Monday, June 30, 2008

While Walking On The Beach ...

Saturday afternoon, about 4:35 p.m. East Coast time, and it was time for a 50-minute stroll along the Atlantic Ocean in 90-degree sunshine on the North End beach in our beloved Ocean City, New Jersey -- heading south down the island, starting from the Seaspray beach. My good English friend Jim Sturman always says how southern New Jersey should market itself in Europe in order to become a must-visit summer destination. At this time of day, the North End of OC does have a Mediterranean feel to it. The cities of Longport and Margate that shimmer across the water in the late-afternoon sunshine could well be Tripoli, Libya or any other European port. It's that beautiful. Most men, while taking a contemplative walk in these surroundings, would take stock of career, family, etc. Me? I was crafting a mental blueprint for my 2008-09 English Premier League Fantasy Team. The first five names will be these: Fernando Torres (pictured), Carlos Tevez, Matty Upson, Robert Green and Gael Clichy. I had all 5 of those players for most or all of last season and finished respectably in the various private leagues I belong to. Based on Torres' scintillating performance in yesterday's Euro 2008 final, I will be in relatively good shape. I love the summer weather, but August -- and the Premiership -- can't come quickly enough for this beach-dweller.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Prediction: Germany 3, Spain 1

A very entertaining Euro 2008 wraps up today with a final pitting Joachim Loew's Germany against Luis Aragones' Spain. Two "traditional" soccer nations make for a heavyweight match-up (although, who could have denied the helter-skelter Turkey a place in the spotlight, had they advanced past the Germans?) Loyal readers of this blog -- all 12 of you! -- know that I rate Spanish forward Fernando "El Nino" Torres as one of the top players in the world right now, and with Cesc Fabregas, Carles Puyol and Iker Casillas he has plenty of help around him to make Spain the tournament's champions (even without the injured David Villa). And, who knows? A Spanish win could help that nation heal its ever-present wounds: Basque and Catalan separatism, the legacy of Franco and the Civil War, etc. But, it must be said, the Germans present a huge obstacle for Spain. Playing on near-home territory in Austria (without even getting into the historical fact of the Anschluss), Germany will have a comfort level not afforded to Spain. Then there's the pedigree and mental toughness of the side as multiple World Cup and European champions. Germany's win over Alan Shearer and host England in the Euro 96 semifinal after going down 1-nil will always be, for me, an example of digging in and prevailing against the toughest sporting odds. And although they may be missing their talisman Michael Ballack through injury today, Germany still has the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger (pictured above), Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose and a wily-if-unpredictable Jens Lehmann in goal. The sport's purists would revel in a win for Spain, but it's very difficult to bet against the Germans. A wonder goal from Italy's Alessandro Del Piero in extra time denied the Germans an appearance in the 2006 World Cup Final on their home soil. Today, they finish the job. 3-1 and Euro 2008 champs. (So, if any of you have offshore betting accounts online, quickly pour tons of cash on a 4-nil win for Spain!!)
For those of you reading in the States, John Harkes and co. are broadcasting the DC United v. L.A. Galaxy MLS match live on ABC at noon Eastern ahead of the Euro final. Check it out.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Lads Make Their Barons Debuts

Alex and Ben (along with Trevor "The Pony" Holak) spent the weekend playing for the South Jersey Barons select summer team in the Rider Cup tournament at Fort Dix, N.J. The three lads played some nice soccer, and a good time was had by all. Next up: the Pocono Cup in Pennsylvania in a few weeks' time. Come on, you Barons !!!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cesc Takes Spain To A Semi ...

Spain coach Luis Aragones is a doddering old fool who once criticized Thierry Henry based on his race; Italy manager Roberto Donadoni is an ex-MetroStar who lent his considerable cachet to America's relaunch of professional soccer in 1996. On Sunday, their paths crossed in a Euro 2008 quarterfinal that demanded to be placed up in lights: FIFA World Cup 2006 winners Italy vs. a Spanish side that sports some of the best footballers in the world: Fernando Torres, Iker Casillas, David Villa and Carles Puyol. All that considered, the Azzurri had to be favored. They'd done it before. In the (extreme) modern era, they were World Cup (1994) and Euro (2000) finalists. Spain were Euro 1984 runners-up to Michel Platini's France. Advantage to the Peninsula (and not !! the Iberian one).
But this time, the verve and attacking talent of Espana carried the day. In a 120-minute slugfest, Spain (so I'm told; we were at Fort Dix in central New Jersey with the South Jersey Barons on youth-tournament duty all day. Many thanks to Andy Stubbs, Neil Holloway and the lovely Victoria Clark for keeping me informed throughout the afternoon!) had 19 shots on goal to Italia's 8. In the end, that kind of verve should see off the negativity of the predictable catenaccio. And Cesc Fabregas hit the winning penalty. Fair play to the Spanish youngster. As they say, may (we) live in interesting times.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Slaven Bilic's Kind Of Football

Slaven Bilic is a football rebel. The Croatia national-team manager sports an earring and smokes unrepentingly -- like all Balkans inhabitants do. I am partial to him due to his time spent at West Ham, but if you click on this link below (an article by Paul Hayward in The Daily Mail from England), you will get a sense of why a nation of 4.5 million like Croatia can humble a country of some 60 million-plus like England on the football pitch twice (and I would lump the 300-million plus of the USA in there too, if we had to play them in a qualifying situation).
“We are talented people for sport in general, not only football ... especially (any) sport where wit is important, where it isn’t only physics that matter,” Bilic says. 
That’s another way of saying, “Hey, we’re smarter than you.” And when it comes to soccer, wit, guile and intelligence matter a whole lot. More than anything else, actually. That’s what concerns me about the state of soccer in the USA. The National Team have guys with sinews bursting out of muscles on top of layers of iron (we are rather fit!), yet we cannot produce a goal in the final third of the pitch.
Then, watching (in person, a few weeks ago) the likes of tiny Argies like Messi and Cruz, well, it makes you think. Personally, I think the American and English kids are WAY, WAY overcoached. A player willing to take people on (via the dribble, etc.) is squelched, while the robotic, paint-by-numbers player will go far in the current coaching set-up.
Forget for a minute true footballing guys like Middlemass, Holloway, Thompson, Nutile, Carbonara, Holak, Napoli, Heggan and Pellegrino (the elite of the South Jersey soccer set out there who can coach your kids) -- what you are usually going to get in South Jersey is the “Boot it! Shoot it!” nonsense when it comes to coaches. I shudder at the thought!
We are breeding a nation of Santino Quarantas, Once Removed !!! (Only the USA or England could take a Hispanic player full of vim and vigor and make him into a shadow of his former self, a player afraid to take risks!) 
The best quote in this article is by the writer Hayward himself. Speaking of Bilic, he writes, “His (Croatia) side move the ball with pace and at lacerating angles. They taught England two lessons in movement and ball retention.”
Can you imagine an English or USA National Team manager applauding his side’s ball movement? Penning an ode to some “Rock and Roll Soccer” ??? No, neither can I -- and that’s atrue shame!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Meat Is Murder, the Massive!, Harkesy "Still On The Air" And Much 'Adu' About Sammy: A Match Report From USA-Argentina (Part 1)

East Rutherford, New Jersey -- Short of the FIFA World Cup matches between Ireland and Italy (the group stage) and Bulgaria and Italy (the semifinal) played at Giants Stadium -- our beloved, and creaky-but-beautiful Estadio de Gigantes -- in 1994, the friendly between the host United States Men's National Team and FIFA No. 1-ranked Argentina on Sunday, June 8, has to be the most important and glamourous football fixture ever played on New Jersey's sandy soil. I was at the CONCACAF Gold Cup (Copa de Oro) final a few years ago with Mark Melhorn to see the United States defeat Panama at Giants Stadium (in similar heat, it has to be said), but this game was definitely at another level.
With a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on a day where the Fahrenheit temperatures reached 97 degrees, the near-sellout crowd of 78,682 was a testament to the match's pulling power. And the fact that the Argentine-USA split in the crowd was about 60-40 (rather than 80-20 in the Argies' favor) no doubt lifted the American lads, especially considering how loud the supporters group Sam's Army made themselves behind one of the goals.
Obviously, the members of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! (TM) were not going to miss this one, and Alex, Ben and I were lucky enough to score Row 1 seats in the usual Section 107 -- right on a corner flag -- that we inhabit for Red Bulls matches Although, at $65 per ticket, it's hard to consider yourself lucky, I suppose! The Nutile clan (Sam, Tyler and Nicky "Juan/ The One ") rode up with us, and the Holaks (Dave "The Horse," Carrie "The Mare" and Trevor "The Pony") were also in attendance, rooting for their longtime favorite national side, Argentina. The day began with a swing by Mainland High School at 2 p.m. to collect the Nutiles after one of Nicky's baseball games. The heat was sweltering, but the members of the Massive! knew from past experience (when there were 79,000-plus at the stadium to see Red Bulls v. Barcelona a few years prior) that it was better to arrive early and deal with the heat outside of your car rather than be stuck in endless traffic, looking for a place to park. The Holaks left in The Stagecoach at 3 p.m., and asked us to provide traffic updates. Little did we know!
The 120-mile trip usually takes 1 hour and 50 minutes, give or take 10. It's an easy drive to navigate: Expressway to Parkway North, then Turnpike North to exit 16W. Piece of cake. Except, you can't legislate for bad luck or sheer stupidity, and we saw plenty of both on this sunny Sunday. The first of four massive tie-ups affected us not even 20 miles in. Backed up for a half-hour, we noticed the tar on the road was actually melting into the tires of the cars in the next lane over, producing what Sam said was a "Flintstone-like" effect on forward progress. As the cars bump-bump-bumped along at 10 miles per hour, worried drivers were adding to their own delays by pulling off to the side of the road to inspect the cause of their less-than-smooth navigation. Sam kept the boys amused by crooning along to the "All-Elvis" channel on Sirius Satellite radio. It was going to be a long day!

Just getting started
About 60 miles later, we lost significant time again due to a complete moron running out of gas in the left lane! I know prices are higher than we're used to in the States, but, come on ... fill your tank up, for goodness sake. By this time, Sam was doing his best falsetto along to the "Sorry, Miss Jackson, you know I'm for reeeeaaaalllllll!!!" song that's all over the radio these days. Yikes!
This is where the trip started to get surreal. About 15 minutes later, we hit the first of two delays caused by caravans of Orthodox Jews. That's a statement of fact; it's not meant to be funny or disrespectful. I have been to Dachau to honor the dead and had many Jewish friends (and a girlfriend or 2!) back in college. I also shared a dormitory floor with some Palestinian engineering students, and my motto is Viva, la difference!
I also work with Jews, and I am not making a slur here in the least. But, first and foremost, I am a journalist. I have an obligation to observe, then report. And I can honestly tell you that on the hottest day of the year, and on a major highway into New York, 8 or so cars filled with Orthodox Jews were causing major havoc by (barely) pulling off to the shoulder on the left side!! of the road to congregate. Then, amazingly, 10 miles later, there were another 6 or so cars on the shoulder parked almost perpendicular to the left lane, slowing traffic to a grinding halt. And guess who was piling out of them? That's right, more Orthodox Jews. It was the most bizarre thing. At this point, I told Sam to call The Horse and warn him what was coming. The call went something like this -- Sam: "Giddyup, Horse. Watch out for the Orthodox Jews." Dave: "What are you talking about?" Sam: "You'll see."
We finally got moving again, and as we passed exit 15W, which takes you to Kearny, I had the lads "give a clap for Harkesy's hometown." Kearny, New Jersey, is Soccertown, USA. It has produced John Harkes, the former USA captain who I now am lucky to count as a friend, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos, among others. Anyone who has read Harkesy's book, "Captain for Life and Other Temporary Assignments," knows how Kearny Thistle broke new ground by beating Celtic's youngsters and how to grow up there in the 1970s and 80s, amongst the Scottish and other immigrants, was a soccer experience like no other in the United States. The players who came out of the Kearny scene were tough and tenacious, as well as highly skilled. I read Harkesy's book once a year to remind myself of his remarkable story, and Alex and Ben own copies and have read it. I also gave Sam, The Horse and other coaches a copy as a year-end present in the past. (File that nugget away, for now, dear readers! It will come in handy in a bit.)

Hoping To Meet Up
One of the reasons Harkesy was on our minds was that he was calling the match live for ESPN Classic, and we had made plans -- through various texts when he was in London, covering the recent USA-England friendly -- to meet up in the Giants Stadium tunnel near the locker rooms after the match. When Harkesy was an assistant coach with the Red Bulls, he would extend us the same favor on occasion, as has Fox Soccer Channel broadcaster Max Bretos, Red Bulls assistant Richie Williams and Red Bulls official Remy Cherin. The boys love getting a chance to meet the players -- it helps "create heroes" for them, as The Horse so aptly says -- and we were able to introduce the Nutiles to the "tunnel experience" once previously. Trevor also joined us for a "Meet the Team" event for season ticket-holders earlier this year, so all the lads have had a chance to shake hands with and pose for photos with some pros. It's a nice treat for them, and I am always indebted to my contacts for their graciousness on that front.
But I knew this would be the toughest nut to crack yet. Let's just say that security is a wee bit tighter for a National Team game (not that it's ever lax, mind you). Harkesy hadn't got us official passes, as such; we were just going to meet up with him. But try telling that to stadium officials! Unless Harkesy actually came and got us, we would be out of luck. And as the good man was actually working on the night for ESPN, there was no telling when he would be freed up to grab us. But more on all of that later.
After getting a beautiful eyeful of the New York City skyline, we pulled into the stadium around 4:50 p.m., having lost a good hour or so to the various traffic shenanigans. The big worry was whether we would be able to park in the stadium lot proper, or would be forced to a satellite lot 2 miles away and have to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. No thanks. We paid the $20 parking fee (really, could they fleece us any more? It's "only" $10 for MLS matches) and I found what had to be one of the last spots available. It was a tight squeeze, but within a few minutes the kids were in their stadium chairs, the mini-soccer ball was out, two beers were cracked and Sam was readying the grill. We were going all-out on the tailgate for this one: sausage, hot dogs, cheddarwursts and burgers, plus sliced veggies and fruit to balance out the menu.
Loyal readers of this Pardew's Guardian blog will note that when the Nutiles joined us for the Red Bulls-Wizards match a while back, I was meant to bring the beer and Sam was meant to bring the grub. As you might remember, I, ahem, somehow managed to leave the beer behind in Northfield, which forced me -- out of a sense of duty to Sam, if nothing else -- to approach a tailgating girls' team from Brooklyn, New York, and offer to buy some of their beer. Thankfully, there would be none of that nonsense this time. Sam and I had planned meticulously, and my wife Victoria had even given Sam an early Father's Day present of a grill lighter. How could we lose, correct?
Except, we could. The grill lighter worked a charm, but the grill itself refused to light. I never saw a man more determined to succeed than Sam on this front. For 30 minutes, he toiled, hoped, prayed, cajoled, cursed and poured gallons of sweat in the sweltering conditions. But I knew what was coming, even if Sam refused to admit it. For the second time in a row, I would have to depend on the kindness of strangers, this time for grill space.

Success, Again
At least we had our own food, and I wasn't forced to beg for that, too! As The Smiths said, meat really is murder. But it wasn't too hard get the brood fed. Some tailgating "pros" -- they were cooking whole chickens, and serving up littleneck clams with kettles of butter and the like -- were nice enough to let me commandeer one of their grills for 15 minutes (see the fourth picture, above)
The Argentine team buses made their way past us, complete with a police motorcade, drawing huge cheers and competing chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A!" in equal measure. It was a timely reminder of why we were all there. After shooing the kids inside the car during an ensuing pour-down complete with lightning (what is it with the rain up there? I have been to Giants Stadium for soccer more than 20 times over the years, and I think it has rained at some point during the event on at least 18 occasions. Do the clouds suck up the moisture from the surrounding swamps and deposit it, in the form of rain, on the onlookers below?), Sam made friends with some of our fellow Hispanic revelers with a friendly, "Hey, Big Papi, are you hungry? Do you want a beer?" I offered some sausage to one of a trio of lads near our car, then had to explain that the whole plate wasn't available. Nevermind, futbol is the beautiful game, and it helps cross cultural boundaries. We had three new buddies, and that was cool. But the weather was clearing up, and it was about 6:40 p.m. -- just 50 minutes to kickoff. We tore down our camp and made our way toward the gates. It was time to go inside. There was some soccer to be played.

-- To Be Continued --

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Del Piero To Captain Italy ...

Nothing comes easy for the Azzurri in any major tournament, and after the nil-3 spanking at the hands of the Oranje of the Netherlands earlier this week, you had to think manager Roberto Donadoni would change up the starting 11 for Friday's matchup v. Romania. And he has certainly done so, slotting in Juventus frontman Alessandro Del Piero, who has navigated the challenging landscape of European football. Who can ever forget the 1996 Champions League final, when the Italian 'Old Lady' did what was expected of it in the era of Zidane, Vialli and Del Piero -- mainly, winning European club championships. Sometimes, you can't deny the class you have at your disposal. Once in a while, you have to admit that the Blues deserve their tag as favorite. Even if it doesn't work out that way.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Angel's Clinical Goal

The Northfield, New Jersey Massive! TM was once again forced to be absent from the MLS action at Estadio de Gigantes on Thursday night, this time due to the lads' commitments with the South Jersey Barons. For the Sunday 5-1 capitulation at home to the Chicago Fire a few Sundays ago, we were otherwise occupied playing for the Vineland Red Vortex, who ran the table at 4 wins and 0 losses in their own Memorial Day Tournament, with Glenn Carbonara showing why he's one of the most highly regarded coaches in South Jersey -- although anyone watching the Barons' Scott Middlemass train a group of lads has to marvel at is his innate abilities. He is a fine technician, too.
This past Thursday night, the Holaks played host, post-Barons practice, with a "make your own pizza" night at their place, with the Bulls-Chivas match on TV serving as the backdrop. What must only be characterized as a "turgid" first half gave way to a more open second stanza, with Juan Pablo Angel (pictured, with Dave van den Bergh) heading home brilliantly from a Dane Richards' cross. The goal gave the Bulls a needed 3 points, but there was something more subtle on display here. Coach Juan Carlos Osoro leaned heavily on striker John Wolyniec off the bench, and it paid huge dividends. Don't be fooled by John Woly's graying mane -- as my lads say, the man is "an animal." In MLS, sometimes that effort level can prove to be good enough. For the Bulls, let's hope so.

Italy to win Euro 2008 ... maybe ????

Euro 2008 starts Saturday, and the pundits are tripping over themselves to figure out which underwhelming side will emerge victorious. The sexy pick is Portugal, the sensible ones Germany or France, the smart one Germany and the unconventional ones Russia or Croatia. And, what do I think ... as if any or all of you all care ?!?!?! (Ha, ha, ha, ha !!!)
To me, this tournament has shades of Euro 2000 written all over it. That was when a France team, which improved itself, via selection, over the squad that won the FIFA World Cup '98 on home soil. I believe, despite Fabio Cannavaro's absence due to injury, that the Azzurri -- including Marco Materazzi (pictured), who famously shouted, "Ragazzi! Ragazzi!" in the dressing room after winning the FIFA World Cup '06  ("My (the) Boys!, My (the) Boys!,") the ultimate Italian calcio compliment/sentiment) -- will do what they do best. They will outlast, outwork and out-guile the teams that come between them and the trophy. And they will join France in 2000 as the only side to be joint-holders of the World Cup (or, Copa Mundial) and the European trophy. Internationally, I support -- in order -- the USA (the land of my birth), England (the land where my boys hold a passport) and Italia (the land from which my Roman grandmother touched down Stateside in 1913, hence the Lazio connection). Come on, Italy. Let's get the job done.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Best away kits since the Fila days ...

Hammers have been hit-and-miss on the kit front for many a year, especially when it comes to playing away from home. The simplicity of the home kit over the years --- claret bodice, sky-blue sleeves -- has always been countered by the unpredictability of what we take the field in away from the confines of Upton Park. In my years of supporting, there have been a few hits (Fila's dark blue of the 2001 FA Cup upset at Old Trafford, plus the same Italian outfit's sky-blue effort that was rolled out at Anfield in the first proper match under Glenn Roeder's managerial reign) and a miss (think Reebok's near-black pyjama-like take on the kit that, as Paolo DiCanio famously said, made us "look like Wimbledon"), so it's good to see there's a nod to tradition with the advertising campaign -- see photo above -- for this year's clobber. Even more encouraging is the fact that Academy youngsters like Freddie Sears, Mark Noble and James Tomkins are at the forefront of the advertising blitz, proving that West Ham still calls upon the heritage of Tony Carr, Cassetari's and Ken's Cafe when it comes to the essence of what English football really means to the great unwashed languishing out there.

My take on Jozy's Spanish sojourn ...

Well, it must be said that it was always a foregone conclusion that the Red Bulls' Jozy Altidore (pictured above spending some quality time with Alex and Ben, two members of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! TM, and also in action on the field) would end up in Europe sooner rather than later. With a nod to his Haitian heritage, he has the potential to be the finest American striker to ever play the game. The news that he garnered MLS an $8 million transfer fee (with add-ons potentially taking it past the $10 million mark), thus shattering what Fulham paid the league for Clint Dempsey, shows what Villarreal of Spain's famed La Liga think of his pedigree. Rumors aside that he will be loaned to Recreativo Huelva or even back to MLS, the reality is that Altidore is poised to be playing Champions League football in the matter of a few short months.
Yet, something nags at me about this transfer. There's no denying the fact that Altidore, at only 18 years of age, has time on his side when it comes to his potential to improve. And, it's also true that a player of his physicality might be able to take La Liga by storm. But, I always thought his game was more suited for England. Forget the language and culture barriers he will face -- and probably, manfully, in Spain. (And while I hesitate to paint any fan group with the proverbial broad brush, as it's always the vocal minority that grabs the headlines, the insular Spanish don't exactly cover themselves with glory when it comes to treating black players with respect.) I just don't think he has the ball skills to be a traditional No. 9 in Spain. A Raul he is not. He's more like a better-skilled version of West Ham's Carlton Cole. In the rough-and-tumble of the Premiership, Jozy could be a 12 to 15 goals-a-season player, given time. I just don't think he has enough cunning to set the world alight in Spain, where an innate understanding of the game and speed of thought count for more than the pace and power of the Prem.
Don't get me wrong -- I want the lad to succeed, and in a big way. Through my Red Bulls connections, I have had the chance to speak at length with him on three or four occasions, and you couldn't hope to meet a more humble, grounded footballer. But that's all about to change. The spotlight glare of Spain's notorious futbol press (like La Marca) will come down on the lad full blast, and 3 or 4 games without a goal in the Villarreal side will be dissected in a way he never experienced while playing for the Bulls. The question is, does he have a support group in place to help him handle it?
I trust four male friends who live in South Jersey on so many matters generally, and three of them happen to be raging soccer fans -- Sam Nutile, Dave Holak and Neil Holloway (Mike Lucey being the baseball god when it comes to the Phillies, although Nutile scores significant points there as well as the resident Yankees expert. And, I can't emphasize enough how open Mark Melhorn has been to the sport of soccer when it comes to being a 21st-century sports journalist. Kudos, sir!). 
So, Holak's opinions on his beloved La Liga matter to me. He follows La Liga -- and Real Madrid in particular, as evidenced by this blog -- with the same passion, critical eye and outright mania with which I immerse myself in West Ham and the English Premier League. Dave's simply just not sold on Jozy. Many times after a Red Bulls match during the last two seasons, he and I have talked in the parking lot about how he was so lazy to be caught offside so many times, how he goes through patches in games where he seems disinterested, how he fails to impose himself on lesser opponents ...
Dave, a full-blooded Real Madrid supporter, saw that there were initial reports of interest from Los Blancos in acquiring Altidore, but Jozy himself was always keen to join Barcelona, reportedly his favorite European club. After a recent Bulls match in which Altidore flattered to deceive, Dave said, "Barca are welcome to him!"
Yet, part of me just can't get out of my head that wonder goal he scored (with his own head!) v. Mexico on his full USA national team debut in Houston. His movement off the ball was sublime, and the finish was of undoubted class. Maybe, just maybe, Jozy, the American Wonder Kid, can make this happen in the land of tapas and siestas. We shall see.