Russia 2018: Introducing Totalitarian Footblog

CCCPtfb5

This blog, and our Brazil 2014 adventure, were four years in the making. And we’ve already started thinking about the next World Cup, in Russia in 2018. I’ve even picked out a name for the new blog, Totalitarian Footblog, paying homage to both modern Russia and the old Total Footblog.

CCCptfb4Russia is planning to spend a record-whopping $20 billion to host the games, which is just staggering. We’re looking at St. Petersburg for the group stage and then Moscow for some of the knockouts. And we’ve even started with the Yakov Smirnoff jokes: in Russia, blog writes you!

It should be an interesting experience. Whereas in Brazil we were faced with the threat of rampant corruption and petty crime, Russia is far more organized – in both its crime and corruption. So instead of a policeman shaking down tourists for a meager $25, if you get pulled over by the authorities in Russia, you’ll probably have your accounts drained and seven new mortgages in your name by the time you get back to your hotel.

CCCPtfb3Jokes aside, I’m not sure what to expect. Italy 1990 and France 1998 offered food and wine. Germany 2006 had food and beer. South Africa 2010 had safaris and shark-cage diving. And Brazil 2014 had food and the beach. What will the vibe be like in Russia? I don’t drink vodka or eat caviar. Can Cold War kitsch carry the day? And given the deplorable behavior of the Russian government recently, even that nostalgia has lost its luster. Frankly, I’ve warmer feelings towards Qatar right now.

If you use this blog as a guide, you can start planning your Russia 2018 adventure. Begin by doing your research on Russia and where you want to stay. My Russian friends tell me that St. Petersburg is their brightest jewel, and that Moscow has become so cosmopolitan that it’s not that different from most other major cities around the world. The temperature in St. Petersburg at that time of year should be highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s, but with the sun not setting until around 10:30 PM. Plus, the Chechen separatists are far less likely to target St. Petersburg than Moscow, so there’s that as well.

CCCPtfb2I recommend you start looking for a place to stay first, as plenty of people told me they had landed tickets for Brazil 2014 games only to have to sell them because they couldn’t afford the rising costs of airfare and accommodations. I know it involves making a commitment, taking a bit of gamble that you’ll get tickets for that venue, but it’s a lot cheaper than waiting. And if you do wait, you’re taking a gamble that you can find accommodations and affordable airfare once you do get the tickets.

Tickets should go on sale sometime in the Summer (or early Fall) of 2017. Those, of course, are best purchased via FIFA.com. And I’ll likely be posting all about it on Totalitarian Footblog, starting around then as well, so be sure to check back in a few years. Until then, thanks for reading, and na zdorov’ye, comrade!

Posted in Travels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Russia 2018: Introducing Totalitarian Footblog

Looking Back on Brazil 2014

My youngest nephew watching a game at Bezerra’s in Natal before heading to the stadium for the Ghana vs. USA match. (image source: christopher dobens)

Surprisingly, Brazil 2014 lacked the passion of South Africa 2010. When I listen to K’Naan’s Wave the Flag, the de facto anthem in South Africa, I still get goose bumps. I can feel the breeze atop Table Mountain. But there’s nothing like that from Brazil, which is rather shocking given the country’s rich cultural tradition and identity.

I don’t know what it was like for the folks who watched it all on television. I know that author and fan Nick Hornby called Brazil 2014 “average and occasionally deeply depressing” in a piece he wrote for ESPN. And if I were an England supporter, forced to watch the sunny celebrations of everyone else through the life-sucking filter of a television, I might feel the same way. And while I’m flattered that he heralded the Belgium vs. USA Round of 16 game as “probably the best World Cup match of the 21st century,” I’m starting to think that his flat may have a gas leak. Someone should check-in on the guy to make sure he’s OK.

For me, the games themselves were possibly the best I’ve seen – from Italy 1990 on. I believe this World Cup set records for the number of goals scored per game as well as last-minute goals scored. And while most of the big teams, and the big players, failed to live up to expectations, the underdogs often triumphed. And, as an American, that’s always entertaining. Unless, of course, we’re talking about a war, and then the whole underdog thing isn’t nearly as much fun.

Our crew enjoying the aura of Maracana after the Colombia vs. Uruguay Round of 16 game in Rio.

Our crew enjoying the aura of Maracana after the Colombia vs. Uruguay Round of 16 game in Rio.

And though the soccer was mostly top shelf, the officiating was often horrendous. There were so many bad calls and non-calls that it put a damper on many games, and even ruined a few. Of course, Luis Suarez once again took a bite out of fair play, tarnishing his second World Cup. I hope he gets the help he clearly needs.

As for the adventure off the field, I still love Brazil. I’ll always love Brazil. But as a footie destination, not so much so. Like I said, and as bizarre as it may sound, it lacked the passion and enthusiasm of South Africa 2010. And without the order and infrastructure of Germany 2006, you really needed that passion and enthusiasm to carry the day.

Thanks largely to the locals, Brazil 2014 felt like a partisan celebration. They threw a party alright, but you had the sense that the only reason you were invited was to bring the beer. When Brazil was playing, they were celebrating. When Brazil wasn’t playing, it was all about mercilessly making money from you. Sure, a man has got to eat, but I thought this was Brazil, where futebol trumps even religion. The irony of it all is that at the end of the day the Brazilians proved to be no different than the FIFA hierarchy they so publicly loathed.

Fortunately we never encountered any protests. Nor did we experience any crime, beyond the institutional variety (corrupt cops and despicable landlords). All the fears we prepared for proved unfounded. But better to be prepared than to be sorry.

The Ghana vs. USA match at the Arena das Dunas in Natal. (image source: christopher dobens)

The Ghana vs. USA match at the Arena das Dunas in Natal. (image source: christopher dobens)

Looking back, we probably saw the two best matches from our perspective: the USA’s only win of the tournament and the Suarez biting incident. We also saw Colombia send Uruguay packing, with one of the finest goals of the tournament being delivered at our end of the Maracana.

Do I have any regrets? No. Though it all got off to a rough start for us. And ten days of torrential rain certainly didn’t help.

We took a gamble on a beach house south of Natal that didn’t work out. And we certainly wouldn’t have put ourselves that far south if we were renting the house where we ended up staying (which we wouldn’t have rented for a number of other reasons as well). But we ended up only a block from the beach, where there were two great beach bars with cold beer, incredible food, quick service, and ridiculously low prices. Plus, we ended up getting free accommodations as a result of the aforementioned housing debacle.

We had a much nicer place for our stay in Rio. It was also a block from the beach. But everything was as expensive as we had expected Brazil to be. Fortunately we had saved some money during our stay in Natal, so it all balanced out.

My nephews atop Corcovado in Rio, with Maracana in the distance. (image source: christopher dobens)

My nephews atop Corcovado in Rio, with Maracana in the distance. (image source: christopher dobens)

I guess the only regret, if you can call it that, is that we didn’t see more and experience more. We did have a walk through Ipanema. I also dragged my nephews up Corcovado. And I ascended Sugar Loaf by myself. But there is so much more one can and should do and see in a place like Rio…not to mention Natal.

This, however, was the World Cup. And the focus has, and should be, on the games. So that was our overriding priority – every game, every day. We can always go back to Brazil, but we can’t go back to Brazil 2014.

What I’ll probably remember most from this tournament was the laughter. We had a lot of laughs. My brother is in a really great place these days. And my nephews are now teenagers, and quite entertaining ones at that. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

In fact, we had so much fun that we’re even flirting with the idea of attending Euro 2016 in France. And we’ve already started planning for our Russia 2018 adventure. But I’ll tell you more about that in a few days!

Posted in Tournament, Travels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Looking Back on Brazil 2014

When Continents Collide: The Brazil 2014 Final

The Germans bask in the glory of a well-earned World Cup championship. (image source: fifa / getty images)

The most enduring legacy of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil may be – after “Thou Shall Not Bite” – that no pundit will ever be able to drone on about how a European team has never won the tournament in the Americas. It took extra time, and the latest goal in World Cup final history, but Germany prevailed.

I watched the game at my brother’s, along with my oldest nephew and a few of his friends. For the most part, these kids are soccer nerds. Thanks largely to EA Sports’ FIFA video game, they know a disturbing amount about nearly every player, and that interest has naturally lead to a healthy obsession with international soccer in general. So I was in good company.

Yours truly hoisting the Cup of Cups for Brazil 2014, the trophy awarded for the best World Cup bracket in the family. (image source: max dobens)

My brother had grilled more frango com bacon and some of the most perfectly cooked filet mingion I’ve ever had. We had Quilmes for the Argentina fans and a host of German beers for the Deutschland supporters. I drank both, because I was a happy neutral. Yes, I had picked Argentina to beat Germany in the final, but Germany had played a far better tournament than the Argentines. And, for what little it’s worth, I had already won the family bracket, so I was going to hoist the Cup of Cups no matter who won the final.

The match itself was fairly entertaining, at least for a largely goalless game. The difference between it and the goalless semifinal between Argentina and the Netherlands, other than the wonder-strike from Mario Goetze in the 117th minute that won Germany the final, is something so subtle that perhaps only soccer nerds could appreciate it. Both the Germans and Argentines tried to attack, as opposed to the more defensive stalemate we saw in the semifinal.

Argentina did have their chances. But, as I’ve been saying throughout this tournament, those who fail to take the chances they are given get knocked out. Gonzalo Higuain had an easy one that he blew, and then a goal called back – and rightfully so – for offsides. Rodrigo Palacio, who replaced Higuain in the 78th minute, also squandered a good opportunity. Sergio Aguero failed to earn any opportunities after coming on in the 46th minute, despite his goal-scoring prowess for his club (52 goals in 87 appearances for Manchester City).

Lionel Messi failed to shine when Argentina needed him the most. (image source: fifa / getty images)

Lionel Messi failed to shine when Argentina needed him the most. (image source: fifa / getty images)

Arguably the biggest disappointment for Argentina was Lionel Messi. Unquestionably one of the greatest players to ever take the field, he failed to live up to the celestial expectations in this tournament. He did have a good showing in the group stage, giving his side four crucial goals in those three games. But he only produced one assist and failed to score a single goal in their four games in the knockout phase. And he did earn himself a few opportunities in the final, including a late free kick, but his performance looked pedestrian compared to the brilliance he has shown so often for his club team.

Germany, on the other hand, looked slightly stronger than their South American counterparts. They had the edge in possession and put more shots on goal. But, in the end, they had a player who delivered a moment of brilliance, which gave them the goal, the game, and the championship. In fairness, the Argentine keeper, Sergio Romero, looked like he crumbled the moment the ball was hit, but it still was an amazing goal. And it saved us all from enduring another penalty kick shootout.

I’m happy that the Germans won. Yes, I would have liked to see Messi eclipse the hideous ghost of Diego Maradona as the pinnacle of Argentine futbol, and perhaps if Angel di Maria were fit they might have done it. But when Javier Mascherano is your best player, it’s always going to be hard to hoist a trophy at the end of the game. The Germans – with veteran Miroslav Klose and the annoyingly amazing Thomas Mueller; Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos in the midfield, with Andre Schurrle and Mario Goetze off the bench; Philipp Lahm, Mats Hummels, and Benedikt Howedes in the back; and Manuel Neuer in the net – deserve to be world champions. Congratulations to them, and coach Joachim Loew. Sehr gut!

Posted in Tournament | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on When Continents Collide: The Brazil 2014 Final

Dutch Glow, Brazil Blow

BlindGloryBefore the feast of a final, there was the appetizer: Brazil vs. the Netherlands in the consolation match. No one remembers who finished third, and no one really cares, unless your team finishes third. And even then you’re still only the second-best loser.

But for Brazil, this game meant more than any third-place game has probably ever meant. They suffered a humiliating defeat to Germany in the semifinal. They were made a mockery of, looking like children out there. So the consolation game offered a chance for a little redemption, to save some face between now and the four long years until 2018.

Thiago Silva, who missed that semifinal due to card accumulation, should have been sent off in the second minute of this game when he tugged-down Arjen Robben as the last defender. Strangely he only received a yellow. But the Dutch got a PK, which Robin van Persie converted, even though the foul was actually committed just outside the box.

Once again, the parade of poor officiating marched on, as it all too often has in this otherwise wonderful World Cup. Though, frankly, I’m not sure which would have been the worse fate for the Brazilians: the PK goal or going down a man. Either way it was bad news – and a bad start – for Brazil.

The Brazilians did show some signs of life, some intent, but it was the Dutch who struck again. In the 17th minute, Daley Blind took advantage of a bad clearance from David Luiz and showed incredible composure, just as he has all tournament, netting his first goal for the national team.

And the Brazilians should have been awarded a PK of their own when Blind took down Oscar in the box, injuring himself in the process. But they had been taking so many dives during the game that the ref actually booked Oscar instead of Blind.

The Dutch picked up a third goal in injury time, but it was never much of contest. It finished 3-0, with Brazil continuing their shame for a second match. The Dutch deserved to win, and Brazil did not.

Interestingly, my youngest nephew doesn’t think the Dutch have looked particularly good this tournament. In fact, he thinks they’re not a good team. But that probably has more to do with the fact that they easily dispatch both Spain and Chile, two teams he loves, than with the overall quality and performance of the Dutch side, which I think has been one of the more impressive ones in Brazil 2014. And they certainly demonstrated in this match.

Sadly, this game, and tournament, will surely be the last World Cup for Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder (a late scratch, injured in the warm-up). Nigel de Jong and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as well. And perhaps even Ron Vlaar, who – despite missing that crucial PK against Argentina – has proven to be one of Brazil 2014’s most outstanding defenders. Most of all, though, I am going to miss Dirk Kuyt, the tireless workhorse on teams all too often caught up in the limelight – the Netherlands included.

But they do have plenty of young talent coming up the ranks, as the Dutch always do. In fact, 10 of the players on the current squad – all of which saw some playing time during the tournament – are under the age of 25. They’ll surely be back in 2018, with a vengeance.

As for Brazil, they simply do not have the quality to face teams of this caliber. Like England, they are no longer a world-class contender. The stars they do have failed to deliver in this tournament. To make matters worse, they fielded far too many mediocre players, like Fred, Jo, Willian, Luiz Gustavo, and Bernard.

Just as the nation will surely take a long hard look at how they ended up spending an estimated $14 billion on this tournament, Brazil will need to take a long hard look at how they play the game. Coming into Brazil 2014, no one – expect, perhaps, the home fans – felt that the Brazilian national team were still on the forefront of international soccer.

Brazil’s days of joga bonito are long gone. History has passed. Now it’s time to look to the future, to plan for the future, and to work hard for the future. Unfortunately, as we witnessed in the lead-up to this tournament, that kind of honest self-assessment, long-term planning, and tireless hard work don’t appear to come naturally to Brazil.

Posted in Tournament | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dutch Glow, Brazil Blow

America Arrives

Jurgen Klinsmann won me over as the coach of the US Men’s National Team. (image source: us soccer)

I haven’t read one word of American media coverage about Brazil 2014 – not even when I got back to the States. Though I was told that there has been questions raised about the US Men’s National Team’s performance, with criticism being directed at coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

I have long been critical of Klinsmann. But he won me over in Brazil, just as some of the players I had been critical of – namely Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler – won me over with their performances in the tournament. True, a Round of 16 exit isn’t anything to be excited about. But you also have to take into consideration the level of competition, as well as the way we played (at times, though…we reverted to old-school determination against Ghana, shined against Portugal, held on against Germany, and failed to face the challenge against Belgium). I didn’t think we had a chance of getting out of that group, yet we did – and almost advanced to the quarterfinals.

I still feel that Bob Bradley has accomplished the most with the US Men’s National Team, making it to the final of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup by sneaking out of a tough group and beating the legendary (Euro 2008/World Cup 2010) Spanish side (possibly the best to ever take the field) 2-0 before falling to Brazil in the final (we led 2-0 at the half but the Brazilians came back to win 3-2). To me, that’s a greater accomplishment than Bruce Arena leading the team to a quarterfinal exit in the 2002 World Cup, which saw us sneak out of a relatively weak group and beat Mexico in the Round of 16 before losing to Germany 1-0 (despite having more possession and three times as many shots on goal) in the quarterfinal.

Klinsmann has yet to match the success of either of those coaches. And to be fair, he’s been given a lot more resources – and leeway – than any of them ever had. Not to mention the evolution of the game here in the US, giving Klinsmann arguably the best player pool we’ve ever had. However, when we are firing on all cylinders (as rare as that may be) under his direction, we look better than we ever have.

Tim Howard was one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament, but it’s unfortunate that we needed him to demonstrate it. (image source: us soccer)

I like the approach and direction Klinsmann has been taking and am glad that he was given another cycle to further develop our program. I’d like to see greater emphasis placed on nurturing and developing domestic talent as well as conducting an outreach campaign for Latino-Americans on par with what he and his staff have done in pursuing European-American prospects.

But youth development here in the United States is paramount for our future. Klinsmann has said a lot about youth soccer in this country, but it’s unclear what he’s actually done to improve it. And our youth teams continue to struggle on the world stage.

As for our national team, I’d like to make the argument that we need to work on our offense. But scoring five goals while allowing six in five games makes me think our defense is far from what it should be as well. However, when you consider that we held Germany to a lone goal when they have averaged 2 per game, Ghana to a lone goal when they averaged 1.3 per game, and Portugal to 2 when they averaged 2 per game, you could argue that we did well given the competition. The only time we erred on the other side of the average is when we allowed 2 goals to Belgium, who averaged only 1.2 goals per game.

That said, I do think we need to develop a better attack. And neither Jozy Altidore nor Chris Wondolowski have proven consistent enough on that front. Altidore has another cycle in him, but sadly Wondo’s time has passed. And so has Clint Dempsey’s. Along with Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, and Hercules Gomez, they are already on the wrong side of 30.

And I say good riddance to the Deuce. I’ve been quite critical of Dempsey throughout this campaign. While he has served our team well over the years, I think we deserve better. As I have said, he’s not nearly active enough. His work rate sucks. He reminds me of Dimitar Berbatov, who works well as an off-the-bench poacher but not as your 90-minute leading man.

When someone delivers the ball to Dempsey’s feet, and no opponents are near enough to entice a dive, he has worked wonders for us. But for the other 89 minutes of the match, he’s relatively useless. Like I said, we deserve better.

Jermaine Jones was the best field player for the United States at Brazil 2014. (image source: us soccer)

Jermaine Jones was the best field player for the United States at Brazil 2014. (image source: us soccer)

And I think, deep down, Klinsmann agrees. Before our World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica back in September, he said of Dempsey: “We want to see him delivering, playing with high energy, and see him really be there for his team, fighting defensively and being himself offensively.” He elaborated on this just before the tournament in the surprisingly revealing ESPN documentary, Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil, explaining that he made Dempsey captain in hopes that he would start to think beyond himself, how he connects with the other 10 players, and the need to participate at both ends of the field.

I didn’t see any evidence of that in Brazil 2014, did you? In fact, you were more likely to spot defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones making runs in the box or putting pressure on our opponent’s back four than Dempsey, who strolled about idly waiting for the ball to come to him.

As for Aron Johannsson, I think the jury is still out. He shows tremendous potential, but so did Altidore when he was playing for AZ. Hopefully both of them can continue to grow and develop – along with Terrence Boyd and whatever talent comes up the pipeline – in time for 2018. Ideally we’ll end up with a target man and pace, as Klinsmann’s approach relies on both counterattacking and crosses.

In the midfield, I have been critical of Michael Bradley’s performance during Brazil 2014. He was excellent throughout most of the campaign, easily our best player – and perhaps the best-ever field player to wear the jersey.

DeAndre Yedlin continued to impress off the bench, and looks to be one of the keys for the future of the US Men’s National Team. (image source: us soccer)

But just before the tournament, his performance started to fade. His vision and precision seemed to falter. He rarely turned with the ball, even when he had ample space, and therefore denied us those wonderful through balls and dangerous runs that made him such an integral part of our success. Even his touch was off, making poor traps and bad passes.

Strangely, he started playing more like Jermaine Jones had been playing, and it was as if Jones had become more like Bradley as the tournament wore on. I can only hope that Bradley finds his way back into form, as Jones will be too old for 2018.

Unfortunately, so will Kyle Beckerman. And Stuart Holden, easily our most promising midfielder never to make it to the tournament. The good news is that Mikkel Diskerud will be in his prime, and I really like what I’ve seen from him. Hopefully he can find a more competitive club to further improve his game (both Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler have already made moves within Germany, and DeAndre Yedlin is rumored to be up for a spot at AS Roma).

As for that player pipeline, there are additional dual-nationality players to be recruited, particularly – as I noted – those of Latin-American descent. But, as I also noted, we will have to continue to improve our youth development process because we failed to make it out of our group in the 2013 FIFA U20 World Cup – albeit in a group that consisted of Spain, Ghana (who finished third), and France (who won it all) – scoring 3 while conceding 9. Sadder still, we failed to even qualify for the 2013 FIFA U17 World Cup, just as we failed to qualify for the 2011 FIFA U20 World Cup.

USoccerDTOMAmerica has arrived, and established a name for itself among the Top 25 footballing nations. Now the question is: can we live up to that reputation? Everyone (well, except maybe England) is getting better. Look at Algeria and Costa Rica, for example. We’ve got our foot in the proverbial door, but it’s going to take a lot more effort to open it up.

It’s not a question of whether or not we believe we can win. That chant embodies much of what is wrong with out attitude towards improving the success of our national team. As I wrote often in Total Footblog, there are tangible steps we can and should take. We need to continue to build upon our youth development academies, lowering the age of entry and following the Ajax model. We can overcome the challenge of college soccer by partnering our academies with academic institutions, ensuring our players get an education both on and off the field (and do the same with boarding schools to cater to the younger players). And we can make our professional league more attractive and competitive by gradually phasing out the financial restrictions, eventually adopting promotion and relegation as well.

It won’t be easy. Though getting to this point wasn’t exactly easy either. But we’re here, we have arrived, so let’s dig deep and do what needs to be done. I believe we can.

Posted in Tournament | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America Arrives