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domingo, julio 04, 2010

The World Cup: A Brief, Gringo's Guide to Futbol

Most of the planet has been tuned in to the World Cup since June 11, 2010, and will continue to watch and argue about it until the last whistle is blown on July 11. It's expected that the audience for the final game will draw a tenth of the people on the planet. An audience of about 600 million people. It doesn't matter very much to these people that their own countries didn't qualify, or got eliminated. No. They're watching, glued to the Tube, because that game is the World Game. And they love it. And they know great Futbol when they see it.

Unfortunately, in the US relatively few people care about futbol. Or soccer as most call it. They don't reflect on the fact that the barefoot kids kicking a ball made of duct tape and rags in a vacant lot in Port au Prince or Kabul or in a favela in Rio are playing the same game that well scrubbed kids wearing uniforms and $100 shoes are trying to play in this country. So they don't reflect on how democratic the game is. How anybody can play. And does. And how all you need is some ground and something to make a ball with. Shoes are optional. Goal posts are optional. Uniforms, optional. Only getting the ball into a goal counts.

And best of all, you don't have to be big. In fact, it helps to be small and fast and coordinated. Lionel Messi is a big star at 5 feet 7 inches. England's Peter Crouch at 6 feet 7 inches is consistently insulted by those who say he's a good player, for a big man. What helps is to be fast, very fast, and to have the kind of endurance that lets you run without stopping, hard, for 90 minutes and to be coordinated. The game doesn't let you use your hands, unless you're a goalkeeper, so you have to be able to use your feet, your legs, your thighs, your chest, your head. You can learn to do this with practice. The part you cannot learn you have to be born with: it's a futbol gift that is distributed at seeming random across the entire world. But you recognize it as soon as you see it.

In the US the common folklore is that futbol is boring. Right. It's boring in the same ignorant way as anything that has not been examined and is not properly understood. Actually, I suspect that this is a rap given the sport in the US because you cannot stop the game for commercials. That would be sacrilege. You cannot cut away to the studio. You watch until the time runs out. Then, and only then, do you get up, get something to eat, relieve yourself, watch commercials. In Spain you don't stand up during the game. That blocks others' views. Same in Germany and Italy. OK to yell and scream and curse and drink. Not OK to block somebody else's view.

Who are these players in the World Cup? The world's best futbol is played by club teams. The club season starts in early Fall and continues until Spring. Some of the teams are famous names, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, to name a few from the top of English Premier League. In England there are about 5 professional leagues below the Premier League. Every one of the players in every one of the teams in every one of those leagues aspires to play for a team in the top league. And every single player on a team in the top league aspires to be "capped," to be asked to play for the national team. That is a huge and important honor. This is the situation in the top leagues throughout Europe, which are in Italy (Internazionale, AC Milan, Lazio), Germany (Bayern Munich, Wolfburg), Spain (Barcelona, Real Madrid), France, and Holland. It's also the case throughout Cental and South America and Asia. The US has a few leagues, the top one MLS isn't really good. That's why the MLS season is going on now even though the world cup is happening. The players in MLS aren't at the World Cup (with a very, very few exceptions).

If you have DirecTV you can actually watch futbol in the regular, club season from England, Italy, Spain, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and so on. These are exciting games. and FoxSoccerChannel broadcast live and taped games.

How do you get to the World Cup? After about a year of qualifying (18 games in South America; about 10 in North America) a national team has to beat enough of the other teams in its region to make the finals. Every 4 years 32 teams are selected for the World Cup through regional qualifying. Those teams showed up in South Africa this year on June 11. They were divided into 4-team groups and played 3 games. The best two teams in each group advanced to the round of 16. Then there were games that pared the teams down to 8, and then 4. There are now 4 teams remaining.

On Tuesday, at 2:30 pm ET, Uruguay plays the Netherlands. On Wednesday, at 2:30 pm ET, Germany plays Spain. There is a game for 3rd place on 7/10, and the final on 7/11.

What does it take to win a game at this level? It takes a lot more than great individual players. All of the remaining teams have great players and have played very, very well. Spain probably has the most talented, most famous team. Germany and Netherlands have played brilliantly. Netherlands beat Brazil. Uruguay has been impressive as well. Its star Diego Forlan has been a magician throughout the World Cup. To win at this point, though, it takes massive energy and confidence. You cannot let down at all during the entire game, and you cannot be slow to start. The US team demonstrated that playing from behind, after an early goal, makes winning really difficult, if not impossible. The team has to play as a team. We are well beyond the point at which a star or two's great play will win the game. And the most important thing, I think, is that there be no defensive errors.

When a goal is scored everybody tends to blame the keeper. That's easy, but that's frequently not fair. If the defense allows a clear shot on goal, the keeper can sometimes do very little to make the save. Defensive lapses, and more important, forced defensive lapses, are the key to who will win these final games. That means that teams need a swarming, strong, airtight defense that can "close down" the field. But they also need an offense that is capable of creating space in front of the goal, space into which a striker can kick a ball into the net.

I hope you'll all drop what you're doing and watch these final games. The rest of the world will put everything on hold. You can do the same. It's worth it.

A prediction: Spain and Germany will advance to the finals. Spain will win the finals 1-0.

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