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Friday, October 09, 2009

The Big Game

I’m going to go to back to blogging about cities next week, but for the next few days my attention will be elsewhere.  The U.S. Men’s National Soccer team wraps up its World Cup qualifying campaigns with games in Honduras tomorrow night and at home (in D.C.)  on Wednesday.   Although the U.S. is currently in first place in CONCACAF qualifying (North and Central America and the Carribean), it has not yet guaranteed its place in the World Cup Finals in South Africa.  Despite non-fans claims that qualifying against a variety of small and poorer countries in our confederation should be easy, anyone who follows soccer understands that qualifying for the World Cup from any confederation can be tricky and even big powers are often left on the outside looking in (this year, Argentina and Portugal both could miss it, and France, Russia or Germany, and a few other countries will have to win playoff games in order to qualify). 

Anyway, here’s how it stands.  On Saturday, if we win in Honduras (a tall order) , or if Costa Rica loses at home against Trinidad and Tobago (very unlikely), we're in (or if we both draw).   Otherwise, we need to draw or beat Costa Rica in our match in D.C. on the 14th (or hope El Salvador beats Honduras, or some odd series of events happen in Mexico's games against El Salvador and Trinidad).

A few blog-relevant thoughts, after the jump

1.  The Honduras game is not on U.S. television  -- only bars with satellites will be showing the game.  In any other country in the world, a decision by private actors to make a national football team  game available only on pay-per-view  would have created an enormous  federal response (or riots).   In fact, when the US-Mexico game was  only shown in English on the barely available Telemundo spin-off Mun2, fans managed to convince the network to give most viewers Mun2 free for  24 hours so that we could watch the game.   I'm not a huge fan of the essential facilities doctrine, but I could get behind a temporary and completely unprincipled expansion of rule to force this game to be shown on tv.  Christine Varney -- Where are you when we really need you?

2.  The Catrachos (the Honduran National Team) are really, really good.   We were fortunate to come from behind to beat them when we played them in Chicago in June.  This game should be excellent -- not only is this edition of the U.S. team full of exciting young players, but Honduras has some of my favorite non-U.S. north american players  -- Tottenham Hotspur's hard tackling midfield Wilson Palacios, free kick specialist "Rambo" de Leon, and a three excellent strikers in Carlos Pavon,
  Carlos Costly and David  Suazo .  We'll play the counter-attack, hoping Landon  
Donovan, Charlie Davies or Jozy Altidore can produce goals   like  these, and rely on our stout central defense and our fabulous goalkeeper Tim Howard to stem the Honduran attack (and hope that whomever we play at left back -- all of the options are more than  a bit dodgy -- doesn't get overrun).

If you love -- or even like a little -- the beautiful game, check out this match. 

3.   Games in Central America are usually pretty rough for Americans – we have a terrible record in road games against all the Central American teams.   This is partially because some of these teams -- particularly Honduras and Costa Rica -- are often very good, and partially because the games are played in, er, less than ideal conditions, producing a huge homefield advantage.  The pitches in these stadiums are often not well maintained and the fans range from boisterous to outright brutal (This game likely will be bad – lots of projectiles (mostly batteries) and abuse thrown at the players -- but games in Costa Rica are the roughest, where visitors, particularly American players, regularly get pelted with plastic bags full of urine.  Then again, the intensity of Honduran fans should not be underrated -- problems during world cup qualifying games between Honduras and El Salvador sparked a war between the two countries in 1970, the famed Guerra Del Futbol.)

At any rate, Honduras has a substantial home field advantage.  However, given the political situation in Honduras, some people speculated that the game would have to be moved.   (According to all reports, the situation in San Pedro Sula is fine for the game, thankfully.)

However, this raises some interesting institutional design questions.  FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, has the power to decide that match has to be moved, but the rules for when this happens, and where and when to play the game are extremely unclear and ad hoc, although Honduras (among other countries) has had to have matches moved due to political unrest.   After surveying some of my soccer buddies and not getting anything particularly attractive, I'll wanted to open the question to legal experts ---  What would be the optimal FIFA rule for moving matches in the case of  domestic unrest? It would have to protect player and fan safety, not inflame geopolitical tensions, and preserve the competitive balance created by having an even balance of home games for each team.  Any thoughts?

Posted by David Schleicher on October 9, 2009 at 03:11 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: JR | Oct 12, 2009 9:31:02 PM

I know! I don't think so, at least not in a Hexagonal game (we scored first in the 2-1 over Honduras in 2001, and I can't think of any other road win in which we didn't put up a clean sheet). Conor Casey is one of those players who may never do anything again for the nats, but had a moment (well two) last night. And Donovan was spectacular. (And Pavon, well, ouch.) I wish them well too, but a scheduling quirk (costa rica having the 2nd hardest match of the cycle -- at the U.S. -- after the U.S. has already qualified, is going to make that tough.)

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Oct 11, 2009 11:48:28 AM

Big game, indeed. The first half was cagey but the second turned out to be phenomenally entertaining, and perhaps the USA's best away win in Central America (have we ever come from behind to win away in WCQ?). Now that the US has qualified for the WC, I'd like to see Honduras make it as well--they'd be a tough opponent in any group, and it would be a nice lift for a country suffering through a lot of adversity.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 11, 2009 3:52:37 AM

Jonathan -- Uck! Or should I say "Uck!" It is true that they are not Brazil or Spain, but the world of quality football is bigger than that. They are really good for a north american side -- half of their starters play in the Premiership or in Serie A, and they have been playing as well as any non-US/Mexico Concacaf team ever has (with the possible exception of the 2002 Costa Rican team). I suggest you take a look at their demolishing of Mexico and Costa Rica at home during this cycle, or at the really inspired play of guys like Palacios, Hendry Thomas, Suazo and others in the top leagues in the world before you dismiss them.

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Oct 10, 2009 2:21:29 PM

Any "fan" who thinks the Honduran national team is "really good" knows far less about soccer than he thinks. Ever played the game, Dave S.?

Posted by: jonathan m. | Oct 9, 2009 9:59:35 PM

I play the game and, more importantly, I follow the game. Anyone who wouldn't classify this Honduran team as a good team and certainly one of their best ever is pretty ignorant about soccer today. They have more players starting for EPL and top European teams than the US does. Ever hear of Wilson Palacios for Tottenham? Doesn't mean they aren't beatable (they do have two starters out because of accumulated yellow cards and they have some weaknesses). We beat them 2-1 in Chicago earlier this year after all, but they do deserve respect, especially at home. Are you reserving the "really good" title for Spain and Brazil? Are you making some kind of historical comparison, so no team currently playing is "really good." Please, do tell us your grading curve.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 10, 2009 2:18:45 PM

Any "fan" who thinks the Honduran national team is "really good" knows far less about soccer than he thinks. Ever played the game, Dave S.?

Posted by: jonathan m. | Oct 9, 2009 9:59:35 PM

Regarding number 1, I believe England's upcoming qualifying game in the Ukraine(?) is available only over the internet in England. Of course, England has already qualified, so riots will probably be at a minimum.

The only top down solution to the problem of the broadcast rights being owned by the home federation (Honduras in this instance) would be for FIFA to step in. If any government tried to interfere, FIFA would ban that country from international competition (i.e. the World Cup and World Cup Qualifying) pretty quickly until that government backed off.

Each federation owns the broadcast rights to their home matches. In this case, the Honduran Federation sold all the rights to an entity that has a closed-circuit network in the US. That entity claims that that they could not get any US broadcasters to pony up more money than they could make through a closed-circuit distribution to (primarily) Honduran bars in the US. Perhaps not surprising given the 10PM Saturday night time slot with college football and play-off baseball already filling much of the US sports landscape right now.

It would seem the most straight-forward solution for FIFA would be for them to mandate that the broadcast rights for the visiting team's country be transferred to that country's federation. Since the vast majority of qualifying schemes (all that I know of) involve reciprocal games played in both countries (home and away), there would not be much loss to the federations overall (who depend on broadcast rights to generate revenue).

Posted by: Scott Boone | Oct 9, 2009 6:58:26 PM

Easy answer to your last question: if there's unrest in the Central American country where the game is scheduled, simply relocate the game to the US in a major city with a large ex-pat population from that nation. Then the stands will be about 80% full of fans from that country and it'll restore parity by essentially creating the home game that was unavailable.

Speaking of Honduras, it's often said that in 2002 WCQ, we beat them away (2-1) but lost to them at home (3-2). Geographically, this is accurate. But having attended the latter game in DC, I can't imagine a more Honduras-friendly crowd than the one they got to play against in RFK. It was like Honduras had two home games, and is just one more reason why WCQ is much harder (for the U.S., at least) than people commonly believe.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 9, 2009 5:24:54 PM

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