The Great Intertoto Cup Tomorrow

Newcastle will kick things off tomorrow night at St James’ Park against Lillestrom in the Intertoto Cup. They do it without Michael Owen, obviously. Alan Shearer is no more. And the diminutive Scott Parker now wears the captain’s arm band. I like Glenn Roeder, but I think Toon are going to find it tough going this year. They’ll be solid mid-table, but they’ll need some signings if they’re going to keep up with the tier of teams just below Chelsea (Arsenal, ManU, Liverpool).

The Italian verdicts are supoposed to be in about now. They wanted to wait until the financial markets closed for the weekend. That should tell you something. Juve, Fiorentina, Lazio are all to be relegated to Serie B and AC Milan are booted from the Champions League. Now all we need is some public beheadings of the guilty refs and team management, and we’ll call things square.

Football World Still Quiet

Still not much of immediate note taking place in the football world. The Italians are apparently giving the players and fans a chance to enjoy the Cup before dragging the unpleasantness of the match fixing verdicts back out. Needs to happen very soon, though. It’s expected that Juventus will be slammed, but the other parties, even Fiorentina, will just get a slap.

Real Madrid continues their never ending quest to make as many big money busts as possible. Rumored to have been courting one of the most worthless high profile coaches in the world in Sven Goren Erickson, now they’re leading the race to land a worthless high profile striker as well. Ruud van Nistlerooy appears set to go to Spain. Man U would love to dump him. Especially since they seem to want to keep weepy Ronaldo now, and Ruud always hurts his feelings. Looks like Barcelona in a walk this year. Real is becoming a laughing stock. All that money–and nothing to show for it but a circus act. Take note Chelski.

Speaking of hurt feelings, the word is FIFA is now looking into Materazzi to see what he did to provoke Zidane. What are they going to do? Ban players from talking to each other? I don’t care what he said to him, Zidane has to know better. It’s the bloody World Cup final, you imbicile. Kick his ass later. You’d think a French player would know what to do in that situation. He should have taken a page out of the Monty Python book and just ran away from the insidious taunting, whether his mother wears the combat boots or not.

Ipswich’s first loss of the season is only about 3 weeks away already. The Championship Division is about to start first week of August. The Premier League will only be a couple weeks behind. Actually, I hear the MSL is suposedly playing now. The Red Bulls have been looking to pull a Cosmos move and land some aging superstar. Zidane was mentioned, but I bet he’s off the radar now–still technically under contract anyway, whether he retires or not. Beckham. Ronaldo-grande. Whomever they land it won’t be a Pele, and it won’t make a difference. There’s no shortcuts. Make the league competitive and slowly increase the talent level across the board. It’s a poor standard right now. Give me a reason to want to watch it and I’ll start. Until then I’ll keep looking to Europe. If you can’t hook me, you have no chance.

Time to Re-focus

The month long football orgy is over–unless you live in Italy. Like all orgies, it was fabulous while it lasted, but it’s time to get back to the day to day.

While players drift off for a couple last weeks in the sun, teams are already gearing up for the long seasons that are about to begin. Many players will be drifting back to different clubs. Particularly once the fall-out from the Italian scandal is sorted. The huge stars at Juve, AC etc may be looking to move on soon–or will be forced to.

Coaches have left, been replaced–including seemingly every international one. Even Lippi has left after winning the World Cup. Everyone else is leaving, presumably, because they did not. Klinsmann has quit Germany. If I’m the US Federation, I’m on the blower with him yesterday trying to convince him to take over for Arena. That move would be huge for the US team. Anything short of something like that, is going to seem like a step backward.

Tons of transfers I’ve barely had a chance to glance at. Chelsea’s usual horde, of course, but some other surprises as well. Probably many more coming soon, since the notable distraction has come to an end. Didi Hamman bolts Liverpool for Bolton, then immediately bolts again for Man City.

It’s all very confusing. I’m still working my way through the World Cup hangover. It’s going to take a couple days to start to be able to make sense of everything.

Lull Before the Storm

Not much of interest is happening in the soccer world during these last few days before the World Cup. Everyone is in Germany quietly training, or resting as the case may be.

England’s Wayne Rooney has reportedly been hitting bicycle kicks in training. I’ll still be shocked to see him contribute much even if England creep deep into the tournament. I broke my foot when I was about his age, and I’m still waiting to achieve match fitness 20 odd years later.

The new rumor is that England manager Sven Goren Erickson will be headed to Real after the Cup. That must be a joke. Talk about a square peg being stuffed into a round hole. Although there are probably many hot Spanish secretaries–must be what he’s thinking.

Unfortunately, beloved Ipswich just filled their vacant coaching spot. It is the perfect peg, I suppose, if their only ambition is to struggle to stay in the Championship for the rest of my life. They just pulled long-time fan favorite Jim Magilton off the pitch and stuck him in the spot. It was economical and the supporters won’t whinge–but the team won’t win, either.

Just read a piece in the local paper claiming Landon Donovan is the key to the US team. If that’s true, they might as well just pack it in now. It’s very hard for any American soccer player to be overrated–or rated at all– in this country, but Donovan clearly is. He is rested, though. One of the benefits of not having the talent to play in Europe.

As fans begin trickling in to Germany, their experiences over the next few days may be more interesting than what goes on in the various team camps. Non-whites have already been warned to stay out of certain areas of East Berlin. Several nations meeting up in the first round don’t care for each other much, and the fans will be drinking and singing in the same city. Doesn’t take much to set some of these old resentments seething again. We’ll have to see how the security forces handle things when tempers start flaring. So far, much of the security seems to be concentrated on keeping the US team from harm. Fair enough.

What Are We in For?

I can’t help but be concerned. The US team is waltzing along to Germany without a care in the world. The mainstream media gives them the happy nod, expecting them to do well. That opinion is, no doubt, bolstered by the ridiculously high world ranking, and their ignorance of all things soccer. What’s going to happen once the team gets a shellacking and is unceremoniously sent back home?

Can you hear the jokes already?

The sport is just struggling to its feet in this country. Most of the sports stories and talk, when soccer gets any attention at all here, are still condescending and derisive. The sense is, people are cautious now because they might have heard the US actually has a decent team, but they really can’t wait for them to bomb so they can get a cheap laugh and go back to talking about the only 3 things they all know anything about.

I do think the US team is at least competitve, much better than they ever have been, but I still don‘t rate their chances this year. Things are just beginning to look up, and these things take time. Will a quick exit from the World Cup do irreparable damage now?

I think it might.

The MLS is eking by, and it’s important that it is, but even I struggle to get interested in most of their matches. If the national team doesn’t manage to live up to a respectable showing, I suspect the domestic soccer league will lose the fledgling amount of support it has earned so far. The message will be that soccer just isn’t America’s sport. Let the Europeans have that one and lets get back to something we can do. Right now, the likes of Landon Donovan and a handful of others are willing to sacrifice money and exposure by playing here. I’m afraid even a slight downturn now will bring them to say, “well, we tried”.

As things are now, I can pretty happily get as much soccer on television as I like. Between Fox and Setanta, I can watch most of the English Premier League matches, a handful from the Championship (thankfully, since my Ipswich seems mired in it for life), The Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliega, even some French and South American matches. ESPN generally carries a Champions League match. I can get extensive daily news, and there are even soap opera themed shows if I really get desperate.

All that is wonderful, but the truth is, those channels are losing money on that programming even now. They’re betting that they are starting out in a tiny market that will surely expand over time, and will eventually pay off. They honestly believe soccer is so good that it can’t possibly fail. A poor US showing could set them back years, and I worry they might just throw in the towel. It’ll be back to scouring the internet, and we won’t even catch a fleeting glimpse of the game from here.

So I’ll be rooting very hard for the national team to do well. For purely selfish reasons. I want the greatest game in the world to be played here. I want to be able to follow it from here. Unfortunately, if the US only play to their ability, it could be the beginning of the end. Americans want to be the best at whatever they’re doing. They tend to ridicule anything they don’t understand. They don’t have much patience to begin with, and I’m afraid a hiccup might be all it takes for it to run out on soccer.

I think a lot more hinges on the success of this Cup than many realize or would like to admit.