Thursday, June 23, 2011

In the past few weeks Neymar has garnered a lot of attention from top European clubs such as Chelsea and Real Madrid, and on Wednesday night he showed them why he would be worth the near 40 million it would cost to sign him.  The exciting young Brazilian striker opened the scoring in tight second leg of the Copa Libertadores final with a clinical first touch finish following a lovely dribbling display and pass from Arouca.  A second goal was added by Danilo, who unleashed a left footed strike past the outstretched arms of Penarol keeper Sebastian Sosa after some brilliant passing from another Santos wonderkid Paolo Henrique Ganso.  Santos would concede an own goal from Durval, but Santos would hold out to claim victory in the Copa Libertadores for the first time since Pele’s squad had done so in 1963.

Post-match celebrations were put on hold as the affair turned ugly just shortly after the final whistle.  A Santos supporter ran onto the pitch and seemed to taunt the defeated Penarol players who responded by attacking the Santos supporter and players alike.  Police were called onto the field after numerous punches and kicks were exchanged by both sides.  Several Santos players were down after being struck, but none were seriously injured.  Penarol eventually returned to the pitch and claimed their well-earned runners up medals.  Despite the ugly incident, it could not stop the exuberant Santos fans from celebrating their victory. 

Shortly after the final whistle, Neymar dropped to his knees and began to sob, he was not alone as former Santos great and Brazilian legend Pele also shed a few tears after the victory.  Neymar later described the victory; “It’s the happiest day of my life, I made history. We deserved this title, it’s time to celebrate.”  Santos certainly deserved their victory.  After a scoreless first leg, the first half saw a long range effort and a free kick from Elano turned away by Sosa.  Neymar’s 47th minute goal broke the deadlock and Danilo’s effort in the 69th put the game beyond reach for Penarol. 

So as we sit at the end of the Copa Libertadores campaign for Neymar and Santos and his transfer to Europe looming on the horizon, it seems as if Neymar is poised to take his place among football’s greatest players in Europe.  Interest is strong from many clubs with the front runners considered to be Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, although Santos has also received inquiries from Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Manchester United to name a few.  With the world’s biggest tournament returning to its most successful country, the race is on to sign one of Brazil’s most successful wonderkids.  

The young striker, blessed with the blazing speed of Robinho, the trickery of Ronaldinho, and the deadly finishing of Ronaldo seems ready to be the centerpiece of the 2014 Brazilian World Cup squad, and this victory is a good start to a potential footballing legend’s legacy. Only time will tell if Neymar’s genius can be replicated on larger stages in Europe and the World Cup, but if last night’s match was any indication, Neymar will be a star to shine for years to come.  Take a moment to admire some of the young man’s brilliance below.

Posted on Thursday, June 23, 2011 by Lex

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I’m going to try this as a weekly post to discuss events, decisions, or popular sentiments I don’t understand.

1.  I don’t understand how the Miami Heat losing the NBA Championship makes the Heat signing “The Big Three” a failure.  Coming into the season the conventional wisdom was that although these three players would be a dominant force in the league, they lacked the depth to win a Championship.  The contribution made by the Mavs bench could not be matched by the Heat’s.  When LeBron couldn’t get to the rim or get to the free throw line, the team could not make up for the difference in scoring production.  Plus any time that Eddie House logs big minutes in an NBA Finals game you know you’re in trouble.  Just don’t be surprised when the Heat add a little more depth to the roster and come roaring back next season, to shut up all of the Heat Haters*.

*As a side note: Heat Haters basking in the glow of the Heat loss has become intolerable.  You are worse than Heat fans.

2.  I will never understand why Clint Dempsey tried to dribble the ball into the goal last night in the 76th minute.  The run of play was set up by some beautiful passing, particularly the final ball to Dempsey from late substitute Alejandro Bedoya, but when it came to the finish Dempsey dallied and missed a clear opportunity on goal.  This is not characteristic of Dempsey who usually displays his lethal finishing touch from just about anywhere within 30 yards and I expect to see him return to form in the coming game against Jamaica.

3.  I cannot comprehend why Newcastle United would be willing to sell their captain Kevin Nolan.  With the sale of Andy Carroll in January I wrongly figured that Newcastle would use the profits to improve their current squad and secure another mid-table finish in the Premier League, however Nolan’s exit will surely have a negative impact on their standing next season.   The move will also likely mean the sale of model citizen of Joey Barton who had pledged to sign an extension pending the contract extension of Nolan.  Barton’s twitter feed summed up what a lot of Newcastle fans were feeling “ Just on my way to Ascot, feel sick. Great player, leader, captain, person, trainer, and mostly a friend for life.” Barton’s hashtag used afterwards hinted at more exits from Newcastle including himself, Jose Enrique, and Jonas Gutierrez.

4.  I will never fathom what it feels like to drink champagne that costs $80,000 per bottle, but I’m damn glad that Dirk got to have some.  You deserve and earned it big man.

Posted on Wednesday, June 15, 2011 by Lex

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two years ago, amid the turmoil of the economic recession and pro-democratic protests in the Middle East, the United States was beginning its campaign in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa.  The tournament was a trial run for the nation of South Africa, played in the newly renovated stadia and among the then unfamiliar din of the vuvuzelas that have now become a familiar, if not annoying, part of the beautiful game.  The Confederations Cup would serve as one of the United States’ last opportunities to showcase their abilities against the world’s best in competition before the World Cup.

The group draw for the Confederations Cup was tricky for the United States drawing African Nations winners Egypt, 2007 Copa America winners Brazil, and reigning 2006 World Cup Champions Italy.  In the group stages the United States looked rather unimpressive, being over-matched in their first game against Italy. The United States was able to recover after a Ricardo Clark red card and went up on a 41st minute penalty from Landon Donovan, but conceded three goals in the second half, with American born Italian strike Giuseppe Rossi scoring two.  The second group stage match also saw the United States finish a man down with a similar result, losing 3-0 to Brazil.

The two early group stage losses meant that the USA would have to win against Egypt, have Brazil beat Italy, and score enough goals to make their goal differential better than Italy and Egypt to qualify.  Well on June 21, the perfect storm was brewing in South Africa as Italy were beaten and in dramatic fashion, Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey would all score to give the United States their spot in the semi-final after drawing level with Italy on points and goal differential, but moving on as a result of goals scored.  The United States had survived and advanced, barely.

The next match would be the high point of Bob Bradley’s reign as manager as, the United States would take advantage of Jozy Altidore’s size and strength and a Sergio Ramos blunder and win the day 2-0.  However, the match would see Michael Bradley sent off in the 87th minute meaning that one of the most influential players in the squad would miss the final.  In that final against Brazil, the United States managed to go up 2-0 early in the game after goals from Dempsey and Donovan, but would end up losing the match 3-2 after the Brazilian squad came roaring back in the second half.  Despite the losing result, it was a good performance and the squad had a lot to take away from the competition.

The 2009 Gold Cup was played shortly after the Confederations Cup and as a result many players were left out of the squad to stay fresh for the World Cup qualifying campaign or take some much needed time off after their busy club seasons.  The “B-side” squad had no trouble in the group stages, beating Grenada and Honduras before drawing with Haiti to win the group.  They then needed extra-time to beat Panama in the quarterfinal, but easily won 2-0 against Honduras again in the semi-final setting up a rematch of the 2007 Gold Cup Final against Mexico. 

What would come next was one of the most embarrassing performances in modern US Men’s National Team history, a 5-0 loss at the hands of arch-rival Mexico.  After going into the half level, the “B-side” US squad showed their worth in the second half, conceding five goals to Mexico over the course of the final 45 minutes and yet another red card towards the end of the match.  This defeat ended the USMNT’s home undefeated streak against CONCACAF opponents and marked the team’s first loss to Mexico since 1999.  In a region with only one other internationally competitive side, the United States are forced to measure a lot of their success based on these matches against Mexico and as a result of the drubbing by Mexico the Gold Cup cannot be considered a success by American soccer fans.

The United States would recover from the loss to go on to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with relative ease suffering their only defeats in the campaign away to Costa Rica and Mexico.  They would finish at the top of their qualifying pool and draw England, Algeria, and Slovenia for their group. 

Many USMNT fans had high hopes for the 2010 World Cup, the team had been impressive against other top sides like Spain and Brazil and many thought the United States had a good opportunity to make a run deep into the knockout stages.  The United States would also face rivals England in the first World Cup match, making the occasion that much more special.  One of the major concerns for the US squad was who would step up to replace Charlie Davies, who had been seriously injured in a car crash in October 2009. Bradley named MLS strikers to the squad, Edson Buddle and Robbie Findlay, but the majority of the squad was identical to the one that featured at the Confederations Cup.

The World Cup began about as poorly as possible for the USMNT as Ricardo Clark left Steven Gerrard unmarked in the box just 4 minutes into their opening match; Gerrard capitalized on the opportunity and made it 1-0 for England.  The United States would find their way back though after a shot from Clint Dempsey was mishandled by England keeper Robert Green and the US were level 1-1.  The remainder of the game was a tenacious affair with Tim Howard being forced to make several saves, which eventually resulted in him being named Man of the Match at the conclusion of the match which ended 1-1.

The second match against Slovenia began just as badly for the United States as they were put at a 0-2 deficit at halftime.  The US showed little in attack and adjustments were made at halftime such as Robbie Findlay being taken off after 45 minutes of ineffective play.  The US did manage a comeback in the second half after a beautiful goal from Landon Donovan just after the start of the second half and another by Michael Bradley.  They United States had reason to complain after this match, having a Maurice Edu goal disallowed for a foul that didn’t seem to happen.  Despite this, the United States were in a position to qualify with a win against Algeria in their final group stage match.

The final group stage match for the United States against Algeria turned out to be a frantic affair over the course of the 90+ minutes.  Early on Algeria nearly scored, but were denied by the crossbar and several chances from Jozy Altidore went begging.  The United States also had another goal disallowed, this time for a phantom offside call against Clint Dempsey.  It was looking as if the United States were going to go out as the game was scoreless entering added time at the end of the 2nd half, but Landon Donovan was able to hammer home a loose ball after a scramble in the box.  The dramatic goal not only gave the United States a place in the knockout stages, but also their first group win since 1930.

The Round of 16 match pitted the US against Ghana and saw them concede yet another early goal due to a Ricardo Clark miscue, this time in the 5th minute to Kevin Prince-Boateng.  This game also saw yet another ineffective performance from Robbie Findlay who was taken off after halftime, giving rise to more criticism after his previous lackluster performances.  The United States did manage to battle back to level after Clint Dempsey was fouled in the box, Donovan drove home the penalty and the game would go to extra time.  In just the 3rd minute of extra time, Asamoah Gyan was able to chest down a high ball, hold off two defenders, and beat American keeper Tim Howard to give Ghana the goal and the win. Another disappointing end for the United States. 

After the match many criticized Bradley’s decision to include Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findlay in the squad after the pair had been responsible for the majority of the criticism the US received during the Group Stage.  Bob Bradley defended his selection and despite not entering new territory for US soccer, Bradley’s contract was extended for another four years. 

Going in to the 2011 Gold Cup the international situation is roughly the same, the economy is in a slow recovery and the Middle East has been swept by democratic protests, but American expectations for the tournament remain the same.   The United States’ expectations of winning their group in addition to the competition began well with a solid 2-0 victory over Canada. 

These efforts took a tremendous blow on Saturday, as the United States fell 2-1 to Panama.  The United States reverted to some of the hallmarks of poor performances under Bradley, irresponsible marking defensively led to the first of Panama’s two first half Panama goals, while a comical effort by Tim Ream led to the second.  Tim Ream’s penalty given to Panama was an embarrassment for the entire team as Ream missed clearing a ball, and while falling in a style reminiscent of Lucy snatching a football from Charlie Brown, fouled Blas Perez.  The penalty was easily converted and despite their best efforts, the United States could only claw one goal back thanks to the heroic defending of Panama’s Baloy and a shocking miss by late substitute Chris Wondolowski.  

Tonight’s match sets the stage for the United States to secure their place in the Quarterfinal with a win tonight, however it will mark an occasion that another of Bradley’s squads have disappointed in the group stages of a competition.  Under Bob Bradley, the United States have reverted to clawing their way back from early deficits, and although this can make for some very entertaining and dramatic finishes, it leaves some including myself asking why America are falling behind in these matches in the first place.  Going in to this competition I expected the United States to win, and for arguably the most talented team in the region, to struggle to qualify for the following round is an embarrassment.

The match against Guadeloupe will likely see the United States move through to the next round, however Bradley will be forced to use more first team regulars.  The additional game on the legs of the players as well as possible disciplinary actions will affect the squad for the quarterfinals through the rest of the tournament.  Panama have already shown themselves to be formidable opponents and Mexico will prove to be as well, if the United States is going to win this competition as the nation expects them to, improvement will have to be shown.  Improvement is necessary if the United States want to go on to claim their place in the world football pantheon and any result in this competition other than a victory would yield another unsatisfactory rating from the fans for manager Bob Bradley.  American fans are tired of underachieving; the time for victory is now.

Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2011 by Lex

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

 As Ronaldo took the field for Brazil for the last time, he only resembled the great footballer that he had once been.  Following a career that has left his body in ruin from knee injuries and hyperthyroidism, Ronaldo was carrying the extra weight that led him to be called “Fat Ronaldo” in the later years of his career.  However, the respect that the former Ballon d’Or winner commanded on the pitch from his teammates in the Selecao for the final time was unmistakable.

As he entered the pitch following the bows and handshakes from Brazilian goalscorer Fred, Ronaldo did his best to make an impact on the game, but was unable to find the net despite having three opportunities set up by who many consider to be his successor, 19 year old Neymar.  Despite these missed opportunities, Ronaldo remained in good spirits in his final fifteen minutes of play for Brazil. 

When halftime arrived he was greeted with even more applause from the Brazilian faithful and walked between the two rows of players, shaking hands with his Brazilian teammates and thanking his Romanian competitors as he exited the pitch.  Ronaldo then draped himself in the Brazilian flag and took a lap around the stadium with his son, thanking the supporters for all they had done for him.  It was also one last chance for those fans to thank Ronaldo for a legendary career.

Ronaldo will go down in history as one of the greatest footballers of the modern era, winning nearly every honor available to him.  He is second all-time in international scoring for Brazil, following only the great Pele.  

He achieved success at the club level with cup wins and league victories with Cruziero, PSV, and later in his career with Corinthians.  The majority of his career was spent with European giants Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid.  During his tenure with those clubs he managed to win the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, Copa del Rey, Supercopa de Espana, the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1998, and two La Liga titles with Real Madrid in addition to the two World Cups that Ronaldo won while with Brazil. 

Ronaldo’s accomplishments have earned him many individual awards and he retires as one of the most decorated footballers in the modern game with two Ballon D’Or wins, three time FIFA World Player of the Year, as well as World Cup Golden Boot and Ball titles to go along with a laundry list of other awards and credentials.  Besides being named one of FIFA’s top 100 players of all time and Serie A Player of the Decade, Ronaldo will also be remembered for his nearly bald hairstyle, gap toothed grin, and single finger celebrations. 

A player capable of incredible brilliance on the pitch, known for his blazing speed and deadly finishing, he frustrated defenses for the entirety of his career overcoming multiple knee injuries, which prematurely ended his career.  He was a complete striker capable of scoring from nearly anywhere in nearly any situation whether it be free kicks, from the penalty spot, or catching opponents on the break, Ronaldo made a career of burying the opportunities he was given.  He boasts an impressive score rate for Brazil scoring 62 goals in 98 appearances and at the club level he was just as impressive scoring 247 goals in 343 career appearances. 

The type of talent and poise that Ronaldo demonstrated on the pitch is one that will be admired by future generations and his legacy will be carried on by current members of the Brazil squad Robinho and Neymar.  

The images of Ronaldo draped in the Brazilian flag and raising the World Cup Trophy will never be forgotten along with all of the magical performances that he contributed over the years.  Today the world is a little less bright today without the brilliance of Ronaldo’s golden boots.

Posted on Wednesday, June 08, 2011 by Lex

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Today Sepp Blatter was elected to serve a fourth term as the head of soccer’s governing body FIFA.  Since being elected as president of FIFA in 1998 Blatter’s reign has been tainted by numerous criticisms and allegations ranging from incompetence to outright corruption.  His latest election was held just days after announcing his only opposition Mohamed Bin Hammam was being suspended along with CONCACAF President Jack Warner following allegations that the duo had been conspiring to buy votes for the election.  The election also took place after direct request from the English delegation that requested the election be delayed so a reform candidate may be chosen to oppose Blatter.  

Before Blatter was elected, FIFA announced today that it would be looking to expand the voting for future World Cup bids to all 208 members of its Congress as opposed to the system of a 24 member executive committee that recently decided the locations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.   This change comes after members of the executive committee were removed during the selection process after attempting to solicit bribes.

In the days prior to the election, several of the World Cup’s largest sponsors, Visa, Coca-Cola, and Adidas have expressed their concern over the bribery charges as well as FIFA’s actions concerning the charges.  These sponsors expressing their concern for FIFA in the wake of these allegations draws more negative attention to the organization where it appears corruption runs rampant.  Despite Blatter’s constant pledges to clean up the game, more scandal arises monthly to dispel any notion that true reform is on the way for FIFA.
Sepp Blatter is the head of an organization in which bribery and cronyism run rampant.  The reforms that Blatter has made to the game have not benefited it on a wide scale and on the issues such as video review and the use of goal line technology, Blatter has repeatedly fumbled and faltered.  Throughout all of this, Blatter continues to preach the values of the game and the necessity to clean out corruption, yet has done nothing to combat it aside from appointing a new internal committee to monitor such activities. 

If Blatter were the leader of the footballing nation of FIFA, it would be a nation in dire need of reforms.  The government officials would be growing rich off their payoffs (or selling tickets on the black market in Jack Warner’s case), while the vast majority of the population remained poor and undeveloped.  If a crime was being committed yet went unnoticed to officials, no video evidence could be used to right the situation and the crime would go unpunished.  Also the government contracts would go to the contractor who paid the most to the officials, not the contractor who would do the best job and show the glory of the game that we all love. 

FIFA is in desperate need of changes and Sepp Blatter is not a man capable or willing to make those changes.  It is time that we take an example from our brothers in the Middle East and revolt against this corrupt institution.  

Posted on Wednesday, June 01, 2011 by Lex

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