Thursday, July 3, 2014

Brasil World Cup - the last 8:

OK.  Although on track for the most part, some of my key World Cup predictions didn't turn out as I was expecting. Time to eat some humble pie!  And apologize for my lack of belief in the US team.  But in all fairness, who in their right mind would have put money on Spain exiting early with only a consolation win against Australia?  Or the Ticos making it to the quarterfinals.  Wow!!

Yet, that has been the theme in the early group stages.  Italy is also out early (only two years ago they played the Euro final against Spain).  So are England and Portugal.  Big surprises, of course, but so far the teams that have gone through really showed a lot of heart, desire and drive.  That’s what I love about football; the ball is round, as they say… and in a major tournament “name” alone won’t get you too far.

Another factor that I blindly omitted in my initial write-up: THIS IS a South American World Cup.  It feels like a South American tournament everywhere you turn.  And I've ‘turned’ up in Argentina, Peru and Ecuador (where the Colombian contingent was phenomenal).  All the teams from the continent (and even Central America) are extremely well supported.  Like playing at home, which is why – with the exception of Ecuador – all have made it to the second round.  Not to mention the lowly Costa Rica is now in the top 8!

Here’s a few impressions from my live experience down in Rio:

I was astonished by the Argentinian presence at the Maracanã.  Yes, my childhood dream came true on June 15 when jet-lagged and all (flew in that morning) I stepped into that historic arena for the first time, to see no other than the best player of this generation – Leo Messi, of course – in action.  Bucket list stuff…
However… this very much anticipated emotion didn't go down just as planned…. Thanks mighty FIFA for screwing it up for me!

First, let me shout out to some of my new friends on the BigSoccer forums, who over the last few months have constantly helped each other, exchanged tickets, and actively planned for this one-in-a-lifetime event.  Hope you are all having a wonderful World Cup.  I know I am, even now back in the States.  But after this experience (that allowed me to witness the World Cup first hand in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador) I only have one thing to say:  even though the next World Cup will be in Russia, I’m pretty sure I’d rather come back to South America to experience the love for the sport first hand!

I loved having a “duel” with Ghana fans in a restaurant in Leblon (Rio) as the US were getting revenge from 4 years ago.  Or watching Germany absolutely destroy Portugal at the Fan Zone on the Copacabana beach.  And Ochoa stopping Brazil from scoring in a bar half a block from our apartment, with Ken and his German friends at the next table, while we’re “serenaded” by samba music… Or Suarez ensuring a nasty welcome back to England as we were transitioning through the Sao Paolo airport… Or the subdued Argentinian audience in a bar across from Teatro Colon where all they managed was a late brilliant goal from Messi against lowly Iran… And the fantastic atmosphere in a very international bar in Buenos Aires where US were seconds away from sending Portugal packing… And the subsequent nail-biter against Germany at the wonderful Mantaraya Lodge in Ecuador… Or the Brazilian kid praying on his knees in a bar in Quito as Chile was agonizingly close to end all the fun for an entire nation.  The list can go on, but I’m telling you: South America is where soccer feels at home.  Absolutely mesmerized by the experience!

Germany - Portugal at the Fan Fest - Copacabana beach
Haft time at Brasil-Mexico: a beer with Ken and his German friends
Vamos Colooooombia! (in Quito/Ecuador)
But I digress... 

Back to pissing on FIFA for a while:

As I mentioned BigSoccer helped me and others secure the tickets we wanted, exchange the ones we didn't and so forth.  Thanks again to Ken, James, Jack, Meaghan, Felipe, André and Yaron for helping me sort ours out.  Unfortunately, I had a problem with my ticket that took almost 45 minutes to fix (darn chip didn't scan).  It could have been solved in 5 minutes (as I had enough proof that the ticket was real), but not only did they have a total of 2 (two) people in the ‘customer service’ booth (2 servicing 30-40 people that is), but neither of them spoke English (and my Spanish is rudimentary at best).  The other ‘service center’ they sent me to (where allegedly the guy spoke English) was even less help.

Small parenthesis.  If you’re ever in South America, you ask someone if they speak English and the answer is “more or less” it typically means “barely”.  True story.  Happened to us at least 3 times. 

So after countless minutes (that seemed like hours) and running back and forth between service centers I finally convinced them that the ticket was indeed legal and I was OK to get in the stadium.  But wait… as the game was now already well under way, and the Argentine crowd was getting loud (it was 1-0 by now) there was still a little paperwork to be filled out.  Yes.  Pen to paper.  In the 21st century.  But that’s not all.  Between the two customer service reps I mentioned earlier, they were apparently sharing only ONE pen.  Because I had to stand there, fuming, while one guy was finishing writing down whatever stupid details he needed on one form, so that the woman helping me could use THE SAME pen.  No.  I’m not making any of this shit up.  Getting worked up just thinking back on that.  You can only imagine the amount of rage I had in me at THAT time.

So FIFA – and yes, you’ll hear from me directly on this matter: fuck off and get your act together!
Eventually, 22 minutes into the game (or was it 27?) I finally was living my dream.  Maracanã.  At last!
My recent rendition of this dream involved me pinching myself as I was watching Messi lead his team onto the field, the ovations of the crowd, and the emotional presentation of the Argentinian national anthem.  Instead, I had to settle for breathlessly running to my seat, short of breath and drenched in sweat, cursing the hell out of the aforementioned inept organization responsible for this event.

FIFA – you incompetent bastards – thank you for screwing up that experience.  I hope you collectively rot in Hell.

Yet, once my pulse returned to normal, there it was: Maracanã.  The Mecca for any football lover in all its modern splendor.  The place were dreams were born and hearts were broken.  Draped today in all its white-and-light-blue glory.  Fantastic fans, the Argentinians (take a quick peek).   Hated to death by the Brazilians.

In the end the game was OK… Argentina didn’t play that well and Bosnia could have tried harder, but it only took a moment of brilliance from Messi to give the fans a reason to sing and dance well into the night.

Three days later, we were back at the Maracanã hoping this time that I could live that whole hair-raising experience with the pinching and the crowd and all that.  This time, however, it wasn't FIFA that messed things up, but the Spanish themselves.  I don’t think I've ever seen a sorrier attempt to show up for a game.  If I were the coach I would have pulled the team out.  Pathetic performance.  As much as I anticipated this, it was so hard to watch that I really thought about walking out.  SHAME on all the Spanish so-called superstars.  They should be publicly flagged in Plaza Mayor in Madrid.  Simple as that!

But let’s rewind.

If three days earlier the number of Argentine supporters seemed overwhelming, the Chilean contingent was unreal.  Slightly over 74 thousand were in total attendance that day, 70 thousand of them were sporting the red Chilean jersey.  The tumultuous “CHI-CHI-CHI  LE-LE-LE” (click to get a taste of it) chant was so overwhelming that I knew Spain didn't have a chance while their valiant opponent had such a strong 12th player behind them (not taking anything away from their team – of course – who with a little luck (and couple inches lower in the last minute of play) could have ‘sent’ Brazil home early).

It was amazing to live through that experience.  In the end, I did pinch myself.  The hair on the back of my neck did stand up.  My heart raced.  And I have a fantastic memory to carry with me for the rest of my life.  One way or another I lived my dream.  It wasn't quite the way I planned (or dreamt it) but nonetheless, bucket-list material that I will cherish forever.

FIFA – you’re not forgiven.  Especially since the next two world cups are going to take place in Russia (come ‘on… I ran as far away from that part of the world 25 years ago) or Qatar (really??  No, seriously… really??? I do hope that the ongoing investigation finds the bribes that were undoubtedly passed under the table and awards the 2022 World Cup to a place that’s more deserving of such a prestigious event.  Preferably somewhere in South America, if you ask me!

But let’s get back to the current World Cup and its excellent host.

Brasil (or at least Rio where we spent a few days) has been fantastic.  Just as I expected, all the polemic about money unwisely spent, crime, safety and so on went out the window the moment the tournament started.  People here eat, drink, breathe and live football.  It’s a universal language that everyone understands and everyone is fluent in.  Nothing else matters.  Nada mas.

But more on the overall Rio experience and the fantastic days we spent there in a separate post.

Now back to humble pie and pulling that proverbial foot out of my mouth…

Group A: Brazil topped the group, as expected, but for me Mexico coming in second was a surprise (especially after the way they squeezed through to qualify for the tournament against New Zealand).  With a bit more concentration – and less diving from a very gifted player that for some reason I simply can’t stand [maybe exactly for his diving panache] they would have still been in and sent Holland packing… Croatia was a letdown; I was wondering if Rakitić and Modrić could play well together.  Clearly, the answer was that they didn’t.  And why Sušić would play Rakitić (an offensive midfielder who had 15 goals and 17 assists in Spain this season) in a defensive role is beyond me…. I tell you, sometimes these coaches [glorified tacticians as some call them] simply lack common sense…

Group B: At every tournament there’s a big BIG surprise where the reigning champ (see France in 2002) or a big favorite (see Italy and France in 2010) manages to fall flat on their face in the group stages.  It was Spain’s turn this time, and clearly the end of an era for a team that quite possibly played the most beautiful football over the last 6 years or so.  They simply didn't show up.  Deplorable is the word I’m looking for.  As for the Dutch, as much as they started in force (driven by the desire to revenge their final loss from South Africa and make amends for leaving the Euros two years ago on zero points) and secured top spot with Spain out of the way, they looked out of ideas against Mexico.  All the “van Gaal is the greatest tactician” crap that’s in the news is just bullshit to me.  If he is such a great tactician, why didn't they have the game wrapped up by half time (like Germany against Portugal)?  They just got a bit lucky and the ref finally awarded a [dubious] penalty to Diving-Robben when in turn he should have already shown a yellow or two for his previous attempts… Sure… you’ll say… they destroyed Spain, but even Malta (no offense) could have destroyed Spain at this World Cup. 

Group C: Columbia has been brilliant, but frankly, they didn't have much competition.  Japan has been weaker than in previous competitions, Ivory Coast a bunch of individual talent that can’t play as a team if their life depended on it, and Greece barely scraped through…

Group D: Now there’s something for you.  Costa Rica on top, with England and Italy out.  It was all about heart in this group.  Clearly none bigger than the Ticos’.  And my doubts about England were proven right.  EPL should seriously look at their young talent coming through the ranks, as this batch doesn't look up to par… As for Suarez… oh boy… what a complete retarded idiot (not sorry if that in any way sounds offensive).  He’s clearly not welcome back in England after ensuring their elimination, and now with the 4 month ban not sure anyone would want him.  I hear rumors about Barça being interested and I cringe.  Fantastic goal scorer, no doubt, but clearly nothing “upstairs”…

Group E: No surprise here.  Ecuador and Honduras were just along for the party.  Never a serious chance…  France, however – for the first time in many years – has been playing attractive football.  Pretty impressed!

Group F: Argentina was expected to top the group, but as I predicted, over-reliance on a Messi that only shows up for moments during the game [albeit brilliant moments that pretty much carried the team so far and account for 5 goals and 1 assist out of the 7 goals scored by Argentina so far; 6 if you don’t count the own goal] can’t go on much longer.  They barely missed the penalty roulette by 2 minutes and a few inches to the right against the Swiss… Nigeria seemed the most serious of the African teams, but in the end France easily discarded them in the round of 16. 

Group G: I knew Germany would top the group, but surely another portion of humble pie is on my plate for the “zero-chance, zero-points, Klinsmann-out” prediction I had for the US team.  They had redefined fighting spirit, Howard was by far the goalie of the tournament, and the young team looks promising for 2018.  Portugal and their primadonna [yes, Ronaldo] would have gone home after 2 games had the US kept their concentration 1 more minute… In the end, the only good thing Ronaldo did was to score an otherwise pathetic goal that ensured US qualification without sweating it until the last minute… Ghana (like most African teams) another big disappointment.  Great individual talents, but crap in terms of team play.  Didn't help that Muntari and Boateng were sent home in the middle of things for disciplinary reasons.

I was also surprised by the support back home in the States.  The whole nation got behind the team; I saw images of a completely full Soldier Field in Chicago with people watching the game on a big screen.  Several other cities had similar massive gatherings.  And even the Wall Street Journal had their picture on the front page!  Respect.

Group G: I saw Belgium topping this one (I still stand by my surprise-of-the tournament prediction; watch out Argentina) but Russia only have themselves to blame for not progressing out of a relatively easy group.  Algeria deserved second place, and even put up a good fight against Germany…

*                     *                      *                        *                      *         
So now what’s left?

In general, there’s no team that really impressed (maybe with the exception of Columbia).  Some (like Germany, France and the Dutch) have started strong, but are fizzing out.  And Brazil and Argentina are yet to hit their stride…

For the quarterfinals, I’m on track with my Brazil prediction (only against Columbia now, instead of England or Uruguay).  It should be another firecracker of a game.  The Colombian play attractive attacking football.  Brazil is still not running on all cylinders.  But I think they’ll step it up tomorrow.  Too much is at stake and like I said before, La Copa will not be the same with Brasil eliminated… There sure will be drama one way or another.

France – Germany is spot on.  Just how I called it.  I still stand by the Germans on this one (although France has been surprisingly effective; and as I mentioned earlier, incredibly disciplined)

With Argentina – Belgium (another quarterfinal I called accurately) I stand by my initial Belgium-surprise win.  The South Americans have ridden their luck so far, yet played uninspired football and Messi might find it hard to deal with tight marking from Kompany, Fellaini & Co.

The Dutch – with their oh-so-mighty tactician van Gaal – have it easy.  Any of the small team surprises run out of gas prematurely because they don’t have the depth.  Costa Rica will put up a valiant fight, but by now the “surprise” factor is gone.  Won’t be able to hang with the big boys much longer…

In the end, Brazil will still make it to the final after defeating the Germans along the way.  I really think the Seleção will get better, and early goals in their upcoming matches will be key.  Looks like instead of Spain [RIP] they’ll play the other team from group B in the final: Holland (who I think will eventually end an impressive Belgium run).  That leaves Germany third, Netherlands losing their third World Cup final, and Brazil winning it for a record 6th time!

But stranger thing have happened so far in this World Cup.  Brace yourselves for some surprises still!

...what everyone in Brasil believes... we'll know for sure in a few more days!

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