World Cup Diary: June 29 – The Cult of American Soccer Through the Prism of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Wave Speech’

The Wave Breaks

June 29, 2010
11:29 AM: We’re out. We lost to Ghana. Two early goals: one at the beginning of the game and one at the beginning of overtime proved our undoing. Whatever issues lay at the root of our tendency to concede early goals went unresolved, if not unaddressed. Landon Donovan’s third goal of the tournament wasn’t enough to drag us through and our Round of 16 exit will go down as a disappointment. We played well enough, just not well enough to win.
The question now, of course, is ‘what’s next?’ It should really be ‘who’s next?’ Will Bob Bradley stay? Or will the USSF look to bring in a new coach? No decision will be made until after the tournament is over and both sides have had a few weeks to consider their options. Bradley’s done enough to be offered an extension if he wants it, but it’s difficult to say if he would accept if offered. Sunil Gulati has himself expressed some disappointment in the Round of 16 exit. My gut feeling as of this moment is that Bradley will part ways with the National Team. I could very well be wrong, but after the fiasco that was the 2006 World Cup I think everyone will be hesitant to have a coach stay on for two cycles. Bob will land on his feet (whether that’s in MLS or Europe, I don’t know) and the USSF will botch the signing of another high-profile coach before bringing in Dominic Kinnear. The sun will rise and set, the moon will wax and wane, and so it goes.
That decision will be made soon enough, and I, frankly, can’t be bothered with speculation. That’s not the axe I’m here to grind. No, I’ve been doing some thinking about the culture and atmosphere that surrounds the advent of the World Cup in America. American soccer fans tend to fret over the popularity of the game in the States in the wake of the World Cup. Will this push us over the edge? Is this tournament going to push soccer into the same stratosphere occupied by the NFL, MLB and NBA? The answer is always ‘No’. The majority of the 19 million people who watched the US play Ghana will not rush out to buy season tickets to their local MLS sides. Many of them may not watch another game until the US kicks off in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo in 2014. That’s just the truth of the matter. I’m sure we’ll see a bump in interest for the rest of the season, and I’m sure that the US-Brazil game in August will be a near or total sell-out. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, expect one month long event to change the attitudes of 300 million people.
I’m reminded now of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Wave Speech’ from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the implications that arise when it is applied to American soccer post-World Cups. For those of you who haven’t read Dr. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or seen the film adaptation, I’ll reproduce the part of ‘The Wave Speech’ we’re
concerned with here:

“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Now, I’m not saying that the old guard of American sports represents the forces of ‘Old and Evil’, but it’s difficult not to spot parallels between the Cult of Soccer in modern America and the hippie zeitgeist of the 1960s that Thompson was writing about. Both were marginalized and mocked in their infancy by established powers, before earning some measure of respect over time. The difference, of course, is that the Cult of American Soccer will not outgrow itself; it is multi-generational and there is no need for our energy to come together in any kind of ‘long, fine flash’. Thompson’s wave may have been high and beautiful, but it did not return after breaking upon the rocks between the late 60s and early 70s.
I have the right kind of eyes – for my purposes – and I can see where the waves of American soccer have broken and rolled back during my lifetime: Stephen Appiah’s penalty-kick in 2006, Torsten Frings’ handball in ’02, Iran’s second goal in ’98, Leonardo’s elbow on Tab Ramos in ’94. But, though it breaks, the wave returns every four years – each time stronger and more forceful. Each time, the tide grows that much higher. That, I think, is our handle: we are past the point where anyone can argue whether or not soccer in America is here to stay. It is and all reasonable people know that. The question now is how much farther up the beach of American sports culture we can get the wave to travel before it retreats.
It’s impossible to say right now how much impact this World Cup, and the United States’ performance in it, will have in the long run. We have recently seen things that we are unaccustomed to seeing in relation to American Soccer: multiple ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated covers, hours of daily coverage on ESPN, covers of many major daily newspapers and there’s even been coverage of the possibility that Landon Donovan may have fathered an illegitimate child during his time in England. Tabloids! We’re in the tabloids now! That, my friends, is how you know you’ve truly made it. Nobody is asking the important question about Donovan’s dalliance, though. Twenty years from now, will Donovan’s kid choose to play for the US or England? But I digress…almost twenty million people watched the United States play Ghana, a huge number, to be sure. That’s progress. It’s debatable whether or not the US team itself has improved at a satisfactory rate, but damn near twenty million viewers for an afternoon game against Ghana? That’s progress. If nothing else – that is progress.
This wave broke when Asamoah Gyan blasted a volley over Tim Howard and into the American net. How far we made it before that happened will become more apparent as time passes. Landon Donovan is scheduled to be on Regis & Kelly tomorrow, if that matters. Interest will wane in the coming weeks, but card-carrying members of the Cult of American
Soccer can take comfort in the knowledge that the wave is gathering strength and will return again four years from now and four yearsafter that ad infinitum, more powerful each time.


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World Cup Diary: June 19-25

June 23, 2010

8:29 PM: It’s been quite a week. I’ve run the gamut of emotions more than once. Despondence, outrage, frothing animalistic rage, incredulity, relief and Joy – I’ve felt them all this week. What is it about sports, and the World Cup in particular, that brings these feelings out in so many hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people? This tournament has elicited these emotions more purely and more fiercely than nearly anything in my everyday life could manage to do. Actually, I should be more specific. It’s not the tournament itself that turns me into a simpering mess of violent mood swings, but, rather, just one team’s participation. That side is, of course, the United States Men’s National Team and they’ve put me through the wringer this week.

The narrative of the Slovenia and Algeria games is largely a tale of reactions, there’s an excellent video floating around Youtube right now of reactions to Donvan’s game-winner against Algeria from Yank-friendly bars around the world. The reactions are, to a tee, involuntary and exuberant. The mouths drop open, the hands the fly towards the ceiling and the jumping and the shouting begins. My story is no different than that of any other US fan. I reacted in a variety of ways to a variety of different circumstances.

I didn’t make the trek into New York City to watch the Slovenia game at Jack Demsey’s. That was probably mistake number one. My second mistake was watching the first half of the game at my local pub, the Glen Rock Inn. That’s no slight on the Inn itself, it’s a good place run by good people. I’ve just never had any kind of luck watching games there. I saw the US lose to Germany there in ’02 and I saw Ireland lose to Spain there in the same tournament. I avoided the place like the plague in ’06, and it didn’t do me much good. So, I went back to watch the US U20s take on Austria in ’07, only to see the heavily favored Yanks go out in a shock result. Erwin ‘Jimmy’ Hoffer took advantage of the cursed Glen Rock Inn.             Once again, I didn’t learn my lesson and I accompanied my father, mother, and two younger brothers there to watch the US take on Slovenia. Stupid! What on God’s green Earth was I thinking? This was a must-win-game and here I go, doing my best to make sure we lost!? I should be drawn and quartered! My limbs hung from the traffic light in the center of town and beaten by blindfolded children with baseball bats!

Now, I know that there is no correlation between where I watch the US play and the result they achieve, but it was foolish of me to tempt fate like that. It was like Ulysses taunting the gods after the Trojan War. There was just no reason for it. I know that Slovenia took advantage of the fact that the US ceded the center of the field in the first half due to some bewildering (in retrospect) notion prevalent among US supporters (and apparently the coaching staff) that the Slovenians would sit back and that the US would have to press the game. It didn’t work out like that and we found ourselves down 2-0 at halftime. We let in another early goal, of course.

When that second goal found its way past Tim Howard, I didn’t even wait for the ball to hit the back of the net before exploding up from the booth I was sitting at, pushing my brother’s chair out my way, yelling ‘Move!’ and storming out of the bar. I didn’t know where I was going – home, I figured. Moreover, I didn’t know if I was going to even watch the rest of the game when I got there. I hadn’t missed any part of a US World Cup game since I watched the first one I can remember against Germany in ‘98. Was I really going to start now? Could I bear to watch the most talented US World Cup team of my lifetime throw away its shot at the last 16 in the easiest Group they’d ever been given? I was utterly despondent. I felt like weeping as I trudged down the street but I couldn’t force the tears, I was too shocked and appalled by what had just happened. There was no catharsis on the horizon.

On the way back, I ran into my friend Chipper. He had been walking to the Inn to meet me there. He never made it. I brought him back to my house and rewarded him with twenty minutes of bellyaching and complaints. And then Landon Donovan scored. We had a game on our hands. Landon did what American fans have known he was capable of doing and been praying to see for years. He collected the ball unmarked in the channel on the right-hand side of the penalty box and strode purposefully toward the goal. You could tell his first thought was to slide the ball across the six yard-box, but when Clint Dempsey and Benny Feilhaber made the same near-post run (they actually ran into each other) and Samir Handanovic declined to come out on Donovan, I could just imagine Donovan thinking ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to shoot.’ And he did, and thank God he did. He smashed the ball at Handanovic’s face and it flew into the roof of the net from six yards away. Two minutes and twenty seconds into the second half and we had pulled one back. A year earlier, I’d said that if we held the Brazilians for fifteen minutes after the start of the second half, we would stand a chance at winning the Confederations Cup. Luis Fabiano scored almost immediately. This time, I had said to Chipper that if we scored within the first fifteen minutes, we might have a shot at a comeback. Landon Donovan scored almost immediately. Needless to say, I was more pleased with this summer’s turnaround.

Then I yelled at the television for the next thirty-five minutes as the second goal refused to come. It was agony. I would have preferred that they’d just lost 3-0, rather than giving me a sliver of hope only to fall short. And then Michael Bradley scored. The goal was wonderfully worked: a long pass from Donovan up to Altidore at the top of the box, who headed it down across the area where it was met by the bottom of Michael Bradley’s boot after he’d burst forward from the midfield unmarked (credit to Herculez Gomez, whose run opened up the space for Bradley to move into). I was up off the couch in an instant. They say white men can’t jump, but I’ve got to tell you, I got some serious air from a sitting position when that ball hit the back of the net. When I landed, my legs buckled underneath me and I crumpled to the floor where I pulled my bewildered Labrador Retriever down on top of me and yelled and ruffled her fur until something resembling sanity returned to me.

It was miraculous. After Bradley scored, it became apparent that we were going to score again. Slovenia had been utterly cowed and played off the pitch in the second half. That had a lot to do with the substitutions that Bob Bradley made at halftime. One of my strongest points of contention with Bruce Arena in ’06 was that he did not take decisive action when we were behind against Ghana and the Czechs. Halftime substitutions could have gone a long way toward swinging the momentum in those games. Arena waited until it was too late to make the necessary changes. Bob Bradley did not make the same mistake. He removed Jose Torres and Herculez Gomez and replaced them with Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber. The introduction of two extra central midfielders allowed the US to take control of the center of the field and to impose their will on the Slovenians. I like Jose Torres, but he was the wrong choice to start this game. His start came out of the mistaken belief that the Slovenians would sit back and try to play for the 0-0 draw or a 1-0 win. They didn’t, and Torres wasn’t allowed the time on the ball necessary to dictate the pace of the play. A lot of people got this one wrong, myself included, but I wish the coaching staff hadn’t made the same mistake.

When the third goal finally did come, I believe my reaction was to jump onto the couch when I thought it counted, and then to run into the kitchen and fling myself headlong onto the floor, where I curled up in a ball and shouted profanity about Mali when that corrupt mountebank Koman Coulibaly called it off for no reason whatsoever. Hundreds of experts have analyzed that replay hundreds of times and not one of them can come up with what it was that cause Coulibaly to blow his whistle. FIFA, of course, keeps the purveyors of gross incompetence they call referees hidden and protected behind a veil of secrecy that the CIA envies. There, as of now, has been no official word on what ruled Maurice Edu’s perfectly legitimate goal out, and I daresay it will never come. There’s a lot to be said for FIFA opening up the referees to public scrutiny. I’ve never understood the urge to protect referees when they make bad decisions. The referee should not have the last word when he’s wrong. But we’re straying into dangerous territory here, and I don’t want to be dragged off on some weird ranting tangent about referee reform. Suffice it to say, forget me, Koman Coulibaly is the one who should be drawn and quartered and beaten with baseball bats. Is that too harsh? I don’t think so, simply for the difficult situation his incompetence put the US in for their game against Algeria. Slovenia was given a point they didn’t deserve and the US was stripped of two points they had earned.

Five days later I was back in Avon-By-The-Sea, working for my Uncle. I skipped off work for two hours to watch the US-Algeria game by myself in his attic. Not the ideal situation to watch the game, but I was grateful just to be able to watch it live. Edu replaced Torres while Bocanegra shifted inside for the benched Onyewu and Jonathan Bornstein started at left-back. The match itself is a blur of frustration and missed opportunity. We had another legitimate goal called back, but at least we knew why it was called back this time. Clint Dempsey was wrongly adjudged to have been offsides, and replays showed that he was clearly onside. When that happened, the thought crossed my mind that I would boycott the rest of the tournament if the US failed to advance. It wouldn’t have accomplished much, I know, but it might have made me feel a bit better. The offsides call was particularly odious due to England’s 1-0 lead over Slovenia in the corresponding fixture. If the scores remained 1-0 and 0-0 at full-time, we would have crashed out in third place without having lost a game. The frustration continued: Altidore missed a sitter, Dempsey missed innumerable chances, including a shot off the post and a wildly askew rebound with an open net looming, Buddle directed a header directly at the keeper from close range.

I’d just about given up when the 90th minute mark arrived. The volume of bad luck we had encountered during the game seemed too much to overcome. I may actually have had to make good on my threats to ignore the rest of the tournament. Self-flagellation is like chicken soup for the soul. And then Tim Howard caught a week header at the back post. I dared to hope one last time. He hurled the ball forward to Landon Donovan around the halfway line. Donovan took a big touch forward and slid a pass into the right side of the Algerian penalty box for Jozy Altidore. Donovan kept running. Altidore passed the ball across the box for Clint Dempsey who shot and…Damnit! Blocked! Dempsey went toppling over the keeper and into the goal as a rebound squeaked out away from the goalkeeper. There, continuing his run, was Landon Donovan in the perfect position to slot the ball into the bottom left corner.

There are videos on the Internet of bars full of US fans erupting in a spontaneous ejaculation of relief and joy. That wasn’t my reaction. There I was, completely alone, perched on the edge of my seat when the goal I’d been waiting for for ninety minutes finally arrived. When it did, I slid off the couch onto the floor and sat there on the floor as Donovan sprinted for the corner flag. I buried my face in the cushion to muffle the choked sobs that I hadn’t been able to force when dejection was the emotion du jour. It was joy that brought them forth.

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World Cup Diary: June 11, 2010

June 11, 2010

7:55 AM: The World Cup starts today. I won’t be able to watch most of the games live – the ones during the week, anyway. That is because I find myself working for my Uncle’s landscaping company due to a number of poor decisions and unfortunate circumstances. I’ve already negotiated a Monday-Thursday workweek as opposed to my usual Tuesday-Friday next week so I’ll be able to watch the US-Slovenia game. In any case, I have to be out trimming some poor bastard’s hedges in five minutes. Just think, someone is paying quite a bit of money to have me come and improve his property. Fools.

10:51 PM: The benefit of working for a landscaping company is that there’s bound to be a few Central Americans on the payroll. Surprisingly, we only have one: a Mexican immigrant named Javier. He was, not surprisingly, keenly interested in watching the Mexico – South Africa game this morning.  Unbeknownst to me, Javier asked my Uncle if it would be all right for him to skip out to watch the Mexico game. My uncle gave him permission and told him to bring me as well. What a stroke of luck! I’m basically Javier’s assistant – a glorified gofer – and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without him. I probably would’ve just ended up seriously fucking up somebody’s yard if I tried to work on it unsupervised. Addition by subtraction, my friends: I got a few hours off and my uncle didn’t have to listen to any angry customers.

I’m glad South Africa was able to pull out a draw against the Mexicans. They really should have won the game, though. How many golden opportunities did they let slip through their fingers in the second half? At least three that I can remember. Was Mphela responsible for all of them? I’ll have to go back and have a look at some point. It would have been teddible, as our English opponents would say, if South Africa had become the first host country to lose its opening match. That’s really quite a record, isn’t it? Twenty host countries have participated in the nineteen World Cups to date and not one has lost their first match. The record will stretch to twenty-one in twenty World Cups in 2014 because (spoiler-alert!), Brazil are not going to be the ones to buck the trend.

The real interesting part of this match for me, besides Siphiwe Tshabalala’s stunning strike, was only tangentially related to the match itself. What I found truly shocking was how many people I follow on Twitter are woefully ignorant of the offsides rule. These are people that comment on the game quite intelligently most of the time and many of them were crying foul: the first major refereeing blunder of the World Cup! Only, it wasn’t a blunder. The referees got the call absolutely correct. Christ, even Efan Ekoku, ESPN’s color analyst, didn’t know the rule.

The play that caused the uproar came about midway though the first half. The Mexican team had just been awarded a corner kick. Torrado swung the corner into the box from the far side, and the ball skimmed off the top of a Mexican head to fall at Carlos Vela’s feet at the back post. Vela, obligingly, pounded the ball into the back of the net with a bit more force than was probably necessary. But wait! The goal has been disallowed! You see, the South African goalkeeper, Itumeleng Khune, came flailing out of his goal just as the ball was headed to the back post. When the ball was redirected, Carlos Vela had moved behind Khune, leaving only Steven Pienaar between Vela and the goal. This is where the confusion came from: most people have not read the Laws of the Game and assumed, reasonably, that an attacker wasn’t offsides as long as there was a defender between him and the goal. This, however, is not the case. In order for the attacker to be considered onsides, there must be two opposing players between him and the goal when the ball is played. Generally, those two players are the last defender and the keeper. This case, however, was somewhat rare as the goalkeeper was the one who played Vela offsides. I was actually somewhat stunned by the volume of outrage that poured out regarding the call. I mean, even Lee Nguyen was saying it was a bad call and that dude gets paid to play the game. We live and learn.

I don’t even want to talk about the France-Uruguay game. I’m going to pretend they’re not even in the tournament. France is dreadful and they are in this tournament under the most dubious of circumstances. I dislike them intensely. I hope South Africa and Mexico pummel them mercilessly.

Now, to turn our attentions toward tomorrow’s events: The Unites States versus England. It’s the big one, people. The one we’ve all been waiting for since the groups were drawn seven months ago. If you’re a superstitious person, and I think that all people who have played or watched sports in any serious capacity are to some degree, you might look at the record of US World Cup performances in the modern era (post-1990) and put some stock in the pattern that appears to have emerged. In 1990, we went three and out, losing all three games while conceding eight goals and scoring two. In 1994, we advanced to the Round of 16 before losing 1-0 to eventual champions Brazil. In 1998, we went three and out, losing all three games while conceding five goals and scoring one, In 2002, we made it to the quarter-finals before losing to eventual finalists Germany. In 2006, we went three and out, losing two games and drawing one while conceding six goals and scoring two. If the pattern were to continue, the US should expect to make it to the semi-finals this time around.  Now, do I think that’s going to happen? I certainly don’t expect it. But I’m probably a bit more superstitious than I’d like to admit and who could blame me for hoping? Just maybe…

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Why I Didn’t Like the Champions League – Until Now

I have a confession to make. In past seasons, I’ve found the Champions League dreadfully boring.

It came down to a few factors, some personal and some intrinsic to the Champions League. Chief among the personal reasons was that I just didn’t have any real investment in it. My favored team, Tottenham Hotspur, hasn’t been in the competition – though, hopefully that will change this year – and I just, honest to goodness, didn’t care who won the whole thing. Now, I could have easily overcome my apathy if the level of play had been anything to write home about. Unfortunately, it was not. The teams were just so damn cautious. And predictable. Three of the four semi-finalists were English teams two years in a row. Boring.

The strategy was simple, the away team would play defensively in the first-leg, hoping to secure a 0-0 draw, a close 0-1 loss, or even, if they were lucky and had some pluck about them, a 1-0 win. It was infuriating and it was tedious and it was, at times, difficult to watch. The  return leg would, occasionally, be a more open affair. Just as often, though, they were as nervy as the first-leg. It wasn’t entertaining football and the reasons for the true neutral to keep watching dwindled with every backwards pass.

But something changed this year. I don’t know how or why, but teams were playing attacking football – away from home. I was baffled. Truly. Manchester United won 3-2 at the San Siro, marking the first time an English team had emerged with a victory from Italy in the Champions League era. Barcelona beat Arsenal 6-3 on aggregate, drawing 2-2 at the Emirates only after throwing away a two goal lead. Bayern München came away with a 3-0 victory in Lyon after scoring twice in a 3-2 loss at Old Trafford. In the knock-out round so far, only one series has seen as few as two goals scored: Inter Milan vs. CSKA Moscow. Comparatively, last year’s Champions League saw three series in which two or fewer goals were scored. In the 08-09 Champions League, six first-leg games ended in 1-0 or 0-0 scores. Four first-leg games in the 09-10 have ended in 1-0 scores, without a single 0-0 scoreline.

Real or imagined, I’ve perceived a change in the tactics employed in the Champions League this year. No longer are they playing as if they’re shackled by fear of conceding goals. Instead, they have played positively. They are looking to score the goals, instead of simply preventing the other team from doing so. They are, thankfully, looking to create – rather than destroy.

Strange then, that I found myself rooting for the defensive stylings of Inter Milan yesterday over the much-heralded attacking wizardry of Barcelona. The gamesmanship of Sergio Busquets certainly didn’t help Barcelona’s campaign for my affections. It was Jose Mourinho’s tactical master-class, though, that really swayed me. His team managed to beat Barcelona at their own game in the first-leg and he then battered them with his game, in their house. Inter imposed their will on the reigning champions and utterly stifled the likes of Messi and Xavi. It’s a funny game and I find that my tastes are fickle. Messi’s performance against Arsenal may wind up being the most memorable aspect of the tournament, but one can’t help but respect Inter Milan: a team that has demonstrated the versatility to play the beautiful game and to stifle it.

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An Attempted Eulogy For Robbie Keane’s Spurs Career

You could’ve been a legend, you know. But it’s all gone wrong, hasn’t it, Robbie?

You bounced around early in your career, struggling to find a club to call home. You turned down Liverpool for Wolverhampton when you were sixteen, eschewing the glory of Anfield for the guaranteed playing-time of Molineux and displaying a wisdom that you would lose sometime in the eleven years that followed. Coventry followed before Internazionale came calling. You only lasted a year there (though Massimo Moratti later expressed regret at letting you go, saying you were playing ‘perfect football’). Extended periods on Inter’s bench saw you return to England, this time with Leeds United. Then, finally, after years as a footballing nomad, you found a club you could call home.

I’ve lost interest in this halfway through writing it. Keane could’ve been a Tottenham legend. One that was recalled decades from now as one of the Club’s greats. 122 goals in 293 appearances for the Lillywhites would have made sure of it. But he bailed on the club for a team whose system he didn’t fit, to play for a coach who didn’t want him. Then, when it didn’t work out for him, he came back home to find that the fans who had once adored him now had a very different opinion of him. His form never recovered after the move to Liverpool and he lost the starting spot he’d once worked so hard to earn. He’s left again now, for the less competitive dressing room at Celtic Park. He’ll likely score goals by the bushel. It’s as if the Prodigal Son had come home before quickly making his way out once more.

Robbie Keane was on the outside looking in once before at Tottenham Hotspur. He hung around and proved his quality, making the starting spot and the #10 shirt his own. He made himself an integral part of the team. He didn’t have it in him to do it again and he’s taken the easy way out.

Liverpool was his ‘boyhood club’, as well.

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Eidur says ‘Ehhh!’

I’m a little confused by this one.

Eidure Gudjohnsen is, nominally, a forward. Spurs currently have four international quality forwards, one of whom they almost never use. The same thing can’t be said of the club at all of the other positions. Palacios, despite his tendency to stay on the ball a bit too long, is a quality player. Modric, Kranjcar and Lennon are all undoubtedly excellent midfielders. Even big Tom Huddlestone may one day have a role in the England squad. He’s young yet and I said ‘may’, alright? Ledley King would have a place in the England squad if he didn’t have the knees of an 87 year old amputee. Bale will be an excellent player, in time and Corluka sees significant minutes for the Croatian national side. The glaring deficiencies here are not at Forward and, as such, it’s curious that Forward is the position that the club has decided to reinforce. It’s doubly strange when you remember that Damien Comolli is no longer enforcing the club’s policy of signing over-priced players who don’t fit the club’s needs. Harry Redknapp is, in theory, the man with the final say on transfer targets before Levy sets about signing the player.

Coverage for the center-backs, center-midfield, goalkeeper, and even the wide-players seem like the more obvious positions to reinforce. Given King and Woodgate’s injury troubles, an extra center-back would be nice, as would an upgrade on Palacios, Huddlestone and Jenas at center-midfield. Then there’s the issue of having no quality coverage for Huerelho Gomes after Carlo Cudicini’s motorcycle accident. There are no naturally left-footed wide players at the club, either. None, at all. Though, Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar have done extremely well when asked to play the position.

So, why then, would Harry Redknapp and Daniel Levy sign Eidur Gudjohnsen, a forward on the back-end of his career who hasn’t scored a single goal this season? To me, this signing is about options. Eidur Gudjohnsen, though probably no longer as good as Spurs’ current stable of forwards, is versatile. He can be employed in central-midfield as well as up front. Keane, as much as Redknapp wants him to work as substitute at left-mid, can’t be effectively employed at the position and will have trouble getting back into top-form as long as the manager tries to shoe-horn him into a position to which he simply isn’t suited. As for the other three, can you honestly see them being effectively employed in the midfield? Or Redknapp trying it? Or anyone who knows anything about football suggesting it be tried? This is why I see Gudjohnsen being employed as an attacking central midfielder rather than a forward.  This quote by ‘Arry seems to reinforce my take:

“We’ve lost Aaron Lennon [to injury] so we haven’t got a great deal of width. We can play a diamond formation if we want to and he can be a big player in that system.”

The decision to acquire Gudjohnsen could have been made because the club failed to sign a wide-midfielder or after the deal for Internacional defensive-midfielder Sandro was aborted. It will give Redknapp another option tactically as Gudjohnsen can play further up the field than the current crop of center-mids and it will allow Modric to play more centrally than he does in the current system. Palacios will likely be asked to play more defensively than he currently does and Gareth Bale will, in all likelihood, be entrusted to be the primary attacking threat down the left-flank.

There could also be monetary, in addition to tactical. If a deal to sell Pavlyuchenko was contingent on Spurs finding a replacement for the Russian, it could mean that his departure will free up a sizable chunk of change for the club. This money could then be used to make the rumored Kaboul and Begovich deals or to complete the stalled Sandro signing. Any one of those three acquisitions would fill one of those more immediate weaknesses I alluded to above.

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Dr. Desert and Mr. Fox

I made a point of trying to watch all of Algeria’s African Cup of Nations games. This decision was made, of course, in light of their being drawn into the same World Cup Group as the US Men’s National Team. In preparation, I familiarized myself with the players they had used in the qualifying campaign that had seen them beat out the reigning champions of Africa, their arch-rivals Egypt, for a World Cup spot. Over the course of their five games in Angola, Algeria has put out a strong lineup, using nearly all of the players who had contributed during qualifying. Several of the players, such as Bougherra, Halliche and Belhadj, among others, played in every game of qualifying and in the Cup of Nations. In light of this, it’s clear that the Desert Foxes took this tournament seriously, despite allegations I’ve heard to the contrary.

Over the course of the five games I’ve seen, two things have become pretty clear: The Algerians are defense-oriented and they are inconsistent. They have utilized a 4-5-1 formation throughout the tournament, with Ghezzal operating alone up top and Karim Ziani running the Algerian midfield. Halliche and Bougherra played central defense with Portsmouth’s Nadir Belhadj at left-back. It became clear that Algeria were perfectly willing to sit back, hitting out on the occasional counter-attack, when they scored only one goal in their their three group stage games. The three goals they scored against the Ivory Coast could, in this light, be argued to be down more to Ivorian incompetence than Algerian attacking verve. The first came off a long ball, headed down to Karim Matmour who fired in off the upright from the top of the box. The Algerians were forced to go forward in the dying minutes of the game and the tying and go-ahead goals came amidst absolutely shocking coverage by the Ivorians. Bougherra and Bouazza were gifted free-headers in the final seconds of regular time and the opening minutes of extra-time, respectively. After Algeria’s third goal, the Ivory Coast absolutely fell apart and it’s a wonder that Algeria wasn’t able to win by a wider margin. It illustrates, however, that Algeria will feel no particular pressure to venture forward unless they absolutely have to score goals. If Algeria goes into their final group game against the United States needing a draw or having already secured their berth in the next-round, they will bunker and play for the 0-0 draw. It will only be if they need to win by two goals or more that the United States can expect to find much space in which to work. Given the difficulty the US team has had in breaking down bunkered sides over the course of this cycle, that could spell trouble if the US needs a win to advance.

Looking back now at their 3-0 loss to Malawi, I think it’s clear that the Algerians came into the tournament over-confidently, and they paid the price for it with an embarrassing loss to a side that one could be forgiven for describing as a minnow. The Algerians looked out of it and off the pace the entire game and were taken apart by Malawi in comprehensive fashion. I can only imagine that they took that defeat as a wake-up call, as they responded with a 1-0 win over a Mali side boasting the likes of Kanoute, Keita and Diarra. Again, they were not adventurous going forward, snatching the victory through a header by Rafik Halliche at the end of the first half. They were more focused and organized against the Malians, giving up fewer chances and taking their opponents seriously but they were not enterprising in attack.  A suspicious 0-0 draw with tournament hosts Angola in the final game guaranteed the Algerians place in the quarter-finals.

The semi-final against Egypt was, as the score-line shows, an utter disaster. They looked alright until Rafik Halliche was sent off in the 38th minute. Egypt converted the penalty and three goals for Egypt with red cards for Belhadj and goal-keeper Chaouchi followed. The Algerians displayed a tremendous lack of discipline in their encounter with the Egyptians, a trait that is there to be taken advantage of by the United States this June.

If knocked out of their comfort zone, or thrown off their game-plan, whether it be by an early goal or a red-card, the Algerians have shown that they have trouble adjusting. They’re inconsistent: either they’re  1oo% focused on the task at hand or they’re in danger of being blown out, as Malawi and Egypt have shown. They have displayed the ability to come back from a deficit, though I chalk that victory up more to the Ivorians throwing the game away than Algerian ingenuity. They created few chances of real quality throughout the tournament. I come away with a similar impression to the one with which I entered the tournament: that Algeria is a side that should be taken seriously, but not one to be feared. We can and should beat Algeria.

My god, though, how has Egypt failed to qualify for another World Cup?

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