All Apologies

In the past, I have been labeled a Big Ten apologist. It is a charge that, while not without merit, I have never truly accepted. I genuinely believe that a lot of the Big Ten bashing of the last decade has been unfair, and in a sport where public opinion literally helps decide a champion it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that because Wisconsin and Michigan State have been top dogs recently instead of traditional powers like Ohio State and Michigan, too many people are quick to say “the conference is bad” instead of “Bucky and Sparty are good”.

See, that may sound like Big Ten Apologist talk, but it’s not. Because if I were really a Big Ten apologist I wouldn’t be comfortable saying this: in 2014, the Big Ten sucks.

What other possible conclusion can I come to? How could I say otherwise after a Saturday when it took some late Hawkeye heroics for the conference to manage a 2-2 split with the MAC, or when all that stood between McNeese State and victory at Nebraska was a 58 yard touchdown run in the final 30 seconds? How can I defend a conference where Illinois has had to come from behind to win in the 4th quarter twice – against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky? What does it say that the Big Ten had one of it’s worst days I can remember and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, the team we usually expect these kind of results from, didn’t even play?

Things don’t look better at the top of the conference, where the Big Ten could have made their early push for dominance and prove they were the “power conference” they are supposed to be. Michigan State and Michigan were both embarrassed on national TV, and Ohio State saw the wind swiftly removed from their sails with a home loss to Virginia Tech.

It’s the worst possible year for the Big Ten to be this way, too. In the past, the Big Ten has had to struggle with BCS nonsense. Last year, for example, Michigan State was a fantastic football team. Aside from a tough early season road loss to Notre Dame, they were unbeaten, with an average margin of victory of 18 points. The problem? They weren’t ranked until week 9, and weren’t in the top 10 until December 1st – the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship game. There is no doubt that the Big Ten’s soft reputation combined with the fact that sportswriters and coaches didn’t expect them to be that good in back in August when they first guessed at their polls helped keep Michigan State out of the BCS title game.

This year? No problem! We’re settling it on the field! It may not be a great playoff (there’s a whole article for another day) but it’s a playoff. Finally, those of us who want the Big Ten to have a chance to show what they can do have the system where they can do it, and from what I’ve seen so no team in the conference should be within 1,000 feet of that playoff.

Admittedly, it’s early. There’s time for someone to put this start in the past. Maybe Wisconsin rolls and the LSU loss becomes an afterthought. Maybe Notre Dame is a top team again, and Michigan’s loss doesn’t look as bad. Maybe, somehow, Penn State runs the table. Still, the old cliche about how a sports season is a “marathon, not a sprint” doesn’t apply to college football. Even with a playoff, one loss – or even one closer-than-it-should-have-been win – is a lot to overcome. College football isn’t a marathon. It’s a sprint with hurdles, and the Big Ten has already tripped.

Do It Again

It might just be the hardest thing to do in sports. It’s only happened eight times total, and four of those were before 1980. As the NFL sees more parity, it seems to be getting harder. That’s why it will be so impressive when the Seattle Seahawks repeat this year as Super Bowl champions.

There are plenty of reasons not to pick Seattle, but they are intangible. Things like “it’s harder to stay on top” and “everyone is gunning for you”. Here’s what is tangible – the Seahawks still have a dominating defense, one of the league’s best ground games, a brilliant coaching mind in charge, and perhaps the most underrated quarterback in the NFL.

That’s not to say it will be easy – the depth in the NFC, particularly the Seahawks’ own Division, will make it a hard road. The last time I thought a team was this sure of a bet to repeat it was the Green Bay Packers, and Eli Manning quickly ruined any hopes of that. So while I feel confident in my pick of Seattle to repeat, I’m still going to hedge my bets and run down the rest of the league and how likely they are to win football’s greatest prize.

Contenders
Any of these teams have a legitimate shot at bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.

Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers is back, and looks like last season is behind him. He also looks poised to go from being the best quarterback in the NFL at leading a one dimensional offense to being the best at leading a balanced one. Eddie Lacy is the real deal, and the Packers are more dangerous because of it. The question will lie (as it has since the year after their Super Bowl win) with the defense, which should be just good enough not to be a liability. The magic number for Green Bay should be 13. If they can win 13 games, that should be good enough for home field throughout the playoffs and keep them from having to go to Seattle. If that happens, watch out.

Cincinnati
There are three times I think can win the AFC, and I’m leaning towards to Bengals for no other reason than they feel like a team who has paid their dues in the last two post-seasons and are due. Defensively, they are probably the best team in the AFC. Offensively, they seem to improve every year in no small part because Andy Dalton does. A lot will depend on Giovanni Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill taking pressure off of Dalton and not forcing him to try and make things happen. If they succeed, so will Cincinnati.

Denver
The last time we saw Peyton Manning and the Broncos, they were being outplayed by everyone in New York, including Bruno Mars. That bad taste they left in everyone’s mouth can overwhelm the fact that they are still probably the best team in the NFL on paper. Montee Ball will have to step up in year two, and it will be interesting to see how Peyton Manning fares with another year under his belt, but anything less than the AFC title game should still be a disappointment for this group.

New England
There isn’t much to say about the Patriots that hasn’t been said over and over again since the turn of the century. They find new hurdles, and Bill Belichick finds news ways to overcome them. Tom Brady remains steady even as his career heads towards the sunset, and as long as he is there, it’s insane to dismiss his team.

San Francisco
The 49ers seemed to take a step back last year, and that means this season could be the balancing point for the franchise. Colin Kaepernick was not, as some proclaimed, the greatest quarterback in NFL history last year. Far from it, in fact. He doesn’t have to be for the 49ers to win – the defense is still solid and Frank Gore is now the veteran leader of what could be a deep backfield – but he has to regain some of that magic we saw two years ago for the 49ers to have a real shot at returning to the Super Bowl.

Pretenders
These teams should be playoff locks, and may even host a game, but are missing something that will keep them from a championship.

Philadelphia
Last year Chip Kelly did the unimaginable – successfully transitioned to NFL head coach from the NCAA. This year the pressure will be on to maintain the success and return the Eagles to the Super Bowl. They may have the most dynamic player in the NFL in LeSean McCoy, and Kelly knows how to use him to the fullest extent of his talents. A lot will lie on Nick Foles, who looked like a world beater last year with 27 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. It would seem impossible for him to repeat that kind of success, and because of that the Eagles should fall just short of their lofty expectations.

New Orleans
As long as Drew Brees is in New Orleans, the Saints should be a contender. If they get off to a hot start, don’t buy in too fully – they open the season against the Falcons, Browns, Vikings, Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Lions. That and a week division will get them in the playoffs, but there is too much depth in the NFC for them to make much noise.

Indianapolis
It’s hard to shake the thought that the Colts are not as good as their back-to-back 11-5 records indicate. At some point, beating up on the woeful AFC South won’t be good enough. Still, Andrew Luck seems due to make that jump to “elite” status this year. He has the weapons to do it with T.Y. Hilton and a healthy Reggie Wayne. As Luck improves, the Colts should too. Just maybe not as fast as some in Indianapolis might want.

Pittsburgh
1971. That’s the last time the Steelers didn’t post a winning record three seasons in a row. Back to back 8-8 seasons may not seem like the end of the world for a lot of franchises, but things are a little different for Steelers fans. The good news is, things should be turning around in the steel city. The addition of playmakes like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown should help Ben Roethlisberger, who has been asked to do too much in recent years. The Steelers aren’t Super Bowl ready yet, but they are on their way back.

Happy to be there
Any one of these teams could make the playoffs, but don’t expect them to stick around long.

New York Giants
A lot of people say Eli Manning isn’t as bad as he looked last year. A lot of people are frankly, wrong. Last year was the third time in a ten year career he has lead the league in interceptions. He has averaged 17 a season in his career. He is this generation’s Joe Namath – a statistically average quarterback who is held higher thanks to Super Bowl success. The Giants may very well be back in the playoffs this year, but it will be mostly due to Tom Coughlin and a stout defense that was made better in the offseason with the addition of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond.

Chicago
Does anyone get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment more than Jay Cutler? Nearly everyone agrees he is not a “franchise quarterback” talent, yet he gets blasted in Chicago for not being one. It’s like yelling at a Chevy Malibu for not being a Corvette. If Cutler can stay healthy, he has perhaps more weapons around him than anyone in the NFC. Name one quarterback who wouldn’t want Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte around him? That alone may sneak the Bears into the playoffs, but it will all hinge on a defense that was terrible last year but (hopefully, in Bears fan’s minds) was rebuilt in free agency in the off season.

Kansas City
Which is the real Kansas City Chiefs? The team that started 9-0 last season, and had a dominating defense, or the team that finished 2-6, giving up 30 points or more four times down the stretch including 45 in a playoff game against the Colts despite forcing four turnovers? While the truth likely lies someewhere in the middle, the Chiefs won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. Still, Alex Smith has become a respectable starting quarterback and Jamaal Charles is electrifying. This team should be talented enough to make the playoffs again, but it may be close than fans in K.C. would like.

Carolina
Last year was a great one for the Panthers, as they improved by five games and won the NFC South. They promptly followed it up with an offseason in which they lost their top two receivers in Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and the majority of their offensive line. Cam Newton should have no one to throw to, no one to block for him, and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield to share the load. It makes the inevitable “what’s wrong with Cam Newton?” pontificating we are going to hear by week 6 that much more infuriating.

Baltimore

Speaking of Steve Smith, Baltimore is where he landed though that was overshadowed by Ray Rice’s domestic violence charges and subsequent (too short) suspension. Steve Smith should form a nice tandem with Torrey Smith for Joe Flacco to throw to, but Rice’s return to form will be vital if the Ravens want to get back to the postseason. He was awful last year on and off the field, but it’s easy to forget he’s only 26 and should still have plenty of tread on the tires.

Arizona
The Cardinals face the unfortunate task of being a pretty good team in a brutal division, where pretty good just isn’t enough. Andre Ellington is poised for a big year at running back, they have a great receiver tandem with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, and their secondary is one of the best in the NFL. Still, they are looking at another year with Carson Palmer at quarterback and the loss of Karlos Dansby should loom large on defense.

Going Nowhere Slow – They aren’t the dregs of the NFL, but they aren’t reaching the post season either. The face of parity.
Buffalo
Tampa Bay
Washington
Detroit
Tennessee
Miami
Atlanta
San Diego

The Draft Party Starts Now – It’s going to be a long, long year in these cities.
Minnesota
St. Louis
Dallas
Jacksonville
Dallas
New York Jets
Oakland
Houston

Hey, at least Lebron is back.
Cleveland

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
WILD CARD ROUND
EAGLES OVER GIANTS
49ERS OVER SAINTS
COLTS OVER STEELERS
BENGALS OVER CHIEFS

DIVISIONAL ROUND
SEAHAWKS OVER 49ERS
PACKERS OVER EAGLES
BRONCOS OVER COLTS
BENGALS OVER PATRIOTS

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
SEAHAWKS OVER PACKERS
BENGALS OVER BRONCOS

SUPER BOWL
SEAHAWKS OVER BENGALS

Leaders and Followers

One of the most common complaints regarding kids and sports today is the attitude that we are shielding self esteem and not teaching kids how to lose. The idea that little Johnny gets a trophy no matter what because he tried and he’s still a winner even if he was the worst player on a team that lost every game they played. It’s led to a decade of asking “what will happen when these kids grow up? What will happen when they find out the world isn’t fair?”

We can find out exactly what happens by looking at the NBA right now.   Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Dwight Howard are all guys born in the mid-80s who grew up smack dab in the middle of the “feel good about yourself” movement. Carmelo is about to look for his third team. Dwight Howard threw not one, but two fits before ending up in Houston (and if you think he’s spending the rest of his career there, you’re crazy), and Lebron – the poster child for athletes of the millennial generation – looks like he’s about to get out of South Beach before he can win all those titles he was sure were coming.

Lebron James was sure he could win in Miami, and was ready to solidify his Jordanesque legacy with title after title. The problem is everyone in Lebron’s life have been so busy fawning over his once in a lifetime talent for so long they forgot to hammer home the very important lesson that winning is hard. You aren’t promised a title just for being the best player in world when you play a team game. So you got together with your friends, a shooting guard and a power forward, and expected to win title after title? You forgot that center and point guard are the two most important positions on the floor. You forgot that Tim Duncan is one of the greatest players of all time. So are Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.

Carmelo Anthony had the perfect situation. The hometown kid, going back to New York where he would be the biggest star in the biggest market. Except none of those things actually matter once the game starts. Now, instead of being part of the solution for the Knicks, he’s off to try and join some other team where he thinks the grass will be greener, and hoping general managers don’t look at how the Nuggets improved in the first two seasons after Anthony left for the Big Apple.

Dwight Howard was literally following in the footsteps of the best center of a generation. Start in Orlando, make the Finals, move on to L.A., and begin counting titles. Yet when the greatest player of the past 20 years had the audacity to try and lead him, it was too much. Once the Lakers – literally the most shining example of a winning organization in the NBA – hit a bump in the road, he wanted out.

Look, it’s one thing for a guy to go into free agency with the intention of becoming a winner. No one bats an eye at Kevin Garnett for leaving Minnesota for Boston, or Clyde Drexler for heading to Houston. The difference is those guys gave it a shot. No one can look back at Kevin Garnett’s time in Minnesota and say he wasn’t the most committed guy in that organization to winning. The franchise let him down time and time again, and he knew the clock was ticking on his career. For these guys, it’s different. Lebron has been to four consecutive Finals. Carmelo and the Knicks won the Division two years ago. Dwight Howard gave up on the Lakers. These guys aren’t tortured stars stuck in mediocrity – they aren’t Ernie Banks or Barry Sanders. These are guys who feel they are owed a championship, and if they aren’t winning everyone else is to blame.

No one is owed anything in sports. It’s all a great big soup of talent, timing, and luck that makes a champion. I’m starting to worry we’ve created a generation of athletes who don’t get that. A group that expects to be rewarded even if it isn’t warranted. Will we ever see another Hakeem Olajuwon, a guy who gave it all and came up short for nine seasons before finally winning two titles with the team that drafted him? Heck, even Michael Jordan failed for six seasons before he won six titles. Did he whine and try to force a trade to the Lakers or Pistons? No, he waited until the Bulls replaced guys like Dave Corzine and Brad Sellers with guys like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and then led those guys. That’s the thing about winners. They are usually leaders. James, Anthony, Howard, and every other NBA player out there chasing titles via free agency? Those are followers, and no matter if they find that championship ring they are looking for, that’s how they will be remembered.

 

Can I Kick It?

It happens every four years. The world’s biggest sporting event comes along, or as we call it in the United States, our quadrennial one month trial run with soccer that ends with the majority of us saying “nope, still stupid”.

It’s not that I dislike soccer.

OK, it is that I dislike soccer. But I’ve tried really, really hard not to. Honestly, I’ve given it a chance. I love the passion – I could watch soccer crowds all day. It’s just at the end of the day, I need…something on the field. It’s not a lack of offense thing, but it’s a lack of offensive chances thing. 2-1 game? Hey, that’s a pitcher’s duel. 2-1 game with 8 total shots on goal? Gaaaaah just shoot me.

So I apologize to those fans who take offense. It’s not usually foreign fans, by the way. We don’t get soccer and they don’t get our American football and both sides usually seem to have a live-and-let-live attitude about it. It seems the people who are vocally in your face about how great the sport is and how uncultured you are for just not understanding are dirty hipsters whose only other connection to sports is the Stephon Marbury jersey they are wearing ironically. These are the same people who blindly listen to whatever world music/EDM/punk-folk band that Pitchfork tells them is great. (Seriously, try listening to Grizzly Bear without wanting to put a nail through your brain.)

Still, I will watch the World Cup, like I always do. There’s a couple of reasons for this. One, as a stay-at-home dad I’ve come to appreciate any sports played on weekday afternoons. Two, I do legitimately love the pageantry that surrounds World Cup games, and can appreciate it on that level. Couple that with the fact that soccer is a sport you can pretty easily watch in the background while doing something else (when the announcer sounds like he’s waking up, look at the tv.) and I’m sold.

I’m not going into this thing like some ugly American, though. If I’m going to watch the World Cup, you better be sure I did my research. I’ve discovered the really important facts about every team in this year’s tournament, and can safely say I can present you with the most comprehensive World Cup preview of all time.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EVERY TEAM IN THE 2014 FIFA WORLD CUP BUT WERE TO AMBIVALENT TO ASK:

GROUP A

Brazil – The host nation of the 2014 World Cup, some see it as something of a trial run for when they host the Olympics in two years. Some might say the time and money might be better spent preparing for that, by say, cleaning the rowing venue that is literally overflowing with sewage. But I digress.

Brazil has won five World Cups, thanks mainly to the fact that many of their players are quicker and more agile than their opponents due to having just one name – less embroidery on the jersey = better wind resistance. (This is the same reason Poland failed to qualify for the World Cup.) This year, they have a player named Hulk, who if the comics are any indication, we can expect to earn a red card fairly quickly.

Croatia – Croatia is relatively new to international soccer, but has made their presence known. They went from being ranked 125th in the world when they joined FIFA in 1993 to 3rd in 1998, the kind of movement in the polls one usually has to hire Nick Saban for.

Croatia’s fan base is known for their enthusiastic support. By enthusiastic I mean dreadfully, terribly racist. They have been chastised and penalized for racist banners against Turkey, racial slurs against English striker Emile Heskey, and in 2008 were nearly banned from the Euro when a group of fans formed a human swastika in response to Italian fans waving Communist flags. Good job, Croatia. You made the Communists the good guys.

Mexico – Mexico is traditionally the biggest soccer power in North America, which sounds impressive until you realize the region is made of mostly small Caribbean and Central American nations, a U.S. team who has to deal with being at best the fifth or sixth most popular sport in the country, and a Canadian team that only exists because they were too polite to tell anyone they simply don’t care. It’s kind of like how the Colts have dominated the AFC South for so long – you beat up on the Titans, Texans, and Jaguars every year, let’s not get too proud.

Cameroon – The Cameroon National team is nicknamed the “Indomitable Lions”, which I have to admit is a pretty badass nickname. Not to be confused with the Detroit Very, Very, Domitable Lions.

Cameroon’s national team also arrived in Brazil just yesterday, after a dispute over bonus pay. It’s not like they had four years to work that out or anything.

GROUP B

Spain – The defending World Cup champions, Spain will again be tough to beat due to the fact that when I looked at their roster I recognized the names of the English professional teams most of these guys play for.

Spain uses a style of play called Tiki-taka, which relies on short passing and ball possession and proves once and for all that Bill Walsh truly was a genius.

Netherlands – The Netherlands – also known as the Dutch, but incorrectly sometimes referred to as Holland, whose flag is red white and blue but are famous for their all-orange uniforms – exists solely to confuse people. They hold the distinction of playing in the most World Cup Finals without winning, making them the Minnesota Vikings of international soccer.

Chile – I keep looking up facts about these various national teams waiting for the one that crashed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism. Turns out that was a Uruguayan rugby team. Who knew? Could’ve sworn it was Chile. I guess I have to re-watch that movie.

Australia – The Australian National Team has gone by the nickname “The Socceroos” since 1967, which quite frankly is long enough for them to realize they should be embarrassed. Seriously, didn’t New Zealand ever pull them aside and say “Hey, your name makes you sound like specially designed underwear for soccer-loving children.”?

GROUP C

Colombia – Colombia has a long, rich history in soccer filled with great moments, thrilling victories, and heartbreaking defeats. Despite that, they will always really be know for one thing – being the nation where a player was murdered for scoring on his own goal in the 1994 World Cup. Kind of puts people who troll athletes on Twitter into perspective. (Just kidding – people who troll athletes on Twitter are still the worst.)

Greece - Greece has a long history of, well, being terrible at soccer. Until this decade, they only qualified for one World Cup. That was 1994, when they went 0-3 and were outscored 10-0 by such powers as Nigeria and Bulgaria.

(Things are looking up for Greece. This is their second straight World Cup and they won the Euro Championship in 2004.)

Ivory Coast – The team captain for Ivory Coast is Didier Drogba, who is so beloved in his homeland that in 2006 he helped broker a cease-fire after five years of civil war just by asking. He is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and in 2009 donated his 3 million pound signing fee in it’s entirety to build a hospital in his hometown of Abidjan.

Seriously, I have no jokes here. I just think everyone should know Didier Drogba is an awesome human being.

Japan – The Japanese national team traditionally wears a blue and white uniform, going against the rising sun, red and white color scheme the nation is known for. This is because they wore blue and white in the 1936 Olympics and beat Sweden in their first major international match 3-2. The fact that they failed to qualify for every World Cup until 1998 somehow did not dissuade them from thinking these were their “lucky” jerseys.

Group D

Uruguay – Uruguay is the Green Bay Packers of soccer. With a population of just 3.25 million people, Uruguay has won two World Cups, and the Copa America 15 times. To put that into perspective, imagine that the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area had won the World Cup. TWICE.

Costa Rica – There is so little of interest about Costa Rica’s national team, that I’ll use this space to show you the Official Song of the World Cup. This, like the NBA Finals, proves there is no sporting event that can’t be made worse by Pitbull.

England – England is one of the first nations most people think of when it comes to soccer. They are one of the oldest international teams and their professional league, The Premier League, is one of the best in the world. Which is why it’s sort of surprising how poorly they’ve traditionally done at the World Cup. They won in 1966, but other than that they have only made the final four one other time. At least they have a good sense of humor (humour?) about it – their unofficial team anthem is “Always look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:

Italy – Italy has won four World Cups, most recently in 2006. Their most well know player is Mario Balotelli, who has denied being crazy numerous times which is of course the best sign that someone is in fact nuts. He once set his house on fire by lighting off fireworks inside it (this happened at the same time he had been named Manchester’s “Ambassador for Firework Safety”, which apparently is a real thing no matter how made up it sounds), he threw a dart at a youth player “as a prank”, and is allergic to grass, which is not great for someone who’s livelihood depends on a field of it. Terrell Owens looks at Mario Balotelli and says “Man, that guy has issues.”

Group E

Switzerland - Switzerland’s claim to fame is being eliminated from the 2006 World Cup in the round of 16 despite not giving up a goal the entire tournament. Just go ahead and put that fact in your back pocket the next time some idiot hipster in a retro Chicago Sting  jersey tries to sell you on the “Beautiful Game”.

Ecuador – Ecuador’s past clashes with it’s present on the international pitch and DEAR GOD I’M STILL WRITING HOW MANY TEAMS ARE IN THIS STUPID TOURNAMENT?

France – One cannot talk about French soccer without mentioning the great Zinedine Zidane, and one cannot mention Zidane without mentioning this moment from the 2006 World Cup:

5-zidane-headbutt-gif

Oops.

Honduras – Honduras holds the distinction of having the most MLS players of any country except the United States. Honduras will not be winning the World Cup.

Group F

Argentina – Another of the all-time great teams, Argentina also boasts arguably the best player in the tournament in Lionel Messi, also known as “that guy on the cover of my soccer video game”. In the 2011-12 season, Messi scored 73 goals which I can only assume based on soccer’s normal offensive output would be the equivalent of someone hitting 214 home runs in a season.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – The wonder twins of international soccer, Bosnia and Herzegovina will be competing in their first World Cup in 2014. In 2007, their fans caused an hour long delay in a game against Norway by throwing numerous flares onto the field to protest corruption in the Bosnian Football Federation, which kind of sounds like David Stern’s worst nightmare.

Iran - Iran’s Ali Daei is the world’s all-time leader in international goals, with 109. That’s 32 more goals than Pele, who is actually 5th all-time but was the first name I recognized on the list.

Nigeria – There is literally not a single interesting thing about the Nigerian National Team. Moving on.

Group G

Germany – Germany has three World Cup wins, though they all came as West Germany, pre-unification. Their forward Miroslav Klose needs just two goals to become the World Cup’s all-time goal leader. In 2005, Klose refused to accept a penalty given to his opponent because the call was incorrect. Remember that PSA from a few years ago with the kid playing basketball who touched the ball going out of bounds but the ref doesn’t see it and he tells his coach and they give the ball back to their opponent because it’s the honest thing to do? I hated that PSA. “Who in their right mind would do that?”, I always thought. MIROSLAV KLOSE, that’s who.

Germany also features Lukas Podolski, who once said “Football is like chess, only without the dice.” I can only assume Podolski is far better at soccer than he is at chess.

Portugal – When it comes to soccer in Portugal, it begins and ends with Cristiano Ronaldo, also known as “that other guy from the cover of my soccer video game.” Ronaldo also wins the “strangest athlete tweet ever” award:

“Thank you all for participating in the CR7 boy’s underwear competition – it’s been a real pleasure to see all your photos”

That was a tweet he sent out last year after a contest tie-in with an underwear company he endorsed, so in actuality, harmless. Still, nice way to creep out 26 million twitter followers.

Ghana – Team captain Asamoah Gyan released a song in 2010, called “African Girls” featuring a video that has him and his background dancers doing his “goal scoring dance”:

Gyan is also a brown belt in Jiu-Jitsu who wants to compete in the UFC someday, so let me say in case he ever reads this – your song is fantastic, sir. Please don’t kick me in the face.

United States – The U.S. has tried hard to put itself on the map internationally, but is still pretty far away. Still, it says something that every one of the U.S.’s top 10 goal scorers all-time but one started their career after 1990.

The U.S. actually reached the semi-finals of the first World Cup in 1930, but by 1934 the nation as a whole realized there were at least seven or eight sports they’d rather play and they haven’t been back since.

Group H

Belgium – Belgium had one of the most uninterested fanbases in all of soccer until recently, when they hired a marketing firm, rebranded themselves the “Red Devils” and began using social media to hold fan contests and publicity stunts. They asked fans to fill their home stadium with children’s drawings of their favorite players, they created a mural of fan faces on the side of the team busses, and literally asked the country to paint itself red, leading the town of Geel (Belgian for yellow) to temporarily rename itself Rood. The campaign has been a resounding success.

Algeria – Algeria’s nickname is the Fennec Foxes, which sounds like it might be menacing until you realize that fennec foxes are about the most adorable damn creatures on earth.

fennec_fox_2

Whatever you do, don’t feed him after midnight.

Russia – Fun fact – it is every bit as enjoyable to watch Russia lose at soccer and see Vladimir Putin pout as it was in hockey.

Korean Republic – Our final nation. This would be South Korea, which has a long history of international success and has been to every World Cup since 1986. Not North Korea, who is probably staging their own World Cup right now and surely winning it.

So there you have it, 32 teams, one winner. Who takes the prize? Why are you asking me? If this post did nothing else, it should have shown you I know nothing about this sport.

Still, I’m going to watch the whole damn thing. I’m going to try to really crack this nut and become a soccer fan. And like I do every four years, I’m going to fail. See you in Russia in 2018.

Goodbye Horses

As the Belmont came to an end on Saturday, there were two things abundantly clear. There would be no Triple Crown winner again, and Wilford Brimley was pissed.

315980433_3611532884001_video-still-for-video-3611550773001 You check your blood sugar, you check it often. COWARD!

It was a disappointing finish, especially for those of us who have never seen a Triple Crown in their lifetime. Nevertheless, this is probably the best thing for horse racing. People say the sport needs a Triple Crown winner, but what it really needs is a horse going into the Belmont with a chance to be a Triple Crown winner. Once a horse ends the streak, part of the mystique is gone.

As for Steve Coburn’s rant after the race, he’s got a point, but not much of one. Yes, it is incredibly unfair that fresh horses that skipped one or both of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness can pop up in the Belmont and beat horses running for the third time in 5 weeks. However, it’s not a new practice. Looking back at the last three Triple Crown winners, we see Affirmed raced against a field of four other horses, 3 of which had skipped one or both other races, Seattle Slew was in a field of 8, of which 5 had skipped a leg, and Secretariat was in a field of five with three opponents with fresh hooves. By comparison, there were 11 horses in this year’s Belmont, and 8 had skipped part of or all of the rest of the Triple Crown.

In other words, while it isn’t fair, it’s the way it has always been, and if Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed could do it, the next Triple Crown winner should be able to as well. The simple fact is California Chrome is a good, maybe great horse, but if we could magically line him up against those three Triple Crown winners from the 70’s (and throw in Alydar for good measure), he’s probably finishing at the back of the pack.

If there is anything that is unfair to today’s horses, it’s the size of the fields. Again, the Belmont had five, eight, and five horses running in 1973, 1977, and 1978. The last three years have had fields of 11, 14, and 11. Could California Chrome beaten, say, three fresh horses and Ride on Curlin? We’ll never know, but his chances would have been better than they were on Saturday.

What’s more, a 19 or 20 horse field has become commonplace for the Kentucky Derby, making that race into a crapshoot. It’s easier than ever for a potentially great horse to lose the Triple Crown on the first leg due to dumb luck. As long as these fields remain this size, I’m not sure we’ll see a Triple Crown winner.

As it is, I will be like most of America now. I’ll go back to paying no attention at all to horse racing again until next spring. Hopefully next time around, that special horse will be there and we’ll see history. As much as the growing streak builds interest, it is a fine line horse racing is balancing on. As time goes on, there will be fewer and fewer fans who remember Affirmed and Alydar, or the incredible feats of Secretariat.  Hopefully a horse that captures the imagination will come along before younger sports fans are told a horse can win the Triple Crown for the first time in nearly forty years and they ask “what’s that?”

The Thrill is Gone

As the news broke about the Chicago Cubs ending their nearly century-long relationship with WGN radio, as I read eulogies to “the end of an era” and heard tearful reminiscing from die hard fans about Brickhouse and Banks and childhood transistor radios hidden under pillows during west coast road trips,  I found myself with a shocking emotion – ambivalence.

You see, there was a time when I lived for this stuff. I used to feed on Cub-misery like Manna from Heaven. For 35 years I have been a White Sox fan, and the yin to that yang is an undying hatred of everything north side. You call Wrigley Field a shrine to baseball’s past? I call it a urine-soaked hellhole. You say Ernie Banks is Chicago’s baseball treasure? I’ll raise you Minnie Minoso. You see Bleacher Bums and say “the best fans in baseball”? I see them and think “these are the people keeping Jim Belushi gainfully employed. “

It’s ludicrous and nonsensical and it probably seems petty to baseball fans in San Diego or Arlington or any other city without a natural rival, but it kept things interesting for many a summer growing up when both teams were hoping to break .500. I still remember having an argument with a Cub fan friend of mine as a kid about who was the better catcher:  Hector Villanueva or Ron Karkovice. When things are that mediocre, you need a rival to spice things up.

So when I heard the Cubs would be leaving WGN because the Cubs have become a financial drain, I expected that usual smirk to pop up and braced for the wave of schadenfreude that was about to reign over me. Except it never came. Instead I felt a sensation that goes against the very fiber of my being. I felt pity.

It dawned on me that the Cubs I hated don’t exist anymore. It’s been washed away by eleven years that have to be the worst in Cubs history:

2003: The Bartman game.

2004: The Red Sox win the World Series, ending an 85 year drought.

2005: The crosstown rival White Sox win the World Series, ending an 87 year drought.

2006: 66 wins.

2007-2008: Despite hiring Lou Piniella and breaking the bank for Alfonso Soriano, the Cubs lose in the first round of the playoffs both years.

2009-Today: The Ricketts family takes over. Off the field, controversy reigns about plans to renovate Wrigley Field. On the field, Theo Epstein come in  to clean house but despite his reputation and history as the guy who brought a title to Boston, the Cubs rebuilding process remains stalled. The Cubs currently sit at 22-34, worst in the National League. Attendance is down for the sixth year in a row.

That’s a pretty awful timeline. They’ve lost when coming close to the top, they’ve lost while watching rivals win, they’ve lost while spending hundreds of millions and lost while going young. It’s all combined to remove a very big word from the Cubs fan vocabulary – Lovable. As in Lovable Losers. That was the attitude for so long. “Wait ’til next year and even if we lost it’s still a great day in the sun with an Old Style in my hand.” I’m not seeing that anymore. It’s like watching someone’s faith start to crumble and it is sad to watch. 

So from a die hard White Sox fan, someone who wants nothing more than to see the Cubs fail, comes this. Please, Cubs. Get your act together. This is a symbiotic relationship, and quite frankly you aren’t pulling your weight. It’s no fun to gloat about a win or argue over trivialities when your opponent looks like they are ready to jump off a ledge, and that’s where you are driving your fans. So please – for the sake of the White Sox – find a way to win, Cubs.

Just don’t start winning too much.

 

 

 

Race Car Ya-Ya’s

It was another one for the ages. I mentioned last week that the Indy 500 is simply the best racing you will find in America today and once again, Indycar delivered with a race that came down to fractions of a second and a day filled with intriguing story lines. Here’s the highlights, and a few lowlights, of the day.

GOOD – Jim Nabors says farewell.

I know the whole Jim Nabors thing seems stupid to those who don’t have a special bond to this race, but he is the perfect example of everything that is special about the Indy 500. He is traditional, to the point of being corny, but then past that point all the way to charming. He is an Alabaman who lives in Hawaii who considers himself a Hoosier just because of this race – there are a lot of people around the world who feel that way Memorial Day weekend. And even at 84 years old, he still sings about as well as anybody, much like the race is still the best in it’s 98th iteration.

Seeing Jim Nabors around the track yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice how happy he looked and how much he seemed to appreciate the situation, and judging by the reaction he got from the crowd it went both ways.

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Jim Nabors and Mari Hulman George, wowing the crowd with their rendition of “Islands in the Stream”

GOOD – The excitement level at the track

I devoted an entire post last Friday to why the Indianapolis 500 still matters, and the crowd on hand proved that to be true by being absolutely electric. I know people will always pine for the “good old days” but those people either:

A.  Aren’t there in person.

or

B. Living in a nostalgic haze.

The buzz that was circulating Speedway Indiana Sunday morning was palpable, and I’m not just talking about the buzz from the copious amount of Hinchtown Hammer Down Ale being guzzled in the Coke Lot. When the Indy 500 is doing it right, the mood is a very good balance between world’s greatest party and serious sporting event. You know how some Cubs bleacher bums are annoying because they are just there to drink and don’t know anything about baseball? You know how some Cardinals fans are annoying because they are snooty know it all’s who suck the fun out of baseball? Imagine the perfect balance between those extremes, and that’s the Indy 500 at it’s best. It was at it’s best this year.

BAD – So…still green, huh?

Remember the end of the original Star Wars? It’s my favorite part of the whole series – the X-Wing fighters diving into the trench and getting picked off, one by one, until it’s just Luke and Wedge and Vader and a race to the exhaust port.

As a kid, one of my first draws to Indy Racing was the similarity to that scene. Let’s face it, the cars kind of look like wingless X-Wings, and you had that same sense of attrition – that the winner is surviving and you better have R2-D2 for a pit crew and the Millenium Falcon looking over your shoulder if you’re going to win.

Porkins

Turn 3 goes terribly wrong for Porkins.

That was missing this race. That roll of the dice, that idea that this is a ridiculously long, impossibly hard day and to win the Indy 500 everything has to go just right. It’s a testament to the incredible engineering – these cars just don’t have issues pop up (Unless you’re Graham Rahal) – and it’s a testament to just how good these drivers are. Still, it takes away some of the fun. I am absolutely not in the “I just want to see wrecks” crowd, but nearly three quarters of a race without a yellow gets boring. Auto racing doesn’t need big wrecks to be exciting, but it does need chaos, and that was lacking. It’s the reason the last quarter of the race was great.

GOOD – Holy Cow, the last quarter of the race was great.

Could Indycar have asked for anything better? You had a wreck at the front of the field with some verbal fireworks afterwards. You had Marco Andretti leading late, only to fall short and deliver heartbreak like only an Andretti can. Then the finale –  Helio going for number four, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 Indycar champion, the All-American boy whose resume is only missing one thing – an Indy 500 win – sprinting to the second closest finish in race history.

I give huge credit to the track stewards who called for the red flag, too. It was the right thing to do and saved us from a week of hand wringing about being robbed of a good finish. This is the logical solution. Green/White/Checkered wouldn’t work at Indy because the traditionalists would go nuts and more importantly it would take away the biggest strategy of the race, namely “when do I make my move?” I don’t mind the race ending under yellow because without that looming specter that the race could end at any time, drivers would constantly try to hang back in second and go for that final lap pass. The possibility of ending under yellow is what keeps the last five laps tense.

In this case, though, it would have taken ten laps to clean the track. That was simply too much race to allow a yellow to force an outcome. This was an example of allowing officials to work in the gray area and do what’s best for everybody, and it worked flawlessly.

I do need to interrupt this “GOOD” with one thing:

BAD – Can we actually watch, you know, the race?

I came home after the race and rewatched the ABC broadcast, which overall was good as it almost always is, but I can’t let this go without pointing out one thing:

Dear ABC, 

I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE WIVES AND GIRLFRIENDS AND EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK WOMEN ARE TOO STUPID TO WATCH THE RACE WITHOUT SHOWING THEM YOU ARE WRONG BECAUSE THIS IS THE 21ST CENTURY AND IF YOU ARE GOING TO SHOW THEM CAN YOU AT LEAST NOT SHRINK DOWN THE ACTUAL RACE FOOTAGE TO A SQUARE THAT TAKES UP ABOUT ONE FIFTH OF MY TV RUINING THE VIEW OF THE FINAL LAPS OF ONE OF THE GREATEST RACES IN INDY HISTORY?

Sincerely, 

Big Ragu

There, I feel much better now.

GOOD (continued)

It was interesting watching and listening to the crowd towards the end. The field erupted when Andretti or Castroneves would take the lead, and there was a notably smaller reaction when Hunter-Reay got up front. That all changed though when RHR made his daring pass in the grass on lap 198. That move garnered the biggest cheer of the afternoon. That and his picture perfect moment at Victory Lane, with his wife and son by his side as he told the crowd “I’m a proud American boy, that’s for sure”, insured his Indy immortality.

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Racing simply doesn’t get better than this.