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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are You Ready for Real Football?

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WORLD CHAMPIONS. It was easy for Americans to use that term decades ago, when our top three pro sports were virtually our exclusive property. Not anymore: The United States is 0 for 2 in the World Baseball Classic and hasn't won at the World Basketball Championships since 1994 (yes, there's always the Olympics).

And football? For about 95% of the planet's population the Super Bowl means nothing. For them, football's world champs are crowned every fourth year in the World Cup. The spectacle begins again Friday in South Africa, with 32 national soccer teams, including the United States, chasing the title.

The Observers, or at least one of them, can hardly disagree with a few billion people.

Frank: "Huge" is too puny a word for this, pal!

Artie: If you say so. Any distraction from the Brewers is good, although they warmed my heart by finally dumping Jeff Suppan and his pot of gold in the trash.

Frank: Are you one of those guys who look down on soccer as a sport?

Artie: They don't use their hands. It's like Republicans trying to govern without using their brains. You gotta use everything.

Frank: An old friend at the Journal Sentinel was adamant that soccer wasn't a "real sport." But if you watch the games you know there's not just a lot of running, but a lot of hard contact. Some of it's dirty---pulling jerseys, elbows to the chops.

Artie: But also that candy-ass "diving" by guys trying to draw fouls. I think those Europeans must go to acting school.

Frank: Still, you've got to be a hell of an athlete, and plenty tough, to play soccer.

Artie: Absolutely. But to me it looks like a grade-school recess. All that running around in every direction.

Frank: Sometimes I see hockey that way.

Artie: Amen to that! Watching the NHL Finals, half the time I was sure the referee had the puck in his pocket! I couldn't see it and I don't think the players could either.

Frank: Really, there's a method to all the back-and-forth in soccer, even if we don't perceive it.

Artie: How about perceiving a goal once in a while? Has there ever been a final score that didn't include at least one "nil"?

Frank: That's the key problem for Americans. I grew to like soccer by watching nieces and nephews play, and now I really dig the English Premier League games, but more scoring would help.

Artie: The best thing about soccer is that there are no TV timeouts.

Frank: Anyone who has TiVo or a DVR can record the World Cup games and fast-forward them until the score line changes. Then you can check out all the goals.

Artie: So a match might take only four or five minutes.

Frank: But you'll miss the nuances. Not that I'm an expert, but in 1990 I was Milwaukee's man on the scene at the World Cup.

Artie: How's that?

Frank: The United States qualified that year for the first time since 1950. The coach, Bob Gansler, and one of the starters, Jimmy Banks, were Milwaukee guys, so the Journal decided to send a reporter.

Artie: So you got a trip to where?

Frank: Italy, with two U.S. games in Florence and one in Rome. The Americans had almost no international experience and went 0-3. But they played mighty Italy at the Olympic stadium in Rome—what a great scene, the nonstop chanting and flag-waving...

Artie: Did they feed some Christians to the lions?

Frank: The crowd expected a slaughter, but the Americans held the score to 1-0.

Artie: Gee, a 1-0 final. I'm shocked! But for a trip to Italy I'd sit through three soccer games.

Frank: In those days our current Shepherd colleague, Joel McNally, and a few other Journal reporters threw an annual party to lampoon the biggest "waste" of the paper's money. My trip got the nod for ’90, which stunned me. I got to see the Sistine Chapel—how was that a waste?

Artie: Geez, in 1990 the Packers were wallowing in the Lindy Infante era. Sending anyone to cover that team was a worse waste of dough! By the way, I assume no one has endorsed my plan to spice up soccer—a hidden crocodile pit somewheres on the field, about 10 feet deep so anyone who falls in stays there until the game ends.

Frank: Unless his team tries to rescue him, which would give the opponents a three- or four-man advantage.

Artie: Voila, more scoring! At least for the crocs.

Frank: As for this year's World Cup, I have no prediction of who'll win. The usual suspects are there—Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England, France. But the United States is due for a good tournament. We reached the second round in ’94, went 0-3 again in ’98, reached the quarterfinals in 2002 and flamed out in ’06.

Artie: So it's the semifinals or bust!

Frank: Maybe not that ambitious, but our guys have solid international credentials. Their first game, Saturday against England, is huger than huge! A win or tie would give us a great chance to be one of two teams advancing out of Group C, which also includes Algeria and Slovenia. And remember, last year in the Confederations Cup, we beat Spain and led Brazil at halftime in the final.

Artie: What's this "we"? You're sounding very jingoistic. I can't get past all this nationalism. I'm a One-Worlder, pal.

Frank: So you have no rooting interest?

Artie: Let's see those groups... Hey, Cameroon is in. That's the land that gave us Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the Bucks' fine young forward, ain'a?

Frank: Yup. Cameroon's "Indomitable Lions" are in their fifth World Cup out of the last six.

Artie: Cool nickname! That does it, I'm for Cameroon. But my dream final is North Korea vs. South Korea. From World Cup to World War III, and we could blame it on soccer.

The Perfect Storm

Frank: Let's weigh in on baseball's matchless mess—the blown call by umpire Jim Joyce that cost Detroit's Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Should Commissioner Bud Selig overrule Joyce?

Artie: That would open a can of worms. Because of the history of the “human element” in the game so far, you let the outcome stand as an absolutely unique moment.

Frank: Thirty years from now if Galarraga's on the list of perfect-game pitchers, he's one of many. This way, he's his own list.

Artie: Like Harvey Haddix, who's not a "perfecto" even though he retired 36 straight Braves in 1959 at County Stadium, before losing in the 13th.

Frank: Joyce repented and got his absolution from Galarraga, so all's well. But there's a second issue: Shouldn't there be some way of using replays to review such a call?

Artie: Absolutely. And let's not hear, "Oh, we don't want to lengthen the games." Spare me! If they wanted to speed up the game, they could.

Frank: Major League Baseball already uses replay on certain home-run questions. Besides, how long does it really take?

Artie: We saw Joyce's flub within a minute.

Frank: A replay system should never involve balls and strikes, but other calls that could decide games, why not? Some people say managers should be able to make challenges. I think it should be up to the official scorer or another MLB official in the press box. They'd see the TV feed and could buzz the umpires' crew chief and say, "You better look at this again."

Artie: That's nicer than, "You blew it, Bozo."

Frank: Bud always looks for consensus. Last December he named a 14-man committee—managers, GMs, owners and even George Will—“to review and examine all on-field related issues." I say the panel will suggest an expanded replay system and Bud will adopt it.

Artie: If this committee's pace is like a ballgame's, that report should be ready around 2015.

Frank: I think it'll happen for this year's playoffs. Last year there were several postseason calls that were glaringly wrong.

Artie: If that happens again and MLB has done nothing, there's real trouble. Jim Joyce gave ’em a wakeup call!