Women’s Soccer Has A Hope Solo Problem

The United States Women’s National Team opened its 2015 World Cup campaign last week, with a deserved 3-1 victory over Australia. Megan Rapinoe, a creative midfielder whose silky dribbling is reminiscent of Andres Iniesta, scored twice, sending the team to first place in the so-called Group of Death. Rapinoe’s second goal, a run from the halfway line followed by a powerful left-footed finish, remains one of the best of the tournament so far.

But Rapinoe’s impressive performance went virtually unnoticed in the media’s post-game coverage. The United States’ first two World Cup matches have been overshadowed by a controversy involving the team’s goalkeeper, Hope Solo. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a lengthy article recounting Solo’s behavior on the night of June 20, 2014, when she allegedly assaulted her half-sister’s 17-year-old son. (In January, a judge dismissed a two-count domestic assault charge against Solo on procedural grounds.) The story also details US Soccer’s half-hearted investigation of the incident: The federation, which has not punished Solo, neither requested police records nor contacted Solo’s nephew.

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Blatter’s Out. Now What?

We don’t know precisely why Sepp Blatter, who sealed reelection last week in typically blatter resignationdefiant fashion, chose today to resign as FIFA president. Was it the New York Times’ report on the involvement of Jerome Valcke, Blatter’s second in command, in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme? Or the growing possibility that the US Justice Department will include the under-fire Swiss in its next round of indictments? Or was Blatter merely concerned that his troubles would distract fans from all the hot players in “feminine clothes” at the upcoming Women’s World Cup?

Whatever the reason, Blatter’s resignation is great news for soccer fans. But don’t get too excited. The front-runners for his soon-to-be-vacant position include the ringleader of the Qatar 2022 caucus and a member of the Jordanian royal family.

UEFA president Michel Platini, the oddsmakers’ favorite to succeed Blatter, called for FIFA to enact sweeping reforms just hours after the DoJ announced its corruption charges. This from a guy who lobbied hard to bring the World Cup to Qatar – where stadium construction has already cost hundreds of lives – possibly in return for a series of political favors.

The other leading candidate, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, lost to Blatter in last week’s election, despite promising to crack down on corruption. But, as Guardian writer Marina Hyde tweeted last Friday, “If he likes elections so much maybe they can have one in Jordan?”

There’s still hope that sanity will prevail. David Gill, the former chief executive of Manchester United, and Michael van Praag, the experienced head of the Dutch Football Association, are both competent administrators unblemished by accusations of corruption. Even Luis Figo has a few smart ideas.

But frankly, I wouldn’t vote for any of them. Soccer journalists have been writing about Blatter’s corrupt regime for almost two decades. So I’d like to take this opportunity to formally endorse Grant Wahl for FIFA president.

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Bye-bye, Big Sam

It’s a sad day for English soccer. Sam Allardyce – Sir Alex Ferguson’s second-most reliable sam allardycepunching bag, Charles Reep’s spiritual descendant – is leaving West Ham. He intends to take next season off.

“As a manager, you just ignore your family 24/7 when you do this job, and it’s time for me to give the family a little bit of time,” Allardyce said after West Ham’s 2-0 loss to Newcastle, adding that he plans to fly to Spain next week to vacation with his grandchildren.

I can already picture Allardyce in some Spanish park, furiously punting long-balls to his grandson as Barcelona’s academy team plays keep-away on an adjacent field. But perhaps today’s interview was all an elaborate ruse. Might Florentino Perez have secretly tapped Allardyce, who once memorably claimed he was “well-suited” for the Real Madrid job, to replace Carlo Ancelotti in the Bernabeu dugout? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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What’s Happened to Yaya Toure?

On May 6, 2012, Manchester City travelled to Newcastle for a crucial end-of-season game. A win would virtually Yaya Toureguarantee City the Premier League championship; a loss or draw would put Manchester United in control of the title race. With 30 minutes to go, the score was deadlocked at 0-0. In bars across the country, United fans cheered every time the ball rolled out of bounds. Then, in the 63rd minute, City coach Roberto Mancini made a counter-intuitive substitution, replacing Samir Nasri, a crafty playmaker who at the time boasted an impressive goal-scoring record, with holding midfielder Nigel de Jong. Mancini’s tactical adjustment allowed Yaya Toure, a central midfielder, to play in a more offensive position. Toure scored eight minutes later, and added a second goal with one of the last plays of the game. City went on to seal the championship, albeit in surprisingly dramatic fashion.

This year, Toure has endured the sort of campaign coaches euphemistically label “a season of transition.” He has scored just 11 goals, compared to 24 last year. City, which started the season as a serious title contender, is struggling to qualify for the Champions League. Last week, after the team collapsed in the Manchester derby, Sky pundit Gary Neville described Toure’s defensive performance as “a complete dereliction of duty.” 

But here’s the thing: Yaya Toure has always operated this way. He doesn’t dominate games; he dominates periods of games. Against Newcastle, Toure spent an hour jogging around the center circle before he suddenly burst into life. The same principle applies to his career as a whole. He sometimes goes months without contributing anything to the team. But when he plays well – and eventually he will start playing well again – Toure is almost impossible to defend.

Toure has recently been linked to a number of big-time European clubs, including Mancini’s Inter Milan. But City should think twice about selling him. As Toure’s agent recently pointed out, the club has a poor record in the transfer market. Moreover, Fernando and Fernandinho, City’s two other central midfielders, have proved singularly unsuited to the rigors of the Premier League. Toure’s recent struggles don’t necessarily indicate a lasting decline. On the contrary, they may simply represent a frustrating prelude to another season of goals like this one.

Mario vs. Robbie

Back in January, Roma’s Francesco Totti pioneered the celebratory selfie – a quick on-fieldbalo selfie photo marking an important goal. Yesterday, Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, another Italian player with a penchant for quirky goal celebrations, introduced the self-justifying selfie – a quick off-field photo directed at a critical analyst.

According to Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers, Balotelli didn’t play in yesterday’s hard-fought FA Cup quarterfinal victory because he wasn’t feeling well. TV pundit Robbie Savage was appalled: “To miss an FA Cup quarter-final when you’re feeling a bit ill? Nonsense,” he said on BT Sport. “I would have to be really, really ill to miss that game.”

Savage’s comments highlight the generational divide between today’s players and the grizzled punditocracy: I can think of plenty of reasons why an under-the-weather Super Mario would skip the quarterfinal of a third-rate tournament, especially given the lousy condition of the Ewood Park pitch. But apparently Balotelli was in fact “really, really ill.” After the game, he posted this #thermometerselfie to Instagram, along with a message conveying his frustration: “MISS THE PICTH SO MUCH.”

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The Real Reason Arsenal Struggles in Europe

Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Monaco wasn’t enough to overcome a 3-1 defeat in the first leg. But arsenal monacoaccording to Arsene Wenger, Monaco didn’t deserve to go through, since the away-goals rule is an outdated relic of the 1960s. “Two Premier League teams have gone out on away goals and that should be questioned,” he said. Because if a rule hurts English teams, it must be a bad rule.

But here’s the thing: Arsenal’s recent Champions League struggles – five Round-of-16 eliminations in a row – have less to do with the away-goals rule than with the team’s inability to play consistently over the course of a two-legged tie. Arsenal has a long history of capitulating in the first leg, only to mount a courageous, but ultimately futile, comeback two weeks later. In 2012, Arsenal lost 4-0 to AC Milan at the San Siro, and then won the return game 3-0. A year later, having lost the first leg 3-1, Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in Germany. Indeed, Wenger’s team has lost just one second-leg game since 2011.

“You can’t win a tie in the first leg, but you can lose it,” or so the old cliché goes. Arsenal routinely loses its Champions League knockout ties in the first leg. And Wenger, who’s paid to motivate his players and plan the team’s tactical approach, has no one to blame but himself.

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I’m Not A Racist. I Just Think There Are Too Many Blacks.

Italian football used to be synonymous with catenaccio, the sophisticated defensive game Juventus - Arrigo Sacchi incontra il settore giovanile Juventus Center - Vinovoplan that Inter Milan pioneered in the 1960s. These days, however, Serie A is no longer an incubator for tactical innovations; it is the epicenter of European football’s racism problem.

In October, the president of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tavecchio, received a six-month UEFA ban for describing black players as “banana eaters.” And Mario Balotelli, who is often jeered when he appears for the Italian national team, left AC Milan in August partly to escape the racist chanting endemic to Serie A.

The latest culprit is Champions League-winning manager Arrigo Sacchi. At last weekend’s prestigious Viareggio youth tournament, Sacchi, who coached Italy at the 1994 World Cup, reportedly complained that “in our youth sector, there are too many blacks.”

On Monday, a hastily backtracking Sacchi tried to frame his remarks as the poorly worded lamentations of a true Italian patriot: “I just wanted to underline the fact that we’re losing our national pride and identity.”

Then he deployed what can only be described as the footballing equivalent of “some of my best friends are black.”

“Do you really think I’m a racist?” Sacchi said. “My history speaks for itself. I’ve always trained teams with diverse colored players, and they won a lot.”

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Saying Goodbye To English Soccer’s Long-Serving Scotsmen

On Wednesday evening, when Aston Villa finally sacked manager Paul Lambert, the Paul Lambert Aston VillaPremier League lost its one remaining Scottish coach. Since the 1950s, gruff Scottish geniuses have been a fixture in English soccer, engineering memorable league campaigns and delivering pithy sound bites. Lambert, a mediocre coach with all the charisma of a wrinkled warm-up bib, has little in common with Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson. But his sacking, the inevitable result of one of the longest goalless streaks in Villa’s history, carries symbolic weight. Over the last few years, as long-serving coaches like Shankly and Ferguson have become increasingly rare, what might be termed the “Scottish model” of sustained team-building, in which a visionary manager molds a squad over the course of several seasons, has given way to a new reality: a cutthroat league in which players and coaches never stay at one club for very long.

The Premier League’s growing volatility is especially pronounced at Manchester United, once a bastion of stability in the rapidly changing landscape of English soccer. In 2013, after 25 years in the Old Trafford dugout, Ferguson retired from coaching, and his final act as United manager was to anoint fellow Scotsman David Moyes as his successor. Ferguson, who saw traces of his own Glaswegian toughness in Moyes’ no-nonsense coaching philosophy, naively assumed that fans and journalists would wait patiently for the ex-Everton manager to blossom into Sir Alex 2.0. They didn’t, and less than a year later, Moyes was fired.

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Richard C. Scudamore: Man of the Year

Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore calls the league’s gargantuan new TV deal “a scudamoresuccess story” that will ensure football continues to be one of Britain’s most popular cultural exports: “The Premier League, the BBC, the Queen – they are things that people feel are good about the UK,” Scudamore said.

But it remains maddeningly unclear whether the deal, which also promises to enrich club owners and attract foreign investment, will help resolve any of English football’s long-term structural problems: skyrocketing ticket prices, decrepit grassroots infrastructure, the embarrassing income gap between celebrity players and “nonessential” club employees.

For his part, Scudamore, who came under fire last year after the Sunday Mirror published sexist emails he’d sent to a lawyer friend, has made it pretty clear that he couldn’t care less about the plight of the working class. According to the Guardian, “Asked whether it made him uncomfortable to see clubs paying some players ‘half-a-million pounds a week’ while other members of staff earned below the living wage, Scudamore said: ‘No, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable.’”

What a guy.

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Breaking: Costa Admits He’s Not An Angel

Despite all evidence to the contrary – numerous camera angles, an FA investigation, the laws of physics – Chelsea striker diego costaDiego Costa insists he did not intentionally stamp on Emre Can in Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final. “When I get home, I can go to sleep knowing that I’ve not done anything wrong,” Costa told the Daily Mail.

Pundits love to say that Costa, who is currently serving a three-match suspension for violent conduct, enjoys “the physical side of the game,” a euphemism for the fine art of starting fights with Jordan Henderson.

“I’m not saying I’m an angel,” Costa added. “But every time I play, I will play the same way. That’s what I need to do in order to support my family.”

Yup, Costa, who makes a cool 150,000 pounds a week, just played the “feed my family” card. Personally, I’m unconcerned about the welfare of Costa’s as-yet-unborn children, even if the FA’s crackdown on dangerous play promises to stifle their dad’s talent for pissing defenders off. Once he retires, Costa will have plenty of time to cultivate, and eventually monetize, his true passion: His massive collection of postage stamps.

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