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Obligatory post about Messi’s legacy.

When Mario Gotze scored the eventual winner,  the cameras instead of pointing to the delirious German (and local Brazilian) fans, went straight to Messi who looked like the weight of his legs had finally collapsed on him. After all, this was his 3rd game that he had played 120 minutes in less than 2 weeks, and the first time Argentina trailed.   All the expectation was now on him to somehow miraculously rescue the game.

And then there was genuine outrage at Messi winning the Golden Ball and even Argentine legend Diego Maradona said it was a “marketing ploy”.

It’s easy to knock Messi while he’s down and say he shouldn’t be up there with the greatest of all time or deserve the Golden Ball, because he didn’t single-handedly win the World Cup.

Let’s dispel the notion of “single-handed”.  What Diego Maradona did was a once in a lifetime event (and it happened before I was born) and in the modern game it’ll be nearly impossible to repeat.  His hand of god goal?  His 70 yard run to score the winner against England, and then dominating Belgium?  Hey Lionel Messi did that too.  But wait it wasn’t quite single-handed for Diego was it? Maradona had players like Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga who scored great goals along the way.  Messi had himself, Angel di Maria until he got injured against Belgium, and an out of form Higuain, plus Sergio Aguero’s injury woes.

Did Pele win any of his World Cups single-handedly?  No.  Frankly, Pele wasn’t even the best player on his team in any of Brazil’s World Cup triumphs.  He was outshone by Garrincha in 1962 and Jairzinho in 1970 and had his best World Cup as a 17 year old in terms of goal tally.  Brazil were scoring so many goals that he didn’t really need to score and Brazil still would have won the tournament. They were that good. All of the previous champions have had structure and a very strong team ethic.  West Germany on paper were constantly written off yet they had won 3 World Cups and appeared in 7 finals prior to yesterday:  Teamwork, it matters.

So that brings us to present day.  Argentina fought tooth and nail to make it to this World Cup final. If it wasn’t going to be through a flurry of goals from their world class strikers, it would be on the back of a much criticized defense with Messi providing moments of inspiration (see Switzerland, Belgium).  The Netherlands had a clear plan to try and nullify him.  It worked until they realized they had nullified themselves by focusing all their attention on him.  Then the toughest test of all: A supremely confident Germany side with plenty of weapons.  Yet for all of Germany’s superiority and possession dominance, Messi was still the great equalizer for the 90 minutes.  He had several fantastic take-ons, a late freekick deep into extra time and an improbable header from a high Marcos Rojo cross.  He was let down by his finishing, on this rare occasion in his career.

The narrative changed in an instant.  If Messi scores any of those chances in normal time, he becomes the greatest player that ever lived and the man “who single-handedly carried Argentina to glory”. He would have eclipsed Maradona for good because the victory was even more improbable against a heavily favored Germany, and even more reliant on him.  But that narrative would have also ignored the great defensive work put in by Garay, Zabaleta, Mascherano, and Romero in goal.  Instead he and his team lost to one that’s been 8 years in the making, and now he becomes a mere mortal?  That’s how history works.

Messi still has a claim to be one of the greatest of all time, and he had an excellent World Cup.  That must not be lost on people, and in that sense, he did deserve the Golden Ball for his impact and performances.  In games he didn’t score, the opposition had specifically sought to mark him out of the game by fouling or shadowing him.  He could yet win the World Cup in 4 years time, but if he doesn’t it should hardly matter for his legacy.

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Why We Can Trust In Jurgen Klinsmann

June 26th, 2010:  The party was over.  Ghana had finally knocked out the US after a tense game with plenty of drama and intrigue.  Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, after a serious shift of running and working hard to create chances looked knackered and out of ideas as they desperately tried to rescue the game in extra time.   Ghana saw out the game effectively with time-wasting but didn’t have much difficulty defending for the last half an hour.

The group stage before that had been all over the place.  Heads turned slightly when the USA managed an unlikely draw thanks to an inexplicable error by England’s keeper Rob Green after getting dominated for a good half an hour.  The other two games saw the US struggle in the 1st half to carve out openings but turning the screw in the second half to get positive results in the end.

Four years ago, I remember thinking about that game against Ghana and wondering whether the USMNT would be back at this stage again.  The following year, I expected good things from them in the Gold Cup, but It was more of the same: unpredictable, open, and slightly more organized but no guarantee of an end product.  Against Mexico in the final, the USA went 2-0 up but Mexico dominated the rest of the game, scored a spectacular goal and finished the match 4-2.  Bob Bradley, coach of the USMNT, was dismissed

Enter the Klinsmann Era

Despite Bradley’s tactical failures in big games, his successor would have big shoes to fill.  He had after all, set many precedents for the Mens National Team including a 2007 Gold Cup win, reaching the 2009 Confederations Cup Final against Brazil, and winning a World Cup group.

But that Gold Cup Final against Mexico proved to be a seminal moment as the USSF bodies decided they needed to make the USMNT a consistent force and the best way to do that was to focus on team development and a more proactive, progressive style of football that would still be quintessentially American in attitude and spirit.

Jurgen Klinsmann, the famous World Cup winning striker, had a few turbulent club managerial spells after managing his home country to a semifinal and 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup.  But he was ready to make a comeback in the US, a country in which he had settled for the past decade.  It raised a few eyebrows, but with his background and experience in turning Germany around in 2006, Klinsmann seemed to be a logical choice.

Foreign Sons

When Jürgen Klinsmann took over Die Nationalmannschaft, he set out to change the entire culture of German development.  Klinsmann’s changes to youth development and tactics altered the German team in ways that are still being felt even as Jogi Löw manages.  Klinsmann gave chances to players Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, and Per Mertesacker – all under the age of 23 at the time and all participants at this 2014 World Cup.

There was also a noticeable shift toward offensive football.  At the time, it angered pundits and German nationals.  Today, there is an abundance of highly skilled Germans that can play the attacking game.  Players like Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Julian Draxler, and İlkay Gündoğan are all products of Klinsmann’s changes to the German youth structure.

With the United States, Klinsmann knew he had a much greater challenge.  The US has no shortage of world class athletes, no surprise given the country’s size, but a dearth of world class athletes playing football.  But how would he fix this in only three years time?

Recruitment.

Klinsmann took a very non-traditional route to restocking the cupboards of American talent.  In Germany, Norway, and Iceland existed several players of worth.  Most were “army brats,” players with dual-eligibility according to FIFA rules.  In preparation for 2014, Klinsmann called on many of these players to exercise their rights to play for the USMNT.  Germans John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson; Norwegian Mix Diskeruud, and Icelandic Aron Jóhannsson joined Jermaine Jones as dual-citizens to play for the United States.

Of course, there is also Klinsmann’s greatest recruiting coup – the snatching of Julian Green from Jogi Löw’s German squad.  Green has the potential to turn into a real star in the middle or on the wing, and already has a strong club foundation at Bayern München under manager Pep Guardiola.  He could be seen at this World Cup scoring on his first touch of the game on a volley.

This, amazingly, is to say nothing of other youthful players such as Joseph-Claude Gyau, Diego Fagúndez, Darlington Nagbe, and Gedion Zelalem, other multinationals who could represent the United States in 2018.  In addition to all this, Klinsmann’s status as a technical director means a youth revolution could be underway in the next several years, with this World Cup serving as a loud and beautiful advertisement for the National Team.

Back to 2014

July 1st, 2014:  After a heroic effort and surviving the group of death, the US were finally beaten by Belgium.  It wasn’t the best performance by the USMNT as Belgium had 39 shots throughout the game and Tim Howard made 16 saves.  Yet for all of Belgium’s chance creating, they never really had it secure.  The US dominated possession and pressed the Belgians hard to send the match into penalties.  They just came up a bit short in a 2-1 extra time defeat.

So yes, we went out at the same stage as we did in the last World Cup, but we dominated CONCACAF qualifying, found some great young players for the future and showed genuine ability to create chances consistently whether it was through the channels, wings, or through neat combination passing in the center.  The US became a solid counter-attacking team and like any other team had its weaknesses that it needed to address.

It also took a ‘Golden generation’ team like Belgium who have players at the highest level across the board in Europe.  Ghana was a strong organized side when we played them 4 years ago, but they weren’t exactly world beaters.  Belgium could legitimately win Euro 2016 and contend for the next World Cup in 2018 so there isn’t much shame in losing to them.

In that sense, Jurgen Klinsmann has removed the uncertainty about soccer in the United States and has instilled genuine pride and expectations for this team moving forward.  Not obvious at first glance, but he could just prove to be the most important coach in our soccer history.

Prawn Sandwich Brigade Knockout stage panel

Can we just say how awesome the World Cup has been so far?

First off, a big shoutout to the fans for NOT BRINGING THE GODDAMN VUVUZELAS.  Seriously, the atmosphere has been incredible.  The ball’s better, and CONCACAF surprised everyone with how well they’ve done.  And a special shoutout to Costa Rica for topping Group D (an alternate group of death) where no one gave them a chance in hell of advancing.

And now we’re doing our second panel for the knockout stage. Same panelists as last time: Pranav Krishnan, Andy McKenna, Arvind Srinivasan, and Karthik Narayanan

Continue reading Prawn Sandwich Brigade Knockout stage panel

American soccer fans are fine, A response to Jonathan Clegg (WSJ)

Normally during my lunch hour, I like to read the Wall Street Journal and catch up on daily news, markets, some tech innovations, etc (surprise, I do have interests outside of soccer). Today though a soccer-specific article came up on the front page and I thought to myself “Cool, let’s see what’s going on.”

The article was written by WSJ editor Jonathan Clegg on the problem with American soccer fans.  Clegg, an Englishman, talks about his observations of fans in New York bars and other places where people like to congregate to watch the big European matches.  As indicated by the title of the article, he seems to take issue specifically with how some of the hardcore fans appreciate the game and wishes we develop our own soccer culture independently.  Broadly speaking, Clegg has grouped his disdain into three categories: pretentious vocabulary, attire, and perception.

Again you can read the rest of the article here but I’m going to break this down point by point as I had a couple of issues with what’s being said.

Pretentious Vocabulary

They refer to the sport as “fútbol,” hold long conversations about the finer points of the 4-4-2 formation and proudly drape team scarves around their necks even when the temperature outside is touching 90 degrees.

Okay, maybe fans are discussing the finer elements of a 4-4-2 just to one-up each other in a never-ending battle to prove who’s a superior fan.

Or maybe they’re just trying to communicate their point to an interested friend who follows the sport.  If two avid gardeners are talking about a type of plant, they’ll probably want to say something more  sophisticated than “water your plants often”.  Besides,  how exactly are we going to invent our own terminology and ensure everyone understands it? We use England’s terms and pronunciation (fullback, defensive midfielder, number 10, etc.) because, surprise surprise, we speak the same language.  This point was really clutching at straws.

Attire and customs:

On a recent weekend, I went to a bar to watch the UEFA Champions League final and found myself stationed next to a soccer fan wearing a replica Arsenal jersey, a team scarf around his neck and a pair of Dr. Martens lace-ups. He looked like he he’d been born and raised along the Holloway Road. In fact, he was from Virginia.

The whole thing seemed to be less an expression of genuine fandom and more like an elaborate piece of performance art.

Alright fair enough, no one really likes posers who take it to that extreme. But by being a scarf-wearing super fan who eats artisanal toast, talks tactics, and gets over-excited for good saves while complaining about how much debt Manchester United is in, this guy is doing what Americans do with anything new they encounter: incorporate what we like, ignore what we don’t like.  Tapas and tactics? Great.  Flares and racist chants?  I think we’ll pass

Because we are a multicultural society, we do what’s natural and that’s to first study what’s going on and then see if we can replicate it with enough enthusiasm.  Grand banners just look cool to fans so who cares if a Real Salt Lake banner doesn’t have the same intimidation factor as Borussia Dortmund’s yellow wall? It’s all about having a good time.  We can expect American fans to innovate and build something that is uniquely identifiable but influenced by other cultures.  It will happen, trust me.  People get bored of doing the same thing over and over.

These soccer “super fans” are no different than people who are avid gardeners or foodies.   What we lack in tradition, we more than make up for in enthusiasm.

Perception:

Never mind that no other sport is so linked to the working class. For these fans, rooting for an English soccer team is a highbrow pursuit and a mark of sophistication, like going to a Wes Anderson movie or owning a New Yorker subscription.

This point contradicts the rest of the article.  Seeing soccer as an intellectual pursuit isn’t a problem. Hey, it might even lead to that distinct attitude towards the game, Clegg wants us to have.  Anyway, his biggest complaint is that we’re taking English fan customs and attaching ‘intellectualism’ to it.  Okay, maybe that’s just lazy cultural stereotyping, but there are ways we can approach soccer intellectually though because soccer has had rippling effects throughout history and even societal changes .  English football might be rooted in the working-class, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same everywhere else.  Even in England, the size and scope of the Premier League worldwide means that soccer isn’t exclusively a working class game anymore.

FINAL THOUGHTS/BIG PICTURE

There’s no need to apologize for taking interest in something by adopting customs.  Clegg managed to point out the snobbery in a handful of New York bars (how’s that a surprise?), but he didn’t distinguish between influence and imitation.  Right now our soccer culture is influenced by Europe (and England more specifically), we’re not outright imitating them. We’re doing what Americans do.  We absorb multiple global elements and eventually we come up with something that is truly unique.

Argentina: Balance, Fortune, and Hostility

As we gear up for the World Cup 2014, the Prawn Sandwich Brigade will be looking at this year’s favorites to win it all in Brazil.  These articles highlight the differences from four years ago, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each team.  This is Part 2 in a 6-part series on the bookmakers’ favorites. Part 1 can be found here

Argentina are the pantomime villain of football.  In many ways they’re like the Duke Blue Devils. But no one can deny that this side are seriously good and are vastly improved from the crazy-shenanigans of Diego Maradona’s reign 4 years ago. Continue reading Argentina: Balance, Fortune, and Hostility