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Croatia, a Work in Progress

June 5, 2014 | by

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Darijo Srna, Croatia’s captain and all-time most capped player. Photo: Fanny Schertzer, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Thursday, Croatia has the privilege of playing the World Cup’s opening match against Brazil, the host nation. The Eastern European country gets to take on a team that has won the World Cup a record five times—and is this year’s favorite—before nearly 70,000 people in São Paulo’s brand new Itaquerao stadium. The game is the first World Cup match to take place in Brazil since 1950, when the country last hosted the event. Brazil was the favorite that year, too, but it lost in the final in a shocking upset to Uruguay—and the country has never forgotten it.

Croatia, on the other hand, didn’t even become a nation until 1991. Its population of four and a half million is forty-five times smaller than Brazil’s. This World Cup is only its fourth appearance in five tries, and the team has had only two generations of players. It might seem that Croatia is absurdly overmatched. But you can also see the game as simply the next step in the development of their national soccer identity.

Croatia was born out of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, whose soccer team had made it to the semifinals and the quarterfinals of the World Cup twice; the team enjoyed a reputation as the Brazilians of European soccer. More than any of the other former Yugoslav republics, Croatia has continued that tradition, most notably at the 1998 World Cup, its first, where it shocked the world by finishing third.

That year, Croatia got a taste of what it’s like to face a host nation at a major tournament when it played its semifinal match against France in St.-Denis. Croatia’s star striker Davor Šuker, currently the president of its national soccer federation, scored the game’s first goal, just after halftime. “At that [moment] there were 80,000 people in St.-Denis and only a few thousand Croatians,” said Slaven Bilić, who played as a defender on that team and later coached the Croatian national team. “It was like when music is playing and someone comes in and presses the mute button.” Read More »

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Coaching, Portuguese Style

May 29, 2014 | by

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César Luis Menotti. Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo

The coaches of the World Cup are more invested in the outcome of the match than almost anyone else on the planet. Players return to their league club between national-team matches—coaches don’t. They simply grit their teeth and bear the weight that comes with carrying an entire country’s sporting expectations on their shoulders.

“Your biggest question before you take the job is not, do you put them 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1,” Slaven Bilic, the former coach of the Croatian national soccer team, said, referencing different soccer formations. “The biggest question is, can you cope with the pressure?”

One of the great World Cup coaches of all time was César Luis Menotti, the manager of the 1978 Argentina championship team. El Flaco, or “the thin one,” as he was known, had a long flop of side-parted dark hair and thick sideburns, and he routinely used nicotine to help him cope with the pressure—he was rarely seen without a cigarette. It seemed to work, too. He may be the only person that Diego Maradona has ever referred to as God, other than Diego Maradona himself. Menotti’s reputation in later years became so great that he developed a group of followers known as Menottistas. And as with nearly all of the great coaches, his strategy possessed a blend of philosophy and artistry. He once said, with a lively spirit of abstraction, “A team above all is an idea.” Read More »

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The (Midfield) Engine That Could

May 22, 2014 | by

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Kyle Beckerman. Photo: Warrenfish, via Wikimedia Commons

There are eleven positions on a soccer team, each with its own character. None is more glamorous than the striker, whose job is to score the goals in a game that has so few of them. None is more romantic than the goalkeeper, who stands alone as the team’s last line of defense, the only player who can use his hands in a sport that depends on the use of the feet, the head, and every part of the body but the hands. None is more celebrated than the Number 10, known sometimes as the fantasista, the team’s playmaking superstar who’s asked to supply the creativity that can undo the most rehearsed and structured defense. Yet despite the spotlight that shines on those players, the midfield position situated just in front of the team’s defensive backline is perhaps the most critical of all. Depending on a coach’s preference, a team’s formation, or a player’s talents, that position can be a defensive one, an offensive one, or a blend of both. In most every case, though, it’s the pivot on which the rest of the team turns.

“There’s a reason why they call it the engine of the team,” said Taylor Twellman, a soccer analyst for ESPN. “It controls so many things. The game is determined on the strengths of your team in that position.” Traditionally, the role of that player has been a defensive one, and it often still is. Kyle Beckerman, who sports a powder keg of dreadlocks that makes him easily identifiable on the field, has filled the role for the United States team: his hard tackles and deft touch have made him one of the best holding midfielders, as the traditional name of that position is known, in Major League Soccer, where he is the captain for Real Salt Lake.

“The biggest thing is that it’s a transition position,” Beckerman said. In a game where possession changes hands (or rather, feet) constantly, this is no small thing. When your team is attacking, Beckerman said, “you’re trying to sniff out things before they happen.” This could mean making a tackle that would allow the rest of the team time to catch up to the play—and, at the same time, risking a mistake that would leave the team vulnerable behind him. The way Beckerman performs it, that tackle is often a hard one, straddling the line between a referee’s whistle and a yellow card, and usually incurring the wrath of the opposing team’s fans. Read More »

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The Rebirth of Colombia

May 15, 2014 | by

A team emerges from the shadow of its past.

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The Colombia National Football Team, 2014

Teams in the World Cup are generally split among three tiers. The top one consists of those that year in and year out field the best squads in the world—including most of the previous World Cup winners and finalists, such as Brazil, Germany, and Argentina. The bottom tier consists of those from whom no one expects much, other than that they show up on time for matches. Among that group this year are Iran, Australia, and Algeria. But most teams fall somewhere in that second tier, where fans begin the tournament holding out hope that—through a perfect storm of lucky bounces, mistaken calls, beneficial match draws, and brilliant overachievement—their team will cobble together a World Cup championship. Colombia, who have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in sixteen years, is one of these teams.

“We qualified for the 1962 World Cup, and the best thing you could say about the Colombian team from then until 1990 was that we tied with Russia in 1962 … It wasn’t even a victory,” said the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, forty-one, the author of the highly acclaimed 2011 novel The Sound of Things Falling, and an avid soccer fan who has closely followed the Colombian team his entire life. “Football is a very big element of the national unity. So the importance that football has had for Colombia has not been really reflected in the results on an international scale.” Read More »

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Hulk, the Brazilian Outsider

May 9, 2014 | by

As the World Cup approaches, we’re featuring a series of essays on this year’s tournament.
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Hulk playing for Brazil at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. Photo: Agência Brasil

The 2014 World Cup, which begins on June 12, is all about Brazil. It is the host country, its team is the favorite, its players and manager are the focus of a huge majority of the two hundred million people who live in the nation and millions more who live outside it. Thirty-one other national teams will be arriving in the country next month, some of them with arguably as good a chance of winning the tournament as Brazil. But until the Selecao—or the Selection, as the Brazilian team is called—gets knocked out of the World Cup, every other team will be a guest in its house.

At nearly every position on the field, Brazil fields some of the best players in the world from the best teams in the world: its star, the forward Neymar, who plays for Barcelona during the club season; its playmaker, Oscar, who plays in London for Chelsea; its defenders Marcelo and Thiago Silva, who play for Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively. The only thing the team doesn’t have this year is a Ronaldo; as the British writer John Lanchester pointed out before the 2006 World Cup, the team then nearly included four of them—“Ronaldao, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldinhozinho: big Ronald, normal-sized Ronald, small Ronald, and even smaller Ronald.”

In place of all those Ronaldos, though, Brazil has Hulk—its starting right winger, who has a build far different from most any other soccer player in the country, or the world, for that matter. On the pitch, his upper body looks like someone tried to wrap an undersize jersey over a brick house. Hulk plies his trade at Zenit St. Petersburg, in Russia, almost as close as a Brazilian can get to soccer Siberia as the United States. He’s also somewhat removed from the country’s samba school of soccer, a style of play the nation prides itself on and that is commonly referred to as Jogo Bonito, or the Beautiful Game. It’s best represented this year by the creative footwork of Neymar and Oscar, who dodge and dart every which way while maintaining control of the ball as if it were on the long end of a yo-yo attached to their toes instead of their fingers. This isn’t Hulk’s game; his is more the battering ram. Read More »

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Offsides, Part 2

January 24, 2013 | by

Jelena Tomašević, Joy of Life, 2006, mixed media, 22.3 in. x 33.2 in. © conrads duesseldorf.

This is the second installment of a multiple-part post. Read part 1 here.

Like Savićević, the Croatian Zlatko Kranjčar, fifty-six, had been a successful, offensive-minded player in his day, and one who understood the importance of international soccer. Nearing the end of his career in 1990 at the age of thirty-four, Kranjčar captained Croatia’s first national game of its post-Yugoslavia era. As a coach he led the Croatian national team into the 2006 World Cup. He had experience, and a lot of it. When Savićević hired him in 2010 as Montenegro’s new manager, it was Kranjcar’s eighteenth year of coaching and his twentieth job.

Also like Savićević, Kranjčar had historically favored an attacking style of play, one that resembled the Yugoslavian teams of Montenegro’s past. “The former Yugoslav players have the reputation as the Brazilians of Europe,” said soccer journalist and Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. At first glance, the Montenegro team appeared to be no different. Its two star players were strikers: Vučinić, the team captain, and Stevan Jovetić, who also plays in Italy, for Fiorentina. Read More »

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