Monday, August 09, 2010

Will Barça boys herald a brave new frontier for MLS?

American sports fans are renowned for their love of stats – not to mention an acronym or three. The steadily-developing MLS, still in its infancy, received a sudden shot in the arm recently by the relaxing of the ‘DP’ rule. The designated player statute was drafted into MLS predominantly to cater for marketable stars such as David Beckham in a competition previously governed in a relentlessly egalitarian manner. Contracts are centrally owned by the league and wage caps must be strictly adhered to; as the administration seeks to foster a stable, competitive league. Few would doubt that MLS has, to date, achieved this goal.

While Becks’ stay in LA has so far received mixed reviews, one of the few original DPs, Colombian centre forward Juan Pablo Angel, has brought rather more to the table. In fact, the one-time Aston Villa fan-favourite has almost single-handedly proven the worth of the new system by virtue of 56 goals in 89 MLS games since his move to New York Red Bulls four seasons ago. Those are the kind of sparkling stats to get armchair fans shuttling into the fast-growing number of soccer-specific stadia springing up in cities across the US.

So, on the back of a relatively successful World Cup adventure for the national team (which attracted healthy viewing figures and grabbed front-page headlines throughout), the MLS naturally decided that the time was ripe for further growth. To get more clubs to sign DPs, therefore increasing their ‘soccer superstar’ quotient, the rules were relaxed; allocating a maximum of three Designated Players, providing the club using the third slot paid – here comes that wonderful egalitarianism again – a $250,000 ‘luxury tax’ to be evenly distributed among the other 15 MLS franchises.

The Red Bulls, who opened an impressive $220m stadium recently, have been the first to capitalise. Now joining Angel in New York (or New Jersey, to be precise) are two Barcelona stalwarts who last season fell from grace at Camp Nou as Pep Guardiola chose to integrate home-grown starlets such as Pedro and Sergi Busquets in their place. Thierry Henry’s long-touted move Stateside was something of a PR coup for the league, but the rather more unanticipated signing of Mexico skipper Rafa Marquez has really piqued the interest of the States’ significant Hispanic community.

Making their first appearance in tandem for their new club on Sunday evening, Marquez and Henry were up against Eastern Division rivals Chicago Fire – a team which has also been quick to utilise the new DP ruling. Henry’s former Arsenal team-mate Freddie Ljungberg has been traded in from Seattle Sounders to add some much-needed fire to the Chicago attack and globe-trotting Mexican forward Nery Castillo joined, on loan, late last month to take the no.10 shirt of another Latin star; bunny-hopping veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who returns south of the border to see out the final days of his career.

Some hype-hungry pundits heralded this game as the dawning of a new era in MLS, but in reality it was more of a hard-fought mid-season scrap peppered with just a little star dust from some half-fit erstwhile stars of the European game. In fact the game – in tempo and in quality – very much resembled an English second-tier game, which was fitting, as both teams featured strike-duos of former Premier League notoriety: Angel and Henry for the Red Bulls; Fulham cult-hero Brian McBride supported by Ljungberg in a free role for the home side.

A patently unfit Henry offered a limited threat during the first half – with one cutting, diagonal run through the Fire defence ending in a shot straight at impressive ‘keeper Sean Johnson. Lingering rust in the legs of a man who spent a significant chunk of the summer sulking in South Africa manifested itself in a minor groin strain, leading to his anti-climactic withdrawal just before the break. It was, instead, Titi’s former Gunners team-mate Ljungberg who came closest to breaking the deadlock. The ageless McBride fed the Swedish star with a smart angled pass, but the ball bobbled just as he looked set to bundle it in at the far post, instead going harmlessly wide off his thigh.

Henry’s nominated replacement, Jamaican winger Dane Richards (scorer of this dazzler against Manchester City last month: started the second half with a bang; a Rafa Marquez ball sent him driving to the goal-line to cross for the frequently clumsy Senegalese striker Macoumba Kandji, who couldn’t convert. Chicago, under the cosh for large swathes of the game, curiously decided to withdraw target-man McBride to offer Castillo his debut. A typically understated American welcome – fireworks and furious name-chanting – welcomed the nomadic youngster to his latest home; the one-time wonderkid having flopped in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Manchester since leaving Olympiacos three years ago.

With two diminutive forwards now at the point of attack, Chicago’s threat was diminished even further – while wilful but wayward former Fulham striker Collins John remained rooted to the bench. With the substitution of Marquez on the hour went the game’s last bastion of genuine quality. If the 31-year-old can maintain peak fitness amid the hectic MLS schedule and excessive air miles, his role as a Xabi Alonso-style playmaking ‘quarterback’ will be just as significant for the New Yorkers as Henry’s. And his ambitions are plain: “My expectations are the same in MLS (as at Barça), I want to win everything possible,” he told the press at his signing. “I have a winning mentality and I want to help this team win titles.”

As proceedings at an oversubscribed Toyota Park stadium slipped into a messy morass of misplaced passes, Angel – the one truly match-sharp DP – came close with a trio of well-worked efforts on goal, before Man of the Match Johnson preserved a point for Chicago with a top-class save from marauding defender Tim Ream.

So a goalless draw, or ‘tie’ if you prefer, failed to justify the hype. Upon his arrival, Rafa Marquez likened the standard of MLS to the Dutch Eredivisie or France’s Ligue 1. In truth, the quality of the league still lags behind that of its longer-established European cousins – that’s only natural. But if the remaining MLS franchises can pull off a few more DP signings in the mould of Marquez and co, it would serve to hasten the arrival of Stateside soccer as a global player.

Monday, May 31, 2010

World Cup Moments: Magical Magyars usurped by the ‘Miracle of Berne’

Think brilliant Brazil of 1982. The revolutionary Dutch total-footballers of ’74. Or the stereotype-defying Azzurri of Antognoni, Tardelli and Bettega in ’78. Even the swashbuckling Riquelme-inspired Argentines of four years ago, in Germany. History’s catalogue of failure by the most luminescent team of a World Cup finals is a long and often inglorious one.

One such case – perhaps even more notorious than those above – arose during the Swiss-hosted finals of 1954. As Brian Glanville puts it in his comprehensive tome The Story of the World Cup:

“Never had there been so hot, so inevitable, a favourite as Hungary; the team which had brought new dimensions and horizons to the game.”

The magical (or magnificent; masterful; mighty...) Magyars went on a 36-game unbeaten run between 1950 and the World Cup final of ’54, en route winning the 1952 Olympic gold, and ruthlessly crushing England both home and away. Ferenc Puskás, known as the Galloping Major due to his military background and powerful running style, was the nominal leader of a fearsome band of troops including the heavenly talents of Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti – the original exponent of the deep-lying centre forward position (to devastating effect, as a bewildered England found when he netted a hat-trick at the previously impregnable Wembley). It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the Hungarians’ tactical innovations influenced the future of the game; their radical adoption of out-and-out wingers; Hidegkuti’s no.10 role; and a ‘sweeping’ goalkeeper still resonate in today’s more tactically conservative times.

Coached by the pioneering Hungarian Deputy Minister for Sport, Gusztáv Sebes, the white-hot favourites opened with seventeen goals in their first two games. Eight came against Germany – only just returning to the FIFA fold after missing the 1950 finals in Brazil in the bitter aftermath of the War. It was a game remarkable for not only the number of goals scored against a perceived challenger for the title (8-3 was the final score) but also for an incident which saw the all-conquering Puskás limp from the field, having taken a kick on the ankle from the towering German defender Werner Liebrich.

Brazil and defending champions Uruguay were subsequently put to the sword (their dramatic extra-time semi-final triumph was, in fact, Uruguay’s first-ever defeat in a World Cup game). Final opponents Germany’s apparently Lazarus-like resurrection from their group stage mauling raised many eyebrows and later drew accusations that they’d effectively ‘conceded’ the game as a ruse to lull the Hungarians into believing their own hype. This perception has been long-disputed by either side, but what is certain is that the side crafted by legendary coach Sepp Herberger and led out by captain and chief-goalgetter Fritz Walter at Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium was a team transformed – and more than a match for their more illustrious opponents.

Puskás returned to his preferred inside-left role and seemed to have shaken off any doubts about his fitness when he scored a trademark left-foot thunderbolt after just six minutes. Three minutes later, winger Zoltán Czibor put Hungary 2-0 ahead and all was going to script. Incredibly, however, the Germans fought back to equalise within ten minutes. Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn drew the underdogs level, and that’s how it stayed until half-time.

The second half was a rainy, muddy battle of attrition, with the Magyars mounting attack after attack on the German goal. But, as time ticked by, a number of unique factors began to hold sway on the destiny of the world title. Germany’s innovative screw-in studs were particularly beneficial on a pitch increasingly resembling a mudbath; their oft-struck woodwork remained resilient and Horst Eckel's man-to-man marking assignment on Hidegkuti gradually eroded the playmaker’s iridescent influence. Hungary were also physically spent: Puskás had never fully recovered from Liebrich’s group-stage ankle-hack, while the entire squad had been embroiled in a post-match brawl with Brazil, in which Puskás allegedly attacked the Seleção’s Pinheiro with a broken bottle.

With six minutes left and the Germans still holding out at 2–2, Rahn, known as ‘The Boss’, received the ball 20 yards from goal. Unexpectedly shooting with his weaker left foot, he netted his second and Germany's third goal with an accurate drive to the bottom-left corner, leaving Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics helpless. Bowed but not beaten, Hungary launched themselves forward in desperate search of extending the game into extra-time.

Two minutes before the end, Puskás raced through the opposition defence to crash home what looked like the perfect winning goal – something which the admittedly grainy TV footage appears to bear out. But the Welsh linesman, Mervyn Griffiths, waved his flag, and English referee Bill Ling gave Puskás offside. The Galloping Major remained convinced, to the end of his long and varied life, that he was not. A further penalty claim for a clear penalty-box foul on Kocsis was also rejected a minute later: the match and Hungary’s magnificent unbeaten run then ended in one of the biggest upsets in the history of football.

The ‘Miracle of Berne’, as the final was soon christened by the Germans, was perceived in Hungary as a wrong the Magyars would never get the chance to right, as their international careers were soon to be over. They’d never again grace a World Cup together as, within two years, Puskás and several others had defected to the West to escape a Russian invasion in reaction to the Hungarian revolution.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Can traumatised Germany cope with the “brutal” loss of Michael Ballack?

The short answer to the title question is this: they can’t. At least that’s the opinion of Rudi Völler, star of Italia ’90 and Nationalmannschaft coach between 2000 and 2004.

“This is absolutely brutal, terrible for Michael,” Völler told the German tabloid Bild. “He was full of optimism and wanted to play a good World Cup. There are players who can't be replaced and Michael Ballack is certainly one of them.”

From his blistering, decisive double in the 2002 World Cup playoff with Ukraine; through his peerless displays in Japan/Korea – where he inspired his team to the final, only to miss out through suspension following a ‘professional’ foul which helped defeat South Korea in the semi; to the blistering free-kick against Austria at Euro 2008 – where he again played a talismanic role in reaching the final; Ballack has proved himself a man above all others, where the national side is concerned, for the best part of a decade.

Following the Chelsea man’s FA Cup final injury at the hands, or rather feet, of Kevin-Prince Boateng who, conspiracy theorists (including a devastated Ballack: “It looked pretty intentional to me”) were quick to point out, will represent Germany’s group stages foes Ghana this summer; there is a gaping void in the centre of Jogi Löw’s first eleven.

Everyone who’s anyone in German footballing circles – from Dieter Hoeneβ, to Löw, to his assistant Oliver Bierhoff – has been quick to bemoan the luck of their Captain Fantastic. Berti Vogts followed his commiserations by putting forward versatile Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger as the main man to shoulder the extra responsibility in Ballack’s absence. Once consigned to the flanks at international level, ‘Schweini’ has benefitted immeasurably from Löw’s controversial decision to ditch outspoken stalwart Torsten Frings. The maturity of his game at club level has gone up another notch this season under the exacting aegis of Louis Van Gaal and the 25-year-old, set to participate in his fourth major tournament this summer, will undoubtedly be a key piece in the German jigsaw.

It is the slot, however, alongside Schweinsteiger – at the heart of the engine room – which now lies vacant. There are a number of potential suitors, but, as befitting a team going through something of a generational transition, few, if any, have the requisite top-level experience to command absolute confidence.

Löw prefers a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with the two central-midfielders lying deep, protecting the back four and distributing the ball quickly and efficiently to the lone front-man (usually Miroslav Klose) and those occupying the flanks. Of course, his thinking may change in the light of such a debilitating development as Ballack’s unavailability, but the stylish Bundestrainer will consider the likely candidates’ defensive attributes a priority. That could be bad news for Bayern Munich’s creative wunderkind Toni Kroos.

Having spent the best part of the last two years on loan with high-flying Bayer Leverkusen, the 20-year-old has impressed all observers with his cool-headed approach, precise passing and eye for goal. A set-piece specialist, Kroos made his full debut as recently as the surprise home defeat to Argentina in March. It would be a bold move to place the hopes of a nation upon his relatively slender frame, but on such gambles World Cup campaigns are often won and lost.

Other, more conservative, options include moving adaptable Schalke defender Heiko Westermann into a holding role – young full-back Christian Träsch can also fill-in here, but is less well established in the squad. Sami Khedira, a contemporary of Träsch at resurgent Stuttgart, is similarly inexperienced at the top level and has only just returned from knee injury.

Attention must then surely turn to the men initially rejected by Löw. 51-cap midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, out of favour with both Stuttgart, then new club Lazio this season, was omitted from the provisional 27-man squad. So, too, was Wolfsburg’s Christian Gentner – soon to join Stuttgart.

Neither man, alas, can offer the stature of a man ostensibly discarded to make way for super-talented young guns such as Kroos, Marko Marin, Mesut Özil, and Bayern’s latest prodigy Thomas Müller – all of whom are most effective at the other end of the pitch. It is Werder Bremen warhorse Frings whose wealth of experience and dogged style would so well complement the more refined talents of Schweinsteiger, Özil, et al.

It would take a substantial swallowing of pride from both men, but it’s surely not too late for both Löw and Frings to overcome their manifest differences ‘in the national interest’. Frings finished the Bundesliga season in uncharacteristically free-scoring form (with a run of five goals in seven games) and generally turning in a series of vintage performances which had the likes of erstwhile national team team-mate Per Mertesacker backing his claims for a recall. If parachuted straight back into the starting line-up, it is less likely that the headstrong veteran would cause any trouble in the camp. Necessarily, Löw will need to think long and hard before he discards this compelling option.

The one-time deputy of Jürgen Klinsmann has at his disposal a more innately talented squad of players than any Germany coach for a long while. The new tranche of attacking-midfield talents will be complemented by Manchester City new-boy Jerome Boateng and the implacable Serdar Tasci in defence, while blonde beanpole Stefan Kieβling joins the attack.

Losing their first-choice goalkeeper, René Adler, and their inimitable skipper during the run-in to the tournament, however, may be a fatal blow to their title hopes. Nevertheless, the belief that the Germans always produce eine Turniermannschaft (a ‘tournament team’) holds firm among German fans and media. It’s safe to conclude that whichever combination takes to the field in South Africa, they’ll be a fearless, formidable outfit.