Grant Wahl's Blog http://www.fannation.com/blogs/show/196723 Mon, 06 Oct 2008 17:06:09 GMT No description Beckham's Celebrity &gt; Beckham's L.A. Galaxy http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/268635 Most American sports fans probably missed it, but <strong>David Beckham&rsquo;s</strong> Los Angeles Galaxy lost again on Saturday (1-0 to Columbus), which in all realistic terms ended the Galaxy&rsquo;s playoff hopes and (combined with Toronto&rsquo;s win at New York) gave L.A. the worst record in MLS (7-12-8) with three regular-season games remaining.<br /> <br /> Beckham will almost certainly play just one more MLS game in 2008: the Galaxy&rsquo;s season finale on Oct. 26 at home against FC Dallas. Beckham will miss L.A.&rsquo;s game against Colorado this Sunday on England national team duty, and he&rsquo;ll miss the Oct. 18 game at Houston on a suspension for accumulated yellow cards. (Cue disappointed fans in Houston, the only MLS city where Beckham has yet to play.) <br /> <br /> Nobody in the print media has spent more time around Beckham&rsquo;s team than I have&mdash;I&#39;m writing a book on the first two seasons of the Beckham-era Galaxy&mdash;and there&rsquo;s a fascinating tale to be told about what has gone on behind the scenes during the Beckham Experiment.<br /> <br /> From a soccer perspective, Beckham has had an up-and-down year. Before the All-Star Break he played well, creating chances for the Galaxy from his right midfield position and displaying the full-on effort that he&rsquo;s known for. Since the All-Star Game, however, Beckham has struggled. He has failed to connect with <strong>Landon Donovan</strong> and the Galaxy&rsquo;s other scoring threats. He has failed to produce any magic with his renowned free kicks. <br /> <br /> And, most surprising of all, his work-rate has declined. Maybe Beckham is gassed from all the travel for MLS games and England games and Olympics visits. Maybe he&rsquo;s just throwing up his hands at the Galaxy&rsquo;s poor personnel decisions and an MLS salary cap that forces him to play alongside some skill-poor teammates making less than $20,000 a year. Maybe it&rsquo;s a combination of all those things.<br /> <br /> Yet the most surreal aspect of Beckham&rsquo;s American adventure is this: while Beckham&rsquo;s team has been an undeniable fiasco on the soccer field, there&rsquo;s no arguing that Beckham has been wildly successful as an American celebrity. (Just open the pages of <em>People</em> magazine or turn on <em>Entertainment Tonight</em> and you&rsquo;ll get the idea.)<br /> <br /> Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of the Americans who have embraced David Beckham The Celebrity don&rsquo;t know (and don&rsquo;t care) that David Beckham The Soccer Player is on the worst team in the MLS standings. They don&rsquo;t know (and don&rsquo;t care) that the Galaxy has won only one of its last 15 games, or that it&rsquo;s going to miss the easy-to-make MLS playoffs for the third straight year, or that it hasn&rsquo;t scored on a set-piece (supposedly Beckham&rsquo;s forte) in 23 games. <br /> <br /> Is this ignorance, in a perverse way, good for Beckham? Hell yes, considering what&rsquo;s happened to the Galaxy. In fact, if Beckham&rsquo;s advisers anticipated how much he&#39;d be insulated, it&rsquo;s a stroke of genius on their part. Beckham has a great life here. He loves living with his family in Beverly Hills, he&rsquo;s still making a gazillion dollars and he no longer has to earn his popularity every week on the playing field as he did in Europe. <br /> <br /> Beckham can argue that simply <em>by being here</em> he has raised the profiles of the Galaxy and MLS to an entirely new level. And he can point to evidence such as the recent Teen Choice Awards, in which he was chosen the &ldquo;Choice Male Athlete&rdquo; of 2008, beating out <strong>Tiger Woods</strong>, <strong>Eli Manning</strong>, <strong>Kobe Bryant</strong> and <strong>LeBron James</strong>.<br /> <br /> Has 2008 been good for the Galaxy? Not so much&mdash;public embarrassment is never fun&mdash;although from a bottom-line perspective L.A. is doing just fine in the Beckham era. <strong>Tim Leiweke</strong>, the CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy, told me that he recently turned down a $125 million offer for the team. (He refused to specify who had made the offer.)<br /> <br /> But Leiweke also said this: &ldquo;The success of David Beckham will depend on what happens not just off the pitch but on the pitch. If we don&rsquo;t win this will not be a success story. I think we&rsquo;re in the middle of this book, maybe not quite to the middle yet, and this has not been a success. And we acknowledge that. We need to win. For David to be happy and David to have an impact and the Galaxy ultimately to be the kind of team we&rsquo;d like them to be, we need to win.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Message from the owner: <em>We need to win.</em><br /> <br /> In other words, Leiweke is clearly dissatisfied with the Galaxy&rsquo;s performance, the main reason he forced out coach <strong>Ruud Gullit</strong> and fired team president <strong>Alexi Lalas</strong> in August and replaced them with <strong>Bruce Arena</strong>.<br /> <br /> Beckham is now finishing Year Two of a five-year contract. But the relationship between Leiweke and Beckham (and his advisers) will be something to watch closely in the off-season. Could Beckham wake up one day and decide he wants to go back to Europe? Could he ask to go on loan to a team in Europe this winter to help his cause with the England national team? <br /> <br /> The fact is that if I were Beckham I would be furious with the Galaxy for failing to build a better team around me in advance of my arrival. Anyone in his position who&rsquo;s human would be. Yet Beckham won&rsquo;t go there yet, at least not publicly. After Saturday&rsquo;s night&rsquo;s loss in Columbus I asked Beckham straight up:<br /> <br /> &ldquo;With Toronto winning tonight the Galaxy has the lowest point total in the league now. Do you wish the Galaxy had done a better job, done more to build a better team around you and Landon over the last couple years?&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Beckham&rsquo;s reply focused less on answering the question than on disputing the premise of the Galaxy being a two-star team.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;No, because at the end of the day this team is not just about me and Landon, and the organization is not just about me and Landon,&rdquo; Beckham said. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re in a position at the moment where we&rsquo;re just not getting maybe a little bit of luck. We look at each other in the dressing room, and we want to play for each other. That&rsquo;s the big thing. You want to be sort of proud of the team and proud of the teammates and look at the teammates and think that everyone&rsquo;s giving 110 percent in each game. Sometimes that&rsquo;s happened this year, and sometimes it hasn&rsquo;t.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;So the other questions higher up, it has nothing to do with me. Like I said, it&rsquo;s nothing to do with organizing and preparing the team just around two players.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> And that was pretty much the end of any legitimate questions in Beckham&rsquo;s short press conference. On the night the Galaxy&rsquo;s season effectively ended, not a single member of the media from Los Angeles was in the room. The <em>Los Angeles Times</em> stopped sending a reporter on the road with the Galaxy a long time ago. The <em>Orange County Register</em> doesn&rsquo;t even cover home games anymore. <br /> <br /> That&rsquo;s mainly the reflection of a dying newspaper industry and, perhaps, a busy season for L.A. sports with the Dodgers and Angels in the playoffs and college football season in full swing. But it&rsquo;s also a reflection of where the Beckham-era Galaxy remains in the L.A. sports landscape.<br /> <br /> In the absence of any L.A. media in the Columbus press conference, it was left to the woman next to me to ask Beckham if he could compare (for the millionth time) soccer in the U.S. to soccer in England. <br /> <br /> She was smiling, and (no lie) she was wearing a blue Los Angeles Galaxy Beckham jersey. And, like most Americans, she clearly didn&rsquo;t care that the Galaxy are now the worst team in Major League Soccer. Welcome to Bizarro World.<br /> <br /> What&rsquo;s your sense of Beckham&rsquo;s American adventure? Chime in below with your thoughts.<br /> Mon, 06 Oct 2008 17:06:09 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/268635 Grant Wahl Just Enough To Win (Again) http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/247095 <p>&nbsp;</p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- Five thoughts after the U.S.&rsquo;s 1-0 win over Cuba in Saturday&rsquo;s Concacaf semifinal-round World Cup qualifier (many thanks to the Cuban federation for the excellent wifi in the stands, better than any Caribbean or Central American venue I can remember):<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>The U.S. is doing just enough to win ... and not much more.</em> The U.S. now has a perfect six points from this round&rsquo;s two games of World Cup qualifying, but the 1-0 wins against Guatemala and Cuba were hardly inspiring from a style-points perspective. If U.S. coach <strong>Bob Bradley</strong> is going to continue leaving young attacking options like <strong>Kenny Cooper</strong>, <strong>Jozy Altidore</strong> and <strong>Freddy Adu</strong> off his rosters, the players who do get picked need to show they can be offensive threats. Continuing to use two holding midfielders (<strong>Michael Bradley</strong> and <strong>Maurice Edu</strong>, in this case) seems overly conservative, especially against a lineup of amateurs on a bottom-feeding Cuba side. Edu, in particular, had a poor game against Cuba, causing several give-aways with misguided passes, some of them coming without any defensive pressure on him. <br /> <br /> &bull; <em><strong>Frankie Hejduk</strong> is U.S. Soccer&rsquo;s all-time Energizer Bunny.</em> Who would have believed the 34-year-old Hejduk would still be a major contributor in World Cup qualifying in the year 2008? I started wondering if he was past it in 2002 (when he proved me wrong with a sensational World Cup) but it&rsquo;s clear that Hejduk&rsquo;s experience and speed can still come in handy. Forced into a starting right-back role due to <strong>Steve Cherundolo&rsquo;s</strong> expulsion against Guatemala, Hejduk sped up and down the flank all night. It was Hejduk who drew a yellow card on Cuba&rsquo;s <strong>Luis Villegas</strong>, and it was Hejduk who raced back 50 yards to snuff out a dangerous run midway through the first half by <strong>Roberto Linares</strong>. Whatever Hejduk is doing to stay fit is working in his fourth World Cup qualifying campaign. For all I know he&rsquo;ll still be in the mix in 2012.<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>The atmosphere at Concacaf World Cup qualifiers is awesome.</em> It&rsquo;s a shame that U.S. fans weren&rsquo;t allowed to come here legally and enjoy a shared sports experience with the Cuban fans. But it&rsquo;s a great scene like this at all of the U.S.&rsquo;s road qualifiers in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The scene here featured the following: huge amplifiers blasting Cuban music into the crowd before the game; Cubans passing around a battle of Johnny Walker Black; down-and-dirty salsa dancing in the stands; a torrential downpour dripping through the corrugated-steel roof over the fans; a rickety stadium where the lights went out 30 minutes before kickoff, forcing the teams to warm up in the dark; flag-waving supporters galore; and enough gorgeous (and scantily-clad) men and women to make a New York dance-club look lame by comparison. Oh, and there was a soccer game too. Small wonder that a growing number of 20- and 30-something Americans are doing guerrilla tourism following the U.S. national team abroad.</p><p>&bull; <em>The most interesting guy I met all day was Manuel D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez.</em> <a href="/blogs/post/246875" target="_blank">Read more here.</a></p><p> &bull; <em>Through-balls:</em> Cuban midfield <strong>Alain Cervantes</strong> provided a spark coming off the bench in the second half and dribbling rings around the Americans on a couple occasions. Why on earth didn&rsquo;t he start the game? ... U.S. centerbacks <strong>Carlos Bocanegra</strong> and <strong>Oguchi Onyewu</strong> may not ever get high marks for their passing, but they haven&rsquo;t allowed any goals in two road World Cup qualifiers, which is at least worth something ... I haven&rsquo;t seen many teammates get as visibly frustrated with each other as the Cubans, who were waving their arms frantically at each other following the misplayed header by <strong>Carlos Francisco</strong> that led to <strong>Clint Dempsey&rsquo;s</strong> goal ... Francisco had a rough night: not only did he make the mistake in his own box, but he had a gift-wrapped chance to score on Cuba&rsquo;s first corner kick and shot wide. <br /> <br /> Gotta write a magazine story for tomorrow morning, so my apologies for not having any postgame quotes online ...&nbsp;</p> Sun, 07 Sep 2008 02:08:58 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/247095 Grant Wahl The Cuban Superfan ... For U.S. Sports http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/246875 <p>&nbsp;</p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- Meet <strong>Manuel D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez</strong>. <img title="Manuel D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez says that his love of American sports even got him put in jail last year." src="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008_images/t1_0906_cuban.fan_wahl.jpg" height="300" align="right" alt="Manuel D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez says that his love of American sports even got him put in jail last year." width="298" style="width: 298px; height: 300px" /><br /><br />He&rsquo;s a Cuban who has lived his entire life here, and yet he showed up wearing an American flag, a U.S. flag bandana and a knockoff U.S. national team jersey at today&rsquo;s World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Cuba at Estadio Pedro Marrero.<br /><br />&ldquo;I love American sports,&rdquo; he told me in Spanish. &ldquo;In the Olympics I was very happy with the eight gold medals of Michael Phelps. It was a shame that Tyson Gay wasn&rsquo;t selected from the American trials [in the 200 meters] and was injured in China. And in basketball I wanted the U.S. to win in the final.&rdquo;</p><p>D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez says that his love of American sports even got him put in jail last year.</p><p>&ldquo;I like freedom, and I am not afraid of fighting for it. A year ago I was in jail for 32 days. You are going to laugh when I tell you why. It was for having a satellite antenna in my house. I had it, but I have no interest in politics for anything. I just love sports.&rdquo;<br /><br />&ldquo;With my antenna I can see all the American sports. All of them. You can see <strong>Tiger Woods </strong>in golf, you can see the NBA, you can see major league baseball. I love tennis. Just now I know that <strong>Roger Federer</strong> beat <strong>Novak Djokovic</strong> and advanced to the final [of the U.S. Open].&rdquo;<br /><br />D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez said that &ldquo;after a lot of work&rdquo; he located a guy in his neighborhood who owned a U.S. flag, and he convinced him to lend it to him for today&rsquo;s game. &ldquo;The problem is that I love freedom and they give us very little in this country,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I dressed this way today, and when I left [for the stadium] many friends told me, &lsquo;You are crazy! You are going to have problems at the stadium!&rsquo; But no. I came here and I am having fun.&rdquo;<br /><br />Who did he want to win the game between Cuba and the United States? &ldquo;I want the U.S. to win so they [the Cuban federation] worry a little more and do not hesitate to do more with Cuban soccer. Cuban athletes in general are very good, but what happens in soccer is disgraceful. In this country we don&rsquo;t have a single field that has the same condition [as this stadium does].&rdquo;<br /><br />When I asked D&iacute;az Rodr&iacute;guez if he was O.K. with me publishing his name and his photograph, he said it was no problem. And was he worried about the police? &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t have any fear,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I like freedom. After I was in jail they fined me 800 pesos and said that every year they want 30,000 pesos more.&rdquo;<br /><br />&ldquo;And I am not going to pay. I don&rsquo;t know what will happen, but I am not going to pay.&rdquo;<br /><br /><br /><br />&nbsp;</p> Sat, 06 Sep 2008 22:41:19 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/246875 Grant Wahl Gameday In Havana http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/246437 <p>&nbsp;</p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- Gameday in Havana. It&rsquo;s sunny and hot (86 degrees), but the gametime (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic and Galavisi&oacute;n) means it should cool off a bit by kickoff.<br /> <br /> A few thoughts heading into the game:<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>The most intriguing player on the field tonight will be 22-year-old Cuban striker <strong>Roberto Linares</strong> (<a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0809/soccer.in.cuba/content.19.html" target="_blank">see photo here</a>).</em> Linares, whom I spoke with before a training session earlier this week, scored Cuba&rsquo;s goal in its 1-1 tie with the U.S. in the first game of the Olympic qualifying tournament last March in Tampa, and he stayed with the Cuban team after seven of his teammates defected to the United States following that game. <br /> <br /> Cuba&rsquo;s German coach, <strong>Reinhold Fanz</strong>, has said that Linares is a better player at this age than German international <strong>Gerald Asamoah</strong>, whom Fanz once coached at Hannover 96. And Linares certainly came through in Cuba&rsquo;s triumph in the first round of World Cup qualifying against Antigua and Barbuda, scoring three goals to help send Cuba through on an 8-3 aggregate.<br /> <br /> When I sat down with Linares this week he was friendly but guarded. It would have been great to have a completely open conversation about all sorts of topics: How much temptation did he have to join his defecting teammates last March? Would he like to leave Cuba someday and join a professional club overseas where he could realize his full potential and make a lot more money? Is he entertaining any idea of leaving the Cuban team when it visits Washington D.C. to play the U.S. in October?<br /> <br /> But as you&rsquo;d expect, an open conversation about those topic was impossible. Still, Linares had some interesting things to say:<br /> <br /> On his memories of the 1-1 tie against the U.S. in Tampa last March: &ldquo;It was a good game for us and for them as well. We fought hard and had a beautiful experience in the United States. Despite what happened with our athletes [defecting] I think the team fought and did as well as possible.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> On how many times he has seen the U.S. senior team play on television: &ldquo;I have seen them in World Cups. I&rsquo;ve seen them in this phase of World Cup qualifying and on video in the Gold Cup. They&rsquo;re good players, and they have a high level. <strong>[Landon] Donovan</strong> and <strong>[Clint] Dempsey</strong> are very good. I think we&rsquo;ll have to work very hard to beat them.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> On whether it&rsquo;s possible to have success as a Cuban player in international games if you can&rsquo;t join a club overseas in a better league: &ldquo;No, on that topic I am not going to speak with you.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> On what he thought of the seven Cuban teammates who defected to the U.S. in the middle of the Olympic qualifying tournament: &ldquo;I thought it showed a bad attitude because they abandoned the team. In that moment we had tied the U.S. and we were in a very good moment. After that it was very difficult. The team had fewer players, and we couldn&rsquo;t make substitutions. It wasn&rsquo;t the same.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> On what he wants to achieve in his soccer career in the future: &ldquo;I want to be a great player.&rdquo; Pause. &ldquo;And live here in Cuba. Yes.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> After we spoke I wished Linares the best of luck. He smiled, shook my hand and let me take his picture. He said he was looking forward to the start of the Cuban amateur league season on Sept. 17 with Villa Clara (<strong>Maykel Galindo&rsquo;s</strong> old team), and he hoped to do well in World Cup qualifying.<br /> <br /> &bull; <a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0809/soccer.in.cuba/content.22.html" target="_blank">Here&#39;s a photo by SI&#39;s Simon Bruty of the billboard I wrote about yesterday</a> featuring a picture of the U.S. president, George W. Bush, next to Der Fuhrer.&nbsp;</p><p> &bull; <em>The U.S. isn&rsquo;t thrilled with the field conditions.</em> &ldquo;The grass is a little long, but we&rsquo;re told maybe it gets cut tomorrow,&rdquo; coach <strong>Bob Bradley</strong> said after training at Estadio Pedro Marrero on Friday. &ldquo;The field is a little harder right now than the field was in Guatemala. So whether or not they get a little bit of water on it I don&rsquo;t know. But the field underneath is quite hard.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> How does a field like this impact the game? &ldquo;It just means that at times bounces are tricky and footing&rsquo;s tricky,&rdquo; Bradley said. &ldquo;From the Trinidad-Cuba game there were a number of players that lost their footing, and you see more guys slipping and then getting up and recovering, so we hope to handle those things well.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &bull; <em><strong>Frankie Hejduk</strong> is bummed about the lack of surfing.</em> &ldquo;I haven&rsquo;t seen any waves,&rdquo; joked Hejduk, a hardcore surfer dude, when asked if he wanted to get out on the water here. &ldquo;I was asking about the beach, but under my breath. Bob [Bradley] didn&rsquo;t really want to hear about it.&rdquo; Someone pointed out that there&rsquo;s not much of a beach in Havana; it&rsquo;s more like rocks and a seawall. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ve been in plenty of those before,&rdquo; Hejduk replied. &ldquo;I was kind of hoping there&rsquo;d be some leftover waves from the hurricane, but it&rsquo;s pretty flat.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>The Cuban state media is starting to warm up to this game--a little bit. </em>After days of almost no coverage for the U.S.-Cuba game, the state newspaper <em>Granma</em> had it as one of the lead stories in today&rsquo;s sports section. One interesting thing: there was none of the hyperbolic anti-U.S. government propaganda that you see in the news section of the paper. In fact, the U.S.-Cuba article was pretty much a straight news story, although it did say that for Cuba beating the U.S. would be &ldquo;una misi&oacute;n heroica&rdquo; (a heroic mission). <br /> <br /> Everyone here is still curious over whether the 17,000-seat stadium will be filled. Only 4,000 spectators attended Cuba&rsquo;s qualifier here last month, but several Cubans (including the restroom attendant at El Aljibe, our awesome restaurant last night) swore that the joint would be packed.<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>This trip has been a blast.</em> We&rsquo;ve been doing plenty of work here in Havana, but it&rsquo;s impossible not to have a good time on the side. Last night we had five guys together for dinner and couldn&rsquo;t fit all of us into a normal taxi, so we hopped into a 1953 pink Chevrolet convertible taxi and rode to El Aljibe in style. With the stars overhead and thousands of Cubans hanging out on the oceanside Malec&oacute;n, our driver drag-raced with a 1950&rsquo;s-era Buick full of Cuban men and women who were waving friendly hellos at us. Few things will ever make you feel more alive.<br /> <br /> Check back here before the game for updates from the stadium...<br /> </p> Sat, 06 Sep 2008 16:06:43 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/246437 Grant Wahl U.S. Soccer Experiencing The Two Cubas http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/245895 <p>&nbsp;</p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- The strangeness of Cuba is mesmerizing, as the U.S. soccer team is learning after arriving here for Saturday&rsquo;s first-ever World Cup qualifier against Cuba (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic and Galavisi&oacute;n). Just about every ordinary Cuban that you talk to is friendly, curious and open (especially if you speak Spanish). Many of them are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that everything will change here if <strong>Barack Obama</strong> is elected president. <br /> </p><p>But then comes the strangeness: one of the first things that any U.S. visitor sees here is <a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0809/soccer.in.cuba/content.22.html" target="_blank">the giant billboard on the road near the airport</a> featuring the U.S. president, <strong>George W. Bush</strong>, next to <strong>Der Fuhrer</strong>. The billboard reads &ldquo;Full De Asesinos,&rdquo; which has a double meaning. &ldquo;Ases&rdquo; means <em>Aces</em> (the playing card theme is an echo of the U.S.-produced playing cards showing ex-Iraqi leaders), while &ldquo;Asesinos&rdquo; means <em>Murderers</em>.<br /> <br /> (In case you&rsquo;re wondering, one of the other two guys is the late Cuban-exile leader <strong>Jorge Mas Canosa</strong>.)<br /> <br /> None of the U.S. players wanted to comment on what they thought when they saw the sign on Thursday, but a source close to the team says they most certainly saw it. My only hope, though, is that the U.S. players also get the chance to speak to a few ordinary Cubans during their stay here. <br /> <br /> &bull; SI photographer <strong>Simon Bruty</strong> has been in Havana all week covering the atmosphere around the soccer game as well as cool scenes from Havana, sporting and otherwise. Make sure to check out <a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0809/soccer.in.cuba/content.1.html" target="_blank">his photo gallery from the week here. </a></p><p>&bull; Several U.S. news organizations received visas to report from Cuba this week, including SI, the Washington Post, the New York Times and ESPN television. But at least one U.S. newspaper was denied a visa. The Miami Herald applied for one and was rejected, according to a source close to the situation. The Herald has not been allowed to have a reporter in Cuba for more than 40 years. However, it does have undercover reporters on the island who file stories under the &ldquo;Miami Herald Staff Writer&rdquo; byline. It seems like the Herald can&rsquo;t win: Cuban exiles in Miami often protest that the newspaper is too far to the left, while the Cuban government thinks it&rsquo;s too far to the right. <br /> <br /> &bull; On Friday a group of U.S. writers had a roundtable interview with Cuban soccer federation president <strong>Luis Hern&aacute;ndez </strong>at the stadium. Hern&aacute;ndez, a well-connected pol and former national-team player, has been in power for 10 years, and he spouted some of the expected hoo-ha about <strong>Fidel Castro</strong> loving soccer (not likely; Fidel&rsquo;s a baseball guy) and the excellent financial support the soccer federation is getting from the Cuban government (also not likely when former players like <strong>Maykel Galindo</strong> say they were only allowed to have one uniform jersey per year).<br /> <br /> But Hern&aacute;ndez was polite and even funny at times (&ldquo;We prefer not to talk about women&rsquo;s soccer, because as you guys know, you&rsquo;re the best!&rdquo;), and he did have a few intriguing things to say:<br /> <br /> &bull; Cubans who attend Saturday&rsquo;s game will only have to pay 1 Cuban peso (or just a few pennies) for a ticket.<br /> <br /> &bull; The 1938 Cuban World Cup team that beat Romania and reached the quarterfinals was comprised largely of recent immigrants from Spain. (In that respect it was similar to the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that beat England.) <br /> <br /> &bull; When asked if it was possible for Cuban players to go play in European or South American leagues to improve their skills and help the national team, Hern&aacute;ndez had an odd response. Citing the recent cases of <strong>Lionel Messi</strong> and <strong>Ronaldinho</strong> and their club/country conflict regarding the Olympics, he claimed that European clubs have too much power and hinder players&rsquo; chances to compete with their national teams. Cuban players, he said, have the opportunity to play more together and go on their own international trips with the national team to Germany, which has a training agreement with the Cuban federation. None of that argument makes sense, of course, but remember, Hern&aacute;ndez is a pol who wants to lose as few of his players to defections as possible.<br /> <br /> &bull; Hern&aacute;ndez first made the national team as a 17-year-old player and wore the Cuban No. 10 jersey for 10 years. &ldquo;As a player I defeated the U.S. national soccer team twice,&rdquo; he said proudly. &ldquo;In the Pan-American Games in 1971 in Cali, Colombia, and in 1979 in Puerto Rico. Of course, the U.S. soccer level was very low [then]. I hope to do the same tomorrow night!&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &bull; Although 10 Cuban soccer players have defected to the U.S. in the past three years, Hern&aacute;ndez said he is not concerned about any defections from the Cuban team when it visits Washington D.C. to take on the U.S. on Oct. 12. &ldquo;These players who have left the team have done that by themselves. But we consider that it has really been an indiscipline because they have left the team when they were supposed to defend the country.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> More from Havana tomorrow before the game ...</p><p><em>(Photograph: Simon Bruty/SI)</em><br /> <br /> <br /> </p> Fri, 05 Sep 2008 23:44:24 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/245895 Grant Wahl The Cuba Cinco Have Arrived In Havana http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/245578 <p><img title="Simon Bruty/SI" src="http://i.cnn.net/si/fannation/cuba-cinco-fn.jpg" border="1" height="407" align="top" alt="Simon Bruty/SI" width="425" /></p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- The U.S. national soccer team arrived here yesterday from Miami for its first-ever World Cup qualifier against Cuba, but they weren&rsquo;t the only Americans who found their way to Havana. On Thursday night I met up in the Plaza Vieja with five hardcore U.S. soccer fans who defied the U.S. government&rsquo;s ban on unlicensed travel to Cuba and got into the country by flying separately through a third country.<br /> <br /> I won&rsquo;t be naming them here for obvious reasons, so I&rsquo;ll call them the Cuba Cinco: four men and one woman ranging in ages from 28 to 38 and hailing from California (two), New York (two) and Colorado.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;It was pretty much a no-brainer,&rdquo; said one who travels to every U.S. road qualifier. &ldquo;The U.S. is playing Cuba and we follow the U.S. team. Then there&rsquo;s the historical significance of the game. For people who are really fans you can&rsquo;t miss it. The team&rsquo;s playing here, embargo be damned. We&rsquo;re not going to make a political statement. We&rsquo;re just going to watch the game and take in a new culture.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &ldquo;It&rsquo;s kind of a convergence of different things,&rdquo; said another. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a World Cup qualifier and it&rsquo;s being played in Cuba. How often is that going to happen? I always said if it ever happens I&rsquo;m going to be here whatever my financial circumstances. I can&rsquo;t really afford this trip right now. I&rsquo;ve got two little kids at home. But it&rsquo;s the U.S.-vs.-Cuba in Cuba. There&rsquo;s not many trips where you can say it&rsquo;s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So to me it just has to be done.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> The Cuba Cinco has already arranged to rent a snazzy 1950&rsquo;s-era U.S. convertible to take them to Saturday&rsquo;s game, and their plan is to wear &ldquo;Fidel-style caps,&rdquo; as one of them put it, with U.S. flag bandannas obscuring their faces bandito-style. They also brought several U.S. scarves and flags to take to the game.<br /> <br /> They&rsquo;re part of a growing subculture of U.S. soccer fans who will go to extreme lengths to follow their team--like sneaking into Cuba. This group of five alone had traveled to see the U.S. play in Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, South Korea, Barbados, Germany, Switzerland, Venezuela, England and other countries. (Two of them even went to Barcelona for a game that was supposed to take place against Catalonia but was canceled.) Like the players, they use the term &ldquo;caps&rdquo; to describe the number of U.S. games they&rsquo;ve attended.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;It&rsquo;s kind of like a secret club,&rdquo; said one, taking a swig of a Cuban microbrew that came from a majestic five-liter, four-foot-high tube at our table. &ldquo;You meet these people all around the world, but you never meet them on U.S. soil. One minute you&rsquo;ll meet someone in Costa Rica and then you&rsquo;ll hang out in some crazy bar in Guatemala City and the next minute you&rsquo;re in Korea or wherever it takes you. I love travel and I love soccer, and this is like the perfect fusion. We need a World Cup in Mongolia or something.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> The Cuba Cinco says they&rsquo;re aware of the risks that come with traveling to Cuba. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, criminal penalties for violating U.S. sanctions against spending money in Cuba range up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in individual fines. Yet it&rsquo;s hard to imagine a Stars-and-Stripes-waving U.S. fan would face such harsh punishments.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;I&rsquo;m fine with [the risks],&rdquo; said one.&nbsp; &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t mind being the person that ends up asking for a hearing and then becoming the big constitutional civil rights case. Because I don&rsquo;t think it&rsquo;s constitutional for the U.S. to make it illegal for Americans to spend their money in Cuba.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &ldquo;If you think about it, too,&rdquo; added another, &ldquo;we&rsquo;re here to support the U.S. national team in another country. If they were going to make an example of us, what kind of example would that set?&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &ldquo;I will go anywhere our team plays to support our team, which is thereby supporting our country,&rdquo; said another. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m not doing this to hold the middle finger up to the country or the government or anything like that. It&rsquo;s just that I don&rsquo;t really care about any arbitrary law that&rsquo;s going to restrict my ability to travel. We&rsquo;re supposed to be free. I consider that to extend to the right to travel.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> All five admit they were nervous coming into Cuba and will be again when they return to the States. But each one said the effort and the risks are worth it. &ldquo;We all know that [the U.S. players] are coming to a stadium where their fans are outnumbered 10,000 to 1,&rdquo; one said. &ldquo;I want to be that one guy there supporting them--and show that I&rsquo;m a fan and I&rsquo;m willing to spend my own nickel and come out here to see you play.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &ldquo;Do the U.S. players know they have fans coming out to support them in Cuba?&rdquo; one member of the Cuba Cinco finally asked.<br /> <br /> I told them I didn&rsquo;t think so.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;Well, they&rsquo;ll have at least five.&rdquo;<br /> </p><p><em>(Photograph: Simon Bruty/SI.)</em>&nbsp;</p> Fri, 05 Sep 2008 13:59:54 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/245578 Grant Wahl Cuba's German Journeyman http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/245115 <p><img title="Simon Bruty/SI" src="http://i.cnn.net/si/fannation/fanz-fn.jpg" vspace="6" border="1" height="357" hspace="6" align="right" alt="Simon Bruty/SI" width="210" />HAVANA, Cuba -- <strong>Reinhold Fanz</strong>, the German coach of Cuba&rsquo;s national soccer team, just can&rsquo;t get any respect. Official CONCACAF match reports misspell his last name as <em>Franz</em> (since presumably all these Germans are named Hans or Franz, right?). And when I spoke to a German journalist here on Wednesday he said he&rsquo;d never heard of Fanz until he was named Cuba&rsquo;s coach in January. (And this was coming from a guy who follows German soccer.)<br /> <br /> So who is this German journeyman of a coach? Well, Fanz coached Eintracht Frankfurt (for nine games in 1998-99 before being fired) and Hannover 96 (from 1996-98), though he left Hannover before U.S. defender <strong>Steve Cherundolo</strong> joined the team. In recent years Fanz had been snorkeling in the lower-divisions of German soccer, but last January he finally took the plunge with Cuba.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;Three years ago the Cuban team stayed and played in Germany, and I was a coach from a club in Germany,&rdquo; says the ruddy-faced Fanz. &ldquo;The president [of the German club] knows the president [of the Cuban federation], and he always said when Cuba gets better I should take the post. At first I don&rsquo;t want to go to another country, I want to stay in Germany. But then I see the [Cuban] team two or three times: last year in New Jersey at the Gold Cup and last September here.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> &ldquo;I see the under-23 team and say, &lsquo;O.K., we have a little chance, and we can try it.&rsquo; And so I begin the job here in January.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Cuba&rsquo;s soccer history isn&rsquo;t a storied one. The Cubans have played in one World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals in 1938 after beating Romania 2-0 in Toulouse, France. (They got smacked 8-0 by Sweden in the quarters, but hey, they won a World Cup game against a European team on European soil. Not everyone can say that--<em>cough, cough, USA</em>.) Cuba also came within two points of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, but otherwise Cuban soccer has been in the doldrums until this current run to the CONCACAF semifinal round.<br /> <br /> Not that Fanz is expecting much more for now. Seven players from Cuba&rsquo;s under-23 team (including captain <strong>Yeniel Bermudez</strong>) defected to the U.S. at the Olympic qualifying tournament in March, and while Fanz claims it wasn&rsquo;t a big issue (&ldquo;only one or two players had a chance for the A-team,&rdquo; he argues), there are plenty of other challenges facing the coach.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;The job is very difficult here because there is no professional league, no professional players,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;And the climate is difficult. It&rsquo;s many problems here. But it&rsquo;s an adventure. There are good things too. The boys are naturally not stars, but there are not many problems with the players. They want to get better, and we make a big step from March to August. We have many players between 18 and 23 years old, and they learn from game to game.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Fanz&rsquo;s team outscored Antigua 8-3 in the home-and-away first round of CONCACAF qualifying to reach the semifinal round. But Cuba fell 3-1 at home to Trinidad &amp; Tobago in their first semifinal-round qualifier last month, a result that even the state-controlled newspaper <em>Granma</em> called a &ldquo;fracaso&rdquo; (total failure) in Thursday&rsquo;s edition. <br /> <br /> (You know things are rough, by the way, when even the official state organ starts slagging on your team. If I were Herr Fanz I wouldn&rsquo;t be making long-term housing plans here. And while we&rsquo;re on the topic of <em>Granma</em>, named for the boat that brought <strong>Fidel Castro</strong> back to Cuba from exile in Mexico, it&rsquo;s worth pointing out that today&rsquo;s short newspaper piece previewing Saturday&rsquo;s game was buried below stories about the start of the Paralympic Games in Beijing and the qualification of a Cuban women&rsquo;s hammer-thrower for the world track and field championships. Yikes.)<br /> <br /> While Fanz didn&rsquo;t want to go into any details on how he plans to play against the U.S., he at least projected some optimism about Saturday&rsquo;s game. &ldquo;Did you see the game Guatemala-USA [a 1-0 U.S. win]? I see it also--on DVD,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;And Guatemala can win against USA. And Trinidad is also a good team. Every team can beat the other team. It&rsquo;s who has the most luck and makes one or two mistakes less than the other teams who will be No. 1 and 2&rdquo; and advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying.<br /> <br /> He was smiling as he said this. I didn&#39;t check to see if his fingers were crossed behind his back at the time.</p><p>(<em>Check back in for more blog posts from Cuba later today...)</em>&nbsp; <br /> </p> Thu, 04 Sep 2008 18:33:20 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/245115 Grant Wahl Visiting The Estadio (And Hoping Not To Wash Dishes) http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/244820 <p><img title="Simon Bruty/SI" src="http://i.cnn.net/si/fannation/estadio-fn.jpg" border="1" height="357" align="top" alt="Simon Bruty/SI" width="425" />&nbsp;</p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- Another memorable, fascinating and strange day in Havana is in the books. I love this place. The U.S. team arrives later this afternoon in advance of Saturday&rsquo;s first-ever U.S. World Cup qualifier in Cuba, but we&rsquo;ll hit you with multiple blog posts before that as the day goes on. <br /> <br /> First off, five thoughts after our first full day in Cuba:<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>The playing surface isn&rsquo;t a total joke.</em> If <strong>Landon Donovan</strong> thinks the field conditions are the worst part of playing World Cup qualifiers in Concacaf, then he shouldn&rsquo;t be too upset with the state of the pitch at Estadio Pedro Marrero. When I visited the stadium to meet with Cuban players and coaches on Wednesday the field wasn&rsquo;t perfect, but it was slightly better than the goat tracks you&rsquo;ll see in most Caribbean countries.<br /> <br /> The only person I felt badly for was the guy in the photo above. How would you like to mow an entire international soccer field with a tiny Soviet-era lawn mower? I hope somebody buys this guy a Bucanero (the local <em>cerveza</em>) at the end of the week.<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>This country is deceptively expensive.</em> Granted, the U.S. dollar is tanking nearly everywhere. But when you have no access to ATMs and can&rsquo;t use your credit cards, you&rsquo;d better hope that you brought enough cash. I think I&rsquo;ll be O.K., but unexpected charges come from everywhere. For starters, the Cuban government takes 10% off the top every time you change U.S. dollars into Cuban convertible pesos. Then there&rsquo;s the official &ldquo;foreign journalist&rdquo; credential that I had to buy from a government ministry for 60 pesos (around $75 if you count the 10% government skim). I&rsquo;ve already changed money twice and am hopeful that I won&rsquo;t have to wash dishes at a restaurant for a night to cover my check.<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>The stadium lighting is ... interesting.</em> I hope the small army that arrived from ESPN on Wednesday brought some portable lights, because I could see only two light stanchions in the entire stadium. I&rsquo;m still not sure why the game is being played at 8 p.m. instead of the originally planned 3 p.m., but I&rsquo;ll try and track down an explanation. Workers in the stadium were (sort of) busy setting up a plywood platform on the far-side stands that presumably will be used for television cameras. And it appears that an Internet connection is coming to Estadio Pedro Marrero (maybe): I saw some Cuban telecom trucks parked outside.<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>I&rsquo;m able to do actual journalism here. </em>When we landed at the airport I wasn&rsquo;t sure if I&rsquo;d have a minder assigned to me for the entire time here. And while I haven&rsquo;t been aware of any &ldquo;unofficial&rdquo; minders (yet), SI photographer <strong>Simon Bruty</strong> and I have been free to go wherever we&rsquo;ve wanted to so far. The media access to the Cuban team on Wednesday was pretty good: I got to speak with young-stud forward <strong>Robert Linares</strong> one-on-one for about 15 minutes, and Cuba&rsquo;s journeyman German coach, <strong>Reinhold Fanz</strong>, answered plenty of questions as well. Check back with the blog later in the day for more posts on those guys.<br /> <br /> &bull; Other random observations: Most of the school buses here read &ldquo;Ecoli&eacute;rs&rdquo; and have French words all over the sides. My cab-driver Wilfred said that most of the school buses are donated by French-speaking countries. Meanwhile, most passenger buses here come from China and have Chinese script on them ... Speaking of the Chinese, they&rsquo;re everywhere on this planet. There&rsquo;s a thriving Chinatown here in Havana, and we get not one but three channels of CCTV (China state television) off the satellite in our hotel. (We also get CNN and ESPN&mdash;both U.S. and international&mdash;which aren&rsquo;t available, of course, to the community at large in Cuba) ... It looks like this game is taking place during the window between hurricanes. Hurricane Gustav did some serious damage on the western tip of Cuba and lighter damage in Havana (workers were still removing some debris when we arrived). Hurricane Hanna veered north from here, and Hurricane Ike isn&rsquo;t predicted to hit until next Tuesday or Wednesday&mdash;if it hits at all. Forecasts now have Ike heading north of Cuba as well ... The stadium for Saturday&rsquo;s game is a converted old baseball stadium with a fairly nice training facility alongside that was built with the help of contributions from FIFA ... The food here continues to be excellent. On Wednesday a group of three U.S. journos (the Washington Post&rsquo;s <strong>Steve Goff</strong>, the New York Times&rsquo;s <strong>Josh Robinson</strong> and the New York Daily News&rsquo;s <strong>Michael Lewis</strong>) joined Simon and me at La Floridana, a Cuban restaurant in a restored colonial mansion off the Calle Obispo pedestrian street. The Cuban paella was sensational&mdash;and reasonably priced, too.<br /> <br /> Back with more from Havana later ...<br /> </p> Thu, 04 Sep 2008 13:08:34 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/244820 Grant Wahl On The Ground In Havana http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/243937 <p><img title="Simon Bruty/SI" src="http://i.cnn.net/si/fannation/cuba-fn.jpg" border="1" height="319" align="top" alt="Simon Bruty/SI" width="425" />&nbsp;</p><p>HAVANA, Cuba -- Most of my conversations with ordinary Cubans here begin a lot like a sports-radio call-in show:<br /> <br /> &ldquo;Longtime follower, first-time visitor.&rdquo; <br /> <br /> (That usually draws a smile. The Cubans we&rsquo;ve met have been warm and welcoming.)<br /> <br /> I&rsquo;ve wanted to visit Cuba for years, but the U.S. government&rsquo;s Cuban policies make it extremely difficult for Americans to come here legally and spend money. And while U.S. fans weren&rsquo;t allowed to obtain visas for this Saturday&rsquo;s first-ever World Cup soccer qualifier between the U.S. and Cuba, U.S. sports journalists have been granted five-day visas to cover the game. <br /> <br /> And so SI photographer <strong>Simon Bruty</strong> and I hopped in an American Eagle propeller plane on Tuesday morning in Miami and flew to Havana. After 24 hours on the ground, here are five thoughts from a first-time Cuba visitor:<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>Walking through the city is like being caught in a time warp.</em> We&rsquo;ve already seen hundreds of 1950s-era American cars: Chevys, Chryslers, Buicks. (Two brothers with a 1950 Chrysler, an unlicensed taxi, drove us a couple miles along the Malec&oacute;n waterfront on Tuesday.) There are no McDonalds, no Coke billboards and certainly no Starbucks. And while there&rsquo;s a general shabbiness to a lot of Havana&rsquo;s buildings (and plenty of grim Soviet-era architecture), there are also some striking Art-Deco structures from the pre-Revolution days when this town was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. <br /> <br /> &bull; <em>I love talking to Cubans.</em> As I&rsquo;m writing this on Wednesday morning there are dozens of kids in school uniforms walking to classes outside my hotel window. Cuba has one of the world&rsquo;s highest literacy rates, and you can tell by talking to them. &ldquo;You can talk Proust with a guy who has holes in the knees of his trousers,&rdquo; says <strong>Doug Logan</strong>, the former MLS commissioner, who&rsquo;s half-Cuban. &ldquo;You can literally do that.&rdquo; I didn&rsquo;t talk French literature with anyone on Tuesday, but I did have some fun conversations with a group of young people playing pickup soccer, with a young couple near the Hotel Nacional and with our cab-drivers <strong>Jos&eacute;</strong> and <strong>Wilfred</strong> (who has a brother in New York City and wanted to talk about how the U.S. presidential election would affect Cuban-U.S. relations).<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>Cuba loves sports. Soccer? Not so much.</em> If you walk around Havana in the late-afternoon and early-evening you&rsquo;ll see all sorts of physical activity going on. Pickup baseball, pickup basketball, even pickup volleyball. We found several games of pickup soccer as well, a sign that the sport&rsquo;s popularity is increasing here. But Logan says that soccer is still less popular in this <em>beisbol</em>-mad country than it is even in the United States. There was enough interest in the U.S.-Cuba soccer game that several people asked me when it would be taking place. Then again, if they were fanatics they would already know. Keep in mind, only 4,000 fans showed up for Cuba&rsquo;s first World Cup qualifier of the semifinal round last month.<br /> <br /> &bull; <em>Public propaganda is alive and well. </em>While ordinary Americans are welcomed here, it&rsquo;s impossible to forget that you&rsquo;re in one of the last old-school Communist countries on the planet. There is still plenty of anti-U.S. government and anti-Bush Administration propaganda on the route between the Havana airport and the city. Bush Is A Terrorist, all that stuff. If you walk down the Calle Obispo you&rsquo;ll see all sorts of street-side book shops selling tomes on Lenin, Marx, Che, Castro and the Revolution. And the scene is truly bizarre at the U.S. Interests Section building on the Malec&oacute;n (the closest thing to a U.S. embassy). After the U.S. started posting its own propaganda-style electronic messages a few years ago, the Cubans erected a wall of 138 flags to block the view. The whole thing is a little silly, if you ask me, but the 138 black flags are certainly a memorable image of defiance.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> &bull; <em>Thumbs-up on the food here.</em> We can&rsquo;t give you a Starbucks update like <strong>Peter King</strong>, but we can give you the 411 on the food. It&rsquo;s good. Really good. On the recommendation of SI editor <strong>Chris Hunt</strong>, Simon and I ate on Tuesday at El Aljibe, whose specialty dish is roast chicken with sour orange sauce served with rice, black beans and fried plantains. (A mojito might have been consumed as well.) We&rsquo;ll be heading back for more before we leave town.<br /> <br /> That&rsquo;s all for now from Havana. We hope to start some interviews on Wednesday, so check back in for an update later.<br /> &nbsp;</p> Wed, 03 Sep 2008 12:38:25 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/243937 Grant Wahl Time To Boot Soccer From The Olympics http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/230055 <p>&nbsp;</p><p>SHENYANG, China &mdash; I love the Olympics. And I love soccer.<br /> <br /> But I don&rsquo;t love Olympic soccer&mdash;not the way it&rsquo;s shaping up for the 2012 Games, at least&mdash;and if you ask me it&rsquo;s time to remove the world&rsquo;s most popular sport from the Olympics entirely.<br /> <br /> Olympic men&rsquo;s soccer was already hurting for star power heading into last week, the result of FIFA&rsquo;s long-ago decision to make it an under-23 tournament with each team allowed no more than three over-age players (so that the Olympics wouldn&rsquo;t compete for prestige with the World Cup). The 2008 Olympics actually has more stars than some previous editions&mdash;Argentina&#39;s <strong>Lionel Messi</strong> and <strong>Juan Rom&aacute;n Riquelme</strong>, Brazil&rsquo;s <strong>Ronaldinho</strong>, Cote d&rsquo;Ivoire&rsquo;s <strong>Salomon Kalou</strong>&mdash;but future Olympic tournaments will likely be gutted of big-name players.<br /> <br /> That&rsquo;s because the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled last week that clubs will <em>not</em> be obligated to release players of any age for the Olympics in the future. The decision means that Olympic men&rsquo;s soccer will become a lot less like a World Cup and a lot more like the lame-duck baseball competition in this year&rsquo;s Olympics&mdash;in other words, an event that&rsquo;s a shadow of the sport&rsquo;s highest levels and, in the end, more trouble than it&rsquo;s worth in an already-overloaded soccer calendar.<br /> <br /> The case for dropping women&rsquo;s Olympic soccer is even stronger&mdash;but only if FIFA were to turn the Women&rsquo;s World Cup into an event held once every <em>two</em> years instead of once every four. <br /> <br /> Women&rsquo;s soccer is still in a fragile state. Five years have passed without the existence of a top-level women&rsquo;s pro league since the demise of the WUSA, and the long-term viability of the start-up WPS league in 2009 is by no means guaranteed. If FIFA is truly concerned about the good of the women&rsquo;s game, then it could give the sport a huge boost by holding a World Cup in odd-numbered years (with no competition from the men&rsquo;s World Cup or European championship) and preferably in early July, a la the 1999 World Cup, which captured the imagination of the U.S. public during the slowest stretch of the American sports calendar.<br /> <br /> As it stands right now, women&rsquo;s Olympic soccer creates an unbalanced calendar that hurts the sport. After holding major tournaments in 2007 (the Women&rsquo;s World Cup) and 2008 (the Olympics), the women&rsquo;s game will go three years without the sort of signature event that can draw global attention and stand alone from other sports (which doesn&rsquo;t happen in the Olympics anyway).<br /> <br /> What&rsquo;s more, the chance to hold the Women&rsquo;s World Cup every two years would greatly accelerate the popular acceptance of women&rsquo;s soccer in countries that already have an established culture for the men&rsquo;s game. Could you imagine what would happen if the WWC were held in Brazil or England? I can: those soccer-mad countries would be overcome with nationalism and galvanize around their fast-improving women&rsquo;s teams. <br /> <br /> Nor would it be a bad thing for the U.S. to host another Women&rsquo;s World Cup. I&rsquo;m always surprised when Europeans tell me they think U.S. women&rsquo;s soccer is far ahead of the American men&rsquo;s game. That might have been true in the year 2000, but it&rsquo;s certainly not the case anymore. The U.S. men&rsquo;s league, Major League Soccer, won&rsquo;t be threatening Europe&rsquo;s Big Four anytime soon, but at least it&rsquo;s a growing enterprise whose stability is only increasing with the addition of new stadiums, new teams and new television contracts. <br /> <br /> The best thing that could happen to the fledgling WPS (Women&rsquo;s Professional Soccer) league would be for the U.S. to host another Women&rsquo;s World Cup. And the best thing that could happen for women&rsquo;s soccer in America would be for young girls to see not just the U.S. players but also the creative genius of a player like Brazil&rsquo;s Marta. (Maybe that exposure would help the U.S. start producing more players with a soccer imagination.)<br /> <br /> Granted, the Women&rsquo;s World Cup is hardly a money-making machine like the men&rsquo;s World Cup. But with the right planning it&rsquo;s possible to make money on the WWC (witness the stadium-filling event of 1999). And besides, isn&rsquo;t it the responsibility of a governing body like FIFA to grow the game and do what&rsquo;s best for the future of the sport even if megaprofits aren&#39;t part of the equation?<br /> <br /> When you think about it in those terms, dropping Olympic soccer is a no-brainer. Who&rsquo;s with me? Who&#39;s not? Post your own thoughts below.<br /> &nbsp;</p> Tue, 12 Aug 2008 10:28:09 GMT http://www.fannation.com/blogs/post/230055 Grant Wahl