2011 in Review: Extra Reflections

Posted on December 30, 2011 5:13 pm

With the last entry of this series, I wanted to pass on some thoughts on the most interesting developments happening in our region as we head into 2012. Fortunately, they can be divided up neatly by CONCACAF subregion, so we will go through them in geographic order. But first, I did want to share my two cents on a tournament outside of The Regional Review’s jurisdiction.

The last Women’s World Cup featured the most captivating knockout round that I have ever seen in an international tournament. Mind you, I have only been following the sport since 2002; in that short timeframe, only Euro 2008’s elimination matches have come close to providing the sort of entertainment on display in Germany back in July. Other than Sweden’s comfortable 3-1 victory over Australia, every game captured my attention from beginning to end. In the quarterfinals, I cheered for France against England (Vive la Francophonie), but after les bleues flubbed their lines early in the shootout, I was convinced that England would win it…until Hope Powell’s players decided to do justice to their country’s unfortunate history with penalties. Then, Japan showed an incredible amount of guts in holding on, scoring and knocking out hosts (and favorites) Germany in overtime. The next day, the despicable decision by Brazil’s Erika to blatantly fake an injury forced the referee to add three minutes at the end of extra time – just enough for Abby Wambach to save her country’s campaign with a late header, before Hope Solo saved Daniele’s penalty en route to a nail-biting US victory.

France and Japan delighted with their possession football in the semifinals; but while the latter saw off Sweden 3-1, with a beautiful shot from distance by Nahomi Kawasumi that caught Hedvig Lindahl off her line, the French failed to put the finishing touch on their attacks and eventually were undone by two late American goals. The third-place match featured a shameful acting job by France’s Sonia Bompastor to get Josephine Oqvist sent off, reminding us that the women can play nasty too (for those not yet convinced by Nigeria’s Nigel de Jong-approved performance against Germany); but while Bruno Bini’s side once again dominated the ball, once again they fell to a late winner from the opposition. The first half of the Final left me certain that Japan, although superior in possession, did not have the necessary experience to win; but near the end of normal time and extra time, when the Japanese were against the ropes, they pulled out unexpected goals in order to keep themselves alive – the first a product of sloppy defensive play by the US, and the second a moment of sheer brilliance from Player of the Tournament Homare Sawa. Their incredible composure carried them through the penalty shootout, and they crowned themselves world champions – not bad for a team that had planned to use the World Cup as a warm-up for next year’s Olympics. As someone that did not have the fortune to watch the 1970 or 1982 World Cups, I am glad to have followed arguably the best Women’s World Cup of all time from beginning to end.

Back to our corner of the world: the following are my biggest anticipations for next year.

North America

We have seen a Canadian club reach the quarterfinals of a continental championship. We have seen the three biggest cities in the Great White North simultaneously involved in the biggest football league in Anglo-America. And we have seen Canada’s national team involved in critical World Cup qualifiers.

But when was the last time we had all three in the same year?

2012 will set a new level of soccer saturation for the northernmost country in our region. Toronto FC will kick the year off with the biggest match in the club’s history, the first leg of their CCL quarterfinal series against the star-studded LA Galaxy. Then, the opening weekend of Major League Soccer’s regular season will feature an all-Canadian showdown between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact, both of whom will share D1 status with the Ontarians for the first time since the league’s founding. While all three compete to become the first Canadian team to reach the playoffs, they will also face off with each other (and FC Edmonton) for the Voyageurs’ Cup, with the promise of Champions League play for the winner. Finally, in the latter half of the year Canada will attempt to finish in the top two of the most manageable semifinal-round World Cup qualifying group in recent memory. Not since 1986, when Canada made its solitary appearance in the World Cup, has the sport enjoyed as much exposure in the traditionally hockey-obsessed nation; and should the national team reach the Hex, 2013 will be even bigger for MLS (Maple Leaf Soccer).

Central America

According to FIFA’s most recent rankings, Panama’s national team is the third-best in CONCACAF. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago: in spite of producing players such as Rommel Fernandez and the Dely Valdes twins, Panama had served as a punching bag for countries with an actual interest in football. But their growth over the past decade has now produced a team that regularly reaches the latter stages of the Gold Cup, won the 2009 UNCAF Cup of Nations and now is considered a dark horse to qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals.

This year, we saw football’s seeds get planted in another Central American nation whose sporting interests traditionally lay elsewhere. First, in early August, Nicaraguan league champion Real Esteli registered a sell-out at the Estadio Independencia for the second leg of their CCL prelim series with Toronto FC.

“So the stadium was sold out,” you say, “but 4,000 plus is not that impressive.” To put that figure in sub-regional perspective, Central American giants Deportivo Saprissa and Marathon struggled to get half that many people to show up for their group stage games in 2010. Esteli, for their part, struggled to put up a fight against the Canadians, but the passion of the fans in attendance far exceeded my expectations.

Then, in September, Nicaragua’s national team registered their first-ever victory in World Cup qualifying, 2-0 at Dominica. I do not know how much that had to do with their next game, but four days later the pinoleros received Panama at the Estadio Nacional de la UNAN in Managua, before a hostile audience that blew me away with their ferocity. The incomplete nature of the stadium, with rubble behind both goals, only intensified the intimidation factor; and when Panama gifted the hosts an own goal, the crowd reacted with a howl every bit the equal of what you would hear in El Salvador or Honduras. Nicaragua eventually lost the match, and tumbled out of the World Cup in October when they received a 5-1 lashing in Panama. But the intensity of support for Nicaraguan teams in international competitions this year bodes well for the future of the game there, and reminds me why I appreciate how the sport interconnects our world. Lest we forget, as much as baseball may be more popular in Nicaragua, Bud Selig has yet to extend them an invitation to the World Baseball Classic; football, on the other hand, welcomes them with open arms.

Caribbean

Last, and unfortunately least, the Caribbean. Any discussion of the state of football there should begin with a reference to Bill Archer’s dogged coverage of the administrative shenanigans that have left the CFU in shambles. On the field, the picture is just as bleak: not a single Caribbean club survived the prelims of the current CCL; three of the Caribbean’s four representatives in the Gold Cup bowed out in the first round, two of them (Cuba and Grenada) in humiliating fashion; and all three of the top-seeded Caribbean sides in the elementary round of World Cup qualifying (Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Haiti) crashed out.

The sub-region’s lesser lights provide the silver lining, with the Dominican Republic, Bermuda and Puerto Rico exceeding expectations in World Cup qualifying, while Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda shocked T&T and Haiti (respectively) in order to reach the semifinal round for the first time. Also, Haiti’s Tempete reached the CFU Club Champions Cup Final, while Guyana’s Alpha United knocked out Trinidad and Tobago’s Defence Force on penalties in order to snatch the last Caribbean spot in the Champions League. Alpha, however, went on to receive the worst beating in the CCL era, 8-0 at Herediano; we will have to wait and see if Antigua and Guyana are better prepared when World Cup qualifying resumes.

As of right now, there are only two teams in the entire Caribbean that can compete with anyone in CONCACAF: the Jamaican national team and the Puerto Rico Islanders. Within itself, the Caribbean has become much more competitive than before, and I am excited to see just how hotly contested the next Caribbean Cup will be. As a whole, however, it is slipping farther behind the rest of the region, in large part a consequence of mismanagement at the top; and unless the so-called “minnows” prove themselves ready to compete outside of their comfort zone, Jamaica reaching the Hex will not be enough to paper over the Caribbean’s footballing stagnation.

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