From the brilliant to the frightful: a look back at 2010

Farewell 2010. A highly varied year for the soccer world. A World Cup year -- but it turned out to be a far from brilliant World Cup, one that, at the very end, was tarnished by a cynical and just plain dirty performance from the Dutch. They got what they deserved -- they lost -- and Spain, after promising so much for so many years -- was finally crowned world champion.

An honor abundantly deserved, but such is the current state of our sport, that it had to come after a dreadful game, indeed after an entire tournament, in which the Spanish were rarely able to show the world just how good a team it is.

Before the tournament began, the word was out -- don’t try to play against Spain, they’ll kill you. Just set up a defensive bunker and hope you can get a goal on a counter. The Swiss -- a pretty vapid team -- made that formula work in Spain’s very first game. So from then on -- coaches being the utterly unimaginative creatures that they are - everyone did the same thing. Except Chile -- and a big thank-you to coach Marcelo Bielsa for that. Of course, Chile lost -- but it went down, not fighting, but playing real soccer, and it and Spain between them gave us one of the liveliest games of this rather torpid tournament.

For the rest, it was Spain struggling to eke out 1-0 wins against Portugal, Paraguay and Germany. That unsatisfactory process continued into the disgraceful final -- and the disgrace was all down to the Dutch. Frankly, it should not have been beyond the power of FIFA to slap the Dutch with a huge fine for “bringing the game into disrepute” -- that is a recognized offense -- and doing it at the sport’s climactic event.

So, rounding up 2010 ...
• To be applauded: Spain, for never flinching, never abandoning its technical skillful soccer, not losing their heads under the Dutch assault tactics, and showing that good soccer can be winning soccer.
• To be ashamed of: all that nonsense about the Jabulani ball. The media was at its worst here, fueling a non-story with brainless reports and imbecilic quotes from, mostly, goalkeepers. That figures- - goalkeepers are never slow to make asses of themselves, and they really went overboard on this issue. Poor guys, they couldn’t keep track of the flight of the ball, it practically turned corners on them, they were helpless in the face of this diabolical ball, they’d be letting in goals all over the place. I did not read of one goalkeeper who was asked how it could be that this unpredictability would not also present a huge problem for the attacking players who, presumably, would have no idea where their shots were going. So -- were there more goals?  Need you ask? South Africa 2010 was the second lowest-scoring World Cup ever. That is a stat that ought to shut the goalkeepers up completely, but of course they are so used to yelling and screaming at everyone during an entire 90-minute game that they are, by now, unable to shut up. We can, no doubt, expect more buffoonery from these non-soccer-players.
• To be burned, in huge piles: all vuvuzelas. Preferably under FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s window.
• To be cherished: the simple sight of Lionel Messi in action. Brilliant, brilliant, and brilliant again. A little man, and that is already something to be enthralled by in this age when size and strength are ever-threatening to take over the sport. And a dribbler -- also something to treasure. But something to worry about, too. Dribbling is, to my mind, the core skill of soccer - the one that most typifies its beauty. But it is a skill that is constantly threatened because of the way the modern game is played -- the speed of the modern game, we are told, condemns the dribbler as someone who “slows the game down” (I’m sure you’ve noticed how Messi does that). And then there’s the tackling -- those swinging legs, those flying cleats, those stamping feet, that are always threatening any player who dwells on the ball. Just how this wonderful game has allowed itself to arrive at a situation where its most transcendent skill is threatened with extinction because of coaches -- and referees -- who are willing to indulge and to make excuses for the vicious tackling of technically-challenged defenders is something that needs addressing. So ...
• To be regretted: the overall refereeing attitude towards physical violence. This is not a criticism of the refereeing errors during the World Cup. A couple of them were pretty clamorously bad, true enough, but we have yet to discover the perfect referee. What I’m talking about is the willingness of referees to allow poor tackling; even when a referee does issue a caution, far too often we see him then unwilling to give the second caution. The worst aspect of this is seen, most often, in the English Premier League games, with referees opting out of giving cards, settling instead for a chat with the offending player. What is the referee saying? What can it be other than “Now that was really a bad foul, I’ll let you off this time ...” -- and where does the referee get the authority to issue feeble oral cautions for what are often pretty bad fouls?  I see nothing in the rule book that permits this weakening of the rules.
• Not to be repeated  please!:  Another MLS win by the dreadful Colorado Rapids. From the sheer bliss of watching Messi and Andres Iniesta and their superb Barcelona teammates in action, it’s only a channel switch to bring on the Rapids and their frightful version of soccer, all hard running and gritted teeth and sliding tackles and crunching collisions. Omar Cummings, the only player on the team who consistently displayed soccer skills, may well be on his way out. An excellent move on his part. The Rapids are not just a problem for those of us who have to watch them play some of the worst soccer ever played in MLS (you really are justified in wondering if they’re even playing the same sport as Barcelona), they are a huge headache for Don Garber and his MLS cronies. Not in a month of Sundays is MLS going to sell the utterly brainless banality of Rapids-style soccer to the American public.
• To be changed ASAP: ESPN spent a lot of money on televising the World Cup, a goodly proportion of it on non-soccer coverage of South Africa. The quality of most of the work on these fringe items was impressive. That was not the case when the soccer got on the screen and all those Brit announcers got going. We don’t need Brit announcers. American announcers could have done equally as well. They were not allowed to, by a soccer-ignorant ESPN hierarchy that apparently wanted the World Cup telecasts to come over like EPL games. Why they should want that, who knows.

One wonders just who ESPN sees as its soccer audience? For that matter, when the Brits Ian Darke and Steve McManaman do their stuff, who do they have in mind as the typical American viewer? I would suggest that they have no idea, that they have given it no consideration at all, and hence they make absolutely no attempt to modify their usual Brit approach, to even slightly Americanize it. ESPN is evidently satisfied with this approach. It should not be. Just a few days ago, we had Ian Darke at work on an EPL game. He was working with McManamam, their commentary being specifically for the USA. Yet Darke, trying to be funny, comes up with this: when the Chilean Jean Beausejour was fouled, both Darke and McManamam immediately start in with the standard English attitude that it wasn’t really a foul, with the accompanying implication that Beausejour had dived - “He is from South America, of course,” said Darke.

So all South Americans are divers, then Ian -- is that it? They are all cheats? Possibly Darke can get away with that sort of borderline racist remark in England, but it is surely unacceptable in this much more racially diverse country. Darke should be reprimanded for his gaffe. No, of course he won’t be -- my guess is that no one at ESPN who might be important enough to issue a rebuke is aware of Darke’s miscue -- because none of those people will be watching a soccer telecast.
• To be pondered: can FIFA really stage a World Cup in Qatar?  You bet - there will be no problem, because money will solve everything. Yes, I honestly believe that.

Where FIFA will have a problem is at the next voting for World Cup assignments. The vote has to be more open. At the very least, that means the voting can no longer be secret. If it continues to be a vote from the FIFA executive committee members, then we have to know how each member voted, and those members must be prepared to explain their vote. In my opinion, that is not enough - but it would be a start.

Then, the criteria for appointing a World Cup host must be clearly set out before the bid process begins, and not altered during the lengthy build-up to the vote. This is pretty much what happened with the voting for 2022. If, as is now claimed, it was an urge to take the World Cup to unexplored territory that motivated the vote for Qatar, that criterion (remember, it was important enough to have decided the vote - or so we are asked to believe) must be spelled out before the bid process begins. Not as something that must be part of a bid, but as a highly important factor. Had it been so indicated, would the USA or Japan or Korea have bothered preparing their multi-million dollar bids? These are contentious issues. Unfortunately, they are still overshadowed by an even more ominous problem -- that of corruption. After the revelations of vote-selling before this year’s vote, the feeling is still very much alive that FIFA’s voting procedure cannot be trusted.
• To be weighed in the balance: the USA’s performance in South Africa. Well, it certainly wasn’t bad. Should it have been better -- should the USA have beaten Ghana? Frankly, I don’t think so -- I think Bob Bradley’s team got as far as it deserved to get. Once all the fuss and uproar about disallowed goals had subsided, it was worth remembering that the USA had an enormous slice of luck in its first game, when England’s goalkeeper Robert Green absolutely handed Clint Dempsey the tying goal. And despite everything, the USA did top its group.

Bradley is still there -- will he be changing anything? I would hope so -- but I’m probably getting this wrong. Maybe we’ll see something new and refreshing against Chile later in January. But the January camp players called in by Bradley just look too darned much like, well, like Bradley type players. That midfield, which I always look at first ... and the name that leaps out at once is Jeff Larentowicz. Then Dax McCarty. And Eric Alexander. Names that do not suggest anything different from the standard, straightforward gung-ho college-style running game.

I do not expect anything too daring from Bradley -- he is not that sort of guy. But a genuine attempt to introduce some ball-playing skill into midfield would be nice. And if Bradley makes the point that there are no such American players, I would have to ask how it is that Mexican pro clubs are having a field-day recruiting Mexican-Americans -- some of whom would certainly fit that category.
• To be purred over, again and again: back to Messi and Barcelona, the most blindingly brilliant of highlights for 2010. This is soccer at its best -- the ball on the ground, dazzling footwork, wonderful passing, breathtaking dribbling, climactic goals, excitement and entertainment combined. As close to perfection as we’ve seen on a soccer field for quite a while now.

14 comments about "From the brilliant to the frightful: a look back at 2010".
  1. Daniel Clifton, December 31, 2010 at 9:09 a.m.

    I have to agree with most of what Paul opines in this article. The lack of enforcing the letter of the law is hurting the attacking players who like to dribble. These guys get injured alot. I am sure that is one reason why Landon Donovan does not stay on the ball with defenders around him, and consequently why he stays healthy.

  2. Mike Fredsell, December 31, 2010 at 9:44 a.m.

    Bob Bradley from the Bruce Arena coaching tree. Ever wonder why we can't win at any level in international soccer? That's because Coach Arena has infected the national team program with all of his buddies and the same mediocre brand of soccer. No creativity and no flair-why? Because they don't have a clue on how to coach the creative player. We will never compete at any level until we flush out the system we have today. Klinsman wanted to, he said we have to have a philosophy from the top down and that philosophy needs to be changed. But that would be an overhaul of the system. Creativity over direct physical play would mean new players at all levels and Gulati doesn't have the guts to do it. That's why we are stuck to another 4 years of Bob. Just remember the last game at the world cup. We are pressing for the tying goal and the Ghane players are tired. They keep fouling and end up giving up the Pk which tied the game and instead of keeping the pressure on them I see goood old Bob coming out to the touchline and telling his players to play defensive. So we defend for the remainder of the game and the ball never comes out of the USA end which puts all the pressure on our defense. Now we are in OT and our defense is tired and we get caught on a counter and we lose. So prepare yourselves for another 4 years of mediocrity.

  3. Gus Keri, December 31, 2010 at 10:19 a.m.

    So, Paul, the only good things about 2010 are Spain, Barcelona and Messi? Happy New Year, my dear.

  4. Benjamin Kowalsky, December 31, 2010 at 10:31 a.m.

    I know you have your opinion on what beautiful soccer is, or attractive attacking soccer, but the numbers don't warrant your condemnation of the team. You may think to yourself "Oh look, it's a Rapids' fan with his underwear in a bunch because I trashed his team."

    Let's face it, this isn't the first time you've done this.

    You want to know who plays bone crunching soccer? Dallas. That's right. Your precious Dallas team came in 6th in the league for fouls committed. And Colorado? 15th. Yeah. All the way down there at the bottom where you think we belong. Did you happen to watch any of the regular season games with Colorado? No. I wouldn't guess you did. You were probably too busy looking at pictures of Messi and getting excited.

    What about attacking? Oh yes. Colorado with their conservative tactics. I guess Shots on Goal would be a good statistic to look at, considering you have to be attacking in order to get a shot on goal...

    Colorado and Dallas are tied on that mark. Both have 141 shots on goal for the year.

    The only thing you can really say about Colorado is that they play direct soccer, preferring to dribble, hold, and pass only when a direct channel becomes available. For comparison, Dallas prefers to pass the ball indirectly until it ultimately gets where they need it to be.

    Dallas also likes to play the ball when its offside more, compared to Colorado who rarely play an offside ball.

    Now, you might prefer indirect to direct soccer. That's your bag and you can stick to it. You seem to be a Barcelona fan, so I'd expect that you'd want teams you like to play a style you're familiar with. But don't go sticking a thumb in the eye of teams that don't play your style of ball and presume to call it terrible. That's spitting on the players who work hard on their game, the coaching staff who spend hours pouring over tactics, and the fans who come out to watch.

    If you don't like direct soccer, don't like it. But don't put indirect soccer up on a pedestal and call everything else atrocious. We can't all be Barcelona, nor should we all aspire to be Barcelona.

  5. James Nilius, December 31, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    Paul, Please move to the other side of the lake so that you can watch the soccer that you love, and leave the MLS Champions (as ugly as they are) to those of us that support the sport in the US. I do not recall your trashing Real Salt Lake last year when they too won the Eastern championship and went on to win the Cup.

    Can you really be serious bringing up the New York Cosmos and then compare the Colorado team to them? Really, seriously, in the same breath, article, universe??

    You state, "The game was won by the Colorado Rapids, who must be the worst team ever to win the title. They do, as it happens score goals. They were the second highest-scoring team in MLS. But they are still an almighty bore."

    Excuse me, but the game is based on who scores the most goals, not who scores the prettiest goals! Paul, in your world, why not work with the Ice Dancing sport so that you can have 5 judges grade for pretty??

    I still prefer the goals, and if you do not like the Rapids, how about you get with the owner and ask him to fold the team? He doesn't spend money on the team anyway, not like those old Cosmos did. Or even your Red Bulls. I really think that he is trying to figure out how to move Arsenal to the MLS. Which sounds like it won't make you happy either.

    I have been a season ticket holder of the Rapids for many years now and never, until mid-season this year, would I ever have bet that they would win the MLS.

    Gary Smith, great coach, especially for the Rapids. Took a bunch of 'ugly' and won the league. I look forward to a repeat next year. And they did it without the $$$$$$$ that your pretty teams and the Cosmos did. If this is what is all ugly about the game in the US, so be it!

    Pizazz! Yea, the Cosmos had it. Along with name recognition.

    In my youth several of us drove from Omaha, Nebraska, to St. Louis, MO to see Pele and the Cosmos play. Sounds kind of blue collorish though. Oh wait, I am OK with that.

    Paul, what is the color of the sky in your world when you actually compare the Cosmos at their peak to anyone in the MLS??? Especialyy my CHAMPION Rapids.

    I will shut up now as my mom alsways used to say. If you can't say sopmething nice, . . .

    Advise I wish your mother had told you Paul!

    How about you come to Denver and watch the MLS recognize the 2010 Cup winners at the first game next year, March 19th, against a former NASL Team, Portland Timbers. Hey, maybe they will have that pizazz that you are so looking for.

    Me, I'll take my goals over pretty anytime. In fact blue-collor is not a bad thing either!

    Paul, please move to that place that you enjoy, as it is not the states. And when you do, please put away the pen as well. If I want to hear ignorant bitching about soccer, I will read the local sports writers who know absolultely nothing about the game. They have an excuse, what is yours?

  6. John Foust, December 31, 2010 at 11:34 a.m.

    An opinion: there are many good dribblers and passers, but what I've observed that distinguishes the great teams and players from the rest is the ability to trap, to keep the ball within 1-3 feet of yourself receiving the pass. When you see the excellent passing teams, there are many good passes on the field, but the excellent team retains possession by keeping the ball from being intercepted off the poor trap. As well, the touch to be able to redirect on a "1-2" to catch the receiver in full stride makes for true offensive success. Of all the akills various players display, these two seem to jump out to distinguish the superb from the mediocre. And these two skill sets are woefully lacking in US ploayers at all levels as a general matter, with the notable exception of the Hispanics such as Torres. His touch and control so far outweigh the rest of the US squad that he cannot fit into the kind of team Bradley assembles. Just some thoughts ...

  7. Herbert Schwarz, December 31, 2010 at 12:17 p.m.

    Happy New Year to the staff of Soccer America!
    And to you and yours, Paul Gardner!
    I am a most passionate soccer fan from Austria. I never tire of reading your wonderful articles! I so much appreciate your perspective, which has been greatly enriching my soccer experience. I'm launching my Soccer & Music Promotions company next year and, of course, I'll be advertising with Soccer America.
    God bless you all!
    Yours in soccer,
    Herb Schwarz
    Herb "The Herbmeister"
    MC of Oktoberfest at Old World in Huntington Beach, CA since 1983! is under construction.

  8. Donald Ehrenreich, December 31, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

    Paul, I've been away from the formalities of US Soccer and sitting on the sidelines and attempting to as you say, watch the game as it is played in most of the 'other' countries of the world. I agree, that run and gun style soccer isn't rated number 1, and just how long will it be for the US Soccer fan to see the real answer to your concerns, the combination of pretty and direct???? And if you want to see how 'nation building' takes place in sports, just look at college basketball where, I believe, recruiting the skilled players to fit a coaching philosophy, makes all the difference in the game as it is played out. Maybe Coach Mike K from Duke, could teach some of our soccer coaches about recruiting????

  9. Robert Kiernan, December 31, 2010 at 9:59 p.m.

    I've gotten used to the fact that regardless of where they are from ESPN tends to hire the wrong people, I mean do you really want to listen to J.P. Dellacamera either? or Harks? or Lalas? They had Balboa and Wynalda who might actually have said that things weren't looking too good and of couse they FIRED THEM in favor of the ones who would be cheerful and bable away mindlessly. Whenever I hear Dellacamera talk about what "Might" happen as opposed to what actually WAS happening in any given match I tend to wish that there was a mute button on the announcer that left the crowd noise intact.Glenn Davis has always been a MUCH better play by play guy than the others because he knows when something happens to INTERRUPT the blather and do what is needed, CALL THE DAMNED GAME!!

    As far as the physical play...well if Mr. Webb had given DeJong the straight red card that was clearly called for instead of a simple yellow for managing to stick his clets directly in his opponents mid chest WHILE HE WAS STANDING UPRIGHT, well the Dutch would not have been able to play in that sufficating manner,this was clearly and directly the fault of the OFFICIAL on the field, players do what they are allowed to do!
    The team I ENJOYED most was the Germans, until they got cold feet against the Spanish, it was they who passed the ball around and TOOK SHOTS, the Spanish promissed much, but really delivered far less than they were capable of. It comes down to the Referees not taking action both against divers and against serial foulers like DeJong!

    We did get lucky against the English, but then we got oh so lucky by the draw and the schedualing as well.How would we have played if Dempsey was used as a Striker rather than as a somewhat lazy midfielder? How would we have played if instead of slavishly playing Findley and Altidore we used Gomez or Buddle, we'll never know because Sponge Bob didn't try it.How would we have fared if Edu started instead of Clarke and his pulled hanstring? What if Torres or Holden had been allowed half as much lattitude as Michael Bradley? Yes Bradley scored against Slovenia, but it was also Michael who decided to go forward AFTER Torres had done so as well that allowed Slovenia to score their second goal.So Torres was benched for good after that first half, the one where he had the only legitamate shot!
    No I think under a different coach who could admit that bringing half crippled defenders and starting Gooch when he so clearly was NOT up to the level needed would have had a better shot at beating Ghana, but again we'll never know! This World Cup was a perfect storm in our favor and we still managed to just barely claw our way into the knock out round and yes I blame most of this on the decisions of Banel Bob and his sicaphant coaches!


  10. Jacob Bamford, January 1, 2011 at 8:53 a.m.

    I love the fact the author has a strong opinion on so many things. It is refreshing to hear someone that will state what they believe, right or wrong, without writing to score the next interview or locker room entry.

    That said, there is much to contend with Mr. Gardner's treatment of the game, and much to agree with. His treatment of keepers seems like an ancient beef he had with one in 2nd grade made manifest in a verbal assault on all of them. He speaks later of racism as pertains the British treatment of the Chilean dive. Racism is a gross and disreputable act--to be sure and should be challenged. But at the core it (racism) is a generalization. One that has gone wild, well, we hate what we are most like often times, and his treatment of keeper is weak and generalized for certain.

    So, to shorten this up--thank you sir for having the guts to state your opinion, and I also would guess you have the guts to hear opinions contrary to your owm. For me, that is the best state of affairs and best for our game, not to mention the larger more important venue of life.

    Best regards.

  11. Robert Kiernan, January 1, 2011 at 9:59 p.m.

    Well say what you will, but the fact remains that the ball DID behave strangely and it was clear that few of the FIELD players had the control that they normally would have shown when trying to shoot or cross with this new ball it wasn't just a matter of the goalkeepers complaining after the fact. But it was a World Cup so there HAD to be a new ball that the sponsors could market world wide... the fact that it had an impact on the game itself was far less important than that it could be sold to every person in every corner of the globe. It's interesting to note that the team that seemed most at home with this new ball were the Germans who had been USING IT in their league for the season BEFORE it was introduced to the rest of the world... it might be a coincidence, but I tend to doubt it. As far as diving goes, well Chile were hadly the worst offenders...I'd give that to a certain superstar from Portugal who could drop like he was poleaxed if anyone got anywhere near him... but being a star, well he only got a single Yellow for trying to play the Referee... now a player like Messi clearly NEEDS to dive a bit because the officials simply do not do a strong enough job of protecting him from the hacks, but that said... again this is as much a reaction to the officials failing to control a match as much as to the players trying to keep from becoming casulties to the DeJongs of the game.
    Now to the idea that Qatar can stage a World Cup in the middle of the hottest part of the year in a desert...well sure they can... but as far as whether many FANS WILL FEEL COMFOTABLE GOING TO WATCH THESE MATCHES... well, hey who gives a rat's rear what they want, this clearly is all being done for television in Europe anyway and it will make some people even more of course it will be a "success" just won't likely be much "good"...I hope people have fun watching the ladies in Brazil because I tend to feel that things are NOT going to be quite as openly festive in Doha! (...Australia should have won this bid!)

  12. Brian Something, January 3, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.

    I think the World Cup’s play-by-play announcers were all quite good (Martin Tyler, Ian Darke, Derek Rae and I think Adrian Healey). It was their analysts, except for the solid Robbie Mustoe, who were awful... and that includes American John Harkes. Gardner always says that Yank announcers would do just as well as the excellent play-by-play quartet above but he never says who. The only decent American announcers are Glenn Davis, Kyle Martino and Greg Lalas. The rest range from mediocre (JP Dellacamera, Max Bretos) to the god awful (Brian Dunseth, Christopher Sullivan). Who do you want, Paul? Name names.

  13. Steven SIegel, January 3, 2011 at 11:27 p.m.

    "Ever wonder why we can't win at any level in international soccer?"

    Well, we won our group in the World Cup.

    We beat Spain in the Federations Cup.

    Unless of course you mean the 'secret' definition of winning.

  14. James Harris, January 4, 2011 at 4:06 p.m.

    Soccer America reported that there is 1 US player
    whose Premier League team is above .500 which mirrors the ratio of quality US soccer announcers.

    Give it a rest Gardner. Not everyone is as smart as
    you pretend to be. The most vital missing element of ESPN's coverage was that Gary Lineker and Alan and Alan weren't seen and heard in the US.

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