It’s A Wrap

usa_wcBy Bill Thomas

What a month that was, the 20th World Cup, one that finds itself placed up there among the greatest tournaments of all time, perhaps a shade short of the 1958 or 1970 pinnacles given that it was not marked by the presence of one truly awe inspiring team, but a memorable one nonetheless give the quality and the entertainment that was on view for much of the month.

Once upon a time, back in the ‘70s, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury joked about forming a band called Hair, Nose & Teeth. If only they had, they could have been the soundtrack for this World Cup, covering some of its main stories in David Luiz, Clint Dempsey and Luis Suarez.

The Brazilian, having been, quite extraordinarily, named best player of the tournament by FIFA’s stats after the quarter-final stage unravelled so spectacularly thereafter that he took the aspirations of 200 million people with him in a flood of tears.

Clint Dempsey had his nose smashed to the other side of his face right at the start of the United States’ campaign, but by the time his country narrowly lost out to Belgium in the round of 16, they’d become most neutrals’ favourite team, down to their never say die attitude and coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s devotion to taking the game to the opposition at every opportunity, a philosophy that was surprisingly, thrillingly embraced by all kinds of countries to ensure that the goals kept flooding in.

And then there were Luis Suarez’s teeth, items that the UN might well monitor in future as weapons of mass destruction. Certainly they destroyed Uruguay’s hopes of going beyond the last 16 when they sank into the shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and earned the gums beyond them a competition ban and – and some conspiracy theorists would say this is why he did it – a move to Barcelona from Liverpool.

An ageing Uruguay could not survive without him, for even at 75% effectiveness following injury, he was the difference between his nation and England, two strikes condemning Roy Hodgson’s men to the earliest of exits home – back before the postcards as the saying used to be, though in their case, they were so quick they probably overtook the emails as well. There was much talk that England had at least struck out towards a brave new world with the selection of Sterling, Sturridge, Shaw and their ilk, but if you have a defence that could be greatly improved by the addition of a Brazilian, I’d counsel that it’s wise not to be getting your hopes up so much.

The early phase of the tournament looked to be heralding a changing of the guard as some of the great powers of Europe fell by the wayside. Italy followed England out at the group stage as the exuberance of Costa Rica took everyone by surprise, while the holders, Spain, were smashed to smithereens by the Dutch and then swept away by an enterprising Chilean outfit, the World Cup proving to be no country for old men as pace, power, youth and athleticism quickly began to take charge. That said, the death of tiki-taka has been exaggerated, as we shall see, and let us not forget, had David Silva made it 2-0 against the Dutch just before the break, the entire competition might have been reading from a different script, such are the fine margins at this altitude.

Elsewhere, South America fared well, the Concacaf nations excelled, Africa saw two nations qualify from the groups for the first time, but Europe? Not so good.

The old powerbase began to reassert itself once we got to the knockout stages though, the age old experience of game management coming to the fore, the free scoring French seeing off the challenge of Nigeria, the Germans suffering to the final seconds of 120 minutes against Algeria before edging past them.

wc_rodriguezballConcacaf’s nations started to falter too, albeit in unfortunate circumstances, Mexico much the better side against the Netherlands until the approach of injury time whereupon they fell apart – and Robben just fell – and Louis Van Gaal unveiled what we are required to call his masterplan, revealed to his players in the water break 15 minutes from the end – essentially, lump it up the field and run after it a la Wimbledon.

The United States fell by the wayside too in what was one of the games of the competition, epic end to end stuff against Belgium that proved a 0-0 draw over 90 minutes can be a cracker, Belgium just doing enough in extra time to win the game with by far their best performance of a competition where they otherwise disappointed given the talent they had at their disposal.

Costa Rica did see the job through, albeit that they needed penalties against the ultra-conservative Greeks, for whom the opposition half was generally a foreign country and they’d forgotten to bring their passports.

It was elsewhere that the stories were emerging though, Argentina just barely sneaking beyond the Swiss in the 118th minute, a moment of magic from Messi to set up Di Maria enough to do the trick but Messi was clearly husbanding his resources and rationing out those glimpses of genius, failing to illuminate the World Cup as many hoped he would, yet still piloting his team through the competition right to its final game.

Colombia had already looked magnificent in the group stages but they really began to look the real deal as they dismantled the toothless Uruguay, James Rodriguez announcing himself on the world stage with a wonderful goal, though the impressive thing was that they were no one man team.

The same could not be said of Brazil, desperately reliant upon the attacking flair of Neymar, although even that was not enough to take them past Chile, the game going all the way to the penalties, though had Pinilla’s last minute shot off the bar been six inches lower, Brazil would have been out. The Brazilians, so emotionally overwrought throughout this tournament, looked to be enduring a collective nervous breakdown before a kick was taken, goalkeeper Julio Cesar in tears. He must have been able to see through them though, making a couple of saves in a shootout of dreadful quality, before Jara smacked his effort off the inside of the post and out to safety to hand the game to the hosts.

That brought us to the quarter-finals and a sudden brake on all the excitement as we sat through four mostly forgettable fixtures. The French were simply drowned by the superior intelligence and movement of the Germans who scored early and then just held their opponents under until the life had gone out of them. The game between Argentina and a desperately lacklustre Belgium was broadly similar, an early goal followed by an opponent being held comfortably at arm’s length.

Costa Rica had run out of steam by the time they reached their tie with the Netherlands, but they were still capable of taking the game to penalties as Dutch ambition, so fierce and impressive at the outset, gradually petered out with Van Gaal looking to take his side to the finals by attritional means only, the flair of Robben and Van Persie subjugated to the requirements of the clean sheet.

Having achieved that, with the shootout looming, Van Gaal substituted his goalkeeper for Krul and after indulging in some cringeworthy gamesmanship, the big ‘keeper kept out two penalties to defeat the Costa Ricans. Some saw this as evidence of the genius of the Dutch leader, though they failed to explain how it was that said genius hadn’t been enough to see Costa Rica off in regulation time.

wc_neymarThe final game of the round of 8 saw Brazil overcome Colombia, largely by the expedient of kicking Rodriguez into small pieces. But in victory was sown the seed of disaster, for Thiago Silva picked up a second booking of the competition to see him ruled out of the semi-final, then, in the last moments, Neymar sustained a back injury that finished his tournament.

More than that, the fragility of the Brazilian team and its nerves was laid bare for all to see. From the moment David Luiz made it 2-0 with a brilliant free-kick scored in the half where he is less of a liability, Brazil spent the last 25 minutes in panic mode, failing to exert any control over the game, simply lashing the ball upfield any time Colombia got near their goal. Rodriguez’s penalty ten minutes from time shredded the nerves still further, but even though Brazil won, it was clear all was not well. Just how wrong things were would be shown by the semi-final.

Even these few days later, it’s still hard to believe that that game happened. The Brazilians, always travelling on the most extreme emotional edge, allowed those emotions to finally overwhelm them. It began with the pre-match homage to Neymar as though he was now encased in a coffin rather than a corset, his shirt held out during the anthems like the Shroud of Turin, any semblance of proportion long gone. And then the game started…

What can we say about Brazil that evening, and particularly David Luiz? On the BBC, it was fortunate indeed that Alan Hansen was covering his penultimate game as a pundit because the poor soul was hyperventilating at the diabolical nature of his “defensive work”. Hansen may never recover from what he witnessed. David Luiz was not the only culprit but he put everything into giving the single most stupid individual performance at a World Cup since that lad from Zaire dashed out of the wall and leathered the ball 80 yards away back in 1974. It wasn’t so much his incompetence that was astonishing, not if you’ve ever watched Chelsea, it was his utter self indulgence, his unwillingness to subjugate his ego and do the things defenders should do, but instead he continued to play to the crowd, rushing around like a madman to illustrate his “passion”. If you can find the heat map of his performance in this game online, do. It’s beyond belief.

Take nothing away from Germany, they put in a brilliant display, perhaps the single best performance of the competition, but the ease with which they registered goal after goal in that first half obliteration of the host nation was shocking to witness. To hear that the Germans agreed to go easy on them in the second half was even more unbelievable, but it was clear that after the break they were looking after themselves with the final ahead of them. Brazil, meanwhile, compounded their disgrace by defending just as badly against the Dutch in the third place game, losing 3-0 with the Netherlands barely breaking sweat.

That they were in that game came as a result of a failure against Argentina in the penalty shootout of the semi-final, Van Gaal’s team paying the price for playing the game seemingly with penalties the only end game in their minds. They got there, then lost, Messi scoring from the spot on the only occasion he got in the Dutch box all evening.

So we came to the final, the world’s best team against the world’s best player as the billing told us. Experience tells you that on such occasions, nine times out of ten it is the team that prevails, and so it was this time. You had to feel for Messi, a player who has clearly had his struggles this season for club and country and who is still trying to work out a way to deal with them. Faced with carrying a misfiring team forward – before we start castigating Messi, what of the vaunted attacking prowess of Higuain, Aguero and Di Maria in this tournament? – it was a task that ultimately proved too much even for him.

You could argue that he wasn’t best employed either, often playing too deep or going wide, but this was a month in which the muse deserted him. Of course, he was still hugely significant – without him Argentina might not have got out of the group, never mind reached the final – but such is his talent that he is held to a higher standard than mere mortals and sadly, he came nowhere near reaching that level.

Even then, we would be having different thoughts and conversations about him now had Higuain and Palacio not both missed sitters or had Messi himself done better early in the second half with the kind of chance we see him gobbling up without a thought in La Liga. But those opportunities went begging, as did a last minute free-kick from 30 yards that could have salvaged a penalty shootout from the wreckage. As he lined up the ball, you could feel the presence of Pele and of Maradona, especially Maradona, hovering around him.  This was the career defining moment, here it was, the final proof.

And then the ball ballooned way over the bar and into the crowd. Messi turned away, a baffled half grin flitting across his face, knowing that the game was gone, aware of what the world was preparing to say about him, the confusion of the genius whose touch has suddenly deserted him etched on his features. His misery was compounded when he was required to go up and collect the Golden Ball as the tournament’ best player, a risible decision given he wasn’t even Argentina’s best – that accolade surely belonged to Mascherano.

messi_finalThe Messi sideshow threatened to take away the focus from the Germans and a thoroughly deserved, well worked win. Of course, there will be lapses into stereotyping here, but stereotypes are often there because they reveal the truth. The Germans are renowned for being methodical and ruthlessly efficient and they were that alright – they built their own training complex in Brazil after all.

Their football was a model of economy and precision too, beautifully structured, thought out, delivered exactly as required. Some use these facts as a stick with which to beat them rather than lauding the clear eyed, rational planning over a decade that has brought Germany back to the top of the game, has created history in enabling them to become the first European side to win the World Cup in South America and has them looking ready to emulate their dominance from 1966 to 1990 that saw them win two World Cups, contest three other finals and reach one semi-final in seven tournaments.

But again, to talk of them as merely mechanical and prepared would be to damn them with faint praise. What they have done, coach Joachim Low in particular, is what all smart operators do. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they have stood upon the shoulders of giants and evolved the game.

Look at the way they play and it is Spain’s tiki-taka, just on speed. They use that high pressing game – occasionally to their detriment given the vulnerability of their high defensive line at times – that Spain and Barcelona have long favoured, they harry opponents into errors, they win the ball in the other half. Spain’s style has now been countered because they are more ponderous with the ball, keeping it for its own sake, the Germans have added a directness to things, willing to get forward faster, to break with more pace, to have the ball but to use it, always, in the pursuit of another goal rather than simply to keep the opposition from their goal. This is the Guardiola plan but with a degree – Cruyff surely doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry given that it is now Germany who are playing total football.

And that you can add a clutch of great individuals, all of who are harnessed to the betterment of the team rather than themselves. Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world and a sweeper of real vision and intelligence to boot. Lahm is similarly brilliant at full-back. Muller is a mobile, all purpose striker / attacking midfielder / playmaker who would adorn any side in the world. Kroos and Ozil, for all the apparent vendetta that the British press have towards him, are creators of chances from the very top drawer.

And then there is Schweinsteiger, the man of the match in the final, who simply was not going to allow his moment to slip through his grasp, still driving on, battered and bruised, when he could barely stand. In the end, it was he, not Messi, who grasped destiny and turned it his way, simply by force of his unquenchable self-belief and his determination, allied to his undoubted quality. How very German…

 

The View From 101

esclogoBy Tim Hall

So ends the World Cup, a wonderful testimonial to many of the things we love and a few of the things we hate about the state of soccer in the year 2014. 

We got to witness some truly incredible moments and performances that will take their place in the lore of the greatest tournament in football, and some years down the line you’ll read a review piece about Brazil 2014 and remember with a smile where you were and who you were with for some of those games.

But there’s a problem.

During a break in what can only loosely be described as action in the final between Argentina and Germany, as the FIFA cameras showed a majestic shot of that most iconic Rio De Janiero landmark, the Christ the Redeemer statue, Ian Darke, in his role as ESPN’s lead commentator, took a moment to remind us of upcoming Major League Soccer action on the ESPN family of networks. “If you’ve enjoyed this World Cup, you’ll like MLS.”

There’s something telling in Mr. Darke’s phrasing there. It’s the same wording used to sell knockoff cologne and store-brand salad dressing.

All around America, MLS teams are chiming in similarly, trying to suck in whatever post-World Cup attendance boost they can. Fans are proudly proclaiming that we’re at the games every week, that soccer is not a once every four years occurrence for us. Columnists are stuffing column inches with thought pieces on what sort of bounce MLS will see through the turnstiles. “If you like this superior product, you’ll love this cheaper imitation!”

But let’s be honest: if you really enjoyed this World Cup, don’t watch MLS.

Yes, there are fields and balls and nets, but, really the similarities end there. Yes, we have some world class talent both homegrown and from foreign shores, but those are the exceptions and not the rule. You are not likely to find beauty or joy in a Thursday night Chicago Fire vs. Colorado Rapids game. What you will find is a bunch of players who were pretty good in college but are making less here than they would if they managed a restaurant.

Don’t turn on a Major League Soccer game thinking you’ll see a 1-to-1 or even 1-to-10 substitute for the World Cup. And certainly don’t turn to MLS thinking it is somehow free from the controversies that surround FIFA and the World Cup. There are major problems going on here in our domestic league.

On one coast, there’s a team playing in an American football stadium in New England with an owner who could not give less of a damn about his team. On the other coast, there’s another team playing in an American football stadium in Seattle that has a marching band. Say what you want about Luis Suarez and his biting issue, but nothing brings the game into disrepute more than a tuba. Down the road from there in Portland they gouge the hell out of visiting fans on tickets. Further south in Los Angeles is a team so comically inept that the league had to wrest control of the team from the owners before they could somehow make a Chivas team drawing 5,000 fans a game any worse.

What’s coming over the horizon isn’t much better. In New York the new expansion team will be playing in a baseball stadium, and a largely empty one if early ticket sales are an indicator. They’re also owned by a member of the ruling family of one of the most repressive, regressive nations in the world. But, they paid cash, so we let them in anyway.

Down in Florida, MLS is once again catering to David Beckham ten years after anyone last cared, but not even the allure of Goldenballs the Great has been able to break ground on a stadium in the Miami area.

MLS is stretched so far geographically that the teams in the extreme north can’t play outside at the beginning of the season, and the teams in the extreme south shouldn’t play outside in the middle, and the powers that be keep floating the idea of switching to a winter schedule without realizing that this will solve neither of those weather issues.

The team that wins the league doesn’t actually win the league. The oldest tournament in the country – one of the oldest in the world, in fact – is a joke and an afterthought to all but a handful of teams. Success in MLS means qualifying for continental play, which creates schedule congestion and makes you fail the following season both domestically and internationally. You’re as likely to find calm, civilized, like-minded people in the fanbases as you are racists, sexists, homophobes and Green Street wannabes.

If none of this or the myriad other examples sounds interesting to you, don’t watch MLS. If you have to watch soccer, if you can’t imagine your life without it now, take up one of the European leagues, but don’t come running to MLS to get your fix.

Unless.

Unless your parents remarried a couple times and you don’t really talk to your siblings outside of the major holidays and your professional and personal lives are unfulfilling in some way you can’t quite describe but you feel nonetheless. Unless you want to be a part of a big, stupid, dysfunctional family that charges you for membership but gives you the friendship and kinship for free. Unless you want to be a part of something that can feel like it takes and takes and takes, but the moment it gives back you feel like it’s all been completely worth it.

Unless you want to laugh more than you’ve ever laughed at silly stuff in your life. Unless you want your entire existence to be changed, your whole outlook to be shifted, all of your priorities flipped upside down. Unless you want to meet people who you will love for the rest of your life, and some you’ll hate just as long (we’re not angels). Unless you want to rethink how you personally define words like “love” and “loyalty” and “friendship” and “responsibility”.

Unless you want to belong. Unless you want to be a part of something big, bigger than you, bigger than all of us put together. Part of a movement, part of a culture, part of a band of brothers and sisters.

If that appeals to you, then, yes, you might just like MLS after all.

NYC Ireland Ready To Take On The World

copa_ireland1By Ben Tetelman 

It is hard to believe that NYC Ireland have never won a Cosmos Copa Championship considering their illustrious history in the tournament. The side has appeared in the knockout stages three times, with one final appearance in 2009.

As the 2014 tournament approached, there was talk that NYC Ireland had organized a strong side. Any doubts about the strength of NYC Ireland were surely silenced in the qualifying rounds, which finished up last week.

In qualifying, NYC Ireland took home the maximum nine points, with three wins in a strong group that included NYC Spain, NYC Paraguay and NYC Egypt.

The boys in green will look for continued offensive success from Conor Hunter, who leads NYC Ireland with three goals in all competition. Hunter currently sits behind Fritzson Jean Baptist of NYC Haiti in the race for the golden boot, which is awarded to the tournament’s top goal scorer.

CosmosCopa_Media Alert_Group StageLet’s take a look at NYC Ireland’s opponents in Group A

NYC Gambia:

With a loss to NYC Senegal in the semifinals of the 2013 Cosmos Copa, NYC Gambia will be looking for a different ending in 2014. The African side has had the advantage of prequalifying for the group stage this year, and will hope to strategically dismantle their opponents in the group stage.

NYC Bolivia:

NYC Bolivia made a run to the semifinals in 2012, and came into last year’s Copa with hopes of returning to that stage of the competition. Those hopes were dashed when they suffered a 2-1 defeat to NYC Senegal in the quarterfinals. After an early exit from the knockout stages last year, the prequalified NYC Bolivia will look to venture far into the competition in 2014.

NYC Ecuador:

NYC Ecuador’s absence from recent Copa tournaments had the South American nation looking like an underdog in the qualifying rounds of the 2014 Cosmos Copa. Matched up with NYC Greece, NYC England and last-minute entry NYC Zimbabwe, a trip to the group stage seemed far-fetched for NYC Ecuador.

In a great battle for a position at the top of the table, the Amarillos of NYC shocked the qualifying group by advancing to the group stage on a tiebreaker. Tied at seven points, with two victories and a draw, NYC Ecuador skidded past NYC Greece with a stronger goal differential.

Emerging as a dark horse contender, NYC Ecuador will look to continue their success on both sides of the pitch. From a defensive perspective, NYC Ecuador has been one of the strongest sides, allowing just one goal in three games. In the attack, Guido Fabricio Goana and Luis Argudo will look to continue their goal scoring sprees.

Group A will begin playing this Saturday, July 19 at Pier 40 in Hudson River Park, Manhattan.

 

Around New York In 30 Days – End Of The Line

deargyan_cr

Blue Light Special. The scene inside Pancho Villa Rodeo in Dover during Costa Rica’s match with the Netherlands.

David Brand wraps up his month-long World Cup trek around NYC.

Two hours before the 2014 World Cup began I had already been kicked out of two restaurants.  I was about to embark on a month-long journey to see how New York City experiences the World Cup, but I was 0-for-2 at eateries along West 46th St., aka Little Brazil, because I failed to make reservations.

Before I left the second restaurant, I peered over the shoulder of the manager blocking my entry and noticed a slender woman filming a segment for Rede Globo, Brazil’s biggest TV network. Like me, the reporter was documenting how New York City embraces soccer.

I was eager to start my project and luckily there was room at a third Brazilian place called Ipanema. I found a spot at the bar and kicked off my World Cup Tour of NYC surrounded by Brazilians and a diverse crew of La Selecao admirers.

A month later, I stood amid a huge outdoor viewing party along the Manhattan side of the East River as Germany faced Argentina in the World Cup Final. A woman with a microphone and pet cameraman approached me at halftime. She was a reporter from Rede Globo.

Tell me about your experience watching the World Cup in New York City, she asked. What were the highlights?

I could not have scripted a neater wrap-up to my World Cup writing project! During the past month, I watched the tournament at 25 unique bars, restaurants, parties and cultural centers in and around New York City. I visited a different spot every match day and I documented the highlights at my blog DearGyan.com.

deargyan_germans

a german fan in full kit outside Loreley Restaurant and Biergarten in the Lower East Side.

I spent the the Fourth of July smushed against happy Germans and Teutophiles in a fun dungeon beneath Loreley Restaurant and Biergarten in the Lower East Side. The spectators in the dungeon passed out small glasses of beer from a circular tray called a kranz and taunted the French fans on TV. “Awww,” they sighed sarcastically whenever the cameras picked up a pouting Frenchwoman or moping child.

A German economist named Kim led many of the jeers. Kim is known as The Bike Ambassador because he cycled from Portugal to China to raise money for a Vietnamese children’s charity. His wife Dan is a real estate lawyer from China. The power couple said they changed into German gear and headed to the bar after Dan closed a multimillion-dollar deal with Chinese investors earlier that morning.

I thought the crowd would be tense or dour during their quarterfinal match against a powerful French side. Instead, the German dungeon hosted the most cheerful crew that I encountered all tournament.

In contrast, the men inside New Ivoire Restaurant, a small orange box in East Harlem, seemed incredulous throughout Les Elephants’ match with Greece. After every Ivorian mistake, every give-away, every cross that didn’t find a green kit in the box, the Cote d’Ivoire supporters whined like they were personally offended. At halftime, two well dressed men got into an impassioned argument punctuated by several demonstrative gestures.

The life literally left the room when the referee awarded Greece a penalty kick in the 92nd minute.  Most of the men around me silently marched out of the restaurant before Greece even put the ball down. They already knew what would happen.

“That’s football,” a cabdriver named Cain told me after the crushing loss. “That’s what happens in this game. Now we root for USA.”

Yeah, but that was a pretty awful way to lose, I prodded.

“That’s the way the game goes,” he responded. I was struck by his calm realism.

I want Cain to be my next Uber driver and life coach.

deargyan_costarica

The unassuming exterior of Pancho Villa Rodeo restaurant belies the neon blue track lighting, disco ball and Costa Rican viewing party inside.

I headed to Dover, New Jersey, the last stop on NJ Transit’s Morris-Essex Line, with my girlfriend, brother and friend to cheer for Costa Rica against the Netherlands. Costa Ricans comprise a significant proportion of Dover’s population, but the first two Costa Rican restaurants we visited were closed. I was resigned to watch the match at a Honduran place until I spotted a Costa Rican flag waving from an SUV across from Pancho Villa Rodeo Sports Bar.

We approached the unassuming restaurant and discovered five guys in Costa Rica jerseys smoking cigarettes by their cars. We passed the friendly bouncer and ascended steps into a dark club illuminated by blue neon track lighting and a disco ball adorned with white sashes that stretched to the walls. Costa Rican fans sat in booths beneath the disco ball and around the perimeter of the party hall.

Two projector screens flanked a stage in the back of the room. A larger screen hung over the stage and the Univision broadcast blared around the club.

It was halftime so people moved back and forth to order buckets of beer from the bar and chat with other fans. A group of women in red jerseys, tight jeans and chunky heels visited three men lounging in a booth. A guy in a Bryan Ruiz jersey draped a Costa Rican flag over the back of his seat. People eyed us as we stood sipping Coronas in the middle of the room.

Finally, a man named Marcos approached us. “Are you from Amsterdam?” he asked.

“No. Hoy somos Ticos!” I insisted. Marcos seemed skeptical so I continued to speak in Spanish and declare our allegiance to Costa Rica. I think he was disappointed because he later confided that he was from Honduras and had bet money against Costa Rica. “Shhhh,” he cautioned. Marcos must have been looking for a kindred spirit since he couldn’t come clean to anybody else in the room full of Ticos supporters.

Just before the second half started, Adam, a squat young guy in a Costa Rica shirt, hopped out of a booth to introduce himself.

“You guys better run after the game!” he warned. I repeated that we were rooting for Costa Rica. This time, I basically yelled it so more people would hear. We have to support our fellow CONCACAF teams, I explained. I wish there were some sort of Ticos handshake I could have performed to prove my support.

We pulled out a table and a waitress came by with menus, but the dim lighting prevented us from deciphering the blue text on a blue background. It was like trying to read the newspaper in a movie theater. My friend spotted a plate of brown goodies and told the waitress to bring us the same. What looked like a tray of brownies turned out to be a plate of squishy meat.

The disco ball sort-of lit our plate of fatty ribs, slippery plantains and viscous blood sausage, but I couldn’t really tell what I was eating until I choked on a hunk of fat. Why is this meat so squishy? I wondered. Oh, it’s a plantain. Thank God.

From our perch above the booths, I spotted a few Ruiz jerseys along with some strange names like Pame and Andrey.  One guy waved a Costa Rican flag. The crowd cursed the referee and shouted for a penalty kick after an alleged foul on Joel Campbell in the 60th minute.  With all five senses activated, I experienced the excitement mixed with a little nervousness I get when I’m in a unique, unfamiliar setting. I usually only feel it when I’m in a foreign country. Never when I’m in New Jersey.

The crowd (except Marcos) cheered when Costa Rica weathered the Dutch assault and earned a penalty kick shootout. I shook hands with the nervous men sitting in the booths around us. God, I hoped the Ticos would win. What could be better than stumbling upon a large gathering of Costa Rican fans the day their team took down the mighty Netherlands and advanced to the World Cup semifinals?

Alas, the Netherlands defeated Costa Rica 4-3 on PKs due to a few subpar shots and substitute keeper Tim Krul’s prescient dives. No one moved for a few moments after Krul saved Michael Umaña’s attempt. It was a discouraging finish to the Ticos’ remarkable run.

Eventually, the loss seemed to sink in and the crowd applauded Costa Rica’s incredible performance at the 2014 World Cup.

With the camera rolling, I rattled off those examples to the Globo reporter. I hoped to convey the strength of New York City’s soccer culture. We live in an area full of knowledgeable soccer enthusiasts of every stripe. During the World Cup, I found community among young and old, men and women, natives and immigrants. Every neighborhood provides its own authentic experience among passionate soccer fans.

Thankfully, there is a lot of soccer to look forward to before the 2018 World Cup. The Africa Cup of Nations starts in January 2015 so you better head to West 116th Street in Harlem. MetLife Stadium will host 2016 Copa America games so you can camp outside the teams’ hotels.  The USA will have to fight through the mighty CONCACAF to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Claim your spot at Jack Demsey’s or Smithfield Hall early.

Your intrepid reporter shares his experiences with Brazilian TV station Globo

Your intrepid reporter shares his experiences with Brazilian TV station Rede Globo

Read more at www.deargyan.com

 

 

This Week In The 2014 World Cup Questions

keano1 – What was the score of the last World Cup final to be played at the Maracana stadium before 2014?

2 – Mario Gotze, Germany’s goalscorer in the final, joined Bayern Munich from which other club?

3 – Which German player was substituted in the 31st minute of the final  after suffering a concussion?

4 – How many shots on target did Argentina have during the final?

5 – Which midfielder scored Holland’s third goal in the third place play-off against Brazil?

ANSWERS

This Week In The 2014 World Cup Answers

keano1 – What was the score of the last World Cup final to be played at the Maracana stadium before 2014?

Uruguay 2 Brazil 1

2 – Mario Gotze, Germany’s goalscorer in the final, joined Bayern Munich from which other club?

Borussia Dortmund

3 – Which German player was substituted in the 31st minute of the final  after suffering a concussion?

Christoph Kramer

4 – How many shots on target did Argentina have during the final?

Zero

5 – Which midfielder scored Holland’s third goal in the third place play-off against Brazil?

Georginio Wijnaldum

World Cup Daily Diary – July 13th – Germany Crowned

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 - Final - Germany v Argentina - MaracanaWorld Cup Final – Germany 1 Argentina 0 (aet)

By Bill Thomas

The best team in the competition, by scoring one of the finest goals in a tournament full of them, carried off the crown to give the appropriate ending to a magnificent World Cup.

It was a long time coming, the game going deep into extra time, but we were spared the penalty shootout by two pieces of individual brilliance, Schurrle breaking down the left with pace and purpose, firing in a cross into the near post where Gotze controlled it instantly on his chest then took the first time volley across the face of goal to hook the ball just inside the far post, a magnificent piece of football.

It was thoroughly deserved too for Germany were the best team over the last month and were the better team on the night. And yet Argentina’s players will be having sleepless nights because, despite all that German control, they had a string of glorious chances, enough to have won the game in some comfort. Higuain missed an absolute sitter from the edge of the box when put clean through by a glaring error by Kroos, Messi should have opened the second half with a goal after getting a simple chance by his standards, then Palacio, clearly unbalanced by that bit of string superglued to the back of his head, lobbed the ball wide of goal. Ironically, the team that came into the competition with the most feared strike force in the world managed to score just two goals in four knockout games and, as a consequence, go home without the cup.

Germany were the best and, given the youth of the team, are going to be the best for quite some time. Placing an early bet on them retaining the title in four years looks a shrewd investment because the core of that unit is going to be around for some time. Neuer is, without a shadow of doubt, the best goalkeeper in the world, Muller was a terrific forward, Lahm is as good as any full-back in the game and Schweinsteiger us a man who will not be defeated – tonight, his was one of the great performances by any individual in a World Cup final, relentless, powerful, insistent that he was going to be a winner.

On the other side was the man for whom this competition was supposedly staged, Messi. As he had all competition, he flitted in and out of the game, had one glorious chance to win the game in normal time, but the magic simply was not there. It was summed up in the final seconds when a free-kick was given probably 25 yards out. The moment. And the ball ended up flying miles over the bar, as if clattered by a lumpen centre-half on a parks pitch on a Sunday. And that was it, except that laughably, he was then awarded the player of the tournament gong, even though he wasn’t even the best Argentine.

The debate will rage on over Messi, but there is no debate to be had over Germany. They are the best in the world. They are going to take some shifting.

World Cup Daily Diary – July 12th – Holland 3 Brazil 0

scolariThree Is The Magic Number

By The Mysterious Bill Thomas

As the play-off for third place edged into injury time tonight, the Dutch broke down the Brazilian left, the ball was crossed into the box where Wijnaldum swooped upon it, swivelling and smacking the ball into the back of the net to make it 3-0, a goal greeted by a chorus of boos in Brasilia and across the host nation too. Brazil, who entered the competition with such high hopes, were completely crushed, ten goals let in inside three hours of football, that third goal putting the top hat on a week of despair for a country that largely sees itself through the prism of their national football team.

That goal bookended a display which saw the Dutch cruise to a three goal win without needing to break sweat, the first goal coming right from the off, Robben dragged down by Thiago Silva for a penalty. A red card should have followed but did not, though perhaps a free-kick might also have been a better decision than a penalty. As it was, Van Persie stepped up and smashed the ball high into the net beyond the reach of Buzz Lightyear in the Brazilian goal.

The build up to the goal summed up much that is wrong with Brazil, a long punt forward, Robben nodding it on from in front of David Luiz, then darting forward. The centre-half, you will not be surprised to learn, was not for darting. Van Persie outmuscled Thiago Silva to play the ball back into the path of the galloping Robben, leaving Silva to have to then try and catch a second attacker, succeeding only in bringing him down.

But just when you think things have reached rock bottom for Brazil’s defence, stay yourself. Don’t rush to judgement. They can always come up with something worse as long as a breath remains in the body of David Luiz. Away came the Dutch again, 16 minutes in, a largely innocuous cross flung into the box. Facing his own goal, all David Luiz had to do was nod the ball out for a corner. But this is far too simplistic a course of action for the great man. A flick of those golden tresses and, as if by magic, he has back headed the ball towards his own penalty spot, onto the foot of Blind who smacked the ball into the net and effectively closed up the game.

The Netherlands won third place in this World Cup at an absolute canter, ending the tournament as they began it, dismissing the two sides who had come into it as favourites, Spain and then Brazil. The Dutch may eventually reflect on a competition that was a missed opportunity, too much caution against Argentina costing them dear in the end, but Louis Van Gaal heads to Manchester as the only Dutch coach never to have lost a game in normal play at a World Cup. He might well trot that fact out a time or two in the coming months, though as a shy, retiring figure, he does like to hide his light under a bushel doesn’t he?

The Dutch will be looking to replace him as coach, and Brazil will be in the market too for surely Scolari will, in the end, be the one to pay the price for Brazil’s perceived failure. Yes, you can question him tactically, you can certainly question his squad selection that left out Coutinho and, less controversially perhaps, the waning Kaka and Robinho. Fundamentally though, the fact of the matter is that Brazil lack enough really good footballers ever to have made a real assault on the trophy itself and, as we’ve pointed out before, however good your coach, if he doesn’t have the players, you cannot get the results.

That was made obvious with rare ruthlessness when Scolari suffered the greatest misfortune of all when losing the two players this team could not do without, Neymar and Thiago Silva, for the semi-final with Germany. Calamity followed, Brazil stripped naked by the quality of their opponents and exposed for the utterly ordinary side that they are.

With hindsight, it’s hard to see how they were ever fancied for the title beyond the fact that they had home advantage. If you have to rely on Fred, Hulk and Jo to score your goals at one end and the train wreck that is David Luiz to keep them out at the other, you know you’re in big trouble. Then you have Paulinho who has barely touched the ball, Oscar who looks less world class and more no class, and the list goes on.

Looked at like that, Scolari has worked something of a miracle to drag them to fourth…

World Cup Daily Diary – July 11th – Final Preview – Argentina v Germany

bowler_thomasBy The Mysterious Bill Thomas

Germany versus Argentina, the third time these two have contested though yes, to be precise, it was actually West Germany rather than the whole thing that played the first two, all the result of Berlin having the best defensive wall in the game, and no need for any of that shaving foam to keep people in position – machine guns and barbed wire are altogether more persuasive.

So, those pedantic pleasantries dealt with, what of the game itself. Well, based upon the evidence of the semi-finals, it’s simple. Germany win in a canter. But of course, it isn’t that simple. After all, the Germans might easily have lost to Algeria in the round of 16, so on that basis, you could not see their destruction of Brazil coming. Each game is a different day where teams have to prove themselves all over again.

What we can say though is that as past masters of tournament football, the Germans know all too well the science of peaking at the right moment, of finding their best form when it counts most rather than when it matters least, a problem that bedevilled the Dutch who started at the top and gradually tailed off as the competition wore on. Indeed, if they have any doubts going into Sunday night, it will be that they have hit their top form one game too early. Look through the annals of the game, be it club or international football, and you will find that it is rare indeed for a team that has administered one extraordinary thrashing to follow it with an equally magnificent display in their next game.

Of course, Germany don’t have to do any such thing. They don’t need to stick seven goals in the Argentine net, just one more than their South American opponents will do. But this World Cup deserves a blazing finale to top a month of largely enthralling football rather than an attritional struggle that sees one side edging towards the title.

That however is the risk, though it is one mitigated by the fact that Argentina at least eliminated the intensely risk averse Dutch at the semi-final stage. Nonetheless, the key reason why these two are going to contest the final at the end of a World Cup of comedy defending is that these two are the nations which have developed the best back lines over the course of the tournament, notably over the last two games, Argentina looking stronger with Demichelis in the team, Germany likewise with Lahm restored to full-back and with Hummels at centre-back ahead of Mertesacker.

That has proved so important for the Germans because with that little extra pace that those two offer, along with the brilliant game understanding of Neuer, it gives them the insurance they need to play the high line that was so very nearly exposed by the Algerians. By playing those extra 10 or 15 yards up the pitch, it propels Khedira and, in particular, Schweinsteiger, into the heart of the opposition’s territory where they can really begin to wreak havoc by pressing hard, winning the ball early and getting it into Kroos, Muller and Ozil in areas where they can cause instant damage as Brazil found to their cost in the semi-final.

In many respects, Germany are playing the game that has served Spain so well these last few years, the high pressing game, winning the ball early and high up. But they have added a muscularity to it, a greater pace and directness, that makes it even more dangerous. It requires remarkable athleticism but that doesn’t seem to be an issue for Muller, Schweinsteiger et al and so you gave to believe that with just one more heave, they will be champions of the world.

This Germany is now a team of great organisation, discipline, athleticism and intensity, allied to real flair, such that they rank with the 1972 European Champions, probably the most aesthetically pleasing of all those great West German teams of the past. As a result, it is hard to find a reason why they should lose on Sunday.

But there is one of course, for as we know, if all roads lead to Rome, all conversations about this game lead to Messi. By the standards of the world’s greatest player, his has been a relatively quiet tournament and yet, an anonymous semi-final apart, he has been the difference between Argentina and their opponents in each game, be it with a goal or a crucial pass. But still the world looks on and waits for him to produce that one career defining display and this is the stage in which to do it, in the final, after the Maracana.

But can he? Is he really as good as the last few years would have us believe or has he, like Cristiano Ronaldo, benefited from playing in a league where two teams – until last season – stood head and shoulders above the rest and where some of the defending might not be the most robust? Can he really enter the pantheon of the immortals without scrawling his name across a World Cup? If he fails on Sunday, with no guarantee of another opportunity to come, then something will always be missing whenever future generations come to reflect on him.

What will certainly be missing is a World Cup winner’s medal because if Messi does not shine, surely Argentina cannot win. Aguero is clearly not fully fit, Higuain is dependant on the service he gets from others, while if Di Maria can return, like Aguero, he cannot possibly be 100% effective. While it’s possible to construct a scenario where Mascherano and his mates could shut out the Germans, it’s harder to rationalise a way in which Argentina can score the goals they’ll need without a virtuoso performance from Messi.

All logic points to a win for Germany, yet Messi has built a career in Catalonia out of defying logic. Now he must do it for his homeland.

World Cup Daily Diary – July 10th – Brazil v Holland Preview

bowler_thomasBy The Mysterious Bill Thomas

And so that time we have dreaded is nearly upon us, the end of the world. Fortunately, it’s only the end of the World Cup as opposed to the planet itself, but even so, it feels bad enough after a month of terrific football, 62 games where, overall, the entertainment on offer has been greater than we could have dared to hope.

Still, there’s always got to be somebody with something to moan about and, unsurprisingly, it’s Mr. Happy himself, Louis Van Gaal that’s complaining, mouthing off that his players, beaten in the semi-final, should not have to rouse themselves for the third/fourth place play-off game on Saturday evening.

Yes, it does seem something of an anachronism in the modern age of first is first and the rest are irrelevant, but does he really have to tear into the game with such ill grace? For starters, there are probably half a dozen members of his squad still to feature in Brazil who probably quite fancy the chance of featuring in a World Cup game, just as many of Roy Hodgson’s squad were happy to get a run out against Costa Rica when England’s tournament ended rather earlier than they had hoped.

More than that, after the Netherlands failed to excite anyone over the course of five and a half hours of knockout football, he should be looking at this game as the chance to lighten the mood and ensure that our final memory of the Dutch at this competition matches up to our first one, the day that they demolished Spain.

Equally, they are being given the opportunity to play against Brazil, in their own country, in a World Cup. Whatever the scale of the debacle that the Brazilians endured against Germany, that is still something of a privilege, one that any footballing romantic should understand. You have to conclude that there is little romance beating within Van Gaal’s breast, though his disenchantment with this fixture might stem from getting a load of earache on his cellphone from Mrs. VG wanting a holiday before he turns up at Manchester United and couldn’t he hurry up home a bit now he’s just a loser like the rest of them?

For Brazil, these last few days have been drawn from the pages of nightmare, for not only were they stripped bare by Germany, they now have the horrific prospect of spending Sunday night watching Argentina playing in their stadium, in their final and perhaps collecting their cup.

The real point of interest on Saturday night will be to see just how shellshocked the Brazil team remains. For them though, while the Dutch complain about it, this game is a real blessing, giving them the chance to get back out on the pitch quickly and at least begin getting that semi-final out of their system.

Of course nothing will atone for the horror of Horizonte, but if Brazil can shake off the cynicism that has dragged them down through this tournament, play with a little flair and adventure, at least they can sign off on a positive before the national side has to undergo a painful spell of self examination and rebuilding.

With Thiago Silva perhaps back in the XI and, if they’re lucky, David Luiz under house arrest, expect Brazil to have too much for a Dutch outfit already mentally on the plane home.

Let’s Take A Trip – Across 116th St.

deargyan_116thDavid Brand checks in with more stories from his fascinating trek around some of the less celebrated New York football hotspots. This week he reports on his trip across 116th Street in Harlem.

The world meets along 116th Street, a wonderful demonstration of New York City’s ethnically and economically blended culture. During the first two weeks of the World Cup I visited three 116th St. establishments with crowds supporting four different nations. The street provides several opportunities to watch the World Cup among passionate international fans. 

Let’s take a trip across 116th St. so you can see what I mean.

You start walking west from the giant Target/Costco complex on the East River across from Queens. You are on one of the major arteries of Spanish Harlem, though it’s somewhat desolate until you walk a few blocks to 2nd Ave. and reach the EuroMex soccer store. Several other Mexican shops, restaurants and taco trucks are scattered among the Puerto Rican and Dominican spots that fill Spanish Harlem. The iconic Casa Latina Music Shop is near the 6 Train subway station at Lexington Ave.

Walk up the hill to Park Ave. and you pass the office of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the New York City Council. Her office is located near the MetroNorth train tracks. La Marqueta, a historic shopping center that once united East Harlem, sits below those tracks. As you head west, 116th St. transitions from Salsa Harlem to Jazz Harlem and you pass old men and women sitting outside a nursing home near Madison Ave. There are some swanky apartments around 5th Ave., evidence of the gentrification sweeping the city.

After you cross 5th Ave., you begin walking along West 116th St. Soon you pass a large outdoor African market next to an Asian fish monger. Finally, you have reached Lenox Ave. where you immediately encounter the big blue and yellow Malcolm X Mosque, built on the site of the old Mosque No. 7 where Malcolm X became a world-famous advocate for African Americans. For the next two blocks, you are in Le Petit Senegal, a strip filled with West African general stores and eateries. You also pass Amy Ruth’s restaurant where every meal is named for a prominent African American. Further down, the Food Bank For New York City has a large pantry and kitchen on this section of 116th St. near 8th Ave. The orange awning attracts people in need from all around the area.

deargyan_harlemCross 8th Ave., and you find Harlem Tavern, a large sports bar decorated with the flags of every nation in the World Cup. Proceed west and you get to Morningside Park, a narrow greenspace beneath a cliff. Atop the cliff, Columbia University looms like a fortress overlooking Harlem valley. You have to be in shape to scale the stairway and reach the summit of Columbia. Once you get there, continue through the lovely campus of President Obama’s alma mater and exit onto Broadway. The Seinfeld restaurant is just a little further south, but if you keep walking west two more blocks, you reach Riverside Park, a fertile sliver along the Hudson River.

Congratulations! You have completed the tour of 116th St. See how it brings several cultures, ethnicities, tax brackets and education levels together? That’s why I love walking along that street and why I spent so much time there during the World Cup Group Stage. I watched the USA beat Ghana at Harlem Tavern on the corner of West 116th St. and 8th Ave. A few days later, I stopped by Hot Jalapeño on East 116th St. between 2nd Ave. and 3rd Ave. to see Mexico top Croatia. Finally, I visited La Savane, a West African restaurant between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave. to watch Nigeria battle Argentina.

I met my friends Jon and Emily at Harlem Tavern about 45 minutes before the USA’s first match of the World Cup. It was pretty much standing room only when we got inside, but I commandeered a countertop table near the bar. There was a small card atop the table indicating it was reserved, but a waitress said we could hang out at the table until the party arrived.

A few minutes later, the party arrived. They were eight young Ghanaians in cool Ghana kits and t-shirts. Soon more Ghana fans filtered in around us. A few women showed up with Ghana jerseys stretched over their lean bodies.  I noticed the older couple in front of us wore polyester shirts emblazoned with the logo “#TeamAfrica.”

On the one hand, I imagined there would be plenty of friendly competitive banter between our two cheering sections and the energy would be incredible. On the other hand, I wanted to commiserate with the majority of the people around me if things went sour for the USA. I did not want to suffer the opponents’ glee every time the USA screwed up.

In the end, experiencing the USA’s victory over Ghana while immersed in a crowd equal parts Ghana fans and USA fans has been a big highlight of my NYC World Cup tour. Harlem Tavern represented the ethnic diversity of New York City wonderfully. It was like the cover of a politically correct public school textbook come to life.

There were several televisions, including a projector screen, behind the bar, right in front of where we stood.  The staff was friendly and most of the servers wore USA jerseys. Thanks to the two groups of supporters, the bar stayed loud during most of the game.

I was definitely one of the fans keeping it loud. My eyes watered and I severed my vocal cords screaming after Clint Dempsey’s goal 30 seconds into the match. I shrieked so deliriously, the guy in front of me pointed and laughed. But I wasn’t alone. The bar was rocking and clever plays by both sides received roaring approval.

At halftime, with the US leading 1-0, I polled the Ghanaians around us to see how they were feeling. I was curious because their team was clearly outplaying the USA.

“I’m so angry!” yelled Martine, a woman in a skin-tight jersey. “I’m waiting for Boateng to come in.”

As in Kevin-Prince Boateng, a star midfielder who played for AC Milan before he joined Schalke. I then realized that Ghana still hadn’t inserted Michael Essien, the country’s greatest player of all time. Sure, Essien is getting older, but he and Boateng are two nice subs to introduce as the USA clung to a 1-0 lead and played a conservative, defensive game.

I nervously gnawed my nails and texted my brother Mike a stream of gloom. The Ghana fans’ energy seemed to increase as the second half dragged on. Boateng entered the game. Cheers. Essien came on. Applause. Asamoah Gyan, my website’s namesake, nodded a series of headers closer and closer to the American net. Gasps.

Finally, Gyan flicked a backheel to André Ayew who blasted Ghana’s inevitable equalizer past Tim Howard. The roof exploded.

The Ghanaians celebrated and the Americans deflated.  Moments later, when the Ghana cheers subsided a bit, the American supporters rallied. Amazingly, John Brooks headed home the winning goal. I squeezed Emily, squeezed Jon and screamed. Then I high-fived the American strangers around us, then the bartenders, then Jon’s roommates and then I texted my brother, my girlfriend, my parents, my friends.

Harlem Tavern was the perfect place to watch that match. The back-and-forth between the Ghana and USA supporters made the experience more dynamic and memorable. Of course, the wonderful result, a 2-1 USA victory, helped.

A week later, I returned to 116th St. for Mexico’s final group match against Croatia. I scouted out various Mexican restaurants until I arrived at Hot Jalapeño, adorned with international flags and a chalkboard declaring  “Hoy Croacia vs. México!.”

I slid inside Jalapeño a few minutes before Chicharito entered the game with the score 0-0. Turns out I arrived at the perfect time because Chicharito provided the spark that ignited El Tri’s 3-1 win.

Hot Jalapeno had two modest televisions hanging at each end of the restaurant. Like speakers at a tense press conference, groups of Mexican men sat side-by-side in order to watch the TV closest to their table. The working-class crew wore t-shirts and baseball caps with folded brims. One guy wore a Barcelona jersey and matching cap. He was stoic as he spoke quietly with his table-mates. Many of the men leaned forward in their chairs, focused on the match and exhibiting their discomfort and anxiety.

Finally, Rafa Marquez, the captain, scored the match’s first goal and released the tension in the restaurant. The once-anxious men stood up and high-fived people at neighboring tables. I turned around, shouted ¡Enhorabuena! and shook hands with the two men sharing a bucket of Coronas behind me.

The room relaxed noticeably after that first goal. When Mexico notched their second, guys were chatty and smiling. I heard actual giggles when the TVs showed a replay of coach Miguel Herrera rolling on the ground with one of his players.

A beanpole Mexican with Eduardo Manostijeras hair and a tiny red Mexico jersey arrived a little while after the first goal. He checked the score, grinned and headed to a table in the back where I later saw him sipping some red menudo soup.

deargyan_mexHot Jalapeño had the trappings of a typical Mexican restaurant. The floor was sunk a few feet below the sidewalk and decorative wooden support beams stuck to the ceiling. The stone walls were adorned with photos of mariachi men and, of course, a statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe surrounded by horned flames. Cloth placemats printed with a bright Sarape patterns protected each table.

On my walk to the train, I spotted several fans in Mexico outfits along 116th St. A kid in a green jersey pedaled a BMX bike down the sidewalk while his friend stood on the pegs and waved a large Mexican flag.

Later in the week, I headed to the West African portion of 116th St. to watch Nigeria battle Argentina. I paused in front of a barber shop to watch part of the match while a guy inside got his forehead line tightened under a large Barcelona banner. I continued past the Senegalese Association of America and saw a few men watching the match from cushioned recliners.I selected the restaurant La Savane because its large flags flapped in the breeze and a pyramid of soccer balls sat in the window.

deargyan_savaneThere were about ten people at La Savane when I arrived so I ordered tea and sat at a table in the back next to a guy named Shaka. Shaka, an Ivorian, was speaking French to no one in particular, but he switched his match analysis to English after I started chatting with him.  After a meaningless foul called against Nigeria, Shaka suddenly announced, “There’s something fucking wrong with this referee!” and left the restaurant.

He returned a few minutes later.

Like Shaka, most of the men filtered in and out of La Savane throughout the match, though their exits were far less dramatic. I scanned the room and counted three guys wearing cabbie hats with Blue Tooth devices (BlueTeeth?) stuck in their ears. Many West African immigrants work as cab drivers so I wonder if they purposely adopted the look of a 1940s taxi driver or if they just wear the hats because they look neat and classy.

I bet it’s the latter because West Africans often appear formal and stylish. It was 90-degrees outside, but most of the men sported long-sleeve button down shirts, slacks and wingtips. The guys I met at an Ivorian restaurant the day before also looked sharp. In fact, the West Africans I pass each day on 116th St. dress way better than I do.

Since I embarked on my World Cup Tour of NYC, I have experienced numerous cultures in New York City and New Jersey, but no street captures the city’s diversity quite like 116th St. It is an underrated hotbed of international soccer and a great place to watch the USMNT, El Tri or the African Cup of Nations in the future.

Read more of David’s NYC World Cup experiences at www.deargyan.com

 

The True Meaning Of CONCACAF

The View From 101 By Tim Hall

esclogoAs with every World Cup or any other major tournament, there have been a few things that have jumped up out of nowhere to surprise, confuse, or dismay. These things very rarely go according to the very easy narratives laid out beforehand, even if the final four teams involved were probably ones listed on many people’s brackets.

We did expect that the World Cup would come down to the biggest players making the biggest plays on the biggest stage. Cristiano Ronaldo was shown the door in the group stages. Neymar has been shown to the hospital by a flying knee that would make Anderson Silva jealous. Robin Van Persie was superb during the opening round, but has exactly as many goals as you or I when it comes to knockout games. Of the major stars, only Lionel Messi still has the chance to claim that this tournament has been his in full.

But, as those stars faded, a new one may have come to the fore in the person of James Rodriguez for Colombia. The entire Colombian team was fantastic, to be fair, although against somewhat lesser competition in their group. All the same, that lesser competition will go out and beat you if you aren’t ready, and Rodriguez certainly was. He scored often and in jaw-dropping fashion, including a turning 25-yard volley that will rightly go down among the goals of the tournament. It was a shame in the end that James and his choreographed goal celebrating team had to run into Brazil in the quarterfinals, but the contract offers from interested suitors should cushion the blow for Rodriguez somewhat.

Another thing that has left us baffled and bewildered is the video of each player as their name is shown during lineups. Someone, either in the FIFA head office or being paid by FIFA to do the thinking, decided that having world class footballers stare off into the distance, turn their head 90 degrees to the left and cross their arms would look… good? Intimidating? Anything other than ridiculous? What, pray tell, was wrong with a simple still photograph? Just because you have access to a video camera doesn’t mean you should use it. And why the arm crossing? We’re trying to watch a game, not feel like 22 men are staring through the screen at us in a disappointed fashion. Nobody needs that added pressure in their lives. Yes, Demichelis, I am wearing a ratty pair of basketball shorts and drinking cheap domestic beer. Don’t give me that look, go out and play.

But perhaps the biggest surprise to emerge from this World Cup is that we, as a culture, have turned the very English language on its head with the invention of a new word: CONCACAF.

Now, technically, “CONCACAF” has existed in our lexicon for sometime as the shorthand for all the footballing nations between Canada and Panama. But, as the World Cup progressed and the world not only took it in but reflected it back via social media, CONCACAFed (always presented as a verb, almost always in the past tense and as something that happened to someone in the second or third person, eg, “They got CONCACAFed”) grew in stature and usage.

As are the growing pains of fostering new verbiage into the world, CONCACAFed came to mean virtually anything that the user wanted it to in the moment: losing to a North or Central American team, losing to any team in a manner consistent with the way one might to CONCACAF opponent, really anything. But, in an effort to swaddle and coddle this newborn into the dictionary, let’s try to settle on one definition:

CONCACAF (verb): 1 – to attack a vigorously defending opponent, only to see that opponent score on a counterattack, defend even harder and eventually win.

And nobody CONCACAFed better in this World Cup than plucky Costa Rica. The Ticos advancing to the quarterfinals and giving Netherlands all they could handle over 120 minutes and a shootout engendered a strange sort of admiration from their northwestern quadrasphere brethren. Never doubt that the US/Mexico rivalry is fiery and intense, and unless you have dual citizenship or heritage, the only thing better than the success of your side in La Guerra Fria is the failure of the other. But, when it comes to the other, smaller nations in our confederation, there is a sort of mixture of hatred, frustration and respect.

CONCACAF (verb): 2 – to participate in a process so annoying and frustrating that it leaves one with a begrudging respect for the opponent.

CONCACAF play, both in World Cup qualifying and the continental Gold Cup, is a miserable process, especially when visiting the Panamas, El Salvadors and Costa Ricas of the world. The grass is usually long enough to be braided, then watered (either by nature or man) to the point of feeling like quicksand. The stadiums look like the prisoner camp in “Red Dawn”, it is usually hot and humid enough to poach an egg, and the play is just brutal. That is not to say it is bad football, but it is a place where the ‘beautiful game’ goes to die, marked by ferocious, tenacious, impregnable defense and a win-if-you-can, but-always-get-the-draw mentality.

CONCACAF (verb) 3 – to take a wonderful thing and make it hateful and miserable.

So why then did so many of us in America adopt the Ticos after bashing our heads into the wall so often against them? Well, for starters, they aren’t Mexico. That’s a big plus. Second, they were clear underdogs, and Americans love that sort of thing. Third, there is the potential that success for any regional nation could mean more spots in future World Cups, thereby making qualification easier. But moreover, we see a bit of ourselves in Costa Rica.

In the last two decades, the ascendency of the US National Team has meant that all of the other nations in our area have had to raise their own level as well. In the same vein, there would not be the quality for the Yanks without having been honed against those Central American teams. The belief that Landon Donovan showed in scoring the rebound against Algeria, or that John Brooks showed heading in the winner against Ghana, is born from getting points in Panama City or San Jose. It may sound ridiculous to experts, but we know: if you can beat Honduras in San Pedro, you can win just about anywhere.

CONCACAF (verb) 4 – to mutually improve by attempting to destroy one another.

So all credit to Costa Rica for doing the confederation proud. It was rarely pretty football, but an ugly win in the round of 16 is certainly preferable to a beautiful early exit. Ticos, we will see you next year for the Gold Cup, and absolutely no one is looking forward to it.

World Cup Daily Diary – July 9th – Louis, Louis, (revisited)

louisvangaalBy The Mysterious Bill Thomas

There is an art to defending and, like any art, when done well, it should be recognised. Sadly, if you’re looking for a spectacle to enjoy, you’re better off when it’s in the hands of a surrealist like David Luiz rather than classical old masters such as Vlaar or Mascherano.

After the fireworks of the first semi-final, it was always odds on that there’d be no need to keep the calculator on standby for the second, because life rarely works that way. But for the Lord Mayor’s show to be followed by a fella with such a large bucket shovelling up what the horses were leaving behind them could only be a huge disappointment, one that had stalemate and penalties written all over it from about ten minutes in.

It’s a horrible irony that the team which lit the fire under this magnificent tournament when they decimated the reigning champions on the second day has been the one which has progressively gone further and furthest backwards. The Dutch, who have given so much to world football, ended up aping Brazil and became increasingly cynical and win at all costs as the tournament went on until finally, thankfully, they got their comeuppance in a penalty shootout that gave the lie to Van Gaal’s tactical infallibility -Vlaar, however well he played, to take the first penalty? Really?

From the second he missed with the most inept of penalties, the Dutch were on their way out and the inquests back in the Netherlands surely opened. The great Cruyff will surely be preaching that Dutch football must recapture its principles in future after two World Cups that have seen them come within an ace of success but winning few, if any, friends on the way. And, ultimately, not winning the cup.

They offered little to the game apart from a late flurry in the final few minutes of normal time, summing up their tournament of ever diminishing ambition, one in which their key players dropped off in performance as game after game went by, so that by tonight, Robben and Van Persie were anonymous, Sneijder completing a completely inconspicuous tournament by missing his penalty. We did question after that win over Spain if they could maintain that quality or if they had peaked too early, and so it proved, the Netherlands heading into the third place play-off having not put in a single performance in the knockout stage.

It’s not all jam for Argentina either. Their own ambition was lacking in large part once they saw the Dutch stringing six across the back, Argentina recognising that it was going to be hard to break them down, so best not concede anything at the other end. There was a little more thrust to their play, a little more flow, but in truth, they were as content with the 0-0 as the Dutch were.

And, as is the law, we turn to Messiwatch. Without a doubt, this was his weakest display of the competition so far, seeing the ball rarely, offering little, showing barely a glimpse of that phenomenal talent. And so the world waits, the jury remains out on his genuine greatness. But the biggest stage of all awaits him on Sunday evening, that one glittering opportunity to etch his name indelibly into the history of the tournament that matters most of all, whatever the Champions League wants to think.

Most important of all, in the end, the penalty shootout gave us the World Cup final that we needed. Could you imagine just how Van Gaal would have set up his team to play against their arch rivals, Germany, a Germany that has just stuck seven past Brazil? It might have been many things, but it sure as hell wouldn’t have been pretty. Argentina are unlikely to play a wide open game either, but there is far more chance that they will give Germany a proper game that will be worth watching.

Meanwhile, in the third place game on Saturday, the Netherlands and Brazil have a chance to start rehabilitating their soiled reputations. What are the chances?

Nowhere FC Interview With Diego Moscoso

fcnowhereBy Jon Langford

The Nowhere FC pop up store at 100 Forsyth St.

The Nowhere FC pop up store at 100 Forsyth St.

Down in the heart of the Lower East Side, just a stone’s throw from the Chinatown five-a-side fields, an underground intelligentsia is conspiring to fuse football with fashion. 

Nowhere F.C. began life in 2010 as a counterculture soccer club, a place where like-minded individuals came together to play and share ideas.  During this year’s World Cup, two of the collective’s members, designer Diego Moscoso (Marc Jacobs, Supreme) and Simonez Wolf (Chef Sez) collaborated with apparel tech brand Avery Dennison to produce a line of World Cup-themed bespoke garments.

The by appointment only pop-up shop located at 100 Forsyth Street allows fans to customize their jerseys with heat transfer patches featuring original team crests for all 32 nations competing at the World Cup, as well as iconic moments from football history such as Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, a kooky collection of seemingly random post-ironic emojis and, of course, your name and number.  First Touch caught up with designer and founder Diego Moscoso at Nowhere’s pop-up store to talk shop, the state of soccer in America and favorite football jerseys of all time.

nfc_shirtFT: Can you tell our readers a little bit about the pop-up shop?

Diego: This is a World Cup exhibit.  We’ve designed alternate crests for all 32 countries at the World Cup based off the idea of female heroes, goddesses and cultural icons.  We’ve made a shit load of other badges too and we’re customizing jerseys for the Adidas League.  In addition to that we have our own Nowhere F.C. line and we’re working with the 1Love foundation customizing exclusive Bob Marley apparel.  People can also bring in their own clothes, jackets and tees or whatever, and we’ll customize them.

FT: Tell us a little about your personal backgrounds.  Where did you guys meet?

Diego: Simonez and I have known each other through nightlife and fashion for about six or seven years.  We used to hang out at a lot of the same places.  He used to be a doorman at a famous club called The Beatrice.  Then he became a stylist at Fader magazine back when I was working at Supreme and we worked together and found we had a lot of mutual friends.

nfc_italyFT: What’s the story behind the name Nowhere?

Diego: I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.  We’re everything.  We don’t have a national identity.  This is New York.  The city that’s as close as you can come to everywhere else in the world.

FT: Would you agree that fashion has become a more integral part of soccer in recent years? 

Diego: I would say the fashion industry has.  Fashion comes from style and style is something that comes from soccer naturally.  In the context of soccer, I’d say style is about identity and distinctly tied to where you come from.  In the ‘80s and ‘90s fashion was a big part of casual fan culture and used as a tool to identify which gang or club you belonged to.  So the two have always been connected, but these days the fashion industry can more easily commercialize it.

fc77FT: Do you feel as though the line between sportswear and fashion has become blurred in recent years?   

Diego: Totally.  I think the line between everything is blurred because of the Internet.  I think things that were once traditionally considered “sports clothing” have now become acceptable in casual or non-sports settings.  But I also think that a lot of athletic wear and uniforms these days are being influenced by high-end designers.  You know, like how Peter Saville designed the England strip a few years ago.

FT: There seems to have been a lot of brand/designer collaborations in recent years, like Yohji Yamamto and Stella McCartney with Adidas and Philip Treacy for Umbro.

Diego: Yeah.  It’s impossible to separate football from the rest of life.  Football is so huge that it touches everything: fashion, food, bars, everything.

FT: So would you define the Nowhere collection as fashion or sportswear or both?

Diego: I consider football a religion and I consider us a gang.

 nfc_bosniaFT: How involved are you guys with the soccer scene in NYC?

Diego: We have a philosophy that can be summed up in one sentence: “From the low-level to the pro-level.”  That means we’re fans of the professional game and we talk about it like normal fans would, but also we’re very active on the street level, playing regularly in the city.  I think that’s what’s so great about soccer: it’s so much bigger than the EPL, the Champions League or FIFA.  It’s like, if FIFA ceased to exist tomorrow, football would be fine.  It would still be played all over the world all the time.  It will never stop.  I see so much more in soccer than just the pro game.

FT: Speaking of the pro game, do you follow MLS?

Diego: I have mixed feelings about Major League Soccer.  I’m rooting for them, but I think the guys running it are clichés.  They’re not thinking outside the box enough.  The strongest thing the MLS has going for it is the fans.  The fans here are so passionate.  Even though right now they’re imitating what they see in Europe and South America, it’s an important first step.

nfc_arg-swissFT: How would you describe the state of soccer in the U.S. following this year’s World Cup?

Diego: Nobody can deny the effect.  Even people that don’t like soccer can’t deny it.  The World Cup is like the gateway drug for most Americans.  You know, it’s like you gotta smoke the cigarette before you get to the heroin.

FT: I agree, but that being said, we only experience the World Cup in New York, and this city is in its own bubble, one full of soccer fans from around the world.  I’m not so sure World Cup fever was infecting every city in the United States this summer.  

Diego: Yeah, New York isn’t America.  It’s New York.  Going to a different American city would be more of an accurate study to see if things are really changing or not.  But usually things that work in New York eventually penetrate to the rest of the country.  It just takes a couple more years.

FT: What did you think to the USA’s performance in Brazil?

Diego: I thought they did great.  I think the fact that we’ve got a whole bunch of Germans carrying our American flag is awesome.  That’s what America’s all about.

nfc_socksFT: Which club team do you support?

Diego: The only one I’m really interested in is Arsenal, but I’m frustrated right now.

FT: Why?  Because they sell all their best players?

Diego: Yeah.  I can’t figure out if it’s a club or just an ATM machine. A team like Arsenal can be one of the most successful businesses in sport and just be in fourth place forever if they want, never winning a trophy.  You can’t argue with that from a business standpoint, but from a romantic standpoint it sucks.  Every season Arsenal fails to win the league they say, “Yeah we didn’t win the Premier League but we made a profit,” to which I say, “Okay, then send us all a check.”  I don’t give a fuck if you’re making money or not.  They’ve got me hooked though, and I’ll wait it out for one more year.

nfc_englandFT: Do you ever get a chance to go over and watch them play?

Diego: I went to the Emirates, but I didn’t get to a game.  My experience in England was interesting.  I went there with a bunch of cash, no planning, just a wad of money in true American style.  That’s how things work in America, if you want something you just show up with cash and you can get anything you want within ten minutes.  In England it doesn’t work that way.  First I tried to go to a West Ham game with my boy who’s been a Hammers fan all his life, but we couldn’t get a ticket from anywhere.  There was no StubHub, there was no Craigslist, no secondary market from which to acquire tickets.  I discovered that no amount of money could get you into a game, which blew my mind.  So then I went to nine different bars in London to try and watch the game on a Saturday afternoon and none of them were showing it.  There was no football on at all, just rugby.  That also blew my mind.

nfc_dillingersFT: So what happened when you went to the Emirates?  You didn’t get in there either?

Diego: No!  There was a 45-minute wait to use a smashed-up ATM machine and I just realized that they obviously don’t like money in England.  They value control over money.  It was a really frustrating experience.  By the time I got to the front of the ATM line it was halftime and the game had sold out.  So I sat outside the Emirates and listened to Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie score seven goals against Blackburn with a wad of cash in my hand.  I understand why people in England want to fight so much, that made me want to fight too.  I don’t condone violence in any way, but after that experience I can see how things can escalate pretty quickly.

FT: Finally, as a connoisseur of fine football garments, what’s your favorite jersey of all time? 

Diego: Oh shit!  There are so many good ones, man.  I really like the old Peru kits from back in the day, the ‘50s and ‘60s ones, just real simple white with a red slash across.  I’m also a big fan of all the green Germany kits.

To make an appointment or to check Nowhere F.C. out online go here: http://the-fc.com

 

 

 

World Cup daily diary – July 8th – Luiz, Luiz, We Gotta Go Now

luizGermany 7 Brazil 1

By The Mysterious Bill Thomas

The World Cup has seen a lot of remarkable games over its 84 years but I don’t think it has ever seen anything like this. Germany 7 Brazil 1. In Brazil. And if anything, that score flattered Brazil. 

One of the great world powers, humiliated in their own country, sliced to pieces by a scintillating German side that didn’t beat them with the cliche of Teutonic power. They beat them by playing a Brazilian style, slick passing, clever movement, great technique, ruthless finishing, giving the hosts an object lesson in how to play their own game, a game that they have seemingly abandoned.

We’ll come on to the brilliance of the Germans later, but we have to start with the abject wretchedness of Brazil. We did wonder in our preview if handing the keys to the defence over to David Luiz might not go well, but nobody could have seen him being quite as spectacularly awful as he was. No, we can’t blame one man for the defeat, but his display was off the scale abysmal, a performance that will have caused despair in Rio and in Paris, where PSG have just paid a fortune for his services. You can only hope they kept the gift receipt and can still exchange him for something useful, like a bread maker.

His display was one of naked self indulgence. As Germany streamed forward, he was either strolling back from a run up front – you’re a defender and your team is getting hammered, stay at home – or standing stock still as though paralysed. As his team crumbled around him, the man with the big mouth at the national anthem could barely raise a whimper to galvanise his colleagues into any kind of resistance.

It at least gave the lie to two of the biggest red herrings in the game of football. First that “passion” is everything. You couldn’t get more passionate than the Brazilian rendering of their anthem, and you couldn’t get less passionate that their supine surrender on the field in the face of superior players, better tactics, opponents drilled in what they wanted to do and executing a plan perfectly. It also puts statistics back in their box – prior to this game, FIFA’s official stats told us that David Luiz was the tournament’s best player. Let’s just go back to using the evidence of our eyes shall we?

Let’s also go back to the passion, given that the Brazilians treated Neymar like Christ himself in his absence. They brought his shirt out for the anthems as though it were the Shroud of Turin, and you half expected a minute’s silence rather than the anthems. By half time, they needed him to rise from the dead, or at least his back-cast, and feed the multitude with five free-kicks and two corners.  Little wonder they made so much of his absence though, getting their excuses in, early for they clearly knew what the rest of us could only suspect. They are a one man team.

They were also shorn of their second best player, Thiago Silva, clearly the only defender in the country. Without him to hold everything together, they had only the midfield thuggery that got them past Colombia to rely on but to foul somebody, you’ve got to catch him first and the Germans were wise to what was coming. They moved the ball about quickly and crisply, gave the Brazilians no time to clatter them before the ball had moved on, tracing geometric patterns that only the Greeks might have stopped, assuming they’d brought Pythagoras with them.

Do not minimise the scale of this defeat for Brazil, not just in its size but in its manner. This is one of those defining moments, a defeat so immense that change must surely come. A number of those players will not represent Brazil again beyond Saturday’s third place play-off, some of them might never recover from the humiliation. Scolari will go, but Brazil do not have any quick fix available for whoever your coach is, if your players aren’t good enough, you’ve got no hope. And the Brazilian cupboard is not groaning under the weight of great players any more. Months of soul searching lie ahead and years of rebuilding beyond it.

And so to the Germans. To say this was the performance of the competition is to damn them with faint praise. Had they been wearing the yellow shirts, we’d be watching this game forever more because this was the football of Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino and Pele, glorious attacking football that, however shameful the Brazilian surrender, was simply extraordinary to watch. The precision with which they passed the ball, the intelligence with which they took up space, supported the man on the ball, received it and used was the kind of thing that coaches dream of. Yes, Brazil were chaotic but Germany recognised the weakness from the outset and exploited it ruthlessly.

Beyond that, there was the finishing, as ruthless and clinical as you could imagine, from the moment Muller got himself free in the box and guided a volley into the net. Kroos smacked in two crisp finishes within seconds of one another, the exemplary Khedira took time off from holding the midfield to steer a simple finish past Julio Cesar and Schurrle added a second half brace that had even the Brazilians applauding.

And then there was Miroslav Klose. Arriving on the scene to complete a move that was balletic in its fluency – without any of that unnecessary leaping about in tights – he clipped the ball beyond Cesar at the second attempt to enter the record books as the greatest goalscorer in World Cup history. The German overtook Ronaldo, the Brazilian phenomenon, on Brazilian soil, just as, with one more display of this magnitude, Germany 2014 will be fit to mention in the same breath as Brazil 1970.

How much more symbolism do you want?