Behind Messi’s Decision

Make that three in a row for Argentina. After losing to Chile on Sunday, Argentina came up short in its third straight tournament final. The loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final, followed by two consecutive defeats to the Chileans in the Copa America have left the Argentine with a sour taste in their mouth.

Lionel Messi
Messi is Argentina’s all-time leading scorer with 55 goals in 113 caps. (Wikimedia Commons)

So much so, that Argentinian captain Lionel Messi has said that he is retiring from international football. His proclamation came shortly after the heartbreaking loss, where Messi fired his shot over the bar during the decisive penalty shootout. It might have just been his emotions getting the best of him in the heat of the moment. But there are plenty of other reasons that could be fueling Messi’s desire leave the international game.

First and foremost, it is no secret that he has a certain amount of disdain for the Argentina Football Association (AFA). For anyone who has consistently read this blog, you know I hate FIFA for being a corrupt organization. The AFA fits into that same mold.

For some context, the Argentinian players beat the USA last Tuesday, and then were set to fly out to Houston on Thursday. However, the flight was delayed due to weather concerns. That didn’t stop Messi from taking to social media to bash the AFA for the mishandling of the situation. The AFA issued a response saying that Copa America organizers were responsible for all travel logistics. I think Messi was just looking for something to be mad about here, but he was probably already a bit pissed off.

Just prior to the flight snafu, AFA president Luis Segura was charged with fraudulent administration regarding television-broadcasting rights. He hasn’t been found guilty, but the money in question is several million dollars over the course of the last six years. That reflects poorly on the AFA and likely already had Messi in a bad mood.

There is also a deep-seeded stalemate between those in Argentina and their most prolific player. Messi has played for Barcelona his entire career and that has led to the sentiment that he is more committed to his club than his country. It has been a long-standing love-hate relationship between Messi and the Argentine fans.

From their perspective, he has never delivered. Sunday’s loss was the fourth time Messi came up short in a major tournament final. He has only ever won one gold medal and it was at the Olympics, which is rather insignificant by world football standards.

Argentina has not won a major tournament since 1993, when Messi was only six. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it is hard to argue that Messi hasn’t given it his all while wearing an Argentina shirt. He was nothing short of magical in this Copa America run, tallying five goals and four assists during the team’s six games. He didn’t start all of them either, as he came off the bench early in the tournament. Think back to the 2015 Copa America, where Messi scored only once, but had three assists and was the only Argentine player to score in the Finals’ shootout. And before that, it was four goals and an assist en route to the Golden Ball Award at the World Cup in 2014.

The last three years have been some of the best of Messi’s career at the international level. He has guided Argentina to three consecutive major tournament finals, coming up short to Chile and Germany, both of whom are great teams.

The reality is that Messi must feel jaded. I honestly do not think his retirement at this point is permanent. He is, after all, just 29 years old. There is still a lot of magic left in the tank for Messi. I think his teammates will convince him to give it at least one last run at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If the five-time Ballon d’Or winner cannot pull through there, then I think that might be the end of the line. Until then, just enjoy the show everyone.


One Rule Soccer Must Change

The deliberate handball. One of the dirtiest plays in all of sports and probably the dirtiest one in soccer. Yet players get off with a minimal punishment considering how much of a game-changer it can be.

This might seem like odd timing. Nothing happened recently in soccer that sparked this conversation. This is actually as a result of an argument I had with a buddy of mine recently about how one of the most controversial rules of soccer works.

Asamoah Gyan
Gyan finished the tournament with three goals but could not find a fourth to put Ghana through to the semi final.

For anyone looking for an example of what I mean, here is a perfect one. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Uruguay met Ghana in the quarterfinal round. The game was tied and it was late into the second half. Ghana put together an attacking move that led to a shot that rebounded off the keeper. Another shot was blocked by an outfield defender and the ball careened into the air. One of Ghana’s players got their head to it and directed it towards goal. Luis Suarez, who was standing on the goal line, blatantly blocked the ball using his forearm preventing a sure goal for the African side.

Suarez was given an immediate red card and was suspended for the ensuing match. Ghana was awarded a penalty, which Asamoah Gyan banged off the crossbar and over. Uruguay would go on to win the game on penalties and advance to the semi final round.

But there never should have been extra time or penalties. The game should have ended with Ghana in front 2-1. Ghana had essentially slotted home the winner until Suarez illegally prevented it from going in. The referee did what he was supposed to do, which is eject the player and award a penalty. Sure Ghana had more chances to score in extra time and during penalties but it should never have come to that.

However, that hardly seems fair. Ghana had a shot heading into the net that would have counted for a goal. They should have just been awarded the goal. Earning the penalty is nice, but then they still have to take a shot on goal again with the keeper prepared to defend it. Going from a goal scored to another shot on goal isn’t exactly an equal pay off.

I’m sure most people will say, “Well that’s just how it is.” I’m saying it shouldn’t be. Think about it from the standpoint of a basketball play. If a player is fouled in the act of shooting or before he even takes the shot but there was a clear path to the basket, they are awarded free throws. Their scoring opportunity was taken away and as a result, they have a chance to earn those points in a different way. They don’t just award the player the points though because there is still a possibility that he could have missed the ensuing shot even without the foul.

This is similar to in soccer when a player is taken down inside the penalty area. They are awarded a penalty. Logically, that makes sense, the defender committed a foul that prevented a goal-scoring opportunity for the offense and now they are given a chance to take another shot on goal from the penalty spot. Once again, it was not guaranteed to go in though, so the goal is not just given.

Going back to basketball, there is an instance in which a team is awarded a basket even if the ball does not make it through the netting. Goaltending is called when the ball is knocked out of the basket illegally. Rather than award free throws, the referee simple awards the points the shot was worth because it was already going into the basket when someone wrongfully interfered.

Luis Suarez
Suarez missed the semifinal loss against Netherlands.

Soccer does not have that. In the case of Suarez’s handball, Ghana was not awarded a goal despite the ball heading into the net. It is the exact same concept as goaltending in basketball, but it is called very differently.

That is just how the rules of the game work for soccer. It shouldn’t be though because it promotes cheating. Uruguay won that game because Suarez broke the rules. That should not be allowed. It tears down the very integrity of sports. It allows the cheaters to win because of the way the rules are written. They might be penalized, but in that instance, the cheating paid off. That should never be the case. A team that deliberately breaks the rules should be not be given a second chance to make up for the situation.

I think soccer should introduce a goaltending rule, similar to what happens in basketball. If an outfield player illegally prevents a ball with a clear path to the net if he is the only player in between the ball and the net, as it was in Suarez’s case, then a goal should be awarded. The ball was going into the net. There is no question about. It would have been a goal had it not been for an illegal play.

That rule would boost the integrity of the game of soccer. There would be no reason for players to deliberately block the ball with their hands to save a game because it would not save the game any more. The goal would still count and the player would still be ejected. It would not benefit his team in any way to make that play so players would stop making it. It is a logically change for FIFA to make.

New home for 2022 World Cup should be obvious

The FBI took down FIFA, the US Men’s team shocked the Netherlands in an international friendly and US Women’s team landed in Canada for the 2015 World Cup. It’s been a good week for soccer in the United States. It could get even better than that too if the FBI finds that the bid allocations that FIFA gave for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were under the circumstances of a bribe or payoff. That would likely mean that both of the World Cups would be reallocated. 

Russia_2018_World_CupWhere exactly the tournaments would be reassigned is still up for debate. A reasonable case can be made for England hosting the 2018 edition because the preparation required is minimal. Sure scheduling might take a little while but the reality is that England is the soccer hub of the world at the domestic level. Britain has 12 stadiums that have a seating capacity of at least 38,000. It also has the historic Wembley Stadium, which would be an excellent site for a World Cup final if you ask me and seats 90,000 fans. The seating capacity is pretty comparable to what Brazil had last summer as well. On top of all of that, England hasn’t hosted a World Cup since 1966.

The reassigning of the 2022 edition is a little trickier. There were several nations that were in the mix and shockingly Qatar was selected. Beyond any tampering that might have gone on with the voting, Qatar shouldn’t be hosting the World Cup anyway. Summer temperatures can reach a startling 120 degrees Fahrenheit and in preparations for the tournament roughly 1,200 migrant workers have died. That number is sure to climb higher as well as we are seven years away from kickoff.

So it makes only too much sense to change the site of the 2022 World Cup. The question that remains is where would it be moved to. The logical answer here would be the nation that finished second in the voting, which was the US.

World Cup StampOn a lot of different levels, a move to America makes sense. From a monetary standpoint, the US would be the best option. The 1994 tournament held in the United States still ranks as the most lucrative one in history. You have to wonder a bit why FIFA would avoid returning to the US in favor of Qatar. Sure, FIFA officials might have been bribed but America would have generated infinitely more revenue for FIFA than Qatar could ever dream of.

There are plenty of critics who claim that soccer is not a big deal in the United States. However, the 1994 World Cup remains the most heavily attended tournament ever. Over the course of all 52 games played that year, the USA brought in over 3.5 million fans. The US still has the highest attendance average as well at roughly 69,000 fans per game. For some reference, the average attendance of a World Cup match if you remove the numbers from the year the US hosted is around 43,250 and the average in Brazil last year was only 53,600.

Preparations for the US wouldn’t be overly difficult either. They have more than enough stadiums to compensate all of the games that need to be played. I went through and found the top 12 stadiums that America could use as host fields. The Citrus Bowl, the Rose Bowl, Ohio Stadium, Bank of America Stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, LP Field, Sanford Stadium, University of Phoenix Stadium, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Cotton Bowl, Arrowhead Stadium and Soldier Field would all work well for hosting the 64-game schedule.

1280px-The_U.S._Embassy_in_Pretoria_Glows_at_NightThat would bring World Cup matches all over the country and let everyone enjoy the action. Florida, California, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Missouri and Illinois would all have the opportunity to host a game. All of the fields use grass as the playing surface as well so there can be no complaints about the awful conditions of playing on FieldTurf. Travel might be slightly difficult but as long as there is as little coast-to-coast movement as possible, it should work out fine.

It also leaves a few options available for where the final could be played. It could once again return to the Rose Bowl, which is where it was played in 1994, or it could be hosted in Ohio Stadium, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. What makes Ohio Stadium appealing is its capacity of 102,000 fans. The smallest stadium I selected was Soldier Field and that still has a capacity of 61,500. Based on the average attendance back in ’94, I don’t think there should be an issue with filling these stadiums.

At this point, it seems to be a matter of when not if regarding changes of location. FIFA is in turmoil right now and if the new brain trust that takes over has any hope of avoiding corruption being tagged to their name, they will start fresh. I might be a little bit biased in wanting the USA to be chosen as the 2022 host but the selection would make a ton of sense. It would be another step forward for the growth of soccer stateside. Hopefully, the US gets the chance to make it happen.

Round of 16 matchup between Belgium and the United States

The majority of the United States watched today as their men’s national team took on the mighty Germany squad. The U.S. fell to Germany 1-0 but managed to advance to the next round after Christiano Ronaldo ended Ghana’s dreams of advancing with a late goal to give Portugal the win. Ironically, Ronaldo was also the same man who set up the goal that prevented the United States from qualifying last week. Funny how these things happen.

On the flip side, Belgium just wrapped up group play with a 1-0 defeat of South Korea. They won all three of their group play games and sealed the deal as Jan Vertonghen scored the game winner despite playing with only ten men. It was an impressive display of resilience. Belgium looked shaky throughout, but for all the U.S. fans gaining a false sense of hope, know that Belgium means business.

This will be an intense match when these two teams, the United States and Belgium, take the pitch on Tuesday. It is hard to say what the outcome of this game will be based on prior results. Belgium beat the USA in a friendly match in Cleveland last May but that does not mean a whole lot. Belgium won 4-2 but two of their goals were scored by striker Christian Bentenke, who is not playing for Belgium this World Cup due to injury. The United States team also resembles nothing of what it currently looks like today. Eddie Johnson was one of the U.S. strikers and Clarence Gooden started next to Omar Gonzales at center back. Jermaine Jones, Matt Besler and Fabian Johnson all did not play in this game for the U.S. either. This time around should be very different.

Unfortunately for the United States, Belgium is a very good team that has an incredible amount of talent all over the pitch. The American midfielders will really need to step up their game if the U.S. expects to be competitive in this game. They looked very sloppy today as they had too many unforced errors. If they play similar to how they played against Germany today, the U.S. will most definitely be on their way home.

The keys for the United States in this game will be maintaining possession and attacking effectively. Having possession will limit the creativity of the Belgium midfielders and it will give their defense a much-needed reprieve. The U.S. had a record low in terms of possession during their game against Germany. The Germans had possession of the ball for 67.5 percent of the match. You can be sure Jurgen Klinsmann will be discussing that with his players this week. They need to be more efficient when they in a position to attack and work the goalkeeper. There is a possibility that Jozy Altidore will be back for the Round of 16 and the United States will need him if they have any hopes of advancing.

For Belgium, the keys will be moving the ball quickly offensively and spreading the ball out wide for cross opportunities. Belgium is extremely athletic and possesses the ability to kill opponents with their speed. With Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens creating a lot of the Belgium chances, they will be looking place through balls and win one on one battles with U.S. defenders who have been a step slow a couple of times in this World Cup. The other aspect of the game that Belgium could exploit the Americans on is the height they possess. Axel Witzel is 6’1″ and Marouane Fellaini is 6’4″. Together these two should find success in directed headers towards goal and giving the United States a lot to deal with.

Both sets of players will be looking to make a play that will announce to the world that they mean business. It should be a great game.

How hard is it to repeat?

The soccer gods really have it out for Spain. They have just become the first defending World Cup champion to be eliminated after the first two matches of group play. Spain and a good part of the world I believe were shocked by the sudden fall of the Spanish national team that was so dominant four years ago. It was not gradual either. Spain entered this tournament still maintaining the number one rank in the world. Suddenly, they have dropped two games by a combined score of seven to one. They were simply blown out of the water by Holland and Chile and it truly looks as if an era has ended for Spain. Andres Iniesta will not be returning, neither will Fernando Torres, Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina, Xavi Alonso nor David Villa. This team is going to most likely be decimated.

However, this is not unheard of in international soccer anymore. At three of the last four World Cups, including this one, the defending champion has failed to make it out of group play. France, Italy and now Spain have all failed to return to the same form they were in during the previous championship campaign. It is shocking how quickly teams can fall apart.

Believe it or not, over the same time frame (twelve years) the NFL has seen similar problems. Of the twelve Super Bowl winners, starting with the 2001 New England Patriots all the way to the 2013 Baltimore Ravens, only six of those twelve teams even made it back to the playoffs the next year. Additionally, only the Patriots won back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004. Those six unsuccessful teams fell apart over the course of less than a year and failed to even make it back for a shot at another championship.

Baseball has a very similar story. From the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks to the 2012 San Francisco Giants, only six of those twelve teams have made it back to the postseason the following year. None of them have repeated as champions. Again, only half of the teams who win a championship one year even make it back to the playoffs the next year. Baseball only has 10 of its team making the playoffs, the fewest of any major sport, making it even harder to make it back to the playoffs the following season.

I was surprised to see this trend across more than one sport. A lot of the issues with repeating as champions can be traced to lack of desire or drive. That edge you have when seeking that championship the first time around fades often times going into the next campaign as teams become complacent and rest on their laurels. Another key aspect is players looking for more money. This happens more in the NFL and MLB than in international soccer. Players who have a successful run in the playoffs look for more money and often become unaffordable.

This doesn’t completely explain the ass-kicking Spain got in the first two games but it certainly helps to identify where the issues may have started. Let me know your theories as to why the Spanish fell so far so fast.