Tag Archives: First

2018 World Cup Group Stage: Draw Time

World Cup Draw

It’s right there on FIFA’s website on how much it took to determine the 32 qualifiers for next year’s World Cup: thirty months, six confederations, 209 teams, 868 matches played, and 2454 goals scored. All 31 available berths up for grabs were decided by November 15th. December 1st was the day to decide the four teams for all eight groups for the World Cup.

Qualifying for the World Cup is already enough of a battle. The respective continent’s confederations contested their matches conducted their own qualifying format for deciding their qualifiers for the World Cup. There were even two countries that qualified via a ‘wildcard’ berth where they’d have to play a team from another continent twice. The thirty-two qualifying countries were all decided more than two weeks ago. The qualifying rounds made a lot of news for those that qualified, but those that didn’t got a lot of news of their own too. The second-round qualifying matches for the CAF saw two of Africa’s best-ever teams–Nigeria and Cameroon– pitted against each other. Only one can qualify and it ended up being Nigeria. Another surprise was the Ivory Coast being surprised by Morocco and Ghana being overtaken by Egypt. Asia didn’t have many surprises, but Qatar finished last in the Second Round group. Not good since they will be hosting in 2022. The CONMEBOL almost saw the non-qualification of Argentina, but they recovered to win their last game and qualify. Instead the most shocking non-qualifier was 2015 and 2016 Copa America winner Chile which was third the day before the final game for all teams.

The biggest shockers in qualifying came from the CONCACAF and Europe. On the last day of CONCACAF qualifying, all the USA needed to do to qualify was beat Trinidad and Tobago in their last game. It was something they could do as Trinidad would finish last of the Final 6. Instead the USA lost 2-1. That was enough for them to kiss their qualification chances goodbye as Panama beat Costa Rica 2-1 to qualify and Honduras beat Mexico 3-2 to earn a berth in the interconfederation playoff against Australia. Europe had some of the biggest shockers as The Netherlands didn’t even qualify for a UEFA playoff round and Italy thwarted their playoff against Sweden losing 1-0 the first game and a scoreless draw the next. Russia 2018 will be the first World Cup since 1958 in which Italy didn’t qualify and only the third World Cup ever with Italy absent!

Now enough of this World Cup’s also-rans. On with those that qualified. Twenty of the 32 teams for Russia 2018 played in Brazil 2014. Brazil makes it 21 for 21. All former World Cup winners except for Italy will be present. The team with the longest absence making a return to the World Cup stage in 2018 is Peru whose last World Cup appearance was back in 1982. There are only two countries that will make their World Cup debut in Russia: Iceland and Panama. Iceland is especially noteworthy as it has become the first nation with a population of less than 1 million to qualify for a World Cup! Actually there aren’t even half a million people living in the nation of Iceland so that makes it even more remarkable.

Now onto the draw. The draw was held Friday at 18:00 Moscow time at the Kremlin. Legends from all eight countries that have won the World Cup in the past were present: Laurent Blanc, Diego Maradona, Gordon Banks, Cafu, Miroslav Klose, Fabio Cannavaro, Diego Forlan and Carles Puyol. Gary Lineker was host of the event and Russian legend Nikita Simonyan was also part of the event, Vladimir Putin was defintely in attendance, an d the Igor Moiseyev Ballet provided the performance before the draw.

Now on to the draw. In the past, FIFA has organized the pots to give appropriate correlation with continents and availability. FIFA wants the eight groups of four to be a case of no more than two European teams and only one team of the other confederations. There are fourteen European teams (UEFA) including host Russia, five South American teams (CONMEBOL), three teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF), five African teams (CAF) and five teams from the AFC (Asia and Australia).

FIFA also wants to create better parity among the groups. FIFA doesn’t want a case of two or three top-ranked teams in a group as only two can advance past the Group Stage. We all remember the dreaded Group D of 2014 which consisted of three top-ranked teams. This time around FIFA decided to break the draw into four pots of eight. The pots are all based on the teams’ FIFA World Ranking as of October 2017, regardless of continent. The only exception being Russia as the host nation is always automatically in Group A. Here’s how the pots break down with their confederation listed and their ranking in brackets:

POT 1:

  • Russia – UEFA (65)
  • Germany – UEFA (1)
  • Brazil – CONMEBOL (2)
  • Portugal – UEFA (3)
  • Argentina – CONMEBOL (4)
  • Belgium – UEFA (5)
  • Poland – UEFA (6)
  • France – UEFA (7)

POT 2:

  • Spain – UEFA (8)
  • Peru – CONMEBOL (10)
  • Switzerland – UEFA (11)
  • England – UEFA (12)
  • Colombia – CONMEBOL (13)
  • Mexico – CONCACAF (16)
  • Uruguay – CONMEBOL (17)
  • Croatia – UEFA (18)

POT 3:

  • Denmark – UEFA (19)
  • Iceland – UEFA (21)
  • Costa Rica – CONCACAF (22)
  • Sweden – UEFA (25)
  • Tunisia – CAF (28)
  • Egypt – CAF (30)
  • Senegal – CAF (32)
  • Iran – AFC (34)

POT 4:

  • Serbia – UEFA (38)
  • Nigeria – CAF (41)
  • Australia – AFC (43)
  • Japan – AFC (44)
  • Morocco – CAF (48)
  • Panama – CONCACAF (49)
  • South Korea – AFC (62)
  • Saudi Arabia – AFC (63)

As you can tell by the pot arrangements, they’re trying to make the contest as balanced as possible.In addition, FIFA knows the top seeded teams are Team 1 in each group–host nation being Team A1– but FIFA still wants a drawn ball in all cases to make it official, even drawing the order of the last group team drawn. That explains all those red balls at the beginning of the draw; to make defaults official. Confederation rules still apply as far as maximums per group. Pot 1 had six UEFA teams and Pot 2 had four. It could have been a case where four groups could have reached their maximum two for UEFA teams by the time Pot 2 was all drawn out. Instead it was just two groups with UEFA berths completed. Drawing teams and placing them in the right groups was not as hard and tedious as I had anticipated. In the end, all eight groups had their teams drawn and allotted with only minor complications which were sorted out with ease:

GROUP A:

  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Egypt
  • Uruguay

GROUP B:

  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Morocco
  • Iran

GROUP C:

  • France
  • Australia
  • Peru
  • Denmark

GROUP D:

  • Argentina
  • Iceland
  • Croatia
  • Denmark

GROUP E:

  • Brazil
  • Switzerland
  • Costa Rica
  • Serbia

GROUP F:

  • Germany
  • Mexico
  • Sweden
  • South Korea

GROUP G:

  • Belgium
  • Panama
  • Tunisia
  • England

GROUP H:

  • Poland
  • Senegal
  • Colombia
  • Japan

So those are the groups for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It makes for some interesting analyses. The draw usually tries to make for the host nation to have an easy time qualifying to the knockout phase. Russia has a good group with only Uruguay looking to be a real threat to them. Group B is most interesting not because of the challenge of the teams, but of the geography: Spain, Portugal and Morocco! The draw was aimed so that there could be better parity among ranked teams, but there are possibilities of a ‘Group Of Death’ or two. First bet is Group D; Croatia and Iceland are underdogs that can cause a surprise, and Nigeria meet Argentina for the fifth time out of six World Cups. The second potential Group Of Death could be Group F with Germany and Mexico plus possible upsets coming from either Sweden or South Korea.

And there you go. That’s the Final Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The teams now have six months to prepare themselves and be among the top two to advance. Lots of excitement guaranteed.

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Super Bowl 50 Preview

super-bowl-50-hero

DISCLAIMER: Seeing all the hits made in the past week to my Super Bowl blog from last year prompted me to publish my pre-Super Bowl blog earlier than expected. Just to let you know my prediction could change in the days leading up to the Bowl.

Can you believe this will be the 50th Super Bowl? For some who are old enough to remember the first, it would be hard to believe. Nevertheless this American ritual will be having its 50th on Sunday February 7th at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. This year it’s the AFC’s Denver Broncos versus the NFC’s Carolina Panthers.

THE START OF AN AMERICAN TRADITION

1st Super Bowl

An image of play during the first ever Super Bowl where the Green Bay Packers (in green) beat the Kansas City Chiefs (in white) to become the first ever winners.

The Super Bowl actually came out of a league rivalry. The NFL began in 1920 but there was an AFL, the American Football League, that formed in 1960 and it provided some heated rivalry with the NFL. In 1966, a merger was worked out between the NFL and the AFL in which would take full effect in 1970. In the meantime, both league’s top teams would compete in a ‘World Championship’ event.

The first Super Bowl which was actually called the ‘First AFL-NFL World Championship Game’ was held on January 15, 1967 in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The NFL team was the Green Bay Packers led by Vince Lombardi. The AFL team was the Kansas City Chiefs. NBC had the rights to broadcast NFL games while CBS had the rights to broadcast AFL games which meant both networks could show the first Super Bowl: the only Super Bowl which was telecasted by two networks at once.

There was a halftime show but it wasn’t the show as we know it. The show featured trumpeter Al Hirt with the marching bands of the University of Arizona and Grambling State University followed by the release of 300 pigeons and 10,000 balloons and a flying demonstration by the Bell Rocket Air Men. There was also pregame entertainment and performances after each quarter from the Los Angeles Rammettes. The game was held on a sunny day with 22º Celsius (or 73º Fahrenheit) weather and the game was won by the Packers 35-10. Interesting fact: the players of the winning team the Packers were each paid $15,000 and each player of the Chiefs were paid $7,500. Oh yeah, the cost of airing a 30-second commercial was $42,000.

Lombardi

Legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi is congratulated after his team won the first ever Super Bowl. They’d win again next year.

Over time the Super Bowl would grow in both ratings and stature. The Packers’ win in the second Super Bowl, which would be the first Super Bowl by name, would add to the legend of coach Vince Lombardi. Ratings would grow considerably, the cost of airing a 30-second commercial would also grow hugely, marching band performances during the Halftime show would eventually be replaced over time first in 1976 by the ensemble Up With People–the first of four Super Bowl appearances for the ensemble– and would follow with performances by Disney, Michael Jackson, New Kids On The Block, Aerosmith and of course the infamous duo of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. The Super Bowl is now watched over 100 million Americans. In fact last year’s game amassed a record US audience of 114.4 million viewers. It’s even attracted viewers worldwide with a total worldwide audience of 160 million last year.

IT’S SHOWTIME

Okay. So what does this year’s Super Bowl have planned? For starters, let’s focus on the stadium. The host venue will be the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the home venue for the San Francisco 49ers and the newest stadium of the NFL. It took over two years of construction to complete at an expense of $2 billion. It has a regular capacity of 68,500 that can be expanded to 75,000 which will of course happen Super Bowl Sunday. As of press time, it has not been decided who will sing the national anthem.

Oh yes, the half-time show. Two months ago it was revealed that ‘multiple acts’ will perform in the show. Remember the alleged financial fiasco last year that led Coldplay and Rihanna from balking out of last year’s show? Well Coldplay agreed back in December to perform this year and be the headlining act. Two headlining acts from past Super Bowls Beyonce from Super Bowl XLVII and Bruno Mars from Super Bowl XLVIII, have been confirmed by Pepsi that they will also be performing.

AND NOW A WORD…

Yes, the Super Bowl ads. Every Super Bowl provides us with memorable ads like Mean Joe Greene’s Coke And A Smile, Apple’s 1984, McDonald’s Jordan/Bird hoops showdown, the Budweiser frogs, Mr. Old Spice and Volkswagen’s Darth Vader ad. Last year is most memorable for a commercial remembered for worse thanks to Nationwide Insurance. That commercial about the boy who died in the car accident sparked a social media outrage because most felt it interfered with their enjoyment. Nationwide responded they did the ad to start conversation.

Much to many people’s relief, Nationwide does not appear to back advertising this year. Advertising for a 30-second spot will come at the expense of $5 million. Surprisingly this will be the last year Anheuser-Busch will be advertising multiple ads during the game at a steep discount as part of their contract. This is also the tenth and last year Doritos will have their ‘Crash The Super Bowl’ contest to allow viewers to air their ads. The Pokemon Company will be airing an ad to celebrate their 20th anniversary and QuickBooks is sponsoring a contest to allow ten businesses to air their commercial during the game. Also expect a lot of movie companies to plug their upcoming releases.

THE LOW DOWNSuper Bowl 50

Now enough of the hype. Let’s get down to the game. One thing about this Super Bowl is that with it being the 50th, it will be known as Super Bowl 50 instead of Super Bowl L. Also with it being the 50th, the winning team will not only hold the Super Bowl all year but will also receive an honorary 18-karat gold-plated 50 weighing 66 lbs. The game will pit the AFC winner Denver Broncos against the NFC winner Carolina Panthers. So how do they fare?

Denver Broncos

The Broncos are no strangers to the Super Bowl. This Super Bowl makes them the fourth team ever to make a record eight Super Bowl appearances. They’ve only won twice, back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. Hey, there was a big long AFC dry-spell which the Broncos broke.

This year the Broncos were one of three teams in the AFC including the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots that had a 12 win-4 loss season this year. The Broncos came out on top because of less points conceded. The season started with a new head coach in Gary Kubiak and John Elway, who helped the Broncos win both Bowls, continuing as general manager. There were 15 departures and more than 30 signings and three trades and eight signed in the NFL draft.

The Broncos started their regular season on a stellar note winning their first seven games. Their only losses came against the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. During the AFC playoffs, they were able to avenge their loss to the Steelers by winning 23-16 and won the championship against the New England Patriots 20-18.

This has been an excellent year for the Broncos. No doubt about it Peyton Manning is still on even after a tear in his foot back in November and the defense is the admiration of the league. However I saw the AFC game and I saw both the Broncos and the Patriots commit a lot of fumbles and clumsy errors. I was tempted to think neither of them deserved to qualify for the Bowl. Whatever the situation, the Broncos will have to get their game on for the big day.

Carolina Panthers

While the Broncos know how to play in a Super Bowl, the Panthers are almost like rookies. They’ve only played in the Super Bowl once and it was back during Super Bowl XXXVIII where they lost to the Patriots. This year they deliver what could be their best team ever. Heck if there’s one team that could truly call this year their year, it’s the Panthers.  Winning their first thirteen games, they set an NFC record for best start of a season and one of only three teams in the NFL’s history to have a 13-0 start. Their only loss of their regular season games came from the Atlanta Falcons. On top of it, this was Cam Newton’s year as he became the first quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns and rush for 10 in a single season. As for playoffs, they faced a stiff challenge from the Seattle Seahawks but won 31-24. However it was their NFC Championship game where they really put on a show by beating the Arizona Cardinals 49-15.

If you saw that game against the Cardinals, you could tell that the Panthers were on fire. They committed few errors and delivered team play like no other team. On top of that Cam Newton looked like the player of the year. However they have not played the Denver Broncos so they might know what type of defense they have. As for Panthers’ defense, they faced a setback in Sunday’s game as Thomas Davis broke his arm. Even though he’s undergoing rehab and plans to play in the Super Bowl, it’s still a question if he’ll be healed in time to play.

MY PREDICTION FOR THE WIN

This is not going to be easy. One’s experienced in Super Bowl play while one is more eager than ever. The Broncos have the top defense but the Panthers have the offensive edge. This could be a game where Peyton Manning ads to his legacy or the game where a new legend by the name of Cam Newton arrives. Sure, the Broncos won in clumsy fashion on Sunday while the Panthers were brilliant but that was one day. Super Bowl Sunday could tell a different story. So I will predict that Super Bowl 50 will be won by the Carolina Panthers 25-20. Plus it’s always a delight to see a team win a Super Bowl for the first time ever.

And there you have it. My thoughts on Super Bowl 50. Should be a delightful game. The entertainment both on the field and during commercial time should also be memorable and hopefully very entertaining. Both teams’ fates will be decided Sunday February 7th.

 

 

 

VIFF 2014 Review: Love At First Fight (Les Combattants)

Les Combattants is an unlikely romance between a girl with a tough attitude and a boy who's more sensitive.

Les Combattants is an unlikely French romance between a girl with a tough attitude and a boy who’s more sensitive.

It was all a result of timing and availability for when I was able to see Love At First Fight or Les Combattants (working title in the US is Fighters). Even though it’s nothing too special, I’m glad I saw it.

Arnaud is a young Frenchman who works for his family’s contractor job in a French coastal city. That all changes when he does work in a family’s yard. He meets Madeleine, a young woman who’s beautiful but has a tough-as-nails personality. It’s tough because she has ambitions of being in the French army. Arnaud on the other hand is more sensitive. Sensitive enough to care for a stray ferret found in the yard.

The first meeting doesn’t go so well. They have as squabble and he bites her! The second time he thinks she’s crazy because she swims with a backpack full of ceramic shingles. Nevertheless he’s still drawn to her despite her negative attitude towards him. He even has army ambitions of his own. However it interferes with the family business while they still have a lot of jobs to do.

The two eventually do things together. However she still maintains a tough hard-as-nails attitude towards everything from a harmless ferret to even nightclubbing. He himself joins the army. The two help each other out and challenge each other along the way. Then an incident happens that causes Madeleine to run away. Arnaud soon finds her. However it’s once they’re out of the training area that they start to reveal their true feelings to each other. Finally Madeleine’s love for him comes out. However all fun ends when Madeleine suffers from food poisoning and Arnaud tries to take her to aid while the town they’re in is engulfed with smoke from a forest fire. The film ends predictably but not as fluffy as your typical Hollywood romance.

This film is an example of how France is making movies of their own. Sure the French are famous for making films. This would qualify more as a movie. Nevertheless there are some film qualities. One is the lack of a score in the background. Yes, there is background music at times but the film is mostly scoreless to get the environment of the story. Even though it’s not as artsy as your typical French film, there are some elements such as when Madeline hits Arnaud during a paintball exercise. Some could say it could resemble cupid shooting an arrow through his heart. Even the place of gender roles as the girl is the hard-ass one compared to the boy can be a French element in film.

As a movie, it’s good. However it’s not all that  attention grabbing. It does have a story that can keep one interested once they watch more of the movie but only in that case. One thing I will say is that it does come across way more sensible than most teen romances, especially those from 20 years ago.

The film is devoid of big-name actors, even from France. Nevertheless they did impress. The young actors did well too. Adele Haenel was best as Madeleine. Madeleine could have come across as this stockish hard-ass army girl but her character had dimension to it. She was able to make the transition into the more sensitive feelings of her character very smoothly. Kevin Azais was also good in his role even though he wasn’t given too much of a role to work with. This is the first feature length film by director Thomas Cailley. This film for which he also co-wrote the script with Claude Le Pape is a good story and a good first effort and should lead to more promising work in the future. I can easily see the story itself being made into an American version.

Love At First Fight or Les Combattants is a good young adult romance even if it lacks what would normally bring young adults to the screen. Still it will keep your intrigue.

2014 World Cup Group Stage: Luck Of The Draw

The stage was set Friday to decide the eight First Round groups for next year's FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

The stage was set Friday to decide the eight First Round groups for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

You could say it took a lot to determine the 32 countries that qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup: thirty months, six confederations, 204 countries or teams, 820 matches, and a total of 2303 goals to decide the 31 berths up for grabs. Finally on November 20th, all thirty-one berths up for contention were all decided. However deciding the eight groups of four for the Group Stage was also another tricky matter. Yeah, just when you thought it would get easier.

Yesterday, the eight First Round groups were decided at the Costa de Sauipe resort in Bahia. It was broadcast live around the world. I myself saw the live telecast at 9am my time. The draw to form the eight groups for each World Cup involves a process with a lot of thought: four countries per group with continental separation. That would mean each continent other than Europe would have only one of their countries in a First Round group. Europe by means of fielding thirteen berths this World Cup would have a maximum of two countries per group. That’s always been the case since the World Cup expanded to 32 countries back in 1998.

The respective continent’s confederations contested their matches conducted their own qualifying format for deciding their qualifiers for the World Cup. There were even two countries that qualified via a ‘wildcard’ berth where they’d have to play a team from another continent twice. The thirty-two qualifying countries were all decided more than two weeks ago. Seeded teams which I will talk about later are in italics:

  • Host Nation: Brazil
  • South America: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay
  • Europe: Belgium, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland
  • Africa: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria
  • The CONCACAF (North and Central America, Caribbean): Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, U.S.A.
  • Asia: Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea

That list of qualifiers does provide for some interesting notes. Australia has played for the Asian confederation (AFC) since 2006 because of its superiority in Oceania’s confederation (OFC). Also Spain, the defending World Cup nation, still had to play qualifying matches as the defending World Cup team no longer qualifies its own automatic berth: a FIFA rule in effect starting with the 2006 World Cup.

Dividing the groups into four teams of appropriate continental separation would include something else involved: a seeded pot. Host Brazil was already allocated to Group A: a FIFA regulation in effect starting with the 2006 World Cup. Each of the other seven groups would have to have one of the teams amongst the Top 7 of FIFA’s World rankings from October 2013. In order from 1st to 7th, they were:

  • Spain
  • Germany
  • Argentina
  • Colombia
  • Belgium
  • Uruguay
  • Switzerland

There always was a seeded pot for drawing groups for the World Cup that would involve a complicated system involving a multitude of ranks, previous World Cup places and other factors. This time around the seeding was just on that one FIFA ranking list. Sure, it was odd to see countries normally not amongst the top seeds like Belgium and Switzerland in the mix but finally creating a seeded pot was that simple.

The pots meant for continental separation amongst the groups were not that easy. One easy element was that Pot 3 consisted of teams from Asia and the CONCACAF: continents that both fielded four berths. As you could tell, the seeded pot consisted of three South American teams and four European teams. That’s where complications and confusions would arise as Pot 2 would consist of Africa and South America. Pot 2 ended up with seven countries since three of South America’s five berths were seeded teams. Pot 4 consisted of the nine non-seeded European teams. So how do you solve this problem of those pots with the continental maximums?

Yeah, explaining continental limits and parities is easy. Making it happen in the groups this year is the hard part. So FIFA under Sepp Blatter decided to make the following procedures to even it up:

  • Draw one European team from Pot 4 and place into Pot 2 for four even pots of eight with the teams assuming the first position of their group.
  • Draw from Pot 1 to decide the first teams for Groups B to H.
  • Draw amongst the four seeded South American teams and place the drawn out team in auxiliary pot  ‘Pot X’ for the sake of continental separation.
  • Place the European team drawn out of Pot 3 with the South American team from Pot X.
  • Draw from the remaining pots to determine the other qualifying teams.
  • After the Pot 1 teams were drawn, draw the positions of the teams of the other three groups as the draw goes group by group.

Yes, it’s hard to make sense. It’s hard to explain. And it’s hard to make it all work out. It’s not like the last World Cup where there were five seeded European teams and you’d easily have a European pot of eight. Nevertheless it was accomplished. The European team from Pot 3 that was drawn out first was Italy. The seeded South American team that was put into Pot X was Uruguay which was already drawn to Group D. That would mean Uruguay and Italy would both be in the same group. The remaining teams would also be drawn out evenly.

So after all that confusion and fretting, all the First Round groups were drawn out. The parity and continental separations took place as FIFA wanted it: maximum two European teams and maximum one team from the other continents in each group. So here are the eight First Round groups for the 2014 FIFA World Cup:

Group A

  • Brazil
  • Croatia
  • Mexico
  • Cameroon

Group B

  • Spain
  • Netherlands
  • Chile
  • Australia

Group C

  • Colombia
  • Greece
  • Ivory Coast
  • Japan

Group D

  • Uruguay
  • Costa Rica
  • England
  • Italy

Group E

  • Switzerland
  • Ecuador
  • France
  • Honduras

Group F

  • Argentina
  • Bosnia-Hercegovina
  • Iran
  • Nigeria

Group G

  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Portugal
  • U.S.A.

Group H

  • Belgium
  • Algeria
  • Russia
  • South Korea

The group set-ups sure have gotten a lot of people talking. Some people have noticed that some groups are so tightly put together, it’s hard to declare the one group to call the ‘Group Of Death.’ Some are stating it’s Group D with Uruguay, England and Italy. Some are saying it’s Group G with all four of its teams being top contenders. Some are even saying it’s Group B with their very first match—Spain vs. Netherlands—a re-contest of the 2010 World Cup finalists.

Whatever the situation, all 32 teams have to be ready to face their Group Stage opponents and put their best foot forward if they want to advance and be the last team standing that wins the 2014 World Cup. The world will be watching from June 12th to July 13th. I myself will be doing group-by-group reviews on my blog in the weeks leading up to the start. Stay tuned for more action.

Documentary Review: First Position

Rebecca Houseknecht gets ready something more than a dance competition in First Position.

“You have five minutes of stage to prove why you deserve this chance.”

I went to see First Position a week or two back because I wanted to finally make use out of movie tickets for a certain cinema I won during an Oscar party. I’m glad I did. It’s a unique outlook on the art of ballet dancing, the children that aspire to excel, and the Youth America Grand Prix competition which is a potential ticket for many futures in the dance. It left me with a surprising outlook and I now know more.

Before I go into reviewing First Position, I’d like to explain the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) competition. The competition was created in 1999 by two former dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet. The competition is not just a top dance competition but a potential ticket to futures in dance. Many dancers are awarded scholarships to various renowned dance academies from around the world. The total value of scholarships are estimated to be $250,000 annually and they range from summer intensives to full-year schooling. Dancing jobs are also offered from renowned ballet ensembles worldwide. Many dance companies have considered this competition a ‘game-changer in dance’ or a ‘dancer’s marketplace’ ever since it began.

As for the YAGP competitions, they consist of semifinals contested in twelve American cities and five foreign cities and the finals in New York. The individual competitions are divided into three age divisions: pre-competitive (11 and under), junior (12-14) and senior (15-19). The junior and senior divisions have Grand Prix awards and the pre-competitive division has a Hope Award. Medals are awarded in each age division with men and women separately. There are also competitions in Pas de Deux and Ensembles with medals awarded. There are also special awards given out at the end.

The YAGP may start with an annual total of 5000 dancers competing in the semifinals and almost 300 dancers in the finals in New York City annually but the movie focuses specifically on six in the 2010 competition:

-Rebecca Houseknecht, 17: The Maryland teen is a self-described ‘princess’ and has an obsession with the color pink. She’s been dancing and competing her whole life. Now that she’s on the verge of graduating high school she wants to dance professionally. Competing at the YAGP could open the door for opportunity. Nevertheless she’s nervous since she knows chances are slim.

-Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16: A Colombian so good at dancing, he had to move to the renowned The Rock Dance Academy in Philadelphia to improve his skills. Ballet is his passion. He receives a lot of support from his family and frequently talks with them from thousands of miles away. He’s hoping to become a professional dancer but is now chasing a scholarship from a top academy.

-Michaela DePrince, 15: A refugee from Sierra Leone who was shunned in an orphanage as the ‘devil’s child’ for vitiligo discoloring her skin. She carried a picture of a ballerina with her during her days in the refugee camp and dreamed of being that woman. Adopted by a white American family at age 4 along with another girl from the refugee camp, she looks back at her past saying: “It’s a miracle I’m even here.” She’s come this far training at a top professional school but wants to take things further.

-Miko Fogarty, 12: The daughter of a Japanese mother and British father, her mother was a dancer in her native Japan and she took to the love of dance instantly. Unlike most children who are either influenced or forced into things by their parents, she shares the same love of dancing as her mother and a special bond with her.

-Aran Bell, 11: A real-life Billy Elliot. It’s a surprise that this ballet prodigy is the only dancer in his family. An American boy living in Naples, Italy where his military father is stationed, Aran trains at a renowned school in Rome. Being 11 doesn’t excuse him from training over 30 hours a week, but Aran loves ballet enough to commit himself to it.

-Jules “J.J.” Fogarty, 10: Miko’s younger brother. He too is very skilled of a dancer but he doesn’t seem to be the dancer type his sister and mother are. He lacks the passion shared by his mother and sister but will he continue on or give out?

Throughout the documentary, there are many factors about the life of a young ballet student. One starts when a judge says “Kids who are pursuing ballet as a career give up their childhood.” Even Michaela will acknowledge: “You’ve been working your body to death since five.” We see the childhoods of all six. All six may train an excruciating number of hours a week but they all have time for fun, even those that are home-schooled or take correspondence learning. Rebecca points out she has fun with friends and a boyfriend: “I feel I lead a pretty normal life”. We see Michaela talking and eating with her friends. We see Aran play catch and skate on his skateboard. He has a BB gun, toy cars and many teddy bears. Miko herself says: “I think I’ve had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.” Maybe children pursuing dancing do have a childhood. Just a different one than most of us.

Other themes about ballet enter the picture in the film too. One is the importance of the family dynamic in supporting the child chasing their dream of dancing. They may be lucky like Michaela and Rebecca to live near a top notch school or they may be like Joan Sebastian’s family whom Joan only sees a few times out of the year. Nevertheless the support is evident for all in an art that involves a lot of time and a lot of money. Another is the difference between loving dance and liking it. It becomes evident with J.J. as he admits that he likes dancing but doesn’t love it enough to devote the huge number of hours any longer. Viewers may have even sensed that at the beginning. Another element included is race and gender. Michaela talks about the flack she hears like: “blacks lack the grace to excel in ballet.” Joan Sebastian mentions of an African-Cuban ballet dancer as his idol and inspiration. Aran keeps his dancing private from his classmates: “A lot of men think ballet is not what it is.” On the other hand Joan Sebastian’s six year-old little brother wants to be a dancer just like Joan.

As the competition progresses from the semifinals to the finals, we also see other aspects of ballet come to light. One is highlighted in a conversation with Rebecca and her dancing friends about the competitiveness of the dancers. She mentions how when she gives a compliment, many react to her with suspicion. The funny thing is while many people believe ballerinas to have snobby catty personalities, all the dancers profiled in the movie have very likeable personalities. Another aspect is dancers and eating. To the surprise of many, all the dancers featured have big appetites and admit to eating a lot. There’s been a lot of talk about dancers and eating disorders but the dancers’ eating reminds us that a dancer with an eating disorder like anorexia won’t have the energy to train or perform well. So good eating is necessary. Another aspect is dancing injuries. They range from blisters to pulled muscles to inflamed toe joints to popped knees to the unspeakable. It shouldn’t surprise you with training 30 or more hours a week. What would surprise you is that dancers are expected to perform with the injuries and still make it look pretty. That could lead to further aggravation. Many dancing careers have been cut short because of injury. Surprising how watching ballet performances are beautiful but the training part has a lot of ugliness.

Yes, the film shows a lot of themes and aspects of ballet as it goes from showcasing the training to the home life to the competition. Competition has some aspects of its own. First is the semifinals held in the various cities. As I mentioned, a total of 5000 dancers try out in the semis to become amongst the 300 that qualify for the finals in New York. They show all six competing in their own semifinal competitions but the most eye-catching were that of Miko, J.J. and Aran. Miko falls during the first performance in her semifinal. Her mother always blames herself whenever Miko falls. Nevertheless we’re made aware that the judges like a good recovery. Miko performs well during the second performance and she qualifies. J.J. also qualifies as he’s given special consideration for his age. Even though Aran is American, he competes in the European semifinals. We’re also introduced to Aran’s friend from Israel. Her name is Gaya Bommer and she’s a dancer trained by her mother. They form a special friendship even though they’re miles apart and Gaya can’t speak any English.

One thing we should remember is that the semifinals are held anywhere from two to six months before the finals. A lot can happen within that time. That’s the time when J.J. decided to quit ballet. This breaks his mother’s heart as he quits before the finals. Miko and the other dancers continue on. Nevertheless some face their own pressures. Joan Sebastian returns to visit his family in Colombia. It’s a warm homecoming visit. The family is from modest means. They know dancers have a short career life but they encourage Joan to chase his dream. Rebecca still hopes for the YAGP to be her chance for a dancing job with a company but we hear from her mother that many companies have either hired less new dancers or let go of some existing ones. We’re even told by a judge at the beginning that there are many dancers but few will get good work dancing. Then Michaela faces an aggravated foot injury. It’s starting to flare up shortly before the Finals. She’s uncertain if she will perform well.

Then the 2010 YAGP finals take place. There are anywhere from 200 to 300 dancers from around the world competing in both individual and group competitions. The film focuses solely on the individual competitions. Two things the film showcases about the finals outside of the featured dancers’ performances is firstly how international the competition is. There are dancers from a multitude of countries competing here even though most of the semis were held in the US. Another is how even in a tight competition like this, bad steps, stumbles and falls do happen. Reactions from the dancers are not pleasant at all. One teen male was seen backstage walking silently angry over his fall. Another girl’s instructor reacts with frustration after her fall. Another young boy bursts into tears at the end of his performance. We’re also told by one of the dancers that hitting or missing at the YAGP could actually hurt one’s chances of getting their career. A reminder that while the YAGP has become a game-changer as a dancer marketplace, it’s also a game-changer for one’s reputation in the world of dance. Yes, the YAGP is a competition a lot like a sports competition but it included the same cruel unforgiving attitude of showbiz mixed in.

Then it’s time for the featured dancers to perform. Both Aran and Gaya are magnificent. Rebecca also dances well. Joan Sebastian flies brilliantly. However the performances with the biggest interest were Miko and Michaela. Miko displays the confidence and the flawlessness that was missing from the semifinals. And Michaela performs excellently and gracefully as if the injury wasn’t there. After the dancing is over, it’s time to award the prizes and the scholarships. You can find out the results of those over at the YAGP website. I’ll just say some were rewarded with prizes and some were rewarded with scholarships to renowned academies. Those with scholarships looked forward to a new life and for better things to come. Those that won prizes continued on dancing preparing for next year’s competition. J.J. had since been pushed into academics. His mother told him if he won’t shoot high in dancing, he’s left to shoot high in his schooling. As for Rebecca–SPOILER WARNING–she was the only one of the featured dancers who left the competition without a prize, scholarship or a job offer. We learn in the epilogue she was later offered a job at a Washington Dance Ensemble.

One of the best qualities of this documentary is that it doesn’t just simply take you into the lives of the participants but makes you want each of them to achieve. We see in front of our eyes how much dance means to them. It’s a given. If they’re born to do it and they love it enough to work hard at it, it’s natural for one to want them to excel at it. Even though we’re reminded of all the odds, we still want them to succeed in the end because we feel they deserve it. Director Bess Kargman is a former dancer herself so she has first-hand knowledge of all the odds and ends of training and competing in dance. The YAGP started long after her childhood ended but she still knows of all the right elements to place in the movie such as the training, the outside factors, the semifinal highlights, the time in between and the finals.

She succeeded in giving the audience a look at the struggles, the ugliness, the stresses and the triumphs from the dancers’ points of view. It will surely open a lot of people’s eyes about what it’s like to be a young dancer. Also it’s interesting how a lot of moviegoers got a perception of the ballet world after seeing Black Swan. The movie had some truth to it but not all of it is completely true. Even with the dancers shown here, none of them appeared to be as insecure as Nina. They all had their own issued but they were all likeable, confident and exhibited high self esteem. This documentary sure changed what I thought about kids in ballet. The film also got me interested in next year’s YAGP.

Another thing that’s unique about this documentary is that it’s one of few that one can bring their children to see. There were children in the audience when I attended and that’s a good thing. I feel any child who sees this will learn a lot about dance and competing. Most girls dream of being ballerinas. This will show them that to be successful in ballet you not only have to dance as light and pretty as a swan but have a body of steel and a will of iron to make it. Most girls dream of being it. Few are willing to put in the hours and years to achieve it. Also it shows that boys who want to make it not only have to have the same iron will but a thick skin to the common negative stigma associated with boys in ballet not just from other boys but some adults too. It’s the Billy Elliot story all too often. All the boys shown here love it too much to quit over any teasing. The father of The Rock dancer Derek Dunn, who’s a former YAGP winner, said: “I have to say I never expected my son to be a dancer but I couldn’t be prouder.” Here’s to those boys.

First Position is not only an eye-opener of a documentary but it’s engaging to the audience and even exciting especially when the audience shares the same passion as the dancers. Definitely a documentary worth seeing.

Also in case you’re interested in the Youth America Grand Prix itself, the official website is at: http://www.yagp.org/ YAGP 2013 semifinals have already started with the first semis, the South American semis, being held in Santos, Brazil as I speak. Also next year’s finals will be held in NYC on April 12th to 17th. A good chance to catch the future of dance.