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Local soccer fans will be devising creative excuses for missing work this month, playing hookie to watch the European soccer championships. Meanwhile, the U.S. men’s national team begins World Cup qualifiers while the women’s team continues tune-ups in advance of the Olympics. We talk about intriguing soccer story lines–on and off the pitch–that will be making headlines this summer.
- Steven Goff Reporter, Washington Post
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MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's one of the great rituals of summer soccer. Every two years fans around Washington play hooky from work and navigate strange time zones to watch the beautiful game at its highest level. This year is the Euro 2012 Soccer Championships. Legendary national rivalries are being rekindled, intriguing new storylines are playing out in Poland and Ukraine. And even though the games are taking place thousands of miles away and airing in the middle of the day, local fans are using it as an excuse to enjoy a cold beer and a great soccer game with like-minded fans at soccer bars around Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday also marks an important game for the United States men's soccer team, a world cup qualifier in Guatemala. But unlike the European games you probably won't be seeing that one on TV. Joining us to discuss all of this is Mr. Steven Goff. He's a soccer reporter with the Washington Post. He also writes the Soccer Insider blog on washingtonpost.com. He joins us by telephone. Steve Goff, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. STEVEN GOFFIt's a privilege and an honor to be with you.
NNAMDIWhere are you?
GOFFI'm in Washington. I am not in Poland. I'm not in Ukraine. I wish I were, but (unintelligible) for that matter...
NNAMDII hear you...
GOFF...but I'll be watching on pay-per-view tonight just like many other U.S. fans.
NNAMDITalk about a stadium rat. I heard you in the parking lot at RFK Stadium.
GOFFYeah, (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIHe's a stadium rat.
GOFFYou know, things happen and, yeah, everything's okay now.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for joining us anyway. For all fans of soccer, the European championships are probably the second most anticipated global competition behind World Cup. It's a relatively small competition, only 16 teams. And it features all of the traditional global soccer power houses with the exception of Brazil and Argentina. Yesterday England played France to a one hour draw. On Sunday defending champion Spain played Italy. What have been the most intriguing storylines thus far, Steve?
GOFFWell, I think certainly the host teams -- the eye is always bon the host teams, how they'll perform. Can they keep their fan happy? You know, there's a lot of pressure on a host team to advance. And, you know, right now that's -- that can be a little tricky for these teams, Ukraine and Poland which aren't traditional powers. Ukraine got a great result yesterday and you just saw the outpouring of emotions in the country after this result against Sweden. So that's kind of where you start.
GOFFAnd then, you know, you look at the defending champion, which is Spain, the European champion and the World Cup champion. and probably the favorite perhaps though is Germany, just because of -- they're kind of the special pick for this tournament, even though Spain is the champion. So a lot of good story lines so far, and we're just through the first four days, and there's a lot more to come in the next couple weeks.
NNAMDIIn case you'd like to join the conversation, 800-433-8850. Have you been putting on a national team jersey, painting your face, and heading out to local soccer bars to watch the game? Where do you watch the games and what story lines do you find most intriguing this summer soccer season? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question, make a comment there.
NNAMDISteve, this week also marks the beginning of the U.S. World Cup qualifying effort. Tonight the Americans will be taking on Guatemala in Guatemala, but unlike those European games, this match won't be on TV. Why is that?
GOFFIt's complicated to be honest. In a nutshell, the television rights to these qualifying games are owned by the country that's hosting that particular match. So this game is in Guatemala. The Guatemala Soccer Federation has the rights. They decided to sell the rights to a company that handed them off to a pay-per-view company. So the game's on pay-per-view on cable and satellite. It's also being shown in many bars and restaurants as well.
GOFFSome places might charge a cover, and some others might not. It's a bad situation for fans. It's unfortunate. It has happened in the past. It will happen again unless the rules change with these TV rights, but it's, you know, it's unfortunate because not as many people will be able to watch as would for a, you know, European game on ESPN this afternoon.
NNAMDIWell, the U.S. won its first World Cup qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda. Even though the score was 3-1, many people though the U.S. should have done better. You were covering that game. How is the U.S. looking? What did you think about the game?
GOFFIt was a victory, and that's about it. When you're playing a country that has 89,000 people in the entire country, with no soccer tradition, you're -- you know, the expectation is to win by five or six goals. They won by two goals. They never were in danger of losing the game, but they didn't dominate the match either, and things got a little interesting in the second half, so it was a little bit of an underwhelming performance. Tonight's a much bigger test. When you go on the road to Central America, it's a whole different game, and it's gonna be difficult.
GOFFI wouldn't be surprised if they settle for a draw -- a tie. They certainly should win, and it's really the first big test for this team in this World Cup cycle.
NNAMDII happen to spend a lot -- way too much time in Antigua. They do think they have a soccer tradition. What I found intriguing, Steve, was that the Antigua national team plays here in the U.S. in major league soccer in a lower division...
NNAMDI...and then when have to represent the country, the club that plays in MLS merely transforms itself into the national team.
GOFFYeah. Most of the team for Antigua, the national team plays for a team called Antigua Barracuda. It's a great name. It's not a very good team. They play at a low level in a league that's based in the U.S., and it's -- that's the core of their national team. They also have a few players who play in England who are English but they have Antiguan family roots and that makes them eligible for Antigua, and that certainly helped the cause over the game against the U.S. So, you know, it's a fun team to watch. It's a fun program to watch, and they have, you know, they have an outside chance of advancing to the next round soon.
NNAMDIAnd indeed major league soccer seems to be giving the opportunity for a lot of players and teams from smaller countries in the kind of general region of South America, the Caribbean, to play organized soccer here, sometimes professionally, in the United States.
GOFFSure. If you're good enough, they're going to find you, and players from the Caribbean and Central America, their price on the international market is much cheaper than a European superstar for instance. So if there's a good player in Central America, MLS will go after them. There's also the lower divisions in the U.S...
GOFF...one of which is where the Antiguan team plays. So the opportunities are there, and if you're pretty good, you're gonna make a little bit of money and live in the states and play some football and perhaps your career takes off and goes to Europe at some point.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Steven Goff. He is soccer reporter with the Washington Post. He also writes the "Soccer Insider" blog on washingtonpost.com. He joins us by telephone. You too can join us by making a call to 800-433-8850. What have you been watching this summer soccer season, and why do you find it intriguing? Here is Samuel in Prince George's County, Md. Samuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMUELHey, Kojo, how you doing?
NNAMDII'm doing well.
SAMUELI don't where to start. There's a whole lot of soccer stuff going on. But I'm watching the Euros right now, and I actually think Spain is going to take it all. But, you know, Ukraine and Poland has a little racism going on there also. I don't know how big it is yet, but the BBC did a report about all the stuff that these non-white fans or players, they're really -- it's really not a good look for the country. But so far the Euros are fine. So that's just my opinion, but I'm still watching. I think Spain will take it all.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought us back to Euro 2012, because the tournament has generated a lot of news stories and what he brought up, Steven Goff, was there have been a number of disturbing stories about racist fans and hooliganism in the two host countries, Poland and Ukraine. First an undercover BBC -- well, you tell us what's been going on.
GOFFWell, there's -- they've been bracing for these problems. You know, these are cultural issues, and when you have large events, whether its soccer or anything else, they're going to surface, and now you're starting to see it a little bit. Interestingly though, some of these things involve fans from countries that have, you know, fans who have traveled to Poland and Ukraine, and have caused trouble with racist gestures and comments.
GOFFSpanish fans were involved in an incident with monkey noises at a black player. It's really ugly stuff, and unfortunately FIFA, which oversees soccer in the world and UEFA, which is the European governing body, in my opinion has not cracked on this hard enough over the years, and it's become a bigger problem. So yeah, there is an issue with racism in Poland and Ukraine, but it's also coming from other countries with these other fans, and it's really disappointing. It taints the competition and, you know, the whole world is seeing it right now because this is such a high profile event.
NNAMDISamuel, thank you for your call. There was an undercover BBC documentary that captured images of fans making racist and anti-Semitic chants and beating up Asian students. Then we heard complaints from players about some fan behavior. But you know what I was thinking, Steve Goff, is that we have had in the United States so much experience with race and racism...
NNAMDI...that we've learned something from it, so that even though a lot of NBA fans who are white may hate LeBron James, and a lot of NBA fans who are black may hate LeBron James...
NNAMDI...that we channel that dislike and anger into non-racist taunts, and I suspect that's because we have a longer experience confronting race and racism then they do in some of these countries.
GOFFYeah. I absolutely agree with you. I mean, as ugly and as bad as things have gotten here with race in sports, I don't think it even comes close to comparison overseas. I mean, you talk to African-American soccer players who go to Europe, including Oguchi Onyewu who's of Nigerian descent, but, you know, he was born in the U.S. He grew up here. You know, he had a lot of issues playing in Europe, particularly in Belgium with not just fans but with opposing players, and, you know, it's very sad that there are parts of the world where things have not progressed. You know, like I said, as much as we worry about it here, oftentimes it's much worse overseas.
NNAMDIWell, part of the reason I guess we're seeing this racial story line is because of the very noticeable changes in the racial makeup of the teams. In yesterday's England-France fixture, the majority of both teams seemed to be men of color. Likewise, one of Germany's best players, Mesut Ozil is the son of Turkish immigrants. One of Italy's most electric and controversial players, Mario Balotelli is black.
NNAMDIThe team from the Czech Republic has a player of Ethiopian descent named Salassie. I guess soccer is beginning to reflect just how diverse those countries are now becoming.
GOFFAbsolutely. It's a reflection of the diversity of these countries, particularly Germany which has a lot of immigrant groups there, particularly from Turkey. But also, other countries are part of the immigration wave. Also what you're seeing too is players who have been naturalized. They play in the professional league in that country, and after a certain number of years, they become eligible to play for the national team because they've been there long enough. They've gain citizenship. So that's part of it as well.
GOFFIt's not just the immigration factor. There's also the process of getting a good player to commit to your country and rewarding them with citizenship.
NNAMDIOn this topic of diversity and the global melting pot, the U.S. head coach, Juergen Klinsmann, actually thinks could be one of the core strengths of a U.S. team moving forward, that is harnessing the different immigration communities the U.S. Home.
GOFFYeah, absolutely. I mean, you're looking at a country that, you know, is heavily Latin American and Hispanic. The U.S. Soccer Federation admittedly does not think it has done a good enough job tapping into those communities to find to players. It's a big country here in the U.S., and it's hard to identify every one, but that has become a priority with the U.S. Soccer Federation and their president Sunil Gulati, and it's getting better.
GOFFYou know, you see some Mexican-American players involved in the program and others from Central American communities. So that's starting to change. You're also seeing more German-Americans interestingly, who are from Germany, but have an American serviceman father for instance, and he becomes eligible for the U.S. So there's a couple players like that whose first language is German, but they play for the United States team, and obviously with a German coach, you're Juergen Klinsmann in charge, they're gonna attract some attention for sure.
NNAMDIYeah. German-American players like Timmy Chandler, Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson. How would you assess Juergen Klinsmann to this point?
GOFFI think it's still too early because this -- even though he's been in the job for almost a year, the real serious stuff is happening now. The team has looked very good in certain matches. They've won a game in Italy this winter which is incredibly impressive for an American team. It's was a friendly though. They beat Scotland five to one a few weeks ago. It was a phenomenal performance. Outside the five goals, just the way they played was extraordinary. Again, it was just a friendly.
GOFFSo these qualifiers will tell us a little bit more. There's a lot more at stake. There's more urgency to win. The first game against Antigua liked we talked about was okay, it wasn't great. Tonight's gonna be an ugly game, and that's the way it is when you go down to Guatemala. There's no such thing as the beautiful game when you go down to Guatemala City. So another interesting one, and as this process continues, we'll see if things pay off. Klinsmann has stressed a fluid attack, improvisation, thinking faster, more creativity. That's his emphasis. That's what the U.S. team is trying to get to, to not only earn revolts, but also to entertain and show that the game can be played at a high level and an attractive level in the United States.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Before I go to the phones, we've talked about the U.S. men's national team, but the U.S. women are in the midst of final tune-ups for the London Olympics. This is actually one of the biggest tournaments of course in women's soccer. What should we be looking out for, Steve?
GOFFWell, the U.S. is certainly if the not favorite, than one of the favorites. You know, Japan is going to be at the Olympics as well, and they won the gold -- first place at the women's World Cup last year, if you remember. So Japan in at the top with the U.S. Germany did not qualify. They're not there. Brazil, which is an entertaining but erratic team is in the Olympics. So this is really the U.S.'s tournament to win, I think. They've done extraordinarily well in the Olympics over the years. Better in the Olympics than in the women's World Cup.
GOFFSo my guess is they -- if they don't win this gold medal, they'll at least get to the gold medal game. It's a classy team. It's a strong team and the Olympics is where they have thrived over the last 16 years or so.
NNAMDIHere's Karen in Alexandria, Va. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I've enjoyed the conversation, and really appreciate the discussion of diversity in the men's game, and I'm also enjoying watching the Euro. I'm also a girl's soccer coach and a player myself and really loved watching the women last summer, and I have to say, you know, sometimes the coverage -- the coverage of the World Cup was awesome, but, you know, sometimes like seeing what happens with the demise of the women's pro-league barely gets a story, and I think, you know, is there any hope?
KARENI was hoping after the women's World Cup that that would parlay into success into a women's pro league that would be more successful. I know they've just struggled with this is the second launch of it, and now that this one's failed, and I wondered Steven and Kojo what you think about that. Is there any hope for a women's -- a successful women's pro league, and if so, what's the solution do you think? Thank you.
NNAMDISteven? Steven Goff?
GOFFYeah. I'm not very optimistic. They've tried twice. It's failed twice, and it hasn't just failed, it's failed miserably, and I think it's -- women's soccer is more of a cause than a business, and causes are okay, but it's not gonna keep you around for a long time. As a business model, it just hasn't worked. The U.S. women's national team has a huge following. When they're in big tournaments, they attract, you know, big audiences on TV and it's a big thing.
GOFFBut women's soccer is an Olympic sport so to speak, just like swimming or volleyball where people will pay attention to major events, but on a day-to-day basis, and in the case of women's soccer, a professional league, they're not that interested, and could it happen in the future? Perhaps, but I just -- I think women's soccer is on a course where it's going to be the national team going to the World Cup and going to the Olympics.
NNAMDIWhich is strange because qualitatively the games are very interesting to watch.
GOFFThey are, but when you break up the U.S. national team into little pieces and put them on different teams, there's not a lot of name recognition with the rest of the roster. Foreign players don't have the following they do in women's soccer like they do in men's soccer. The Latin community in the United States which has massive interest in soccer, does not follow women's soccer. So you're removing that element as well, and, you know, people are rooting for it. Everyone wants it to work, but so far it hasn't, even when back in the days with Mia Hamm and now with, you know, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan.
GOFFThese are wonderful players, they're fantastic to watch on the international stage, but when you put them in a domestic league, it just hasn't translated at all.
NNAMDIGotta go because we're running out of time, but in two words or less, who's gonna be the breakout star of Euro 2012?
SAMUELMan, there's just too many to choose from right now. I can't even give you one.
NNAMDISteven Goff, thank you for joining us. Steven Goff is soccer reporter with the Washington Post. He also writes the "Soccer Insider" blog on washingtonpost.com. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineer Kellan Quigley. Natalie Yuralivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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