Guest post: Africa in the World Cup

Guest post by Will Sinsky:

In one day, it was over.

After national teams Nigeria and Algeria both placed second in their respective World Cup groups to advance to the round of 16, both were knocked out in quick succession at the hands of European powerhouses France and Germany, effectively ending Africa’s presence at the 2014 World Cup.

However, the tournament was not without success for Africa.

For the first time in its history, two of the continent’s five qualifying teams­ — Nigeria and Algeria, as mentioned above­ — advanced beyond the group stage. Furthermore, Ghana’s captain and star striker Asamoah Gyan scored his sixth World Cup goal in their final group stage match against Portugal, passing legend Roger Milla for the most career goals scored by an African in World Cup history.

But Gyan’s record and Nigeria’s and Algeria’s breakthrough were truthfully the only positive notes Africa can take from this World Cup. As the tournament progressed, a spell of controversies formed dark clouds over the CAF’s (Confederation of African Football) national teams. Rumors started to spread of Ghanaian and Nigerian players boycotting training sessions, among other acts, due to a delay in appearance fees, which even resulted in match­-fixing allegations and an apparent scuffle in one of Ghana’s hotel rooms. Cameroon’s dispirited collapse against Croatia could be considered one of the continent’s ugliest performances in its history, and they too were accused of match-­fixing. Finally, three African teams’ managers stepped down shortly after they were knocked out of the World Cup.

Africa is known in the soccer world for conceiving top tier players. Many of Africa’s stars, Gyan the only exemption, make their careers at popular clubs throughout Europe and the rest of the world, from the Ivory Coast’s Yaya Touré at the Premier League’s Manchester City and Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa at Russia’s CSKA Moscow to Ghana’s Kevin ­Prince Boateng at the German Bundesliga’s Schalke and Algeria’s Islam Slimani at Portugal’s famous Sporting Clube de Portugal.

Why, then, does Africa continue to struggle on the sport’s biggest stage? A rather uncomplicated resolution to this issue is discipline. As these players become superstars to the rest of the world, their national teams’ staffs back home don’t know how to control, let alone manage, rosters made up of players of that caliber. Manager Sabri Lamouchi, for example, had never been the boss of any soccer club before taking up the position in 2012 for an Ivory Coast squad loaded with icons the likes of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, and Gervinho. Often these managers have shaky­-at-best relationships with the countries’ governing soccer bodies.

The goal at the World Cup is simple; to prove your country’s supremacy in the world’s beautiful game. But one continent is often amalgamated in the media and public mind as an interwoven brotherhood of nations: Africa. I feel a majority of that public, myself included, want to see that unified fraternity succeed, and the media pushes that at times as well (the scene of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o hugging a young, defeated Cameroon fan, prompting both to shed tears, was a touching moment).

Nevertheless, the continent’s 2014 World Cup campaign will in the end be seen as a failed yet valiant attempt sheathed by blurred shadows of the CAF’s flaws. The severe lack of continuity in managerial staff, an excess of corruption, and a shortage of discipline all contribute to this consistent disappointment.

While African soccer is growing, it is maturing slower than anticipated.

And fans of African teams can only hope their nations’ (soccer) leaders are watching and taking note when Argentina and Germany square off today.

Will Sinsky is an aspiring sports analyst/writer whose specialties are professional football and soccer. Follow him on Twitter @wsinsky

We’ve won over the English

Brilliant read from the Telegraph celebrates Tim Howard, U.S. fandom, Clint Dempsey’s goals, Michael Bradley’s distance covered, and the USA’s knack for making World Cup games interesting …

Setting aside the 1-0 defeat to Germany, they were all belters. Edging out Ghana late on, succumbing to a Portugal equaliser even later on, and a deranged attempt to upset Belgium with only the power of hard work and Gatorade.

via 33 reasons why we love the US men’s soccer team.

And it’s true. Miserable flop or wild ride, the USA does not do boring.

2002: Stunning first-half rout of Portugal, surviving the South Korean tempest, referee robbery against Poland (but advancing anyway), dos a cero, denied by KAHHHHNNN against Germany.

2006: The Italy game alone: McBride’s bloody face, 10v9, a game-winner unluckily (though correctly) waved off. Then the Reyna injury curse striking at the worst possible time against Ghana.

2010: 1-1 vs. England, Coulibalied against Slovenia, ALGERIA!!, extra time against Ghana.

Not a world champion, not always in the knockout stages. Never dull.

U.S. men’s soccer: Progress report

After a full USA World Cup campaign that exceeded my expectations, I’m still on the fence about Jurgen Klinsmann.

Strange thing to say, I know, especially while the country is still exhaling from a game that could hardly have been more dramatic unless it had actually gone to PKs. The USA bent but didn’t break for 92 minutes. They broke, only to come back with a fire that belied the fact that they had been through the World Cup’s most brutal schedule in terms of miles traveled and teams played.

And someone wanted to question their fitness? Sure, we need to talk the hamstring injuries, but was fitness the question?

I’d argue the other way. Watch the replays and see DaMarcus Beasley still sprinting in vain to catch up on Belgium’s first goal. See how often Michael Bradley raced back to recover.

The issue isn’t the ground they covered. The issue is that they had to cover so much ground. They ran their way into America’s hearts.

So the reason I’m still on the fence is simple: Nearly three years into The Klinsmann Experiment, what we saw in this World Cup was a quintessentially American team.

We’re singing the praises today of the Americans’ heart, resilience and determination. It’s as true of the German contingent as it is of the old guard. Bradley and Jermaine Jones alike left everything on the field.

We didn’t see tactical and technical brilliance, except perhaps in the middle 80 minutes of the Portugal game. We saw a team that was overrun on the wings and in the center of the field.

I don’t think for a minute that the Klinsmann game plan consisted of allowing Belgium nearly 40 shots. I don’t think the U.S. players were technically good enough to stop that from happening, at least not in the formation and lineup they were playing.

They did, at least, limit the damage — among those 39 shots were a lot of hopeful and hopeless blasts from long range, shots right at Tim Howard from impossible angles, or shots that were rushed by persistent defenders. Then when the big shots came, Howard was there.

But when you’re charting the progress of the USA over the 24 years of its modern history (that is, the era of qualifying for World Cups), you have to wonder — would a lineup of Tab Ramos, Thomas Dooley, Mike Sorber and John Harkes have allowed 39 shots against Belgium? Probably not.

And yet I refuse to believe the talent pool has gone backwards. It’s certainly deeper than it was — we’ve gone from “I can’t believe so-and-so is going to the World Cup” to “I can’t believe so-and-so is not going to the World Cup.” The players we doubted — DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, John Anthony Brooks — all contributed.

Howard, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley had legendary defensive performances. Yedlin was more of a Roberto Carlos model defender — fantastic moments going forward, a couple of nice defensive plays in midfield, but then he was caught upfield in extra time.

The midfield was curious. The FourFourTwo/Opta stats engine and WhoScored.com tell me that from a statistical point of view, Geoff Cameron and Alejandro Bedoya had good games. Most observers would argue that Kyle Beckerman and someone other than Bedoya would have been improvements. (The engines offer no such defense of Graham Zusi, who simply wasn’t at his best today, or Jermaine Jones, who had better games in this Cup.)

The USA’s most accomplished field players of the past two years are Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. You’d have to say Dempsey had a good tournament, but he was starved for service today — one of Matthew Doyle’s excellent insights is that Dempsey was so busy coming back to help out in midfield that he could hardly pose an offensive threat. Bradley was such a fulcrum that his errors were magnified — he surely had the most giveaways, but he touched the ball more than the rest of the team.

Busy guy

So we have a couple of questions for Klinsmann:

1. Why leave Dempsey out there alone for so much of the game? And when he went to the bench, why Wondolowski rather than someone with more of a playmaking mentality? (Mix Diskerud?)

2. After seeing Bedoya and others demonstrate no capacity for turning around a game, now do you regret leaving Landon Donovan back in L.A.? (Yes, I’ll ask it — it is and should be a question we ask about this tournament.)

But Klinsmann got results — probably the best results anyone would have reasonably expected with the team that he had and the draw that he had. Think back a month ago — if someone had told you this team would beat Ghana 2-1, draw Portugal 2-2, lose 1-0 to Germany and take Belgium to extra time, you probably would have written them off a delusional fanboys. They also took it to Portugal in every sense.

And I’ll disagree, slightly, with those who saw the attack at the end of the Belgium game and wondered where that was all game. No one attacks like that all game — not even Belgium in this game.

The longer-term questions of the Klinsmann era will take longer to assess. He’s supposed to change the culture, and that won’t happen in three years.

That’s actually the part that puzzles me most. Claudio Reyna unveiled a new youth soccer curriculum a couple of months before Klinsmann came on board. The curriculum and Klinsmann both point the USA toward a more sophisticated style of play. You know — Barcelona. Yet the U.S.-bred youngster who had the most impact in this tournament, DeAndre Yedlin, is about as classically English-by-way-of-college as you can get. He’s fast, he gets down the wing, and he whips in crosses. It’s hard to judge the U.S. youth teams because they’ve developed a strange habit of not qualifying for major tournaments. Barcelona still seems as far away as it ever was.

But Klinsmann is and has long been more “American” than most people realize. He certainly cussed out the fourth official like an American when he held up the sign for only one f’ing minute of stoppage time.

And Klinsmann has always appreciated the American spirit. Perhaps after this tournament, he understands it more than ever.

So now, maybe, he knows what he needs to do next.

USA: An opportunity to cherish

Today’s World Cup knockout game against Belgium is the reward for years of suffering and patience.

FIFA likes to pitch the World Cup as a tournament for every team in the world. The qualifiers aren’t really qualifiers. They’re part of the tournament. The field of 32 is in the World Cup finals.

For a country like American Samoa, as chronicled in the must-see film Next Goal Wins, any game with “World Cup” in the name is a wonderful event. But for the United States, qualifiers are anything but festive. They’re painful experiences that fans watch between the fingers over their eyes. The relationship between fans and the team through the qualifying process is deep and yet fragile. “We love you,” fans will say, “but in the name of Joe Gaetjens and Earnie Stewart, do not lose this game!”

Nor are qualifiers routine. The fretting over England missing the group stage for the first time in eons left out one important historical note — England didn’t qualify for USA 1994 at all. And that was a team that had come within penalty kicks of making the final (the two-team final, not the 24-team final) in 1990.

That’ll happen to the USA one day. It nearly happened to Mexico this time around, and you saw in this tournament the kind of soccer Mexico is capable of playing.

At this moment, we’re well past all that. The roller-coaster of qualifying is forgotten for now. And the USA slogged its way through the Group of Death with one exhibition of resilience and spirit, one truly outstanding performance, and one weary last stand. This team has met every reasonable expectation anyone could have.

And now, this team is ideally placed. No burden of being the favorite. It’s the classic American underdog story with the added incentive of knowing that the upset is there for the taking. The USA may be the No. 2 team in this matchup with Belgium, but they’re No. 2 with a bullet. No one expects the USA to win this game (though I’m sure Michael Bradley would say otherwise), but everyone thinks it’s possible.

In so many U.S. games, both men’s and women’s, we have often feared that the team is playing for the future of the sport. Women’s soccer fans don’t want to think about where the sport would be if Megan Rapinoe hadn’t hit the perfect cross for Abby Wambach’s perfect finish three summers ago in a quarterfinal in Dresden, much less what would have happened without Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez’s goals to dispatch Italy in a last-ditch qualifier the year before. The men have had countless qualifying dramas through the years.

This year, soccer’s naysayers could hardly have faced a more emphatic rebuttal. The ratings are astronomical, and they don’t include the big public gatherings. Celebrity fans have emerged from every corner. The trolls are left with the argument that MLS doesn’t bring in all these fans, as if the people who spread out food for the Super Bowl watch every NFL game or the people who watch the World Series spend every weeknight riveted to a Diamondbacks-Marlins matchup. And they forget soccer’s diversity — MLS is part of a grand landscape that includes the Premier League, the Champions League, Mexican soccer, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, the NWSL and local teams all over the map.

Today, all those fans are gathering to watch and celebrate. They’re going without Belgian food and drink for a day with a little laugh. They’re cheering in public spaces both real and virtual. They’re defiantly chanting their belief, even if their brains tell them Belgium’s the favorite.

No one’s fearing a loss. The country is imagining what happens if the USA wins.

Just imagine …

Monday Myriad: Waffle Cup … and greetings, Season!

Has soccer made it in America? We debate this topic every four years, and I’m officially declaring the conversation dead.

Why? These two tweets:

(HT: D.C. Sports Bog)

The week in myriad sports includes a reminder that the best U.S. athlete of the year might be a triathlete, along with a reminder to turn off auto-correct when writing beach volleyball stories.

BEST U.S. ATHLETE OF THE YEAR NOMINEE

Gwen Jorgensen is in her fifth year as a triathlete, and she has already won six World Series races, three in a row. If you don’t build up a massive lead after the bike phase, just wave as she goes by.

Meanwhile, Jorgensen’s teammate put a wry smile on less happy news:

NEATEST SHOE TRICK

HOTTEST EVENT

World Cup game? Nope. USA Track and Field Championships in Sacramento.

https://twitter.com/chrisnickinson/status/483342565853261824

BEST BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE

Devon Allen is a promising wide receiver who redshirted his freshman year at Oregon. He’s also the NCAA champion in the 110-meter hurdles. And the U.S. champion.

Jenny Simpson held off Mary Cain to win the women’s 1,500.

The women’s 5,000 had a fun back-and-forth finish between Molly Huddle and Shannon Rowbury.

And yes, it was a near replay of the women’s 10,000, with Kim Conley rallying past Jordan Hasay.

The Monday Morning Run has the rest of the action.

BEST VOLLEYBALL DIG/KILL

BEST BEACH VOLLEYBALL DIG/KILL

Karri Walsh Jennings and April Ross went on to win the FIVB Grand Slam in Stavanger, Norway.

WORST BEACH VOLLEYBALL TYPO

Can U.S. beach volleyball men get some respect? Say, for example, Season Rosenthal?

Yes, that’s actually Sean Rosenthal, but no, the wires didn’t catch the error.

Anyway, Sean and Phil (Pill? Philosopher?) Dalhausser won the men’s bracket in Stavanger.

BEST SONG WITH “BRASILIA” IN THE TITLE

No contest. (Maybe in the literal sense.)

Quick retort to the English hand-wringing over Jermain Defoe

Just a few random facts:

– The USA advanced to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals with a lot of MLS players. Landon Donovan and Brian McBride scored two goals each.

– The USA drew Italy 1-1 in the 2006 World Cup with a lot of MLS players. Only Ghana’s gamesmanship and some ill-timed injuries and loss of form (among the Euro contingent) kept that team from advancing further.

– The USA and England were in the same group in 2010. Remember who won that group? Fewer U.S. players that year were in MLS at the time, but many had spent several years in our little league.

– Other countries that have featured MLS players at the World Cup: Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Honduras, New Zealand.

– MLS players in Euro tournaments: Robbie Keane, Lothar Matthaeus, Roberto Donadoni, Miklos Molnar.

– David Beckham kept going on loan and proving he could still play through the first couple of years of his MLS career. He had already declined from his peak years, yet after several years in the USA, he was still a sought-after player at an advanced age.

– MLS is indeed a physical league. So is the Premier League. You know, we get to watch that on TV here. Rebecca Lowe is our host, and you can’t have her back.

– Some players thrive in different environments. New Zealanders Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott looked like better players in England than they were in MLS. Brek Shea is apparently the opposite.

– The 2002 World Cup was overrun by players from unfashionable leagues and clubs. Turkey and South Korea reached the semifinals. The chaotic Brazilian leagues supplied much of the Brazilian team that reached the final (beating England along the way).

– Uruguay (semifinals) and Paraguay (quarterfinals) fared quite well at the 2010 World Cup with only a handful of players at big clubs.

– Who do you think is going to get better service at his current club — Jermain Defoe or Jozy Altidore?

I love you, England, but when will your writers drop the provincialism?

Yes, we know Toronto isn’t the best club in MLS. At least Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane are surrounded by decent players on clubs that have some recent successes.

But here’s the funny thing: In a league built for parity (something Premier League folks can’t possibly understand), teams routinely move from the bottom to the top. Or vice versa. The margin for error is thin; the potential rewards for making just the right offseason moves are immense.

Taking Toronto to the top will be a challenge. But don’t you want your players to be challenged?

If nothing else — look, England plays Costa Rica in Group D this summer. MLS has Costa Rican players, and their best clubs face MLS teams in CONCACAF play all the time. You’re getting a free scouting report. Enjoy.

And if you’re that worried — OK, we’ll let you keep Clint Dempsey.