Postcards from South Africa
Throughout the 2010 FIFA World Cup, veteran soccer commentator Allen Hop kins will be filing frequent updates and observations to ESPNLA.com.
Monday, July 12
It may have taken me 64 games and a month of unforgettable soccer but I learned quite a few things during the 2010 World Cup. And judging by your responses on Twitter, some of you learned a few things as well.
Follow Allen on Twitter (@AllenAHopkins) and add what you have learned during the 2010 World Cup.
Friday, July 9
MY All 2010 FIFA World Cup team
I could get by on naming a starting eleven but that is the easy way out. Besides a national team coach has to pick 23 for the World Cup and that is much more fun. So that's what I did. Here is my all 2010 FIFA World Cup team, starters in bold.
Iker Casillas (Spain): Seems as if he's been first choice for club and country forever and that is because he has. The Spanish captain survived a tough start to the tournament to guide Spain to first World Cup Final ever. Countless saves and big plays, can't ask for more from your starting goalkeeper.
Maarten Stekelenburg (Netherlands): Diego Forlan beat him on a positioning mistake but Forlan gets everyone is seems at least once, so I am not holding that against him. Besides, starting in a World Cup final is a huge deal. Has eased into the role that was not his when the tournament began.
Manuel Neuer (Germany): Smartest play he made was how well he played off Frank Lampard's disallowed goal. It should not have come to that but give him credit for thinking/acting on his feet. Neuer is not Oliver Kahn but going to be real good for a long time.
Philipp Lahm (Germany). Steady. Dependable. Focused. Poised. I could go on but I don't have to. Lahm could play in four world cup finals at his current pace and form as a first choice defender.
John Mensah (Ghana): Rock hard and reliable in the tackle. Should have captained Africa's first World Cup semifinalist but Gyan and cross bar had other ideas. Strong and uncompromising, tactical awareness is very good.
Maicon (Brazil): Great right back that is clean technically and a great timer of surging runs. Found right balance between defending and attacking making him a star at this position and the nightmare he is for the opposition.
Joris Mathijsen (Netherlands): The Dutch have never been known for their defending but Mathijsen is legit. Has emerged as the team's best defender and seems to get better and better every match as he gets used to being a world-class defender.
Fabio Contreao (Portugal): Love players that come on the scene at World Cup and Contreao burst into the limelight with his energetic runs, one-v-one capabilities and a youthful exuberance you need. Potentially the best Portuguese speaking left back since Roberto Carlos (Brazil).
Carles Puyol (Spain): I didn't like his body language when substituted before end of game during the quarterfinal win over Paraguay but stunning game winning header in semis against Germany more than makes up for it. Always accepted as Barcelona's own, finally has love of all of Spain (except the real die hard Real Madrid fans who don't like the national team no matter what they do).
Lionel Messi (Argentina): I don't care if he did not score a goal on 30 shots at the 2010 World Cup. Says quite a bit that Argentina got as far as it did without Messi in goal-scoring form. Messi is still the best player in the world and will always have a place in my team.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany): I covered him during his first Bundesliga appearance many moons ago and he has turned his potential into a polished product. Came into his own in South Africa and has yet to hit his prime.
Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands): Besides the 5 goals, a real engine for the Oranje. Thriving in the big moment. Turning out to be a real winner, could win Champions League and World Cup in same year, a rare feat without a doubt.
Mark Van Bommel (Netherlands) Every team needs a hard man and no one has been harder in midfield than Van Bommel. Strong as ox in tackle, clean on ball recovery. Great timing and awareness, takes incredible angles in transition defense to stop attacks. MVB is simply a must in any winning team.
Robinho (Brazil): I still love his game and he has become a workman on the wing. Love his pace with and without the ball and his moves still breaks ankles. Great complimentary goal scorer to any attack.
Landon Donovan (USA): I like Hollywood style endings and Landon's moment against Algeria is as big an individual moment at the 2010 World Cup. LD is in the form of his life and once and for all earned consensus as the best American player ever.
Xavi (Spain): Love the way he runs the game, constant motion, tremendous vision and running off the ball makes him the best central midfielder in the world. Every central midfielder can learn from Xavi.
Xavi Alonso (Spain): Ditto as above. The engine of Spain seems to be locked in at all times. You could throw out lots of superlatives for the player that could be the team MVP in South Africa.
Mesut Ozil (Germany): His game and gifts seem suited for the "new German style". Ozil has pace, a clean first touch, explosive bursts, just a great wide attacking talent with the world at his feet.
Forwards (5) Diego Forlan (Uruguay): Does whatever it takes to help his team win. Finally get his deserved credit after basking in World Cup glory. Takes all kicks for Uruguay, scores all the best goals and seems to be the best teammate in the world. David Villa (Spain): Spanish insiders have been clamoring for Villa to take the mantle from Torres and he has with a stunning display in South Africa. Love his ability to operate in a free but discipline role as a scoring winger. Villa created countless plays on and off the ball to guide Spain to their first World Cup final. Luis Suarez (Uruguay): Makes most memorable play in World Cup history but should not over shadow his nose for goals. Makes teams pay for leaving him unmarked, which is harder than people think. Ruthless poacher a quality all great goal-scorers possess. Miroslav Klose (Germany): Second most World Cup goals all time. If you said Miroslav Klose you are the winner. Big game scorer and there are no bigger games than World Cup games. Scores the hustle goals you need a striker to get. Klose has a complete game with a willingness to work hard on and off the ball. Could become World Cup's all-time scorer. Carlos Tevez (Argentina): His work rate is outstanding and scored some key goals. Tevez is dynamic in small spaces, explosive over distance with a powerful shot, all great qualities. Tevez does well with limited chances. Other Awards: Goal(s) of the tournament: Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (Netherlands): Captain of team hits left footed bomb in World Cup semifinal. Can't ask for more than that. Kids around the world will be emulating that shot in the backyard for a long time. Siphiwe Tshabalala (South Africa): As worthy an opening goal at World Cup as you will ever see. Tshabalala's left-footed strike to ring in the World Cup will stand the test of time. David Villa (Spain). Loved the first goal he scored in the tournament against Honduras and the 40-yarder versus Chile. Header: Juan (Brazil). Love Puyol's power header, also like Sneijder's nod after flick vs. Brazil but Juan's clinical header against Chile was the best, textbook. Free-kick: Keisuke Honda (Japan) vs. Denmark: His 30-yard free kick was superb, hard to top it in South Africa.
Diego Forlan (Uruguay): Does whatever it takes to help his team win. Finally get his deserved credit after basking in World Cup glory. Takes all kicks for Uruguay, scores all the best goals and seems to be the best teammate in the world.
David Villa (Spain): Spanish insiders have been clamoring for Villa to take the mantle from Torres and he has with a stunning display in South Africa. Love his ability to operate in a free but discipline role as a scoring winger. Villa created countless plays on and off the ball to guide Spain to their first World Cup final.
Luis Suarez (Uruguay): Makes most memorable play in World Cup history but should not over shadow his nose for goals. Makes teams pay for leaving him unmarked, which is harder than people think. Ruthless poacher a quality all great goal-scorers possess.
Miroslav Klose (Germany): Second most World Cup goals all time. If you said Miroslav Klose you are the winner. Big game scorer and there are no bigger games than World Cup games. Scores the hustle goals you need a striker to get. Klose has a complete game with a willingness to work hard on and off the ball. Could become World Cup's all-time scorer.
Carlos Tevez (Argentina): His work rate is outstanding and scored some key goals. Tevez is dynamic in small spaces, explosive over distance with a powerful shot, all great qualities. Tevez does well with limited chances.
Goal(s) of the tournament: Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (Netherlands): Captain of team hits left footed bomb in World Cup semifinal. Can't ask for more than that. Kids around the world will be emulating that shot in the backyard for a long time.
Siphiwe Tshabalala (South Africa): As worthy an opening goal at World Cup as you will ever see. Tshabalala's left-footed strike to ring in the World Cup will stand the test of time.
David Villa (Spain). Loved the first goal he scored in the tournament against Honduras and the 40-yarder versus Chile.
Header: Juan (Brazil). Love Puyol's power header, also like Sneijder's nod after flick vs. Brazil but Juan's clinical header against Chile was the best, textbook.
Free-kick: Keisuke Honda (Japan) vs. Denmark: His 30-yard free kick was superb, hard to top it in South Africa.
Sunday, June 27
IRENE, South Africa -- A day after the heartbreaking, 2010 World Cup-ending defeat to Ghana, the U.S. team began the process of answering tough questions before Brazil 2014.
"We have a pretty empty feeling right now," coach Bob Bradley said. "Coming out of the first round, we felt there was a real opportunity to do something special, a real chance of doing something better."
He added: "On the night, Ghana had three great chances and scored twice. They did very well to take advantage of those opportunities."
Over the course of the four games, the U.S. held the lead for all of only two minutes -- a fact not lost on Bradley.
"We were the team constantly pushing the game and we did a very good job of that," he said. "The energy and commitment to keep going is going to be tested. In the moments when we had attacking advantages, the final pass, the timing of the play, the final touch wasn't as good as it needed to be and that is because over the course of our four games, guys have physically just been pushed."
"We already pushed the limits to get back to 1-1 and I thought we had a real chance of getting the second goal and win it regulation."
Forward thinking: While the U.S. struggled defensively, allowing early goals in three of its four matches in South Africa and posting only one shutout in its last 14 matches, the U.S. forwards equally struggled. The team went 390 minutes without a goal from a striker at the 2010 World Cup. "Goals decide matches. Anyone who follows the game around the world would know that is still the greatest challenge in the game," Bradley said. "It's an area where we do need to improve."
What's next? Perhaps the biggest question surrounds the future of Bradley, who in almost four years in charge, helped the U.S. to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and also to its first World Cup group win since 1930.
"At this moment there have not been any conversations," Bradley said. "There is always a process with any situation where both sides probably need time. I have always enjoyed new challenges. I have said from Day One that I consider it a tremendous honor to coach" the national team.
Bradley added, "At this point it is too soon after the final whistle. So I don't have anything more to say other than in the future there will be more discussions."
Thursday, June 24th
from Irene, South Africa
Bradley's gamble pays: With the USMNT needing a complete 90-minute performance, especially from the defense, to keep their 2010 World Cup alive, head coach Bob Bradley gambled and essentially started a new back four in front of goalkeeper Tim Howard in the most important match of the year.
Bradley said the changes were made because he thought it was important to have both outside backs be active and felt Jonathan Bornstein's fresh legs and energy would help, while factoring in Oguchi Onyewu's lack of form and fitness.
From Tim Howard's perspective he felt the defending was incredible in terms of the spots they took up on crosses, the clearances they made, and the tight marking. When I asked him if expects to the see the same starting back four in front of him Saturday in Rustenburg vs. Ghana, after getting the team's first shutout since last September in World Cup qualifying, he said "yes". Adding, "Sometimes you don't know how things play out with injuries and coaches decisions but I am hopefully all the good things we did can continue."
A fun bus ride: There are few things quite like a team bus ride home after a big win. The memories I have riding a song filled bus in high school from Fairview High School in Boulder, CO back to Aurora (just outside Denver) after a huge upset with in the high school soccer playoffs will stay with me forever. So I can only imagine what the USMNT's bus ride was like so I asked Landon Donovan what the trip back to Irene from Pretoria was Wednesday night after the victory over Algeria.
"It was fun, chants, songs, the whole deal. It was really fun," Landon said. Adding, "yet at the same time it was subdued because we know there is more in us. And now we have an incredible opportunity to do something, real, real special. It's all there."
Landon also talked about the reaction back at home, "I was watching this morning in our media room all the celebrations on YouTube back home in the bars and stuff and it is amazing. I loved watching it."
More World Cup coverage from ESPN L.A.
• Check out Allen Hopkins' countdown to the tournament, including player interviews and scenes from Johannesburg, as well as his observations from Week 1 of the event.
• Also check out Dave Denholm's World Cup podcasts, Cobi Jones' commentary and Jonathan Bornstein's World Cup diary, only on ESPNLA.com.
Twitter and Facebook have been filled with messages and comments from high-profile athletes and entertainers showing their support of the USMNT. However, one of the most moving pieces of communication came from a U.S. troop serving overseas.
Lance Corporal Nate Bickel sent the team an email shortly after the teams' dramatic win against Algeria that clearly moved the team. And as a proud Army brat, it moved me as well.
Bickel wrote, "My unit here in Helmand Province, Afghanistan wanted you to know the Kilo Company 3d Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment couldn't be more proud of the U.S. National Team and were excited every time we can hear about the games since we don't have the luxury of TV here. Keep fighting!"
And fight on is exactly what the team will do in their round of 16 meeting Saturday with Ghana, the team that knocked them out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Wednesday, June 23
Marshall Allman, who plays Tommy Mickens in the HBO series "True Blood," has a strong soccer background and has been playing close attention to this year's tournament.
Here is a quick Q&A with him.
Allen Hopkins: Explain your connection to the game?
Marshall Allman: It has been a big part of my life for 16, 17 years. I played since I was 2 or 3 practicing with my brother's team that was three years older. I started playing rec league soccer and then with a select club. From there I started playing ODP (Olympic Development Program) and state team. My main club team growing up was the Capitals. I particularly loved my time at regional camp where I played against some great players like Eddie Johnson and Justin Mapp.
AH: What do you love about soccer and what captures your curiosity time and time again?
MA: I just love the game. It is a well-rounded game about the players and they control the outcomes. The more skill you have, the more freedom you have to express yourself. It is a physical gauntlet. If football is like chess, then soccer is like the game 'Go.'
AH: I recently did an appearance with Alexi Lalas and Mario Kempes and part of the time was spent talking about the U.S.-Colombia game in USA '94. I was at that match and found my tickets in a trunk in the attic. I will always remember that day and game, what is your favorite World Cup memory?
MA: I would have to say USA '94 as well. I actually have Colombian in-laws and we always talk about that. That World Cup means so much to me. Also the shining moment I hold onto is the U.S. win over Brazil. We were such underdogs and to play that well with that 'don't tread on me' vibe, it will always stay with me.
AH: How do you think the U.S. team will do?
MA: After the Confederations Cup I was so hyped. I thought I might have a heart attack during the U.S.-Brazil game. With all the players moving to big clubs after the Confederations Cup like [Oguchi] Onyewu to AC Milan and [Landon] Donovan to Everton I feel now we are road tested so to speak. I am really excited about Landon as he has an edge to his game he did not have before. We have the best chance we have had in a while. I have a feeling like I did in 2002. Anything can happen in a tournament when the tournament takes on a whole new life of its own. I like Bob Bradley's approach. He has brought in so many different players and given them the opportunity to be internationals. It is going to have a positive ripple effect to the youth.
Tuesday, June 22
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon is a native of Haiti and a soccer fan, and has been among the celebrities caught up in the World Cup.
Here is a quick Q&A with him.
Allen Hopkins: What is your connection to soccer?
Pierre Garcon: Being from Haiti, soccer is the country's national sport. My brother in-law played for the Haitian national team back in the day. And I played in middle school and the way through high school. And I still have my soccer skills. I have my soccer ball in my locker that I play with all the time. I am just a big, big fan.
AH: What soccer skills have helped you on the field as a NFL wide receiver?
PG: The footwork and the conditioning for sure, you have to have them in both soccer and in the NFL. You have to have great feet to juggle a soccer ball and things like that and the same can be said for football, as you need good feet to get in and out of cuts and run good routes.
AH: How much do you anticipate your Colts teammates, including Peyton Manning to get wrapped up and caught up in 2010 World Cup fever?
PG: Man, we already started our World Cup pool [big laugh]. Me, Austin [Collie] and Gonzo [Anthony Gonzalez] we watch soccer all the time, along with a couple of other guys. I got Brazil, Gonzo has Spain and Collie has Argentina so we are trying to see who will come out on top in our little side action. I know Peyton [Manning] is going to be on the World Cup bandwagon. I asked him who is going for and he said, USA all the way without a doubt.
AH: What are your plans for watching the World Cup?
PG: I got my Brazil jersey all ready to go [laugh]. I am going to watch as much as possible and a few of us are going to watch games together which is always fun. Part of the time I will be in Florida and then I will be in Indy for the second half of the tournament. I will be glued to the TV, especially when Brazil is playing. It is must see TV.
AH: OK, so Brazil is your team, why?
PG: Coming up in Haiti, Brazil is the Haitian national team. We love Brazil, always have. Every Haitian loves Brazil and when they came a few years ago to play a friendly it was a true national event. Even today when I watch the YouTube clips of their trip, I am still amazed. You grow up loving Brazil and it is obvious why. It is a beautiful thing to watch when they are playing.
AH: As your country is rebuilding after the January earthquake, how important is soccer in the healing process?
PG: Soccer is an escape for all the pain and suffering they are still going through right now. When they play, that is probably when they are the happiest. When they are playing they don't think about anything else, which is great as they rebuild.
Monday, June 21
JOHANNESBURG -- The worlds of entertainment and sports have always been connected. Actors and singers have always wanted to be athletes and we know athletes have always longed to be connected to music, television and film. And the 2010 FIFA World Cup is no different. As the world's game captivates the world, it also captures the attention of many of the top athletes and entertainers.
Here is a quick Q&A I did with John Ondrasik, the lead singer of the group Five for Fighting.
Allen Hopkins: What is your favorite World Cup memory?
John Ondrasik: Attending the U.S.-Romania match at the Rose Bowl in 1994
AH: How do you think the U.S. team will do?
JO: I think we'll get out of the first group. After that it's a roll of the dice. As we've seen over the last decade the U.S. can be competitive with anybody. But can we put it together for a long run? Hope so.
AH: What is your favorite soccer moment?
JO: Watching my 5-year-old score a goal two minutes into his first-ever soccer game.
AH: There is always talk about entertainers wanting to be athletes and vice versa, why do you think that is? And who has the better lifestyle, a music superstar or soccer superstar?
JO: Sports and music are both escapes. As a musician, sports is my place to get away from reality. Rock stars have a better lifestyle, as they are never faced with a penalty kick with the pressure of a nation on their shoulders.
AH: If you could be any soccer player, who would it be and why?
JO: That dude [Marco Matterrazi] whom [Zinedine] Zidane head-butted. It's always fun to bring down the French.
Monday, June 21
PRETORIA, South Africa -- Roughly 100 media members gathered at a local high school Monday looking for hard answers to tough questions caused by some controversial referring decisions in the 2010 World Cup. But instead, FIFA offered only an inside look at the referees' preparations for World Cup matches.
The referees and assistant referees went through about 60 minutes' worth of training on two fields. The training, led by U.S. referee Esse Baharmast -- one of the top FIFA referee instructors -- included conditioning, working on offside calls with instant video analysis to see if the correct call was made, and also work on how to handle rough play in the penalty box complete with hard fouls and dissent.
FIFA also piped in crowd noise (including the ubiquitous vuvuzelas) recorded at an earlier World Cup match over speakers to better prepare the referees to be able to communicate effectively through the loud din of noise at the various stadiums.
The head of FIFA officials, Jose-Maria Garcia-Aranda, did answer questions for about 15 minutes, but nothing specific about individual officiating performances or which referees would be retained as the tournament progresses. When asked why the referees do not explain their decisions after matches, Aranda said, "Our job is to prepare the referees for matches, not prepare them to explain their decisions afterwards."
As for the most asked for and talked about referee so far at the 2010 World Cup, Koman Coulibaly, who was in charge of the U.S.-Slovenia match, he was not there, and a FIFA spokesman told me it was strictly because of scheduling, not for any conspiracy theories.
Also absent was Frenchman Stephane Lannoy, who was in charge of Sunday's Brazil-Ivory Coast match. Lannoy missed two clear chances to call a handball on Brazilian forward Luis Fabiano's winning goal and was badly duped into sending off Brazilian midfielder Kaka late in the match.
FIFA did announce Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere is the man in the middle for the U.S.'s group finale against Algeria on Wednesday at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria.