Friday, June 25, 2010

Football. Futbol. Soccer. The Beautiful Game.

david-villa.jpgThis will be my first official World Cup blog post, but if you've been following my Twitter feed (or "tweed," I guess), you'll notice that I've been thoroughly obsessed with the Greatest Sporting Event on the Planet.

A lot of my American friends ask me, "why do you like soccer so much?" First, it's football. But I'll ignore that for now. I'm a fan of the Beautiful Game because of its ability to unite races, nations and peoples. I'm amazed by the stories of football on Robben Island in South Africa, where the first constitution was written during the apartheid era. Or the end of a civil war by a football star. Or the ability of Jews and Palestinians to put down their weapons of war for a street match in Gaza Strip.

Football truly does unite the world, like no other sport can. Don't get me wrong; I love American football, and March Madness is my favorite time of year (minus the quadrennial World Cup). But the only thing truly comparable to the Beautiful Game is the Olympic spirit: sports that transcend a game.

Now that we're down to the Knockout Stages, here are my predictions for the Final 16, all the way through to the semifinals. Leave a comment if you agree or disgree, and enjoy.

Quadrant 1: Uruguay-South Korea, USA-Ghana.

Analysis: it's sad to the see the never-say-die American side put up against the last remaining home continent player, but don't discount what the Africans have done for the World Cup so far. South Africa has been a fabulous host, and while Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire didn't live up to unreasonable expectations, they provided somem great moments. Plus, one of the biggest breakout stars of the tournament was Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama; I hope the Premiership picks him up, because I would love to continue watching him play club football.
The Asian federation has surprised many with its aggressive, speedy play, but not as much as CONMEBOL; all five South American teams are in the second round, a feat never achieved.
The USA is the highest-ranked team in this quadrant (No. 16), but they won't look the favorites on Saturday, when all of Africa unites behind Ghana. That should give the Black Stars a little something extra. Still, as long as Tim Howard and Jay DeMerit continue to dominate the defensive third, it'd be hard not to pick the Stars and Stripes.
ROUND 2: Uruguay 1, South Korea 0; USA 2, Ghana 1.

Quadrant 2: The Netherlands-Slovakia; Brazil-Chile

ANALYSIS: The Dutch have taken the status as possible World Cup dark horse, and risen to potential second-tier favorite behind Brazil, and (lowered expectations) Spain.
I don't see Les Oranje having much trouble with the Slovaks, a team that is playing in its first World Cup ever -- a feat that sounds impressive, until you remember they were Czechoslovakia until, what, three weeks ago?
Chile has been the class of the tournament, blitzing past Honduras and Switzerland, and putting a potential-deciding goal up against Spain with only 10 men in the group stage final. If they were facing anyone else, I'd call them Quarterfinal Darkhorses.
ROUND 2: NED 2, Slovakia 0; Brazil 3, Chile 0

Quadrant 3: Argentina-Mexico; Germany-England

ANALYSIS: As a friend of mine recently Facebook'd, The 2010 World Cup is looking more like World War II, with USA and England playing nice, France's offensive efforts looking futile, Italy's demotion from power to pest, and the Germans duking it out with the British.
England didn't think it would find itself doing anything but winning its EASY group, but here it is, with an offensive snafu and a goalkeeping slip-up costing it the top spot and guaranteeing it a second-round match with perennial European power Germany. Up to this point, it seems like it would be no contest. But the English are finally finding their form (although the chokeship of Wayne Rooney continues), and Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger appearing to be out for the weekend's match. That's a crucial blow for the Panzer Division.
Mexico finally gets its chance to exact revenge on the Argentina side that eliminated it from the World Cup in 2006, a feat not lost on Rafael Marquez, who scored El Tri's first goal of the tournament. But when you have a team where Inter star Diego Milito is coming off the bench, and a side that breezed through qualification despite not receiving a goal from FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Los Albicelestes seem to have destiny on their side.
ROUND 2: Germany 2, England 1; Argentina 3, Mexico 1
QUARTERFINAL: Argentina 2, Germany 1

Quadrant 4: Paraguay-Japan, Spain-Portugal

ANALYSIS: Another South American surprise comes up against the stalwart Blue Samurai that have produced yet another tournament star, Japanese and CSKA Moscow striker Keisuke Honda. Both sides should be happy to have made it this far, but one of them has to go through, and don't expect the offensive fireworks to end yet. This should be full of plenty of action in each team's attacking third; How much of that action will find the back of the net remains to be seen, though.
The entire Iberian Peninsula should be shut down for three hours while Spain and Portugal meet, in a match that was threatened after La Furia Roja's shocking loss to Switzerland. Still, Spain recovered, and the Portuguese, despite two thoroughly uneventful games with Cote d'Ivoire and Brazil, have survived to see another day. One thing is certain here: expect at least 14 "play-ons" for Cristiano Ronaldo, despite his best efforts.
I love Ronaldo. But seriously? Who would I pick?
ROUND 2: Japan 2, Paraguay 0; Spain 4, Portugal 1
QUARTERFINAL: Spain 2, Japan 0

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seeing RED

I've been hit with World Cup fever, so you'll have to excuse my inconsistent posts as of late.

But big news broke in the other football — American football, that is — that I can't ignore. It was something that  made me sick. As in, literally made my stomach feel queasy.

The Pac 10 invited Utah to abandon the Mountain West Conference for a lucrative payday and the abandoning of its principles.

Never mind that BYU (my alma mater) would've been a better fit. Never mind that BYU would've brought more fans, more television sets, and more national viewers than the Utes. Never mind that, despite Utah's most recent successes, the Utes have still yet to match BYU's national title or Heisman Trophy winner. Never mind even that the Cougars have twice as many men's basketball national championships as the Utes — and that one in Utah only came in a year when they failed to qualify for the NIT.

This move reeks of religious intolerance. Sources close to the Pac 10 have admitted that the invitation extended to Utah was influenced by BYU's ties to the LDS church, a church whose members pumped a few million dollars into such conservative grassroots movements as California's Proposition 8. And while USC may be the athletic epicenter of that conference, it is the minds in Berkeley and Palo Alto — two of the most liberal institutions in the NCAA — that really pull the strings of that conference.
It's not just the Mormons, either. Earlier reports had the Pac 10 set to invite six members from the Big 12, essentially dissolving the conference after historical power Nebraska had already bolted to the Big Ten. But the deal that would've brought Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado was dissolved at the last second when the Big 12 offered Texas a greater share of its conference television breakup, as well as the Longhorns own television network. 
So Colorado jumped ship. And the Pac 10 needed a 12th member. The candidates seemed to be Utah, BYU and TCU. But with such a plethora of liberal institutions, why would you invite the Mormons' flagship institution or a Christian university that draws much of the same market (Dallas/Fort Worth) you were expecting from UT and the gang, while both teams have demonstrated more across the board of athletics than the Utes. 
So that's why we see the Pacific 10 conference expanding to the Rocky Mountains. It has little to do with BCS bowls and academic excellence, and as much (if not more) to do with religious snobbery.
"It's religious prejudice masquerading as academic snobbery," one source has told the Deseret News. "They're trying to find an excuse to avoid the real issue, that they don't want a school that is tied to the LDS Church." 

Fortunately, with the inclusion of Boise State in the MWC, the extended proceedings have been a wash. BYU's conference is still on track to receive an automatic qualifying bid to the BCS. TCU and Boise State are still the class of the non-automatic qualifiers, and BYU still draws one of the most extensive national fan bases outside of Notre Dame.
Remember that a conference jump doesn't always signal good things, even in the Pac 10. In 1978, the "Pac 8" invited Arizona and Arizona State, two schools that have a total of three Rose Bowl appearances and have spent as much time as conference bottom-feeders as contenders (unless you count College World Series appearances). And with no prestigious athletic programs outside of the occasional football appearance and a powerful women's gymnastics program, the Utes are on track to be put into the same position.
So enjoy your $9 million soul-sale, Utah. Enjoy your "prestigious" conference affiliation. Enjoy the extra money, which you say will help fund academic research, but that will only come as the 1,000th item on a list of athletic renovations (most of which are probably very much needed, such as an expanded football stadium, a real basketball court, a decent — as opposed to downright putrid — soccer field, and others). 
Meanwhile, BYU, Boise State, TCU and the rest of the MWC (not to mention Houston and Conference-USA) will continue the fight against a corrupt college football cartel, steadying the fight in a battle that may take years, but will be worth it in the long run.

BYU didn't need Utah to obliterate one Bowl Alliance. And they don't need the Utes to do it again.

(Don't?) Let the door hit you on the way out. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

When Perfection Doesn't Matter

Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce
I haven't posted a full sports blog in a little, so I figured now was as good a time as any.

Only this isn't all about sports.

Athletics can make us see the world through a narrow frame. The world — as it often isn't —can be easily divided into Team A and Team B, Winner and Loser, Good Guys and Bad Guys. It's an oversimplification that players — and more often fans — take to an extreme level sometimes.

One magical night in Detroit, two men of different generations and professions helped the sports world realized there is more to athletic achievement than winning championships and amassing accolades. I'm speaking, of course, of Armando Galarraga's almost-perfect game.

Galarraga was about to join an exclusive club, the 21st pitcher in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game. It also would've been the third perfect game of the 2010 season, joining Oakland's Dallas Braden and Philadelphia's Roy Halladay. And after 8 1/3 innings, all he needed were two more outs.

Fate had her own way of making history, though. Sure, History was made that night, but it didn't involve perfection, and it probably won't be enshrined in Cooperstown. Because history was made when first-base umpire Jim Joyce, aware of the moment that was on the line, called a baserunner safe when a nation of instant-replay experts and technical baseball rules professors knew that clearly wasn't the case.

In an instant, the whole world seemed to stop. The Tigers' bench stood in shock and awe. Internet chat rooms, message boards and Twitter feeds cried out against Joyce's call: how could this happen? What was he seeing? Did that umpire realize what he did to this poor kid?

It turns out, he did.

Joyce would later plead guilty to his offense. After viewing the replay of the call, he refused to hide behind the cover of anonymity normally offered to officials from media organizations. He fessed up:  "I just cost that kid a perfect game." The entire baseball community came out against an umpire who had officiated in countless games, playoff series and even World Series in nearly 30 years wearing blue. Rumors swirled about calls and taunts made not only to Joyce, but to his wife and children. Everyone seemed to hate the previously perfectly respected ump.

Except for Galarraga.

In a quiet act of defiance to the world around him, Detroit's ace from Venezuela smiled. One baserunner; what's the big deal, right? He knew he had gotten the out; he knew he had pitched a perfect game; he knew his name should be enshrined in the hearts of baseball fans everywhere.

But he didn't seem to care.

Galarraga just shook off the blown call, trotted back to the mound, and proceeded to end the game — a scoreless one-hitter and, most importantly, a complete-game win in the record books — with another marvelous display of pitching. And when all the hype, all the chatter, and all the media outrage was directed at his attitude toward Joyce, he did the most historic thing of all.

He forgave that man who cost him a place in history. 

Galarraga forgave the man who took away a perfect game. He didn't even argue when baseball's highest source, commissioner Bud Selig, refused to reverse the call and award a posthumous perfect game. And in doing so, he taught us all a valuable lesson, one that doesn't involve a bat and a ball, a basketball hoop, or a football field.

He taught us how to forgive. He taught us that, when forces beyond our control throw us a curveball, the only thing we can do is swing for the fences.

Jim Joyce's miscall at first base may have cost Armando Galarraga a place in Major League Baseball history. But on Wednesday, June 2, 2010, by a member of the once-hated Detroit Tigers, history was made.

And this time, the call wasn't blown.