Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Europa League Final Preview: Why Braga
Has a Puncher's Chance against F.C. Porto

At the moment, the country of Portugal is a Fat Bastard-style floater in the financial world's cesspool. An optimist would expect at any second, that some alleged French rapist from IMF would come in with $100B US to save the day, but that's doubtful. A few years ago, an all-Portuguese major European cup final would be equally as unlikely.

But today, that's what we have: Porto-Braga in the UEFA Cup (dammit) Europa League final. I still say there's time to move this game to Guimaraes or somewhere closer to Portugal than Dublin, but that's neither here nor there at this point. It's Portugal's day in Europe, and that's pretty cool from where I sit. And I think you could have the makings of an epic game as well, from where I sit.

In one corner, you have Porto, which aside from the Catalans, are probably the hottest team on the continent. They didn't lose a domestic game this season, but they currently are on a one-game losing streak having fallen to Villareal in the semifinal clincher a couple of weeks ago. (How's that for a silver lining Braga fans?)

And speaking of Braga, Cinderella has arrived at the ball. The gown looks good, the shoes fit and she's damn foxy. Ol' Cindy's getting some tonight; only the big finish is in doubt at this time. Braga belongs, have no doubt. They beat Benfica, Kyiv, Liverpool and Lech Poznan to get here after crashing out of the Champions League.

Braga has been focused on today for months; finishing almost 40 points behind the champions--well whatta ya know, that would be Porto!--will do that for ya. They have more than a puncher's chance because they're a pretty unified team with a mix of talent that on a given day--like today--can put it together to win Miracle style.

Porto might have the tournament's hottest scorer in Falcao and Europe's most sought-after player in Hulk (I always wondered where Bill Bixby ended up; he was such a vagabond wanderer). But Braga have the coolest stadium in Europe, Sporting's next coach and Kaka! How can they lose? (I know it's not that Kaka; don't bother with the wise-ass comments).

I'm going to watch. I'm going to take in an epic day. I'm going to love it when it's 2-2 with two minutes to go and No. 2 for Braga wins it. That's right, El Mudo wins it. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Report: FIFA Officials Took Bribes in Qatar World Cup Bid

Who is that masked man?

As in all good conspiracies and corruption stories, as soon as it gets too hot in the kitchen, one of the scumbags involved in the crime starts singing like a canary. Case in point: various news outlets report today that a whistleblower is accusing FIFA executive committee members from Cameroon and the Ivory Coast of taking $1.5 million bribes to vote for the middle eastern nation's bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

This is the same World Cup the U.S. was thought to be a shoe-in to host. The same World Cup  being hosted by an ultra-conservative nation, that among other pleasantries, doesn't accept the existence of homosexuals. Good thing Sepp Blatter wants every region of the planet to host the biggest sporting event in the world; remember, he told gay folks to keep it zipped up during the tournament.

This stunk from the second rumors started flying that Qatar was the winner in the day or two leading up tot the announcement in December. Qatar was a bigger longshot than the Tampa Bay Lightning reaching the NHL semifinals this year. At least the Lightning have won the Stanley Cup before--or at least play in a professional league. Qatar barely has a top-flight professional league, much less a national team.

Thankfully we're more than 10 years from the World Cup and Qatar's sheikly finances can be adequately investigated and an audit trail can be established that will root out the evil-doers and clean up the World Cup. Yeah right.

How about we just start at the top by getting rid of Blatter now. He's the scum of scum, the lowest of the low; he capitulated even if he was ignorant of the goings-on. He's the shame of football and the poster child for sporting evil. He allowed this crooked charade to happen, molded it into a profitable enterprise and manipulated the result he wanted. He must go.

And then Qatar must go. There's no way soccer's showcase event can happen in that country, or any other that is so brazen about the means in which it gamed the system to host the World Cup. There needs to be an overhaul of FIFA and a process put in place where the debate and discussion over which nation will host the World Cup be public and transparent.

Here's hoping this scandal gets ugly--real ugly. To the point where it's lead story on CNN-ugly. Blatter must be exposed. The executive committee must be exposed. The holes in this process must be exposed. Call off or postpone the World Cup in Brazil and/or Russia if you have to, but do something.

And start with Sepp. Cut the head off, and the rest of the body will follow.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Of Dunkin' Donuts Regular Coffee and Customer Service

Charlie Sheen and Chuck Zito at Dunks; 'nuff said.
I don't think I've ever used this forum to rant on anything but football. I'm making an exception today.

Dunkin' Donuts drives me f$%king crazy. I start almost every day with an iced coffee, and usually it's made by some kid, 18-22, whose idea of a regular coffee is a cup of cream with a dash of coffee for color. Extra-extra I think it's called. Extra-extra, for the uninitiated, is the new regular.

Go ahead, I dare you. Order a regular anything at Dunkin' Donuts and you're going to get this swirly white mass polluting what should be a cup of coffee. It will get lighter the more you swish your cup around, you see, because these lazy bastards who are charging you more than $2.50 for a cup of ice with lots of cream and very little coffee, don't fucking stir the coffee for you. That's why your first chug of an iced coffee through the straw might as well be the same act as you getting on all fours at the beach, jamming a straw into the sand and fellating it until your mouth is full of granules of pulverized sand. Same thing.

There is no greater joy to me than sliding the cup of semen-ized looking goo back at the kid and telling them, "No, I ordered regular, this is light." The incredulous looks are just precious, I want to pat them on their little extra-extra heads and soothe them that all will be well again some day.

At the end of the day, though, I don't know whom to blame; Dunkin' Donuts or the kids? Where I live, the process is automated, the machine squirts out the cream (with a little coaxing :)) and sugar. But then again, how automated is it when today's regular is tomorrow's light is the next day's extra-extra? Kids who carry Dunkin' Donuts cups as a status symbol sure as hell don't care what's in the cup or pretend to like the coffee. They need the cup in hand because sexy Suzie would look at them funny if they didn't. So my theory is that they like it light, so they make it light--and light becomes regular, because that's how they drink it, so it has to be regular. That's some fucked-up algebra right there.

Sometimes I need to rant and vent and that's why I'm doing so right here, right now. I know it's futile and I know my only option is to keep sliding the cup back until I get what I want. $2.56 for iced coffee is criminal, but it's better than Starbucks where I pay the same $2.56 for iced coffee--but I have to make it myself. For that, I'll just stay home.

UEFA's Away Goal Rule Sucks; Just sayin...

I took this argument to Twitter last week in advance of the Europa League semifinals: Succinctly, it's my opinion the away goal rule sucks and, more importantly, is outdated. It was instituted in the mid-'60s, first in the Cup-Winners Cup and eventually to the European Cup (which became the Champions League) in order to force visiting teams to attack on the road in European ties. The premise is that away goals have more value than a home goal; those dingy two-star hotels these guys stay in just sap their strength, y'know.

And maybe, 45 years ago, there was validity to that theory. Teams did travel by train, or rickety plane. Maybe accommodations, training and salaries weren't to the standards and levels they are today. And perhaps visiting teams did just play to survive on the road.

It was a different time. Players, for the most part, spent their careers wearing one jersey. There were no free agents, no mega-million signings. Players played for the love of the shirt. Players played for the love of the club and the fans adored them for it. Today, players are corporations. Sure, you root for United, Madrid and Bayern if that's your club. But you don't have that kind of affinity with players any more. There are no more lifers--or very few of them any way.

Being a football lifer and all that comes with it, however, was the norm 45 years ago, and made the away-goals rule a viable option. It probably was a really neat idea and fans loved it. Today? Not so much. I don't think it works any longer.

I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that playing at home puts a club at a disadvantage, or that a traveling team needs a handicap. Are you going to tell me Leo Messi on the road is any less dangerous than at Camp Nou? Or that Braga's 1-0 home win over Benfica last week was worth more than Benfica's 2-1 win at home the week before because they gave up a goal at home? C'mon. Read that last sentence aloud; it sounds dumber than it does reading it to yourself.

It's time to get with the times and take all of this into consideration: better travel, better conditioning, better salaries, better living conditions, better lifestyles. All of it makes--and more--makes the away-goals rule obsolete. Braga-Benfica should have gone to extra time. It was 2-2, not 2-2 with an asterisk. And trust me, I'm no Benfica fan. I'm speaking objectively.

If I were speaking subjectively, I'd point you to the 1971-72 Cup Winners Cup second round between Rangers and Sporting where the referee mistakenly send the game to penalties and did not take into account that Rangers, by some eerie mathematical formula, had scored more away goals than Sporting and should have won the tie. Sporting "won" the game in penalties, but lost it moments after the final whistle when the ref was reminded that goals scored away from home on Tuesdays with the Moon in Sagitarius were worth more than goals scored on Thursdays with the Sun in Virgo, or some shit like that.

If you ask me, that ref was ahead of his time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

FC Porto Looks in Mirror, Sees Benfica in Reflection

Hey F.C. Porto, look at your Classico rivals Benfica. That could be you a year from now.

Remember Benfica's wondrous championship season last year? Remember how they used to score goals by the bushel, 4, 5, 6 at a time? Remember how they'd run teams into the ground, literally and figuratively? Looks a little familiar no?

There are a couple of stone-cold facts Porto--a team some are calling perhaps the second-best squad in Europe right now--cannot escape: You play in Portugal. Portuguese teams are a horrid combination of poor and greedy. This year's Falcao and Hulk are last year's Di Maria and David Luiz. They and you will be tempted by shiny new uniforms, big money and a bright spotlight. And you won't turn down the money. It's in your DNA to sell off your best players and reload the hard way--just ask Sporting and Benfica.

Sad, really if you give a damn about the Portuguese league, or any smaller league in Europe. The pattern is the same and the cycles of winning are few and far between.

Benfica was dumped out of the Europa League by SC Braga yesterday. Benfica should have, and would have, cruised to the title game under different circumstances. Economics, greed and those bad genes all conspired to doom Benfica. And it's a safe bet Porto will be in a similar boat next year. Dominant domestically, Porto is going to hoist another continental cup in a couple of weeks and then the fire sale begins. Too bad, because this is a league that desperately needs some consistency. Imagine a three out of four Champions League semifinals, instead of the very NIT-like Europa League? Imagine the spotlight on Portuguese football in that case? All it would take is a little consistency, because apparently, Portuguese clubs are pretty good at developing and nurturing players. They just haven't figured out how to keep them!

And then you have Braga, a true anomaly. A collection of relative unknowns headed by a lame-duck coach who spoiled the party by hanging on by the thinnest of threads yesterday to beat Benfica. It's a great story; everyone loves a Cinderella. And if Braga wins in Dublin, that only further flames the impending Porto fire sale. It's going to be a bittersweet game either way for Porto. Win and the Falcaos and Hulks are gone; lose and guess what? They're gone too.

Yes Porto, take a hard look at Benfica. You too could win just the BWin Cup next year and come ohsoclose to winning more important silverware--if you only had the players.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Twitter is a Real Kick for Soccer Talk

I've neglected my little space on the Intertubes here, largely because of Twitter. The instant gratification and dialogue is a lot more satisfying than having to seed this sucker on other blogs. I love writing here, but my Twitter feed!/starting_eleven is a lot more fun. Sorry peeps.

But that doesn't mean I'm not following footie closely. I've got my U.S.-Spain tix in hand for June 4 in Foxboro and can't wait to do some live Tweeting from Gillette (oops, sorry again blogospores). Granted, my Twitter streams are a lot more about Portuguese soccer and my love-hate relationship with Sporting Clube de Portugal. I spar with some Benfica fans (of course); talkin to you Talkin' To Da Doll (what does that mean?) and Marco Pereira and have great banter with some expert types like Ben Shave, Jen Chang and Steven Cohen formerly of World Football Daily.

There's some great conversation going on Twitter about football. On a game night, there's nothing like it really. During the U.S.-Argentina match a few weeks back, it was great fun to debate within the match about Bradley's inane substitutions, how poorly the U.S. defends sometimes, and how frustrating their lack of finishing ability it. I could do a running commentary here, but it's just not the same immediacy.

So no, I'm not shutting down my blog, just writing less frequently here. I'm saving this for longer form analysis, rants and whatever I feel like doing. Don't hate. Follow me on Twitter. Follow these folks above and others on Twitter. It's fun and a great time-suck.