Tag Archives: Spain

The Greatest Sporting Event on Earth

The 2014 FIFA World Cup opened yesterday with host Brazil coming away victorious with a 3-1 result over Croatia.

Every four years, national teams from around the world meet in what has become by far the world’s most-watched and followed sporting event.

While American football and baseball are king here in the sports-crazed USA, it is “football”, or what we here call “soccer”, that is king most everywhere else on Earth. It is estimated that 48% of the globe’s population watched some portion of the 2010 World Cup, won that year by Spain in South Africa.

The host nation, Brazil in this year’s case, receives an automatic invitation to the tournament. But to reach the World Cup, the 206 other national teams play a series of qualifying matches in their geographical section of the world, known as “federations” in soccer-speak, during the preceding couple of years.

The results of these regional federation qualifying tournaments enable another 31 nations to qualify for the actual World Cup tournament. The whole system is run under the FIFA umbrella, the world’s ruling and governing body for the sport.

After decades of lagging behind the rest of the planet, the U.S. has finally begun to take the sport more seriously. Over the last couple of decades the American men have become a legitimate force in “the beautiful game”, with the women already a dominating presence.

The U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) competes in the federation known as CONCACAF, short for the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. They have qualified now for 6 straight World Cups, hosted the 1994 edition, and are currently ranked 14th in the world.

There have been a handful of great results for the team. In the 1930 World Cup, they reached the semi-finals and finished in 3rd place, the best-ever finish for the USMNT. The next great moment came in 1950, when they defeated heavily favored England 1-0 in a group match. It would be 40 more years before the men again qualified, but have been regular participants since 1990.

In more recent World Cup appearances, the 2002 USMNT reached the quarter-finals, finally falling to a powerful and experienced Germany, the eventual tourney runners-up, by just 1-0. In 2010, they finished with a 1-1-2 record, but were eliminated in the round-of-16 by Ghana in a frustrating 2-1 defeat.

The World Cup tournament begins by dividing the 32 qualifiers into 8 groups of 4 teams each. The top 8 teams in the world are placed in separate Groups, and the others all randomly drawn. In this ‘Group’ stage, the teams play each of the others in their Group, with the top 2 finishers advancing to the round-of-16.

Those top 2 finishers in each Group now qualify for what is known as the “Knockout” stage, where you either win, or you get knocked out of the tournament. Teams cannot play others from their previous Group stage unless they meet in the Final.

The national teams seeded 1-8 as the top seeds in each Group this time around, are: Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, and Switzerland. The U.S. was drawn into ‘Group G’, a particularly tough one that includes Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Three clear patterns have emerged in World Cup history. First, no team from outside of South America has ever won a World Cup held in the Americas. Second, the beaten team in the Final in each of those American tourneys has been from Europe. Finally, in 19 tourneys, any “top-tier” host country has finished among the final three on 11 occasions, boding well for top-tier hosts Brazil.

The current favorites among odds-makers to emerge from the 8 Groups are: Group A – Brazil & Croatia, Group B – Spain & Netherlands, Group C – Colombia & Ivory Coast, Group D – Italy & Uruguay, Group E – Switzerland & France, Group F – Argentina & Bosnia, Group G – Germany & Portugal, Group H – Belgium & Russia.

You may have noticed a pair of notable omissions from the odds-makers favorites to advance from the Group stage. The United States is not there, and neither is England, where the game is the national past time and passion, and home to the Premier League, the top-rated professional league in the world.

The USMNT is picked to finish 3rd in their Group G, behind both Germany and Portugal. The Germans are obvious favorites for the Group as the #2-rated team in the world. But despite being ranked 13th and Portugal ranked just behind at 14th, the odds-makers have made the Portuguese, led by one of the world’s top players in Cristiano Ronaldo, slight favorites to slip past the Americans and out of the Group stage.

If all goes according to form in Group G, the Germans will advance without too much trouble. The 2nd team to move on will come from a scrum between the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. The results of games among those teams will be pivotal. Ghana has become an American nemesis, eliminating the USMNT with 2-1 victories in both the 2006 Group stage and the 2010 round-of-16.

Between now and the 2014 World Cup Final to be held in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th, the drama will unfold, first in those Group stages, and then through the three Knockout stages, until one nation is left standing, it’s players holding aloft the gold World Cup Trophy as the citizens and fans of that nation party in the streets.

And also between now and the Final, approximately half of the population on the planet will tune in to the matches on television. From the frozen tundra of Antarctica to the African desert, from the war-ravaged Middle East to the Far East of Japan. From pubs in England and Ireland to American homes across our own country, support will come for the national teams, and even if eliminated, interest will continue all the way through.

The soccer World Cup is simply the greatest sporting even on Earth. As much as I personally love baseball and as big an event as the World Series is here in America, and even recognizing the growing global interest in the Super Bowl, perhaps the planet’s most-hyped single day sporting event, the scope and impact of the World Cup cannot be denied.

If you are a soccer fan, you don’t need me to sell you on this tournament. If you are just a casual sports fan, try to tune in at some point. Many of the games will be covered on TV here in the United States by the ESPN and ABC networks. Here is the schedule for Group stage matches involving the USMNT:

Monday, June 16th, 6pm: Ghana
Sunday, June 22nd, 6pm: Portugal
Thursday, June 26th, 12pm: Germany

The Haitian Mess

One week ago today on Tuesday, January 12th at 4:53pm local time, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale rumbled from 6 miles under the Caribbean island of Hispaniola not far from the capital city of Port-au-Prince in the nation of Haiti.

Widespread damage and massive death resulted almost immediately, and as the ensuing week has passed the death toll estimates have risen into the hundreds of thousands. It was the worst quake to strike at Haiti in over two centuries, and is going to prove to be one of the largest natural disasters in human history.

There is a story here that is being mostly buried under the literal rubble that is now the nation of Haiti. It is a story that most humanitarians would say is secondary at this stage to the human loss and suffering. They are correct on one level. Help is needed, massive amounts of help, and it is needed quickly.

But that story needs to be told as well, because it tells the story of a nation that was a complete mess even before the earthquake struck. It is a story of a nation run by criminal gangs and thugs with little or no national authority. It is a cautionary tale about allowing anarchy to take hold and destroy lives.

For those who are not aware of the basic facts, Haiti makes up the western end of the island of Hispaniola which it shares with it’s neighbor on the east side, the Dominican Republic. The island is approximately 700 miles southeast of Florida.

It was on December 5th, 1492 that Christopher Columbus landed in the ‘New World’ at Hispaniola and claimed the island for Spain. The island was already inhabited at that time by a native tribe known as the Taino. Over the next couple of hundred years the Spanish continued to develop the island, and also began importing African slaves.

In the late 17th century, French buccaneers began to settle the west side of the island which would later become Haiti, and pirates used Hispaniola regularly thereafter due to it’s strategic location in the Caribbean. Famed French pirate Jean Lafitte, who frequently operated off the southern United States, was born here in 1782. John Audubon, the famed French-American ornithologist for whom today’s nature society is named, was born in what is now Haiti in 1785.

The Spanish and French fought for control of the island, and in 1697 signed a treaty that gave the French control of the western end which they named Saint-Domingue. They brought in thousands of African slaves who made possible the French settlers wealth in the coffee, sugar and indigo industries.

In 1791 a revolution of sorts began to break out among the slaves, which was inspired itself by the French Revolution. The French tried to maintain control by abolishing slavery, and a former slave took over the reigns of governmental power for the first time.

Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to retake control and reinstitute slavery a few years later. These efforts proved not only fruitless but disastrous, as more than 50,000 French troops were lost in the efforts. On January 1st, 1804, the slaves formally declared independence and renamed their nation as Haiti, thus becoming the only nation ever born directly of a slave revolt.

In July of 1825, France again tried to reconquer the island. This time the Haitian government did not fare so well, and was forced to negotiate a peace that allowed it to retain its independence and name, but at the cost of financially reimbursing France for what it deemed were lost slave wage profits.

In the aftermath of this deal with France the Haitian government lost support and in 1843 was removed in a coup. This began a string of dozens of such governmental coups over the ensuing century and a half, leading right up to today.

In 2004, the latest coup removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the United Nations has been trying to restore order ever since.

Haiti is a nation with a supposed political structure, but which in actuality was being run on a day-to-day practical level by gangs, some organized and some not, but all violent in nature. These gangs divert or hijack any material aid sent to the country by well-meaning humanitarian groups, with only the Brazilian-led U.N. mission keeping any semblance of order.

It was the mess of a nation called Haiti, a nation that really didn’t need any more trouble heaped upon it, that was devastated last week. But the real fact is that Haiti’s 10 million people were already living under intolerable, unmanageable circumstances long before the earthquake.

In the aftermath of the quake, the United States has been requested to come to the rescue and provide security for the massive undertaking that will be the rescue, relief, stabilization, and recovery operation that will be going on in the country over the coming months and years.

With a little luck and a lot of sustained American intervention, it is possible that what is reborn of Haiti can actually be better than what came before, and can provide the Haitian people with stability and an opportunity at having a real society that is free and safe for all it’s citizens, not just the elite few or the street-wise strongmen that were contributing to its ruin long before the earthquake.

Islamism Series: Our Grandchildren’s Grandchildren

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a highly educational presentation by an American law enforcement professional that largely covered the topic of responding to a bombing or other terrorist attack in our city.

The individual presenting the class has been all over the world, particularly the hot spots in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South America, aiding in their responses to such incidents.

Perhaps most importantly, he was also gaining an education and making vital contacts that would keep him abreast on the latest information from those far-flung locales regarding updated terrorist activities, attacks, and tactics.

One of the statements that he made that I found most compelling is something that I have believed for a long time. That no matter who is elected to become the next President of the United States, no matter whether we ‘bring the troops home’ or remain committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly expand the current conflict into Iran eventually, this is not a war that is going to end any time soon.

His simple statement was this:

“Your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be fighting this war.”

He had a very simple, straightforward reason for making this statement. The Islamists with whom we are at war have no intention of stopping until Islam is in control of the entire world.

War has been declared on us over a decade ago. Our nation was directly attacked, and has had repeated attempted attacks on it. Our allies have been and are being attacked regularly.

Spain is the perfect example of how they intend to win. On March 11th, 2004, the Islamists bombed trains in Madrid, immediately resulting in 191 killed and over 1,800 wounded. They demanded that Spain pull out of Iraq, and told the Spanish people that they would pay for their governments involvement.

Out of this fear, Spaniards went to the polls in elections held shortly after the bombings and voted out the democratic government, voting in a Socialist government that pulled Spain’s troops.

The Islamists had effected a coup d’etat, installed a sympathetic government to their cause, and cowed a member of the European Union. They had knocked a government with close ties to the U.S. out of power, and effectively ordered it replaced with one that is antagonistic towards America. Thanks to the fear of the Spanish people, the Islamists won a great victory.

The victory became complete when this summer the Spanish courts tossed out more convictions, including of the mastermind of the attacks. His raised to 11 the number who have been acquitted, with a number of others receiving extremely lenient sentences.

The Islamists have incited riots in the suburbs of Paris, and attacked London as well, and are well on their way to creating an almost riotous situation across all of Europe.

What will likely happen on the European continent over the next few years and decades could make the 9/11 attacks look paltry by comparison.

They saw how we reacted to 9/11 by sending out troops overseas and lighting up their world, including overthrowing the Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan and the tyrannical regime of Sadaam Hussein in Iraq.

The Islamists find the response of the Europeans much softer, and so for now will simply be happy with turning their attention to slowly overwhelming our allies, who have proven to be far more soft.

The hard fact seems to be that the American people, at least right now, don’t have the stomach to win the war being fought. They understandably want peace, a return to a time when American soldiers weren’t in harms way, and when everyone can just sit down and talk out our differences.

The unfortunate reality is that the other side in this battle doesn’t want that, and will fight to the death. Because we may be unwilling to make the significant sacrifices now that it will take to overcome this global threat, we are likely to pay even greater costs in the generations to come.

I have two grandchildren now. My grandson was just born on August 1st of this year. It is highly likely that he, or his children, or his grandchildren, my grandchildren’s grandchildren, will be fighting a much bloodier and far broader war at some future time because today’s generation was unwilling to go all the way to victory.

NOTE: This is the continuation of my regular feature ‘Islamism Series’. At the bottom of this entry, you can click on the Tag of that name to read the prior entries.

The Pamplona Encierro

It’s that time of year again, time for the famous ‘Running of the Bulls’ through the streets of Pamplona, Spain. 

This is the highest profile event of an annual 9-day festival of ‘San Fermin‘, which begins each year at noon on July 6th and runs through midnight on July 14th

Saint Fermin is a Catholic saint who is the patron saint of the city of Pamplona. He was said to have been martyred by having his body drug through the streets by bulls. 

The current festival has it’s roots in a secular festival previously held in June, and later moved to September, known as the Sanfermines

The bull runs began in the area as far back as the 13th century. Cattle merchants would come to town for commercial festivals to celebrate the beginning of summer, and bullfights became central to the celebrations. 

The runs custom traces it’s origins back to the process of transporting bulls from their off-site corrals to the bullring for those bullfights. During this process, youngsters would jump in among the bulls as they were being moved in order to show their bravery. The celebration was finally formally established to the month of July in 1592. 

In 1926, Ernest Hemingway introduced his famous novel “The Sun Also Rises” based on the event, and it subsequently exploded in popularity around the world. 

What is now known as the Pamplona Encierro, or The Running of the Bulls, begins at 8am sharp with the firing of a rocket to announce that the bulls have been released from their corral. The narrow streets are blocked off with wood and metal barricades to keep the six bulls and six steers running in a ‘chute’-type style towards a predetermined destination. 

The runners traditionally dress in white shirts and pants with red waistbands and neckerchiefs. There is a tradition that touching one of the bulls during the run brings luck, and many still try this, but it is illegal and the authorities do fine some people. 

There are various outlets for participants to escape should they find themselves in a dangerous predicament. Since records began being kept in 1924, fifteen people have been killed in the event. The most recent to be gored to death by a bull was a 20-year old American tourist in 1995. You want to run next year? 

You only need to be 18-years old, pick out a street to run on, and get into the crowd at the appointed time. There are any number of outlets packaging vacations to the Pamplona area during this time. 

But remember, while it can be exhilarating and is a life-event about which you can brag, the event is inherently dangerous, and foolish or reckless behavior can easily get you hurt. And that’s no bull.