Sunday, July 15, 2018

Le jour de gloire est arrivé! France Wins!

Some thoughts on today's World Cup final:

As usual, the best stateside coverage came from the New York Times.

I'm still not sold on instant replay, known in soccer as VAR (video assistant referee), but I think it helped get one call right today.  I thought it was a hand ball on Croatia's Ivan Perisic (#4) but referee Nestor Pitana originally called a corner kick for France.  After reviewing the play he overruled himself and awarded the penalty kick, which Antoine Griezmann easily converted to put France up, 2-1, in the 38th minute.  The Times questioned whether the call  should have been overturned.

Overall I thought Pitana and his AR's called a good game although I did not think it was a foul on the play that gave France a free kick  that led to the first goal in the 18th minute.

I felt bad for Croatia's Mario Mandzukic, who headed the ball into his own net on that first French goal.  It really wasn't his fault - to me it looked as though he got up as high as he could and the ball deflected off his head.  He redeemed himself in the 69th minute when French keeper Hugo Lloris made a terrible mistake and played the ball to Mandzukic, allowing an easy goal.  Not sure if this is the first time a player has ever scored for both teams in a cup final.

French coach Didier Deschamps (is that a cool French name or what?) became only the third person to win a World Cup as a coach and as a player.  The others were Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Mario Zagallo of Brazil.  I met Beckenbauer a few times when he played for the Cosmos and I covered them for the Trenton Times.

The French team showed class, forming an honor guard for the Croatians during the awards presentation, and the presidents of France (Emmanuel Macron)  and Croatia (Kolinda Grabar-Kitorovic) seemed pretty classy themselves during the ceremony, which took place in a downpour.  (No one from FIFA thought to have a portable canopy available for bad weather.)

For France in Memory of Louise

As we all know, France plays Croatia for the World Cup later today.

Twenty years ago, when the Cup was held in France, my wife, Louise, came home from work at the Inquirer a few days before the opening games and asked if France was any good.  Um, yes, I replied, they had a chance of winning it all.  The reason for her inquiry was that she had picked France in her office pool.

Sure enough, on July 12 at Stade de France in Saint-Denis outside Paris, the French beat Brazil, 3-0, to win the Cup.  They had edged Croatia, 2-1, in the semi-finals a few days earlier.  Louise brought home several hundred dollars and everyone thought she was a soccer genius.  She was honest enough to admit she pulled France out of a hat.

In the next two World Cups in 2002 and 2006 we joked about France being Louise's team and rooted for France if they were not playing the United States or Germany.  But like defending champion Germany this year, they did not make it out of the group stage in 2002 and in 2006 they lost to Brazil in a shootout in the final in Berlin.

Sadly, Louise did not live to see another World Cup.  She passed away on December 11, 2006, shortly before what would have been our 37th anniversary.  Today I will be remembering her team and hoping France can win another World Cup for her.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A World Cup Story Only An Insurance Agent Could Love

We're all focused on the games at the World Cup - I am still recovering from yesterday's dramatic Germany-Sweden thriller.

What most don't think about is what goes on behind the scenes to make an event of this magnitude work., an insurance industry website, has an interesting (to some who deal with insurance anyway) article about the many types of insurance needed for the Cup, ranging from event cancellation to terrorism.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Better Late Than Never: Germany Beats Sweden Seconds Before The End

Toni Kroos saved his best shot for last.

In what will surely go down as one of the great games of this and many other World Cups, Kroos drilled a curveball into the upper right corner moments before time expired to give the Germans a much-needed 2-1 victory over Sweden.

After a shocking 1-0 loss to Mexico in the opener, a loss would have eliminated Germany and a tie would have made advancement difficult in light of Sweden's defeat of South Korea.  

Although Germany dominated much of the play in the first half, they were down, 1-0 and it could have been worse.  Antonio Ruedinger got away with a foul in the box on Marcus Berg in the 12th minute.  The Swedes screamed - rightfully so in my opinion - but no call.  After Ola Toivonen put Sweden up 1-0 in the 32nd minute, Manuel Neuer made a spectacular save on a header by Berg just before halftime.  

Germany played with 10 men for about five minutes in the first half when Sebastien Rudy took an accidental boot in the nose and began bleeding profusely.  Finally Coach Löw decided to send in Ilkay Gundogan for Rudy. 

Germany scored its first goal of this World Cup when Marco Reuss caught a cross from Timo Werner with his knee and knocked it in.  

Although a draw would have kept German hopes of advancing alive, the three points obviously would have enhanced their chances and kept up the pressure after Reuss' goal and had several good chances.  Sweden, sitting on 3 points from its win over South Korea, was content to play everyone back on defense.  

Germany appeared to take a hit in the 82nd minute when Jerome Boateng was sent off with his second yellow.  But it did not seem to hurt.  Sweden needed a spectacular save by Robin Olsen on a header from Mario Gomez, to remain even.  

In stoppage time, Julian Brandt, who had just come on minutes earlier, hit the post with a shot, just as he had done against Mexico.  In the 5th minute, Werner came down the left as he had so many times before, and was fouled just outside the box.  Kroos touched the ball a yard or so to his right where Reuss put is foot on top of it and Kroos stepped up and drilled a curve ball into the upper right corner.  As brilliant as he had been, Olsen had no chance on this one.

Now Germany and Sweden are even with 3 points and a zero goal differential each.  Germany takes on South Korea Wednesday while  Sweden will face first place Mexico two hours later. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Walt Bahr, 1950 World Cup Star, Dies

In 1950, the United States pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history when it defeated England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  This week, Philadelphia's Walt Bahr, who assisted on the lone goal, died this week at age 91 in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.

The 1950 U.S. team was the subject of a film called "The Game of Their Lives,: which I have yet to see.

Both the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer have quite good tributes to Bahr, and his passing was announced on U.S. Soccer's website.  That site posted a tribute with numerous quotes from the soccer community the following day.

Bahr was quite a guy: 19 caps, captain of an Olympic team (in 1948), assist on the lone goal in an historical upset, husband and father, coach at Frankford High School, Temple and Penn State and member of the Soccer Hall of Fame.  He came from Philadelphia soccer hotbed Kensington and played at the famous Lighthouse Boys Club there, then for local club and pro teams.

I met Bahr once although I can't recall where or the occasion, only that he was personable.  I do recall him telling me that Gaetjens, who was born in Haiti but had begun the process to apply for United States citizenship, disappeared somewhere in that country. ran a lengthy story about Gaetjens in 2010 and describes his presumed death in 1964.

I played against Bahr's oldest son, Casey, when he was at the Naval Academy, a team we had no business playing.  My senior year as a fullback he scored three goals against us as Navy beat us by, shall we say, a lot.  This was before fullbacks were fast and would attack.  I later met Casey when I was covering the Philadelphia Atoms of the North American Soccer League, for which he played while stationed in New Jersey.  I reminded him of the game and he was very gracious.

Bahr's other two sons played in the NASL but became more famous as kickers in the NFL and kicked in the Super Bowl.  His daughter, Davies Ann Desederio, was no slouch as an athlete either as she was an All American gymnast at Penn State.

Over the years I have occasionally read suggestions that Gaetjens wasn't an intentional shot but rather bounced off his head at an odd angle past the British keeper.  Bahr described the play in a 2010 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News

Ed McIlvenny threw the ball in from the sideline to me. He was my midfield playing partner. He threw the ball in about 35 yards out from the goal. I collected it, pushed it forward a bit, and took a shot from about 25 to 28 yards out.

If you took the 6-yard line and extended it out to the 18-[yard line], and then extended it out a little bit further, that’s about how far I was off the right-hand post. I took my shot and I hit it fairly well.

Bert Williams, the English goalkeeper, had to move to his right to get my shot. Which most likely he would have gotten. Somehow, on the flight of my shot, Joe Gaetjens got through traffic, and got a piece of the ball — a deflection, that’s the best word — it was a deflection that went to Bert Williams’ opposite side. He [Williams] was leaning right, and the deflection sent it back to his left and he just couldn’t react fast enough.

Bahr was the last surviving member of the 1950 U.S. team.

Monday, June 18, 2018

VAR, er ... Instant Replay, Is here

More than eight years ago - on March 10, 2010 to be exact, I wrote here  that it was good that instant replay would not be used in soccer. Would slow down the game, I said.

Well, instant replay, known as VAR for video-assistant-referee, is here as reported in today's New York Times. Although the English Premier League and UEFA which runs the Champions League, have not used VAR, it is at the World Cup in Russia. And Christopher Clarey writes in the Times article, "There will be bumps, maybe even an occasional accident, but the use of replay in critical situations, which is what V.A.R. is to be limited to, is still the best chance to make the World Cup and the sport a fairer proposition."

Clarey says that a study by Italy's Serie A showed that compared to the previous season, referee errors dropped from 5.78 percent of decisions to less than 1 percent. Expulsions were down 7.1 percent. And on a particularly encouraging note, simulation, also known as diving, was down 35.3 percent.  Meanwhile, the amount of time when the ball was actually in play during a 90-minute game increased by an average of 43 seconds to just over 51 minutes. 

The article recognizes the argument against replay: that unlike sports such as baseball and American football, there are not natural stoppages and that to hold up a game for replay would disrupt the flow of play, one of the sport's attractions.  I agree.  The counter to that is that there are indeed stoppages for throw-ins, corner kicks, injuries, substitutions and arguing with referees.  Generally none of these take as long as the replay review.

What is interesting is that under VAR the referee on the field makes the replay call, that is has the right to overrule himself. as happened in yesterday's France-Australia match in the World Cup in which the referee aid he had missed a foul in the box and awarded France a penalty kick, which proved to be the decisive in a 2-1 win.

I'm still not convinced that VAR is good for the game, but as Clarey writes, There is no going back now. In a world where fans are already reviewing every big decision on their screens, referees deserve the best possible chance to get their decisions right."

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Catching up

Since my last post, Hamburger S.V. was relegated to the 2md Division of the Bundesliga for the first time in history, the World Cup started, FIFA announced the 2026 Cup will be held in North America, the Union advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, and Germany lost the Cup opener to Mexico today, 1-0.

Sports Illustrated  and ESPN: The Magazine both had World Cup issues, with SI doing stories about why U,S, fans should root for each of the countries that (unlike us) are playing in Russia.  First choice: Iceland, which has a population for less than Philadelphia.  How can you not like a national team coached by a dentist?

Iceland lived up to its billing as a team that can play rather than a novelty when it tied Argentina, 1-1 yesterday as the keeper saved a penalty kick by Lionel Messi.  Speaking of billing, Cristiano Ronaldo lived up to his as the greatest player in the world by registering a hat trick in Portugal's opener against Spain.

When the World Cup reaches North America there will be 48 teams - an increase over the current 32.  Most of the games will be in the United States with some in Canada and Mexico.  We'll have to wait and see if Philadelphia gets may games.  Surely New York (Met Life Stadium is actually in New Jersey) will but Boston and Atlanta are East Coast candidates with many other cities competing.

The last time the men's Cup was here was 1994.  I was lucky enough to score tickets to the quarterfinal and Scott and I watched Germany lose to Bulgaria at what then the Meadowlands and is now MetLife.

And speaking of Germany losing . . . it's not like they didn't have their chances.  But they let Mexico come down the left side once too many times and Hernandez passed the ball out to Hirving Lozano who beat Mesut Özil and fired it inside the near post.  Four minutes later Toni Kroos hit the crossbar with a free kick and in the closing minutes Germany had several good shots.

Next up for Germany is Sweden on the 23rd in Sochi . followed by South Korea on the 27th in Kazan.  Those two teams play each other tomorrow.