TigerBlog was flipping through the channels a few weeks ago when he stumbled on Bahrain-Saudi Arabia in their World Cup qualifier soccer game.
As the game approached the 90th minute with the score tied at 1-1, the announcers made it clear that a tie would send Bahrain on into the final play-in series, while Saudi Arabia needed a win to get the play-in spot. The one who didn't advance to the play-in would be eliminated from World Cup contention.
As an aside, TB was fascinated by the crowd shots, which showed no women in the stadium in Riyahd. TB also saw some of the first play-in game later on and was pretty sure there were no women in the crowd then either and wondered if the wives or female staff members or female media members with the New Zealand team were not permitted to attend.
Anyway, four minutes get added to stoppage time, and Saudi Arabia scores about 3:45 into those four minutes. This touches off a wild celebration that lasts nearly 10 minutes, but the ref makes play resume instead of calling the game at that point. Bahrain kicks off deep and gets a quick shot, which deflects off a Saudi defender for a corner kick.
As TigerBlog understands it, the refs will usually allow the corner kick before calling the game (would it be so hard to keep time on the scoreboard, and while we're at it, can we make it so you can't be offsides outside the box?), so Bahrain was able to take its corner. The result? Goal, and a 2-2 tie, so it was Bahrain that advanced to play New Zealand.
World Cup qualifying can have its bizarre moments. TB hasn't found one person, for instance, who can explain how the European groups are set up. Is it random? Some seeding? It's not geography, that's for sure.
For drama, though, it's been amazing to watch. It's somewhat like watching conference tournaments during college basketball season, only multiplied out to a few powers. The difference between qualifying and not qualifying for countries where soccer is so much a part of the national psyche is enormous.
There are currently 19 teams who have qualified for the 2010 World Cup, and the United States is one of them, after a 3-2 win over Honduras Saturday night that stunningly and shortsightedly was not shown on television in this country. Of the 19 teams that have qualified, the U.S. is one of six – along with Italy, Germany, Brazil, Spain and South Korea – to have made each of the last six World Cup tournaments.
Maybe this is a payoff for the army of kids who play soccer and how the soccer model with its travel teams and year-round play has completely changed the youth sports landscape in this country across almost every sport. Like many, TigerBlog has heard for decades that soccer was about to explode in this country, and to be honest it never really has, though it's certainly going down a bit of a different path the last few years.
TigerBlog – who had Cosmos season tickets at Giants Stadium back in the ’70s when that fad was playing out – attributes this to some smart marketing, advancing technology and good fortune. For starters, the soccer world has finally been able to get its great international stars to be recognizable figures in this country. Then there's the explosion of international soccer on American TV, especially the English Premier League. For TigerBlog's part, he could probably not have mentioned 10 players who played in the 2006 World Cup; now, less than four years later, he can probably name 10 times that many international soccer players.
And then there's the way soccer plays on television. It's a perfect fit, with no commercials and a two-hour window; it's completely unlike the way the NFL is determined to kill its golden goose with score-commercial-kickoff-commercial-play segments that spread three plays over six minutes or so. And don't get TB started on baseball, where a 0-0 baseball game in the sixth inning can reach the 2:30 mark, like last night's Yankees-Twins game did.
The head coach of the U.S. soccer team is of course Bob Bradley, a member of the Princeton Class of 1980. Bradley, the brother of current Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley, played at Princeton and later coached the Tigers to the 1993 Final Four.
He remains one of the most interesting people TigerBlog has met at Princeton. Back in the newspaper day, TigerBlog covered the 1993 team on its run to the Final Four, and he has never forgotten his talks with Bradley about his philosophies on coaching, on the sport of soccer, on college athletics in general.
Through the years, TB has seen Bradley a few times but not too often, and TB and Bradley were never what could be considered close. Still, Bradley has always greeted TB by name, with obvious memories of prior conversations and experiences, with genuine interest in how TB is doing.
As a rule, TigerBlog likes to root for the U.S. in international competition. For the most part, at least, though he's not over the top about it. And TB has never understood why he should care if Italy can beat the U.S. in luge in the Winter Olympics or if some guy he never met from Austria can dominate some guys he never met from this country in tennis. Still, Bradley makes it even easier to root for the USA, even more so next year in the World Cup.
The U.S. qualification started TigerBlog thinking about Princeton alums coaching internationally. There are any number of Princeton alums who coach in the college and pro ranks in this country in many different sports, and Princetonians have coached in the Olympics many times.
Still, TB was trying to think of a similar achievement on the international stage, of a Princeton alum coaching the U.S. national team in an event as big as the World Cup. TB can't think of many, if any, that trump this one.
So congratulations to Bob Bradley for guiding the U.S. through the very complex road of World Cup qualifying and into the field of 32 in South Africa next year.
TB will be watching and rooting. Why not? It only takes two hours.