This from ESPN Soccernet.com:
In the heart of this city’s bustling shopping district, where locals and tourists move at a pace only New Yorkers would appreciate, flocks of uniformed Polizei stand amid metal barricades, blocking the cobblestone road in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel. Inside, a metal detector and x-ray machine greet lobby visitors. Beyond that, suit-wearing secret-service-esque officials demand passports and World Cup credentials.
Welcome to life on the road for the U.S. men’s soccer team. Here, Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan and the rest of the American team ride in the only World Cup team bus without a flag on its side. Here, streets are closed and traffic rerouted as 20 police vehicles deliver the team bus to and from practice. And here, everyone from team security members to state department officials keep a wary eye on interview sessions.
Try playing with chants of “Osama bin Laden! Osama bin Laden!” raining down, the Americans say. Try getting ready for kickoff with uniformed militia guarding the field holding ready-to-fire machine guns. Try scoring a goal with rocks, batteries and bottles flying toward you. And try falling asleep the night before a match while fans drive by your team hotel, honking horns, setting off cherry bombs and blasting music.
A little extra security for the World Cup in Germany? C’mon. Try being a visiting U.S. soccer player in Central America during World Cup qualifying.
Indeed, the rabid anti-Americanism in many of the World Cup qualifying venues was sometimes frightening to see. There were 115,000 screaming fans in Azteca Stadium last March to watch the USA-Mexico match, during which the chants of “Osama” and “9-1-1” could be heard clearly above raucous din. Although the US was outplayed in a 2-1 loss, the noise didn’t seem to affect the team. In fact, the bitter feelings against the United States may serve to bring the team closer together:
Several players say they thrive on such an “us against the world” mentality. In fact, the team is confident that overcoming the trials and tribulations of qualifying—with a giant red, white and blue target on its back—has helped prepare it for soccer’s grandest stage.
“Anytime you face adversity like that, it’s going to help you grow as a team,” Howard said. “For that 24-hour period, the only thing you can rely on is yourselves and each other. And you have to get points. No matter what is going on around you, you have to steady the ship and make sure everything is right. And that takes a strong mind.”
Said defender Carlos Bocanegra: “When you’re in a situation like that, you stick together all the time. You feel a unity with the guys who go through that with you. And that can only help us.”
Back in the early 90’s when Phil Jackson was coaching the great Michael Jordan-led Bulls teams, the squad was forced out of Chicago Stadium early in the season for a fortnight due to the arrival of the Ringling Brothers Circus in town. Jackson cannily used that 10 game stretch of away games to cement the bonds of team chemistry by emphasizing the “Us versus the world” motif, successfully molding his highly paid and talented professional athletes into a band of brothers. The strategy would payoff in a big way at playoff time as the team ended up winning 6 championships in 8 years.
But Jordan and Company never had to put up with this:
Over the last decade, at matches in Latin American countries such as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica, U.S. players have been pelted with everything from batteries and coins to screws and saliva. In one match, former coach Steve Sampson said his players were bombed with bags of urine and animal blood. In the mid-90s, defender Paul Caligiuri was treated for welts on his back after being sprayed with a chemical substance, presumably acid.
The unwritten and unspoken motto is to expect the unexpected. Lost luggage. Fire alarms at 2 a.m. Bus drivers getting lost. And no running water at the stadium, making postgame showers nothing fancier than pouring a couple bottles of water down your back.
“It’s an experience, to say the least,” said defender Oguchi Onyewu. “Just going into an environment where you are genuinely, passionately hated. It takes a bit of getting used to.”
Will Germany be any different?
Of course, security is tight due to the real threat of a terrorist attack on the team and, by extension, the event itself. No doubt al Qaeda would dearly love to disrupt this event, seeing that it takes place only once every four years and that the eyes of the entire planet are on Germany. Beyond that, if they were able to stop the games, the financial loss to Germany as host country would be huge. And of course, they would prove that although hunted relentlessly over the past 5 years, they can still wreak havoc on the west.
Al Qaeda isn’t the only threat and the United States isn’t the only country at risk during the month long event. Long known as home to the rowdiest fans in the world, it is estimated that 40,000 English football fans will descend on cities where their team’s matches are going to be played, clogging the streets with drunken fans who proudly refer to themselves as “hooligans.” The English themselves have been quick to crack down on the rowdies ever since English club teams were banned from competing in the European Championships from 1986-91 due to riots in the stands and outside of the stadium. And the Germans are going to limit alcohol sales on gameday just to make sure that things don’t get out of hand.
Another potential target would be the Saudi Arabian team. The Saudis have security arrangements almost as stringent as the Americans. And South Korea fears protests from dissidents who live in Europe will target the team’s venues so extra security will be in place for them as well.
Some authorities are most worried about Iran. Given the Iranian President’s statements denying the holocaust, it is feared that protesters could disrupt matches played by the Iranians as well as the real possibility that the re-incarnation of the Nazi party – the NDP - would seek to try and horn in on publicity with their own protests supporting Ahmadinejad’s warped views of history. Up to 6,000 NDP protesters are expected to be at World Cup match venues, plying their hatred. The police are assuring the public that they are ready for them but given the volatile mix of Neo-Nazis and sympathizers with the victims of the Holocaust, anything is possible.
More than 280 security experts from 40 countries are working to make the games a safe and enjoyable experience for the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans who are in Germany for the Cup. Let’s hope they end up being bored out their minds.
The Commissar has a short history lesson on Brazil and the Cup favorites. They include the usual suspects:
After Brazil, there are three other football powerhouses: Argentina, Italy, and Germany. These four countries have won 13 of 17 World Cups (Brazil 5 times). At least one of these four countries has played in all 17 final matches.
The next basic fact is that Europe and South America dominate. Actually, after Brazil and Argentina, the powerful teams are Western European. In rough order, the countries to look out for, after the Big Four are: France, England, Netherlands, and Spain. Beyond that, one could name the Czech Republic (which is in the USâ€™ group), Portugal, Poland, Sweden, or Croatia.
Coach Goran Erikssonn of England says that superstar forward Wayne Rooney is almost ready to go for the Cup which has to put England in the upper tier of favorites to win it all. The youngster has a world of talent but much will depend on his match fitness.
My real “darkhorse” favorite are the French. Blessed with the best striker in the world (in my opinion) Thierry Henry and a stellar defense, the French are also lucky to be in Group G along with Togo, South Korea, and Switzerland. They should hardly have to break a sweat to get out of that Group, perhaps even clinching after two games which would allow them to rest some of their key players in their final prelim match.
I’ll have a Cup preview of my own tomorrow.