The Evolution of What the World Cup Has Meant to Me

31 May 2010

South African fans carry a 'World Cup' trophy during a FIFA 2010 soccer World Cup warm up soccer match between South Africa and Colombia played at the Soccer City Stadium, Soweto, South Africa, 27 May 2010. (Credit Image: © EPA/ZUMApress.com)
1994: My first experience with the sport.
The location: Orlando Florida. The reason I was there: landing at the international airport heading to my dad’s house on a quasi-vacation/parents plan to move to the Sunshine State later in the year. Upon walking through the terminal to get our bags for the trip to Jacksonville, World Cup stuff was everywhere.
I’m 10 years old at this point. Every morning I woke up to the sports pages, so I thought I knew about all the sports that the world had to offer. Until that moment in my life, I didn’t even realize the sport existed. So being ten, having my small world view that a kid that age normally has, my first reaction was ‘what the hell is this sport of soccer and why the hell haven’t I heard anything about it until now…and why is this sport I have never heard of having an event in the United States?’ Yes, one could say that I had a lot to learn at that point.
As my dad’s place had cable, I watched what I could, and I have to be honest, if it wasn’t for the crowd being so energetic, I would have given up on the sport and moved on with life. However, the fans interest kept me watching and by the time it was time to fly back to Alaska, I had enough interest to keep watching…what I could. The only other match of the 1994 World Cup I saw once I returned to Alaska was the final between Brazil and Italy. In truth, it was a crap match on a narrow field. But the emotion of the penalty shootout has stuck with me to this day.

1998: My naive belief in American politics.
By the time the 1998 World Cup rolled around, I hadn’t watched much of the beautiful game. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but when you still live under your parent’s roof, you live by their rules. One of my mom’s most adamant rules was a simple one ‘no cable tv…period end of discussion’. I got by barely on the little MLS that was on ABC.
It was also around this time that my interest in politics started to grow, and when I saw the US was grouped in with Iran and Yugoslavia, I breathed a little easier. My 14 year old mind went ‘Iran sucks and let’s face it; Yugoslavia is so unstable that the mighty USA should advance easily even after losing to Germany’. Oh the innocence of youth.
I remember the Germany game like it was yesterday in my mind. The 3-6-1 formation looked bad on the eyes, but for some strange reason kept us in the game. However two counter attacks proved our undoing, but after thinking that the worst was over, I got ready for the Iran match which ABC was hyping for reason even I didn’t understand. When Bill Clinton delivered a prepared statement to the crowd in France, I thought he had lost his mind. When the game got underway, I was floored. I never expected the US to play so badly and Iran were the worthy winners on the day. I cried for at least a day after this while the rest of the family thought a white padded room was where I ought to be. The game against Yugoslavia was just as bad, having read the post match report I just thought the squad quit.
The 1998 World Cup could provide the most humorous thing to me. One of my neighbors came over during the final. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and he was already drunk as a skunk and had his customary beer in one hand and spit cup in another. He saw what I was watching and just went ‘you know I think they are all a bunch of ******* (the word has been censored simply for taste), but I will admit one thing, they sure can run’. The fact I got a Baker County redneck to watch at least 1 minute of the game was considered a result for me. At least it was something positive for me leaving a World Cup behind where I learned the world doesn’t exactly revolve around the United States.

2002: Trying to follow the game I had fallen in love with halfway across the globe.
By the time the 2002 World Cup rolled around, the game had overtaken my life. Thankfully having a job where I could get the internet made following the game a little easier. Granted it was only dial up, but for me, at least it was something.
That said, still following this competition was torture. Having a full time job, I woke up early every morning I could and just saw the results. Seeing that the United States had beaten Portugal gave me hope. Advancing out of the group stage had me joyous, when we beat Mexico in the round of 16, I celebrated at work for a long time.
However, the 2002 World Cup will be most remembered by me for what happened in the Quarterfinals. It was a Friday, and the city decided to opening up a part of downtown for the viewing. It was also the first time I remember listening to the local sports talk morning show talking about the World Cup. What was even funnier was hearing David Lamn, the host of that morning show, going absolutely mental when the US was denied a penalty late. It was the first time I thought the sport had a chance in this country, a chance I’m honestly still waiting to see fulfilled.

2006: The World Cup the fan boy in me went away.
Maybe it was over confidence, or the fact I just bought all the hype, but I thought the US squad going into the 2006 FIFA World Cup had a chance to at least equal the result from the 2002 World Cup. When they didn’t win the first game against the Czech’s, something in me finally had to give.
It was after that match that a lot of what I am today as a blogger was formed. It was when I realized that in order for the game to move forward in this country, people had to get brave in this country and start to openly criticize those who run the national team here. Granted, it seems like they don’t give a damn about what we have to say, and only care about the writers who are more fan boy and cheerleader than viewing the sport from a critical eye, but it was something I felt personally needed to be done. It also helped that not long afterwards, I met other people of link mind.
While I was at work listening to the Ghana game, I was not happy about how we were eliminated. But the memory that sticks out to me, other than the shambolic commentary by the lead play by play man during the competition, was listening to Argentina/Germany at work on BBC Five Live. Since Wimbledon was going on, they completely forgot to geo block the game and listening to the penalty shootout was something that put a smile on my face for the rest of the afternoon.

What will be different for me this time? Well for starters, it’s the first World Cup I’ll be putting my opinions out in the forefront from start to finish. It will also be the first time I don’t watch the competition as a fan, but instead do so from my now typical critical eye. But I think what will be different for me this time around will be the fact I will be doing something that four years ago I never thought I would be doing…writing on the sport I love during the sport’s biggest event, and having fun along the way.

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The Third Half's World Cup Plan

25 May 2010

South African soccer supporters have their photograph taken with the World Cup trophy at the launch of the South Africa FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa 07 May 2010. (Credit Image: © EPA/ZUMApress.com)
Something finally happened to me tonight just moments before kickoff of the US National Team friendly against the Czech Republic: I finally got pumped up about this upcoming World Cup in South Africa. Now, yes, its been quiet here at the Third Half since the end of the Premier League season, but that was because of two things. One, I needed time at the end of the season to get the events of the past month out of my system. The other, I was still trying to piece together my own plans for World Cup coverage here at The Third Half.

Well after some planning, and a little asking around, my plan has come together. The following is what I will be doing here at The Third Half with World Cup coverage:

Sunday, May 30th: A post at how the World Cup has evolved for me from my first World Cup in 1994 to now.
Monday, May 31st-Monday, June 7th: My thoughts on each of the 8 groups in the World Cup with how I think each group will eventually play out.
Tuesday, June 8th: My thoughts on how the Round of 16 will play out.
Wednesday June 9th: My thoughts on how the Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Championship match will play out.
Thursday June 10th: My thoughts on the matches on June 11th.
Friday June 11th-The conclusion of the World Cup. My thoughts on each of the day's major talking points from the games played along with my thoughts on the games the following day.

For the duration of the World Cup, the daily previews will be done by two people. Alongside me will be none other than my editor here at The Third Half, Jeffrey Hash. I've decided turn it into a competition between the two of us, along with an additional twist. Using Centsports as our guide, not only will we be giving our thoughts on each game, but what bet would be the safest bet to make in each match. I'll be keeping tally over the course of the World Cup to see which of The Third Half staff can make better predictions over the course of the month long tournament.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will be posting some items over at World Cup Buzz.

I look forward to providing you with my honest, no nonsense opinions and analysis over the course of the next seven weeks. Please don't hesitate over the course of the World Cup to leave comments here on the blog, email me your questions at thethirdhalf@thethirdhalf.net, or follow me on Twitter (you can do that at the top of the page).

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The Europa League Final: Can Roy's Band of Brothers Capture The Prize?

12 May 2010

The Final Challenge' is written on an official UEFA car in front of the HSH Nordbank Arena stadium in Hamburg, Germany. The UEFA Europa League final between Spanish side Atletico Madrid and English side FC Fulham will take place in Hamburg on 12 May 2010. (Credit Image: © EPA/ZUMApress.com)
On Wednesday, the first European continental trophy will be decided as Atletico Madrid, ninth in La Liga, take on Fulham, twelfth place finishers in the Premier League. For Atletico Madrid, this journey started in the fourth qualification round of the Champions League. Fulham, on the other hand, started their Europa League journey back in July. This will be Fulham's nineteenth game in this year's competition.

The longest running storyline of this entire competition has been how Fulham have exceeded expectations getting this far. At first, it would have been nice just to make it to the group stage. Then they were more than happy to make it to the round of thirty-two. Then when they were paired with Shakhtar Donetsk, they figured their journey was over. How wrong they were.

A 3-2 aggregrate win over the last UEFA Cup champions saw Juventus in the round of sixteen. There's no need reminding everyone again of what Clint Dempsey did on that European night at Craven Cottage. Victories over Wolfsburg and Hamburg later, Fulham returns to the place where they drew 0-0 in the semi-finals at.

Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid has been fortunate. I know this is not the time nor the place for this debate, but they should not be here. There is no excuse for UEFA allowing a third place team in the group stage of the Champions League to finish out their European adventure in the second tier of the competition. Sure, the television money says otherwise, but I don't care. It only further weakens this competition more and unjustly punishes those teams who have been in it from the start.

So what does Fulham have to do in order to win? It wouldn't hurt to see Bobby Zamora play from the start. Fulham's defense has to close down Diego Forlan, and Mark Schwarzer is going to have to come up big again. But above all, Fulham have to continue doing what they have done all season, believe in their manager and trust his set up.

Yes, I normally don't go into homer mode here, but I want Fulham to finish this journey. While I'm very fearful of another Sevilla/Middlesbrough final, Roy Hodgeson is more able than McClaren was to adjust and adapt to what Atletico Madrid can throw at them. Above all, Fulham have had the big matches and come through them in this competition this year. To them, this probably feels like just another day at the office. The only difference is this one is for all the marbles.

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McClaren's Roller Coaster Ride Lands Him at Wolfsburg

11 May 2010

German side VfL Wolfsburg have appointed former England manager Steve McClaren coach, reports said on 11 May 2010. McClaren, who has just led FC Twente to the club's first Dutch league title, has agreed a two-year contract with the 2009 Bundesliga champions. (Credit Image: © EPA/ZUMApress.com)
One thing is certain, Steve McClaren loves to do things the hard way.

On Tuesday, the first English manager to win a European title since Sir Bobby Robson confirmed what many had thought, but I was secretly wishing he wouldn't do: join Wolfsburg on a 2 year contract. After a relatively successful time at Middlesbrough, where he won the club's first trophy and made an UEFA Cup final, he fell flat on his face as England manager. He landed at FC Twente in hopes of reviving his managerial career, but ended up doing more than that. In his two season in charge of the Dutch club, he finished runner up in his first season, and won the club's first Dutch Eredivisie title this past season.

Now, McClaren has been given the chance to rebuild Wolfsburg into a potential title winning force. After winning the title two season ago, Wolfsburg's 2009-10 campaign was rather tame. The team won their first two matches of the Bundesliga season, then proceeded to lose their next three on the trot. If that wasn't bad enough, Wolfsburg did not gain a win from November 21st to February 21st; only picking up four points in ten matches during that time, which included a month off for the traditional German winter break. They did close out the season strongly, getting 25 points out of a potential 36, but the damage had already been done. In Europe, Wolfsburg crashed from the Champions League down to the Europa League and were then knocked out in the quarter final stage by Fulham.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that McClaren is leaving Twente at a time where they could guarantee him Champions League football to go off in hopes of building up another side. Twente was about as close to a dream position for him; it was a place where his strength of coaching players fit like a glove. He was able to increase his tactical awareness, and in the process bring the club to heights they never previously achieved. Why not give yourself one more year to enjoy the fruit of your labor while building up your profile through the Champions League and another sustained league run.

But I guess when you are at the peak of your success, and you still feel you have to rehabilitate your career, one has to move on and look for greener pastures. Wolfsburg is an incredible opportunity, but there are some issues McClaren has to quickly address. Can he keep the partnership of Edin Dzeko and Grafite together? Considering some of the offers being rumored for Dzeko, that is going to be a tough ask. The right side of the field needs some work, particularly in the midfield. The defense also needs shoring up after allowing seventeen more goals this season than they did in their title winning campaign. It might not hurt either to see if they either have a reliable number one, or if they need to look for one in the transfer market.

When it's all said and done, I think this move may have come a year too soon. While I understand McClaren wants to eventually build himself up for a move back to the Premier League, and that Wolfsburg will be a good opportunity to show what he has learned from his days in Holland, he will have to put too many pieces back together before this squad is capable of challenging for the Bundesliga title. This is at least a two season rebuilding process. Hopefully Wolfsburg have the patience to see this whole process out. Sadly, I don't see that happening.

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Roy Hodgson Deserves LMA Manager of the Year Award

Fulham manager Roy Hodgson with the LMA Manager of the Year award sponsored by Barclays. (Credit Image: © Action Images/ZUMApress.com)
On Monday, Roy Hodgson was awarded with the League Managers Association Manager of the year award according to LMA Chairman Howard Wilkinson, "by the most significant margin in the history of the award".

To be given this award by his peers throughout all levels of the English League pyramid is quite an accomplishment. While he did not win the Premier League manager of the year (that award went to Harry Redknapp), Hodgson's job at Fulham has been no easy task. From only having five games to save Fulham 2 seasons ago, he guided the team into an Europa League position last season. Having started their Europa League campaign in July, they are now one match away from a trophy no one ever imagined them winning. Add the fact that Fulham's squad is not exactly deep, and it's amazing they have been able to do the things they were this season.

Let's face it, once Fulham decided that winning the Europa League was their top priority, some knives came out of the drawer over their 'team selection' in Premier League matches. While under the current rules I cannot condone what he did, Roy did what he thought was the right thing. It was apparent that they were safely going to be playing Premier League football next season. After their dramatic Juventus victory at Craven Cottage, Fulham still picked up 8 additional points (2 wins and 2 draws) to comfortably finish in twelfth while knocking out Wolfsburg and Hamburg out of Europe in the process.

At the start of July, Fulham would have been more than happy just to make it to the group stage of the Europa League. They also made a respectable run this year in the FA Cup, making the quarter finals. Sure they were knocked out of the Carling Cup in the third round to Manchester City, but you can't have them all.

Let this award given to Hodgson be a lesson for further award winners of the LMA Manager Award winners. Here's hoping future award winners are given the award not just based on the merit of their league campaigns, but because of expectations being exceeded in competitions one wasn't expected to do well in.

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Rafa Benitez: The Biggest 'If' of All

10 May 2010

Liverpool Manager Rafa Benitez (Credit Image: © Imago/ZUMApress.com) 
Now that the Premier League season is over, and everyone has had time to digest Chelsea's title win, two glaring questions continue to persist in my mind. As I take a quicker than usual look at this past Premier League season, tonight I start with some of the issues going on at Liverpool.

I don't think anyone could have expected the season that Liverpool had on the pitch. Between Alberto Aquilani never settling into the side (and now allegedly being up for sale after only one season at the club), an injury to Fernando Torres that saw him miss sixteen games (only playing seven games in 2010), an inability to effectively use Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt as plugs throughout the midfield, and having to mix and match center backs this season did not do wonders for team chemistry. Furthermore, an exit out of the Champions League must not have done wonders for morale as 2009 changed into 2010.

However, the biggest problems at the club continue to be inside the board room. Late into the season, a new chairman was brought in to assist in the selling of the Anfield outfit. As the season rolled on, it was very clear that Tom Hicks and George Gillett never had a true plan on how to move the club forward amongst the pile of debt the club has. That situation got worse when RBS agreed to give Liverpool a six month extension on their loan repayment. The only catch to that, however, is that Liverpool has to be sold by then.

And then there is Rafa Benitez, the manager who has been in the middle of this mess from the start. Depending on the fans you ask, you will get two totally different opinions of the man: the one camp entrenched in the 'let the ownership situation sort itself out and let him continue on as manager of the club', the other believing that his time has come and it is time for him to move on. While it is still unknown if Rafa Benitez will be around as the manager to see out the start of the summer transfer market, it is the biggest question that needs to be answered at Anfield.

While the rumor mill has been rife with speculation over Fernando Torres, and to a smaller degree Steven Gerrard, the speculation surrounding Rafa Benitez is easily the hottest. If it was up to me, Rafa would go. With Anfield out of the Champions League, the club needing to be sold, and a squad that is going to have a different look about it starting next season, it's just time for a fresh start at Anfield.

However, with Rafa Benitez being defiant about his future to the press, no one truly knows what the story will be. If Benitez stays, one has to worry that even with new ownership, it will maintain the status quo until a new manager comes in. If Rafa is sacked, it could be the perfect way for new ownership to start out fresh at Anfield. Considering Tottenham took fourth this season, and Manchester City will again spend in hopes of making the top four next season, Liverpool are going to struggle in getting back into the Champions League places.

Regardless if Rafa is manager or not.

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Chelsea Wins Title: A Day of Two Emotions

09 May 2010

Chelsea's John Terry and Frank Lampard Celebrate with The Barclays Premier League Trophy (Credit Image: © Imago/ZUMApress.com)
Sunday, May 9, 2010. It was a day that should have been a day of joy unspeakable. It was suppose to be the day that I could celebrate another Chelsea title and get the opportunity to do so all day. What I didn't expect was that by 9 pm any and all happiness I had received from the early afternoon was gone.

This final Premier League match day started for me in a way I hadn't experienced since the Manchester United/Chelsea Champions League final: with so many nerves I couldn't think about anything else. I knew it was Wigan Athletic that Chelsea were playing, and after Wigan's 3-1 drubbing of Chelsea earlier in the season, I was expecting another nervy performance with maybe a 1-0 or a 2-1 result. So what that Wigan had given up 47 goals away from the DW Stadium prior to Sunday. So what that Wigan had already lost 9-1 to Tottenham in London earlier this season. All that mattered to me was that Chelsea and the final day of the season never seemed to go well together. Thankfully for my nerves, they were calmed inside the first six minutes, and gone for good just after the half hour when Caldwell was sent off for a stupid red card and Frank Lampard put Chelsea 2-0 ahead.

The second half was a party for me as Chelsea first got over 100 goals, and then saw Didier Drogba get a hat trick. Ashley Cole's goal in the 90th minute may have been a bit much, but when you're in the mood, why not go for it. Yes, by the time the full time whistle blew, I felt bad for Wigan Athletic, but it didn't stop my joy of seeing Chelsea win another Barclays Premier League title. While I wasn't thrilled with Fox Soccer Channel's talking over the trophy celebration (shockingly enough it wasn't FSI's worst crime of the day), watching the trophy being lifted in the air brought tears of happiness.

One would think that after seeing the team I support win the title, nothing could put me in a bad mood. Even I thought nothing could go wrong here. I was sadly mistaken. Nothing could prepare me for the final moments this evening when I left my mom's house saying good bye to my grand dad for the last time. The afternoon was decent for the most part, but as the seconds wound down to leaving, I felt guilty. Seven hours ago, I was celebrating the fact that Chelsea had won the league. At that point, I knew someone who I wasn't all that close to, but cared about alot, was going home to die of inoperable cancer after being told a month ago he only had 3 left to live.

It's times like today that bring me down to earth. It is a reminder to not allow one's emotions to have such extreme highs and lows as all fans of the beautiful game go through during a season (and, on a smaller level, during individual matches). It's yet another reminder to me that while football is a key part of my life, family should always come first and we should cherish ever opportunity we can to enjoy our family's company. Above all, maybe this is my biggest reminder that when putting things in perspective, we should just forget the bad and the ugly in our lives and just remember the good things.

Maybe then, I can enjoy both Chelsea winning the title, and all those fishing trips with my grand dad when I was a kid and not the pain he's going through today.

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Guess Who's Back?

08 May 2010

Well everyone, I've finally learned my lesson. If I'm going to do something, I've got to do it on my own.

I'm not going to lie when I say that I thought Set Piece Analysts would be the last site I wrote for, and that once I was done there I would probably be finished writing for good. However, that plan changed and I no longer write there. At the time, I thought I was done for good, and was already making plans to move on with my life away from the blogging world...

Well I was wrong, as two people weren't going to stand for that, and even went so far as to offer to pay for the domain for this site. To those people, I think you for more or less kicking my backside and more or less saying I'd be doing a disservice by just walking away. That said though, if it wasn't for my editor saying one magical sentence to me, I probably would have walked away. So to Jeff, Kartik and Brian, thank you for more or less saying the right words to me getting me back in the game.

With that said, there is one minor difference to this relaunch of The Third Half. If you noticed, the domain name has changed from thethirdhalf.org to thethirdhalf.net. This was my stupidity as I forgot one minor detail and let the domain expire. Besides, I like the .net name just a little bit better. The RSS feed will remain the same, so subscribe at the top of the page so you know of any new content to the site. Also, if you're Twitter, follow me at the top of the page as I give more thoughts on the game we all love.


As for the few who have already asked me when I'm going to start up a podcast again, I have one simple answer for that. At this time, I have no plans on starting up the podcast again. However, if the site grows to a point I've already figured out in my mind, I will consider bringing the podcast back.

I look forward to providing my opinions on the Premier League, Bundesliga, and the upcoming World Cup. As I have the time, I may add some MLS and NASL coverage here. I may even start writing on the Dutch League as the European continental season gets closer to kicking off.

If you ever want to get in contact with me, I'm an easy person to reach. The email address for the site is thethirdhalf@thethirdhalf.net. I encourage all comments here, the more debate here the merrier. But above all, I look forward to giving you my no nonsense opinions on the sport we all have come to know and love.

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About This Blog

Johnathan Starling, the self proclaimed 'most brutally honest man on the net, dishes out his own unique brand of opinions, and analysis on the Premier League, Bundesliga, and all things US Soccer.

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