Monday, July 17, 2006

History's Greatest Chess Match

Yesterday, the G-8 Summit of Industrialized Nations released a statement imploring both Israel and its enemies to cease their operations and stop the escalating violence that is currently taking place in what has long been the most volatile region in the Middle East. Justifiably, the world- even Canada now, after Stephen Harper finally came to his senses- reacted in horror as news of rocket blasts hitting civilian targets, killing scores of innocent citizens caught in the shrapnel of Israel’s campaign to see the return of three kidnapped soldiers, the best known of whom is Corporal Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped in Gaza that started the entire campaign.

Now, if Shalit or any of his compatriots are alive it would be a miracle, because the militants that captured them are as extremist as Israel is and wouldn’t give one whit about exercising restraint against an enemy that seeks to destroy them as much as they wish to destroy it. Keeping Shalit alive under these circumstances would become moot, because these militants wanted war and, as far as they’re concerned Israel has already gone too far in their campaign and there’s no turning back. The Israelis would have gone to war if Shalit was dead and they’re already at war with the Gazans as we speak, so there’s nothing Gaza can gain by turning him over. An eye for an eye as Hammurabi would say, and, sadly, in this situation there is no alternative.

Of course, what is missing through this whole ordeal- one that threatens to tear Lebanon apart- is perspective. It’s easy for us in Canada, the United States, Oceania and Europe to say that Israel should be exercising restraint, and while it may serve both Israel and its adversaries better if cooler heads did prevail, the way the Middle East is right now things are sadly going to get worse before they get any better. Where peace deals and treaties of friendship allow the West to operate in harmony with each other, Israel is faced with extremely hostile neighbours and only has a peace deal with two nations in the Middle East in the Western-oriented Jordan and Egypt, the latter one whose deal cost then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat his life. Whereas we can say here that friends surround us, Israel is surrounded by enemies, so it’s no surprise that at the littlest of provocation it strikes with the mightiest of fury.

Where the problems in the Middle East began is hard to say. “Islamophobia” in the West can date back to at least 732, when Charles Martel, the “mayor” of the Franks- forerunners to today’s France- defeated an invading Arabic force at Poitiers, just east of Tours. Then, Martel was hailed as the saviour of Europe for stopping the incursion of the Arabs deep into the heart of Europe after the Arabs had already taken Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran/Afghanistan) and the Sind (southern Pakistan) in what was the world’s most impressive wave of conquests since the peak of the Roman Empire. History since that time period has seen the Christians of Europe face off against the Arabs in several set piece battles and struggles for territory and influence in what has become history’s longest chess match. The Europeans would respond to Martel’s victory by staging the successful “Reconquista” in Spain and the Crusades in the 11th-13th centuries, but the Muslims would strike back with the “Gunpowder Empires” in the 14th-18th centuries, with the Mughals reigning in northern India, the Safavids in Persia and the Ottomans- the most successful of the bunch- in Turkey.

It was the Ottomans who placed themselves squarely against the Europeans at this stage, for it was they who took the legendary Christian bulwark- Constantinople- away from Christendom and extended their Empire as far north as Hungary in the Balkans, as far east as Azerbaijan and Iraq, as far south as Yemen and Sudan and as far west as Morocco. Western histories typically display the Ottomans as finally ending the Roman State but the Ottomans believed they were continuing it, and their case isn’t that flimsy, since they didn’t have a state until they took land from the Romans’ successors, the Byzantines. Nevertheless, the Ottomans’ successes inspired new fears in the West of the “growing influence of Islam” and ushered a new counter-offensive, ending in World War I when the British and French divided what they hadn’t yet taken from the Ottomans previously between them. In regards to this story, Britain would land in Israel and start the “Zionist” policy there as early as 1917, with Israel eventually gaining independence as a Jewish state in 1948. The U.S. took the lead from Britain in supporting Israel unequivocally, which would land it- and thus the West- into the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a conflict the Americans have not backed down from with regards to their aggressive policies in Iraq. For their part, since independence in 1948, Israel has had an ongoing struggle for recognition in the Middle East, with only two states since then- the aforementioned Jordan and Egypt- doing so, and both rather reluctantly. Israel’s greatest triumph in their own struggle was the Six-Day War of 1967 (where it handily defeated Syria, Jordan and Egypt and doubled its territory), but at the same time had to face the setback of the stalemate in 1973 and a continuous wave of terrorist strikes that its own military has had a hard time eradicating.

Thus, it’s important to understand the Israeli conflict in this context- it is embroiled in the almost 1300-year chess match between the Muslims and the West, and judging by current events, the end is nowhere near in sight. For Israel, its already fragile existence gets drawn into question at the slightest of setbacks, and while we here may see their actions as extreme, they’re certainly understandable given their history. Probably what keeps Israel alive is rationality- its enemies are so driven ideologically that none of them have bothered trying to physically challenge Israel, believing their sub-par weaponry (and tactics) is enough to win the day because of their resolve, but Israel can’t bank on their advantage holding out forever. What would be beneficial in the long run is for both sides to eventually come to their senses and realize they don’t have anything to gain from continuous warfare, but both sides have far too much pride to let that happen. The truth- the sad truth- is that this situation is going to get far worse before it’ll get better, and that will mean that the stakes will be higher than Shalit and his compatriots alone. It will mean the chess match reaching its conclusion, but with both sides still having most of its pawns left to play, don’t count on the match ending in our lifetime.


Monday, July 10, 2006

L'Italia: Campione nel Mondo

It seems only fitting that Italy’s fourth World Cup triumph comes as a result of penalty kicks.

L’Auzzurri hadn’t lost a game in regulation at the World Cup since the opening game of the 1994 tournament to Ireland, and, in two of those losses, the Italians lost in a shootout. The most memorable of the shootout losses was in that same 1994 tournament in the United States, as Italy lost a 3-2 shootout decision when Roberto Baggio’s shot sailed over the crossbar to give Brazil their fourth World championship. Of course, not to be outdone was the semi-final loss to France in 1998 and the stunning quarterfinal loss via a golden goal from South Korea’s Ahn Jung-Hwan in the 2002 tournament. It was no surprise that Italians feared a penalty shootout against this very same French team, but it was the Italians who showed superior determination in nailing all five of their penalty kicks while the French missed one, that one via Davide Trezeguet’s shot that caromed off the crossbar and the post and out of play. Trezeguet’s miss was the ultimate payback for Italy, since it was he who gave the French the victory in extra time in the Euro 2000 Final after the Italians held a 1-0 lead until injury time.

This particular final wasn’t the best of games, but for the partying Italians who win for the first time since 1982, they don’t really care. The game got off to a splendid albeit controversial start, as France’s Flourent Malouda was deemed to have been hauled down in the penalty area by Marco Materazzi’s foot, even though Materazzi’s foot didn’t really make contact with him. The legendary Zinedine Zidane- who would figure prominently later in the game for all the wrong reasons- struck the penalty home in the seventh minute to give France an improbable 1-0 lead and hand Italy their first deficit of the tournament.

However, if France hoped that Italy would collapse like the Brazilians did, they were mistaken. Twelve minutes later Materazzi would make up for his mistake by heading home the equalizer off an Andrea Pirlo free kick. The game was 1-1 before the 20-minute mark, a surprise for many who believed this game would be another 0-0 affair. Reality would set in for the rest of the game, as neither side really generated a lot of chances as the game ended 1-1 after extra time.

This wasn’t to say that the game was devoid of more special moments. The biggest of these moments came late in the second extra time period, when Zidane, for whatever reason, decided to viciously head-butt Materazzi to the ground. Before the incident, Materazzi and Zidane were exchanging words and seemingly laughing, but somewhere in all that Zidane got angry, lost his head and hurled it into Materazzi’s chest. Zidane would be red-carded and probably would have been suspended for several games if this wasn’t his last one, but because the game had barely five minutes left to play, Italy couldn’t capitalize on their new opportunity sending the game to shootouts.

Once the game went to shootouts, it was the Italians who would emerge victorious. Every one of them was poised and confident in taking their shots, with the last goal by new Inter Milan pickup Fabio Grosso- who has made a name for himself at this tournament- to seal the victory. Trezeguet’s miss was the only one in the entire shootout, vindication for an Italian side he beat in 2000.

Perhaps, in many ways Italy’s World Cup victory was a telling sign for this year’s World Cup. The defence-first Italians encapsulated what really was a defensive-minded World Cup, as goals per game were only a shade above the record low for goals per game with a 2.30 average. Worse, the average for the knockout stages was only 1.88 goals per game- after a 2.40 clip during the group stages- with four games decided by penalties and two of those dour 0-0 games- the England/Portugal semi-final and the Switzerland/Ukraine Round of 16 game, the one where the Swiss did not find the back of the net at all. The statistics don’t lie: the knockout stages produced few impressive displays of soccer, a sharp contrast to the electrifying group stages, and while the Germans were excellent hosts, far too many of the games themselves went far below expectations.

There were also many other problems that marred this edition of the World Cup besides there being far too few goals, top of which was incredibly inconsistent and inefficient refereeing. At one end was the “War of Nürnberg”, the famous Portugal-Netherlands Round of 16 match that featured four red cards and 16 cards total, most of which occurring in the second half where both sides decided not to play soccer. At the other end was the Switzerland-Ukraine opening round match-up played after the Portugal-Netherlands game, where obvious fouls were missed, attackers were mugged and, predictably, no goals were scored except in the shootout. Another slight against the tournament was the fact there were far too few surprises in the tournament and, essentially, only one surprise team in Ghana, a team that would eventually be outclassed by Brazil but also done in by the referee’s whistle. There were also far too many question marks that came out of this tournament. Did Australia’s Lucas Neill trip Grosso in the penalty area or did Grosso intentionally run into him just to get tripped? Did Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan really dive in the penalty area or did Brazil’s Juan, who indicated to the referee that it was Gyan’s second yellow card, trip the attacker? Was Adriano really offside in scoring the second goal for Brazil against Ghana or was it a call the referee just missed? Should Luis Figo have been sent off for head-butting the Netherlands’ Mark van Bommel? Was Cristiano Ronaldo really tripped in the penalty area in the Portugal-France semi-final shortly after Zidane scored on his spot kick or was it a dive? Did Ronaldo egg on England’s Wayne Rooney just so he could blow his top and guarantee he be sent off for stomping on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin or did Rooney really lose his cool? Was Brazil’s Ronaldo really overweight to start the tournament, and why did the Brazilians suddenly collapse against the French? Was referee Jorge Larrionda extremely harsh in the U.S.-Italy group stage game or were each of his cards justified? Finally, probably the biggest question of them all: what on Earth was Zidane thinking when he head-butted Materazzi?

In the end, there can be no one who won’t say the best team didn’t win this tournament- the Italians had the superior defence and, ultimately, the superior determination. Their Football Association is in shambles after a match-fixing scandal that will send Juventus down to the third division of Italian professional football in Serie C and may end up sending three other high-profile teams, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, down with them. 13 of Italy’s 23 players play for the clubs in trouble and their futures are very much uncertain, even Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro, who said he’d stay with Juventus even in Serie B but nobody is really going to believe him. They deserved to win, and for this Italian-Canadian, L’Azzurri’s victory will be one that will be savoured for the rest of my life. It may only amount to a consolation for a sub-par tournament, but at least it’s a satisfying one.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

New Ideas For The Beautiful Game

Two days ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter stated that he was worried that there were too few goals being scored at this year’s World Cup. The statistics would prove him right: before Germany’s 3-1 demolition of Portugal in the third place game today, a total of 141 goals had been scored in 62 games at the World Cup, for a clip of 2.27 goals per game. That is a shade above the 1990 record low of 2.21, and, had there been no goals in either the Germany-Portugal third place game or the Italy-France Final yet to be played, the average would have dipped below 2.21 but just barely, to a clip of 2.20.

It did take Blatter a while to reach this conclusion, but in this case, at least it is better late than never. In light of his realization, I have decided to put forward my own ideas for Blatter and the soccer brain trust to consider in helping improve the Beautiful Game and breathe some new life into soccer’s top competition. In no particular order they are:

1. A set of standards for cards and fouls. This is the biggest problem facing the World Cup this year- there appears to be no set standards with regards to what qualifies for a foul or a card, and, expectedly, a lot of players and coaches have been confused as a result of it. So, I suggest the following system of fouls to be put in place: (1) Minor fouls- these are fouls that specifically impede a player from doing his job, such as tripping, clutching and grabbing, holding, pushing and “body-checking”. Four of these kinds of fouls by one player brings an automatic card. (2) Major fouls- these are fouls worthy of receiving an automatic card, such as a two-footed tackle, a tackle from behind, “unnecessary roughness” or a “professional foul”. Should this foul also result in a player’s fourth foul and he has yet to be yellow-carded, he would receive a red card.

2. New Penalties for Diving. Blatter and his associates make a big deal about catching “divers”, and, after seeing Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance earlier today, it’s high time he acted. However, I don’t think FIFA goes far enough simply giving a yellow card for diving- FIFA should also award the opponent a spot kick, either a penalty kick if it’s in the penalty area or a free kick close to the opponent’s goal if it’s not. Yes, it’s an extreme decision, but this is an extreme infraction, plus the point of diving is to draw a penalty or free kick anyway so why not award it to the other team?

3. Have a standard for awarding penalties. This goes along with the diving component, but it does stand alone- far too often in the World Cup, the referees have been afraid to call a penalty kick, probably because they’re afraid that decision will turn the game and public opinion against them. This has resulted in a considerable amount of penalty calls- such as the obvious foul on Ronaldo in Portugal’s semi-final against France- that are just not called. It is thus impertinent that the same types of standards used for fouls outside the penalty area be used inside it as well, because obstruction in the penalty area- which, in this World Cup, has resulted in far too many fouls being called on attacking players- kills far too many scoring opportunities, and the most skilled players in the game should be allowed to strut their stuff without being mugged. Yes, fouls should continue to be called against attacking players should they commit them, but sometimes attackers should be given the benefit of the doubt, as sometimes they push away because they’re being grabbed or pushed themselves. Defenders should only win the ball with their feet and that should be the standard throughout the field, not just in the penalty area.

4. Offside Changes. Here’s a bold new idea: should the ball be inside the penalty area, offside should not be called. The reason is simple: inside the penalty area it’s too small for any “cherry pickers” to gain much of an advantage, plus there isn’t a whole lot of room in there for which to cherry pick. This will result in a lot more goals being scored off deflections and one-on-one goalkeeper battles, and will ensure that the goalkeepers are just as alert as their defenders. Perhaps the rule could be even bolder by having a line stretching the width of the field extending from the top of the penalty area or a few yards above it where, if the ball precedes the attacking players, offside cannot be called. It’s similar to the offside rule in hockey and should help maintain pressure in the attacking zone because the attackers can “hem in” the defence, although this could also lead to crowding. A benefit, though, is that potentially a three-on-none break could occur in front of the opposing goal and create a bona fide scoring chance, forcing the defenders to be extra alert. There are those who might say that scores may become ridiculous because of changes like this and they may be right, but I will say that being one-on-one with a goalkeeper isn’t as easy as it looks and, as it stands now, soccer’s counterattacks are rarely as thrilling as they are in hockey or basketball because they always have to deal with a wall opposing them, and that helps suck a lot of goals out of the game.

There we have it- four bona fide rule changes that would help The Beautiful Game. Yes, some are radical but after watching what should be the world’s most exciting tournament turn into a snooze-fest, it’s within soccer’s best interests to open up the game a little more. The best club teams can produce lots of thrilling, open-ended games- the come-from-behind 2-1 win by Barcelona in the Champions’ League Final with Arsenal is a splendid example- and it is something FIFA can learn from. The World Cup is supposed to feature the world’s best teams, but most of us would agree that this has been far from a world-class tournament.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Kings Without A Crown

It’s not quite as if Montserrat had beaten them but it’ll do.

Thierry Henry’s 57th minute toe flick is all that separated France from Brazil in an otherwise squalid 1-0 game that saw the French advance to the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup while the defending champions Brazil- who had not lost a World Cup match since losing to the French in the 1998 Final- were sent home early for the first time since 1990. It is, without a doubt the World Cup’s biggest upset and the day’s only bright spot in what was otherwise a turgid display of soccer in the two quarterfinal matches today.

For the French, the role of “giant killers” couldn’t be more rewarding as the team tries to win its second World Cup and thus the second for its legendary midfielder, the Algerian-descended Zinedine Zidane. It’s true “Les Blues” have always been one of the world’s leading soccer powers, but in this tournament the French came in as somewhat of an underdog. They had a lot to prove since the debacle at the 2002 World Cup where they didn’t even score a goal and lost to the likes of Senegal, and, early on in this tournament the French looked like they’d continue their 2002 form, drawing 0-0 with the Swiss and conceding a late equalizer in a game against the Korea Republic. They qualified for the last 16 with two second-half goals against lowly Togo, and- despite rallying from 1-0 down against the favoured Spaniards- France’s 3-1 win could have been chalked up as yet another Spanish collapse. Given no chance against a Brazilian team that many were prepared to simply hand the World Cup to, their victory today is a remarkable accomplishment, being the closest we’ve come to a true David beating Goliath.

For the Brazilians, the loss cannot be described any other way except in being a shock. Nobody expected them to lose, especially not after breezing through their group matches and their Round-of-16 match against Ghana, and many had predicted that the far-from-form Brazilians were just rounding into shape as they progressed in the finals. Yet it just may be that easy first set of games that did them in here, since despite all the talent that the team possesses, they’ve never had to play from behind, so when they were faced with a real challenge against the French, it should come as no surprise that they didn’t know what they were doing.

It was not without effort. Roberto Carlos was a workhorse on the field, furiously running up the flanks and never backing down from a challenge for the ball, while Ronaldinho- misplaced as a forward (he’s more of a playmaker)- was again making crisp, accurate through-balls that were bungled by his teammates, the biggest of which was a botched header from Ronaldo, who looked today like the overweight player he was accused of being before the tournament. However, it became apparent that after Henry got his goal Brazil became antsy, with their passes coming forced and their tackles poorly timed, since the Brazilians were for the first time in eight years playing in unfamiliar territory- from behind. This isn’t to say that the French were not worthy of their win- their midfield was a wall anchored by a Zidane who looked like he was 32 going on 23, and when it mattered most the French capitalized. There were nervous moments when the theatrical Fabien Barthez saved a Brazilian shot in the dying minutes, but in the end it was the Brazilians who didn’t execute and that is why they’re going home.

A parallel here- a not-so outrageous one considering TSN’s Vic Rauter compared the French to the Edmonton Oilers- could be drawn with hockey’s Ottawa Senators, a team like Brazil handpicked by many to cart around hockey’s Stanley Cup championship before the season began. They were, like the Brazilians, true to form in the regular season in finishing second overall in the National Hockey League and in hammering the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series. Meeting the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the playoffs, Ottawa appeared destined for its first Stanley Cup since re-entering the NHL in 1992, since there was no way the team could have been beaten after playing so well for so long.

However, in Game 1 of their best-of-seven second round series, the Sabres and Senators traded goals in what truly was a classic game. The two teams were tied 4-4 at the end of the second period, and with only a minute and a half left in the third period and thus the game, Ottawa clung to a 6-5 lead off a Bryan Smolinski goal. It was here that it all fell apart. The Sabres were determined to knot the score like they had so often in the game, and, with just 10.7 seconds left, Buffalo’s Tim Connolly did just that. The game went to overtime, and, eighteen seconds in, Ottawa’s Anton Volchenkov fanned on a pass attempt, gave the puck over to Buffalo’s Mike Grier who then found Chris Drury who rifled it home. The stunned Senators lost the game 7-6 and were down 1-0 in the series and were never the same. The mighty Senators were tentative and nervous for the remainder of the series, and, despite a far-from-convincing 2-1 win in Game 4 that kept their season alive, Ottawa limped out of the playoffs losing their series 4-1 to a Buffalo team that just displayed more determination. Like the Brazilians, Ottawa are now faced with the tough questions concerning why they didn’t win when they were certain to do it so early on in their campaign.

The similarities here are nauseatingly close- both Brazil and Ottawa had stellar opening rounds and had impressive first-round victories; and both were knocked out in the second round by a team that simply displayed more determination than they did. Both teams were essentially done in by the fact their second round contests were not the breezes they thought they would be since neither had come under the same kind of adversity their second round opponents entered their match-ups with, as Buffalo had famously dropped two straight games in their opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers while France stunningly came back from 1-0 down against Spain. Hand Brazil or Ottawa the lead and they keep it, because their talent is enough to send them through. Put them behind the eight-ball and they fall faster than a house of cards. For Ottawa, the next opportunity will come in 2007, but for Brazil they’ll have to wait four long years for a second chance, and it could be with vastly different players. Several key players- Cafu, Ze Roberto, Carlos, goalkeeper Dida, Ronaldo, etc.- are getting long in the tooth and may not be back in 2010. What’s worse is that the prospect of an ageing Brazil could mean that they might not even qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa- which would be a first for the team- since they won’t have a lot of time to allow the new line-up to gel into a World Cup-winning form. In many ways, this 2006 defeat could very well be ominous in marking the end of the Brazilian dynasty and plunging the team into its own veritable “Dark Age”.

For the French, the collapse of Brazilian soccer couldn’t have come at a better time. For the Brazilians, they now have a lot of questions left begging to be answered, the most important of which is trying to prevent that Dark Age from coming. That is their top priority, for if they don’t correct their mistakes, today’s defeat could leave an unsavoury taste for a longer time than many may think.