Wednesday, May 31, 2006

#18: Los Tricolores


Where? South o' the Border.

How big? Pretty big. Three times larger than Texas. Population is a little less than a third of the US.

Something I didn't know before reading the CIA factbook entry... Lots, actually. I didn't know Mexico had compulsory 1 year military service. Only 12% of the land is arable (drier than I thought). The lack of clean water and deforestation are considered by the Mexican government to be national security issues. As in, they fear uprising because there isn't enough water. That blows my mind. 18% of the population work in agriculture, but only 4% of the GDP is in the Agriculture sector. That seems really confusing, and sort of sad for the farmers. Get this: only Brazil and the US have more airports than Mexico.

Geopolitical significance is quite great. Mexico has one of the world's 15 largest economies, larger than South Korea, Australia, Taiwan. It's got 50% more oil reserves than the US. It's strategically located directly next to the world's superpower. And that border just happens to be the hot button political issue of the day.

Something fun about Mexico? Ask any senior in high school if Mexico is fun. It is, in fact, fun. Look up Salma Hayek on the internet.

Let's get to it...

Mexico are considered one of the top teams in the world, and they're seeded as if they are one. However, their record in World Cups is, in a word, underwhelming. They make the finals most of the time, but they've never advanced past the quarterfinals, and they've only gotten that far with home field advantage. Perhaps no other team has a more undeserved reputation. And if that sounds like the voice of a bitter dude pissed that Mexico gets seeded instead of the USA, well, call a spade a spade. Mexico has fared better in the Copa America.

Probably the main reason for the respect given to Mexico is the way they typically have an easy time of qualifying for the World Cup. It's time we all faced facts: North America just isn't that great at soccer. This time around was no different. Mexico qualified with two games to go, with really only two games going against them, a 1-1 draw in Panama, and a defeat to the USA in Columbus.

One reason I always thought Mexico was overrated was that deference was always given to the Mexican league (one of the few long-standing leagues outside of Europe). And since most Mexican players remained in country, and the league was respected, for some reason, the rest of the world gave undeserved credit. And since Mexican soccer kind of developed on its own, the growth of the game elsewhere, and innovations seen elsewhere, definitely hurt Mexico on the world stage. It may have changed recently, since a few players have gone overseas. Openness can only help Mexico.

The Mexican attack should be strong, if LaVolpe can figure out how to use them all. Jared Borgetti, the first Mexican player in the Premiership, should be the main scoring threat, and he's had success in Europe. Fonseca, Franco, and Bravo are the other options. But the one to watch is in the defense, Rafael Marquez. He's a stalwart in the defense for Barcelona, and leads from the back line.

The draw was not unfavorable for Mexico. Of course, when Mexico is seeded, they'll end up with an easier group. Karma allowed for Portugal drawn with them. Iran and Angola aren't the toughest teams in the tournament, so the commenters probably have plenty of arguments as to why predicting them here is selling them short. But I don't see it. I think Mexico fails to advance, which should piss off a lot of people.

They open against Iran in Nuremburg, which I actually think is the biggest game of the group. Borgetti scores early, but Iran gets a penalty, partially thanks to a loud partisan crowd. They convert it, and the game ends 1-1. Mexico is not happy with the result.

They come out flat, too. Angola scores early, stunning the Mexican side. But they don't give up, equalizing and going ahead with a Bravo goal. 2-1 Mexico, but not a great result, since that draw with Iran still lingers.

Mexico goes into the Portugal match thinking it needs to win to ensure advancement. In the opening minutes, things go awry. Ronaldo scores in the fifth minute, making Mexico panic. A few odd substitutions later, and Mexico levels with a Borgetti header. But the European teams show up in Europe, and Luis Figo doesn't want to go out this early. He scores from a free kick just outside the box with 15 minutes to go. 2-1 Portugal. And like that, Mexico are eliminated. And next time, they don't get that huge benefit of seeding.

A win, a draw and a loss, and it's on home. And the mirage that is Mexico's reputation should finally be seen for what it is - vastly overrated.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Mexico would be... a team from a sub-par conference with a great reputation for some reason, mainly based on repeated appearances. But once they're in the tournament, they just don't show up. Yeah, there have been a few Elite 8 appearances, but look at all the early round bounces: Mexico is Gonzaga.

Yes, I just talked a lot of shit about Mexico. Trust me, I know there's value there.


#19: Guaranies or La Albirroja


Where? Landlocked in South Central South America. Borders Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.

How big? Unsure of perception-wise, but it's about the size of California. Population is pretty small, only 6 Million, about the size of Indiana or just a little larger than the Dallas metropolitan area.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook (spotted there, found more info elsewhere)? In the 1860s, Paraguay fought a war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay over control of the River Plate region. At the time, Paraguay had about 600,000 people living there. In a quest for a port, the Paraguayan government had aligned itself with a political party in Urugauy (the Blancos) to try to take some Brazilian land that would allow Paraguay sea access. A number of things happened, and before Paraguay could really take any military action, things had changed drastically. A Pro-Brazil political party had taken power in Uruguay, and the Blancos asked for help from Paraguay. Instead of helping immediately, the Paraguayan military captured a Brazillian ship and declared war on Brazil and Argentina. As incredible as this may seem today, at the time, the Paraguayan military was one of the strongest in South America, and dwarfed the size of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay combined. Apparently Paraguay had awakened sleeping giants. After a 5 year war, the Paraguayan population was not just decimated (a tenth), but a full two-thirds of the male population had been lost, and some estimates are even worse. It took basically a century for the country to recover. Strangely, if not for Brazil, Paraguay wouldn't exist today. After the War of the Triple Alliance, Argentina wanted to divide all Paraguayan lands in half between Brazil and Argentina (thinking the best lands would go to Argentina). Brazil preferred having a buffer state and refused to accept partition. Another crazy thing is that this war effectively ended slavery in Brazil - slaves who fought in the war were given freedom. Enough history lesson...

Geopolitical importance? Not much, really, because it's a land-locked country with few natural resources. Hydroelectricity has been one good thing to come about, and the Itaipu Dam on the Parana River is the larges hydroelectric power facility in the world (unless the Three Gorges Dam in China ends up passing it), creating almost 80% of the energy in Paraguay and over a quarter of the energy used in Brazil. It appears that there was a really bad outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease there in the early 2000s, but we only hear about that when it happens in Britain, Canada or Japan.

Anything fun? Israeli Nazi hunters tracked Dr. Mengele there, but the Holocaust isn't fun at all. Took a while to find, but this is fun... The Guarani are the indigenous people of Paraguay - about 95% of the population are mestizos mized with Guarani - and they had their own mythology. One interesting character is Kurupi. Kurupi is the God of forests and fertility. He's sometimes mixed together with (because he allegedly looks like) Pombero, the God of mischief. Both Kurupi and Pombero are blamed for unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. Both Kurupi and Pombero are described as looking short, ugly and hairy. But if you want to know that you've seen Kurupi in a vision, look to the belt. Supposedly, Kurupi's massive penis is so elongated that he's forced to wrap it around his waist several times. The gigantic member gets blamed for unwanted pregnancies because it is so large, allegedly, he doesn't even have to enter a house to impregnate a woman. The rod can just float inside through a window or something. Now, that's more fun than nazis in hiding, isn't it?


Paraguay aren't among the titans of South American Soccer, but they're no pushovers either. A solid member of the second tier behind Brazil and Argentina. This is Paraguay's 7th foray into the world cup, and they've advanced past the initial round 3 previous times, and in fact in their last three attempts - 2002, 1998, 1986. They've also won two Copa Americas, but not since 1979, and in recent years they haven't been able to get past the quarterfinals. Their most recent major tournament was probably Paraguay's finest hour in any sport. They lost to Argentina in the final of the 2004 Olympic Soccer tournament. That silver medal was the first medal any Paraguayan had ever won in an Olympics.

Qualifying for Germany got off to a rocky start in the rarefied air in Peru, where a 1-1 halftime score turned into a 4-1 defeat, showing that playing a twice sea level can be a bitch. Similar outcomes were seen at Ecuador and Bolivia. But at home Paraguay was tough to beat, winning 6, drawing two and only losing one (which was after they'd clinched a spot in Germany). The win against Argentina at home was the first ever in a long series of qualifying matches against Argentina.

The one face of Paraguayan soccer that the rest of the world knows is Jose Luis Chilavert, the flamboyant and brash keeper known for pushing forward and not infrequently scoring (he's the world's all time leading scorer among keepers). However, he has retired and new faces will be looked to. It should be OK, considering Paraguay advanced out of the group in Korea/Japan despite not having Chilavert in two of the games due to suspension (spitting on Roberto Carlos: classy).

The team is composed of players based all over. Only 5 of the selected players play in Paraguay - same number as based in Argentina. Another 4 play in Mexico, 3 in Germany and Spain, and others in Brazil, Italy, and Holland.

Chilavert's retirement doesn't mean that keeping in Paraguay will become a problem. Indeed, often times Chilavert's brashness hurt the team as much as it helped, especially against top international teams with the ability to counterattack. In his place now sits Justo Villar, a top keeper in Argentina for Newell's Old Boys (whom he led to the title in 2004). Another well known player is Jose Saturnino Cardozo, the nation's most capped player and all-time leading scorer. He's again on the roster, but his age and some injuries may prevent him from getting on the pitch too much. Still he's the last winner of the award for South American Footballer of the Year not named Tevez. Injuries also have snakebitten one of Paraguay's best scoring threats - Bayern Munich's Roque Santa Cruz. He's on the roster, but hasn't played in any of the lead-up friendlies due to tendinitis.

The one to watch, then, is Nelson Valdez. He's 23, and just now reaching his prime. Recently he transferred to Borussia Dortmund from Werder Bremen, so he knows the European games and won't shy from the stages of the Bundesliga stadia. Valdez hasn't had as many caps as you might expect for a player in this category, but recently he's made the most of it, scoring against Georgia and Norway. With the injury to Roque, look for Valdez to be the option up front.

The draw isn't the most difficult in the Cup, since I'd say Paraguay and Sweden are pretty close on talent and the fourth team in the group is the least talented in the entire draw. But the schedule doesn't work out well for Paraguay. Often confidence matters in cups, and opening against England, with this younger squad could hurt them.

And I do think the England game will cost them, because it'll be a closely contested match. Intensity should be high and surely the pressure will be on England far more than Paraguay. But I fear the Paraguayan propensity to concede late goals in qualifying, and their inability to defeat even mid-level European opponents in Europe (Denmark and Norway in recent friendlies). I think this one stays scoreless until late, when Owen breaks through and nets the winner (I could even see this as a PK). 1-0 England.

The hangover will hurt Paraguay severely. While Paraguay has to dwell over what could've been, Sweden will be riding high off a sound beating of Trinidad and Tobago. Sweden scores early and nets a second one just before the half. Defense rules the rest of the day, and Sweden hold on for a 2-0 win. This is the key game though - even a draw here could put Paraguay through.

But Paraguay won't go home empty handed, even though advancement is impossible. They'll show pride and pound Trinidad 3-0. One last goal for Cardozo, who retires from international football afterward.

One win, two losses, even on goal differential, and three goals. That places them 19th among teams in the tournament.

If this were March Madness, Paraguay would be... a reliable tournament attendee, who advances somewhat frequently, but never climbs out from the shadow of the local powerhouses and relies on one or two big names for recognition. Could be NC State, but the style doesn't really fit and it's a little smaller. I'll go with Wake Forest.

Much like Paraguay's great goalkeeping tradition, the Itaipu holds strong, allowing only what is necessary to pass.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

#20: Nati


Where? Central Europe, between France, Germany, Italy and Austria.

How big? A little bigger than Maryland, so pretty small. Population is about the size of Virginia.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? Switzerland is old, especially for the kind of government it has. It's a confederation of cantons, but dates back to 1291 - back when every nation was a kingdom. It started as a confederation of just 3 cantons, but now it's 26. Also, military service is compulsory, which I thought was kind of odd for a country that prides itself on neutrality.

Geopolitical significance: It is estimated that over a third of the entire world's private and institutional capital is held by banks in Switzerland, due to the favorable, secret, and stable banking economy. One third of the world's private capital is located in this small country. That's mind blowing to me.

Something fun about Switzerland? Quick hits here: Ricola is actually a mixed up name, coming from the name of the original company and the town it started in: Richterich & Company, Lauten. Swiss Miss? Not Swiss! Created by an Italian-American immigrant from Sicily. And then there's the glacier story. A Swiss ski resort has been wrapping a glacier on its mountain because it has been retreating so rapidly (many believe due to global warming). The wrap is kind of a foil that aims to prevent overmelting in the summer. When they first wrapped the glacier, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, get this, protested because they thought global warming was a bigger issue than just wrapping the glacier. Yeah. Nice job there, way to train your sights on they guys causing the problem.


The Swiss have a middling history in international soccer. In the World Cup's earliest days, Switzerland made the quarterfinals three times, but they've only advanced past the group stage once since 1954 (in the USA '94). The three big neighbors of Switzerland all overshadow them on the pitch though.

Qualifying for the Cup might've been tougher than any other team in the entire tournament. They were drawn in the European Group of Death, along with France, Ireland and upstarts Israel. This group went back and forth the entire time, with only three points separating the top 4 teams. Basically, everyone beat up on Cyprus and the Faeroes, and the rest of the games were close. In fact, three teams didn't lose a game, and the Irish only lost once. The Swiss took second in the group because of goal differential over Israel. Their prize for placing second - possibly the toughest of the playoff teams, 2002 third place finisher Turkey. After winning 2-0 in Bern, the Swiss had to travel to one of Europe's most difficult places to play. They fell 4-2, but those two away goals sent the Swiss through.

The team itself is built with players stationed in many of the top leagues in Europe. One high profile scorer is Alexander Frei, the leading scorer in France's Ligue 1 in 2004-5, and that's typically a league where there are plenty of scorers. Injuries have hurt him lately, including an annoying groin injury.

The one to watch, though not really for aesthics, is the captain, Johann Vogel. He's a defensive midfielder for AC Milan and is prone to play to the back. He's a sharp passer and can take possession away well though. If the Cup ends up a defensive battle, he could be crucial - though this isn't really the group where that should happen.

In fact, the draw has things shaping up to be some of the more attractive soccer in the tournament. Unfortunately, the Swiss are the clodhoppers in a group of ballerinas.

They open against France, and this is bad for the Swiss. France did not score a goal in 2002 while defending their title. That will not happen again. France, actually, I think has the talent to win the Cup. The Swiss don't. Should be fun for fans though. Henry scores, the Swiss are content to lose by one.

Not too down from their opener loss, the Swiss rebound against Togo, scoring twice early, but giving up one late. A 2-1 win.

The Swiss have hopes to qualify for the next round with a win or possibly with a draw against South Korea. The clash of styles doesn't help the Swiss though. Korea uses their speed and quickness advantage and scores twice before conceding one back. 2-1 Korea.

One win, two losses, 3 goals, -1 goal differential. Not a great result, but they probably shouldn't have made it this far either.

If the World Cup were March Madness, the Swiss would be... a small school in a ridiculously good conference that occasionally makes the tournament, but doesn't make many waves. Vanderbilt seems about right.

Can't wait for Chris Berman to do the highlights and throw in a "Ri-GOALLLLLLLLLL-a". No, wait, I think I'd rather shove a hot poker in my eye.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

#21: Bialo-Czerwoni


Where? East of Germany, West of Ukraine and Belarus, Northeast Europe.

How Big? Slightly smaller than Cote d'Ivoire, about the size of New Mexico. Population is bigger than California, around the same size as Argentina.

Something I learned in the CIA Factbook entry... Not much, actually. Poland is kind of an average country - not as undeveloped as many of the other Warsaw Pact nations, but nowhere near as productive as any of the Western European nations. It's more literate than the USA - 99.8%.

Geopolitical importance? It's a growing economy, but they've suffered growing pains of late. It's one of the poorer countries in the EU, and the current government has taken some positions that counter prevailing EU thoughts, such as instituting the death penalty. Poland has always been an important buffer between European powers Russia and Germany.

Anything fun about Poland? Maybe not. I spent way longer than I should've trying to find something fun there. Apparently it is a cold place, and the things to see include Nazi concentration camps and nobody seems to write about other things. I'm depressed just doing searches. I would link to a site of Polish jokes, but even they aren't really funny.

Is there anything good about the soccer?

Sort of. It's good they qualified for the World Cup, but Poland isn't really considered one of the premier teams in Europe. In actuality, Poland has a pretty good history in the World Cup. They've finished in third place on two occasions (1974 and 1982), including the last time the Cup was in Germany. On two other occasions, Poland has advanced past the group round. Oddly, they've never even qualified for the European Cup. Poland has had even better success in the Olympics, taking Silver Medals twice and winning Gold in Munich in 1972. One oddity: Poland is probably home to the maybe the most famous soccer player in history. No, not Pele. It's Pope John Paul II, who grew up playing goalkeeper in his hometown of Wadowice.

Qualifying for this year's Cup went well for Poland, in that they absolutely dominated everyone in their group except England. True enough, England was the only good team in their preliminary group and they lost home and away. Austria has had decent teams in the past and Poland beat them twice (including a big 3-1 win in Vienna). Poland actually qualified for the cup going into their last match against England, because even with a loss the Poles had one of the best records for non-group-winners.

The Polish team might not be big on names, but there's definitely talent on the team. One advantage they have is their size up front, and they'll use their height advantage by whipping crosses in. The player to watch is striker Maciej Zurawski, who plays for Celtic. Keen nose for the goal there, scoring 20 times for the Bhoys.

Poland is probably a good bet to advance, since they'll have a crowd advantage in 2 of their three prelim games and it's a favorable group, with no clear second-best team. I'm going a little against the grain here, thinking they won't advance.

The opener in Gelsenkirchen proves to be a loud place, and the height advantage works for the Poles, who get by Ecuador 1-0.

The second match doesn't prove as fruitful, as the home team Germans clinch advancement by winning 2-1. Poland's strengths match up with Germany's, but Germany's just better.

Finally, with everything on the line, Poland will line up against Costa Rica. Poland scores first, with a strong Zurawski header. But the Ticos spirit isn't broken, and they use speed and counterattacks to level just before half. Both teams get nervous because of similar qualification standings. The Poles falter though, allowing a slick long pass and goal by Costa Rica. Poland loses 2-1 again and fails to advance.

A successful opener leads to a disappointing finish. But I'm not very confident about this prediction. Poland could very well advance, or even top the group.

If this were March Madness, Poland would be a major conference team that should be better than they are, but also aren't as bad as you think they are, and a team that makes the occasional long run. Maybe Wisconsin?

JPII was an honorary member of Schalke 04, in whose stadium the Poles play their first game in this Cup.


Hawks Draft Lottery

I wrote a bunch about this a while ago, so I guess I need to comment now.

Basically, tonight's Lottery results hurt Billy Knight. In the immediate, because at #5, the top frontcourt players (Aldridge and Thomas) will likely be gone, the top point guards would be a reach there, and the best players likely on the board there are all either shooting guards, which BK spent an asston for last year, or small forwards, of which the Hawks could use about one fewer. In the less immediate, picking 5th hurts even worse because of the Diaw/Johnson trade. Now the Hawks are stuck with the 5th pick in a weak draft, where the top players are probably off the board. Meanwhile, if the Hawks end up 5th next year, they'd probably get a stud in a really loaded draft, but that pick would go to Phoenix (the Hawks pick is only protected through 3).

Best case scenario for the Hawks: trade down and get Marcus Williams or a lesser respected big man, and maybe pick up another pick next year or something.


Sorry for the time off

Family crisis. Hopefully I can catch up tonight, but I leave for Frisco tomorrow until Tuesday, so it might be a while before we really catch up.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

#22: Blues


Where? Archipelago in Northwestern Pacific Ocean.

How Big? Decent sized. About the size of California. Incredibly densely populated. About 40% the population of the US in about 4% of the space.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... Well, it seems we learn a lot about Japan, so there wasn't much new in the CIA entry. The longest lifespan of anyone in the World Cup (only tiny countries are ahead overall). After Japanese, Korean, and Chinese ethnic groups, the largest in Japan is... Brazillian? Really. It seems a large group migrated there in the 1990s for jobs. Then there's this, which I couldn't believe. Japan's public debt is one of the largest in the world. 170% the national GDP, 3rd largest in the world and nearly three times the US's. Surprised me because people always used to talk about the trade imbalance with Japan, and I guess it's counterintuitive.

Geopolitical importance? Despite the large public debt, and an economy that has faced difficulties lately, Japan is still one of the most important economic nations on earth. In fact, it's third larges, after only the US and China - amazing because it's only a fraction the size of each and has only limited natural resources. At the same time, Japan requires a lot of imports just to feed itself.

Something fun about Japan... Go to It's definitely fun.

Why are you predicting this team to go out so early? Aren't they supposed to be good?

I guess this is the first real disappointment of my list - or at least the first team that a lot of people are predicting to advance.

Japan's soccer tradition is recently emerging. The J-League started in 1993, and since then soccer has been growing in popularity, almost to Baseball and Sumo levels. The national theam has improved dramatically and become one of the elite teams in Asia. Japan qualified for the World Cup in 1998 and automatically as host in 2002. 1998 was kind of a disaster, as cups often are for debutantes. They lost all three games, only scoring one goal. 2002 was much better, as they won two and drew one of their group matches, though they sat in the easiest group in the cup by leaps and bounds. They bowed out to Turkey in the first knockout round. In the Asian Cup, Japan has had more success recently as well, winning 3 of the last 4 cups.

Qualifying for Germany was more difficult in the games than it looked on paper, but Japan still ran through the group failing to take full points just once - in Tehran. Japan didn't have to play in North Korea because of politics, and took full points in a match in Bangkok.

There's no question that the J league is responsible for Japan's improvement on the international stage, and the bulk of the national team plays there. Some players have set up shop in Europe though, like the veteran Hidetoshi Nakata at Bolton (selling plenty of Reebok jerseys) and Junichi Inamoto, who bounced around after signing with Arsenal back in the day (to sell a lot of jerseys).

The one to watch is Shunsuke Nakamura, a midfielder and creative playmaker who plays most of the time at Celtic. He's small and gets pushed around (one big reason why I think Japan will struggle). But he's also quick and gets the ball forward well. Watch for him whenever a free kick is within striking range.

I think Japan will have a roller coaster trip in Germany, with a good amount of scoring. But inevitably things will be disappointing for Japan. Their success in 2002 was partly bouyed by favorable crowds and a light schedule. People forget how bad they were in 1998. Expectations for Japan to advance are probably misguided. This team is a lot like the 1998 USA team that finished last out of all 32.

In the opener, Japan's experience actually helps against the amped up Aussies. Japan concedes a goal, but stays focused and uses skill in the midfield to score twice in the second half and open with a 2-1 win.

In the second match, against Croatia, Japan scores twice in the first half, but hubris sets in. Croatia start using its size advantage up front. It works, and Japan has no answer. Croatia scores three times in the second half, including the clincer in stoppage time. 3-2 Croatia. Japan is stunned. They went from securing advancement to staring down elimination in 45 minutes. Croatia and Japan played close in 1998, but a Suker score late sealed it.

And after all that, Japan has to play Brazil. Brazil has already clinched a spot in the knockout round, but still outclasses Japan. Robinho makes a mark with two goals. 2-0 Brazil.

A step back for Japan, but the future's still bright there. 2010 should be much better.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Japan would be a mid major team that has great run one year, getting to the Sweet Sixteen, and then follows it up with a great regular season the next year, only to get a good seed and bow out early. Gonzaga from a few years ago seems right.

Savor it, Japan. Not gonna happen twice this year.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

#23: Les Elephants


Where? Western Africa, facing South, just West of Ghana.

How big? About the size of New Mexico (or Poland). Population is a little smaller than New York.

What did I learn from the CIA Factbook? Cote d'Ivoire went nearly 40 years into its post-colonial history without a military coup, but since 1999, there's basically been one after another. Here's something else I learned: my textbooks and atlases were all wrong. I grew up thinking the capital was at Abidjan. Then I heard somewhere that the capital had moved, but that it was recent. Turns out the capital moved in 1983. I know that my high school geography class (nearly 10 years later) required us to know an incorrect fact. Mrs. Hopper you have placed yourself on my list. Inaccuracy shall not be tolerated.

Is there anything of geopolitical importance? Why yes. The decade has been filled with civil war, to the point where French troops have been there for a while. In 2004, 6,000 UN peacekeepers set up shop. They were supposed to have held elections last year, but that hasn't happened. The ESPN commercial where Bono tells us that the World Cup caused a cease fire is inspiring and all, but it's not like everyone is holding hands and drinking cokes on grassy hills. There's still some serious violence.

Fun? I think it's funny that the CIA Factbook says that the Ivorian banking system's corruption makes it a perfect spot for money laundering, but it's too underdeveloped to actually do it. OK. That's more ironic than funny. This isn't funny either, but it's interesting: the Presidential Palace in the capital (Yamoussoukro, Mrs. Hopper!) is surrounded by a moat filled with crocodiles. In an odd tourist attraction, they actually have feeding time for the crocs (live chickens, supposedly). Seems a very welcoming and democratic palace.


A first time qualifier, which kind of surprised me. For a country with a relatively peaceful history (and close tie to France), they've never had much success on the pitch. But then the government falls apart and the soccer team starts playing great. Weird.

An odd bit of trivia: Cote d'Ivoire has won the two longest penalty shootouts in international soccer history. They beat Cameroon 12-11 in a 24 shot shootout, and beat Ghana 11-10 in a 22 shot shootout. Great keeping there.

Qualifying this time wasn't supposed to be good. They were placed in what most considered the African group of death (hang on to this thought for a minute), paired with Egypt and Cameroon. But despite that, the Elephants came out swinging, jumping to the top of the group, while favorites Cameroon limped along, losing to Egypt and drawing with Libya and Sudan. Things didn't stay too bright though, as Cameroon found their legs - and beat Cote d'Ivoire both times. The second loss to Cameroon dropped the Elephants from the top, and few thought Cameroon would give up the lead. But they play the games for a reason. Cote d'Ivoire won on the road at Sudan 3-1, while Cameroon gave up an equalizer in the 79th minute to Egypt at home. The Elephants didn't exactly back into the cup, but they surely had some help.

The national team is actually loaded with talented professionals. Many players play in France (and a few actually lived in France most of their lives, like Drogba). Ivorians have become some of the highest priced players in the world too, and English sides have lined up to pay ridiculous sums.

The back line is solid, with Emmanuel Ebouye and Kolo Toure, who both make Arsenal tough to score on (Toure more than Ebouye). Toure is fast, and can keep pace with streaking strikers. Also watch Didier Zokora in the midfield, who is tough enough to knock around opposing strongmen. Man U was after him for a while.

And the one player who will get the most attention, likely, is Didier Drogba. Yes, he's often a poor finisher. He's likely overpaid at Chelsea (only Rooney was paid more for in English history, well... until Chelsea sign Shevchenko for half the Ukrainian GDP this summer). But he also led the Premiership in assists. And he's scored more international goals than anyone in Cote d'Ivoire history. He's a big target, can find the net, and gets others involved. Critics will have their say, but he's the guy they'll be watching too.

Remember above when I said they were in the African "Group of Death"? Yeah, the draw for Germany did them no favors either. Group C is the toughest group. Cote d'Ivoire would advance in 6 of the 8 groups. Unfortunately, this is one of the two.

They open with what might be the best team in the tournament, Argentina. Welcome to the world's stage. Now, if I were a bold man, I'd predict Cote d'Ivoire to shock the world and pull the upset in the opener, catching the Argentines unawares, kind of like the hyped Portuguese were shocked by the USA in 2002. But I'm only sort of bold. Drogba scores early, but the Argentines get a bullshit PK to level it. A late goal by Veron makes it 2-1, undeserved.

The loss sucks the life out of Cote d'Ivoire, and the Dutch take total advantage. Van Nistelrooy scores twice in the first half, Robben adds one in the second. 3-0 Netherlands.

The hangover ends, and the Elephants decide just to have some fun in the finale. Drogba scores twice. They give up a late penalty, but they secure a win. 2-1. A big win, though it doesn't get them through.

The first two matches have to be a disappointment, but the final game shows that there's solid talent in Cote d'Ivoire. The Elephants should be back in South Africa, and could make a run there. In just about any other group, they'd advance. And I know that I've already listed all the African teams. Trust me, I have great respect for them, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of them sneak into the knockout phase. But the draw was unkind to the African teams. And worst of all to Cote d'Ivoire. That last win is worth savoring though.

If this were March Madness, Cote d'Ivoire would be... a team that comes out of nowhere, but is filled with solid talent. Good enough to knock off a big conference, but it's not clear if they'll actually do it. Maybe Northwestern State from last year?

Why waste money on metal detectors to protect the president? Just surround him with these nice little fellas.


Monday, May 15, 2006

#24: La Tri


Where? Northwest coast of South America, bordering Colombia and Peru.

How Big? Doesn't seem very big, but it's actually about the size of Nevada. Population is little bigger than Illinois.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook? In 2004, over 20,000 refugees fled into Ecuador from Colombia, fleeing drug related violence. That seems like a lot to flow into a pretty small country, especially when Colombia is kind of a richer nation. Instead of fleeing to the cities, Colombians headed to Ecuador. Also related to the drug trade, probably, is Ecuador's compulsory military service.

Geopolitical importance: Well, the drug stuff is pretty important, and while Ecuador doesn't have the cultivation Colombia has, it's got a big time trafficking problem. Add to that the fact that Ecuador sits on top of some prime oil fields... and basically we're looking at a prime spot for 21st century news. Ecuador is Venezuela in 5 years.

Anything fun about Ecuador? Cuy. Order it next time you're in an Ecuadorian restaurant (and, yes, there are some). In fact, there's a restaurant in Atlanta that serves it. It supposedly tastes like something between rabbit and dark meat chicken. It's eaten all over the highlands in Ecuador. What is it? Guinea pig. Yummy. Fourth-grade-tastic!

On to the Futbol...

Ecuador has only qualified for the World Cup twice, but those two are 2002 and 2006. It's currently the golden age of Ecuadorian futbol. Or at least they've finally realized that they have a ridiculous advantage by playing home games at really really really high altitude.

Qualifying for this year's cup really showed how they used the home field advantage. They took 23 points in 9 home games - 7 wins, 2 draws, including wins over Brazil and Argentina. Meanwhile, when they came down to where there's some freaking air, they only took 5 points in 9 games (1 win, 2 draws, 6 losses). This is a team that can take all comers at home, but can't beat anyone on level gound, it seems. And in recent friendlies not a mile or two up in the air, Ecuador has had trouble scoring and hasn't been winning.

The team is mostly domestically based, but there are a couple of players with experience in Spain, England and elsewhere in Europe. The squad doesn't scare too many other teams, but there's some talent there. Watch for de la Cruz in the defense.

The one to watch is a veteran - Augustin Delgado. He's scored in the world cup before, he's the all time leading scorer in Ecuador history, and he's got experience in England. He might find the net this time around too.

But that'll be the only goal they get, as Ecuador will struggle some and play not interesting soccer the whole time. Shame too, that they got this slot in such an easy group (the second easiest in my opinion).

They open with Poland at the Stadium AufSchalke, where it should be loud and full of Poles. Ecuador plays slow down and tries to win on the counter. Doesn't work. They can't find the net, and Poland beats them 1-0.

Costa Rica is their next opponent, in a rare matchup of Western hemisphere teams in this cup. A decent matchup for Ecuador too. Delgado scores early, but the defense gives up a late goal. 1-1.

Finally, Ecuador faces Germany, who has already clinched advancement. Germany rests their best players and doesn't work too hard. Ecuador doesn't force things either. By the end, the crowd in Berlin boos. 0-0.

Two draws, but an unsatisfying cup for Ecuador. Just one goal. -1 goal differential. Last in their group, 24th in the tournament.

If this were March Madness, Ecuador would be... a bad big conference team that plays boring as shit style, wins at its gross home court, but can't do a thing on the road. Texas A&M? Vanderbilt?

Perhaps if they naturally selected more players from the Galapagos, they'd be more advanced. Wow. Even I'm embarrassed by that pun.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

#25: Plavi


Where? Southeastern Europe, Balkan Peninsula, bordering just about every other country around there.

How big? Kind of big for that part of Europe, I guess. It's about the size of Kentucky. Population is about the size of Michigan.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook about Serbia: Well, a few things. This might be the last World Cup that this nation exists. Since 2002, Serbia and Montenegro have been growing apart, and it seems like in 2006-7, either portion can hold a referendum for separation. Another interesting thing is how suffrage is sort of tied to employment - people can vote at 16 if they have a job, otherwise they have to wait until 18.

Geopolitical importance? A decade ago this country spent more time on the front page. Things are still messed up over there, though. The UN continues to administer things in the region of Kosovo. The other big thing is the economic devastation caused by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars. Basically, Serbia's economy is running at a rate about half of what it was in 1990, which is just crazy. The per capita GDP in Serbia and Montenegro is about half of Albania's. Yeah, you read that right. Half of Albania. One way to look at it is by thinking how bad things must've gotten and how destructive Milosevic and his group were. But we could also look optimistically. Serbia is still centrally located in Eastern Europe, and you really can't get to Asia by land without going through Serbia. If the right people are in charge and things ever get sorted out in terms of borders, Serbia could be have a tiger economy within a decade.

Anything fun about Serbia? Ethnic cleansing, wrecked economy, war crime tribunals... what, that's not funny? Well, here's a video of a dude driving a couch in Serbia.

And let's see some soccer.

This national team has a strange history, since this is technically the first time the team has qualified for the World Cup. Before 2003, the side was known as Yugoslavia, sort of. The Serbian team was known as Yugoslavia for 2002 and 1998, and was banned from competing in 1994 due to the wars. In 1990 and before, the team known as Yugoslavia also included players from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of Macedonia (all of which now have their own teams). The Pre-1990 Yugoslavian team qualified 8 times, finishing as well as Semifinalists in the very first World Cup and in 1962, and advancing past the initial stages 6 times. As Post-1990 Yugoslavia, the side qualified in 1998, knocking out the USA in the group and advancing to round 2. In 2002, they failed to qualify.

This Cup's qualifying process saw the Blues drawn in probably the toughest European preliminary group, with Belgium, local rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina, and traditional power Spain. To most observers' suprise, Serbia and Montenegro topped the group and didn't lose a match. They held Spain twice, and won at Lithuania and Belgium. It may have been fortuitous scheduling, as Serbia saw minnows San Marino twice in the first three matches - building a lead they never gave up. Most amazing is how Serbia and Montenegro only conceded one goal throughout the entire qualification process, a record for Europe.

Professional football in Serbia has a long tradition, with Partizan and Red Star Belgrade both solid teams which have had success in European competitions. Many players on the national team have come up through local sides, only to move on to bigger paydays in Italy, Spain and other top European leagues.

When talking about individual players, the place to start is the back line, which only conceded that one goal in qualifying and is known as the "Famous Four". They are Ivica Dragutinovic (Sevilla FC), Goran Gavrancic (Dinamo Kyiv), Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) and Mladen Krstajic (Schalke 04).

One other player to watch is veteran Sasha Milosevic, the all time leading cap earner and scorer in Serbia and Montenegro history. He's spent the last year as a veteran leader for the Osasuna team that surprised many by finishing 4th in Spain's La Liga this year, earning the Pamplona side a spot in the Champions' League next year.

And while the defense is surely impressive, a lot in soccer has to do with luck as well. I've got a feeling that Serbia and Montenegro's luck in preventing goals has about run out. In fact, it may have simply by being drawn in what I think is the toughest group in the tournament - Group C.

They open against the Netherlands in Leipzig. The Dutch fans are among the most excited about this, so expect a very Orange crowd. Vidic is suspended for the opener, so the Famous Four won't be all together to stand up against some of the better offensive talents in the cup. I don't think Serbia loses this match. In fact, I think they open the scoring. Late in the match Vidic's absence affects them, and the Dutch salvage a draw. 1-1

Unfortunately, that late goal, I think, will suffer on the minds of the Serbs. It's a psychological problem - after going so long allowing barely any goals, to give up one late in a game has to be annoying. And the hangover shows against Argentina, who might be the best team in the Cup. Crespo scores in the first 15 minutes, and Riquelme scores from a set spot just outside the box to make it a 2-0 win for Argentina.

The loss throttles Serbia and Montenegro, who have to focus on beating Cote d'Ivoire to have a chance at advancing. Best laid plans... Instead Cote d'Ivoire comes out playing with nothing to lose, and they get an early goal from Didier Drogba. With much ground to make up, the Serbs take off two defenders to push forward. It costs them, when Drogba scores again to go up 2-0. The Serbs get one back with a late penalty kick from Milosevic, but it isn't enough.

One draw and two losses, for one point, 2 goals, and a -3 goal differential. A disappointment, for sure, but in this group disappointments come easy - no gimmes here.

If the World Cup were March Madness, this Serbia and Montenegro team would be... I'm thinking a big conference team that plays great, stifling defense but kind of gets screwed by a tougher seed than they'd probably like and bow out early.

Might Milosevic have taken those pills to give himself a heart attack to avoid seeing his beloved Plavi fail on the pitch in Germany?


Saturday, May 13, 2006

26: al-Sogour


Where? The Middle East.

How big? Bigger than I thought. It's about the size of Mexico. Population, isn't as big however - and when you exclude non-nationals, it's only about the size of Texas.

Something interesting in the CIA Factbook? While Tunisia has the lowest AIDS rate in Africa, Saudi Arabia's is the lowest in the whole world, or at least that's what is estimated. Also, I didn't know that 1 in every 6 people in the country is a foreigner (over 35% of the working age population!). That seems really high to me.

Geopolitical import? Yeah... 1/5th of the world's oil reserves. Enormous American troop presence. Situated in the most contentious area of the world. Center of the Islamic world. Probably only the US is the only nation in the tournament as important in a geopolitical sense.

Non-nerd fun? OK, this isn't fun, but did you know that slavery wasn't abolished in the Kingdom until 1962? 1962!!! The Stones debuted that year. And there are some who think slavery still exists there today.

Soccer, now.

The tradition of soccer in the Kingdom is a relatively new phenomenon, but a lot of resources have been put into it recently. And it's paid off in come ways. Saudi Arabia first qualified in 1994, but they haven't missed the cup since, qualifying every time. No nation has won the Asian Cup more than the Kingdom's three times, and they've finished second two more times. Since 1984, only one Asian Cup final hasn't featured the "Falcons" (the team is also known as "The Sons of the Desert"). Their performance in the World Cup hasn't been great since their debut in the US in 1994, when they upset Morocco and Belgium to advance to the Round of 16 (where they lost to Sweden). In fact, they may have regressed internationally, suffering their worst international defeat at Korea/Japan to Germany 8-0.

Qualifying wasn't so difficult for Saudi Arabia. In the early preliminaries, they went undefeated. Then in the final group stage they drew away to Uzbekistan and at Kuwait, but won all three at home and at Seoul, clinching first place and a spot in Germany.

The high pay available to professional footballlers in Saudi Arabia (or other Gulf States) means that few players go to Europe to ply their trade. The team is considered one of the more veteran teams, as many of the players have been around for the past few cups, and the most recent Asian Cup disappointment hinted that some of the team is past its prime. One player to keep an eye on is Nawaf Al-Temwat, who was Asian Player of the Year in 2000 but suffered one injury after another until 2004. He might finally be back in form.

The one never to lose sight of is Hamad al-Montashari, the 2005 Asian Player of the Year. He's young and strong in defense. He's a stalwart on Al-Ittihad, one of the best teams in the Kingdom, historically.

I predict an experience in this cup pretty similar to Tunisia's.

The opener is a 2-2 draw, with both teams able to score, but neither able to separate themselves.

Saudi Arabia is kind of disappointed (at least more than Tunisia) in the opening result. They come out and slow things down against Ukraine, but Ukraine scores twice late. A 2-0 loss.

At that point, things don't look good for Saudi Arabia, and this is in some ways their last chance with many of these players. Disappointment hurts them, as Spain routs, 2-0.

A disappointment, probably, but the Saudi team heads home with only one point, 2 goals, and a -4 goal differential.

If this were March Madness, the Saudis would be... A decent Conference USA team, with some good veterans and a couple of pretty good freshmen, but who just can't put it together. I'm thinking St. Louis.

The Saudis won't have good luck. Kind of like having a broken down jeep in the Rub 'al-khali.


#27: Les Aigles de Carthage


Where? Little nudge between Libya and Algeria, just across the Mediterranean from Italy.

How big? Not too big. About the size of Georgia, with population about the size of Michigan.

Something interesting from the CIA Factbook? Tunisia has the lowest rate of AIDS in all of Africa. Oddly, unlike the rest of the continent, this hasn't really affected the growth rate, which is pretty stagnant.

Any geopolitical import? Tunisia is a rather moderate voice in the Islamic world, mainly because of its proximity to Europe and its reliance on tourism for its economy. Tunisia has offered freedoms for women unmatched among Islamic nations. Hopefully this becomes the model.

Non-nerd fun? Well, not exactly non-nerd, but Tunisia was where many scenes in the Star Wars sextet were filmed. Believe it.

And soccer.

Tunisia has a pretty decent soccer history. This is the country's fourth appearance, and third consecutive, in the World Cup. Tunisia also won the African Nations Cup just in 2004. Their greatest moment came in the 1978 World Cup, where Tunisia became the first African team to win a match, beating Argentina 3-1.

Much of their success might be credited to their manager, Roger Lemerre, who led France to the World Cup title in 1998. Since coming on after Korea/Japan, he led Tunisia to the African Nations Cup, and led them through a tough path to the Cup this year. Lemerre has been a calming influence on the side, since before him Tunisia had five coaches in a little over a year.

Drawn in a region with another traditional power, Morocco, qualification was definitely not a sure thing. An early loss on the road to Guinea made things more difficult for the Eagles of Carthage. After 4 matches, they only had 5 points. But then Tunisia went on a 5 game winning streak, positioning them only to need a draw against Morocco at home to clinch qualification. Down 2-1 at the half, things looked dire. Then, in the 69th minute, Adel Chadli scored to equalize. The draw held up, and Tunisia was headed to Germany.

Tunisia's side isn't filled with big name players, but there is talent there, and professional experience (mostly in France). Some of the best players are on the back line - which could cause some trouble for the forwards of their group opponents. Tunisia has a couple of nationalized Brazillians that bring some flavor to the strong defense.

Probably the one player to watch is Hatem Trabelsi, a right defender for Ajax. He's not afraid to push forward, and at times is a bit of a field general (odd for a right back). He could cause some matchup problems for Spain and Ukraine on long cornered balls.

I don't think the cup will be very kind to Tunisia, however. Group H, I think, is one of the easier groups to predict, because I think Spain and Ukraine are significantly better than Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. The opener for Tunisia may end up the difference between 3rd and 4th in the group. But you never know with Lemerre - he might stun someone.

The opener against Saudi Arabia in Munich - should be an interesting crowd, honestly, in that big new arena. I think both teams are OK, but neither is much better than the other. Two goals a piece for a draw.

Tunisia's second match against Spain should be much tougher. I know most people think that Spain is going to disappoint, like they always seem to in major tournaments. Not me. I think Spain will be one of the best teams in the cup, seriously. And they blow out Tunisia 3-0.

In the final match, Tunisia will suffer from a hangover from the Spain match, and Shevchenko finally gets his legs under him, scoring twice in the first half before getting subbed at the break. The score holds up, 2-0 Ukraine.

So a draw and two losses for 1 point, -5 goal differential, and 2 goals, which actually matches Australia for 27th (so fix that down below). Kind of a disappointment, but I don't think they should expect too much more either. Lemerre gets canned after the cup and moves on to another French colony to try to qualify for the next cup.

If this were March Madness, Tunisia would be... a mid major who always seems to make the tournament, but hasn't ever put it together to advance. Maybe Winthrop or Murray State.

But I was supposed to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters... and a scoring threat that wasn't Brazillian!


Friday, May 12, 2006

Please, tell me why I [don't] care

One of the more common talk radio themes of late has revolved around the lack of enthusiasm for Bonds nearing second place in number of career home runs. Evidence offered has been non-sellouts in SF, MLB not formally celebrating 715, and signs held by fans in Philly. Obvious reason offered: steroids.

While I agree that I probably don't care about Bonds getting to #2, I think it's just as much about it being only #2 as it is steroids. Is it really a story that MLB is NOT celebrating 715?

The other issue here is that disenchantment about offensive records is nothing new. This gem by Ken Rosenthal is really published in May of 2006?


Fans, media and baseball people have grown understandably more skeptical after being exposed as naive, ignorant and just plain blind to the unseemly events of the past decade.

I find this insulting. I'm a "fan" (and who the f is "baseball people"). And I feel like maybe it was just the "media" that didn't pick up on the fact that Sosa was 30 with acne, Bonds' head grew 18 sizes, and McGwire admitted to andro use. Who the f cared about those actual "records?" Now when Bonds "chases" 2nd place, the media write stories about how apathetic the fans are? Well done Ken.

Major League Baseball has implemented the harshest penalties for steroid use in professional sports, but only a fool would proclaim that the sport is clean, given MLB's inability to test for human growth hormone and other non-detectable substances.

Ahh, so, it's just MLB that is unable to test for "non-detectable substances?" Dictionaries, buddy, dictionaries.

Still, fans aren't scrambling to snap up seats in the right-field stands the way they did during Bonds' 73-homer season in 2001. Heck, MLB didn't even decide to mark the balls used in Bonds' at-bats until the Giants arrived in Philadelphia. Some MLB officials thought the marking was unnecessary, even though — at the very least — Bonds is on the verge of passing Ruth for the most home runs by a left-handed hitter.

OMG. I'm on the verge of most vomits in an article by a near-sighted dude. Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron. Only the worst stat-whores of us keep tabs on records that must be qualified by dominant hand. Maybe a little backround would help: I listened to a sportscaster say with a straight face (I assume) that we should be Bonds fellating because Aaron's home runs barely cleared the wall. Breathe, Wrangler. Breathe.

Perhaps the excesses of the era will grow less offensive over time. Perhaps the next wave of stars — players like Rodriguez and Albert Pujols — will be justly celebrated for whatever milestones they achieve. But while asterisks would be inappropriate, the record book should include a qualifier: MLB did not test for performance-enhancing drugs until 2003 and did not penalize players for using them until '04.

Oh, I get it. The federal government didn't make steroids Il-fucking-legal until 2003? Cheaters. F-ing Cheaters. Ban them from the game.

Rant complete.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

#28: Socceroos


Where? Big ass island or continent in the southern hemisphere.

How big? Size wise, very big. Only the US and Brazil are larger in the tournament. Population wise, not that big, when you consider the space. Has about the same number of people as Texas in over 10 times the space.

Something interesting about Australia I learned from the CIA Factbook? It's a country we probably know a lot more about than most, so there wasn't that much new. I thought there were more Aborigines down there than the less than 1% number they've given us. Also, I had no idea that Tasmania was one of the world's largest providers (40%) of legal opiates - goes into making morphine and such. That's interesting.

Geopolitical import? Well, the news here follows Australian politics somewhat because of their involvement as part of the Coalition forces in Iraq. One thing of great import to me personally is that there currently is no American Ambassador to Australia. Can we not find anyone to take the job? Hell, I'll do it. Australia seems like a nice enough place to go.

Non-nerd fun? Eat lamb on Australia Day or Sam Kekovich will kick your ass. And here too.

And... Soccer.

Historically, Australia has one of the most interesting backgrounds for a team without a great tradition. This is their second finals appearance, with the other one being in 1974, also in Germany. Their stories about failing to qualify are consistently odd, however. Their first try was in 1966, where FIFA forced the Aussies to play North Korea (not recognized by the host nation or many other nations at the time) in a one game playoff in Cambodia, which they lost. The Socceroos also, at one time or another, had to play such strange opponents as Israel (before they were a part of UEFA and isolated from their neighbors politically), Taiwan (whom China prevented from taking part in Asian group qualifications, and revolution-era Iran (prior to recognition by the rest of the world) in order to qualify. In 1994 the Aussies won the Oceania region, won an initial playoff against Canada, but then fell to Argentina in a second round of playoffs (and it's kind of BS that they had to play a team as strong as Argentina in a playoff). 1998's qualifying had to have been an even bigger heartbreak. After drawing on the road with a goal against Iran, Australia took a 2-0 lead (3-1 aggregate) into the second half of the return leg. Iran scored twice in the second half to book a place in France. In 2002, Australia again won the Oceania region, only to fall to Uruguay in a playoff.

Qualification this year followed a similar pattern to 2002. The Aussies won the Oceania region again, this time over Solomon Islands instead of New Zealand as usual. Australia then faced a rematch with Uruguay. Uruguay won the first leg in Montevideo 1-0. Australia matched that result in the return, and after extra time, Australia won a penalty shootout 4-2.

Australia's roster is loaded with English professionals, many of whom have significant experience in continental tournaments. It's a little harder to figure out who is actually going to play on this team, because Australia has trouble fielding full squads for southern hemisphere friendlies, considering many of the players have club commitments in Europe. Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka all get plenty of press in England, and for good reason, sort of. They all can find the net. When focused, they're all solid. Mark Schwartzer, yesterday's UEFA Cup final aside, is good enough.

The one to watch, though, is Mark Bresciano. He's a goal-hungry midfielder. He's had great success in Italy, where the soccer is almost as tough as it'll be this summer.

As far as predictions go, I actually thought Group F (after Brazil) was pretty hard to predict. I could see Australia surprising teams, but I think the safer bet is for them to suffer due to a lack of experience in a World Cup final, and the problem they always have about continuity on the field because of frequent turnover in the roster for friendlies.

I think Australia gives Japan a scare, scoring first in Kaiserslautern. Japan comes back using speed on the outside. Australia's goal-seeking midfield gives the ball away too much and Japan's technique wins out over the full 90.

That Japan match takes more out of the Aussies than they originally thought. The Japanese are quicker than one might think. It catches up to them in the Brazil match, where Brazil wants to assure advancement so they can rest players in the third match. Ronaldinho nets a hat trick and Ronaldo scores one too. 4-0 Brazil.

But Australia doesn't go home completely empty handed. Kewell scores early in the match against Croatia. The Croats push everyone forward, as advancing depended on it. The end up equalizing late. 1-1 is the final.

So the Aussies finish their first World Cup final in three decades with a draw and two losses. I could see them picking up a win, but advancing will be very difficult without any experience. This team is probably better than many USA teams in the 1990s, but cup experience does matter. It'll hurt Australia.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Australia would be... I'm thinking a team that is not normally known as a basketball program, but has a great season in a major conference and has some NBA talent on the roster, but the experience hurts them and they flash out early. Like Georgia with those Tubby Smith teams in the '90s.

Do not stand between Mark Viduka and a pitcher of Toohey's.

And this is probably the best photo I'll have the whole time, so enjoy it.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

#29: Black Stars


Where? Western Africa, facing south, directly between fellow qualifiers Togo and Cote d'Ivoire.

How Big? Decent size. About the size of Oregon in space (or Great Britain, if you'd prefer). Population is a little bit bigger than Texas.

Something interesting about Ghana I didn't know before reading the CIA Factbook? A meta-answer here... The entry for Ghana says that Lake Volta, formed by damming the Volta River in Ghana, is the world's largest artificial lake. It looks pretty big, but I had a feeling something didn't seem right about that. Turns out, there are several artificial lakes that people online claim to be the world's largest. Lake Volta covers 8,500 square kilometers. Another one claiming to be the largest is Lake Nasser in Egypt, created by the Aswan Dam, but it comes in only at 5,250 square kilometers. Another site says that the Owen Falls Dam, which monitors the flow of Lake Victoria into the Nile, creates the world's largest lake, but I think that's not right - Lake Victoria is a natural lake, with the flow harnessed. Then there's the Three Gorges Dam's reservoir in China, the size of which has yet to be determined, but could end up surpassing all of them, either in size or volume. In any event, there appears to be debate on this topic, but the CIA Factbook offers no qualifications. Is the intelligence provided here a "slam dunk"?

Anything important geopolitically? Ghana is a little bit better off than some of its neighbors, thanks to more plentiful natural resources, specifically gold. Those resources and a relatively stable (for the region at least) government for the last 25 years (by that I mean no coups d'etat -and a reasonably fair and free election in 2000) have made Ghana a bright spot in Western Africa. It has had problems with refugees from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire however.

Any other interesting things? Child movie star Shirley Temple Black grew up and became the United States Ambassador to Ghana in the early 1970s.


Alright, before I lose all credibility about this preview, let me start with a gigantic disclaimer: I do not think Ghana is the 29th best team in this tournament. In fact, I probably think that if I were rating based solely on how good I think the team is, I'd probably put them in the top 15 - and I'd predict them to advance in probably 5 of the 8 groups. Unfortunately, Ghana was drawn with three other teams I consider in the top 15 - but each of which has much more experience. So don't discount this team. The ranking above is solely based on how I think they'll actually perform in the tournament.

So their history... Well, like everyone else before them, Ghana is a rookie in the World Cup. However, unlike the previous teams, Ghana has a pretty good reputation. Only Egypt has won the African Nations Cup more than Ghana.

Ghana were considered second-favorites in their qualifying group, only behind South Africa. But it turned out that Ghana lapped the field. They lost their first match at Burkina Faso, but then returned home and whipped South Africa 3-0. Ghana didn't lose again, drawing only at Uganda and home and away to DR Congo. Probably the single most impressive win for an African team during qualification was Ghana's 2-0 win at Jo'burg, which pushed Ghana to the top of the table and into a nearly unassailable position.

Unlike any of the teams we've covered before, Ghana is loaded with top-flight European professionals. Even role players on this side play competitively in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey and England. There are three bonafide superstars in the lineup too. Samuel Kuffour is the veteran defender, now playing for AS Roma but best known for his days at Bayern Munich. The captain is Stephen Appiah, most recently playing defending midfielder for Fenerbahce in Istanbul, but previously making the XII for Juventus and recently linked to a move to Arsenal.

But above all others, and perhaps above anyone else in Group E, the one to watch is Michael Essien, a consistent midfielder for Chelsea. He's pretty big, very strong, and not afraid to mix it up in the midfield to take back possession. Kind of an enforcer. Put it this way: if Bobby Convey or DaMarcus Beasley were to cross it up with him, bones could be broken.

It's a dangerous team with plenty of experience playing Continental football. I think it could be one of the more interesting teams to watch, even though my prediction for them isn't great.

They open with Italy, a huge trap game for the Azzurri. I see Ghana going up early, forcing the Italians to actually play some offense. A late penalty goes against Ghana, and a garbage time goal on counterattack make the final score an undeserved 2-1 loss. It's a result that on its own is bad, but also causes the other opponents to pay close attention and not treat Ghana lightly.

And the Czech Republic does just that in Cologne. It's a massively partisan crowd against Ghana, and (for reasons to be suggested later) the Czechs are desperate. Milan Baros scores twice in the opening half, scooting behind the defense when the strong defenders focus on Koller. However, Appiah stuns Cech (who isn't having the tournament we all thought he would) with a shot from just outside the box. The Czech's bear down and the game grinds to a halt, until in extra time a long played ball in the corner gets crossed perfectly to Koller (who shouldn't have been in the game at the time). 3-1 Czech Republic.

In Ghana's final game, the US needs a big victory. But Ghana's midfield toughly slows down anything the US tries to do. At halftime, neither team has scored. The US grows desperate, and the game opens up some as it moves on. Donovan scores from a free kick just outside the box after a rough (and carded). The US keeps pushing forward, finally connecting a cross with Eddie Johnson in the 88th minute. In extra time, however, Ghana counters and Matthew Amoah slips past Cherundolo and scores. Will it matter? 2-1 USA.

So Ghana won't win or draw a game, but I think they make life difficult for all three opponents, and may end up playing kingmaker in terms of who advances. This is not a team to sleep on, and they will play tough. The USA may have actually gotten an advantage by not playing them earlier. Recuperating from a Ghana match could hurt Italy or the Czech Republic. 0-0-3, -4 goal differential, 3 goals scored.

If Ghana were a college basketball team and the World Cup were March Madness: I'd say they'd be like George Mason this year, but without the upsets. Big, tough, physical. They get this close to knocking someone off, but a buzzer beater swings things the other way (like Winthrop-Tennessee).

Perhaps the national team would have gotten better results had they not been ordered by President Kuffour to wear togas on the pitch.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

#30: Les Eperviers


Where? Western Africa, facing south.

How big? Not too big. About the size of West Virginia, population about the size of Tennessee.

Something interesting about Togo I didn't know before reading the entry in the CIA factbook... Well, there's not much interesting there, actually. It's a small country, even in comparison to its closest neighbors. Like Angola, Togo has an incredibly low median age - under 18. That means half the population can't vote. Otherwise, it's a pretty standard West African nation - high debt, not especially important or useful natural resources.

Well, is there any reason to learn anything about this (geopolitically)? Well, there is kind of an interesting historical happening over the last year or so. About a year ago, the longtime (almost 40 years) president of the country, Eyadema Gnassingbe, died of a heart attack. The constitution provided that the Speaker of Parliament would become President. However, the military had a different point of view of the rules of succession. And just Speaker Natchaba's luck, he happened to be in France at the time. The military closed the borders and declared Eyadema's son Faure to be the new President, with the argument against Natchaba being, well, he was out of the country. Natchaba hung out in neighboring Benin while his supporters started yelling. Then the military leaders pushed parliament to remove Natchaba as speaker and replace him with, surprise, Faure Gnassingbe, who would then properly succeed his father. The rest of the world started yelling and withholding foreign aid. So then Faure stepped down as President, in order to run for President (elections were scheduled for a month later). And Faure won 60% of the vote, though lots of people disputed the results - so much that the EU continues to withhold economic aid, though the African Union and the US have resumed. And all this happened during some important Cup Qualifiers.

Anything actually interesting about the country, other than a strange succession and military coup (and that's one of a kind in West Africa, sherlock)? I looked, and, well, not really. I guess it's sort of interesting that, at one time or another, Togo had been a colony of Denmark, Germany, Britain and France.

Soccer, Soccer, Soccer?

Like the others I've covered so far, this is Togo's first time qualifying for the World Cup final. They've never even gotten past the first round of the African Nations Cup. This is a nation with not much of a footballing history.

Like Angola, Togo lost their initial qualifying match - on the road to Equatorial Guinea - but won the return match to make the group stage. Like Angola, Togo qualified over a strongly favored, highly respected opponent in their African group - Senegal. Senegal were among the darlings in Korea/Japan 2002, and were prohibitive favorites to qualify again. Togo, on the other hand, was considered an also-ran at best, and their opening game loss to Zambia made the supposed experts look like they knew what they were talking about. But then something happened, and Togo didn't lose again, starting with a 3-1 upset over Senegal, from which Senegal never recovered.

The team itself is not considered on a high professional level, or at least not many of the players have made it to Europe. A few play in the top flight in France, and another plays in Italy. Then there are two under contract in the UK: Souleymane Mamam at Manchester United (on loan to Antwerp) and Emmanuel Adebayor at Arsenal. Mamam is an interesting player because allegedly he was the youngest player ever to play in a World Cup qualifier, back in 2001, when he was supposed to be only 13.

But the guy to watch is Adebayor. He's big and quick and knows how to find the net. For Arsenal, he's scored 4 times in 12 games since coming over from Monaco in February. For Togo, he's been better. He led all African teams in scoring during qualifying. He's drawn comparisons to Nwankwo Kanu. High respect.

But it'll probably not help much. Togo has never faced this kind of pressure, and rarely have they seen opponents like their group.

They open against Republic of Korea in Frankfurt. Korea's speed and efficiency should give plenty of trouble to Togo. But really, Korea's experience factor should have the biggest effect. I see a 2-0 victory for Korea.

Expect a big crowd in Dortmund for Togo's second match against Switzerland. I'm thinking Togo feels a hangover, but finds the net. 2-1, Switzerland.

Togo's last match will look like their most impressive performance, but it's as much due to circumstance as Togo's talent. France will have already secured passage out of the group stage and will be saving players for fear of injury and cards. Togo, on the other hand, will have nothing to lose. Well, nothing except the game. France's backups still outclass Togo's first team. 3-1 France.

So Togo finishes the tournament at 0-0-3, -5 goal differential, 2 goals scored. Which places the "Sparrow Hawks" in 30th slot.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Togo would be... a pretty weak mid major with one stud center that a 1 seed will allow to hang around for a while, but will inevitably wear down.

Let's hope Togo doesn't "mail it in" in Germany. OK. Terrible pun, but totally sweet stamp. Dinosaurs rule. I'm eight.


Monday, May 08, 2006

#31: Palancas Negras


Where? Southwestern Africa, south and north of DR Congo, north of Namibia

How big? Pretty big, size wise. About twice the size of Texas. Population is about the size of Pennsylvania.

Tell me something about this country that I didn't know before I read the entry in the CIA factbook... Several interesting things for a country I didn't think would be interesting at all. History hasn't been kind to Angola. They became independent from Portugal in 1975, which led to a 27 year civil war (27 years!). That had a ridiculously deleterious effect on the population. Basically, two generations were totally wiped out. It had such an effect that today, 50% of the population is under the age of 18. 50%!!! When I first saw that number, I thought it surely had to do with the problem of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, but it really isn't. Angola's AIDS infection rate is "only" around 4%, significantly lower than all of it's southern neighbors (Botswana, which shares a border, has a rate over 37%!), and actually comparable to Trinidad & Tobago. It really was the war. Tragic.

Why should I care about this country, in the geopolitical sense? Well, let's go back to oil and natural resources again. The 27 year civil war and communism slowed development in Angola tremendously. But since 2002, things have settled down somewhat, and outside investment has made Angola sort of a promising place. Sort of (rebel insurgency, poverty still hurt). The economy has grown at a GDP growth rate around 20% (believe it!). The reason is oil. Believe it or not, Angola has larger proven reserves of oil than even the US. That's why China has invested billions, and others too.

OK, nerd. What's interesting about this country and don't mention economics, bitch! Well, there isn't much out there. One thing kind of funny was the story about Angola playing the USA in basketball in the '92 Olympics. It was in a prelim game and the original Dream Team pounded on Angola (USA won by 68 points). The memorable thing was Charles Barkley throwing a brutal elbow into the chest of yardstick skinny Herlander Coimbra, sending him to the ground. When asked about it, Barkley chimed in with a classic Barkleyism. "You hit me, I'll hit you... even if it looks like he hasn't eaten in a while." Then he joked about Coimbra throwing a spear at him.

This is a World Cup preview, right? Where's the soccer?

First, the history. Like T&T, this is Angola's first foray on the main stage. They've never really been close before either.

Qualification for Germany proved to be a pretty big surprise. After losing their opener preliminary to bottom feeder Chad, Angola sacked their coach and replaced him with their current manager. They won the return prelim and got to the group stage where they were drawn with Africa's best - Nigeria. But they play the games for a reason. Angola won every game at home (their stadium has a cool name - The Citadela), and drew with Nigeria in Kano. In fact, the head to head results stood up, since Nigeria and Angola ended up with the same record, and even though Nigeria probably should've advanced on goal differential.

The team has a veteran leader in Akwa, who plied his trade at Benfica for many years. A handful of other players have European professional experience. It's not a team loaded with major soccer performers, but the colonial tie with Portugal did leave an impression.

Akwa is the one to watch, because of his experience and his flair for the dramatic. His goal in Kigali to beat Rwanda in the finale of qualifying sent the Palancas Negras (Black Impalas) to Germany. Plus, he's a statesmanlike quote machine - sort of a Weah type.

So how are they going to do?

Not well, unfortunately. They're playing in a group without a true elite team, but with three pretty good teams. But this is the team that ousted Nigeria, so anything is possible.

In their opener, Angola face off against the colonial homeland (like T&T). Portugal, unlike in 2002, isn't going to let their opponent surprise them. I think Portugal comes up big and beats Angola 3-0.

I actually like Angola's chances a bit better in their second game, against Mexico. Mexico hasn't disappointed in group stages of a final in many years, but I think they're due for a slip year (the rest of the world has caught up in many ways). I think Angola scores, but can't hold off the Tricolores. 2-1 Mexico.

In their final game, I think Iran actually shows up big. It's a sad afternoon for Angola, as they lose the finale 2-0.

The Palancas Negras don't get a point, but that goal against Mexico keeps them from the bottom slot. A disappointing result, sure. Angola, however, has a brighter future. It's a young country, with resources allowing them to build infrastructure, and with the civil war behind them, it wouldn't surprise me to see Angola in future Cup finals.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Angola would be... that team from the SWAC, MEAC or Patriot league who won the tournament as a huge surprise, upsetting a dominant regular season champ. Nice story the week before the tournament, but it's a short stay in the actual tourney.

Angolans dive right in to the World Cup. Unfortunately, it's extremely shallow.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

#32: SoCa Warriors


Where? Southern Caribbean, just north of Venezuela.

How big? Not. Smaller than Delaware, fewer people than Greenville, South Carolina.

Tell me something about this country that I didn't know before I read the CIA Factbook entry on it... The largest ethnic group in the country isn't descendants of Africans or mixed race. Believe it or not, it's Indian. And Hindu is the second most common religion.

Why should I care about this country, in the geopolitical sense? Did you know that T&T is the largest oil exporter in the Caribbean? It has almost a billion barrels in reserves, which, per capita is pretty damn impressive.

No really, what's actually awesome about this country, and don't give me none of that nerd shit? T&T served as the site for the most recent Real World/Road Rules Challenge. The Gauntlet II, rookies vs. veterans.

Enough. Get to the soccer!


First, the history. This is T&T's first foray into the World Cup. They were this close to making the final in Italy '90, but the Paul Caligiuri goal in Port of Spain shocked the island and sent the US to the cup.

They finished 4th in the CONCACAF qualifying finals, sending them to a one-off playoff with Bahrain, which they drew on the road and won the return, booking their place in Germany.

The team actually has quite a lot experience in professional soccer, with 15 of the 24 players on rosters in England and Scotland. Two more play in MLS. And that doesn't count the most accomplished T&T player of all time, former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke.

One player to watch, and it's almost out of oddity, is Chris Birchall, who plays for Port Vale in England's League One. He scored the tying goal in Bahrain that put T&T in position to qualify for Germany. He's also the only white guy on the field, and in fact the only white player in T&T history.

So how are they going to do?

My prediction isn't bright for the SoCa Warriors, but in some ways, making the cup is the trophy itself (though I'm certain the players and the country aren't thinking that way). Yorke and Stern John pretty much have earned a gold watch by qualifying, and I think that's fantastic on its own. Now, to get a victory or a couple points out of the matches would be frosting on the cake. But I don't think it's going to happen.

I think their schedule doesn't do them any favors (although I think they're in the easiest group).

They open with Sweden in Dortmund, and I foresee a huge, partisan crowd against them. They give up two goals, and fail to find the net. Sweden can match their size, unfortunately.

And if the crowd in Dortmund was unforgiving, their next matchup should be even worse - England in Nuremburg. I don't think the English will hate T&T as much as, well, just about anyone else in the tournament. But they also won't mind putting a beating on their former colony. This could get ugly, especially if England starts slow (as they might) against Paraguay. I think a 3-0 England victory might be a best case scenario for T&T.

Finally, they face off against Paraguay in Kaiserslautern. If this match had been the opener, I'd give T&T a puncher's chance. But instead, I think both these teams will have suffered some rough defeats. At that point, I think pride matters, but not as much as being afraid of going home without any points. And I think Paraguayans will be less forgiving than people who live on a beach. They're happy to be here, so we shouldn't be surprised with a lackluster 3-0 loss.

Three losses in three games, a -8 goal differential, and no goals scored, leaves them last in the tournament. But they accomplished a ton just to get here. Cheers to them. Winning on the continent is tough for Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, so it'll be even tougher for hemispheric minnows. Of course, I'll be rooting for them, but I don't expect much.

If the World Cup were March Madness, then this team would be...
I'm thinking a small conference champion made up of senior leaders. A nice story, but nobody's picking them to go very far.

I feel bad for predicting this result. I wish there was something good about living in Trinidad to make up for it.

Edited to add a few things I forgot about...


World Cup Preview

32 days remain before the most anticipated sporting event of the year, the World Cup. I couldn't be more excited.

So in anticipation of the tournament, I'll count down one team per day, based upon my own predictions of how the tournament will pan out. The first 16 days, I'll count down the teams that don't get out of the group stage, 32-17 based on how I think they'll finish. I'll also throw in some info about each team, each country.

If you're bored by it, tough shit. I'm excited, and therefore, you must read.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Greg[g] here's a nurse.

Seeing Stewart Mandel's mailbag rules today (as Ian suggested, the [douche]bag is back!) reminded me that I haven't unleashed hate on an unsuspecting and uncaring sportswriter recently. And last week the perfect target revealed himself, Gregg Easterbrook.

Now, I used to read TMQ back in the day on ESPN, but when he "moved" (more on that in a second hour) to, which isn't a daily or even weekly destination for me, I stopped reading. And didn't miss it that much either.

But before I go off too much, let me say that I don't think his column is completely useless (or else I wouldn't read it when I'm reminded to). I like some of the football theory. It's the kind of stuff I try to write about sometimes - coming up with a hypothesis and trying to figure out if it works. Easterbrook does this pretty frequently. For example, during the season he'll go off on teams that throw the ball trying to get that final first down and end the game, only to throw an incompletion, turn the ball over with more time on the clock than they would've had they run the ball, and then lose with just seconds on the clock. He also has a hard and fast rule on not going for two until the fourth quarter. Just the last two weeks, he's had plenty of theories, such as the idea that trading down for more picks is always preferable, or that teams should draft bigger players higher (I can't really pin down that one). Anyway, I like ideas. And I like trying to work them out empirically to see if they have merit - and that's my main problem with Easterbrook.

Easterbrook doesn't write like someone trying to discover a deeper truth, no matter what it is. He writes like a political advocate, which I suppose is natural, considering his real job. He writes as if the point he's trying to make is all that matters, and damn any information to the contrary. Personally, I don't like this kind of style, but I suppose that's natural, considering my real job. Y'see, though I could write a billion words about how much I don't particularly like my legal training or the way it made me think, I think it does place upon you a sort of intellectual ethic (which is one reason why I took such offense when two other bloggers described me as intellectually dishonest earlier this year). Legal training forces you to accept it when results go against what your trying to say, and obligate you to disclose negative precendent - because it should be out there so we can get to the larger truth. Easterbrook doesn't do that, because his job is purer advocacy than even the law - it's just win, regardless.

And it's so clear in his writings that this is a problem for the reader. It bothers me a lot when I read TMQ and I, a non-professional dilettante, can spot the errors of omission (or just errors). Here are a few, just in the last two weeks (links to TMQ are here and here):

1) In arguing that draft scouts are talking out of their asses (an easy argument to make, one would think), Easterbrook tackles the "size" question:

Vic Carucci of declared 185-pound cornerback Tye Hill of Clemson "lacks ideal size". A few sentences later, Carucci said 189-pound cornerback Ashton Youboty of Ohio State has "good size." Yours truly adds that Scouts Inc. calls DT Brodrick Bunkley "undersized" at 309 pounds, DT Johnny Jolly "big" at 317 pounds. Jolly weighs 2 percent more than Bunkley. How can 2 percent represent the difference between "undersized" and "big?"

Well, I suppose it's when the term doesn't rely on weight alone in its definition. Because what Easterbrook doesn't tell you is that there are differences between these players, and those differences might have something to do with... err... size. Tye Hill lacks size at 185, Youboty doesn't at 189. That's a natural statement when Tye Hill is 5'9" and Ashton Youboty is more than two inches taller at 5'11" 3/4ths. Likewise, Jolly is an inch taller than Bunkley. Easterbrook presents it like these players are identical, when they're not. The definition of size, while not as precise a term as height, often includes height. This is an error of omission which directly counters his point. He ought not have used these examples at all.

2) This week, Kiper is Easterbrook's target (of praise and criticism). First of all, I think it deserves mention that mocking a mock draft for being incorrect is poor form, because the mockery fails to follow the same rules as the mock draft itself. For example, when Kiper (or anyone else) does a mock draft, they rarely account for trades. So simply saying "Kiper missed on x/32" doesn't work too well when there were plenty of trades. Of course Kiper's not perfect, and he'll make mistakes, and there can be valid criticism of him. One valid way to do it is to point out inconsistencies, rather than inaccuracies - which Easterbrook tries to do, but falls short.

Here's one shot:

On March 6, Kiper predicted Oakland would use the seventh overall choice on quarterback Jay Cutler; on March 27, Kiper said "it would be odd" if Oakland used its first pick on a quarterback. (Oakland passed on Cutler.)

All right boys and girls, can you spot the error of omission here? Did something happen between March 6th and March 27th that might've made him change his mind? Anything? Like, maybe the Raiders signed a quarterback as a free agent? March 23rd the Raiders signed Aaron Brooks to a two year contract. Maybe Brooks isn't the best choice, and maybe the Raiders should've drafted a QB, but that's not the debate. The question is consistency, and in this case, Kiper had good reason not to be consistent.

Same paragraph:

At various points Kiper predicted the Eagles would take Justice or Holmes or Jackson or Ernie Sims or Greenway; they took Brodrick Bunkley.

In every mock draft Kiper did, Bunkely was off the board before the Eagles picked. Kiper never made a statement that the Eagles would pass on Bunkley for one of the above named players. The Eagles' selection here is not inconsistent with anything Kiper wrote.

Likewise, Easterbrook misses on critiquing Kiper's comments, often by missing or omitting the context of his comments:

For the Titans to choose Matt Leinart would be "a no-brainer." The Titans passed on Leinart.

Kiper, who correctly had Vince Young going to the Titans in his last mock draft, from what I recall of the draft, meant that Leinart would be the safer pick than Young, not that the Titans would be foolish if they didn't pick Leinart.

When Donte Whitner went eighth overall, Mel said, "That's about right. I had him going 16th to Miami, but that's still about right." Kiper did have Whitner going 16th to Miami -- in a January mock. The day before the draft, he forecast Whitner to Cincinnati at the 24th slot.

The context here, from what I recall, was that Kiper could understand the selection (when everyone else was panning it) because there were teams with needs at safety picking not far behind them. Like the Dolphins at 16 (who did, in fact, take a safety). If the Bills wanted him, Kiper argued, picking Whitner there wasn't that wrong-headed.

The thing is that Kiper's kind of an easy target, because what he's asked to do is virtually impossible with all the variables. And of course people are welcome to mock him and critique him. But let's do it fairly. This sentence isn't fair:

This year he issued five mock drafts, each contradicting the one before.

Well, there's a very good reason for that! In between each mock draft, things happened! Things like... free agency allowed teams to fill holes Kiper may have been predicting to get filled in the draft (like the Raiders' QB situation). Things like... trades changed the teams picking in slots, so it isn't surprising that Kiper's January 31 mock, which had the Falcons taking Jonathan Joseph at 15, changed when they traded the pick to Denver. Things like... players getting injured or gaining weight, like LenDale White's hamstring dropping him from 10th in the 1/31 mock. Things like... players showing up big at the combine (which I'm not personally a fan of, but many teams do value that), like Manny Lawson. Things like... off-field troubles... possible drug test failures... etc. Things happen. And when they do, it's natural to expect a professional writer and pundit to change their position based upon those external circumstances. Perhaps that means that the early mock drafts shouldn't be considered useful at all (and I can't see why anyone would consider them useful), but again, Easterbrook's argument doesn't hold water. The thesis is flawed, and the examples he provides don't tell the story, and appear shoehorned in to back up that flawed thesis.

3) Another example of Easterbrook not telling the whole story in advance of his (perhaps wrong) argument is his idea relating to the sale of naming or trademark rights on NFL stadiums. I can't really tell from his paragraph if he thinks all teams should or shouldn't sell the stadium naming rights. I suppose it appears like he values the argument that certain high-revenue teams make that lower market teams should maximize revenues by selling these rights. Facially, that argument seems sound, on behalf of the high-revenue teams. It may just be an aside, but Easterbrook makes a point at mentioning that it's not just a few teams that haven't sold naming rights:

Despite the impression that everything in pro sports is for sale, roughly half of NFL franchises have either never sold the stadium name or sold it once and then taken the name back.

Again, I can't tell if this is for or against the argument. But I spotted the flaw in the data right away. Yes, 15 teams play in stadiums without naming rights sold. But of those 15, how many of the teams actually have sole control over the building and actually have the power to sell the naming rights? Plenty of these stadiums are owned and operated by public or quasi-public Stadium Authorities. That's what happens when the public pay to get something built - they like to hang on to it. So if the Falcons have a long term lease to use the Georgia Dome from the authority, what makes Easterbrook think that the Falcons could necessarily sell the naming rights without authority approval? In many of the cases Easterbrook mentions, the team may want to sell the naming rights to bring in more revenue, but the stadium authority may have final say and not want to do so. Also, "taken the name back" suggests that teams have made an active choice that they don't want to sell the name any more. In a few instances, I'm not sure that's an accurate description of what's happened. For example, the Titans used to play in Adelphia Coliseum, and after the scandal and subsequent bankruptcy, it's pretty natural for them not to have the company on there any more (just like how the Astros don't play at Enron Field). Pro Player/Dolphin Stadium also changed name in reference to the bankruptcy of Pro Player's parent company. So again, we're not getting the full story, but the point he's trying to make (whatever it is) is made anyway.

4) This one seemed too obvious, that it was almost just lazy writing - he could've used some different language here to avoid saying this:

When I look at the Cowboys' roster since Troy Aikman retired, I have not seen a premium quarterback. When I've looked at Cowboys' rosters since Jerry Jones bought the team, I have not seen a premium young quarterback in waiting. (Aikman was already there when Jones made his purchase.) And when I looked at the list of Dallas choices in the 2006 draft, I did not see a premium young quarterback. Or any quarterback. How might Matt Leinart have looked in silver and blue? He was there for the taking at a reasonable cost in trade-up terms.

Drew Henson is how old? And how much did it cost them to sign him? Perhaps I don't know what a "premium quarterback" is. And yeah, Bledsoe's old, but he's also 7th all time in passing yards, 5 in completions, 13th in touchdowns, has played in a Super Bowl, and is a borderline hall of famer (in my opinion). Is that not "premium"? Regardless of what "premium" means, Henson's the guy in waiting. It's obvious that the Cowboys weren't going to draft a QB this year when Henson hasn't shown himself to be a waste. Maybe in a year the Cowboys can be faulted for not taking a QB early. But also, there's the argument made elsewhere that drafting QBs early is a waste of cap space - especially when plenty of very good QBs were drafted far later on. This just seems the opposite of the argument Easterbrook should be making... which reminds me...

5) Easterbrook, in several locations this week, knocks a couple of teams for drafting "skinny" guys - like DBs and WRs - and praises other teams for drafting linemen, and then attempts to draw a connection between immediate results on field with the latter:

Houston, Jersey/B, Philadelphia and Tampa were the teams that emphasized offensive line in this year's draft. Prediction: Houston, Jersey/B, Philadelphia and Tampa will improve their records.

This appears, to me, to be an empty argument. For one thing, teams draft for many different reasons - sometimes for immediate need, sometimes for long term need, sometimes just the best player available. For example, the Carolina Panthers drafted a running back in the first, and a DB in the second. This is because their lines are pretty well set already. Or how about the Falcons, who have added linemen via free agency over the last 5 years and primarily drafted wide receivers and defensive backs in early rounds. They've been in the playoffs or near (or suffered catastrophic injuries) over that stretch. Among bad teams, there might be a connection between improving the line and improving the record, but once you get above bottom dwellers, the draft has less of an immediate effect no matter what position is drafted.

OK one more omission...

6) In addressing the Vikings' moves over the last few years, Easterbrook writes this:

Two seasons ago, Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss was the most feared battery in the league. Now the gentlemen have been traded for Troy Williamson and Napoleon Harris, both third string on the Vikings' depth chart, plus a draft choice that just became rookie Ryan Cook. These are looking like some of the worst trades since Russia's Baron Edouard de Stoeckl sent Alaska to William Seward for $7.2 million and an archipelago to be named later.

Seward's deal was mocked in real time too... The point Easterbrook fails to make, but should be obvious to anyone, is that both Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper carried with them onerous salaries or demands for salary. The NFL is a zero sum game with the salary cap. If you spend money on a receiver or a quarterback, you cannot spend money on a lineman or linebacker or someone else. If you aren't directing 25-30% of your salary cap allotment on a pitch and catch combo, you can spend that to shore up or improve at 20 other positions on the field. Not having Culpepper on the field last year sent the Vikings on a pretty nice winning streak and they almost made the playoffs. Randy Moss and his massive salary contributed to the inability of the Raiders to field a competent defense last year, and their record showed it. The NFL's market for talent is affected by externalities, and not merely on-field ability. A great but costly player is often not as valuable to a team as a good but inexpensive player (along with the ability to spend more elsewhere). Easterbrook has to know this, but for some reason he doesn't want the reader to know it.

And these errors by omission are so frequent, and blatant, that it just seems like Easterbrook is just playing dumb.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his intrusive political writings. Look: I'm a political junkie. Just look at the blogroll and you can probably tell. But I have a policy about politics and sports - they're annoying as hell when mixed together. Sammy Kershaw is right - let's talk about Nascar, old Hollywood movie stars, anything at all but politics, religion and her. Easterbrook doesn't agree, and I think it hurts his column. Now, this isn't something I have against his particular politics, but just the confluence of sportswriting and political writing in general (I was as annoyed at Patrick Hruby and Hunter S. Thompson's Page 2 columns as well). I think Easterbrook is welcome to his opinions, and he's free to use his space however he wants. But I think his column would work better if he stayed focused on the NFL here and wrote about everything else at The New Republic. But that's just me.

Back to the point, he's just playing dumb at times. Examples:

1) When Edwards ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, the knock was he lacked sufficient government experience for the White House. What's he done since 2004? Run for the 2008 nomination. Well, he has been running a center to fight poverty in the South. Something that Edwards, whatever you think about him, has voiced concern about for a very long time. That's a tangible action since 2004. Perhaps it doesn't have a nice fancy title like Senator, but it is doing something. And this issue served to form the basis of why he ran in the first place. All of this is something a beltway insider pundit knows. But it doesn't fit with whatever he's trying to say, so he leaves it out.

2) The Smithsonian's secretary has virtually no responsibilities, other than deciding what to order for lunch, since the location and use of Smithsonian facilities is determined by Congress. The argument that the Smithsonian's secretary makes too much surely has merit. But it's moronic to suggest that he has no responsibilities, simply because the location and use of facilities is "determined by Congress". Surely members of the House of Representatives aren't running the museum on a day-to-day basis, even if they have the final say authority by law. Surely Easterbrook knows that Congress controls the Smithsonian's budget, but congress doesn't prepare budget proposals, make hiring decisions, mundane tasks, etc. Easterbrook isn't that dumb, but he's playing it because it fits whatever he's trying to say.

3) The entire paragraph entitled "Orwell would wince". Politicians use terms that sound better for their position. Things like "undocumented arrivals" instead of illegal aliens, or "detainees" instead of prisoners. First off, phrasing things in a way that serves your purpose is not something new. In politics, people have been doing this for, oh, millenia. Is it a late term abortion or a partial birth abortion? Is it integration or is it civil rights? This is nothing new, and it's nothing all that special. Second off, this is something that Easterbrook does all the damn time! Using words in a way to prove your point, even if the way you use those words confuses the issue... hey! I just wrote like 10,000 words about that! Orwell would wince. Because he wouldn't like that kind of chutzpah.

And finally, as I'm sure most of you dozed off about 10 paragraphs above, I wanted to touch on one other thing. welcomed Easterbrook back with a front page banner last week, and they've promoted him decently this week too on the front page. But they haven't really mentioned why "he's back". Sadly, this is another example of the readers not exactly getting the full story.

For those who didn't read him back in the day or at, you may have wondered why he left at all. Well, the reason was a that he wrote on his New Republic blog a few years back some very biting commentary criticizing the makers of Kill Bill for its violence. His premise, which I personally believe went at the issue at entirely the wrong manner, was that the producers and studio heads that put out the movie were all Jewish, and therefore ought to be predisposed against violence. But he also suggested (and apologized for this) that these same Jews "worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence". I do not claim to know what was in his heart, but simply stated, this looks bad. He apologized and attempted to clarify his statements. Also, I believe ESPN did not fire him because his statements bear the appearance of anti-semitism (though I think they had every right to do so for this reason). No, I think they fired him because the head of the company who owns ESPN, Michael Eisner, was one of the people he criticized. And it is surely the prerogative of any company to fire an employee who publicly criticized the boss, especially in this manner.

The point I'm getting to is that one might think that because of the way he left ESPN the first time around, he might be more mindful of including stereotyping races, ethnicities or whatever in his writings. Alas, it appears he hasn't. He still refers to homosexuals as "nontraditional males", a term I have difficulty finding meaning in. And in his first column he included two pretty clear stereotyping jokes (and not even good ones): one about illegal immigrants gathering at a 7-11 to get day laboring work on NFL scout teams and one about how Koreans are short and play lots of video games.

Now, I'm surely against censorship, and indeed, I think if people harbor prejudices or stereotyping, we may as well see it in the open - so we can regard the speaker for what they truly think. But Easterbrook's screwed up before, and a several-thousand word column on carries with it some responsibility. If nothing else, this bears watching.

That is, if I can bear watching it at all. I mean, there's only so much I can take of a goofy middle aged man with the weirdest looking unibrow I've ever seen writing about hot cheerleaders and stuff. Just lame, and gross.

Sad. Let's hope ESPN is paying him enough to buy some undershirts now.

Post edited slightly for clarity.