Wednesday, 23 June 2010



By the 87th minute, I was planning my escape.

I was at a house party, different from the one I went to for the USA-England match, but with many of the same people. Lenny, the guy who wore his England shirt to that first game, was not in attendance, perhaps because he couldn't locate an Algeria strip in time.

It was a lovely affair, though as with any of these events in America, there was still a fair amount of people learning the drill. More than half arrived before kickoff, so that was considered a win. I had checked with my host beforehand to make sure that he would even be starting the game on time no matter what; when he said he would "unless a lot of people are late, then I'll pause it for them" I thanked him for his offer of hospitality and told him I wouldn't be able to attend. To his credit, he then said he would definitely start the match on time. His eyeroll at my neurosis was barely perceptible.

I had arrived with considerable confidence. I truly felt there was no way the US wouldn't win the match. But as the morning wore on, my steadfastness eroded.

The goal that the US had called back (for offside, on another horrendously erroneous call by the officials) didn't even bother me that much. It was a good sign, wasn't it? Creating an early chance like that?

Then England taking the lead against Slovenia, opening further possibility of the US being eliminated, didn't shake my conifdence too much.

But there's only so much a man can take.

As attack after attck after attack fizzled, I began to recall all the times soccer has broken my heart. It's hard to quantify why exactly, but soccer heartbreak is different than the childhood heartbreaks from US sports. I guess because the tension is held for so long, and your team is so rarely thumped while so often locked in a tight matchup... you are able to stave off the acceptance of the loss for longer. Which, once it comes, makes its arrival so very hard to take.

By the 80th minute, my emotional muscle memory was stirring. Memories of late goals scored against my teams subliminally gripped me as I began to prepare for- if not yet fully accept- the possibility that it was all about to go to shit.

Four years of waiting. The in-between emotional highs of qualifying, and of beating Spain. Successfully taking the high road after being denied the comeback against Slovenia, focusing only on the task at hand. All of it, I began to realize, may actually have been a colossal waste of time. Worse: I should have known better.

This is when I had to start to plan my escape. It wasn't so much that I thought it was over- it was that if it was going to go badly, I had to have an exit strategy. This was a nice house, with nice things, and children. This was not a place for my tantrum, be it angry or tearful, I couldn't yet know.

Again, I had not lost hope, per se. It's just that, if somehow the US (or Slovenia, for that matter) did manage to score, I certainly didn't have to plan my happiness. I did have to plan the methods by which I would obscure my infantile rage.

By the 90th minute, my eyes were still fixed to the screen(s), but my background Termintaor scroll was measuring the small areas between friends and pieces of furniture that were blocking my path to the door, surveying the exact space I would need to weave my way out in quicksilver fashion, preferably with a quick thank you to my host and hostess. I was NOT going to freak out in their house. I. Was. Not.

And then... I didn't have to worry anymore.

We. All. Went. Apeshit.

And in a matter of seconds, a complete pendulum swing from Heartbreak Prep to Unbridled Jubilation.

Alex Ferguson said it so well: "Football, eh? Bloody hell!"

On to the second round. It wasn't a waste. It was worth every step of the way.

- Brendan Hunt, © Brendan Hunt, 2010

Thursday, 17 June 2010



Well the second round is underway, and with it has come considerable relief. After a staggeringly low-scoring first set of matches, for which several credible reasons accumulated to share the blame, it would now seem that the players have adjusted. After three games (I write you between the Nigeria-Greece match and the France-Mexico match), the second round has brought us eleven goals, a hearty 3.67 goals-per-game.

Let's hope it keeps up. It's certainly a great start, and helps to remind all that the World Cup rarely finishes where it starts. There is plenty of excitement yet to come.

Tomorrow we get USA-Slovenia, and on that topic I have only a few things to say.

For one, nobody should get too excited about the US going in as a favorite. Slovenia is a solid team, aware and unashamed of their shortcomings. Also, since the Dragons already have three points in the bag, they have plenty of reason to stay patient and play for the draw if no counter-attacking opportunities arise. These guys are pros. They will play like it.

I would expect Bob Bradley to have the US play in much the same way, which could lead to a pretty boring match, unfortunately. The thing is though that the US has something Slovenia does not: speed. No one on Slovenia's back line will be able to get near Robbie Findley, and he will need to take advantage of any chances he gets (not necessarily his strong suit). The best thing that could happen for the game as a spectacle is an early US goal, forcing Slovenia to open up and leaving potential gaps for the Americans to exploit. But that early goal will not come easily.

Here's one more reason not to get to start pulling a WInston Wolf special just yet: US has a horrible record against Eastern European teams in the World Cup.

1990 - USA v. Czechoslovakia, 5-1 loss
1994 - USA v. Romania, 1-0 loss
1998 - USA v. Yugoslavia, 1-0 loss
2002 - USA v. Poland, 3-1 loss
2006 - USA v. Czech Republic, 3-0 loss

That's 5 played, 0 won, 5 lost, 0 drawn, 13 goals allowed, 2 scored, for a goal difference of -11. So let's not get cocky with Slovenia just because they're smaller than New Jersey and wear silly shirts. Having said that, (and damn you to hell Larry David for making me hate myself every time I use that phrase) this seems like a great opportunity for the US to end that curious run. Besides which- and much more importantly of course- a win puts them in very near distance of the knockout rounds, with only Algeria left to play.

As for the English, they have only their own panic to worry about. It's simply not that big a deal to start out with a draw. As long as they can keep it together mentally, they'll be fine. Of course, the return of their starting defensive midfielder Gareth Barry won't hurt either. Nor will playing Algeria.

I was happy to hear so many American friends and media respond to the England game, seen by many across the world as at least a mild upset, with an even keel. It was treated with such understatement that I mistook the national attitude for progress. In fact, it wasn’t progress at all, it was a quiet grumble brought on by the same old chorus: ties suck.

Ah, yes. That. Look, I totally sympathize with the dissatisfaction American sports fans feel from a draw. There’s the famous line “a tie is like kissing your sister,” a phrase that works best if you either a) have no sister and are thus guessing, or b) have a sister who is in a coma.

But the the thing is, I'd forgotten that ties were even an issue. Ties can, in fact, be part of a very satisfying sporting experience.

With the England match, I was of course hoping for a win, but I was happy with the US performace overall, encouraged to see what they might do against Slovenia and Algeria. The draw part? Immaterial. A win would have been great, but it just didn't happen. There's a lot of tournament left to be played, and if the US had lost, there might have been considerably less so.

My fellow Americans, I am a lover of democracy, of the people having their voice heard. In this respect, I must bow to the vote that the world has taken- they aren’t bothered by draws. We are the crackpots in this analogy, the LaRouchies of world sport, crackpot zealots who just don't seem to get the hint.

Which isn’t to say I love draws, I just don’t know that I’m on board with the American obsession to stamp them out, both in general and in soccer specifically.

Remember the stink they made a few years ago when the baseball All-Star Game, through a perfect storm of unique events, had to end in a draw? An absolute shitstorm was plopped all across Bud Selig’s windshield that week, with such ferocity and vigor that he had to change the rules to the event itself, ensuring that the managers would take this meaningless and time-consuming midseason exhibition seriously enough that there would no further risk of it ever, EVER, ending without a winner. Now, the All-Star Game's winning league gets home-field advantage for it's represenative in the World Sries. Just so we’re clear- that’s the All-Star game we’re talking about, which now as a direct affect on the most important tournament in baseball, just because there was one time when that much-maligned, little-viewed, fully-outdated exhibition game ended in a draw.

Gonna go ahead and say that’s an overreacton.

Why do I, who was raised on a steady diet of proper, tie-hating American sports, no longer bristle at the occasion? There’s a very simple reason: I’ve just accepted them. It’s as simple as that. Soccer is a different game and it has draws. Done. Move on to next one.

Mind you, the wheels have been greased some by seeing, even attending, some soccer draws that have been absolutely stirring. I say that while fully accepting that the USA-England match was not such an event. But nonetheless, the late equalizer is a uniquely dramatic thing. Having experienced them, you just eventually accept that they’re worth the cost- the occasionally shitty draw.

And before we go running off about hating draws, as a people, can we think for a second about why they exist? I don’t mean the short-term thing of protecting the athletes, though this one is huge- it’s an endurance sport, after all. It’s not one of our sports that’s made up of constant rest occasionally interrupted by bursts of action. We can’t just subject them to thirty more minutes of running every time we have a stalemate.

But there’s a bigger reason, as I see it. Let’s look at the soccer’s primary competitive structure: the league.

Soccer’s league play is different from American sports’ manner in three primary ways- the lack of a post-season, the acceptance of ties and the balance (fairness, even) of the schedule. They all go together, as it turns out.

Everywhere in the world where soccer is played- even in the US- the season schedule is the same. You play against every team in your league twice- once at home and once away. Three points for a win, one point for a draw. Most points at the end of the schedule wins. Done. No playoffs (this is where soccer in the US diverges, of course). No hope of getting hot for a month or two at the end in some tacked-on post-season tournament. Just reward for having done the day-in, day-out work better than anyone else, each of whom had the exact same circumstances as you. It’s the fairest way of deciding a champion there is.

I think it’s important to think of draws within that context. The schedule gets made. For each of the matches on that schedule, you get ninety minutes to get a result. If you can’t get a win after ninety minutes, too bad. Game over. See you next week. If you don’t like draws, then you should have scored more.

Dunno. Seems fair to me, at the very least. Not substantially better or worse, just different, and logically consistent. Got no problem with that. In fact, it makes me wonder if overtime and extra innings and the like are a needless contrivance, engineering a winner when perhaps no one deserves to be one. Are the people who demand that there always be a victor the same people who hate fifth-grade graduations? Because I'm starting to think the purveyors of these philosophies have more in common than we've realized. And really, powers that be, let me know which part of the equation it is you really find essential to competition: the champion or the loser?

Either way, if you still find draws completely unacceptable and anathema to our great nation's way of life, keep in mind that we only even have the possibility of draws in the group stage. Once we get to the knockout rounds on June 26th, the ties go out and the stakes go up.  Give that one a shot. See how it fits.

Again, I get it: watching a win is fundamentally better sports-as-theatre than a tie. But I do not agree that a sport which allows the declaration of a stalemate is intrinsically worse. It's just different.

It's not as though you can have a tie for a championship. They only allow draws in the battles; someone always wins the war.


So let's move on to a quick word about the only thing more annoying than draws... the dreaded vuvuzelas.

There seems to be a majority of folks in the world who do not care for them. There are a few journalists- most of them being scribes who are actually attending matches live, the lucky bastards- who say that they’re not so bad, and that those of us who dislike the plastic horns are killjoys.

I beg to differ.

I have a few problems with them, some of which aren’t particularly original. It’s not so much that they’re annoying to the viewer, not in the most literal sense of the word. It’s their overuse that I find annoying. There is simply no variety to it whatsoever. It’s a ceaseless, heartless drone, white noise that, unlike the traditional supporters’ singing that those of us in the tv audience are now left totally unable to hear, is in no way responsive to the match at hand. There are two settings on the vuvuzela- unspecific, and loudly unspecific.

Back to the lack of supporters’ singing- this is a major problem. It’s not just whether or not you think the vuvuzelas are good or bad- it’s the fact that the thing they are replacing is so glorious. Vuvuzelas cannot compare to the chanting of supporters, and frankly that chanting is always one of the best things about a World Cup in the first damn place anyway.

One of the main choruses the defenders of vuvuzelas make is that to take it away is strip the tournament of the authentic South African football experience. By that same logic, why are we stripping South Africa of the real World Cup experience, wherein the clash of cultures in the stands undulates with the ebb and flow of the match?

I’m not there. I don’t actually know what the vuvuzela is like in person. So I can’t say that it’s bad. But I’m pretty confident that hearing supporters is better.


And now, a potentially fruitful new feature for the tournament. Your first nominee for...


Keep in mind I won't be going after rookies with this feature, just the poeple who are trying to look like they're more into it than they really are (which is worse than not being into it at all, frankly).

This week's nominee is a guy who was at my buddy’s USA-England party. This guy, who we’ll call Lenny, is someone who I’ve known a little for a long time. He works with my buddy who threw the party, so they’re tight.

The party was filled with new soccer fans, so there were few who were wearing soccer jerseys (I was wearing USA 1950 World Cup retro thingy, which was both completely appropriate and egregiously silly-looking). Lenny wore his soccer shirt, though. His England shirt. Gerrard. From Euro 2004.

I didn’t notice it until late in the first half.

Me: Hey Lenny.
Him: Hey man, how are ya?
Me: What’s with the shirt?
Him: Huh?
Me: You’re wearing an England shirt. At the USA-England party.
Him: Oh. (Suddenly realizes sin, tries to cover.) Yeah. I’m totally cheering for USA though.
Me: Then why did you think this would be a good shirt to wear? As opposed to… any other shirt you own?
Him: I mean, it's just… I like England too, I watch a lot of EPL games.
Me: (already walking away) Yeah, so do a lot of us.
Him: Totally cheering for the US, brah.

I avoided him for the remainder of the party.

I mean, I don't get the logic of this at all. Was he trying to show everyone what a huge World Cup fan he is by wearing his one soccer shirt? Not thinking for a moment what shirt it is?

Bush league, Absolutely bush league.


On the flip side, a more positive feature...


One thing I’d completely forgotten about before the tournament was that the World Cup brings you nice little social moments. I’ve had a couple already. One was fleeting; as I was about to walk up the stairs and out of a Manhattan subway station Friday afternoon, after the South Africa-Mexico opener, I passed a woman wearing a Bafana Bafana jersey. I stopped to tap her on the shoulder and tell her “Congrats on the result.” She turned as if she was just flat-out surprised to hear such a thing. Then smiled a big, beaming, you-just-made-my-day smile.

But that wasn’t the nicest moment I’ve had. That came at the aforementioned USA-England party in Los Angeles. As people filed out, Everyone’s Buddy Darren came over to say goodbye, and then, as though having the thought for the first time ever, said: “This was cool. It’s nice when we all get together for a sports party and we’re all cheering the same, y’know? It’s different. I mean it's not like a Super Bowl party or whatever... We’re all just… we’re all on the same side." A broad, easy smile swept across his face. "That’s pretty cool.”

Yeah it is, Darren. Yeah it is. Pass it on.

- Brendan Hunt, © Brendan Hunt, 2010

Saturday, 12 June 2010



And so it comes to this. The day we’ve been waiting for for six months: the United States versus England in the World Cup. The anticipation has been tremendous hasn’t it? It’s one of the underrated great things about the World Cup draw- bring able to stew about a given match for months, rather thaten the two or three days you get in, say, the NBA Playoffs.

On the flip side though, the bigger the wait, the bigger the potential for anti-climax. This is a very legitimate fear, because if England comes out at the top of their game and the American somehow do not, it will be a most unholy thumping. I’ll be horrified if the most-hyped game in national team history ends 0-3.

(Quick reminder for the newbies- if the US does lose, they’re not out by any means. They would at least four points from their next two games though, and preferably six.)

It’s a bit odd for me to root against England, a team with which I am very familiar and that I generally support, after the US and my former home, Holland. When any of those three play each other in a friendly, England is last on the list, sure, but friendlies pass quickly. A World Cup lingers.

Quick story. I’m from Chicago and was raised on the north side despite south side parents. I grew up near Wrigley Field and, though I always preferred the White Sox, I was a happy fan of both teams. Until it all changed with the advent of interleague play.

The first official Cubs-Sox game I attended was at Wrigley, a temple in which I had worshipped dozens of times, maybe even a hundred. But for some reason, hearing Cubs fans talking shit about the White Sox just got to me. The Cubs won that day- quite big, as I recall, despite an enjoyable eff-you home run by Paul Konerko- but they had lost a fan. It was through no fault of their own. It was just a matter of realizing that now that they would be competing against each other, a choice would have to be made.

But still, it wasn’t that conscious a transition. Just a gradual, almost subliminal ebb, until finally, by the time the Bartman game happened, I wasn’t sad, nor angry, nor hurt. I just shook my head in empathy for Cubs fans, who were now a “they” to me, and not a “we.” I just wasn't a Cubs fan anymore, though I remain a Cubs Sympathizer.

So- and pardon me on this, I know it’s a bit indulgent, but here we are- I wonder where I’ll be with England after Saturday’s game. Mind you, it’s not as though I’ve been England’s #1 supporter or anything like it. Never seen them play live. I don’t go out of my way to watch their qualifiers. But I do own a quite-comfortable-thanks-for-asking ’66 retro shirt. I never miss them in the big tournaments, I never rooted against them in said tourneys, and when the inevitable heartbreak comes, I feel their pain. Their ever-present, regularly scheduled pain.

But when the draw came out, pairing England against the US… something clicked. I have kept the Three Lions at a distance. My ’66 shirt (a #21 Roger Hunt, since there were no Arsenal players on that team and there are precious few athletes with the same last name as me, so why not), once in heavy rotation, has gone unworn. Will this change after Saturday is over with? Will I return to cheering for England once they’re in the knockout rounds? I honestly do not know. There is no litmus test for this.

But one thing is certain: today they are the enemy. And as it is good to know thy enemy, and many of you new folks don’t, here’s a quick primer on who some of the main characters are, and what some time-honored tendencies should be noted, for the England team, brought to you with the most appropriate Shakespeare quotes that Google can hurriedly provide.


England’s attack is led by a striker named Wayne Rooney, a nuclear fireplug of a man who will eat your children before pooping them back out and feeding them to you, all the while managing to play uninterrupted keepy-uppy.

He is arguably the best English player of the last twenty years, but more importantly for the casual American fan, he is quite visibly their best player. Where many of the greats make vital contributions too subtle for the blamelessly untrained American fan, who often only recognizes talent when it comes with a sound effect, Rooney’s presence and impact are far more acute. Surly, scurrilous, swirling with furious, he is also gifted with the less-traditional English trait of truly phenomenal skill on the ball. He can dribble, he can distribute, he can shoot from anywhere… he is the man the US must stop first.

Problem is though, even if they do “stop” Rooney, there are many other players on this team that can do damage.


Two of those dangerous players will be in midfield, either together on the center or with one of them on the left. Their names: Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. They are similarly gifted players and that has been the problem: it has been hard for England to find a way to make good use of both of them. Since they’re both attacking midfielders they both like to get forward- if they both do it, this causes England to lose their shape, leaving massive gaps in defense.

This might not be so bad if Lamps and Stevie G (the one who might end up playing on the left today) were making up for this with a goal parade. But that usually doesn’t happen, at least not for both; only twice in the last six years have they each scored in the same competitive match.

But one of those times was just last fall in a 5-1 thumping of previous nemesis Croatia. Their mutual presence on the scoresheet was a massive relief to the nation. Not so much for the event itself, as a silencing of what had become a monotonous parade of column inches dedicated to solving the Gerrard/Lampard Conundrum.

For now, people seem satisfied that the problem has been magically solved by…


Okay, England manager Fabio Capello may now be an adopted countryman, but he isn’t actually Roman, but he did win the league with AS Roma, the only coach to do so in the last quarter-century. And that’s just one of his numerous managerial accomplishments, having also won league titles with Real Madrid, Juventus and AC Milan, adding a Champions League with the latter. Don Fabio is one of the most accomplished managers of all time, and England has welcomed him, only their second-ever foreign coach.

The first one was Sven Goran Eriksson, now coach of the Ivory Coast. When England hired Svennis in 2001, he too had just won the Italian league with a Roman team, Lazio. He too led the squad through a confidence-building, dark clouds-dissolving qualifying period that led to tremendous national confidence on the eve of a World Cup.

They were knocked out in the quarterfinals that time, which then became their usual resting place, leaving the next two tourneys at the same stage. No one thinks Eriksson is a better coach than Capello, mind. But this traditional show of pre-tourney confidence by England is not new.

Would you like clear-cut bad guy to root against? Would that be helpful for you today?


John Terry is a dirtbag. His most well-known and tawdry lapse was- while married to his high-school sweetheart and father of their kids- sleeping with the ex-partner and baby-mamma of Wayne Bridge, his good friend who was teammate at both club and country level. This led to Terry being stripped of the England captaincy, an honor he no longer deserved.

Thing is, Terry has priors. He's the sort of cat who pisses in a pint glass and drops it on the ground at a nightclub. This may have been the same night he broke his hand on a bouncer's face. Last year his mother and mother-in-law were arrested for a £1,450 shoplifting spree at a department store. Two months ago it came out he was giving clandestine tours of Stamford Bridge (Chelsea's home ground) for £10,000 a pop. The man is already worth £17,000,000.

Mind you, he’s an excellent defender. But he also “bottled it” in the Champions League Final two years ago, missing what would have been the game-winning penalty.

You may boo him lustily, and without remorse.

So these are the well-known guys, but of course sometimes it’s someone from the second tier who hurts you.


Our final and most tenuous Shakespeare quote is dedicated to England’s 6’7” bag of bones Peter Crouch. Crouch, a human skeleton, is the first player in World Cup history to be made entirely of elbows. He is deceptively good though- has “good touch for a big man” as they say- and can cause England trouble. Not least with his dancing.

OBLIGATORY PREDICTION: 2-2, in a classic. US counter-attack takes advantage of the space that England’s fullbacks leave for them, but Rooney refuses to let the game get away.

All I ask of you, America, is not to bail if it doesn’t go our way today. There will be two games left, minimum. Let’s all be there the whole way.

- Brendan Hunt, © Brendan Hunt, 2010

Friday, 11 June 2010



I was a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night, and it was wonderful experience in which I was very well-treated. I was amused to be introduced as a “World Cup expert,” which I think is gracious but maybe overshooting the mark. I’m just an enthusiastic fan, but in US, maybe that does make me an expert.

Don’t get me wrong, I know my share of soccery what-not. But the closer we get to the big tournaments, I have an against-my-better-judgment tendency to throw all logic out the window.

So it is with great trepidation that I respond to the feedback I get from readers of late (always appreciated), wherein folks want to know who I am picking for the World Cup.

Guys. Really. I unequivocally suck at making soccer predictions. They are, along with overly-planned-out amusement park prop comedy, my Waterloo. I’m flat-out terrible at it.

For one thing, I’m an incorrigible homer, with a tendency for blind fanboy picks, such as when I talked myself into picking the US over the Czechs in ’06. Never has a bad pick been proven bad quicker. Going the other way, I also can talk myself into losses for teams I dislike, such as Portugal, who almost always prove me wrong. It got so bad that year that I eventually was even made fun of by jinx-fearing Australians.

After my ’08 predictions didn’t go much better, I resolved to never predict again.


I mean. Jeez. Really, now. I'm terrible at this.

Eh. The hell with it. It’s a new day. Let’s get predictin.’

As a nod to another one of my favorite sportswriters, Sports Illustrated’s NFL maven Peter King (who will also be covering the World Cup this summer from South Africa), I give you: Ten Things I Think I Probably Shouldn’t Think. Also, just to dissuade those of you foolish enough to make bets based on my lame-ass guesses, I will let you know after each prediction just how dumb a prediction it is.


There’s a reason no home team has ever failed to get out of the first round (well, the cynics will say there are a few, and they’re not all soccer-related), and it remains formidable- home field advantage. Not just home field advantage- but the greatest home field edge in sports.

First of all, the World Cup only happens every four years. That’s four year’s worth of waiting that has to come out. Add on top of that the honor of hosting the tournament, an event that comes once in a lifetime, and you have a uniquely heaving wave-pool of emotion.

When you then add that this is the first Cup to be contested in Africa- well, I just think people are going to go pretty damn nuts. Plus they will have (literally) deafening plastic horns in their hands. Oh, and the team is actually playing okay of late, which is the bare minimum they should need, especially as their group isn’t that threatening.

(How Stupid Is This? Not that stupid. Just misguided. Stubborn. Questionable. Like choosing to be a Cubs fan.)


I’m not sure why so many pundits are so quick to dismiss Nigeria and Cameroon. These are decent tournament sides, despite a lack of recent dominance. Isn’t there a school of thought that teams do better on their home continent? If an unfancied Italy can win the whole thing in Germany, why do folks so quickly discount the Super Eagles and Indomitable Lions, who each have decades of accomplishment behind them, from even getting out of their groups? Especially as neither of them seems to be in too tough a group anyway. (This stampede to prescribe Denmark 2nd place in their group particularly befuddles me.)

As for the Ivory Coast, it all rests on Didier Drogba, of course. If he can play, the Elephants nip Portugal. Portugal’s form is just too poor, and they are coached by the Forrest Gump of soccer management. Cote d’Ivoire to the knockout rounds, Drogba’s arm willing.

(Stupidity Factor? High. If this was blackjack, I’m splitting fives. Then doubling down twice. All I can think of is the payoff!)


I’m really not trying to gang up on Portugal (though I remain less than a fan). They’re just in terrible form. They barely- barely- even made it into the tournament at all. The other week they couldn’t score against Cape Verde (sure, friendlies are meaningless, but form isn’t, so emphasize whichever one you want). Now they’ve lost Nani. Ronaldo or no, Portugal is in trouble.

Yes, North Korea will be terrible (we think). But any propaganda-fed illusions that they will have of themselves will already have been shattered by Brazil in their first group match. So they will be only too happy to put ten men behind the ball (if they hadn’t already) and frustrate the Selecção.

(How Stupid Is It? We have no idea, for these North Koreans are devoted mystery men.)


Sometimes in sports, a team improves slowly, on a clear and gradual upward arc. Sometimes, less often, it leaps past expectations ahead of schedule. I have a feeling Slovakia could be such a team.

They aren’t coming completely out of nowhere, of course. Old Czechoslovakia made two World Cup finals and won Euro 76 (the first ever major international tournament decided by shootout, and to this day it’s the only shootout the Germans have ever lost, on a winning shot so ballsy that they named it after the guy who shot it- Panenka).

But also, soccer nerds have been hearing for years that the Slovaks were about to break out. Their youth teams had a decent decade and the senior squad made it to the final hurdle of qualifying for Germany 2006, before getting Spainked in the playoffs 6-2. On top of all that they have a legitimate world class player, young midfielder Marek Hamšík, who, as you will hear ad nauseum, also has phenomenal hair. Italy will be saving energy, Paraguay will be undermanned, and New Zealand will be happy to be there. Slovakia will win the group.

(Stupidity Factor on this one is manageable. Like picking Matthew Perry to win a fight against Michael Douglas.)


Chile has an offensive-minded coach and an exceedingly high-powered offense. La Roja also starts out against Honduras, whom I expect to be completely overrun. Then it’ll come up against Switzerland, who, having already narrowly lost to Spain, will need to attack more than they want to, leaving them vulnerable to the Chilean onslaught. Finally their third game, against Spain, will be a match between two teams that have already qualified for the second round. Though there will be a bit of jockeying there to not be the team that has to play Brazil next, it’ll be a contented shootout regardless.

Would this minor accomplishment be of any value to Chile? Maybe. There have only been two World Cups in which the top-scoring team from the group stage didn’t go through. The top scoring group stage team has also gone on to win three of the last five Cups.

(I am very comfortable with this one. Which guarantees it will be the stupidest of all.)


Even without the Chelsea Michaels, this is the Group of Duress. With Australia, Germany, Ghana and Serbia, we’re looking at a group chock-a-block with big, strong, physical sides looking to outbash each other. This will be the most unpredictable group, the one that ruins many a bracket.

(This one’s not that stupid. Kinda boring, though.)

Okay, I’m avoiding the stuff that people want. The stuff that will get me in trouble. So let’s do it.


Not gonna say the US will win outright. But, for various reasons, I don’t see England winning.

I will paraphrase an interesting idiom I picked up from the Tony Adams autobiography Addicted. I would quote from it directly, but I seem to have lost my copy, perhaps while drunk. Recounting his experience at Euro 96, Adams mentions that one of the most important things at a major tournament is this: Don’t. Lose. Your. First. Match.

If you come out of your first match with a point, that’s a fantastic result, almost regardless of the opposition. You have that point, while your competitor does NOT have three. But if you come out of that first tilt with a goose egg on your docket… you’re in trouble. (This claim is borne out statistically in this feature. I suspect inclusion of results from the Euros would reinforce the point.)

All this makes me think that if you’re gonna play one of the big boys, you might as well play them early, when there’s still so much uncertainty about how the month is going to go.

Besides, England has problems. This will be the Three Lions’ first game without their injured captain Rio Ferdinand, one of the best defenders in the world, and though I think they will eventually be okay without him, this might be the game where they make mistakes while they're figuring things out. With defensive midfielder Gareth Barry missing the match as well, and England’s unsettled keeper situation, it just that seems England is coming into this match a few vertebrae short of a spine.

Finally, too many of the US players are familiar with their English counterparts to be intimidated or overawed. American athletes already tend not to give a fuck who you are. In this instance, they will give even less of one.

(Stupidity Factor? Lower than you might think. Like betting on your young, dumb cousin to beat your drunk, arthritic uncle in pool. But your uncle has placed eighth in pool tournaments all around town, so betting against him marks you as a horrific dumdum.)


Sure, the Germans don’t have Ballack, but there’s no way they miss out on the knockout rounds. They should still win their group, though I expect Serbia to have something to say about that too. If they do, then it stands to reason that they would play the US. Then, with a fan base that suddenly includes most of Europe, the Americans will avenge the memory of Ulsan.

(This one’s dumb. You can see the blind homerism building now. I mean I’m making a prediction for a game that isn’t even on the schedule. How desperate.)


Serbia is good. Really, really good, despite the fact that almost no one (SI’s Grant Wahl notably excepted) is talking them up. In Raddy Antic they have an accomplished enough coach who won’t let them get all moody and what-not. If England plays anyone else from this group, I think they get by them and go far. But the White Eagles would be a nightmare matchup for them and take them down.

(Not dumb. Just sad. Like waiting for Sterling Cooper to fire Freddy Rumsen.)


Another revenge dish, best served old, and another possible naïve homer pick (I lived in Holland for about five years). But whattayagonnado?

After a horrible, demoralizing first part of the decade, Holland is back. Way back. If they meet Brazil in the quarter-finals (a game from which ESPN will cut away in order to give us an update on whatever city LeBron James is taking a dump in that day), Oranje will remind the Brazilians of how they’re supposed to be doing it. Same if they meet in the final (minus the LeBron part).

(Whoa! This one should come with a warning! “DO NOT TAKE TO VEGAS!” Yikes! This is worse than the Germany one. I mean, I’m like a broken record here with my beloved Dutch. This is like me saying that I’m getting back together with that girl who ruined my life. Stop listening to me, already. And take my keys away from me.)

Which leads me to… ahem… your totally free, bonus Eleventh Thing I think that I… ahem… shouldn’t.


Holland will win it all. It’s time. (Unless Drogba decides to ride this whole talisman-of-Africa thing really hard.)

(Didn't you hear me, buddy? I said: I’m getting married! To who? To Drea, of course! Yes, to Drea. We got back together, like, yesterday. Why don’t you look happy? It’s okay! We talked! She’s different now! She’s not gonna try to sleep with my dad anymore! It’s gonna work this time! GIMME MY KEYS BACK, I’M FINE!)

That's my honest feeling. Bert van Marwijk is a perfect coach for this team, Mark van Bommel is recalled to protect the admittedly shaky back line, and the attack that illuminated Euro 2008 is back. This isn't a totally insane prediction. I swear.

But I know I might be blind. If you’re betting, bet on Brazil. Don’t listen to me. I am not an expert.

(Gotta say, getting the prediction part over with is a massive relief.)

Game on, y'all. Enjoy.

Saturday, 29 May 2010


(Part Two of your World Cup History for Dummies. For Part One, click here. For the blog comparing the 2010 World Cup teams to US sports teams, click here.)



Host: USA
Champ: Brazil
Runner-up: Italy
Golden Ball: Romário, Brazil
Golden Boot: Oleg Salenko, Russia, and Hristo “The Dagger” Stoichkov, Bulgaria, 6 goals each.
Format: Same 24-team deal.
How’d We Do: We, quite surprisingly really, made it to the second round, where an otherwise friendly-looking Brazilian fellow cracked one of our best player's skull with his unfriendly elbow. This was our reward for hosting? Still, getting out of the group was an unexpected success.

The two rule changes imposed were:

1. The back-pass rule, which put an end to defender bail-outs and deathly boring “four-corners”-type play.
2. The points received in the standings for a win in the group stage were increased from 2 to 3. This rewarded, it was hoped, the risks of attacking soccer.

They worked, sort of. The tournament goals-per-game went up from 2.21 to 2.71 (it has since come back down to 2.3 in ’06). So it’s a shame that it all ended in the World Cup’s only scoreless Final.

The thing is, it was a massively successful event, even if the country as a whole didn't appreciate the significance (I myself only heard about it a few days before it started; was I ever so young?). It remains the best-attended World Cup in history.

But it didn't click here nonetheless. Why not? Three doses of bad luck.

1. England weren't there, after a miserable qualifying campaign.  What a boon it would have been, from a US media standpoint, to have the English around. At least we had the Irish for a little while.
2. The day of the opening match, June 17, 1994, when soccer should have been the top story in the headlines... it got bumped.
3. The scoreless Final confirmed every "soccer sucks" cliche there was.

Here's the thing. American likes a show. All eyes turned to Pasadena for Italy and Brazil, ready for fireworks. There were none. Not only was the 0-0 game settled by shootout, it was settled by a missed kick. A nation yawned. Imagine if we'd gotten the '86 Final? Or '06? No. Instead we got the worst, most anticlimactic championship game in the history of the tournament. Strike three.

The shame of it was that those who hadn't been paying attention (like me) had missed a solid tournament with some iconic moments. Maradona celebrating creepily, then being booted for ephedrine use. The most unexpected nominee for best goal ever. And some legendary, must-see work from Diana Ross.



Host: France
Champ: France
Runner-up: Brazil
Golden Ball: Ronaldo, Brazil.
Golden Boot: Davor Šuker, Croatia, 6 goals, and totally stealing Toni Kukoc’s thunder as World’s Most Famous Croatian Athlete That Summer.
New Format: A beautiful, perfect, 32-team group-stage based structure of eight groups of four teams, 16 of which meet in the first of the KO rounds. It passes the true test of a good tourney set-up: it makes sense visually on a wall poster. The fact that they’re talking about changing it again sickens me to my core.
How’d We Do: Horrible. Lost all three games, including to Iran.

Notable from ’98…

- Another disappointing show from Spain, of the sort that was becoming typical of this under-achieving nation.
- Croatia- which hadn’t existed just a few years before- storming to third place.
- A phenomenal game between Argentina and England in the second round, featuring 18 year-old Michael Owen's wonder goal and David Beckham's low point.
- An even better goal by Holland’s Dennis “The Iceman” Bergkamp with time running out in the quarter-final against Argentina. Watch it again. He catches a 50-yard pass delicately, without breaking stride, while being closely guarded, juking his marker in the process, in the dying minutes of the biggest game of his life.
- France’s best player, Zinedine Zidane, got a red card in France's second game of the tournament (at 3:25 of this clip), then came back to score two goals in the Final. Scores goals AND has a temper? Foreshadowing!

The big story that won’t go away though is Ronaldo. Ronaldo was at his unstoppable best in this tournament, winning the Golden Ball. The day of the Final however, was a bad day (and not just because of the collision at 2:40 of this clip). France’s 3-0 victory, while certainly deserved, was shockingly lopsided. Who beats Brazil 3-0?

It came out later that Ronaldo had suffered an epileptic fit hours before the match, and as close as 72 minutes before the game he wasn’t in the starting lineup. Conspiracy theories abound as to why he was eventually allowed to play, a particularly pernicious one being that Evil Nike ordered him to. It's still shrouded in mystery. Again though, I don't go in for conspiracy theories. I just like to hear the evidence.



Host: Japan and South Korea
Champ: Brazil (third straight Final, tied for record)
Runner-up: Germany
Golden Ball: Oliver Kahn, Germany (the only goalkeeper ever to win the award).
Golden Boot: Ronaldo, Brazil, 8 goals.

How’d We Do: We did quite well. Let's pause for a moment to discuss.

First came a shock 3-2 win over 4th-ranked Portugal. After a 1-1 draw with South Korea and Portugal's helpful disposal at South Korea's hands, the Yanks were in the 2nd round for only the third time in 72 years. Their opponent: arch-rival Mexico.

Mexico has dominated this rivalry historically. But on the day of the biggest game in these two teams' shared history, the United States rose to the occasion, winning 2-0 (with Mexico really keeping it classy after the 3:14 mark).  With that win, the US advanced to the quarterfinals, for the first time since 1930, where they faced a Germany side that was far below typical vintage. Denied by Kahn, and by a criminally unpenalized handball on a ball that was halfway over the goal line, the US lost narrowly 1-0. A sad day, but a great tournament for US Soccer.

(Author's Note: Just watched all those highlights again for the first time in years. I highly recommend it. Some of those performances are absolutely stirring, and I'd forgotten how well the boys played in the Germany game. Heavy sigh.)

As a quarter-final performance by the US might imply, this was The World Cup That Was Weird. The other entries in the final eight included regulars Brazil, Germany, England and Spain. The remain three: Senegal, South Korea and Turkey.

France, who had won the previous World Cup AND European Championship, not only failed to get out of their group, they failed to even score a goal. Brazil provided us with a weird dive and a weirdly amazing goal. And it would be fair to say that Korea's surprise run to 4th place was helped by some weird refereeing.

(Gotta say, of all the conspiracy theories presented in this blog, this one seems to have the most credence. And this coming from someone who thought at the time that people were overreacting. Now I see their point, especially with what became of the ref from the Italy match. This is very disquieting, given that it was only eight years ago, as opposed to 70.)

But the main story here was the restoration of Ronaldo. Restored from not only his troubles n the summer of '98, but from recurring injuries that had plagued him since. He would score 8 goals in the tournament- the most of anyone in 32 years- including two in a fairly mediocre final.

Fun Fact: In the third place game, Turkey's Hakan Şükür scored the fastest goal in World Cup history, only 12 seconds into Turkey's 3-2 win.



Host: Germany
Champ: Italy
Runner-up: France
Golden Ball: Zinedine Zidane, France.
Golden Boot: Miroslav Klose, Germany, 5 goals.
How’d We Do: No-so-good. Remember when we jumped out to that early lead v. Portugal last time? This time was the opposite. Went down 2-0 to the Czechs after 30, lost 3-0, and the tournament was basically done. But there was considerable dignity in being the only team in the tournament to get a point off Italy.

This one was recent enough that we can just review some highlights right?

- It wasn't quite the Battle of Santiago, but that Holland-Portugal game was ugly.
- Argentina scored a fantastic team goal, and an even better individual one.
- Wayne Rooney was on the ball.

But of course, the lasting, singular image is Zidane's moment of madness. The thing about this moment, that the casual American fan might not have realized at the time, is that Zidane is one of the all-time greats. He has a very strong argument for the title of Greatest European Player of All-Time (and I say that as a huge fan of the historical holder of that title, Johan Cruyff). But Zidane's lustre had diminished since the failures of 2002. France was expected to be only so-so at Germany '06, but then the Zidane of old began to show up. Suddenly they were in the Final, and Zidane put them up 1-0 with an early penalty. A unique sort of immortality beckoned- there aren't may players who have spearheaded two World Cup titles, much less eight years apart. For him to have thrown all of that away in one moment of madness...

Oh, Zidane. The Unmitigated Gaul.

Fun Fact: At this World Cup Ronaldo took over the record for most career goals scored with his 15th.

And now you are up-to-date with minimum threshold World Cup knowledge. Enjoy contextualizing 2010.

- Brendan Hunt

© Brendan Hunt, 2010

Thursday, 27 May 2010


by Brendan Hunt

(Author's Note: This column is a review of World Cup History. For the blog that equates US Sports teams to 2010 World Cup Teams, click here.)

I have a lot of respect for Bill Simmons, and high hopes for him as someone who will help middle America get into soccer. Unlike sportswriters of his stature of previous generations (your Kornheisers and Defords), Simmons actually likes soccer, or at least respects it, and has for some time. So when he unwittingly puts a call out as to what my next blog should cover, I answer.

At the end of his last podcast with Seth Meyers (always an excellent BS Report guest), he waxed wistful for a digest of the history of the World Cup, a World Cup for Dummies if you will.

I will.

Though, truth be told, Bill’s colleagues at have already been doing an exemplary job of that, with a fantastic feature called World Cup 101. It’s been an ongoing series since we began counting down the 101 days to the start of the tournament, and for the most part they’re the kind of universally informative and historically educational articles that will be just as good to read now as they were when they came out. I recommend the series to you, all of you, not just to Bill Simmons. (I also just came across their "I Scored a Goal in the FIFA World Cup Final" series, which looks fanfuckingtastic.)

But until then we present, with apologies to the considerably higher-brow Brian Glanville:

The History of the World Cup for Dummies/Americans.

For each rendition of the Big Enchilada I’ll tell you who hosted, who won, who came in second, who was the best player and the top scorer, and whatever else seems like the minimum relevant information. Sometimes I’ll tell you even less. Oh, and since the bulk of my soccer learning has come from living in Holland and reading English soccer publications, there will likely be a slightly unavoidable slant towards those two countries.

In the interest of expedience and the philosophy of digests, I will unfortunately have to skip most of the interesting side stories. But you can find many of them recounted nimbly at World Cup 101 (among many other places, I’m sure).

There will also be Fun Facts, some of which won't even be all that fun. 'cause I'm tricky. So tricky, that I've decided to give each section a title from an Elvis Costello song. TRICKY!


At the risk of sounding like the guy who disregards any NFL Championships that didn’t come with roman numerals on them, these first three Cups are more of a pre-history than a history. The tournaments were not comprehensive enough in their representation, through various issues (in no particular order):

- England and Scotland, the widely recognized best teams of the era, not condescending to participate.
- travel difficulties of the day, with Atlantic crossings taking two to three weeks at a time.
- relatively few countries having active professional leagues of a decent standard, thus further reducing the amount of countries who could mount a credible title challenge.
- irregular qualification and Finals format.
- a lack of iconic photography or footage that really cements this sort of thing in immortality, and
- a rather dispiriting dose of Mussolini.




Host: Uruguay.
Champion: Uruguay
Runner-Up: Argentina
Golden Ball (that’s fancy soccer-talk for Tournament MVP): José “The Great Marshall” Nasazzi (ARG)
Golden Boot (more of that foreigner-lingo, this time meaning tournament top-scorer): Guillermo Stábile (ARG), 8 goals
Format: 13 teams, group stage + knockout rounds
How’d we do (the “we” being the U.S.): Third place! Which sounds a lot better before you realize that there were only two good teams in this tournament.

Only thirteen teams participated, only four of them being travel-weary European squads. Uruguay, having won the previous two Olympic gold medals, cement their status as best-team-in-the-world-that-actually-deigns-to-compete-in-a-tournament.

Still, it was a successful enough event, to be sure. Sure, only 300 people attended the Romania-Peru match, but over ninety thousand attended the final, an apparently fantastic game with two lead changes that Uruguay and their one-armed striker won 4-2.

Fun Fact: An American player, Bert Patenaude, scored the first hat-trick in World Cup history.



Host: Italy
Champion: Italy
Runner-up: Czechoslovakia
Golden Ball: Giuseppe Meazza (ITA)
Golden Boot: Oldřich Nejedlý (CZE), 5 goals
New Format (already): 16 teams in single-elimination knockout rounds; no group stage.
How’d we do: Lost to Italy in the first game, 7-1, and that was it. For the next 16 years.

Remember all those stories about Hitler using the 1936 Olympics as a commercial for the Nazis? This tournament, held in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, was the tournament that gave him the idea. Do you really think the Americans were going to be allowed to win that game?

Mind you, the Italians were surely better than the US anyway. But maybe they weren’t better than the Czechs, who sent them into extra time, before losing 2-1.

Fun Fact: Another reason these World Cups seem illegitimate is the weak eligibility rules. One of the players for Italy in the Final was a guy named Luis Monti. You may recall him from the previous Final. Playing for Argentina.



Host: France
Champion: Italy
Runner-up: Hungary
Golden Ball and Boot: Leônidas (BRA), the alleged inventor of the bicycle kick, 7 goals.
Format: 16 teams in KO rounds again.
How’d we do: We did not.

Lots of teams sat this one out. England and Scotland refrained, as usual. Austria qualified, but then withdrew due to the Anschluss taking up an unexpected amount of their schedule. Finally, Argentina and Uruguay refused in protest of Europe getting to host the event for a second straight time, rather than alternating with South America. (The preceding absences were not listed in order of importance or validity.)

France became the first host country not to make the final after losing to eventual-champ Italy in the quarters. Not sure we can blame them for that one. As described in a particularly informative World Cup 101 article (from whence the above picture comes):

As both teams sported blue jerseys, Italy was asked to bring its alternate shirts which were traditionally white. Instead, on Mussolini's orders, the team took to the field in black shirts, the Maglia Nera, a symbol of the feared and despised Italian fascist paramilitary. It was a gesture purposefully designed to goad the thousands of French and Italian protestors in the crowd. As an additional flourish, Il Duce ordered his players to hold the fascist salutes they effected before kickoff until the howling protestors had run out of energy.

In a word: yikes.

Fun Fact: In the 12 years between this and the next World Cup, a FIFA official named Dr. Ottorino Barassi hid the trophy in a shoebox under his bed. Hm. Not that fun, really.



Host: Brazil
Champion: Uruguay
Runner-up: Brazil
Golden Ball: Zizinho (BRA)
Golden Boot: Ademir (BRA), 9 goals
New Format: 16 teams in 4 groups; top team from each group advances to final group stage, meaning, quite oddly, no formal final was on the schedule.
How’d we do: Bounced after group stage, but not until recording THE BIGGEST UPSET IN WORLD CUP HISTORY (as far as you need be concerned). After which we took a break. For 40 years.

But that’s not the story of this tournament. The main thing is “The Final That Was Not a Final.” It wasn’t officially a final due to the tournament being decided by a second group stage- but Brazil v. Uruguay was the last match scheduled, and by the time it came along, they were the top two teams in the group- the winner of their match would win the whole thing. In fact, Brazil only needed a draw. At home. In front of 200,000 fans.

It’s best explained by this video (it’s long, but you’re worth it). But if you don’t have time to watch something cool (and who does, really) just know that the people of Brazil remain by their failure. Apparently the five titles they’ve won since have done nothing to assuage the hurt. Whattayagonnado.

Fun fact: one of the US players was a man named Walter Bahr, who had two sons (Chris and Matt) who went on to Super Bowl winning careers. As placekickers, of course.



Host: Switzerland
Champion: West Germany
Runner-up: Hungary
Golden Ball: Ferenc "The Galloping Major" Puskás, Hungary (one of the all-time greats).
Golden Boot: Sándor Kocsis, Hungary, 11 goals.
New Format: 16 teams in 4 groups; KO rounds restored to the system.

Hungary had come to be seen as the unofficial Best Team in the World after becoming the first non-British team to beat England at Wembley. Known as the Mighty Magyars and led by the legendary Puskás, they got to the final on the back of a five-year, 32-match unbeaten run. But, in the end, they they were undone by adidas.

Mind you, they had beaten West Germany in the group stage, by a fairly decisive score of 8-3. The Germans, who had not been allowed to compete in the previous Cup, were not seen as a threat. It was a poor and shattered country, after all.

In the Final the match started in a familiar way, as Hungary went ahead 2-0 after eight minutes. But by then, heavy rain was already affecting the pitch. The Germans had come prepared.

Sitting on the German bench was a man named Adi Dassler- that’s ADI DASsler- and he brought with him a new invention: soccer boots with exchangeable, screw-in studs, allowing the Germans to play on the increasingly muddy surface with little problem.

Ten minutes after going down 2-0, they had tied it. With 6 minutes left, they went ahead 3-2 and held on for the upset. A World Cup dynasty was born. An athletic shoe giant was as well. As was an apparently quite good German sports film.



Host: Sweden
Champion: Brazil
Runner-up: Sweden
Golden Ball: Didi (BRA)
Golden Boot: Was it everyone from France? No. Just Fontaine.

The most important thing to know about the 1958 World Cup- besides Fontaine's amazing 13-goal tally for 3rd place finisher France- is that the tournament marked the first championship for Brazil as well as the rise of Pelé.

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Americans know who Pelé is, but they don’t necessarily know why Pelé is.

Pelé was a poor 17 year-old when he arrived in Switzerland; by the time he left he had shook hands with the King of Sweden. He was the youngest player to appear in tournament history at the time, on a Brazil team that was (as would become typical) stacked; he remains the World Cup's youngest-ever goal-scorer. After being shut out in the group stage matches, he scored six goals in the final three matches (including a hat-trick in the semi against France) and two more in the final, the first of which being seen as one of the all-time best. The second was the final punctuation in a 5-2 win. It’s the most goals ever scored by any team in the World Cup Final.

Fun Fact: Pelé was never top scorer at a World Cup.



Host: Chile
Champion: Brazil
Runner-Up: Czechoslovakia
Golden Ball: Garrincha (BRA)
Golden Boot: Garrincha and five other dudes tied with four goals each.

Brazil win for the second time behind Garrincha, after Pelé was injured in the second match. Interesting dude, Garrincha. Second-best Brazilian of all-time, they say. Best dribbler ever. Deformed legs. Huge wang.

But the lasting images from this World Cup come from one group stage match between Chile and Italy, one known as The Battle of Santiago; this match is the reason yellow and red card were invented. Here’s what happened. And here’s why.



Host: England
Champion: England
Runner-Up: West Germany
Golden Ball: Bobby Charlton, England.
Golden Boot: Eusébio, Portugal, 9 goals

It was, like the ’62 vintage, a very physical tournament. Portugal’s game plan vs. Brazil: beat the shit out of Pelé. It worked. Argentina’s plan vs. England: beat the shit out of everyone. It failed.

England won the final 4-2 in extra time, behind a hat trick from Geoff Hurst. This extra time is one of the iconic scenes of soccer.

West Germany had scored at the end of regular time to tie things up 2-2. Then in the first extra period, Hurst rattled a shot off the bar that bounced straight down. Replays fairly squarely show the ball to be on the line, and keep in mind that the rule is that the entire ball has to be all the way past the white line to be a goal. But the referee conferred with the linesman, who paused dramatically, then nodded furiously that it was a goal (seen at 1:30 of this video with a rather England-friendly bit of editing about the ball's landing spot). One of the great fables is that the linesman, from the USSR, decided to award the goal as war-based revenge on the Germans. In one of the great soccer fables, he is rumored to have been asked on his deathbed why he awarded the goal. His alleged answer: “Stalingrad.”

England had returned to the top of the soccer world, only this time they had a trophy to show for it.

Fun Fact: There are conspiracy theories of recent vintage that England's win was a semi-fix. I tend not to believe in such things, but I never mind hearing their arguments.



Host: Mexico
Champion: Brazil
Runner-Up: Italy
Golden Ball: Pelé
Golden Boot: Gerd Muller (West Germany), 10 goals.
New rules: Substitutions allowed for the first time, though only two. Yellow and red cards instituted, though no red cards were given. Mind you, expulsions had existed already, but the cards helped to get through the inevitable language barriers.

They say that the ’66 Final rematch in the quarterfinals, with England going up 2-0 before losing 3-2 was an all-time great match.

They say that the semi-final between Italy and Germany, which was 1-1 after regulation, but finished 4-3, was the Game of the Century.

They say that the final goal in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy in the final, scored by Carlos Alberto, was the greatest team goal of all time.

They say that this Brazil team was the greatest team of all time.

They say it was the best World Cup ever.



Host: West Germany
Champion: West Germany
Runner-Up: Holland
Golden Ball: Johan Cruyff, Holland.
(AUTHOR'S GRIPE: I can't stand the British tendency to mispronounce the name of one of the five greatest players of all time. The "uy" sound in Dutch sounds like "ow," not like "oy." So it should sound like CrOWff, not CrOYff. I don't understand continuing to get his name wrong while doing the correct work on the comparably insignificant Dirk Kuyt. If you hear a Brit call him Croyff, set them straight. There's nothing more enjoyable than watching the look on an Englishman's face when he realizes he's been corrected about football by an American. It's just priceless.)
Golden Boot: Grzegorz Lato, Poland, 7 goals.
New Format: 16 teams, two group stages, then a Final.

This tournament has gone down in history as being defined more by who lost it than who won it. The losing Dutch have gone onto become one of the most beloved teams in soccer history, despite coming up short in the Final to the unfazed hosts.

Before 1974, Holland had only appeared in two pre-war World Cups, playing two games and losing them both. They brought with them to Germany their new system, called Total Football, that proved to be virtually unstoppable by anyone but themselves. Total Football was the Triangle Offense of the day, an offense based more on flow than strictly-assigned roles and positions. Defenders were free to attack, because their attacking teammates would rotate to cover; it was a philosophy that was committed to high-scoring, “beautiful” soccer. The fact that this philosophy was coming from a bunch of longhairs from free-spirited Amsterdam helped reinforce the vision that the Dutch were the coolest thing going. Cruyff was Holland’s Magic Johnson (not to mix the metaphor, but imagine how good Magic would have been in the triangle), running the show from the middle, free to score but just as likely to set up teammates. Oranje came through the six group stages with a goal differential of 16-1, and the only goal they allowed was an own goal.

When they arrived at the Final, it appeared there would be more of the same as they scored their first goal in the second minute, before Germany had even touched the ball (at the 2:15 mark). After that, they got cocky. They didn’t try to win the game- they tried to embarrass the Germans, against whom they still held some latent invasion-based hostility. Germany stayed patient in their manner and were up 2-1 by halftime. Despite an absolute barrage by the Dutch in the second half, the Germans held on. In his fantastic book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner explores how deeply this disappointment affected the Dutch people for over a decade to come.

Fun fact: Every country that was won the World Cup has done so on home soil at least once, except Brazil, who have won it five times other places. Even so, Germany are the only of the home-winners to have won their first Cup in another country (if you count Switzerland as another country, and you might as well).



Host: Argentina
Champion: Argentina
Runner-Up: Holland (losing to the home team in two straight Finals)
Golden Ball and Golden Shoe: Mario “The Matador” Kempes, Argentina, 6 goals.

Politics were not quite as central to this Cup as it had been in ’38, but it was in the neighborhood. Argentina was run by a military junta at the time and the country was not in good shape; they wanted a win, and bad. At the end of the second group stage, Argentina needed a 4-0 win over Peru to advance to the Final. They won by the incredible score of 6-0, and Peru magically received a few extra tons of grain that harvest. Now, maybe Peru’s hearts just weren’t in it, as they had already been eliminated- but they sure didn’t look like they were trying very hard.

In the final, the gamesmanship continued. Argentina let Holland wait ten minutes for them on the pitch- surrounded by 71,000 people shouting for their blood- before coming out of the tunnel. When they did, they filed a protest with the referee over a Dutch player’s cast- a cast that he had been wearing all tournament. It is thought by some back in Holland that there was no way the Dutch would be allowed to win that game and leave the stadium alive. This might be hyperbole- but it’s a great story, eh?

It never came to that, though it came close. Argentina took the lead through Kempes in the 38th minute. Holland equalized in the 81st minute, then dramatically hit the post in the 91st. Argentina scored twice in extra time to win their first World Cup.

Fun Fact: Argentina’s trembly-legged Osvaldo Ardiles plays for the Allied team in the film "Victory", the third World Cup winner (along with Pelé and England captain Bobby Moore) to do so.



Host: Spain
Champion: Italy
Runner-up: West Germany (first of three consecutive Finals for them)
Golden Ball and Golden Shoe: Paolo Rossi (Italy), 6 goals
Format: For the first time, 24 teams participate. This leads to bulky system of 6 groups of 4 in first group stage, then four groups of three, then a semi and a final; this is the beginning of these things getting unnecessarily complicated. Also, penalty kicks used for first time to settle draws in KO stages.

Poor Italy. They can’t seem to win a World Cup without there being some kind of character-based asterisk attached. If it’s not Mussolini, it’s Materazzi. And if it’s not them, it’s being led to the title by a match-fixer.

Paolo Rossi won the Silver Ball (second-best player) at Argentina ’78, and the Golden Ball at Spain ’82. In between, he served a two-year suspension for being what appears to be a small part of a large culture of, shall we say, “goal-shaving” in Italy’s top soccer division.

Rossi’s suspension ended- was, in fact, helpfully reduced from three years- in time for the World Cup. The amazing thing about his performance was that it took him so long to get going. He didn’t score at all in Italy’s first four games. Then he exploded, eliminating a very popular Brazil side with a hat trick in the process. Then he scored both goals in the 2-0 semi-final win over Poland before scoring the first in the 3-1 win over West Germany in the Final.

The Germans had again proven their relentless mettle by coming back from 3-1 down in extra-time against the French, tying the match before winning on penalties. But that was overshadowed by goalkeeper Toni Schumacher’s Jack Tatum moment, his unwarranted and cold-blooded destruction of Patrick Battiston, which the referee inexplicably did not punish in any way, as Battiston’s colleagues searched in the grass for their unconscious teammate’s teeth.

As for Paolo Rossi, I think it’s interesting how his Anglicized name- P. Rose- attaches extra weight to his story. It seems quite likely that the footballer’s crimes were far milder than the baseballer’s- but it all makes me wonder what Pete would have done with such a chance at redemption.

Let me be clear though- despite the asterisk, this was an exceptional Italian team, and deserved champions. And whether you love or hate the Azzuri, you gotta hand it to ‘em- they know how to celebrate a goal.



Host: Mexico
Champ: Argentina
Runner-up: W. Germany (again)
Golden Ball: Diego Maradona (Argentina).
Golden Boot: Gary Lineker, England, 6 goals.
Format: Convoluted 24-team affair. Six groups of four teams in typical group stage, top two advancing from each, with- stick with me here- the top four third place teams also advancing. Then a 16-team KO bracket.

Diego Maradona, for those of you joining us late, is either the best or second-best player ever, and the 1986 World Cup was his happy place.

Volumes have been written- in multiple languages- about his performance in the quarter-final match against England alone. You will hear of his famous (over-vilified) "Hand of God" goal, where he faked as though he was heading the ball while, with clear intention, he punched it with his hand. You may recall the political situation between England and Argentina at the time and see how they may have informed this performance, even explaining why, when asked after the game if he handled the ball, Maradona replied "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God" (he has since admitted God was not involved). You may have seen his (slightly overrated) Greatest Goal of All Time. You may yet be surprised to realize that these goals came a mere four minutes apart.

But the thing is- and this is the main argument of the pro-Diego/anti-Pelé faction in the “Who’s the Baddest?” Debating Hall- is that Maradona more or less won the World Cup by himself. Pelé’s trips to the World Cup were always in the company of all-star teams. Maradona might as well have been a one-man band.

It is only somewhat anticlimactic then that he did not score in the final, but the Final itself was climactic enough. Argentina were up 2-0 until late in the second half. Then the Germans scored twice to tie before Jorge Burruchaga- set-up by Maradona- put the game away. These last three goals were all scored in a nine-minute span.



Host: Italy
Champ: W. Germany (their third straight Final)
Runner-up: Argentina (it’s the only World Cup Final that was a rematch of the one before)
Golden Ball: Lothar Matthaus, West Germany.
Golden Boot: Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci, Italy, 6 goals.
How’d We Do?: We decided to stop by the party and see how everyone was doing, felt a little ill, tried to make the best of it, and eventually had to go. We did volunteer to host the next get-together, though.

This was The World Cup That Sucked. It sucked so much that the powers that be would make two subtle but crucial rule changes that would lead the game down a newer, healthier path.

But they didn‘t know that yet. All they knew was that dudes were beating the crap out of each other, diving more than dribbling and that things were getting ugly.

The final was, as our English friends might say, dour. Only one goal, a penalty. Two player sent off. A brutish, cynical, forgettable match.

Despite this, there were many iconic performances. Roger Milla’s flag-dancing for Cameroon, who finished higher than any African team had ever done. Toto Schillaci winning two awards despite starting the World Cup on the bench. And then there was the semi-final between England and West Germany, and Gazza's tears.

England hadn’t beaten Germany in a competitive match since that Final back in ’66. It would be another ten years before they would do so. In this time, Germany became their Moby Dick, an illogical obsession not unlike the Yankees for the pre-2004 Red Sox. Similar to that relationship, the dominant party didn’t quite see this as a “rivalry.” For Germany, their rival was (and remains) Holland. For England, Germany had become everything.

England were led by a man-child named Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne. With the game tied 1-1 and in extra time, Gazza was given a yellow card. This being his second of the tournament, and the World Cup having a cumulative punishment system that I find anachronistic, this meant that he would be suspended for the next game. Should England make the Final, he would be banned from the match.

Gazza wept. The game went to penalty-kicks. Germany, uh... they're pretty good at them. England? No-so-much.

Other teams have had their troubles with PKs, notably Italy and Holland, but they have gotten off the schneid of late. England (outside of the ’96 quarter finals against Spain, overshadowed by the events of the following round) still have not. Let's look at England's finishes the last 20 years:

1990 World Cup – Semi-Final loss to W. Germany on PKs
1992 European Championships – eliminated in group stage
1994 WC – did not qualify
1996 EC – Semi-Final loss to Germany on PKs (as host country!)
1998 WC – 2nd round loss to Argentina on PKs
2000 EC – eliminated in group stage
2002 WC – eliminated in quarter-finals
2004 EC – QF loss to Portugal on PKs.
2006 WC – QF loss to Portugal on PKs.
2008 EC – did not qualify

In the last twenty years, England have qualified for eight major tournaments. They have been eliminated on penalties in five of them, in four different countries, against three different teams. This. Is. Astonishing. And is in the back of everyone's mind- both of the team and their opponents- in every single elimination game England play.

And now: PART II

- Brendan Hunt
© Brendan Hunt, 2010