Sunday, June 01, 2008

Soccer: Congrats to Canada

(Photo from Ness at MLS Seattle: you can read his game recap here)

The Canadian national soccer team turned in a great performance against Brazil Saturday night in Seattle. They eventually fell 3-2, but they certainly proved that they deserved to be on the same pitch as one of the world's best sides (Brazil is currently ranked second in the world), something that even the stoutest Canadian fans might have questioned during the lean times. Really, the difference in the final score was only due to an ill-timed back pass from midfielder Julian de Guzman, who certainly shouldn't be treated too harshly: he had a brilliant game all around and scored a lovely second goal for Canada, proving why he's a deserving member of the side. Now, if only his brother was available as well...

Still, the overall impression from the game absolutely has to be positive. Canada also could have had another goal if Issey Nakajima-Farran hadn't missed an empty net on a breakaway: he chipped Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar brilliantly, but put the ball wide of the target. Overall, the Canadians, ranked 62nd in the world, hung right in there with a top-class Brazilian squad sixty places above them. This was by no means a throwaway side, which makes Canada's performance all that much better: it provided something frequently lacking in Canadian soccer, a real reason to hope. Consider de Guzman's post-match comments to Jim Morris of The Canadian Press:

"It shows Canada has taken it to another level," said de Guzman, who also scored a goal, forced the Brazilian keeper to make a good save on another shot, and was one of the best Canadians on the pitch.
"I think this is the best team we have ever fielded. We have something going for us."

Obviously, this bubble's too good not to pop. With that in mind, let's take some imaginary questions from the critics, who will undoubtedly spring up out of the woodwork within a couple days to dismiss the meaning of this match and crush the hopes of our nation of soccer fans once again.

Q: Mr. Bucholtz, you say that Canada was truly in the match and didn't look out of place. How do you defend yourself against charges of pure homerism?

A: An excellent question. Sure, I may be a little biased, but you don't have to believe me on this one. Consider the lead paragraphs from the aforementioned Mr. Morris' story:

A strong performance against one of the best soccer teams in the world shows the potential and promise of the men's national team as it ramps up for World Cup qualifying play.

Canada held its own in a 3-2 loss to Brazil on Saturday night in an international friendly played before over 47,000 fans at Qwest Field. If not for a bad pass by midfielder Julian de Guzman late in the game, and a miss on a clear breakaway by Issey Nakajima-Farran in the first half, the Canadians could have walked off the pitch with a tie, or maybe even the upset.

Q: Ah, but he writes for the Canadian Press! Clearly, he's got the same bias you do!

A: How dare you impugn the integrity of one of our sacred cows of journalism? Never mind, I expected this from you critics, so I present further corroboration:

- From Jim Jamieson of the Vancouver Province, a very experienced soccer writer who's usually on the Whitecaps beat, in his article entitled "Canada refuses to take back seat":

"It was also a tough result for Canada, which had enough chances in the first half to be up a goal or two on Brazil when the score was tied 1-1."

- And, some American third-party musings. From Jose Miguel Romero, the Seattle Times writer who frequently covers the Sounders:

"Saturday night in Seattle was supposed to be Samba Central, Brazil's place to party and deliver a pounding on the pitch.
Only someone forgot to tell Canada's national soccer team it was the poundee.
The Canadians almost spoiled the celebration of Brazilian soccer at Qwest Field. Almost. Brazil survived by a 3-2 final score, keeping intact its reputation as arguably the globe's preeminent soccer power in a match that thrilled the 47,052 who witnessed it."

- From esteemed Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley in a piece entitled "Brazil brings out the beautiful":

"For much of the first half the all-red Canadian team had the best of the run of play.
Canadian striker Rob Friend tied the game in the 10th minute, heading in a long, lovely service from Mike Klukowski. And a half-hour in, after some prestidigitous ballhandling from MLS All-Star Dwayne De Rosario, Issey Nakajima-Farran had the Brazilian keeper, Julio Cesar, down, but missed a wide-open chip shot."

- From Gregg Bell of The Associated Press in an article entitled "Brazil survives Canada 3-2":

"The No. 2 ranked team in the world continually gave up prime scoring chances to Canada before Robinho scored the go-ahead goal in the 63rd minute off a gift giveaway pass. Brazil then held on for an entertaining 3-2 victory Saturday night, the first of two exhibitions in the United States before its World Cup qualifying resumes.
Brazil looked vulnerable playing without injured star Kaka, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year who had arthroscopic knee surgery last week, plus marginalized veterans Ronaldinho and Ronaldo.
Canada nearly tied the game twice late. Star Dwayne De Rosario, who plays for Houston of MLS and has been demanding for years that his national team play games like this against world powers to accelerate its improvement, had an open chance inside the penalty area in the 80th minute. But his rushed shot sailed far over the crossbar and into the second deck of seats.
And in the 84th minute, Tam Nsaliwa dribbled between three Brazilian defenders to get open about 20 yards in front of the goal. But his shot hit the outside of the net.

- From Laurence Moroney of (no, not the New England Patriots running back), a piece titled "Canada fights valiantly in loss to Brazil":

"Despite being separated by 54 places in the FIFA World Ranking, Canada twice fought back from a goal down before valiantly going down to a 3-2 defeat to Brazil in an international friendly on Saturday evening at Qwest Field.
Featuring three MLS stars in their starting lineup -- goalkeeper Pat Onstad and forward Dwayne De Rosario of the Houston Dynamo and defender Adrian Serioux of FC Dallas -- Canada, which hasn't been to a World Cup since 1986, gave the five-time world champions all they could handle."

(Note: one issue with this piece; second to 62nd is 60 places, not 54.)

Hmm... doesn't sound too lopsided at all, does it?

Q: Well, clearly it was an inferior Brazil team. How can beating the scrubs prove anything?

A: Please. Sure, there was no Kaka, but he was the main omission: Ronaldinho has been in poor form lately even before his injury, and Ronaldo is spending more time at McDonalds than he is on a soccer pitch these days. There was plenty of talent in the Brazilian side, including the brilliant Robinho and Adriano up front, young star Alexandre Pato (who I got a chance to see in Montreal at the U-20 World Cup last summer, and who's certainly one of Brazil's best up-and-coming talents), and several other players who featured prominently in their 2006 World Cup campaign. Most FIFA countries would kill to have any one of these Brazilian players.

Q: How can you consider this a big accomplishment? It's a friendly, and friendlies don't mean anything! (Note: Out of Left Field's resident soccer writer Duane Rollins may throw this one out, as he's tried to use it on me before. It will be interesting to see if he uses the same logic to argue against a team he supports instead of for one. UPDATE: He did indeed use this logic again, so points for consistency of opinion: I can respect that, even if I don't agree with it)

A: The main problem with friendlies is the name. In fact, they are usually anything but friendly, and there is always plenty on the line. The younger players who get the cap want to impress their manager, while the veterans have to turn in a good showing to keep their spot. Soccer features a massive competition for places: you can only have 11 players on the pitch, and at least eight of them will play the full 90 minutes in club matches and international competitions. The size of the bench can vary from league to league, but FIFA's own rulebook states that the maximum number of substitutes on the bench is seven in any official competition. If you go with that maximum, that's 18 players in any particular squad at one time, and only 14 of them (at most) can appear in any one match. Most club sides have several more players named to their first team to provide depth, different tactical options and relief in case of injuries, or just to flaunt their wealth in the case of a certain London club (whose first-team roster currently boasts 26 players). When you factor in the talent on the reserve team, the young players in the academy system and the players out on loan, the crunch for playing time becomes even more pronounced. Thus, every time you step on the pitch, it had better bloody well be meaningful for you, or you'll soon find your spot on the pine stolen by some young whippersnapper who doesn't care that it's "just a friendly".

This is even more significant at the international level: yes, you can use more substitutes in international friendlies, but the squads are even bigger as a result. The key element that makes it so vital for players to consider international friendly performances as essential is the even-wider pool of players. Avram Grant only had to choose from 26 first-teamers: Fabio Capello could potentially choose any Englishman playing anywhere under the sun (or even those whose parents are English). Much of the country is watching, and fans from every club have their own players to argue in favour of. Think fantasy sports are big Stateside? That's nothing compared to the weekly "Pick the England squad" game carried out in pubs, offices, coffee houses, fish and chip shops and any other place you could think of. The English newspapers and tabloids devote more type to the various candidates than they ever would for an election. With that kind of attention on you and that kind of talent waiting in the wings, you're damn well inspired to put in a bloody good performance whenever you get the chance to step on the pitch.

England's the most extreme example, but you can bet those Brazilians who took to the pitch Saturday night had a lot to prove as well. Brazil is a soccer factory that churns out amazing players, and you can bet they want to don the blue and gold for their country. That's a tough club to crack, though, and some very good Brazilians have adopted other countries as their own after they couldn't make the national side (one example here). There are also big financial benefits to being an established international player: as I understand it, non-EU players must have played in three-quarters of their country's international matches and their country must be ranked 70 or better in the world for them to gain an EU work permit, required to play in the European leagues where the big money is. Exceptions are always made, of course, but being a regular fixture in your country's side can dramatically increase your earning power, and you can bet all the youngsters vying for your spot know that too. Satchel Paige's famous advice is very applicable to those competing in international friendlies: "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."

International friendlies also play a role in determining the FIFA World Ranking. Their importance has been diminished under the new system, but they still count, and that ranking comes in pretty handy when looking for a qualifying berth. Moreover, they serve as key "tune-up" matches to prepare for the grueling qualification process for the World Cup or the confederation championships. Yes, they aren't as important as an actual in-competition match, but they certainly aren't meaningless to the players or the managers involved, so there's no reason for journalists and fans to dismiss all friendlies as unimportant. Want further proof? Consider these comments from Canadian midfielder Dwayne De Rosario to Don Ruiz of the Tacoma News-Tribune.

“In terms of my play, friendlies are a thing of the past. Teams go to get results. The thing about friendlies is that they still go against your world ranking. Any time you have a chance to play a country internationally, the main focus is getting the result because it helps your ranking. The better rank you are, the better off you are. It’s a friendly to put it nicely, but the players know it’s going to be a battle. It’s a game that both teams want to win. I think Brazil is looking to just go and spank a team, which will build their confidence to prepare for their World Cup qualifier. We’re going in there to get a result, to get a win. Most importantly, it would be nice to get a win, say you beat Brazil, and build our confidence for our World Cup qualifier coming up in June. As a professional athlete, it’s not going to be a friendly. There’s nothing that’s going to be friendly about that game until after it’s all said and done. On the field, it’s business. We want to represent Canada well, and they want to represent Brazil well.”

Q: How important can this be if it was held in the U.S. and wasn't even televised until the next morning?

A: Ah, finally a criticism that hits the mark. Yes, the lack of television coverage was a problem: you would have thought Fox Sports World Canada or Setanta might have picked this one up, or even the Score. CBC was busy with their snoozefest of a Stanley Cup Final (where the most exciting bit of the whole broadcast was the aforementioned Bettman-MacLean interview), Sportsnet had a Blue Jays game (a pretty good one, which I abandoned the Titanic, er, the NHL to watch) and TSN couldn't care less about soccer (as we're frequently reminded whenever they pre-empt the Champions League for golf or curling).

Aside: Nothing annoys me more than TSN, my usual favorite of this country's motley crew of sports networks, buying the rights to one of the most desirable properties on earth and then replacing it with golf or curling. At least the curling is usually minorly important: once this year, they decided to show the freaking Par-3 Competition at the Masters (which wasn't even part of the tournament) on the main channel and bump the Champions League quarterfinals to the digital-only alternate feed. If I hadn't had access to the alternate feed, I probably would have thrown something through the TV, but even so, I only got to watch one of the two quarterfinals played that day.)

Anyways, it would have been great to see this on live television, especially after CBC's Soccer Day in Canada programming (which I watched from start to finish) earlier that day. Soccer Day in Canada was pretty good (the best part was the Dave Bidini documentary Kick in the Head, about soccer in Toronto), the afternoon Toronto FC game was great, and this friendly would have been a perfect nightcap. Oh well, we can't get perfection all at once, or there would be nothing to strive for.

The location is also a compromise. Sure, it would have been better to have the match in Canada, but Seattle has a great stadium for these kind of matches at Qwest Field (I saw Manchester United - Celtic there in 2003 and Real Madrid - D.C. United there in 2006). It's close enough to Vancouver that a significant amount of Canadian fans were able to make the trip, and there's certainly plenty of support for high-quality soccer in the area: 47,052 fans showed up. In any case, it's better to have it there than BMO Field, where less than half as many people could have seen such a great match. Edmonton's a possiblity, but it's nice to see some of these matches come where West Coast fans can see them.

Anyways, I'll try to rein in the enthusiasm a little bit. Sure, there's still a long way to go, and the Canadians have a very tough draw in the qualifying stage for the 2010 World Cup: if they get past St. Vincent and the Grenadines (likely), they'll have to face Jamaica, Honduras and Mexico in the group stage, with only two teams advancing. What this game (and the previous strong results at last year's Gold Cup) shows, though, is that we can play with the best. The gap is narrowing, and we've got what's possibly the best side ever to play for this country (not counting the 1904 Olympic gold medalists). If that's not reason to see a glimmer of optimism at the end of the long, dark tunnel, I don't know what is. Let's just hope that glimmer doesn't turn out to be an onrushing train.

Update: Related pieces:

- Ben Knight has a great take on this over at On Soccer.
- Duane Rollins disagrees with me on the importance of friendlies, but his take is still well worth a read.

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