A lifetime of attending soccer practices has left me totally jaded about such activities. Well, that's something of an exaggeration, it's hardly been a lifetime. It just seems like it. Sheer tedium.
So why bother? Maybe because there's a chance to chat with players or even -- holy of holies! -- the coach afterward.
I tend to regard training sessions in the way that I feel sure
people watch NASCAR or Formula I racing, They can't, surely, be fascinated by seeing the same thing for lap after lap, circuit after circuit. They have to be waiting for something more dramatic, like
a shunt or a pile up.
Much the same with soccer practices. Maybe something like that will happen -- a player might get injured by one of his teammates, or there'll be a bust up, maybe a
scuffle, possibly even a punch will be thrown. Beyond that, sheer boredom.
So I find myself totally compromised when a coach decides to have a closed practice. Compromised because I
object to the whole idea of a closed practice and the banishing of the media (particularly in this country where the sport needs all the ink it can get). Compromised because I'm not interested in
watching the session anyway.
A classic example came, I hear (I wasn't there) when the USA played Cuba in Havana recently. Banality Bob Bradley, in his wisdom, decided to hold a closed
practice -- even though the open nature of the field made such a thing impossible. So the Cuban coach and his players could, if they wished, get a full view of the proceedings, while the American
journalists who had made the trip were sent packing. Brilliant.
A more recent example came at MLS Cup last month. A bunch of journalists, myself included, were hanging around the edge of
the Home Depot field as the Red Bulls did whatever they were doing. We were told we had to leave, as the "closed portion" of the training session was about to begin. We were ushered up the tunnel. We
went, not very far, and we stopped. That was not far enough, so we retreated a yard or two. At that point it probably dawned on the security guys, or whoever they were, that this was getting
ridiculous. So we stayed maybe 20 yards into the tunnel, from where we could easily see what the Red Bulls were doing.
Mostly we chatted. I cast an occasional glance out at the field, and
each time -- as far as I could make out -- the Red Bulls were practicing defending corner kicks. Or maybe taking corner kicks. Or, logically both things at the same time. I didn't see anything that
struck me as demanding secrecy.
In the game the following day, the Red Bulls lost because they gave up a headed goal on a corner kick. They allowed defender Chad Marshall -- and you
didn't need a closed session to identify him as a scoring threat on corners -- an unchallenged header, and the game was over.
Which raises two possibilities. Either sneaky Sigi Schmid had
a spy into the stadium, or closed sessions are a crock of you-know-what. I like the first idea, but I'll go with the latter explanation.
But the corner kick routine does raise a point.
Does anyone practice taking corner kicks these days? I don't mean simulating game situations, I mean is there any such thing as a corner kick specialist who can, consistently deliver a good corner
kick? Which also means: are there players who spend hours and hours perfecting that technique -- it is after all, something that can be practiced in splendid isolation, no teammates are necessary. All
the guy is learning to do is to deliver a ball every time to somewhere close to the penalty spot. Forget this twaddle that the TV commentators like to go on about, belaboring us with platitudes about
inswingers and outswingers -- the swing of the ball is irrelevant if its accuracy is lousy.
As it happens, this is one area -- about the only one -- where David Beckham escapes criticism,
because he regularly delivers dangerous corners. Beyond him, in MLS, in Europe, in the world -- corner-kick taking is a disaster.
Yesterday, I watched Pachuca play LDU Quito in the Club
World Cup. Pachuca had played well, it had the majority of possession, it had the most shots -- but it was losing 0-2. As the clock ticked down Pachuca was all over LDU -- you got the feeling that one
goal would quickly be followed by another. Between the 82nd and the 88th minute, Pachuca had five corner kicks, all on the left wing, all wasted. No. 1: headed out at near post. No. 2: looked like it
was going to land on the bar -- the LDU goalkeeper tipped it over, to make sure -- an easy play. No. 3: dreadful -- low, straight to the first defender, who kicked it out for No. 4: a short corner,
which got nowhere (a not unusual fate for short corners). No. 5: another awful kick, easily headed out by the first defender.
All five corners were taken by the same player, Damian
Alvarez, so presumably he is the specialist. But this was pretty poor stuff. Not one of them presented any sort of threat to the LDU goal.
Anyway, the guilty player, Damian Alvarez, is an
attacking player who scores goals. Why was he taking the kicks? Why wasn't he on the other end of the kicks, in the box where he could use his scoring skills? But Pachuca is far from the only team
that regularly screws up corner kicks, or that uses goalscorers to take them.
Without any stats to back up my opinion, I'll stick my neck out and assert flatly: Nobody practices the art
of delivering an accurate corner kick these days.