fact, it’s our duty to toss the dice and look ahead, despite all reasoning to the contrary.
A Colltales reader wrote so sensibly that ‘even the worst teams in the world have their faithful, and emotionally, masochistic followers.’ But if asked, one wouldn’t get such a straight assessment of their own misery, but all sorts of rational and, really, no nonsensical arguments to the contrary.
You won’t get a straight assessment about the outlook for this cup here either. Rather, I’ll switch to a single voice, so to allow myself to be entirely partial, deeply biased, and at times, completely irrational. You may get some useful hints, though, at least about how this game turns temporarily insane half of the world’s population.
WISHING UPON A STAR OR TWO
For starters, let’s get something out of the way: not to dismiss world champions Spaniards, but they have already peaked and, as last year’s Confederations Cup final has proved, they’re beatable. I’m not wishing for Brazil to cross paths with them again, but there are a number of teams that can knock them out early and often.

Talking about aging squads, if this cup were in Europe, Germany would be a natural fit to take it all once again. But for the fact that they strive under hard conditions and this group of players has been performing at its best for several years now, I’m not sure in the whole it still remains a suitable match to younger teams, though. Or to the grind of their own group, which in any case, they’re expected to win.
Italy and France are two tiresome mysteries too, but for radically different reasons. Piro & Balotelli notwithstanding, the Italians seem a fatigued bunch, and their schematics on the pitch will be hardly effective against the more agile contenders on their way. France, on the other hand, is a mystery because it’s failed to renew itself, since the sorely missed times of Zidane, headbutting and all.
In fact, the bureaucracy that took hold of European national teams, in opposite to their vibrant clubs, is baffling. Or anyone thinks that Belgians, Greeks, Austrians, Russians and the Swiss have something up their sleeves to shock the world? Puzzlingly, such lack of enthusiasm is echoed by the Africans, too. Long ago, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, specially, used to be a refreshing sight. Now they seem er European. Something happened on their way to the big leagues.
The malaise had already defeated the Dutch four years ago, but a former French colony, Ivory Coast, may hold some promise of Continue reading

Brazuca

World Cup Groups Set, a Weary
Brazil Braces for the June Kickoff

The last regulation act before the start of next summer’s World Cup in Brazil took place yesterday: the tournament’s group drawing and first round schedule. It was pretty much one of the few things that happened on schedule. All else is far from running as smooth.
In fact, all six stadiums being built or redone for the games will miss the December deadline, despite staggering costs (and so far, two casualties). Thus, if one could name a single thing that, for sure, will be doing its part, even if all else fails, that’d be the ball.
But apart from that, an engineering feat named Brazuca, Brazilians remain weary about this tournament, despite their now proverbial, and much manipulated, passion for ‘futebol,’ and of course, that it’s taking place in their land. Not many more reasons to celebrate, otherwise.
In June, dissatisfied with the way billions of dollars were being spent with the cup, while a decrepit network of hospitals and chronically underfunded schools were left to rot, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in mass rallies not seen since the 1980s, when similar crowds effectively ended 20-plus years of military dictatorship.
Such dissatisfaction continues to brew, and by the time the ball starts to roll, pent up anger may be virtually impossible to contain. Some expect that a Brazil win could quell such feelings. Others are not so sure. In fact, while many think a win would be great, nice and all that, there seems to be a better sense of proportion this time around.

READY FOR AN UPSET?
Feeling they’ve been taken for a ride, which is reflected in every aspect of FIFA’s fingers on the setup of the games, from the way the competition is being sold to big wig sponsors to ticket prices, prohibitive to most locals, organizers may not have a clear idea what’s coming on their way.
The case of last month’s spectacular collapse in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, of the multi-million dollar, overbudget stadium that’s to host the cup opener, which killed two workers and caused significant Continue reading