Tag Archives: soccer

Rio 2016: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

I admit I’ve come to accept it after the Sochi Olympics. Since the late-90’s Canada has become a winter sports superpower but field a very good Summer Olympics team. In past Olympic Games, both Canada’s summer and winter teams were on the same levels. Very often the summer team would outperform the winter team. That has changes since the late-90’s as you can tell by the medal totals with each Games.

However it’s not fair at all to say our Summer Olympic team is lousy. Here in Canada, we have a lot to deliver. The 2015 Pan Am Games and the recent World Championships in various sports have shown we have a lot of athletes in contention. Sure we only won a single gold out of our 18 medals back in London but we have a solid team this year. Sports Illustrated predicts Canadians to win a total of seventeen medals including four gold.

Anyways you saw my focus on foreign contenders in Rio yesterday. Without further ado, here are the seven Canadians of focus:

Brianne Theisen-Eaton – Athletics: The last time a Canadian woman won a gold medal in track and field was in 1928 and that was the very first Olympics track and field events for women were contested! Canada was one of the best countries in women’s track and field in 1928 winning two of the five events and two additional medals. Yeah, what has happened since? Well the drought could very well be over. When Brianne Theisen graduated from high school, she went to the University of Oregon and it was the best decision. She represented Canada in London and finished 11th. She would later marry American decathlete Ashton Eaton and she’s been on a roll since finishing second at the last two World Championships. She also won the Goetzis HypoMeet this year with a points total that’s the highest of 2016 and has propelled herself as the favorite. She will face stiff rivalry from defending Olympic Champion and reigning World Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill and Worlds bronze medalist Laura Ikauniece-Admidiņa of Latvia. 2016 could just be Brianne’s year. Also look to see if Brianne and Ashton become the first married couple since the Zatopeks in 1952 to both win athletics golds in the same games.

Shawnacy Barber – Athletics: Canada is not known for its pole vaulters. Our last Olympic entry was back in 1992. Our only two medals in the men’s event came all the way back in 1908 and 1912. That can all change thanks to New Mexico-born Shawn Barber. He didn’t qualify for London at the tender age of 18 but his talent was obvious that year as he already broke the Canadian record. He has improved in both his vaulting heights and his competitive consistency over the years and even won the World Championship last year. He even vaulted six metres for the first time ever during an indoor meet this year. He will face challenges from defending Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie of France, American newcomer Sam Kendricks and even home-country threat Thiago da Silva. Whatever the situation, Barber is sure to deliver.

Brooke Henderson – Golf: Here in Rio there won’t be any new sports on the program but there are two sports that were part of the Olympic program in the past that were cancelled out. The two returning sports are Rugby, albeit in Sevens format, and Golf. Golf was contested at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. The last Olympic gold in golf was won by a Canadian: George Lyon. Professionalism may have a lot to do with that. Since there’s now no such thing as ‘amateur’ anymore, it seems right that golf returns especially since it’s international enough. Canada has a strong shot at winning through 18 year-old Brooke Henderson. Already displaying a combination of talent, drive and youthfulness that has best been seen in the past through Se-Ri Pak and Nancy Lopez, Henderson has already won three LPGA events. Her last two– the KPMG women’s PGA Championship and the Cambia Portland Classic–came this June and propelled her to 2nd-place World ranking. She’s a heavy favorite to win in Rio but she will face challenges from World #1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, latest American great Lexi Thompson and last year’s British Open winner Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand. Win or lose, Brooke has a bright future ahead of her.

Mark de Jonge – Canoeing: Until 2008, there were the 500m and 1000m events in flatwater canoeing for men. In 2012, the program replaced the 500m events with 200m sprints. That has worked for the advantage of Canadian kayaker Mark de Jonge. The Calgary-born Dalhousie grad won bronze in London the first Olympics it was contested. Since then, de Jonge has moved up in the ranks from silver at the 2013 Worlds to gold at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds. De Jonge will face challenges from France’s Maxime Beaumont and Sweden’s Peter Menning who finished second and third to him respectively last year. It could just well be de Jonge’s moment here in Rio.

Rosannagh MacLennan – Trampolining: Ever since trampolining has been introduced to the Olympic program in 2000, the Canadian team has left each Olympics with at least one medal. The women’s event has always had a Canadian medalist with Karen Cockburn winning 2000 bronze, 2004 silver and 2008 silver. In London, Rosie MacLennan became Canada’s first ever Olympic champion in trampolining. Rosie also had the bizarre distinction as being Canada’s only Olympic champion at those Games. Rosie has since won the 2013 World Championship and finished second the following year. She found herself out of the medals in 2015. She plans to return to her winning form in Rio but she will face the rivalry of 2015 champ Li Dan of China and two Belarussians: 2015 bronze medalist Tatiana Piatrenia and Hanna Harchonak. 2016 will be the arena for her to prove herself on top again.

Brittany MacLean – Swimming: Canada is known for its medal-winning swimmers. Sports Illustrated predicts Canada to win no medals. However one that could prove SI wrong is distance freestyler Brittany MacLean. The Etobicoke native who swims for the University of Georgia has a reputation in the distance freestyles with a 7th place finish in the 400 in London. However she was too injured in the 2015 season and had to miss out on the Worlds. This year, MacLean has the 6th-fastest time in the world in the 400 free and the 4th-fastest in the 800 free. Sure the distance freestyles are where Katie Ledecky is all the talk but Brittany MacLean just could win Canada’s first Olympic medal for a female swimmer since 1996. That feat could also be achieved by backstroker Kylie Masse or butterfliers Penny Oleksiak or Noemie Thomas. Actually Canada has its strongest women’s swim team in a long time. While the men’s team could only qualify ten swimmers. Looks like it’s the girls’ turn to shine.

AND ONE TEAM:

Canada’s Women’s Soccer Team: I’ll admit I didn’t review them when I did my pre-Olympic preview for London. And good reason why not. Back at the 2011 WWC Canada lost all three of their Group Stage games. However the turnabout the team made under the new coach John Herdman was evident as the team left the Olympics with the bronze medal. Their performance won the hearts of so many Canadians, I referred to them as ‘Our Girls.’ Canada has continued to show consistency with a quarterfinal finish at the 2015 WWC. Since then, the team have won most of their games losing only to Brazil, Denmark, USA and France. Canada won this year’s Algarve Cup and 19 year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan was named the best player of the tournament. They’re not expected to win a medal in Rio but the team could just surprise the world again like they did four years ago.

And there you have it. My review of Canadian athletes to look out for in Rio. Notice that I reviewed the four Canadians Sports Illustrated predicts to win gold? Whatever the situation, I’m sure they’ll do our country proud.

 

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Canada 2015 Shows How Far Women’s Football Has Come

The Women's World Cup only started 24 years ago.

The Women’s World Cup was contested for the first time only 24 years ago.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup starts today. It will be a competition between 24 countries and broadcast to billions worldwide. An enormous event and a huge celebration of the sport but it was a long time coming.

ITS ROUGH BUT HOPEFUL START

Back in the early centuries when football was just invented and games were being played for leisure, women were welcomed participants. There was even the British Ladies Football Club founded in 1894 but was frowned upon by the predominantly male society and received no financial support. Men saw it as a threat to the ‘masculinity’ of the game. A stigma that surprisingly still exists today.

An English women's football team from 1920. Hard to believe the FA banned them for decades!

An English women’s football team from 1920. Hard to believe the FA banned them for decades!

Women’s football saw an increase during World War I and the men were off and fighting. However women’s football received a blow in 1921 when the Football Association (the FA), outlaws the play of women’s games on FA-associated pitches. Despite that, the English Ladies Football Association was formed after the ban was instituted.

It wasn’t just England that looked down upon women’s football. Many other countries would look down too. Once again the stigma of the ‘masculinity’ of the game. Even Brazil had a case where women’s football was growing up to 40 teams in the 1940’s until it too was banned. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1979.

WOMEN’S FOOTBALL  GAINS STRENGTH

You can’t keep the desire down. The FA’s ban on women was eventually dropped in 1971 shortly after the Women’s FA was founded in 1969. In North America while soccer was starting to grow in popularity around the beginning of the 1970’s, girls teams were organized along with boys teams. That may explain why the US and Canada do well. In the 1980’s, women’s national teams were formed like the U.S. team in 1985 and the Canadian team in Winnipeg on Canada Day 1986 (July 1st). Japan became the first country to have a female semi-professional league: the L-League founded in 1989 that still exists today.

A WORLD CUP AND OLYMPIC GOLD EMERGE

As women’s national teams were emerging, FIFA knew they had to do something to encourage the competition but were reluctant to give women their own World Cup. In fact FIFA organized the FIFA Women’s Invitational Tournament in Taiwan in 1988. It was actually a test to see how successful of a competition it would be. Contested over two weeks, it was a success and weeks later, FIFA approved implementing a Women’s World Cup competition.

The 1991 US women's World Cup team: the first ever Women's World Cup winners.

The 1991 US women’s World Cup team: the first ever Women’s World Cup winners.

The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in China back in 1991. FIFA was still reluctant to call it the World Cup so it was called the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&Ms Cup. Twelve countries competed in six venues across the country. Ticket sales were a success with a total of over 50,000–an average of almost 20,000 per match–and the U.S. won the Cup with their teammate Michelle Akers the highest scorer of the tournament with 10 goals.

The success of the 1995 tournament helped paved the way for further World Cup competitions and women’s football being added to the Olympic program starting in 1996. The 1995 World Cup in Sweden however was met with lackluster success as ticket sales were only above 112,000: a sign that women’s football had a long way to go in Europe. Things looked a lot more positive with women’s football contested at the Atlanta Olympics the following year. Despite having only eight teams playing for the gold, ticket sales totaled almost 700,000 including 76,489 for the final which the U.S. won.

Brandi Chastain's shirtless celebration from USA 1999. One of the most iconic images of the Women's World Cup.

Brandi Chastain’s shirtless celebration from USA 1999. One of the most iconic images of the Women’s World Cup.

It’s no wonder the U.S. hosted the next World Cup in 1999. The U.S. really did an intense job of marketing the event and it paid off. Ticket sales totaled over 1.2 million– more than double that of China 1991 and ten times that of Sweden 1995– and the Rose Bowl Stadium was sold out for both the third-place match and the final for the Cup with 90,185 each.

The Women’s World Cup would have continued success over the years. Even if none of the successive tournaments have broken the attendance record of USA 1999, they’ve still given impressive results such as the 1.156 million who saw games in China in 2007. The 845,000 tickets sold during Germany 2011 showed Europe’s increasing welcoming of women’s football even though the top male continents like Europe and South America still lag behind that of Asia and North America.

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Despite the increase of fanfare and support in women’s football, it’s still lagging behind in terms of parity with the men’s sport. It’s not like tennis, golf, athletics or swimming where female athletes are almost on par with the men. Nor is it like figure skating or gymnastics where the women actually steal the show from the men. There are many countries that still see football as a ‘men’s sport’ and the women are given lackluster attention. There was even a row last week when EA sports video games announced in their FIFA 16 game, women’s players would be included for the first time. There were a lot of sexist tweets on Twitter, overshadowing the 98% of tweets that were positive and welcoming of women’s inclusion in the game.

Nevertheless great strides have been made over the years. Since the 1990’s there have been women’s continental tournaments like the Women’s Euro and the Copa America Feminina. Professional leagues in Europe like the Bundesliga, Premier League and France’s Division 1 have included a women’s league and top men’s team have included women’s braches of their team. England even contests the FA Women’s Cup annually. Women’s football is still supported well with high school teams and NCAA college teams. The MLS has also included female branches of teams. In Brazil, Marta has become a beloved athlete of the country and has even received welcome from other male players like Pele and Neymar whom describes Marta as ‘craque’ (Portuguese for phenomenal).

FIFA also has a special section of their organization focusing on women’s football dedicated to improving the game and its availability to young girls and women around the globe. Every World Cup since 1995 there has been a symposium on women’s football and this year’s symposium is slated for Vancouver from July 3rd-5th. This year FIFA included campaigns such as the Live Your Goals social media campaign through the #LiveYourGoals hashtag. Another FIFA campaign is the ‘No Barriers’ campaign through video commercials. Its goal is to increase the global number of young girls and women playing football form 30 million to 45 million by the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

There’s no question man’s football has no further to go. It’s already universal and the most popular sport in the world. Women’s football is still growing but never before has the future of women’s football looked more ambitious and more promising.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Women’s Association Football. Wikipedia.com. 2015. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.<Women’s Association Football>

Oxenham, Gwendolyn. “Pele With A Skirt: The Unequal Fortunes Of Brazil’s Soccer Stars” The Atlantic. 4 June 2015<Atlantic Article: Neymar and Marta>

My World Cup Experience: Trophy Tour

As you can tell, I’ve been excited about the Women’s World Cup coming. It was a long time in anticipation. This was actually the last weekend before the World Cup is to begin this Saturday in Edmonton. With it came the Trophy Tour concluding in Burnaby. I had the good fortune to visit that afternoon.

120The FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy tour was a tour that happened in twelve cities across Canada including the six cities that have the venues for the Cup. The purpose was to showcase the World Cup encased in glass. The tour also allowed for other things too like a chance to learn more about FIFA’s goals in women’s football and to learn more about the Cup and its 24 years. There were also games and giveaways as well as music and an appearance from the mascot Shueme. The final stop of the journey was Vancouver. The event took place at Burnaby’s Metrotown: the biggest shopping mall in all of Greater Vancouver. Sunday morning was my one free chance I had to go see it. I’m glad I did.

THERE’S ALWAYS A LINE-UP

A week or two ago, I saw something from the Coca-cola web page on the tour saying there tickets through Ticketmaster available. At that time, I instantly thought you needed a ticket to see the trophy. I agreed to a ticket. They came at no cost so I really lost nothing. I arrived at the area in Metrotown where the event was supposed to take place–the lower level where Toys ‘R Us and T&T Groceries are– and I saw the line up. Most didn’t have a ticket. It wasn’t really needed. It may have helped for some getting to see the Cup sooner but it wasn’t needed. For kids too impatient to wait in line, there was a foosball table in the outside area.

Meeting with mascot Shueme made the wait in line easier.

Meeting with mascot Shueme made the wait in line easier.

I actually forgot my ticket at home so I ended up waiting in line. I arrived at 10:55: five minutes before the event was to begin. I could see volunteers setting up. I could see Shueme in the waiting area. Then at 11am it all began. Music was playing and the line was actually moving faster than I thought. Shueme actually left the event area and was walking around the Metrotown concourse including around the outside foosball table. Yes, they had a foosball table out in case people got too bored waiting. Fortunately she came around where I was standing. I told the volunteer I hope to get a picture with her when she returns to inside. The volunteer actually offered to take the picture right there. It was great.

VIEWING THE CUP

Here I am with the Women's World Cup!

Here I am with the Women’s World Cup!

It wasn’t even half an hour of a line up when I finally had the chance to see the Cup. However just before I got in, I saw there was a separate line up for the virtual goalie. I’ll talk more about that later. The exhibit could only have so many people at once so they had to group people: those seeing the Cup, those in the Winners Tunnel who were next in line and those in the waiting area.

The waiting area was there to keep us entertained while we were one step closer to seeing the Cup. There was one section that looked like a dressing room but it had jerseys commemorating past Cup champions. As well as there were pads that had WWC trivia. There was also a DJ spinning music with the official ball, the conext15, on display. Then came the Winners Tunnel. This was the section for those about to see the Cup. In there, people waited for about five minutes. Nevertheless we were treated to a video with scenes from the previous World Cup and even clips from the qualifiers.

Then it finally came to our turn to see the Cup. It was encased in glass and there were already cameras set up so we can have a custom portrait for sharing. Just go to the website and key in the code. I think mine turned out well. Finally of course with Coca-Cola hosting the event, people were treated to a free Coke in a commemorative aluminum bottle. I have mine as a keepsake.

A FUTURE CARNIVAL GAME?

That's the virtual goalie, controlled by motion sensors that make the split-second decision of which angle to block the shot.

That’s the virtual goalie, controlled by motion sensors that make the split-second decision of which angle to block the shot.

Not everything was about the Cup. Some wanted to try their luck at the Ultimate Goalie. How does it work? First it involves the participant doing a penalty kick into a net smaller than usual. Secondly the goalie is placed right in the middle of the goal post. Successful penalty kicks win a free commemorative shirt. The thing about this goalie is that it’s on a semicircle of 180. What controls the goalie are motion-sensor cameras that are able to detect how fast the ball is going and what direction it’s headed. The computers are programmed to position the goalie at the right angle to stop the shot. This was very smart and very fast. I remember seeing a couple of shots taken that were very fast and she was able to stop it. I took a shot at it and she even stopped mine. Fortunately for me, there were two people that said I delivered a good shot. I’m not over the hill yet! As for the goalie, I would not be surprised if I see that as a carnival game anytime soon. Good luck in trying to win!

I GOT A TICKET!

For a long time I was hoping to get a ticket. For the last few days I was hoping to get a ticket for a certain Round of 16 game. However I wondered if it would be too expensive. Not just because of the price but the ticket processing fee and tax added on. I wanted a second class ticket for that event but thought maybe it’s better I got third class. Glad I waited because just as I was in line to see the Cup, I heard that tickets were 30% off that day. By the time I was done seeing the Cup, I was ready to order my ticket. Yes, there was a bit of a line up for buying it and very often it was a case of families buying tickets together because of discounts for groups. Sometimes it took a family ten minutes or longer to have their order finalized.

Finally it was my turn and I knew what I wanted as I was eyeballing that seat on Ticketmaster the past few days. Knowing what I wanted and where only made me wait five minutes. There was a bit of card trouble at first but I finally got it: a second-class Round of 16 ticket that was originally billed at $75 I bought for just under $62. It was worth it! Now I just have to wait to see if Canada’s playing as one team slated to play is the first-place team of Group A. I’ll be shocked if it’s not Canada!

And there you go: my visit to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Trophy Tour. It was fun and a bit tiring but it was worth it in the end.

GROUP RECAP

Okay, for those of you just hitting my blog for the first time, below are links to my predictions for each group in the Group Stage:

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Intro and Group A Focus

Canada will host the sixth edition of the FIFA Women's World Cup.

Canada will host the sixth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup is coming and Canada is to be the host nation. This is to be an exciting time for both the country and the sport of women’s football.

This marks the first time Canada has ever hosted a World Cup. Canada has hosted past soccer tournaments for FIFA like the 1987 U-16 World Championships, 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championships, 2007 Men’s U-20 World Cup and last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup. It’s up to the challenge. And a new challenge for the Women’s World Cup as this year the number of competing teams have been expanded from 16 to 24.

Throughout the next two weeks, I will be doing an analysis of each first round group and even making judgments on who I think will come out on top, come second and even come third. I don’t think I’ll predict the wildcard advancers as that will be too tricky. I’ll just limit to a third-place prediction. The number in brackets below is the FIFA Women’s Ranking for May 2015.

GROUP A:

Canada

Christine Sinclair will captain possibly Canada's greatest women's soccer team ever. They already have an Olympic bronze to their feats.

Christine Sinclair will captain possibly Canada’s greatest women’s soccer team ever. They already have an Olympic bronze to their feats.

-Canada (8): The Women’s World Cup is where Canada can show off its football prowess. Our men have only qualified for a single World Cup all the way back in 1986 which leaves us cheering for whoever during the World Cup; most of the time the country of our ethnic background. As for our women, the only World Cup they didn’t qualify for was the inaugural one back in 1991. Canadian women have an impressive resume of their own such as two CONCACAF Championships and an Olympic bronze medal from 2012. In fact their bronze was Canada’s favorite memory of those Olympics. Even I remember the excitement I felt and even referred to them as ‘our girls.’ Naturally so since soccer is probably the team sport in Canada with the most female participation. Even more than hockey. In fact this World Cup should make Canada proud as it is one nation that has one of the best instances female participation in soccer. Heck, our female stars like Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi are bigger household names than our male stars!

However it’s not to say the women are looking for their own World Cup glory. This may be our sixth World Cup but Canada has only advanced past the Group Stage once back in 2003 where they finished fourth. In fact Canada lost all three of their Group Stage matches at the last World Cup back in 2011. Things changed after Canada recruited English coach John Herdman after he finished coaching New Zealand. After that, he helped guide Canada to gold at the Pan American Games and the bronze in London.

Canada’s chances to qualify to the knockout rounds are not only great but they also have good chances to come out on top. They beat China in their last game. They’ve won against New Zealand in six of their ten meetings and won against the Netherlands in ten of their eleven meetings. They also look good to win their Round of 16 match but things look to get tougher around the quarterfinals. Nevertheless this World Cup is anyone’s game. Women’s football has progressed to the point that there are now many equals at the top rather than one to rule them all. Canada could just provide the surprise.

China-China, People’s Republic of (16): Is it too soon in women’s football to call China a ‘blast from the past?’ It’s easy to dismiss it as one. The ‘Steel Roses’ have an Olympic silver medal from its first Olympic contest in 1996 and were runners-up to the Cup in 1999 where they lost to the US on penalty kicks. China hosted the World Cup twice during the very first in 1991 and in 2007. However they had a recent setback when they did not qualify for either the 2011 World Cup or the 2012 Olympics. Even their dominance of the AFC Asian Cup in the 90’s have faded and even finished out of the medals for the first time back in 2010. Nevertheless China are determined to comeback. They had good moments such as beating many top Asian teams last year and even winning against Argentina 6-0. However Argentina was their last win back in December of 2014. Right now it’s safe to say China’s in comeback mode but it will take a lot of effort for them to come back. A lot has changed in women’s football since their glory days of the 90’s.

NZL-New Zealand (17): How ironic is it that John Herdman’s team from the last World Cup is pitted against Canada in the Group Stage? This will be the fourth World Cup for the ‘Football Ferns’ however they have yet to establish themselves. They have not made it past the Group Stage in their three appearances. They haven’t even won a World Cup game yet. They did make it to the quarterfinals at the London Olympics showing improvement already. This World Cup looks to be one where the women want to show how much they’ve improved. They may have had recent losses to the bigger countries like the U.S., Japan, France and Norway but they have tied Brazil and Spain and even won against Denmark. This World Cup is another proving point for them. Also with the potential of three teams from each group advancing, chances look better than ever.

Netherlands Fixed-Netherlands (12): The Netherlands is one of eight teams competing in their very first World Cup here in Canada. The women, whom like the men are also called ‘Oranje,’ do not have a legacy but they have developed a reputation in recent years. In 2009, they qualified for their first-ever Women’s Euro and finished third. Even though they still lack the experience of the other three teams in Group A, they should look at this as a learning experience. It’s even possible the Netherlands will be a top challenger in the future. They could even cement their name here. They have never won against Canada and have more losses than wins against China and New Zealand but they have won their most recent meetings with both teams. Netherlands could pull an upset.

NOTE: This Women’s World Cup will act as a meet for European teams to earn berths for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The top three European teams here qualify for Rio.

MY GROUP PLAY PREDICTIONS:

This looks to be Canada’s best World Cup. The team looks in good shape, especially with Christine Sinclair as captain. I strongly believe they’ll come out on top. It’s harder to predict second or third. It can go to any of the other three. For this group, I predict China to be second and the Netherlands to be third.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT:

Okay, just like I did with the men’s World Cup from last year, I will again do a Stadium Spotlight.  One good thing about this World Cup is you remember how during last year’s men’s World Cup the groups were ‘scrambled’ across stadiums during the group play? The women’s are more organized as the teams of all six groups will be allocated in the same stadium during their first two games. It’s only the third game for all teams where they’ll go to a different stadium. The other good thing about this World Cup is that no new stadiums were required to be built. Whatever new stadiums build or renovated were done so for the sake of its current purposes. Only two stadiums are less than five years old. And the first of the two will be focused in this blog:

WINNIPEG: Winnipeg StadiumWpg Stadium

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 40,000

World Cup Groups Hosting: A,B,C,D

This stadium was actually opened just two years ago. It was needed because the 50+ year old Winnipeg Stadium was long past its prime. Actually it was to be opened in 2012 but construction delays pushed opening to the following year. The stadium, which is actually anmes as the Investors Group Field, is home to the Canadian Football team Winnipeg Blue Bombers and will actually host the Grey Cup in November this year. The new stadium was also the stage for concerts by Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney, Beyonce and Jay-Z and have One Direction coming in July. They even held their first soccer match in May 2014: a women’s match of Canada vs. the U.S.

And there’s my first preview of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Five more preview blogs to go before it all begins Saturday June 6th in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

Brazil’s Football Legacy

Brazil has a football legacy like no other nation and its legendary player Pele is commonly regarded as the epitome of its greatness.

Brazil has a football legacy like no other nation and its legendary player Pele is commonly regarded as the epitome of its greatness.

We all love Brazilian football because at its best, Brazilian football is the paradigm of how we want football to be played. We want it musical, we want amazing skills but we want the kind of friendship and the teamwork also beautifully mixed and working together.

-Alex Bellos, author

Remember back when I did my blog on Russia’s Winter Olympic Legacy I mentioned my naive belief as a kid that if a country had a big sporting legacy, they deserved to host an Olympics? Anyways I would also have that naive belief for hosting the World Cup too. It’s not that embarrassing since every country that’s won the World Cup has hosted in the past. If I thought that now, it would be kind of embarrassing because of how expensive it is.  Whatever the situation, you can’t deny Brazil’s legacy.

BEFORE THERE WAS A WORLD CUP

So the question is how did a British sport like football become almost religion-like in Brazil? Well there are some beliefs but no real conclusion on who first introduced it. Some believe it was introduced to Brazil by a Scottish expatriate by the name of Thomas Donohue. In fact the first ever football match contested in Brazil was played in a pitch marked out by Donohue near his workplace in Bangu back in April, 1894. Some believe it was introduced to Brazil by Charles William Miller, son of John Miller who worked on a railway construction project in Sao Paulo in the 1870’s. Charles not only learned football while studying in Southhampton but when he return home from his studies in 1892, he brought with him some football equipment and a rule book. He introduced it through the Sao Paulo Athletic Club. Miller was a great coach to the team and he was even able to get two English teams to play against the Athletic Club and other teams in Sao Paulo. You could say the rest is history.

Eventually Brazil would get its own national football federation–the Brazilian Football Federation–on June 8, 1914 and their first international match was a match between a team combined team from a club from Rio and a club from Sao Paulo against English club Exeter City shortly thereafter.

A SO-SO START

Those who are into World Cup trivia may know that Brazil has been in every World Cup since it started in 1930. It’s not to say that they began with a bang. In fact the BFF was not the best at organizing national teams for quite a while. In 1930, organizing national teams was a relatively new idea at the time so you can imagine getting a team for the very first World Cup would be through the same thought process today. In fact only thirteen countries, including Brazil, though the inaugural World Cup was worth competing in. Back at the first World Cup, there was only one group of four teams and three groups of three teams. Brazil faced Yugoslavia and Bolivia in their group. They lost to Yugoslavia 2-1 and won against Bolivia 4-0. Despite finishing second, they did not advance as only the #1 team from each group advanced and Yugoslavia finished #1. Their next World Cup, Italy in 1934, was also lackluster as the whole tournament was a last-team standing competition–no First Round group play at all–and Brazil lost its opening match: against Spain 3-1. That ended their World Cup run fast.

However things were really starting to look up for Brazil in France in 1938. Their team was much better and it featured the legendary Leonidas. As in 1934, it was a last-team-standing format from start to finish. Brazil won its opening match against Poland 6-5 with Leonidas scoring a hat-trick and won its quarterfinal against Czechoslovakia. Actually they needed a second quarterfinal to play as they tied the first 1-1. Brazil won the second 2-1. However they were stopped in the semifinals by eventual winner Italy 2-1. Brazil did win the third place match against Sweden 4-2 and Leonidas was the top scorer with 7 goals. Too bad the Golden Foot award wasn’t awarded back then.

Brazil hosted in 1950. I’ll actually save that competition for another blog as I will tell about the infamous Maracanazo and the crazy aftermath that happened since. Few players from 1950 returned in 1954. Brazil was ousted in the quarterfinals by Hungary 4-2.

THE GOLDEN ERA

The era from 1958 to 1970 has to be Brazil’s most treasured because that was when the Brazilian national team was at its best and enchated the world. It all started in 1958 when coach Vicente Feola coached the team and even gave them a list of forty things not to do including smoke in front of journalists. They even brought a psychiatrist to the team. Whatever the situation, Brazil was brilliant in group play with two wins and a draw, winning their quarterfinal against Wales 1-0, their semi against France 5-2 and then winning their final against hosts Sweden 5-2. The top goalscorer may have been Just Fontaine but it was the second-highest scorer–a 17 year-old Brazilian named Pele–that captured the imagination of the world. Even in the group stage, he dazzled crowds with his flare and his goal-scoring ability. Another key note is that Pele wore the number 10 at that World Cup it’s been since common trait that most national teams designate the number 10 to their best players. Pele however won the FIFA Silver Ball award for being the second-best overall player at the World Cup. The winner of the Golden Ball was another Brazilian, Didi, who actually scored a single goal but delivered the best midfield efforts of the tournament.

Pele’s fame grew as did his football playing prowess and the whole Brazilian team garnered fame with him. In Chile in 1962, Pele was back and expected to star again. He did score in the first game but was sidelined with an injury during the second game. That would cause him to miss the rest of the tournament. Nevertheless Brazil performed well as his replacement Amarildo scored three goals and two players, Garrincha and Vava, scored four goals each. Garrincha was considered to be the top player of the tournament. The team also did a noble thing after defeating hosts Chile in the semifinals. They carried the Chilean flag out on the field.

In England in 1966, it appeared success was starting to get to Brazil. They began well with a 2-0 win against Bulgaria that included a goal each by stars Pele and Garrincha but it was all downhill after that with 3-1 losses against Hungary and Portugal. That left Brazil 3rd in the group and out of the tournament: the second of five instances when the defending World Cup champion failed to advance past the Group Stage.

Then came Mexico in 1970. Mario Zagallo, who played for Brazil during its World Cup wins in 1958 and 1962, was assigned coach by the president of Brazil. The president also demanded that many players including the aging Pele be put on the team. Pele first seemed uncomfortable with his role but things changed once the contest started. Brazil won all their Group Stage matches, won their quarterfinal against Peru 4-2, their semifinal against Uruguay 3-1 and then their final against Italy 4-1. Jairzinho was the top goalscorer of the team with 7 goals but it was Pele who won the Golden Ball award for being the best overall player with a performance that included four goals. And to think Pele thought at the beginning he wasn’t good enough for the team. Pele also won the FIFA fair play trophy for not receiving a single yellow or red card. Pele also has the distinction of being the only player to play for three World Cup winning teams. Zagallo made history by becoming the first ever to win the World Cup both as a player and as a coach. Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer is the only other one to do so. On top of that Brazil was given the distinction of being allowed to keep the Jules Rimet trophy for winning the World Cup three times. The 1970 team for Brazil is still considered by many to be the best team ever in World Cup history. The odd irony is that it was only a matter of months until the Jules Rimet trophy was stolen. It was never found.

THE DRY SPELL

After 1970, Pele was no longer part of Brazil’s national team and there was a brand new World Cup trophy that made its debut in 1974 and is the current trophy today. It seems like those marked the end of Brazil’s magic at the time because Brazil would struggle to regain its winning sense. 1974 and 1978 World Cups consisted of not only group play for the opening round but also for a second round for the eight that qualified. The top teams at the end of the second round of Group Play played in the final for the Cup, the second-place teams played for third place and the other four teams headed straight home. In both cases, Brazil came second. Brazil again found itself out of the competition because of second round group play in Spain in 1982. In 1986 started the current format of Group Play and the last-team-standing format that started with a Round of 16. Whatever the situation, Brazil was brilliant in Group Play wining all their games and even winning their Round of 16 game against Poland but drew 1-1 to France in the quarterfinals and then lost the penalty kicks round. 1990 added further insult as Brazil again won all three of their group play games but fell to Argentina 1-0 in the Round of 16.

It was a question to many of why. Was it the format of play? Was it the change of system where Brazilian players were now mostly playing in Europe instead of playing with Brazilian clubs as was the case in Pele’s day? It’s still a wonder.

CALL IT A COMEBACK

These past twenty years have actually seen a resurgence of Brazil’s greatness and even write a new legacy for them. It first started at the 1994 World Cup. This time they came packed with stars like Romario, Bebeto, Taffarel, Dunga and Jorginho. The group were very good, if unspectacular, being very solid in the rounds leading up to the final. The final was a classic rematch against Italy. The game was an unspectacular 0-0 which led to a penalty kicks contest. Brazil won 4-3 and became the first country to win the World Cup four times.

1998 saw the emergence of another young Brazilian with the potential to become a great, Ronaldo. He and the Brazilian team were very good leading up to the final but it was the home country French team that really caught the world’s attention at that World Cup. France has commonly been known as Brazil’s ‘achilles heel’ and they gave Brazil their loss 3-0. Under the guidance of coach Luis Felipe Scolari, Brazil came back in 2002 with the help of the three R’s–Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho– and won the World Cup without a loss. Ronaldo won the Golden Boot award for his scoring of eight goals, the most goals scored in a single World Cup since 1970.

Brazil has continued to maintain a record of consistency since the 2002 World Cup and has continued to produce new stars. Even manager Carlos Alberto Ferreira formed a playing system known as the ‘magic square’ that proved very successful in competitions leading up to the Cup. The ‘square’ appeared to work well in the first rounds of the 2006 World Cup despite the underperforming of star Ronaldinho at the time but they fell in the quarterfinals to their traditional top rival France 1-0. To the surprise of most, Brazil was out in the quarterfinals. Brazil continued to be favored leading up to the 2010 World Cup and even won their ‘group of death’ albeit unspectacularly but fell again in the quarterfinals. This time to the Netherlands 2-1. Further disappointment came at the 2011 Copa America when Brazil lost in the quarterfinals but a major upper came when they won the Confederations Cup against World Cup winners Spain 3-0. Here at this World Cup, Brazil tried to attempt the one football feat they don’t own: winning the World Cup on home soil. They brought Luis Felipe Scolari back to help them win it. They’re also relying heavily on the young great Neymar who has already scored two goals in World Cup play. The remaining three weeks will decide.

Brazil has had a football legacy and it has had its downsides too. You can understand why a country this passionate about football believes that a win of the World Cup is the only acceptable result. You can understand the pressure that the current Brazilian faces leading into this World Cup. You can also understand why a country like Brazil has won more World Cups than any other country and continued to churn out legend after legend. It’s no wonder no country has delivered more football magic than Brazil.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Brazil National Football Team. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_national_football_team>

WIKIPEDIA: Football In Brazil. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_in_Brazil>

WIKIPEDIA: Brazil at the FIFA World Cup. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_at_the_FIFA_World_Cup>

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.

2013 Confederations Cup: More Than A Soccer Tournament

The FIFA Confederations Cup is as much of a pre-World Cup test event as it is a major international soccer tournament.

The Confederations Cup is as much a pre-World Cup test event as it is a major soccer tournament.

So 2014 has the World Cup and 2012 had the Euro. I guess that means 2013 will be devoid of big-time international soccer excitement, right? Wrong! 2013 is the year of the Confederations Cup, an eight-team competition held in Brazil. It’s good and important for a lot of reasons.

A TOURNAMENT GROWS IN SIGNIFICANCE:

The Confederations Cup is more of an intercontinental competition than international. Six of the eight teams that are competing here have earned their berth by winning their respective continent’s confederation championship. The only exceptions being the World Cup winner and the host country. That’s how the Confederations Cup is contested.

The idea of having a soccer competition of the best of the continents was an idea that evolved over 21 years. Actually the first attempt at such a competition came not with the participation of FIFA. It came through the royal family of Saudi Arabia through a competition called the King Fahd Cup. The first King Fahd Cup was contested in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia over five days in October 1992 and consisted of Saudi Arabia, which was the Asian Cup holder at the time, CONCACAF Gold Cup winner USA, African Cup Of Nations holder Ivory Coast and South America’s Cop America holder Argentina who won the Cup. The King Fahd cup was contested once more in 1995 and expanded to six teams: five continental cup winners and host Saudi Arabia.

By 1997, FIFA became involved and the King Fahd Cup had been renamed the Confederations Cup. This is the turning point with the Cup being contested the year before the World Cup and with the competition consisting of the eight teams through the qualifying format that still exists today. There were however two exceptions as two second-place teams from their continent’s championships competed: Czech Republic because Euro winners Germany declined to participate and United Arab Emirates because the hosting Saudis had already qualified as hosts. This would also be a new standard for the Cup  that if one of the continental cup holders already earned their berth as either host nation or World Cup holder, the runner-up team would be given the continent’s berth.

After the 1997 tournament, the Confederations Cup would be contested bi-annually and in a different country every year. The 2001 tournament featured a unique twist as the host countries were Japan and South Korea, the host of the following year’s World Cup. That would be the norm from now on in which the Cup held the year before the World Cup would be hosted by the World Cup host nation(s). Six of the stadiums that were to be for the World Cup the following year were the sites for the Confederations Cup.

The Confederations Cup would continue being a bi-annual competition. Germany, the host nation of the 2006 world Cup, would continue the tradition by hosting the 2005 Confederations Cup with five of the venues for the following year’s World Cup used for this event. Since 2005 in Germany, the Confederations Cup has become a quadrennial event and seen as a warm-up event for the following year’s World Cup. South Africa used it to prepare for their hosting of the World Cup and you can be sure Brazil will do the same here. Six venues that will participate in next year’s World Cup including the legendary Maracana stadium will stage this competition. You could say the Confederations Cup has really grown a lot in the last decade.

WITH THE WORLD CUP A YEAR AWAY…:

You can be sure with the Cup being contested, the media will be paying close attention to how prepared Brazil is for this event and how ready they will appear to look with the World Cup just a year away. Already the media has paid high attention to Brazil’s troubled preparations for the World Cup. FIFA and even local critics have complained of construction delays and cost overruns. Few infrastructure projects were completed and even the 3G network couldn’t work properly. Even the official musical instrument of the World Cup was a failure as fans of losing teams would throw it on the field. Only two of the six stadiums participating in the Confederations Cup were completed by December and two cities were almost axed from hosting. In fact delays have caused FIFA to make an exception in their pre-World Cup demand that the host country hold three major competitions.

It’s not to say it’s all bad. Tickets for the World Cup and the Confederations Cup were a success. Also a record number of volunteers for both the Confederations Cup and World Cup signed up. Even exports from Brazil look optimistic as Brazil anticipates to export $1 billion from this Cup. Brazil has openly vowed it will be ready for the World Cup and even FIFA believes they’re confident Brazil will be ready. There’s only one year to go.

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

Now enough talk about hosting the tournament. Let’s move onto the teams and see how well they stack up for this. All but two teams are winners of their respective country’s continental championship. The two exceptions are Brazil who qualifies as hosts and Italy which was runner-up at Euro but qualified since the winner Spain already qualified as World Cup winner. Here’s how they pare up group by group with their current FIFA ranking in brackets:

GROUP A:

-Brazil (22)- You’d think a country like Brazil with a legacy and depth of talent would enter the competition as the favorites but it’s actually not the case. Brazil first surprised everybody at the 2010 World Cup with a quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands. They surprised soccer fans even more by being ousted in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Copa America. Brazil just wasn’t Brazil. Lately Brazil has been making some changes like bringing back coach Luis Felipe Scolari who helped coach Brazil to the 2002 World Cup. Their play has gotten better in a slowly but surely pace. They may have tied Italy 3-3 three months ago but just last week they won a friendly against France who has been traditionally considered Brazil’s ‘Achilles Heel.’ The Confederations Cup could be a turning point for Brazil and send a message how much their team has improved and how far they would have to go to win the World Cup. I’m sure the world will be watching.

-Italy (8)- If you remember last year’s Euro, you’d remember it for Italy’s comeback as much as for Spain’s win. Italy was a team that was direly in need of improving after the 2010 World Cup and their qualification for the finals shows how far they came. Their play in World Cup qualifying matches have also been excellent. However they’re not immune to choking as noticed in a 2-2 friendly against Haiti. Nevertheless this tournament can also send a strong message to Italy how their team looks en route to the World Cup.

-Mexico (17)- Mexico has always been considered the ‘sleeping giant’ of soccer. The team has always been loaded with talent and skill but they have yet to prove themselves in a big way at a major tournament. They may be the current CONCACAF Gold Cup holders but even now with World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF they still find themselves third in the standings with the USA leading. This group being the ‘group of death’ in the Cup could also pose a challenge. Nevertheless Mexico could pull one of the big upsets of the tournament. We also shouldn’t forget Mexico won the gold medal in London. It’s a given in any tournament to never count Mexico out.

-Japan (32)- If there’s one continent that has grown the most in terms of soccer play in the last two decades, it has to be Asia. And Japan has to be one of its strongest examples of accelerated success. Nevertheless Japan finds itself in a tight situation here in the Cup against three teams known for their legacies and their consistency of play. But don’t count Japan out. They’re the first team to earn a World Cup 2014 berth on play by already leading their AFC qualifying group by a huge margin. Plus they’ve won three of their six matches in 2013. So if any team can most give the biggest surprise at the Cup, it’s Japan.

GROUP B:

-Spain (1)- How about that? Spain has gone in five years from being ‘soccer’s greatest underachievers’ into the top team in the world. Two straight Euros and a World Cup. They sure have come out of their shell and they come to the Cup as the favorites to win. Heck they haven’t had a single loss not just in 2013 but 2012 too. They look to have an easy Group Stage play but play in the semis and possible finals could make things more challenging for Spain. Just because a team is #1 and undefeated for two years doesn’t mean their infallible. We shouldn’t forget they lost to the USA in the semis at 2009’s Confederations Cup. Here could be yet another achievement in Spain’s recent legacy or a sudden reminder of their own weaknesses. Only the next two weeks will tell.

-Uruguay (19)- Uruguay has to be the comeback story right now. It seemed as though Uruguay’s soccer legacy was a thing of the past. Their prowess from the 30’s to the 50’s captured the imagination of the world. However it was their fourth place finish at the 1970 World Cup that appeared to mark the end of Uruguay’s greatness. However recent years has seen Uruguay make a comeback with a fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup and the win of the 2011 Copa America. But before you can shout out that Uruguay was back in a big way, it hasn’t been completely easy. They currently stand fifth in the standings of World Cup qualifying play for the CONMEBOL. Nevertheless while their play against South American teams have been a bit of a struggle, their play against other international teams have been quite impressive. This tournament can also send a message to the Uruguayan team in terms of what they need to do to qualify for the World Cup.

-Nigeria (31)- Nigeria has always been one of the top African teams. They look impressive in world Cup qualifying right now. The big question is their international play. Not much is known and past international and World Cup play has not given to impressive results. One result that did send a strong message was a 2-2 tie against Mexico two weeks ago. Nigeria could prove to be a stronger team here than most experts think.

-Tahiti (138)- Usually the OFC Nations Cup goes to either Australia or New Zealand. Last year it went to little Tahiti! Tahiti has become the least populous nation ever to win a continental championship. Here at the Cup, Tahiti’s biggest victory is just simply qualifying. Not much is expected since all the other teams have stronger depth in talent and international experience. In fact Tahiti is the only team at the Cup that doesn’t have a chance in even qualifying for the World Cup as the Oceania contestant for a berth against a CONCACAF team is New Zealand. Nevertheless the Cup can be a valuable learning experience for Tahiti. They’ve had hardly any international experience outside of Oceania. Now’s their chance to experience play against some of the best teams in the World. Despite their meager chances of qualifying for further play, Tahiti is probably the only team at the Cup with nothing really to lose and everything else to gain.

So there’s my rundown of the eight teams for the Confederations Cup. I’m not going to hazard predictions until the Group play is done and the semifinal berths have been decided. In the meantime stay tuned to see who will win the 2013 Confederations Cup. And stay tuned to see how ready Brazil appears to be for hosting next year’s World Cup. Both should be interesting to see.

London 2012: Just Ten More

Okay I know I already wrote articles about athletes at the London Olympics from around the world and Canada that are worth watching. The thing is when it gets closer and closer to the Olympic Games, there become more and more that are worth keeping an eye on. Here in this article are another ten that I feel are worth keeping an eye on. So without further ado:

-Ryan Lochte/USA – Swimming: A lot of attention is focused on Michael Phelps ending his legendary Olympic career with a bang. However Ryan Lochte is one swimmer that could steal the show from Phelps. Like Phelps, he also qualified for four individual events. Unlink Phelps, he’s the one this time around with his face on more magazine covers than any Olympic athlete. Here in London, he will attempt to defend his 200m backstroke title and rival Phelps in both individual medley events. Actually Lochte has an advantage over Phelps as he holds the world record in the 200 and finished ahead of Phelps in the 400 at the Olympic Trials. Looks as though London may not only be the last hurrah for Phelps but also a possible changing of the guard with Lochte. It will all be decided in the London Aquatics Centre.

-Kosuke Kitajima/Japan – Swimming: There’s a lot of talk of Michael Phelps threepeating in four events. The thing is he may not become the first male swimmer to do so. That could be Japan’s breaststroker Kosuke Kitajima. Kitajima has already won both the 100m and 200m breaststroke events in both 2004 and 2008, making him one of only six swimmers to achieve a ‘double-double’ in swimming. 2011 was a difficult year for Kitajima as he only won a single bronze medal at last year’s Worlds. Nevertheless this year has seen him return to his winning form as he has the world’s fastest time in both the 100 and 200. But don’t think another double here is going to be easy for him. The 200 will be his toughest challenge as he will face the rivalry of Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta and his teammate Ryo Tateishi who’s best time of the year is just .17 seconds behind Kitajima’s. Nevertheless Kitajima trying to be the first to achieve a ‘triple-double’ in swimming should prove to be exciting.

-Kenenisa Bekele/Ethiopia – Track and Field: This Olympics seems like to be one where a lot of events have a chance of a threepeat happening. Track and field also has the potential of some threepeats: Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell in the women’s 200m, Isinbaeva in women’s pole vault, Norway’s Andreas Thorkildsen in men’s javelin and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele in the men’s 10000m. Bekele has had a stellar running career ever since he burst on the scene back in 2003. He holds the world records in both the 5000m and 10000m, has won a total of five World Championships and has won three Olympic gold and one silver. Beijing was especially stellar as he performed the 5000-10000 double. However 2011 was not a kind year for Bekele as he sat the year out with injuries. He has since regained his old form and has posted the third-fastest 10000 time in the world this year only less than a second behind the fastest. Will a threepeat happen here? Mark your calendars August 4th and tune in.

-Allyson Felix/USA – Track and Field: Allyson Felix is one of the best 200m runners ever but she’s still missing that Olympic gold in that event. She first burst onto the scene back at the 2004 when she won a silver medal in the 200 at the age of 18. She also set a world junior record upon winning that medal. The following year she won the 200m at the World Championships becoming the youngest sprinter ever to do so. She repeated as World Champion in the 200 in 2007. However she again won Olympic silver in 2008 finishing second again to Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown. She did however win a gold as part of the USA’s 4*400m relay. Nevertheless she’s still chasing down that elusive 200m gold here in London. Last year was a bit of a shock for her as it was the first World Championships since 2003 where she didn’t win the 200m, finishing 3rd. However she’s run the world’s fastest 200m time this year–4/10 of a second faster than the second-fastest–and she’s the heavy favorite to win that event. She also will compete in the 100m here in London where she actually finished in a tie for third at the Olympic trials with Jeneba Tarmoh. Although Felix was the one who got the birth, both will compete in the 4*100 relay. Nevertheless it’s the 200m that will be the big focus for her. Will her time finally have come? Her fate will be decided August 8th.

-Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor/USA – Beach Volleyball: It’s not just individual events where threepeats could happen here in London. There are some team events too. The beach volleyball duo of Walsh and May-Treanor could do just that. Both women started as indoor volleyball players. May-Treanor switched to beach volleyball in 1999 she teamed up with Holly McPeak and finished 5th at the 2000 Olympics. At those same games Walsh was part of the USA’s indoor volleyball team where the US finished 4th. Soon after Walsh switched to beach volleyball, was paired to May-Treanor, and the rest is history. Actually it started slow with a 9th place finish at the 2001 World Championships. Since then it was a legendary pair in the making with three world Championships and Olympic victories in 2004 and 2008. Since Beijing they’ve had their difficulties. They lost their competitive edge in 2009 losing early in tournaments and May-Treanor badly injured her Achilles tendon not by playing or training but as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars. 2011 saw the two return to competition where they finished second at the World Championships to Brazilian pair Larissa and Julianna. They’re confident they can win in London. Will they do it or will it be a changing of the guard? It will all be decided at the Horse Guards Palace.

TWO MORE CANADIANS:

-Karen Cockburn – Trampolining: The trampolining event for both men and women have only been contested at the past three Olympics and Karen Cockburn has won a medal in all three: bonze in 2000, silver in 2004 and silver again in 2008. In 2011 she had to deal with both injury and illness which left her out of major competitions. She would finish fourth at the Worlds that year. Nevertheless she looks strong for London and is a medal favorite once again. Also keep an eye on another Canadian, Rosie MacLennan, as she won a silver at last year’s Worlds. London could be another triumph for Karen or a passing of the torch to Rosie. August 4th’s the date to decide it.

-Clara Hughes – Cycling: There are two Canadians that will have two of the most illustrious sports careers of the whole team. One is equestrian rider Ian Millar competing in his record-setting tenth Olympics. The other is Clara Hughes, competing in her sixth Olympic Games. She has won a Canadian record total of six medals in both cycling and speed skating. Her Olympic success in cycling came at the 1996 Atlanta games winning two bronzes. Her last Olympic appearance in cycling was in 2000 as she retired years later to focus on speed skating where she has won four Olympic medals including a gold in the 5000m in 2006. She was also selected to be Canada’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics where she won her last speed skating medal, a bronze in the 5000m. Shortly after retiring from speed skating she made a return to cycling in November 2010. She will compete in the road race and the time trial. She is not favored in either event but both are events where even a non-favorite can be a winner. Whatever the results, it will make for another exciting moment for the 39 year-old’s exciting career.

TWO MORE FROM THE HOST COUNTRY:

-Paula Radcliffe – Marathon: Paula is one of the most respected British women in track and field competing here in London. However she is still searching for her first Olympic medal. Her first Olympic appearance was at the Atlanta Games in 1996 where she finished 5th in the 5000. She won her first World Championships medal in 1999 with a silver in the 10000. She would finish 4th in that event at the Sydney Games in 2000. After the 2000 Olympics she would have an incredible career in Marathon running winning both the London Marathon and the New York Marathon three times, winning the Chicago Marathon in 2002 and the World Championships Marathon in 2005. She also holds the world record in the marathon with her winning time at the 2003 London Marathon of 2:15:25. Olympic marathons have been bad luck for her as she competed in 2004 as the heavy favorite but dropped out because of injury. The injury also caused her to drop out of the 10000m. She competed in Beijing finishing 23rd in the marathon. Now 38, she has qualified for the Olympic marathon with a qualifying time at last year’s Berlin Marathon where she finished 3rd. This may be her last Olympics in an illustrious career. She has made mention that she’s trying to heal a foot injury. Win or lose, the whole nation will be behind her.

-Bradley Wiggins – Cycling: British cyclists have some of the biggest Olympic feats ever. Chris Hoy, who will be the flagbearer for Britain at the Opening Ceremonies, is one of two cyclists to win four golds. The other being Dutchwoman Leontien van Moorsel. Bradley Wiggins is the only other cyclist besides van Moorsel to win six Olympic medals. He’s also the second British athlete besides rower Steven Redgrave to win six Olympic medals. All of Wiggins’ previous medals have been in track cycling. Here in London he will compete in the two road events: the road race and the time trial. He has a lot of potential to set new medal-winning records there especially after he just won the Tour de France last week. A lot of excitement awaits. Oh, as for Hoy, he will be competing in one event: the team sprint.

AND ONE MORE TEAM:

-Great Britain Men’s Soccer Team: Interesting to know that FIFA recognizes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as their own nations and can field their own ‘national’ team for events like the World Cup. The International Olympic Committee thinks otherwise and will only recognize Great Britain as a nation. Great Britain has qualified a soccer team in eight previous Olympic Games, winning gold in 1908 and 1912. The last time the British soccer team appeared at the Olympics was in 1960. With Great Britain hosting the 2012 Olympics, there was to be a British team in the soccer tournament as host nation. Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested in 2008 that a Great Britain team was ‘vital’. However the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations first refused feeling it might affect their status with FIFA. FIFA gave a May 2009 deadline to settle the row. The three dissenting associations said they would not participate in a unified UK team but would not prevent England form fielding a team under that banner. Jim Boyce, vice-president of FIFA and Englishman, steeped in and said non-English players have the legal right to be considered for Team GB. Anyways after years of association politicking, public opinion polls and words from politicians from all four countries, there is a Team GB in Olympic football. All but five of the players are English–the five that aren’t are Welsh– and they come from some of the UK’s best clubs like two from Manchester United, two from Tottenham Hotspur, two from Chelsea, one each from Arsenal and Liverpool, and three from Swansea City. Sports Illustrated predict them to win bronze. After all that politics, it’s time for them to play.

And there you have it. One last set of Olympians to watch in London. I wish I could tell you more how like Zara Phillips is following in the footsteps of her mother, Princess Anne, by competing in equestrian or Canadian canoer Mark Oldershaw who’s the fifth Oldershaw in three generations to paddle at the Olympics. However I better call it quits before I get the urge to write about any more Olympians to watch. In the meantime, let the seventeen days of drama, excitement and glory begin!

Euro 2012: Anyone’s Game

Mascots Slavek and Slavko can’t wait for Euro 2012 to begin!

The World Cup is definitely the most exciting and anticipated football/soccer tournament in the World. Next in line would have to be the UEFA European Football Championships, or the ‘Euro’. Like the World Cup, it takes place once every four years. Also like the World Cup, it is a contest of the last team standing to win the Cup. This year’s Euro will take place in two countries: Poland and Ukraine from June 8th to July 1st. This is the first time the two countries have hosted a soccer tournament this huge. The draw for the First Round groups were decided back in December and people have made predictions which country will win the championships. This is not easy as it involves group play in the first round and the second round being the last team standing.

For my part, I won’t predict the winner. What I will do is give an analysis of each country group by group in terms of what to expect in terms of current skill and even possible surprises (FIFA ranking of May 2012 in brackets):

GROUP A

-Czech Republic (26)-The Czech Republic always has a talent-loaded team each time they make a tournament like the World Cup or Euro. It’s just a matter of them being on the ball. Since Czechoslovakia split up in 1992 and the Czech Republic has fielded its own team, it has participated in all four Euros since and their performances include being a finalist in 1996 and a semifinalist in 2004. They’ve also been known to lose out early as in the other two Euros and their only World Cup appearance in 2006 where they started strong but racked up a lot of injuries. Lately they’ve been looking strong as they’ve won or drew five of their last six friendlies. Will they go the distance at Euro or will they lose out early? It’ll all be determined in Poland.

-Greece (14)-In the past, Greece’s football team was never thought of as much. Greece’s team of today is a lot different that their team of twenty or even ten years ago.  Never underestimate Greece as they are very capable of pulling a surprise. They were the team at the 2004 Euro that was least expected to win and they won. They do have an Achilles Heel and it’s evident as they tied 1-1 in friendlies against Belgium and Slovenia this year. Nevertheless they could prove to be a very formidable opponent this year. Knowing that the nation of Greece has been going through a lot of violent rioting and huge economic turmoil this past year, a win of the Euro could lift the spirits of the country.

-Poland (65)-Poland’s international prowess is always in question. They’ve qualified for seven World Cups in the past and even finished 3rd twice yet only qualified for one other Euro: the previous one. They currently have the lowest FIFA ranking of all the teams at this year’s Euro but were able to tie Portugal and defeat Slovakia, two countries with higher rankings, in recent Friendly play. Being in the weakest of the first round groups–this is the only group without a team in FIFA Top 10– could be an advantage, as well as playing home field. A surprise could await.

-Russia (11)-Russia has always been known to have a strong football team even after the breakup of the USSR back in 1991. Nevertheless acquiring big achievements has always been a challenge for them. They’ve qualified only two World Cups in 1994 and 2002 and failed to advance past the first round both times. They’ve also had lackluster showings at Euros until they had a breakthrough in 2008, qualifying for the semifinal. There’s no question Russia wants to do well here. The next World Cup is two years away and they’ll host the World Cup right after in 2018. They’ve even acquired coach Dick Advocaat to get their team ready. They’re already looking strong as they beat Denmark and Italy in friendlies this year. Hopefully this Euro could write a new chapter for their team.

GROUP B

-Denmark (10)-Denmark is a country that has really come alive in the last 30 years. They’ve qualified for four World Cups and even made it to the quarterfinals in 1998. Their Euro achievements have been better as they qualified for seven Euros including winning in 1992 and qualifying for the semifinals in 1984. They are a strong team as they’ve won friendlies against Portugal and Sweden last year but they also lost to Russia months ago. Nevertheless they could pull a surprise. Don’t forget that their winning 1992 Euro happened as they were a replacement team for Yugoslavia. Also don’t forget this is a tight group: the group most called the ‘group of death’. All four countries ranked in FIFA’s Top 10 which means any two of them can qualify for the quarterfinals and even Denmark has a good shot. It’s all a matter of who delivers.

-Germany (2)-The Mannschaft are always considered heavy contenders and this Euro is no exception. However they too are known for choking big at Euro. They’re the only country ever to win the Euro three times and they even made the finals three other times.  However thy have failed to move past the first round in 2000 and 2004. Being in the ‘Group Of Death’ could go either way for Germany. They’re always at their most consistent during World Cup play and they showed in the 2010 that they’re still a strong team. However they’ve lost their two friendlies of this year: against Switzerland and France. Will they show the strength they’re known for at Euro 2012 or will they face an early out? Anything’s possible here.

-Netherlands (4)-Netherlands has what it takes to win; no doubt about it. However they could face an early out. We shouldn’t forget at the last Euro, the Orange were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Russia. This Euro could provide for some interesting results. They’re already known for consistency at the Euro as they’ve always made it past the First Round since 1980. They’ve since won in 1988 and made three semifinals. Since the 2010 World Cup where they made it to the finals, they’ve been ranked #1 in the World back in August 2011. Could they return as champions? It’s possible as they’ve won their last three friendlies but they did lose to Germany in a friendly in November 2011. It can go any way here.

-Portugal (5)-If any country seems to have come from nowhere to become a major force in the soccer world, it has to be Portugal. Before the 90’s it’s had successes in the past with a third at both the 1966 World Cup and 1984 Euro. Nevertheless they would rarely qualify for those events. Starting in the 90’s, Portugal’s football prowess has grown tremendously. They’ve qualified for the past three World Cups and even came in fourth back in 2006. They’ve also qualified for every Euro since 1996 where they even made it to the semifinals in 2000 and finals in 2004 when they were co-hosts. They have the power and the talent to perform well at Euro 2012. Nevertheless they do have an Achilles Heel as they’ve played to scoreless draws in friendlies against Poland and Macedonia this year and even lost to Turkey recently. Will The Navigators excel or will they choke? It’s all in their hands.

GROUP C

-Croatia (8)-Ever since the collapse of Yugoslavia, Croatia has proven themselves to be the little country that can. The Blazers have been able to qualify for four of five Euros and three out of four World Cups including a third-place finish in 1998. The team of that World Cup is known as Croatia’s “Golden Generation”. However the country has been in a struggle ever since most of the Golden Generation have retired. They have had their ups and downs in the past twelve years. This year’s team hopes to revive the successes of the Golden Generation but it won’t come without a fight. Recent friendly results include ties to Ireland and Norway and a loss to Sweden. Nevertheless Croatia could just deliver here and make this their best ever Euro.

-Italy (12)-The Azzuri’s Euro record is just as impressive as its World Cup record as it has won once in 1968, finalists in 2000 and semifinalists in 1980 and 1988. But it too has a habit of choking. The last two Euros have been dismal for them. And they choked badly at the 2010 World Cup. Not pleasant at all when you’re defending Cup champions. They have worked hard to improve its reputation since and even hired a new coach: Cesare Prandelli. It hasn’t been completely easy. Their friendly play these past twelve months have been a mixed bag: they won against Spain and Poland but lost against Ireland, Uruguay and the USA. Will Italy play like the Italy we’ve always known them to be or will they struggle again? It all starts June 11th in Gdansk.

-Republic Of Ireland (18)-Ireland is actually better at qualifying for the World Cup than it is at qualifying for the Euro. It has qualified for three World Cups but only one Euro: way back in 1988. It has the lowest ranking of the four teams of this group but it could pull a surprise. In fact it tied Croatia and beat Italy in friendly games within the last 12 months. Ireland also drew 1-1 against the Czech Republic. Besides Euro wins from Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004 remind us not to count the little guys out. So don’t count Ireland out.

-Spain (1)- Spain has always been referred to as ‘football’s greatest underachievers’. They have an excellent team full of talent and capable of winning, but often lose out early in the tournament. Last Euro was a big turnaround for La Furia Roja as they won it. They also went on to win the World Cup in 2010. Finally the greatest underachievers were achieving. They could continue their achievements or they could go back to being the Spain the football world knows. Another important thing to take note of is no winning team has successfully defended their title at the Euro. As for Spain, they’ve so far continued to show their strength in friendlies play this past year but they did lose to Italy 2-1 in one match. This Euro will tell another story of Spain and it will either be continued consistency or back to choking. Time will tell.

GROUP D

-England (7)- It’s the same story all over again. The Three Lions always has a team that can boast of some of the best combined talent in the world. The problem is when they get to a major event like Euro or the World Cup, the TriLi’s aren’t the best at playing as a team unit. They almost always lose out too soon. While they’ve only won one World Cup, they’ve never won a Euro. They’ve qualified for the tournament seven times and their best finish was being a semifinalist twice. This Euro could be different if England plays well as a team unit. Their play in friendlies has been very good as they beat Sweden and Spain and only lost to the Netherlands. Will this be England’s first-ever win at the Euro? It will all be decided this month.

-France (16)-Les Bleus are an enigmatic team. They can go all the way or lose out fast. In the past four World Cups, they’ve been champions in 1998, runners-up in 2006 and out in the First Round in both 2002 and 2010. Even the Euro has seen their all-or-nothing play pay off or fall flat. They’ve won the Euro twice, including 2000 as reigning World Cup holders. However they lost out in the first round at the last Euro. This coming Euro will be a chance to prove themselves again as the team has gone through massive reconstruction since their disappointing World Cup in 2010. Can they bounce back? They’ve been looking impressive in friendlies as they’ve beaten the USA and Germany. The 2012 Euro looks like the playing fields for their redemption.

-Sweden (17)-Sweden is a country that has had their ups and downs in the past. They’ve qualified for eleven World Cups where they’ve been finalists once and semifinalists three other times. As for Euro, they’ve qualified for five including this one and their best finish was the semifinals back in 1992. This year’s team has potential to do well. In recent friendly play they’ve won against Ukraine, Croatia and Serbia but also lost to England and Denmark. Will they have it all together at Euro 2012? It’s all up to them.

-Ukraine (50)- Even though they’re co-hosting Euro, this will be the very first Euro the team will have ever played in. Even though they competed at the 2006 World Cup where they made it to the quarterfinals, they have yet to prove themselves amongst the best European teams. Like co-host Poland, they’re the only other country not in FIFA’s Top 30. Nevertheless they could pull a surprise. In their last seven friendlies, they’ve won five and tied Germany 3-3. So they could still prove to be a surprise contender. Homefield could prove to be an advantage. Never has there been a better time to seize the moment.

And there you have it. The summary of each team competing at Euro 2012. There are many heavy favorites but even they have weaknesses that could cause them to lose out even as early as the First Round. There are also teams that have minimal expectations that could perhaps pull a surprise. It all starts with Poland playing Greece in Warsaw’s National Stadium on Friday June 8th, twenty-nine matches in between, and ends with the winner decided July 1st in Kiev’s Olimpiyskiy Stadium. Excitement awaits.