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Sunday, July 11, 2010

OK, So I'm No Octopus

As Paul the Octopus went undefeated yesterday, once again correctly picking the result of Germany's third-place match, I'll simply assert, that's why I don't bet on matches/games. Having seen Spain three times while in South Africa, their form just did not strike me as the dynamic juggernaut they have been the past couple years.

Then too, Germany's form, up until the semifinal, had been one of a confident, competent team, playing at the top of their game. Certainly, missing Mueller on the flank, due to his unjust second yellow card, was a significant factor in the result with Spain., but to their credit, Spain did what they do, possess, probe, attack, and ultimately, find a way to get out with a result, which these days, seems to be a 1-0 score line.

Since I was somewhere over the North Atlantic when the semifinal was being played, wanted to take in the recorded match, and the third-place game, before offering any thoughts on the final. In the semifinal, Germany played very differently than they had been playing in the tournament to that point. They absorbed too much possession, and were not aggressively seeking the counterattack opportunities when presented. Again, the loss of Mueller's pace, and finishing form, were factors, as was Miroslav Klose's injury, hampering his effectiveness.

The final should be  different story, as both teams are seeking their first World Cup championship, and both have the hunger of their respective nations fueling them. Holland has been to the final before, on a couple of occasions, but only one of the current players was even alive when that last occurred in 1978. Spain are finals debutantes, having long worn the mantle of an underachieving side, finally shaking that stigma with the 2008 European Championship.

The two teams are both on are on long, successful runs. The Netherlands went through their entire World Cup qualification process undefeated, and are the only team in South Africa that has been through the entire draw undefeated as well.

 Spain too, has grown accustomed to success, only losing twice in their past 56 matches. They look to be the first World Cup Champion to have lost their first Group Stage match (1-0 to Switzerland), then go on to win the title. Their lifeline has been the uncanny scoring touch of forward David Villa, who always finds a way to get the shot off, and almost as frequently, that effort is on frame. Along with Uruguay's Diego Forlan, Mueller and Holland's Wesley Sneijder, he leads the tournament with five goals scored.

Speaking of Sneijder, he and his Spanish counter part, Xavi, represent the modern play-making central midfielder. They are both small in stature, but exceptionally quick, and very decisive on the ball. More often than not, their passes are both forward and attack-minded. Of the two, Sneijder gets the edge from the standpoint of finishing, but Xavi is one of the world's most efficient passers from a completion standpoint.

Today represents the eighth all-European final in the World Cup. From a historical perspective between Holland and Spain, the series is a stalemate. The teams have met nine times, each winning four, with one draw. Interestingly, none of those matches have been in World Cup competition, and of recent meetings, Holland has won the last two, dating back to 2000, with the last match being a 2-1 Dutch win in 2002.

With that scene set, I am not, predicting a winner, but will merely remind all that last summer in South Africa, #1-ranked Spain took one of their rare recent losses to the U.S., 2-0, in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. In March, Holland beat the U.S., 2-1, in Amsterdam, in a friendly, with one of Holland's goals coming off a questionably-awarded penalty kick, and the other off a shot deflection, which dramatically changed directions on 'keeper Tim Howard.

Those results mean nothing now, and although Paul the Octopus has chosen Spain, this is his first venture into the uncharted waters of predicting a team other than Germany. For both teams, they also look to sail into uncharted waters, hoisting FIFA's World Cup trophy to their countrymen, and the world, for the first time.

Copyright 2010. Contents of this blog, written and photographic, are protected from unauthorized use and reproduction by any means, with All Right Reserved by Perry McIntyre, Atlanta, GA

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Up in the Air, Out on a Limb

Well, today (and yesterday) are the trip back from South Africa to "the real world". Am currently in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, awaiting my flight to Atlanta, so figured I'd put up some thoughts on today's semifinal, the winner of which, will play Holland, Sunday.

While having my bag shrink-wrapped, had a discussion with one of the orange-clad guys working that kiosk, as to whom he thought would win tonight, Germany, or Spain. His reasoning was Spain, since they play more like Barcelona, and Germany plays like Bayern Munich. I had to politely disagree, commenting that after seeing Spain three times in South Africa, they weren't exactly playing like Barcelona, more like Athletico Madrid.

Where I think it will go wrong for Spain against Germany is in the midfield, where despite the obvious world-class abilities of Xavi and Iniesta, their diminutive size will be a problem against the athletic, and fast, Germans.

Another factor working against the Iberians is their one-dimensional offense, which has been David Villa, or nothing at all. The breath-taking finishing abilities of Fernando Torres, so evident in England's Premier League with Liverpool, have been MIA in South Africa. Service to him in the attacking third has been non-existent, and Torres receiving the ball, back to goal in the center circle, as below, is going to accomplish nothing.

While on a furious finishing run at the World Cup, David Villa will be limited against the larger, stronger German defense, which is currently being backed by exceptional goalkeeping. His ability to win headers in the goal mouth, as this one, will not be a factor

Another attacking option, Cesc Fabregas off the bench, could be of some use, as he is used to the rough-and-tumble Premiership, but he still falls under the category of a technical, 'pretty' player. The athleticism of the German side may well neutralize the ball possession skills of he, and the other central midfielders.

And the physical nature of Spain's opponent will be even more a factor than against Paraguay in the quarterfinals, when 50-50 balls were contested upon receipt on most occasions.

Indeed, all of these assumptions may prove wrong, as ultimately, that is why they play the match. Spain, however, has not been in the same form they have been the past two years, and the two hot teams really seem to be Germany, and the already-through, Holland.

Spain may be able to impart their possession and match movement onto Germany, but in the end, I believe this young, talented, and confident German side will absorb those possessions, and counterattack to the same effectiveness that did in Australia, England, and Argentina, teams that are not prone to allowing four goals in such critical matches.

I wish I had some Germany images to share in this as well, but despite shooting 15 matches in South Africa, scheduling and locations never allowed for me to get to one of their matches, that, and not being there Sunday for the final, are among my few regrets. Those regrets are balanced though, by a wonderful five weeks, which is now just a nine-hour plane ride back across the pond, from being one of my fondest experiences.

Copyright 2010. Contents of this blog, written and photographic, are protected from unauthorized use and reproduction by any means, with All Right Reserved by Perry McIntyre, Atlanta, GA

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Different Family 4th

Another break from World Cup is in order, in honor of our country's birthday.

I did shoot the Spain-Paraguay quarterfinal a couple nights ago, but those images, and the related thoughts, can wait for another posting.

My stay with the Wallis family in Pretoria, at their guesthouse, The Thatch Cottage, has been a delightful experience. As their middle daughter, Minette, said, 'I'm afraid, it seems, you've become a part of the family'. Such has been the nature of my stay here.

So as Sunday, the 4th, which is just another day in South Africa, rolled around, it was the suggestion of the son-in-law, Jason, we all travel about 30 minutes the other side of Johannesburg to the Heia Safari Ranch, which is a sort of conference center out in the bush. He had been here once before on a company outing, and knew the family would enjoy it. Upon arriving, the first thing that clues one in this may be a bit of a different experience is encountering one of the resident 'zonkis',  a cross between a donkey and a zebra.

Soon thereafter, another clue. There are thatch-roofed cabins surrounding the conference center, and the sight of an impala ram grazing through the yard, does let one know this is an African experience.

The view in the other direction, from the front porches of the cabins, is a man-made lake, where a herd of springbok grazed that lower portion of the property.

The main purpose of the trip, other than the unique experience, was lunch, and as I sat down with four generations of the Wallis clan, it seemed only fitting to order something special, consequently ending up with kudu filet, which I cannot put into words, as to how delicious the meal turned out.

Part of the ambiance while eating was sitting by the pool. Now a number of people eat out by the pool on the 4th of July, but I'm thinking it pretty much suggests you're in Africa, when this turns up as one of the scenes by the pool . . . . .

Following lunch, we walked it off by a stroll around the grounds, where we encountered a couple other interesting sights, including this 'black' (I'm going with chocolate) variant of a springbok.

A couple of other scenes worth passing along, were this mother zebra helping her foal with a little back scratch, and what trip into the bush would be complete without a giraffe strolling by. This was a 'young' giraffe, probably a two-year old. And we think kids grow up quickly.

It goes without saying, this will be a 4th that will stick in memory for quite some time. Receiving photos from Helen of her, the kids, Doc, Mimi, et al, from the Florida beach, simultaneously enjoying their weekend, did tear at me, more than a little, wanting to be in two places at once. As that's not possible, though, I have to thank all of them for their help and support in making this place, this place in particular, and South Africa in general, a once, and for all, memory.

Copyright 2010. Contents of this blog, written and photographic, are protected from unauthorized use and reproduction by any means, with All Right Reserved by Perry McIntyre, Atlanta, GA

Friday, July 2, 2010

Back Into the Bush -- For a Day

With Thursday being one of the 'Rest Days' for the World Cup, prior to the beginning of the quarterfinals, we decided to take a short drive over to Krugersdorp. This is the area where there is a large, private game reserve, which among other things, contained the large cats I'd yet to see in a semi-wild setting. The reserve was a bit crowded, as others with time away from soccer, as well, were thinking the same thing. Nonetheless, we were able to find several species to 'check off the list', and that I had not seen in the earlier outings.

One of the first of the large plains antelope we saw was the graceful, and distinctive, sable antelope, this bull was keeping company with a small group of gemsbok, which we call oryx. The gemsbok have an advantage over most when it comes to having a built-in 'back scratcher'.

Also ever-present were ostrich, everywhere there seemed to be an ostrich, or two, and this couple looked to be as much confused, as curious, of the passersby.

As mentioned this is a 'semi-wild' setting, and the predators: lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, are fed, not allowed to hunt, for the good of the rest of the reserve's population. Naturally, there is clean-up to be done after such feedings, and just to remind all this is not a zoo, or Disney, Katie, the resident clean-up crew made an appearance on cue. Quite ugly, nasty creatures, but a fascinating process to watch, regardless. There is a sort of order in their chaos, with everyone getting their turn, but there is some "discussion" about whose turn it is from time to time.

The official name of the reserve is Rhino and Lion Park, so of course, there were a number of rhino, which are among the most endangered of all mammals in Africa. These creatures are immense and they are usually feeding to keep that huge body fueled. With their eyesight being quite poor, their ears are constantly rotating, looking to pick up any sounds that may announce danger, of most concern when a young rhino is present, as not many predators are a match for the bulk and weaponry of an adult rhino.

Another animal I'd yet to see, and wanted to, as to me, it so symbolizes South Africa, is the Cape Buffalo. One of the "Big Five" species of trophy game, in many ways, this is the most dangerous of all, as it travels in large herds, and is usually never one to back away from a fight. Coming across a group of resting buffalo has an ominous tone of caution attached to such a sighting and they should always be given a wide berth. In this case, a long telephoto lens was just about the right distance.

As the afternoon light grew longer, and more "African", we found a couple more 'subjects' willing to pose just long enough to take advantage of that short time of late afternoon light. The diminutive springbok, the national symbol of South Africa, at least their beloved rugby team, was a stark contrast to the cow eland we came across, which is the largest antelope species on the continent.

And of course, there were some 'big cats' to be seen, namely cheetahs and lions. These were contained in separate enclosures from the plains game, but could be found with a bit a searching, as their time of day is evening, and during the afternoon, lounging in what shade can be found is their prime pastime.

But just to make sure one is not lulled into some sense that these are warm and fuzzy, cuddly creatures, reminders are never far off that the lion is indeed the king of the jungle, and they are quick to remind any doubters of just that fact. It is a convincing argument, especially when witnessed up close.....

Copyright 2010. Contents of this blog, written and photographic, are protected from unauthorized use and reproduction by any means, with All Right Reserved by Perry McIntyre, Atlanta, GA

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Hidden Costs and the Future's Reward

First, my apologies in taking a bit of time to get this post-match posting up. The loss to Ghana, for the second World Cup in a row, required some tempering and time to reflect on my part.

The U.S. advancing into the 'knockout' round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, was an interesting journey. Three times, the American side fought back level, after allowing early goals. The trait had been an unsettling characteristic of the team since qualifying, and for many experts, this defensive liability was the main component holding the team back from a deep run into this World Cup. Sadly, for on two of the three occasions, the same culprit could be singled out, and as much as I try to support the hometown kids, unfortunately, St. Pius' Ricardo Clark must bear the burden.

When handed the starting lineups for the Ghana match, a little more than an hour before kickoff, it was quite unsettling to see 'Rico' in there. He had not played since the England match, and it was his lapse that allowed Steven Gerrard to give England a lead four minutes in during that encounter. Ghana must have been licking their collective chops, because it only took them one more minute, to expose the same crease off a turnover by Clark, to take a fifth-minute lead.

It was a mistake coach Bob Bradley would allow to play out for 30 minutes, before pulling Clark for Maurice Edu, who in most opinions, should have been the starter all along in that critical midfield spot. One hopes Rico can recover from what has been a personally disastrous tournament, and at 26 years old, he has time to bounce back, both at his club Eintracht Frankfurt, and with the national team.

Playing Ghana is always an encounter fraught with physicality, and they dish it out a lot better than they take it. Their histrionics on every foul, and dramatic proclamations of innocence, on even the most obvious fouls, is an embarrassment to the game. They try every trick in the book, and not only have no shame in their cheating, but an air of arrogant entitlement. For Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai to have only issued two bookings in this match was bordering on gross negligence.

Ultimately, such play could not be allowed to stand and the opportunity to draw level for the U.S. came from the penalty spot when Clint Dempsey was hauled down in the 62nd minute. One of the two yellows was issued then to Ghana, but not on this red-card offense pictured above.

Landon Donovan drew the match with his usual efficiency on the spot kick, and the goal made him America's all-time leading World Cup scorer in his third such tournament, as he also set a new record for World Cup appearances by an American player.

The U.S. pressure continued for the duration of regulation time, and only a couple of near misses kept our side from taking the lead. Through it all though, one could tell the team was low on battery power, as the quick turnaround from group play, and the emotional roller coaster that incompetent officiating forced, began to show its toll. Realistically, this match should have been played Sunday, not Saturday, and the Group A-B showdown with Argentina and Mexico, should have been played in this time slot, not the Sunday night slot. Those teams' group play had concluded the day before the U.S., and this was a mistake on FIFA's part.

As regulation time expired, Ghana looked the beat team, however, and there could be some argument the intermission before the start of extra time came at a perfect time for them. Again, as at the beginning of the match, Ghana came out very aggressively, and in the third minute, a long ball flighted out of their back found teammates from the French club, Rennes, contesting this long service. Asamoah Gyan would best Carlos Bocanegra in settling this service, and Jay DeMerit would arrive to help one stride too late, as Gyan put away the chance for a 2-1 lead.

Through the four matches played by the U.S. in South Africa, there is a strong argument our team put forth one of the best efforts, from beginning to end, during their four matches.

For the first time in our World Cup history, America does not leave the tournament with more losses than wins. For the first time in our World Cup history, our team won its group, despite lamentable officiating taking its toll in the end. And most importantly, our team can head home with their heads held high, unlike England, who may go straight to holiday, not even venturing home to what awaits.

A couple days before the U.S. match, a front-page article in the Pretoria newspaper was following up the U.S.-Algeria match, calling Landon Donovan "arguably the biggest name in America's short history in the sport".  More African arrogance. Landon's individual and team resume' far exceeds any player this continent has ever brought to the tournament. Ghana has been gifted advancement two World Cups in a row (their only group stage goals were two spot kicks), America has been gifted to have Landon Donovan for three tournaments, and hopefully, for another one or two more.

The U.S. played in the second-ever World Cup match in history, July 13, 1930. A U.S. player scored the first hat trick in World Cup history. The U.S. pulled off one of the greatest upsets in 1950, defeating England, 1-0, at Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Not sounding like a 'short' history to me. And only the most elite teams here, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, have played in more consecutive World Cup Finals tournaments, and lasted as long at this edition, as the U.S. did. Italy went home in shame. France went home in shame. England, well, despite the controversial goal, which should have stood, also went home in shame.

The Nike commercial during the World Cup themed "Write the Future" wasn't, in the end, brought to life by their poster boys, Wayne Rooney, or Christiano Ronaldo, but by one of their sponsored teams, which played as a team, with heart, determination, for each other, and for their country. Our team wrote a proud prelude to their future, our future, this time around at the World Cup, and with one of the youngest rosters at this edition of FIFA's tournament, the promise is there for more to come in 2014.

Copyright 2010. Contents of this blog, written and photographic, are protected from unauthorized use and reproduction by any means, with All Right Reserved by Perry McIntyre, Atlanta, GA

Friday, June 25, 2010

Behind the Scenes and the Bigger Picture

The ground swell following the dramatic U.S. advancement into the 'real' phase of the 2010 FIFA World Cup has come full circle from here-to everywhere else-back to here.

Landon Donovan posted a link to a YouTube video on his facebook page, showing reactions all around the country, and indeed, the world, as the U.S. scored in the waning seconds of the Algeria match. The president called the team following dinner last night. The world press here has finally realized the U.S. team is one of the best stories of this World Cup. Sure Italy and France get to go home in shame, and those too are stories, but let's revel in our success, as it is our moment.

There is so much more to the story of the U.S. Sure, we all see the guys who hit the pitch and make their contributions, but there is the bench that gets them ready in training, and sits, ready to go, should the need arise during a match. During this tournament's three matches, all but a couple of the field players have seen action, and over half of the squad has made their World Cup debut. This team is a good blend of experience, talent, and youth.

Coach Bradley and his staff have made sound tactical changes, both to the starting 11s, and as they have judiciously exercised the three precious substitutes allowed during each match.

A couple of the blue-collar guys, who have yet to come off the field, hold perhaps the biggest key to the U.S. progressing much further into this World Cup.  Defenders Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo are both athletic and tough. Cherundolo, in particular, being a 10-year veteran of Germany's physically demanding Bundesliga, brings solid fundamental defense on the right flank, but also the attacking mentality necessary to spread the ball to the proper spaces.

Joined by captain Carlos Bocanegra, this back line is growing from a question mark to a strength as the tournament goes on. The options coach Bradley has to put in front of the defense is also a versatile bunch, with his son, Michael, being one of the day in - day out performers that can be counted on every time the whistle blows. Young Bradley's fitness, and attacking savvy helps transition the team, and as evidenced against Slovenia, his touch around the goal can be both clutch and world-class.

The team will be hitting the pitch in Rustenburg, Saturday night, on a short turnaround, but is both fit, and inspired. The fact five of the starters were on the field for the bitter elimination match in 2006, against the same country, works even more in the favor of the home side.

Media attention here is focused on Ghana too, as they are likely the only African team to advance into the knockout phase, for the second WC in a row. There is some anticipation as to the crowd reaction, Saturday, as the locals have picked up on the exciting American squad, but also hold great pride in the teams from this continent. The hope this time around is FIFA won't be under the same pressure to advance a team from the host continent, the match will be called correctly, and when the U.S. scores goals, they actually be allowed to stand.

All of this helps set the scene a bit more for tomorrow, but in the meantime, tonight I am shooting another critical match, the final Group Stage encounter for Group H, Spain-Chile, here, in Pretoria. Spain is looking to avoid the ignominious fate of Italy and France, so one of the world's elite teams is going to have to play like it tonight. Chile is through with a draw, and even a win does not guarantee Spain advancement, as Switzerland plays Honduras simultaneously to finish out this tournament's Group Stage.

Finally, a quick shout out to fellow Lion lettermen and alums, Elliott McCarthy and Dev Pandya, who have been following the U.S. through South Africa. Ran into them pre-game before the Algeria match, and it's good to see Lion pride in our team, and our game, runs across generations. Lovett helped put soccer on the map in Georgia, and now we bear witness to the U.S. continuing to spread our game across the world scene. Passion fuels Pride. Until tomorrow . . . . .

Copyright 2010. Contents of this blog, written and photographic, are protected from unauthorized use and reproduction by any means, with All Right Reserved by Perry McIntyre, Atlanta, GA